Shelter and Write Prompt 3: The Setting as a Character

Where are you right now? Describe it in detail. Think of both the small setting, like your house, and the bigger settings: your town, your state, your country, your world.

Think of the interplay between you and your setting. Settings often shape stories. How is your setting influencing your experience? What are the different factors at play? What are the connections between your experiences and your setting?

Imagine your setting is a character in the story of your experience of the current events. How do you interact with each other? How are you affecting your setting? How is your setting changing you? Is your setting your antagonist or your ally?

How would your experience be different if you were somewhere else? 

For a fictional alternative, create a story that is heavily influenced by the setting. How does the setting create conflict and lead to crisis? Does the setting influence the resolution? Or does the resolution change the setting?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.

Shelter and Write Prompt 1: Create a Written Collage

Create a Written Collage: Think of ten small, concrete things that are different in your life because of COVID-19. You want to choose some things that you can experience with your senses, and that you can describe in exquisite detail. 

It could be empty hand-sanitizer bottles, a work project left unfinished, an unused plane ticket, the pile of books you now have time to read, etc. 

Describe each one in as much detail as possible. How has this thing changed in recent weeks? What specifically has brought about these changes? How have you noticed this thing in a new or different way?

Arrange your descriptions to create a written “collage” of current life. Look closely at the small differences around you. Together, they tell a story. What’s yours?

This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here.

#shelterandwrite

Shelter and Write: 30 Journal Prompts for a COVID-19 Quarantine

I don’t know what quarantine has been like for you, but I have spent the last several weeks huddled under the covers, unable to look away from the news, and sanitizing my child like crazy. There has been a great grief, a great helplessness, and the overwhelming feeling that I should be doing something — anything — other than just staying home.  I understand that I’m doing my part by hiding under the covers. But it also seems like I should be doing a lot more. 

There have been a lot of tears. I might have gotten in a non-verbal argument with my toddler. And the things I say to my plants these days makes me wonder if they think I am crazy. The anxiety is real. And I know it would make me feel so much better to do something for others, to connect with others.

Are you feeling this way, too? Both paralyzed by anxiety and seized with the need to do something useful, something helpful?

Maybe your situation isn’t right to make masks or adopt a grandma, but you do want to do something. I have been wanting to write. I have dealt for years with feeling like writing is selfish, and in this age of unease, it only seemed more so. 

But still, I felt that nagging feeling deep in my chest that begged for me to write. Maybe you have been wanting to write, too. Maybe you have been feeling like writing is a luxury right now and something you shouldn’t be spending time on. But I want to push against that idea.

I personally could really only do the work that was absolutely necessary in the past few weeks, and that was teaching. So I started thinking about how I could be useful to the writers taking my course, which also led me to think about how we could be useful as writers. 

As my students returned to our little online portal after an extended spring break, I asked them what would be useful for them as writers right now. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to journal about this time and overwhelmingly, they wanted prompts. 

I wanted to make prompts that would really be helpful for my students. Prompts that encouraged them be present, to look at the little things, to imagine a better future. But also prompts that allowed them to voice their fears and stare down their anxieties. I wanted to make prompts that they could connect over, draw insight from, and use to document what they saw and experienced. Basically, I wanted to make prompts that were helpful in making my students helpful.

And I thought, maybe it will also be helpful for others, too. So I wanted to share it with you.

Here is the thing: you can help. You can help by writing. Think of all the ways that the writing is useful.

On the most basic level, it is important to have a historical record of this time, and multiple perspectives will be important to get the history right. We need to know what nurses were doing, what patients were doing, what it was like to go to work, and what it was like to stay home. The more information and perspectives that can be gathered will help those in the future see what worked and what didn’t, and how the world changed in response. 

Also, taking care of your own mental health is helping. I can’t stress this enough. Look, no one is going to be served by letting anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue take over. Practicing isolation and social distancing are terrible for all kinds of mental health disorders, from anxiety to eating disorders. If writing is making you feel better, you should do it. If it helps you get through the day a little kinder or with a little more ease, it is important, and you are helping others by doing it. It’s also a great way to ease the sense of isolation (see below!).

Think about all the reading you are doing. We are all trying to make sense of what is going on right now. There are numerous conspiracy theories, constant live news updates, and people sure that this will change life as we know it forever. All of these things exist because people are trying to understand a situation so unlike what most of us have experienced. Writing about it is trying to make sense of it. Sure, you might not figure out the answer to the pandemic, but even coming to one little way of thinking about it that is helpful to you might be also helpful to others. 

And if you aren’t writing about the pandemic, but are writing something totally unrelated, like ancient alien dinosaur erotica or whatever, you are helping too! People are looking to artists for distraction, for escape, because we can’t exist on high-alert all the time.

This brings me to a last way you can help: share your writing. 

Share your thoughts and the ways in which you are dealing with it. There is a need for connection right now, and one of the ways we can connect and still be socially distant is to share our thoughts in writing. So share your writing. Even if it doesn’t have anything to do with COVID-19, it could help someone find a few moments of calm and connection. Maybe you send your mom a letter with one of your journal entries that you think she would like, maybe you share it on Facebook, maybe you share it completely anonymously on a forum. But let other people learn from your thoughts, and allow them to connect back with you. You will both be helped by it.

So this is my small way of sharing with you. You can use this with #NaPoWriMo or #CampNano or on your own, day by day, or when you feel moved. I hope you find this helpful and I hope you also know that you are helpful. 

These are some of the prompts that I created for my students. I’ll post a prompt a day and you’ll find a little sneak peak below. I hope that you can use them to be helpful, to yourself and to others. I hope that you can use them to share your fears, your hopes, and your thoughts. And most of all, I hope you can use them to connect. 

Thank you for connecting with me by reading this <3

#writethepandemic

  1. Create a written collage.
  2. Write about the pandemic through a child’s eyes.
  3. Write about your setting and how it is affecting your experience of the coronavirus.
  4. Interview someone about their daily living experiences in the time of COVID-19.
  5. Describe in great detail one thing you are taking comfort in.
  6. Compare and contrast a historical epidemic and the one you face today.
  7. Describe in detail what is happening outside your window right now.
  8. Write about someone who is helping.
  9. Write about how your setting has changed in recent weeks.
  10. Go outside and write a haibun.
  11. Write about a character who thrives during the pandemic.
  12. Write in detail about one small thing you are particularly grateful for right now.
  13. Rewrite a piece of writing that you wrote before COVID-19 began.
  14. Describe in detail one small, concrete change in your world in recent weeks.
  15. Look at your fears upside down to find keywords to use in your writing.
  16. Find at least one other person to create a piece of writing with.
  17. Write a letter to yourself 3 months ago. 
  18. Write about a character for whom the pandemic is a plot twist.
  19. Tell the story of an image that has left a lasting impression on you.
  20. Write a conversation in which someone quells your fears. 
  21. Create an erasure of a text having to do with the coronavirus.
  22. Respond line by line to a poem that resonates with you in these times.
  23. Write a detailed description of your current daily life.
  24. Write in detail about a place you cannot be right now. 
  25. Create a piece of writing based around found words and phrases. 
  26. Write a difficult conversation that you have had or should have. 
  27. Write a story in which a good-news headline is the catalyst for the plot. 
  28. Write about someone more affected by COVID-19 than you are. 
  29. Bring a piece of art about the pandemic to life. 
  30. Write about a new connection in recent weeks.

How to Write a Story within a Story: Sucked into House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Danielewski House of Leaves How to Write a Complicated Story

Reposting this book review of one of the scariest books I’ve ever read in honor of the approaching Halloween/Samhain holiday! Get lost in the literary haunted house that is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and enjoy a little bit of Reading for Writers to get you spooked and in the mood!

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a stupefying maze of a book. It is a story within a story within a story which defies the conventions of traditional page formatting and linear narrative. The strengths of this book lie in the way that its strangeness and its narratives come together to leave the reader with some very strong overall impressions.

The main text of House of Leaves is a faux-academic examination of a non-existent film entitled The Navidson Record. The film is a documentary(?) that deals with the Navidson family, who moves into a house which begins to expand, shift, and change dimensions as they live in it. The academic exploration of the film is written by Zampanò, a blind man (yes, who is writing about a film) who dies while writing this treatise. The text is then found by Johnny Truant, who takes it on to try to complete it, inserting his own life as footnotes alongside the academic footnotes of Zampanò. Truant goes insane while working on the book, which is then found, edited and published by nameless editors, who also add their own footnotes. This is presumably the status of the text when it reaches the reader.

The theoretical examination of The Navidson Record is a clear riff on academic writing. It is written formal language and is footnoted with hundreds of academic articles to back up the theories that Zampanò espouses. The problem with this is that try as Johnny Truant might, he cannot find evidence that the film being theorized about even exists. Some of the footnotes come from sources that do actually exist (thanks to the comps list, I was familiar with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), but most of the sources do not. Danielewski (or Zampanò?) even goes so far as to quote actual people supposedly giving their take on The Navidson Record, including such well-known people as Anne Rice and Susan Sontag. This makes The Navidson Record seem like a notable film and the reader must constantly remind herself that not only are the theories and quotes mostly made up, the film itself does not exist.

This academic writing completely falls apart as the book progresses. The text itself spins out of control, the words of Zampanò’s theories literally turn upside-down, go down staircases, and run across the page. He begins writing nonsensical footnotes that appear in boxes in the middle of the page, run on forever in lists, and bleed through to the other side so that the reader is reading the text both forward and backwards. German and French litter the pages, sometimes untranslated. There is braille, musical notation, and ASCII pictures. Each time the word “house” is mentioned in any language, it appears in blue and slightly askew.

The footnotes also refer the reader to several “Exhibits” and “Appendices” in the back of the book. These contain photographs, lists of things that Zampanò plan to include but which are never found, and collections of poetry. The most notable of these contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother. She writes these while in a mental institution and they range from traditional-seeming letters to letters with scattered text to letters in secret code. The reader is referred to these letters early on and this helps the reader understand how to read other parts of the book.

The main reason that all this is tolerable is that it fits so well with the story itself. Like the house in The Navidson Record, the book folds in on itself, containing story within story. It is a maze, just like the house is, and the reader must navigate it in the same way that Will Navidson must navigate his house. It is impossible for the reader not to get lost in it. This mirrors the experience of both the people in The Navidson Record and Zampanò and Truant, who, as they are writing about the film, get lost in the darkness that the theoretical explorations suggest. Instead of being alienating gimmicks, the nuances of the book pull the reader in, making her feel like one more layer in the maze of stories that make up the book. The only way this effect could be more effective is if the book left space for the reader to footnote her own experience of researching the film (which I will admit to attempting, even knowing it didn’t exist) and reading the text. For my own part, I was so engrossed in House of Leaves that I felt nearly compelled to add footnotes that recounted what was happening in my world, that the leaves were falling, darkness was multiplying, and my house, like the Navidson house, seemed to be emitting a low growl.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

Reading for Writers: Englishes in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

A former Tamil Tiger in an Australian detention center. A transgender grandmother in New Orleans. An Australian woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Uganda. With this wide, global view, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, examines issues of identity and displacement across an expansive swath of space and time. Clarke uses a poetic attention to vernacular to bring her readers past the narrative, offering an immersive experience with each story.

From the epigraph of the book (“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe), Clarke sets high expectations for her readers and she delivers. Throughout these stories, Clarke uses nonstandard English to tell nonstandard stories. The first story of the collection, “David,” follows a chance meeting of two Sudanese women in Australia, one who is Australian-born and one who was born in Sudan. Each woman’s voice mirrors the life she has known. These two voices side by side highlight the ways in which language shapes one’s view of the world but also the connections that can happen despite linguistic differences. From the outset, Clarke is playing with language. It’s no surprise that she is also a poet. Her attention to the smallest details of accent and sound are evident throughout the collection.

Clarke’s use of nonstandard English goes beyond dialog. For example, in “Gaps in the Hickory,” the narration is in third person but affects a dialect of the Southern United States that would be comfortable for the characters. “Ain’t no buckin up gon cover up how much Carter miss his gram,” (131) Clarke writes. Though the dialect is not always authentic (most Americans would use the term “bangs” for “fringe”), it nevertheless adds to the ambiance of the story and sets it more firmly in place. The use of dialect also requires the reader to set himself into the language and world of the characters, instead of trying to put the characters in a vernacular that is not their own.

Her most poignant use of language happens in the story “Big Islan.” In this narrative, which is written in a Jamaican dialect, we follow Nathaniel Robinson as he learns to read English. The language gives him a sense of place as he can find his home of Jamaica on the globe, but the language is inaccurate for his experience of the world. Nathaniel learns “E is for Inglan” (182) and “A is for Owstrayleah” (188). The letters don’t match his own speech. His newfound ability to read is a mixed blessing, giving him both H, which “always gwan stand fe home” (185) and “E fe envy” (189). In the end, his ability to read the newspaper makes “de city im grow te love so-so dear, Kingston, feel insignificant small” (191).

Clarke’s use of dialects makes her reader feel acutely the theme around which the stories in this collection rotate: displacement. Clarke does not stick to any one vernacular or voice. Instead, the stories cycle through some of the myriad Englishes that have evolved around the globe. Because of this, the reader can never settle in to one style of writing, but is constantly recalibrating her reading in order to adjust to the narrators.

The variety of characters, voices, and places in Foreign Soil underscores the variety of forms of displacement. One of the most compelling aspects of Foreign Soil is its “globality” (181), to use a term coined by the character Nathaniel in “Big Islan.” Clarke does not focus on one people or one part of the world. Nor does her exploration of displacement end with being in a new country. The collection explores racism, gender identity, immigration issues, and religious intolerance, to name just a few themes. Far from feeling scattered, the range of stories brings home Clarke’s point: that displacement in a global world can happen to anyone, anywhere.

The newest story in the collection, added for the 2017 edition, is “Aviation,” the tale of a Sikh child, Sunni, in need of emergency foster care. Sunni ends up on the doorstep of Mirabel, whose husband was killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. In her attempt to provide a home for a child in need, Mirabel comes face to face with her own prejudices. In the end, the reader does not find out whether or not she fosters Sunni. This story, like many in the collection, is a story of people who find themselves in impossible positions. The narratives resolve and feel complete, but they also often leave their main characters and their readers to sit in the discomfort. Nathaniel, of “Big Islan” is left restless in Jamaica. The eponymous main character of “Harlem Jones” is left holding a Molotov cocktail. Sunni is left waiting to be fostered. These stories are not about how displacement dissolves or is overcome, but about the displacement itself, about being in the thick of it.

Her final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club,” feels strikingly autobiographical. The struggle of a young single mother trying to make it as a writer, told in first person, is juxtaposed with a story she is writing about Avery, a girl who is stuck upside down in an impossible position on the monkey bars. Once again, Avery and the writer are characters displaced. These narratives side by side highlight the constant question throughout the book: can Clarke’s characters find a way down, a place to land?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Let Your Words Fly: Submission Bonanza 2015

photo (7)Do you have stories that have been hibernating over winter in the caves of your computer files? Poems that have sleepily spent the dark months hiding from the cold snuggled between the pages of your notebook? Blog posts or essays that are destined to fly in the summer breeze and see a new audience?

It’s time for a Submission Bonanza, and I’d love for you to join me!

Here in Alaska, the new, green life is taking shape. The air feels fertile and full of possibilities. Birds are sending their songs out into the world and all this makes me feel like I should follow suit. With the start of summer, there’s the reminder of the possibilities that exist and the importance of our art seeing the light of day, stretching in the sunshine and basking in the warmth of the outdoors.

Two years ago at this time, I began a Submission Bonanza. It was an attempt to start getting my work out in the world, which I had been terrible about doing. It had been a long time since I had submitted anything anywhere, thinking of myself as not-a-real-writer, as someone who just wrote to make myself happy. At some point, I realized that writing, for me, is actually about connection and the real reason I was not submitting my work anywhere wasn’t because it was “just for me” but because I was afraid of the rejection. I mean, this poem is my soul; how could I stomach someone saying it wasn’t good enough?

Two years and hundreds of rejections later, I am stronger. I know now how to take the rejection letters. Being an editor of a magazine myself, I see how subjective the process can be and I know that it’s not a reflection of the worth of my soul.

I also have quite a few publications under my belt, because as subjective and harrowing as the process can be, there will also be moments when your work falls into the lap of someone who gets you, someone who connects with what you are trying to say. And they’ll want to share that with other people. Which, honestly, is kind of magical.

I have to say, I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit, been remiss in keeping my work flying out into the world and, thankfully, nature has reminded me that it’s time again.

submission bonanza logo 2 copySo, I’ll be doing another Submission Bonanza this year, 30 submissions in 30 days. For the whole month of June, I’ll be keeping a running list of literary journals that I submit to, and I’ll highlight some of the best ones so that you can submit to them, too.

If you’re new to submitting, check out my Guide to Creating Your Own Submission Bonanza, Choosing and Selecting Submittable Pieces, Finding Literary Magazines, and Six Tips for Perfect (Professional) Cover Letters.

Feel free to use the Submission Bonanza logo and join up. I’ll keep you posted with how things are going. Keep me posted as well!

How to Tell a Messy Story: Divina Trace by Robert Antoni

 

“This is magical realism with an avant-garde twist, as if Garcia Márquez and Joyce had themselves engaged in unholy cohabitation,” says Gustavo Pérez Firmat, referring to Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace. This is indeed an apt portrayal. Divina Trace is the story of Magdalena Divina, the patron saint of Corpus Christi, an imagined island in the Caribbean. We are introduced to the story by Dr. Johnny Domingo, Jr., who gives us the story from the points of view of his grandparents, a former slave, his father, the abbess of the local convent, the saint herself, and Hanuman, the monkey messenger from The Ramayana. The story itself is a wild ride, a mix of religions, histories, and sciences that come together to paint the ungraspable picture of miracles and mysteries. The elusiveness of this story is both created and made more manageable for the reader through the use of structure, language, form, and repetition.

Though the story itself is messy, with the blurred edges that come with the intense humidity of island life, the structure is nearly mathematical, precisely formed. In each chapter, Johnny Domingo introduces us to a narrator who tells him what they know of the story of Magdalena Divina. These narrators make a perfect palindrome, with chapters being told in kind by Granny Myrna, Papee Vince, Evalina, Dr. Domingo (Sr.), Mother Superior Maurina, Magdalena, Hanuman, Magdalena, Mother Superior Maurina, Dr. Domingo (Sr.), Evalina, Papee Vance, and Granny Myrna. In this way, the chapters mirror themselves, front to back, During Hanuman’s retelling, in nearly the exact middle of the book, lies a mirror. Almost exactly one-quarter and three-quarters of the way through the book, during the chapters of Dr. Domingo Sr., there is the same page from a medical journal. This structure gives the reader something to hold on to as the story and the language falls apart.

The language of this book plays a particularly big role. There are very few sections which are written in standard English. Even Johnny Domingo, who was educated in America, slips into Caribbean dialect as he writes. This is even more evident in the voices of the storytellers. Each person has their own language and way of speaking. Mother Superior, for example, uses Spanish and cusses like a sailor. Evalina talks in a thick Caribbean accent. Magdalena’s chapters are written like epic poetry or revelations from god. There are line breaks and it is the retelling of Indian epic The Ramayana. The most striking chapter is that in which Hanuman speaks. In this chapter, the language is meant to be English, but in the voice of a monkey. Hanuman invites us to look at the monkey in the mirror, “Dat sapian night, desperate, you dropasleep deaddrunk, again dreaming you writereading, you simian Bible of baboons e-eeing. Ayes close you now you simian fossil potto, you simian primate missinglink:” and then comes the page of the book that is a mirror. But this is far from the uneducated jabbering of a mindless chimp. This chapter references Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, which forces the reader to think about the ways in which intelligence and standard English work together or don’t. This chapter is certainly disorienting, but by this time the reader is prepared for it because the language has been slowly becoming more and more slippery and nuanced as the different voices take the stage.

Antoni uses a variety of forms to tell this story as well. In addition to the mirror and the pages and pictures from medical journals, he also uses epic poetry, personal letters, knot tying diagrams, musical notation, recipes, and newspaper articles. The myriad sources underlines one of the main themes of the book: Who has the authority to tell stories and decide which versions are told? In each chapter, the story of Magdalena Divina is told again, sometimes negating previous chapters, sometimes adding new information, sometimes raising new questions. This is done in such an artful way that the reader is compelled to keep going, even through the sometimes confusing, difficult-to-read varieties of language.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing, subtle techniques that Antoni uses is repetition. Each chapter is a repetition of the story. We see the same scenes from different points of view and in different languages, which make them different scenes all together. The characters also begin repeating themselves and each other. There are echoes of phrases from previous storytellers, making it difficult for the reader to tell where the story is coming from and whose words are whose. This shines an interesting light on the way that myths and histories and collective stories are told, and retold, what gets picked up and what doesn’t. Highly recommend Divina Trace.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.