Craft Essay: Landscape as Character

The environment affects the readers, as well as your characters, storylines and the atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

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There is chapter in Tell it Slant which tackles how and why we need to consider the role of place as character within our work. It’s a theme for me, one I want to improve upon. When I’d applied at VCFA, I’d sent in some essays on loss, dealing with grief in Wales, in Ireland, in Guatemala. Once accepted in the MFA, Julianna (Baggott) had emailed me to say she’d seen my landscapes as characters within the narratives. It was the first time I’d  considered it like that and the idea resonated. It also makes me more aware and therefore self-conscious of how I write of place. It’s a good thing.

“If you live in a place – any place, city or country – long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything, the dynamics and inter connections that exist in every community, be in plant, human, or animal – you can learn what a writer needs to know.” (Ehrlich)

The idea is that places react to us, inform us, and affect us even subtly. It becomes a character like the regular at the cafe that you’ve not spoken to directly but miss when he’s gone.

The chapter offers advice on how to develop a stronger sense of space and reactions by paying attention. What is both inside and outside of the space you are in right now, reading this? Are you somewhere that feels familiar? Comforting? Or is it a place that will never be home?

Our responses to place come from our ideas and reactions to/ for visual beauty, a drive for comfort, home, psychological, physical needs. We need to imbue our writing with place in fiction and nonfiction. The environment affects us and characters, storylines and atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

Home is loaded for all of us; it’s where we learned about the world, the dynamics inside the family, and the relationship to homes, towns, and neighbours. The details matter, the smell of a garden, the sight of a meadow full of cows, mountains at sunrise and oceans at sunset, what’s comforting? What is home? Fight or flight response in you? In the characters? In the readers?

These are personal and everyday connections we can only hint at and can’t control how readers react though but might give a sense of narrator or protagonist.

The challenge is in the how, how do we get it across to the reader? Verbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, details. I think for me it has to be the details, what I choose to describe, and in what terms. Tenderness or toughness? Texture or sounds? How do I take on the landscape?

“I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate the home I had left.” Pico Iyer.
Why have I done that? Home, Bromsgrove never felt good to me, too much baggage, too different an interest in life kept me seperate from everyone but my family. I had to leave to find a sense of home elsewhere, people with similar interests, a shared focus on travels and stories.
The gift though as a writer is when the details, the textures and people described are done in ways that makes the personal into the universal. The place is much more than the land itself, it is in the conversations, dialogue, food, sights, locals, smell of cooking, and songs in the air and the radios in the houses. All the things that make life itself. And it’s done with generosity. Writing can engage the reader in that specific landscape, to stand at the window with you, and see what you and only you chose to show.

Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Space, is suggested to me for help writing about my physical reactions to the open land of New Mexico. I’ve ordered it already. How could I not? It’s here. I’ll review it next, it was worth waiting for.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think of a room and jot down the elements in as much detail as you can remember, quickly, no editing, just put yourself in the room, and then come back and fill in an emotional tone for each detail. Let your essay function as an emotional camera.

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  • Free write on an interaction with a wild animal. Was it personally meaningful? How? How did it resonate with you as a metaphor for your life at the time? Did it change how you looked at something happening then? What haunts you about that interaction?
    Free write on your favourite place. Put yourself in the scene. Jot down all the sensory details, what did you just eat there, drink, see, smell, touch, tickle? What happened before and what happened next? What mood does this place put you in?

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  • Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
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Salwarpe, Worcs, UK.

DETOX 101 for this grad student on spring break

Detoxing is never easy. This is what happened to me.

Essay: What am I doing? Why does anyone really choose to limit themselves in the name of detoxing? No different from most, I don’t like my body. I’m stressed at graduate school, and getting cranky with my dogs, self, and cohort. Something has to change. I reckon it starts with me. Doesn’t it always?

Food is energy. Funnily enough it was when I was a twenty year old at undergrad this concept really took hold. Food is energy. If I ate something that made me sluggish, tired, sleepy, then it wasn’t energy. It was taking my energy. No no no.

My energy at grad school is flagging right now. Too much sitting around on the computer, too many grey days in Vermont. I’m not doing well. I’m hoping this will help.
DAY ONE:

This morning, I took the dogs for a walk around Montpelier. Saturdays are quiet here, the traffic is light, and I can count the cars passing on one hand. Three of them. I know the driver of one, Stef; she stopped to set up a coffee date for later this week. I let the dogs off leash in the kid’s schoolyard, a big no-no probably, but they need to run. I need to hike open mountaintops, away from the sound of voices and vehicles. There are limited options here, nothing we, the dogs and I, can hike outside our back door. And so, we walk less.
Combine that with the educational pressures, a winter of sub zero temperatures, and a heavier diet of snacks and carbs, I’m not feeling great. I don’t like my body. I don’t like my low energy or the beer belly.
Stacy and I chatted on the phone earlier this week, one of my closest friends in New Mexico. She’s just finished a ten-day detox. The focus was on cutting out all sugars, grains, caffeine, dairy, caffeine, and alcohol. Blah blah blah. No, seriously, I get it. Veggies and proteins. Simple as that. It really is simple, buy fresh food, cook it yourself and avoid all those addictive extras. Can I do a week though? Ten days?

“By following my scientifically proven diet and lifestyle practices, we can reset your metabolism to function as it was designed to. You’ll lose weight without going hungry. It’s not how much you eat, it’s what you eat.”

Sounds easy, right? It’s spring break. If not now, then when?

I have no external pressures on me, no other students to be nice to, no co-workers to snap at as the caffeine withdrawals hit. I’m game. I haven’t told Stacy yet. I probably should to keep myself accountable to someone.
I make a cup of coffee. With cream.

Walk dogs.

For breakfast, I had sautéed veggies and salmon. A bottle of water. Okay, I’ve started now. I need to go to the store and buy a bunch of veggies, fish, organic chicken, and nuts. Okay, I’m doing this. I’ll let you know how it goes. Ten days. Ten days. I can do it. Well, apart from all ready messing up, improvising I like to call it, the first cup of coffee was with cream it’s true, the second black. I’m going to buy some decaf coffee and teas this morning, honest.

Knowing I’m on detox diet: I’m hungry constantly. Sheesh.

DAY TWO:

Headache. Slight cough. Low energy, but I blame that on yet another grey day in Vermont. Winter here is dull. I’d thought of snow and sunshine as in the Southwest, no, it’s snow, freezing rain, grey days, long nights, dirty sidewalks, and well, you get the idea. It’s not the best place for me. So, yes, back to the detox. Apart from the headache, I feel pretty good. It might be just that I went a whole day without gluten, dairy, or alcohol. As simple and as huge as that.

My usual daily fodder would be coffee, eggs, cheese, tortillas or crackers or sandwiches, veggies, tea, beer, snacks, stuff like that.
Yesterday was a bit of a stressful day too. The dogs ran after a doe and Bambi. I lost them in the woods. For over an hour, I walked, calling, yelling, and whistling. Finally Rosie, a normally white dog, came back pink. Ten minutes later Harold turned up, shaking with adrenelin, and his white snout was covered in blood.
I wasn’t happy.

Still, I didn’t turn to a malty beverage, no, I brought them home and fed myself a bowl of green chile stew, followed by a cup of peppermint tea.

Today’s challenge will be that I get bored in the afternoons, I do. And Sundays for some reason are the worst and usually I head out to the local pub for a beer and a burger. Big no-no on the detox. What will I do? A movie?

I’m making egg and veggie frittatas for breakfast. I stocked up on raw nuts, dates, bananas and Satsuma’s for the sweet tooth. Decaf coffee, no cream. Humus and snap peas. Stew. Carrots. Oh, yes, I baked carrots yesterday for a snack, drizzled in olive oil, a sprinkle of pepper, and a little salt, perfect treat.

My head hurts.

DAY THREE:

Did I mention the headaches? It’s a killer. I went to bed at three pm yesterday and only got back up to take the dogs out for a pee break. I couldn’t read or write or look at anything on screen or paper. Throbbing headaches, muscles aching, low energy, this is not fun.

I ate well, no cheating, more water drunk, and feel like shit. Everything shrank in the wash. My clothes don’t fit right. My head doesn’t fit right. My skin is tight. Ugh. My head still hurts. I’m glad I’m doing this now on spring break, as I’d be a shitty student if we were in class. Oh, and yes, I’m doubting myself as a writer, seeing all that’s missing in my novels, can’t face the short stories, and yes, well, one of those days. Ah shit.

The mechanic needs me to leave the truck there. I head over to a cafe to sit and read for an hour. There are pastries. I eat a croissant. I hardly notice it though. Isn’t that sad? I break the detox and didn’t even appreciate it. Oh one of those days. I did only have decaf coffee though.

Back to bed, headaches, impatient, bloated, knackered, cranky. This is great. Why am I doing this again?

The mechanic found a broken radiator. The taxes went through. The same amount, close enough, but I was up $55 and so I went to the pub for a pint and bumped into a friend and had two pints.
Ah sheesh, so much for detox. I tell myself it’s still worth carrying on. Cut the carbs, the sugar, caffeine, alcohol (hiccup) and I’m doing better than I was, right? Right.

DAY FOUR:

Useless, I’m useless. I gave up today. Or my rationale is that I’m adjusting it to suit my lifestyle because I just can’t do it. Headaches, leg muscle cramps, all of the signs that I’m seriously crashing too hard and too fast. So, the plan is to not so much De-tox and Less-tox. The next week will then be caffeine less, dairy less, and gluten less. That’s enough for now. So what have I been eating? Well, I had another croissant this morning. See, I’d had to drive to Burlington for an interview, me interviewing them, and so I stopped for a decaf coffee and snack for the drive in the snow. It made me happier. Then work went well, good profile written now, and I came home to make a beef and veggie chile stew with corn chips on the side. Humus and snap peas. Bananas. A salad each lunchtime for the last week. Satsumas. Almonds. Not bad, right?
The headaches have lessened but still there a bit. The muscle cramps linger so I’m going to stretch after a good hot shower. Then read and write and go to bed early again, because I can. And it’s snowing.

A glass of malbec sounds darned tempting.

DAY FIVE:

Well, that helped, taking off the pressure. So what did I eat? Have been eating? Breakfasts are made of eggs and sauteed veggies, such as onion, zuke, kale, mushrooms and a topping of green chile. Lunches are salads. Snacks are nuts and fruit. Dinners are veggie and chicken or beef stews. It’s simple food but it’s working, full enough to keep going.
But. Something is lacking in my diet. Last night I had such bad muscle cramps, in my feet mostly. The arches to be precise. Agony, the kind that throws your whole body into a tense needle of pain. Waves on and off and on again during the night. I didn’t sleep so well. I’m trying not to be a crankshaft with the pups. It’s hard work. They see me sitting down and figure, if she’s sitting, she could be walking. The static non-smelly metal thing in front of me can’t be as fun as another walk in the snow.

I’m trying to be nice. I’m glad I’m not in class this week. My natural sarcasm would have free reign. Instead, I’m on the computer, writing and revising work.

Another observation from this week of changing diet and no school or outside responsibilities, mid-afternoons are such a time of crashing. Emotionally hard on me. It’s been an issue for a long time, most of my life, but I had other things I had to do and it’s only when I’m completely self-employed does it become an issue. I’m not sure what to do when I’m in a town that isn’t where I want to be. There are no public lands for us to hike free of leashes with big views and no people. I hadn’t realised how spoilt I was in New Mexico for that freedom and headroom.

DAY SIX:

Well, the headaches are lessening finally. Caffeine is a bitch to get over. Pounding tight headaches all day long. Muscle cramps at night. Something has to change. Bananas will help the muscles, kale too as apparently it’s a lack of potassium. I need to do more research to find out what else could help. But coffee, even though I’m on decaf, and soy milk, it’s tempting to walk down the hill and buy a ‘real’ coffee. Mind games, strong stuff these addictions. Talking of which, beer, wine. Yes. I am giving myself a beer at the pub, cabin fever demands I talk to someone and the bartender’s a good fella, chatty and open and interesting. Pubs are community centres for me, the place to meet and decompress. That then is where I’ve gone to find conversation that I can leave at any point. Somethings don’t change, it’s a habit of a lifetime. I’m okay with that.

More snow. More grey days.

The atlas demands my attention. Perhaps planning a trip away would help? I did. It does. In April, I’m heading out to Cape Cod for a few nights. I’ll have to take in the truck before as the check engine light is on. In May, what can I do in May? Where can I go? Hmm. I’m not sure. Let’s see what I can do. I have to get out of here though. It’s driving me nuts.

DAY SEVEN:

Eating well. Sleeping lots. Writing. Revising. Editing. Reading. Walking. And super fucking depressed.

Is this part of detoxing? Less-toxing? It’s not nice. Let me tell you that, it is not very nice.

My emotions are wrecked. When I broke down at home with head in hands, Harold started whining and crying on the sofa and Rosie sprang up and got her favourite toy and gave it to me. Even Cat Stephen strolled over and sat nearby.

It’s rough. They are good. That’s about all I have to say.

IN CONCLUSION then, there is no conclusion. At least I know I’m eating well. I’m walking the dogs repeatedly each day, but even that’s not great as they have to walk on leashes everywhere here. It’s not like in NM where they could run free for miles at a time and not bump into, let alone see anyone the whole time we’re out and about. No, this is a small town in a wooded state full of people and their own dogs. It’s not the same. My energy is still flagging it’s true, and I didn’t really detox it’s true, but I tried. I’m eating better which means I’m not beating myself up for eating filler only. I’m watching and waiting for better weather to go out and camp somewhere. In the meantime, I’m home, still on the computer, less addicted to caffeine, missing my cheddar cheese, and wondering what’s next.

Some would say I’d failed. And yes, they’d be right.

Has it helped, to change up my diet? Yes and no. Would I do it again? Sure, why not? Maybe if the rest of my life is smoother, the detox will help even more? I don’t know. I’ll have a cup of ginger tea though and get back to work.

 

MFA: well, I’d wanted a challenge

“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)

Oh boy…

Writer’s Craft: On writing essays

On Essays – Notes from a class by Alexander Chee

From an afternoon spent talking about writing fiction and essays, these are some of the thoughts that held with me. There are many ways to write essays, many forms, and as such there is no right or wrong way. In my opinion that is. Here then are some questions and suggestions to help you as you write your own.

  • Research your home town, when was it founded? Why? Famous for? Population? Changes in demographic? Architecture?
  • Your life in that town was within the life of that town, they affect each other
  • Context, know the context of each essay, story
  • Place your experiences within the historical context of place and time
  • Treat yourself as a subject, step outside and look from that perspective
  • Forensics of self: dig deep, ask others, interview people from that time or event
  • Memory is shaped by words so look for emails and letters you wrote at the time
  • How much do you want to open up and risk in the essay?
  • What are your obsessions?
  • Are you writing about what you read about? Are passionate about?
  • Examine your verb choices, circle them, make them dynamic, specific, detailed
  • Write in response to what you search online
  • Write in response to your dreams
  • What moves you? Angers you? Delights?
  • You will unconsciously know what form it will take on the page, trust the essay and subject
  • Read things that will explode your sense of possibility
  • Don’t hold back.
  • Dialogue, sit in a café and write down verbatim random conversations to notice the variety of rhythms, cadences, syntax unique to each person
  • Face your inner critic, deal with it, and carry on.
  • Trust yourself. Write.

 

Review: (Not that You Asked: rants, exploits, and obsessions) by Steve Almond

(Not that You Asked) is a collection of essays written over a couple of years. Many of them had been previously published in a wide number of literary journals. It’s pretty amazing to read how many were snapped up within 2005 alone. Almond had been busy. He’d been appreciated. It’s no wonder then that there was a call to put those essays and more into this collection. I’m surprised that I only came across him last week.

Steve Almond is such a lad, and so good at writing us back into his teenage anxious inexperienced self with humour and insight. I can’t say I liked those teenage boys much, but I get it, the focus and embarrassment, the developing crushes and a basic horniness that doesn’t fade. The subtitle sums it up as those exploits could be called sexploits.

Sex is an undercurrent throughout, the tone is self-deprecating at times, and he is honest, bitingly so at times. (Not that You Asked) is divided up into sections and isn’t chronological but within each section, there is a linked theme to the rants, a specific theme or question. Titles such as Chestfro Agoniste catch your attention, especially since then he describes how he and his girlfriend, not a very nice one by the sounds of it, a bit of a sadist when he didn’t want her to be, well, they try to wax his chest hair. It doesn’t go well. The idea, the fantasy, was cruelly absent, instead he’s funny and blunt and in a list, he set up the hope. Then he says, “I don’t suppose I have to tell you that my expectations were a bit on the high side.” I like how he used different forms, going from a simple introduction, a list, then a set of disclaimers and explanations before getting down to the nitty gritty of wax, hair, blood, and tears. Yes, he cried. I like this about him, he tells us when he’s a wimp, even if it’s written with that tone of irony, you know that he sees himself clearly and finds it funny from this perspective as a dad in his forties even as parts are written in the present tense. Confusing? No. We trust him, enjoy this conversational feel to his essays in (Not that You Asked). I did anyway.

He mixed up style wise and it gives me permission to play with form. Almond used lists, the acts of a playwright, and even step-by-step instructions. Yes, those instructions, a lesson on how to write sex scenes, it’s one I want to share with friends and keep for myself, with some good advice for writers. Like the rest of his book, he combines a light touch with insightful comments. Step 5, “real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as ‘I’m think I’m losing circulation’ and ‘I’ve got a cramp in my foot.’ In other words, be true to what really happens, the awkwardness, stickiness, and laughable moments. Noted.

Topics in (Not that You Asked) ranged from Red Sox (my least favourite chapter), to the legacy of Vonnegut, integrity in literature, the risks and responsibilities of critical bloggers, the sight of fake tits, roles of popular media, and becoming a dad. If there is a common thread here it’s hard to name directly. I can’t see it. Yet although I’m not sure how or why, I gladly went along with him, back and forth time wise. He pulls it together with a consistent style and voice that is smart and heartfilled, ironic and forgiving. I imagine sitting down at the kitchen table with him is just as full of silly anecdotes and insightful observations. It’s almost like we glimpse beyond the public wit of Almond and he undresses to explore this softer, thoughtful side.

The essay about Vonnegut ends with this after the death of the writer he’d admired for so long. “He leaves us his books, his pleas for kindness, his foolish hope for our salvation.”

And I see a similarity in Almond’s collection here. The book ends with a story about raising his baby daughter in Judaism even as if his family didn’t share that with him. “What we actually lacked was belief” he says of his own childhood. This essay is one of the most grown up, most vulnerable in the way he talks of faith, his wishes for his daughter and the pain his dad felt for not knowing the “possibility of some great spiritual bosom into which he might nestle and rest his weary bones.” Yes, even when he writes of deep feelings, his language keeps it grounded in a light way, funny, and a lad after all.

And for his daughter? “She will know where and who she came from. She will be loved, unreasonably. The rest is hers to determine.”

A sweet ending indeed.

You’d almost believe Almond grew up overnight. Gone is that sense of detached wit, and a gentle dad speaks directly to us of his hopes for her.

Almond’s (Not that You Asked) has a distinctive voice, horny, messy, honest, and smart. He’s got a big heart. This collection gave me permission to play with form, not to feel constricted to chronology and to trust the connections within the essays themselves. We all have stories that we write, a theme to our words, and a voice of our own making. It’s inspiring for me as an emerging writer.

(Not that You Asked) makes me want to read more of his work, to appreciate and see how he does it in his short stories. Off to the library then.

 

Random House, 2007

288 pp  $14.00

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What Will You Give Up To Write?

It’s a great question to ask yourself. What will you give up? What will you sacrifice? Are you hungry enough? Hungry enough to be a writer?

It’s a question we’re asked in the MFA program. Are we hungry enough? Do we care enough? There’s a spark, a flame in us, there has to be. We all moved to Montpelier for this graduate school, for the chance to study in a Writing and Publishing MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But can we maintain it? Keep going? We’re adults here, it’s up to us. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing. It’s as simple as that. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing.

Literary citizenship comes up to, how we interact within the writing community. At clown school, I remember being reminded that it was more important to be consistent, to show up than it was to be a genius. If we were difficult, if we just took without giving back, our reputation took us down regardless of what we created.

I see it here too. Who cares and is generous with the other students. Who goes out of their way to help, give thoughtful feedback when asked, in short, who shows up for others. Seeing how we are (mostly) being there for each other is incredible, we’re in this together. We all want to become better writers. We need each other. We learn from each other. This community is ours for the rest of our writing lives. It’s important.

Yet, the truth is we are alone. No one makes me get up early to write. No one demands me that I edit and revise my prose. No one stands in the corner, tut-tutting when I stare out the window or look at Facebook or drift off.

No one but me. I’m here. I moved 2400 miles. My friends and family are far away. I’m here at my desk. It’s eleven on a Sunday morning and I’ve written a new sketch/ prose poem, revised three others, edited a book review, and started editing a travel essay someone has sent for publication on Wanderlust. I might go for a walk again soon but not yet, I’m caught up in the daily focus of writing. Reading is later in the day, not yet, not now, I’ll get to that later on.

So what did I give up to be here? To live as I have for years? Especially for the last 18 months with no income but what comes from writing and editing. It was a good question from Sean Prentiss, a good lecture from Julianna Baggott. It’s lingered in me this week. In no particular order, this is a list of what I’ve given up, so far.

  • new clothes
  • routines
  • netflix
  • new music
  • new books
  • boots that fit properly
  • organic food
  • going out to restaurants
  • furniture
  • a new car
  • going to movies
  • heating
  • home upgrades
  • hairstyles
  • motels and hotels
  • a full pantry
  • my home in Bromsgrove
  • my home in Madrid
  • family
  • friends
  • lovers
  • kids
  • and boredom

You see, it’s time to live up to my potential. I’m hungry. I want to claim my place in the writers’ community. Let me know how I can help. I’ll be there. One way or another, I want to give back. I am here. I’m not giving up, not now.

Call For Submissions

 

Wanderlust Journal is looking for travel narratives and stories from the road, all those explorations in landscape and environment.  Wanderlust Journal  has an ongoing curiosity into how travel changes us, the reasons we leave home, and what we experience. We’re looking for new voices and emerging writers to publish. Why? There is a shortage of quality places focused on these travel essays.

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Do you have something to say? Well written and evocative of something more than just a personal experience that takes the reader to see the world in new ways? We’d love to hear you.

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Unfortunately, we are currently unable to provide payment for publication in Wanderlust Journal. One of our long term goals is to reach that point. We have no university funding, grants, scholarships, subscriptions, or memberships. The $5 submission fees only cover the Submittable website and our own. We are volunteers, the readers, editors, publishers. This is a work of love for a good story.

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Wanderlust Journal – click here for more information. Thanks!