Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween...From the Field and the Pen

Act IV, Scene 1, Macbeth:
A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.
Enter the three Witches.
1 WITCH. Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH. Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH. Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH. Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH. Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Which I Become Obsessed With a Character by Lisa Cihlar

Lisa J. Cihlar's poetry has been published in Qarrtsiluni, elimae, Pirene's Fountain, The Pedestal Magazine and other places.  One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart prize.  She lives in rural southern Wisconsin.

In Which I Become Obsessed with a Character

By Lisa J. Cihlar

In the olden days, when I was young, I used to think I would write a novel.  In fact, that I was fated to write a novel.  So I started one, and then abandoned it to start another and another and another.  We are only speaking of small starts here, ten or twenty pages, a bunch of notes, but never more than that.  All though high school, college, and into my working life, my true, but secret, identity was novelist. 

Turns out, I had to retire early from my job as a library director due to a disabling course of multiple sclerosis.  I was 44 years old and consoled myself that now I would have time to write my novel.  But maybe I should begin with short stories.  This, I figured I could do, no problem.  It would lead into a novel I was sure.  I joined some online groups, took some online classes on short story writing, and immersed myself in reading stories.  I could do this.  And I did, with a tiny bit of publishing success, but in the end, I wasn’t having all that much fun.  No fun writing short stories, no fun writing aborted novels.

Then along comes a friend, who suggested I write a poem to go with a prompt he posted on a writing site call Zoetrope.  Well thank you, David!  Even though I had written poetry in the past, this time it took and I became a poet.  Again, the classes and books, but now I was having fun.  Lots of fun because it turns out I am pretty good at writing poetry, and revising poetry which was something I hated doing with novels and short stories.   In 2007 I had my first poem accepted for publication in an online zine called Wicked Alice.  Euphoria! 

Flash forward to today and I am still enthralled with writing poetry.  I have published around 50 poems and won some contests, well, runner-up in some contests, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  My niche has been found. 

All that intro to get around to my character obsession.  This past April, I was writing a poem a day for National Poetry Month and wrote a poem entitled “The True Story of Why You are Looking for a New Apartment and Telling Your Friends I’m a Witch”.  There was a character in that poem I called Swampy Woman.  Here is my favorite line about her:  When she lifts her tall black hat, it is all/mergansers and buffleheads and a solitary great/blue heron, eying the toads.   Then I was done with that poem and moved on.  Months later I started another online poetry class and pulled that poem from my files to be workshopped because I remembered liking it quite well and wanted to see what others might suggest.  It needed some work, but was very well received.  Shortly thereafter I was writing and who should show up, but Swampy Woman.  It was infatuation from then on.  I would have Swampy Woman thoughts in the middle of the night, and in the middle of reading poems by others.  She took over my life.  I made notes while in the bathroom, while cooking, and while watching TV in the evenings.  The poems kept coming.  I am up to ten now.  I have notes for more, maybe a lot more.  So far, only two of the poems are written from the point of view of Swampy Woman herself.  I think she is getting her voice though.  Soon, I may not be able to shut her up.

A mentor/coach, who I am working with these days, asked me recently, “Who is Swampy Woman?”  It gave me pause.  I hadn’t really given it any thought; she was just a creation, a fiction, running around in my head.  But in putting together a response, I had to define her. 

Swampy Woman is all women, she is Mother Nature without all the flower crowns and flowing gauze dresses in pastel colors.  She gets down with the spiders and snakes and toads.  She has sex, a lot.  But then she sends her lovers on their way.  She stomps on centipedes because they creep her out.  She howls with wolves and never tells a lie, unless she does.  Life is dirty swampy business a lot of the time.  She is the truth about that.  And about the joyfulness to be found there, too.  Today I found out that Swampy Woman lets things die.  Death is part of life, as she knows.  I woke early this morning and these lines came to me, insisting that I write them down:    Little girls bring her baby rabbits to save. They cry and hiccup telling how father/brother ran over the fur lined nest with the John Deere lawn mower.  I didn’t know that Swampy Woman was going to let the rabbits die.  She let me know though. 

In the end, I suppose this series of poems, about a character who won’t leave me be, is my novel.  There is a persistent myth out in the world that everyone has a novel in them.  Not true.  I don’t have a novel in me.  NO.  But I have these poems and that is proving to be good enough for me.   

I will finish with a couple of stanza’ from a poem I titled “Wolf Moon Soon Enough.”

She gathers squash, carrots and celery root
from the cold root-cellar to chop and stew.
Out her back window, a commotion of blackbirds
across an O’Keeffe sky suddenly disappears
into a cottonwood.  Bell-tone trills give them away.

Alpha-bitch.  Her hackles rise.  In the end,
feeling a skosh testy after all, she climbs
a rocky hill back of the woods and curls herself
into the den where half-grown spring pups
lick her face and name her grandmother.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birthing a Book by Heather Newton

Heather Newton is a writer, attorney and mediator in Asheville, NC.  Her novel Under The Mercy Trees, about a man forced to face his troubled past when he returns to his small hometown in the mountains of North Carolina after the disappearance of his brother, is available for pre-order now from and other online retailers, with information at

Birthing a Book
By Heather Newton
          I’ve been thinking lately about how getting a book published is like birthing a baby.

First, there’s the getting pregnant--or not getting pregnant--part. Some people conceive the month they decide to start a family. That didn’t happen for me. My husband and I tried for over a year and had actually scheduled an appointment with a fertility specialist when, hooray, I finally got the little “+” sign on a home pregnancy test. The fact that it took us so long caused anxiety and despair–was it ever going to happen? But it also gave us time to think and plan and be sure that having a baby was what we wanted to do.

Likewise, I didn’t find an agent and publisher for my novel the minute I finished it. An embarrassing number of agents told me (if they responded at all) that they just couldn’t feel “enthusiastic enough” about my book to take it on (I’m convinced they learn that phrase at agent school). Then the “+” arrived: my agent offered representation and placed the book with HarperCollins. In the nearly three years that passed between finishing the novel and selling it, I despaired that I would ever see it in print. That three years, though, gave me time to complete a short story collection and decide that yes, even without success, I still wanted to write.

The gestation phase for books and babies is also similar. Seeing the book cover for the first time was as exciting as looking at an early ultrasound. Holding the advance copy gave me the same thrill as feeling my baby kick and realizing she was alive and real. When the first reviews came out--people other than me talking about the novel–it reminded me of that magical point in my pregnancy when I suddenly showed and other woman began to come up to me to share their stories and my anticipation.

Now I’m feeling the way I felt toward the end of my third trimester. You know how it is, ladies–big as a bullfrog, having to pee every two minutes, out of breath walking to the mailbox. By the time my daughter was two weeks overdue I was drinking herbal teas and begging my massage therapist to find a pressure point that would send me into labor. What finally worked was going to see a Star Trek movie with my mom and sister and sitting right next to the speakers in the theater–the bass was so loud it shook that baby right out.

My novel, Under The Mercy Trees, comes out January 18, 2011, and I’m ready. I’ve picked a name, painted the nursery, packed the overnight bag. There’s nothing left to do but wait, and since this baby is fully formed and has all its fingers and toes, I think I’ll even settle in and have a glass of wine.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hospital Stay Sparks Creativity or An Unexpected Gift from Post-Op

After a lifetime spent in the field of Human Resources, I’m now pursuing my dream of writing. I’ve done some freelancing, and my first novel, Dakota Blues, is almost ready to go. It’s about a woman who is forced to realize, as she turns fifty, that she’s been sleepwalking through her one precious life. You can find me at 

Hospital Stay Sparks Creativity
An Unexpected Gift from Post-Op
by Lynne Morgan Spreen
Some writers will do anything to improve their creativity. I recommend surgery.
         Kidding! But let me explain. In the past five weeks I’ve been traveling a rough stretch. I’m back from the hospital now, but something strange and wonderful happened while I was hanging around in post-op.
         I got creative.
         Ideas poured into my head as easily as the saline from the IV drip. Ideas for characters, conflict, motivations, and story arcs appeared as if by magic. Some of it was inspired by the real people I met on my daily walks, as I dragged my IV tower up and down the hallway between Unit 9200 and Bariatric Medicine. But much of it was organic: original, whole characters, names and backgrounds sprang from somewhere in my subconscious and presented themselves to me as I drifted in and out of wakefulness. And I took notes, because I am such a dork that I brought my pen and tablet to the hospital with me. The name, age, vague appearance, general circumstances and motivations of a character would appear in my semi-conscious, and then when I was more alert, I would grab my pad and start writing, filling in the empty spaces.
         Here was one of the most profound and enjoyable aspects of this behavior: you know when you’re first starting to write a work of fiction you develop a list of character attributes? In the past that has been such a chore for me because it seemed so arbitrary. Where did the character go to high school? What kind of car does she drive? Who cares?
         But in the hospital, I found that I could sit with a character and let her tell me the deep stuff: the reasons why she does what she does. Why she’s starving for attention, even if it’s bad. How she copies the movements of her supervisor at a business luncheon, carefully folding her napkin just so, basking in the thinnest compliment. I was able to get to know my characters as if they were real people.
         Was it the drugs? Maybe, but I wasn’t taking anything that exciting. I think it was the amount of sleeping I did, and the distance from my normal frenetic life.  In other words, I rested. What a concept! With rest, creativity bloomed. With rest, humor and clarity surfaced.
         Here’s why this should matter to creatives: we may unknowingly have deep reservoirs of creativity sitting inside us, inaccessible because we’re always speeding around. When there is too much noise up top, too many layers of “gotta hurry, gotta do” might prevent the beautiful, original thoughts from getting through.
         I’m pretty excited about this discovery. It may be that I have a whole lot more creativity inside me than I ever guessed, and I intend to harvest it. Since I’ve returned home I’ve been taking it easy, because I need to heal, but I hope never to return to that frantic pace again. Even before my pace picks up again, I’ve been practicing the art of resting, and I plan to continue after normalcy returns. I WILL take ten minutes here or twenty there to sit in a comfortable chair and just listen. I’ll let my thoughts roam while I focus only on the sounds around me, and the only rule is that I cannot pursue any thoughts.
         You’re too busy? I understand. Martha Beck, in a recent issue of O Magazine, offers a quick strategy for resting, here ( Yes, it’s more than just going somewhere quiet and closing your eyes, although that may be enough.
         Call it meditation, call it an awake-nap, it’s at the heart of mindfulness. If you can take ten minutes to awake-nap, I predict you’ll feel better. You may even see things more clearly. Even if it doesn’t enhance your creativity, it just might prevent you from sleepwalking through your one precious life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Women, Women, Women by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant

There has been much online and in the media buzz of late, about women’s fiction. Article after article examines the pros and cons and whys and wherefores of  what makes a book wofic and if women writers are treated differently from their male counterparts. This latest salvo was sparked by what is now called Franzenfreude—(A Google search turns up more than 20,000 entries on a term that was coined less than a month ago.) the Jennifer Weiner/Jodi Picoult take on reviewers’ coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (two reviews in the NY Times), as compared to the works of women writers.
 A few years ago, we were asked to teach a week long class, at the Writer’s Institute at the Florida Center for Literary Arts/Miami Dade College.  At the time, we were working on our fifth novel, and over the course of our career, had often spoken to audiences large and small about writing—both the craft and our process. We are acutely aware that our work exists in two categories—women’s fiction and African American fiction and we struggle with both of these identifiers. But up to that point, we really hadn’t had a reason to dissect the genre we considered our work to be most representative of--Women’s Fiction.  However, having to prepare a syllabus, even for a class that was to last only a few days, caused us to look at what we wrote in a new light, to explain in concrete terms, both our motivation and intention.
We looked at heroines--Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, Jane Austen’s Emma and Zora Neal Hurston’s Janey among many others to see what made them singular, memorable and what made them different from heroes?  Was the “ine” tacked on to the end of hero all that makes a story “women’s” fiction? And the answer we came up with was that women’s fiction is not only about readers identifying with the main character or characters, it is to a great extent, having readers CARE about them in a way that is almost visceral. Bridget, Emma and Janey come off the page and move into your life like a new friend. They are either ordinary women having extraordinary experiences, which reminds us that we’re all potentially extraordinary. Or, they are extraordinary women having ordinary experiences, which in turn reminds us that we’re all just regular folks.
The women we love and know in books are characters we perceive as flesh and blood, bone and skin—they have the attributes that real people have. They are unique. They have a point of view. They have history. They have baggage. They have secrets. They suffer defeat. They have strengths and flaws and bad habits.  And somehow they get through “it.” Maybe not unscathed, and certainly not unchanged, but they go on, and that gives us all hope. They are alive on the page and we either love, or are antagonized by them because they strike a little too close to home. But we do react. They take up space in our minds and hearts and many of them remain part of our memory for all our lives. Reading about these fictional women is revealing and voyeuristic as well as intensely personal and reflective. It peels off the designer suit, the discount store mom jeans, takes off the pricey pumps and reveals the bunions, cellulite, dreams and insecurities we all have underneath—and in the end makes us feel better or at the very least OK about ourselves.
Do men have such a personal experience with their fictional spies and cops and lawyers and hapless guys next door? Maybe, maybe not. Are men and women different? Absolutely. Is our work as writers treated differently? Does that make it right? Absolutely not.
We have been best friends for 30 years and have been writing for 20 of them. Our sixth novel, What Doesn’t Kill You, was released in trade paper in February and our seventh, Uptown, was published in March by Simon & Schuster/Touchstone. We can be found on Facebook, Twitter and on the web at DeBerryandGrant and Twomindsfull.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Uses of Tragedy by Michelle Hoover

Michelle Hoover teaches writing at Boston University and Grub Street.  She has published fiction in Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly and Best New American Voices, among others. She has been a Bread Loaf Writer's Conference scholar, the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell fellow, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and in 2005 the winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction.  Her debut novel, The Quickening, released in June, has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

The Uses of Tragedy

More than any other genre, I have long believed that the best fiction asks its audience to extend its empathies to others unlike themselves, to lives that may otherwise seem suspect, unlucky, unimaginable.  Of course, nonfiction can do the same, as can poetry, but the narrative element of walking an audience through another person’s footsteps allows prose both its gifts and annoyances.  However heartrending, this walk in fiction is nonetheless invention, granting the audience the essential step back in order to reflect on the experience and make use of it. 

This two-step dance—one to witness; the second to reflect—is in fact what the old fairy tales used to do for children before the tales were fussied up by Hollywood and bleached of their necessary terrors.  In his now famous The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettleheim writes:

There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety.  Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good.  But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be.  This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.

Interestingly enough, for Bettleheim this extension of empathy begins with ourselves—with the very childlike belief in all of us that despite our best intentions we are loathsome creatures.  But in our every day lives, what use are monsters?  Better to keep them in our fictions.  To note that they are our mirrors.  To forgive ourselves, to attempt some improvement, and then to get on with our living.

I am writing this post because my novel, The Quickening, has been noted by more than a few readers for its darkness.  I based portions of the book on my great-grandmother’s journal, a farmwife who jotted down her story only after she had lost her husband of over fifty years.  “And now here I am in February 1950,” she wrote in the last year of her life, “broken hearted and sick in mind and body, begging God every day to take me to him or heal my afflicted body and show me what to do.  I don’t want to stay in this world.  It is not my home, but for some reason I am left.”  I couldn’t, in all fairness to the novel’s inspiration nor to this common experience of loneliness and abandonment, twist my story into an Oprah-Winfrey ending.  But that hasn’t stopped some readers to wish I had done so.

Of course, they have every right.  In my favorite review so far, a fair and pragmatic Carl H on LibraryJournal offers the book three out of five stars, writing,
“I found this story a bit depressing.  But since it is set during the Depression, that should not be surprising.”  I laughed about the truth of this one for days.  Others have taken a harder view.  Two stars:  “Iowa farm setting, and it's well-written, but too depressing to finish.  I suppose life might have been that grim for lonely farm wives between the wars.”  One star:  “Willa Cather this author isn't....  The theme really was less about pioneering and more about lousy personal choices.”  Ouch!  Still, poor Willa may rest assured of her own special genius in her grave.  Of course, others have gifted me the opposite.  During a recent appearance at the stupendous Next Chapter Bookstore in Mequon, WI, one attendee raised her hand with a certain giddiness:  “Our book group only reads depressing books,” she announced.  “We love them.” 

Love them?  Why?  In this time of economic turmoil and war, what can we possibly gain by looking toward darkness as much as we look toward light?

Pleasure, that’s what.  Or so Aristotle contends, the “dude” of modern storymaking, as I tell my students.  In Francis Fergusson’s introduction to Poetics, Fergusson explains:  “The pleasure we find in the fine arts, but the special quality of our pleasure in tragedy… comes, says Aristotle, from the purgation of the passions of fear and pity.”  For a tragedy to be truly pleasurable, Fergusson continues, an audience must respond with “pity and fear together.”  For Aristotle, we feel pity for the sorry fate of others.  To feel fear, however, we must find in others a reflection of our own selves.  Only when we fully identify with a character can we fear that the same sorry fate might happen to us.

This of course is an uncomfortable position, but a necessary one.  As Fergusson explains:

Pity alone is merely sentimental, like the shameless tears of soap opera.  Fear alone, such as we get from a good thriller, merely makes us shift tensely to the edge of the seat and brace ourselves for the pistol shot.  But the masters of tragedy, like good cooks, mingle pity and fear in the right proportions.  Having given us fear enough, they melt us with pity, purging us of our emotions, and reconciling us to our fate, because we understand it is the universal human lot.

The universal human lot, or as Bettleheim puts it “life isn’t always sunny.”  True tragedies purge us of our fears by allowing us to witness them played out on the safety of a stage (or between the pages in a book).  We may fail, yes.  But we do so merely because we are human.  To write characters who do not suffer or who all too easily overcome their suffering through will-power alone (or by getting married, publishing a bestseller, or winning the lottery) seems to ignore our humanity altogether.  Of course, we can praise resourcefulness, responsibility, and strength.  But must we also condemn those whose marriages end in divorce, whose bestsellers lead to family lawsuits, or who drown in the world’s materialism?  What about characters who triumph again and again through will-power alone only to lack the strength to overcome one last blow?  We may wish such stories didn’t exist.  That’s what comedy is for.  But we cannot ignore those who suffer them despite our distaste.  We cannot pretend their stories don’t deserve to be told.  Despite our best intentions and our most lauded of strengths, we are still at the mercy of chance.  None of us are gods after all.

In truth, I have failed.  Despite my admiration for the form, I don’t consider my novel a tragedy, nor do many of my readers.  For Aristotle, a playwright achieves tragedy only when the protagonist breaks down altogether, when the best of his character has been destroyed, ie. the proud King Oedipus gouging out his eyes (ouch again).  My book contains no gouging (not of persons, at least, though my farmers did have to prepare their supper).  Nor does my cast collapse together in Hamlet-like death throes after having been poisoned, stabbed, or overly horrified.  The core identities of my two female protagonists do not destruct in any way.  The first, Enidina, a willful woman with deeply-set beliefs in land, work, and her own physical strength, races toward her utmost desire through the last page.  The second, Mary, despite past behaviors, may just as well earned the room she desires and a window through which she might see a loved one returning.  Neither character ends in suffering, at least not according to her own perceptions.  Both retain hope about their fate.  And in my mind, no matter what darkness hounds them, that’s what matters in the end. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Body of Work by Sheila Squillante

Sheila Squillante is a poet and essayist and the associate director of the MFA program at Penn State. Her work has appeared in places like Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Phoebe, Brevity, Literary Mama, TYPO, 42Opus, PANK, Glamour Magazine, and in the anthology, Mama Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as a Pushcart nomination. In addition to her poetry manuscripts, she is writing a memoir about her relationship with food and her father. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her philosopher-photographer husband, her five-year-old son and her 3- year-old daughter--the most interesting, brilliant, beautiful and hilarious children in the world. Really.

Body of Work

I have never seen myself naked.

This is not a metaphor; I mean that I have truly never in my life really looked carefully at, pondered or appreciated my body—my actual, physical form-- in its own skin and nothing more. I never stood in front of a mirror as a teenager, monitoring my developing curves, nor as a grown woman, assessing changes to the landscape after childbirth. While I have a general sense of the shape of things—I have caught glimpses, accidentally-- I have no clear knowledge of what I would see if I really looked.

Sunday was my 40th birthday and I have been writing this piece in other essays, poems, and in my head since I was at least 13 years old.  In my diary that year, the one with the blue gingham cover pocked with pen marks and scratches, puffy hearts drawn all over the inside pages, there are only three entries, written over and over again: I Love a Boy Who Thinks I’m Stupid; Something Bad is Going on With My Parents; I Am So Disgusting That I Can’t Even Look at Myself.  It’s become part of my identity: “the girl who has never beheld her own naked shape,” in one poem; the one who cannot “imagine the unseen surface” of her own back in another.  In each, a tone of disapproval, admonishment, an unspoken knock-it-off-already-you-know-better.

Though I announce my ignorance here-- in public, on a blog which will perhaps be read by my friends and family, colleagues and readers-- with what might seem like confidence and naked (ha.) bravery, I am not proud of this. In fact, as a woman, a mother, a feminist, and, it turns out, a writer, it is one of my greatest shames.  

It’s probably obvious why a poor body image would be concerning for the first three of those selves, and I could offer far too many theories (most predictable) about how I ended up so impressively wacked out about this. But what interests me at the moment is a strong sense that my corporal alienation is also tied inextricably to my writing self.  It’s a nagging kind of sensation, and one I’ve long wanted to work out on the page, shifting the pieces around to see how they might connect, what they might offer up.

So I’m grateful for this space.

I am also feeling incredibly, painfully naked right about now, tinkering endlessly with each word, each sentence, delaying sending it, dreading seeing it go live.

David wants to kiss me. He mumbles this sort of in my direction, eyes anywhere but on my face.  I am twelve years old, and in my memory we are sitting, for some reason, on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, our backs nervous- stiff and aching against the bed. I have never been kissed before, though many of the girls in my seventh grade class are already playing Two Minutes in the Closet with boys at parties to which I am not invited.
I can see David in my periphery, turning his head and leaning in. I keep my back straight and turn my head too; it doesn’t occur to me yet to move my whole body toward a kiss.
I don’t remember the kiss beyond that moment of decision and approach; have no memory of skin or lips or tongue. What I remember—what I will transcribe into countless diary entries, free-writes and onto the blank page of my self for years to come—is what he said after: “You know, you are really beautiful from the waist up.”

I live in my own periphery, my full-length reflection a thin sliver of only one side of me. My approach to mirrors, windows, the shine off of cars in the parking lot, purposefully avoidant, my image askew. Head, hair, face, eyes, shoulders, sometimes breasts, those are easier, acceptable even to me. Those I can look at.  Otherwise, I either view myself in sections, incoherent parts of a whole, or not at all.

Open on my desktop at this moment are two files, each containing a full-length manuscript of poetry—my poetry. I have been tending, polishing, readying them for the endless contest circuit. I have read them each countless times, and I quite like them both.  I think there are readers who will respond to them, should I be lucky enough to get published. These manuscripts could not be more aesthetically different from one another. One is firmly narrative, largely auto-biographical, shot through with longing and nostalgia and loss. The other is more deeply rooted in language and the beautiful and perplexing shapes it can make. It is fragmentary, associative, a little surreal.  I joke that in the unlikely event that these books showed up next to each other on a reader’s shelf, that reader would be very confused indeed about who the writer is.

Though  I have long espoused a philosophy of both/and, rather than either/or in poetry--I read work from both traditions, have obviously written in both, and hear my voice naturally in both-- the idea of claiming them both publically makes me more than a little anxious.

After my divorce, I enroll in a writing workshop at my local university. There, I enter into dalliance with a fellow writer. He is, like most of the other men in my life to this point, confident, assured, opinionated and searingly intelligent.  For months he keeps me at arm’s length physically. The night we finally fall into bed, our pillow talk turns to poems. To my poems—the ones about my father’s death-- which he has read and about which he has readied the following commentary: “You know, no one really wants your emotional baggage.”  I don’t remember responding; I don’t think I could have. I remember putting my clothes back on quickly and then driving him home.

A poem should look

Poems should face each other

Poems should echo

Poems should or shouldn’t be poking you in your eye

A poem should sit a while

A poem should ride on its own

A poem should be different from your expectations

A poem should be on the moon

A poem should always have birds in it

Poems should radiate lots of affection

Poems should do without any comment

Poems should be in plain text

Poems should include a baby girl

Poems should be I’m in love, damn it!

Poems should progress

Poems should be read aloud to children

Poems should be lingered over

Poems should move

Poems should not be relied upon too heavily

My lover and I kneel facing each other on the floor of my college dorm room, running our hands frantically over exposed flesh.  I am so caught up in his body, in mine, that I have forgotten the full-length mirror hanging on the inside of the door. I turn my head to allow him better access to my neck and accidentally see myself—the curves of my breasts and hips, thighs, knees, slope of calves, feet. I make myself look for a long, shocked moment and think, is that really what I look like? Is that woman really me?

If I publish manuscript #1, some of the confident, assured, opinionated men in my life will continue to pat me on the head and send me on my quaint, confessional way. They will not want my “baggage.”

If I publish manuscript #2, some of the others will roll their writerly eyes and use words like “pedantic,” and “pretentious.” They will wonder where I went, why I have eschewed the world of the body.

When I worry over this, one man—a friend and himself a poet-- will ask (again), “Why do you care so much about the opinions of men who really don’t matter?”

[insert death of confident assured, etc. father here]

My favorite poems are simple and direct, glittery gems hand-hewn from mineral rock, grounded in the sensual world, in human relationships. I roll them between my teeth and tongue.

My favorite poems are painterly abstractions, elliptical gestures, unfinished thought. They invite me in and then inflate with impossible language, float above me, just at the limit of my reach.

I am nine months pregnant with my first child, my son. I step out of a hot shower, hotter than I’m supposed to take, and reach for a towel. As always, I stare straight ahead at the towel bar opposite the tub, perpendicular to the sink and the mirror.  But something moves in the corner of my eye, and before I realize, before I remember not to look, I have turned to follow it. Through the humidity and behind the scrim of steam I see my belly, breasts, hips, mouth. Eyes filled with relief and bright wonder.

Here is what I want:

I want to look directly into the mirror and learn my shape, begin to know it first without 

judgment, then with appreciation.

With praise.

I want to spend this decade unafraid and unashamed.

I want to knock it off, already.

I want to throw out the Book of Poetic Shoulds. Open my arms wide.

I want to walk into my 40s full-ready to embrace every line, every lump, every word:

I lived it. I made it. I claim it.

My naked body is pretty much like any other naked body

My naked body is a humiliating example

My naked body is unlikely, thrilling

My naked body is sensual in the extreme

My naked body is not what it was in pre-baby days

My naked body is an affront

My naked body is a participant

My naked body is these potato chips

My naked body is now hidden under the table

My naked body is as beautiful as my naked thoughts

My naked body is the least of your concerns

My naked body is the blank page

Monday, October 4, 2010

All Around Bitchiness by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

By Elizabeth Stuckey-French

One of the drawbacks of writing from the perspective of a wicked female character is that a woman writer might fear being labeled as a bitch herself.  I don’t think the same problem exists for men. Do people assume that Donald Ray Pollock or Dan Chaon or Denis Johnson or Tobias Wolff are just like their awful characters?  Don’t think so. My own short story “Junior” is about a pre-teen who tries to drown a younger girl in a swimming pool. After the story came out in The Atlantic, a man who worked with me at ACT in Iowa City said to me in the hallway, “Remind me never to go swimming in the same pool with you!” 
When I’ve talked about “Junior” in my undergraduate classes, I mention that I wrote it because I wanted to explore what it would be like to act on a random violent impulse instead of just thinking about it. I ask my students: “Can you think of when you’ve felt or even acted this way? You know, when you have a violent impulse?”  About half the students, usually all women, claim to never have had a violent impulse in their lives, until I add, “Well, what about those of you with siblings? Never wanted to strangle your brother or sister?”  Then there’s some giggling or sheepish smiles. Nobody wants to acknowledge that young women have any nasty or mean thoughts, but we all know better.
In fiction, it seems, only girls and old women are allowed to be bitches.  We give them more leeway to misbehave, to perform cruel acts, make off color remarks and to hold politically incorrect views.  Take the narrator of Gish Jen’s story “Who’s Irish,” an old Chinese woman who denigrates her in-laws and her son-in-law, makes bigoted comments about the Irish and blacks, believes children should be spanked, including her granddaughter, and ends up poking her granddaughter with a stick, leaving bruises. My students all love this character and I do too, because after all, she’s just an old lady, and her adversaries, including her Irish in-laws and her pampered granddaughter, deserve the honesty and abuse she dishes out.
In Eudora Welty’s hilarious story “Visit of Charity,” a Girl Guide goes to visit a nursing home in order to earn a badge and ends up shut up in a room with two old ladies, roommates who hate each other and are in the middle of a fight that we quickly realize will never end.  The two old women insult each other and wish each other dead, and who could ever be offended? It’s a fascinating train wreck and besides they’re old and useless and hidden away and they’re only bothering each other and a little girl.
There’s a category of bitch I’ll call the stealth bitch. Usually an older woman, her bitchiness is layered over with so many good intentions that we sometimes don’t recognize how nasty her actions actually are. She certainly doesn’t. I’m thinking here of a couple of female characters Flannery O’Connor created during her final illness—Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.” Maybe knowing she was going to die freed O’Connor up to create these two marvelous bitches but I suspect her sense of humor was wicked enough to have done it all along. At any rate, these two women manipulate their children, look down on others, express or at least hold overtly racist opinions, and are sure they have everything figured out.
One of my favorite fictional bitches of all time is Serena from Ron Rash’s novel by that name.  Serena is an unabashed, unapologetic bitch from hell.  Serena comes from old money and is lovely to look at. She’s smart and an accomplished athlete and loves to kill animals, including some members of her family. There’s no explanation in the novel of how or why she got to be such an evil bitch, just some hints about a fire that killed the rest of her family and suggestions that she might’ve had something to do with it.  They probably had it coming. How thrilled I was to read about a woman in her late twenties--old enough to know better but not over the hill-- who saw some butts that needed to be kicked and kicked them.  The novel is set in the late 1930s, and at the beginning Serena has recently married a wealthy owner of a lumber company in the Appalachian Mountains, a company trying to strip the forests as fast as possible before the area gets turned into the Smokey Mountain National Park. Serena sets out to drive away her new husband’s business partners—and even have one of them killed—meanwhile taking over the company’s finances. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but Serena does set out to eliminate some other people she feels are in her way and has some success. Some of the fun of this novel is that all the men are greedy, self-centered, smug, sexist, pleased-with-themselves prigs, so they have it coming.  Up until her final evil deed we’re cheering her on and feeling guilty for doing so. Serena was, however, written by a man, so nobody would ever accuse Ron Rash of being like Serena. 
            I think that it’s hardest for a woman to write about a nasty woman character when that character is a mother, because in our society a mother is supposed to be a saint. Once a woman becomes a mother, she gets shoved into a pigeonhole and is expected to stay there, at least until her little charges are out of the house. There have been many fictional mothers who are careless, self-centered, passive-aggressive, manic-depressive, trapped in abusive marriages, but a mother who is bad because she just feels like being bad?  I’m having trouble coming up with any.
            My new novel, coming out next spring, is called The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady. The main character is a woman in her late seventies named Marylou, who has finally hunted down the man who gave her a dose of radioactive plutonium in a secret government experiment in the 1950s, radiation that she is sure caused her daughter to die of cancer at age nine. When years later she discovers where the evil doctor lives, she decides to move into his neighborhood and kill him.  I believe she can do this because her daughter died and she is now an old woman herself.  Some of my early readers had  problems with Marylou however. They thought it was okay to want to kill the Doctor who preformed the experiment on her, but when Marylou decided to torment his three grandchildren as well, well, that was too much. Making Marylou a kind of surrogate grandmother who was also bitchy and vengeful was too much. Fortunately, my editor didn’t agree. 
            All this talk has made me want to write about even more bitchy narrators, ones who are bitchy to men, women, and even children. A true bitch masterpiece has yet to be written. We need Serena written by a woman.  Or a woman’s version of Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow”, about three assholes.  Bitches in the Snow.  Now that could be a great story.  

 ELIZABETH STUCKEY-FRENCH is the author of the novels The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady forthcoming in February and Mermaids on the Moon and the short story collection The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she teaches fiction writing at Florida State University. You can find her on Facebook at 

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."