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.