Things by Marian Kaplun Shapiro

 

Marian Shapiro’s poem so perfectly captures why I’m unable to let go of my “stuff,” this typewriter included. A suicide note was written on it. Yes, I’ve written a short story about it. (More to come in another post.)

Background photo: Dean Moriarty/Pixabay, CC0.
Manipulation and design layout: Elizabeth Stark

Marian Kaplun Shapiro is the author of a professional book, Second Childhood (Norton, 1988),  a poetry book, Players In The Dream, Dreamers In The Play (Plain View Press, 2007) and  two chapbooks: Your Third Wish, (Finishing Line, 2007); and The End Of The World, Announced On Wednesday (Pudding House, 2007). A Quaker and a psychologist, her poetry often embeds the  topics of peace and violence by addressing one within the context of the other. A resident of Lexington, she is a five-time Senior Poet Laureate of Massachusetts. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012.

The author. The author.

Sunset with Eiffel tower by Irwin. Eiffel tower from hotel window.

Marian, Rue Cler, 2014. Marian, Rue Cler, 2014.

Library garden poetry reading, Rangeley, Maine. Library garden poetry reading, Rangeley, Maine.

View original post

Juvenalia: “They Felt Like Clapping Hands & Jumping Up & Down”

Apparently, this was my first published byline, which appeared in the Enosburg Standard somewhere around 1967-68. I’m the dejected chubby girl in full Girl Scout regalia in the back row.

I’ve often wondered as I consider cleaning out an overstuffed closet whether one’s juvenalia is an important enough record of a writer’s development to preserve. In my own case, common sense would say no, of course not, don’t be silly.

Yet, I refuse to part with any of it, even though these painfully immature little poems and stories tucked into the folders and boxes that clutter my daily existence are of absolutely no use to me and certainly of no use to posterity.

Regardless, this little article from the Enosburg Standard is worth preserving because it tells me how much I was loved as a child, even a chubby and dejected prepubescent child. My mother had clipped the article and mailed it to my grandmother Velma, who saved it with her papers, leaving it behind when she died in 1975. “They Felt Like Clapping Hands & Jumping Up & Down” came full circle back to me in 2016, when as the eldest of my generation, I became the keeper of The Family Archives.

What about you? Have you held onto your own writing juvenalia? Or has it all gone the way of your finger-painted refrigerator art?

“Poetry Is Dissent,” Richard Hoffman

Richard Hoffman’s essay, “Poetry Is Dissent,” which was published in Agni Magazine’s “conversations” blog on April 24, 2017 is simply too good not to share. I don’t care if you’re a friend, a fellow writer, a work colleague, or a random passerby on the street: you must read this essay!  My favorite passage:

As a child, words come from a world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to acquire language in the first place. And then you go about choosing among the words offered. You try to match the right one with the right thing. You try to say it correctly. You test out the words on other people, usually your parents. Sometimes they think you’re cute, other times they threaten to wash out your mouth with soap!

But soon enough and before you’re even aware of it, you are toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate. You must find new ones, or combine them in a new way. Many, if not most people, make some peace with the inadequacy of language. I think what makes a person a poet (whether they write in verse or prose) is an abiding commitment to try again, all the while knowing that it is in the nature of language, and of the essence of the whole enterprise, that you will fail.

Here is the link to “Poetry Is Dissent”: https://agnimag.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/poetry-is-dissent/.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much I have!

The Writing Paradox

Liz and Daddy draft their sermons.

As the colleagues I bore on a regular basis can attest, I love everything there is to love about the writing process. And I never, ever turn away from an opening to talk about it.  No matter how quickly you try to shut that door, once you’ve opened it a crack, I’m in, burbling happily away like a baby who has just discovered the wonder of her own hands for the first time.

Most of all, I love the paradox of the writing process.

I first learned of this paradox when I began studying the craft of fiction in college, and it delighted me. The craft lecture is emblazoned on my brain: You can follow the writing process to the letter, execute the conventions of the form flawlessly, polish each sentence into a softly glowing gem in the palm of your hand–and the story doesn’t work.  The prose may be a thing of beauty to behold, but a reader can’t get past the first page for boredom.

Yet there are times when you encounter a story that could only be described as clumsy. The writer has unwittingly broken with multiple conventions of the form, the prose is clunky, and the whole thing is a bull-in-a-china-shop of a story–but it works. The story is alive with the knowledge and passion of what it means to be human.

Peter Elbow, my favorite writer on the theory and practice of writing, explains the writing paradox this way:

Image: The British Museum

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.1

What do you think of the writing paradox I’ve described? Love it? Hate it? Think Peter Elbow and I are talking through our hats?


1Peter Elbow, cited by Richard Gilbert, “Between Self and Story,” Woven Tale Press Blog, entry posted March 2, 2017, accessed March 19, 2017, http://www.thewoventalepress.net/2017/03/02/between-self-and-story/?utm_source=The+Woven+Tale+Press+Newsletter.

The Act of Creation

The act of creation is still an act of love. Pursuits of the creative imagination, by their very nature, are pursuits of happiness, even if tinged with pain and sadness. And joy must be the truest thing around . . . . J.P. Grasser

This lovely quotation from J.P. Grasser is on the need for acts of creation to seek out truth in our current age of “post-truth.” Read the complete essay, “Rely, Rely,” at https://agnimag.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/rely-rely/#like-1237.

Then please check back; I’d love to hear what you think of it!

Failed Novel, Anyone?

When I went to college to learn the craft of fiction, the prevailing attitude was that the short story was a stepping stone to the novel. The short story was where the young writer could serve out her clumsy apprenticeship in the sandbox making mud pies until sufficiently skilled to create the multi-tiered cake of the novel which people would actually buy. Chekov, Joyce, and other masters of the short story aside, you could never arrive as a writer of fiction unless you published a novel.

Then I heard Raymond Carver read at Old Dominion University’s annual literary festival. Not only was “Feathers” unlike any story  I had ever read, Raymond Carver was not a novelist. He was a living, breathing master of the short story. His short stories were so powerful he didn’t need to write novels.

But still, I wanted to write a novel. The first one I attempted was actually an abortive novel, rather than a failed novel. Damage Control told the story of the breakup of a marriage from alternating points of view: the young, shell-shocked wife and her equally troubled young husband. The narrative pretty much collapsed under its own weight, and I gave up on the whole thing. I subsequently tried to get control of it by paring it down into a novella, but it never gained any traction, and I gave up on that version, too.

Years later, I think the problem with Damage Control was that I didn’t have the skill as a writer to sustain a book-length narrative, and I didn’t have the life experience to pull off the husband’s point of view. Who knows? Maybe now I do.

My next attempt at a novel was driven in part by the desire to focus on writing a book, which would take longer to finish, send out, and get rejected than a short story. (Hey, I’m just being honest here.) This novel went through a series of pretentiously lame titles that I won’t repeat here. (I don’t want to be that honest.) I did complete the novel, and I didn’t give up on it for a very long time.

When the light finally dawned, I realized that the whole was less than the sum of its parts because of an episodic structure that includes a series of vignettes triggered by old photographs. The main character is an elderly woman who has disposed of all her furniture and household goods to move to an assisted living facility. She then refuses to leave her house until she has sorted through all of the personal effects of family members who had passed on before her.

The basic conflict seemed like a compelling idea, but, again, I didn’t have the skill to sustain a book-length narrative, particularly a book-length narrative of someone who is by herself for the majority of the novel’s ongoing time. Then there were all those random dead relatives who kept popping up for no apparent reason, other than once having had their pictures taken.

In the final analysis, the parts weren’t all bad, as six of the chapters from this failed novel have been published as stand-alone stories.

How about you? Have any stories of failed novels you’d like to share? Or are they all buried deep within the Nevada desert, never to see the light of day again?

The Chet Arthur Five Play Jeffersonville: Some Thoughts on Verisimilitude

Birthplace of President Chester A. Arthur in East Fairfield, Vermont

And here I thought I had this verisimilitude thing down. I even remember Tony Ardizzone’s lecture on it from the first fiction workshop I took with him at Old Dominion University. (Never mind how long ago that was.)

For straight realistic fiction to engage the reader, it needs to be like real life, to suggest real life, but not transcribe real life. Contrary to the “show don’t tell” edict, what happens when you show a character’s boredom too realistically? You bore the reader. Faithfully transcribe actual conversations as dialog with all the false starts, pauses, repetition, ums and ahs? Barely intelligible and maddening to read. Phonetic representation of regional and ethnic dialects, in the Uncle Remus vein? Cringe-worthy.

uncleremus

So, if I know all this, why am I worrying about it now? Well, the fact of the matter is that just because I know a convention doesn’t mean I know enough to follow it when I need to.

Several years ago, I wrote a story, “The Chet Arthur Five Play Jeffersonville,” based on a real-life experience I’d had in high school. I was very pleased with the story because I had faithfully represented everything about that experience in perfect “show don’t tell” detail, including a whole series of excruciatingly repetitive drunken conversations. Did I mention that “The Chet  Arthur Five Play Jeffersonville” is a coming-of-age story?

So I sent “Chet Arthur” out to make the rounds of literary magazines, and every time it came back with a rejection slip, I reread it to confirm just how good it was.

Until it wasn’t.

Much to my dismay, I discovered that the whole thing was hackneyed and boring.  What to do? The first order of business was to stop sending it out to bore other people and embarrass myself. Then I moved on to other projects.

Last week, I started thinking about the story and wondering whether it might be salvageable after all. My memory told me that the problem was a hackneyed coming-of-age storyline, and I was trying to think of ways that I might experiment with form to put a different spin on it. I even considered setting the story up as an algebra equation (Never mind.)

However, when I opened the story this morning to work on it, I discovered that the problem wasn’t with the plot. The problem was how faithfully I had rendered my real-life experience, particularly the excruciatingly repetitive drunken dialog.

As well as I understood the concept of verisimilitude, I had fallen right into the trap of letting the actual experience that inspired the story drive the fiction. I also discovered that the story started and ended in the wrong places: it began too soon and went on too long. Needless to say, I’ve revised the story. Only time will tell whether I’m still deluding myself that it’s any good.

Have you ever had a similar experience with a story? You’re bound and determined it’s good–until it isn’t?