Dealing with Doubt: After Midnight

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Dewy Defeats Truman

Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune at Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri on November 3, 1948. It was a foregone conclusion that he would lose, so the Tribune ran the infamously incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (Photo: Byron Rollins, AP)

During the summer of 1987, when I was 19, I lived by myself in a furnished studio apartment in New Port Richey, Florida. I had come from Illinois for a newspaper internship after my sophomore year in college. I had a blast at work but spent most of my free time alone.

I’m one of six kids from a raucous Irish-Catholic family, so the solitary life was novel and enjoyable. Throughout that internship, the only time that I actually felt alone–the only time that it might have been a comfort to have my brothers nearby–was the night that I awoke in terror. I’d been thinking about a story I’d written that day when a thought drifted into my drowsy mind: I might have spelled Tom Weightman’s name incorrectly.

Weightman was the county school superintendent. I didn’t remember checking the spelling. My stomach churned. What spelling did I use? I called the main newsroom in St. Petersburg in hope of…what? That the paper hadn’t been put to bed? That I could correct the mistake? I wasn’t even sure that it was a mistake. It was late, and the paper had gone to press. My panic escalated. But the only thing worse than self-doubt was self-deception. I had to know. I got in my car and zoomed through the humid night. I unlocked the empty newsroom’s back door and got to my desk. I don’t remember how I checked my story, but I did. I had spelled it correctly. Or maybe an editor had made it right. It didn’t matter.

Journalists are taught to get it right. Getting it wrong means that you have made a factual error, and factual errors require correction. No one likes to make mistakes, and people with life-and-death jobs–doctors, cops, firefighters–probably think that a potentially misspelled name is a poor reason to have a panic attack and make a midnight run through Pasco County. But fellow journalists will empathize. We all feel the white-hot shame when an error creeps in. If my brothers had been there that awful night, I still would have felt alone. They wouldn’t have been able to help. They weren’t journalists.

The first big mistake that I made was at my college paper. I covered a faculty member’s memorial service and, inexplicably, listed the wrong day. The editor-in-chief tacked a copy onto the newsroom bulletin board with the mistake circled. Even in that bustling newsroom, I felt completely alone. And knew that I never wanted to feel that way again.

But, of course, I did. I was a prolific reporter in college, during internships and in my professional career. When you write that much, you inevitably make mistakes. I printed the wrong telephone number for a social services program. I wrote that a man accused of sexually abusing a child had made incriminating statements to police; he hadn’t. I misread a Department of Transportation document so badly that I said that a controversial road project had been brought back up for consideration. That was a doozy: not just an error in a story, but an entire story in error.

No matter what the reason was for the slip, the resulting misery was always the same. Eventually, I arrived at a strategy to stave off madness: I beat myself up for a day, then moved on. The newspaper policy of printing corrections on the front page was perversely helpful. The stronger my public humiliation was, the less I needed to beat myself up.

Given the cruel dimensions of this occupational hazard, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when salvation–in the form of the Internet and the resulting online newspapers–finally did arrive in the early 2000s, it was wrapped in treacherous packaging.

I work at the Ocala Star-Banner, which publishes both in print and online. The latter has a crucial advantage: stories can be adjusted moments, hours, even years after they’re posted. I can quickly correct a spelling, a date, a dollar amount. I can even unpublish an entire story. Transparent corrections–noting when and where adjustments are made–don’t sting like their print cousins. If anything, online corrections are admirable evidence of a reporter perpetually at work. The errant reporter’s shame need last only a moment.

Corrections page

An example of an online corrections page, appropriately from January 6, 2013 (Epiphany)

The flexible Internet also helps prevents errors from seeping into inflexible print. Since stories usually post online before the print deadline, readers and colleagues can spot problems and contact me. Both the print and online stories can be corrected long before the presses roll.

A July 2012 Newsweek cover story asked, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” It cited research on how prolonged Internet exposure makes people more lonely and more depressed, less connected and less focused. Perhaps it does. But as a journalist who is a maniac about getting things right, my newspaper’s Web operation makes me less lonely and less prone to depression, more connected and more focused. The digital world brings more people to the process early on, when there’s still a chance get it right. I’ll always doubt myself a little, but now I have an ally in the previously debilitating battle against time.

The treacherous side of this salvation is that the Internet poses a business challenge for newspapers. Readers are shifting from print to digital, but the majority of revenue still comes from print advertising and circulation. Unless the news business figures how to get ad dollars to follow eyeballs, traditional news organizations will continue to struggle.

I want the best of both worlds: maintaining accuracy but writing with a digital safety net, keeping print products financially viable but allowing the more forgiving online world to flourish, practicing journalism vigorously but relegating those panic attacks to the past.

As I reconcile these two worlds as a writer and editor, I also do so as a part-time journalism instructor. I teach JOU 3101-Reporting one night a week at the University of Florida. The course has tough grading standards, including 50 points off for factual errors. Many of the students have never received less than a B in their lives, but it’s not uncommon for them to flunk the first few assignments.

Most of the class time is dedicated to writing a deadline news story. I provide data sheets larded with land mines: inconsistent spellings, incorrect addresses, fuzzy facts. Terrified of making a mistake, my students check and cross-check every word and confer in panicked voices. Emotionally exhausted, they hand me their stories just before the 10 pm deadline as if offering steak to a lion. I receive late-night emails, the cyber-equivalent of my midnight run, begging forgiveness for a mistake they have–or think they have–made.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The landscape has changed considerably since my stressful college days. Today’s students will work in a digital world where accuracy is vital but errors can be quickly corrected. Perhaps the lethal grading system, where one factual error equals failure, should be ditched in favor of a more modern one: factual errors cost points, but not a fatal number. This certainly would improve morale.

Then again, nostalgia and habit aren’t the only reasons to stick with old standards. With new technology, doctors can save patients who a generation ago were doomed. But med schools would never go easy on students who couldn’t handle the basics, even though initial errors can be corrected with advanced medicines and procedures. Judges can check case law on courtroom computers. But law schools would never excuse students who couldn’t prepare a properly cited legal brief. For journalists, getting it right is as important now as in the days of hot type. Technology can eliminate crazy midnight drives but can’t teach what the panic can: this is serious and I never want to feel like this again.

The Internet, with its fast and flexible beauty, has loosened time’s unforgiving grip on me. But the midnight run through Pasco County hardened me into the kind of journalist who doesn’t need too much saving in the first place. My students will inhabit the digital world. But they will arrive there with memories, never far beneath the surface, of those panicked nights in my classroom when all they wanted in the world was just to get the story right.

Online Editor’s Notes:

  • I doubt that there’s a soul with a publishing and/or research background (and a conscience) who won’t cringe a bit while reading Jim’s piece. And while the Internet has made it easier for us online types in many ways, it’s actually made it more gut-wrenching in others. I feel slightly sick each time I push the LPR blog’s Publish button because I know that what I post will be instantly available for the world to see, not just for a single county once the presses stop rolling. And while I love being able to fix facts–not to mention those awfully awkward sentences–anytime that I please, I can’t in all cases. Our valued subscribers, who receive the posts in their electronic inboxes in near-real time, are irrevocably exposed to each “soft” launch.
  • A propos Jim’s discussion of the mixed blessings brought by the Internet, it’s worth mentioning that Newsweek merged with the news and opinion website The Daily Beast in November 2010, forming The Newsweek Daily Beast Company. In October 2012, it was announced that Newsweek would cease print publication with the December 31, 2012 issue and transition to an all-digital format, Newsweek Global.
  • A writer for Forbes took issue with the Newsweek piece as well, stating, “I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet, you see. And it’s making me crazy. Specifically, I’ve been spending time on the Daily Beast’s website, reading a Newsweek covery story titled ‘Is The Web Driving Us Mad?’ And I can answer resoundingly in the affirmative. The web—at least this particular corner of it—is indeed making me quite mad. Lazy, alarmist pop science writing usually does.” Doubt is a reliable antidote.

Delighting in Doubt: Deceptive Art

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Six days ago, NASA posted a composite image showing the most distant galaxy in the observable universe (inset). Its light traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth.

Over seven billion people inhabit Earth. Earth is the fifth largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. The Solar System resides in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which contains about 200 billion stars. There are more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. And light emitted from beyond the observable universe hasn’t had time to arrive here yet. Meaning what we know is minuscule compared to what we don’t.

The little that we do chance to know comes from information derived from our senses, augmented by some seemingly sophisticated devices. Of course, our senses and devices are limited and unreliable. And the multiple processes by which we organize, identify and interpret available sensory information to represent and understand ourselves and our surroundings are even more so. In some cases, they actually deceive us—and sometimes that’s for our own good. Without processes that, say, create a false sense of constancy or fill in the blanks left by sensory inputs, we wouldn’t dare take our next step.

Last fall, Tony Rosenthal’s 1967 sculpture Endover was still standing [on end] in Regent’s Plaza at The U of M.

I learned most of this as an undergrad at The University of Michigan in the Sixties, a place and time that called everything into question. And celebrated the doubt that ran rampant as a result. The backdrop for my excursions into uncertainty ranged from the de rigueur artwork that adorned dorm walls–Escher’s mind-bending prints and trippy op art posters–to a delightfully deceptive 2300 pound revolving steel cube that balanced on a corner and could be rotated by a reasonably sized child.

Since it’s a dreary November day, allow me–for the moment–to skip over the crucial role that doubt plays in epistemology and other areas of inquiry and share what I find most enjoyable about the doubt engendered by the visual arts. Here are four sets of examples, both historic and contemporary, that I particularly like, followed by a short slide show:

Trompe l’oeil art. The term, which translates as “trick the eye,” was coined during the Baroque era to refer to works where a two-dimensional surface appears three-dimensional to the viewer. The techniques required to achieve this date back to an understanding of perspective in Antiquity that was substantially refined during the Renaissance. Thus the boy in Pere Borrell de Caso’s charming 1874 painting Escaping Criticism seems to climb out from a picture frame. And a nude man seems to break through the canvas that contains him in Mikel Glass’s 2000 painting Emergence.

Those same techniques have also been applied to architectural elements. The bridal chamber oculus at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, Italy that was painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1473 gives actual viewers the illusion of looking up into the sky while fictional viewers peer down at them. And the fully functional building at 31 Milk Street in Boston seems to be under construction thanks to the 1986 mural painted by Richard Haas. The commercial value of such arresting art has not been lost on companies such as Nationwide, which sends the message that life comes at you fast through a mural that spills over to a parking lot installation in Columbus, Ohio.

Anamorphic art. The word “anamorphosis” comes from the combination of a Greek prefix and noun and refers to the re-shaping or re-forming of one image into another. Sometimes called “slant art,” it requires special devices such as polished cylinders or mirrors or specific vantage points to reconstitute distorted or hidden elements. An abstract sculpture in Shigeo Fukuda’s 1984 installation Reflections on a Piano turns into a realistic representation when viewed in the mirrored gallery wall. A skull obscured in the lower center portion of Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1553 painting The Ambassadors becomes evident when seen from a certain oblique angle.

Some of the more dramatic effects are achieved in public spaces. A yellow ellipse floating above Milan walkways in Felice Varini’s 2010 Ellisse nel trapezio consists mostly of fragments painted on building walls. And, in the able hands of artists such as Julian Beever, a smear of chalk becomes a deep chasm or a massive sunken bottle of Ballantine’s commissioned for the company’s 2009 Leave an Impression campaign.

If these are mere tricks, people in Japan deem them museum-worthy. There are 16 devoted to the pleasure of deception, most notably the Takao Trick Art Museum.

Impossible objects or figures. Similar to trompe l’oeil art, these two-dimensional forms instantly suggest three dimensions. But in all cases here at least part of what is perceived is something that could never exist in the real world. Careful consideration reveals that the frame of a perfectly possible cube is intertwined with some “magic ribbons,” bands that could never be reproduced in an actual model, in Escher’s 1957 lithograph Cube with Magic Ribbons, his first depiction of a truly impossible object.

That all this is done with a wink is implicit in Jos de Mey’s paintings. A 1997 piece shows a realistic Dürer owl, the Flemish symbol for both theoretical knowledge and the wily fool, perched on an impossible stone frame. In a more cheeky move, math and computers have turned the impossible into the tangible. A seemingly impossible model (SIM) has been constructed of the fence in Sandro del Prete’s drawing The Garden Fence. And Mathieu Hamaekers’ 1997 sculpture Unity has ensured that the most impossible object of all, the Penrose triangle, sits in a small Belgian village.

Op art. Op (“optical”) art does not aim for realism in the standard sense. Abstract in nature and often composed in black and white, it uses two-dimensional surfaces to create unnervingly realistic sensations in viewers: movement, flashing and vibration, swelling or warping and the like. The term first appeared in a 1964 Time magazine piece referring to Julian Stanczak’s Optical Paintings show, but oft-cited examples such as Victor Vasarely’s 1937 painting Zebras precede this usage by many decades.

While op art was co-opted by the Sixties counterculture and became–sometimes literally–part of the fabric of our lives, artists continued to rework the form. Jim Isermann, whose 2010 Untitled consists of polystyrene panels for a pedestrian ramp at Cowboys Stadium, has produced pieces that still feel fresh. And Briget Riley, who has given us op art icons such as the 1961 Movement in Squares, has matured to a more subtle aesthetic such as that informing her 2007 wall painting Arcadia.

These examples serve as reminders that doubt–at least the intellectual or artistic sort–need not be unpleasant and that certainty–apart from being absurd–can be downright boring. And that even what we view with both certainty and pleasure can be made more engaging by drawing back the curtain a bit. Recently, I learned the technical meaning of the word “entasis,” which is the convex curve given to a column, spire or other upright structure to correct the illusion of hollowness or weakness that would normally arise.

Now when I view those straight, strong columns that are so prominent in The Ideal City, the extraordinary Renaissance panel that will grace the cover of our Winter 2013 Doubt issue, I am doubly delighted. First by the perfection portrayed, then by the knowledge that some of the real-world elements on which it was based appear so due to the clever architectural deception that our nervous system requires. And better able appreciated the 2008 kinetic installation honoring those unseen bulges, which embodied sheer joy.

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Note: If this piece has made you nostalgic for The U of M or you simply enjoy seeing excellent photography, check out the “Fall in Ann Arbor” album at randomSPACE.

On Being Invisible: Our Nation’s Veterans

This essay is part of a series inspired by our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. The first one was posted September 2011, and all feature people who have helped make marginalized segments of our world more visible to mainstream America through poetry, prose and visual art.

In the Sixties, nearly everyone I knew was–directly or indirectly–touched by the Vietnam War. Even my then husband, who carried a British passport and had an educational deferment, received the letter with the chilling salutation “Greetings” from the Selective Service System. These days, although we only pulled out of Iraq a few months ago and are still fighting in Afghanistan, I don’t know a single soul who has recently served or is likely to serve in a combat zone. With the end of the draft and the ensuing all-volunteer armed forces, only 0.75 percent of Americans are in uniform and–despite our being constantly bombarded with combat footage–remain mainly unseen by most of the rest of our nation.

Moreover, our service members are more likely than ever to remain invisible once they return home. There simply aren’t the number of funerals there once were. Advances in a range of areas have ensured that nearly 90 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan casualties survive their injuries, far more than in previous wars. And while limbs are still lost and faces disfigured by burns, traumatic brain injury is now the “signature injury” and post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise, along with suicide attempts and prescription drug abuse. All far harder to detect for those who don’t have to deal with them directly.

Ron Capps

Ret. Lt. Col. Ron Capps (Photo: Becky Crowder)

So, if ever we needed to hear what those who put themselves in harm’s way have to say and if ever our “wounded warriors” needed to express themselves more, it is now. Fortunately, efforts are underway to help service personnel tell their own stories in their own way. One of those is the Veterans Writing Project, started by Ron Capps. I asked Ron to share this thoughts on how his own combat experience led to his developing the Project. Here’s what he had to say:

I was a soldier for 25 years. In those days, my uniform could speak for me. Anyone who had learned the visual patois of the badges and patches and ribbons and pins would have known that I was a paratrooper who had seen combat in Afghanistan, that I had been decorated for valor, that I had served on humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions. But by simply looking at my uniform no one would have known that I was a combat casualty, that I was medevaced from a combat zone.

Most combat casualties are entitled to wear the Purple Heart medal; I am not. In some ways, I’m exceptionally lucky. I wasn’t shot or blown up. I don’t have a prosthetic leg or hand or scars that you can see. I’m a combat-disabled veteran, but my wounds are invisible. I was in five wars in 12 years: Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur. I was evacuated from Darfur because one evening at sundown I drove into the desert alone, intent on killing myself, but was interrupted in the act.

Though I never put that bullet into my brain, I’m still a casualty. I’ve seen and participated in too much violence, too much death, too much war. Post-traumatic stress disorder is an invisible wound. Maybe 25 percent of the 2.3 million returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have or will develop it. Some of us will eventually be fine. We’ll get the treatment we need and take our meds. We’ll cope. But others will not. Possibly because no one will reach out to provide the skills needed to survive.

My coping mechanism was writing. I started writing about what happened to me each day in the war. There were things I wanted to remember. After a while, there were things I wanted to forget. But that’s not how it works. You can’t pick and choose. In time, what I didn’t want came uninvited and stayed. I was obviously in a bad place.

Writing War

The second edition of Ron's guide is now available.

Writing helped me get control of my mind and my memories. In a very real way, I wrote my way home. About a year ago, I decided to try to reach a few other returning veterans and offer them a hand. I founded the Veterans Writing Project. We provide no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active and reserve service members and military family members in an effort to give participants the skills and confidence they need to tell their own stories. This might be just the help they need to cope. I hope so.

Like most soldiers, I suppose, when I left the military, I hung my uniforms in the closet upstairs. Cocooned into plastic zipper bags, our uniforms can no longer speak for us. Even intact, adorned with all the qualification badges, unit patches and colored ribbons, they no longer have the ability to communicate. Since our uniforms can’t speak, we have to speak for ourselves or else become invisible. There is too much is at stake to remain silent. There are too many stories that need to be told.

This month, the Veterans Writing Project formed a partnership with the University Writing Program at The George Washington University. “The [Veterans Writing] Project is different in several ways from other writing programs because the writing we do helps us shape the memory of the project participants,” Ron said in a GW Hatchet article. “It’s hugely gratifying to see the men and women we’ve taught, coached and encouraged share their stories.” GW boasts a large veteran population, with more than 700 receiving financial aid through the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Operation Homecoming, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, has similar aims. With help from Ron and The Writer’s Center, writing workshops start this year as part of a formal medical protocol at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The NEA previously funded a book, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Familiesand a PBS documentary, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.

Ron Capps enlisted in the National Guard in 1983, received a commission in 1985 and served on active duty for nine years before returning to the Army Reserve. As a reservist, he was recalled to active service for work with special operations forces in central Africa, a combat tour in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 and work as an international peacekeeper in Darfur. He served as a foreign service officer from 1994-2008, with postings in Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq and Sudan. He is currently a freelance writer whose work has appeared in peer-reviewed policy journals, popular foreign policy websites and literary journals. His essays and commentary have been broadcast on the BBC, NPR’s All Things Considered, NBC and Pacifica Radio. His Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story is now out in a second edition.

Note: “Crafting a Bridge to Healing” by Ann Bracken, which addresses a disturbing issue for women in the military, appears in our current Social Justice issue. Regina Vasquez, whom Ann interviewed for the piece, will be participating in an upcoming veteran’s art show, “Overlooked/Looked Over,” in Chicago. 

An “Excellent” Experiment

For my 2011-12 learning improvement project at Howard Community College, I wanted to go textless in my creative writing class. I knew that I could post materials for theory, genres and writing elements in our online supplemental classroom. But what should I do about providing my students with the necessary models of creative writing?

HCC VanAmburg Class Students

HCC creative writing students with individual copies of the LPR Make Believe issue. (Photo: Kate Chisolm)

I could (and did) link to appropriate websites, but this presented difficulties. First, I taught in a traditional classroom where only the instructor’s station was connected to the Internet. To read as a class, we would need a projection screen. Second, some of the linked works were as remote to my students as those in the text had been. I needed something current and local.

Little Patuxent Review provided an affordable and interesting solution. The publishers of LPR offered a student rate, and the Chair of the English and World Languages Division subsidized that with student fees. My students would have access to all that a text could offer at no cost beyond registration.

But would they enjoy this experience? Certainly, the journal was personal. In November, poets from the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Association anthology Life in Me Like Grass On Fire had read to an HCC audience that included my class. LPR Co-publisher Mike Clark and Editor Laura Shovan were among the presenters. Later in the semester, Co-publisher Tim Singleton gave a talk on the short, sweet topics of Twitter and haiku. How often do students get to meet those so closely involved with the publications that they read?

HCC VanAmburg Class Students

Looks like they like it! ( Photo: Kate Chisolm)

Anecdotally, I knew that my students enjoyed my experiment; I hoped that an end-of-semester survey would validate this. I had planned for students to complete surveys in the last week of class, but things got busy and only 10 of 19 participated. Statistically, the number may be too small for accuracy. Nevertheless, all 10 revealed that they had “very much” appreciated the absence of a book cost. When asked how much they missed a formal text, seven had circled “not at all.” All 10 indicated that creative writing concepts were well presented; most indicated that LPR provided “excellent” examples of creative works that had inspired their own growth as writers.

For my part, I remained enthusiastic about this project throughout the fall semester and am happily repeating it this spring, determined to collect more complete data and confident that the data will be equally positive.

Meet the Neighbors: Rep Stage

A journal like the Little Patuxent Review requires a vibrant literary and artistic community to thrive–and even survive. In appreciation of the cultural organizations around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” where we provide you with some personal introductions.

Rep Stage Barrie's The New Word

Scene from the Rep Stage production of Barrie’s The New Word

Please meet the Rep Stage, located at the Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Howard Community College, mere minutes away from where the Little Patuxent Review is published.

It is the only professional Equity theater situated on a community college campus and enjoys the same relationship that companies like the Trinity Rep and the Yale Rep have with universities. Students are involved in every aspect of production, working in the shop, on electrical crews, in wardrobe, as production and director’s assistants and on stage.

Founded in 1993 by Artistic Director Valerie Lash, the Rep Stage under Michael Stebbins is about to start its 19th season. During this remarkable run, it has won seven Helen Hayes Awards, picked up six Greater Baltimore Theater Awards and received critical acclaim for diverse programming and choice of challenging literature.

Allow Ann Bracken, a member of the LPR Review Committee, to show you around:

I have been attending plays at the Rep Stage since 1998 and have relished the variety that is so much a part of the productions. I’ve seen everything from Brian Friehl’s Translations, which is about Irish hedge schools, to the classic The Philadelphia Story and the edgy Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis, an exploration of imagined encounters between Freud, Dali and a disillusioned patient. The past season illustrates the skillful mix of tradition and innovation that is the hallmark of Michael Stebbins, a veteran actor, director and professor who has served as Producing Artistic Director since 2006.

When I hear the name J. M. Barrie, his character Peter Pan immediately comes to mind, closely followed by images of his life in the film Finding Neverland. I was intrigued when the 2010-2011 season led off with two of Barrie’s one-act plays, The New Word and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals. Both are set in the United Kingdom during World War I and provide close-ups on the timeless theme of wartime’s stress on family bonds.

The New Word depicts a father and son who have never been able to articulate their feelings as they struggle to break that boundary the night before the son leaves for France. The actors worked their understated magic through a series of conversations that drew you into the web of a family that has never been comfortable with overt shows of emotion. By the end of the play, silent tears streamed down my face at the depth of affection I felt as the father and son shared barely perceptible hugs. That closing scene signaled the unspoken bonds of love the father and son were finally able to communicate.

In The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, Barrie explores the lives of lonely charwomen in a small Scottish town who are left behind to write letters and hope for the return of their husbands and sons. In the opening scene, the women are taking tea together when Mrs. Dowey, the old lady of the play’s title, shares her soldier-son’s stack of loving, detail-filled letters. Her friends, in turn, lob volleys of jealous remarks that seem to blanket the room like cannon smoke on a battlefield. When the minister brings news of sighting Mrs. Dowey’s son at the train station, the other charwomen pick up their pails and mops and storm off, albeit good-naturedly, leaving Mrs. Dowey to prepare for her reunion. The rest of the play explores the relationship between Mrs. Dowey and her son Jamie.

When Jamie enters the apartment in full Black Watch kilt and kit, he greets his mother with a gruff remark about all of his fine letters. When a solid and coiled Jamie stands accusingly over Mrs. Dowey, you hold your breath. Then the story pours out. Mrs. Dowey confesses that she only claimed to be a widow with a son fighting in the war because she wanted the support and respect of the larger community. In reality, neither she nor her “son” belong to a traditional family, and she winds up providing the only home Jamie has ever known.

During Jamie’s three day leave, you witness the two of them sharing tea every day, exchanging ideas about how their lives will be after the war and, finally, sharing a night at the opera together. As you watch the story unfold, you can sense the mother-son bond develop and see the affection they have for each other etched on their faces. After Jamie leaves, he sends several letters and, eventually, Mrs. Dowey receives Jamie’s medals and his soldier’s pension when he dies. This story was especially moving in light of the current wars that force loneliness and isolation on families and soldiers during any protracted military conflict.

In Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam, director Eve Muson explores the mayhem that ensues when three teens discover that one of their high school teachers is involved in a sex scandal. I was especially interested in this since I have worked with teens for the past eleven years and have strong ethical concerns about teachers crossing boundaries with their students. The subject was handled with a skillful mix of humor, wisdom and song. As the editor of the school newspaper, Diwata and her two male friends wrestled with the dilemma of publishing the teacher’s name and the repercussions for both teacher and student that could ensue.

Both the dialog and the songs were unexpectedly funny, with Florrie Bagel as Diwata absolutely stealing the show. Diwata danced, vamped and finally revealed her ample curves in a flesh-toned bodysuit during the finale of the play. While Bagel delivered her lines with aplomb, it was her ease with movement and comedy that made her the star of the show. She is a young actress at the beginning of her career and I hope Rep Stage will feature her often.

The 2011-2012 season is packed with a promising mix of plays that explore topics as wide-ranging as a faded movie actor’s career (William Luce’s Barrymore) and the Gullah secrets of South Carolina’s Sea Islands (Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman) and includes an Off-Broadway farce (Liz Duffy Adams’ OR,) that features romps through Restoration England.

I have my season tickets in hand and hope to see many of you there. The magic of Rep Stage’s new season awaits.

Ann Bracken is an educator, writer, poet and expressive arts consultant. She currently teaches in the University of Maryland’s Professional Writing Program. Her essays, articles and interviews have appeared in The Museletter, The Baltimore Chronicle and the Little Patuxent Review. Her poems have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review, Praxilla and the anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems

Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harriss

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda Harriss

Please meet Clarinda Harriss, educator, publisher and poet. She’s a Professor Emerita of English at Towson University and the former department chair, has served as the faculty advisor to Grub Street, the University’s award-winning literary magazine, and is the director of BrickHouse Books, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating small press.

She has authored poetry collections, most recently Mortmain and Dirty Blue Voice, and co-authored the poetry triptych When Divas Dance: The Diva Squad Poetry Collective. She has also co-edited anthologies such as the newly released Hot Sonnets, co-authored the academic text Forms of Verse: British and American and published–among others–books by former prison inmates. Her work has been included in O Taste and SeeTouching Fire: Erotic Writings by Women and The Best of Carve.

Two of Clarinda’s poems, “Postcards from the Beach” and “White Noise,” appear in our Summer 2011 Make Believe issue. Here, she gives us a rare look not only at what went into a poem that was published but also an earlier, discarded version:

The “Postcards…” back-story is too simple to bother telling except to say that the idea had been hatching in my head for decades. Every time I’m “down the ocean,” as Baltimore patois would express it, I think of Shakespeare, Eliot and Arnold looking at the Atlantic from their various locations and times. I’m a story teller at heart, and I love to adopt personae.

“White Noise” has a more process-oriented history. This 15-line sonnet originally focused not on my late “significant other” but on a house-sitter who died young and sadly, hence the version below.

Both people had sincerely enjoyed my snore-blocking machine. But the octave (nonette?) of the first effort mystified everyone who read it. Some of my students–I’d posted it on their online discussion board as an example of a sonnet variant–commented that the poem really wanted to be two different poems. “You know, like you’re always telling us about ours, Professor Harriss.”

They were right. The house-sitter ended up getting her own poem. The white noise poem wanted to be about a different, much deeper connection with the machine, one that genuinely haunted me. So I salvaged what I could from the discarded draft and made a new poem.

This is a process that I often follow. I get a few comments on a draft (sometimes), pay attention to them (sometimes) and create a draft that is essentially a different poem (just about always: my drafts tend to be barely acquainted with one another).

The Published Poem: “White Noise”

He died and died before he died. That’s how it is
with strokes, granted. But death and sleep, to our surprise,
didn’t get along. I had to buy a box of noise
to fool our scared, scarred brains. To lullaby our eyes.
A simple toy. A set of three percussive bass
notes thumped beneath some scrapes and whooshes endlessly—
all night, at least. Make the machine do Train, he’d say.

Train was our favorite. I think what he heard was far-
off tracks curving through Kansas to the coast. I’d hear
the tracks racket underneath me in a Pullman bar.

He died wide-eyed. I don’t turn Train on any more.
Ocean’s shiftless. Breeze blows cold. Brook is near-
by plumbing, disrepaired. And all Night does is smear
some digitty crickets over boxcar, boxcar, boxcar.

The Discarded Draft: “White Noise for the House-Sitter”

She’d often almost die. Did not go all the way.
I’d leave. She’d lay her skinny bones on my fat bed
and never budge till I got back. She was half-dead
on this or that. I paid her to love my cat. She stayed
for the sake of hearing my fancy noise box play.
Sleep, breathing on its own: we wished we heard
or felt it. Imagined its mama-hand on our foreheads.
Set the machine to Train before you go, she’d say.

We both loved Train, but differently. She heard far-
off tracks curve through Kansas to the coast. I’d hear
tracks racketing underneath me in a Pullman bar.

She OD’d. I don’t turn Train on any more.
Ocean’s shiftless. Breeze blows cold. Brook is near-
by plumbing, disrepaired. And all Night does is smear
some digitty crickets over boxcar, boxcar, boxcar.

In the next installment of “Concerning Craft,” Caryn Coyle will consider the process behind the short story she has in our current issue. Derrick Weston Brown will follow in a subsequent piece with some words on the writing of his poem.

Concerning Craft: Glenn Moomau

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Glenn Moomau

Glenn Moomau

Please meet Glenn Moomau, author, musician and educator. He teaches creative writing at American University and has received a 2001 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award as well as fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as storySouthBombLiving Blues and The Washington Post. His memoir, Ted Nugent Condominium: From Boston to Austin with the Glenmont Popes, was published in 2001 and presents a realistic look at what life on the road is like for musicians.

One of Glenn’s contributions to the Little Patuxent Review, “Things You See Sharp,” first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue. You can read it here in revised form by clicking on the title. Incorporating both his feel for music and his observational abilities, Glenn writes the following about the craft underlying this piece:

I admire the short prose narrative form. Though I read and watch everything, I often tire of the melodramatic arcs and resolutions that infect novels, films and television series. In my aesthetic, nothing much need happen. All the short prose form requires is the dynamic created in most pop music compositions: tension and release. The short prose form also has affinities to poetry, where language can carry the weight otherwise borne by action. What is the difference between a short-short story and a prose poem? Nothing but academic preoccupation with genre. Charles Simic, Franz Kafka in his brief pieces, Isaak Babel, Jayne Anne Phillips in Black Tickets, Arthur Rimbaud, Grace Paley and Charles Baudelaire all convey emotion and thought through means other than rising and falling conflict.

My own short piece, “Things I See Sharp,” has no plot outside of a single day’s temporal progression. Some would say that the piece should be termed a sketch rather than a story. I find such semantic distinctions pointless. I prefer W. G. Sebald’s term “prose narrative,” which he coined to describe his idiosyncratic work. Being free of the anxieties and expectations of plot, my narrative focuses on teasing out sensations and ironies, the biggest being the job that the two principal characters have of building a shed to protect a broken machine from the elements.

Rather than developing conflict, the narrative displays three juxtaposed scenes: two characters working outside on a winter afternoon; the same two characters joined by their boss inside a barn watching pigs being born; the original two characters back outside, now in a whirling snowstorm. The narrative depends upon the multiple-sense contrast between outdoor and indoor spaces. Time is also modulated, going from a moment-to-moment time frame in the middle scene to the third scene’s more hazy sense of time that telescopes into the future.

Like all writers, I have obsessions, and obsessions often become style. Two of mine are reflected in the piece.

I’ve always been fascinated with watching humans work. A plumber soldering copper pipe, a reporter scribbling on a pad, a musician playing scale exercises, an engineer bent over a sheaf of plans. While absorbed in work, our unique postures, gestures and repetitive actions are the physical signs that lead us into the mysterious terrain of character.

I’ve also been intrigued by human awareness of space. We seem to have an innate spatial sense, tied to vision and hearing but also requiring other mental equipment. This sense allows us to immediately appraise the limits of the box in which we find ourselves, whether it be an elevator compartment or a 200-acre wheat field. Like the primal memory of being menaced by snakes that remains a panic button for many, a spatial sense lingers as way to understand danger. And like the repetitive motions of work, our reactions to space reflect something essential about personality.

For a different take on the role of plot in short fiction, see Madeleine Mysko’s preceding “Concerning Craft” essay. And check back here for future installments of this series.