“If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful” by Jacqueline St. Joan
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Jacqueline St. Joan’s story “If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful” takes as its subject a young woman pregnant from rape, a distant time and place, and a life-changing decision. The story is infused with rich historical detail drawn from the author’s research into her own family’s history–research that has inspired a collection in process.
If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful
Jacqueline St. Joan
Glenties, County Donegal, Ireland 1819
I pray I’m not breaking the sacred seal of the confessional to tell you that the townspeople think Nancy Boyle is a bit strange—but lovely. Of course, they don’t say so to her face, as she already has pride aplenty and doesn’t need a drop more. The general opinion is that Nancy’s vanity is due to the sad fact that she is an only child, which is her mother’s sorrow—and now that sorrow is turning to shame, what with Nancy being with child, but unmarried. When Richard Moore confessed to me his willingness to wed Nancy Boyle and take her to America, I asked her parents, Peter and Margaret Boyle, and Nancy herself, to meet me at the rectory. And, later, to join Richard Moore in a cup of tea at their house so we could discuss what was to be done. As the town’s only priest, I knew it was my duty, even though this kind of thing should be the Lord’s doing and not mine.
I plan to say little or nothing at our meeting, and I am a bit late, snapping the horse’s reins as we ride through County Donegal, a vast landscape of stubbly fields where stumps and roots from the old forests are scattered here and there. Cloud formations broad as the fields reflect off frosty lakes, run pink to red in the late winter sunsets; and just before evening, all the colors fade like dried blood. The Boyles’ home at Glenties is more than a hovel but less than a farmhouse. Once inside, I feel a bit trapped with curtains of gray rain closing in, and for a moment I long for a sight into the distance, but the few windows are foggy. Before I take a seat, I make the sign of the cross and bless the house.
“May the Good Lord bless the four corners of this house. Bless the door that opens wide to stranger and to kin. And bless them all who come within.”
“Amen,” says Margaret, getting up from her knees, leaning on her husband’s arm.
The house is a thatched, modest place improved largely by Margaret’s sense of organization and her insistence on cleanliness, as well as Nancy’s pencil sketches that adorn one corner. Peter Boyle, in his fresh white shirt, sits with the young couple, Richard and Nancy, lighting his little clay pipe. Margaret, with her unwashed hair pulled back tightly into a bun the size of a biscuit, stays behind her husband. Nancy is silent in what must be her best dress, moss green and modest, around her neck, a tiny cross from St. Patrick’s Day. Richard, in his common linen shirt, waistcoat, and heavy black boots, is telling Peter about Europe where, four year earlier, he fought with the Irish 44th Regiment in the British Army at Waterloo and then joined the occupation of Paris. Peter interrupts Richard and looks my way.
“Something for a rainy weather, Father?” he asks, already starting to pour from the old jug. Recently Peter has become an old man crippled by life. “Will ya take another drop?” Peter asks Richard. Richard squeezes his lips together and shakes his head. Peter leans forward, craning his thick neck toward the window, wiping the glass with his fingers. His face makes a shadowy reflection, the chair rocks, and he fumbles. “Looking for me hound,” he says. “Did ya see her out the door, Father?”
“I didn’t,” I say.
“That dirty dog is not coming into my house,” insists Margaret, sniffing in Nancy’s direction.
Peter looks at Margaret, who refuses to return his gaze. “Well, it looks like rain, so she’d best be coming in.” He strains to stand, and Richard reaches to steady the old man. Don’t bother,” he says, slapping Richard’s hand away, making light of his injury and its unending pain. “Ox got the best of me . . . long time ago now.”
Margaret sits behind her husband with her needles and patches in her lap. She runs her palm across the handiwork and relaxes back into the chair. Her nose is red from a head cold or from crying, or maybe both. She takes a white handkerchief from her dress pocket and blows her nose. Margaret’s political opinions are well known, and she is not at all sure about this Richard Moore. She does not cater to Irishmen who take up arms for the Protestants to fight Catholics—even Catholics who are French.
“Sure and it must be a mortal sin, Father,” she said to me at the rectory when I mentioned Richard Moore as a husband for Nancy. Margaret is old enough to remember when it used to be hunting season for priests in Donegal and the Holy Mass could only be celebrated in hiding. Once, the English arrested her own kin for not paying their taxes and their tithes. “They were screaming for help to us—we were also the helpless—as they carted them away.” Whenever she tells that story, she cries like the child she was when it happened. Margaret cheered with the others when a landlord was shot after evicting a dozen families. She said it did her heart good to know there were those who opposed the tyrants. And she still can speak what was our own Irish tongue, before it was outlawed by the English and forgotten by the people.
Now Nancy—her only surviving child—first raped by a stranger while she was salmon fishing at Lough Anna and now having to make the devil’s choice—bear a child unwed or marry a traitor like Richard Moore. That’s how Margaret sees it. “God forgive me,” she pleaded to me, “but I pray He takes that child back, so I may have my only daughter again, or I’ll raise that baby for her! Who knows where this fellow might take her—India or Canada or some wild place called Ohio?” Margaret does not want Nancy going away at all, especially not so far away. It will be a kind of death for her, another endless ache. Still, she is a practical woman and knows there is a big problem and a task at hand: to nab a good one for Nancy—quick, before her star fades.
Richard Moore sits, wicker chair by wicker chair, next to Nancy Boyle and the glowing fire. He holds out his cup so Peter can pour the whiskey. Maybe the drink will help with the talking. We say what we do know how to say:
Take another drop?
That’s a fine hound ya got out there.
Oh, it’s not worth a cuckoo’s spittle.
Richard is a tall man, lean and straight-backed with ruddy skin, sandy hair, and soft, lidded, pleading eyes. He is the kind of man who lives in the future—planning, dreaming, saving today for tomorrow, restrained—like a real man should be. He’s a bit of a snob, bragging to me that he understood the “peasant mentality” and all; but, to be fair, Richard’s had lots of experience with it since his return from the British Army—mean looks, challenges to fistfights, dirty names and curses that follow him on the street. It’s another reason he plans to get away—plus the intoxicating idea of being landed. The look he’s giving Nancy says to me it’s more than land he craves. And not just her beauty, he told me in private, but it’s something else in her that he needs.
“Not the way a drunk needs a drink, Father,” he explained, “or the way a child needs a mother, more like a sinner needs a priest.” We laughed about it then. Still, we all agreed that everybody in the room must consent to a marriage and a voyage to America. Richard knows he has the advantage, given Nancy’s condition, but he senses Nancy’s uncertainty and her mother’s outright disdain.
Nancy pours for her mother and herself from a china teapot—chipped and cracked in several places but repaired and painted with delicate bluebells and catmint. Her long black hair is tied up with hemmed strips of cloth she saved from her mother’s old dresses. Several long wavy strands refuse to be confined.
“Our Nancy brewed that tea from chamomile she picked herself,” Peter says, pausing, pointing up at the tied bunches of dried wild plants suspended from the rafters—nettle leaves, dandelion root, calendula flowers, and thyme. “Not a lazy bone in that girl’s body.” He smiles, then looks away, grimacing. The mention of Nancy’s body causes the embarrassing memory of its condition to rise in all our minds. Margaret blushes, but Nancy does not. It is not clear whether Nancy will accept Richard, but her dark eyes shine when she looks into his. It is a bold step for a young woman—to let a man know she will look that directly and deeply.
Peter is at the window with his cane, acting like he’s checking for weather, but we all know knows he’s hoping to catch sight of the dog. He has a chicken bone in his hand.
“That hound ought to be catching her own birds,” Margaret shouts to Peter, which starts her coughing fit. Nancy turns away from her parents’ squabble and faces the raindrops catching on the windowpane and offering their soothing soft sound.
Richard is nodding too much, talking too fast, as he makes his case to Peter, when it’s Margaret he should be convincing.
“Our sergeant saw the broadsheets outside the American Land Office in London, and he told us all about it,” Richard is saying. “Best financial opportunity in history—lots of land for very little money, rich land with water and forests full of deer and game of all sorts. They are wanting people along the Ohio River.” Now his hands and arms spread open and his eyes include us all. “You only have to put a quarter down and build a small cabin within two years, they give you a loan, and it’s yours, on the installment plan. ‘Land is freedom,’” he quotes the land company brochure. To Richard, America is a giant step away from being an Irish cottier and a tiny step closer to becoming gentry.
“I hear there are savages in Ohio,” Peter comments, leaning forward, placing his elbows on his knees for balance, and getting just that much closer to Richard. He is asking the questions he thinks Nancy must be mulling.
“Savages are everywhere,” Richard responds quietly, “like what happened to Nancy.” Everybody knows it was rape, and as it was a stranger who’d done it, and the officials caught him, too, and jailed him quick. The man rushed to confess like a sinner on Good Friday, so they don’t fault Nancy. Still, there is some unwarranted shame, plus nobody knows what will happen to a bastard child like that, God love him. “But you don’t have to worry,” Richard is explaining, “the Americans have fought off most and made treaties with the others. They’re only selling land where the Indians have moved far away.” He pauses, uncertain whether Peter is convinced. Margaret signals to Nancy to pour her another cup and clears her throat to be heard. She does not look up or speak to anyone in particular.
“God punishes those who take land from the ones it truly belongs to—the ones who had it first,” she says. We know she is talking, not about America, but about Ireland.
“I hear there’s a Petition to the British Parliament for Catholic Emancipation,” Richard says, changing the subject.
“Pray God,” she replies, and we all mutter agreement.
“But there’s lots of Irish in America already, so we’ll stick together,” Richard laughs. “They say that’s why they call it O’Hio.” Peter and I chuckle, as expected, but the joke falls flat. “Plus I’m pretty good with a pistol and a musket,” Richard adds, and thunder cracks. Nancy startles at the mix of it—the thunder, the pistol and the musket. She must want his promise of protection.
Richard is from nearby village of Ardara. He and Nancy were childhood sweethearts of a sort as youngsters in school at St. Brendan’s, and, when I asked her, she said she’s always carried what she called “a feeling” about Richard. She did not say just what the feeling was, and I did not ask. His family is respectable—good Catholics and hard workers; they even own cows, pigs, chickens, and goats. In the early days, before the incident with the ox, Peter cut turf with the Richard’s family for the church when it was being built and mixed the limestone too. Margaret tatted lace for the altar cloths and the curtains. Nancy was only three years old when they buried their firstborn son, taken by brain fever, in a tiny grave behind the church, so St. Brendan’s is a place precious to them. Nancy and Richard grew up, and he went away to war. Now Nancy is a grown woman, not one to fancy a man’s pity, but she must wonder who would marry her. What will happen to her? Will she remain a spinster at her wheel in her parents’ home? So when I told them that Richard asked to visit, to ask for her hand, her father said to her at the rectory out loud and clearly before God, “Nancy, I want ya to have a new and better life. Love him,” he said, “and let him love you.”
Peter opens the subject a bit. “Have ya saved enough money for the down payment and all that?”
“I have, sir. Plus enough for the voyage, and the carriage travel, plus the things we’ll need—a one-room cabin to start,” he adds, looking around their one-room cabin. Richard glances at Nancy, and she smiles, looking excited. “We’ll have to work hard and send crops to market to pay for the installments,” he says. Nancy nods her understanding of the hard labor he is asking of her. “But we’ll get land along the river, so we won’t have far to go to market.”
Peter interrupts. “I’d like ya to have all the money before ya go. If you’re wanting to take our girl all the way to Ohio, you’d best have all of it.” Peter’s words draw Richard’s eyes toward him. “I’m afraid there will be no dowry,” he says plainly. “Crops have been few.”
“And the landlord takes most,” adds Margaret, “and the King just keeps placing more and more debt on us.” She pauses when she sees Peter pour himself yet another one. She’s used to counting them, and lets him know it with a side glance. She brags, “Why, Peter used to make horse collars, but no more now that the English replaced ours with their own.” She told me she wonders what ideas Richard picked up from the English while he was in the Army? She wants him to know that her husband is not lazy. She gets up to put on the kettle, turning her back to the fellow who intends to take her Nancy away, and she reaches for a dishtowel so fresh she must have put it out just before he knocked on the door.
“Of course,” says Richard, pouring himself a small one. “None expected. Not in America. A dowry is an old-fashioned idea anyway. And there’s no rush to sail. We can live in Donegal and save for the rest, if that is your wish.”
Nancy is squirming in what Richard is weaving—I imagine her drawing the line of his profile down the center of a page, a kind of a heart-shaped face, a pouty mouth, always a little bit open, and shining light eyes. But what moves him inside, she wonders? She hungers for real contact, not an imitation of it, and she may be terrified, but she looks completely calm. Richard is a handsome, traveled, God-fearing man with some money in his pocket and big dreams. Nancy has dreams herself—to make a home, of course, but she also dreams—she told me—to cross the ocean and find a new place to be, new lakes and skies to draw with her colored pencils, new earth in which to plant seeds she would take with her to this Ohio. Is Richard the best opportunity in history or just another English speculation? Is she a fool to go with a man whose soul she does not know? Or is she the luckiest girl in the county to have Richard Moore at her parents’ hearth asking for her hand?
Nancy is a dreamer. Oh, she does her work—about half, anyway—and then she appears in the woods with her herb bag or by the river or the lake with her fishing net and the pencils and paper she must have. She scrubs floors at the manor and cleans shit houses for the shillings to buy them. But the pictures Nancy draws can break something open inside you. And Richard has not even seen any of them up close. Margaret silently rearranges the baskets and the pans near the stove. Nancy brings her the old teapot and stands close enough to her mother to listen to the rhythm of her breathing, and I realize that Nancy will be homesick for this old woman.
What will Richard say next, to sign off on this contract? He’s not hearing any objection from Margaret; if she feels one, she is keeping it to herself. And Peter is with him. Anyone can sense that. Richard turns to Nancy, who is moving away from her mother and stepping into the corner where her bonnet hangs on a ten-penny nail. There’s a small statue of the Virgin Mary, and Nancy’s sketches are tacked to the wall.
“Come,” Nancy says, gesturing for Richard to take her outstretched hand, and I can imagine her gesturing to him like that through the years, allowing him to be closer and closer. He draws himself up next to her. Margaret looks pleased. She tries to catch Peter’s eye to share their knowing of what Nancy is doing—she’s putting Richard to the test. They trust that Nancy knows how to get to the heart of the matter. Peter opens the door to let the hound in from the cold. There is a quick, electric scent in the air, and then the door shuts. She’s a skinny brown thing and she smells like a barnyard. The dog goes straight to Richard, sniffing his boots suspiciously. Peter upends his cup of whiskey, then limps to add a chunk of peat to the fire. When he stumbles, Margaret is there to catch his arm. There is a shift of light toward evening. Margaret reaches for candles while sheets of rain drench the fields of Donegal, the lake overflows its banks, and the young salmon hide in murky water under a darkened, colorless sky.
Nancy and Richard stand in front of her three drawings, their backs to her parents. Nancy points to her sketch of Lough Anna. It is a large drawing, the size of a side table, and it is tacked to the wall. It shines in silver shadings with such detail that I swear I can see wrens in the distant trees beyond the water’s edge, the flat hills at a distance, the burly cloudbanks of winter. Richard tilts his head, reading the corner date.
How can this drawing be so beautiful when something so terrible happened to her there? There is no trace of pain in it, but neither is it a pretense; it is more like a place that has held so much for so long that it has incorporated all of that into itself.
Nancy watches Richard’s confused response to her work and points to the second sketch. The thick paper is creamy and rectangular. It is a colored drawing of a faceless soldier. Richard’s eyes widen; obviously, he recognizes himself in it. There are no marching lines of young men in their bright stockings and red coats, no fifes and drums. No, none of that. It shows a lonely man sitting on the ground, his back to a wall, his bare head thick with reddish, matted hair and resting in his hands. Bones on bones, muscles on muscles. Against the wall is a musket, and on the ground, a three-cornered hat and an old rucksack. The soldier is crying; he is crippled by war, but will not let it show, and the artist is kind enough to respect that. Richard takes a sharp breath, and I know what he is remembering. He once described to me his pal, Paddy—how he’d abandoned Paddy on the field to die alone—and he is thinking of the stunned eyes of the French soldier who cried out to God, “Mon Dieu,” when Richard’s saber cut open the boy’s guts. Richard doesn’t look at Nancy, who must know all these things that are broken inside him.
Nancy reaches for the last drawing. She removes the slender nail and places the paper in Richard’s trembling hands. It is another black-and-white pencil sketch of a gray, shimmering graveyard where a little girl stands, looking up at her mother, whose face is soaked with tears and whose thin body is heavy with grief. What could be a worse sight for a child to see? And its weight is doubled by being recalled on the page and now tripled in the seeing of it. A single tear appears in the corner of Richard’s eye. Nancy’s gaze follows the tear as it reaches the peak of his cheekbone and falls onto his boot. She bends down, takes the drop with her finger. She places it on her tongue, and drinks his tear.
Richard and Nancy Moore were my great-great-grandparents. This story is part of a collection of short historical fiction I am writing—what I call “family fiction,” as it is based on deep research into my own and my former husband’s ancestry. Richard and Nancy arrived in New York in1825 from New Brunswick, Canada, on the schooner Lady Hunter, accompanying an unnamed girl. With my cousin’s help, we identified and visited the seventy acres in Salineville, Ohio, (about twelve miles west of the Ohio River) that Richard Moore purchased from the US Government as evidenced by a deed signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1831—one year after the Indian Removal Act forced the native people of that area to migrate west of the Mississippi River. Research for this story included a visit to Glenties and Ardara in County Donegal, as well as research in museums, churches, and other historical sites in Ireland. In writing this family fiction, I tried to rely on documented facts, and the rest I had to imagine.
Jacqueline St. Joan is writing a collection of family fiction: short stories based on deep research into her extended family’s ancestry. She is the author of the novel, My Sisters Made of Light (Press 53), a book of poems, What Remains (Turkey Buzzard Press), a letterpress, hand-stitched chapbook, Restitching the Sky, and coeditor of the anthology, Beyond Portia: Women, Law, and Literature in the United States (Northeastern UP). She lives in Denver, Colorado.
“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.
Blurred Words: Weird Al & Colliding Worlds
By Allison Coffelt
If you’d asked me a week ago about Weird Al Yankovic, I would have said it was time to give up the ghost. Weird Al is one of those seminal (artists? singers? comedians?) people whose work has spanned generations. He’s iconic. Most of us under the age of 40 have a Weird Al song they remember from when they were growing up. Maybe it was “Eat It” or “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.”
Weird Al hadn’t been funny to me for a while, but that just changed. Here are three things that drew me back to Weird Al – a sentence I never thought I’d write – and they all have to do with his new video “Word Crimes.”
1. Weird Al: Normalizing my behavior since 2014.
Last Sunday, while sipping coffee, listening to Weekend Edition, and gazing out at the crappy lot of the body shop behind my apartment, Tamara Keith’s interview with Weird Al began. I was reaching to switch the radio (could Weird Al possibly have anything new to say?) when he started talking about correcting grammar. He said he would be driving around, see a road sign, and fix the wording in his head. I, too, do this. When I’ve asked other friends who love words if they slip into this habit, they look at me like I’m sick. I’m not sick. And thanks to Weird Al for being the one to prove it.
Let’s not look too closely at that logic.
2. Your Dad sends you the video.
Another reason you may, like me, need to give Weird Al some credit for his spot-on-ness with this video is when friends and loved ones send you the link: “Literacy’s your mission!” the song says, “There are dancing question marks in the video!” your friend says, “I thought of you immediately!” your dad says.
There’s also a section in the song where Weird Al discusses the Oxford comma, which I dearly love, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says. This viewpoint, I understand, is contentious. If someone thought to send you the video, you probably have your own opinion on the matter and you probably begrudgingly admit that either/either is acceptable.
An added bonus: Weird Al’s word rules make an exception for Prince. As they should.
An added added bonus: You can finally explain what you’re going to do with that English degree. I quote: “You should hire/ some cunning linguist/ to help you distinguish/ what is proper English.”
3. The music video is in kinetic text.
Man, I love the design of this video. Kinetic text, or a fancy way of saying those videos where the text becomes the movie (like ShopVac ), is not only cleverly done in this video, but also fitting. Animated words: how better to show the emphasis on the right syllable?
Well Weird Al, you got me.
Like the terribly catchy beat of that song, the thing I can’t get out of my head now are questions of what is permissible, what is stickler, and how our language —the thing that unites and binds and evolves with us— is changing.
I’ve been thinking about this because the other day at The Missouri Review, we were discussing the role of blogs and social media in the literary world. One person likened blogs and to pop music— they’re fun, fast, digestible, and have a short shelf life. It can be great and it’s its own thing. Literature, we said as we swirled our brandy in embossed snifters, is like classical music. It takes time. But in the weird space that is the internet, these things are colliding, and we’re still figuring out how they feed and harm each other.
I’m fascinated when pop culture concerns itself with words, language, or literature because it’s a collision of the instantaneous and the ancient.
The challenge to offer curated, thoughtful, unrushed content is steep. It takes a lot of resources and time. That doesn’t mean, though, that readers don’t also want something salient, quick, and fun.
I think there’s room for both. Just as we’ve seen a boom in articles-as-lists and computer-generated material (think Buzzfeed and financial market data), we’ve seen an uptick in long-form reporting and the slow reveal of stories (think The Atlantic and Breaking Bad). It’s a trend that’s crossing media sectors, as John Borthwick points out in his recent article on Medium.
So, the question becomes one of sourcing. Who will provide each? Can some outlets provide both? What will be the effect on and for readers? We’re still trying to figure out the answer. I think the experiment where pop and classic cohabitate is worth watching. In some instances, it’s a question of what happens when proper grammar gets a remix.
"Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning"
Writing never comes off in a particularly satisfying way in movies. Or, if it does, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Wonder Boys is one of my favorite films, and it is patently absurd. When Professor Trip (Michael Douglas) tells his colleague Q (Rip Torn) that prize undergraduate student Hannah (Katie Holmes) already has two stories in The Paris Review, I snorted with contempt. Often in films, a writer walks around stewing madly, pacing back and forth, then sits down in front of a Smith Corona typewriter and manically starts pounding the keys (“You’re the man now, dawg!”) until genius is poured out onto the pages of the next Great Novel.
This, of course, rarely happens.
Writing is often staring off into space, usually frowning, for an indefinite amount of time, then writing a single sentence, then looking back up and staring for a while. I probably look pissed off when I’m writing: whatever the word, gesture, sound, and so forth that I’m after might be, it never comes easily. Even in those rare times when I sit down and I’m flying through a scene, there is a thought in the back of my mind that this will all be reshaped and revised and reimagined several times before I’m remotely happy with what is on the page.
The making of art is probably not that interesting to observe. I think Will Self did this once, writing his book in a performance art exhibition where viewers could swing by and watch him working. In film and television, the image is usually the same thing: genius bubbling over like a geyser.
Which is why I found the this past week’s image of Ken Cosgrove, a character from the television show Mad Men, so incredibly charming.
Like so much of Mad Men, when taking a step back, I often think that the show is fairly manipulative, moving from what was a Technicolor exploration of sadness in the 60s to something more like self-satisfied melodrama. Maybe I spend too much time overthinking it. That’s very possible. Anyway, whether or not your fan of the show isn’t really important (digression: favorite shows around TMR are “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” and “My Two Dads”).
Back in season two (roughly four years ago in the timeline of the show) Ken Cosgrove, who seems like the happiest and most easy-going man alive on a show that is drenched in unhappiness, published a very Atlantic Monthly sounding story in, well, Atlantic Monthly: “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” Cosgrove is a minor character on the show, but the writer in me always wondered if he was still writing.
The answer—yes!—finally showed up this week. In the opening scene, Cosgrove is caught by a co-worker sitting down with an editor from Farrar Straus (there wasn’t a “G” yet) about converting his short stories into a novel. Then, at a weekend dinner party with his colleagues and their wives, Cosgrove squirms as his wife heaps praise on him, knowing what comes next: getting upbraided by his boss the following Monday for not keeping his head and heart on his advertising job. Cosgrove promises to give up his secret hobby.
But, then, this. Ken Cosgrove, his wife asleep next to him, sitting in bed in his underwear (even has his black socks still on!), notepad across his knees, a look of dazed concentration on his face as he writes his new story, “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra”:
He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.
I love this. Ken Cosgrove absolutely has to write. It’s like breathing. He can’t quit. He can’t give up writing his stories: he sees them around him all the time, and when they grab him, he has sit up late at night and get it down on paper. Maybe it’s nostalgic, sentimental, trite, whatever. I don’t care. It’s a delightful image to me, a terrific capture of the urge to write. The story sounds pretty terrific, but the masterpiece on the page isn’t what is so wonderful about this moment. It’s not trying to do what so many films and shows push about art-marking, the whole lonely genius angle. This moment is about the need to do it, despite the entire world telling him he shouldn’t. Ken Cosgrove just can’t stop writing.
I’m the same way. I’m guessing many of you are, too.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
On The Recent Semester Teaching Creative Writing
This is finals week of the autumn semester at the University of Missouri, which means it is also the last week I’m teaching my Intro to Fiction Writing class. Today, my students will turn in a revision of one of the two stories they wrote this semester, or a third, brand spankin’ new story. Then we will be done.
I don’t know when I will teach fiction writing again. This is not by choice. I requested English 1510 this semester, was lucky enough to snag it, and was told even then to not expect to receive this course ever again. This is not about because of my ineptitude as a teacher (I hope) but because typically the managing editor teaches English 1000, a freshman composition class. I was told that I was given creative writing only because of how many people were on sabbatical and unavailable. Don’t expect to get again, they said. Well, then!
Since this might be it with teaching creative writing for a while, here are a few things I took away from my class this semester:
–I haven’t read Harry Potter and they haven’t read Moby Dick. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed in a writing class is that the instructor has read more than the students (digression: some of you are thinking “Actually, I know that’s not true” and I’m nodding along glumly). When I was an undergraduate, I often felt embarrassed because my teachers all referred to novels and stories and poems that I had never heard of, and because of this, I not only missed crucial points of their lectures but also felt that I was unqualified to be in their class. Insecurity, and all that. This semester, I’ve usually found that talking about films is the best way of proving a point: there’s a better chance of my students having seen a particular film, and since films are generally narrative like novels and stories, an easy-to-understand analogy could often be drawn between movies and stories when I was trying to demonstrate a point about characterization, point of view, framing, dialogue, setting, and so forth.
In class, I’ve lamented the fact that we need movies to teach us about writing fiction, but perhaps seeing these links isn’t a bad thing at all. We make do with what we got—what good, really, does it do to expound on A Separate Peace or Revolutionary Road or Underworld if my students haven’t read those books?—and it also might, I hope, make us all realize that writing doesn’t live in a vacuum. We’re shaped and formed by our greater culture, not just pop culture, but film, music, painting, sculpture, dance, and the like.
–Be honest about what they write and what they read. This might seem obvious, but too often I’ve had and heard about creative writing teachers cheerleading more than teaching. Hey, if the work isn’t good, how does it benefit the student to think otherwise?
–Style and ideas worry students more than substance. Style is, of course, significantly easier to mimic than substance. Mimicking a minimalist story is pretty easy. Having a surprise ending is pretty straightforward—withhold one crucial bit of information until the last page. This is how we all learn, though, isn’t it? I used to copy Fitzgerald stories in order to learn how he made his sentences dance; I wrote an entire book in response to a Charles Baxter novel. It’s a terrific way to discover that one doesn’t really sound like anyone else: I sound like me, my students sound like themselves.
More than once this semester, a student said “I have an idea for a story! *insert idea here* Do you think that would work?” To which I always answered, “It could. You should write it and find out.” In time, I think they’ll learn that all the bells and whistles on the page can’t cover a story that wholly lacks an emotional core. Perhaps they too already knew it. By now, I hope they definitely know it.
–Grading stories helps. I’ve gone back and forth on this over the years, but I think that I’m generally on the side of putting grades on student stories. I hear you: how can you tell this story is a B+ rather than a C-? My first response to that question is: really? In conversation with every colleague about writing workshops, we know which students are the best writers. This does indicate that there is some criteria, however difficult it might be to articulate, as to why something is “better.”
Students at a university receive these things called grades, and grades, more than anything, get their attention. I wrote a criteria for story grades on my syllabus, explaining why grades are given on their work, and, no, an A story is not perfect or necessarily complete. Grading gives the students an understanding that those elements of fiction I lectured about way back in September are not suggestions, but things that must be considered seriously when constructing a story.
–Stories may not change, but I do. I used a mixture of stories each semester, combining stories I’ve read before and stories I haven’t. Fresh eyes, and fresh stories, are often beneficial to everyone. One good example is Dan Chaon’s “Big Me.” To be honest, I’ve always assigned it because it’s in the textbook and students seem to like it. I’ve always thought the story was competent, just not for me. But this time, for whatever reason, the story really hit me: the duality of the characters, the non-linear construction, the haunting of memory, the way Andy forgets large chunks of his past. What once struck me as pretty straightforward now seemed remarkably complex, tenuously but perfectly held together, sad and funny and strange all at once. None of this would have struck me if I hadn’t assigned it again.
There are others I’ve always thought were good for teaching but I’m not crazy about, and there are others that I adore that never seem to win over my students. And there is always at least one surprise story each semester that resonates with my students when I had expected they would dislike it. Which is always sorta fun to discover.
–Be generous. Two weeks ago, one of my first writing teachers, Melanie Rae Thon, was visiting MU, and I was asked to give the introduction to her reading. I thought of her teaching first, even before her books, since that’s how I first knew her. And what she gave us, always, was her time, her spirit, her belief that our work was worth reading. She was generous. This quality is not easy: there are too many constraints on our time, too many people and tasks pulling at us from all sides. To really be patient with a student’s story, to remember that the writer is still learning, can be easy to forget. Having a visit from one of the teachers who gently nudged me in the direction of the writing life was a nice reminder that beginning writers need, perhaps more than anything, an attentive reader and a pat on the back.
I hope I provided a little bit of both this semester.
Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye
The Summer Launch!
We’re delighted to announce our summer launch party! In celebration of the release of our Summer 2011 issue, Significant Others, we’d like to invite you to join us in sunny downtown Columbia on July 28th at The Bridge, the new live music venue featuring local, regional and national music acts and located within the Columbia Academy of Music. For those of you who like maps and directions and such, The Bridge is at 1020 East Walnut Street. For those of you who don’t like maps, it’s right across the street from Ernie’s. This event is free and open to the public. Get after it!
Our event kicks off at 7 pm, and runs until The Bridge throws us out. Technically, our launch will be “over” at 9 pm, but like our fabulous spring launch, we really just stay hanging out until the doors are closed and the bright lights are thrown on. The Jazz Odyssey hits the stage at 9 pm, and there is a great patio where you can come and meet our entire staff (and, of course, former staff members who are certain to show up and say “Yo!”)
The summer issue has just shipped this week, and should be in your hands soon. The issue includes fiction by Amin Ahma, Tom Barbash, Arna Bontemps Hemenway (yes, that’s his real name, and his story is, believe it or not, even better than his name!), A.R. Rea, and Elisabeth Fairchild’s first published story; nonfiction by Daniel Anderson, Anthony Aycock, and John “Let’s Play Two!” W. Evans; poetry by Diane Seuss, Steve Gehrke, and Peter Jay Shippy; and Patrick Hicks sits down with Brian Turner to talk about the poetry of war.
You can snag copies of the issue at the summer launch. More important is that you come to the launch and have a good time. Like spring. Remember?
We had lots of music. Like seventy five bands. Okay, not that many. But we did have music from Shoreside, Andre and the Giants, Mary and the Giant, and Belligerent, to name just a few. We kept it cool to start off the evening and then got progressive louder. Which is always a good thing.
People rolled in at all times, which is the idea. Show up early, show up fashionably late, it doesn’t matter. You will get this kind of delighted greeting no matter what. And as long as you stay and hang out for a bit, well, what more can we ask?
Here, I’m talking basketball with Jesse Garcia, the owner of Sideshow. I’m a Celtics fan, he’s a Bulls fan. We both had a rough 2011 NBA Playoffs (though on this evening, his Bulls were looking pretty good). Not that this dampened our spirits one iota.
I was asked to get on stage and say something. I have no idea what I said. Basically, it was something like “You guys are the best!” and You Guys all agreed with that sentiment and held their beverages high in the air. Good call.
See? We throw a good party! More photos from our Spring Launch: PERIL are available on our Facebook page; come check ’em out. And don’t forget to come to our Summer Launch. The Bridge, July 28th, 7 pm. We’d love to see you there!
The Writing Strategy
Picking up on this week’s theme of “strategy” as started by new contributor Sara Strong (okay, I’m not sure how the fantastic video of the PERIL launch fits the theme, but, meh, you know …), my sense of planning and organization has been thrown for a bit of a loop. A recent basketball injury has, quite literally, hobbled me, but a major frustration for me has been a sense of my writing schedule being fractured and unfocused.
This is not the same as writer’s block. As I alluded to in previous posts, I do not believe in writer’s block. To me, saying “I’m blocked” is already a failure, a vertiginous spiral of self-loathing and excuses. I have never sat down and thought “I can’t write.” Sure I can. Novel isn’t working? Write a novella. Novella isn’t working? Write a short story. Or a poem. Or a good sentence. Write drivel about what I ate for breakfast that morning. Yesterday I received an email from the good folks at One Story, introducing me to Karl Taro Greenfeld (well, not really “introduced”: TMR has already published two stories by Karl), whose new story “Partisans” is One Story #149. In the email, Karl writes about the best writing advice he ever received, which came from his father:
He told me: all writing makes you a better writer, even writing you don’t want to do or don’t think you should do. He’s a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, journalist who spent much of his life writing movie scripts for money and magazine articles for the checks, and realized that he learned a lot about writing even when he didn’t much like the work he was doing. Sometimes that unwanted work is what makes you better. I’ve found that to be true as well.
I couldn’t agree more. Write something down. The rest follows.
I’m somewhere else right now. I’ve finished my novel, which is in the hands of my agent. After that, I wrote a novella, which is in the disinterested hands of small press editors. After that, I revised some stories. After that, well, that’s where I am now. And I’m working: a new novel, new stories, an essay about basketball that seems to literally have no ending, and the occasional bad limerick. Writing isn’t the problem. The problem for me is that, right now, I feel like I’m not writing anything particular good, even after several weeks of working on, and sticking with, the same piece. The writing just seems to be mediocre at best, as if I’m simply churning out work for the sake of doing so. If I’m not interested in what I’m writing, why would anyone else be interested in it?
This worry has plagued our blog contributors all year long. It’s really quite easy to post a blog; the difficulty is its content and making your words worthy of an audience. In large part, the purpose of a blog is the immediacy of delivery (“publication”?) and efficiency and speed are not qualities to be lightly dismissed. Quality of content, however, is important too, and stressing the need for balance has been a challenge for us all year long. Like all the other contributors to TMR’s blog, I have always leaned pretty heavily on quality over speed, which is only natural for those who call themselves “literary writers” (whatever that means) and rarely, if ever, have a rabid audience waiting with baited breath for our nest post.
(Though, to be fair, if you want to designate yourself our rabid audience, we’re good with that …)
What I’m trying to appreciate is what Karl stressed: all your writing is significant, all of it matters. In last week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the power of borrowed ideas in his essay “Creation Myth.” About two thirds through the essay, he nicely blends psychologist Dean Simonton and the Rolling Stones (really) into ideas about how creativity actually works. “Quality,” Simonton said, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.” Or, as Keith Richards said, the band had so much creativity that they had to slosh their way through so much mediocre work in order to get to the great music that became “Exile on Main Street.”
I love this idea, difficult as it is for me to fully embrace it. Hard work will get our poems, stories, and essays there. More writing will lead to better writing. This is going to be quite a task for me, letting go the question of whether or not my sentences – as I’m writing them down – are good or not, and simply focusing on getting it all down. Not even, really, a question of first or second or third drafts, but believing in the process of writing for the sake of doing the work. Writer’s block? Forget it. Building blocks? Yeah, something like that …
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.
Imagination Failed To Get Me A Job
During a recent round of friendly drinks here in downtown Columbia, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that he didn’t finish college. Or, more accurately, he was upset about the way he is labeled and stereotyped by some people. This is the way he is identified: he is seen as a person that didn’t graduate from college. A dropout, a restless soul, indecisive, or some other dismissive way of viewing his life.
I said, that goes away. Once you get a little bit older, no one really cares how much education you have. Many people I know work in fields that have nothing to do with their college degree. Instead, when I meet someone for the first time, I eventually ask “What do you do?”
What someone does for a living is not, of course, the end all and be all of a person’s character. You don’t get into all the good stuff that makes a person unique in the first five minutes of a conversation (unless you’re talking with one of those people who asks far too personal questions the moment they meet you, but those people freak me out so why talk to them?). Asking about a job is polite. And, a person’s work can be quite revealing.
When you think about it, most of us spend a large chunk of our day working. Five days a week – and more for many of us (or less days but longer hours) – we go somewhere and work. Characters in most novels have jobs, but literature actually about work is not commonplace, though some examples like Joshua Ferris and Ed Park spring to mind. And yet, a large number of stories I’ve recently read coming into TMR make more than just a passing reference to the protagonist’s job, often in a way that seems to be ill-considered. The number one job for protagonists in these not-quite-fully-imagined stories is teacher. Specifically, English teacher at a university.
A quick glance through our archives or work published in many other good literary journals will show that we’ve published plenty of stories and essays about being a teacher. Giving a character such a job doesn’t inherently make the story bad. On the other hand, seeing lines like “Carol’s morning survey class was full of sleepy freshman” makes me stop every single time.
A few years ago, when I was still working at River Styx, we received a ton of stories about the Lazarus. Not the department store or some sort of symbolic narrative (though, this too, would be odd), but stories about the actual Lazarus. Not tons, ultimately – eight or nine at the most – but it came up so frequently that I wondered if I had missed a contemporary literary trend in ironic response to the recycled popularity of vampires and zombies.
These trends come and go; Lazarus didn’t come back the next year (sorry – couldn’t help it). But I still read enough manuscripts that certain choices writers made began to seem very familiar. And the number of stories with a main character working (unhappily, always) as a university English teacher seems to be increasing.
So too does my resistance to these stories.
Usually the professor-protagonist is bitter about his/her indifference to the job, and these are moments that are, I suppose, intended to be something the reader can relate to. I tend to roll my eyes. Everything here becomes familiar, banal, dull. The protagonist becomes paper-thin. A teaching job never makes the protagonist any richer, deeper. It seems to be a default, as if there is no other job that the writer can think of. Rarely do these classroom scenes or lonely office hours of grading bad essays have any true relevance in the story: it simply reinforces the idea that the character is unhappy, which the reader knew from the moment the protagonist’s job was told.
So the protagonist remains flat, lacking depth or complexity, and becoming a type, a wholly expected and overdone cliché. The assumption, it seems, is that this job is universally known to be miserable and unpromising. It is, then, exactly what the reader expects. No surprise or tension here: personally, I stop actively reading and struggle to not skim. This is a terrible feeling, one that I try to resist. But I’ve yet to come across a recent submission with the professor-protagonist that doesn’t make me cringe.
Here’s a leap. Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” is many things: perfection of his minimalist style; an example of excellent dialogue; a snapshot of two people that reveals their entire lifetime; imagery that resonates in its depth and emotion; and of course, being a “teachable” story that often requires an explanation that the young couple is talking about an abortion. But the story’s staying power is in its tragedy: it’s a story about not being able to see the world in metaphor, a story about the crushing of a woman’s imagination.
The failure of imagination should deeply trouble all of us. Looking around the world, seeing the news, it’s hard not to feel as if the dullness of celebrity culture and fame has permeated all aspects of our lives. Lazy mimicry is the default mode not just for political discourse, but in our art as well. In fiction, something feels missing to me in the story of a professor-protagonist: a lack of insight, maturity, feeling, inspiration, I don’t know, something. Usually, as in most things in these stories that don’t quite work, there are still characters, moments, sentences, perhaps even just a clause, that are so striking and so good that I can’t imagine why the author defaulted to such a one-dimensional character like the professor-protagonist. There is something optimistic about creating art, writing stories. So the apparent laziness puzzles me to no end.
I’m sure that not every story needs to get into the protagonist’s job; in fact, I’m positive that isn’t the case. So when employment comes up, I expect it to do quite a bit. In fiction, an architect and a zoologist aren’t the same character; neither are the names Kathryn, Katherine, Kathy, or Kate. Small choices matter tremendously. Simple statements of a job – white collar, blue collar, corporate attorney, truck driver, auto mechanic, house painter, and so on – have meaning. There are no simple statements. There can be no missteps. The professor-protagonist often gets “proven” in these stories with characters and scenes that are so familiar and unimaginative that they become wholly meaningless.
This is not to say that it can’t be done, that the professor-protagonist might have a compelling story. My good friend, the poet Richard Newman, was in a classroom, being told a series of Do’s and Don’ts about writing. He wrote his poem “The Briefcase of Sorrow” (later anthologized in the Best American Poetry series) after coming across this quote from Frances Mayes:
Some writers get into the habit of letting of name a metaphor without really showing the image to the reader: sea of life, mattress of the soul, river of death … or (perhaps worst of all) briefcase of sorrow.
So, I’m playing the curmudgeon role here: no more professor-protagonist stories! Or maybe I’m asking aloud (sorta) for something else: a new, imaginative look at the professor-protagonist. Either way, readers and writers will resist any sort of Do and Don’t list from me. Which, in one way or the other, is exactly what we’re looking for in great fiction.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review
Another Kind of Writing Prompt
As Rob Foreman noted in his excellent post yesterday, National Novel Writing Month – often known as NaNoWriMo – has kicked off. The goal? Finish 50,000 words in thirty days. November seems like a pretty brutal month to pull this off with Thanksgiving thrown in the mix, but there’s probably a road block in every month. And, the idea behind NaNoWriMo is to stop making excuses, such as holiday road blocks involving turkey, family, and football, and just find the energy to write your novel, inspired by a large group of people doing the same thing.
Part of me has a “Who cares?” feeling here. If someone wants to write a novel and needs a contest to get going, well, what difference does that make? On the flip side, this seems to say something insidious about publishing and writing and, perhaps even bigger and messier, the character of the American artist/wannabe celebrity. Many of my thoughts are exactly the same as Nathan Ihara’s, which can be found at MobyLives, the terrific blog by the good folks at Melville House Publishing. The entire post, including the comments are worth reading, but here’s the slam dunk:
Art, in [founder Chris Baty’s] strange formulation, is not something that has much intrinsic value. Rather, it is merely the byproduct of an activity that makes you feel good–the activity known as art-making.
There are similar concerns about the well-known Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the guts of which have been detailed by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington on N+1, a thoughtful examination of how the whole process works and what it all means. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not good.
Most novelists, I would guess, will tell you that writing a novel is hard. Most “winners” of NaNoWriMo will probably tell you the book isn’t done, that it’s just a first draft. And getting from draft one, to two, to three, and on down the line to whatever draft completes the novel is a difficult task, let alone the next steps: finding an agent and/or a publisher, making sure your novel is published rather than merely printed, then promoting your book so that you can get what you want: readers of the hunk of writing that you believe deserves, maybe even demands, to be read in a world filled with endless noise and distraction. Taking the long view, the task is daunting, perhaps even paralyzing to the point of leaving a would-be writer feeling blocked.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. But that’s perhaps a post for another day. Instead, what I take from all the discussion about novel writing month is this: a craving for community.
Writing is a lonely business. If you’re truly devoted to it, you spend several hours every week, and ideally every day, by yourself, working through your story or essay or poem in your head, and writing and rewriting the words, trying to get them just right. This process can be maddening. It can also be misunderstood, mocked, and emotionally wrenching. All that time alone is so that you can find readers, find community, for your work. When you think about it, the whole process of writing, of creating anything in such an isolated way, is a bit strange. Does that mean NaNoWriMo is somehow a better way to write? I doubt it. I think that isolation, regardless of the kind of art you are creating, is a necessary part of the process, one of silence and hard work and time (with large sprinklings of frustration and agony mixed in for flavor). But I do understand why chasing a goal with the help of a large supportive community has such great appeal. So to all those who are trying to write a novel this November, I wish you way more than luck.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.
The Tom Waits Highway
Every morning, I write for a couple of hours, working on various projects: stories, essays, a novel. I don’ t have a particular good reason why I choose one over the other on any given day, but usually, I stick with one thing for a few weeks (or, with a novel, a few months) and then, for no clear reason, I turn to something different, re-reading with a bit of surprise, like seeing an old friend in an unexpected place.
The wonder of what I’m working on, or why I’m working on it, doesn’t concern me a great deal. The important thing to me is that I do it everyday. On weekdays, I have less time, of course, because I need to head over to The Missouri Review offices and get to work. Weekends provide me more time, but I don’t have different plans for Saturdays or Sundays. I just write. There are many, many pieces of advice on how to write, whole books, (thousands of books, actually) but for me it’s just a matter of writing everyda. No big mystery.
This doesn’t work for everyone. Other needs something to get them going, a way of contextualizing the work so that it makes sense. A way to nurture creativity.
So, here’s this interesting video of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, discussing creativity and Tom Waits (the title of this post does have some relevance), among other things. At the beginning of this short talk, Elizabeth acknowledges something a bit scary: she’s probably already had the biggest success she’s going to ever have as a writer. So, now what?
It’s definitely worth your time to watch and found out.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review