Guest Blog Post, Alice Lowe: About Chocolate Donuts

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Now and then, if we’re lucky, writing ideas burst onto the scene fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell. More often they emerge from our routines of list-making, mind-mapping, trial and error. We’re offered prompts or we select them randomly, like choosing a vacation spot by sticking push pins in a map while blindfolded. It’s hit and miss, sometimes an arduous and tedious process, painful as prolonged labor. Will this brainchild ever be born?

We may develop a stockpile of ideas to be developed with the right impetus … or not. When I was invited to submit a guest post to Superstition Review I didn’t say, “Aha, I know just what I’ll write.” Nothing came to mind. I looked at my list of possibilities, hand-printed in alternating blue and purple ink on the dry-erase board over my desk. I eliminated them from consideration one by one: no, not that one; no; uh uh; no, that won’t work. My mind went blank. I explained my dilemma to my husband on one of our morning walks, five miles to Balboa Park and back. This was before breakfast or even coffee, and we’d agreed to stop at Donut Star on the way home, so perhaps he was a bit single-minded. “Write about chocolate donuts,” he said.  

I write creative nonfiction, personal essays—my own stories—so it isn’t as if I have to create new worlds out of wisps of cloud. I am my own protagonist, and the people and experiences I write about are real; I don’t have to design or disguise characters or events. Is this a blessing or a curse? On the one hand the raw material is there for the harvesting, even if it’s covered over with years of accumulated debris. On the other hand I can’t invent—I’m limited by the facts. If I don’t like the way an episode ends, I can’t change it. If I behaved badly, my choices are to tell it truthfully or not tell it at all.

I’ve written essays about family and childhood, about men and mistakes, fear and failure, success and sadness, about getting old (and older still). Extending beyond myself but still in the context of personal experience, I’ve written about crows and cats, sushi and shellfish, science and polar exploration (inspired by a folk song), about baseball and opera, writing and writers. The notes currently on my dry-erase board, potential themes waiting to materialize, include bookstores, boycotts, and breakfast (with donuts?).

My affinity for maps might not have struck me as a prospective topic if I hadn’t seen the blurb in an AARP bulletin that included glove box maps—along with land lines, desktop computers, and analog watches (all of which I continue to use)—among things likely to become extinct in the next fifty years. A lover of fold-out maps, for pleasure reading as well as directions, the idea of writing about them resonated. But what about them? I have a box of maps that I’ve collected from my travels, but I didn’t want to write a travel piece. I needed an in, a hook. The idea hibernated in the “ideas” file that preceded the white board. Periodically I would nudge it and its dormant companions to see if there were signs of life, if anything was ready to emerge into daylight.

My daughter and I went to New York last October to, among other things, run a 10K race. When I printed out a map of the race route, she teased me: “It’s Central Park—why do you need a map?” That was it, the opening of what became “Flȃneur with Baedeker, or, Student of the Map,” published this spring in Superstition Review. In the course of research and dredging my memory, I was able to pay homage to my Long Island birthplace and my Anglophilia, to some of my favorite literary works, and to my mentor/muse Virginia Woolf, and to weave them together into what I think of as a self-portrait in maps. The ingredients were waiting to be assembled, but it couldn’t happen without that first spark, the recognition that here was an idea I might be able to develop.

Perhaps there’s no difference in that respect between fiction and nonfiction. Authors of both are mining the real world as well as their memories and imaginations for themes and stories, for characters and settings, for detail and drama.

When I’m idea-starved and one doesn’t pad over to me like a well-trained terrier, I get a little anxious. I don’t believe in writer’s block, though I might if it was called “idea block.” These are the times when my mind feels a little stodgy, when I even get a little panicky, and I wonder “What am I going to write?” It’s always that initial catalyst that eludes me. Once an idea presents and plants itself, I’m fired up, ready to nurture and cultivate it. If it doesn’t germinate I put it away—that hibernation file—and see if a long winter’s rest might revive it.

Virginia Woolf would swirl her ideas around in her diary, test their validity on paper, often long before she knew what they might become. In a January 1920 entry she writes that she’s “happier today than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel … I must still grope and experiment but this afternoon I had a gleam of light.” She goes on to describe the barest skeleton for what would become Jacob’s Room, her third novel and the first to delve into the modernist style that she would develop in subsequent work. A holiday in St. Ives, Cornwall, her family’s summer retreat during her childhood, prompted the inspiration for To the Lighthouse. She’d visited several times in her adult life—she might have written about it any number of times—but it was on this particular trip that she recognized it as a rich foundation for her novel.  

Food is a foundation—one of many but an especially evocative one—from which I’ve explored life and culture and history. I’ve written a number of food-themed essays, from the autobiographical sweep of an abecedarian to more focused pieces on assorted seafood, on noodles, New Orleans food, Cornish pasties, rutabagas, mom’s cooking, and cookbooks. It’s also a wellspring for sumptuous verbal displays, as many authors, including Virginia Woolf, have discovered. Writing about chocolate donuts isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Pastries I have known and loved? Muffins and biscuits and scones, oh my?

Authors Talk: Jane Satterfield

Authors TalkToday we are pleased to feature poet Jane Satterfield as our Authors Talk series contributor. Satterfield discusses the process and inspirations apocalyptic literature and her project book played on the creation of her poem “The Zombie Skateboarder at the Bus Stop.”

Jane Satterfield’s poem appears in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Mary Morris

Mary MorrisToday we are pleased to feature poet Mary Morris as our Authors Talk series contributor. Mary discusses her writing process involving the current manuscript she is working on, which relates to her ninety-five year-old mother, and reads her poem, “Deduction.”

“Crone” and “Deduction” by Mary Morris can be read on Issue 19 of Superstition Review here

If you want to know more about poet Mary Morris you can visit her website or LinkedIn.

#ArtLitPhx: Authors Talk, Reading and Booksigning with Bonnie Nadzam and Katie Cortese

Join Leah Newsom, second year, ASU MFA in Creative Writing, as she leads a panel and Q&A with ASU MFA Alumni, Bonnie Nadzam and Katie Cortese. The discussion will be centered on the complexities of writing young women. The writers will also be discussing their writing process after finishing their degree: how does the process change after the MFA? The Q&A will be opened to the audience, so please bring questions prepared. The Q&A will be held at the Piper Writers House (450 E Tyler Mall, Tempe, AZ 85281) on Wednesday, March 28th at 3:00 pm.

On March 29th, at 7:00 pm in the Pima Auditorium in the Memorial Union on the ASU Tempe Campus, the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at ASU presents a reading and booksigning by two of its stellar fiction alumni: Katie Cortese (MFA 2006) and Bonnie Nadzam (MFA 2004).

Cortese is author of Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, 2018) and Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015). She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.

Nadzam is author of Lions (Grove Atlantic, 2016) and Lamb (Other Press, 2011), and co-author of Love in the Anthropocene (OR Books 2015) with Dale Jamieson. She is also currently at work on her third novel.

Authors Talk: Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio

Today we are pleased to feature author Carolyn Guinzio as our Authors Talk series contributor. Carolyn discusses both her inspiration and her writing process for her poems from OZARK CROWS.

In particular, she discusses her encounters with crows and how her love for them has “grown into a book length exploration.” She is fascinated by the ways crows converse with each other and with her. She discusses the strike of inspiration after reviewing crow photos from a gloomy day. The dark crows reminded her of letters, and she began experimenting with the unique format of crow images and text. She emphasizes that the pieces in this project have forced her to be truly engaged with the outdoors, which is a great comfort. She concludes that watching the crows makes her feel “as if the world will keep turning and time will move forward.”

In her poems from OZARK CROWS, Carolyn uses a creative format that intertwines text and images. Her podcast reveals this process as she captures her screen and shares the way that she constructs her poems.

You can access Carolyn’s poems in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Gregory Wolos: Rosebudding

Be warned: if you haven’t seen Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane, spoilers follow! This post takes for granted knowledge of the mystery at the heart of the film, the “last word” that gives Citizen Kane its narrative drive, a mystery revealed only in its final frames. If you haven’t seen the film, leave now and come back after viewing, or read on and take your chances.

Rosebud still“Rosebud”: Charles Foster Kane’s last word; discovering its meaning is the film’s putative objective. Not until the movie’s final shot do we discover that “Rosebud” is the name printed on Kane’s childhood sled—it’s tossed into a furnace as workmen in a vast storeroom sort through the thousands of material possessions the great man accumulated during his lifetime. Just a sled— but important enough as a symbol of lost innocence to be the final, private word an important public figure leaves behind. The sled burns in a furnace, the irony dramatic as the audience learns what the seekers in the film never do. A close-up on the sled, “Rosebud”: its lacquer bubbles, it blackens, it’s gone, nothing more than smoke pouring from a chimney into the night sky. If we can’t know this great, public figure, who can we know? Who will know us?

In a culture consumed by the new, we too often consider nostalgia to be an indulgence, but don’t we all depend on our own “Rosebuds”? As a writer willing to go to virtually any length to unmask myself to myself, I find that I return again and again to a practice I call “Rosebudding.” Rosebudding is an active process of physical or mental investigation: its elements are rediscovery, intense reflection, recovery, and, ultimately, reconfiguration—the creation of something new out of something old. Through Rosebudding we can work from a physical item or an experience and its associations, eventually loosening the object or memory from itself to get to its essence, which is the living breathing, malleable core of inspiration all writers seek.

Moving—sorting through junk—the detritus of an actual attic or one of the mind: “Rosebud,” again and again. A memory of a moment or a new insight, or Rosebuds in juxtaposition: flint and steel, a spark—a flame rises, and we toss an old sled into the fire. But maybe as we watch the sled burn, we find something new.

A while back, my wife framed my father’s WWII medals with a photograph of him in uniform. This tribute had actually been displayed for a few years before I noticed that mixed in with my father’s purple hearts, campaign ribbons and service medals was an odd pin that portrayed a musical note: somehow included in this honor to my father’s service was a badge awarded to either my son or my daughter for exceptional performance at a New York State Music Association competition—approximately sixty years after the end of WWII. Rosebud on my father’s purple heart—the grenade that exploded behind him in a French foxhole leaving him flat on his belly in a hospital in Europe for half a year, a chunk of shrapnel fused to his backbone; Rosebud on the scar from this wound, freshly exposed every summer to my brothers and me and the rest of the world on crowded Long Island beaches; Rosebud on the letters my parents shared while my father recuperated in Europe and the picture of my mother he tucked into his helmet; Rosebud on my daughter’s trombone playing and my son’s oboe playing and the way their hours of lessons, rehearsals, concerts and competitions helped shape our family’s weekly life for a decade and a half.

Rosebud on Purple Hearts and high school music awards being pinned to the same piece of felt within the same wooden frame under the same pane of glass. Finally, Rosebud on the storage unit where the display sits in a box because there’s no room for it in our present apartment.

Rosebudding. Writers are miners—we pry the ore from deep underground, and process out the precious metals, ever mindful that the dross may be of equal or greater value. Rosebud.

Guest Post, David Meischen: Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight: How Ambient Noise and Clutter Feed a Story

 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf poster“Clink. Clink.”

We’ve spent an hour and a half with them at this point, with repeated eruptions—Martha savaging her husband, George setting off timed explosions from his store of resentments. Then suddenly: the voices go silent, no sign of George and Martha, of Nick and Honey, the bested guests. Moonlight through tree branches, a yard we see from above, as if from a bedroom window. In the background, stringed instruments, serene. Then Martha’s voice calling for the others and, before Elizabeth Taylor appears onscreen, the sound of ice cubes in her drink, something we’ve been hearing since the opening scene: director Mike Nichols’ brilliant use of ambient noise.

The dialogue dazzles, of course, thanks to Edward Albee, in this case so perfectly delivered that sometimes as I watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—at least a dozen times I’ve indulged the pleasure of this viewing—I take the words, the execution, for granted and marvel at what the director is doing to riff on what the words are getting at. In the scene referenced above, I am not surprised to hear ice cubes clinking before the camera reaches Martha, meandering drunkenly across the yard to her car. The camera has not followed the station wagon here from the foursome’s drunken dancing excursion, but it feels as if we’ve seen the inebriate braking—front tires up over the curb at an angle so that the vehicle lists slightly, passenger-side turn signal winking, winking, winking, rear passenger door flopped open. Nichols doesn’t waste the turn signal. Martha staggers around the car, opens the driver’s door, reaches in, and the turn signals wink back and forth between each other before they blink out. Martha wanders the yard, then, calling out intermittently, her drink glass clinking the while. Finally, the screenplay gives a nod to what the director is doing: Martha says, “Clink. Clink.”

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I recommend “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to fiction writers. Consider it a tutorial in the uses of your characters’ environment, the details of their surroundings—indoor clutter, appliances, items of food and drink, features of the outdoor landscape, sounds so common (clinking ice cubes, anyone?) a writer might overlook them, and so forth. Always in this film there are things for George and Martha and Nick and Honey to do while they speak the language of wreckage.

In what is for me the funniest moment, Elizabeth Taylor leans into a cluttered refrigerator, opened by Richard Burton, grabs a drumstick from a platter of chicken sitting inside uncovered, grabs a salt shaker from the messy table Burton is clearing, salts and devours her piece of chicken, her mouth open as she chews, talking around mouthfuls. Then the perfect capstone: Taylor returns to the refrigerator, still open, tosses the chicken bone onto the same platter, and shuts the door, all without pausing in her run-on monologue about a movie Martha can’t remember the title of. We see a woman, her husband, their relationship, their way of life here. If you didn’t know a word of English, the details would tell you all you need to know.

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A decade ago, I took a weekend fiction workshop with Daniel Mueller, author of the stunning short story collection How Animals Mate. Our focus was landscape, Mueller’s mantra:

Let the landscape of your story tell your story.

If a story stalls, look around. Something in your story’s landscape, its environment, will get it moving again.

As an exercise, Mueller asked participants to picture an odd item, oddly out of place in its setting. We went around the workshop table then, each participant volunteering such an item, all of us recording the items on our own list. Our assignment was to select an out-of-place item from the list and write a scene for it.

I chose a wristwatch buckled to the branch of a tree. I already had fragments for a story about a boy named Berndt whose father has committed suicide. For Daniel’s assignment, I imagined that Berndt’s father had taken off his watch on the morning of his suicide and buckled it to a mesquite tree branch before slashing his wrists. The scene I wrote was set several weeks later. Berndt is on his way to feed pigs on the family farm, when morning sun flashes off the crystal of his deceased father’s missing watch. Berndt unfastens the watch and beats it against the mesquite trunk until the crystal smashes, crying and cursing his father. This scene became the closing scene in a story about a mysterious watch and the riddle of a father who owned it. My challenge was to make the watch real and then to build a story around it, leading to the father’s suicide and his son’s subsequent discovery of the watch buckled to a tree.

What might have been peripheral, unimportant, became the story’s vehicle. The story of a watch becomes the story of a difficult father. A son puzzling over the watch itself provides a way of expressing an inner life that is not accessible to or expressible by the son himself. I loved writing this story, loved unfurling the watch’s story, letting the watch carry the bigger story of son and father. Unanswered questions about the watch stand in for unanswered questions about the father. The discovery of the watch, in the closing scene, provides a believable stimulus, without sentimentality, for the protagonist’s anger, his grief. When I was done, the watch even provided a title, “Center Wheel, Balance Wheel, Escape Wheel” (available at Prime Number).

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This approach carries one of my first published stories, “In the Garden,” online right here at Superstition Review. A husband and wife converse over breakfast in their backyard. By increments, without intending to, they say things that can’t be taken back, irreparably damaging their marriage. Talking heads cannot carry a short story, at least not one I am capable of writing, so early on, a mockingbird sings out from a live oak near the breakfast table. Then the household tomcat slinks in from the creek. Turns out his name is Tyger, which opens a window onto the protagonist and his wife. The yard has room for a tomato garden, the wife’s—and a pesky squirrel hanging out among the cages. A newspaper at center table has a photo of Ronald Reagan above the fold, spurring an exchange that gives away the year—1982—when the husband says, “Look on the bright side. Two more years and we’ll vote him out.” The husband has a bit of a thing for his best friend; the wife suspects as much. This is a breakfast just for two, though—no reason for the best friend to drop by. Except then a repairman arrives to address hail damage on the roof. Wife notices that husband has noticed the repairman. Both turn at the sound of the repairman’s hammer. Then this: “A patch of sweat, like the map of a harbor Blake wanted to explore, darkened the blue of the man’s shirt in the space between his shoulder blades.” And so it goes. The conflict reaches a peak vicariously, when the mockingbird dive-bombs the squirrel and the cat leaps at the bird’s sudden accessibility.

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Ambient noise is my personal catchall for the material stuff, auditory and non-, that surrounds us, often without our notice, the material stuff upon which we can launch credible and engaging stories. This “noise” includes any and all sensory details, any and all physical aspects of the landscape, any and all items at hand in your characters’ environs. A caveat, though. Ambient noise is not a fiction writer’s sole tool. A story can overwhelm itself and its readers with this kind of detail. Nothing impedes narrative momentum like a margin-to-margin thicket of details. Nothing is more tedious.

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Watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Let yourself revel in the many ways by which the characters interact with facets of their environment—ice cubes, drink glasses, liquor bottles, cigarettes, a platter of fried chicken, a child’s swing hanging in the tree outside, door chimes, a chain lock on the front door. . . .

Read good stories. Here I’ll mention only two—and very short. In “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff, a husband and wife wash dishes and prepare for bed. That’s it. But the meandering path of talk over dishes leads this couple into a hypothetical question about mixed-race dating, with an answer that changes everything. A younger couple, five years married, figures at the center of “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw. As they walk New York City on a lovely day, the wife catches the husband more than once distracted by the girls of the title passing by on the street. Questions lead to defensive answers, and as in “Say Yes,” things are said that cannot be taken back, that change everything between man and wife.

Immerse yourself in the quiet noise of Wolff’s story, in the vibrant noises of Irwin’s city walk. Then settle into the noises that will tell your next story.

 

Editor’s Note: David served as co-editor of Wingbeats and Wingbeats II, collections of poetry writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press.