From the first draft of chapter two of Hunger the Giant. This bit of writing is so dense that the revised extension of the ideas and imagery will likely span twenty pages.
In the high lonesome grasslands Ikka and Anders fed mostly on joy. What else did they have? Writ of deed. Money on credit. Deer at the flesh of an aborted orchard. Soil turned against their seed. Early frost, late frost, hail. Neighbors more distant than clouds with hearts hard as red winter wheat.
The settlers swarmed the plains possessed by a greed they had come to call hope. Any man cut away from his homeland is by necessity an opportunist and a thief. Anders’ people had worked their thin Nordic valley for more than a thousand years; Ikka’s lineage ranged far older still. Every corner of that world was filled with stories; in that earth lay all the bones of their ancestors. In Hunger’s inconsolable hours, when Ikka looked at Anders with the panicked eyes of a snake-bit mare and Anders stared back with the blue exhaustion of ice-melt, where were his grandmother’s practiced hands, the mellowing smoke of his grandfather’s pipe, or the rough camaraderie of his cousins? Gone as never was. Revenants. Memories. The continent was conquered thus. The southlands humid with the blood of flayed slaves, the northlands choking on the acrid kindling smoke of its workers, and all of them asking the tribes to choose between swindle and massacre before giving them both. The westland settlers were flung from that horror like spittle on a madman’s chin. Anders was among the best of this lot: a romantic and a fool. When, in the enormous ignorance he explained as bad luck, the north wind took Anders’ hay or the chickens got opossumed, he hoped for an Indian raid. Let my scalp fly from my head and arrows tie me to my fields. Let them carry off Ikka and raise the boy red. But then he’d slide hangdog into the dugout at dusk and lay eyes on mother and child naked in their nest of beaver fur, cotton, and silk. For three more visions like that Anders figured he’d fight to live forever and began to wonder like everyone else where the railroad would run. Ikka’d see these thoughts on his leaf-broad features, tell him to throw more sod and chips in the cracked iron stove and, when he’d undressed, set Hunger square on his chest. And so Ikka and Anders fed mostly on joy. It felt like redemption but it wasn’t. These debts would be paid down through the generations.
Hunger fed mostly on milk.
Late rains bring out the low green new grass beneath shorn and golden fields– the wheat-like light on the distant elevator tower, the distant antipodal fields of clouds, and in between, a horizon of river-rim leaf line.
This is a brain-clearing before a hoped for long absence. I torment myself over these posts, although, to be fair, I torment myself regularly over any ole thing. In order to put these words down I address myself to my theoretical reader: the internet. I mimic (across the spectrum of complete awareness to thoughtless reflex) the voices of others, the generic tone of the internet, conversational, hip, perpetually winking… or worse, authoritarian, imposing, and wearing a jacket of sneering wounded pride, pouring out glasses of Armenian cognac and downing them with slices of Amish ham.
Who reads this? Do you like it? Do you like me?
At the base of it is the vague dream that somebody somewhere will see this ‘content’ and offer me a check to make more of it. And with that check I would buy more babysitting.
I am drowning in domesticity. Hard to hold the dream-time writing candle-like aloft in the battering winds of shopping cooking eating consoling dishing undishing sweeping educating entertaining and guilting over each and every task insufficiently done.
Olga, Abram and I were back in Kansas last week. The prairie was green and white. White elderberry blossoms, white bindweed, dirty white seedheads of salsify and seedheads of brome paling away from the yellow of their flowers.
The wheat was a week or two from harvest. The Kansas countryside is orderly, clean, or cleansed, I should say. I began the journey adoring the bright patches and thick lines, the land like a velvet brush to the sky, but then realized how forbidding the landscape was. A field is not a land, an ecosystem, or a prairie. It doesn’t invite footsteps, imagination, or possibility, but repels them.
A wheat field is a force field defined:
“the space around a radiating body within which its electromagnetic oscillations and able to exert force on another similar body not in contact with it .”
I’m writing about sod houses and the first axes and plows to break the prairie. Within it I am planting a failed insurgency, the ruins of a great people that never was, that could– but here I stop believing.
If I place the hopes of my text in the political world I am lost. As ill-habituated as I am to this order of things, no book, no matter how good, can change it. There must be a platonic space, however, accessible through beauty and insight and work, where my words matter.
“Kansas isn’t the Midwest though,” she said.
“Oh really? What is it then?”
“A plains state.”
“Says the map. Missouri is the Midwest though.”
“Missouri is the South. What map are you using?”
I bristled at this map (which I have still never seen) taking away the ‘westness’ of Kansas. Marveled at the West’s ability to skip over the plains like a stone. Like it is one big field, repelling history, context, slanting sight.
What if the early settlers had forgotten about lumber and right angles against the sky and stayed in their sod houses? In awe of the Indians flying about on thundering carpets of hooves, their unspeakable grandeur. What if the settlers turned pre-native. Curing in the earth. Smearing their mouths with the yellow of yellow dock root. Unrecognizable to the cavalry who, having no citizens to justify their forts and plantations of slaughter, turned back. What if the soil spat out the wheat?
You “the” too much. I hate your characters. Your dialogue is pompous/boring. Your “he said, she said” is a waste of my motherfucking time. I drew a map of your version of Raleigh and you got some shit wrong. You watch too much TV; we can tell.
I ran across these suggestions in the submission guidelines for a certain ‘novel in progress’ award. THEY ARE STUNNING. As in I am a fish that has been caught and clubbed in the head. Throw me back hu-man! I am too small.
I don’t like writing tips (W.G. Sebald’s excluded) because they are usually predicated on a notions about writing and literature I do not share. I don’t think anyone has come close to understanding what literary art is, let alone what it can be.
Also because of all the smugness.
But these suggestions reek so heavily of peeve and disdain that I was actually taken aback. The primary goal of the following list must be to terrify writers so much that they will not apply to the contest. So condescending! So hateful! Don’t send your poor manuscript to these people! I’ll take these in sections.
1. Spell Check. Some entries we receive obviously have never been run through Spell Check. Spell Check is just a beginning, however, as it is impossible for Spell Check to catch such errors as “where” instead of “were” or “there” instead of “their” or incorrect spellings of names. Once you have used Spell Check a couple of times, do it again.
2. Third Party Editing. After you have spell-checked, then have two or three educated readers, people you trust, read the copy for typos, grammatical mistakes. Then Spell Check again, as mistakes often are made while correcting mistakes. We do not correct your manuscripts prior to submitting for judging.
Yes, writers should make a good faith effort to produce clean, readable copy. However, they should not be expected to produce error-free, professionally edited copy. The professionals are professionals for a reason and readers in a ‘novel in progress’ contest should cut the contestants some slack.
I have some very good friends. Some of them are even professional editors, but I would never ask them to spell check my entire novel and I can’t afford to pay them.
And speaking of elementary mistakes, “spell check” is not a proper noun and shouldn’t be capitalized. I am appalled that I have had to witness your error.
3. Bad Phrasing. During Words & Music, 2012, literary editor Brenda Copeland of St. Martin’s conducted a self-editing workshop and warned writers to beware of such over-worked, often unnecessary phrases “There is,” “There are,” “There was,” which can lend a trite quality to a manuscript. For instance, you might replace “There was a time when Mary Shannon O’Brien would have hesitated to confront the church hierarchy about child abuse…” with “Until Sean was ruined by that dirty priest, Mary Shannon O’Brien might have hesitated to confront the Church hierarchy. Not now.”
Your correction of that sentence was terrible. You turned something solid, if somewhat stolid, into overheated melodrama. I have encountered some deep negative feelings about “there was” and “he saw” and other such constructions recently and it strikes me as odd. One shouldn’t use them lazily but one shouldn’t cling to some daft sense of immediacy for immediacy’s-sake either.
“There was a pond at the bend in the road,” is not inherently worse than “A miasma of trembling darkness crouched at the hairpin curve– the pond.”
4. Over-used words. One novel manuscript entered last year—which was a good concept but too long—used the word “the” 10,001 times. At least half could easily have been eliminated. For instance, “Marylin stood outside of the room and listened to the
cacaphony of querulous voices in the room. When she entered the room, the quarreling ended abruptly.” Use instead, for instance, “Outside, Marylin listened as ranting voices reached crescendo level. Then, she entered and raving was replaced by a still angry silence.” More dramatic, six fewer words. Obviously, there are occasions when “The” is necessary for emphasis, e. g., The Help. “The” is, however, the most overused word in the language and especially overused for titles, chapter headings. For instance, Atonement is a great title, while The Atonement would have been trite. Sweet Tooth is a terrific title. The Sweet Tooth would be less compelling. (Atonement and Sweet Tooth are critically acclaimed novels by Ian McEwan.)
Once again, your corrected sentence is terrible. Carve out the last two instances of “the room” and it reads fine. This sentence:
“Then, she entered and raving was replaced by a still angry silence,”
is one of the worst I have read in a while.
And thank you for only using critically acclaimed novels by Ian McEwan to intimidate the illiterate numnuts who consider applying to your contest. Had you used his much derided early work Pantshitter, your point would have been lost..
Also Why Do You Bold Your Titles What Style Guide Are You Reading? is the name of my new novel. I didn’t use “the” once. Do I win?
5. Watch Your Titles. Competition judges and, utlimately, editors and agents, are confronted with titles as their first impression of a manuscript’s worth. One mistake writers make frequently with the titles they choose is to plaguerize a title from another work of art, such as selecting Heard It On The Grapevine, which is a direct steal from the hit song of that name. There may be a reason in the writer’s mind for using such a title but it indicates a lack of imagination to a reader not yet privy to the contents of the manuscript.
Sorry, William Faulkner. You totally ripped The Sound and the Fury off from Macbeth. I don’t care if this contest is named in your honor, your title turns the judges off. (Macbeth is a critically acclaimed play by William Shakespeare.)
Right. 1) Taking a title from another text is not plagiarism. It may sometimes be in questionable taste but it isn’t theft. 2) “Utlimately” and “plaguerize” are misspelled. Should have used your Spell Check.
6. Other Important First Impressions. Professional readers, such as agents and literary editors frequently read the first couple of chapters and the ending before deciding whether they want to invest more time in a manuscript. They know that readers looking for a new book to read frequently do the same thing. So, concentrate especially on strong openings and endings. A weak opening means a manuscript will not meet our general guideline of “ready for publication.” Ditto, a poorly constructed ending to a story.
This… is actually fine advice simply given.
7. Imagination Versus Reality. There are perfectly marvelous stories based in reality and perfectly marvelous stories totally imagined. If your setting is imaginary, you can name a street and locate it within your imaginary city or town however you like. If your story is set in a real city or town, however, making up streets or having them run the wrong way or in the wrong part of the city are no-nos. Getting facts wrong about an historic incident or personage is another egregious error.
Sure, sure. But how often does this come up? Have your offices been deluged with manuscripts placing the Eiffel Tower in Dallas when Ted Kennedy was assassinated?
8. Dialogue. A majority of the manuscripts we reject are product of a poor command of dialogue, with characters uttering phrases which are either pretentious, pompous or simplistic to the point of boredom. And, talk about overworked phrases, too many of the manuscripts could have their word counts significantly reduced by elimination of unnecessary instances of “he said” and “she said.”
Most writing teachers I have talked to go soft on the “he said/she said” issue. As to the rest, good luck trying to write dialogue that is never too inflated or too simple. I mean, that is what a writer should strive for, but this tip doesn’t tell him/her how.
9. Characters and Voice. A common failing in manuscripts which are rejected in our competition is the lack of a compelling central character and/or lackluster secondary characters. Take a close look at your characters. Is there a strong reason for a reader to take the time to become embroiled with your characters? Get a reaction to your characters from several third party readers. If these readers don’t “love” your characters, go back to work. Select a voice approach and be consistent. If switching from the voice of “all-seeing , all-knowing God” to the “ordinary mortal,” a difficult task to achieve successfully,make it clear that a switch has occurred so the reader is not confused and does not lose the storyline. If first-person voice is the approach selected, then make certain that voice can pull the reader into your story. If the central character is sufficiently compelling, his/her voice can carry a storyline.
10. Setting the Scene. If you are writing a scene set in a place you personally have never visited or a time before your own, your research had better be first class. Nothing is more disturbing to a reader than realizing that the author does not know what he/she is talking about. Beyond the simple fact of accuracy, however, is the writers’s job to conjure a scene so vivid that the reader feels transported. Too many manuscripts we received are more likefirst drafts of TV screenplays, which could not possibly transport without accompanying visuals and audio.
Ah. The gatekeepers. Just avoid all these disgusting habits and your novel might not be “rejected.” As with nearly all rules, great novels can be and have been written that flaunt each of these.
It is the nature of a contest to only have one true winner. So it is odd to suggest every other manuscript is rejected for not winning. Most classy contests will usually applaud the high quality of many manuscripts and lament that only one could wear the laurels.
I am deeply suspicious of expertly researched fiction designed to “transport.” I acknowledge that this is one of my limitations as a reader– I don’t read to escape. I read to engage. I read to be devastated by beauty. I read to be dazzled by ideas and invention. I read to explore the possibilities of language and literary forms. I don’t care inherently care if gas lamps didn’t come into wide use in Newport until 1835 or what gauge shot filled a blunderbuss or the type of shoes MLK wore. The job of art is to use the endless verity of life for a strictly aesthetic purpose.
I don’t want a writer to lie to me. I want a writer to lie to me.
I guess that’s my tip. Don’t lie to me. Lie to me.
This month’s issue of The Collagist features the excellent story “The Purple Shells.” It may well feature other wonderful stories and poems but I have not read them yet. I read Meghan’s story first because I like the spelling of her name. (Actually I just noticed they are devoting several essays to Peter Markus! That is really very exciting.)
I’ve long harbored the ambition of regularly reviewing work in literary journals. If I had all day to write and read and think I would probably do so on a regular basis. There is so much interesting work plopping up through the ice flows of little read magazines and yet, aside from an email or two from a peer, little comes back around to the writer… maybe someday and definitely briefly today.
I prefer to discuss the substance of a work without fear of spoilers, so if you want to read the story–and you do–then click on the hypertext above before reading on.
First, let’s give Meghan L. Dowling’s in-text definition of extrapolate.
-extend the application of to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable
-estimate or conclude (something) in this way
-Mathematics: extend (a graph, curve, or range of values) by inferring unknown values from known trends in the data
Hold on to that. Hold on also to this: “Everything is a red herring.”
Throughout the story, which jumps into and out of the pages of an old murder mystery, from library to library, the degree to which we can trust our assumptions, our extrapolations, is examined and reexamined.
Unfortunately we are “stupid, stupid, stupid to think…”
The Purple Shells is the name of the book our protagonist Serena is reading in a concrete and glass library designed for a future that never arrived.
The men who built those buildings—those libraries and bus stations and behemoths of bureaucracy in government centers—are both enviable and pitiful. The future they prepared never arrived. Their buildings became obsolete. But those men had something to anchor themselves to. Their long clean lines, their slabs of concrete.
They were so utterly sure.
(Another failed extrapolation. Another red herring.)
In the book Serena is reading, a young, attractive, though ultimately doomed and ineffectual female librarian, Blythe, is reading a book called The Purple Shells. She is also trying to solve the brutal murder of her predecessor.
Serena. Blythe. The twinning of the two women named for contentment mixed with ignorance, for a certain kind of extrapolated notion of a benevolent world, is the crux of the storytelling. But don’t worry about Blythe. She dies in the end. We know because Serena started reading at the back of the book. But the certainty of Bythe’s fate doesn’t decrease the sense of mounting dread for Serena, it increases it.
In the end, the literary fun falls away and Dowling gets down to business. You know it’s serious because Kennedy is assassinated. It is revealed that Serena was raped in the stairwell of a train station parking garage after enticing a man to chase her so that she could then get away from him and tell the police. It was a game.
A pretty shitty game but this story is not about the assignation of blame but its opposite. On this, Dowling is adamant.
“What happens next cannot be considered her fault.
This fact is non-negotiable.”
Serena tries not to judge Blythe, her twin in victimhood, as a way not to judge herself. She is not wholly successful. She reads to understand to what degree we are accountable for our fates.
There is not solution to that dilemma. No way out of that particular hall of mirrors. “The Purple Shells” is a masterful and engaging and thoroughly literary portrayal of some core human issues. What false future are we preparing for? To what degree can we be blamed?
Dowling almost ends her story with these two knock-out lines:
“The heroine should narrowly escape. The audience should breathe a sigh of relief.”*
I wish the story ended there. The paragraph that follows about the scalding hot showers Blythe, not Serena, may have taken takes the reader fully into the physical world of the rape for the first and only time, but the distancing swichteroo is awkward and unearned. Dowling should either break down her conceit fully and give us a gut-wrenchingly real window into the assault or end it with the trace of false assumptions, the expectations of the audience, the red herrings.
All in all though a fine, heady read. Ms. Dowling is working on a novel and I will be keeping my eye out.
*I also think ‘audience’ should be changed to ‘reader’ since until now we have been thoroughly in a world of books and audience a word from the stage. Quibbles.
In 1830, after one hundred years of unprecenteded population growth, emigration from Sweden became legal. Frustrated activists, reformers, and free-thinkers painted settling in the American Continent as an opportunity to reassert traditional Swedish values that had been repressed by an imported and unwelcome monarchical society.
Many European emigrants saw America as a place to establish a new and authentic community. Germans, Latvians, Swedes, the Irish– all came to America to establish towns and countrysides full of their fellows. Although co-opted into myths of American individualism, the vast majority of European immigrants sought new freedom to be with their countrymen- to establish new Uppsalas, new Amsterdams, new Counties Clare.
The notion of ‘becoming American’ hardly existed and certainly didn’t have the meaning it has today.
Once the first brave men and women escaped the poverty and oppression of feudal Sweden, they quickly realized they needed a lot more of their countrymen to live as they would like, in their own tongue, according to customs and beliefs specific to their shared history, and eating the dishes that tasted of home. Many were (or became) liars, opportunists, and thieves who knew how best to prey upon their own countrymen, but the communal human need they exploited was real.
Across Sweden a steady rain of leaflets fell, telling of the ideal conditions and perfect freedom migrants had to recreate their homeland away from the parasitical monarchy. Some of the information was true, much of it was lies. Emigration moved memetically.
Once sizable Swedish farming communities had formed on the prairie, the greatest impetus for further peasant migration came through personal contacts. The iconic “America-letter” to relatives and friends at home spoke directly from a position of trust and shared background, carrying immediate conviction. At the height of migration, familial America-letters could lead to chain reactions which would all but depopulate some Swedish parishes, dissolving tightly knit communities which then re-assembled in the Midwest.
The powers that be in Sweden, however, were in a bind. Too little emigration meant civil unrest. Peasants were getting uppity all over Europe and the monarchs were antsy about it. Letting the most agitated loose their energies on the American wilderness was a much needed release valve. Too much emigration, on the other richly ringed hand, would deprive the landowners of their wealth of serfs.
So the government began a propaganda campaign of their own, replacing the idyllic scenes with representations, in many ways more accurate, of frontier terrors such as hungry cougars, hatchet-wielding natives, and hard weather. The local clergy, in their usual collusion with state power, also warned of moral hazards and foreign heathen. Those who left often did so secretly or in the face of public shaming only to arrive in an America vastly different from what was promised and sometimes in indentured servitude to more established families. The Swedish press, in its usual collusion with state power, stated: ”No workers are more lazy, immoral and indifferent than those who emigrate to other places.”
This last attack was less directed at the potential migrants, experienced laborers eager to clear a cougar plagued wilderness and so not very lazy, than the mining, railroad, and lumber industry recruiters setting up offices around the countryside. These industries knew, however, that peasants isolated by language and culture would be less likely to resist exploitation– a fact that continues to drive migration today.
Another agent advocating emigration by printing and dispersing sunny pamphlets about the growing free Swedish metropolises was the Shipping Industry. They made out like bandits. The true extent of their influence is still unknown because most of the companies, which still exist today, refuse to open their archives to researchers. For thirty years these companies charged as much as they could to bring wealthier European peasant families to America. Once that resource was exhausted, shipping companies bottomed out the price so that the poorest could climb aboard. But don’t worry, they made up for the profit loss by packing migrants into desperate and choleric piles, charging exorbitant prices for rotten food and water stored in old turpentine barrels and coercing female passengers into prostitution– doing the deed we can imagine, on mattresses stuffed misprinted pamphlets extolling the freedom and ease of America.
Rather than seeing these ‘hardships’ as an unbroken chain of exploitation that led migrants from European serfdom to helpless sea-bound chattel to American wage slavery and ultimately the dismemberment of their communal ideals, our myths portray the journey as a trial by fire that sanctifies their abuse and the country founded upon it.
Are migrants, as a release valve for domestic tensions, easy marks for highway robbers, and then disenfranchised cheap labor, the grease that keeps the whole machinery of modern human cruelty running? Easy to think so if you’re in a Texas border town or in the sweatshops of Bangalore, less so if you’re on the streets of Lindsborg, Kansas, Little Sweden U.S.A. where for at least a little while the communal and egalitarian dream of Swedish immigrants thrived and the traces of it still remain.
(Photo credit: Jeff Cooper from the Salina Journal.)
Stravinsky said there was no tradition
behind his rite, that he simply
wrote what he heard, the vessel
through which the sacre passed,
and this is ritual without rote,
a rise of all things rooted
in dirt. There is nothing holier
and more base than May,
and we know it, we who sing
in scales or words or color
what is given, what is blended and mixed…