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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Today, the Missouri Review presents the fourth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Thomas Swick, whose essay “My Days with the Antimafia” appeared in our Winter 2011 issue. We celebrate with him the publication of his new book The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them.
Travel Writing Before the Writing
I started out as a feature writer at the Trenton Times in my home state of New Jersey. Every week or so I would head out of the newsroom and spend time with someone engaged in work far removed from my own: a woodcutter, a tobacconist, a harness racing driver. I gained entry into specialized worlds and became a short-term expert (and no doubt bore) on a growing number of subjects.
My dream was to become a travel writer, and feature writing seemed the next best thing, providing me with new experiences and insider knowledge, all within a day’s drive of home.
Twelve years later I became a newspaper travel editor and even people who didn’t know me told me I had landed a dream job. But travel writers understand that there is a catch. The nature of our work necessitates that we disobey one of the oldest rules of the game: write what you know. Journalists (with the exception of feature writers) have beats – cops, schools, food, movies – that they develop a deep understanding of over time. The beat of a travel writer is the world, and even cosmopolitan expats who speak a few languages have to start from scratch whenever their passports receive a new stamp.
Thanks to my time as a feature writer, I was already familiar with the repeated cluelessness and inescapable presumptuousness that came with my new profession. But it was the process of feature writing that helped me the most.
The inherent handicap in travel writing – that you’re frequently writing about what you don’t know – is offset by a great advantage, which is that the experience that is to be your subject has yet to take place. When novelists, memoirists, essayists, or poets sit down to write, almost all of the material they will call upon – the vast trove of life experiences – has already been amassed. There is not much they can do at this point – outside of using their imaginations – to make their personal histories more interesting. (Which might explain the number of fictionalized memoirs.) The works of travel writers are also colored by the great grab bag of the past (it’s the fate of anyone with a keyboard), but most of our stories are lived and shaped with the knowledge that they’re going to be put into words. This adds to our feeling of doubt a paradoxical sense of control.
It’s why, when I teach travel writing, it takes me a while to get to the writing. I start by talking about the importance of preparation, which primarily consists of reading: guidebooks, of course, and travel books (though nothing too recent; I don’t want somebody else’s aperçus preempting my own), but also novels, biographies of famous sons and daughters, poems, essays, and maps. Reading about a place, especially reading its literature, gives you atmosphere and insight as well as things to talk about when you get there. I also recommend watching relevant movies, listening to music, studying the language, eating the foods–immersing yourself in the culture as best you can before you leave. Who knows? Your waiter may have an uncle back home who’d like to meet you.
Good preparation is essential to good travel writing. A magazine once sent me to Venice on 24 hours’ notice, thinking, apparently, that an uninformed writer would produce an interesting story. I did get a decent story, but only because I’d purchased a guidebook hours before departure that told of an organization whose meeting I crashed.
It was a four-day visit, so everything was accelerated. A more deliberate approach produces better results: wandering – especially in the first few hours, when everything appears fresh and new – and then sitting, which allows you to observe the people – how they walk, how they dress, how they greet one another – in a way that’s not possible when you’re part of their parade. You can order something if you’re at a café – eating is the easiest and one of the most enjoyable ways to absorb a culture – or take out your notebook, which sometimes has the unintended benefit of improving the service.
After a day or two of observation, you try to participate in the life of the place. This is the most difficult part of a travel writer’s research – people are busy, you may be shy – but the most gratifying when it happens. To that end, you extricate yourself from the tourists’ world – hotels, museums, Lonely-Planet-approved restaurants – and enter that of the locals: concerts, readings, sporting events, church. You hang out in dives. You call up the uncle.
There are writers like Annie Dillard who can arrive in a place and simply by sniffing the air divine its truths. But most of us – even brilliant interpreters of landscape like Jonathan Raban and Colin Thubron – need the help of the people who live there. The more folks you talk to, the more you learn, obviously, yet there are places where meaningful communion with a single inhabitant is all you can get. It’s still better than none at all. That person becomes another character in your story, sometimes the character, taking the spotlight away from you. This need to find a character is a leftover, a gift, from my days as a feature writer; it relieves my stories of the monotony of my voice and peppers them with the words of people who know infinitely more on the subject than I do. I don’t feel it’s sufficient to show readers a place through my eyes only; I need to reveal it through the eyes of its residents, or at the very least one of them.
One of the beauties of travel writing is that the people you meet in the course of your work sometimes become friends. This can happen with subjects of feature stories, but it’s rarer because the dynamic is different, the situation more structured. A feature writer conducts interviews; a travel writer has conversations. Some of them, if you’re lucky, take place in a kitchen where dinner is cooking. A bottle may be open on the table. You are a writer (at least in your mind) in search of a story, but to your new companions you’re a guest, the chosen recipient of their hospitality and warmth. The emotion you feel will inform every word you eventually write.
Thomas Swick was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 1989 to 2008. He has worked in a food hall in London, on a farm in Alsace, and at an English language school in Warsaw, an experience that served as the basis for his first book, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland. His new book, The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them, explores, through personal essays and nonfiction narratives, what he considers the seven fundamental pleasures of travel.
Today, the Missouri Review presents the third installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Jacqueline Kolosov, whose omnibus review “The Novella: Four New Collections” appears in our Winter 2015 issue.
On the Spacious Discipline of the Novella
“What I love about the novella is this: it can have the reduced essence of the short story but with the spacious reach of a novel, like a really compelling old person talking on a wide, open porch. And you can read all of it after dinner before bed.”
–Andre Dubus III
Last week in sunny, polluted Los Angeles, some 10,000 writers converged on the convention center for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. At 4pm on Friday, I found myself on the patio of some upscale commercial hotel talking to Andre Dubus III about getting the ego out of the way in writing, the necessity of empathy for one’s characters (and for each other), wild blueberries, and Toyota’s well-made trucks. Along the way, the conversation turned to his novella collection, Dirty Love, which I reviewed for the Missouri Review in the Spring 2016 issue.
When I asked Andre about the genesis and evolution of that collection, I expected him to tell me that when he sat down to write, he had a sense, very early on in the process, that a piece would evolve into a story or a novel or that jewel, the novella. But what we expect is not necessarily what happens—thank god, right? “Marla” and “The Bartender,” two of the novellas in Dirty Love, grew out of what he called a “failed novel.” In the failed novel, he envisioned a predator character. Marla was to be the predator’s victim (and to an extent she is, given the relationship the novella depicts). The protagonist of “The Bartender” was to be the predator’s father. “So what went wrong?” I asked of those hundreds of pages he shelved and mined over a period of six years. The predator character was forced, Andre said. (And Dubus III can write superlatively terrifying predators as his body of work evidences.) But Marla came alive, as did Robert Doucette, the protagonist of “The Bartender,” and so this economical writer salvaged them from the wreckage of a much larger project. The surprise of Andre’s answer prompted me to rethink and recast a lot of what I’d intended to write about the novella here.
A length of 60 to 120 pages seems to be the most obvious element of the novella. In the words of Henry James, it is amenable to the “idea happily developed” to its own “ideal length.” So a novella has a much tighter focus than a novel. Meaning, it’s about one thing and one to two characters. Place, too, may be circumscribed or unified, and here it’s worth singling out the central sense of place in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the title novella in Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love. In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford approaches the novella form from another angle, focusing on its distinction from the short story. Whereas the story requires restriction and intensity, the novella “may have intense effects but wider implications.”
Those wider implications still require economy. And economy is a form of discipline. I am a poet who also writes prose, both nonfiction and fiction. And I’ve written three novellas, but I only consider one to be truly successful. In“Locks,” I wanted to write about Susan, a woman from a lower middle class background who finds herself “trapped” in her marriage to a man who is raising his much younger brother as his own son. The brother/son has a severe form of Asperger’s, and Susan finds herself in the position of caretaker to this boy. She also has a beautiful, troubled daughter who has become sexually active and recently has had an abortion. Susan’s one “hope,” if I can call the child that, is her eight-year-old daughter, also her husband’s child. This child ultimately pushes a Muslim child off some playground equipment and calls her an ethnic slur she picked up from her father, who has racist ideas. I’ve included the complex family dynamics of “Locks” here in order to demonstrate why this novella, unlike the other two, has been successful. To paraphrase Henry James, Susan’s story—her unfulfilled desires and all the ways in which she’s forced to compromise—is “the one idea [un]happily developed to its own ideal length.” The novella form allows me to explore the lives of the son with Aspergers, the troubled teen, and even the husband, but the reader perceives them in relation to Susan’s experience. In a novel, these characters would need, I think, more breathing room independent of Susan.
I’ll conclude by stepping out of craft and into the economics of the novella form. The August 2013 issue of Forbes includes the article “The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable.” Here, author Isaac Marion, who wrote the best selling Warm Bodies and its prequel novella, The New Hunger, acknowledges the ease with which novellas work in a digital age, not because of the convenience of reading them on a tablet, but because page numbers aren’t visible. “The Old Man and the Sea, Fahrenheit 451…many of our most enduring classics are novellas and would probably be rejected by today’s publishers who are constantly pushing the needle from art toward commerce.” It’s a grim admission, one that turns on the belief that many readers who plunk down $16 for a book measure that book’s value in terms of heft—the length of the reading experience—rather than quality.
Maybe. Although many call the novella the perfect narrative form for the time-pressed digital age, big, fat, contemporary novels like Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, a 608-page contemporary retelling of Hamlet and Oprah’s Book Club selection, do superbly well. A remarkably long novel, by any standards (including the Victorians), is debut novelist Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which took a decade to write and weighs in at 1024 pages. Intriguingly, a seven-part adaptation of the book debuted on the BBC in May 2015. As much as contemporary audiences love their movies, they love their mini-series adaptations (as in the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth). It seems to follow, then, that the on-the-move, harried reader might prefer a novella she can read on her smartphone or tablet. But, given the proper allowance of time, she might choose to curl up with a big fat novel that takes days and days to read. The good news: despite all the other forms vying for our attention, we continue to read.
Jacqueline Kolosov is coeditor of Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres (Rose Metal Press 2015). Her poetic memoir, Motherhood, and the Places Between, won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award selected by W. Ralph Eubanks, and is forthcoming from Stillhouse Press in September. She has published three full-length collections of poetry, too many chapbooks (a form she loves for reasons akin to her love for the novella), and several YA novels. Jacqueline’s stories, poems and essays have appeared in a range of venues including Poetry, The Southern Review, Terrain.org, The Sewanee Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is Professor of English and serves on the creative writing and literature faculty at Texas Tech. Find her at www.jacquelinekolosovreads.com.
For the past few weeks, we have been featuring narrative accounts “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak—the 2015 winners and runners-up in Prose, Poetry, Audio Documentary, and Humor of our Miller Audio Prize. Today we hear from our first-place winner in Audio Documentary, Karen Brown, and our runner-up winner in Poetry, Kai Carlson-Wee. Here is what they have to say about their experiences:
“Winning the Audio Documentary prize was a true honor. Not only was it extremely flattering to be associated with The Missouri Review (we audio producers consider ourselves to be ‘literary’ but it’s nice to borrow legitimacy from the experts), but the contest podcast also provided a great opportunity to have a piece that I labored over — a labor of love, of course –- reach a new audience.”
You can check out Karen’s award-winning piece here.
“I’ve always been a fan of poets who broke the rules, who pushed their work in formal directions away from the limits of the page. You don’t have to dig very deep to find Allen Ginsberg’s famous recording of Howl, Paul Muldoon’s lyrics in a Warren Zevon song, Matthew Dickman’s influence on a Super Bowl commercial, or Claudia Rankine’s recent experiments with poetry video. The Miller Audio Prize is sort of the literary contest equivalent of a rule-breaker: it challenges poets to think outside the box and to remember that, at its deepest root, poetry is an oral form—it is meant to be read out-loud. The brevity, rhythm, attention to sound, all make it more closely related to song than to something defined by a book. Receiving the runner-up slot for the Miller Prize was definitely a huge honor (and the cash didn’t hurt) but what was more significant was the validation that my weird experiments with poetry and music were contributing something of value. I’m not suggesting you submit to this prize for the prize itself, but instead for the joy of hearing your valved voice and the challenge of breaking your poetry free from the page.”
Listen to Kai’s award-winning poetry here!
Want to join them as prize winners? There is one week left to submit to our 2016 Miller Audio Prize! The guidelines are here, and the deadline is March 15th. We can’t wait to listen!
Today, the Missouri Review presents the second installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Dawn S. Davies, whose essay “King of the World” appears in Winter 2015.
Other People’s Truths
Recently, I went on an Otis Taylor bender, playing “Nasty Letter” on repeat and listening to it for hours per day—in my car, on walks, and while cooking or cleaning. I tend to go on toots like that, reading the same book four times in a row, or listening to a single song for a few weeks at a time until I get what I am looking for, usually a slippery vein of truth about life that resonates with me. Something about “Nasty Letter” had become extremely interesting and I was studying its make-up, trying to breathe in the truth of that piece like a fragrance. I had no idea that I was about to receive a nasty letter of my own about one of my essays.
I don’t live in la-la land. I write personal, brutally honest essays about difficult things, so I know everyone won’t like my work. In fact, because I’ve been on a different kind of bender for the past few years, I’ve been writing about things like pedophilia, roadkill, suicidal ideations, death, unsentimental forays into parenting and other types of offenses. Because of the subject matter, I expect some people will strongly oppose my writing, enough to send me nasty letters from time to time. I am confident enough in my skill to not be upset when someone responds negatively, but before I trusted myself as a writer, I worried a lot about being disliked or rejected (mostly by friends and family members who still thought I was a sweetheart), so much so that I wasn’t truly honest when I wrote. Until I snapped out of it, this approach weakened my writing and made it common.
I recently published a longer essay on truth in creative nonfiction, and it seems I’m not finished writing about it, because I think about it often. I look for mini-truths everywhere, however subjective “truth” may seem these days. It’s why I listen to the same song on repeat, or read the same book multiple times. It’s why I look for trends in advertising and and language. It’s why I consider the things people do to be as important as the things they say, since there is so much truth revealed when you study a lie. I can’t stop hoping that glint of truth will always show itself, however briefly, and I am devoted to tracking this in my own writing, and sometimes there is tracking required, as I will initially think I am writing about one thing (my killer dog, for instance) only to find that when the essay is finished, I had been writing about a much more serious, universally truthful thing (in this case, the painful recognition that everything changes without your permission when children grow up and move away).
What are techniques I use that help illuminate truth in an interesting way that goes beyond confession or exposé? How do I write tough stuff with honesty and not make it sound melodramatic or contrived or self-conscious? There is more to it than making sure I am not lying to myself when I write, and no longer giving a rip about what people think of me, though these principles help. One thing I like to do is to match up elements that have no business hanging out together, such as using humor to convey sadness or horror, or using simple language to convey complex ideas, or rubbing medical lingo or formal language awkwardly up against slang. I’m not yet exactly sure why I do this, but I think it is disarming and by “disarming” I mean it removes people’s emotional armor. Reading naked is good, and so is having a laugh when you least expect it.
I also often find myself going visceral. If there is vomit, I say where it lands. If I remember what was in it, I describe the flecks. If I am an idiot and underestimate my dog, and I write about both the horror of the dog repeatedly eating our family pets and my own ignorance at the same time, then I can’t shrink from the horror of the animals getting eaten and there is no way I can make myself look good. It’s bad, but it’s also okay, because it’s real. It also helps to keep the writing from being sentimental. I’m not a fan of sentimental.
I like thinking about technique, but I also believe that intent is important. People read for different reasons, one of which is to connect to truth in the world. I think sometimes people are afraid of facing the truth, and sometimes we are afraid of telling it. Sometimes we read to experience other people doing this for us. Taking an unexpected angle or writing quirky, visceral detail can help a reader trust me, which in turn may help the reader take a part of my truth and somehow make it their own.
People also write for different reasons. I am not wise enough to know what collectively makes all writers tick, but I can tell you what drives my writing. I don’t write to amuse people, though I use humor often. I don’t write to impress people, though positive feedback makes me feel good. I write because I love the truth, even if the truth makes me look bad. I also write because, as a reader, I find other people’s truths to be powerful and illuminating, and sometimes life-changing. Other people’s truths have shocked me, frightened me, blessed me, made me think new things, and have helped me to understand the complex, painful or mysterious elements of life. Other people’s truths have healed me, and I write because I would like to return the favor. In my case, due to my subject matter, the occasional nasty letter is part of the price of honesty. The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.
Dawn S. Davies has an MFA from Florida International University. Her essays have received Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize and notable mention in Best American Essays 2015. Her work can be found in the Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere. You can find out more at dawnsdavies.com
For the next few weeks, we will be featuring narrative accounts “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak—the 2015 winners and runners-up in Prose, Poetry, Audio Documentary, and Humor of our Miller Audio Prize. Today we hear from our first-place winner in Poetry, Kevin McIlvoy, whose narrative of winning this contest transcended beyond the money and good fortune. Here is what he has to say about his experience:
“Winning the Audio Prize in Poetry has been a great encouragement for me as a writer who has given his all to his work for over forty years. In those forty years, what have I learned about making my stories and prose poems? They are manifestations of love that once seemed difficult to welcome; they carry in them the echoes of love that was offered with ease. This prize matters especially to me because the poem I entered is in honor of the remarkable poet, Steve Orlen. Steve was a loving force in the lives of many, many writers. He was a sensitive man. He was a gifted teacher. And this — he was a celebratory person: anyone who heard him formally or informally talk, heard in his voice and manner how genuinely he celebrated our human comedy of coming into life, coming through life, coming to life. If the poem causes generative delight and discovery, if it offers love, it is all due to Steve Orlen.”
Want to join him as one of our prize winners? You can submit to our Miller Audio Contest here. The deadline is March 15th. We can’t wait to listen!