A love letter to the short story

Have been thinking about my long-lost pal the short story again as I wrap up another wild ride of a contemporary American short story class. Twenty-five stories later, many of which were new to me, my declaration stands.

Bryn Chancellor

Hey Short Story:

(I’d address you as “Dear” but “Hey” apparently is the American greeting of choice these days. You know, it’s sort of like, what-evs.)

This kind of comes out of the blue, I know. You might have wondered where I ran off to (although, maybe not, since you’re inanimate and all). Anyhoo, after our years-long love affair, I took a turn into Novelandia, then detoured off into Academiaville, found in the middle of the DeepSouthistan. But I hope you know that I never really forgot you. I didn’t abandon you as many have, adopting the novel as the form for “serious” writers, as though length equals depth, even as you plod on as the workhorse of myriad writing workshops. Not me. It’s true that I love novels, and films, too, anything that tells a story. But I find myself turning to you again and again, as a reader…

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The cusp, or, I am not a tree

I’ve had the word “cusp” — “a point of transition between two different states,” according to my handy-dandy New Oxford American — floating around my brain for weeks now. I say it under my breath, savoring its punch, its shift from hard to hissing to plush. This is partly to blame on my morning habit of writing about what’s outside my office window. In the past few weeks, all I could see was a world on the cusp as bare branches grew knobby with buds, as early bloomers (a term I never understood until I moved here) poked their heads out of the earth, shivering in the still-cold dawns. This short, taut moment between winter and spring is one of my favorite things about the South. As I watch those ripening buds, the hints of yellow-green shoots and blooms, I swear I can almost hear a thrum in the air as dormant life stirs, ready to awaken.

The cusp also is a state in which I find myself living these days. Long story short, I recently accepted a new creative-writing teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and so TW and I will be moving to Charlotte this summer. We are selling our sweet little house and leaving our little town, our friends and colleagues from the past six years, my teaching position at the University of Montevallo. This offer and decision has been full of stunning loveliness and gratitude and humility and excitement and tender sadness all at once.

Oh, and don’t forget the anxiousness and fear.

Now that I think about it, perhaps “cusp” isn’t the right word for my state. Maybe I’m just after “uncertain” or “upheaval” or “night terrors.” I’m stressed in small, practical ways and large, existential ways, which means that I’m eating my way through carbohydrates like bleach through cotton. (Oh, and I’m turning 44 in a couple of weeks. Something about being divisible by 11 is freaking me out.)

Ultimately I am not a tree (as far as I know), and here’s thing about trees: they are not terrified about their transition (as far as I know! Maybe they’re like, holy shit, the buds again!). By the end of the change, they’re still trees. As for me, by the end of it all, I will still be human (sadly not a tree), and so I have a few teeny, tiny, cusp-y human questions: What kind of human? Who will I be there? The same as I am here, or was before? And who the heck am I, anyway, here at 44, divisible by 11? How did we all get here? What does it all mean?

Perhaps the word I want is “midlife.”

Okay, okay. Then I remember to breathe for a minute. Oxygen, carbon dioxide. Tree-like but in reverse. I get out the notebook, write it down. I scratch off a few tasks on the to-do list.

What I need to learn to do is trust the cusp. In writing, this is essential: learning to wait, learning to see and listen to what the story wants to be, not what I want it to be. The tree will be a tree.

I look out my window at a natural world no longer in transition. It’s fully spring now out there now, fully awake, bursting with bright, brassy newness. Soon I will have to say goodbye to this view that I have grown to love, that has become part of who I am in ways that I don’t even understand yet. But I know, I know, I know that soon, I’ll find a new view. A new season. And who knows what I’ll see.

Interview with Prairie Schooner

I spoke with the good, good folks over at Prairie Schooner about the Book Prize for my collection, When Are You Coming Home?, which will be released this fall. Among other things, I talk about a visit to the optometrist. Because, sure.

Here is the interview if you’re so inclined. And submit to the prize by March 15! Because boy howdy, you never know.

And here is a link to the giddy ol’ blog post after I first found out about the prize.

Dispatches from my window, or, adjusting the blinds

Early in the new year, I got up too early (after duking it out with my old pal Insomnia) and watched the sun rise. Squinting in the dawn light, I started writing in my notebook, a crucial activity that I had let slide in the past few months as I tumbled down the hole of work and living. Both my fingers and mind were stiff as I scratched at the page. I wrote, M Jan. 5, 2015, 6:30 a.m. Watching the sun rise through the bare oaks. The sky gray as a dog’s belly, bare trees falling out of silhouette and into being. This is not my land but it is my view now. Just a little description, no big deal, but for some reason it clicked for me, and I decided then that I would do this every morning. Every single day, I would start the day here, looking out the same window, the same exact view, before I am fully awake, before anything else (except coffee, natch). I would do it first, no matter how much the day’s demands pounded at my door.

And so I have. For the past 41 days, I have gotten my coffee, opened the blinds (even when it is still dark), sat down, opened my notebook, picked up a pen, and started writing. I often begin just by staring out the window, trying to note what’s out there and get down a few details. I mentally termed this Dispatches from my Window. Among the scintillating things I’ve noted on various days: Lopsided moon still hanging over sky to west. Hoof prints in neighbor’s grass. Sky whitens, tinged with orange low behind trees. Trash bins hunkered on side of road, ripe with neighbors’ lives.  Clear husk of a spider, hanging from old web, trapped in storm window. Rawness of winter trees, so exposed and still. Sky pale blue, clean as a plate. Cats running loose, investigating drainage holes, crouching for mice.

Now, who the heck knows if I will ever use these details. Maybe I can cherry pick or pluck them out whole; we’ll see. Or maybe they’ll spark something else. Actually, they already have. Though I begin by detailing what’s outside, I have found that the act of writing and describing leads me inside, including to the novel that I’m working on. At one point I wrote, Rain-soaked free newspapers lay in driveways like dead fish. Makes me think of butcher shop at [parents’] store, waxy white paper, slabs of meat. Speaking of stores: maybe get into some of those shops more [in new novel]. More than half of the entries so far include notes and questions about characters, brief scenes and possibilities. I’ve actually done some good outlining and the ever-amorphous “figuring out” in those notes, which I hope to bring into the writing later.

Of course, not every morning is particularly productive. I’m mostly comatose during the first cup of coffee, doing all I can not to drool. Some days, my stressed brain is in overdrive, thoughts jumping and spinning until I fall into a kind of paralyzed nausea, my pen frozen above the page. When that happens, I’ve started getting out of my chair and adjusting the blinds for a new angle. The first time I did this, the metaphor practically boxed me on the ears, and I started laughing. Adjust your blinds,  you worried ol’ nincompoop. Take a deep breath and refocus. Get out of your pesky head and look around. Look outward. Tweak the light and get a new perspective.

Such note-taking doesn’t supplant the writing-writing, for which I am struggling to find time right now. But it helps clear the path to it, whacking away at the weeds of inactivity and doubt and fear. At the very least, I open the blinds and sit down to the page first, and that reminds me of what it means to put writing first. Then, I peer through the slats to see what in the world might be out there.

On Making Belief: guest post at Poets & Writers blog

Recounting my remarkable P&W Maureen Egen WEX Award adventure:
http://www.pw.org/content/on_making_belief

The dog will always bark

God damn dog is barking now and it is time to get to work anyways. … the amazing thing is that the work goes on. And one day it will be through. — John Steinbeck, from Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath

I first read Steinbeck’s Working Days, the diary he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, many moons ago, when I first stumbled into this writing life in my late 20s. In rereading excerpts, I again found myself both fascinated and comforted by the mundane irritations and stunning insecurities that plagued Steinbeck as he, you know, WROTE A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Of course he didn’t know he was writing A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and that’s the beauty of it. He was just writing — puzzling out characters and timing, figuring out which scenes he’d tackle next. The notes about his doubts and insecurities, as well as the complaints about visitors and interferences and the neighbors’ g-d dog, are among the most reassuring things I have read as a writer. Not because the book turned out to be A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL but because of his persistence. Must go on, he writes after getting down what plagues him. Must work now. Might as well get to work. To work now.

That passage about the dog has stuck with me all these long years. In part this is because certain noises (barking dogs, leaf blowers, chainsaws, roaring trucks, clattering keyboards) drive me totally barking bananas, hitting my nerves in a weirdly primal way, making me want to screech and shake the trees of my habitat, hiss and chase and claw at the offending sound. I have since learned the wonders of high-speed tornado fans, earplugs, and headphones, but reading that a well-known writer struggled with noise made me feel less alone and crazy — a feeling I fight much of the time, as some (a lot) of us writers do.

Over time, I have come to think of Steinbeck’s dog more metaphorically. The dog is the day job, whining for you to take it out for a walk again. The dog is the rejection slip, pooping on your rug. The dog is your Inner Critic, snarling behind the fence. The dog is email and social media, yip yip yipping and biting your ankles. The dog is the blank page, wounded and yelping with a burr in its paw. The dog is envy. The dog is pettiness. The dog is white-hot fear. The dog is time, loping fast into the long distance. The dog, always barking, always keeping you from your day’s — your life’s — work.

Blocking this psychic barking is harder. There are no headphones (Sony, get on this, please). No fans on high will do the trick.

Some days will be bark-free; some days, the dog sleeps in the corner, sighing softly, chasing rabbits in its dreams. And there you are, bounding off into your imagination, unleashed.

Other days, well.

BARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARK.

I wish I had tried-and-true tips, a handy-dandy checklist of how to quiet the noise. As with so much in writing, we have to figure out works individually. For me — and this is so bloomin’ obvious that of course I always forget it — it helps to write about it. Like, duh. Steinbeck’s journals are a model of this; they not only depict the struggle but also show how he worked through it. Write down the fears, the irritations, the questions. Get them out of your mind, onto the page. Let them go. Feel the tension dissolve as the dog slinks off into his corner.

Music’s good, too, something to distract the part of your brain that has zeroed in on the barking. Reading helps sometimes, going back over your own words, lulling yourself into a quieter state.

This doesn’t mean that we ever will have perfect quiet, the perfect setting or circumstances. To demand that is its own kind of dog, one who will go hungry.

We just need to find the point at which we can say: it is time to get to work anyways. Must go on. To work now.

Wishing everyone a creative, joyous 2015. To quote Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes.

BC

I’m delighted at you

That title is the latest amusing pronouncement from my friend’s adorable two-year-old, whom I got to see yesterday via the wonders of Facetime. I found myself laughing even after we hung up, until my stomach seized up, until it had nothing at all to do with a child’s charming phrasing. I haven’t been laughing a lot of late, given the state of the news (see yesterday’s post), and a much-needed moment of levity unleashed something else: hard, uncontrolled laughter, a strange kind of catharsis.

This got me thinking about how much humor is bound up with tragedy, both in life and in writing. I know that isn’t a new or particularly profound observation, yet I still find it arresting. For example, just this morning, I was on another long-distance call with a dear friend whose family is grieving the sudden loss of a close friend. She told me that after the funeral, family and friends converged on a local bar, where they told funny remembrances about their beloved girl and found themselves laughing hysterically, ducking aside to cry for a moment, and then coming back to laugh some more. Similarly, nineteen years ago, my father died suddenly after a three-day illness; hours after I walked out of the hospital into the glaring light of a world that kept moving without him, my family and I proceeded to watch Tommy Boy (starring David Spade and Chris Farley), possibly one of the stupidest movies every made. For 97 minutes, we laughed ourselves sick, keeled over onto our knees, gasping for air. In a newsroom, in the wee hours when editors are trying to get the paper to bed, you will hear some of the worst jokes known to humanity (as editors work on the worst news, perpetrated by humanity). In all of those circumstances, no one is forgetting about grief; the laughing is part of the grief. Humor, dark and light, is one of our ways through tragedy, even if it feels disruptive or transgressive or inappropriate. Especially then. After all, physiologically, laughing isn’t much different from crying– just a quick hitch from one to the other. Unhinged laughter wondrously combines both.

And so it is in storytelling. After all, theater’s tragedy and comedy masks, seeming opposites, are depictions of the same face. This isn’t to say that all stories must blend the two, but good stories often work in more than just one mode. Something offsets the comedic or dramatic; I think of this as the “counterweight.” Dramatic stories can find balance with humor but also in other moments of lightness– “breathing spaces,” along the lines of how Aristotle envisioned tragedy’s choral rests. The counterweight in comedic writing needn’t be tragedy or heavy sadness, but again, something makes us stop laughing, suck in our breaths, pause. On both sides of the tragedy-comedy writing face, we want complexity, a fuzzier line between those so-called disparate emotions.

Of course, if it fits with a story, humor can be one of the greatest tools a writer has. This includes satire and absurdity, but also humor that intertwines with the serious. I’m a fan of George Saunders for his ability to make us laugh and weep in the same story. Here’s what he says in a recent excerpt of an interview in The New Yorker:

What I’ve come to realize is that, for me, the serious and the comic are one and the same. I don’t see humor as some sort of shrunken or deficient cousin of “real” writing. Being funny is about as deep and truthful as I can be. When I am really feeling life and being truthful, the resulting prose is comic. The world is comic. It’s not always funny but it is always comic.

In The Poetics, Aristotle says that tragedy includes a purgation of emotion for the audience — catharsis — through the effects of pity and fear. In modern writing terms, I think of pity as sympathy or understanding, and fear as terror/horror but also worry. Nowhere does Aristotle mention humor in this mix, but I believe that humor can be a crucial means of access to deeper emotions. Just as with crying, laughing opens us up, makes us vulnerable for emotion to sneak in. While we recognize crying as a way to release emotions, laughing is a surprise, the old cross-double cross, a sucker punch in the gut. Humor is both the way in and the way out.

Speaking of exits (which we weren’t): I wish I had a kicky way to end this or could have been kickier all the way through — practice what I’m a-preaching in the ol’ humor department. Alas, I’m still tonally off, my voice flat with sadness and stiff with lack of practice.

Tonight: I have some delightfully stupid movies to watch. Tomorrow: try again.

The light at the window

As a longtime wake-in-the-night insomniac, I have become obsessed these past few hectic months with the edge of my bedroom window. Not the whole window, just the right vertical strip that I can see from behind the blackout curtains when I’m lying in bed. This slip of window has become my gauge. No light: too early, go back to sleep or woe to you the rest of the day. Soft blue-gray glow: almost daybreak; if no more sleep, day sucky but survivable. Brighter gray glow: sun mostly up, okay to get up. Bright yellow glow: A sleep-in! Must be a holiday. From that light, I know almost to the minute what time it is without clicking on my bedside clock.

I have been ruminating about this strip of light for two months, as I wave the white flag at the to-do list, as I scratch random notes and read through what I wrote back in late August/early September to try to keep it close. I wanted a neat and tidy controlling metaphor here: The light at the window is writing! Look, a story comes into focus just like the dawn! Or the light at the window stands in for the surprising goodness in a cracked world (see Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”). Or it’s knowledge, it’s awareness, it’s dawning, it’s seeing anew, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wading deep in the territory of cliche and oversimplification, fumbling about for meaning, reaching for something to hold onto.

That fumbling seems the truest now, both in the sense of writing process and also importantly for negotiating the space of American culture. Because even as I have been watching this tiny strip of light in my own tiny writing world, I also have been watching large, terrible stories unfold about the shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown and the fallout in Ferguson, and even more recently twelve-year-old Tamir Rice– stories that bring forth past stories of Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Amadou Diallo, and countless Black and Brown men and women whose lives have been brutally stolen from them without repercussion because of systemic inequality in our legal and justice system, in all of our American systems, built right in from the ground up. I have watched and read stories about rape and sexual violence and trolling threats and plain old misogyny. I have watched health crises and plundering politicians. On my own quiet and lovely Thanksgiving, shared with the loveliest of human beings, I wept into my green bean casserole as I thought about the empty places at other people’s tables, of people with no tables to go to at all.

So I here I sit at my dusty old blog, floundering with what to write about that g-d light at the window, about the darkness of the world. Light and dark, black and white. Too much freaking symbolism, and too much literal division. I desperately want to make meaning. I desperately need to make sense of it all, to fix it, to make it okay. Write a g-d happy post for Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! How hard can it be?

Hard. Which is how it goes sometimes, in writing, in the world. Even if we wish it weren’t so.

Writing is about telling the truth; who knows who said that first? Not me, but it’s worth repeating, mostly to myself. Because the truth is, too often I fear the truth. I fear that I will get it wrong, that I won’t do justice to what needs to be said, that someone else has said it better, that someone will rip me to shreds, that I will be banal and unwise and downright idiotic. I fear that I don’t even know what’s true anymore.

But not writing is worse. Silence is worse.

I wrote last year on Thanksgiving about my gratitude for reading, and this year that still holds. Even more, I am grateful these days for other writers’ writing, when I can’t seem to get my own down. I have been pouring over poems, essays, diatribes, tweets, articles, images. Some of it is complex and well-researched, some sputtering and imperfect and hot with rage, but all of it is a bright glaring spotlight on injustice, refusing to let it fester in the shadows. And there it is again: the light, the dark, not binary but fluid: both, all at once.

I have set myself up for failure in this post: how to resolve my controlling idea, the light at the window, when there can be no true resolve. To force meaning would make it untrue, when the truth is that I cannot wrangle it into cohesion yet because I’m all tangled up on the inside. And so I fumble my way through instead, with no perfect answers, but waking up to something, peering at the edge of the blinds, trying like hell to see.

Help! Help! I’m being repressed!

This doesn’t have much to do with writing — currently, the only writing I’m doing is scratching feverishly at my to-do list — but, oh, I really needed a laugh here on this Election Day.

Here’s an old Monty Python chestnut that perked me up on my way to the polls:

The many voices of baseball

I  always seem to want to start my blog posts off with a remark about how much time has passed since I last wrote a post, even though as far as I know, no one’s keeping tabs on my productivity — aside from my bratty Inner Critic, who today is tapping her watch and sighing loudly and rolling her eyes. Pretty soon she’ll start snoring. Twit.

Speaking of time, this summer TW and I finally got around to watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, a mere twenty years after its initial release date. (Next up: the films of that hot young director, Alfred Hitchcock!) All 18.5 hours of it. Numb bums aside, it was totally worth it. I learned so much, even as a fan who has more than a passing knowledge. But it wasn’t quite the soaring, euphoric tribute to the game that somehow I expected. Sure, there was plenty of rhapsodizing about monumental moments, about the deep emotional connections within families and communities. But it also tracked the darker side of the game, which of course is entangled in the injustices of American history. Burns famously knows how to tug at the ol’ heart strings, and I often ended up in tears. Most people know about Jackie Robinson, but the film highlights the Josh Gibsons, the Satchel Paiges, the Buck O’Neils, the Curt Floods. So many men with such talent, and the god-awful things they endured. Their faces clear as day, their voices retelling both the lows and highs. At one point, TW patted my back as I wept into my hands, and he said, You know this history. This isn’t new. Exactly: It was old, and persistent, and rooted, even in this game that I have always loved. Of course it was; no part of this country’s hands are clean. Not then, and not now, even as we progress.

But then again, it’s baseball, a game that is nothing if not contradictory: perfectly linear and logical and yet twisting and chaotic; individual and collective; sad and joyous; tiny and grand; defeated and triumphant; grounded and mythical; certain and surprising. Games are like stories that way. No wonder writers across the years have been so enamoured.

And so in my own meta-baseball-watching, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was surprised by something that, ahem, came completely out of left field.

As we started watching, I kept listening to the narrator, thinking he sounded familiar but unable to pin it down. When the credits rolled, there it was: John Chancellor, the legendary NBC broadcast journalist.

And my father’s first cousin.

My dad’s father was the youngest of eleven children, and John’s father was one of the older siblings, so John and my father were several years apart. My dad had always hoped to meet John someday, but alas, he never did. (My dad died in 1995; John died in 1996.) In our family, though, we always knew the connection. Everyone always noted how they looked alike. When we’d see him on the news, my mom would say, Yep, just look at their faces.

Here’s a couple of pictures of them:

John Chancellor

dad1

Alan Chancellor (my father)

Indeed, I can see the resemblance, in the shape of the face and around the eyes. It’s one of those things that I have always known.

What I didn’t know until watching 18.5 hours of a baseball documentary is that they sound alike, too.

Over time, I have lost the sound of my father’s voice. This is a normal part of losing someone, but I think it’s one of the harder parts; it’s like that person disappears all over again, years from the initial loss. About a year ago, though, we found some old home videos. There, on the screen, my father moved and spoke and laughed. And there was his voice in my ear again. At first I worried that this would be a setback, that seeing and hearing him again would send me into sadness, but ultimately it was comforting.  His voice: a little high, reedy. A twinge of his native Chicago even after living most of his life in California and Arizona. A twinge of me.

Well, it sounds a bit like this:

As we sat this summer watching so many hours of the history of baseball, the narrator’s voice eerily evoking my father’s, I felt my personal history colliding with the collective history. All of those stories coming together in one space– the injustices, the beauty, the grief, the joy — and sharing it with someone I love.

In short, baseball.