Friday, August 17, 2018

Where Do Stories Come from? Ramona Ausubel's Visual Guide

In the 14th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ramona Ausubel, author of Awayland (Riverhead Books), diagrams three of the ideas for stories in the collection: "The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following," "You Can Find Love Now," and "Awayland."

(click on the image for a larger view)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Todd Robert Petersen's Pyramid Problems

In the 13th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Todd Robert Petersen, author of It Needs to Look LIke We Tried (Counterpoint), explains how turning to an alternative concept of story structure liberated his work.

A couple of summers ago, while I was struggling to revise two key stories in a linked collection, my twelve-year-old asked me for writing help. He had to bring a story to workshop at a writing camp for teens. He had ideas but no structure for them. I wanted to help, but I was living under the shadow of an email I’d just received from my agent, who liked the last round of revisions, in general. “But somehow,” he wrote, in as kind a way as possible, “You’ve managed to make two of these stories worse.” I re-read those stories while I stalled with my kid, and I saw immediately that my agent was correct. They were a whole lot worse, but I didn’t know exactly what I’d done to them. Individually the stories seemed to work fine, but as a group, the stories were throwing off the pace and breaking down the flow of the manuscript.

So, even though my kid needed help, I wasn’t sure what to tell him. I didn’t want to admit that I apparently had no idea what I was doing, so I boned up on the basics and walked him through the standard stuff I’d taught and been taught. He got an earful of: exposition, inciting action, conflict, climax, denouement, and resolution. I told him how stories worked like little steam engines, and I even drew a little Freytag’s Pyramid and traced it over and over again with a capped pen.

When I finished my seminar and sent my son off to write, I started doubting everything I’d just told him. Almost immediately, I asked myself, “why does action rise? I mean, couldn’t it go down, or just fall apart?” Then I started wondering why the climax is always in the middle of the diagram, suggesting a symmetry that isn’t there. The more I thought about stories, the more I started seeing problems with the pyramid, and the more I thought about these problems, the more I realized that my rotten revisions were coming from my attempts to Freytag them. Because I was working on a novel in stories, having each story fully resolve at the end kept the book from moving forward. This made the next story strain to get going. I was creating entropy instead of velocity.

Now, this was a fine enough epiphany, but it didn’t come with instructions for what to do next. The pyramid story structure was so common and natural I couldn’t see past it. I took a couple fruitless passes, then I set the revisions aside to work on some Noh theater research for another project. This reading soon led me to the concept of kishōtenketsu, a narrative structure that comes from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature. The more I read, the more I wished I’d learned about this twenty years ago. It was the answer to my problems, but it was also a sad indictment of the limits of my education.

Kishōtenketsu: A different kind of structure
Kishōtenketsu is a deceptively simple structure, based on four narrative units or stages represented by the syllables in the term: Introduction (ki), Development (shō), Twist (ten), and Conclusion (ketsu). Instead of relying on Western ideas of conflict and resolution, kishōtenketsu is driven by change and contrast. It provides a much more natural perspective than Freytag’s mechanical one. The first two narrative stages have you establish and develop the story, and in the third, you invert or twist what's been established, very much like the third line of a haiku. After the surprise twist, the fourth unit brings unification, connection, and possibility. Resolution isn't necessary.

Straight away, I wrote these four stages on four separate note cards with a Sharpie, flipped them over, and with a ballpoint pen re-organized the worst of the bad revisions. I kept much of the same story material, but the new structure pushed everything in new directions as I hunted for a surprise rather than a climax. The characters deepened. The plot became more interesting. The pacing grew slower but more focused.

Once I moved onto drafting, I realized kishōtenketsu also worked at progressively smaller levels. This fractal quality helped me re-structure scenes, paragraphs, and images. I rewrote the other troublesome stories this way and sent in another round of revisions. A few weeks later, my agent wrote and said he liked them and wanted to send out the manuscript. Problem solved, but by that time I’d gone crazy, using kishōtenketsu for everything: syllabi, lesson plans, Tweets, and even blog posts. It seemed like there was no problem these four steps couldn't solve. Because life so often follows art, I've begun reframing the way I think of conflict and tension in my relationships at work and at home. I’m now revisiting a lot of what I thought I knew about telling stories. Perhaps this is my midlife crisis.

This year, when my son asked for help with his writing camp pages, I didn’t give him a seminar. Instead, I took a breath and said, “Okay, you need to set up your characters, then expand. Once you have everything established, give us a big surprise. At the end, connect the dots.” He paused for a second, then he told me how his story would go.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ruth Joffre’s Reading Habits

In the 12th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ruth Joffre, author of Night Beast (Black Cat), discusses bus books and finding the right reading balance.

Working a 9-5 has made me almost fanatical about making the most out of my time. On my lunch breaks, I do language practice. Instead of taking two buses to and from work, I build exercise into my commute by walking over half a mile to catch the second bus where it stops in Downtown Seattle. And I maintain at least one (if not two) bus books at all times. In the past few years, I have made an effort to read more science fiction and comics, returning to the genres that first excited me as a child, so I’ve been doing a lot of catching up.

What I read still tends to vary greatly (last month’s reading list included Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, Saladin Ahmed’s Black Bolt Vol. 2, and Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy—to name a few), but when I read a book depends largely on two factors: 1) when it becomes available at my local library and 2) if I’ve bought it, which usually means that I read through the first forty or so pages and then have to set it aside for a while to work through my time-sensitive stack of library books. I never forget to finish a book, though, and I always keep a record of what I’ve read so I can buy the books I borrowed when the budget allows.

All in all, I read about fifteen to twenty books a month. This is the right amount for me, I find. If I read too few, my writing suffers. That part of my brain that feeds on narrative gets tired of waiting for something new and starts picking apart whatever I’m working on, asking moronic questions like, “What if the novel is actually supposed to be an interpretive dance and the 80,000 words you’ve written so far aren’t supposed to be read but performed on the stage?” Whereas if I read too many, that same part of my brain becomes over-gorged and just wants to take a long nap instead of writing. I try to read just enough to remain inspired and engaged (and learn new tricks) without getting distracted from my primary goal (right now, to finish my novel).

This is not to say that reading is just professional development for me. On the contrary, it is one of my greatest pleasures, second only perhaps to the texture of a really good milkshake. In my reading life, I do all the things I never do in real life. I travel to places I’ve never imagined. I encounter new word combinations that excite me more than entire relationships have. Even when I know that I’m reading a book for research, it’s not about finding those little bits of information I can then use to fuel my own work. At least part of the pleasure of reading comes from knowing that there’s someone else out who took the time to find that information. To put those two words together. To imagine the impossible. I read voraciously to be reminded that I’m not alone.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Thomas Benz: In Defense of Elaboration

In the 11th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Thomas Benz, author of Home and Castle (Snake Press Nation), opines on the current reliance on shorthand, images, and symbols.

By its very nature, fiction helps cultivate and preserve language as the primary means of apprehending the world. Lately, however, I find myself wondering if the written word is under attack as never before from visual and social media, which also present ideas, but with a flashier immediacy. I don’t think this notion is simply nostalgia for yesteryear’s slower pace of transmission, which allowed for more in-depth forms of dialog. It is not out of mourning for the typewriter, the personal letter, for cursive handwriting and rotary phones, perhaps imbued with the aura of one’s youth. Rather, I wonder if our ever more sophisticated visual content threatens to compress and degrade the content of our speech.

Whether the attack comes in the form of movie special effects that often overwhelm the screenplay or a novel that comes with regular illustrations, the message is that words alone are not enough. Even our newspapers and magazines, once a bastion of sentences, punctuated with the occasional photo, are filling up with little films. Emojis, no matter how cute or detailed cannot transmit the rich possibilities of emotion contained in a well-chosen verb. At best, they are crude substitutes of expression, ones that require neither genuine thought nor accuracy. They seem to invite us to return to the days of painting on cave walls as a means of getting a point across.
Absolute bull: Then and now

Never has there been a time when it was more important to know the truth about what surrounds us. And yet concurrent with this, the means to deceive, based largely on the allure of speed and convenience, continue to multiply and gain acceptance. Through the use of memes that amount to slogans, and images that can be altered to any desired effect, the tools of propaganda and false persuasion have been sharpened. Hiding a lie has never been so facile, especially when the preeminence of words has been so undermined. By contrast, the use of longer-form writing usually offers many more clues about the substance and real purpose of a given point of view.

For over a hundred years, we have had cameras and movies, and there’s no question the artful use of both is a great boon to the world and the Internet greatly expands our horizons. The problem arises when the great rush of everything causes us to get ever lazier about how we absorb information, since passively watching a podcast or reading a bunch of acronyms is inherently less nuanced than a more elaborate exchange. While we all need a certain amount of convenience and entertainment, let’s be aware of the steady encroachment of oversimplified messages, which more easily lead us astray and threaten our discourse.

As anyone who has ever suffered through an interminable homily knows, longer is not always better. Yet the economy of a poet is not what I’m questioning. It is the imprecision with which complexity is often conveyed, as if a selfie could ever tell the whole tale. For example, nowadays literary fiction often seems relegated to the hinterland of a subcategory. Somehow it is just too difficult and requires an immersion that would cut us off too long from our incoming texts. The popularity of what is slick and swift and shallow appears to be on the ascendant.

Only language that is not artificially curtailed and remains relatively free of adornment enables the recipient to bring his or her full imagination to the encounter. A novel or collection of stories uniquely engages a reader to construct a world right along with the author, to infuse what’s been created with a unique filter, to make the abstract visible in one’s own mind.

I have no wish to assail the power of a sublime vista or the perfect frozen moment of a street corner, or anything else that can only be captured with the benefit of sight. And I’m not saying there is no place for Twitter or Instagram or the labyrinthine archives of YouTube. But just as taking pictures can be a way of outsourcing memory, we should be mindful of how easy it is to rely on simplistic methods of recording our experience and what gets lost in translation. If a “picture is worth a thousand words,” it cannot do quite the same thing as those words. In our rush to abbreviate, to go faster, to flood our senses, to live more and more, this might be something we should not allow ourselves to forget.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Dax Xenos on the Value of Reading the Dictionary

In the tenth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Dax Xenos, author of Mud and Stars (American Visionary Artists), discusses the importance of words.

When I decided the most interesting thing I could do with my life was to be a writer, I was working as a lifeguard on the beach at Key Biscayne outside Miami. There was plenty of time to read, so I started in with the American Nobel Prize winners—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner. These were my teachers. They taught me how to construct phrases and paragraphs from words, the power of nouns and verbs and how the right adjective was like “a blow under the heart” (Hemingway).

Words. These are the building blocks of writing, just as bricks construct a house. Learning writing is like learning bricklaying or carpentry. While you may possess a strong interest or talent, writing is a craft that takes years to master. Since I was going to learn the trade of writing, I figured I had better learn about words.

I read the dictionary. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, in three volumes. I made myself read 20 pages every day, and each word I found interesting I wrote in a spiral notebook, reducing its composite meanings down to one sentence. Nine months later I finished and had about 5,000 words in my notebook, and in my subconscious mind. Today I rarely have to search for the right word. It pops into my head when I think of the context and the implications in a story. Reading the dictionary is an excellent way to develop not only a knowledge but a love of words. I found particular affinity for the V words: verisimilitude, veracity, valor, victory, vanity, vanquished, vivacious, voluptuous, variety.... Per letter category, V seems to have more interesting words than any other.

I once met a man who read the dictionary for pleasure, and we found an immediate affinity for one another. At one time WBW had been one of the richest men in America, flew airplanes, played polo with Prince Charles, was married to a movie star. He told me he had owned at one time or another just about anything a man could possess, but his most valuable possession was the words he had in his vocabulary. He saw words as little encapsulations of man’s knowledge and expressed the notion that a person could elevate his or her station in life simply by reading the dictionary. Words would enable a person to perceive opportunities he otherwise would miss.

WBW’s ideas were confirmed by a scientific study done by the Human Engineering Laboratory sponsored by General Electric. It wanted to find out how to make its employees more productive and happier in their work. Researchers interviewed thousands of employees and found that human beings are born with certain innate talents and by being placed in jobs where these talents could be utilized, not only did the employees perform better, they derived greater enjoyment and fulfillment from their work. Then the researchers went back through the data a second time, looking for a single characteristic that distinguished high performers from the others and found it to be a large vocabulary.

When I first decided to become a writer, I had a certain natural ability, as my early school work demonstrated, but I did not really know how to write, nor did I have anything to write about. Rather than follow the career path typical of my peers, I set off on a lifelong journey to learn about writing and about life. Over time I learned how to craft sentences that resonated in the minds of readers and clearly conveyed my intentions. I learned about life and the daily exigencies human beings faced with varying degrees of competence, joy, frustration, anger, guilt, and the panoply of human emotions.

And I read. Everything I got my hands on, from great classic literature by Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Twain, to popular fiction, learning what to do and what not to do. I wrote stories, articles, ad copy, brochures, scripts, letters, anything in words I could get paid for to support myself and my family. The beautiful part about writing anything is the practice. You are making decisions, you are telling stories, you are creating a collaboration between your words and the mind of the audience. Whether you are writing text for a restaurant menu, a blog, a TV ad, a Pulitzer-winning play, a text message on a phone, or a great novel, the challenge is the same: using words to communicate.

Words clarify, describe, excite, offend, delight, entertain, encourage, entice….

Take some time and read the dictionary. It will be a journey you will never forget.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

How Sandra Worsham Finds the Magic Place

In the ninth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Sandra Worsham, author of Patterns (Third Lung Press), takes on the task of preparing to write.

Edgar Allan Poe drank. To get back to his place the next day, Ernest Hemingway's advice was to stop in the middle. Reading back over what he had written the day before would take him there. Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream, says to close your eyes and let your mind wander and then to make notes, with your eyes still closed, on index cards. Dorothea Brande, in her wonderful classic called Becoming a Writer, says the secret is to get up thirty minutes earlier and go straight to your writing desk, to write before you read the newspaper or drink your coffee. She says that when we first wake up, we are already in the magic place, that we should take advantage of that without allowing the outside world to come in.

And what is this magic place? It is, of course, the subconscious, that elusive magical brain hidden underneath our main brain. It is a place we cannot control, a place where our words flow freely, where analogies come naturally, where we meet characters we didn’t know we knew. And, until we are in that place, we shouldn’t try to write fiction. The first task of a writer is to find the magic place.

My method of getting there is to read. When reading a story from The New Yorker, I can read only a few paragraphs before I am there, before I put aside the magazine and begin to write in my journal. If I am reading a book that doesn’t bring my subconscious to the surface soon, I stop reading that book. Certain authors do this for me better than others. When reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I soon found myself writing about my own teaching career and the students who had been in my class at Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about my student Albert, who signed all his papers, “Albert the Zero,” and who I watched late one afternoon as he walked down the dark hallway, his right leg shooting out from the side as he kicked one locker after another, all the way down the hall. When reading the early stories of Dorothy Allison, I found myself writing about my Aunt Erma and the way her husband, my uncle, got drunk and began yelling and hitting until my aunt took all four children to spend the night on the pews at the Baptist Church across the highway from their house. The poetic language of Jamaica Kincaid summons my dream state so quickly that I find myself lost in the world of words.

Another Dorothy Allison story, “Gospel Song,” from her collection Trash, begins, “At nine, I knew exactly who and what I wanted to be. Early every Sunday morning I got up to watch The Sunrise Gospel Hour and practice my secret ambition. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a gospel singer.” This passage immediately puts the moving image in my mind, like a video gift, of my sister Linda and me sitting at the piano singing “Whispering Hope.” It is a summer evening, not quite dark, and Mama and Daddy have walked up the street to the Baisden’s house to ask them to put their phone back on the cradle. They are on our party line, and they often leave their phone off the hook. I sit down on the piano bench and open the old Broadman hymnal to page 466. Linda stands over my shoulder and sings soprano, while I sing alto. Out the screen door the cicadas hum the background base, like the solid sound under the melody of bagpipes. I feel my sister’s hand on my shoulder, her voice high above mine as I sing the bottom line “Whispering hope, whispering hope, welcome thy voice, welcome thy voice.” We are in that place that music takes you to.

And there you have it. I have found the magic place.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Two Books That Speak to Jen Silverman

In the eighth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jen Silverman, author of The Island Dwellers (Random House), discusses a couple of poetry volumes that have influenced her writing.

There are two books that I’ve returned to again and again across the years, both by poets. The first is Changing Your Story by Patricia Clark Smith and the other is Crush by Richard Siken.

I first read Changing Your Story as a teenager and found my way back to it some years later, right after college. I’d just returned from Japan and was in limbo, living in Boston with my best friend while I considered the life (and the relationship) I’d left behind me, stacked against my hopes for my life back in the U.S. I read poems out loud to my friend while we cooked, while we did laundry, while she studied for her med school exams. The book spoke to me in a new way. I was raised in many countries, raised with the constant fact of our ability to transform. Change your language, change your geography, change your customs, and there it is: a new iteration of yourself, a new story. No matter what you take with you from country to country, there is also so much that must get left behindno matter how you try to hold on. In the wake of my recent leaving, the poems reminded me that transformation is as human and inexorable as breathing. Patricia Clark Smith seemed to understand this better than anyone, although these poems are so deeply rooted in the texture and detail of her home state of New Mexico, in her identity as a Native woman. My transience and her rootedness, my uncertainty and her certainty, were two sides of the same coin.

Conversely, Richard Siken’s poems found me at a moment when I was coming to terms with my queer identity – and, with it, the wary questions I was receiving from people both straight and gay. Queer is a fluid construct, by necessity, and fluidity is so often distrusted. As someone whose entire identity is a confluence of fluidities (both national and sexual), I was compelled by Siken’s work in a way that, even now, is hard to articulate. His poems offered no comfort other than the feeling of being witnessedwhich is, of course, sometimes the only comfort. It is raw painful work, each poem a hard-won confession, a grappling with confusion, bewilderment, grief, violence, and queerness into which all these things are foldedand with it, defiance as well. Over the years I return to this collection, still amazed by how it propels itself forward, how it generates an electricity born of urgency. I don’t carry the same rawness that I first did; I’ve become much more comfortable with the discomfort that queerness can generate even within my own community. But I still feel like something in those poems sees me clearlylike the poems and I are sharing a long look of recognition.

The poems in both books read like short stories, confessions, perhaps even monologues, with the same attention to rhythm and voice that you find in good theatre. I’ve worked in theatre for the past decade, and it was in and around writing plays that I wrote my first story collection, The Island Dwellers. I can’t help but think that both of these poets influenced my approach to writing prose and plays. There’s nothing more powerful than a piece of art that functions like a shared secret, like a letter delivered directly to the one person in the audience who needs to receive it. What is writing if not an overture to strangers moving through the world, who might need what you need and long for what you long for? What is writing if not a chance to surrender the small lies that get us through each day, and risk coming face to face with your unguarded self?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Scott O'Connor on Embracing Uncertainty

In the seventh in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Scott O'Connor, author of A Perfect Universe (Scout Press), shares his exploratory writing process.

“In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties.”
— Joseph Brodsky

My little office is on the second floor of our house and features wonderful sunset light through the western-facing window and incredibly low, sloped ceilings that make the space feel like that vanishing-point room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The slopes are good for both regular concussive encounters with my forehead and using as a display board where I tack up images, maps, sketches—anything that inspires or speaks to what I’m writing.

Currently, the slopes are covered in multicolored Post-It notes, which look like the far-flung neon shrapnel from some kind of cartoon explosion. They are, in fact, remnants of a violent blast—the fragmented pieces of the novel I’ve been writing for the past two years. And although the notes’ colors really liven up the room, they don’t do much for my current state of mind.

The Post-It eruption isn’t a tool to tweak the book’s structure, or to clarify different character arcs or plotlines. The notes are up there because, frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing with this book. Or, more precisely, I thought I knew what I was doing, but finally realized I hadn’t yet written the book I wanted to write.
Post-It notes: "Neon shrapnel"

So I sit at my desk, or lie on the floor, or pace the room and stare at the Post-Its, or ignore the Post-Its, or try to see them from some new, magical angle that will help the whole enterprise fall into place. I’ve been doing this for about a month now, believing that if push myself hard enough I’ll find the answer. But all I’ve really discovered is how much anxiety this insistence on finding the answer causes. I’m figuratively (and literally) banging my head against the wall. Maybe what I really need to do is take the advice I so often and enthusiastically give to students, fellow writers, anyone who’ll listen: Embrace the uncertainty. 

There’s a scene in my first novel where a lonely, bullied boy finds the remains of a burned-out house. One night he gathers his courage and a flashlight and begins to explore. All he can see is what the narrow, flickering flashlight beam reveals: a seared coffee table, a blackened couch—the objects within a room—and then, slowly, the walls and floor and ceiling, the parameters of the room itself. As he moves along, one room adds to another, creating the house in its entirety. Only then is this space revealed as the place the boy has been looking for all along, a secret refuge from the troubles and dangers in his life. But at first it was just that table, that couch, that wall.

Writing is like that, I think. We step into a dark house with our flashlights and move forward one step or word or sentence at a time. Sometimes the living room is just like we imagined. Sometimes it’s completely, disorientingly different. Sometimes we realize this isn’t even a house at all. We’re not sure what it is. But there’s only one way to find out: Keep moving, one step at a time, shining that beam around.

Which is not to say that some writers don’t plan ahead, whether through a full outline or a sketch of the next scene or chapter. But even those maps are of places that don’t yet exist.

There are dangers, of course. You could take a wrong turn and wander aimlessly for months or years. You could discover that this thing you’re writing won’t ever work. But at some level that’s why we do it, for the risk, the thrill and danger of discovery. So much of life is about avoiding or managing risk, about being certain. Writing is the place where we get to live another way.

It’s easy to look at our favorite novels and stories and believe that they arrived in the world that way—fully formed, many-layered, confident. But of course it’s just not true. And that way of thinking is not only self-defeating but a disservice to those writers who also groped around in the dark for what must have seemed like forever, searching.

So I’ll embrace the uncertainty. I’ll keep rearranging the Post-Its on the ceiling, and approaching (sneaking up on?) them from different angles, but I won’t expect any singular moment of insight. I’ll try to stay true to the spirit of that kid in the burned-out house, understanding that answers don’t always reveal themselves at once, and certainly not on demand. Instead, they come one step—one room—at a time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Peter Donahue Untrues Sentences

In the sixth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter Donahue, author of Three Sides Water (Ooligan Press), discusses the importance of writing on the sentence level and his efforts to improve his own.

I remember in my early twenties having a wild revelation. “I can write sentences,” I exclaimed to myself as I sat at my borrowed Selectric II typewriter. I was an English major brimming with undergraduate hubris. I was also writing more sentences than I ever had, and the exclamation was my first real recognition of—and wonder at—sentences qua sentences.

In the first-year composition classes I teach today, I try to foster this recognition in my students. I quote from Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One“If you know sentences, you know everything. Good sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world.” It’s a good motto for composition students. It’s a good motto for all writers. Yet it has its limits.

The world can be overly organized and badly organized (really badly), and so we also need sentences that undo the world. I’m not just talking about literary ambiguity here. I mean oblique, awkward, confounding sentences, the sort generated by anarchic syntax, unruly punctuation, and unapologetic diction. Sentences, for example, by Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, and William Faulkner (as well as, coincidentally, first-year composition students).

Poets have an upper-hand in this undoing. Here’s one I like from Emily Dickinson (minus virgules and capitals for new lines): “We know not that we were to live—nor when—we are to die—our ignorance—our cuirass is—we wear morality as lightly as an Option Gown till asked to take it off—by his intrusion, God is known—it is the same with life” (1462). It’s a sentence—or four or five fused with her famous dashes—that simultaneously organizes, disorganizes, and reorganizes its theme. To make it neatly parse-able through prescriptive grammar would be to drain it of its force and acuity.

For most of my writing life, clarity, concision, and grammatical correctness have been my touchstones. I internalized early Orwell’s edict that “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” I wanted to write in the great Plain Style tradition of Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and Raymond Carver. Never once, however, has a reviewer commented on my scintillatingly clear, painfully concise prose. Compelling story? Sure. Complicated characters? Check. Vivid setting and historical verisimilitude? Absolutely. But never a peep about my prose—that is until one reviewer called me out for writing “pedestrian prose.” This stung.

So I started rethinking my notion of prose style, at the sentence level, and while I can’t say I’ve radically transformed my sentences since then, I certainly risk more with them now. This means skewing syntax, going excessively long or short, dicing and splicing, getting funky with diction, and throwing out the style manual on punctuation. In other words, taking more chances. It also means, paradoxically, taking more care. I never worked so painstakingly on my sentences as I did in Three Sides Water (with help from several keen line editors), and the difference has been noticeable.
A reader recently came up to me at a gathering and read off several random sentences from a sheet of paper.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“They’re sentences from your book,” she told me. “Some of my favorites.”

I didn’t know what to say. First of all, I couldn’t get over the fact that she’d bothered to identify and copy out favorite sentences from my book. Secondly, I was aghast that I hadn’t recognized them.

“Really?” I muttered, now faintly recalling encounters with those words, phrases, clauses. “I wrote those?”

But when she handed me the sheet of paper and I read the sentences printed on the page, seeing how each was constructed, it was like a reunion with old intimates. I could practically recall the composition and editing process of each one. 

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know," said Hemingway, the paragon of parataxis, in A Moveable Feast. I like this notion, though I’m not sure what it means. Perhaps a true sentence simply feels right, as though every element were preordained. If so, I’m not sure I’ve ever met such a sentence in my own writing. The more I write, the more I realize how little I know. So I’m going to keep aiming to untrue my sentences, twist and slant them, and see where this takes me.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Vanessa Blakeslee's Eight Most Anticipated 2018 Story Collections

In the fifth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Vanessa Blakeslee, author of Perfect Conditions (Curbside Splendor Publishing), discusses 2018 short story collections she's looking forward to.

I have my eye on more than a few collections this year, and those that made my list include both debut authors and well-established voices. My literary tastes tend to reflect my nonfiction reading of late, which this year has included quantum gravity, the nature of time, and ecology; no surprise a few of these picks are influenced by the scientific realm. Others are shaped from place, a preoccupation with the fraught times we’re living in, or envision where we might find ourselves in a near future.

Unnatural Habitats by Angela Mitchell (WTAW Press, October)
I’ve been a fan of Angela Mitchell’s short fiction since I read her story, “Pyramid Schemes,” a few years ago in New South and have been looking forward to her debut collection for a long time. Mitchell is very much a contemporary Chekhov of the Ozarks, who writes the kind of gritty realism that I love—about ordinary people stumbling along as best they can, enduring the outcomes of their mistakes. And yet she’s not a regional writer; these stories, while rooted in setting, very much transcend their locale to illuminate the human condition.

The Amazing Mr. Morality by Jacob M. Appel (Vandalia Press, February)
Appel is one of our most lauded American short story writers, and this is his seventh collection. What compels me about Appel’s fiction is that he’s not afraid to step into the shoes of a wide array of characters, nor tackle a culture which is fond of both lying to itself and avoiding messy ethical questions. He’s a writer of imagination and courage, which we sorely need more of. Often disturbing, sometimes dystopian, Appel’s stories are provocative and surprising.

A Perfect Universe by Scott O’Connor (Gallery/Scout Press, February)
I’m drawn to story collections that center upon a particular place, and O’Connor’s is set around Los Angeles, his characters and their situations either in the midst of collapse or upon the precipice. While this collection isn’t described as dystopian in a futuristic sense, its themes and mood strike me as capturing the dystopia of the present day—that unnerving current running underneath our skins, warning us that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment. A bike thief, a movie star, a struggling mother and son—a rich variety of characters and social classes beckons in O’Connor’s world.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh (Small Beer Press, February)
Singh is a physicist, and her collection is peppered with philosopher-scientist characters in speculative situations. How we navigate the space-time continuum, totalitarian governments, and our own relationships, and how we might explore other ways of living, have earned Singh comparisons to Ursula K. Le Guin. I wonder how much Singh’s questioning of what it means to be human and the uncertainty of our journey within the quantum realm may have in common with Philip K. Dick, albeit in a style more poetic.

Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff (Norton, May)
Another debut, this one revolves around place—an isolated corner of Idaho, Montana, and Oregon known in this near-future dystopia as the “Redoubt”— where desperate characters love and clash. In part an imaginative exploration of the real-life armed standoff at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, Come West and See emerged from Loskutoff’s haunting preoccupations with the rural-urban divide in the U.S. How does a rigidly libertarian survivalist movement play out in the American West? I’m eagerly looking forward to this linked collection, not only for its gripping and timely premise but also for Loskutoff’s elegant and gripping prose.

The Affliction by C. Dale Young (Four Way, March)
This debut novel-in-stories delves into the theme of invisibility and the paranormal, and how the bestowing of extraordinary powers may be at once a burden and bafflingly haphazard. How people disbelieve and shun what they can’t understand, and in other instances, come to worship and rely too heavily upon such “gifts,” characterize The Affliction.

Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart by Kimberly Lowjewski (Burrow Press, September)
Dark tales of misfits and fugitives inhabit the swamps of Lowjewski’s lush and mystical world. I’ve been anticipating this debut collection for awhile, and how Lowjewski, based in Florida, draws upon the beauty and harshness of this unique wilderness to weave her fiction. For those who are drawn to otherwise ordinary situations that are twisted with magical realism and folklore, this collection should prove a treat.

Florida by Lauren Groff (Riverhead, June)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Groff’s Florida—we live and write from within the same state, after all—and I’m looking forward to how she’s set about depicting the nuances and idiosyncrasies of our much-misunderstood peninsula. The tension between the ferociousness of nature—the hurricanes and thunderstorms, snakes and oppressive heat—and the built environment of Florida’s human inhabitants is a pervasive aspect of living here, and I expect Groff, a skilled writer, to capture that well.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kem Joy Ukwu: Beyond the Ending

In the fourth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kem Joy Ukwu, author of Locked Gray/Linked Blue (Kindred Books), discusses ways in which even finished stories sometimes remain open-ended for the writer.

Is the ending of a short story ever its actual end?

The answer is … sometimes. That depends on the writer, the reader, and the story. When the writer and reader happen to be the same person, when a story’s writer eventually becomes its own reader (as some writers read and re-read their work for revision purposes), the short story can be changed, enriched, and continued. Sometimes when reading one’s own work, questions can arise about the characters, plot, and ending that can be answered by more revision or even by writing more stories.

When I first started writing short stories on a consistent basis, it seemed like the end of my short stories were when I would submit them into journals and contests. After a few of my stories were published in journals, I realized that publication was not necessarily the end of all my stories (though some of my short stories did end with final revisions and publication).

One of my short stories from my collection Locked Gray/Linked Blue was first published in the wonderful Carve Magazine. The short story, “Demetrius,” is about two sisters who will soon part ways, told from the first-person narrated perspective of the younger sister. The story went through revisions after the first draft. After the story was accepted and published, it seemed like I was done with it. The end seemed like the endthere was no more story to tell, no more things to know.

That was only true until my own questions arose about the older sister. What were the events of “Demetrius” like from her perspective? What was parting ways with her younger sister like for her? I wrote a new short story in response to my questions and included it in my collection. I wrote a short story spin-off of sorts, perhaps not a continuation of “Demetrius” but an expansion of it.

Short stories can be expected to be … short. How can a writer know when a short story is over when writing its initial drafts? Outlining short stories can help to determine an end of a story but how can a writer know if that end is final?

For quantity-related productivity, it may be great for writers to have short stories done for good. It can also be good for a short story to be done for now. It is reasonable to edit and revise knowing that after publication the short story might continue.

This prolongation could include even more revision and addition, changing the short story’s length, potentially reshaping it into a new story altogether. It might continue in an anthology, story collection, novella, or novel. It might resume through adaptation into film and television. A short story could move forward in the minds of its readers and in the imaginings of its writer.

Finishing a short story can be amazing because its finality can be freeing. Even when the door of a short story is closed shut and locked, its writer could perhaps unlock and open that door, potentially opening new ways to edit, enhance, and eventually enrich that short story, possibly turning an ending into an entrance.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Scott Nadelson and the Quest for the Right Voice

In the third in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Scott Nadelson, author of The Fourth Corner of the World (Engine Books), talks about his struggles to write a story he'd been pursuing for a long time and what ended them.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced:

I first read the article in 1999. It came across my desk at the small community newspaper where I edited the calendar of events and wrote occasional arts features. Three pages in an academic journal, describing a radical Jewish utopian colony in the southern Oregon wilderness in the 1880s. It was short on details, but what was there I found fascinating.

The colonists, members of a pre-Zionist emigration organization in Ukraine, promoted an early back-to-the-land movement for young secular Jews, as a way to escape anti-Semitism and pogroms. They named the colony New Odessa. Those who lived there were all in their late teens and early twenties. Lifelong city dwellers, they knew nothing about farming and would have starved the first winter if generous neighbors hadn’t donated food. Afterward they survived by cutting timber, which they sold to the rail company building tracks in the valley below. Among other ways they were ahead of their time, they championed equality between the sexes and free love. The only problem was, there were twice as many single men as women, and love triangles quickly led to strife. The colony dispersed after five years.

What hooked me, above all else, were the many gaps in the historical record. There were only a handful of first-person accounts, most fragmented, and little archival material. The story was wide open, in other words, and it spoke to me personally, as a Jew in my twenties who’d abandoned his ancestral home (suburban New Jersey) for the wilds of Oregon (late-’90s Portland). It was a story of exile, the self-imposed kind, that comes with equal measures of hope and doubt.
New Odessa colonists

But for years I couldn’t write the story. I did all the research, I spent many hours imagining the lives of these young men and women from Odessa, but every time I tried to set words on paper, the narrative evaporated. I could conjure characters, setting, even plot—always my weakest point—but what escaped me was the language to contain it all. I kept trying to negate the voice of the person writing in twenty-first century Oregon, to find inflections that would convince me I was really inhabiting the consciousness of someone who’d lived a hundred years before I was born. Failing, I tried to abandon the material more times than I care to admit.

Then, about sixteen years after first discovering New Odessa, I happened to re-read the opening chapter of David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. It’s an astonishing novel from start to finish, and its first sentence is a knockout: “One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary.” The opening phrases establish a crucial stance: This is someone speaking in the present, with knowledge and perspective about how things have changed. Malouf makes no attempt to convince you he is writing from the nineteenth century, not yet. He gives us scope, tells us exactly when and where we are, provides a stripped-down image of children playing, but no details. Those will come, he seems to tell us, but for now, just picture these children, a pasture, a place where settlement has just reached. And then he hits us with mystery and promise: “something extraordinary.” The sentence does everything necessary to point us forward. It tells us where we’re viewing from, where we’ll go, and what to look for. It combines the simplicity of folktale with the authority of historical reconstruction.

After reading it a dozen times, I returned to my utopian colony. I mimicked Malouf’s syntax, and almost immediately a path opened in front of me. It was the rhythm that allowed me to enter this story I knew so well, the sound of the language that helped me discover all I had yet to understand. Embodying the characters no longer felt forced because I was doing so as myself, a twenty-first-century writer imagining what it might have felt like to be a young Ukrainian Jew encountering the mysteries of sex and love and death in a wilderness thousands of miles from home. Some sixteen years and three weeks later, I had a draft of what would become the title story of my collection, The Fourth Corner of the World.

According to the great Texas writer William Goyen, story is “the music of what was,” not a record of what happened but a song that makes us feel it. What Malouf’s sentence reminded me is that I can bring the past alive only when I learn how to sing about it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Nancy Gerber on Naming Characters

In the second in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Nancy Gerber, author of A Way Out of Nowhere (Big Table Publishing), names names.

When I first started writing stories, I was well aware of the symbolism of names in literature and in life. In The Book of Genesis, Adam names the birds and all the beasts of the field, giving him the power of a god. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli changes the name he received by accident to Nikhil, the “good” name that was lost, though the awkward, accidental name Gogol follows him always. Cassius Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali as a rejection of the legacy of slavery and as a way to claim authorship of his life.

The first story I ever wrote was called “The Angry O,” a reference to the shape of a crying baby’s pursed mouth. In the first sentence, were two characters that needed names: a young husband and a young wife. I knew these two would have Jewish names. I had never written fiction before and the characters needed to be familiar because the writing process was so unfamiliar. I needed names that would anchor me on the treacherous journey into the unknown. I named them Hannah and Reuben, two beautiful, Old Testament names I hadn’t even known I liked until I set them on paper. Hannah, as it turns out, is the biblical name from which my own name, Nancy, is derived. 

After writing Reuben and Hannah into fictional existence, I felt freer about choosing characters’ names, less bound by anxiety and the need to acknowledge my heritage. Yet many of the female characters in the book share Old Testament names: Rachel, Leah, Sarah, Judith. In fact, when I was given the proofs to read before publication, I was surprised to see that, in a collection of nine stories, I had used the name Rachel in three different tales. I hadn’t even known I liked the name Rachel! I have no friends or relatives with that name. If you asked me right now, I’d say I prefer Rebecca, even though Rachel is perfectly lovely. I think there was something about the two syllables, and the long vowel followed by a short one, that was pleasing to my ear. After reading the proofs, I took out two of the Rachels and gave them different names.

Another surprise came when I discovered I’d used the name Jake in more than one story. I pride myself on being creative, someone with a good imagination. Why had I named so many male characters Jake? Again, I think it had something to do with sound. That long vowel next to the hard consonant – I felt the name sounded somewhat sinister. And none of the characters named Jake are such great guys.

Naming fictional characters, like naming a baby, tells us something about expectations and identity. The meaning of the Hebrew name for Reuben is “behold, the son,” or “ a son of vision.” In my book, Reuben is a son who carries the burden of his parents’ unhappiness. The second meaning of the Hebrew name is ironic in the context of the story; Reuben cannot see what is happening to his wife after the birth of their infant, a son. Sometimes we choose a name because it has a history, or a particular sound and heft. Sometimes the unconscious guides us in the right direction.

Names in art and in life have lasting significance. We remember the names of fictional characters that become as important to us as family members—Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. And while Reuben and Hannah and Rachel and Jake will not share such luminary status, they are my fictional offspring, dear to me, and, I hope, complex and compelling to the readers who find them.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Jacob M. Appel's Misguided Advice

In the first in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of The Amazing Mr. Morality (Vandalia Press), offers his worst possible guidance for writers.

One of the perks of publishing literary short story collections—alongside the secure income and ticker tape parade up Broadway—is the prerogative to offer aspiring authors unsolicited writing advice. Having been the beneficiary of such guidance in my youth, it seems only fitting that I now avail myself of the opportunity to share my own wisdom with others, whether or not they are interested in hearing it. In that spirit, here are eight highly misguided ideas guaranteed to derail your career in the book business.

1. Write about what you don’t know. The less you know the better, especially if your readers are highly familiar with the subject. Depict places you have never visited, cultures regarding which you have minimal understanding. For instance, a writer named Franz Kafka once wrote a novel (or part of a novel) called Amerika, about a continent he had never stepped foot upon, in which the Statue of Liberty carries a sword, rather than a torch, and a bridge connects New York to Boston. Who has ever heard of Franz Kafka?

2. Ignore basic rules of grammar and punctuation. These are tools of the oppressor, designed to impede communication and render the already challenging task of putting pen to paper all the more difficult. Admittedly, Molly Bloom’s dream sequence in the final fifty pages of Joyce’s best-selling Ulysses lacks a comma and a period here and there, but few readers make it that far anyway.

3. Never glorify untoward behavior. Or, at a minimum, exert discretion. Nobody minds the sixteen-year-olds marrying in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, just don’t go all Nabokov on the reader and overdo it. Similarly, a subtle stalking novel in the spirit of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is likely to appeal to our best selves.

4. Avoid talking animals, inanimate narrators, and above all, extended discussions of nineteenth-century whaling. The western canon has precisely room for three of the first (Orwell’s Animal Farm, Adams’s Watership Down, What’s-his-name’s The Metamorphosis), two of the second (Pamuk’s My Name Is RedShearman’s Tiny Deaths) and one of the third (Naslund’s Ahab's Wife). Don’t see your novel on the list? Well, it won’t be, because life is unfair—and publishing is like life, except owned by Germans.

5. Include a gun that does not go off. 
This is roughly Chekhov’s idea, although much easier for him because Tsarist Russia didn’t require handgun licenses. Dostoevsky does this brilliantly in The Idiot where, as readers may recall from the Wikipedia summary, Ippolit Terentyev, forgets to put the cap in his pistol before shooting himself.

6. Write in your second or third language. Doing so impresses agents and editors; if you don’t already speak a second or third language, it’s never too late to learn—the more obscure the better. Rosetta Stone Frisian only costs $199.99. For instance, as a native English speaker, Joseph Conrad would be hardly memorable—but knowing that he only spoke Polish into his twenties makes Lord Jim a rather entertaining party trick. (If that approach fails, take a page out of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: Have your girlfriend translate the manuscript and then misplace the original.)

7. Torment your darlings, but don’t kill them. J. M. Barrie tormented an entire family of Darling children in Peter Pan to great acclaim. The initial draft, in which Wendy, John and Michael Darling were massacred by pirates, fared poorly with focus groups.

8. Favor quirky antics and implausible coincidences. There lies a crucial difference between verisimilitude and reality. For instance, take the moment in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy when the title character urinates out a window is accidentally circumcised by the falling sash. I suspect most readers—or at least half of them—find themselves crossing their legs and reflecting, “Ah yes, that’s the human condition!”

Since this is all deeply misguided advice, I have ignored it—and look at the great fame and fortune that have been my reward. I was a household name in my grandparents’ house, before they died, which is more than Philip Roth or Toni Morrison could ever claim.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Video of The Story Prize Event: Daniel Alarcón, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Strout (the Winner)

What the Judges Had to Say About Elizabeth Strout's Anything Is Possible

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.
“Elizabeth Strout is a bewitching writer. What does she do that is so stunning? Her stories are quiet and straightforward and then they thwack you on the back of your head. The intelligent prose is seemingly humble but elegant in its subtlety and enchanting in its overall effect. Her wit has such a sharp blade you barely feel it until after the slice. She is a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted. It is a sublime pleasure to read her, whether she draws you into a relatively undramatic scenario or a situation in which the stakes are high. Elizabeth Strout weaves her tales gracefully and you don’t know how deep she is going until you are suddenly overcome. She makes you feel. And then she makes you think, about nothing less than who we are and how we live our lives.”

“Anything is Possible is one of those books that stays with you long after you've finished reading. Strout has a gift with words, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the lives of her rural Illinois characters. Each of them leaves a haunting and lasting impression, from the Barton siblings to the Nicely sisters. A worthwhile collection on love, loss, family, and the concept of home.”

Friday, March 2, 2018

What the Judges Had to Say About Ottessa Moshfegh's Homesick for Another World

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.
“Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World is hilarious and humane. In punchy, terse, sparkling sentences, Moshfegh creates fictional zones that span the globe—from Japan, China, Ukraine, New York, to California. She’s interested in human foibles that ‘translate’ across zones rather than identifying the local particulars of any place.

“Peopled by odd, beautiful, delusional characters, Moshfegh’s stories examine how humans attempt to dull their various anxieties, emotional and existential, with drugs, bad amorous arrangements, and wondrously debauched, disgusting (as one character puts it) sex. But none of this is cheap or tawdry. In Moshfegh’s hands, sex, sexuality, and sexual desire open the characters up, especially the men imagined here, for closer examination.

“Many of the women in these stories own their bodies forcefully, experiencing sexual pleasure as deeply private and personally empowering. But several men here, with embarrassing lack of self-awareness, tout their ‘beautiful’ bodies loudly or probe for sex inelegantly. Moshfegh burns open this masculine bluster with laser incisiveness, revealing its soft core: self-defeating self-aggrandizement. For the reader, these revelations will trigger out-loud laughter. But the author never mocks the characters in Homesick for Another World. Instead, Moshfegh delivers these truths with brilliant, stinging, ironic humor and sensitive care for her characters.”