Monday, November 29, 2010

A Funeral in Clay, New York

A funeral will be held Wednesday for Jenni Lyn Watson, a resident of Clay, NY who disappeared November 19 and whose body was found a week later, dumped behind a storage shed four miles from her house. Her ex-boyfriend is being charged with murder.

Jenni was one of three or four women who were killed November 19 in the United States by intimate partners. Since her death ten days ago another 30 or more have died or disappeared.

The narrative surrounding her death is a familiar one. And Watson’s murderer, Steven Peiper, fits a very typical profile of a controlling partner, a boy who called and texted her continually when she was not in sight, who limited her contact with friends and family. One photograph has appeared in the media of Peiper, a thin wide-eyed young man with the terror of being photographed for a mug shot evident in his face.

But the narrative that is being built in the media will not focus on Peiper. It will focus on Jenni; the tragedy of Jenni Watson’s death as an unavoidable, random loss. It will not focus on her murder as part of an epidemic of violence that is well documented, well studied, and has well known root causes, among them the killer’s exposure to a pervasive attitude of misogyny and a culture in which women are devalued.

Jenni Watson has already been described in several newstories as “pretty.” Photographs of her in a bikini on a beach, dressed as an angel in a spaghetti straps and cardboard wings, hugging a teddy bear, and practicing ballet have all accompanied stories of her disappearance and murder. The practice of describing rape and murder victims as “pretty” and “attractive” has been going on for a very long time. Joan Didion wrote incisively about it two decades ago in the essay “Sentimental Journeys,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books in the early 90s and is still one of the better pieces about how rape is covered in American media. Part of Didion’s piece focuses on written descriptions of victims, surreal in their neo-pornographic or overtly racist and classist content. Descriptions, like the ones of Jenni Watson, that reduce the victim to a series of symbols, that convey a kind of subtextual propaganda.

Today with the aid of facebook and flickr, we have access to intimate and casual photographs of victims. And these inevitably become a crowd sourced beauty contest. Nearly without exception, every online story about a woman’s death, sexual assault or disappearance that is accompanied by a photograph, is also accompanied by commentary from readers with sentiments like “She’s hot!” or “I’d do her.”

Why don’t we see full body pictures of men who are kidnapped or murdered? When a high school or college boy is assaulted why don’t the stories run with several pictures of the victim wearing a bathing suit? Dressed for prom? Standing shirtless with a group of friends? Trying to look sexy and charming for a photo their girlfriend took in better times?

A person’s gender determines whether or not we will see them partially naked after they have been sexually assaulted or killed. Their body offered up for titillation, and excitement. Their body offered up, without their consent as a public curiosity, just as it was in life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Enjoy the Bounty: Tension Makes for Good Writing

Your brother-in-law just got back from a tour in Afghanistan. Your cousin is fighting anorexia. Your grandfather drinks too much. You can't stop cleaning the house. Your mother wants to buy the pies from the grocery store this year instead of making them (what's up with that?). And, your father's bad back is making him cranky.

Yee-haw! Are you ready for all these players to arrive for Thanksgiving--not to mention all the other upcoming family get-togethers in 2010? If you're not gathering with family, you're likely gathering with friends. And, regardless of the specifics, there's probably a healthy doe of dysfunction and stress to go around when any large group of people get together to give thanks or celebrate.

What's excellent for us as writers is that we can use any tense conversations, wacky behaviors, and Black Friday adventures as material. Notice the way Aunt Becky neurotically touches her hair all evening. Burn to memory the way Cousin Crystal picks longingly around her mash potatoes while her brother shovels rolls down his gullet.

What better place and opportunity to observe and process tension than in a room full of vivid characters you know better than anyone else? You certainly don't have to divulge your family secrets or begin a memoir here: just practice your craft of noticing detail and describing conflict.

The scene is set, the characters are in place: let the story begin!

(Happy Thanksgiving!)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Q & A with Katherine Gehan, Fiction Reader Here at Our Stories

Katherine Gehan earned her MFA in fiction from Emerson College and her BA in English from Haverford College. The first short story she remembers writing was about a man who washed up on the shore of an island he would later discover was heaven. She was eight at the time. And had she spent any time revising it, she's sure it would now be a best-selling pamphlet in Sunday Schools across the country. Katherine has played the flute at Carnegie Hall, lived in cities as varied as Vienna and Indianapolis, climbed mountains and raced in triathlons, given IQ tests to over 200 twins, and worked in higher educational publishing for over ten years. For the last four years she's put her creative energy towards procreating rather than writing, but she's now getting enough sleep to begin her first novel and polish up some stories. 

Q: Could you tell us something about the life of a writer who is also a parent? What strategies have you found for getting in that precious writing time, and how does raising another human being change a writer?

A: Well, I'm sad to report that I have failed miserably at being a writer while my children are very young. But I will say that the rich dream-life of pregnancy, the sheer mind-bending experience of sleep deprivation, and the roller coaster of nearly-adolescent-like hormones that come with procreating do provide an amazing set of experiences for a writer. I've felt emotionally raw—nearly skinless at times—and in that state stories come to me in waves, but I've frustratingly missed the opportunity to write much down. If you're not knee deep in explosive diapers or praying for a long nap, you're tip-toeing around narcissistic, OCD toddlers with horrid tempers. Once you are a parent you are no longer captain of your own ship.

All is not lost though. Now that my children are a little older (2 and 4 yrs) I'm able to find more time—I don't pass out at 8 pm anymore, and I can prioritize an hour here or there to write during the week. In the end, it's what we all know as writers: If you don't schedule the time and sit down and do it, it's just not going to happen. 

Raising human beings, or being solely responsible for any other person, can force a huge shift in perspective. Every day, and sometimes every hour, I am forced to face my own selfishness and vanity. I tap into levels of patience and creativity I didn't realize I had, and, as trite as it sounds, buried memories of my own childhood resurface and teach me things about my own parents and siblings. Parenthood also connects me with my community and the larger world in new ways. I care more about the future for all of us. All of this makes me a better person and a more sympathetic writer who is able to see the big picture. 

Q: Could you also get into your own writing process? How do you approach your work, and what kind of characters haunt you?

A: I find inspiration in everyday situations, like conversations I overhear at the gas station or  story lines in the news. I'm a runner, and over the years have trained for several half-marathons. On my long runs, I delve into characters or work out plot lines. There's a meditative quality to running that gives me silence and mental space—away from everything else—to ask questions of characters and their problems. Then, when I have the time, I write down what's been accumulating in my head for an hour or so. (You may wonder why I'm not writing during the time I'm running since I'm so strapped for time as it is. The answer is this: running keeps me functional in all parts of my life—without it, there's no writing, really, because I turn into a basket case.) 

I'm haunted by characters who throw themselves down wells. Ultimately, they own their flaws and make their own choices, but sometimes bad luck or circumstances have pushed them to the edge. I want to pull them out, or at the very least, give them a view of a blue sky when they look up.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving Clint Swank

Before and during the times when I was working as a reporter upstate I worked as a bartender in a town that had no traffic light and a population of 1,800. The bar had a kind of derelict hominess, was frequented by old time musicians, Viet Nam Vets, families with young children, professors and a surprising number of know-it-all drop outs, rural hipsters, and the under-employed.

I took this job because it paid vastly more money than I was earning working as a managing editor of a literary arts journal. My shift began at four and I would pick my son up from second grade on the way to the bar and bring him with me. He would help me open. Turn on the taps, bring bottles up from the basement, set silverware out on tables, and then stand on a milk crate next to me, leaning his elbows on the bar as the first of the regulars rolled in. At seven-years-old he could make a martini, a cuba libra, and a white Russian, while keeping up a pretty decent banter about the mars rover and pirates.

His father would pick him up on his way home from work around five thirty, and I would spend the rest of the evening pouring drinks, then go home smelling like cigarettes and bleach and kiss my sleeping boy goodnight.

One of the regulars who would arrive early and leave at closing time was a guy named Clint Swank. I didn’t make that name up. A jazz musician who could have been anywhere between forty-eight and ninety-years-old. He chain smoked camels, talked about physics, literature and religion and sat in the bar all night arguing and laughing. I had never once seen him sober and I contributed greatly to his “delicate condition.” Despite this he was still one of the more lucid regulars I dealt with. Low on the conspiracy theories, not fond of academic jargon or bucolic sentimentality, had never killed a guy or a deer and was always in a good mood.

“Why the fuck is someone like you bartending?” He asked me one horribly rainy Sunday evening while we were watching the news together and drinking Guinness in the empty bar, and I was dying to go home to my kid.

“To support my family.” I told him. “Obviously.”

“What a fucking load of shit,” he said. “A person like you goes to law school if they want to support a family they don’t hang out with a bunch of drunks at a dive out in the country. Don’t fucking kid yourself. If you really loved your kid you’d get a real job.”

“What the hell are you doing out here?” I asked him.

“Now you’re getting it,” he said, fixing me with a look of profound recognition. And started laughing.

As if to further illustrate this cautionary tale Clint moved into an apartment above the bar, took a job cleaning the bar and spent all of his time drunk in the bar.

It was like watching a monk set himself on fire. And it made me take up writing fiction with a seriousness I hadn’t before experienced; eventually getting a fellowship that enabled me to stay home with my kid, where we read The Odyssey and Treasure Island, built a pyramid for a dead goldfish and did not learn any more cocktail recipes until he was headed off to college.

The one thing everyone had always been able to agree on, even people whom he mocked and irritated, was that Clint was a monster talent. But now he could barely play. Things weren’t going so well for the man, though he too got to stay home a lot. He’d lost weight, looked a wreck and was in and out of the hospital.

“It’s all fine with me,” he said, rolling a cigarette with shaking hands on a bench outside the bar. “I’d be happy to die doing something I love.”

Eventually he was sent to a year-long rehab program and returned a remarkably clear eyed and foul mouthed Buddhist. He got new teeth and good health and went back to giving music lessons. “But it would have been okay either way,” he said to me later sitting on a bench outside the coffee shop. “I’m not caught up in the material world. You of all people should know that.”

As Thanksgiving approaches my thoughts turn to Clint and I’m grateful. Grateful that he called me out and told me to get a job. Advice that would have meant nothing coming from a parent or teacher but from a gifted self-saboteur was absolutely chilling. Grateful for his stories and for his being a monumental pain in the ass to the right people. But most of all I am very grateful that he is alive and playing.

For some of us, it wouldn’t have been okay either way. Happy Thanksgiving Clint Swank, rogue professor of life beyond lost causes. I raise my glass of water to you!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Q & A with Joseph Nalbone, Future Initiatives Director Here at Our Stories

Joseph Nalbone is from rural northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up exploring  the little piece of the Appalacian mountains outside his family's back door. He eventually went off to study computer science and psychology and worked at the local Knight-Ridder owned newspaper as a systems administrator. Remarkably, working closely with writers and editors left him with a good impression of the field.  He currently works as an Instructional Designer at Wilkes University. He earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes with a collection of science fiction stories.  His MFA academic paper looked at how  the psychology of mindfulness provides a new perspective on a writer's goal, specifically that state John Gardner described as the "vivid and continuous dream." The internship here at Our Stories will complete his MFA.

Q: A lot of us love John Gardner here, so I'd like to ask: what are your thoughts on his writing about writing?

A: My experience with John Gardner 's writing is through The Art of Fiction. It was the first book on writing I read and today at nearly thirty years old feels like a faded classic. Looking at it again I wonder how many beginning writers it put on indefinite hold with its abundance of musts. The writer "must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel;", and then again on the very next page, "The writer's characters must stand before us in a wonderful clarity…" Virtually every page contains a directive writers cannot ignore. I wonder now if this is a good way to encourage creative writing or if in fact it discourages any sort of experimentation. I didn't dive into writing short stories after reading it many years ago. I filled journals with my anxieties, but never wrote stories. To be fair, Gardner could be trusted to never steer you wrong, his book just reads like a term paper. Seriously though, his labored, academic discussions on aesthetics, truth, and metafiction were engrossing, but now seem joyless exercises written to please the trolls that inhabit English departments. Everything is dutifully compared and contrasted with a least three supporting examples because, well, it would come back as incomplete.  I picked up my little red hardback "How Fiction Works" by James Wood, after pushing through Gardner a second time to refresh my memory, and find it all the more exciting in its optimism about a writer's choices. Still, Gardner managed to say important things about writing that have stuck with me. He clearly had a comprehensive knowledge of the craft that probably worked better in workshops than in book form. Today, I enjoy reading Charles Baxter's essays on writing.

Q: And what is your own process of writing; in particular, how do you go about capturing your own "vivid and continuous dream"?

A: My writing process isn't something I can approach directly, like cooking dinner. Well, maybe no one approaches it that directly, but I don't outline or anything. It's more mysterious than that, but don't mean to imply glamorous. When other writers talk about their methods, I'm completely captivated. It's like watching travel shows on TV. I want to visit their part of the world. Seriously, though, for me the whole business of writing is fraught with emotion: bewildering, frustrating, agonizing emotion. It's like reliving every failure, every embarrassing moment, every disappointment I've ever had while sitting quietly at my desk. If getting it right didn't feel as good as it does, I wouldn't continue. I've made some progress during my MFA in Creating Writing. I found I work best if I put myself into a state of euphoria where I love whatever comes out on paper, ignoring the clunky writing. Of course the problem is I hate looking at my first attempts to find a scene or character, so I let myself become enthusiastic to the point of silly to get past the harshness. It's really not a workable method. I revise my writing pretty quickly. I cannot go on for pages and then read it the next day for revision – at least not yet. I'd like to develop that habit. One important discovery I've made along the way is where some writers fill me with awe others inspire me to write. There's something important in that trait, of coming away wanting to write a story, that I need to uncover. These last few weeks being away from writing, unforgivable according to many writers, I recall what a highly productive author said about writer's block. It's simply a lack of confidence. From this distance that sounds great, I just have one emotion to deal with.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kseniya Melnik "The Witch" plus interview ~ Granta

Appearing in Granta, Kseniya Melnik's story "The Witch" follows Alina, whose migraines have become so terrible the family has run out of options.

On various levels and through different characters, questions about sickness in relation to the body arise, creating a wonderfully original, vivid, and moving piece.

Kseniya also answers questions about writing in English and Russian (her first language) at the end of the story. Her insight to writing, submitting to journals, and teaching all make this a must-read.

Check it out!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

news ...

A surreal tale I wrote about a kid fleeing crooked cops in central China was recently printed in The Medulla Review: Volume 1.

Congrats to the work Jennifer Hollie Bowles invested in getting the thing formatted and available.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

With a Bandana Rolled Over our Eyes we Strike with a Heavy Stick to Knock the Piñata Down (or Roadblocks)

Editor’s Essay
Alexis E Santí

WE START OFF OUR STORIES WITH VAGUE NOTIONS. We think things like, I’d like to set a story right before WWI in a German training camp. Or something like, I remember my mother crawling into bed with me and crying after she had a fight with my father. The trailer at the movie theater reminds me of the last time I saw my sister alive. That’s usually how it starts. A vague notion where you decide that the way you see the world means something. We all do this. I don’t care whether you have your MFA or you’ve never written a story before. We all capture moments in our lives that we believe are significant, that a we believe—for one reason or another—that there is a story behind what we saw in our mind’s eye.

For some reason, us descendants of Sisyphus; the writers of poetry and prose, decided that writing things down would be where we got our kicks. Other people become stand up comedians, others become painters, or musicians, sculptors—you catch my drift, all of us artist types are telling stories. However, the true laborers (in my opinion) are the writers, the ones that metaphorically put pen to paper, hands to the keyboard, index finger to the iPhone—drift caught. We set off, deciding with sure-fire audacity, “I’m going to write that down.” And just like that we're spun arond three times fast, dizzy and confused and start off. With a bandana rolled over our eyes we strike out with a heavy stick to knock the piñata down. To nail that damn story with our big stick so that we can be rid of it.

The truth is when we start writing—be honest here, folks—when we start writing we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We start imagining things that include the setting and try to picture the world these characters we’re trying to sketch out. We use our senses and try to sniff things out, we reach our hands into the grass and feel, we’re served some deep dish and taste what the story has to serve us. We are truly lost. All we have is the vague notion that the story is out there, somewhere. So we lurch forward, taking our wild swings at a story, trying fitfully to get at what is encased inside that stupid flimsy paper mache so that we can have it spill all over the page.

What I notice is that often (with us emerging writers) is that we make choices that can corrupt the process of telling the story. We make really bad choices through no fault of our own we do this. And when I say us I include me in the process, I know I do this. Show of hands, who does this—see that’s a lot of people out there! The reason we do this merits an essay by itself but simply put: we make bad choices because we believe the artistic process should not be “messed with”. First thought, best thought, drift thrown again and drift caught? It’s like we believe that the original idea for our story is this perfect little ET alien that we gotta let sit in our closet and not talk about. Ignore it and it'll be cool. I mean, just let that weird dookie looking thing chill and let us tell the story in whatever way we want, cause homie, if you mess with it too much it’ll just disappear, get sick and stuff. The story will die if I talk about it! I am here to tell you the following: bullshit. You have to look at what choices you make in telling your story, you have to have a moment in your creative process where that pencil pusher devil on your left shoulder gets a chance to add some things up. You gotta do the math for a second and see if it totals out. Because, folks, hear me out already, if you don’t take a moment and reflect you will have wasted your talents on a story that is DOA: Dead On Arrival. I know that’s cold. I know. I know. But I’m giving it to you straight. Let me give you some examples that I recently saw. The details have been changed to protect the author’s original idea.

I read a brilliant short story this quarter about a kindergartner who takes her homework and burns it in a bathroom. It was hilarious at every turn but since the story was told from a first person present (from the 5 year old’s voice) it was entirely incoherent for me to understand what was actually happening. Next, I read a very compelling story about three cowboys who were stuck in the middle of the desert surrounded by coyotes. The trouble with this story is that the story was told by a third person narrator that sounded so academic that I thought I was in Cambridge and not in the Mojave. And finally, if my point is still not clear, I read a story about a woman who had attempted suicide but since the story was told in the first person past tense it became boring, since I knew she was alive and well, reciting the manuscript.

Now, with that being said, I am not saying that these can’t be done. Seriously, it can all be done—it’s just that if you start off on the wrong ways you have to write to a level that is sheer brilliance. So, for example, about the suicide attempt, there is the potential that the story can be amazing. However, the writer has to make the voice of the character so interesting, so incredibly beautiful that we are horrified that they would ever want to take their life. It’s always possible to tell that story but it takes, I’d say, 10 times the work. In the end, take a breather instead.

Now, the very hard part of the job as editor at Our Stories is reading these stories that are brilliant, smart, and hilarious—yet—have an enormous logic flaw inside of them. There is literally no worse news I can give a writer when this occurs. The only thing the writer can do is revise from the very foundation. Not good. This is not the sort of feedback I relish in giving. In fact, I almost wish I did not see it at all and I could just tell them that their plot needed “work”. If only other journals gave that little, right comrades? I digress.

Let me get to my point. Here’s the deal, Power Rangers, when you first start writing your story—somewhere after you get that brilliant epiphany that gave you the idea of your story and before you write the second page of what you believe is the “the best story you’ve ever written.” you need to pause. Take a breather. Get up out of your chair and stretch. Go outside. Have a smoke. Have two smokes while no one is looking. Then, before you walk back inside to your computer ask yourself whether you’re handling the story in the right way. Think about whether if you changed the story to a past tense whether it’d be better. Decide whether the voice of your 1st person narrator is someone who your audience would like to spend the fifteen pages with. Analyze whether your 3rd person narrationo is up to snuff. And if you have doubts then it’s not too late. You haven’t taken too much time out of your life to look back at that point.

I think before the second page is the perfect time to question these things. At that point you can still write the story in two, three different ways. I remember Richard Bausch would tell us examples of novelists that would write hundreds of pages in one or two ways and then decide which they liked better. You can at least take a couple pages and work this out. I know it’s a lot like asking a bull to stop bucking, like a bird to stop flapping, like a duck to stop . . . drift caught again, bing! What I’m saying is to just take a moment before you make a mistake that ends up throwing all of these roadblocks in front of you where they’re not needed. You owe it to yourself to open up the closest, spank that dookie headed ET and see what they say—don’t worry, you can throw them back in the closet when you’re done getting what you need.

Okay. That’s it for now. Enjoy the Fall 2010 issue, I love all of the stories we published this quarter, they all show us something beautiful. We’ll be back when there’s snow on the ground and we’ve found our third annual Richard Bausch Short Story prize. For those of you applying to MFA programs good luck. Write well.