The W’s: Work and Why We Write (and Other Impossible Subjects)

by Francine Ringold

In 2004, Nimrod International Journal published an issue entitled Fabulae! What Work Is. The issue included poems and stories about bricklaying, science, planting, cooking—the music of the hammer and the lure of the coal mine. The performance script that emerged from the issue relating physical work and literature was presented at the meeting room of the Carpenter’s Union 205, among other places. The script further developed the theme, incorporating excerpts of poems and stories from carpenter-poet Vachel Lindsey; airplane factory worker and poet Richard Hugo; doctors, like William Carlos Williams, who wrote a poem a day while in medical school; and insurance salesmen, like Wallace Stevens. There was work from Richard Eberhart, who sold Johnson’s Wax door to door; from farmers, like Robert Frost; from B.H. (Pete) Fairchild’s book of poems The Art of the Lathe; from mothers, like Lucille Clifton, who worked several physical labor jobs simultaneously; and, of course, from Philip Levine, whose What Work Is brings to life blue-collar work in Detroit, where he grew up. All these and many more, including prose writers demonstrate the dynamic link between the written word and physical labor. It is easy to say these writers are workers.

But what of the writers who never met a machine, washtub, or currycomb? Do they work? Can we call it work, that high-precision mental labor of writing? Or is it all inspiration, as so many people think—especially those we meet at cocktail parties? Is writing just the prophetic, the vatic voice bursting forth? And if it is work, hard work, why do we do it? Why do we write a poem, a story, a memoir?

It makes one tremble, trying to sum up a subject everyone who’s ever taken pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or arrowhead to stone has wrestled with. But I am stuck with my subject and awed by it, just as awed as I am by the passion of my fellow writers, by the commitment to the difficult and obsessive task we have embraced.

So, I’ll start with the obvious: the job we writers do is not easy; it is not often financially rewarding. It is seldom starlit. It is often disheartening—if not plain painful. While writing we often break a sweat, our muscles ache, our metabolism races. In other words, we are at work, and, as Pulitzer Prize-winner Stanley Kunitz said, “a poem without the body in it lies dead on the page.”

All this mental and physical effort! Why do we do it? Are we all masochists? Surely we must love our chosen task; surely it brings us joy as well as pain. Indeed—and I believe part of that joy is right there in the 3 W’s: Who, When, Where. In composition class we are asked to enunciate these 3 W’s before we write. Professional and would-be professional writers acknowledge that we usually discover the who and the when and the where as we write the first draft—and perhaps even the second or third.

We write and read to discover Who we are, to balance the risk of reaching out into the unknown by finding ourselves. In that process of discovery, we are, of course, writing to unburden our minds and hearts just as we read to embrace the stories and the burden of others.

We write to create the moments When we are more than we are in our everyday lives.

We write and read to discover Where we are, to plant our feet in the land of our ideas and the homebase of relationships and the very earth we need to stand on. Additionally, and ironically, we write in order to plant ourselves firmly in our dream space. And this brings us “joy” . . . and this makes us fall in love with the process.

Though our search is not as calculated as it sounds, though often we do our best work when we don’t know what we are doing, even when we experience the shock of inspiration, of momentarily breathing in the essence of what is out there—there is also and always the search to go deeper. And in that search and struggle to clarify, to find the exact words, sounds, rhythms, and to set down what we breathe in, what we think, what we feel—we acquire technique. Then, as Mark Shorer insisted, technique becomes discovery.

And so we not only write—we read and encourage reading; we not only write—we re-think and re-write, and develop technique. We Wright, employing another W—to wright, like wheel-wright and ploughwright and playwright.

It is a risky process, it is work, but it is worth it, for above all, we write not only to discover but because in that process of discovery we breathe in new, fresh air. That, I suppose, is the real meaning of inspiration, the power of the breath that underlies all work and play (which in the best scenario is the same thing). But to go on:

We write and read to breathe, to discover and to record not only what is new, but the past, history (his-story and her-story), to record past lives and the spirit of a time and place.

We also write to refresh history, to make it new, for the past is also subject to change. Each generation looks at the past from a new angle, in the light of new discoveries: a letter once buried; a scientific finding; eyewitnesses coming forward—to capture, as a renowned historian said, the “fly in the inkwell.”

We write to exercise and develop skills of enunciation of the past and present but also to expand our imaginations, to extend the gesture, without which relationships among disciplines—science, business, medicine, law—as well as relationships among people falter and fade.

We read and write because we have a dream, a need, something we must say, and we are in love with people and places and emboldened to reach out for the words, their power, rhythm, sound, and sense, the words that may approximate in some small way—but never convey entirely—the wonder that is out there.

We write and read to preserve our dream space as well as to acknowledge our responsibility space. (I believe I read that somewhere; it is not my original concept.) And yes and yes and yes . . . it is true; we already do so much that acknowledges that “responsibility” space, we responsible ones, we who “respond” to family and friends and state and country, but also to principle and history and tradition.

However, we remind ourselves that despite Shelley and others, creative writers are not hierophants, are not prophets nor didactic teachers nor systematic philosophers. That is our strength. We don’t have to be.

Yes, we do at times engage the mystery; a poem or story comes to us as if from nowhere. But, at the same time, we do often come to a moment of clarity. And then all we have to do is re-write, share, give the gift of poem or story or painting or O-ring . . . offer, extend the gesture . . . no strings attached. Take it or leave it.

It is a risky process, it is work, but it is worth it.

That is why, as Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” You practice your craft, you exercise until you tap into the mysterious center of things . . . what playwright Pirandello called “the secret room where dreams prowl,” where the Where and the When and the Who are.

In October, 1973, in a letter in which she accepted a position on the Advisory Board of Nimrod, Katherine Anne Porter, famous short story writer, novelist, and teacher, wrote: “Practice an art for love and the happiness of your life—you will find it outlasts almost everything but breath!” And then she added a line from Pascal: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”

I guess it boils down to that . . . to the heart and the love of craft and words and speaking in a way that will outlast even breath. For the writing and reading of that writing are there to be discovered again and again . . . to make us new, to preserve the old, to expand life, giving us who we are, where we are, and those precious moments when we are more than we are in our everyday lives.

But all of you know that. . . .

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

 

Review of Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

by Helen Patterson

Every once in a while, I’m drawn to a book by someone I’ve never heard of because of the tittle. This was the case with Ellen Klages’s short story collection Wicked Wonders (2017). Klages is an award-winning author, primarily of science fiction, historical fiction, and science writing, whose earlier publications include The Green Glass Sea, White Sands, Red Menace, and Portable Childhoods.

Klages’s style is unlike anything I’ve seen recently and is hard to describe. Each story has a different feel to it, likely because, by her own confession, Klages is a little obsessive about researching content, style, and voice for all her pieces. Sometimes her writing is like Ray Bradbury’s; sometimes she’s evocative of Shirley Jackson or more contemporary authors such as Kelly Link. Science and the wonder of the mathematical and physical properties that make up the universe inform her stories, as does a careful attention to details. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” drolly displays the absurdity of applying mathematical paradoxes to real-world dessert division, and “Gone to the Library” explores a budding mathematical prodigy’s conflation of math and magic as she encounters imaginary numbers and magic squares.

Klages is at her best when drawing from her own experiences, particularly those from her childhood. In her story notes, she says that “The Education of a Witch,” “Woodsmoke,” and “The Scary Ham,” three of the strongest pieces in the collection, all draw heavily from her experience and memories of childhood. Told from a preschool girl’s perspective, “The Education of a Witch” balances the intensity of feeling and sensory input that children experience with the limited means children have to conceptualize and act out these sometimes violent responses to real-world events and changes. “Woodsmoke” is the longest piece in the collection, almost a novel, about the liberating experience of camp for a suburban girl stifled by gender norms and expectations. “The Scary Ham” is a brief and hilarious autobiographical piece about the ham that hung in her family’s basement for decades, terrifying everyone who saw it. It seems likely that Klages intentionally bookended her collection: her fictionalized childhood self in “The Education of a Witch” opens the book, and her middle-aged self ends it with the humorous and unforgettable line: “It was a very scary Ham” (256).

The disquieting “Singing on a Star” also draws from a childhood memory, which, later in life, Klages realized was partially fabricated. We all have moments from our childhood that are vaguely magical and ominous when remembered, as if the world suddenly grew soft around the edges, and we peered through at something we were not supposed to see, and Klages captures that feeling perfectly in this piece.

There aren’t any bad pieces in her collection, but for me the least successful were “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” and “Caligo Lane.” The former has a distinctive high-fantasy vibe, which clashes a little with the tone of the rest of the collection, but what really weakens it is that the main characters are not as multifaceted and well-defined as her other characters. I’m not quite sure what about “Caligo Lane” fails to hit home. It may be that it is brief, and it feels like it needs more room to breathe and develop. Additionally, the main character is almost completely isolated. The reader does not see much of her inner state, as she is thoroughly absorbed in her work, or of her humanity, as she scarcely speaks to another person. This creates distance between the character and the reader, and this gap isn’t easy to bridge.

Two of the strongest pieces in the collection (and, not coincidentally, my personal favorites) are “Amicae Aeternum” and “Goodnight Moons.” Both pieces are sci-fi but barely, set in futures that are very recognizable and, possibly, quite close to our own. Klages does an excellent job of mixing her exhaustive research and knowledge into a world recognizable in its details and its people, allowing us easily to enter her near-future worlds. There are neither dystopias or utopias, but are rather both tragic and triumphant, as the best and most human stories often are.

It isn’t often that I read more than one book by the same writer. There are so many, many books in the world, and more being written all the time. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who often feels like she is awash in a vast tide of words. However, in Klages I’ve found an author who not only is gifted but who also speaks to me in a personal way that is hard to describe and rare to experience. Several of her stories struck a chord in my heart, twisting it in unexpected directions and upending my world in sympathy with her characters. I’m looking forward to finding and reading Ellen Klages’s other work, both past and future, and I recommend that you do the same.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

On Place, Memory, and Meaning

 

by John Coward

Some of my favorite writers are tied to places, small places that are usually overlooked in the larger literary landscape. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I seem drawn to writers whose literary imaginations are rooted in out-of-the-way locations, places that are real but that are also more deeply felt and imagined in literature than in real life.

One of those writers is the twentieth-century novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose sprawling novels and stories were largely autobiographical, tied to his own experiences growing up in Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe’s novels are out of style these days—unfortunately, in my view—but Wolfe’s rambling prose captures something essential and powerful about his days as a boy in Asheville. Even a cursory dip into the pages of Look Homeward, Angel reveals a time and place rich with smells and sounds and a vivid sense of a world that once was and is now lost.

Look Homeward Angel

I grew up in East Tennessee, just over the mountain from Asheville, which helps explain my interest in Wolfe and his novels. To me, there is something special about reading the words of someone from your town or region. It’s a romantic notion, I admit, but those writers breathed the same air I did, drank the same water, walked the same streets. They were here, in this place, like me. When I traveled to Asheville as a college student, I walked through Wolfe’s neighborhood, fully aware that the great writer himself once walked those very streets.

My English teachers—bless them!—introduced me to Wolfe and other local writers, including people from my hometown who had published books in New York. I was thrilled. In my innocence, I did not think it was possible for a small-town writer to ascend to such literary heights. But once I grasped this idea, I came to see that Johnson City, Tennessee, my hometown—this obscure corner of the world—could be the foundation for a fully-realized life, in literature and in fact. This place and thousands of other places in America and across the world could be imagined in ways that emphasized their unique qualities. The very act of writing about such places was ennobling in a way—almost sacred. Telling the stories of the people in such places was a creative act that gave meaning to the ordinariness of life. Asheville came alive in Wolfe’s stories, and even my own modest town became something greater when it was imagined for the printed page.

I was reminded of these ideas this fall as I re-read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, a book that got its start as a short story by the same name in Nimrod. Kidd sets her book in rural South Carolina, mostly in a town called Tiburon. This is a fictional town—I checked—but Kidd makes it seem real. The novel is set in 1964. When Lily, the main character, walks down Main Street in Tiburon, she passes the drugstore with its “soda fountain with chrome trim, where they sold cherry Cokes and banana splits. . . .” She walks past the insurance agency and the county rural electrical office and the dime store with “Hula Hoops, swim goggles, and boxes of sparklers in the window with SUMMER FUN spray-painted across the glass.”

For readers of my generation, these details gave Tiburon a kind of authenticity. It was a place I recognized and wanted to visit. I wanted to see the pink house, home to Kidd’s fictional sisters, May, June, and August, and the honey house out back where Lily and Rosaleen found refuge. As I read Kidd’s words I found myself more than once wanting to get in the car and drive to South Carolina to see Tiburon and the other places that inspired her. The places she imagined, like Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville or my own Johnson City, are small but vital places where ordinary yet amazing people carry on and endure, come what may.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

 

 

 

Long Story Short 

by Jeff Martin

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve probably seen The Shawshank Redemption 100 times. Maybe more. Often in bits and pieces. I didn’t have a chance to see the film in the theater; honestly, I don’t know many people who did. While it was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, it wasn’t a huge hit right out of the gates. My first experience with Shawshank came on a rainy day when I was home sick from school. A rented VHS copy sat atop the entertainment center. Not having much else to do, I cracked open the clamshell Blockbuster case, popped in the video, and took the ride. I was 14 years old.

As you probably know, in the more than two decades since, the film has become a true classic, eternally re-watchable. It’s probably playing on at least one channel right now, if not more. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I took the time to rewatch it from beginning to end. By the time the credits began to roll over the crystal-clear waters of Zihuatenejo, Mexico, I was in a state of awe and utter confusion.

You know the ending: Tim Robbins’s character Andy crawls through sewage to freedom. Red, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is left behind until he’s paroled and reintroduced to the world. He doesn’t think he can take it. But he has made a promise. The film ends with Red violating his parole, buying a bus ticket, looking wistfully out the window as the bus moves down the road, and then, finally, Red and Andy reunite on the beach. Roll credits.

It’s all wrapped up tightly, perfectly. But what if that final scene on the beach was only in Red’s mind, was his dream of what might happen? After all, the “redemption” of the title isn’t about Andy Dufresne; he was innocent. No redemption needed. Red, on the other hand, was a murderer.

I went back to the source, the novella called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” from Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons. I was certain I’d read it before. In fact, I distinctly remember buying a copy as a kid, more eager than ready to read adult fiction, probably inspired by my love for Stand By Me, the film inspired by King’s story “The Body.”

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The novella ends with the same text used for Red’s final voiceover:

“I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

Some strategic Googling soon revealed that the film’s director, Frank Darabont, initially refused to shoot the beach scene, wanting to keep the story as King intended. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if Red and Andy reunite. It only matters that Red believes they will, that he hopes.

It’s a thrilling feeling, that moment when something you think you know becomes new again, becomes alive. Films, stories, poems—these things don’t change over time. We do.

Jeff Martin, Nimrod Advisor, is the founder of the Tulsa Literary Coalition’s BookSmart Tulsa, an organization that brings numerous acclaimed authors to Tulsa every year.

River Pretty Writers Retreat

by Cassidy McCants

Every six months, writers from all over the South and the Midwest come together on the banks of the North Fork of the White River in Tecumseh, Missouri, for a weekend in the Ozarks. River Pretty Writers Retreat, started in 2012 by alumni of Missouri State University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, offers generative workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; panel discussions; informal talks; and readings by faculty members and participants. Retreat attendees also have the opportunity to share samples of their writing with faculty members who offer individual manuscript critique sessions.

IMG_2768

Participant Bailey Moore reading at RP 13

I’ve just returned from RP 13, my third consecutive retreat in Tecumseh. After all the news about—and the reality of—natural disasters lately, my mind’s been on last spring’s RP 12, during which we endured a flood, the result of a powerful storm system that put much of Arkansas and Missouri underwater. Last spring we had to retreat from our retreat; this fall’s stay in the Ozarks was the more tranquil experience you’d expect from a weekend in the Ozarks. The flood damage earlier this year wasn’t nearly as devastating as it could have been. Our flood provided just a glimpse of the potential effects of a natural disaster.

The Flood

On Saturday afternoon, day two of RP 12 in late April, we watched the rain fall on Dawt Mill, the retreat’s riverfront site, which includes a restaurant, a bar, a general store, cabins, and an inn. By dinnertime the storm had strengthened, and it was clear that the basement of the restaurant would be underwater soon. We’d expected the rain, but the forecast hadn’t prepared us for the storm raging in front of us, feeding the river that grew visibly closer each hour. After dinner it looked like time to up move up the hill, so we gathered at the inn, which is quite a bit farther up the bank. At this point we’d lost electricity, and some of us were without phone service. We were told by area police to stay on the hill but not to attempt to drive away from Dawt Mill, as several roads nearby were completely flooded already. I’d been enjoying the rain, but fear and anxiety were creeping up for me and for my roommates. A few friends had planned to camp, and we offered to share our space at the inn with them; we tried to keep calm as they moved in their bedding, their food, their personal items. Some of us spoke openly about the fear setting in; some of us were quiet, waiting anxiously for any indication the storm would end soon.

One “cowboy comedian,” a Dawt Mill entertainer, serenaded us that evening as the rain kept at it. Because he couldn’t leave the mill either, it seemed that he was stuck with us for the night. During a break in the music, just as the last bit of daylight left, I walked onto the porch of the inn and saw something I think I might never forget—I saw the cabin in front of me, just maybe forty away, wash away into the river. Dawt Mill was nearly unrecognizable—much of it had been taken by the water, only an hour or so after dinner. I wasn’t yet afraid for my life, really, but I knew we might not be able sleep in our room that night. I didn’t know where we’d go. The storm wasn’t giving up.

Soon, fortunately, local firefighters found a safe escape route for us and led a caravan to the firehouse. Most of us slept a few hours that night in our cars in the parking lot there. In the morning the firemen prepared us breakfast and let us know as updates came in about the state of the roads nearby. I’d ridden to the firehouse with my friend Bailey, so once it was safe she took me back to my car at Dawt Mill. The river hadn’t touched my car at all, and though Bailey and I were relieved to see that most of the buildings still were standing, the damage was pretty devastating. The inn was there, but it was soggy, smelling of wet wood; debris covered the grounds where cabins had stood. Thanks to local firefighters and police, the Dawt Mill staff, and River Pretty faculty, no one in our group was hurt or lost. Everyone survived, but it was clear everyone was shaken by the reality of the water’s power. I know I was. This was the closest I’d been to a life-threatening natural disaster—and I live in Oklahoma, land of tornadoes. Water is pretty, and water is powerful.

The Comeback

I wasn’t sure we’d have a place to gather for this fall’s retreat, but Dawt Mill was open and ready for us the first weekend of October. I also wasn’t sure how many people who’d endured the flood would go back—the experience surely caused some trauma. But I found that many of the attendees from the spring had readily returned. I spoke with a retreat-goer and friend, Hannah, this past weekend about the experience—she said, “I felt like I had to come back after that.” I knew exactly what she meant; the force of the flood had brought us all together. It was a terrifying experience we all endured, and RP is just the place to share those stories. We’d seen nature’s power, its rage, and we’d survived.

IMG_2772RP 13, though, brought us beautiful weather, low water levels, communion, and free time to write in the Ozarks. This fall’s guest faculty members were Robert Vivian (pictured) and Rick Jackson, both faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Their readings, as well as those by River Pretty faculty (Ian Bodkin, Lee Busby, Rich Farrell, Chaz Miller, Jen Murvin, Steve Rucker) and retreat participants, created a warm, cozy, and inspirational atmosphere as soon as we gathered.

If you’re a writer in the area, I hope you’ll consider attending a retreat in the future. I’ve always loved autumn, but now that I have River Pretty—even after a flood!—and the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers to look forward to, I eagerly await October all year long. I think it’s all about coming together with a community that makes you feel at home and that encourages and inspires your growth. Together we thrive.

And now it’s writing conference time for Nimrod! Join us in Tulsa this weekend for the Conference for Readers and Writers, and join the River Pretty crew next spring.

Cassidy McCants, Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

 

 

 

Nimrod’s Conference for Readers and Writers: What to Expect and 6 Reasons to Attend

by Eilis O’Neal

Our annual Conference for Readers and Writers is coming up on October 21st. It’s our biggest program of the year—and the one I get the most excited about. This will be my 17th Conference with Nimrod, and I thought I’d describe what attendees can expect and why it’s such a great day.

The Conference is an all-day event designed to help writers improve their writing. It’s practically focused—as in, our aim is to offer practical, concrete writing and craft advice. We bring in published authors from a variety of genres to act as workshop leaders and panelists—writers who are at the tops of their fields and love sharing their best advice about writing.

We start the day off with two panel choices, one that is entirely Q&A about editing and publishing (questions like “What does a literary agent do?”; “How do you know when you’re finished revising a story?”; and “What do publishers think of writers who have self-published some of their work?”) and one that focuses on a question of craft (this year panelists will talk about “Writing Through the Hard Parts,” whether that’s doing tough research, writing about a traumatic personal event, writing from the viewpoint of someone different from you, and more).

After the panels, participants have their choice of several workshops. Some of them focus on a particular genre and subject within that genre, and some of them focus on an aspect of the publishing industry. The workshops are just over an hour, and they range in size from 10-15 people to 40-50 people. The workshops can vary in style, but in general they feature a solid presentation on their topic, plenty of time for questions, and sometimes a writing exercise or two.

After the first round of workshops, we break for lunch, which is included in the cost of registration and which features programming in the latter half as we conduct the Awards Ceremony for our national Literary Awards and share the work of the winning writers.

After lunch, it’s time for another choice of workshops, and after those we have a reading by our guest authors and one-on-one editing sessions with our editors. Writers who want a one-on-one editing session send in a short selection of their work in beforehand, and we give it to one of our editors for review. At the Conference, the editors sit down with their writers for 15 minutes each and give them a personal critique, telling them what they’ve done well and what they can do to improve the piece. The day ends with a book signing with our guests.

So what makes everything I’ve described above so special? Here are a few of my favorite reasons.

  • It’s inclusive. No matter who you are, there’s a place for you here. We have writers of all kinds at the Conference. High school students, college students, adults, senior citizens. Writers who have been to many conferences and published their work in multiple venues, and writers who have never attended a writing event before and have never shown their work to anyone. Writing can be a very solitary pursuit, and a writer’s career can have a lot of stages, so it’s gratifying to be around people who share your passion and can identify with your experiences.
  • It’s customizable. At any given point at the Conference, you have a choice about what you want to do. Are you a genre writer? We’ve got classes in multiple genres, from mystery to young adult to fantasy to romance. Don’t want a one-on-one editing session? You don’t have to have one. It’s very much a case of “do what you love,” and we try to have a variety of choices to appeal to many different types of writers.
  • It’s laid-back and friendly. Sometimes the word “conference” can sound intimidating, but ours is at heart a very chill, very laid-back day. We have a good crowd, but it’s not overwhelming. Our guest authors and editors are extremely giving and generous—they’re glad to be here and eager to interact with participants. We’ll be wearing jeans and sneakers. It’s a day for writers about writers—one where you can come as you are.
  • It’s one of the only events of its kind in the area. We’re proud to be from Oklahoma, but there is a catch for those of us here in OK and the surrounding states: we don’t have as much access to writing/arts events as writers who live on the coasts or in larger cities. There are simply fewer events for us in drivable distance. One of the reasons we host the Conference is because we know how important and exciting it can be for writers to learn from authors they admire, who have lots of experience and advice to share. Being at a conference like this and getting guidance from published writers can be a watershed moment for your writing career and/or process, and we’re really glad that we can offer these kinds of opportunities for those of us in so-called “flyover states.”
  • It’s individual. In addition to the group classes, we have our one-on-one editing sessions and, this year, one-on-one novel pitch critiques with an actual literary agent. This kind of individual attention isn’t offered at many conferences, but it’s something that we always include at ours.
  • It’s affordable. Our regular registration fee is $60, far lower than the $100+ fees you’ll find at many conferences. And we offer scholarships that lower the cost to $10 for writers of all ages in need. It’s important to us that no writer be left out because of cost, so we do everything we can to keep the Conference affordable.

In short, the Conference is a unique opportunity for writers, one that can help writers at all stages hone their abilities. But most of all, it’s fun, a day where we can all get together and celebrate the creation of the books, stories, and poems that we love. If you’re a local writer, I hope that we’ll see you at this year’s Conference on October 21st. You can register online or by sending in a registration form from our website.

Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod’s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess. 

 

The Silenced Writer

by Somayeh Shams

Writing, as my M.F.A. advisor used to say, is an addiction, and, unfortunately, like all good drugs, it does not come cheap. There is no other way to explain this all-consuming, patience-building exercise that takes so much of our time away from our families, friends, sleep, and exercise. That creates no (or very little) income. Each year the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, AWP, conference and book fair attracts over 12,000 attendees. Hopeful young writers, emerging writers, and writers whose names have filled our canons attend to advertise their work, to learn, and to leave their solitude for four long days to be part of the conversation. With over 2,000 presenters and 800 book fair exhibitors, the conference, according to Wikipedia, is “the largest and most inclusive literary conference in North America.”

Naively, I never even considered money when I chose a career in writing. I had finally come to terms with the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about my scientific path and all I wanted to do was write. I quickly applied for an M.F.A. program, the thought never crossing my mind that, unlike most other careers, writing needed an income to support it. If I had truly understood that fact from the beginning I might have made different choices, gone through the process differently so I could have prepared for my family and my future. Because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to quit writing.

Still, the thought that writing is likened in our minds to a compulsion, with little value for us except as an instant gratifier and no value to society, makes me uneasy. Have the benefits of books and literature not been proven again and again? Are we not, when luck strikes us, putting out a product? Do we not provide a service? Isn’t our time worth anything? How has society come to believe that writers do not deserve to get paid while so many other jobs are over-inflated? When a conference attendee asked Roxane Gay at AWP 2015 about the emerging writer’s avenues for financial support, until that ever-elusive faculty position is acquired, those same positions being shamelessly replaced with underpaid adjunct positions, she responded, “have a day job.”

But can everyone afford working and writing? How about when you have a family to feed and take care of? Does this mean that writers who “make it” either have made certain choices and sacrifices that most others in other careers seldom need to? Or that those successful writers are from an already more affluent class, thus falsely representing the actual writing population or the population as a whole? I suspect both of these are true. How, then, can a person struggling to make ends meet, a parent who must spend time away from their writing desk, afford being a writer? Those who do are extraordinary exceptions. My child’s calls are louder than my desk’s. The publishing process is discriminatory and those marginalized either by race, financial burden, or gender—they feel the brunt of it.

Tillie Olsen had to abandon her first novel and did not publish Tell Me a Riddle until 1961, decades after her work first came out in Partisan Review. She recounted her struggles with money, work, and motherhood in her book Silences, analyzing the problems that working-class writers, women writers and writers of color face. Frustrated, she wrote,

Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences—what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature.

She lists the innumerable greats who struggled with those silences: Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Austen, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter. . . . “How the creative working atrophied,” she writes, “and died in them—if ever it did.” She names the different ways in which writers come to be silenced:

Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity [ . . . ] Publishers’ censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as “not suitable” or “no market for.” Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship-—sometimes spurring inventiveness—most often (read Dostoyevsky’s letters) a wearing attrition. The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments.

Olsen was briefly jailed in 1934 for her union work, charged with “making loud and unusual noise.” In our current political climate, with many of us out there standing up to evil, this form of silence seems no more out of the realm of reality.

Since graduating I have focused on finishing my book, obsessing over words and sentences, over the fact that I want the love and dynamics of my Iranian characters to be as honest as possible, particularly for my American readers. Again I am incapable of combining the idea of money with that of my book. By that I mean, in thinking about what Olsen mentions above, I am not sure how marketable my book is and if it would interest the publishing industry. And, again, I am not sure knowing the answer would change anything.

I have learned in recent months that over 80% of the world’s publishing is owned by 5 publishing houses, known as the “Big 5.” I have also learned that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster are media conglomerates and giant corporations prioritizing profit. In her book The Handover, in which she studies the publishing industry in Canada, Elaine Dewar wonders how a publishing industry led by profit, telling the world what to read, can cultivate diversity of ideas and opinions. And with so much control by a handful of entities in the market, don’t publishers have the power to force what they think a project is worth onto the writer?

A 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey found that 53.9% of traditionally-published authors make $1,000 or less a year from their writing, while only 1.3% reported making more than $100,000.

The digital industry is also a stressor for the struggling writer. More and more writers, in the hopes of building their reputations, write for free for non-profit e-journals that can’t afford to pay them.

With so many odds against the writer, I wonder how many of us turn away from writing? What are the statistics for the marginalized writers who must put aside their dreams for survival? Or how about, as Olsen wrote, “the silences where the lives never came to writing. [ . . . ] those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity”?

Yet I am hopeful. I feel in recent months something changing in this country. I hear the voice of discontent loud and clear. In the background of hate and evil I hear the thirst for knowledge, for diversity, for equality growing. I see a pushback where acquiescence used to be.

Writers—like Roxane Gay and Vievee Francis—with brilliant work that once went unnoticed are finally being honored. At AWP 2017 the panel “Which Comes First, Activism or Artist?” was well attended. At another panel I sat in a room full of writers excited to hear Iranian writers and translators discuss the Iranian diaspora. Journals like Nimrod are pushing, despite the challenges they face, to diversify and make room for the voice of the marginalized. I am looking beyond this administration for a time when perhaps programs and journals and small publishing houses have enough subsidy to support an equal agenda. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a literary world where equality is a reality, where all writers can be paid for their art and the work they do?

At the end of the Iranian diaspora writers panel, during the Q&A portion, someone said she hoped that the Iranian writers would have more panels like these, suggesting that this should not be a one-time thing. Many in the room nodded, excited, energized by the readings and discussions. Anita Amirzevani leaned over her microphone and noted that they’ve had a panel every year—but that it had never been well attended. My hope now is that their voices are finally being heard.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.

Contributor Interview: Lisa Nikolidakis

What inspired you to write “The Ladies’ Philoptochos Society,” which appears in Nimrod’s Leaving Home, Finding Home issue?

This story is part of a larger, thematically linked collection that I recently completed. In researching the book, I became obsessed with narratives of first-generation Greek women who came to the States, particularly those who were shoved into arranged marriages. Torn from their homes, moved to the other side of the world, possessing minimal (if any) English, their husbands often twenty years older than them—yet they weren’t allowed to speak of their pain. That silent, obedient suffering hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how traumatic this particular experience could be for a young woman. I also wanted to challenge myself to write a sympathetic character who makes a decision that most people would condemn.

What’s your writing process like?

As a teacher, the bulk of my writing happens in summer, though if anyone has figured out how to teach and write well at the same time, please let me know. Seriously.

I work from 10-6 almost every day of the summer. Typically, there’s a long stretch of researching, thinking, and note-taking—a space that makes me deeply impatient for the actual writing to begin. I use an 11×14-inch sketchpad to map out ideas visually and work out the math of my stories. Sometimes I remain in research/thinking mode for weeks before I can really begin, which makes my process feel agonizingly slow at times, but I am working on being more patient with my process. My phone alerts me every day at 4 p.m. with, “You are doing enough.” It actually helps.

How many times do you revise a story, usually?

I revise every single time I open my document, so I can’t quantify it. My writing day begins by reading what I’m working on from the beginning. I tweak and shift things as I read through, which helps me settle into the groove of the piece. Once I have a draft, I revise again with specific aims in mind: word choices, syntax, tightening scenes, punching up humor, etc. . . . Then I send it to my beta readers and prepare for more revision. Sometimes I do seven. Other times two. It really depends on how close I’ve gotten it on my own.

What do you like to read? Who are the authors you find yourself returning to again and again?

I’m currently in the middle of Lidia Yuknavitch’s stunning The Book of Joan and Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. When I’m done with those, Roxane Gay’s Hunger is on deck. I’m a sucker for researched, scientific nonfiction, too, so I’m also reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, and I’m rereading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score. You know, light beach reading.

What tips would you give to aspiring writers?

  • Stop comparing yourself to famous writers who had success at an early age (or who are the same age as you and have more success). You’re on your own journey, and all of that comparative thinking undermines your confidence. Your writing path will look different than someone else’s.
  • Carve out your writing time and guard it fiercely. For me, this means saying no to things people ask me to do—especially in summer. I’m a people-pleaser, so I hate saying no, but I hate not writing more.
  • Read generously. Give pieces the same benefit of the doubt that you want your own work to receive. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything, but don’t come at it arms akimbo either.
  • Be kind to yourself.

What are you working on now?

A memoir based on my piece that was in The Best American Essays 2016. Dark as some of the material is, the story is hopeful in the end. I’ve just completed the proposal for it and am now writing the book itself. This project is a long time in the making, and finally—mercifully—I think I’ve cracked the code on it. Famous last words I’m sure, but for now, I’m feeling surgical, so I’m running with it.

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Lisa Nikolidakis’s work has appeared in Best American Essays 2016, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative writing in the Midwest and has recently completed a collection of thematically-linked short stories.

How Do You Be?

by Francine Ringold

The question, said neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, should not be, “How are you?” but “How do you be?” I reply with the following:

It is sometimes disturbing but more often lovely to live amongst people — under a cloak of men and women and children — especially the children. Ah, there goes Georgie, two-year-old carrot-top curious George.

Yes, it is still a novelty living in an apartment by the water and not in a private home walled in by shrubbery and brick, with neighbors hidden from view who only occasionally peek out their heads to water a bush.

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At first one’s eyes follow the lift and sway of calming water, then there is a cacophony of noises and chatter: teams of rowers being urged on by a coach on a megaphone; the guy with abundant tattoos who looks like a surfer but spouts stock reports on a cell phone; the slender French woman, always on high heels, sashaying a Pekinese—all in front of my sliding glass door—briefly in front of my door, and then skirting past like rare birds batting their wings and squawking.  And suddenly, like now, silence, and only the sea, water, and sky.

Going out a few steps beyond my glass door, walking my famous dog, Pete, or leisurely strolling, there is a new world, different from yesterday yet the same — fresh faces and company.  As if out of a storybook, a girl with enormous red-framed glasses perched on a small face emerges from the bushes, where she has carefully “picked up” after the baby beagle beside her, named, to my astonishment, Cyrano.  Did she know, I ask, where that name came from? And so, with her father Gabriel (I am not making this up), in the middle of Old Harbor Lane, we discuss Cyrano de Bergerac, and Molly Sue, the girl, decides she wants to read it through her huge glasses.  “And did you know,” her father asks, “that her brother’s name is Shout? We all love that Mockingbird thing.” All this, trivia though it may be, before 9:00 a.m., to be followed by sylphlike former fashion model Amanda from Brazil with her three young children: one-year-old Zion, three-year-old Kowie, six-year-old Luma hugging me and whispering my name with reverence.  Iranian/German engineer neighbor Barush Murgani has already left for the last of his two final exams on solar energy, promising to fix me dinner in celebration.  This evening Caleb will drop by to bore me with pseudo-philosophy and cuddle his dog and mine. I tire of his endless attempt to impress me, though he is kind and good-looking in a scruffy kind of way.

And so it goes: the roving twin Russian boys, about twelve, who did not understand my proudly spouted sentence in Russian, Простите меня пожалуйста (Excuse me please!), until I had repeated it five times with increasing panic; Happy, the small, aged, white mixed-breed, wobbling to us each morning with owner Paige, gazing longingly at Pete as though he is her big brother.

But there they are again, the elegant white birds silently standing erect—egrets, I think—and the deep black crows cawing a warning.  There are Great Blue Herons too, soaring above the trees, widespread wings like two large kites attached to thin legs trailing behind, pointed like an arrow.  And the greedy cormorants lunging for fish. Good to learn the names of things, to parse not words but living things, how they breathe and change colors and fly.

One would think this is enough—to drift with the clouds.  It is not!  Remember May Sarton’s words: “To work is to feel whole!”  So I pick up my pen and write.

 

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

 

 

Poetry Equals Happiness

by Britton Gildersleeve

Aspiring poets often believe that it takes unhappiness to create art. You must drink too much, do drugs, have a sadly aching life. Be as miserable and crazy as Poe, as suicidal as Hemingway, as dysfunctional as Sexton. Sometimes, they even hear this from their seniors. The myth of the suffering artist.

Once, years ago, I asked my students to go see a famous novelist who had been invited to the university. He began his presentation/reading by stating that all artists must suffer, and they drink and/or do drugs as a result.

ARGH! Nooooo! Mr. Writer Guy: You just totally messed with my students! (I apologized to them the next class period.)

This is NOT Nimrod’s position, FYI. Because guess what? It’s not true. Happiness fosters not only art, but (obviously) life. It is—and this is only a perhaps—possibly easier to sit down and write if you’re already miserable and your everyday life holds no allure. Certainly on days when the weather is idyllic, and there are birds at all the feeders, and leftovers I needn’t mess with, it’s easy not to write. But when I think of the times my life was splintered into shards and fragments, I didn’t write. I simply couldn’t.

So, is sorrow good material? Maybe. But so is joy, folks. And if you look east, to art in Asia, there is art to be made from (and found in) each element of our days. There is art in dragonflies, and grasses, and even the calligraphy of our names.

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And I know this. Yesterday, for instance, was a good day. Both my wonderful sons were here: the one currently visiting, and the one who lives a few blocks from us. My perfect grandsons and wonderful daughter-in-law were on view, as well. There was Chinese take-in my beloved ordered, so I didn’t need to cook. And the hummingbird feeders were sites of aerial ballet. But I didn’t write a word, other than some work emails.

Today? It’s raining, my younger son and I are having a lovely visit, and I’m writing. Writing. Poetry. About the crows calling outside, about the way the midsummer rain falls like heavy silk over the grass. About whatever. But I’m still happy. That hasn’t changed. Only the level of my activity has changed, and what I choose to spend my time on. Sometimes it’s grandsons, for instance. That doesn’t mean I write better when I’m unhappy. It may just be that when writers are unhappy, there’s nothing else in their everyday lives that claims their interest.

In other words—art does NOT require suffering. Happiness can be just as creative and a lot more fun. Especially if it’s genuine.

Now there’s a question: how to define authentic, genuine happiness? Is it the transient pleasure of a perfect cup of tea? (Maybe? I certainly think so.) Is it the giddy pleasure of my grandson running to me at daycare when I pick him up? Is it—really—any single thing?

No matter how momentous any single event, I’m pretty sure that genuine happiness wells up from a life well lived. Even in the midst of his great sorrow over Tibet, I’m betting that the Dalai Lama is happy. Same for Pope Francis, again in spite of his acute awareness of the desperate poverty around the world. And of course Desmond Tutu, even though he deplores the racial injustice here in the U.S. and elsewhere. And no, they’re not writing much poetry (at least not that I know of).

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What will make us happy is our own life, ultimately. Which is what these various wise leaders—and others—have said for many, many years. Being kind to those around us; refusing to participate in inequity; cherishing the fragile young, the old, the poor, and the unfortunate. THAT will make us happy, because it becomes part of our everyday life, a daily attitude of happy, if that makes sense.

And then? Well, you can write poetry. If you’re so inclined. Honest. Because happiness . . . well, it feeds your inner artist. It gives you, I promise, lots to write about. And that’s more than enough to help you get past the myth of the suffering artist.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Illustrations from Britton’s blog, teaandbreath.com.