Monthly Archives: April 2014

Writing Place, Writing Environment

I think about place in writing quite a bit. I’m currently in an MFA program that puts a lot of emphasis on writing place and writing environment. I work for a literary journal that considers itself devoted to place and environment. But what does that actually mean, I often wonder to myself. What is place in writing? What makes writing environmental?

The literary journal where I’m currently the Assistant Fiction Editor, and am taking over as Fiction Editor soon, is Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. Recently, our group of incoming editors was talking about what makes place for us and what makes environmental. It seems we all had different ideas about the subject, but all our ideas also found common ground in some ways.

I consider place and environment in fiction to be simple: as long as I feel grounded in the work and get a sense of it belonging to a distinct world than I feel “place” has been satisfied. Place can be an alien world recently being explored as long as I get a sense that this world is fully alive within the mind of the writer and that translates to me as a reader. I think that ghost stories are intrinsically about place—what is a haunting but an entity tied to a place?

The environmental aspect is the same to me. One doesn’t have to be writing directly and concretely about saving forests, for one example. In fact, it’s the stories that don’t tackle things directly which most often have a profound effect on me as a reader.

So, what do the other editors of Flyway have to say?

Our awesome Social Media Editor, Erin Schmiel, says this: “Place to me is an ever moving thing. It begins in the rocks underneath me, but I travel over those quickly, from glacial beds of the Midwest and over the continental divide where the Earth’s plates thrust out of the ground and we call them the Rocky Mountains. Place for me is this Earth and all the activities on its surface and all the land features I call home. “–Erin, Ohio, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Montana, Iowa

Our wonderful poetry editors, William Bonfiglio and Samantha Futhey, have this to say:

“My first published poem was featured in Highlights Magazine™ when I was eleven years old.  The piece, ‘In the Climbing Tree,’ examines the link between nature and the speaker, and my current poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and plays continue to build on the idea of place and the relationships between setting and characters.  I use that word ‘relationships’ deliberately because environment, in even its most basic form, embodies that idea of interaction. No character is immune to the influence of place, and the best writing will reflect these ideas.”—William

“When I think about place-based and environmental writing, I first look at how the environment or place is portrayed. Can I image this place, even if it only exists in the imagination of the writer? Can I hear, smell, touch, see this place? If the place doesn’t have an authentic feel in the details, the place/environment must not be important to the story, poem, play, or essay and also not important to the characters/speaker or plot of the piece. I want to feel grounded in a place, whether its Yellowstone National Park, the narrator’s living room, or an urban gas station.

Environment also does not need to be limited to forests, rivers, and other so-called “wilderness” places. Man-made environments are places too.”—Samantha

So, here’s a question for you, Dear Reader, to consider: what do place and environment mean to you? As a reader? As a writer? What place can only you truly write your way into? Take this up as a challenge next time you’re working on a piece of writing. And, maybe, consider reading the wonderful pieces up at Flyway or send us some of your writing!

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Yet Another Rant on Genre

I spend a good portion of my days thinking about issues of “genre.” Yes, anyone who reads this blog probably already knows I’m a nerd, so I don’t need to apologize for that statement. By “genre,” I mean issues of genre within literature. It’s something that comes up a lot, more than one would like, in academia. I’m in an MFA program and I know that many creative writing programs discourage “genre-writing” in their workshops. Less focus on plots and more focus on language, on character. I think that’s a fine and good thing. Sure. I mean character and language are as important a thing to bring to writing as plot is. But, importantly, I don’t think they are more important than plot. I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to tell stories. Plain and simple. When I think of the literature that has mattered to me in life, it usually begins with the fairy tales, ghost stories, and folklore of my youth. The telling of tales is something that I consider to be a deep part of me.

This thinking process inevitably leads me to think of people who routinely disparage the prose of JK Rowling. They are, let’s be honest, jerks and wrong jerks at that. But, more importantly, they seem to be missing the point. Harry Potter is a defining piece of literature that enticed countless people—who might not otherwise—to pick up books and read. And to disregard Harry Potter, seems to be advocating for the dismissal then of any work along the same lines. The Oz books would have to be disregarded (despite the rather fascinating look at a Utopia run astray. Flying Monkeys. That’s all I’m saying, people. The Flying Monkeys did not get their due in the movie). Alice in Wonderland? Peter Pan? Do I need to keep naming off works that are considered classics of literature? BECAUSE I CAN. And don’t make me bring Shakespeare into this argument, because I am willing to (King Lear was based off of the premise of a fairy tale, Hamlet had a ghost, The Tempest is dripping with magic).

Plus this attitude of dismissing literature that contains magical or supernatural elements then pushes aside the fact that most of the truly exciting literature happening today is that which explores the world through the lens of what might seem to be fantastical premises. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One has zombies, but it’s also a harrowing exploration of what we do in the face of horror. China Mièville routinely writes brilliant books that explore interesting questions. His book Embassytown explored the dynamics of language and how language can act as an agent of oppression or for revolution. Neil Gaiman writes some of the most thrilling books going. He also writes books that dig deeply. Most recently, Ocean at the End of the Lane explores memory and childhood and trauma in a way that a work of complete “realism” could never have even begun to approach.

Before I end up writing an entire book here, ranting about this topic, I’ll cut off. The New York Times just had a great opinion essay related to this topic, which can be found here. What I can say, finally, is that I have experimented and tried writing without any elements of the supernatural. Mostly to see if I could. And I did manage it, but I felt ultimately unhappy. The fantastic allows me as a writer to have a key into the doorways of the subjects I want to tackle. And it makes me love what I do. I write what I want to read and I think that’s something that is important to remember.

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On Supernatural

*some slight spoilers for people who haven’t seen past the first few seasons of Supernatural will follow* An article in The New York Times (which can be found here) asks the question of how the television show Supernatural has retained its popularity, now into a nine-year run. I came somewhat late to the Supernatural game, but have become a huge fan. The show does a lot of what I want in a show—there’s humor and interesting characters and monsters (that’s basically all I ask of any show, actually)—but it also has done some things that I think are of particular interest. The show has, first of all, explored urban legends and cryptozoology in a well-researched manner. Something I, of course, appreciate (urban legends being as much an intrinsic part of folklore as Little Red Riding Hood is) and something which excites me to see on television.

But, more important to what I’ll be considering here, within the past few seasons (and something the Times article brings up) has come the introduction of angels. Usually I don’t like when a show plays its hand and enters a firm stand on issues of the divine. However, Supernatural has done it in a way that I find brilliant and intriguing. For a show that deals with demons, angels seem a natural progression, of course. What Supernatural does beyond this, though, is tackle the question of faith. By saying concretely that there are angels and a heaven within the universe of the show, they take away the question of faith itself: faith is the belief in something that you can’t see. By not making faith the issue (something that plagued the later seasons of The X-Files and other shows), the show has the ability to explore more interesting questions of belief. Can there be belief in goodness, can there be hope, in a world where even angels have faults and corruption among their ranks? And how does a world function where this is the case?

So, yes, I am a Supernatural fan and maybe I’m reading too much into the plot arc of the show, but even if I am, I love that the show gives me the opportunity to think about questions of this nature. I’m currently researching a writing project that tackles spiritualism in the United States (particularly in relation to the magicians who chose to either incorporate communicating with the dead into their acts OR who—like Houdini—made it part of their work to expose fraudulent mediums and psychics). And while I work on this, I’m glad to know that Supernatural will be entering into its tenth season and that I’ll be continuing to enjoy a show that, even after so many years, continues to not only entertain but also explores new ground.

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Shadow-Casting

This is a poem I wrote a long, long time ago (in a land far, far away). It’s like a #tbt for poetry. A PBS (poem back Sunday—which, incidentally, Sundays are the days I most often watch PBS. Because Sunday has Masterpiece Mystery, which is simply the best. TANGENT STOPPED). Okay, so here is an older poem. It’s one I’ve often wanted to revise, but have never been able to get a foothold back into (though I know that I’ve reused a lot of the imagery in different ways).

 

Shadow-Casting

until I’m beginning

to see god and blood tastes

bitter and salty like the French

fries too long in the oil

which we tasted that summer

we spent working in the

man-made lake which

years later would collapse

under the weight of

rain and then rush

up to devour houses

like that snake we saw

which swallowed a mouse

as if it were nothing; less

than air even, just a

way of passing time and

I felt lost for a whole

day after seeing it and

dreamt that night of

the man I used to love

who stood in the ocean

and let the water rise up

and taste the air from his lungs

until he became the waves

and the sea foam and the

sand like that time

we found a bone

in the valley that was so

picked apart by time

that it might once have been

part of anything: a deer or

a bear or the leg of

a beautiful man who

used to run and run until the soles

of his feet wept blood like the time

that a shard of glass scratched

my eyelid and I spent a day

with red tears shimmering

on my face and slipping

over my lips and onto my

tongue and they tasted

bitter and salty and like

something that I could

never replace.

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Three Flash by Chloe N. Clark

I have 3 pieces at Cease, Cows. One of my favorite online journals!

Cease, Cows

The Dead Man’s Bride

This is a true story. When I was 22, we buried my almost-husband in a graveyard that now no longer accepts the dead. Think about that? That a graveyard can fill as easily as a movie theater. There is standing room only for the grieving, not the lost.

When he died and was buried, I tried to dig him out of the dirt with my hands. My fingernails broke. I had a fever that peaked at 103. The dirt shoved into the lines of my palms, the beds between nails and fingertips. Someone took me away, and I thought of insects, of fungi and the roots of trees breaking through dirt and then wood and then skin. Only someone wrong would think of those things. So, I covered my body in salt to keep the demons out.

A fortune-teller once told me that I was scared…

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