Disrupting Process

Julie FunderburkProcess, the stages of creating—this is where a writer’s real power is. By being mindful of process and concentrating on the series of steps involved, rather than the final product itself, we end up where we want to be.

Process means giving yourself the chance to begin. It’s the best cure if you haven’t written in a while—to allow the half-formed, imperfect words to appear on the page. You don’t need the whole poem or chapter yet. You just need a snippet.

You have likely reflected on your own process. There’s not just one way. We writers love to ask each other such questions. It can become part of our identity: Are you a messy, illegible sticky-note writer? Or a loopy longhand on yellow legal pad writer? Whatever process you’ve developed, I am here to advocate the idea of disrupting it! Invite change. Make experimentation part of your process and see what happens.

Not long ago I started playing around with how I court new work by writing every day and by writing through prompts—strategies plenty of other writers do all the time. But not me, I never had. And I’d perhaps grown too accustomed to my process.

So instead of focusing so much on revision, which I dearly love, I started to focus intentionally on inception. I even started incorporating another form of artistic expression into my process—something I’m not good at, painting with watercolor. This was inspired directly by poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi. I also once heard fiction writer Barry Hannah give a talk along these lines—the value of letting yourself create in another form without trying to become good at it. Creating without a focus on mastery brought play and dreaming back to the forefront.


ABOUT JULIE: Julie Funderburk is author of the poetry collection The Door That Always Opensfrom LSU Press and a limited-edition chapbook from Unicorn Press. She is the recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work appears in 32 Poems, Cave Wall, The Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Ploughshares. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.


POETRY 101 WITH JULIE: Explore the world of verse by learning to read poems with the senses of a poet, and come away understanding what you missed in high school and college lit classes. Prose writers will gain a deeper appreciation of poetry and some inspiration—for ways to integrate poetic devices into their prose and to try out poetry for themselves. This class meets on-line via Zoom two Tuesdays, March 22 and 29, 2022, 6:00-8:00 p.m. In How to Read a Poem (and Maybe Write One) Julie will help budding poets to find their poetic vision and replenish their founts. More information here.

Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry

It’s 1972, I’m 15 years old, I’ve been writing seriously for about a year, I’m holed up in the only bathroom of our crappy run-down apartment in East Charlotte, my sister is banging on the locked door, and I’m slumped down in the lukewarm bathwater reading.

LINT

I’m haunted a little this evening by feelings that have no vocabulary and events that should be explained in dimensions of lint rather than words.

I’ve been examining half-scraps of my childhood. They are pieces of distant life that have no form or meaning. They are things that just happened like lint.

And the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Because sometimes it does that when I read stuff.

“Lint.” That’s the whole thing. I turn the page to see if there’s any more, and there isn’t, and my sister yells that I’m a selfish jerk who’s hogged the bathroom long enough and other people live here too.

I read “Lint” again. What the hell is it? I look at the book I’m reading. The cover illustration is a photo of a dark-haired young woman in a lacy blouse, grinning crazily, sitting beside a chocolate cake. The author is Richard Brautigan, a writer I’m only vaguely aware of, and the title is Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970.

Stories, I think. How is that a story? It’s only four sentences long!

This is three decades before the label “flash fiction” would be invented. “Micro-essay” won’t be a thing until the next century. Maybe this is a prose poem, I think. But the book says Stories.

“Are you in there reading that hippie crap?” my sister yells, and she kicks the door.

I read it a third time. It’s not a prose poem, I decide.

And it’s not a story. Maybe if you’re good enough, audacious enough, don’t care enough about definitions and rules and nomenclature, you can write a story that’s not a story and still call it a story.

Maybe, I think, maybe you just write it and let somebody else figure out what to call it and you keep writing, keep going on to the next thing. Maybe deciding what it is is not your job.

I wrap myself in a ragged blue towel and unlock the door.

“If you used up all the hot water,” she says, “I’m gonna kill you.”


ABOUT LUKE: Luke Whisnant is the author of the poetry chapbooks Street and Above Floodstage, the novel Watching TV with the Red Chinese, and the short story collection Down in the Flood. His chapbook In the Debris Field won the 2018 Bath Flash Fiction International Novella-in-Flash Award, and his flash has been published in many journals including Quick Fiction, Hobart, The Journal of Microliterature, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and CRAFT, where his “What They Didn’t Teach Us” won an Editor’s Choice Award in 2019. Whisnant’s new novel, The Connor Project, will be published by Iris Press in April 2022. He has taught short-form prose workshops for Charlotte Lit, the South Carolina Writers Association, Wildacres Writers Workshop, and in his own classes at East Carolina University.


EXPLORE SHORT FORMS WITH LUKE: Flash is the genre for fast times, with hundreds of journals and websites publishing shorter and shorter work. In this three-week class with Luke, you will learn some common misconceptions about flash; delve briefly into the history of short-form prose, including prose poetry and micro-essays in FLASH 101: FLASH FICTION & MICRO ESSAY. Fiction writers, prose poets, and concise nonfiction writers are all welcome. This class meets via Zoom on three Thursdays, March 17, 24 and 31, 6:00-8:00 p.m.  More information here.

My Creative Writing Journey Began at Charlotte Lit

Brooke Dwojak LehmannAfter not touching a pen for years since high school, I showed up to Charlotte Lit in 2017 for my first creative writing class. I had taken a recent medical leave of absence from my job, and decided to start exploring forgotten creative longings, which after years of neglecting were starting to take a toll on my physical health and well-being.

I showed up with the desire to write, but had little understanding of writer’s craft or discipline. I immediately felt invited into the spaces and classes created by the co-founders, Kathie Collins and Paul Reali. I began with an interest in personal essay and memoir writing, then moved into discovering my love of poetry.

I met wonderful teachers like Kathie Collins, Dannye Romine Powell and Gilda Morina Syverson that immediately made me seen and valued. One of the first Charlotte Lit events that I attended was a 4x4CLT with poets Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown. I was drawn to their authentic voices and lyricism.

Through Charlotte Lit, I was also introduced to contemporary poets like Marie Howe, Mary Oliver. Ross Gay, Ada Limón and Terrance Hayes. Charlotte Lit helped me draw connections to poetry that I loved in my youth—Shakespeare, Dickinson and Keats—and see how contemporary poets incorporated craft elements like imagery, sound, rhythm and metaphor into modern language.

Charlotte Lit also led me to other personal artistic and creative endeavors. I began doing morning pages after hearing about the book The Artist Way which opened me up to exploring fashion and modeling, essentially the freedom to explore creative play.

Eventually, through the writing guidance and instruction that I received during my time at Charlotte Lit, I began to have some of my poems published. Now, I am currently working on my first chapbook through the Poetry Chapbook Lab.

I am grateful that I found a refuge in Charlotte Lit during a very difficult season of my life, which managed to help me during my own recovery and writing life. I found an entire community of people that are interested in similar ideas to me—poetry, mythology, beauty, mystery and the way language can help us describe the ineffable, both the joy and suffering in life.

Now, I am excited about coming aboard as Program Director to continue growing Charlotte Lit’s program offerings to the Charlotte community. I believe in the power of storytelling, and how literature brings us into conversations around belonging, empathy and personal/communal healing. I hope to infuse my passion for creative writing and strategic visioning by expanding the already vibrant list of Charlotte Lit’s programs to reach a growing and diverse audience of engaged writers and readers.

Below is one of the first poems that I had published, my first draft written during a poetry workshop that I took with Danny Romine Powell. The poem first appeared in Tipton Journal Issue 45.

Elegy for a Traveling Consultant

That year I worked in Philadelphia,
and I cried each time I packed my suitcase.

On the Mondays that ended early,
I strolled through Macy’s

sashaying through glittery shoes,
on ivory marble floors,

the Wanamaker Organ jolting
me from a phantom reel.

The evening recital became my respite
from a life that felt borrowed –

Walnut Street, Palomar Hotel,
mandatory happy hours,

snow falling in late March,
alone in my bedsheets.

Most days, I walked to the office,
except when rain showers soaked

the black and gold leather Tory flats
that a decade later, rest in my closet.

When summer arrived,
I ran through the city at night

like a breathless fugitive
down by the humid river

that made it feel hotter
than the South

where I longed to be back home.


Brooke Lehmann is Program Director at Charlotte Lit. She would love to hear your thoughts on our programming. Things you love? Things you’d like to see? You can reach her at brooke@charlottelit.org.

Charlotte Lit in the Community: Winterfield Garden

Over the last several months, Charlotte Lit volunteers have been partnering with Winterfield Community Garden to celebrate its twelve-year anniversary with the upcoming Dozen Years of Digging Poetry Festival to be held on Saturday, May 14.

Our team of volunteers has been working with Winterfield Elementary and Garinger High School students to write sustainability themed poems. Students have been encouraged to share ideas, express emotions and create images that show their understanding, appreciation and concerns regarding any aspect of this theme. Charlotte Lit poetry mentors and other volunteers from the community have conducted poetry workshops with the students to create poems.

Below are a few photos from these generative workshops that have taken place over the last few months at Winterfield Garden, OuterBridge and Garinger High School in the East Charlotte neighborhood. Our goal has been to bring the conversation of poetry and sustainability to these students while helping them experience the joy of creative writing.

Selected poems and excerpts will be published in Dig It, the festival’s commemorative journal.  Our volunteers will help select the poems to be included in the journal and choose a prize poem to be displayed on a memorial plaque in the garden. There will also be poems from students, local artists and contemporary poets featured on signs in the garden along the “poetry walk.” On the day of the festival, student poets will also have the opportunity to perform their poem on the Winterfield Elementary School stage. Also, featured poet and former Garinger student, Honora Ankong, will read from her recent work.

Winterfield Community Garden was recently awarded an ASC Cultural Vision Grant to help fund the garden festival and the commemorative “Dirt Ball” art installation and poetry memorial. Charlotte Lit is grateful to support an initiative that brings together arts and culture in our East Charlotte neighborhood.

We look forward to celebrating by sharing the poems of students from the partnering CMS schools, Winterfield Garden and the larger Charlotte community this spring. Thank you to the team of Charlotte Lit volunteers: Brooke Lehmann, Justin Evans and Sam Ross for bringing their passion for poetry to the larger Charlotte community.


For more information, to get involved, or make a donation to this project, please contact Carla Vitez, carlavitez@gmail.com.

Haunted by an Unfinished Book

Kim WrightAs a teacher and coach I’ve seen plenty of writers haunted by an abandoned book. They say things like “I didn’t see it through” or “I gave up.” Let’s face it, most of us write with the intention of at least finishing. Though ideally we want the finished manuscript to be published, preferably backed by an agent and a major house. Even if we don’t always vocalize it, we have fantasies that extend way beyond that – bestsellers, literary prizes, movie deals.

It’s easy to beat yourself up over that unfinished potential best seller, but here’s the truth: every successful writer has at least one abandoned book, probably far more than one. Some books are unfinished, others get lost in the weeds of publishing – never finding an agent or our agent was unable to sell the story.

In some cases we grieve. Other times we reread our lost stories, wince, and thank God they never escaped into the marketplace. Not every book is intended for publication and not every abandoned book is a failure. In fact, I’d say a book is a success if:

  • You learned something from writing it.
  • You honed your techniques and upped your skill level from the sheer practice of showing up at the computer day after day.
  • The process of writing and trying to sell it brought you in contact with people who will be important to your career eventually.
  • It propelled you to your next story.
  • You developed some scenes or characters who – while perhaps not strong enough to support an entire work of fiction – may find a home in a different story in the future.

I’ll cop to seven dead books – three unfinished and four unsold. They’re under my bed in little rectangular boxes, whose resemblance to coffins is impossible to overlook. But those of you who have taken my classes know, I keep “cut character” and “cut scene” files and raid them on a regular basis. Who knows? Some of my murdered darlings may yet claw their way from the grave and live again in a different form.


ABOUT KIM: Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, The Canterbury Sisters, Last Ride to Graceland, and The Longest Day of the Year. As The Story Doctor, she coaches and offers developmental edits. Kim is a Charlotte Lit Authors Lab faculty member and coach. When she’s not teaching, writing, and editing, she’s often talking about writing on social media.


FIND YOUR NEXT STORY WITH KIM: Successful writers will tell you they often make multiple false starts before settling on a concept that can really go the distance––but exactly where do those original ideas come from? In Generating Story Ideas Kim will teach you how to separate the concepts that are mere glimmers from those that hold narrative gold. More information here.

Understanding the Three Act Structure

What is the three-act structure, really?

Paul RealiMost stories are this: a character takes a journey of change.

Let’s take this one level deeper. At the start, there is something internal the story’s protagonist must learn (such as overcoming an original wound or dispelling a misbelief). The story provides an external problem that forces them to confront their internal need.

Experienced novelists (and screenwriters, playwrights, and memoirists) share a secret: stories recount this journey using the same basic structure. And while there are many ways to skin this cat (including the construct called “Save the Cat”), its essence is the three-act structure.

ACT 1

  • Setup: Establish the protagonist, their everyday life (the ordinary world from which they will depart), and their inner desire, wound, or misbelief.
  • Inciting Incident: An event forces a change in the character, setting their adventure in motion.
  • Plot Point One: The protagonist accepts the challenge and crosses the point of no return.

ACT 2

  • Rising Action: The protagonist encounters roadblocks, and allies and enemies, on the way to achieving their goal.
  • Midpoint: The protagonist faces their biggest challenge, which threatens to derail their mission.
  • Plot Point Two: The protagonist — who has so far been reactive — makes a choice to become proactive.

ACT 3

  • Crisis: As the protagonist faces their final challenge, it would seem that all is lost.
  • Climax: The protagonist manages to overcome whatever is holding them back. They triumph over the antagonist (or antagonistic forces).
  • Denouement: Our hero returns to their previous life, having changed — with their ordinary world having been changed, too. Loose ends are tied up and tension is released.

Think of these nine bullet points as essential scenes or story beats. Consider them to be your guides for a novel, memoir, screenplay, or stage play — a writing journey that is worth the trip, and after which you, too, will be changed.


ABOUT PAUL: Charlotte Lit co-founder Paul Reali is a writer and editor, and co-lead of Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab. He is the author of Creativity Rising, and editor of more than a dozen books and journals on the subject of creativity. His writing has been published in the Winston-Salem Journal, InSpine, Office Solutions, and Lawyers Weekly, among others. His fiction has won the Elizabeth Simpson Smith and Ruth Moose Flash Fiction competitions, and he received a Regional Artist Project Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council in 2018. Paul has an M.S. in Creativity from SUNY Buffalo State, where he also the managing editor of ICSC Press.


LEARN ABOUT NOVEL WRITING. Join Paul Reali for Novel Structures, Tuesday, March 15, 6-8 p.m., or work intensively with Paul and Meg Rich in the 4-week mostly-asynchronous studio, Novel Jumpstart, beginning April 3. More information here.

New Times, New Voice

Megan Rich

Over the last several months, I’ve taken a creative break from my novel project and am working on a new essay collection. In this transition, I’ve encountered an interesting problem. Because I’m what you might call a “method writer,” one who tries to become her characters, I noticed that, even when writing a personal essay, I often slip into the unconscious patterns of my novel’s narrator. I’ve been using her buzzwords, her sentence structures, and her metaphors for so many years, some part of me seems to think they’re mine, too. Most egregious, I’ve even fallen prey to her logical fallacies, the ones I worked so hard to help her overcome by the end!

So, I’ve been actively trying to recultivate my authentic voice. I think sometimes we forget that our voice, in writing and in life, is dynamic; if it doesn’t change over time, it becomes stale and boring to us and likely to our readers. When I first started writing my novel, I was living in the West, teaching angsty teenagers, and interacting with all kinds of people without masks: How could I possibly have the same voice that I have now, working on these essays? In the course of drafting, revising, and polishing that manuscript, I also conceived, bore, and breastfed a human being. So, in order to find my new voice, I needed to spend time unlearning who I was and embracing who I’d become.

The particular essay I’ve been working on intensely over the last few weeks is a doozy. I’m attempting, in 6000 words or less, to fully explore my relationship to reproduction — including several pregnancy losses — and the societal underpinnings of shame attached to some of my experiences. Finding the right register, rhythm, and diction (read: voice) is paramount because I hope this essay will speak to and for those who have experienced this, too. After writing a few paragraphs last week — with a register that felt too submissive and diction that felt too easy — I commented the following, in bold, in the margin: “Remember that you were not comfortable at any point during these experiences. It’s okay for your reader to feel a little uncomfortable, right?” The next few hours were a wonderful experimentation in what that voice might be: a direct, precise woman who isn’t afraid to make her audience a little uncomfortable. Sounds good to me!

To write truly voice-driven work, we must continually define and redefine how we want to communicate; we must adjust to the ways we change over time and to the differing purposes of our work. Often, we have to step outside of the unconscious patterns we’ve built onto every page we’ve already written and say, “Hey! Is that still how you want to sound?” If not, I hope you’ll have the courage to discover what you might write to yourself in the margins.


ABOUT MEG: Megan Rich has written two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir, and is seeking representation for her third, a literary thriller inspired by The Great Gatsby. She took part in the highly-selective Sub-Concentration in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, for which she completed a thesis of original poetry. In addition, she’s a graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project program. With fourteen years experience as a creative writing teacher and mentor of students from ages twelve to eighty-five, she is passionate about helping others find and refine their voices on the page.


FIND YOUR VOICE WITH MEG: Learn to create a lasting connection with your readers, by developing your voice in Meg’s upcoming class Creating an Authentic Voice, February 1 and 8 from 6-8 p.m. via Zoom. In this two-session class, we will study voice at a deep level to learn the best techniques and generative exercises for connecting directly and quickly with our readers. In the second session, Meg will provide thoughtful feedback and advice on your work, helping you refine and deepen your voice in revisions. More information here.

Read Like an English Major

Betsy Thorpe

My daughter just graduated from college (a semester early, so my savings’ account thanks her dearly!), and now she is looking for a job. Since a lot of interviews take place over the phone for obvious reasons, I end up hearing snippets of her conversations. I’ve preached to her over the years that majoring in the liberal arts teaches you critical thinking skills, so when she’s asked what can a political science major “do” for an insurance firm, or a bank, or a communications firm…she has a ready answer.

Conversely, when people approach me with their books, or book ideas, they apologize in advance when they are not English majors. “I’m sorry—I didn’t study this in school.” I reassure them that you don’t need to be an English major to write a book. But it does help to act like one.

What do English majors do? We analyze how books work. One of my very earliest lessons of this in high school was, how were Hemingway’s books different from Fitzgerald’s? Which author did we prefer and why? A great Twitter thread (that I retweeted, from @literaticat) suggested that if you want to be a children’s book writer, go to the library and read 100 books in your genre from the last five years. “Tear them apart. Why and how do they work?”

Any writer, fiction or non-fiction, can benefit from reading current books that are being published in their genre. Ask, how do the authors I connect with handle structure? Is the book told linearly, by theme, through flashbacks, through different narrators? How are their characterizations, settings, dialogue, pacing, plotting working for you? Are certain methodologies in their writing rubbing you the wrong way, or instead, making you put down the book in awe, your jaw dropping, thinking, Wow, that was beautiful. And then give thought to, Why was it so beautiful?

So much changes in what’s considered “current,” so it pays to be reading in your genre, keeping up, not being old-fashioned. (Are adverbs out or in? What do dialogue tags look like in today’s books? How about…insert drumroll and much controversy and angst…the use of present or past tense!) While yes, it’s good to be you, you don’t want to be the only one who spends twenty pages on the description of an approach to a house, as I found to be true re-reading Jane Eyre and Anne of Green Gables. Back in the 1800s, we needed those descriptions as perhaps we’d never been to England or Prince Edward Island. But thanks to film, we know now what the terrain looks like, and can skip straight to the plot.

Have fun with this reading assignment, and don’t get intimidated by a specific number—just start reading in your genre with a more critical eye! It will make you a better writer, and you’ll be more knowledgeable about current trends.


ABOUT BETSY:  Betsy Thorpe started in book publishing as an assistant at Atheneum, eventually becoming an acquiring and developmental editor while working at HarperCollins, Broadway Books (Random House), Macmillan, and John Wiley & Sons. She then started Betsy Thorpe Literary Services, which helps authors deliver their best work to the public, either through publishers or self-publishing. She is the co-author of numerous non-fiction books, including three featured in the New York Times, and is at work on her second novel, The Writer’s Cottage.


QUERY FOR SUCCESS: Learn how to write a professional and compelling query letter with Betsy in her upcoming class Query Letters for Novels and Memoirs on January 25, 2022 from 6-8PM in-person at Charlotte Lit. We’ll be discussing the essential five paragraphs that make up a query letter, including the elevator pitch, author bio, and the dreaded comparison books. We’ll take a look at some query letters that won the notice of agents, and those that were so awful they got posted online. More information here.

PLEASE NOTE: Proof of full Covid vaccination is required to attend in-person Charlotte Lit events. Send a pic of your vaccination card to staff@charlottelit.org.

Our Favorite Reads of 2021

From Charlotte Lit’s faculty and staff, here’s a list of our favorite reads this year — most new, but some older favorites, too. Enjoy!

Poetry

Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón — Paul Reali

Come Hither Honeycomb, by Erin Belieu — Lisa Zerkle

Facts about the Moon, by Dorianne Laux — Kathie Collins

Indigo, by Ellen Bass — Jessica Jacobs

What Pecan Light, by Hannah Vanderhart — Dannye Romine Powell

Essay Collections

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion — Elizabeth West

One Long River of Song, by Brian Doyle — Irene Honeycutt

Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, by Anjali Enjeti — Patrice Gopo 

Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, by Ernst Cassirer — David Radavich

Fiction

A Piece of the Moon, by Chris Fabry — Landis Wade

Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid — Caroline Langerman

Autumn, by Ali Smith — Jessica Jacobs

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell — Kristin Sherman 

Harrow, by Joy Williams — Jeff Jackson

I Wished, by Dennis Cooper — Jeff Jackson 

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan — Paul Reali

Martita, I Remember You, by Sandra Cisneros — Judy Goldman 

Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce — Betsy Thorpe 

One Kind Favor, by Kevin McIlvoy — Kathryn Schwille 

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf — Bryn Chancellor 

Severance, by Ling Ma — Megan Rich 

Song of Achilles, by Madeleine Miller — Kathie Collins

The Black Kids, by Christina Hammonds Reed — Patrice Gopo 

The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi — Surabhi Kaushik

The Outline Trilogy, by Rachel Cusk — John Amen

The Overstory, by Richard Powers — Martin Settle

The Postscript Murders, by Elly Griffiths — Cathy Pickens 

The Sweetness of Water, by Nathan Harris — Kristin Sherman 

There There, by Tommy Orange — David Poston

Under the Mercy Trees, by Heather Newton — Kim Wright 

Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald — Sarah VanderWood

Memoir

A Rip in Heaven, by Jeanine Cummins — Amy Paturel

Blow Your House Down: Family, Feminism, and Treason, by Gina Frangello — Ashley Memory

Carry: A Memoir of Survival on …, by Toni Jensen — Bryn Chancellor 

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey — Jennifer Halls

Stray: A Memoir, by Stephanie Danler — Caroline Langerman

Nonfiction

Chasing the Thrill, by Daniel Barbarisi — Cathy Pickens 

How the Word Is Passed…, by Clint Smith — Paula Martinac 

The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker — Charles Israel, Jr.

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall…, by Carol Leonnig — Jennifer Halls

Short Stories

If I Had Two Wings, by Randall Kenan — George Hovis

Palm of the Hand Stories, by Yasunari Kawavata — Lola Haskins

The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans — Kathryn Schwille

The Souvenir Museum, by Elizabeth McCracken — Lisa Zerkle

Silent Partners

Kathryn Schwille

Kathryn Schwille

Beside my reading chair is a table that’s been in my family for generations. It’s at least 130 years old, with fluted legs and three small finials gracing each side. The table was once painted off-white, and because my grandfather smoked a pipe, a large burn mark scarred the top. Many years ago, I’d tried to remove the paint and sand the top but failed miserably. Bits of white clung to the fluted edges and the ashtray blotch never budged. It was a mess.

Finally, I took the table to be refinished by a professional. I’d always thought it was oak, but when I picked it up the refinisher corrected me: definitely not oak, probably American chestnut. Ouch. That tree has been extinct for decades. In the eyes of Antiques Roadshow, I’d probably defaced (and devalued) a treasure.

The table is pretty, though, in its revision. It usually holds a stack of my husband’s cooking magazines and recently, my copy of Alice Munro’s collection, The Progress of Love. In the twenty years I’ve owned that book, I’ve read several of the stories many times. One is “The Moon Over the Orange Street Skating Rink,” which opens with a scene between two older characters who haven’t seen each other since they were children, and who suddenly meet. I’m struggling to write a scene similar to that, and I’ve turned to Munro for help. What does Munro do that I might borrow? What do her characters say – and not say? How does she avoid predictable dialogue? (That would be the kind I wrote in my first draft: “Hi Amelia, it’s me, Hank. Been a long time.” Yawn.)

Munro’s character Sam, who’s done well in life, is revisiting his hometown, where his old friend runs a neighborhood store. He finds her behind the counter, reading a romance novel.

Sam asked for cigarettes, to test her. She gave him his change and settled her sweater around her shoulders and picked up her book, all without looking at him. Her sweater was covered with little jiggly balls of pink and white wool, like popcorn. She waited till the last minute to speak to him.

“You taken up smoking in your old age, Sam?”

“I thought you didn’t know me.”

“I’d know your hide in a tannery,” said Callie, pleased with herself. “I knew you the minute you walked in that door.”

Sam is playing a game, and Callie has one, too. The testing and withholding give me an idea. A moment of recognition – or lack of it, or refusal to acknowledge it – is full of opportunity. Sam sizes up Callie from that unsophisticated sweater. He and his better circumstances seem to have given him the power in the scene, until she reveals her game. This tiny scene has tension. There’s plenty to inspire me, and off I go. My story is meant to be refinished over and over – no defacing an antique here. With my writer eyes open to Munro’s technique, each of my drafts will come closer to a piece I can live with.


ABOUT KATHRYN: Kathyrn Schwille is the author of the novel What Luck, This Life, set in East Texas around the time of the Columbia shuttle disaster. Her short stories, which have appeared in New Letters, Memorious, Crazyhorse, West Branch and other magazines, have twice won honorable mention in the Pushcart Prize. In 2013, she was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council.


DEVELOP YOUR EYE WITH KATHRYN: Explore fiction by learning to read like a writer — alert to the craft on the page. We’ll read two contemporary short stories in advance: “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, and “Pedicure” by Elizabeth Strout. In class we’ll look closely at what these master storytellers do and why, with particular attention to their artistic decisions about language, structure, dialogue and getting characters on the page. More information here.

PLEASE NOTE: Proof of full Covid vaccination is required to attend in-person Charlotte Lit events. Send a pic of your vaccination card to staff@charlottelit.org.