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.