TMR’s Audio Contest
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: Winter 2013
Featuring work by Jennifer Atkinson, Michelle Boisseau, Jonathan Fink, Seth Fried, John Fulton, Jane Gillette, Andrew Mulvania, Nick Neely, Sarah T. Schwab, Kristine Somerville, Daniel Talbott, Alexander Teague and Hal Walling.
Sign up for our newsletter!
TMR on Twitter
- Michael on Sleepless in Seattle; Or, Yes, I Do Know You From Twitter
- Mark Wisniewski on Sleepless in Seattle; Or, Yes, I Do Know You From Twitter
- Mark Wisniewski on Sleepless in Seattle; Or, Yes, I Do Know You From Twitter
- Primerica Review on Writing Beyond Good: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel
- to this info on Literary Animals You Should Read
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
This week your passenger is uber-talented Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy. K. Smith. As a musical base for this particular list I’m using Smith’s most recent volume of work Life on Mars (and, to a lesser extent, her preceding book Duende) along with a recent opportunity I took to see her read. We can definitely work with this.
Life on Mars is an incredibly worthwhile and nuanced work that bears multiple readings, but for dashboard DJing purposes I’m going to boil it down to a handful of convenient (and woefully inadequate) terms. Namely: loss, hope, outer space, social justice & David Bowie. Definitely David Bowie.
Here we go:
1. Joy Division – Disorder
Insanely reductive genre cohabitation allows us to refer to both this song and Bowie’s output between The Man Who Sold The World and Lodger as “70s British Rock”, so at a trivial level there’s that. More importantly this is a jumpy and impassioned tune that it’s impossible to sit still through — perfect energy music. There’s also the appreciation of the cosmos held in common by Smith and Joy Division, as evidenced by the band’s choice to usean image of a pulsar’s radio waves for their album cover. If, against all reason, the song is a bust, you can always have a nice chat about the recent internet hoax involving Bowie supposedly having done a cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart with New Order in the 80s (if only!). P.S. Try not to let the fact that the lyrics reference cars crashing get to you.
2. Janet Jackson – Alright
Crank it. Totally appropriate for either barreling along the freeway unimpeded with the windows down or seat-dancing in an effort to forget your troubles while crawling through rush hour apocalypse. Off Rhythm Nation 1814, undoubtedly the most socially conscious new jack swing album ever recorded, a fact that you can use for cover should anyone question you playing this (at least that’s what I always do…)
3. Madvillain – Shadows of Tomorrow
Much respect to Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, & Mae Jemison, pioneers all. But Sun Ra is the patron saint of African-American space travel. The cryptic, space-obsessed jazz visionary & peace prophet is heavily sampled here musing about time and the harsher realities of our earthly existence. This, layered over an insistent beat while Madlib and his alter-ego Quasimoto trade verses, is the perfect cruising jam to shake out any possible jet lag cobwebs.
4. Parliament – Presence of a Brain
Toggle the cruise control, lean the seat back and let this one take you where it will. The title alone is flattering to any passenger and particularly accurate here. Aside from that, who can disagree with George Clinton? You just don’t argue with a man whose hair has been 83% yarn for three decades.
5. Camaron De La Isla – Al Verte Las Flores Lloran
If you name one of your poetry collections Duende I’m going assume that you’re a fan of, or at least quite amenable to, flamenco music. Even if that’s not the cause it won’t make much of a difference because anyone possessing a beating heart can’t help but get caught up in this tune. The guitar is fierce (RIP Paco De Lucia) and though I personally can only catch bits of what Don Camaron is singing about, there’s no doubt that the manmeans it. Roll down the windows for this one, you’ll need the extra room for the air castanets.
6. Africa HiTech – Light The Way
We’re going to keep going on the Sun Ra/outer space mother ship with this 2011 single. Africa HiTech here uses a much shorter Sun Ra sample and accomplishes the notable feat of crafting an incredibly hopeful and light-filled track from a song titled The Sky is a Sea of Darkness When There is No Sun. Your soul will smile. It was neck and neck between this and another AHt cut from one of their EPs, The Sound of Tomorrow, which is equally appropriate for this drive. If you’re feeling hesitant I say either include both or use this one for the AM and that track for nighttime.
7. Brian Eno – Baby’s On Fire
Most of the Bowie music directly referenced in Life on Mars either just precedes or postdates his full-tilt shiny boots glam phase, but I feel good about dropping this gem here. Truth be told, I first heard it watching the Velvet Goldmine DVD in high school, there with vocals by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. This version preserves the entire legendary guitar solo and, you know, ISN’T voiced by the guy playing Dracula on NBC.
8. Warpaint – Ashes To Ashes
Bowie gets covered a lot. After all the stuff Seu Jorge did for the Life Aquatic soundtrack, and Vanilla Ice’s vivid interpolation of his collaboration with Queen, this is probably my favorite instance of that happening. If you hit traffic while it’s playing you simply won’t mind.
9. The Band – Don’t Do It (2000 Cahoots Outtake Version)
Alternate Take, a poem about art helping to make art, is dedicated to Levon Helm. That, and this song’s intrinsic awesomeness, mean it has to be here. Originally a Marvin Gaye track (courtesy of Motown titans Holland-Dozier-Holland) this was recorded by The Band for the 1972 live release Rock of Ages. I like this shorter/chunkier version from the 2000 re-release of Cahoots more though. (Note: This cut is definitely necessary in the unlikely event that you have to go off-road and cut through an untamed patch of Arkansas back road to make it to dinner).
10. Osvaldo Golijov – Balada/Quiero Arrancarme Los Ojos
I only ever heard this because my library is in the same town as the composer’s house. Modern day opera, steeped in flamenco, presenting the last days of Lorca. Beautiful music. I suggest playing these 2 tracks in sequence (the 1st is very brief). Chills are possible. [Note: The CD is readily available but individual tracks of this are a bit elusive streaming-wise. The above link isn’t for these tracks specifically, but it gives a solid taste.]
11. Cliff Martinez – Will She Come Back
Loss and hope and faith in space? I don’t think we can have this conversation unless you’ve watched Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the Russian sci-fi classic Solaris. It’s the best romance flick I’ve ever seen that also happens to take place in a space station orbiting an alien world that reads & incarnates people’s dreams. Oh man, the whole soundtrack is pretty stunning, but this piece in particular…man. Deep space! Longing! George Clooney! Polish speculative fiction legends! The discussions you can have based on this track alone make it a must-play. Keep in mind though: this is NOT a high-energy tune.
12. David Bowie - Subterraneans
Bowie (as lyricist, inspiration, & public figure) weaves in and out of Life on Mars in ways that are as sorrowful as the demise of his centuries-old vampire inamorato in that movie The Hunger and as joyful as the “Magic Dance” sequence in Labyrinth (if you ignore Jareth’s bulge). When it comes to Bowie classics that you might include on a driving playlist you could curate a whole boxed set if you wanted, but here I’m going with something much more reserved (mournful?) than say Golden Years or Moonage Daydream. The last track on Low, this mostly instrumental cut works best as a closer for when you’re just pulling up to the terminal for the drop-off journey. Not quite “sad”, but definitely final, it provides the perfect sense of an ending.
Like I said, no guarantees, but I think you’re on good footing here. Drive safe and play it loud.
My recent Monday posts have been about my Internship in Publishing class, but this past weekend was the great big AWP Conference, and it seems like it would be a mistake to veer from the past and not write yet another of the thousand (give or take) post-AWP blog posts that will be going up over the next few days. Here are my posts from the last couple of AWP conferences: Boston in 2013, Chicago in 2012, DC in 2011, and Denver in 2010.
So this is Year Five for me with the combination of going to the conference and being a TMR employee. While everyone remarks on each year being bigger and badder (bad meaning good!), it has always seemed gargantuan to me. My first year, I was running around trying to introduce myself to people and figure out what my dual role: emerging writer and managing editor. When I went to Denver, I had only been at TMR for four months and was still getting my feet firmly on the ground with my basic job responsibilities. Now, on my most days, I’m certain of what I’m doing here and I’ve also been fortunate enough to publish my first book of short stories.
Each year, then, there are new and old friends that I want to spend time with, as well as new and old business colleagues that I want to talk shop with, and those two camps frequently overlap. Before I flew out, I sat down and started writing down the names of people I wanted to see, not even sure if they were all going, and within about ten minutes, I had filled an entire sheet of paper. And I knew there was no way I was going to be able to see all of them. This realization made me both happy and sad, and filled me with a certain amount of anxiety about the trip.
It didn’t help that my first AWP interaction in Seattle was awkward when I failed to recognize a fellow writer who I had done a reading with just a few months ago. Ye gods.
Anyway, I still haven’t really processed the trip. Yesterday was a travel whirlwind, and I’m trying to hit the ground running back here at TMR. Reflecting on all the things I learned, what I heard, concerns and complaints and hopes for publishing, plans for TMR in 2014, and so much more, it’s going to take a few days for it to all sink in and give me direction for what’s next. On the whole, though, I’d say the state of publishing and writing and editing, despite all you hear about the Death of Reading, is strong.
Here’s a few more scattered thoughts on my Seattle trip:
The Rejections and The Voice. I spent more time at TMR’s table than I have in past years. We sent fewer people to the conference this year than we have in the past, and I also found it easier to just stay in one place and let writers and editors know via Twitter when I was at the table. Frequently, I took the morning shift in order to let my staff sleep in (plus, I was wide awake at 6 am every day; my body was not a fan of the whole West Coast time zone thing) and I was at the table every day. I believe I was there for about twelve hours total.
Two things kept coming up from our readers. The first was that they really like our rejections. I know: sounds like an odd thing to hear, right? But, as a writer and a veteran of the conference, I get it. We don’t have a magazine without the writers who submit their work to us, and with so many magazines to choose from, why would they send to us? It’s an extension of the idea that VIDA stresses when it comes to publishing work by and about women: you have to let people know they are welcome. Sounds really simple, but it isn’t. And over the years, our staff has done an excellent job of encouraging the writers whose work was discussed as a possible publication, but didn’t ultimately make it into our magazine. We have to let writers know that we value their time, effort, and writing. It was great to hear that we seem to be doing that effectively.
The second thing surprised me a bit: people really love our blog. This is a huge compliment to our social media editor, Alison Balaskovits, who curates all of our platforms. We want our blog to sound like us, but we also want it to be a place where other writers can find a voice; hence, our Working Writers and Literature on Lockdown series. I was thrilled to know that the blog has found a readership. So, you out there: thanks!
RUN AWP might have been the single greatest event in the history of mankind. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. What was RUN AWP? It was a basketball game put on by poet Scott Cunningham, who curates the O, Miami biennial poetry festival produced in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the University of Wynwood, which advances contemporary literature in Miami. He’s a busy dude. He got with Indiana Review and they worked together to find a bunch of poet/hoops junkies to play ball for two hours in the middle of the conference. Open to the public, DJ spinning 90′s hip-hop, and a poetry reading to close: what could be better?
So, I ran with Marc McKee, Ross Gay, and Scott, and we played four-on-four in a quasi fullcourt game. How did we do? We won five straight. I got named co-MVP. I wore a neon green penny. We heard Blackstreet and Montel Jordan. This was such a good time. Getting away from the conference for basketball was the best idea ever. Big thanks to Scott, IR, and everyone else who made this wonderful event happen.
Magic Heckling. I heard more than one version of this story, but it’s an important thing to read. According to Naomi Williams, here’s what happened at Lucy Corin’s panel.
I Know You From Twitter! Though I’ve had a Twitter account since 2011, this was the first year where I felt it was a major part of my conference interaction. I’ve spoken to several people through Twitter in the last twelve months, and it is my preferred method of social media interaction, for a wide range of reasons I won’t get into here. There were people I was looking forward to seeing, many for the first time, who I know only through the Fail Whale.
Naturally, you don’t make fast friends with everyone, and these interactions can be strange. They can also be delightful. Though I definitely had a few “okay, that was weird” moments, on the whole, I loved hearing “You really like basketball, don’t you?” or “I know you from Twitter!” and getting to talk to people, face-to-face, for the first time, for a few minutes. But two moments really stand out.
I got to sit down and have coffee with Ashley Strosnider, a writer in South Carolina, and talk about novels, writing, post-MFA stuff. We didn’t get to talk nearly lone enough, but we definitely had a “hey, this person isn’t insane!” vibe going. The second was late Saturday, when I was sitting in the conference hotel lobby, trying to get my second wind to hang out for the fourth night in a row, and then this happened.
Bonus Moment: What’s up, Kima Jones?!
Eating Alone. Thursday morning, because of jetlag and all that, I was wide awake at four in the morning, and after a failed attempt to fall back asleep, I hopped on Yelp and looked for an inexpensive place to eat breakfast at 6 am. Remarkably few options that early in the morning. Anyway. I found Lola, a restaurant that had a perfect, chill ambiance, and rocked eggs with kale, octopus, beans, onions, and two slices of bread. Food was perfect, but also, the time to ignore all the noise and appreciate the fact that I was a part of this conference at all. It’s far too easy to bitch and complain about the conference rather than notice how amazing it is that the whole thing works at all. Quiet breakfasts are one way I did that this year.
…And With Others. On the other hand, stepping away from the conference with friends to have a meal is also a good thing. And calming. And a way to eat lots of seafood. Thanks and love to Lania Knight, Jessica Rogen, Lydia Ship, and Maura Lammers for talking to me and sitting through my messy eating habits, which include dripping sauce on my sweater, burping loudly, and asking for endless refills of water.
Fifteen Good Minutes. This can’t happen with everyone, but when it does, it means a lot to me. So, to those (off the top of my head) that I got to talk to for a little bit longer than I had any right to expect – Matt Bell, Phong Nguyen, Becky Tuch, Erin Monahan, Daniel Stolar, Amina Gautier, Katie Moulton, Steve Schroeder, Marianne Kunkel, Andrew Ladd, Anca Szilagyi, Stephanie G’Schwind, Liz Prato – thank you. Loved seeing you.
People I Missed. Too many to name or list here. Hey, look, it happens. No one is angry or upset about it (I hope). It’s just the nature of the conference. But after five years, I’m still learning to let it go, and I have a hard time accepting it. I wish I had the chance to see everyone that I wanted to, but the frenetic nature of the weekend prevents all the reunions. If I missed you, I am sorry.
Author Signings Under a Barrel. On Friday, I sat down at the Boulevard table with my friend Jessica Rogen to sign copies of my book. I had eight of ‘em, and didn’t really know what to expect: would anyone come by? Sure enough, Dave Housely and Katherine Hill of Barrelhouse came over to say Yo and get an autograph and a beer koozie. I know them both a little bit, and also got to meet Tom McAlister for the first time at the conference. Remember what I said (see above) about just having that great vibe with some people? That’s them. Wonderful magazine, and better people. It was a joy to see them. And big thanks to everyone who bought a copy of my book! The Dude abides!
When This Is In Minneapolis … Yes, I have said and thought that already. A huge thank you to the entire staff of AWP (especially the volunteers) who made this conference as terrific as it was. I dig the conference. And I can’t wait to go back and do it again.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
“If a book comes from the heart it will contrive to reach other hearts. All art and author craft are of small account to that.”~ Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Last time in Creating Emotional Resonance, I talked about creating relatable characters and about layering in concrete, physical detail. Now let’s explore specificity and tapping into the emotion of a piece while you are writing it.
CREATING EMOTIONAL RESONANCE: The Sequel
The elegant simplicity of director David Lean’s use of sunflowers in Doctor Zhivago and Steven Spielberg’s use of a red coat in Schindler’s List offer us examples of lingering in a moment, and of capturing one perfect detail which, when it reappears later in a story acts as a touchstone, triggering reader emotion. For an entirely different type of inspiration, take a look at Maya Lin’s moving and elegant design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. The unconventional simplicity of the design, polished black granite with lists of the names of the dead, is what gives the memorial its power.
If you’ve ever walked along that wall it’s hard to understand the initial efforts to kill the project dubbed, “a black gash of shame.”
A hush falls on those who come to the wall. Even its strongest detractors have since acknowledged its healing power. The memorial leads visitors on a journey to how we feel about the loss of lives in war. Think about the power of specificity in literally naming that cost. So many names. So many names.
The Power of Specificity
Perhaps the memorial wall inspired Tim O’Brien in the title story in his collection about the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried.” Much of the story is made up of literal lists of items carried by the soldiers. O’Brien uses those lists to place the reader in the war zone, in a Vietnamese jungle alongside Lieutenant Cross, spending, “the last hour of light pretending.”
Those concrete lists, “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches,” which make up the story are carefully interrupted with a few well-chosen abstractions. The magic lies in the words between the lists—”if you screamed, how far would the sound carry?”—but also in the items listed. Knowing “they carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds,” tells us much of what they endured and helps us to experience the soldier’s story-lives.
O’Brien demonstrates an understanding of the power of specific detail when he lists even the weight of the items carried, insuring the reader feels the weight of the soldier’s internal burdens—”unweighed fear,” and “silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” He dispenses these abstract burdens judiciously amongst the concrete—rabbits’ feet and ammunition and toilet paper. It is because we know that Lieutenant Cross carried, “a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds full loaded,” that we are able to accept the truth that he also carried, “the responsibility for the lives of his men.”
We feel the burden of the things they carried. The exhaustive lists work in the same way that the sheer number of names on the memorial wall creates the most moving of statements. Let concrete, physical, specific detail carry the abstractions in your work. Think three-to-one at a minimum—three physical details for every abstraction.
Another moving element of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is that when you gaze upon those many names, the black granite acts as a mirror, reflecting the viewer’s image overlaid with names of the dead.
Mirroring in literature can be used in many ways—the weeping sunflowers in last week’s post mirror Uri Zhivago’s sorrow. ‘Pathetic fallacy’—using weather to mirror the emotion of a scene—is such a common technique it’s difficult to make it feel fresh. Here is another way mirroring can be used to create resonance: Use a secondary character as a mirror in your work, reflecting another character’s emotion, rather than expressing his or her feelings directly. Remember the definition in Part 1 of this post: Resonance is ‘a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another.’
Let me illustrate using this scene from my story “The Bed You Made.” Beau has just slapped the narrator, his girlfriend, who then jumped out of the car:
“You stand back some—well out of reach—while Beau says, eyes downcast, ‘When I was little, my dad told me to never hit girls.’ He picks at the leather lacing of the steering wheel cover. ‘But late at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, my mom would fly into these rages and throw things at Dad. He’d stand there, whispering, “calm down,” begging her to stop.’
He raps the steering wheel so sharply, you jump. ‘She once broke a half-inch thick glass ashtray over his head. Blood was everywhere; they had to replace the carpet. He still has the scar—’ Beau starts to lose it, stops, runs a hand over his face . . .
“You see he’s that scared little boy again, hearing his momma and daddy fight. His pain makes your own heart ache. You climb into the car and hold him and rock him so the brimming over of love inside you will pass through, healing him. You have the power within you to make him whole.”
Since Beau has trouble expressing any emotion other than rage, the narrator carries his true emotion in the scene; she reflects Beau’s heartache. Mirroring is a good technique to show-without-telling what a character is really feeling any time there is a disconnect between those feelings and that character’s actions or demeanor.
“Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” ~ Gordon Lish
Immerse Yourself In The Emotion Of The Story As You Are Writing It
Of all the tools you can employ to imbue your work with emotional resonance, the most important is to personally feel what your characters feel as you write. Your response to your own work is the first indicator of emotional resonance your readers will experience (or lack thereof). I have laughed and raged and cried as I wrote—to the point where I couldn’t see my computer screen. One of the reasons we writers are so damnably difficult to live with is that while the world outside our writing room may be placidly carrying on, we are laughing and crying and wincing and cursing the world we’re creating on the page; there isn’t an ‘off switch’ once we rejoin the real world.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”~ Robert Frost
“If your protagonist cries, your reader doesn’t have to.”~ Gloria Kempton
Frost’s oft-cited truism seems at odds with Kempton’s. But know that 1. Kempton means your reader will experience your character’s emotions more fully if you describe what they do as a result of their sorrow, rather than have them literally shed tears; and 2. having your characters cry tends to dissipate the tension. You want your reader to experience the catharsis, not your characters—be hard on your characters, leave them in pain.
In N. Scott Momady’s Pulitzer-winning novel, House Made Of Dawn, Abel wakes in the pre-dawn hour of a winter’s day to find his grandfather has died:
“There was no wind outside, nor any sound; only a thin chill had come in from the night and it lay like the cold of a cave on the earthen floor.”
He quietly prepares his grandfather’s body in the ceremonial way of his ancestors, then leaves.
“Abel did not return to his grandfather’s house. He walked hurriedly southward along the edge of the town. At the last house he paused and took off his shirt. His body was numb and ached with cold, and he knelt at the mouth of the oven. He reached inside and placed his hands in the frozen crust and rubbed his arms and chest with ashes.”
We feel Abel’s pain without a single word describing how he feels, without a single tear shed.
Experience your character’s pain, your character’s joy, in your imagination, and you’re more likely to put it on the page. Submerging yourself in your character’s experience is like Method Acting—become your characters. Each and all of them, not just your point-of-view character. I know of writers who dye their hair, who wear heavy boots or 19th century corsets—Annie Dillard lived in a cabin without running water or electricity, churning and weaving, and egg gathering, inhabiting the lives of her characters in order to write The Living.
Andre Dubus uses a similar technique he calls ‘vertical writing.’ Rather than moving forward with a story, cranking out pages, he instead feels every sensation his character feels and he writes only what happens in the next story moment (rather than writing what that character feels).
Whether ‘Method’ writing or ‘vertical writing,’ use what you feel when you become your characters to describe what happens in the story and those details will convey the emotion.
Lezlie Laws Couch, writing in The NEA Higher Education Journal, talks about the difficulty of dealing with strong emotions aroused when you write this way. One of her student was struggling to write about caring for her handicapped son. Crouch said the student’s difficulty telling her story came from needing to keep a ‘disconnect,’ because to deal with what she truly felt would take her into ‘dangerous territory.’
“She is angry, she is hurt, she is obsessive, she is tired, and she wants out. And none of these notions fits with her image of the kind of mother she thinks she should be, much less the kind of mother she should write about.”
Are you failing to do your best work because you fear having to ‘go there;’ are you hamstrung with anxiety when things get tense for your protagonist? Writing involves a calculated effort to arrange words so they reach the hearts and minds of readers. The truth is that finding that arrangement will cost you. In order to move readers you must first move yourself.
A couple of suggestions for helping submerge yourself in the emotion of the piece you are writing:
• Even if you don’t read much poetry, seek out examples which stir you and categorize them by the emotion they evoke. Read the appropriate selections before beginning to write. I think it was Maya Angelou who said that poems are like bouillon cubes, images boiled down to their essence. Use the poet’s ability to efficiently evoke emotion to inspire your prose.
• Create an ‘emotion playlist’ from your music catalogue. Sandra Bullock, filming Gravity in a highly un-evocative green-screen environment, and in extended moments of on-screen silence, said she relied on mood music piped in to help her capture the emotion of the scene she was playing. Music is one of the most elemental ways to evoke emotion. While I need complete silence when first drafting a scene, I find that when revising, playing music selected to match the emotion of that scene—scoring my writing like a movie—really helps me tap into the scene.
So to create emotional resonance:
• give us a character we identify with or care about
• layer in the (carefully selected) concrete details
• collect images, experiences, observations, whatever moves you
• remember the power of specificity
• use mirroring to carry the emotion of an unemotional character in a scene
• immerse yourself in your characters experience of story events as you are writing it
And though emotional resonance creates meaning, don’t worry about what your story ‘means’—for either the characters or the reader—while in the flow of writing. Instead, immerse yourself, and therefore your reader, sometimes floating along, at other moments diving deep, and meaning will emerge.
But make no mistake, ‘meaning’ ultimately is crucial. I take on this topic next time in ‘The So-What Factor.’ I leave you now with this bit of wisdom from Lezlie Laws Couch’s essay:
“The writer carries a double-edged sword. One side representing the emotional content of her work, the writer’s willingness to pierce her own heart along with the hearts of her readers. The other side representing craft, and the daily devotion to technique. The writer’s job is to make sure both sides of her instrument are kept clean and sharp.”
Thanks for reading.
Q Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic
There was a day this past January when the temperatures reached the negatives here in mid-Missouri. The insulation plastic was up on my windows, the heat was working hard, and I opened the side door to let my dog outside. She turned to me and gave me a look that said you must be kidding me. There was something in her look that day that recalled the dog in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. In London’s story, the dog reluctantly follows a man on a trek across the Yukon during the Gold Rush in temperatures so low that only a fool would try to make the trip. The man forces the dog ahead even though the dog gives his canine signals that the trip is a very very bad idea and that man has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. London’s dog, just by virtue of being a dog, understands more than the man. And my dog on that day, by virtue of being herself, understood the danger of the weather without listening to warnings from forecasters or watching videos of people hurling boiling water into the air to create snow.
If I were writing this as a fictional account something dramatic would have happened. After letting my dog out in the cold her paws might have frozen to the ice or my furnace would have broken down, but that didn’t happen. She went outside and then came back in and we weathered out the cold together in a nice moderate 64-degree apartment. But, that look on she gave me did get me to consider the power of the animal, and more specifically, literary animals, whose hackles and snouts win me over time and again.
My fondness for literary animals tends towards the heartbreaking variety. These types of creatures make me realize how little I know (and how little the characters know too). But there is some comfort in that, too, in recognizing the intelligence of things that do not speak.*
Here are some of my favorites:
1. Haruki Murikami’s name-stealing monkey in “A Shinagawa Monkey”.
2. The dogs in Mark Doty’s Dog Years are part of the reason that this is the only book that’s ever made me cry.
3. The young tapir at the end of Lydia Millet’s How the Dead Dream plays a pivotal role in the novel’s extraordinary ending.
4. The turtle that struggles to cross the road in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
5. The pack of wolves at the wedding in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.
6. The rabid dog in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
7. Richard Wright’s Native Son opens with Bigger Thomas stalking a rat.
8. It’s bad luck for the obedient dog in Annie Proulx’s Postcards whose owner orders him to stay at the top of a hill and then forgets about him until he’s deserted his home and traveled many miles away.
9. Behemoth, the enormous talking cat in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
10. The ancient collie in Jo Ann Beard’s remarkable essay, “The Fourth State of Matter.”
11. Finally, one of our very own. Stu, the astute German Shepherd in “Explaining Death to a Dog” by Susan Perabo published in The Missouri Review.
*Ok, almost all of these animals don’t speak
This past Tuesday was my class’s first of four Skype conversations with a literary magazine editor. Since we’re in Columbia, Missouri, rather than New York or Chicago, technology is the best way for my students to get exposure to a magazine culture other than The Missouri Review. Last week, we were joined by Karyna McGlynn and Zachary Martin, the managing editor and editor, respectively, of Gulf Coast.
Gulf Coast is the literary magazine based at the University of Houston. The magazine is approximately thirty years old, started by Donald Barthleme, and is currently entirely run by the PhD students at UH. Along with being a true miscellany (publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews), Gulf Coast also has a commitment to visual art, and the magazine will always publish two visual artists. GC is biannual, thicker than TMR, and has a current cover that has created a polarizing response.
Why did I want my class to talk to Gulf Coast? First, I wanted them to speak to Karyna. I make sure that several editors that my class speaks to our women; in the past semesters, my class has Skyped with Andrea Martucci (formerly of Ploughshares), Roxane Gay (PANK), Cara Adams (formerly of Southern Review), Stephanie G’Schwind (Colorado Review), Sophie Beck (The Normal School), Marianne Kunkel (Prairie Schooner) and Halimah Marcus (Electric Literature). Second, I wanted to speak to a magazine run by students. Third, Karyna is a poet, giving my students a chance to ask questions about the writing life.
I can’t publicly repeat anything that Karyna told the class. One of the things I promise the editors that Skype with my class is that their conversation remains private. Not that she divulged any amazing secrets, like, you know, Mary Gaitskill is actually a Soviet spy or anything like that (besides: everyone already knows that …) but when I tell our virtual visitors that they can speak to our class off the record, I mean it.
Each of my students prepared three questions in advance. These questions could be on any topic relevant to writing, publishing, or editing. I set up a projector and laptop, so my students can see my screen (and, consequently, Karyna) easily on a pull-down screen; the disadvantage is that Karyna can only see the person directly in front of the monitor. For the first thirty minutes, unfortunately for Karyna, that was me. The next thirty minutes, I turn it over to the students to ask their questions. With fourteen students in the class, there isn’t enough time to ask forty-two questions; further, what they want to know, what they might ask, shifts based on my dialogue with Karyna. It’s a little awkward waiting for someone to get in the chair, but, hey, the setup isn’t perfect. The whole thing takes an hour, though we were chatty and ran over by about fifteen minutes. Karyna and Zach didn’t seem to mind.
One of the exciting things is also one of the scariest things about publishing: there are no rules. When I say “publishing” here, I mean all of it: writer, editor, publisher, and even non-profit work (say, the wonderful Arizona Poetry Center). Many of my students, if they are honest, only have a vague idea of what they want to do. And, in universities now, humanities students desire a specific road map (do this, then do this, then do this…) to get where they are going. While saying so may reveal big dreams and lots of ego—say, being a famous writer with Big Important Books that Say Something, or being a New York editor with a corner office in Manhattan that looks like something out of a Nora Ephron movie—having those wishes is a good thing. Aim big, and all that. So it’s important for TMR to point out how different that imagined landscape is from reality.
With publishing becoming such a diverse field, and the opportunities going in so many different directions, one of the things I hope to offer that will be useful to everyone is exposure. Getting access to these four editors, seeing what a magazine other than TMR looks like from the inside, should be, in theory, beneficial. We’ll see how it all turns out.
p.s. Yes, I know the image at the top of this post is Eminem not Max Headroom, but, listen, I already make tons of pop culture references from the 80s and 90s that my students don’t understand. Throw me a bone here, okay?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye