First and Foremost: Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

At LPR online, emerging and lesser-known writers and artists have always received precedence. But—first and foremost—we love showcasing those whose debut literary and artistic works have appeared on our pages. Which is why we started work on such a list, posted on this site, and the “First and Foremost” series, where our “firsts” can speak for themselves.

To get things going, here’s Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, whose first published short fiction piece appeared in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

One day, I started hearing voices. I had been warned that this might happen, but it still came as a shock when they arrived.

The first to speak was Isabelle. I was driving home late one evening from a friend’s house when I passed a furniture store that I had passed many times before. The business is in a renovated warehouse fronted by a plate glass window that offers a full view of the interior. It’s the kind of design-not-within-reach store that sells contemporary wares displayed in perfectly conceived groupings as though the sophisticated homeowners are about to walk in, sit at that Le Corbusier dining table and enjoy a good Bordeaux.

It was late. The store was closed, but the security lights warmed the window display and the glow hit my peripheral vision. I turned to look for that split second that it took to drive by, and that’s when Isabelle appeared. I can’t remember exactly what she told me that night, but I do remember this: she was on the outside of that store looking in and was desperate to climb inside and pretend that the clean, orderly space belonged to her. She also wanted to take a nap.

Then came this sentence: “Isabelle wondered how long it would take for the police to arrive.” That became the first sentence of my short story “Danish Modern,” which appears in the Winter 2013 Doubt issue of Little Patuxent Review. “Danish Modern”  is the first piece of fiction that I have completed and the first that has been published.

So how, at age 39, did I start hearing voices and writing fiction? Annie Dillard stated in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I walked out of a good museum job at the age of 25 because I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Specifically, a nonfiction writer. I wanted to tell true stories.

Writing has always been the lens through which I have seen the world. It is how I have harnessed my curiosity and made sense of things. Journalism became the conduit that allowed me to invite myself to places that I knew nothing about and learn. I liked talking to people, understanding different points of view and distilling complex ideas to their essence so that readers could enjoy the result.

I was happy in that work for many years. Telling true stories was enough. And then one day it wasn’t. There were many reasons for this shift—rounding 40, my father’s untimely death, the birth of my daughter—but the gist is that I no longer felt content with the limits of nonfiction and journalism. I wanted to explore questions without easy answers and work those questions out on the page.

At first, timid to stray too far from nonfiction, I delved into the personal essay form. I re-read Didion, Dillard and White. I remembered the power of personal essays such as White’s “Once More to the Lake,” with its chilling ending and insights on aging, to transform everyday experience. But it was re-reading White’s short fiction work “The Second Tree From the Corner” that stirred something in me. There was his lean and powerful prose, of course, but also the recognition that he had allowed himself to venture where his mind took him—essay, personal essay, poetry, fiction, children’s literature.

I still have the desire to unpack the human experience, examine it and report back. I simply want more outlets for that process. The power of fiction is its ability to synthesize and convey the inner terrain of the human experience. Fiction offers its own truth.

I’ve since turned my journalism training inward to make my thinking the subject. The result is an epistemological tool that chips away at everything. I am more curious, more alert than ever. I no longer edit questions beyond the pale because they deviate from fact or the interests of a magazine editor. I allow my mind to wander and to see the stories that exist within the connective tissue of my thinking. I allow myself to hear the voices.

I’m still figuring out my creative metabolism for fiction. I know journalism well. I’ve written hundreds of articles, and the process is ingrained. Fiction is awkward, mysterious and clumsy. But it’s also reinvigorating. In making this leap, I had to get over the anxiety of being a beginner and ask for help. Here are a few things that I learned along the way:

  • Participate in the community that you hope to join. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “On the American Scholar,” “First we eat, then we beget. First we read, then we write.” You must be an active reader to be a writer. In his column “Ask The Paris Review,” Editor Lorin Stein tells new writers, “Here’s the thing: no matter how many classes you take, no matter how much time you spend at the keyboard, you cannot write seriously unless you read.”
  • Don’t be afraid to be an outsider. So many of us pretend that we know more than we do for fear of looking naive. Journalism has taught me the value of being the outsider who gets to ask the questions. I am still learning the ins and outs of pitching literary magazines, applying for grants and writing retreats and reading in front of audiences (as I did for the first time at the launch of the Doubt issue). In each of these situations, I sought out someone who knew the ropes and could offer guidance.
  • Seek people who are smarter than you. The adage about picking a tennis partner who is better than you because it improves your game also applies to writing.
  • Workshop in a healthy, productive environment. Danish Modern” benefited from the thoughtful feedback of two writing workshop partners. Both offered different insights, but, most importantly, both treated the work with respect. They had to suffer through some terrible writing, but because of their considerate and fruitful comments, I learned, I improved and I moved on.
  • Get into the habit of writing things down. I thought that “Danish Modern” came out of nowhere. In rereading my journal, I realized that the idea had been percolating for some time. You never know what might be grist for the creative mill. (And once you start working those ideas out on the page, you can edit out overused expressions such as “grist for the mill.”)

And never forget that everyone was once a beginner. “Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given,” Emerson wrote in “On the American Scholar,” “forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a journalist, author and editor whose pieces have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Baltimore Sun, Urbanite and Little Patuxent Review. She is a contributing editor at Architect and Architectural Lighting and the home and design editor for Style Magazine in Baltimore.

Recently, we were delighted to learn that Elizabeth had received a 2013 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. Then doubly delighted when we realized that another contributor, Susan Muaddi Darraj, received one as well. Given Elizabeth’s advice, you might want to read “Concerning Craft: Susan Muaddi Darraj.”

Concerning Craft: Emily Rich

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.

Please meet Emily Rich of Arlington, Virginia. Emily is a former federal employee and community college instructor who is taking time off to write. She has previously been published in River Poets Journal, Modern Love Rejects and Circa: A Literary Review.

We published Emily’s creative nonfiction piece “On the Road to Human Rights Day” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here she is reading that work at our launch event:

And here she is discussing how she came to write the piece:

Sitting with my friends in the Chekhov Room at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, I recount a tale of a much younger me getting trapped overnight in a brothel in rural Thailand. I tell the story, sort of a funny anecdote, in an offhand manner as we discuss the adventures that we’ve had with Third World travel.

“That’s a great story,” one woman says. “You should write about it.” The others agree. They are my muses and supporters, these women in my writers’ group, and “On the Road to Human Rights Day” would never have been written without them.

I came to creative writing relatively late in life. As a former history major, Department of Defense employee and community college instructor, I had always considered myself an analytical writer: someone who could get the facts down, get to the point, condense. I was blithely living my life in the same fashion, following the proscribed path of college, graduate school, marriage, kids.

After I turned 40, a series of setbacks occurred that caused me to shake off my complacency. I was diagnosed with two chronic diseases, autoimmune arthritis and then cancer. Two months after finishing chemotherapy, my mother died.

I suddenly had all sorts of existential questions to work through, so I took a leave of absence from teaching and enrolled in a writing course at The Writer’s Center. One day into my Stories from the Attic class, and I was hooked. I found that writing out memories, both recent and long-buried, was a more effective form of healing than I could imagine receiving from traditional therapy. But beyond that, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading and workshopping the stories of my classmates.

I was filled with creative energy. The instructor’s prompts, the assigned readings, my classmates’ contributions spurred me on. My confidence and ambition grew. I had a whole memoir inside of me. The class ended, but I was not ready to quit. Rather than return to teaching, I decided to devote the time that the kids were in school to writing.

I hit a roadblock almost immediately. Without the structure of a class and assignments, I was adrift in my empty house with too many free hours to fill. I was nagged by domestic distractions. Instead of writing, I vacuumed. I planned and shopped for elaborate dinners. I did loads of laundry that produced so many clean towels that I had to smash down dryer-fresh piles to fit them into the cabinet. My home was neat and orderly, but my computer screen was distressingly blank.

This surprised and worried me. How could I be so lacking in discipline? How would I ever get the creative engine running again to complete my memoir?

I signed up for another class. Again, I was swept up in the thrill of being surrounded by people driven to tell their stories. This time when the class ended, I kept in touch with some of my classmates by forming a writing group. Becoming a part of this group has done more to strengthen my craft than anything I else that I have done.

Aside from great company and friendship, I get three invaluable things from my group: deadlines, feedback and inspiration. We meet twice a month to read each other’s work and to share whatever information is relevant to our pursuit.

At one meeting, a friend read her account of being an aid worker in Zambia. In her piece, she described trying to get to an important meeting in Lusaka through streets clogged with a funeral procession. Just the image of her with her Western mindset–must make it to the meeting on time!–reminded me of all the Third World traffic that I’d had to contend with in my younger days working for a refugee agency.

A memory of being the impatient Western traveler, of traffic-clogged Bangkok streets, of sweltering buses began to leak through to the front of my mind. Then, oh, man, remember that time I got on the wrong bus and ended up spending the night at a brothel in the middle of nowhere? How could I have forgotten that incident until now? I told the story and received immediate encouragement to write it down.

At that point, all I had was the scaffolding of a story. Then, I remembered that it was the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that I was going to meet a young United Nations border security guard who had invited me to see the event celebrated in a Cambodian refugee camp. That I had been reading Somerset Maugham and that the short story “The Colonel’s Lady” had gotten under my skin and made me feel sorry for myself. And that the prostitutes at the brothel were young and shy and made to wear large numbered badges on their dresses so that they could be ordered up like menu items by the men in the room.

Each memory was like some new seasoning that I added as the story of my misadventure marinated in my mind.

I tracked down the volume containing “The Colonel’s Lady” and re-read it to try to place myself back in the emotional state that I was in when I boarded the bus. I consulted a 1988 edition of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand, which helped fill in time-specific details of the journey from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. But then I had to ask myself, “What does it all mean?”

Maugham had put me back in the mindset of the day, worried about going to meet a man I wasn’t so crazy about, upset about being overlooked for a position at work. In light of what I was to witness at the brothel, my personal concerns were what my daughters would call “First World problems.”  I tried to convey that in my piece.

When I had everything on paper, I took it to my writer’s group for critique. They helped me to pare it down and focus it. Finally, I felt that it was ready for submission. It seemed to be a perfect candidate for publication in LPR’s Doubt issue. It showed how self-doubt can get you into trouble. But also how it can lead to enlightening moments such as the one that I experienced when I recognized “the great unfairness of life” at the end of the piece.

If you enjoyed learning how Emily came write her prose piece, you might want to read “Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard” on how he composed poetry based on the same theme.

Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard

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.

Please meet Chris Bullard. Chris lives in Collingswood, New Jersey and works for the federal government as an administrative law judge. His first chapbook You Must Not Know Too Much came out in 2009, followed by O Brilliant Kids in 2011. His poetry book Back is scheduled for a November 2013 release.

We published his poem “O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here he is reading that poem and other pieces at our launch event:

And here he is discussing how he came to write the poem:

“O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” is a free verse sonnet. I’ve written many sonnets, some in meter and rhyme and others in free verse. I enjoy the form because it provides a two-part division with a turn in thought, a volta, usually between the octave and the sestet. The volta allows the poem to look at itself by commenting on or changing the meaning of the first section of the poem. This permits irony but also allows for a juncture of two disparate subjects.

I also like using pre-existing characters in my poems. Perhaps this is the consequence of my love for the pop art of the Sixties and Seventies. For me, it is a way to collage backstories and references without taking up extra space for explanation. This use of popular icons results in the combination of low culture and high culture references. Some think that I take this too far. After all, I have written a poem in which Sigmund Freud analyzes one of the characters from the movie The Astounding She-Monster.

I brought together Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit and the Schrödinger’s cat though experiment because both concern the resolution of doubt. The Misfit lacks faith; the cat is in an indeterminate state. The Misfit has no practical way of resolving his doubt; observation will establish whether the cat is alive or not, but only by killing him or allowing him to live. These parallel lives made an interesting pair for a poem, and I thought the sonnet was the appropriate place for them to meet.

For The Misfit, morality is an either/or matter determined by whether or not Christ was resurrected. If he was, we should lead moral lives. If not, we’re free to murder and rob. The Misfit needs the act of observation. He wants to have seen whether Christ came down from the cross.

We cannot know whether we should sin
like pagans or pray like abbots
unless the rock is moved aside
and Christ found breathing (or not).
The possibilities are superposed.

For Schrödinger’s cat, observation determines whether he lives or dies. Opening the lid of his box determines whether cyanide gas is released.

Just as observation will determine,
friend cat, whether you emerge from the box
a feline corpus, or live to slaughter more rats . . .

My craft problem was limiting exposition. There is a difference between how a poem and, say, a novel function. Too much exposition and you get a novel instead of a poem. I wanted to move the poem forward with parallel images: the cat in his box, Christ in the tomb, the prisoner behind bars, the cyanide gas that the box releases, the cyanide gas that the executioner releases. I tried to restrict my lines to the length of traditional pentameter and use pairs or triplets of similar end sounds for cohesiveness (abbots/aside/lips, sin/determine, not/box/not, measured/served).

The Misfit has taken his name because he claims that his punishment never fit his crimes. The turn in the poem comes when The Misfit demands or accepts a judgment that may be based on either morality or chance because he prefers to risk death and damnation rather than exist in a quantum state of not knowing.

so punishment cannot be measured
as fit (or not) until the time is served,
the seal is broken and the prisoner
strolls out the gate into heaven (or not).
Pop the lid, brother, I prefer knowing
if chance has blessed me, or left me blue at the lips.

O’Connor included Gothic elements in her fiction that seem simultaneously appalling and funny. I wanted to keep those elements in my poem, so I was relieved when people laughed when I read it. This meant that they not only caught the cultural references but also found the humor in the poem. There are some similarities between reading a poem aloud and doing stand-up comedy.

I get nervous before I read my poetry in public, but I always accept any invitation to read. I assure myself that I do so for reasons other than mere egotism. I need to hear whether an audience responds or fails to respond because then I’ll see whether the poem works and at what level it works. Like The Misfit, I need to know.

The Misfit appears in one of the most famous of O’Connor’s stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Since many of you, like Chris, encounter literature in both written and spoken forms (see “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading”) and some serve as both author and audience, you might enjoy comparing the text of O’Connor’s story, a transcript of O’Connor’s own remarks on the story and a rare recording of her reading the story.

Dear Elvira: Bad Writing and Every Beholder’s Eye

Elvira Rivers

Elvira Rivers

Before we bade adieu to audacity (the theme of our Summer 2012 issue) and began to entertain doubt (the theme of our Winter 2013 issue), I slipped in something that any literary review of repute requires: an advice column, complete with a fictional columnist. If you haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce Elvira Rivers, whose brief bio appears below, and promptly present the current query.

Dear Elvira,

At a recent book bash, I became increasingly incensed by a bunch of editors carrying on about bad writing. Who do these elitists think they are, making pronouncements about what constitutes a crappy manuscript? I’m becoming convinced that all they want is to prevent people like me, who won’t waste time obtaining an MFA, from joining their exclusive club. You seem like a sensible sort. Wouldn’t you agree that bad writing lies entirely in the eye of the beholder?

Fondly,

Fred

Dear Fred,

I am sensible, so I do agree. Bad writing lies in the eye of the beholder. Every beholder. Smack-dab in the eye, making it as easy for even an editor to spot as, say, bad paving.

You see, while I reside in a picturesque place, the road that takes me to and fro is far from pleasing. And the imperfections there are painfully apparent to me even though I never wasted time obtaining a civil engineering degree or even accruing the minimum qualifications required to apply for a flagger position on a respectable road crew. And they are obvious to everyone else in the environs except, apparently, the poor paver.

What often jumps out first in both bad writing and paving is a lack of proper preparation. If a surface is cracked or offers inadequate structural support and our writer refuses to lift a finger (or move a mouse) to correct this, defects will inevitably emerge through the best-constructed overlay and consequent deformations can cause catastrophic failure.

If said writer isn’t ready in terms of craft, obtaining an MFA couldn’t hurt; however, if the shortfall concerns subject matter, graduate school rarely helps. An MFA hailing from, say, Chappaqua who decides to write stories about, say, meth labs in rural Michigan is at a distinct disadvantage to, say, Bonnie Jo Campbell, the author of the award-winning American Salvagewho’s lived in the Kalamazoo area all her life. (And, incidentally, has an MFA in creative writing, as well as a BA in philosophy and an MA in mathematics.)

And, while some would say that writing only about what one knows would merely result in a surfeit of stories about English professors seducing MFA students, those someones rarely insist that writers of such limited experience are as assiduous in filling the cracks in their knowledge as, say, Ian McEwan, who–at the height of his career–spent two entire years–as a matter of course–diligently work-shadowing a neurosurgeon before starting his critically acclaimed novel Saturday. (And, yes, he also has the equivalent of an MFA.)

Bad paving, bad driving, Oella Ave

Bad writing is as easy to spot as bad paving and bad driving on Oella Avenue (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Now, put a bad driver on that precarious pavement and there’s sure to be some serious trouble. You see, my particular road is narrow, sometimes turning into a single lane, with steep climbs and descents and sudden sharp turns. Inexperienced or impaired drivers readily put everything in their path in peril, as do those overconfident ones who show no consideration for objects or persons.

I regularly see the former on my street, their shaky hands at the wheel, wandering across lanes, running out of road and rolling down embankments. The latter I remember from my Boston and Cambridge days, their tall trucks stuck under overpasses on Storrow and Memorial Drives along the Charles River, where large signs say, “CLEARANCE 11FT 0IN.” They’re the same ones that I now observe attempting impossible turns into access roads and ending up wedged between street signs and utility poles, their goods, alas, undelivered.

In bad writing, it’s equally easy to see when an author is out of control. Some use the excuse of automatic writing, citing Jack Kerouac’s notion of “first thought, best thought” and his refusal to revise. (And add that Kerouac was a college dropout.) But a closer look at good writers shows, more often than not, that’s a carefully crafted illusion. In her memoir, Joyce Johnson–who definitely did know Jack–revealed that he revised regularly and rigorously. Which is why his seminal novel On the Road didn’t end up in a ditch.

Similarly, it’s hard to miss the sort of bad writing that occurs when an over-confidant author under-delivers, almost by design. I’m not referring so much to brash early efforts such as A Clockwork Orange that acclaimed authors later repudiate as to works penned at any point in a career that show little regard for readers because, one can only assume, such authors feel that they are so patently brilliant that they deserve a pass. Consider McEwan, whom I normally admire. With Sweet Tooth, he correctly calculated that the clumsy contrivances used in lieu of more potent prose wouldn’t be called out by more than one or so critics the way that they would’ve been were he someone of lesser repute.

Bear in mind that at the beginning of each work–no matter how outré–the author enters into a contract with the reader to render certain goods, the literary equivalent of kitchen cabinets. When that author has the arrogance to violate that agreement through artifices such as dei ex machina, contrived epiphanies or trick endings, the reader has the right to feel cheated. Not that I don’t delight in surprises. But they only constitute good writing when, as occurs with minor masterpieces such as George Saunders’ “Puppy” and Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party,” the reader is complicit every single step of the way.

Speaking of good writing, I maintain that the transportation analogy also works there. It’s as hard to miss as trains rumbling along the track across the river, parallel to my ruined road. In a Poets & Writers piece, a literary agent seconds what another has put in his Publishers Marketplace profile: that what he looks for is a book that makes him miss his train stop. (Actually, it’s “subway stop,” but that’s more or less along the same lines.)

Sincerely yours,

Elvira

PS I could’ve added bad weather, which typically comes from getting too much of an otherwise good thing, to the bad paving and driving but then it would’ve been necessary to address overwriting, which would’ve been a bit excessive here. Fortunately, that and other cases are covered by the likes of David Sedaris, George Saunders and Margaret Atwood in the video Bad Writing, which can be purchased for a pittance on Amazon.

About Elvira

Elvira Rivers, une femme d’un certain age, was born on a certain date in a certain place. Her father was the storied Tony Thames-Avon, a British actor and playwright, her mother the celebrated Latvian beauty Daiļa Daugava-Gauja. When Thames-Avon-Daugava-Gauja met Percy Pocomoke-Patuxent, she made surname consolidation a condition of marriage. The Rivers were inseparable until their divorce two years later.

Elvira went on to cure the common cold, design couturier gowns and write The Great Latvian Novel, while Percy vacillated between painting and poetry, then poetry and prose. He eventually acquired a Harvard MBA and left to run the London office of the venerable Boston investment bank Duck & Cover. Back in the USA, he was convicted on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy and is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

To encourage her former husband to return to the literature and art he so loved once, Elvira sent him frequent letters. After finding herself uncharacteristically incapable of making ends meet–her nest egg had suffered substantial cracks during the 2008 crash–she approached Little Patuxent Review about writing a column helping creative types such as Percy better navigate life’s unruly waters. She has been with us ever since.

Note: Elvira is not related to the late mother of our online editor even thought her first name and the middle name of that witty woman are identical. She is also not connected to the winking woman shot by Ewing Galloway, though the resemblance is remarkable.

Print Issue Preview: 30 Authors and Artists Address Doubt

LPR Doubt Cover

Introducing our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Cover art: The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (?), at the Walters Art Museum. Cover design: Deb Dulin.

For our first 12 print issues, you’ve had to wait for the launch party to sneak a peek at what’s inside. But seeing that 13 is a lucky number and our Issue 13 comes out at the start of 2013, a most auspicious year, it’s time that you caught a lucky break. Therefore, we’ve set it up so that you can preview the text of two pieces in advance. And, unwilling to leave things entirely to chance, we’ve armed you with cheat sheets, as well.

All you need to do is turn to our Winter 2013 Doubt issue page, where we present the complete table of contents, and click on two highlighted items. Those are Laura Shovan’s “Editor’s Notes” and the Clarinda Harriss poem. Then see what these two literary ladies have to say about that in the sections below.

Of course, if you’re one of those rare individuals who’s completely comfortable with uncertainty and doesn’t doubt his or her ability to make it to the launch, we wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises. Simply skip what’s written here and head straight for Oliver’s Carriage House this Saturday, where we’ll be sure to save you a good seat.

Your Cheat Sheet for “Editor’s Note”

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but doubt is the agent of change.

In our 13th issue, 30 writers and artists examine the role that doubt plays in marriage, religion, art and identity. Doubt can be triggered by small moments such as watching a handyman at work fifteen feet in the air [i] as often as it comes from the force of a failing marriage [ii] or a tsunami’s destructive power [iii].

There are those who live in a perpetually agnostic state, calling into question everything from religion and community to the self and one’s perception of reality [iv]. For these doubters, something as simple as a taste of honey harvested from a backyard hive can be enough to restore faith in society [v].

Human culture would not evolve without such proof-seeking minds. If nobody questioned status quo thinking about how the autistic mind works [vi], what it means to be a painter in 2013 [vii] or who created a Renaissance masterpiece [viii], human history could not move forward. Whether the results are “correct” or not, the process of change begins when one doubter pulls apart what is accepted and puzzles together facts and observations to create a new theory.

The product of doubt, whether one has scrutinized a childhood memory [ix] or re-envisioned a character from the Bible [x], must be a new way of looking at the world. Our hope is that you, the reader, will engage in the inter play between doubt and change as you read this issue of Little Patuxent Review [xi].

                                                                                                — Laura Shovan

…And another for “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt”

Because of or despite the fact that I come from agnosticQuaker/atheistEpiscopalian parents, I have always been obsessed with the what-ifs implicit in biblical lore. And I have always been fascinated by the much underrated or downright dissed female leads in that lore–Eve, Lilith and, of course, Mary Magdalene, who I have known since childhood was the wife of Jesus. (What is UP with a few current scholars acting as if they had just discovered that Jesus was married?) In addition, I love to re-tell old stories with some crucial part left out–like, suppose Cinderella got zapped to the ball WITHOUT THE DRESS? In a poem written years ago and published in Sybil-Child, I envisioned her standing ragged and astonished at the top of the stairs descending into the ballroom, then pulling off her filthy kitchen togs. Standing there gorgeously naked. No wonder the Prince fell for her.

  — Clarinda Harriss

Note: You can pre-order copies of the Doubt issue now from our Individual Issues sales page. And order some back issues, too. Check out what’s in those in our Issues section.

__________________

[i] Award-winning poet and children’s author Jacqueline Jules makes her first appearance in LPR with the poem “Standing in the Air.” It explores the way in which everyday moments, in this case observing someone repair a roof, can create self-doubt. Jules uses dialogue to establish the character of the workman, which contrasts with that of the speaker. (p. 50)

[ii] The short story “Mediation” by Lisa Lynn Biggar was submitted for our Summer 2012 Audacity issue, but Fiction Editor Jen Grow felt that the piece was a better fit for the current theme. Biggar uses dramatic irony to explore a modern love triangle. (p. 70)

[iii] “Japan 2011” is one of two poems in this issue by Elisabeth Dahl of Baltimore. Dahl’s use of form in the poem mirrors the poem’s theme, the devastating 2011 tsunami. (p. 30)

[iv] There are several pieces in this issue that examine the nature of reality and how it affects views of the self. I particularly like the use of pop culture detail in Kim Jensen’s poem “Perimeter.” (p. 45)

[v] Cynthia Grier Lotze’s timely poem “When You Began Keeping Bees” is filled with sensory images. Home beekeepers in our local community, Howard County, Maryland, recently won a battle against a zoning law that limited backyard beekeeping. (p. 80)

[vi] Lauren Camp’s poem “The Dam of Asperger’s” uses spacing and other form elements to mirror the difficulties a teacher or parent might face communicating with a child on the autism spectrum. (p. 46)

[vii] This fall, LPR art expert Michael Salcman and I visited the Baltimore studio of painter Leonard Kogan. See the LPR Facebook page for photographs from our conversation. (p. 16)

[viii] In the first LPR essay featuring a classical work of art, Michael Salcman posits an alternate “author” of The Walter’s Art Museum’s masterpiece, The Ideal City. (p. 35)

[ix] This  issue includes several pieces in which contributors view a childhood experience through the lens of adulthood. Check out P. Ivan Young’s “Nerf Football,” one of a series of poems about urban childhood friends, and Bruce Alford’s evocative prose poem “What to Leave Out.” (pp. 27 and 68)

[x] Frequent contributor Clarinda Harriss acts as a voicebox for the biblical characters Eve, Lilith and Mary Magdalene in her three-part poem “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt.” (p. 66)

[xi] Among the powerful pieces not mentioned is Le Hinton’s poem “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat),” a tribute to the late Baltimore poet Chris Toll, who leaves behind a rich legacy of visual and linguistic experimentation. (p. 82)

There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading

Paul Durcan

Poet Paul Durcan (Photo: Susanne Schleyer)

I’m told that I overthink things. But once you start thinking, simple things can become complicated. So you have to think some more. Take the literary reading. Of course, you have to have one. Even if there are perfectly good print copies available. Or the more convenient electronic ones. Even though a blizzard’s been forecast for that day (or it’s meant to be hellishly hot). Both poetry and prose started with the spoken word, so that must be the more natural, accessible form. Or did the oral and the written diverge somewhere along the way for some really good reasons?

Let’s start with poetry, where how things sound may matter more than with other types of writing. And one of my favorite poems, TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which– à propos this piece–was once called “He do the Police in Different Voices.” The poem is so complex, so full of obscure literary allusions that countless annotated versions exist. There’s even an iPad app for that. (Really.) But look–or rather, listen–to what happens when it’s recited. How easily it goes down, as the commentator observes. First by Eliot himself, which offers insight into how he intended it to be taken. Then by two other readers, who make it their own, much the way that you and I would. Only a bit better.

So anything complex is helped by being heard? Maybe not. Let’s take one of my favorite fiction writers, George Saunders, and one of his recent short stories, “Victory Lap,” which I’ve downloaded from The New Yorker. It opens with a look inside soon-to-be-15-year-old Alison’s head, then shifts to that of a dorky neighbor boy. Listen to Saunders read his own story. If you make it through to the end without your mind wandering to, say, the deer in the woods that I can see from my study window, good for you. But if you’re one of those who can’t quite, see if you don’t breathe a sign of relief when you can click on the link I’ve provided and read this captivating story in words provided on a printed page.

So complex poetry is best heard, and complex prose is best read? Would that it were that simple. Poet Paul Durcan, whose image I’ve inserted above for reasons other than that it’s a formidable head shot–but isn’t it, though?–writes narrative poetry and has been described by Fran Breaton in The Guardian as “… a charismatic performer whose voice, once heard, haunts the printed pages of his books. If there were a prize for the best reader of one’s own poems, he would probably win it hands down.” The only problem is, Durcan says that he doesn’t write to be heard. And we should take him at his word.

Speaking with Colm Tóibín in The Writing Life, a cable TV series produced by our local Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), he insists that he writes not for his public voice but rather for “the silent reader.” That–unlike Yeats, who read his work aloud as he wrote–he never listens to how his poems sound until an entire book is published. And that, as Tóibín helps him formulate, he gives readings only to build an audience specifically for that silence. So, it’s complicated. And requires more thought.

In the meantime, you’d do best to cover all the bases. Attend our upcoming Doubt issue launch reading event to hear 11 authors present pieces we’ve published. Then, talk to the presenters while you munch a cookie and purchase a print copy before you leave. (Hey, the event is free, and a single copy will only put you back 10 bucks.) At your leisure, check out this site’s Winter 2013 Doubt page, where we’ll later link to reading videos, the Sales pages, where we’ll soon offer individual Doubt issues as well as annual subscriptions, and our “Concerning Craft” series, where we’ll introduce you to select Doubt contributors–not just those giving readings–and let them discuss what went into producing what we printed. This time around, I think I’ll ask them to address that sound vs. silence thing.

And since you can’t do any of that until Saturday, January 26, take a little time now to listen to Durcan read his poem “Paul.” And pick up one of his books to read in silence.

Notes:

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.