Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Devil in the White City, she claims that Erik Larson avoids the risk of “turning [the book] into a random compendium.” For all of his density of detail, Larson does manage to avoid that risk, creating instead a gripping dual narrative—one that succeeds, as Maslin asserts that it does—but not by using what Maslin cites as tactics that might ordinarily seem “alarming.” Rather the techniques that Larson employs are among the very building blocks of contemporary narrative.

Chief among Larson’s most successful narrative strategies is his cross cutting, both between the dual storylines of the book (those of the Devil and the White City of the title) and between characters. One of his most compelling uses of cross cutting occurs in the chapter “Claustrophobia,” where Larson deftly shifts from the point of view of serial of killer H. H. Holmes, the devil of the title, to that of one of his victims, Anna “Nannie” Williams. In the first paragraphs of the chapter, Holmes and Anna are together in his office, where he asks her “if she would mind going into the adjacent room, the walk-in vault, to retrieve for him a document he had left inside” (294). Anna complies, and thereafter the point of view shifts between Anna inside the vault, believing “the door had closed by accident” (294), and Holmes standing outside the door, listening for the panic to come “as it always did” (295).

Readers witnessing the events leading up to Anna’s death do not stop to ask: How can Larson know what happened? Though they know in the back of their minds that only Holmes and Anna themselves could know what transpired, Larson’s dramatic cross cutting draws them so close to both the victim and her killer that they experience those moments as Holmes and Anna do.

In his endnotes, Larson addresses his reasons for depicting Anna’s murder as he did. Based on police speculation that Holmes killed both Anna and her sister, Minnie, in his vault, an earlier chronicler of Holmes’ exploits—Harold Schechter, author of Depraved (1994)—proposed that Holmes walked into the vault with Anna: “Grasping Nannie by the hand, he led her toward the vault” (Schechter qtd. in Larson 416). Rather than depicting the events as Schechter did, Larson presents Holmes sending Anna into the vault on a false errand because that scenario, in Larson’s words, “would have suited more closely his temperament” (416).

Whether Holmes sent Anna into his vault on a false errand, Larson’s compelling rendering of it exemplifies how the author employs the dramatic effects of fiction—not tactics that are “alarming” as Maslin claims, but ones that writers have commonly applied to narrative nonfiction for more than fifty years, since the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking  account of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood. And like In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City presents a true crime story with the narrative arc of a novel. But Larson’s book is more ambitious and broader in scope than Capote’s. Ultimately, The Devil in the White City is a hybrid of true crime and popular history—the gruesome murders of a serial killer juxtaposed with the construction of the magical white city that inspired Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum. For readers fascinated by the minds of criminals and visionary architects, it’s a page turner. And for writers drawn to the challenge of giving facts the appeal of fiction, it offers a blueprint.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Maslin, Janet. “Add a Serial Murderer to 1893 Chicago’s Opulent Overkill.” Review of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

 

Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In the first paragraphs of Dwayne Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom (2009), he recounts his ride to the Fairfax County jail after his arrest for carjacking: a “certifiable” crime in Virginia, which meant that then-sixteen-year-old Betts would be treated as an adult under state law. Last Thursday night when Betts took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne, he began by reading those paragraphs, returning to the backseat of that police car, where “[e]verything near enough for me to touch gleamed with the color of violence” (3). After reading from his memoir, Betts turned to his collections of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), alternating his readings with stories of his years in prison and his writing. He expressed his concern that some people cited his memoir as evidence that prison benefited him, because he had finished his high school education behind bars; and since leaving, he had completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, an MFA in Creative Writing at Warren-Wilson, and a law degree at Yale. To see his post-incarceration successes as evidence that his years behind bars benefited him, Betts said, was a misinterpretation. Following his Q&A with the audience, Betts concluded by saying that he’d been desperate and lucky–“but sometimes desperate and lucky works out.”

Among the anecdotes that Betts shared with the audience was one focusing on his answer to a question about one of his poems. A reader asked him why an otherwise innocuous poem ended with an image of crack cocaine. To illustrate why he ended the poem that way, Betts turned to August Wilson’s play Fences, telling the audience how the character Troy tries to explain his adultery to his wife, Rose, by likening his decision to a moment in a baseball game. He’s wrong, Betts said, but it’s the only way Troy knows how to try to communicate what he means. In Betts’ words, “sometimes you only have what you have to explain the world.”

Betts’ memoir isn’t an easy read, showing as it does what a life behind bars can do to the mind and the body. But it also tells the story of the power of the written word, how books sustained Dwayne Betts and led him to become a writer, “carv[ing] a voice out of the air” (123). Though many of my students aren’t drawn to writing or to reading books, I believe that the experience of studying  A Question of Freedom and hearing Betts speak has deepened their understanding of the vital role that reading and writing can play in their lives.

Work Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom.  Avery, 2009.

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Thursday night at Lenoir-Rhyne, Sarah Vowell spoke of herself as a writer who takes her readers on a trip with her. Seeing Vowell interviewed on stage was a similar journey, one that led the audience from her childhood in Montana to her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat Unites States (2015), with digressions along the way on Charlies Angels, the Trail of Tears, Louis Armstrong, The Incredibles, and Paul Gauguin.

When interviewer Mike Collins asked Vowell about her work on This American Life, she spoke of her writing process, noting that although the stories she wrote sounded casual, there wasn’t one from her twelve-year stint on the show (1996-2008) that underwent fewer than sixty-four revisions. Vowell recalled that Ira Glass, producer and host of the show, chided her for her repeated tangents–what she calls shenanigans–reminding her again and again of the need for brevity in radio. Paring her writing for the airwaves taught Vowell that she was better suited to writing books because they gave her room for shenanigans, citing her detour through the Oneida Community in Assassination Vacation.

In response to an audience member’s question about her writing process, Vowell said that it begins while she is travelling. Vowell explained that she takes “voluminous notes” on index cards. Later, when she returns home, she puts the cards on her living room floor and the process of organizing her research begins. The image of Vowell sitting cross-legged in her living room, placing cards on the floor in front of her as if she’s playing Solitaire, reminds me of her earlier remarks about radio, how each of those casual-sounding pieces she wrote was the product of sixty-four or more drafts. The meandering narratives of her books have a casual quality as well, but they’re the product of a highly organized process.

Vowell is one of the featured authors in the Visiting Writers Series as well as the author of this year’s Campus Read, Assassination Vacation. Her interview with WFAE’s Mike Collins was recorded for later broadcast on Charlotte Talks.

Work Cited

Vowell, Sarah. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Mike Collins. 27 Oct. 2016, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Only a few hours after the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, novelist Marlon James, recipient of the 2015 Man Booker prize, took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne’s Belk Centrum and said that he was “very excited” about Bob Dylan’s win. James questioned whether the people who opposed the choice of Dylan had heard much of his music. Many ancient epics were written to be sung, James observed, and he challenged the audience to “listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’” and “tell me it’s not literature.”

Turning from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his own writing, James—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—said that the first sentence that he wrote of his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), was now on page 458 and joked that the 680-plus page novel was actually an 800-page book, but he reduced the font and narrowed the margins.

James said that he had begun by writing a novel about a really sloppy hit man who was also in love, but around page fifty he ran into a dead end. After creating additional characters and running into more dead ends, James concluded that he was writing a string of failed novellas. Then he had a Eureka moment: He reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), narrated by fifteen characters, and realized that he was writing about the failed dream of the Jamaican 1960s, and that one voice alone could not tell the story. James also credited James McEllroy’s novel American Tabloid (1995) as a major influence on the writing of A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Among the excerpts James read from the novel include ones featuring the ghost of the dead Jamaican politician Arthur Jennings and immigrant Dorcas Palmer—whose name isn’t really Dorcas Palmer—who works a series of no-questions-asked jobs as a care giver in New York. They are the branches of the novel, James said, noting the book began with them rather than the trunk—though it may seem like the opposite, that the book began with Marley at the center.

James noted that one of the difficulties of writing about Marley was that by the time of the 1976 assassination attempt, Marley was already a literary device of sorts. For me growing up, James noted, he was a series of news reports: Marley is on tour, Marley has been shot, Marley has cancer . . . .

To guide him as he wrote around the dying man at the center of his novel, Marlon James turned to the classic Esquire magazine story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966), a profile that Gay Talese had been assigned to write as an interview with Frank Sinatra, but the singer refused to talk to him. Talese’s solution to the problem was to talk to everyone around Sinatra. Similarly, instead of moving in close, James’s narrators circle Marley in his last days.

In response to an audience member’s questions about knowing when you’ve finished revising, James said that he knows early on in the process when he’s done, but that it takes him four or five months to admit it. James said that A Brief History of Seven Killings doesn’t end with a flourish or with a profound statement about the human condition; it doesn’t end as much as it stops. He kept working on the book until a voice in his head told him, you finished four months ago.

One of the problems with writing stories, James said, is that we start too early and end too late. James recounted that once while submitting copies of the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, that he was short on paper and money, so he sent out a copy without the first and the last twenty pages. The agent who read it, James said, didn’t say that it started too late or ended too early.

Reflecting on James’s observations about writing—beginning with his opening remarks about Bob Dylan—brings to mind the role of music in his own writing, starting with the lines from Captain Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues,” lyrics that serve as the epigraph for his debut novel, John Crows’ Devil. Those song lyrics are some of the first words we see in the book, but it’s likely that neither those words nor the words of the chapter that they introduce are the first ones he put on the page, evidenced by the fact that the first sentence he wrote for A Brief History of Seven Killings appears on page 458.

Beginnings and endings are difficult, Marlon James reminds us, though in the case of these words about his Thursday-night presentation, I knew from the start that I would begin with his opening remarks on Bob Dylan. (How I would begin was another matter altogether, and so was where and how I would end.) Of A Brief History of Seven Killings, James said that the novel doesn’t end as much as it stops. Taking a cue from him, I will stop here, reflecting on the insight that his remarks shed on his first novel—one that my students and I studied earlier this semester—one that begins with the chapter “The End” and ends with the chapter “The Beginning.”

Work Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

 

 

Early illustrated writing c. 1974

Early illustrated writing c. 1974

Three pictures, one-hundred words, minimum: That’s what I asked of my students, and of myself, for the introductory blog assignment for the semester. “Rather than trying to tell your whole life story,” I wrote in the assignment,  “focus on one aspect of your life or one interest of yours.” It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But when I sat down to complete the assignment, words initially failed me. As I tried to compose a draft in my mind, what came to me instead were these lines from Patricia Hampl’s essay “Red Sky in the Morning”:

How much reality can subject-verb-object bear on the frail shoulders of the sentence? The sigh within the sentence is more like this: I could tell you stories–if only stories could tell what I have in me to tell. (178)

Choosing to include those lines of Hampl’s reflects my passion for writing, while the words themselves illustrate the struggle of writing–even for those of us who identify ourselves as writers.

Heat ms

1989 manuscript with notes from my teacher. The story, which she titled “Heat,” was published in 1991.

At the beginning of last semester, when I projected my own blog on the screen for the first time, one of the students remarked on the tagline: “Writer, Teacher.”

Have you written any books? she asked.

Written, not published, I started to say (“I could tell you stories . . .”), but instead I said, “I am not an author of any books, but I identify myself as a writer because I am someone for whom writing has always been a way of making sense of the world.

Review of "Go Set a Watchman" (2015)

Review of “Go Set a Watchman” (2015)

 

 

 

 

Work Cited

Hampl, Patricia. “Red Sky in the Morning.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Ed. Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Longman, 2011.

 

Cantos cover

Lenoir-Rhyne’s literary magazine, featuring a cover photo by Erin Illich

Once again at the semester’s close, I am pleased to turn the pages of Cantos and see the poetry, prose, and photography of my students, some who just completed English 131, others of whom I taught in English 131, 231, or 281 in previous semesters:

  • “Archetype, Embodied” and “A Smile as Bright as Myth,” poems by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231, Fall 2014; ENG 281, Spring 2015), Editor in Chief of Cantos
  • “Blackberries, a poem by Ghia Smith (ENG 131, Fall 2013)
  • “Used,” a poem by Haylee Carpenter (ENG 131, Spring 2016)
  • “Voting for Dummies—a Satire” by Claire Grulick (ENG 131, Spring 2016)
  • Photographs by Katelyn Barker, Jordan Puckett, Autumn Stewart, and Taylor Welch (ENG 131, Spring 2016)

I am also very pleased to see the short story “Cookie Jar” by my dear friend Carla Robinson.

I am proud of all of you—not just those of you whose work was selected but all of you who submitted your work for consideration.