This novel weaves stories. It is the function of the book, the story, the plot… everything. It is worth mentioning that LaForge brings about a compelling and often beautiful style of storytelling to the page. Her stylistic voice here is what makes this novel so compelling and profound. The style reaches beyond the well-crafted characters, the woven stories, and the stunning pace of this novel. It makes sense that a poet is a better weaver for so many intangible parts and pieces. In Kate Berhnheimer’s introduction to Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, she discusses how “fairy tales offer both wildly familiar and familiar wild terrain.” But more importantly, she considers the significance of how these fairy tales reflect back something of ourselves. “It is to look at the act of looking at ourselves inside stories, to regard the tradition and the stereotype of female reflection on self. In this, there is a power for all sorts of readers.” In many ways, LaForge is doing this within the nested stories and concepts of The Hawkman. She is restoring story, frame, morals, and piecing together the shattered ideas that are missing. That is where the innovative, creative, and visionary style does so much of the work. Miss Williams becomes the one who creates change, shifts perceptions of the world, and grounds all the fragments that seem to swirl around this novel. She isn’t the Scheherazade (the teller of the stories), but she is the force that makes all these stories possible. She is the curator of all things possible and impossible in this world.
Overlook Press / 2017
This novel follows the life an aged cello player named Jules Lacour a cellist and teacher who is facing the end of his days and his life in Paris. And while there is intrigue, mystery, and all the plot points that have grown tired in contemporary fiction, this novel rises above all those expectations. Part of it is the nature of this older, wise protagonist and his vision of the world. But it also sits in the root of Helprin’s prose and his ability to position you in the most complex moments of life and find more than just plot point, but more.
And sometimes, the phrasing of his writing just stops you. He writes “That kept me alive. For you, they would say it was trauma, but I wouldn’t. I’d say it was simpler, that like everyone else you have a paradise you long to restore, but your paradise is also hell. Although getting back is dark and dangerous, you won’t be deterred. Love draws you back. You can’t escape.” The push and pull of ideas and words is a constant tension. Helprin is constantly playing with opposites – or in this book lyrical dynamics. Paradise is compared with hell. Trauma isn’t real unless there is something to lose. And it becomes this kind of vision of pushing and pulling words apart that makes this book feel less a plotted thriller and more like an epic love story.
During a war flashback, Helprin used his descriptive art to describe the sounds of troops moving. This is relevant because music, sounds, and shaping music is thematic to the novel. “The sounds of arrival and departure were always the same: straps slapping against metal, engines starting, tripods folding, the slides and bolts of weapons exercised after oiling, commands shouted, and upon leaving, the blast of a whistle followed by the revving of engines as the vehicles rolled off.” One of the hardest parts of writing about music is that the novel lacks the ability to hear music directly. And writers then have to spend time describing the nature of the music without hearing it. While this novel deals with the essence of music, it doesn’t stumble with long expositions about music, in fact – like his description, he turns troop movements, thunderstorms, and cafes into music that inspires the sounds of the music.
This novel is based on the later years of an older man – a many with years of experience and vision. When his daughter thinks he is getting senile because he can’t remember the name of a film, he argues, “You learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason. If at its end the life you’re living takes on the attributes of art, it doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten where you put your reading glasses.”
Del Sol PRess seeks to publish exceptional work by both new and recognized writers, as well as republish literary work that we consider extremely significant and that have done out of print. Their approach is eclectic, but with an emphasis on original, unique, and accessible work with an edge.
My sincere thanks to the nominating editor(s) and all the writers in the list. It is an honor to be among them all. Check out their website here.
HERMOSA by Marisa Clark
MALHEUR AUGUST by Nancy Minor
MALL by Pattie Palmer-Baker
MARILYN & THE NEW YORK ITCH by Pat Ryan
OUT LIKE A LION by Robin Martin
THE BEREAVED by Emma Schrider
THE PSYCHOPATH COMPANION by Claire Ortalda
THE STAFF by Ron Samul
STORIES YOU NEVER TOLD ME: AN IMMIGRANT
DAUGHTER’S JOURNEY by Catherine Kapphahn
THESE THINGS HAPPEN by Jane Sadusky
WRAPPED IN THE STARS by Elena Mikalsen
When I was reading I Heard Voices in my Head by Helen Vender in the New York Review Of Books (2/23/17), I was slapped in the face with a reminder of why process thinking is important to me. She explains,
“In truth, what a meditative poem contributes to the history of consciousness is a reenactment in real time of the volatile inner life of a human being. Such a poem [refering to The Preludes by Wordsworth] does not present itself as plot or character portrayal or argument, but rather (in I. A. Richard’s theory) as a hypothesis: “Suppose we see it like this.” The poet’s proposed hypothesis change “minute by minute,” and include waverings, self-contradictions, repudiations, aspirations, and doubts; they are not offered as a philosophical system.”
This awoke something in me. As I mentioned above, I don’t write in my journal to create a treaty of thought – it really isn’t that formal, but to record the visions I see now, to compare them to the visions in the future. Keeping this record is both validating and useful as it grows outside of your mind, freeing this space for other connections. It helps that I can also keyword search it on the computer if I need to find something from the past.
The complexity of self-rumination is a gift unto itself and that journal has been fascinating to me in that I can release these ideas. If I come back to specific ideas – then perhaps they need to find a place in a story or become part of a character. That being said, Wordsworth’s relationship with Coleridge was also something that has always been connective. Coleridge was one of the masters of documenting his creative vitality in his journal, letting small fragments and parts eventually turn into his famous poetry. It is this awesome creative power that inspires me to see the worth in this idea that Wordsworth (in The Preludes). Seeing Wordsworth as someone who is considering the very nature of who he is through query and poetry, it is very connective to the ideas that Coleridge put fourth. In fact, one of the most influential quotes that changed my understanding of literature was the inscription at the beginning of The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner by a philosopher named Thomas Burnet. It reads:
“I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of all those beings, and the ranks and the relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the pretty things of daily life, narrow itself and sinly wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night.” Adapted from Coleridge from Thomas Burnet, Archaelogiae Philosohicae (1692).*
This becomes the vision of the writer, thinker, and the creative mind. Your job is to see the unseeable. And then admit that to paper at all costs. While that may seem heroic – perhaps that is exactly what it should be, a call to define truth as something more than just what you know as fact – but something we desire, something we hope for, something that only fiction and prose can create. We don’t need fact to create truth. We need a vision of “a greater and better world” even at the cost of losing some of our current world. It is sacrifice, it is purposeful, and it is the life of a creative thinker. Poets, prose writers and even visual artists should understand this important connection, even if it is unattainable — it is still vastly and completely worth the writing down the ideas and words that will change you. It will shine light on the darkness. And we can ask that question, “suppose we see it like this” with thrilling and beautiful hope that someone will be willing to “see it like this,” and will carry it forward.
*Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: Norton, 1993
by Rich Murphy
Prolific Press Inc. / 2016
Language and politics have a symbiotic relationship in strange and creative ways. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about the language of politics and what that language does for our society. In Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, he spoke about dead metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The obfuscation of the real meaning and intention of politic actions are deliberately intertwined in language meant to confuse or misdirect. There was a time when I thought George W. Bush had an issue with language, and then came the Trump leadership with Tweets and strange jargon that means nothing from the leadership. Orwell mentions in his treatise that meaningless words are confusing and dangerous and “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think it means something quite different.” And he goes on to give the example of, “Marshal Petain was true patriot.” Sounds like rhetoric I heard last month.
The reason I bring up Orwell at all is Rich Murphy’s Body Politic, a book of poetry, challenged me to refine my understanding of language and poetry and how it applies to politics. This is a complex and extremely well-crafted book of poetry that makes politics and social issues its spearhead. But the immersion into his work is poetically complex – and his use of political elements is done with visionary intricacies that surprise and reveal new ways of considering the ideas of politics in terms of lyrical language.
There is a sense of possession and vision in these poems. And reading more and more, you sense that it isn’t the political statement that needs your undivided attention, but how the poet reveals the ambiguity of that political establishment. As a reader, you can stop listening to the political messages, and begin to hear the complexity of languages that hurls the words further along. All that sounds ambiguous, but it can all be cleared up with a few phrases. In the poem Subaltern Grief, you begin to see how the writing process and the words become metaphors for political action.
Each letter here will never touch a veil
nor will a thought lift a woman
from the shadows and shroud.
The irony persists, however,
language waits for the voice
stitched to body, woven alone.
Language not only weaves into the political ideas, but it is a constant connection between the truth, deception, social class, and failures in our political system. Like Orwell’s warnings, words are encumbered by truth, as if they are a “voice stitched to a body, woven alone.”
Language alone is not the sole motivation for the poetry in this book and as the reader moves through this collection, they become aware of something more than politics – something we miss in the news cycle, something not inherent in stump speeches and promises. In the poetry is the morality and humanity that is intentionally excised from politics. And it is here that Murphy draws in the meaning of words and emotions, the meaning of living, while politics grinds over our inner soul.
Books have lives of their own. Sounds strange to think about it but books rise and fall depending on the very nature of their theme and the popularity of the author. I’ve been fascinated in reading book reviews of novels as they first arrive – first impressions. Part of my inquiry is to see if beloved books now were beloved when they arrived on the scene or if they have lived a sorted life among the shelves of the world.
Modern books (let’s call that in the last 20 years) have a well documented life of commentary and feedback as reviewing and press release material has been the focus of selling and promoting books. But as we move further and further back into history, the firs reviews of books become a bit more allusive and sometimes surprising. For example, knowing the Victorian conservative values that of the 1890’s — I was surprised that many reviews of Dracula by Bram Stoker were well received. Most reviews make a point that it is very well written, but dreadfully horrible and scary (there is a very good site that houses some of those reviews here). This came as a surprise considering what I thought I knew about that time and the nature of those conservative values. However, after reading the reviews, it is clear that the Gothic influence is afoot here and that some of the visionary elements of Stokers book is tolerated because of his unique approach and style.
What can be gleaned from looking back at original reviews? I felt like it was important in a few cases to understand the initial vision of the writer and how people reacted to the novel or poetry at the time. If we consider something like Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, we would see a vision that may not be the same academically shaped poetry epic that is taught in academics, studied by Whitman scholars, and based on criticism that has been shaped for 150 years. We also get a sense of how particular writers were received with the debut of their craft.
It was no wonder that Moby-Dick was panned as a terrible novel, when the first printing proved to lack the all important “Epilouge” that helps the reader understand how it is possible that this story even happened. In Megan Garber’s article ‘It Repels the Reader’: Tech Glitches Led Moby-Dick’s First Critics to Pan It, there is a sense that this strange voyage was stifled from the beginning. But perhaps this article proves something important. We need literary journalist. The academic office are filled with gifted and thoughtful writers of some of the best criticism. But beyond the pages of journals, people who study literature should consider their place in journalistic literary review. The idea of “literary journalism” and “journalistic literary reivew” are worth distinguishing. Literary journalism is the immersive and often expanded form of storytelling through magazine, newspaper, or serial installment. In particular, books like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Jack London stories and even Stephen Crane fall under this moniker of reportage as art. Yet, journalist literary review is about establishing the conversation of books and their relationship to the world and other works of art. If we think of art critic, we think of the person who writes about books or the latest opera. But someone like Gay Talese is someone who is immersive in his writing and understand of his subject and the impact of that subject on the world.
The dynamics of books reviewing can be a complex machine. In Book Reviews: A Tortured History by Sarah Fay, she discusses the tone and purpose of reviewing books. She says, “Too few newspapers and magazines employ regular book columnists and reviewers. This is done in the spirit of egalitarianism, but in the digital age, where anonymous, poorly written “customer reviews” sway readers, we need to establish relationships with our literary critics.” The reason we trust our favorite movie critics is because of the vast knowledge of information they possess about movies. Assuming they have watched hundreds (if not thousands) more movies than we have – they have positioned to make a significant recommendation concerning movie choice. While this is a bit off topic, it bears to keep in mind what book reviews do and why they are complex reporting devices. In some ways, book reviews are conversations about art that can’t be made into a two minute video, but explained through artistic terms. Fay mentions Elizabeth Hardwick in the article where she explains, “book reviewing as ‘a natural response to the existence in the world of works of art. It is an honorable an even exalted endeavor. Without it, works of art would appear in a vacuum, as if they had no relation to the minds experiencing them'” (Fay). What is not really discussed in this article is not how the book review confirms and elucidates complex narratives and works of art. How many times does an impenetrable work of art come along that needs reviews to support its complexity. By reading reviews and connections to the art, readers can refine their difficulty and reset their expectations of the book. Books can be very difficult to read, but well worth it. Connecting uncertainty and confusion in a text to that of a review can help readers navigate elements that are missing or confusing. This body of literary discussion through reviewing can help.
It shouldn’t surprise that books and the writers that create them have changing lives. In some, books come out to critical acclaim and then fall to the ways side. Others have a long and shifting life. On of the beautiful things about books is the way they enlighten readers long after the writer has past through life. The longer books have been around to share and consider, the longer the conversation has to shift and change. We need to continue that conversation. It may hold a commercial purpose, but it also holds and critical exploration of ideas. And those who invest in reading and thinking about books should have a seat at that table. Beyond that, I think there needs to be a database or a digital humanities project that catalogs book reviews of the classics and works toward housing review history of books. This would help scholars and writers uncover connective ideas to classics and continue a living history of the work as it moves through our past lives and into our modern days ahead.
by Ron Samul
Creating a graphic novel experience is often a balance between images (graphic) and the novel (the story) and how they work together. Adapted to the graphic novel by John Jennings (illustrator) and Damien Duffy (editor), this complex piece of speculative history is constantly serving uncertainty and twists on every page. The story takes a writer from the 1970’s who is inexplicably pulled back in time to save a child. The white child named Rufus is somehow connected to her. When she returns to the 1970’s she realizes that she has only been gone a short time. As she continues to be pulled back to Rufus and his life, she realizes that she is being drawn back to a southern plantation where slaves are used to manage the house and tend the crops. Dana (and eventually her husband Kevin, a white man) must find their way in this oppressive and complicated past.
This story maps out the balance between the past and current times with some fascinating twists and turns. As Dana realizes that she is permanently connected to Rufus and the plantation in 1820’s, she must find a way to save as many slaves as she can while figuring out how to deal with their owner Rufus, who realizes that he needs her forever. Once Dana realizes that she is able to shift between her life in 1976 and the slave plantation, her husband Kevin takes the jump with her and ends up in the world of slavery and whole different set of social rules. As a white man with a black woman – it assumes that she is his slave, and they must act the role to survive and try to help other slaves. When they are separated in the past, Dana believes that she may never see Kevin again.
In some cases, graphic novel creators build the story and the images together. In Kindred, the story as a concept creates graphic novel symmetry – a balance between visual art and storytelling. The translation into graphic novel form works so well because of the fantastical, experimental, and historical vision of Butler’s vision.
Kindred is a layered story based on relationships, connections, needs, and desires. Of course, layered over that is the horrors and violence of slavery. This graphic novel opens up this conversation for younger readers, giving them a common ground between the graphic novel and a vision that is speculative, relevant, and well refined for readers. While there are violence and oppression, it is tempered at times by the suggestive elements of the artwork, and the dynamic impact of the story. While human bondage is brutal, this is still an appropriate and visionary tale for starting with high school students.
Bottom Line: This is a complex story that brings to life the very personal and brutal reality of bondage and human suffering. It is a testament to Butler’s creativity and storytelling that brings Kindred to a new generation of readers. This story is more than speculative fiction, but a speculative history that weaves together the horrors of slavery over the long road of turmoil and hardships to our present state. It is a stark reminder that we are not that far from these terrible and tragic practices. And that we are (all of us) connected to the past as we fight our way forward.
Tangibility in a book is something that writers come to desire. They find that reading and the ideas that connect to that act is all about things that are unseen. So, it makes sense that the simple foundation of the book, pages, and binding be tangible, perhaps to ground them. In fact, bibliophiles relish the idea of holding, touching, and reading books. In some cases, like S. by J. J. Abrams, is a homage to the way books can be the setting for a conversation. Inside the books, tucked in the pages, you will find margin notes, letters, pictures and all kinds of paratext.
But is their prestige in a print book? Further, is there an inter-social class system to publishing based on print and electronic formats? Does print books symbolize the backing of a big publisher? Does it connect with the idea that the writer’s work is distinguishable enough to catch the eye of an editor or agent? Anyone can send a file to a Kindle, but when it has an ISBN number does that mean something more?
Perhaps it is merely permanence. In the world of digital connections, we may remain skeptical of the transferability of media through systems. Considering how well my VHS collection survived the shift into the new millennium, I would say that is a fair concern. But it is more than just concerns about transference, but permanence in the face of time. The book a writer creates has the potential to out-last their body and their place in the world by hundreds of years. It also has the potential to be lost into obscurity with other volumes in discarded warehouses and book repositories. There is a sense of permanence in holding a book. When I hold a book published in 1898, I feel like I am not only accessing ancient knowledge, but I am also digesting it in native form. That brings about reverence for the past. It is a grounding for those lost in the ethereal connections on the page. A timelessness that is as much a mystique as it is a reality. In Josh Catone’s article Why Printed Books Will Never Die, he mentions that “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred,” he wrote. “Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.” Thinking about this concept, I can’t help think of all the trinkets I’ve discovered in reading other people’s books. Your Kindle won’t have recpeies and four leaf clovers tucked away in their digital pages, but then again, maybe some people don’t like those little surprises.
As writers, people want to see their books printed and published. Perhaps their dream has always been to see them on the table at a chain bookstore. And perhaps we have created a kind of hierarchy where printed writers are prestigious and e-book authors are struggling to make it to the market. When I walk into a bookstore, I am often overwhelmed and find myself quickly moving to authors or sections I can find something close to my preferences. Like streaming video services, where people can watch anything they want, books, too, are becoming more specific to a generation (with little or no reading time) who needs to read specific and meaningful books without the privilege of browsing the shelves or finding someone they prefer. Perhaps we all still desire to hold on to those stories, really hold them in our hands, to remember why they are important. Perhaps we all should just have a few books that changed our lives and remember that it wasn’t just words and ideas, but they were things that changed us. Perhaps we aren’t that far from the past. We still need to hold on to those books, to ground us in our own tangible texts.
Pinterest is a collection of images and other media organized through headings known as “boards” that help categorize how and why they are relevant to the collector. In terms of a writing tool, we have a wide range of purpose and focus. For example, writers might need to know “Civil War Uniforms” and collect pins to support the look and feel of both sides of the battle. The more specific a writer can be, the better suited they can make their finds on Pinterest. If you need shoreline cottages in Ireland, you can probably create a collection. But there is more than just collecting things. Pins and boards can become relatable.
When you see things (from different pins) that begin to relate to one another, you being to make connections. That can bring ideas together. From hairstyles, fabrics, wood joining, to dishes, Pinterest can help. And while we know excessive detail can be grueling, finding the right significant detail can carry a lot of weight in prose. This social media can help.
If your purpose is to know the names of things, this won’t be a good focus for you. But if you need to build visual relationships, to connect ideas, this might be the right space for you. What may be confusing is creating a visual for something you haven’t actually touched or seen. For example, if you needed to know what an Egyptian bug swatter looked like, you will probably find it. Then you will have a sense of what these things looked like. It may also inspire you to look at why Egyptians had so many bugs around them to begin with. Hence, a new line of inquiry and perhaps focus could enter into your writing (dying of malaria is a significant plot point).
Social media is typically a writer’s worst distraction, but in this place, we should be considering different application, creations, and, connections to our craft. Sometimes, we find connection in the most unlikely things and places, and with a powerful search engine, this digital tool could change a phrase, a sentence, a page, or a story. It can also change the way we find inspirations and interconnections.
What this social media platform creates is some foundational visuals that are important for writers, but not realized by the reader. This is a writers tool that is folded into the craft and transmitted through the story and words. You shouldn’t notice specific pins or websites on the page, but the story is more informed, concrete, and subtle because of access to these ideas and visuals.
Sometimes books find a way into your life and you wonder how they synched into your life so well. We picked Citizen by Claudia Rankine as our common read on campus. It was the right book at the right time. Not only did the students have an open dialogue about race and social issues, we also spoke about the importance and relevance of language in the way we speak, socialize, and even protest. It was very powerful. And then the election happened. And strangely – it was the students who were well prepared. While there was shock and despair – Citizen as a book helped us have a very difficult conversation. We had talked about racism, inequality, society, power, protest, and hate. And then we had to talk about how all those ideas culminated into how we were feeling after the election. And it got me thinking about this.
One of the things I hate about myself is the part of me that just accept things because there is nothing I can do about it. On election day night, I went to bed shocked and sad. But I also was saying – there is nothing you can do about it. I didn’t want to tell my kids. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk to my students about it. And I sat and simmered.
Slowly, I woke up, along with other people and realized how absurd this all seems. But there is a part of me that just says – okay accept things. I hate that part of me. I wish I would just flip out and say something I will regret. I wish I could pull out the plug that stops me. I never speak out when it is the right time. I always speak out after, or save it up and dump it on someone who can’t effect change.
This election has might have pulled the plug for me. If this president, this election, this future is where we are going — why hold back and sit passively for something to happen?
What is that? Professionalism? Fear of being rude? Do I lack some kind of courage or morality? I feel like I am shedding this acceptance. But I need to define it and find out what it is that keeps me quiet or accepting of these things.
In an article A Pedagogy of Refusal: Re-Essentializing the Word “No” in the Trump Era linked here, sharpened the point clearly for me. It was acceptance in the form of “yes, I will accept this.”
“We must instead, he said, distance oursleves from our propensity to say “yes” and re-essentialize refusal into our social systems to affect change. When I said, “yes,” even passievely, to Trump’s presidency that day with my pricipal, I had denied the humanity of all of the people whose maringalization Trump will perpetuate. I am complicit in their oppresion.
We live in a society where saying “yes” is more important than saying “let’s think this through.” A society where “I agree” is more acceptable than “I challenege you to think differently.” Our operation under a pedagogy of acceptance has brought us to where we are today; our constant “yes”ing has left us with a president who has never been told “no.”
I suppose I’ve woken up quite a bit from it all. I don’t want to watch it. I want to do something about it, and it feels like there is nothing to be done. I suspect that things are going to be difficult for the incoming president. But I also think that we have to continue to not accept where we are going and make every single step like walking on glass.
But it has also snapped me out of a malaise that things are fine, even when they don’t work in my favor. I don’t accept things for what they are.
“We must bring refusal back into the American dialogue. We must make statements like “I cannot accept that” as powerful as “I agree with you.” We must re-essentialize the word “no” into the American vocabulary and psyche, and say it fiercely to all of the forces who have brought about the election of Trump.”
It will take me some time, but I will have to practice and be diligent in my use of the word “no”. I know it is difficult. But I will gladly shed the part of me that I hate the most — the part that nods my head and waits for someone else to say something.
One of the things I spoke to students about all semester in discussing race, social issues and Citizen by Claudia Rankine, was that language is nothing but symbols and sounds. But they can change us. They can spur protests, movements, solve problems, and bring on chaos. Words start wars. Words bring about the birth of a country. We all saw this semester that it will take courage to say the things we believe, and for that will be better people, in a better community.
I still continue to listen to Trump and realize that there isn’t anything there – no sincerity, no reality, no truth. Words are don’t matter – until they cut, push, and move people to action.
“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunman after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.”
He moves on to the next idea, “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” Alluding to the idea that “pretty much” covers enough. As we move to the next sentence, we should acknowledge the emphasis on the words. “One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.” This is a moment where you feel like the writer wants to look you in the eyes, look, this happened. Notice there are no names here. The next sentence continues this serious tone, “Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by a hired gunman after the war.” In these phrases, the narrator wants us to realize that there is truth, even fact in these words, but they can’t be verified. They can’t be questioned. You will have to take his word for it that they happened.
In the last two sentences, we have “And so on” as if we would just carry on with more of his stories. And then he forfeits it all by saying, “I’ve changed all the names.” The obscuring of the names isn’t at all a surprise, the narrator has teased out the balance between truth and fiction here, but to it does remind us – I will tell the truth by obscuring facts and leaving you merely with truth. Of course, this is merely an interpretation, but it does a back and fourth of reality that is being played one aginst the other.
This work is considered semi-autobiographical which alone strikes at the heart of the matter. Half true, half something else. Part of what we are seeing here might be an answer for the mass destruction, the death, and the insanity of war. It can’t be shown to the reader without cloaking it in imagination, shifting the reality away from the reader, intentionally block the brunt of the evil so that the readers can begin somewhere. This novel was written twenty-five years out from his personal experience. Perhaps it is this distortion that helps define the balance between right and wrong. – #
Ron Samul is a writer and educator. For more information or to contact him, reach out at http://www.ronsamul.org
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
As writers, we are constantly thinking about the audience and the impact of our writing. It is a fundamental element of teaching, thinking, and writing. It made me think, when I saw this tweet by Maha Bali, when she mentioned this moment.
This is gonna sound funny, but I think sometimes one can write something that is SO powerful that no one comments. Because it’s that good!
— ℳąhą Bąℓi مها بالي (@Bali_Maha) December 15, 2015
This is a complex idea, and from a writing standpoint, it is also a brave idea. Writers as communicators and creative generators always seem to humble and diminish their craft. In this case, Maha is confident and sees that sometimes – no one comments because of the “powerful”. I really admire the confidence and the realization that sometimes – that the power of writing can overwhelm. Why?
The concept of finding something meaningful and important on social media is relevant to me. Online courses, MOOCs, connected learning, creative spaces — all interact through social media. For me, learning, thinking, and listening to very smart and creative people comes from my interaction with social media. However, not everyone comes to social media to find that kind of connection.
Some people are connecting with family and friends, some are just passing by while they watch their favorite TV show, some are broadcasting on Periscope as they walk to work. Why people use social media is tailored to each person. The depth of reading and interaction really comes down to the user. And it isn’t happening in real time, it is happening along a timeline that could be shifting through time zones and cultures. Sometimes, the most important statements or blog posts don’t get the attention I think they deserve, merely because I posted them on a Friday afternoon before a holiday (fail).
But more importantly, people are looking for an interaction that is quick and reactive on social media. Things that make them stop, think, and experience deeper level thinking, (which relates to selective solitude, pausing, and deep reflection), may not fit into the “Like” or “+1” world of immediate reaction. This has spurred the age of important, meaningful quotes on stunning images.
In this scan and click age, deep thinking and impactful ideas sometimes need a difference venue. It sometimes needs a blogpost, or some area where things can be expanded and slowly unpacked. And sometimes, the “Like” or the “Share” simply doesn’t relate the importance of meaning at that moment. Sometimes, I see an image or a concept and I want to keep it. I want to hold on to it. But where would I keep it? Social media lets you keep it on social media terms. But when something is meaningful, we want to do more than just throw it on our timeline. Perhaps it is merely my personal need to embody ideas, art, and writing in tangible ways. Social media isn’t going away and perhaps a thirty-year archive of my Facebook posts will allow me to go back and find that poem I recall so sweetly. But I want to make moments my own – outside of the screen. I want to print them out and save them. I want to fold them up and leave them in a book to discover them in a few years.
Being a writing teacher is a complex beast. Following syllabus standards, rubrics, college standards, your own vision, and the student’s vision – we create a position where we are looking for the right answer to the assignment. Writing is subjective and I am looking at process, not the right order of words in a sentence. I am looking at critical thinking, how you cite sources, how you can create a document that convinces me. There is some excellent writing that comes by in terms of student writing, but I find that those elements are the product of good thinking, critical research, and planning. It comes from students who engage the learning process. And sometimes, compared to the whole class or the entire writing section, you have to acknowledge excellence as it comes to you. And sometimes, after two or three rewrites and a clear process of thinking and learning – there comes a moment when you don’t need it better. They have learned – they have more than met your requirements, and they deserve to stand in that moment and feel the significance of their work.
Creative acts are a different beast. When you apply rubrics and grading schemes to a poem or a short story, it gets awkward and complex. The “powerful” concept that Maha tweets about can be emotional, formative, and change the way we see the world. That is what art does. And sometimes, from a creative writing mentor point-of-view, you have to judge something that isn’t vetted through a rubric or a course guide. It comes from emotion, it comes from form and content magically aligning to make a moment (perhaps in time if read or spoken) that matches our time and space with the ideas of someone else.
I always question my role in interfering with the creative process. It isn’t my story to tell, it is my job to make the writer think about making the story better. That is complex. And my suggestions are never – “throw this out and start over,” because I would be devastated if someone told me that. But this “powerful” part of writing and speaking is fascinating to me. And there has to be a moment when we realize that expression and time meet you when you need it. There are so many poems, books, and important things written all the time. When I need them (personally), they will be there. I don’t always see them now because I am looking at different things that I need now. We are all on different paths and moving in different ways. We find those moments that are “powerful” because we are looking. We need to stop counting “likes” and stats, and imagine that if one person moved forward because of the power of our words, it is always… always worth it.
I don’t think I am done defining Maha’s “powerful” because I think there is a lot to the creative elements here. There is an important conversation here in defining the “powerful” in our writing, in our expression, and in our ideas. We need to value them – make an earnest and important effort to value those words and ideas that can change lives. It may not make you famous or popular, but it is a rich and deeply thoughtful life, one without regrets.
by Ron Samul — want to know more about me… go here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
I recently finished True Detective Season Two, and while I won’t spoil it for you, I know I was disappointed. In looking for a reason or cause for my dissatisfaction, I came across an article that suggests that the writer, Nick Pizzolatto was influenced by the feedback and criticism of season one of the series. *In creating the second season, he had to live up to the expectations of season one (which is largely acclaimed) and yet create something new and different. While this might not be the type of show you like, the point is simple – the criticism of the past haunts what you create now. In many ways, this is an intrusion of the solitude that we are talking about.
Are we, as writers aspiring to write a better and better novel? Or is the idea to write new and different stories? Telling different stories is better than telling a better story – isn’t it? If we are telling stories based on the characters and the story they represent — then we must accept that this isn’t a better story than the previous, but just that it is different. Some of the concerns with my writing are just this issue, that I want to tell a variety of stories, not optimize my ability. Everything we write makes us better writers, but it doesn’t make the stories that we tell better. That is where we need selective solitude – the ability to define truth in our art and in our stories. That isn’t to say we are writing a true story, but that we are creating something that is in line with how we see ourselves in the world. That is close to a truth – to write something that is a direct line to our own vision of the world. That being said, it is very difficult to write with the voices of our harshest critics in our ears. It is very difficult to write with confidence when we feel like we are under scrutiny. And that is where writers tend to seek seclusion in an artistic sense. It is better to try something and fail (alone) than be surrounded by people who will judge them and criticism them while they are still thinking through ideas and connections. It might be worth noting that it is easy for a writer selling books – to disappear for three months to write, but it is a bit more complex for people with a nine-to-five job to disappear from the world and start a novel.
In the end, we have to find our motivation and our space to write. And sometimes, that comes by way of an hour, an evening, or a few days. Sometimes, that means writing a thesis for an MFA degree. Sometimes, it means shutting down all those things that speak out against you. It means finding selective solitude. Not only does it mean using your ability to create selective solitude, but it means using this place as an important tool in writing and thinking. Selective solitude is just as important as plot, character, and your lyrical poetry. It is the executive function that opens the door for creativity. It is there you will go back to what is most important to you: words, images, stories, and characters that are waiting to take their place on the page.
*It should be noted that True Detectives also starts with new characters and stories every season. We aren’t stuck with old stories and connections that don’t make sense. They are free to begin again.
Oddly, when I am scuba diving I think about writing. Long boat rides, open space, and the feeling of being insignificant on the vast ocean plays with the mind. Five or six miles out on the Block Island Sound, the ocean opens up. It is hard to see the shore, and with the typical New England fog, you may not see the shore for hours. Guys chat about their gear, exotic dive sites, and skills they have acquired. I listen and join in, but I think about writing. When we are gearing up to dive, we stop chatting and we get to diving. Gearing up for a dive includes settling into a mental process of checking and rechecking your gear and getting into the water. Click here to read the rest.
In this post, I would like to consider what writers should do if they realize that there is a considerable problem with their novel. It happens and sometimes, it can cripple the way you look at the novel or short story. At some point, it all went to crap and you have to either drop it in the wastebasket or deal with the issue. Writing a novel is hard work and it takes time and creativity to make it work. Part of what sets good writers apart from the rest is how they face adversity. Here are some things to consider.
1) Can you identify the problem?
This can be a challenge. Sometimes, the problem is complex or compounded by a few things. So, it is important to value your creative process, but it is also important to look for the flaws in your writing. Is it a character? Is it a plot twist? Is the location (setting)? Is it motivation? Conflict?
If you want to go with the gut check – go back to the pages where you were happy or felt like you had something special. Find the place where that feeling stops. And that is where you need to look.
I remember writing about 90 pages and cutting all the way back to page 30 because I was just frustrated with the direction. I went back and tried it again.
It also helps me to keep a writing journal – a log of my writing thoughts. It doesn’t have anything but the project. These entries help shape my next moves, my ideas, and connects my own motives for adding and subtracting things. This might be a good way to create low-stakes writing when you are stuck or looking for an issue.
Sometimes, you just can’t define the problem. It is around this time that writing goes from the creative, inspiring art that you love, to the hard and sometimes oppressive work that you dread. Every novel has those moments of complete hopelessness. This is where lesser writers hang it up. This is where your talent, creativity, and your perseverance needs to master the art of writing. The craft starts when inspiration is gone.
If you are stuck, then you need to find someone to help you find the problem.
2) Have a core reading crew that you trust.
If you can’t find an issue or where the story went south, then create a small group of readers who can look around for you. This is akin to working on a car for awhile and getting stuck. You invite a few buddies over and they look over the engine and sip a few beers. Then they say, you do have gas in the tank right? And that panic
cuts right through you. If you aren’t ready to show your work, then you have to find your own issues. But if you have a few reader that will take the time and give you good first impressions, they might be able to define some issues that will guide you back.
Pick readers who are versatile. You don’t want readers who are the same. You want a good plot person, and a good character person, maybe a good line editor, and one crazy person who gets your view of the world. They all don’t have to read it, but pick the readers who might help the most. The hardest part: listening to their advice.
When a reader takes some time to read pages for you — then listen. Don’t defend, don’t get bent out of shape about the feedback. It takes some practice but listen. More importantly, ask good questions. What did you think might happen after chapter one? How did you see the antagonist by the third chapter? Where did you disengage?
Once you have the feedback, don’t make changes right away. Take the feedback. Sit on it for awhile, let it bake in your head. Reread their comments, think about what they said. Try to be objective and don’t take it personally. (Harder than you think, I know). Then start making shifts and adjustments. In the end, you don’t have to change anything, but if you know you have a problem and you are looking for a solution — change is coming anyway. Why not hear it from the most trusted readers you know.
3) Read books like your book.
This may not solve your problem, but it might inspire you to see how other writers deal with some of the issues you are working on. For example, if you are writing murder mysteries, you might seek out books like yours and see where you liked the moves that were made. Maybe you like the protagonist and you want to rebuild your character a bit more.
I also read those silly MasterPlots books in the library. Basically, they are overviews of novels, plays, and short stories. I read them and listen to the simplicity of some of the great novels and stories. I look for the twist or the elements that are important. Similar to Occum’s Razor – often the simple and refined stories are the stories that make the most impact. By looking at them objectively in a reference book, you can see the refined simplicity and see if you can boil down your own ideas to one or two simple strands.
You are writing a novel and you are stuck – this is where it gets good. You have skills, the ability, the support, and the internet to resolve your issues. Use the tools out there and keep writing. When you leave something for too long, it is hard to get back into it. Continue to think, write, and create even when you are stuck on something. Don’t give up. Even if you can’t create new pages, work on research, find readers, or write in a writing journal to document what you are thinking. It is all important and it is all very serious. It should be very important for you to get on track again. Get to work and use the tools and abilities that you have worked so hard to acquire.
— 2016 Ron Samul
This week, I’ve been thinking about the role of the mentor. I understand my official role as a mentor. But I feel like it has taken me some time to develop what I can do for students who connect. I am not the line editor, although I can pick out places where I think the writing needs work. I am the mentor who connects. Perhaps it is partly from the obsession I have with E. M. Forster’s epigraph at the beginning of Howard’s End that says simple “Only connect….” and he adds three pesky ellipses that just don’t connect. Ugh! That idea is like a hand grenade in my brain. It is such a simple puzzle: elegant, beautiful, and sad. This relates to my mentoring philosophy. I want to find ways to enhance the likelihood of the writer writing. That is my job.
Sometimes, I think Forster posed the epigraph “Only connect….” as an ironic statement of the modern age. And I use to revel in that sense of tragic loss and disconnection. But sometimes, I wonder if he left the phrase unfinished because we never complete the act of constantly connecting. There is always more work to do. There is always more to discuss. No one enters into art because they aren’t thinking and processing the complexities of the world. And so, it would be ridiculous that mentors and teachers would recycle their pat advice from one student to another, without seeking out deep and meaningful connections to that of the student’s art. Giving meaningful and connective vision to a writer (seasoned or student) is some of the most important work. It might be the first time they have spoken to their art with such depth and focus. It might be the conversation they’ve been waiting for their entire life.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been connecting and interacting with Rhizo15 created by Dave Cormier and an ever expanding group of thinkers, educators, and creative people. The idea behind the collaborative connective course is to discuss the topic proposed every week. How and what that conversation looks like is something that is defined by the people involved.
On Dave Cormier’s blog, he explains that “Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”
During this course, there have been some fascinating conversations, connections, and interdisciplinary ideas that have really changed the way I look at learning. Two projects that inspired me to action was the idea of subjective learning. I took two students in my writing course who were doing really well. I asked them to take the last two weeks of the course and explore and create a subjective learning experience. I wanted them to advance some idea or work they started in the course and bring it back to me. I wanted them to have the freedom to explore, work, and change their vision of learning and hard work. The results of that experience are coming in a blog post that will end up HERE. The other creative idea was to write a story about a student that is involved in a rhizome course. It is a strange story about a girl who begins a class that never starts and ends up realizing that she isn’t the student, but the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Check it out in its rough draft form here.
The most impressive and exciting part of this experience was the complete and utter uncertainty I felt entering this very open and creative group. It wasn’t that I was fearful, I simply didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t understand how to get in, how to participate, and how to give people feedback. It seems that social media (Facebook and Twitter) were the nexus, and people established blogs to expand their ideas and post different kinds of media (photos, video, articles, and even radio). There is so many good reasons to jump into the world of unconventional learning. It is in this type of experimental thinking and change that we can develop some of our most significant and unseen drivers to push our learning, thinking, and connections to one another. Check out my blog and read some of my thoughts on this world of unlearning and subjective ideas in and out of the classroom.