Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Contests: Part 1, Getting Started

IMG-3562Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.

Why Submit

Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:

  • Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
  • Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
  • Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
  • One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
  • Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
  • Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.

Knowing When a Piece is Ready

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:

  • It has successfully undergone an editorial review
  • Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
  • You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
  • Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
  • You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.

Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing

You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
  • Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
  • Think categorically:
    • Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
    • Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
  • Consider your subject matter.
  • Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
  • Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
  • Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).

Vetting Journals and Contests

While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:

  • The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
  • A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
  • The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
  • The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.

If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.

While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:

  • Your read the publication and like it.
  • You admire the work it offers.
  • It promotes its writers.
  • Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
  • There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
  • If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.

Next Steps

If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.

Time to share a Summer-themed poem

 Please read the guidelines before submitting

 Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.

  Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.

 Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.

Please send your submission to angeldec24@hotmail.com

Please put (early or late) Summer/your last name in the subject line.

Please do not just send a poem, please write a few lines of hello.

Please do not have all caps in the title of your poem.

Please no more than 45 lines per poem.

Please use single spaced lines.

Please remember, we welcome previously published poems.

Please put your name, City/State, and email address under your poem.  If you do not, only your name will appear.  No Zip codes.

Please send your poem in the body of an email.  Please do not send in an attachment.

 We look forward to reading your Summer submissions…

 Let’s all take this Garden Challenge.

 Send us your 3 best poems of your love of gardening…

 Please no more than three, following the same guidelines as above.

 Please put Garden Challenge/your last name in the subject line of your email and send to angeldec24@hotmail.com 

 Please send Summer haiku

 

 

 

Advertisements

My Writing Dreams

A few days ago, fellow W.O.W blogger and friend, Charlene Jimenez, and I decided we could boost our writing morale by composing posts detailing our wildest (but hopefully not out of reach) writing dreams. Charlene posted hers yesterday, so check out her writing goals, too!

Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!

November, 2018

dreams-2
My whippet balls up close as I work on my novel late last fall. In my writing dreams, I get to do this every day. And someone pays me for it.

After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.

“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye For Now last year.”

Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.

“I’m listening,” I tell her.

“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.

“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.

But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.

“And there’s more,” she breathes.

What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?

Terry Gross wants to schedule an interview with you on NPR‘s Fresh Air!”

It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.

January, 2020

(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)

Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.

And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.

dreams
The sunrise over Lake Huron, as viewed from the breakwater in Lexington, Michigan, in August 2015. In my writing dreams, I get to spend a couple weeks each summer writing and reading along these shores.
dreams-4
A view of the sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I often walk my dogs. If my writing dreams come true, this is another place I would spend days at a time reading and writing–and getting paid for both.
dreams-3
The Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, just before it opens up into the Chesapeake Bay, as photographed this July. In my writing dreams, I get to spend weeks on this beach, or nearby, reading and writing and walking my dogs.

Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.

April, 2034

My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.

“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.

The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.

“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.

“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.

July, 2090

A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages  with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.

“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.

“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”

“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”

“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”

“It was made into a movie and everything.”

“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”

My great grandnephew smiles.

“Okay,” he says.

As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.

“Hey,” she says, “don’t you like to write, too?”

May all our writing dreams come true!

 

 

Word of the Week: Lacuna

Once again, I’m early with this week’s Word of the Week post, in an effort not to miss it. Sunday, will again be a travel day for me, as I will be coming home from my last trip of summer break, which ends on Monday, making this week’s word, “lacuna,” a fairly appropriate one.

As a teacher, I often field the question: What do you do all summer?–an implication that surely, with a two-month lacuna in the demands of my job, I will get bored. I can assure you, that is never a concern.

I came across the word “lacuna” in the novel I am (still) currently reading, 2666. Merriam-Webster’s simple definition of the word is “a gap or blank space in something: a missing part.” The full definition also includes “a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure.” Dictionary.com expands the definition to a third possibility: “an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.” “Lacuna” can also be applied to music, denoting an extended silence in a piece. I think my favorite definition for the word is probably the most general: “an unfilled space or interval; a gap,” which is the result of a simple Google search of the word (another result of said search being that The Lacuna is also a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, in case you’re interested).

This definition appeals to me for two reasons. One: Its broadness allows for the word’s application to so many spheres–music, language, work, manuscripts and texts, career, romance, physical landscape, memory, sleep–there could be a “lacuna” in practically anything. Two: My summer break is a kind of lacuna–a hiatus from the harried day-to-day of late August through mid June, when my days begin at 4:45 in the morning and often don’t end until long past my point of exhaustion.

And although “lacuna” denotes a sort of emptiness, a something missing, I can honestly say that my summer days are jam-packed–just not with stress and work and duties. My summer was indeed a lacuna in the daily grind, but was in no way devoid of activity. So, to answer the question with which we began: What did I do with my summer break–how did I fill that seeming lacuna? Here’s the short list:

  1. Visited family in Florida twice.

  2. Visited family in Michigan.

  3. Traveled to Pennsylvania twice, once for a family reunion and once to see a friend.

  4. Visited family in the Outer Banks twice.

  5. Worked on my novel in various capacities.

  6. Submitted pieces of my writing to various publications.

  7. Worked on lesson plans for the upcoming school year.

  8. Completed a course to become a certified life coach.

  9. Read two novels (still working on the third).

  10. Traveled to the Northern Neck a handful of times.

  11. Took my dogs on really long walks every morning.

  12. Spent bonus time with my local family.

  13. Went to the river a few times.

  14. Laid out in the sun.

  15. Threw a Summer Solstice Potluck Party.

  16. Kept my house marginally cleaner.

  17. Continued to maintain this lovely little blog.

  18. Attended a professional development session during which I created a class website.

  19. Took naps.

  20. Grew food.

I’ll stop there. I’m quite sure you get the point: Even my lacuna was full!

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week:

Glebe

Otiose

Apricate

 

My Take on 2666 (so far)

At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.

One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.

IMG_8247
I most recently found time to read Roberto Bolano’s novel, 2666, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan.

A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.

On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.

“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.

‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’

‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”

Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.

While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:

“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.

“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”

I just love Espinoza’s response.

A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:

“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).

Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.

In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.

I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”

Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).

Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).

When it comes to Beaches and Books, Never Give Up

Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.

Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.

After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.

I slowed to a stop.

“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”

A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.

“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.

Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.

When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.

As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.

“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.

Or at least what was left of it.

The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.

IMG_8070
After their short stroll on Vir Mar Beach, the pup dogs wait patiently for me to share my lunch, a picnic-on-the-beach-turned-picnic-in-the-parked-car.

I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.

As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.

“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.

Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.

Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.

Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.

FullSizeRender-9
Lauren’s celebratory selfie: We finally reached the beach!

By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.

While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.

The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.

My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.

Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.

IMG_8081.jpg
Our efforts were rewarded with an hour of this scene, enjoying the view from Virginia, standing on the shores of the Potomac River where it meets the Chesapeake Bay.

Word of the Week: Otiose

Some of you might have noticed that lately, I have been a bit remiss in my Sunday Word of the Week posts. After all, three weeks have drifted by without a single new vocabulary word to satisfy your lexical cravings. I hope you’ll accept my apologies, especially because my inspiration for this week’s Word of the Week stems directly from my seemingly lax attitude.

This week’s Word of the Week is “otiose.” Dictionary.com defines the word first as “being at leisure; idle; indolent.” The second definition is “ineffective or futile.” The final is “superfluous or useless.” I certainly hope my behavior doesn’t qualify for the second or third definition, but I must admit it might be a good candidate for the first one.

Merriam-Webster.com places “otiose” in the bottom 50% of word popularity, and defines it as “producing no useful result” (guilty–at least in terms of Word of the Week posts); “being at leisure” (I plead the Fifth); and “lacking use or effect” (innocent–I’ve been doing lots of useful things… They just haven’t included my weekly vocabulary posts).

I suppose at the very least I could provide you an explanation for my otiose behavior. I am sure once you see the photographs below, you’ll not only completely understand, but also completely forgive, my slacking. (Though in all honesty, I can’t promise I won’t relapse in weeks to come, at least now and again.)

IMG_7446
I failed to compose a July 10 Word of the Week post because I succeeded in spending several hours playing with a friend, my sister, her husband, my niece, and my nephew in the sun, sand, and surf in Florida. So, yes–it’s safe to say I was “at leisure; idle” that day.
IMG_7699
I was nowhere to be found in the virtual world on July 17 because I was busy splashing around in the crisp (okay–freezing…!) waters of the Youghiogheny River Gorge in Ohiopyle (say it out loud; it’s fun) State Park in Pennsylvania with my sisters, their husbands and children, and my husband.

Now, for the first time in weeks, you have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

apricate

sessile

fustilarian

 

Word of the Week: Apricate

The word “apricate” seems like an apt one for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, when many of us will celebrate our nation’s independence by, among other festivities, heading to the beach (at least in my neck of the woods). In fact, I seized an opportunity to apricate yesterday–I do it all summer long, actually–and didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. You probably do, too. I came across the word today while perusing Dictionary.com, where I happened across a slideshow called “Rise and Shine: 9 Sunny Words.” “Apricate” appeared on the very first slide, and is brand new to me.

It’s a verb meaning “to bask in the sun,” or “to tan.” Many people I know refer to this activity as “laying out.”

When I first saw the word, I was reminded of the word “apricot,” which Dictionary.com was quick to point out actually bears no etymological relation to “apricate.” In my experience, however, they are related: I ate an apricot while I apricated (though I honestly don’t know if the past tense of “apricate” is “apricated”) yesterday afternoon.

IMG_7033
Above: One of my favorite places to apricate is Pony Pasture on the James River. Below left: One my dogs apricates on our back deck. Below right: The view I have from the lounge chair (pictured left) when I apricate on my back deck.

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

sessile

fustilarian

lachrymose

Books: The Best 75 from the Last 75

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time sitting out on my back deck in the sunshine, flipping through the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was pretty excited to find that the week’s edition of Parade was dubbed the summer reading issue, and featured an article listing the best 75 books from the last 75 years. The article categorized the books by decade, listing the best books from the 1940s through the 2010s, with as few as four and as many as fifteen books listed under each decade (the 1940s fared the worst, with only four books listed, while the 1960s and 2000s performed the best, each with fifteen books listed). I’ll leave it to you to read the list in its entirety, but below are those I have read, as well as those I would have included had I been given the task.

Books I Have Read from the List

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty smith (1943)

    I read this delightful coming of age novel a few summers ago, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following summer, I offered it as an option for my incoming honors students’ summer reading assignment

  2. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)

    What can I say about this book except, though I have not read it since late middle school, it is one of my favorites?

  3. Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)

    I taught this book to high school sophomores during my first year teaching. Of all the books we read, this short, readable, and factual book written by a Holocaust survivor was a favorite among my students–even the ones who didn’t like to read. (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men usually has the same effect on my high school juniors.)

  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

    I haven’t read this book since I was in high school, but I remember enjoying it, and feeling a particular sympathy for Boo Radley and a particular admiration for Atticus Finch. I am told the latter might change when I begin reading Go Set a Watchman this week, so I am curious as to what my own reaction will be.

  5. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

    My father read this to my three siblings and me when we were elementary-aged. All four of us loved it. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor around my dad, either by the fireplace in our family room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or in the bedroom my little sisters shared, listening to him read until it was time for bed.

  6. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

    Of course I’ve read this one. My brother even had the stuffed animal monster.

  7. Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980)

    Maus is one of just two graphic novels I’ve read. I didn’t expect much, as it was a “comic book,” and I’m not really into “that sort of thing,” but Maus, written by the son of Holocaust survivors, is really something artful.

  8. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)

    I read this book during the summer of 2013, as Tim O’Brien was one of two authors (the other being Ernest Hemingway) I studied for my Capstone project to complete my Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a Creative Writing major from University of Denver. I cannot rave enough about this book. It is raw, it is gripping, and it is honest, though at times hard to read for these very traits. Even in its most difficult-to-stomach areas, I had a hard time putting it down. It left me thoughtful and reflective for months, asking myself questions about the human condition, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for evil, and what I could realistically expect of myself if put into situations like those described in the book.

(Some of) the Books I Would Add to the List

1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)

This book is incredibly moving and touching. One of my favorite characters is the genuine and conflicted Jim Casy. I also admire the way the book is structured, some chapters told in an almost stream-of-collective-consciousness fashion, and others narrated clearly and directly about the Joad family.

IMG_7134
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of the books that would have made my list.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)

Written by a Holocaust survivor in part about what he believed allowed some people to survive the miseries of concentration camps while others succumbed and perished, the book is a philosophical and psychological examination of the human spirit. Despite its many references to the Holocaust, the book is uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring.

3. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952)

When students ask me what my favorite book is, my answer is East of Eden. I’ve heard Steinbeck himself cited it as his masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The characters and story are enthralling–rich and complex. I have read it three times, and each time come away with a different impression, a new insight, or a new idea to ponder–if not all three.

4. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein (1964)

Next to The Velveteen Rabbit (which can’t be included in this list, because it was published in 1922) and The Ugly Duckling (1844), The Giving Tree has to be one of the most emotionally involved children’s books I have ever read. Despite its seeming simplicity (simple language, simple illustrations), the book discusses the complexities of human relationships–the give and take of love, the meaning of sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, etc. It is one of the few children’s books that still moves me to tears, and I still remember how affected I was the first time the book was read to me in a classroom when I was in elementary school.

5. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)

A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested we read this together. I don’t think my friend ever got around to it, but I ended up reading the script, as well as the novel. It. Is. Fascinating. I would go so far as to label it epic, actually. The book is about as thick as East of Eden or The Bible, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll love every page and be disappointed to find you’ve arrived at the last one. I enjoyed it so much, that I conducted a deep enough reading of it to create a sample project for the Literature Portfolio assignment my honors students are required to produce for each piece of literature we read.

IMG_7135
Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed seems worthy of the list.

6. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Next to East of Eden, this is quite possibly one of my favorite books. It is also the only book one of my most difficult students enjoyed reading, and may have been the only book he actually read during his time in my classroom. This book begs the reader to question the ethics of warfare and survival, as well as brings up questions about “The Other.”

7. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)

A fellow English teacher let me borrow this book from her last summer. The imagination of Ms. Donoghue is truly enviable. She tells her story from the perspective of a young boy whose whole life has been lived in a small backyard shed, which he calls Room, with his captive mother.

8. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (2013)

There are two things I remember clearly about this novel from my reading of it a year or two ago: 1) It left an indelible emotional imprint on me; it was incredibly poignant, and 2) It did an exceptional job presenting various perspectives of the same situation, illustrating expertly the complexities of human dealings.

IMG_7107-1
The cover of this week’s Parade Magazine, the summer reading issue, featuring a list of the 75 best books in the last 75 years

Based on a True Story: Why Writers Write Fiction

Anne Lamott writes, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This advice resonates with me, because one of the struggles I face most frequently regarding my writing life is what I can safely say, and what I would be safer never to say at all. Because of this ongoing internal battle–to write it, or not to write it–I focused my graduate Capstone project in 2013 on arguably semi-autobiographical fiction. Three years ago, I spent six to eight hours of each summer day immersed in research for my Capstone project in order to complete my Master’s of Liberal Studies in Arts and Culture with a focus on Creative Writing from the University of Denver. This process ranks among one of the most arduous, yet most enjoyable and rewarding, of my academic career. If, like me, you often wonder if you might be risking too much by writing this or revealing that, the research below on authors Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien might interest you.

Abstract

This project examines the semi-autobiographical fictional work of two American authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. The research is mainly secondary, analyzing not only pieces written by these two authors, but also dozens of essays and criticisms about the work of these authors. This project seeks to understand what fictional techniques draw writers to work in fiction, despite the fact that their subject matter may be drawn from real life. This piece argues that writers like Hemingway and O’Brien opt to work within the genre of fiction because doing so allows them to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects. Works examined include the short stories that make up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Ernest Hemingway’s shorts stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Up in Michigan, and “Old Man At The Bridge.”

Analysis Essay

Based on a True Story:

Literary Techniques that Make Fiction an Appealing Genre for Writers

Introduction

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a banner on the wall of my English classroom that read in big block letters, “We read to know we are not alone.” Ever since, I have been struck by the truth in that phrase. How many times have I been reading a poem, novel, or memoir (nearly anything!) and been suddenly touched by how true the words I read are to my own experience—even if the experience related in the poem, novel, or memoir is, on its surface, very different from anything I myself have lived? How many times have I read words written by another and thought, “Yes! That’s it! I know that feeling!”? The incidents are innumerable. As I have grown and taken up studies of literature as well as creative writing, I have come to believe that we not only read to know we are not alone, we also write to know we are not alone—and to let others know they are not alone. Fiction writing is one genre among many that allows writers to play their role in the larger human family. Although traditionally thought of as a genre in which occurrences and characters are drawn from the writer’s imagination, due to the many literary techniques it provides, fiction can also be appealing for writers who wish to deal with material drawn from their own real-life experiences. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects.

Multiple Points of View and Counterfactuals

Many writers of fiction seem to agree that there are two types of truth, the factual truth and the emotional truth, the latter referring to the truth about the way it feels to be human and the former referring to indisputable facts. Writing fiction allows these writers to imagine and explore the points of views of multiple characters, who, though experiencing the same circumstance, may experience it very differently. None of these perspectives of truth are necessarily untrue (or factually true); they are simply different experiences of the same circumstance. By allowing a writer to experiment with multiple points of views, fiction allows a writer to explore the multiple truths created by various perspectives.

In The Writing Life: Authorship and Authority in Recent American Autobiographical Narratives, Jonathan L. D’Amore argues that even when writing non-fiction, the presentation of truth is “slippery, mutable, and inexact” because truth is “tied to their [the authors’] experience of their lives” (D’Amore 2011, 5). In other words, a writer’s experience is colored—biased—by his or her own point-of-view, regardless of the degree of objectivity he or she is attempting. Fiction writers’ work, however, does not purport be factually true at all. With fiction, there is no need for writers to “overcome their subjectivity and ‘tell the truth,’” which is nearly impossible (D’Amore 2011, 11). Instead, through fiction, writers can expose subjectivity and reveal multiple truths, or multiple perspectives of the same reality. In fact, although the traditional perception of fiction is that it is inherently made up, novelist Anneli Knight asserts that “fiction is an ideal form through which to explore the multiplicity of realities” (Knight 2011,1), or the variety of ways different characters might perceive the truth. This, she claims, is due to the fact that fiction allows “a freedom and flexibility of form that enables the author to present the perspectives and inner lives of multiple characters” (Knight 2011, 6). To illustrate her point, consider the following circumstance: A young woman sits down to write about her parents’ impending divorce. She has many genres from which to choose. For example, she can write a narrative essay from her own perspective, based on her own emotions and thoughts regarding the situation. She can also choose to write a fictional story loosely based on her experience. Choosing the latter option would allow her to include not only her own perspective—perhaps embodied by a young girl experiencing the loss of a cohesive family, but to imagine what her parents might be experiencing, as well. If she chooses an omniscient narrator, she will be free to imagine the way each party is experiencing a singular event, namely, the breaking up of a family. In this way, “fiction can work to reveal, and create an understanding of, the subjective realities of others” (Knight 2011, 2).

In examining the works of two well-known authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the drive for fiction writers to explore and express multiple points of view is clear. For example, in Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan,” readers are made privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, Liz, who pines away for another character, Jim. Readers are also made privy to Jim’s perspective; they learn he does not think of Liz, though she often thinks of him. In its simplest form, this is the circumstance: There is a man and there is a woman and they know each other. The man experiences the acquaintance as just that—Jim knows Liz exists. He knows who she is, talks to her, finds her pleasant, but not much more. The woman, however, experiences the acquaintance much differently. In fact, Liz is so infatuated with Jim that she “couldn’t sleep well from thinking about him” (Hemingway 1987, 60). Had this piece been written in a genre other than fiction, Hemingway would not have been free to imagine the points of view of both parties involved. He would have been confined to his understanding and his perspective of the happenings. By opting to work within the genre of fiction, Hemingway was free to imagine into each point of view whatever worked for the story.

Like Hemingway, Tim O’Brien uses his memory and his imagination to create his fictional works (Calloway 1995, 2), and these works “often offer multiple versions of reality” (Smith 1994, 2). Tobey Herzog, an English professor and Chair of the Division of Humanities at Wabash College, asserts that fiction allows O’Brien to “explore recurring subjects from different angles, especially subjects from his own life” (Herzog 2000, 908). In a review of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, Andy Solomon of The Philadelphia Inquirer states that the work is “a series of glimpses, through different facets, of a single, mysterious, death stone” (Solomon 1990, 1). O’Brien’s tendency to relate different points of view of the same circumstance is evidenced in many of the short stories included in The Things They Carried.

The first story in the book, which bears its title, is an apt example. As it opens, readers are made privy not to narrator-O’Brien’s[1] perspective, but to what author-O’Brien imagines to be the point of view of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The fact that O’Brien is working within the genre of fiction allows him to imagine the point of view of any of the characters that people his story. In this case, O’Brien—though he could not possibly know with any factual certainty unless Cross himself told him—conveys what Cross imagines, knows, and wants with regard to his love interest, Martha. “He [Cross] would imagine romantic camping trips…. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her….” (O’Brien 1990, 1). Although author-O’Brien very well could have observed a fellow soldier tasting the envelope flaps of a letter he had received while in the field, he would have had no way of knowing why. However, fiction allows O’Brien the liberty of imagining why, and of imposing this perspective on his character. In a similar fashion, O’Brien takes liberties with point of view regarding Kiowa’s thoughts after their comrade, Ted Lavender, has been suddenly shot and killed. Narrator-O’Brien explains what Kiowa wished, felt, and wanted regarding the situation (O’Brien 1990, 18), though author-O’Brien can only have imagined this, or imposed upon the character of Kiowa what author-O’Brien himself wished, felt, and wanted.

Two more examples of O’Brien’s ability to explore multiple points of view due to his choosing to write fiction appear in “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed.” In the latter, narrator-O’Brien imposes on a corpse certain fears, memories, and experiences that neither narrator-O’Brien nor author-O’Brien could ascertain in reality. In the former, narrator-O’Brien imagines Norman Bowker’s point of view regarding his thoughts and emotions upon returning to his parents’ home after the war has ended. Either author-O’Brien is imposing his own experiences on the character of Bowker, or he is able to speculate on what Bowker’s point of view might have been using his own imagination and drawing somewhat from his own experience. In addition, writing this story in fiction allows O’Brien to imagine counterfactuals that his character, Bowker, considers.

A counterfactual is essentially an occurrence that could have happened, but did not. It is any happening that did not occur, but could be imagined to occur. The genre of fiction allows writers to use the technique of counterfactuals in their work. Herzog asserts that the use of counterfactuals enables O’Brien “to explore events years after the fact, imagining alternate possibilities, reaffirming previous decisions, and recovering key emotions” (Herzog 909, 2000). For example, O’Brien’s Bowker imagines telling the story of Kiowa’s death to his father, though he knows he will never tell it. The not telling is the fact within the story; the telling is the counterfactual.  As author-O’Brien imagines what Bowker would imagine, and narrator-O’Brien relates Bowker’s musings to readers, O’Brien is able to reflect on his own return home after the war, just as he allows the character of Bowker to reflect on his actions in the war as he imagines relating them to his father.

O’Brien also imagines counterfactuals in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Narrator-O’Brien explains that characters Mary Anne and Mark Fossie had always “known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together” (O’Brien 1990, 94). This scenario, ironically, ends up being not the fact, but the counterfactual, as Mary Anne ends up joining the Green Berets and, ultimately, disappearing into the mountains of Vietnam.

Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” also provides an apt example of the use of counterfactuals. Most of the story is told through dialogue, a conversation in which a wife assails her husband with could-have, would-have, should-have elements. The husband, in turn, laments his lost promise as a writer; he is dying, having never written down all the stories in his head. Not only does Hemingway give his characters the opportunity to imagine counterfactuals to their circumstance (they are on safari, an activity Hemingway himself experienced), but the story in and of itself imagines a counterfactual for Hemingway; namely, he could have ended up like the husband-character he creates—having never written any of his stories down. Instead, he seems to say, he is the opposite of this character, having mastered his art and used his talent to the fullest (Harding 2011).

A Safe Way to Explore Threatening Subject Matter: Creating Emotional Distance

In addition to allowing writers the freedom to imagine various points of view and counterfactuals, many writers may choose to write fiction because it allows them to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. For some writers, the subjects they explore in their fiction may seem too threatening to convey in any other form. Somehow, fictionalizing the topic, whatever it may be—war, domestic violence, crime, regret, disappointment—makes the topic more accessible to the writer as subject matter. In his discussion of some of Norman Mailer’s work, D’Amore asserts that Mailer’s use of the third-person, even in his nonfictional autobiographical work, “allows Mailer freedom” because it distances him from his own experiences (D’Amore 2011, 116). Fictionalizing a life experience can provide further emotional distance for a writer, thus allowing for more fearless exploration of the experience. John Edgar Wideman, another author studied by D’Amore, “has protected himself with…fiction, his ‘memory whiting out what it doesn’t require to construct a representative day’ that lets him keep what he want [sic.] to remember and forget what he feels he needs to” (D’Amore 2011, 166). In fictionalizing a traumatic or difficult experience, a writer is able to choose with which material he or she will work. He or she can consciously decide on which elements of the experience to focus, and can fill in the blanks with imagination. An author studied by writer Anneli Knight explains that with fiction, “you can really answer those bigger questions…. You can explore things that are really difficult to explore” (Knight 2011, 3).

Fiction’s allowance for the creation of emotional distance is likely one reason it is a genre in which Tim O’Brien chooses to work. Much of O’Brien’s writing is self-reflexive, and The Things They Carried is no exception (Smith 1994, 1). In “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien explains, “…the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that really happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that…help to clarify and explain” (O’Brien 1990, 158). Herzog writes with some perplexity as to why author-O’Brien, in talks and interviews, has often “given contradictory responses to questions about his own postwar adjustment” (Herzog 2000, 901). Based on O’Brien’s statement above and his use of fiction writing to help “objectify [his] own experience,” one may wonder if perhaps he himself does not know the answers, but is using the emotional distance he creates through his writing to find them. Narrator-O’Brien says in “Good Form” that writing allows him to “look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God” (O’Brien 1990, 180). In other words, the emotional distance fiction allows O’Brien to create enables him to explore deep human emotions and questions, such as those mentioned above.

One threatening incident author-O’Brien considers in The Things They Carried is the fact that he entertained the idea of fleeing to Canada rather than allowing himself to be drafted into a war he did not support. The actual details related in his short story, On The Rainy River,” however, are not factually true. They are imagined, invented (Herzog 2000, 895). Imagining a scenario in which to express the inner conflict he felt allows O’Brien to achieve the emotional distance he needs in order to relate the real emotions he experienced as a young man. Through a make-believe situation and make-believe characters (narrator-O’Brien and the old man who houses him for six days), author-O’Brien is able to safely explore and express the real emotions he experienced. Narrator-O’Brien relates, “I can still feel the tightness. And I want you to feel it…. You’re at the bow of a boat…. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared….

“What would you do?

“Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood…?” (O’Brien 1990, 56). In this passage from “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien uses emotional distance in at least two ways. First, he begins in the first-person perspective. Despite the use of first-person, O’Brien has achieved a small degree of emotional distance for himself here solely in the fact that narrator-O’Brien is not exactly the same man as author-O’Brien. In creating narrator-O’Brien, who experiences a similar internal struggle but in an imagined circumstance, author-O’Brien allows himself to relive and explore this emotional and tumultuous experience. Second, though O’Brien increases emotional distance for himself, he decreases it slightly for his audience. When he jumps from first-person to second-person, O’Brien is demanding that the reader consider how he or she would feel in the same position. He is almost forcing his reader to feel what he felt, to ask the questions he had to ask himself. Marilyn Wesley, an English professor at Hartwick College, asserts that O’Brien’s desire to “engage the reader”—to make the reader feel what he felt—“is so powerful that O’Brien frequently presents his own experiences in the second person” (Wesley 2002, 2).

Another example of an experience for which O’Brien uses the technique of emotional distance is the death of his childhood love, Linda, who died at age nine. Narrator O’Brien explains in “The Lives of the Dead”: In objective reality, Linda is dead, “But in a story…I can revive…that which is absolute and unchanging…. Miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up” (O’Brien 1990, 236). It is very possible that one reason O’Brien choose to render this and other difficult experiences in fiction is due to the fact that the genre allows him not only to create emotional distance that enables him to look back with a little less pain, but also because it provides him the opportunity to imagine the counterfactual: Linda as not dead, but as being saved, and very much alive, in a story.

Hemingway, too, writes in a way that allows him to maintain emotional distance but that creates a very impactful emotional experience for readers. His short story “Old Man At The Bridge” is based on a first-hand experience he had in Spain, and provides an example of this talent. At just 800 words, the story is one of Hemingway’s shortest (Schoettler 1999, 1). The tale tells of an old man, a refugee of the Spanish Civil War, who has had to leave the farm where he was taking care of a few animals, about whom he is very worried, and feels badly about leaving. At the end of the brief story, a reader is left with a keen sense of tragedy and sadness. In under 1000 words, “Hemingway sums up the hopelessness of the refugee and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Civil War” (Schoettler 1999, 4). MIT associate professor William B. Watson calls the short story a “portrait of a moment central to the experience of…all wars in which ordinary people are innocent victims” (Schoettler 1999, 4). Although this story aligns very closely with what Hemingway himself was believed to have experienced regarding this old refugee, he still opted to write the tale as a fictional one, allowing himself the comfort of emotional distance.

Coherence, Meaning, and Human Connectedness

Thus far, two techniques usable in the writing of fiction have been discussed here; namely, multiple points of view and counterfactuals, and emotional distance. Another technique fiction writing allows a writer to utilize is imposed coherence in order to communicate a specific purpose, meaning, or theme. While people read to know they are not alone, they also write because they are not alone. “The primary purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone” (Hallberg 2012, 50). One might note here that whether “us” refers to writers or to readers is ambiguous, and likely, the pronoun refers to both antecedents, because “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist…loneliness” (Hallberg 2012, 51). Fiction writing, then, satisfies one’s own need to feel connected, as well as communicating to others their own connectedness, their own belonging. Because fiction writing allows a writer to add, subtract, or imaginatively create certain scenarios, conversations, circumstances, etc., the fictional story can be made to work for the writer’s purpose—can be made to convey the exact theme or message the author intends. So, why write fiction? Allan Peterkin, MD, the founding editor of Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine; The Arts and Humanities, asserts that many contributors to his publication choose to write fiction because “stories…insist on meaning” (Peterkin 2010, 1650), something humans have always sought. Peterkin goes on to explain that to make a story “comprehensible or…interesting” a writer has to “re-enter and re-imagine” the motivating real-life experience at the story’s core. “Fiction-writing physicians…identify the impetus for a story…. Part of craft is using that detail as a point of departure, then moving onto something entirely new” (Peterkin 2010, 1651). Essentially, each writer’s life is clay. To write fiction is to take each real-life experience, and morph it as necessary to extract the desired message or meaning.

Poet Inger Christensen explains that “One of the most important elements…is the novelist’s message,” the emotional truth he or she wants to impart (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 4-5). Because fiction allows a writer to impose his or her own structure and coherence to express the desired meaning, it is a desirable genre in which to work for writers who have a specific theme in mind. “Narrative structured as fiction can provide clarification and some access to the truth of one’s experience” (D’Amore 2011, 224). Fiction writers who write from their own life experiences then, as O’Brien and Hemingway do, are—because they work in the flexible world of fiction—given the capacity “to select, and then translate and illuminate, everything that has been observed so that it seems to the audience something entirely new, something entirely true” (Trollope 2001, 1). In her critique on O’Brien’s semiautobiographical novel The Things They Carried, Lorrie Smith explains that the book “celebrates the reconstructive power of the imagination, which gives shape, substance, and significance to slippery emotion and memory” (Smith 1994,1). Indeed, much of what narrator-O’Brien relates to readers seems to support Smith’s assertion. In “How To Tell a True War Story,” narrator-O’Brien asserts, “All you can do is tell it…adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (O’Brien 1990, 85). In this statement O’Brien confirms the fact that writing fiction—“adding and subtracting, making up a few things”—is what allows him to impose coherence on an experience, and thus to extract meaning, or “get at the real truth.” In “Spin,” narrator-O’Brien fairly states why author-O’Brien might use fiction to impose coherence: “Stories are for…when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are” (O’Brien 1990, 38). In fiction, what is forgotten can be filled in with imagination, and what is imagined is malleable and can be worked into a piece that conveys the author’s specific intent.

For example, author-O’Brien does not have a young daughter named Kathleen, but he makes one up for narrator-O’Brien of the novel. Why? The character of Kathleen, who constantly questions why her father feels the need to write war stories all the time, allows narrator-O’Brien to remember, reshape, and reflect on his war experience (Smith 1994, 4). “All we have are a series of disconnected moments with infinitely discoverable meanings” (Whitlock 2003, 1), and writers can discover and express these meanings through fiction writing by imposing coherence—such as author-O’Brien’s need to create the fictional daughter, Kathleen.

Herzog refers to O’Brien’s somewhat muddled mixing of his real life with his fictional Tim O’Brien narrator’s life as “literary lies” (Herzog 2000, 895), and discusses readers’ frustration with their inability to discern what is fiction from what is fact. He asserts that what many readers may be missing, is the fact that O’Brien’s goal through his fiction is to “make readers feel rather than know” (Herzog 2000, 911). Author-O’Brien is not interested in whether or not there was a real man named Henry Dobbins who always wore his girlfriend’s stockings tied around his neck for comfort and good luck. He is not interested in whether or not when, upon learning that “his girlfriend dumped him…he went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter” (O’Brien 1990, 118). What author-O’Brien is interested in is that his readers are made to feel, through his constructions, the loneliness of all soldiers at war. What writing fiction does in allowing for imposed coherence, is allow the “use of imagination to transform facts and reveal emotional truths transcending the limits of his or her [the writer’s] memory” (Herzog 2000, 906). As O’Brien’s character Mitchell Sander’s says after telling his own story to some of the men (which is then retold by narrator-O’Brien to the reader), “I had to make up a few things…But it’s still true” (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 3). Similarly, as narrator-O’Brien explains regarding “On The Rainy River,” “Some of it’s true,…not in the literal sense,” but “in the way I worried about it” (qtd. in Mehren 1990, 2).

O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” is an apt example of O’Brien’s using imposed coherence on a story in order to communicate his desired meaning. The story tells of character Norman Bowker’s experience after he has returned home from Vietnam. It predominantly traces one evening, which Bowker spends driving around and around the same seven-mile circumference of a lake near his house. In the story that comes after “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien confesses his use of the fictional device of imposed coherence, explaining he had used a letter from Bowker as the “emotional core” for the story, and then, “To provide a dramatic frame, I collapsed events into a single time and place” (O’Brien 1990, 158). He also created a “natural counterpoint between the lake and the field. A metaphoric unity….” (O’Brien 1990, 159). O’Brien’s reasons for choosing to express this story in fiction are clear.

“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” also hints at O’Brien’s reasons for writing fiction. In this short story, narrator-O’Brien relates to readers a story he heard from another character in the story, Rat Kiley. Rat is narrating the story to Mitchell Sanders, and at one point asks Sanders to predict the outcome of the story. To explain why he predicts the outcome he does, Sanders lists the occurrences and clues provided in Rat’s story, and then says, “—all that had to be there for a reason. That’s how stories work, man” (O’Brien 1990, 102). Sander’s response is telling.

Preservation of Privacy

In addition to allowing writers to explore multiple points of view and counterfactuals, create emotional distance to explore and reflect on difficult subjects, and impose coherence for the purpose of extracting meaning, writing fiction also allows writers to preserve their own privacy, as well as the privacy of others who may somehow play a role in their literary works. “Whether labeling their work fiction or nonfiction, writers who use their own lives as source material…work within the same constraints they live; namely, that we are not alone” (D’Amore 2011, 69). In other words, people will read what has been written, and people’s lives may be affected by what was written. Fiction, however, can guard against some negative effects of possible public scrutiny of an author’s personal life, or the personal lives of his subject, because fiction allows far more than the simple changing of names and dates; in writing fiction, an author can alter entire situations, as needed. When writing fiction, “A writer can use his or her own life as  material…in a way that distances the finished text from the private person” (D’Amore 2011, 56). Because there is no need to be honest—factually truthful, that is—in writing of one’s life in the context of fiction, a writer of fiction can take creative liberties that a journalist or other nonfiction writer may not be able to take (Herzog 2000, 894).

David Ignatius, who writes spy stories based on experiences he has had working as a journalist overseas, sometimes in precarious situations, says he writes fiction to protect not only the identities, but also the safety, of the people who inspire his stories. He explains, “I learned…the inner details of the operation [the CIA’s recruitment of Yasser Arafat’s intelligence chief in the 1970s]—including the names of people who were still at risk…. [T]he best way to narrate what I knew as in a novel” (Ignatius 2011, 1). Ignatius’s decision to write of his experience in fiction was pragmatic; it allowed him to get at the emotional core of his experience while avoiding the endangerment of those involved.

Former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and author Oliver North, who writes mysteries and thrillers inspired by people he considers real-life heroes, chooses to write fiction for a similar reason. He explains, “…telling these stories presents the prospect of disclosing information or identities that would put brave men and women in…peril. That’s why these are novels—where actual names, dates, places, and classified tactics, techniques, and capabilities are altered” (North 2012, 1).

Hemingway, too, likely chose fiction in part to preserve his own privacy and the privacy of many of the women in his life. In his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” discussed earlier for its use of counterfactuals, Hemingway’s character Harry considers why he never wrote about all the good times and bad times he had experienced with his various past lovers. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that “He had never written any of that because…he never wanted to hurt any one” (Hemingway 1987, 49). If, as discussed above, Harry is somewhat representative of Hemingway in his talent for writing (despite his lack of ability to now use that talent), and is in fact a sort of anti-Hemingway in that Hemingway seems to be declaring to readers that he himself has not squandered his talent as his character has (Harding 2011), readers can also deduce that while Harry did not write of “any of that” to avoid hurting people, Hemingway did write it; he just wrote it in fiction, in a way that would still preserve the privacy of those who had been involved.

Conclusion

Although popular thinking on the genre of fiction seems to imply fiction is imagined or otherwise untrue, many writers choose to write fiction for the flexibility it offers in terms of the use of artistic literary techniques. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to imagine multiple points of view, thus enabling them to explore multiple emotional (as opposed to factual) truths. Fiction writing in particular allows writers to explore multiple truths or points of view, because they can create and access the perceptions and perspectives of the various fictional characters they create. In addition, because fiction allows for a certain amount of creation and imagination, it permits a writer to imagine counterfactuals, or the way things could have been. Exploring the way things are not allows writers to explore possible reasons for the way things are. Fiction also allows writers to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. Some fiction writers use their works of fiction to explore the meaning in their own experiences, as well as to give significance to their lives and the lives of others, as D’Amore (2011) asserts of Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History[2]. Because fiction allows its writers to create emotional distance between themselves and their subjects or topics, these writers are able to explore otherwise difficult topics, as may be the case with Tim O’Brien’s war stories. While exploring the way things are and expressing truths about the way things are, writers of fiction are also able not only to discover they are not alone in a myriad of ways, but also to express this grand and comforting truth to their readers. Fiction enables a writer to do this because it allows a writer to manipulate occurrences for his or her own artistic purposes. In other words, fiction allows for the imposition of coherence on a story and thus can allow the writer to more effectively communicate his or her intended message, theme, or meaning. In this way, fiction writing becomes not only a selfish act of self-reflection, but also a selfless act of communicating to others their own connectedness to a larger human family, a family that shares similar emotions and experiences. Lastly and perhaps most simplistically and obviously, some fiction writers choose the genre based on their need to protect their own privacy and/or the privacy of those about whom they write and from whom they glean inspiration.

[1] In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien gave his fictional narrator his own name. To distinguish between the real Tim O’Brien and the narrator of the novel, the distinctions “author-O’Brien” and “narrator-O’Brien” will be employed when necessary. The former refers to the real man, whereas the latter refers to the speaker in the text.

[2]  Although Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History is often labeled nonfiction, Mailer says “The idea that non-fiction is reality and fiction is fiction is something I have been trying to disabuse people of for 50 years…I have always liked to mix the categories…to the point where they [the readers] will begin to see there is not that much difference” (qtd. in D’Amore 2011, 67).

Reference List

Adams, Tim. 1998. Novelist leaves his wife and kids. Novelist writes about

why a man leaves his wife and kids. Fiction. Or is it? The Observer May 11.

Calloway, Catherine. 1995. How to tell a true war story: Metafiction in

The things they carried. Critique 36, no. 4: 249.

D’Amore, Jonathan L. 2011. The writing life: Authorship and authority in

recent American autobiographical narratives.

David, Dan. 2004. Why do they write? Windspeaker 22:18.

Hallberg, Garth Risk. 2012. Why write novels at all? Riff January 15: 50-51.

Harding, Jennifer Riddle. 2011. “He had never written a word of that”:

Regret and counterfactuals in Hemingway’s “The snows of

Kilimanjaro.” The Hemingway Review 30:21-35.

Hemingway, Ernest. 1987. The complete short stories of Ernest

         Hemingway: The Finca Vigia edition. Ed. Charles Scribner, Jr. New York: Scribner.

Herzog, Tobey C.  2000. Tim O’Brien’s “True Lies” (?). Modern Fiction Studies

        46, 4: 893-916.

Ignatius, David. 2011. Why I write. Publishers Weekly 258, no 18: 25.

Knight, Annelli. 2011. I believe you, liar: Can truth be told in fiction?

         Journal of the Australian Universities Modern Language Association

116: 45-63.

Mehren, Elizabeth. 1990. Fiction rings true in O’Brien’s Vietnam. Orlando

        Sentinel April 06: E4.

North, Oliver. 2012. Why I write…Oliver North: Mysteries and thrillers.

Publishers Weekly 259, no. 47: 20.

O’Brien, Tim. 1990. The things they carried. New York: Broadway Books.

Peterkin, Allan. 2010. Why we write (and how we can do it better). Canadian

         Medical Association Journal 182:1650-1652.

Schoettler, Carl. 1999. At times he put pure gold on paper. The Sun July 21:

1E.

Solomon, Andy. 1990. Review of The things they carried, by Tim O’Brien

The Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review, March 25.

Andysolomonwriter.com.

Smith, Lorrie N. 1994. “The things men do”: The gendered subtext in Tim

O’Brien’s Esquire stories. Critique 36, no. 1: 16.

Trollope, Joanna. 2001. One of England’s most popular novelists reflects on

what writers do and why fiction matters. The Washington Post September 30: WBK.8.

Wesley, Marilyn. 2002. Truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I die in a combat

        zone and The things they carried. College Literature 29, no. 2: 1-18.

Whitlock, Nathan. 2003. Twisting one’s own arm to write fiction. Books in

        Canada 32, no. 5: 3.

 

 

Daisy Buchannan and the Summer Solstice

Lest you miss it like Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchannan in his novel The Great Gatsby admits to doing each year, I feel compelled to make you aware that today is the first day of summer, also known as the Summer Solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, in terms of daylight hours. In the opening chapters of The Great Gatsby, when Nick is first reunited with Daisy and Tom, Daisy asks, “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” When her friend, Jordan Baker, responds with, “We ought to plan something,” Daisy asks, “What’ll we plan? What do people plan?” When I first read The Great Gatsby in my junior English class when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was fascinated by the character of Daisy Buchannan. She was beautiful and desirable and the seemingly random things she said, like the above, captivated me as they did Gatsby and Nick and apparently many other men who met her. But mostly, I think I found her so admirable because I wanted someone to love me the way Gatsby loved her. It must be so delicious to be so admired. My 32-year-old self has a somewhat different opinion on Ms. Daisy Buchannan, but that is neither here nor there.  What matters here is the fact that despite my changed view of her character, Daisy’s words have stuck with me these fifteen or sixteen years since my first reading of them, and I have felt an obligation–however unmet (up until now)–to recognize and celebrate the longest day of the year ever since, or at the very least, not to miss it.

This year, I finally succeeded. And I took it to a-whole-nother level. I didn’t make epic plans for just the longest day of the year; I made epic plans for the entire weekend leading up to it, as well.

So, Ms. Daisy Buchannan, since before Nick could answer you, you became suddenly distracted by your bruised pinky finger, here is what people plan–and thank you for the inspiration.

Saturday’s Summer Solstice Agenda

1. South of the James Farmers Market

IMG_6911
We kicked off our weekend before the longest day of the year strolling through the South of the James Farmers Market and eating lunch out of food trucks there (Goatacado and Intergalactic Taco). We were able to purchase all sorts of locally sourced products, from a hand-carved wooden door stop to handcrafted soap; from a chocolate mini bell pepper plant for our vegetable garden to homemade, human-grade dog treats for the pups; from bumper stickers to T-shirts, just to name a few. Picture above, I enjoy lunch at a picnic table at the edge of the farmers market with my husband (behind me) and my best friend (far left), who made the trip down from Pennsylvania specifically for the summer solstice celebration we had planned.
IMG_6938
While the South of the James Farmers Market is very pet-friendly (we saw dogs, cats, and goats there!), our own pups stayed home (bringing them along would have meant making them wait in the car during our next adventure, which would have been unwise at best and murderous at worst). We didn’t forget them, though! When we got home, I treated them to homemade, human-grade dog treats we purchased from one of the vendors at the market.

2. Segway Tour of Downtown Richmond

IMG_6942
From the farmers market, we drove straight to Segway of Richmond for an hour-long tour of the city. We visited the Canal Walk, Brown’s Island, and the Governor’s Mansion, just to name a few of the stops. Above, we engage in some silliness on the Segways at the bottom of the steps of the Virginia State Capitol.

3. Summer Solstice Potluck Celebration

IMG_6994
Over thirty friends and family members turned out with dishes to share to celebrate the Summer Solstice with us on Saturday night. Above, amid lanterns and moonlight, some of them gather around the bonfire.
IMG_6985
A good friend and I pose under the twinkly lights and beside one of the glowing lanterns in celebration of the approaching longest day of the year. Our Summer Solstice Potluck Celebration has likely become an annual tradition, which will ensure I never “watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it” (though I will be watching for it!).

Sunday Summer Solstice Agenda

1. A trip to Belle Isle on the James River

IMG_7017
My husband and I spent about an hour sitting on the rocks of Belle Isle with my best friend, who took this photograph, watching the whitewater rafting tours go by, admiring the many herons fishing for brunch, and wading in the warm, rushing waters of the James.

2. Father’s Day Food Truck Lunch

IMG_6907
This particular Sunday was not only the Sunday before the Summer Solstice, but also Father’s Day, so after our time at the river, we headed to Stone Brewery to meet my parents for lunch from Monique’s Crepes. Later that night, we celebrated my dad again when we brought Chinese food over to my parents’ house for dinner.

Monday Summer Solstice Agenda

1. Soak up the Sun at Pony Pasture

IMG_7036
After a walk with my dogs, a run through my neighborhood, and a few household chores, I set aside a few of the daylight hours on this the longest day of the year to write, read, sleep, and just generally relax at Pony Pasture on the James River.

So, I say to Daisy and the rest of you: 1) Perhaps you can now understand why, despite the ever-lengthening days, I haven’t had time to squeeze in a blog post over the last week, and 2) We have almost two hours of daylight left (at least in my neck of the woods) in the longest day of the year. Carpe Diem!