In the fall of 2016, I reviewed Catherine Pierce’s new book of poems, The Tornado is the World. I was fortunate to have the review picked up by The Chicago Review of Books and published on their site on December 9th, 2016. Below is a excerpt and a link to read the full review.
Catherine Pierce’s poignant and brave-spirited third book of poems, The Tornado Is the World, takes the reader into the midst of a natural disaster. In the poem “True Story,” the primary speaker reveals that “once, in a Days Inn bathroom in Cullman, Alabama, / I covered my four-month-old son as my husband / covered me as the tornado went by.” As the book progresses, we, as readers, find ourselves survivors in the tornado’s aftermath, grateful to be alive but unsure of how to proceed or mourn those who weren’t as lucky. We find ourselves three months into the future, looking back and knowing that nothing will ever be the same. It’s from the perspective of a survivor that this book takes form, and to be sure, only a survivor could write this kind of exposé on a tornado, though the speaker warns that “no told story is ever true enough.” Read the rest of the review here.
CRAFT OF LITERARY 2.5 (Special Macro Edition): Featuring Raquel Hollingsworth – “Growing the .06%: Shifting the Classroom Focus from Creative Writing to Literacy”
The New York Times and The Huffington Post both recently cited surveys that claim at least 80% of Americans think they can or want to write a book (Dietrich and Epstein). However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about .06% of the American working population are actually employed authors and writers. Just let that sink in.
For me, these numbers make a couple of things very clear. First, a large amount of people like the idea of writing a book; it’s encouraging to know that almost all of them have the desire to write, and that’s something nearly impossible to teach. That statistic gives me hope. The second thing to understand is that few writers actually make it happen, whether because of lack of skill or lack of perseverance, but this is where we may be able to do something about this discrepancy: our students certainly have the will to write, but they may not have the way. That deficit is one we can work with.
So considering the statistics, how do we successfully approach creative writing in the elementary and secondary classrooms, because without doubt, it must flourish there to stand a chance. How do we encourage and steer students who want to enter such a competitive field? What does such a classroom look like? It is definitely different than a strict English Language Arts classroom, but how? And it is undoubtedly different from the post-secondary workshop of more experienced writers.
And to complicate the matrix of obstacles, how do we fertilize young writers in poverty? This is especially unique to the elementary and secondary classroom. Unfortunately, most who fall victim to poverty will not see the workshop setting of college that is such an integral part of the field. So how can teachers foster and build the necessary skills and grit young writers need? That is the question.
The answer? Experience.
Most people say to write what you know. We’ve all heard the advice. The idea that our stories have more credibility, more believability, when we have experience on which to model our plots and characters, and they would be right, but the word encompasses so much more than just that.
I am a twenty-nine year old female English teacher from Mississippi. I graduated with my Masters from a Creative Writing program hailing from a dominantly agricultural university and a large number of my stories are from the point of view of an adolescent male – but none where he drives a tractor or sits in a classroom. None where he has what I would think of as an experience I’ve had. Yet, I still use my experience to inform my writing – in craft, in grammar, in tone, in character motivation. But so often we think of crafting plot when people say to write from experience, but in hindsight, that’s too limiting, especially considering the scope of successful writers and their stories.
We are only applying experience as half of the solution to the problem. So often, people think of experience as something that can be recreated in writing, and many would argue that primary and secondary students are too young to have the kind of experience that avoids cliched writing and leads to genuine stories. And in particular, students bound by poverty and its chains have even fewer opportunities to expand their experience.
But jumping to this conclusion ignores an important step in the process of building strong writers. Experience as a blueprint for writing is the second step to the problem. The first step is to create experience through reading. After all, good writers must first be good readers. For good writers, the two are undeniably connected.
Creating Experience Through Reading:
- The easiest and most accessible tool to grow the imagination is reading. Remember, our imagination grows from our experience. My creative writing thesis director at Mississippi State University, Michael Kardos, once asked me, “So you want to be a writer? What are you reading?” It is so critical to buy into the idea that writers are readers and visa versa. Good writing comes from reading good writing. Furthermore, there are only so many experiences we can actually have; after all, time is finite. Reading is a way to simulate new experiences and perhaps even reveal ones that students had and didn’t realize. Grace Lin has a TED Talk called “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf” in which she argues that the texts readers/writers are exposed to should be texts in which the identifying characters are both symbols of mirrors (those who are like ourselves) and windows (those who are different from ourselves). Her argument supports the idea that reading can and should teach us about ourselves and others because it is only through getting to know people, all kinds of people, that we are able to write genuine stories that matter.
- Stop thinking of poverty as a boundary or a chain. In Mississippi, we are statistically one of the poorest states in the country, but we are also one of the wealthiest crops for successful writers born out of poverty: Oprah Winfrey, Muddy Waters, Ida B. Wells, Anne Moody, Jerry Clower, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and even Rick Ross. Students should read their stories and learn about their lives. As teachers, creative writing or otherwise, we must encourage others to recognize poverty as a well from which experience springs. Poor kids do have experiences. The challenge is helping them realize that they have stories worth hearing, because so few think they do. The stigma around poverty has often defined it as something to overcome rather than something that creates beautiful life experience. That must change.
- Read the World! Yes, poverty is undoubtedly experience, but it also shouldn’t be a writer’s only experience. Students need to see the world. There is some credibility to the thought that travelers are cultured. And being exposed to culture creates experience. According to the National Household Travel Survey, nearly sixty-one percent of the American population does not travel more than fifty miles from their home in a year, and those who do travel usually take trips of 250 miles or less. Added to that, low-income families, especially those concentrated in metropolitan areas, take fewer extended distance trips than the rest of the population, somewhere from one to three annually. (“NPTS”) As indicated, sometimes travel isn’t possible; those students often have few opportunities to broaden their ideas and understandings of people and cultures largely because of poverty. But experience can be created. There are still ways to expose young writers to the world and help them gain diverse experience.
- Create a classroom community and bring the community into the classroom. This is two-fold. An important part of writing is sharing and revision. For young writers, sharing is hard (okay, maybe not as hard for this tech-social generation than some). But sharing real writing makes us vulnerable. Teachers need to build the kind of classroom that fosters a sense of community and safety that promotes trust, honesty, and acceptance, a classroom where a writer feels open to suggestion. The second part of this is to bring the community into the classroom. This obviously helps build a student’s experience, or at least his/her bank of experiences to pull from, even if they are not personal. Newbie writers sometimes need a word-bank of plots, so to speak. Introduce them to people in the community that they can relate to and who have stories to share. Young writers, and young people in general, need to see real people, their connections to the community, their struggles, their successes. They need to know there is someone on the other side of graduation who they can relate to.
- Take your students on field trips or invite guest speakers. I know what you are thinking. But I teach in a high poverty area; we don’t have money for field trips and I probably couldn’t get the permission forms back anyway. No worries. The field trips can come to you. Use tools at your disposal to take your students on journeys around the world. Periscope is a great tool to see the world! Start following teachers who can get their kids out of the classroom and want to share the fun. Ron Clark (Ron Clark Academy) recently had his students scope their field trip and share some of what they were seeing and learning in museums and around town. Invite people to speak – Those in your community, certainly – but those outside of it, too. Email authors and invite them to talk to your students. Several are happy to appear for free! You just have to ask.
Although reading and writing are presented separately here, it should be made clear that the two are inseparable and should always be taught in conjunction. One feeds the other and they should never be isolated. Therefore, as students are building reading experience, creating experience through writing is just as important to fostering weathered creatives. The process of writing should become one that is constantly reflective, fluid, and never-ending (but eventually reaching a publishable stage).
Creating Experience Through Writing:
- Once you have your students reading, they need to write about it! According to the Report of The National Commission on Writing, writing is the “neglected R” (“The Neglected ‘R’”). As experienced writers, we know that final products only come out of revisions which comes from writing, and writing, and writing some more. Students need time and opportunity to write inside and outside of the classroom. Suggest they set aside a predetermined amount of time each day to write or take this time in your class, and then stick to it.
- Have your writers experiment with different genres. So often, young writers think creative, personal writing means writing sappy love poems. Have them experiment with other text structures: blogs, emails, letters, memes, advertising slogans. So often, even we as teachers think of creative writing in terms of fictional literature. And while literary fiction is an important part of creative writing, remind students that creative writing doesn’t necessarily have to be narrative, and even when it is, narratives can be imagined or real. Creative nonfiction is a burgeoning new field. Encourage new writers to try it out.
- Write with your students! How can you teach writing if you never write? And why would a student of writing want to take advice from a teacher who doesn’t write? It just doesn’t make sense. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle argues that writing with your students is a critical step in the modeling process that students need to understand “thinking in its raw form” (7). At its core, writing with our students is showing, not telling – a skill we drill in writing classes. This essential step also helps students see how to go where the writing is going, to distinguish when the story should go one way, even when the thinking is going another. When we model drafting and revision, we teach students to be objective — essentially, how to write with a reader in mind – something impossible to understand when a writer isn’t reading.
- Create real pay-offs. Students want to know there is the possibility for success. We’ve already talked about success numbers, and logically, we know not all of our students will turn into John Grisham, but that’s not what I mean by a pay-off. Students who want to write need to know the reality of the publishing world, and that to seriously pursue a career as a creative literary writer will come with long hours and likely little financial revenue. But they still need to know the path to success, whether it’s paved in gold or not. Teach them the world of publishing. Write cover letters with them. Talk to editors. Have them submit real pieces for publication consideration. Several literary journals or websites are targeted to young writers. Check out Ricochet Magazine/Review (which strives to provide editorial feedback to all submissions), The Louisville Review, Phoebe: Journal of Literature and Art, Armchair/Shotgun, River Teeth, The Round, Stone Soup (8-13 yrs old, publications are compensated), Teenage Wasteland Review, The Blue Pencil Online, and Cuckoo Quarterly just to name a few.
The Center for Development and Learning argues that “reading, writing, speaking and listening … are all interrelated and affect one another. There is a fundamental and reciprocal relationship among oral language… written language, and reading” (“Language”). If we expect to grow young writers to be flourishing members of the creative writing community, we must stop teaching reading and writing in isolation and start encompassing literacy as a main goal, no matter the demographic of our classrooms. When we shift our thinking to encompass the malleability and vastness of literacy, we stand a chance of developing more experienced citizens, and thereby, more informed and genuine writers of such an important and influential field.
Dietrich, William. “The Writer’s Odds of Success.” The Huffington Post. 04 Mar.2013.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-dietrich/the-writers-odds-of-succe_b_2806611.html.
Epstein, Joseph. “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.” The New York Times. 28 Sept. 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/28/opinion/think-you-have-a-book-in-you-think-again.html
Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Heinemann, 2008.
“Language.” Center for Development and Learning. http://www.cdl.org/language/
Lin, Grace. “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.” TEDx 19 Mar. 2016. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Windows-and-Mirrors-of-Your
“The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution.” Report of The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. The College Board. 2003 Apr. http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf
“NPTS Brief.” U.S. Department of Transportation. 2006 Mar. http://nhts.ornl.gov/briefs/Long%20Distance%20Travel.pdf
“Occupational Outlook Handbook.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 17 Dec. 2015. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm
ABOUT RAQUEL: Raquel Hollingsworth is a teacher of literature and composition at Puckett High School and Hinds Community College in Mississippi. She holds her MA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Mississippi State University where she also served as the associate editor of the Jabberwock Review. She is currently active with the National Writing Project and the College Ready Writer’s Program in Mississippi. You can connect with her on social media.
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
I’m excited to share the news with everyone! I am transferring from the doctoral program in English/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana Lafayette to the doctoral program at Cardiff University in Wales, UK! Because I’ll be considered the equivalent to ABD (all but dissertation), the program has offered to waive the residency requirement and allow me to work on the degree from the States, though I do look forward to traveling over for retreats and meetings.
Some might say inspiration leads English students away from the corporate landscape and down the same career paths as their instructors. Others blame comfort or fear. But I would posit these students simply don’t know other options exist.
The very purpose of education is preparation for the future. But, as of late, it appears institutions haven’t been doing their part. Most English students I’ve spoken with have expressed a severe lack of knowledge about corporate career choices, which is a shame because employers today actually prefer English majors. English students offer good critical thinking skills with the ability to articulate those thoughts – something few other majors can boast.
If you’re searching for a career outside of academia, here are some quick tips to get started:
1. Connect with Friends and Acquaintances
Begin with people you know. Ask them about a specific job title opening – not just “any job,” since it will prompt an “anything answer.” Some common titles that go well with the English major are Copywriter, Content Writer, Communications Specialist, Technical Writer, Brand Journalist, Copyeditor, and Content Specialist.
You’d be amazed how many people get jobs through friends or acquaintances. That’s one of the reasons why school is so important: it builds connections.
2. Connect Your Skills to the Role
Compare what skills you already have to the skills in the job post. Read between the lines here; you may have accomplished more than you think. For example, if they’re looking for someone who can write to persuade an audience, you’ve already done that in writing thesis-driven essays.
Here’s the big question employers are asking: “Are you a good fit for my team?” Be sure to connect your skills in both cover letters and interviews. If you don’t have a previous job title that implies a certain skill set, it’s your goal to inform employers you’ve already demonstrated these requirements
3. Update Appearances
You get an interview because you’re qualified for the job. You get the job because of your personality. It’s cliché to say, but dress for the position you want. It’s superficial—I know—but you can focus on changing preconceptions later.
Social media and job searching are a lot like online dating: make sure your profile reflects your best qualities.
4. At the Interview: Be Ready for the Unexpected
Have a great handshake. It’s your first physical contact with employers, and a firm handshake demonstrates determination. Practice common interview questions beforehand with a friend, spinning all questions about weaknesses into strengths (for example: I get anxious being late to meetings, so I always arrive five minutes early).
Research the average income for the position. Since you don’t have the average level of experience, calculate a desired salary below this number. The employer will almost always ask you for a salary expectation on the first encounter – always at a time when you least expect it.
Lastly, have questions after the interview has concluded: This shows you’re eager for the position.
ABOUT DANIEL: Daniel Lassell is a copywriter, poet and creative writer. He is the winner of a William J. Maier Writing Award and runner-up of the 2016 Bermuda Triangle Prize. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Slipstream, Pembroke Magazine, Hotel Amerika, Reunion: The Dallas Review, The Poet’s Billow, Split Lip Magazine, and New Poetry from the Midwest. He received his MA in English from Marshall University, and has written for such companies as MOBI and Angie’s List. Currently, he is a Content Writer for Bluelock, a cloud-based IT disaster recovery company. You can connect with him on social media or at www.daniel-lassell.com
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
In this post, I will discuss how I adapted a form for my new book, Barrier Island Suite. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because my book is just out and because I am teaching a Forms in Poetry graduate class on free verse. Form doesn’t always happen in a vacuum, and a free-verse form is rarely completely free. When considering form for a project you’re writing, don’t automatically ignore existing forms and don’t feel you have to follow a form precisely either.
When writing the first poems for Barrier Island Suite, I wanted to find a form that would fit my subject, Walter Inglis Anderson, who often sketched and painted on Mississippi’s barrier islands. I wanted a form that would differ from what I usually wrote because I wanted the voice of these poems to be distinct from my own. Because Walter Anderson was influenced by Japanese art and because I had been teaching linked renga poetry in my World Literature classes, I felt it would be fun to try my hand at it.
Renga poetry, though, has many rules. Several poets get together to craft a poem of 100 stanzas, and there are specific kinds of images that must appear at certain points. I knew I could not approximate that, though the idea of poets in conversation felt appropriate since my poems would become a conversation with Walter Anderson through his art and the logs he wrote on the islands.
The basic stanza of renga begins with a haiku (and the haiku began as the opening stanza of renga): a stanza of three lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. To this the next poet would add two lines of 7 syllables. The next poet would add another 3 lines, and so on. Each segment was supposed to go with the previous, though not necessarily with the one before that, so the poem would develop unpredictably, though the prescribed rules lent some order to the collaborative improvisation.
To approximate this, I chose to write 5-line stanzas with 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables. I felt the alternation between line lengths gave the poems a wave-like quality. To add some variety to the sequence, I sometimes chose to invert the stanza for a poem, beginning with two lines of seven syllables, and sometimes chose to separate the tercet from the couplet so there would be a stanza of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, then one of 7 and 7, which would repeat throughout the poem, ending in either a couple or a tercet.
The main point was that the poems had a form that lent them a consistent and meditative voice. The voice was not mine, and yet the form also helped me move away from Anderson’s voice in his logs or the voices of his biographers. What it has taught me is to be more open to existing forms and to be willing to adapt them to my own needs.
ABOUT KENDALL: Kendall Dunkelberg directs the Low-Residency MFA in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi, where he also directs the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Dunkelberg has published one collection of translated poems, written by the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus (Green Integer 2000), and three collections of poetry, Landscapes and Architectures (Florida Literary Foundation 2001), Time Capsules (Texas Review Press 2009), and Barrier Island Suite (Texas Review Press 2016).
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
I’m happy and excited to share the news: I’ve rebranded the site formerly titled PrettyRedShoes, choosing Love of Literary as its new identity, which I think does a better job at conveying the site’s content and theme.
Love of Literary, just like PrettyRedShoes, is still interested in poetry, prose, pedagogy, and publishing. The site still finds its obsession in literary lives, literary voices, literary experiences, and literary locales. I also plan to continue the Red Soles Series (micro essays on craft, publishing, and teaching) under the title Craft of Literary, and I’m always looking for new submissions. For more info, click here.
Cheers to change, to growth, to new beginnings, and to all things literary! ❤
Francis Grose in his Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue (1811) defined translators as “sellers of old mended shoes and boots, between cobblers and shoemakers.”
Translation is not simply the transfer of texts from one language into another. It is a creative process, a process of negotiation between texts and between cultures, an act of liberation and harmonious renewal. Rainer Schulte, co-founder of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), said: “If the writer’s activity could be called ‘creative,’ then the translator’s activity would be ‘re-creative.’ The translator’s emotional and interpretive involvement with the text is no less intense than the writer’s struggle with the blank page.”
It is this act of translation (the probing through dictionaries; the melodic transposing of sound and sense; the investing; the uncovering) that is useful for the creative writer. This activity demands the writer/translator to implement personal constraints, incase himself/herself with the culture of the text, and thereby render it new.
John Dryden, like numerous other theorist/writers of the eighteenth century, used the metaphor of the translator/portrait painter to maintain that the painter has the duty of making his portrait resemble the original. Considering this metaphor from a modern perspective, the degree of “literalness” in a translator’s rendering can range on a scale from “photo-realism” to “abstract.” Therefore, it shouldn’t seem too much of a leap to consider ekphrastic poetry a form of translation, where the writer renders the visual art into a tangible, literary medium. Or to understand how translation ties itself to Oulipian exercises, which use constraints as a means of triggering unique inspirations within the writer/translator, inducing him/her to craft something unexpected. Georges Perec, a member of Oulipa, said, “[when I write] I set myself rules in order to be totally free.” His novel La disparition is a lipogram, written without using the letter “e” in French. Eventually, Gilbert Adair published an English translation of the text entitled A Void, where he also constrained himself from using the letter “e”. In doing so, Adair created a different text from Perec: a transubstantiated version.
With every translation, no matter how “literal” or “abstract,” the writer/translator is filtering the original text through themselves. Therefore, every piece is unique, a re-birthing of the original.
I find translating comparable, in a way, to crafting a collage or putting a puzzle together. The pieces are given to you in a box, where you can sift through them and discover what fits together, what pairs well. However, these pieces are malleable. You can do what you like to them: bend, cut, color, etc. And you’re not enforced to their use alone. You can incorporate other pieces and objects from anywhere in the world. It is an investigative art project, where the goal is to produce what you find to be an “accurate” representation of the source material. Through this active process, you will have filtered the source through your core, conceived something new. In the end, you will have become a rendering of your former self.
ABOUT KEVIN: Kevin Dwyer is a PhD Graduate Assistant focusing in poetry and a native of Hawthorne, NY. He earned his Honors BA from Saint Louis University and his MA with a focus in creative writing from Fordham University. Kevin received an Honorable Mention prize from the Academy of American Poets at Fordham University for his poem “Here Testified.” His chapbook In Memoriam was published via Yellow Flag Press, along with his poems “The Snow, the Crow, and the Blood” and “Time Marches On” which appear in Vision/Verse 2009-2013: An Anthology of Poetry. At the moment, Kevin is working on his dissertation involving a creative translation of various runes, Anglo-Saxon texts, and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
I no longer believe in Writer’s Block.
Here’s what I did. I took that big old block, that mean, splintered Writer’s Block, and I carved out the inside of it, added a hinge and a handle, and called it a Writer’s Box.
And in this Box I put several reminders, knowing full well I’d be revisiting my work, as I like to say, rather than revising.
First, I had to think long and hard—it wasn’t easy, either—about what makes me unique as a writer. What is that special quality that others read in my work and say, “Oh, that is so T.K Lee?”
For starters, I write from a very grounded idea of place, of my southernness, of the mystique and myth, of all those delicious agrarian archetypes I culled from memory. They are the stubby roots running through my work. So, naturally, this went in the box, at the bottom of it. Let’s call it Identity.
Second, into the box, went my obsession with Environment. I stress over how things look in my work. Did I describe the painting just so under that particular dim light that hasn’t been fixed above the fireplace, or did I mention how the doorknob was a plastic diamond shape and loose and it didn’t lock so people might walk in on you in the bathroom, or have I mentioned the heat, how it’s exhausting and yet necessary?
Lastly (but there’s no limit to what can fit in the box), I put my love of Metaphor as it allows duality for a writer. There can always be “something else” to discover when we allow for the metaphorical.
And it works. The box will remind you, the writer, that you are never stuck in a work you’re creating. You’re the Creator. You can’t be stuck.
I used this most recently while working on my current script A Far Corner (in progress, a deadline looming, or more accurately, a “dreadline”) and I was happily writing away when I hit a wall. I took a deep breath, grabbed another pot of coffee (I mean, cup of coffee) and sat back down at the computer.
Here I had two characters, SJ and Votis, in an awkward moment of having just kissed, and there I was, wondering, well, what the hell do they do now? The Big Moment has happened…
Then, I looked in my Writer’s Box. I pulled out Environment, made myself “look” around the “bedroom.” The play takes place in Votis’ memory, of a Christmas, and naturally, the room would be decorated. Once I focused on that, on the Environment, suddenly SJ started talking again, mentioning the smell of a burning candle, and suddenly, she and Votis were having the most deliciously awkward conversation about everything else from candles to curtains to bedspreads to dinner…except the kiss that shouldn’t have happened. Ten pages later, I’d written not one but two solid scenes.
The trick to overcoming “writer’s block,” is never in the writing itself, but in the writer. You have to know what drives you to put pen to paper, to know what goes in your Box. Go try it.
ABOUT T.K.: T.K. Lee is an award-winning member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers, among others. A Pushcart-nominated writer of short fiction, and of award-winning poetry, he is currently a Visiting Professor in Playwriting in the MFA program at the Mississippi University for Women. You may learn more about him at www.cleverkris.com or by following him at www.facebook.com/tkleewriting.
One of the biggest problems I see in student writing in my creative writing classes has been the failure of the student not to explain within the confines of the story just what the story adds up to for the reader. It’s the difference between that old phrase, show don’t tell. Sometimes we need a little bit of both. Flannery O’Connor said, “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.” However, O’Connor doesn’t address why we sometimes hate, and sometimes love, ambiguous endings.
A piece of commercial fiction usually does not leave the character’s motivation in doubt. This may be a gross oversimplification but such a piece of writing is usually going to great lengths to tell us what the character is thinking and feeling the entire time and ultimately why.
Wait! There are some wonderful books that end in ambiguity, you say!
Sometimes ambiguity leads the reader to ponder the story as a whole. For example, in Great Expectations, Dickens ends the novel with Pip saying, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” What does it mean? Does he walk off into the sunset with Estella? Or, is it over with her for good?
Charles Baxter wrote in The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, “creating a scene is thus the staging of a desire.” What are the characters after? Do they achieve it or not in other words. The climax of the story should build and seem inevitable rather than as a result of random chance. Sometimes in real life things often seem to be decided by coincidence or chance but as Mark Twain once told us, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Consider T. S. Eliot’s theory of the Objective Correlative, which could be explained as a series of events that evoke a response. It sounds rather mathematical but what is absolutely correct about it in a traditional story is that the events appear to build to an inevitable conclusion. When this doesn’t happen in fiction, it leaves us wondering as readers “what’s happening here?” The beginning writer will say, “I wanted to leave it to the reader to interpret it anyway he or she wants.” Usually, the reason for this from the beginning writer (a workshop story for example) is that the story is still not as developed as it should be. The writer is not finished writing and revising the story, so it’s rather easy to fall back on ‘I leave it to the reader to decide.’
If the reader doesn’t know what is at stake, then it’s likely the writer doesn’t either. My advice to the young writer is don’t make the reader do all the work as you write your story.
Create a story with intention and the reader will be sure to understand your ending, whether it’s explicit or hinted at implicitly.
ABOUT DAREN: Daren Dean is the author of Far Beyond the Pale. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in BULL, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Missouri Life, The Oklahoma Review, Midwestern Gothic, Ecotone, Image, Chattahoochee Review, Fiction Southeast, Story South, Aries, and others. His story “Bring Your Sorrow Over Here” was selected as Runner-up by Judge George Singleton in Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction contest and another story, “Affliction” was a Finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Fiction Contest for New Writers in 2012. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Dean also worked for several years at the University of Missouri Press. Currently, he teaches creative writing and literature in the English department at Louisiana State University. Check out his book here.
The pads on my feet are thick. Tough.
I spent much of my childhood skidding across the bottoms of jagged, concrete swimming pools, calling “marco,” listening for “polo.” I cut my heels on shells and scuffed sand in the wounds. I was stung by a jellyfish and nipped by darting shadows under waves.
Ask my feet and they will say, we grew up on an island, can’t you tell? Can’t you see?
It leaves a mark.
The pressures of place imprint skin and muscle and neuron. The north, west, east, south of home, the flora and fauna, the history—all of it—helps make us who we are. Even if we fight it. Just as people create, change, and destroy landscapes, landscapes can do the same to us, because, as philosopher Edward Casey explains, “bodies and places … interanimate each other.”
Still, for a period of my writing life, I neglected setting. I couldn’t see the connection between what I knew instinctively—where a person is helps create who he is—and what I learned about “setting” from teachers: “time and place.” Stage directions.
Now an important writing rule is “be specific.” Faced with frustrated, confused workshop readers—”But where is this? I can’t see it”—I had to accept that I had failed this rule. The fix, as I understood it, was stage directions. This solution placated no one and made for bad storytelling. Setting (it turns out) is much more than time and space. Setting is everything that occupies a time and space. Concrete images. Facts.
Hidden within “be specific” is another rule: “pay attention.” I had trouble being specific about the world because I was not very good at paying attention to the world. So, I picked up a camera.
I spent weekends taking pictures around local waterways. Many were of dragonflies or flowers. The majority, though, captured alligators, water moccasins, and giant banana spiders. Louisiana is a wonderfully weird and violent place, and as I learned to populate my writing with the specifics of home, I also found my voice.
I sought authors who wrote the Gulf Coast and found Tom Franklin. His mythic descriptions evoke an aggressive and unforgiving landscape that I immediately recognized. He explores what Gaston Bachelard calls the “link between place and identity formation.” His characters are animated by the violence of their home; it is a natural part of them. They are shaped by setting. I searched for this in my own writing and went back to my camera to find it. More alligators. More snakes. More swamp. I looked at a world at once beautiful and ugly through the camera and the characters I write and love came to life.
The editors of Space and Place: Theories of Identity and Location explain that “place is a space to which meaning has been ascribed.” Every place is pregnant with meaning. When you write place, this meaning is what you give your writing. It is what you give your readers.
ABOUT LEIGH: Leigh Camacho Rourks lives in South Louisiana and, on her best days, can be found lazing in the sun. She is the managing editor for Rougarou, a journal of literature and arts out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where she is pursuing her PhD. This year, her short story “Moon Trees” was awarded the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award and her story “Pinched Magnolias” received the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize in Fiction. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Pank, and Greensboro Review.