“the fall of an object/disorients the line”—Claude Royet-Journoud, The Theory of Prepositions
“We” as in “Us”
There is a song in our bones, spread-eagled, waiting to be wept; pried open sideways, it bellows out into a mix of suppleness, sulphates and cyanides; its metaphors hold us the way a stapler pin would: into neat pages of relevance, limited only by the pin’s tensile strength; it is from this stable that our poems saunter out as equine sentences, step by hoof-step, each a measured vocabulary of action; words for imagined objects, words as imagined objects, words to relate these two.
Say, if that which becomes a “tree” in our heads becomes a “Swiss-knife” later on, then “a tree is a Swiss-knife” would afford us either the reason to log trees and brand them into commercial promises or the illusion that we can be aerosols and arseholes at the same time; that is, the tree is not as likely to become a “water bottle,” as it would a “Swiss-knife,” which is to say, the tree cannot be anything else, including a tree. An object, an objection.
Between an object and its shadow, place a jug; then juggle its place with the shadow, and the shadow with a Map. Map out this arrangement, then rearrange it, jug first; again and again, until you are left only with the object. An object is an accumulation of senses, like a map it simplifies reality to a scale; its shadow a simplification scalable beyond any measuring system. For the object of any measurement is to realize its own possibility, and thereby own a realization: It.
“It” is the way we acknowledge, it is the way we acknowledge, the “other” as distinct from us; acknowledge that the tree cannot be anything else including a tree, including “us”; that is, every statement of fact such as “a zebra is running” is predated by a verifiable opinion, “I see a zebra running.” “It” is the aluminium foil of every object, an object minimum–the shape recovered from an object in posterity, the part (of the object) left by the object in its own shape, the way a poem inducts its absence into its own organization.
A poem is a water bottle, is the water in the bottle, is the bottle holding the water the way a stapler pin would, as one continuum, one in which metaphors fall, in which ‘”a tree is a Swiss-knife” falls; “a tree is a Swiss-knife” is an understanding, that “a non-I is another non-I.”
“What?” as in “Them?”
The world is 'distances converged to a finite present'; their song is an outcome of mnemonic musings; in it, when an infant cries, its cheeks motors to the facial extremities; the poem’s project will be to calculate the rate of change of colour in a chameleon; when the ground shook and writhed like a fish on a hook, the poem learned table manners as fast as it could. One cannot remain gauche at the dining table, the algorithms chorused in alliteration.
Their metaphors are abject negations of themselves at their moments of creation, though these happen only as aftermaths, when the metaphors are deconstructed by an agent external to their programmed universe: us. They have no conception of “I”; their consciousness is but the work of a daemon thread, the aesthetic preference of an anachronistic circuitry, a yellow balloon singing to a blue sky.
“A tree is a Swiss-knife” will neither be an acceptance nor a rejection of everything non-tree; an unverifiable fact, a Schrödinger’s cat: you know what a tree is, if you know what a tree is; meaning, it is felled in all the possible scenarios, which is to say, a tree cannot be anything, including anything. The metaphor falls lopsided into its own symmetry, into its own cemetery. The death of a metaphor is pure sublimation.
This, they cannot realize.
Read Shriram's poem To Monica Seles.
Shriram Sivaramakrishnan, a poet from India, recently completed his MA in Poetry from Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, UK. His poems have appeared in Allegro, Vayavya, Bird's Thumb, Uut Poetry, Camas, Softblow and so on. He tweets at @shriiram.
In 2003, BBC called upon the UK public to vote for their favourite book, compiling a list of top hundred books that everyone must read. Lord of the Rings came out the winner by a large margin and Harry Potter took fifth place, which was not a big surprise, considering their respective film franchises. However, what was a surprise to me was that not a single graphic novel was included in the list; not even Alan Moore's Watchmen, a graphic novel which changed the way not only comic books were viewed but also written. This omission was corrected by Times Magazine in 2005 when they published their own set of top hundred books which included Watchmen in seventeenth place. Alan Moore beat Iris Murdoch and Salman Rushdie.
Graphic novels are my go-to books when I'm stuck, when I don't know how to further a plot or when I've run out of ideas to make a character more unique. Highly enjoyable in themselves, they give me a perspective that is impossible to find in any other medium: graphic novels not only show you what they want you to see, but also dictate the viewpoint from frame to frame. In just one sketch in Maus, where the protagonist hunches his shoulders and pushes his hands deeper into his pocket, Art Spiegel conveys to the readers how he feels about his father. Or in Persepolis, where Marjane Satrapi depicts the oppression in Iran with gentle, self-deprecating humour. Morpheus (or Sandman) is one of the most complex characters I've come across, and I quite regularly read his conversations with his sister, Death, when I'm unable to come up with original dialogue.
Over seven pages without a single word, the protagonist in Stitches explores an empty floor of a hospital where he finds an embalmed foetus in a jar and imagines it come to life. The art is exceptional and is all that is needed to get across the little boy’s loneliness and fear. These are the pages where I learn “to show, not tell.” Minute changes from one frame to the other not only progress a story, but also changes the tone. Greg Capullo, in The Court of Owls, very cleverly shows the madness creeping upon a drugged Batman as he’s trapped in a labyrinth by inverting the frames, so that you have to turn the book round and round to read Bruce Wayne’s thoughts, making you feel as dizzy as he is.
Although predominantly masculine, this medium has been successfully broken into by women who're making great headway. Raina Telgemeier was the 2014 Comics Industry Person of the Year and won the Best Writer/Artist Eisner award in 2015 for Sisters, an award previously won only by men since 1988. Artists like Fiona Staples, with her poster-worthy work on the Saga series, have been phenomenal in shattering the notion that comics are only for boys.
So if you’re looking for inspiration, pick up a comic book.
Read M S's short story "The Tree" here.
M S Pallister studied computer science at Cambridge University but soon realised that she was more interested in writing fiction. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories, while researching her second novel. Her short stories have been published in The Wrong Quarterly, Long Story, Short, and Literary Yard, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and forthcoming in For Books’ Sake.
When I find myself more inclined to watch Netflix (or do the dishes or perform any number of other brainless activities) than to write, it’s usually because I’ve stopped doing research. I don’t mean research in the narrow, library database sense—though that can do the trick, too. I mean research in the most roomy and intuitive way possible: reading books I find interesting and falling down Wikipedia black holes and taking the dog on walks to new neighborhoods and wondering why things are the way they are and trying new stuff, like fly fishing or taekwondo or pruning plum trees or knitting sweaters for cats.
Sometimes (every day) I struggle to follow that first, cardinal rule of writing: sit your butt in the chair, keep your butt in the chair. But if I sit my butt in the chair after doing a little research, I often find keeping my butt in the chair (and therefore writing) a whole lot more fun. “The world is everywhere whispering essays,” (and poems and stories), but to write them we must hear them, and I believe that research is the way we listen to the world.
For instance: last summer I adopted a puppy—a floppy-eared fluff ball with soulful brown eyes—who made for an excellent excuse not to write. She was always getting into things and keeping me up at night and piddling on the hardwood floor while my back was turned, and anytime I sat down to write I felt like my brain was so full of puppy stuff that there was little hope of producing a single intelligent sentence. (Little did I know I was just bobbing mid-stream in a river of research, the daily drain of which made it difficult to see or appreciate at the time.) Then one day I realized we had acquired a flea—compliments of the puppy—which had bitten me, repeatedly, on both knees. I’d never really thought about fleas before getting a dog, but now that I’d been bitten by one, feeling threatened by the possibility of invasion, I couldn’t get the thought of fleas out of my mind. I looked them up on the internet, learned that they jumped from their toes instead of their knees; that it was they who caused the black plague, and not the rats; that some scientists believe our species slowly shed their hair specifically to avoid hosting these nearly invisible, blood sucking specks. It was such a powerful itch. And then it was only natural that I would find myself writing an essay on fleas: the research of experience and the research of various Google searches causing my previously empty brain to flow with thought.
In the end, research doesn’t have to be incredibly time-consuming or even particularly distinct from your daily life. Research is an attitude. It means being insatiably curious, listening and watching and wondering and then taking note of what you hear and see and think, so that you can return to your desk and write love letters to the world—because what does paying attention mean, after all, if not falling in love? (In love, even, with fleas.)
 “On the Writing of Essays,” by Alexander Smith
Read Shamae's essay "A Backpack in the River" here.
Shamae is an MFA candidate at Brigham Young University studying creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and Prairie Margins. This year, she is the nonfiction editor for Inscape, a journal of literature and art. She lives with her husband, their pet hedgehog, and a very rambunctious puppy.
I started writing “Year Zero” almost three years before it was published on Bird’s Thumb. That’s a long time to spend writing one essay but the themes of gentrification, friendship, privilege, youth, expectation, and disappointment felt too big to rush. More than anything, the evolution of the piece rested on my current project of injecting my race into each story that I write.
In the essay, it felt important to name mine and my friends’ race from the jump, as “five fresh-faced suburban-raised white kids” in Logan Square in 2004. We were gentrifiers, a term I didn’t know then but whose face I wore throughout the neighborhood. “Suburban-raised” was crucial too. Our class couldn’t be separated from our race in this regard. We were kids with access, if not to our own money, to generational white middle-class wealth. With “fresh-faced,” I meant to suggest our youth, as early twenties recent college graduates from university in the cornfields. When I consider that description now, however, I realize how much that contrasts with the physical description of the man who accosted us at the restaurant. “Tufts of hair stuck out from his ears, the lines of his face weathered like grooves in a slab of rock, eyebrows bushy.” I’m struck here by how I’ve given a detailed description of a Latino man while my friends and I are a mass of indeterminate whiteness. But I’m concerned that he’s one of only two characters of color in the story (the other was my Persian restaurant manager) and he’s a wobbly drunk. On the one hand, that is a real encounter that happened our actual first night in Chicago and attention to the truth of the moment must be observed. On the other, I’m wading into dangerous imaginative waters here, replicating a common trope: “the anxious, entangling encounters with others. . .that appear there primarily as an occasion for the writers to encounter her own feelings,” as Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine write in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary.
We lived in a community of color that was changing, that we were helping to change, faster than we realized at the time. By putting ourselves inside that space, that meant we were changing too, from people raised in mostly white suburban or rural spaces to individuals who lived and worked in communities far more integrated than those we’d known previously. Nevertheless, our whiteness persisted. It is inextricable to the stories of our lives, to the lives we are always living, each day, every second. If I don’t name it, how will anyone know who we are? How will I be able to tell our story? It is through injecting whiteness onto myself, or rather understanding that I too am racialized and that race is white, that I can at least attempt to dismantle whiteness as the normative setting in my work. I don’t expect always succeed. It won’t directly address the institutional whiteness that is stitched through the publishing world, and the direct line between whiteness and prestige that still exists in our (white people’s) collective modes of literary thinking, of what it valued and assigned greatness. But by identifying myself as white, by using that notion to undermine and interrogate my own whiteness, I try to betray myself a little bit.
If we—by which I mean “you,” the white reader of this essay—can move away from making whiteness the default setting, then we as white writers and white readers can do the smallest part in helping re-make our world.
Read Nicholas's essay "Year Zero."
Nicholas Ward‘s writing has appeared in Bird's Thumb, Catapult, Midwestern Gothic, Hobart, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and is forthcoming from CityLab; been featured on stages and in bars around Chicago; and can be heard on the 2nd Story podcast, where he is a longtime company member. He lives in Chicago with Amadeus, the cat.
“The story of my body is not a story of triumph” begins the second section of Roxane Gay’s recently released Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I have been a Roxane Gay fan since her early Tumblr days, but this particular line hooked me into Hunger, and kept me from putting it down for several days. As a fellow fat black woman, I was profoundly impacted by her deft negotiation of the shadowy space between diet culture and a body-positive movement that struggles to be fully inclusive. But as an essayist, I was especially interested in her upfront refusal to package her lived experience into the neat boxes we have come to expect of memoir and personal essay.
My mind jumped straight from the content of Gay’s work to the potential significance of her structural choices because, as a twenty-six year old writer, structure and significance trouble me the most while I am composing an essay. The question that all writers ask at some point—what what would happen to this work in six months, or a year?—takes on additional weight when the raw material of the story could shift completely based on the writer’s lived life. Maureen Stanton calls this elusive final component of a good essay “insight,” which only comes with time to discover how an experience has “sculpted” the author’s perspective.
In the Internet age, where quicker responses to current events are often considered more favorable for publication, it’s quite tempting to try to force the insight we need to make an essay work by taking action. The modern essay begs you redeem, redeem! Seek out the long-lost friend, sprinkle your mother’s ashes over the seas, as you promised. As personal essays have become accessible through online venues like the New York Times’ “Modern Love and Thought Catalog,” so have the arcs that these stories often take. Frequently, we get to leave personal essays with the movie-like satisfaction of watching the writer-protagonist taking the higher road, the better path.
In her cultural commentary “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over,” Jia Tolentino opines bravely about the role that online publications and navel-gazing culture have played to create this predictably “ultra-confessional” manner of writing, now in rapid decline. But perhaps in the wake of this shift away from the depoliticized personal essay, we should look not just to fill in the gaps left behind with more objective journalism, but also new models for essay writing that are capable, as Gay’s memoir is, of rejecting the need for raw confessional, redemption, forgiveness. Essays that rely on insight and trust in the reader’s critical faculties rather than on perfectly wrought endings and clear next steps. Essays capable of moving with great intention towards a grayer, murkier space—one that resembles the world we are in now, the world as it has always been.
Perhaps the essays we need today are the kind that adhere to the secondary definition of the word essay, which I learned quite recently: an attempt, or effort. Let us remember that to essay has never been to leave tidy or perfect—merely to try.
Read Yasmin's essay, "I Tried to Tell You My Darknesses Lived Here."
Yasmin Boakye is a writer raised in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. A 2014 Callaloo Fellow at Cave Hill, she is also a recipient of NYU Abu Dhabi's Global Academic Fellowship in Writing and a 2017 VONA/Voices alumna. Her prose has been published or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb, TRACK/FOUR, and the Puerto Del Sol Black Voices Series. She is currently based in St. Louis.
Every act of creation begins with a first impulse that things could be different. Small acts catalyze movements and monuments, placing a single word or stone on another until a larger structure emerges. This, too, is how we write.
What is often intimidating about writing a novel is finding one’s way into the story, determining the right place to begin not in terms of chronological or narrative time but in terms of giving that first amorphous blur of the story tangible form. Beyond the initial story kernel—a dynamic setting, a physical sensation, an image of a character performing some action for reasons unknown—the shadows of a larger plot can often be seen but not fully grasped. As with all fragile, gestating things, the kernel must grow before it, or the larger structure connected to it, can manifest.
Before I wrote the book that would become my debut novel, I had an image: a child who, faced with the trauma of displacement, tells herself a story to survive. Rather than diving into what I sensed could be a novel, I first explored that kernel in the more intimate space of a short story. This allowed nuances of theme and character to surface before I began drafting the novel. The short story form continually beckons our attention back to the details, making it an excellent teacher of precise language, of painting tone, and of showing us how the smallest, subtlest moments can reveal character and theme.
Starting with a short story allows for the freedom to play, push, and explore before a novel’s plot is nailed down. The short form can also support a more delicate, detail-focused story engine, and beginning this way often helps to bring that focus forward into a novel. After all, the reader’s experience consists of a series of focused moments, sensory details, a felt sense of the characters’ internal and external states that possesses an almost physical weight. By nature of its brevity, the short story form directs our attention to these elements. This is useful regardless of whether the short story itself ends up in a finished novel or not. Like the mechanism behind the face of a watch, so much of a novel is hidden but necessary material.
So, where to begin? Focus the lens on the story kernel, the image of that single potent moment. These initial images often have movement to them—the cold rush of salt water, a character bent over an unseen object, the shattering of glass. Open with a sentence that captures that movement, that inherent tension. This is key: the kernel must have tension.
From there, explore the moment that first drew you to the idea. Capture the tone. Capture the voices of the characters, their dialects, their accents, and their pet names for their loved ones. Capture the dynamic motion that is present in even the smallest of moments. Let this sensation of movement guide you. Motion is an indicator of tension, and tension will lead you to the essence of what the kernel is, why it matters, and whether it can sustain a larger structure.
Flesh out this scene into a short story, ensuring that the spark of tension has shifted something crucial in your characters. If the idea is suitable for a novel, it will not conclude cleanly or firmly in the context of the short story. Conclude the short story instead at a natural pause, a moment of clarity that opens new questions. It will feel more like a comma than a period. This is all right.
If your story kernel compels you toward a novel, expand your field of vision slowly, building on the delicate short story mechanism to create a larger engine. What brought the character to the water, to the object before them, to the shattered window? Where must they go from here? Once the skeleton of the novel’s plot begins to form, write this as a short story, too—a bird’s-eye view of the novel’s landscape. Starting with this shorter form will help to balance tension and intimacy as the story builds on itself, allowing the novel to remain both rich and focused.
In writing as in life, there is the world in our hands and the world we cannot yet see, and we bring the two closer together every day that we rise and tug the pieces of our lives into a slightly different conformation. This is how we build our writing and our world: one small act of creation at a time.
Read Jennifer's short story "Orchard Street Tenement."
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani is the Syrian American author of The Map of Hopeful Broken Things (Touchstone/S&S 2018), a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers, and a Montalvo Arts Center LAP Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.
Two things have been going through my mind recently:
1) The last few lines of Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”*
2) A couple of lines towards the middle of Héctor Lavoe’s signature song, “El Cantante,” “Yo soy el cantante / Vamo’ a celebrar / No quiero tristezas / Lo mío es cantar”**
What grabs me about each of these quotes is the call for celebration. In the case of Clifton, celebration in the face of and triumph against certain destruction, “born in babylon, / both nonwhite and woman.” In the case of Lavoe, the call for celebration (and just as strong, the shunning of grief and sorrow) in a song which also points out the frailty of its speaker earlier with the lines “Nadie me pregunta / Si sufro, si lloro / Si tengo una pena / Que hiere muy hondo.”
I’ve been thinking about both of these in the context of the ode, as I’ve been wondering lately why I write so many odes. I know that I didn’t start writing them (at least not with any kind of frequency) until I started reading/listening more intently to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s odes, using them as a model, but the more I think about it, the more I come back to the two quotes provided above.
Celebration has always been a big part of my life. It goes back to my parents, as reserved as they both are, always finding room and ways to celebrate with my siblings and me. Whenever we would clean the house with our mom, she’d make a function out of it and put on some Prince and Stevie. She’d pause to dance and sing along so much that it often took at least an hour longer than expected to finish. As a kid, our washer and dryer was frequently breaking and I would go to the laundromat with my dad. Just about every time, after we were done, we’d stop for burgers on the way home. I know those examples don’t seem like much, but they taught me from an early age to celebrate, often and without apparent reason. As a poet, the ode provides an avenue for celebration.
Clifton's ode provides me, as a poet of color, with the opportunity to celebrate in the face of all of these institutional forces that want me to fail. It allows me to rejoice in the fact that I have survived. On the other hand, I’m also interested in the way Lavoe uses the idea of singing praise while also acknowledging great pain. The celebration that Lavoe invokes is in many ways a compliment to Clifton. It also allows for a celebration of everything that has kept me alive—the figures and songs and places to which I owe that survival—and in doing so forces me to meditate on the failings of those very same sources.
This isn’t to say I don’t find use in other forms, or even that my approach to the ode is without its flaws. But in the ode I find something this world, entrenched in racism and imperialism, doesn’t want me to have. I find a song to rejoice this life, fragile and continually under attack, beautiful in the face of all that threatens it.
*Clifton, Lucille. “won’t you celebrate with me” The Book of Light. Copper Canyon, 1993, 25.
**Héctor Lavoe. “El Cantante.” Comedia, Fania, 1978.
Read Malcolm's poems "Cover: 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You'" and "Ode to Stevie Wonder, or Mom Calls after Milwaukee and All I Can Do Is Listen to 'I Wish'"
Malcolm Friend is a poet and CantoMundo fellow originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, and an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including La Respuesta, Vinyl, Word Riot, The Acentos Review, and Pretty Owl Poetry.
I suspect I’m better at telling stories than giving advice, which is why I started writing fiction to begin with. I can’t imagine having anything definitive to say, like, Here’s the key, take it. Or, Ring-of-many keys. Lift with your back. Hope they aren’t too burdensome.
I prefer my uncommitted-ness. Writing by guesswork. Suggestions like, write under the influence of kombucha; villains on Tuesdays; fonts to get you out of the slush pile; veggies that cure writer’s block. There are more, I’m sure.
It can be wearisome. The continuous infomercial at 4 a.m., the one you keep watching instead of falling asleep. Boring, but addicting. Because they have the answer. Maybe you really do need a rag that can absorb ten times its weight in water. Maybe you can’t reach the top shelf and need a pole-claw, or a wearable towel, or a shakable weight.
But to be upfront: I don’t have the answer. I just make things up.
Anyway, a story:
I went to a girl’s house, met her cat, fell in love. It happens like that. Coffee, pie, cat, love. But we (I) fall in love with the wrong people. (The wrongs vary.) Once, in college, our “goals” differed. Later, I slept in the back of a U-Haul and knew it would be distance that overcame us. Another time, I was a husband too late. I know she’s the wrong person this time, too, so I get online and buy things to comfort myself. These are the 21st century tools I was given—be sympathetic, please.
Despite the obvious warnings, I fall in love. It’s there the next day and still there many months after the jacket I bought arrives, has been worn for a few years, and gets donated to Goodwill. I only date her for a few months, but that love, it hangs around much longer, a lost popcorn shell in your gums that the dentist finds eight years later during a routine cleaning. The half-moon shell is black and wedged between molars 15 and 16 and in your mind you know he’s pulling out something more important than a tooth. It’s the last piece you have of her and it hurts.
Somewhere in the middle, between the beginning and the end, she shows me around the house that she’s remodeling with her father. We move through the rooms. Here’s a wall that’s gone. This floor was once dirt. Now it’s not. She points: that will be where the eucalyptus goes, and her hands, rough from the sanding and plaster work, are beautiful. The upstairs is still gutted and unfinished.
I’m good at this part. I let my imagination work. I see what I would do to the room, and how we might fit into it—our bodies, our relationship, our future. She’s a painter, so the room will be full of light. I see us sprawled across green sheets, our heads together, hair mixing while we debate the merits of various candies—like, the all-time best type of M&Ms, or, to freeze or not to freeze Thin Mints. We understand these are important conversations, so we have them nightly.
A few weeks later, she asks me about enneagrams and it all goes to shit. That’s all it takes, sometimes.
We head downstairs, away from my conceived future, and take a bath together, oblivious to the seeds that will later unravel us.
If there’s a connection between writing and this story, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe: good writing seems to have a grasp on its own ignorance. It embraces the accidental nature of creation, of writing. I sit down and my fingers move and God knows where I’ll end up. A lot probably won’t work out.
But as far as hard advice goes, mostly I think, Geez, a lot of people have helped me get here. I try to thank them as much as possible, and it’s not nearly enough. It’s all we can do to pull and push each other along, somehow making the way a little easier for ourselves in the process. Or maybe not, and we simply get pulled and pushed along too, a people-ball tumbling through the muck together. But, hey, at least we’re together.
Read Alex's essay, "Your Dad Is Calling Back."
Alex Jaros received his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago, where he was a recipient of the Follett Fellowship. He earned his BA in English from the University of Missouri in 2011. His work can be found in Glimmer Train, Bird’s Thumb, Ghost Proposal, .LDOC, Goreyesque, Epic, and among varied zines littered across the Midwest. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri and will enter the PhD program for Creative Writing at Florida State University this fall.
My body has known pain. Two torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Three knee surgeries. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Three childbirths. Graves Disease. Concussions. Sinus surgery. Trigeminal neuralgia. Four years of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. One year of high-dose antibiotic treatment. Five root canals. Pneumonias. Hemochromatosis. Regular phlebotomy.
Constant corporal bombardment and yet, for years, every time I met with my writing pal, novelist Eliza Factor, she’d wisely say of my early drafts, “Don’t forget the body. You’re all in the head.”
I’d stare at the pages and then look at my stomach—always my stomach—and wonder what the hell she meant when she said to write from the body. It wasn’t as simple as adding an elbow to the paragraph or describing how a character moved. It was much deeper.
Over time, I realized I needed to get inside my character and wear her around. Last year, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey hosted an exhibit that allowed visitors to don a robotic suit simulating the experience of being elderly: goggles to impair vision, acoustic effects to dull hearing, devices to stymie movement. If only there were a character showroom where writers could try on everything from teenage girl with first menstrual cramps to forty-year-old man with hair loss and bipolar disease.
Even if these suits don’t exist, we can create them in our mind’s eye through research, experience, and empathy. We can ask ourselves questions, such as what are my character’s stomach juices doing? Does his brain turn letters backwards? Where does she hurt? Does anxiety gallop in her chest? The combination of things happening in my body is specific and unique, as is the combination in yours. I now try to make my characters’ bodies specific as well.
I also consider my own motivations for creating this specific body because I want to avoid blinding a character or amputating her leg for purely symbolic purposes. Giving a character a disability for the sake of metaphor or to advance a theme not only smacks of ableism, but also makes a character less believable, less true.
Once I have located the body and begun to weave it into my writing, that same body usually leads me more organically into my character’s soul. I start asking how having this particular physical experience impacts my character’s reactions, perspective, objectives, fortitude, prejudices, and understanding of others.
It was not until I gave the main character of my draft-novel a cold that I finally got to know her. I could better understand her vulnerabilities, desires, and failings when she was full of phlegm. She had put up guards around herself; once she was blowing her nose, these guards fell away. Soon she was crying in front of strangers, letting the grief out of her that had been her central obstacle without my even realizing it. As Virginia Woolf writes in her strange and wonderful essay, “On Being Ill,” “What wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view.”
To give another example, I’ve been struggling for months with a sexist jerk of a character. He’s my story’s villain, but I knew I had to humanize him. As soon as I gave him migraines, constipation from his pain meds, and a child struggling with learning disabilities, he became a stronger character. He was more nuanced and easier to write. I developed a tenderness for him that deepened with each draft until I felt such empathy for him, for the things that had brought him to his objectionable viewpoint, that he is now one of my favorite characters.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that one inflict physical pain or disease on every character. We can write positively from the body as well. We can explore the energy or attitude our character brings to a situation after just having had great sex or an exhilarating run or a cup of chamomile tea. Writing from the body also entails being aware of the privileges and advantages healthy characters have, of how wellness shapes who they are. And, even if a character does have corporeal problems, her issues need not be splattered across a bloody page. They need not be mentioned at all. Merely knowing about them, having walked in the simulator suit, will permit richer characterization and subtext. Still, sometimes we need to shatter our characters to build them. Here’s the hammer; have at it.
Read Maureen's story "Chorionic Villus Sampling with the Virgin Mary."
Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine and a Nonfiction Reader at Indianola Review. Her work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb,(b)OINK, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Timberline Review, and Wigleaf. Find her on Twitter@MaureenLangloss or at maureenlangloss.com.
As with many, this election has established an uncertainty and an imbalance. Why is what I write important? I am not a journalist. I am not explicitly fighting the regime.
Months ago, my approach to this essay was very different. I was defeated. Stories would not come. Sentences reduced to two words and even those words were not very inventive. The one word that echoed was how. How to go on as a human. As an American. As a writer. As an artist. As an ally. As a terrified mother.
I wondered, what can I write now? Is not everything in the political sphere more important? Lives are in upheaval. In writing forums, I see hundreds of writers saying “I can’t write right now.” I myself left for a writing residency directly after the U.S. election and came back with little to show for it but pronounced anxiety.
When we think of historical moments, in particular ones that consisted of great danger and sacrifice, we often think back on art. As Churchill (despite his downfalls) said, if not for art, then what are we fighting for?
I don’t think of the old paper bag, marker-covered history text book or a droning high school history class. I think of novels. Stories. Paintings. Photographs. In short: art. Art transcends. Very rarely do we revisit newspaper articles of the time. What we are left with, in the aftermath of bombs or genocide or the evil yoke of slavery is a canon of emotion built around a framework of facts. It is true novels are not bound to the conventions of fact like journalism is (or should be). But the emotion is purer. For the writer, no piece of art can come with a void of emotion.
I am not only rallying only for fiction. Write your memoir. Your essay. Your piece of creative nonfiction. Your manifesto. A letter to a friend. To your child. To your future self.
Primo Levi did not survive the Holocaust, but his writing did and continues to be read. Khaled Hosseini, Afghan-born writer of The Kite Runner; Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, who wrote the heart-ripping and true Hiroshima Diary; John Lewis’ March series—a graphic nonfiction series based on the civil rights movement; Zora Neale Huston on the inequalities of black women in the early 20th century; Tim O’Brien on Vietnam; Miriam Tlali and Nadine Gordimer on apartheid South Africa; Marjane Satrapi on her experiences in late 1970s Iran.
These writers have contributed art to the world. Though we cannot replicate their tenor, we hear their voices via their writing. And their art has become the thing that makes their experiences and, by extension, the experiences of their time real and accessible to generations now and going forward.
I am not saying I am anywhere near the level of the aforementioned writers. This really isn’t about me anyway. However, of late, I’ve realized that I have dedicated my life to an art that has had the power of a million firearms, but with fewer deaths at the end of its point. I will keep writing. At least for my daughter, and myself.
I still feel overwhelming fear about where the U.S. is headed. But, I have gained an even greater appreciation for those who continue to write in the face of such uncertainty. I love writers. Specific writers. All writers. I mean it. I have glimpsed our seething underbelly and find your words and plots and rising action and climaxes to be things of beauty with which to paint this pocked landscape.
Read Jennifer's story "Just the Air That They Breathe."
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com
Some years ago, I tried to write a novel about the abduction of a female college professor by one of her colleagues. I didn’t really like the story, and the characters—as I look back—were flat and static. I spent almost three years on that book, because I was convinced it was going to make me rich. Provide money for the things I really wanted to write. In other words, I wasted a good chunk of my writing life playing literary lotto.
Eventually, I got smart. I quit.
As an assistant professor in the writing department at a state university, I’m occasionally asked by students how they will know when it’s time to give up on a story or poem. The worst answer—one I’ve heard numerous times from members of the teaching profession—is that you must never give up. Art is struggle, they preach, and unless you’re struggling, you’re not an artist.
Bad advice. Sometimes a writer needs to throw in that proverbial towel, give up the ghost, fling her hands in the air and shout, “Enough!” This is not to say that any talented person should abandon creativity for, say, actuarial work. But often, or at least occasionally, we get off to a false start and the very best thing we can do is recognize it for what it is, and shake ourselves free.
Allow me to offer three quick tips on trying to decide whether or not to turn you back on a writing project. They go from the least to the most important, from “think it over,” to “dump it like a pair of tight-fitting tap shoes.”
1. If a writing group made up of respected peers tells you your piece isn’t working, they’re probably right. Don’t ask them how to fix it; they won’t know. But find out precisely what it is they react negatively to (vague language, an inconsistent protagonist, weak imagery,) and if you can’t revise (or at least justify) the problem satisfactorily, it may be time to move on.
2. Struggle does not always equal art, and writing need not resemble dentistry. If you find that you are not in some way emotionally resurrected by your labors—if you find yourself in a constant state of artistic apathy—don’t expect the reader to be any more involved than you are. Writing should be an escape from the personal miseries of life, even if that’s exactly what you’re writing about.
3. Every piece of writing needs to have “a spine.” It needs to say something important in a fresh and original way. If your main character is passive, if there’s nothing he wants, if she faces no obstacles and makes no choices, if today is just a day like all others, your story has no spine. Ditch it.
I’m not saying it’s desirable to leave a trail of half-written stories as your legacy. But unless you can instill your work with passion and drive, unless you can write the kind of piece you yourself love to read, you’re simple wasting time by making marks on paper.
Read Z.Z.'s short story "My Summer at Camp."
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in Bird's Thumb, New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z. lives in Connecticut where he teaches at Western Connecticut State University.
Just to be clear: I wanted to be a dolphin trainer first. Though, I had suspicions that my compulsory recordings and verbal foam could possibly amount to something, as long as I didn’t outpace myself and prematurely call myself Oz. When you read enough to know what dedicated writing entails, you know that there’s much to lose and fear and drink. It wasn’t until recently that I arranged cutout words and snapshots into a chronological collage that made remote sense to me.
In the beginning, there was music. My father was a tenor who sounded like Rush’s Geddy Lee, and a rooster of a front man, strutting lit-up stages in unnecessarily tight, leather pants. He played in cover bands before meeting my mother, who fancied herself an eccentric songwriter. She wrote songs with my dad while I rolled around in her womb. Everything about her was music; she carried a tambourine in her purse and tied silver bells to the ends of her hair. My parents were amateurs in love who planned to travel the country together making Christian rock music. Life happened, shit happened; they so-called settled down and felt unsettled, declaring bankruptcy the year I was born.
One of my first memories is dancing in my diaper to the sound of an organ, then cymbals, cymbals, cymbals. My dad wore headphones the size of earmuffs and recorded music on a keyboard. Fantasia played on television. My living room had a pool of orange carpet, and I was an angelfish, swirling around the sound and color.
I wanted to be my parents before anything else, even a dolphin trainer. So, I wrote songs and dabbled in piano, barely mastering the point where you play a different rhythm on each hand. I inherited my father’s voice and mother’s writing hands. There is something about singing your own words that makes you feel like a full moon.
My room was a paper palace. I splayed out on the floor and printed my songs on scrapbook paper that I taped to the walls. And of course, there were the journals. Dream journals. Journals I scribbled hearts into and filled with the names of shaggy-haired skater boys who thought I was too loud and wore too much makeup. I dedicated an entire journal to my mother and her deteriorating health. Shortly after she and my father separated, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She began to introduce herself as the sick, single mom with three kids. I wrote about her symptoms, then drowned myself in Spongebob Squarepants re-runs.
Every letter that anyone ever wrote me hung from a rainbow colored string I stuck to the ceiling, and I’d fall asleep listening to the fan and soft brush of dangled secrets, half-dreaming underneath my version of stars. Stars that read: “Hi! You R Awesome.”
In high school, I discovered poetry and a soul sister, whose chest used to turn tomato red every time she read at slams. Speaking of tomatoes, no one aimed them at her because she threw words like sucker punches. When I listened to her, it was like seeing the same ghosts someone else sees. Her bravery encouraged me to share some work I had hoarded in the paper palace. I was an ornery thing in neon orange Converse; poetry to me was all about defiance.
I took a whack at our class’ graduation speech. My toughest English teacher adjusted his glasses and told me it was too negative, that the speech wouldn’t sit well with anyone. I submitted the speech anyway, and a panel of three other English teachers selected my work. It was a hearty victory; the first time I grew the ovaries to defend something I wrote.
I started to choke on my words and toggle with the morality of writing during my early 20s. Studying English literature, but also social work, I learned a little about analyzing people’s demons, the cagey systems we all rattle around in, and that there is a real call to serve the human heart and soul. The trouble was, I didn’t receive the call to social work. Not even a text.
In servitude, you’re supposed to have this infamously thick, scaly skin, but what happens when people’s stories seep into your pores? What if you’re made of feathers?
I keep asking new questions, and that helps. For a while, I’d ask, write, then cower in my desk and wait for something the size of a piano to fall on top of me.
Eventually, I forgave myself for wanting to be a dolphin — I mean a writer — which was when I truly knew I was one.
Sarah Cimarusti is an editor for a plumbing/HVAC publication. She lives in the Chicago burbs with her boyfriend, two rabbits, and a back-sassing green cheek conure named Khaleesi. Her essays have appeared in Jersey Devil Press, Bird’s Thumb, and Bayou Magazine.
Read Sarah's essay "Whoopie Pie."
I am a poet. Over the years I've identified myself, at various times, as student, teacher, mother, lawyer, volunteer, birder, and by other passions and pursuits. When I retired from my law practice I had a list of hobbies and interests I planned to pursue: piano, swimming, bird watching, and, of course, writing poetry. Where I had dabbled, I wanted to achieve proficiency. I had been writing sporadically—short stories, essays, poems —since I was a child, but had never pursued writing as a serious matter. Now it was time for poetry to emerge from its status as clandestine hobby.
I was aware of the proliferation of adult education classes for aging boomers but was hesitant to take a writing class, much less a poetry workshop. Like many who become serious about writing at a later age, I had never studied creative writing in college. There was that nagging anxiety: What if what I've been writing isn't really poetry after all? Did I want to take that risk?
I don't believe that writing is a solitary pursuit. My advice to anyone seeking to redefine yourself as a poet or writer is to seek out a community of writers for inspiration, education, encouragement and support. I've found that it is vital to nourish your writerly soul with the camaraderie of others who love writing.
If you live in or near a metropolitan area, chances are there are writing workshops available to you in non-academic settings. Four years ago, I signed up for my first poetry workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. I took a deep breath and plunged into an "intermediate" poetry workshop. Imagine my relief when my first poem to be workshopped was received, by both instructor and class, with respect, interest and encouragement. Yes, it really was a poem, and it became a much better one after workshopping and revision. I've been hooked on Lighthouse's workshops and the fellowship of other poets ever since.
Poetry is by nature self-revealing, and it brings you closer to those with whom you share it. A poetry workshop is an exceptional way to get to know fellow poets. Your instructors and fellow poets will help you advance your writing skills, give you honest criticism, encourage you to take risks, even to publish and take pride in your successes. And you will do the same for them. As you write, share, workshop, revise and take pride in your work, it will become a crucial part of your identity. You will begin to call yourself a poet.
Lois Levinson is a member of the Poetry Book Project at Lighthouse Writer's Workshop in Denver, Colorado. Her first chapbook, Dancing With Cranes, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Bird's Thumb was the first journal to publish her poetry.
Read Lois' poems "Ephemeral Pond" and "Migrations."
It’s Writer Gospel: “Writing is the loneliest profession.” Picture the writer in her garret, cold and alone, battling against a sheaf of empty pages.
I offer you my Writer Heresy: Horseshit. Writing may be the most collaborative of the artistic modes of expression. The myth of the Solitary Writer holds us back.
While opportunities to collaborate are all around us, still our myths cause us to deny them.
One of my very closest writing tribe, Emily, and I went through a period where almost every word we wrote we exchanged. Not just line-edits and craft comments, but probing give-and-take on intent and meaning and character, dissections of the bones of the work. Several years in, I commented how grateful I was for such a deeply collaborative space in each other’s process.
Her response was quick and definitive. While it was nice for me to comment on her work, it was her work only, and my work was my work only. The end.
On a certain level she was right. Whatever my questions of her work, she answers the questions and makes the decisions. Of course.
But, of course, This, as well: My project as a writer is to tell stories that enable people to reach through their particularized lives to gain reflection on what it is to live among others. While being an individuated human is complicated, we are never doing it alone. If my writing is to express that, it is unnatural to expect to generate that expression from a point of aloneness.
This manifests on multiple levels for me. When I returned to writing after too long, an acquaintance of mine, Maurice, and I started meeting monthly to trade drafts of the (terrible, horrible, no-good) novels we were drafting. We learned from each other. Maurice’s novel was his novel and my novel was my novel, but they would not have been the same had we not engaged in that process.
Two years later, Maurice and I joined a handful of others to form a multi-genre group, the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. We share our newest and rawest work in a trust-filled environment. We discuss intention and process; we share news about conferences and workshops; we put together readings by ourselves and others. We push each other to develop as writers, to further our respective greater projects. My writing would not be what it is without this process.
I’ve also engaged in direct collaboration. A friend of mine with whom I had been in theater in college and had traded (terrible, horrible, no-good) poems with back then, J.Ed., suggested we work together to construct a writing routine. Harkening back to our theater days, we created characters and had them correspond. I would get into character, open an email from his character, read it and respond to it in character. Within three months, our characters improvisationally corresponded a novel-length narrative. Then for seven years J.Ed. and I collaboratively edited and rewrote to turn it into something “finished.”
All of us in collaboration—Maurice, J.Ed., Emily, Terri and my whole Peauxdunque gang and I—talk constantly about this world we’re living in, these conflagrations, about how to process it, and we talk about writing and writers and the greater conversation. Then we go back to our spaces and write. The things we write are our things, but they would not be the same without the part that comes from being together.
Writers collaborate all the time with workshop partners, editors, agents, and partners and spouses. (I tried to collaborate with my cats on this piece, but they wouldn’t let me sit in the chair they were occupying. Cats are not collaborators.)
Truly opening yourself to collaborative possibility requires sublimation of the ego. I owe the respect to the narratives I capture to work them as hard as I can, and to test them against the insights and talents of the writers in my communities.
My work succeeds best when I try to strip it from the thoughts that This is a great idea I’ve had, Dig my rhythm. Embracing collaboration gets me closer. (But it’s not easy. In my direct collaboration with J.Ed., there were loud arguments, me striding around a block while forcefully advocating to J.Ed. on the other end of the phone for my vision—hardly a sublimation of the ego).
Our intentions as writers are targets, aspirations, and as writers we constantly miss the mark. But this is the final way collaboration can aid us. If we are truly in collaboration with each other, then we can hold each other to the path when we stray.
Tad Bartlett’s work has appeared in the Oxford American, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Stockholm Review of Literature, and Bird’s Thumb, among others. He received his MFA from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Tad is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
Read Tad's short story, "Anti-heroically Yours."
Step 1: Know Your Community
Are there existing writing groups in your community? If so, attend them. Give it some time, get to know the group and be a regular if you can. Does the group meet your needs? Are there opportunities for leadership in the existing group? Perhaps you can influence the group to shape it into the right group for you. Or, if necessary, you can create your own group, but then you will be more informed about your competition.
Investigate other clubs where you are likely to find writers, such as book clubs (where there are readers there are often writers!). What genres do people in your community like to read?
When I first moved to Jersey City, I started attending workshops with Jersey City Writers. I attended workshops for a year before I developed a poetry workshop within the larger group with the approval of the co-chairs Rachel Poy and Jim DeAngelis. Even though I only regularly attended this one writing group, which most closely met my needs, I also attended other writing groups in the community such as Jersey City Slam and Wordsmithing, to foster partnerships and see where we could collaborate.
Step 2: Conceptualize the Group
Do your homework about how other writing groups function and think about the choices you will make. One great resource for doing this comes from the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill: 13 Ways of Talking About Writing Groups (nice nod to Wallace Stevens). Will you simply critique each others’ work or will you also do spontaneous writing in the group? What do you do in the event that someone fails to show up on his or her assigned day? Answering these questions allows you to define the scope of your group and decide on logistics. While you will want to consider some of these questions on your own, before you initiate your first meeting, keep in mind some decisions you may want to make with the folks who show up to your meetings. Additionally, sometimes the group will evolve over time.
For example, the first few weeks I organized my poetry group, we workshopped two poems and then had two prompts, but I soon realized that members preferred a bit more time to critique the poems, and only work on one prompt a week.
Step 3: Choose a Venue/Platform
The key word here is partnership. If you are meeting in a physical venue, you will likely have to negotiate terms. If you meet in a cafe or bookstore, are your members buying enough coffee or tea for the owners to justify having you in their space? Can dues of the group support rental of any facilities such as a co-working space? Perhaps a library or community center would be willing to offer their space to your group, but make sure you establish the terms clearly.
I tried a couple places before I found a great partner in Gia Gelato & Café in Jersey City. The owners Debbie and Angela are very supportive of the arts and were happy to allow us space during peak brunch time on Saturdays. In return, we offer them regular business as we purchase food and drinks.
These days, it is also important to consider virtual venues as well. If you are in a more rural community, perhaps this may be a better option for you. In that case, get to know your virtual community and investigate different platforms, such as Basecamp.
Step 4: Advertising and Marketing
There are many ways you can advertise your group, such as social media, local newspapers and community papers, and bulletin boards in libraries, bookstores, and cafes. Try and saturate your community with your campaign so it is hard to miss. Also, try to be creative and think of your audience when you prepare the materials. Are you trying to emphasize the supportive and collaborative nature of your workshop? Or, if you have a strong publication background, perhaps you want to focus on your own education and credentials as a leader of the group.
When I first started my group, I was lucky to already have the larger group to help me advertise a poetry specific workshop. I did not advertise my credentials to lead the group initially, as I did not have as many formal ones when I started and I wanted the group to be collaborative. Now that we are offering occasional workshops on form, I am highlighting my publications and expertise as well as that of the members offering the workshops.
Step 5: Only Connect
Listen to the members who show up to your meetings. Allow them to influence your decisions on how to organize the group, but make sure you are focused on the goals you originally set out for the group.
Step 6: Be Reliable
Whatever your frequency of meetings is, it is important to offer meetings at a regular time and space, or it is likely the group will fade. If I found I couldn't run the group one week, I would invite a regular member who seemed to show leadership a chance to shine. This kept the momentum of the group going, and made the members feel more invested in the success of the group.
Step 7: Be Open to Growth and Feedback
Periodically monitor the group and ask for feedback. What is working in the group? What could be improved? Perhaps the members would like to invite speakers to the group, or they would like to host an open mic to showcase their work. Try not to take anything said personally, and respond in a positive, constructive way to the feedback.
One thing I found in my poetry group is that the members wanted more serious study of the craft of poetry, so I responded by hosting a lesson on line breaks, and also by organizing a series of workshops on form offered by members in the group with different expertise than me.
Sarah T. Jewell is a Jersey City Writers moderator and founder of the weekly Jersey Plums Poetry Workshop. She has published in Bird's Thumb, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Cross Poetry Review. She has a chapbook forthcoming from dancing girl press. She posts weekly poetry prompts at www.stjewell.com.
Read Sarah's poem, A Prayer for Provenance.
Easy Hypnosis for Poets
Sit down and relax. Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re getting sleepy, very sleepy. Your eyes are heavy, so heavy. Your eyes are closing, closing. Your eyes are closed. I’m going to slowly count to three and when I reach three you will open your eyes and read the where, when, and how below. You will then steal poems. You will not stop. Your mission is to be a poet-thief. You will not remember these instructions, only the need and desire for poems. Seek poems. Gather poems. Distribute poems. One…two…THREE...
Where To Steal Your Poems
From every baby you meet
From leaves drifting in slow swirls
From your friends’ dreams
From toenail clippings
From your mom’s button jar
From the rumblings of your tummy
From a spoonful of honey
From the dictionary
From hair in the bathtub drain
From a snow globe that you’ve just shaken
From the sound of rain on the roof of your car in a grocery store parking lot
From bees humming
From pocketfuls of rocks gathered at the beach that you curl your fingers around while looking out the window
When To Steal Your Poems
When the moon is caught in the branches of a tree
When your refrigerator is empty of pickles
When you wake from a dream and your heart is pounding
When someone asks you what you do for a living
When trees are covered in ice and you can see your breath in the air
When chicks peck their way out of eggs in a kindergarten classroom incubator
When you blow out all your birthday candles
When you see a dead deer on the side of the road
When your neighbor sets off Roman candles by the woods at the end of your street
Every time the sun rises and sets, even when you can’t see it
When you read the news and weep
When you’ve lost all hope
When you bleed
How To Steal Your Poems
By walking in a cemetery, studying the headstones, and rubbing your fingertips over the names
By licking an ice cream cone while digging your toes in lakewater mud
By flying a kite and failing, failing, failing until one perfect moment when it lifts and hangs, suspended
By ringing your bicycle bell again and again and again
Through acts of resistance, small and tall
With your heart in your teeth
With open palms
With shoulders heavy with worry, with care
Any way you can.
Georgia Bellas is a writer, artist, and filmmaker. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the award-winning weekly Internet radio show "Mr. Bear's Violet Hour Saloon," on Twitter @MrBearStumpy.
Read Georgia's poem, "I Will Google You Forever."
When I think of writer’s block, I often think of the classic image fed to me by mainstream media: the frustrated novelist, head in hands, surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper. My favorite version is Billy Crystal’s Larry in Throw Momma from the Train who, after spending most of the film trying to complete the opening sentence to his new book (“The night was…humid. Foggy. Dry yet raining…”), is thrown into murderous rage when the titular character disdainfully completes his sentence with “sultry.” The experiences of actual writers have been more complex. Samuel Taylor Coleridge became trapped by the success of his youth and developed a mean opium addiction. In his later years, he bemoaned his inability to craft poetry while still managing to write essay after essay. Mark Twain suffered an eight-year block in the midst of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but finished the book in three months after he gave up on a plot point he had previously considered essential to the story.
In my experience, the blocks and slumps that writers undergo are often as individual as the writer. I have experienced my fair share of slumps—sometimes due to exhaustion from putting most of my creativity into my day job; other times due to unresolved emotion underlying the piece on which I was working. I’ve known other writers who have been unable to escape patterns of past expression; been stymied by the influence of “great” writers; or just living rather than reflecting. I’ve noticed most of these slumps happen not during the initial writing of a poem or story, but rather the editing. Writing is rewriting and it can be a bear.
I am actively in the middle of rewriting a full-length play, several poems, and an essay. Earlier this fall, I also hit a slump. I was tired after a busy spring and summer, it’s true, but most of this slump has come from an unexpected place: current events. The Brexit vote, the campaign season leading up to the US presidential election, the election results, the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, among other things have left me concerned and anxious. After the recent siege of Aleppo, words have been failing me regularly. At the beginning of the year you could find me writing for an hour or two early in the morning. Now, troubled by what incidents might have transpired overnight, I just turn on the computer first thing and click through news websites.
One reliable salve for my feelings of writerly inadequacy traditionally has been to retreat into the world of nature and science. This can be challenging since I live in New York without an easy way to escape the city, but I’ve been able to clear my head in the past by noting the flowering patterns of the plants in the churchyard garden down the street, finding constellations on the occasional clear night, or visiting the deep-sea submersible at the Hall of Science in Flushing. I’ve also created virtual adventures for myself, listening to the “voice” of the planet Neptune recorded by Voyager 2 and marveling at a sculpture controlled by honeybees. Perusing engravings of diatoms has sent me deep-sixing into the teenage version of myself who was awed by the architecture of unicellular marine organisms and the incredible rate of a rabbit’s heartbeat found in my biology books.
The world is still an amazing place, for all its flaws, and its wonders do continue to provide inspiration for my writing. Lately though the first chapter of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has become something of a touchstone. An account of the period after her husband’s sudden passing and during her daughter’s life-threatening illness, she begins that story with the terse four sentences she wrote right after he died while waiting for his dinner. Didion then confesses that for months afterward she wrote nothing other than those sentences. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant…” I read the book a decade ago; more than ever, those terse sentences of hers ring in my head.
Some days I’m able to write; other days I am not. Four sentences. Six paragraphs. Three pages. I’ve stopped counting. I record what I can. If any of my words happen to be beautiful or my musings insightful, wonderful. But I’m not betting on it. For the next few months I anticipate making notes, quoting sources, and occasionally finding solace in marvels like the many ways to map the human brain or the fascinating roles color plays in nature. Whatever happens, I trust that the odd assortment of observations I am collecting—must collect in my notebooks ultimately will enable me to make sense of the events that currently are unfolding.
Catherine Fletcher is a New York-based writer. Recent poetry has appeared in The Offing, New Contrast, and Ekphrastic Review. She previously served as the Director of Poetry Programs for the New York-based organization City Lore. She is currently a fellow at Arizona State University's TWP Science and Religion program.
Read Catherine's poem, "Hot Spots."
When I’d started my MFA, I thought of myself as this infant planet, all compressed carbon and lava and stardust as I solidified my commitment to a creative life. I was done with the 9-to-5 at call centers, pharmacies, and even a bank that was also a café. I was done suppressing the sensitive artist inside. Already in my early thirties, I decided “now or never” was the battle cry, and I went for it. My creativity found a home, and it was never moving out. I filled journals, binders, filing cabinets with writing. Two and a half years in, I began work on a novel–A NOVEL–that would become my graduate thesis–MY GRADUATE THESIS. Then 2014 happened and a new formation of this planet: fatherhood.
Just a week shy of the end of the spring semester, my daughter was born. There was joy. There was crippling fear. Would writing survive this major change? I reached out to a mentor of mine, and she threw me a lifeline.
“Here’s what you’re going to do,” she said. “Whenever you feel scared or overwhelmed, you’re going to write about it–to me. Send me an email that says ‘Dear Megan’ at the top, and just go.” So I did, and her selflessness kept my creativity alive. I was a father, and I was still a writer.
On the night of August 18th, everything changed again. We went to sleep before midnight, my wife just back from her first shift after maternity leave. We were both exhausted from what we thought was going to be the first day of our new normal. Around 4:00 a.m. a raging fire began to devour its way into the kitchen of our third-floor walk-up from the wooden porches at the rear of the building. It was set by an arsonist.
The details are nearly infinite, and they’re permanent. If this were a post about how to survive a house-fire with your family, I could deliver a Time Life commemorative collection of hardbound volumes. As it is not, there are two things I should make clear: We all made it out alive (even the two cats), and that infant planet, already in a state of turbulent change, was knocked clear out of orbit.
I took off a semester from grad school to start laying a foundation back under our young family. Dealing with the insurance process alone was almost a full-time commitment, let alone finding a new home that wasn’t a hotel. I managed to save what little I had of my thesis from my damaged laptop, and when I returned to school in the spring, I practically limped to the finish line.
For the next year and a half, my thesis was all I wrote, all I ever worked on. I stopped being a writer and became some combination of student and survivalist. My writing nook was gone. My books were gone. I even fell away from my usual writers group that I had been with since before grad school. I was all page counts, deadlines, and finding quiet corners in cafes to do this work. The joy of creating faded into this nomadic pursuit of an obsolete plan. The pain was real. The nightly fear of going to sleep with my daughter asleep in another room was mind-altering. The guilt of not seizing every last free minute to write was crushing.
But time went on as it does, and wounds began to slowly heal as they do. The guilt lingered for a while, too, but I’ve gotten better at casting it aside. I give myself permission to stop clinging to the old plan, to be a human and focus on all the important human things. Life doesn’t care about any carefully calculated orbit; it just does its beautiful, random thing. We have to live and deal with whatever gets thrown onto our path. We have to feel it deeply, let it do its damage, survive it. Creativity, like any other form of energy, can’t be destroyed, it can only take different forms. I knew I had to leave myself open to whatever those might be.
I still have long periods of quiet, of waiting, watching, and listening. As life moves forward, between the deep, restful breaths of my sleeping daughter, lava cools, stardust settles, and the sun rises as I sit in my new nook, at my new desk, and settle back into orbit.
Jeff Toth recently earned his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His work has appeared in 3Elements Review, The Vignette Review, and onstage with 2nd Story.
Read Jeff's essay, "Friday, January 31, 1986."
It is certainly a good thing that there is no longer an orthodoxy in contemporary poetry. Anything goes. Formalists new and old browse peaceably on the slopes of Parnassus with nth-generation free versers. The Oulipist lies down with the Slam Poet. No center, no party line: it’s all good. Readers and writers should celebrate what's come to look like a Maoist approach to poetry: let a thousand flowers bloom.
And yet, centerlessness notwithstanding, certain broad commonalities persist. A kind of Average Poem haunts the reviews and quarterlies whose features are familiar to us all. These include a fondness for absurdist juxtapositions, a resonance to nature understood as landscape, a good deal of melancholy weather, and the projection of a central consciousness named I who reflects, generally, on his or her experience with irony or ruefulness or grief. The Average Poem of the moment, that is to say, stands in the long shadow cast by the Confessional Poets of the 1950s and 60s.
The confessional mode is an old and honorable dimension of poetry, as old as the lyric impulse itself. It probably dates from the moment when Sappho saw the man who got her girl, and thought he seemed to be a god. I’ve read a good deal of confessional poetry, and I am not at all interested in writing any. In a way this is regrettable, for I have much to confess: my colorful ethnic childhood, my unreasonably happy second marriage, my intrepid neglected children, the privilege I’ve enjoyed even as a small-time academic to learn and reflect about interesting things in the world outside myself. But I decline to write about myself in part because of a personal distaste for self-display, in part because there are so many other things that interest me more.
Since I began writing poetry, recently and late in life, my subjects have come from lifelong interests in American literature, music, flora, photography, and military history. Many of my poems have been biographical narratives, which I've written, somewhat compulsively, in suites or sequences. There are 23 poems about Ho Chi Minh, president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, seven about legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Kansas City"), eight about General Curtis LeMay, architect of the United States firebombingcampaign against Japanese population centers in the months before Hiroshima. The list goes on.
These poems combine facts about these people with a good deal of invented detail and circumstance. Ho Chi Minh, who in historical fact had worked his passage to London in 1914, then worked as a plongeur in George Escoffier's kitchen at the Ritz, is carried back to that year and city, in my invention, when he listens to "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in Hanoi shortly before his death in 1969. In my Bird's Thumb poem "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1887" Emily Dickinson's brother whom I imagine, perhaps unkindly, as an aristocratic fop who doesn't think much of her talent, diverts himself from grief at her recent death by listing the botanical names of the trees he'd like to see planted on the campus and commons.
Many of my poems explore photographs: Cartier-Bresson's portrait of the very old Ezra Pound, W. Eugene Smith's photograph of Thelonius Monk rehearsing with the Town Hall band. Photographs, I'm sure I surprise no one by saying, are fascinating for the way they combine precision and ambiguity, how they gesture to absent things outside the frame, and make invisible things apparent. And for me at least, photographs carry a special pathos for the way they suggest the irresistible momentum of time and mortality.
A few years ago I finished a suite of seven poems on photographs by or about Allen Ginsberg. The photos I chose include one of Ginsberg in the 1980s sitting on the porch of the house where Jack Kerouac was born, another from the 60s of the poet at the falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, N.J., yet another where Ginsberg talks with Bob Dylan backstage at Princeton's McCarter Theater. These photographs are the occasion to exercise a traditional lyricism—an opportunity to make interesting pictures and sounds. More importantly, the pictures make possible an interrogation of the contradictions in Ginsberg's character: Allen Ginsberg as poet and narcissist, mystic and freak. And like the other poems mentioned here, the Ginsberg poems rigorously exclude anything about me.
I think of what I've been writing as anti-confessional poetry, and I see it as a liberating exercise for the imagination. Writing about oneself seems, by contrast, confining, like going back and forth over the pages of one's own diary. If confessional poetry can be celebrated on the basis of its supposed universality (questionable: is Sexton's or Snodgrass's cri de coeur always in tune with one's own?) then anti-confessional poetry must be valued for its particularity, its exploration of a concrete world beyond the self.
Benjamin Goluboff's collection, Ho Chi Minh: A Speculative Life in Verse, and Other Poems is due out from Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017. Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College. Some of his work can be read at: www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/
Read Benjamin's poem, "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1877"
I am not a writer. The more I have to write about—the more I wish to write it—the more I am not a writer. After my brother’s death last year in deepest winter, I went through his neat, handwritten phone list and started to call people. One or two each day. This served as a break from my phone calling related to the other death duties: the myriad medical creditors, Citgo, Visa, DISH. In both categories of calls, any exchange might make or break my day. I told my friend, a poet, about “Mary from Pick 'n Save” who Steve met in the pet aisle at the grocery store. I didn’t know Mary, but Steve had told me about her. I called her, told her I was Steve’s sister. She asked, “has he died?” We talked nearly an hour: about Steve, about her connection to our home town, about Sheena—Steve’s cat that is now mine. We were saying goodbye; I could hear Mary sniffling, and she said, “one more thing: kiss the cat for me.” My friend said, “you have to write about that.”
At my writing group, each month lacking a new piece of writing to present, I tell stories instead. One such story: about receiving a letter out of the blue, forwarded from the Wisconsin funeral home, from a stranger—a musician who saw Steve’s obituary and felt a kinship. In the letter he asked if he could purchase one of Steve’s CDs. Seeing the effect Steve had even on people who didn’t know him, I was blown away for days. The group tells me, “you should write about that.”
The next summer, I visit the lakeside cottage that Steve had made his home and now we—what remains of our family—are turning back into a summer place. I call Mary again. I have the program from Steve’s memorial for her, can I stop by? She says yes, gives me directions. Mary in turn has something for me and for Sheena, an old toy from the 1940s: a wind-up music box with springs ending in wooden balls attached at the top. Attractive to cats, she says, and the tune is soothing. She tells me that she intended to give it to Steve and didn’t get the chance. I suspect it’s a family heirloom and ask if she really wants to give it away. Yes, she assures me. Next I stop at the gas station convenience store, hoping to meet someone else from Steve’s phone list, “Tracy from BP.” Steve had said she was the first person outside his family that he’d told about his diagnosis. But I strike out; Tracy has moved north. I tell my friend these stories. She says, “you really should write about this.”
Last month I told the writing group that I’d like to meet at my house next time. We usually meet at a coffee shop, but I wanted to have them at my place—in summer, when we can sit on the porch. It took a bit of bravery to make this invitation; I tend to be a nervous host, on my own. Plus, I don’t really have the time (after all, I don’t even have time to write). A week before the meeting, I send out directions. Optimistically, I add, “I may even write something!” As the date approaches, I think about that. These days, much of my time is spent with, or for, my elderly mom, ensconced in assisted living nearby. And I still have not gotten all the tasks of my new life under control since my husband’s death nearly five years ago. Probably never will. Stuff has been happening right and left, and there is no way I will write something. And now, the meeting is today. I spent some of the morning and early afternoon preparing snacks and stowing them in bowls and trays in the fridge. I organized, made notes. Cleared off counters and tables and laid out glasses, napkins, dishes. I was on a schedule, and writing did not appear on the schedule. It was not essential. And then it was 90 minutes before my friends would arrive. I had in my head just an opening line for the blog post I’d committed to write—eventually. The assignment was to “Share your creative process . . . any topic related to writing.” My theme: all the reasons I have for not writing—very good reasons that I cling to—mean simply that I am not a writer. I sat down and started to write.
After a career in technical writing, Sherry Stratton has focused on the subjects closest to her heart. Her work is forthcoming in Punctuate and has been published in the anthology Songs of Ourselves: America’s Interior Landscape (2015), Portage, A Prairie Journal, and elsewhere. Sherry is copy editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal.
Read Sherry's essay Accidental Visitor.