A Moment Leads to an Essay: A Journey in Five Parts

1.

My daughter and I share a plate of fried ripe plantains, a sweet taste that immediately reminds me of my childhood.

“Mommy, are there bananas in plantains?” she asks.

I pause. Bananas in plantains. “A plantain is a plantain,” I say. “It’s not a banana.”

“But are there bananas in plantains?” she asks again. And I think of what she knows. The similarity in taste, the specks of black seeds. This is where the pondering begins. I ruminate about her understanding of this food that matters so much to her Jamaican-American mama. “A plantain doesn’t have any banana in it,” I tell her.

2.

The memories spill forth with a ferocious speed. Plantains. Bananas. The evening so many years ago when my babysitter peeled a plantain, thinking it was a banana, and gave it to me. Me seated on the red stool in my childhood kitchen while my mother fried plantains. A day when I lived in Cape Town and my friend gave me a plantain picked from her friend’s tree. One by one, I turn these images into fully formed scenes. As I write, I find myself wondering: “Why do I care so much about plantains?” and “When my daughter doesn’t know the difference between a plantain and a banana, what does that say about me?”

3.

What is the difference between a plantain and banana? I type those words and wait for my phone to tell me. I discover that plantains and bananas share a common ancient ancestor that boasted much larger seeds. And memories continue to pour into me. My father singing, “Come, mister tally man, tally me banana,” and my sister and me yelling back, “Daylight come and me wan’ go home.” Family. Generations. There’s something here, I think. I keep taking notes, I keep following where the memories lead. I’m still not there, though. This I know. Patience, I tell myself because patience can be what separates a glimmer of connection from a fully-realized piece. Patience is sometimes just what an essayist needs.

4.

At a writing retreat, a prompt instructs me to write words directed at another human being. For reasons only my unconscious understands, I choose to write words to my sister. “I’ve heard it said that one day you and I will be all we have left.” I write about a future day when my sister and I no longer having living parents. I write about a time when it will be just the two of us alive who experienced the memories from the early years of our lives. The free write ambles into the territory of preparation of Jamaican food and what my sister might teach me.

It’s now months since my daughter first asked me if there are bananas in plantains. It is here, though, as I sketch out this imagined scene of my sister and me, that the worlds of memory and moments, research and scenes collide in the most unexpected way. These meanderings, these questions about plantains and my daughter, this was never about what I’m teaching her. This was always about my sister, always about me. A plantain is not a banana I discovered during my research, but they are close. My sister is not me, but we share much in common. Two black American daughters of Jamaican immigrants with different stories about the formation of our identities.

5.

The pondering began with a single question from my child. The writing found life with a long-awaited connection between two sisters and plantains and research about banana trees. In the act of understanding the connections, I began to see what mattered to this story and what might fade away. Yes to a scene of my long-ago babysitter mistaking a plantain for a banana. Yes to a memory of my mother pushing my sister and me in a grocery cart in search of plantains. No to my father singing Dayo. And no—the big surprising no—to the moment my daughter asked if bananas are in plantains. That moment began the search for story, but it wasn’t part of what the story ultimately wanted to be.


Patrice Gopo is the author of All the Colors We Will See, an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. You can hear a recent podcast interview with her here. She will teach “Crafting the Personal Essay: The Art of Sharing our Lives and Loves” at Charlotte Lit in January.

On writing a novel: You don’t have to know everything to begin

Kim Wright teaches “So You Want to Write a Novel: How to Get Started and Keep Going” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday December 13 from 6 to 9 pm. Register


Writers use a lot of analogies for the sense of disorientation and fear that comes with starting a book. E.L Doctorow famously said “Writing is like driving a car at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My friend and fellow novelist Kim Boykin less famously (but quite consistently) claims that her stories are dictated to her by her characters. Their voices, she says, come to her out of the ether and page by page, each plot twist is a mystery, right up to the point that the characters finally explain how their story ends.

Either way, the point is this. You don’t have to know everything to begin.

You don’t have to know much at all.

I think of each story as a room and that there are many doors into that room—many ways to enter and oriented yourself.  Some writers won’t write the first word before they figure out the plot. Others, like Kim, connect to the voice of their characters and some of the more high-minded among us are motivated by theme, choosing to write the books they think the world needs to read, based on the topical issues that most inspire their authors. For me, the door frequently opens in the form of an image. Which can be scary since image, by its very nature, gives you both everything and nothing. The whole sense of the story world reveals itself in one fell swoop but you don’t have a clue what any of it means.

A good example of this is my Last Ride to Graceland, which in many ways has been my most successful book. I was lying in bed on a rainy Sunday morning perusing the Charlotte Observer and I noticed an article on how they were restoring the car Elvis Presley drove on the last day of his life. It had been wrapped in plastic in Graceland for nearly forty years, shoved in a corner of a massive garage, just waiting to reveal its secrets. An intriguing enough notion on its own, but suddenly an image flashed into my mind—not of a 1977 Stutz Blackhawk spending decades being ignored in a garage in Graceland but of that same big black muscle car zooming down a road in rural Alabama. “Fairhope,” I thought, although I didn’t know why, but I did know that a woman was driving the car, a woman who had been born shortly after Elvis died. And I didn’t know precisely how her age fit in, although it was certainly a clue to the mystery of the book but there was trash in the car, trash left over from 1977 and the last time the car had been driven, and that seemed essential too and for some ungodly reason I looked over and saw she had a coon hound on the passenger seat beside her.

And so the book began. No matter how a writer begins or which door they choose to enter into the world of the story, it often feels a bit mysterious when they start. Uncertain and dimly lit, like the nighttime fog EL Doctorow described. But the point is that you must trust in the story’s willingness to unfold itself over time and your own ability to wait, with patience and loyalty to the process, before you even begin to see the big picture.

In that sense, the writer is the story’s first reader—the first to feel its pleasure and mystery and pain and power. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to know much of anything. You just have to open the first page and begin.


Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, The Canterbury Sisters, and her latest novel, Last Ride to Graceland, which was the 2017 recipient of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. For the past three years she has been a developmental editor through The Story Doctor, helping writers with issues of story arcs, structure, and pacing. At Charlotte Lit, Kim teaches classes and serves as a coach in the Authors Lab program.

Questions to Ask Yourself When You Write Memoir

In 2006, to relieve his back pain, my husband had an epidural, a procedure so routine it’s given to women in childbirth. The minute the needle pushed into his spine, he was paralyzed from the waist down. People kept asking me if I was going to write about this. “Never!” I declared. I’d lived through it; I certainly did not want to live through it again. But then, in 2008, I was held up at gunpoint at the dry cleaner. Here’s what’s odd: That gun did not scare me. It made me sad. I cried for days

I found myself telling the story of the holdup over and over. I wanted everyone to know. At a dinner party, I made my friends join me in a re-enactment. “Okay, John, you be the owner of the dry cleaner. And you, Bobbie, be the robber. Just jump out, Bobbie. Like this. And hold the gun lower. Point it at my stomach. Both of you come closer.” I made it funny so we could all laugh – my fellow actors and our audience.

And then I went home from the dinner and cried.

I wrote an essay about the holdup. But it started growing. Suddenly, I was writing a memoir about my marriage – how our roles had switched, our identities shifted. Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap was taking shape.

When I asked myself the following questions, I began to understand the connection between what had happened to my husband and the holdup:

What did I think then? What else? What do I think now? What else?

Here’s where those questions led me:

Because someone threatened me with a gun, I could finally cry – really cry – over what had happened to my husband. It was as though I were confronting his accident for the first time. How everything can be fine one minute. And then, nothing is. That thin line. How a brushfire can erupt on a perfectly sunny, clear-skied day. How your life can be taken right out of your hands.

How, when you write memoir, you encounter new possibilities for understanding your life. How memoir truly is the narrative of revelation.


Judy Goldman is the author of six books: two memoirs, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (which will be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on February 12, 2019) and Losing My Sister; two novels, Early Leaving and The Slow Way Back; and two books of poetry, Wanting To Know the End and Holding Back Winter. Losing My Sister was a finalist for both Southeast Booksellers Alliance’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the Year. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, and Real Simple magazine; her book reviews in The Washington Post and The Charlotte Observer; and her commentaries on public radio in Chapel Hill and Charlotte.


Judy’s class, “Crafting a Memoir: How to Weave Personal Experience into a Compelling Story” which begins on Thursday November 8 from 6 pm to 9 pm, has one seat remaining as of this writing. Please go here to register.

 

 

Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Heroes and Mermaids: A Deep Dive into Jung’s Archetypal Ocean

If you’re a writer or lit lover (and if you’re reading this blog post, you’re likely both), you’ve no doubt heard of Joseph Campbell’s seventeen stage “hero’s journey.” Maybe you’ve used a “hero’s journey” map to outline a novel—or even your own personal quest! If so, you know that Campbell draws his pattern (just one of an endless number of archetypal patterns) from C. G. Jung’s theory of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Jung believed that we are born with a psychological predisposition to understand our experiences in typical forms and patterns, and that these patterns bear striking resemblances to each other in cultures throughout the world. He theorized that these archetypal forms operate beneath our awareness in the very deepest layer of psyche—a murky, ocean-like psychological realm comprised of energies that shape all common human experience. This ocean, which he called the collective unconscious, is at once a repository for the experiences of our predecessors and the origin of everything we in turn will experience in our individual lives.

Though formless and invisible inside the collective unconscious, in the way that a magnet pulls fragments of metal to itself, the archetypes enter consciousness by clothing themselves in the events and situations of our personal and collective lives—that is, they appear to us as archetypal images or symbols.

Archetypal images depict both grand and ordinary events, characters and situations. The more common, the deeper the corresponding archetype lies inside the collective unconscious and the greater possible meanings it can hold. Take the archetype of the door or threshold, for example: when I walk through the door of my house at the end of the day I not only enter the place where I’ll have dinner and sleep, but I also encounter the accumulated power of the door/threshold archetype. As I turn the key, I unlock the closure that separates my life and work in the outer world from the much quieter and more private personal life inside my home. My door is more than a door; it’s a sacred portal into another world. When I cross the threshold I’m free to drop my public persona and orient myself more fully toward family and inner life.

“Crossing the threshold” is one of the steps (or archetypal situations) Campbell details in the first stage of the “hero’s journey.” Of course, in this context, the step marks a very different kind of crossing, one in which the hero leaves home for an adventure of a lifetime. The door/threshold archetype is so all-encompassing it very comfortably holds both of these meanings (this paradox), and countless others too.

Archetypes serve a psychological function that parallels the biological function served by our instincts. They are templates for understanding experience and orienting ourselves within our social-cultural world. They are also energies that seek to be consciously known and expressed and are therefore dependent on the human poietic or image-making impulse. Likewise, what is conscious, or nearly so, in us seeks connection to its imaginal source and meaning. With the language of archetypes we often find the words and images essential for expressing our otherwise inexpressible inner worlds of thoughts and feelings. Inner and outer constantly seek one another, and it is the sacred work of the artist, the writer in particular, to bring the two into creative relationship.

Any of a great number of images might be used to symbolize the archetypal writer, but at this moment I find one especially compelling—the mermaid. Thanks to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” these beings which are half-human, half-fish are most often depicted as maids, but given their ambiguous, fluid natures, we might rather think of them as merpeople. As denizens of the deep primordial ocean (a symbol of the unconscious), these mythic beings can breathe both water and air. They are able to dive deep into the generative waters of the ocean and onto its floor where live the mysterious artifacts of humanity’s shipwrecked past. Then they rise again to communicate with living humans and reflect on surface life. They are mercurial intermediaries, savers of drowning sailors, and beautiful sirens with sweetest voices. But they are people, too—people with the rare and fantastic ability for shapeshifting transformation.

Though we might not always dive so deep or sing as sweetly, as writers we dive into the imagination—into the collective unconscious—and bring back the resources, images, and language we need to tell our parts of the human story in a way that is archetypally familiar yet fundamentally personal and new. We strive, as Joseph Campbell says, to live the myth forward, to deliver fresh images and narratives that speak to the world’s current situation.


You can experience a fine example of creative work that does just that in Actor’s Theatre’s production of The Mermaid Hour, a 2016 NuVoices finalist by David Valdes Greenwood. With pitch-perfect dialogue, this play explores the life of a family faced with making difficult choices for and with their twelve-year-old transgender daughter. The production opens Wednesday, May 2 at the Hadley Theater at Queens University and runs through May 19. Toni Reali, daughter of Charlotte Lit co-founder Paul Reali, plays the leading role of transgender tween Vi.

And, if you’re interested in learning more about Jung’s archetypes, you can join Kathie Collins and Paul Reali on May 2, 9, and 16 for a three-session class that examines the origins, expression, and creative potential of archetypal patterns. Registration and information is here.


Kathie Collins, Ph.D., co-founder of Charlotte Lit, earned her doctorate in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. A poet and lifelong student of Jungian psychology, Kathie thrives in the in-between space from which dreams and creativity emerge. She’s happiest when she can share that space with others and one of her great passions is bringing words and people together for transformative conversations. Kathie’s poetry has appeared in Immanence, Kakalak, BibleWorkbench, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.

3 Ways to Improve Your Writing

I spend a lot of time staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers poised over the keyboard, hoping the right words will find their way onto the page. I check my email every 30 seconds, waste time on Facebook, start typing, decide the writing is crap and hit delete, give up and read trashy magazines hoping for inspiration. Rinse, repeat.

When deadlines loom, I have no choice but to sit down and make magic happen (or at least get words on the page). Since I make a living selling words, sentences, and paragraphs, the articles I write need to shine.

Over the years, I’ve found that following three simple rules makes my writing much better.

Show, don’t tell. You’ve probably heard this before but it bears repeating. The best way to draw a reader into the story is through word art, painting a picture with your words.

In an essay about the thrill of completing your first marathon, you could tell the reader, “Running a marathon is hard” or you can show them what that means: “By mile 25, my legs wobbled, my breath came in jagged gasps and sweat dripped down my back. When I heard the distant cheers of the crowd waiting at the finish line, I felt buoyed by their energy and used it to help me finish the race.”

Drawing the reader into the story by creating scenes instead of just stating facts leads to more compelling writing.

Do a sensory scan.One of the faculty advisors I worked with in the MFA program at Queens University suggested this exercise and I’ve found it very helpful: After you finish writing a piece, go back over it and mark the places where there are sensory descriptions. Note uses of all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste.

I recently finished a book about farming. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the story without talking about the smells on a farm meant it was missing a key ingredient.

If your sensory scan reveals that you have only described the way things look, think about ways to incorporate descriptions of the other senses. You won’t engage all of the senses in every piece but it’s helpful to use descriptions of at least two or three.

Go on a media diet.The worst thing I can do when I’m working on an article or writing a book is read what others have written on the topic. The reason? When I read someone else’s work, their words echo in my thoughts and I lose my own voice.

When deadlines loom, I try to steer clear of the Internet, magazines, and books so that I can focus on how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I crawl into bed and write longhand in a notebook. My creative juices really flow when I’m not staring at the squiggly green line in MS Word that tells me I have a grammatical error on the page!

These creative techniques are the keys to telling—and selling—great stories.


Jodi Helmer. Journalist. Author. Writing teacher. Doggie momma. Beekeeper. Veggie grower. Vintage needlework collector. Napper. Eater. Canadian. Jodi has many roles and has built a freelance career by writing about them—and a host of other things that pique her curiosity. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, National Geographic Traveler, CNNMoney, AARP, Farm Life, Health,and others. She is the author of four books, including The Green Yearand Farm Fresh Georgia. Jodi teaches writing workshops, offers one-on-one consulting and query critiques, and speaks at journalism conferences to help other writers achieve their goals.

Immutable Laws of Writing #2: An object in motion stays in motion

An object in motion stays in motion (and an object at rest stays at rest).

Sir Isaac Newton said this first, and not about writing. Still, writing is a natural act, possibly a force of nature, and is just as subject to physics as everything else. Applied to your writing, the “object” in question is the work you are producing. (Be it understood that we’re not talking here about writing as the mere act of putting words on paper; rather, we’re talking about writing that is becoming a finished work.) Applied to a work in progress, then: your writing both requires and benefits from momentum. Let’s break out those two key bits.

Requires momentum. Any piece of writing of any substantive length—short story, novella, novel, screenplay, stage play, epic poem, etc.—cannot continue forward unless you work on it regularly. Long works have many threads and themes, schemes and schemas, and other moving parts that need to be fresh in mind while writing. This is not to say you can’t take a break from a work; breaks can be good for your writing. But just try to finish a novel that you write in fits and starts, or even one that you write regularly but overly-spaced, such as writing it only on the weekends. It’s hard enough without adding that complexity.

Benefits from momentum. When you are working on a project regularly and with momentum on your side, your writing is likely to be more efficient and perhaps also better. Consider: the longer it has been since you last worked on your project, the longer it will take to: a) bring all the components back into your head; b) have a good sense of what to write next; and c) maintain all the voices: yours, and those of your characters. When your work has momentum, you slip easily between characters, you have your story threads and themes in mind, you know what has and has not transpired, and you know—this is important—what to write next.

Robert Heinlein provided these and some other rules of writing. The emphases are his:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.

My Immutable Law of Writing #1 (“the words aren’t going to write themselves”) echoes RH’s first rule. My second supports his second: if you mean to finish, you must finish. And you do this by respecting (or, if you prefer, taking advantage of) the laws of physics.

Here are three pieces of practical advice for keeping momentum.

1. Write something you love. 

Don’t select a writing project because you think it’s trendy or easy to get published or will make you tons of cash. Write a story that you truly want to tell. That love will feed your momentum. You will write because you have to see how it comes out. (This will also sustain you later when you are in the eighth round of revisions and you hate the book more than you have ever hated anything.)

2. Make the forces (even the negative ones) work for you.

Fully expressed, Newton’s First Law is: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” (italics mine).* There are throughout your non-writing world “unbalanced forces” that conspire against you and your writing, even if (usually) unintentionally, almost all of which come down to commitments that require your time: jobs, partners, children, sleep, lawns that insist on growing, and so on. How might you make these forces work in support of your writing?

Perhaps: Use lawn mowing time as thinking time, for working out plot points and other story details; car pool to work so that you can write while someone else drives; enlist your family members as co-conspirators, to help by doing research or editing; establish family creative time: while you write, others practice their instruments, or blog, or fold origami, or what have you; get up 30 minutes earlier (you won’t miss it) and write 500 words while there are no distractions; or quit something that you’ve been meaning to quit, something that takes up your time, transferring that time to your writing.

3. Allow your self occasional breaks from the project. 

Short ones. Take Sunday off, maybe, but then back to it on Monday. Can’t fight physics, might as well make it work on your behalf.

——

http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law

The Grounded and the Floating

Zadie Smith reads as part of the Lenoir Rhyne Visiting Writers Series in Hickory on Thursday, March 22 at 7 pm. Free, but tickets are recommended. Call the box office at 828-328-7206.


In Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, two girls in a London neighborhood bond over what they have in common—their brown skin and a love of dance. Tracey has all the talent, and “her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate,” but her family life is more erratic, less motivated. In comparison, the unnamed narrator’s family is stable, and her mother in particular aspires to a better life. The narrator shares her love of old Hollywood musicals with Tracey, teaching them both something about not only the art of dance, but also about race and appropriation. Through this pastime we see the narrator, even as a child, holding back from full engagement, filtering the world through a more analytic detachment. Tracey, however, is all in—in her dance moves, emotional outbursts, or sexual forays in the schoolyard. Inevitably, as they enter adolescence, the two girls grow apart, but never completely sever their fraught relationship. Tracey dances in a chorus line before her life gets side-tracked, while the narrator becomes a personal assistant to a globetrotting do-gooder music celebrity.

Smith addresses the parallels between dance and writing explicitly in “Dance Lessons for Writers,” an essay in her collection Feel Free published earlier this year. From dance, Smith says, writers can learn lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style. In both the novel and the essay, she compares Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly. Astaire is thin, elegant and aloof, never breaking into a sweat, appearing to float above the floor without effort. Kelly, on the other hand, shows his exertion and muscularity. For Smith, the two dancers exemplify the difference between “the grounded and the floating.” Gene Kelly provides a metaphor for “how the prosaic can turn poetic, if we work hard enough,” while Astaire’s movements are more literary, “poetry in motion.”

In writing workshops I’ve attended, instructors sometimes talk about “floaty-groundy” in terms of plot or characters, with a meaning that’s a little different from Smith’s. Groundy plots have a definite timeline, and their characters have clearly focused desires. A floaty character may lack identifiable goals, and a floaty plot may veer off course or meander. Think Hunger Games or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vs. Lincoln in the Bardo or even Seinfeld. For me, the floaty-groundy dichotomy has more to do with my orientation as a reader. Do I know exactly where I am in time and place? Are there sensory details that keep me tethered to world of the story? Do I know what the character is doing in the moment? If so, then I think the passage is grounded. But I also want fiction and nonfiction I read to engage with ideas, and I want characters to have rich interior lives – floatier elements. Contrast these first sentences for back-to-back chapters early in Swing Time:

“If Fred Astaire represented aristocracy, I represented the proletariat, said Gene Kelly, and by this logic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson should really have been my dancer, because Bojangles danced for the Harlem dandy, for the ghetto kid, for the sharecropper—for all the descendants of slaves.”

“A Sunday in late summer. I was on the balcony, watching a few girls from our floor skipping Double Dutch down by the bins. I heard my mother calling me.”

Floaty vs. groundy, right? For me, good writing balances the two. In revising my own writing, I often notice when something is too focused on ideas and not enough on the nitty-gritty of the world I’m building, or when I’ve written a perfectly serviceable description of a subway ride, but the character does not seem to have a thought in her head. I think of Tracey in Swing Time as the more grounded character, like Gene Kelly, more comfortable in the corporeal, in effort and emotion. The narrator, like Astaire, remains cerebral and detached, perhaps more of the mind than the body.

While Tracey the erstwhile dancer never rises above her hardscrabble life in council flats, Smith’s narrator never makes a lasting connections to anyone or anything. If our fiction is to succeed at a high level, we must allow our characters (and our work as a whole) to engage with ideas, while also firmly grounding them in the world of our imagining.


Kristin Donnalley Sherman lives in Charlotte, where she works as a writer, editor, and writing coach. She’s published both fiction and nonfiction, and is currently at work on two novels. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Barrelhouse, Silk Road, Main Street Rag and Flashquake, and she has won or been a finalist in numerous contests, including Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction, the Writers Workshop Memoirs, the Reynolds Price Fiction, River Styx Micro-fiction, and the Press 53 Open Awards for Short Short Fiction.

How to be Kind to Your Reader: Some Thoughts on George Saunders

George Saunders is big on kindness. When I read the convocation speech he gave at Syracuse University, which is now available to us in a book, Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, which I highly recommend, it got me wondering: if you write fiction, as Saunders does beautifully, is there such a thing as being kind to your reader?

I happen to believe that there is. Kindness begins with respect, human being to human being. The writer of fiction should assume that the reader is an intellectual equal. Now, I know George Saunders knows more than I do, and when I read his Lincoln in the Bardo, I relished the challenge of keeping up. This masterpiece of a novel, about souls in a literal or figurative state of transition, tells the story—from a wildly original point of view—of Abraham Lincoln in the hours surrounding his beloved 11-year-old son Willie’s death from typhoid fever. Even though I wandered through some pages, disoriented as a blind squirrel looking for a nut, I trusted that Saunders would lead me to the light.

No one likes to be talked down to or treated with condescension. I used to tell my high-school English students, “In a three-page paper, you only need to say it one time. I know I’m old, but my memory is still intact. You don’t need to restate your thesis in the conclusion. Use that space and opportunity to tell me something related to your topic that I may not know.” Saunders taught me a lot, not only about American history, but also about tone and characterization and pacing and structure. Fiction writers are teachers, too. I choose to read writers whose ability level is far beyond mine so that I might learn from them.

Kind writers allow the love for their craft to show. When I read Saunders, I’m reminded of my ninth-grade geometry teacher who could not hide her admiration for the beauty of a geometrical proof. Her voice would change; her eyes would shine. I witness that same kind of joy in Lincoln in the Bardo. Imagine Saunders’ delight when he discovered that, in 1861, the President received a letter that read, “Mr. Abe Lincoln, you don’t Resign, we are going to put a spider in your dumpling….” (There’s more to that letter that made my mouth fall open in horror; see page 233 for details.) As I read these words a second time, I can almost see Saunders hopping out of his desk chair and jumping around like he’d won the lottery. Ali Smith is another awe-inspiring contemporary fiction writer easy to catch in the act of joy; her novel How to be Both is as inventive and challenging as Lincoln in the Bardo. I don’t know if Smith and Saunders have met, but I believe they’d become the fastest of friends.

A kind fiction writer embraces economy of language. One of the mantras of the editor and publisher should be, “No self-indulgence allowed.” A writer flaunting his flair with intricate similes or veering off on an unrelated tangent reveals a selfishness, not to mention a startling lack of awareness, that someone other than he will be reading the words. With their enlarged empathy genes, kind writers know better than anyone that there are plenty of other A+ novels their readers could have chosen instead. “Kindness, it turns out, is hard,” Saunders told the student body at Syracuse, where he teaches creative writing—also hard if done well, and worth all the precious time and emotional energy and sleepless nights when one reader says, “Those words on that page: I am pretty sure that you wrote them just for me.”


Jenny Hubbard lives in the town of her childhood (Salisbury, NC) and works at the public library where she first learned to read. Her two novels, Paper Covers Rock and And We Stay (Delacorte Press, Penguin Random House), feature teenage protagonists who come to rely on poetry as a way to order the chaos. An English teacher for seventeen years, Jenny believes she learned more from her students than they ever learned from her. She is currently under the tutelage of her rescue dog, Oliver.

The Art of Submitting

Unless the two sides of your brain are evenly divided—what writer’s is?—you probably don’t enjoy the heavily weighted left-side chore of submitting your work to magazines.

I am left-handed, so I’m even less linear than most. But believe me when I tell you that I have learned to enjoy the submission process. Why? Because I make a game of it. That’s me who gets the acceptances. It’s Caroline, my alter ego, who suffers the rejections.

So here are my suggestions for making submitting more fun:

1. I’m an ardent fan of Duotrope, a subscription-based web site for writers and artists. I read it like my wealthy cousin reads the stock market. It offers a veritable garden of markets for fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art. I use it to keep track of which poems I’ve sent where, and I pore over its data, including which magazines have sent out rejections/acceptances that day.

Best of all are Duotrope’s Ten Most Lists. Ten most challenging markets for poets (fiction writers, etc.). Ten slowest to respond markets (Tin House, for one). Ten fastest to respond (Tar River). A subscription to Duotrope is the best $5 I spend each month.

2. If your goal is to publish a book, fancy publishing credits could—but won’t necessarily—make a difference to a publisher. So aim high and kick your expectations to the curb. You’ll never be published by The New Yorker or The Paris Review, if you don’t send your work to these magazines. Meanwhile, you can simultaneously submit the same poems—unless the guidelines say no—to other magazines. I know poets who send identical batches to six or more magazines at once.

3. Read the magazine’s submission guidelines before sending your poems or stories. You can do this through Duotrope or Google. Is the magazine reading now? Is it looking for poems with a particular theme? The guidelines will also tell you how many poems to send and whether they allow simultaneous submissions.

4. While you’re looking up the guidelines, read a sampling of the magazine’s published poems to see what styles the editors prefer. Many magazines, such as Agni and Kenyon Review, open their online archives to you. Likely, you’ll also find poems that will inspire your own writing.

5. Make your own calendar of when journals are reading. For instance, a top market, Threepenny Review—which responds in two or three days—began reading January 1. As did Raleigh Review. Shenandoah opens to flash fiction on January 20. Crazyhorse’s poetry contest ends January 31. Some magazines have very narrow reading windows. Virginia Quarterly reads only in July. Get your work in early, before the editors have made all their selections.

6. Enter contests. The entry fees can be stiff— $25—but if you win, you might pocket $1,000 and get a featured spot in the magazine. Two local poets, Diana Pinckney and Susan Ludvigson, have done just that, Diana with Atlanta Review and Susan with Five Points.

7. Above all, don’t let rejection get you down. Acceptances for most of us are few and far between. But a personal response from an editor is the next best thing. Savor the words. Read them again and again before the next rejection rolls in.


Dannye Romine Powell is a poet and journalist whose career at the Charlotte Observer has spanned almost 40 years. As book editor, she interviewed and wrote about James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and Lee Smith, among others. Her collected interviews appear in her book, Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. Her books of poetry have twice won the Brockman-Campbell Award presented by North Carolina Poetry Society for best book by a NC poet in the preceding year. Nobody Calls Me Darling Anymore, Powell’s fourth poetry collection, was published by Press 53 in 2015. Powell’s poetry has appeared in literary journals including: Paris Review, Poetry, Field, Ploughshares, The New Republic, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, and 32 Poems.