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Compliments Aren’t for Sissies

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Discouragement.jpgAfter a writing retreat with one of my two writing groups, I am reminded of the importance of starting any critique session with appreciation and compliments, but not just any kind of compliments. Saying things like, “I loved that” or “you rock,” aren’t particularly helpful.

In any kind of feedback group, there is a tendency to go right to the criticism and skip the appreciation. It’s just human nature. We feel the boat is sinking and we need to plug up the hole. Talking about the nice paint job on the way down doesn’t make any sense.

Part of  this problem lies in the fact that  we are always  in a rush. Another part of the problem is that there’s a prevalent feeling that we are all getting too soft, that teachers are pumping up their students’ self-esteem at the expense of high standards, and that  if your feelings get hurt, that’s your problem, not the problem of the person delivering the criticism or insult.

However, as I watched one of my writing colleagues begin her reading with a hopeful look of anticipation, and then watched her deflate into exhausted confusion as we criticized her, I thought we were doing her a real disservice. She looked like a swimmer far from land who is losing strength and sense of direction, and all we were doing was telling her how wrong her swimming stroke was.  She said, “I don’t know if I can trust my own perception, anymore. I thought I was on the right track.”

Here’s the thing. The reason it’s important to start a critique session with compliments is not to make the writer feel good.  It’s to show the writer that you have heard, seen, or understood where they were intending to go.  So much of writing is necessarily taking a stab in the dark (letting go of the conscious mind’s dictums and letting the unconscious mind well up and take over). It’s as important to have your audience reflect back to you where you were hitting your mark as it is for your audience to reflect back where you may have missed.

I’ve said elsewhere, but it bears repeating, the positive comments aren’t just saying, “I love this,” and “that’s good,” they should be descriptive. For example, “The image of the wolf at the end gave me to understand that you were intimating that your mother’s spirit may have been reborn as a wolf.” Likewise, the negative criticism can be given as a compliment, “The impact of that line isn’t reaching me like I want it to because I’m distracted by alliteration in the middle of it.”

Yes, it’s validation, but the purpose of validation isn’t just a feel-good pat on the back. The more important purpose is to create trust. Descriptive and specific positive feedback about what you think the writer is achieving helps the wwriting-togetherriter to learn where and when to trust herself, but just as importantly, it helps the writer to trust her fellow group members.  If the group members have understood where she is going, then their advice about where to go next is useful.  If it turns out that the group misunderstood where the writer was going, then the writer can think about how she needs to revise to better direct her readers.

Compliments aren’t for sissies; they are an essential orienteering device for any writing group. They create the compass points for that session which buoy’s the writer on her way.

 

 

 

A View of the Universe (from Schroon Lake)

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nebula

Pictures from the Hubble Telescope Archives

We stood on the shore of Schroon Lake after the sun had set. A fingernail moon and a single star hovered above Adirondack foothills. Up the bank, toward the house, a three piece band played Django Reinhart-like jazz, the kind of quick upbeat notes that make you dance in spite of yourself. I had come down to the shore in search of my husband and found him talking and walking with man with a cloud of white hair. I could barely see the man’s face in the dusk, only the faint glint of glasses.

It had been humid day, but as soon as the sun went down, a breeze began to blow off the lake, sweeping upland and inland, cooling our brows, stirring our hair, reminding us of the luxury of skin.

He told us he lived in the woods and loved being surrounded by the trees, but missed this kind of view, gesturing to the broad sheet of water and the mountains beyond.

Together we tried to name of the star above the moon. Venus? Mars? He said he had little telescope that he could see the moons of Jupiter with. “That’s how Galileo figured out we were circling the sun. He saw the moons circling the planet.” He smiled as he told us this, and we nodded, taking it in. The breeze blew.

My husband said he just couldn’t get his mind around the idea infinity. It hurt his brain.

I couldn’t imagine anything but infinity. If the universe stopped somewhere, there would have to be nothing after it. “How could that be?” I asked. In nature there is no such thing as nothing. My husband and the man nodded and smiled. We looked up at the sky. The moon sank closer to the hill. The breeze blew.

He lived in Malone, up near Canada, a small town struggling since its businesses had left America, a shoe business and something else. Like many small towns, it had accepted the building of three prisons. They provided a few jobs, but nothing else.

He was a painter and owned a gallery in the town. He wanted to do some work with the inmates, but the warden didn’t like the idea.

He told us about a man he’d known, who had once worked for Sunmount—an institution for the developmentally disabled in Tupper Lake, where a staffer was allegedly stabbed in the eye with a fork and three other staffers were recently found guilty of abusing residents.

Sometime in the 90s, there was an escape attempt, and the man was run over by the escape vehicle. He was awarded only a 20 thousand dollar settlement, though he had to stop working and was hobbled for the life.

He could have spent it on a chair lift or a new car. Maybe he should have used it to pay off a few bills. It might have been wise to invest for the future. Instead, he spent the entire settlement on a powerful telescope with a computer attached that would give him a view of the universe. Our new friend said, “He used to invite a bunch of us over all the time to look through it. We could see suns rotating in the nebulae.”

nebuI’d always wondered whether those pictures of prismatic nebulae swirling in stellar winds were real, yet this man had seen them with his own eye because a crippled man had helped him to.

Tourmaline sky resolved into black, and the light of long lost stars parted the darkness at a million points.

“He used to say the telescope was too big not to share.”

Standing on the shore of that shimmering lake, looking up at the sky, while the wind brushed us clean, we shared a moment of limitlessness.

Why Quirky Lit is the New Cool

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When one of my best friends got an agent who sold her novel, I asked her if she’d recommend my writing. The agent asked her to characterize my work and she called it “quirky.” At the time, I took it as a put down. But as time went on, however, I noticed more and more book jackets describing the content of their books as quirky. When you Google search quirky books, here’s a small sampling of what comes up: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and more recently, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Karen Russel’s Swamplandia! Quirky has become a literary subgenre. Google shows that the use of the word skyrocketed around 2010. A quick Amazon.com search of books with the word “quirky” in the title delivers more than 900 results. Some bookstores even have a Quirky Reads shelf. The term seems metamorphosed from bad to good.

So what exactly does it mean when applied to literature?

Google dictionary says: characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits. Synonyms are eccentric, idiosyncratic, unconventional, unorthodox, unusual, strange, bizarre, peculiar, odd, outlandish, zany.

Well, no wonder I felt insulted.

My oldest friend from 4th grade says I am decidedly unusual. I suppose I’m unusually honest. I’ve never understood why people hide their hurts, fears and flaws. We all have them. All people deep down are full of oddities, quirks, and unexpected turns. Maybe what quirky really means is authentic. Instead of putting up a conventional façade, quirky lit celebrates how people really are. Maybe that’s why its popularity is growing. In a world where big businesses homogenize and mass-produce everything, where commercials scream attention to glossy surfaces, people are getting hungry for the beautifully, wonderfully, strangely deep down.

Busy, Busy, Busy

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Taking a leaf from my friend and fellow writer Barbara Chepaitis’ book, I have created a soundtrack for my novel The Ciphery.  Because I work full time, I have to snatch and hour here and an hour there to write, so this soundtrack is wonderfully useful in getting me back into the head-space of the novel quickly. Plus, it’s fun to imagine the movie version of my novel. I will be sharing some of the links to the songs for my next few blog posts. They all inhabit that strange place between the real and the fantastic that we seem to inhabit unconsciously. These are all available for purchase on iTunes.  Enjoy.

Busy, Busy, Busy

Finalist!

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Okay….I wasn’t sure, because the e-mail announcement came with a rejection announcement at the same time. I guess those who live by magic realism get tortured by magic realism, but here it is in living print! Woo hoo! Maybe I’ll sell that novel after all. Working hard to be finished by August. http://thedoctortjeckleburgreview.com/announcing-the-2014-…/

Announcing the 2014 Franz Kafka Award Finalists http://wp.me/pMtRv-8nk

“Empty Spaces” by Stephanie Frazee “Plato” by Daniel Grandbois “The Opal Maker” by Lale Davidson “The Hole” by Rebecca Nison “The Eye” by Amy Narneeloop “Dream State” by Mark Jacobs…
thedoctortjeckleburgreview.com

http://thedoctortjeckleburgreview.com/announcing-the-2014-…/

Depression and Other Reality Shifts

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Depression*You wake up one morning and for no apparent reason, everything has changed. Your mind is caught in a dark loop, endlessly repeating that you have no friends, you’re ugly,  you’re fat, your writing is worthless, you have been teaching twenty years only to become a disorganized, boring, overly complex and uneasy teacher. And it’s not all in your head, because there was that comment from an acquaintance, that shaming rejection from publisher, those 30 agents who passed on your novel that was supposed to be your resurrection, that sidelong look from a colleague, and those student evaluations. When you stand at a party, no one comes up to talk with you, or people’s eyes go dull when you talk because you are so shallow. And why aren’t you like Karen Russell who at 24 got a story published in Zoetrope and now has a MacArthur genius grant? Anger builds at all the people who wronged you in big and little ways. You find yourself going over this same, dark, messy ground for the umpteenth time despite years of therapy.

You know this isn’t real. Only four days ago, you were thinking you were a loving, fascinating, beautiful person, as good as any published writer.

You know you should clap your hands over your ears, get out of bed, walk up the mountain past the shadows that tear at you, whispering. This isn’t real, you say to yourself, stumbling forward, not real, not real, not real, not. But the knowing comes from some part of your mind that has no flesh, and the voices aren’t on the outside, they’re inside. They’re the very cast of your blood chemistry, the design of your atoms, so real, so real, so real, that you think you would rather die than fight this invisible battle again, this civil war that makes you seem self pitying, irresponsible, disorganized, irritable, and erratic to others. And maybe you are, maybe it’s all just a matter of will, and you are lazy, lazy, lazy. Will you ever be free? The only honorable thing to do is quit your job so that the healthy people who deserve it can have it, or kill yourself so that you don’t have to walk this walk again.

If you have chosen badly, your spouse tells you he or she is sick of your shit, but if you’ve chosen well, he smiles sadly when he sees the signs and stands back knowing you’ll figure it out. Later he cleans the house and does the food shopping to lighten your load.

The survivalist part of your brain tells you that you have to exercise and eat right, and people will tell you to take medication, and maybe you should, but they scare you, so you don’t. You push yourself outside, because in the end that is the thing that has always saved you. And as you walk you call the right friend, and she, instead of trying to talk you out of it, says, yes, that’s how it feels, and it’s hard. And then the tears come, and the two sides of you, the chemical and the rational talk, taking turns with each other and your friend. And you remember not to ever judge others again, because this is how it feels to be inside depression, and no one from the outside knows what it’s like. It looks like nothing. It sounds like a head cold.

A half hour later, after the walk, if that was the particular cast of your genetic dice today, you feel better, but jittery. Your brain feels like it has been wiped clean. You can’t quite remember which street your house is on, because it looks different somehow, the angle has shifted or the light, or you are seeing it from a different time in your life, a time kicked up by that sudden bout of depression. The words threw, through and thru don’t look right, and you know that you knew which was which only yesterday, but for now, you don’t. You swim back through the murk to reclaim your former self and hope others don’t notice. You remember that it’s important to be who you are even if only a fraction of the world wants it, that it may not be the right time for you to become a successful writer, but that you must carry the flag of who you are until that time comes, even if it comes after you die.

This is one of the places magic realism comes from.

*Note to my friends: Don’t worry, I wrote this over a year ago. Thanks to the anti-depressant duloxetine building on years of therapy, I’m fine. This really is just a rumination on one of the many ways that fantasy and magic realism represent a facet of reality.

The Collagist: An Interview

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In June, my story, “The Opal Maker” had the good fortune of being published in the 59th issue of The Collagist, which had come to my attention via Amber Sparks, who writes humorous, magical realist fiction.

I asked editor Gabriel Blackwell for an interview to try to get a sense of whether there was a certain type of story the magazine was trying to promote, something we writers are always trying to figure out when we decide who to send to, and something editors usually ask us to try to do when they say, “Read the magazine before you submit.” I am also interested in questions of genre, as I find I’m devoted to the literary fantastic, though there are many realist stories that I also adore.

As you will see in the following interview, he wonderfully eludes all my attempts to pin him down, and in the process describes the difference between an artist’s approach to art vs. an academic’s or publisher’s approach.

Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” which paradoxically suggests that all those literary analyses we read in school and were taught to write are not really an explanation of a story, but rather a completely different message that uses the story as a spring board.

In much the same way, Gabriel Blackwell urges us to experience literature without the confines of preconceptions and genre frameworks, and to write what we want.  I, on the other hand, am of two minds.  On the one hand, I’m a low-brow academic, meaning I see the usefulness of trying to define things, but understand that no definition is truly adequate. The experience of life can never be be fully quantified. On the other hand, I’m a fiction writer who has never written anything that truly fits in one genre or another.  What do you think?  Is the concept of genre limiting or helpful as we seek to understand, write and publish literature?

LD: On your “about” page, you say that The Collagist publishes “powerful, progressive literature.”  What does that mean to you? Does the magazine have an aesthetic or a pattern that tends to show up either by unconscious or conscious design?  Many of the pieces that appear in The Collagist seem to fall under the category of magic realism or fabulism. What can you say about these choices

GB: Our “about” page precedes my time as editor of the magazine, so I can’t take credit for it. I do of course hope others will find the work we publish powerful, and so, without intending to dodge the question, I very much hope readers of the magazine will spend more time reading its contents than its “about” page; those fictions and poems and essays are far more complex and interesting than any description I could possibly give of them. (Or, as the case may be, a predecessor may have given of them.)

As far as genre (and aesthetic, I suppose) goes, I’m interested in reading all kinds of different work and mostly uninterested in categorizing that work. Genres are marketing devices—if you like x, you’ll love y—and they can be very useful in getting things read, but I’ve always been a wretched salesman.

I don’t know; I think you’re probably right to say that many people would categorize much of the fiction we publish as fabulist or magical realist, but the number of stories I read and don’t publish that could be considered fabulist or magical realist dwarfs the number that we do publish, and the same goes for submissions in most other genres I can name.

What I mean to say is: I’m not attracted to whatever defines a piece of writing as fabulist (or K-Mart realist, or experimental, or horror, or Alt-Lit, or etc.), I’m attracted to the experience I have while reading that piece of writing.

LD: Other than a marketing device, can genre identification help us to understand the inner workings of a piece – how it achieves the reading experience it provides, how it can be distinguished from other reading experiences?

GB: That’s a fair question, Lale, but not one for me to answer. The Collagist isn’t a genre magazine. All of our readers are free to bring whatever expectations they like to each piece we publish—we don’t set out to put a frame around them. That’s what genre is: a frame, a set of expectations, a way of thinking about a piece of writing. That we do put a frame around what we publish—the Collagist frame; no grandness implied—is probably inevitable, but the existence of such a genre, such a frame, also presupposes some familiarity with the magazine, which I would never presume.

LD: John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction was famed for shaping an entire school of science fiction by sounding a call for a particular aesthetic and then selecting those who adhered to his ideas. Other editors try to keep their finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist of the times and select works to represent it. Which role more closely describes your approach to editing The Collagist? What role should the editor play in the creation of literary movements?

GB: I have no interest in making the fictions that we publish conform to my own personal aesthetic preferences (except of course that I will have chosen them in the first place based on those preferences; that’s unavoidable, though, and doesn’t make me any different than all of the other literary editors out there). When I want to write something, I write something, you know? I’m not a top-down kind of guy. So I find it difficult to think in terms of literary movements or my particular role in them, especially as an editor.

I do think that there is isn’t enough literature being published that has much of substance to it—I mean beyond or above melodrama or language-play—and I’d like to believe that The Collagist is helping at least some of that literature find readers. I should maybe say that I think that’s always the case—literature with substance is always in short supply—and that there are other excellent magazines also doing the hard work of publishing such fiction. Fortunately.

LD: In your mind, what constitutes literature of substance? Could you articulate patterns you tend to find in those “unavoidable” personal aesthetic preferences?

GB: Yes, sorry—I’ve just substituted one vague and reductive description (literature of substance) for another (powerful, progressive literature). In the end, neither really satisfies me and so my attempts at their elaboration probably won’t satisfy you.

I do think good examples of “literature of substance” (and of my personal aesthetic preferences) would include but not be limited to the forty-four stories I’ve published in my tenure as fiction editor of The Collagist. I really don’t mean to be evasive or vague, but I have misgivings about any attempt to reduce literature to a set of characteristics (genre, aesthetic, etc.), no matter how broad those characteristics may be.

In his introduction to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, William H. Gass writes, “reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes.” I can’t agree more. To say Hamlet is a tragedy is to say something about oneself: “I find Hamlet tragic.” Hamlet exists apart from that feeling and cannot be reduced to that feeling. One may say that Hamlet is a play, sure, but what does that tell you about Hamlet, exactly? That Hamlet is more or less like The Importance of Being Earnest? Is it? If we go down the list of characters in Hamlet, can we be said to have taken in some part of Hamlet? Even if we give those characters some basic characteristics? If someone tells me the plot of Hamlet, should I assume that I then don’t need to pay attention to it when I see Hamlet? And even if we put all of those things together, as CliffsNotes does, will we have anything even approaching the experience of reading or seeing Hamlet? Of course not; we will not have the pleasure of the thing, either—we will have learned much about what others think about the thing, but we will not have any idea of the thing itself.

LD: How has The Collagist changed since its inception?

GB: We went through a fairly big change last year, when Matthew Olzmann and I took over from Matt Bell. We got a new reviews editor, Michael Jauchen, a new interviews editor, Liz Morris, and a new podcast editor, Rachelle Cruz. That’s pretty much the entire staff.

Even though Matthew has been our poetry editor since the beginning, and even though I’ve been with the magazine for four years, it was a shift. I mean, I can’t help but be a different editor than Matt Bell was—I’ve been a fan of the magazine from Issue #1, so I don’t think my taste is so different from his, but it is different. I’m indebted to him for all the hard work he put into making the magazine what it is, and I have always been proud to be a part of the magazine. That said, I’m not trying to carry on a legacy, I’m just publishing things that I believe in.

Format-wise, we haven’t changed much. I’m a bit more open or agnostic than Matt Bell was, genre-wise, in terms of what I excerpt (we’ve had a couple of excerpts of book-length essays, and a couple of excerpts from hybrid or cross-genre books since I started editing that section), but we’re still doing four fictions, four poets, an essay, and four reviews every month.

With all of the changes going on last year, we didn’t do the chapbook contest, so I’m excited to bring it back this year, and Matthew and I are always talking about ways to make the magazine better, but we have a really good template to work from and neither one of us wants to mess things up just for the sake of doing something different.

LD: How would you describe the relationship between The Collagist and Dzanc Books?

GB: Dzanc is our publisher—they’re completely hands-off, editorially, but they’re also really supportive and easy to work with as a publisher. In addition to hosting the website, they publish the winner of our annual chapbook contest, and they help out with design and are, in general, very helpful.

 

“Death’s Debut” in April Issue of Eclectica Magazine

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“That’s when Death decided he wanted to become a stand up comedian. The idea reverberated with rightness. This laughter thing was invented by humans, completely unforeseen by God. Immortals didn’t get it. That’s why he had to, because, a good joke was like a thunderclap, a convulsion of life and death coming together in perfect balance, a hybrid.”

I’m delighted to announce that my story, “Death’s Debut” appears in this month’s issue in Eclectica Magazine at eclectica.org. I hope you’ll check it out along with all the other excellent stories and poems published there. I’m proud to be published along side them.

The idea for the story came from three sources, watching my 91 year old father “rage against the dying of the light,” a book by Steve Martin called  The Ten, Make that Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make that Ten, and a folktale called “Death in a Nut” collected by Duncan and Linda Williamson from the Traveling People of Scotland. In this last story, a boy called Jack stuffs death in a nut and throws him out to sea to prevent him from carting off his mother. Chaos ensues. The idea that death might want to become a comedian was entirely my own.

My father curses when he can’t buckle his belt, or cut his food with a fork, or find the word for computer. “What the devil’s the matter with me?” he says.

“When I can’t find words, I wave my hands around like this,” I say. “Try it. It’s kind of fun.” Sometimes in my writing group (all women of a certain age) we all just wave our arms at each other.

Most days, the only silver lining of old age appears to be what little hair is left on my father’s head.

Fight fire with fire, mystery with mystery, death with laughter, I say. That’s why I wrote the story.  I hope that one day, when death comes a knockin’, we’ll all be able to welcome him like a long lost friend.