Literary Gut Punch: From Dana Spiotta's Jelly and Jack

Jelly and Jack was published in The New Yorker in December of 2015. Jelly's consciousness is a painful but enchanting place to be. The story slowly undresses itself, but at the end, it was me left feeling naked. There were many beautiful moments in the story, but when I read this particular passage, I felt all the air hovering at the front of my mouth. I had stopped breathing. So, of course, this is my most recent Literary Gut Punch for the annals. All you need to know is that Jelly is about to listen to a piece of music by Jack. Here it is:


Jelly closed her eyes and leaned back again. She called this body-listening. It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. Some people started to speak the second the other person stopped talking, or playing or singing. They were so excited to render their thoughts into speech that they practically overlapped the person. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response was the only thing they valued.

George Saunders: What stories are "about"

George Saunders was interviewed by Deborah Treisman about his latest New York short story, Mother's Day. The following paragraph resonated with me, about how important it is to not be bullied by intention when starting out with a story.

It’s funny with stories (or, at least, with mine)—they are, of course, going to be “about” something and appear to present certain views re those things, but if I start out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting enough to finish. What seems to happen is that, while I’m concentrating on the more mundane technical aspects (working on individual lines and the point-to-point logic and velocity and so on), a certain set of meanings will begin to come forward. So I’m dimly aware of those but trying not to be too aware of those, lest the story become only about those, if you see what I mean. It’s really only when the story is done (like, in this case, within the last week or so) that I can do much direct thinking about what themes it might be taking on, and then—weirdly—the thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something . . . but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset.

My story "Kitten" is featured in Matrix Magazine

I'm so excited that "Kitten" found a home with Matrix Magazine. 

This story has been around for a couple of years, but its needs eluded me for a long time.
Yet, I couldn't quite give up on Barry. I kept coming back to him, hat in hand, every few months. 

The whole story dances on the head of a pin: this small moment where Barry walks in on something he was not expecting.

I hope you like it. Here's a little taste:

The youth began to snore and more than anything Barry found himself craving the Good Old Days he’d been born too late for. The days he had only ever inherited nostalgia for, from books and films. Back when daughters slept in thick, wrist-to-ankle nightgowns, made preserves, and essentially stayed in their bedroom brushing their hair until they got married. And how, when they’d hear a scary sound they’d creep down the stairs with nothing but a tiny nub of a candle, and at first they’d feel brave but they’d ultimately call for their Papa, who’d spring from his bed, boots already on and musket already in hand because men used to be like that, ready for confronting anything, but the sound would only ever end up being the wind riling up the trees or creaking the outhouse door and so they would hug and each go back to bed laughing like loons.

First, a story should be a conversation a writer has with herself

Lately I've been having great conversations with my students about why we write. There are endless responses to this question, but one that pops up again and again is the idea of "being part of a conversation". The "conversation" meaning any number of things. I think most of the time it's "the conversation about what it means to be human".

But lately I've been wondering if this is something I need to reframe for myself. When you're first starting out, developing your writing practice, doing all that lonely work of trying to find your voice (which is buried underneath clunky dialogue and bad impersonations of George Saunders or Heather O'Neill), if part of you is actively writing to be "part of a conversation", you run the risk of writing for an outer audience, no matter how much you convince yourself you're not. Because your stated end goal involves an audience.

I had this mini revelation while folding laundry last night: I think I want to write to have a conversation with myself. Or, at least I think that's what I've actually done in the stories I love the most, the ones that tug at me the hardest. I was writing to myself. Full stop.

When I write this way, I think it will move me more, which in turn, will move the reader more, if and when the story goes out into the world. 

Once it's out there, then it can be part of "the conversation". It should be part of the conversation. But I think until then, a story needs to be a conversation a writer has with herself.

Literary Gut Punch: from Kevin Hardcastle's Montana Border

As you know by now, I love a sentence that whomps the reader in the gut. So I've slowly started compiling my favourite Literary Gut Punches (LGPs.). How appropriate that my most recent example actually describes a character getting punched in the face! 

Kevin Hardcastle's Montana Border appears in the June issue of The Walrus. (You can also read it online here.) I swear my testosterone quadrupled after reading it. 

"In the fight he got hit so hard that his molars sang."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Tracy Chevalier on "putting a frame around" small moments

I listened to a fascinating conversation on the TED Radio Hour between writer Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Guy Raz. Chevalier talked about growing a whole novel out of a single painting. If you haven't listened yet, I highly recommend it. She said one thing in particular that really stood out to me as a short story writer:

"We have dramatic lives, though they might not seem dramatic to the outside, but to us it's those little daily incidents of life that are dramatic, and if you put a frame around it—an actual painting frame, or if you put a frame that is a novel around small incidents—they suddenly become bigger because you focus. And anybody can focus on things that don't seem to mean much, and suddenly they become much bigger and much more important than you ever imagined."

I would argue that the short story also frames these small, uncelebrated moments, zooming in and examining the minutiae of a life, pixel by pixel. 

My online cotillion and thoughts on professional sassing...

It's a weird thing to be building an online presence for yourself. It's like an extended opportunity to make a good (or extra bad) first impression. And because I'm a bit of a perfectionist (on the Friends spectrum, I'm about as 'Monica' as they come) I've bumped up against the usual barrage of self-critiques when making the tiniest of decisions. Is this pink too pink? Am I unconsciously infantilizing myself? Is that picture too showy or not showy enough? Is this bio wholly representative of the very essence of me? Am I trying too hard? Or trying to not try too hard, too much?

I'd say it's a lot like a first date, but I don't really know how those go because all my first dates tended to roll right over into second dates (breakfast) and third dates (lunch), and then relationships, and marriage proposals and Viking River Cruises. You know how it goes. 

Rather, I imagine this is the way rich girls feel picking out a dress for their cotillion balls, only with more PNG resizing and looking up if 'ubertalented' needs a hyphen, and less crying because your wild-card Dad got laid out by a business client, and now the whole fucking evening is ruined. YES I WATCHED THE O.C. WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?

In truth, I'm staking a claim on this little piece of virtual earth because I want a home-base, where I can get excited about stuff, share work with people who may be interested, and be opinionated in a way that's more respected (Insider's Tip: people accept more sass from you if you have your own URL, because then you are a professional, who by giving Squarespace money, now has an inalienable right to manufacture cheekiness.)

You can expect those kinds of insights and oh-so-much-more if you come on this journey with me. I'm even saving you a seat.