PRESS RELEASE 02/20/2013 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
We Were Beautiful Once, Chapters from a Cold War, a Novel, (Sunbury Press, Feb. 2013), Joseph Carvalko.
We Were Beautiful Once is a psychologically complex courtroom novel that builds an intriguing web of events, creating a sustained sense of anticipation from chapter to chapter in the mold of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, where trial lawyer Nick Castalano tries to uncover the fate of Roger Girardin, MIA during the Korean War, and discovers he may have been murdered in a POW camp. Before the war, Jack O’Conner, Hamilton, Girardin and Julie, Girardin’s girlfriend and Jack’s sister, hung out. In part the story follows the lives of the survivors, who after the war, with Roger’s disappearance and Jack and Trent having spent years in a North Korean hell-hole, change dramatically, notably Jack goes through life teetering on the edge of insanity (believing he may have killed Girardin) and that his murderous act will be discovered by his sister, who waits her entire life for Roger’s return.
Josip Novakovich wrote: “Carvalko has written a wonderful military mystery novel, with great authentic details and deep psychological insights–a thrilling trip into our past.” Novakovich is a current nominee for the Man Booker International Prize 2013, Whiting Writers’ Award recipient and bestselling author of April Fool’s Day, Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust.
Da Chen wrote: “Carvalko writes with such convincing realism and lyricism that I was at once brought into the landscape of his literary vision and grip of his storytelling. His prose is wiry and wise, steely yet soulful. His tales are tethered to real life, lived and thoroughly pondered. In right light, he is a cross between James Patterson and Scott Turow, only wiser and much more generous.” Chen is New York Times bestselling author of Colors of the Mountain, a memoir, Brothers, a novel, and My Last Empress, a novel.
Joseph Carvalko is an American writer, lawyer born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The novel, We Were Beautiful Once, Chapters from a Cold War was inspired by a case he tried in Federal Court to locate a Korean War POW. A 2004 documentary “Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search for America’s POWs” narrated by Ed Asner details his trial efforts. In addition to numerous professional and academic writing, other of his publications include: The Techno-Human Shell-A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap (2012), which details the rapid rise in cyborg-like technology; A Road Once Traveled, Life from All Sides (2007); and A Deadly Fog (2004). In 2012, he was one of two finalists for the 2012 Red Mountain Press Prize for Poetry, for The Interior, A Memoir; and one of three finalists for the 2012 Esurance Poetry prize, for his poem The Road Home. When he is not writing, he plays jazz piano. He, his wife Susie and four cats live between the Connecticut and Florida coastal areas.
Please click here for Amazon link.
All in the Family: MFA Alum A.J. O’Connell’s Interview of MFA Alum (and book prize winner) Nick Knittel
I expected someone older when I met Nick Knittel. It was 2009 and Knittel was part of my second-ever workshop at Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA program. He’d submitted a story about two little boys who’d lost their mother. Because the story featured a compassionate father, that’s kind of who I expected when I checked in on Enders Island.
Instead I met a young man, just out of undergrad, who could write a mean piece of short fiction.
Two years later, Knittel won our MFA program’s inaugural book prize (judged by poet Charles Simic) for “Good Things,” a collection of deep, quiet short stories. The book was released by New Rivers Press in October 2012. Now that first story I read – the one about the grieving little boys – is available for all to read, along with nine others.
For entire interview, please click here
“Spare, tightly constructed and meticulously crafted, these stories tell of lives of lower-middle-class Americans, the isolated and marginalized people many of our contemporary writers somehow manage not to notice. These are tough, realistic and well-told stories. Knittel has a deep understanding of his characters and their complicated and often hopeless circumstances, but he doesn’t judge them. He writes of them with compassion, and, as he does, the reader cannot help but be moved too.” – Charles Simic
The MFA program at Fairfield University was one of the greatest experiences I could have had as a writer. Nestled on the beautiful Enders Island, the program provided a solid and tight-knit community of students that, by the end of the first day, felt less like a group of strangers meeting for the first time and more like the long-lost family I never knew I had. It is a vibrant, diverse, and highly talented group of individuals that raised my skills as a writer higher than I ever thought possible. The two years of education, inspiration, and friendships have created a lifetime of memories. – Nick Knittel
Fairfield University MFA graduate publishes brutally honest memoir
David Fitzpatrick, a 2011 graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, has turned a lifetime battling self-destructive psychosis into a searing memoir that is gaining acclaim for its honesty and hopefulness. Fitzpatrick will discuss “Sharp,” his look back at years of institutionalization, and the healing and writing process on Wednesday, August 22 at 7 p.m. at Fairfield University Bookstore, 1499 Post Road, Fairfield. The talk is free and open to the public.
“Sharp” details Fitzpatrick’s 17-year battle with self-injury, in which he was compelled to cut himself with razor blades to relieve his inner torment, leading to multiple stays in mental health facilities. While still in treatment for bipolar disorder, he reached out to award-winning novelist Wally Lamb, a Connecticut writer he admires who encouraged Fitzpatrick to tell his story.
“While reading ‘Sharp,’ I was at turns frightened, appalled, enlightened, and overcome with sadness,” said Lamb, author of bestsellers such as “She’s Come Undone” and “The Hour I First Believed.” “Throughout I was fully engaged and, by book’s end, reassured about the triumph of the human spirit and the healing power of a family’s patient and abiding love. For those of us who seek a better understanding of mental illness, David Fitzpatrick’s ‘Sharp’ is a must read, remarkably told.”
Lamb and Fitzpatrick will read from their works together at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 24 at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at 2289 Broadway (at 82nd Street) in New York City.
Fitzpatrick entered Fairfield’s MFA program in the winter of 2008, joining other aspiring writers on Ender’s Island, off Mystic, for four 10-day residencies over two years. Writers in the low-residency program work independently with an advisor for most of the year, but enjoy the residencies as times for constructive criticism and encouragement from each other.
It was on Ender’s Island that he met writer Lary Bloom, who, like Lamb, has taught in the program. He found Fitzpatrick shy, but compassionate and insightful. “When it came time to go over his piece, and for us to offer suggestions for it, I was stumped,” Bloom wrote in a recent story for Connecticut Magazine. “Only once before as editor or teacher had I been in such a situation: When I read David’s 20-page essay about some of his worst days, I was stunned both by its power and its craft. There wasn’t a single comma I wanted to change. Believe me, that is rare.”
Fitzpatrick worked with an old friend who is a literary agent, but they initially received the rejections most aspiring writers know all too well. Then Lamb stepped in and asked his editors at HarperCollins to read the memoir, which they agreed to publish. It hits bookstores on August 21.
Early reviews of the book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called it “mesmeric,” and author Kate Christensen (“The Great Man”) said, “‘Sharp’ is a courageously honest book by a gentle, damaged soul who fought his way to the light with a ferocity he never thought he possessed.”
Lamb and Fitzpatrick will also read from their works together at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 24 at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at 2289 Broadway (at 82ndStreet) in New York City.
Author Michael White, director of Fairfield’s MFA program, isn’t surprised by the accolades. “What makes this memoir so riveting and so unforgettable isn’t the myriad of horrors that its narrator inflicts upon himself,” he said. “It’s the razor-sharp humor and abiding wisdom and depth of humanity with which its author graces the reader. Sharp cuts deep into your heart.”
Fitzpatrick, who lives in Middletown, Conn., with his wife, graphic designer Amy Holmes, has also been published in Fiction Weekly, The New Haven Review and Barely South Review. He is currently writing a novel.
He credits the MFA program with making his writing dreams come true.
“On Ender’s Island, I found inspiring faculty and fellow writing students that pushed me, that made me pick my game up and bring it to the next level,” he said. “My two years was a wonderful experience, and now I’ve got great friends in a writing community to keep me connected.”
For more information on Fairfield’s MFA in Creative Writing program, visit www.fairfield.edu/mfa.
Reprinted from Fairfield University Press Releases
The Land of the Four Rivers
Matthew A. Hamilton
Cervena Barva Press
“…Purple clouds swallow my words.
I walk the line toward the river and dip my hands
in the ice water and wash my face.
I look at the age of my hands and see them
transform into sand and time…”
The poet’s journey is a quagmire “within the peaceful and steady
dance of nature,” people, places and vodka. His poetry enlivens
the village mirage set in solitude:
“I take a shot, then two, until I lose count.
Someone hands me a piece of bread, cheese.
Laughter and song, then silence, winds from a feather,
clouds of sleeping sheep, sunflower dreams.
Florets of children sprout from the Darichay River.
Blood bleeds from the cliffs,
nourishing unknown souls behind an oil stained door,
the final stripe of the Armenian flag under a clear sky.
The smells of candied mulberries sneak around the fence line,
burning my veins, like glass heated into magical shapes
of triangles and squares, a stone sealing my tomb.
I wake up and do not remember how I ended up in a gift shop
buried inside the catacombs with sacred scrolls
duplicated on decaying walls.”
Hamilton’s poems take the reader into his realizations; what it
means to “watch birds peck the snow and drink from crystal
puddles.” We twirl and turn waiting for summer to melt
the constant chill:
“I open the door
and enter the warm
air of summer
and grab a scythe.
I dispatch a mix
of greens and yellows,
create swirls of air…”
I could not stop reading these poems until I got to the last
poem where I’m back to myself thinking about what it means
to travel to live within an unfamiliar environment. The poet
finally enters from where he always was, himself. Hamilton
gives us an oral tradition. His poems are the beginning of
a poetic life set in his experiences in which we may all relate.
This chapbook is a must read:
to the ground,
new life for next year’s pigs.
The fallen grass
dies a soldiers death.
The three headed fork
flips the dew off their backs..”
Wilderness House Literary Review
Ibbetson Street Press
By Meredith Guinness
Deborah Henry spent two years crafting her first novel in Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and all her hard work has paid off: The Whipping Club (T.S. Poetry, March 2012) has been named one of Oprah Winfrey’s must-reads for summer in O Magazine.
Set in mid-20th-century Ireland, the novel centers on a “good Catholic girl” who decides to give up her half-Jewish child for adoption. “Secrecy, lifelong guilt, and remorse aren’t even half of what she and the child will suffer in Deborah Henry’s novel,” according to the recommendation in “O‘s 2012 Summer Reading List,” which includes 33 books.
Henry, a Fairfield resident who received her MFA in July 2011, said “this particular recognition from Oprah Magazine, Oprah.com and the O – Oprah app for iPad is really exciting for me because I am a huge admirer of Oprah Winfrey. Her appreciation of art and how books in particular can make a difference in the world resonates with me. The Whipping Club is a historical novel but the major issues are still relevant today. Eight years of writing and rewriting, this accolade from Oprah brings huge joy.”
The O pick is just one of the many accolades Henry received for The Whipping Club. She has received strong reviews from top trade magazines and newspapers including Publishers Weekly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Herald de Paris and notably, a starred Kirkus Review that calls The Whipping Club “a powerful saga of love and survival.” Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler calls Henry “a natural storyteller who deserves a wide audience. Her novel The Whipping Club is a compelling read, but it also seriously explores the terrible ways the world – as a society, as individuals – often fails its children,” he said. “And most importantly, her book offers a searingly lovely vision of how wrongs can be made right.”
She’s likely to find that wide audience now that she’s been recognized by Winfrey’s organization. A recommendation from the popular former talk show host, who now has her own television network, often sends books to the top of the bestseller list.
“Deb Henry’s novel, The Whipping Club, is an enormously compelling and readable story,” said Michael White, Ph.D., director of Fairfield’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. “It was a joy to see her and her novel develop in our MFA program. We are all very proud of her and her success, and look forward to many more books from her.”
Poet and Master of Forms, Lewis Turco, was recently struck by Moseley’s innovative poem “Noah” after being asked to analyze the poem’s form. “Noah” is composed of two sonnets. The second sonnet, forming a mirror image of the first though in reverse order, is written from the bottom up. Turco was impressed enough to declare Moseley the creator and innovator of the “mirror sonnet” and discussed it on his blog, Odd and Invented Forms in “Form of the Week 5: The Mirror Sonnet (7/8/2012) found here.
Moseley, who is the author of several books of poetry as well as the founder and editor of String Poet, a literary journal, repeats this form in another poem: “The Sea Cave of My Mother” included in her newly published book The Clock of the Long Now.
A 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, Moseley has published hundreds of poems in journals both nationally and internationally and in April 2011, her poem “Breakable” was one of 12 chosen by O, The Oprah Magazine, from a field of thousands, to be featured on Oprah.com. Moseley is also a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College and teaches poetry workshops at the Walt Whitman Birthplace.
- Faculty member Baron Wormser had his poem “Great Plains” read by Garrison Keilor on The Writer’s Almanac.
- Three MFA faculty members have been awarded prestigious National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) literary fellowships in creative writing in fiction. The $25,000 awards have gone to Nalini Jones, Porochista Khakpour, and Suzanne Matson.
- Michael White’s latest novel, Beautiful Assassin, won the 2011 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction.
- Christine Koubek’s essay “Finding Ann Marie,” which was published in Bethesda Magazine and Ladies’ Home Journal, came in second place for ASJA’s 2011 Arlene Award.
- Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel contributed a short story titled "The Window" to the New England Native American anthology. In addition, The University of Nebraska will publish "Dawnland Voices," in 2013.
- Sarah Balsley had an essay published in Brain Child, the magazine for thinking Mothers.
- Jeanne DeLarm-Neri won the “Connecticut Maple Leaf” essay contest Winter 2011: for “DeLarm – A Single Tear or An Elm Tree.” Also published were two pieces in Times Of Brunswick, Greenwich CT, Winter 2011 “Brunswick Boys,” and Winter 2012 “Mr. Cosby’s Portrait.”
- Travis Baker’s play, One Blue Tarp, was named a semi-finalist for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference.
- Adele Annesi was named managing editor of Southern Literary Review. Her fiction piece, “Days of Obligation” was adapted for and performed at the 2011 Ridgefield Cultural Festival. Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers, which included her essay “After the Sunflowers,” which won the 2011 Clarion Award. Her short story “Resolution” is slated to appear in Midway Journal.
- Daisy Abreu’s essay, “Back and Forth” will be published online in Label Me Latina/o, spring edition, 2012.
- Reuben Hayslett published a story in The Surreal South '11 Anthology called, "Like a Feather."
- Brian Hoover’s essay “A Rock Snob to His Infant Daughter” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of The Normal School. The piece has also been accepted into YOU. An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person, due out this winter from Welcome Table Press.
- Tommy Hahn’s essay is going to be featured in a 2012 book on craft entitled, Created Writing: Poetry From New Angles, by Professor Paul Agostino.
- Matthew Hamilton has had two poems published: in Muddy River Poetry Review: Fall 2011 and Atticus Review: August 2011: He also had a chapbook accepted for publication: The Land of the Four Rivers, to be published by Cervena Barva Press.
- Kelly Coveny had her poem "Orkin Man" published in Gargoyle anthology and the poems "Boo Yow" and "Jesus is Not Pulling His Weight" essays in Porchlight. Her poems "Life Without GPS" and "The Forsythia is in Full Bloom as My Mom Pulls Away in Her Sunshine Yellow Beetle with Cancer Again" appeared in Touch: The Journal of Healing.
- Wendy Hoffman’s poem, called, "When Things Become People" was published in Burning Bright, Passager Celebrates 21 Years. Two poems, "A Century" and "Soul,” appeared in Jewish Women's Literary Annual, volume 8.
- Heidi St. Jean’s poem, “Goddess” appeared in Inklight/Afterimage online, The Journal of Media Arts and Criticism. St. Jean has had poems accepted in The Hill-Stead Museum’s inaugural issue of its new online poetry journal, Theodate and in Long River Run the journal of CT Poetry Society.
- Mark Berry had “Teaching is a License to Learn” published in AOPA Flight Training magazine in February. Write This online literary magazine published his story, “The Secret the Darkness Completely Concealed” in January. Embry-Riddle published his story “25 Years Since ERAU” on their alumni website ERAU EaglesNEST. He is giving a seminar on “Infusing Music Into the Story” later this month at Bowling Green’s Winter Wheat Festival.
B stands for Before (as A stands for After) and serves as an opening one-paragraph snapshot or postcard, a flash of concrete picture painting where the writer presents and illuminates the scene and the problem contained within it. B is all show and no tell, letting the reader see, hear, smell, touch, and taste the theme. Example: “Montana’s only female fly fishing guide, Julie Johnson, spends a day on the stream dealing with jerks from New York who hit on her; she wonders why she bothers trying to make a living as a guide when she could just fish?” B shows her at work, shows the jerks being jerks, shows her joyfully catching fish, shows her alarm going off at 4:00 a.m. to start another day.
T stands for Thesis. Remember your high school English professor describing the classic keyhole essay structure and the need for a cogent thesis statement? This is that (and you thought he was an idiot – hah!) The second paragraph is all tell and no show, where the writer clearly states the problem under examination, and the 2 or 3 or 4 ways of looking at it: “Fishing guides in Montana have to_____; it’s even harder for women to overcome_____; Julie Jones found out early on that_____; they say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, but for Julie Jones,_____.”
D stands for Development. This is the main body of the essay, and if your thesis statement is well-wrought, you can follow the structure you’ve established, one paragraph on the job of being a fly fishing guide in general, a second on the difficulties women encounter, a third on how Julie Johnson has met and dealt with them, and a fourth illuminating her moments of doubt.
A is the After closing snapshot. It is the opposite of the opening snapshot, where you again show (but do not tell) how Julie Johnson has solved the problem. It is the kicker, the last vivid concrete image you leave your reader with and perhaps the only thing they’ll remember, a day or week or year after reading your essay. Example: “One day Julie Johnson is hired by a sweet Doofus Dad over-dressed in Orvis gear who wants to go fishing with his reluctant teenage son; they spend a glorious day catching giant trout that sparkle in the sun; the sullen teenage boy decides his dad isn’t such a doofus after all; Doofus Dad takes Julie aside and asks if he can tell her ‘something personal;’ she fears he’s about to hit on her; he confides that a year ago, he was told he had cancer, a few months to live, but Doofus Dad got better, full remission; all he wanted, lying in the hospital, all he dreamed of, was to have one day fishing with his boy…”
Julie Johnson was a woman I profiled for a magazine, one of 150+ articles I’ve published over the years, and her story fell into place for me. Not all stories do, and then it’s the writer’s job to shape the story accordingly. You may quarrel with the idea of formulas, or strive to vary or depart from them, but they work. Bolt The Door Abigail is archetypal, historically consistent from Updike to Montaigne to Socrates. The best reason to heed the standard essay structure is, if you do, your editor will smile and think, “Ah – this writer gets it – less work for me.”
When we write literary fiction, we render an experience that has not been rendered before (that is, it’s original) in a language (a voice, style, diction) unique to that experience. Such fiction can’t be replicated. A writer who chooses to write a genre novel, even one with literary qualities, can find one in the appropriate genre to serve as a template. Once such a novel is found and analyzed section-by-section and scene-by-scene, writing the book requires filling in the template with your own material until it meets the requirements of the genre.
Though it’s possible to formulate such a template for literary fiction, it makes far better sense to enter a theater-of-the-mind and make sure that you give your reader sufficient and unique sensory detail to experience the human drama unfolding in that theater. It’s possible to write a novel in the style of any genre novelist you might care to name, for example, and to be praised (and rewarded) for doing so, but it’s not possible to write a Margaret Atwood or Haruki Murakami novel unless you happen to be Margaret Atwood or Haruki Murakami. Such a novel would be described, at best, as “promising but derivative.”
In real life, it sometimes pays to be cautious. In the literary theater-of-the-mind, the vertigo of trying to find your original voice is always risky but, as Annie Dillard reminds us, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Anything is possible on the page; if the wings don’t work, you’ll go splat, but you’ll live to tell the tale and try again. Take chances, make mistakes, and find your voice in the process.
I used to write poetry. I also used to wear glasses, or, to be precise, I used to not wear glasses. Pathologically insecure, I compounded my isolation by refusing to wear glasses because I thought they made me look bookish. Of course, I was bookish, but I did not want to appear bookish. In my neurotic self-imposed myopia, I set about further damaging my eyesight, reading books undercover by flashlight, rebelling against the ten o’clock lights out rule in my dormitory.
I inhabited a dangerous phantasmagorical world in which sweatshirts draped over ladderback chairs transmogrified into night beasts. Daytime tables lurched into my hips. Astigmatic walls transformed themselves into arches. My eyesight which could transmute the inanimate world into a writhing, looming, swerving, crawling world of form and color could also take the fun out of funhouse mirrors. In Art History class, El Greco’s hallucinatory figures contracted into conventional proportions; I could not understand what the fuss was all about.
Without my glasses, I did not see the world as others saw it. At parties, I waited for people to recognize me. They rarely did. Thinking me snobbish or dim-witted or lost in a maze of my own corner-turning, wall-groping thoughts, my peers wisely ignored me at mixers, figuring that through either deliberate pruning or natural dispensation, I clung to walls like ivy. While waiting for someone to peel me off the walls, I discovered patience. With time to fill, I retreated into that fibrillating tiny maze of my own thinking, and there poems discovered me.
As a former unsuccessful and near-sighted poet, I cannot speak for accomplished, clear-sighted poets. But I can speak for myself. Poems happened. While I hugged walls and blurry figures wove madras plaids of color on the dance floors of my adolescence, poems occurred. I lived in a world of “seems not is” because I could not see except in my interior world.
Sometimes poems manifested, unfolding into my seclusion entire pages my hunt-and-peck would later transcribe. I did not feel as if I had summoned the poems; I felt as if they had summoned me. Living in a visionary world in which radiators unpleated like noiseless accordions to bruise a passing thigh, a world in which trees lost their branches instead of leaves and became brown funicular smudges against the latest horizon of glazed snow or eye-smarting spring green, I made peace with the fantastic. The fantastic was ordinary, and I turned inward where I navigated through words and phrases, bumping into the occasional adjective. I understood the world like a dirty sock understands the hamper – from the inside out. Turned inside out, I waited for the outside to come in. Sometimes it did – in the shape of teenage boys’ faces which, nearer, became clearer, or in the shape of poems which printed themselves in my high school literary magazine, or in the shape of my teachers’ lectures. I always sat in the front row to squint at the chalked scansion, the plot diagrams, the page assignments. Had I continued to write poetry, I might have discovered the seriousness of apprenticeship, the years of craftsmanship the art demanded.
Instead I went to college. I bought my first pair of contact lenses, and I discovered that there is a there there. Tables and radiators became themselves. The dancers of my adolescence became people with plaid flannel shirts. The walls recovered their architectural integrity. El Greco’s figures elongated. I continued to read books, but I also began to read faces, the eyeroll, the averted glance or the grin that explained others to me as well as my effect on others – not always a pretty sight.
I had the pleasure of talking with some of you at my seminar on omission during the January residency. At present I’m thinking about the opposite technique: inclusion.
In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard instructs, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. … Something more will arise for later, something better.”
Wise counsel. Limiting a piece of writing to mimic existing forms – writing a novel that looks and sounds exactly like the calculated mean of all existing novels – will deaden the work. In the end, one is left with a structurally sound but empty house. It looks like the houses we’ve seen before, but no one’s home. It’s a model home in a highway subdivision where no one will ever live.
Between omission and inclusion, a balance must be struck. In the end, one must omit what’s irrelevant to a piece of writing, but identifying those irrelevancies is a writer’s entire job. The poet Charles Simic puts it simply: “Be brief and tell us everything.”
Voice in fiction is not everything, but it is a whole lot. If you believe the voice, if you like the voice, if you want to follow the voice, the story’s got you hooked. If you find the voice flat, uninteresting, or too transparently that of the author, no details or degrees of excitement within the characters or plot can save the tale.
Because most writers are wordsmiths and most characters aren’t, first person narration gets problematic in this regard. How many clever bookish protagonists do avid readers need in their lives, anyhow? They can find those folks by looking in the mirror. And yet when we writers inhabit the consciousness of less articulate narrators, the result too often is either an inarticulate story or a speaker whose narrative reminds me of those nifty dioramas the other kids in my son’s second-grade class brought to school: you knew their moms did the real work for them.
As a solution, I like to steal a page from the late John Updike and his early story “A&P.” Told in first person from the point of view of a 19-year-old grocery checkout clerk, the story begins with the kid’s pitch-perfect ungrammatical line, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” Yet just a few paragraphs later, the same young man intones poetry as he describes one of these girls who will change his moral life: “There was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her; this clean, bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.”
Updike! we want to shout. Updike all the way! Beyond a doubt, the assonance in that line, the internal half-rhyme, the anapests and iams all come from the author. And yet readers never experience the intrusiveness, never spot a deviation from the nineteen-year-old’s point of view. They just love the line.
In my view, Updike’s success in this sleight-of-hand derives from his immersion in the character. However unlikely it may be for a poorly educated checkout clerk to say or think dented sheet of metal tilted in the light, we have the sense that he would have said exactly that if he had had the verbal dexterity to do so. After all, he’s a high-school dropout, a girl-watcher; he probably messes around with cars, with amateur body work; he’s seen plenty of dented sheets of metal tilt in the light. All Updike has done, it seems, is to supply his narrator with the words and rhythms the narrator needs to express himself to us on the page. I picture the grocery checkout clerk behind the wheel of a car that is the story itself. There’s a move he wants to make; he knows exactly where he needs to go. But he doesn’t have the dexterity to get there. So he leans over to his passenger and whispers, “Hey, John. Gimme a hand here. I need syntax, man. Help me out.”
Too many of us, when our characters ask for our help this way, stop the car. We get out. We switch places with the driver, put on her mask, and try to continue the journey. But then we lose all sense of where she wants to go, and where we wish she’d gone, and the tension between those places. So I try to remind myself, in first person stories, to remain available to my narrators on an as-needs basis. They want a word from me, fine; I’ve got one, or even a choice of several. They want a transition, I can help them out. But I try not to get behind the wheel when they’re driving. I try to keep my ears open, and my seatbelt on.
“I dream of an art so transparent that you can look
through and see the world.” - Stanley Kunitz
Realistic fiction. During the course of writing and, more importantly, rewriting a novel, the demands of realism will conflict with the demands of fiction. On the macro level of the novel we are committing an act of fabrication, and on the micro level we are concerned only that the elements of the story be palpable, convincing, “true.”
When I reread sections of a novel-in-progress, often what stops me is a sense of over-determination. The characters seem to be speaking and acting as if the whole story’s been revealed to them. If I want the reader to reach through the artifice and finger the world, then I have to remember that only the writer knows the entire story. Elemental, for sure, but the division of imaginative labor is subtle.
As the writer, the plot is my problem, and I can’t enlist characters to do the heavy lifting. My characters, if afforded their full portion of humanity and integrity, not only don’t have awareness of the overarching design of my novel, they couldn’t care less about it. They’re far too busy living their dramatic lives to be concerned with my book. They move through the present moment obsessed with the past and dreading the future – a future that is as unknown to them as mine is to me. Each character’s actions and inaction is being fueled by her own filled-to-the-brim, singular consciousness, with enough directives and self-defeating impulses to last well beyond her fictional lifetime.
Characterization: “See Me, Hear Me, Touch Me…”
(—The Who, lyrics from “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You” from Tommy)
The terms “round” and “flat” ascribed to characterization were coined by E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel. From this rose “three-dimensional” and “one-dimensional,” and the assumption that the latter characteristic leads to forgettable figures, something writers should avoid. Forster would demur; he describes how flat characterization itself can give the appropriate diminution to a character. The immediate point is to be attentive to what your characterization is doing, so that the few descriptive words you choose will precisely serve your intent. Regardless of the genre, characterizations are opportunities that can enrich the weight and visual reality of scene, add flavor and color, and augment subtext.
An example from Forster’s nonfiction narrative in Aspects of the Novel is his referral to the earliest listener of stories, the Neanderthal, as a “primitive audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire.” From these few words springs a vivid picture described with wit and humor. Nabokov, in his memoir, Speak, Memory, economically says about a military general: “His thickset, uniform-encased body creaking slightly…”
Fiction abounds with rich examples of meaningful characterization, including this first line from Bernard Malamud’s Lady of the Lake, “Henry Levin, an ambitious, handsome thirty, who walked the floors of Macy’s book department wearing a white flower in his label…” Note that “an ambitious, handsome thirty” are rather flat characterizations which suggest something vacuous about Levin’s personality, a suggestion confirmed by the visual of Levin at his job. And I can’t remember the author or book, but can never forget the woman – a cleaning lady – described as having a face “like a pudding.”
Many of Mary Oliver’s poems are pure characterizations: simple language describing particular details about animals or nature, an attentiveness that in itself comes to reveal the meaning of her observations. She describes “William” in an eponymous poem: “He comes pecking, like a bird, at my heart. His eyebrows are like the feathers of a wren. His ears are like seashells.” We grasp both the literal and metaphoric image of William.
Forster emphasizes the idea of “expression. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.” Attentiveness to characterization allows us that.
William Zinsser warns writers to refrain from “committing an act of literature” in the beginning of a work of fiction or nonfiction. John McPhee says that a good beginning should be “a flashlight deep into the piece.” I often refer to “placing a gun in the right-hand drawer.”
Whatever hardware or weapon serves as suitable metaphor, you must deliver a sense of drama early on, though it must be done in artful fashion. (Sledgehammer is not a suitable metaphor.)
My beginnings are crafted simply as placeholders, seldom surviving in their original form. So they become the last thing I finish – because only after I fully understand the heart of the manuscript can I provide that flashlight or pistol.
The writer must promise something substantial to the reader – and then deliver it. It is, after all, a presumption that anyone out there will want to read what we write, so we must make it clear why the tale we’re telling is worth a reader’s time. Foreshadowing is crucial to your effort. And to do it well you might want to save the beginning for the end.
– Lary Bloom
“Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words… Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”
I came upon that quotation from one of Virginia Woolf’s letters a few years back. I circled it, came back to it again. I typed it out and found myself quoting it, days later, to the students in my fiction workshop. Woolf seemed to say something I’d been trying to articulate to myself for years: what exactly happens on those rare occasions when it feels as if the work’s coming from some source outside us?
I don’t think we’re talking about latching onto a cluster of quirky details, though that may be part of it. I don’t think it’s simply about coming to know one’s characters so fully that they begin to take on independent lives, though that may be a part of it too. It seems to me that that sense of supreme immersion might have something to do with matters of rhythm — or more precisely, finding a rhythm that matches the meaning of the drama. A rhythm that isn’t decorative or distracting but crucial: the crucial music that makes a piece of writing sing.
Of course this is something that can’t be willed into being. Talk to any poet and she’ll assure you of that, which is probably why poets, unlike prose writers, might be more sporadic creators than we are — we poor, poor prose writers, with our chair-bound work ethic. I wonder what the interrelationship is between rhythm and the condition we typically describe as “inspiration.”
So my question is, how can we bring one of the central tools of the poet to our work and be more conscious of pauses, sentence-length, stops, even alliteration and assonance in the prose we read and write? Not to will our work into being, but to open ourselves up to our own rhythms — the patterns of our everyday speech, the quirkiness of the way we move and walk — and to engage those on the page.
Here’s an exercise you might want to try: Take a paragraph by a writer whose work has been important to you. Type it out once. Then type it again. Once you’ve done that, substitute your own noun for each noun, your own verb for each verb. Replace all adjectives and adverbs. Play with it for a few days. Then do another version. If you’re lucky you might have the beginnings of a story. Or at the least, a more intimate sense of that writer’s rhythms.
During my all too brief time on the island with you amazing writers, I managed to create and post a video podcast for my online class regarding the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony at Mycone. This is when all the gods and mortals ate at the same table, and humans never knew sickness, loss, or struggle. In other words, it was paradise just before the fall, and so it can also, in my humble opinion, be aligned with the birth of art (thus I have betrayed my first core value: art emerges from pain). Also during this time, after conversations with several of you, I proposed to Mike the idea of a workshop (or series of workshops) for summer 09 on the topic of mythology. After all, being virtually surrounded by water, away from loved ones, cast into a common fate with strangers…all this is archetypal and alludes to Odysseus (your choice: Circe or Calypso’s island).
So what is at stake here? What are the lessons, the tests, the gift that looks like a trick or the trick that looks like a gift? Water is the literal and metaphorical symbol of life while winter denotes death, isolation, loss. So the ions are charged with meaning. We sit, watch the horizon, dream common dreams, and muse. The ships will not return to the shore, so like Odysseus, if we are to leave it is because the dream of home hasn’t faded. When we leave, we leave alone but with gifts from the gods. We build our rafts in bricoler fashion: rags and bones and driftwood…memories, dreams, blood. And the return is always mythic…always illo tempore (in that time). By this, I mean prodigal son, Odysseus, Portia. We return home a stranger, both to ourselves and to our loved ones. This isn’t negative per se, but it births art so it is essential. If we never leave home, if we never travel beyond, if we never cross into darkness, we shall have no gifts to bring back.
Wishing you all god speed on your journeys, and the cool part is that this summer, ironically as well as mythically, will now suddenly constitute your journey home as well.
By the way, I can’t find the words to say (a writer not being able to find words!) how much I enjoyed the residency and working with all of you to make it such a success. I already miss you all, and eagerly look forward to July — think of warm summer nights on the island, clam bakes, and sea cruises. And, oh, getting some writing done as well.
I will be doing a seminar this summer on using research in your writing, but I thought I’d get some dialogue going now about this topic. Writers use research, most obviously in writing historical fiction, as I sometimes do, but they also use it in writing fiction set in contemporary times, in writing non-fiction, and even in writing poetry. Research can open up windows into many things about your writing, including character, situation, plot, setting, and even helping to establish voice and tone. Most importantly, I think, it also gives the writer a sense of mastery over his or her material: as Hemingway said, a writer should know enough about his subject so that he’s comfortable enough to leave stuff out. Writers need to know both what to put in and what to leave out. When to research, what to research, how to use research in your work to establish credibility, and when to know enough is enough — these are some of the most important questions that writers must ask themselves.
For example, in my last two novels, SOUL CATCHER, and the novel I just finished, BEAUTIFUL ASSASSIN, I first had to do tons of research about the pre-Civil War period and World War II, respectively. By knowing more about the world I was to write about, I suddenly knew more about my characters’ worlds. I began, slowly and sometimes tediously, to enter into the mind of my characters’, one of the most important things a writer can do. Research, for me, is not just the frosting on the cake, the little touches regarding the setting’s truth (for example, the fact that Cain uses a Walker Colt pistol, or that Tat’yana’s sniper rifle is a Moison-Nagant 7.62 mm bolt action), it is fundamentally about the characters’ world, and how their external world reflects their internal world.
I will be giving a workshop on the writer’s use of research this summer, but for now, I’d like to hear from each of you how you use research to inform your own writing. This might help each of use to try new things in our work.
It’s a phrase one hears a lot: a writer must find his or her voice. As if it’s lost, as if a journey were required, your voice glinting at the ends of the earth. But perhaps it’s more a matter of archaeology — your sentences, your brain, are an open dig. Many treasures lie below, but they must be sorted from the rubble, carefully excavated, brushed free of grit.
Recently, in an advanced nonfiction workshop, we took a break from the students’ essays to study their imitation exercises. They’d found a published paragraph by an author they admire and created a paragraph of their own capturing the writer’s “voice.” They brought both paragraphs to class unlabelled, and we had to figure out which paragraph belonged to the student and which to the published author. Happily, in most cases it wasn’t immediately obvious; we had to study the sentence structures, study each phrase, each word. An extra prepositional phrase would give it away, the way a bit of description was accomplishing only one thing instead of two or three, two adjectives where one or none might do, or the way the author led up to the gold in a sentence or paragraph rather than starting with the gold and pressing forward for even greater reward.
I began to think that the difference might lie in trust, that less experienced writers (myself included) don’t always trust the leaps, compression, and associations of our own minds, the oddness and surprise rumbling in us. We fill our paragraphs and sentences with interstitial rubble. Trust that the strange shards are worth something; they need to be picked out and shaken free of everything else, including the strain of excavation. So instead of scanning the horizon for our voices, perhaps we can stand our own patch of ground and find the whole world underneath it.
Are there rules in writing fiction? It’s possible to err on both sides of the argument by extremism. Yes, there are many rules, such as “show, don’t tell”; don’t use clichés and redundancies; don’t do that, and do this and that. But there are no absolute guidebooks and recipes. True, formula fiction is guided by certain rules, but even there, some invention and violation of the rule can act as a surprise and bring the writing to a higher level and intensity.
And it’s fashionable to say that the only rule is that there are no rules. That sounds paradoxical and simple, yet it has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché, and can be used as an excuse for impulsive writing. Impulsive writing is worth trying out, don’t get me wrong. Everything is worth trying out—writing formulaically and according to many rules, and on the other end, writing wildly. Most often, the game of writing will fall somewhere in between. And while there are no absolute rules, there are various game plans, and games have their rules.
And there is one rule, for sure. Tell a story! No matter how much technological innovation there is in writing—with hypertext, and the possibility of including Web links, inserting graphics and charts—one thing remains the same: our thirst for story. Through many layers of different structures, most of us still want a story, with events, conflicts, themes, interesting connections. It’s usual to splice two stories together, use pictures, graphs, Web connections, to create a bazaar of possibilities, but nevertheless, somewhere in the whole structure, most of us still look for a story.
And I believe this is the golden rule: I understand you want to write? Then write! (Tolstoy’s answer to Turgenev who wanted to philosophize about the difficulty about writing fiction.) There’s hardly any other art form or sport that people profess so much desire to do as writing, yet they avoid doing it. It’s almost a Nike commercial. Just do it!
It’s quite obvious that Kim Bridgford’s post struck a nerve with a lot of people. I was very impressed with the response from so many of you. Yes, I think that the structure and shape of a work is something that comes to all of us — whether poet, nonfiction or fiction writer — in different ways, but the common denominator, I think, is that each creative work has its own blueprint, its own DNA shape hidden within. I won’t suggest the old notion that a sculptor working a piece of stone simply chisels away until the work appears from the stone. But I will say, at least in my own experience, that each work has its own rhythms, its own potential for growth and evolution, its own “path” within the mind/heart that conceived it. Now, many times that evolution changes, and the writer sees a different shape from the one he/she originally conceived. In the past I’ve alternated between, on the one hand, seeing a novel as a house being built (that is, no doubt, the result of being the son of a carpenter) or seeing it as something akin to a plant unfolding toward the sun. One suggests a logical and external building of a work board by board and nail by nail; the other the natural and highly romantic notion of something organic simply growing out itself (or the writer’s subconscious). But each extreme analogy seems limited to me, and ultimately, untrue. Now I tend to see — at least the writing of a novel — as, to use Kim’s word, a “journey.” I tell students writing a novel that it is like planning to climb a mountain, something that will be demanding, long, dangerous, and filled with uncertainty, but also filled with excitement and passion. You begin with a plan, but very quickly learn that along the way, that plan has to be modified, or even abandoned. There are deadends, detours, wrong paths, but ultimately you sense that the top of the mountain is above somewhere, and you keep pushing forward, trying to find it.
We will have another faculty post shortly. I hope we can continue the dialogue the MFA community has begun about writing.
Hi all. I was pleased to see so many of you at the Baron Wormser reading, both now-familiar faces and some new ones as well. It’s a great way for MFAers to meet others in the program and to listen to a great reading.
We have two events coming up: the Anita Shreve reception and reading on Oct. 28 (you are all invited to a reception before the reading at 6 to meet and talk with Anita). Then on Nov. 3, fiction writer Uwen Akpan will read in the Egan Chapel.
Finally, if you haven’t already seen them on our webpage, we have three new faculty–memoirist Jennifer Lauck will be joining us in December as a core member, next summer Mary Szybist will come as a core faculty member, while Sue Willam Silverman will be a guest writer. Check out their bios and their books.
I’m Kim Bridgford, and, like the rest of you, I am eager to be a part of the writing community on Enders Island. For me, writing is always a journey—spiritual, personal, sometimes physical (I’ve written about Iceland and Venezuela, and my next journey is to Bhutan)—and I’m glad that I’ll be adding a recurring journey to Enders Island to this list.
Let me tell you a little about myself. I’ve taught at Fairfield University for almost twenty years, and have taught as well at the University of Iowa, the University of Illinois, and Hamilton College. My publications include poems in both free verse and structured forms, as well as fiction and critical essays. I’ve written about such poets as Mark Doty, Dana Gioia, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Marilyn Nelson, and Micheal O’Siadhail. In addition, I edit two journals, a print journal at Fairfield University, and an online formalist women’s poetry journal, I hope you enjoy taking a look at both sometime.<
I wanted to open up a discussion on how we find the shape of the work we’re writing. For me, in some ways that’s been easier in recent years, because I’ve chosen to write mostly sonnets. Yet within each poem I want to find exactly the right rhyme scheme and arrangement of stanzas. Since I write entire books of sonnets on the same general topic — world records, fortunes in fortune cookies, or classic movies — I have to think about the arrangement of the work within each book and within each section of the book. Should it be by chronology? The development of a certain narrative?
I’ve found it a useful exercise to look at other books of poetry to see which poems appear first and last, how sections are arranged, and even if there are sections at all. Being conscious of the organization of the book has helped me to think about the planning of my own books and which types of poems work best where. For example, it’s rare for a long poem to work best at the beginning of a book.
Whatever genre you work in, how do you find the shape of your work? Do you know the beginning and ending ahead of time? Do you need to do a “junk draft” and then fill it in, or do you work line by line until you get your work the way you want? If you don’t know what your work is going to look like as you start the process, how do you know when you’re finding the true shape of your work? Then how do you organize it with other work so that you have a larger whole?