Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Writer, the Politician, the Truth

Guest post by David Romtvedt

David Romtvedt and his father-in-law
at the family's ranch.
I’m a writer and have been for over forty years. My job is to explore the human condition—the self, the world we live in, our relationship to the beings with whom we share the world—the plants and animals, the air and water. I try to understand and illuminate with language the inner life—my own and that of other people. To do this I must enter into another person’s psyche. In poetry and fiction this person is an invented being derived from observation, experience, and imagination.

The furniture of writing is the furniture of the world. Or the clothing. As we dress the body so the body dresses the psyche. Am I my body? When my body dies, do I die with it? There’s a scene in the film Little Buddha in which a Tibetan monk tries to explain something of Buddhism to the middle class American father whose son may be a reincarnation of a Tibetan master. The monk fills a cup of tea but rather than offer it to the American or drink it himself, he smashes the cup against the side of a table. Holding the handle and looking around at the shards of clay, he asks the American if the tea is gone. Of course it’s not gone, it’s just not in the cup anymore. Am I like the tea? Is the tea aware of its own existence? Tea is liquid and will evaporate leaving almost nothing behind but a brown stain.

The world is breathtakingly beautiful—the dust in the wind, the smell of that dust when rain falls, the shape and motion of leaves on a tree, the tree, the body language of a person who is physically hurt or angry or bitter, the look in the eyes of one who is longing for something unattainable, water and those insects that can walk on water, snow. Perhaps there is a book waiting to be made of nothing but a list of such details. Notice, the book tells us, what is all around us, everywhere present yet secretive.

While I have worked as a journalist, I rarely set out in my poetry and fiction to comment on current events or to articulate my personal and political values. Of course those values lead me to think in certain ways and are present in what I write. My poems, driven by image and metaphor, often try to reveal what those in power would hide.

I was raised in a working class household. My father left school at grade six and worked his entire life as a laborer doing physically hard and often dangerous jobs. At one point, a semi tractor-trailer hitch broke and the trailer fell on him crushing both his arms. He thought literature that made no money was worthless, money being the measure of worth. He was ashamed of his lack of money, seeing it as evidence that he was dumb. “If you’re so smart,’ he asked me, “why aren’t you rich?”

My mother grew up one of nine children on a dairy farm but after serving in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II attended normal school and became a teacher working with children in grades one to three. She never wanted to be a schoolteacher but saw it as the best escape for a woman born in 1920 into a household with no money.

It’s for my mother and father that I write.

There is a fairy tale we tell ourselves in America—anyone can do or be anything. If we work hard we can attain our goals. If we don’t, we didn’t work hard enough or we lacked the capacity for the thing we wanted to do and be. If these things are true, then the reason the US has never had a woman president is that no woman has ever worked hard enough and been competent enough to gain the office. This is one of the great lies told by people who need to believe that their gain has come only through individual effort and talent. The truth is that the vagaries of birth—money, race, religion, geography—also influence our fate and sometimes we are as lucky as we are talented. Or as unlucky.

While old age is gaining on me, I’m not dead yet, and there are some benefits to having been around the block a few times. A lot of what a younger person might feel is history remains for me current and personal. During the Watergate hearings investigating President Nixon, I was working unloading rough-cut lumber from railroad boxcars at a siding above the Columbia River near Bridal Veil, Oregon. It was exhausting work. And often painful—although we wore heavy leather gloves, shards of wood went through the gloves and into our hands. In the evening I sat pulling splinters out and soaking my hands in disinfectant then coating them with antibiotic cream while watching administration officials on television who were simultaneously explaining to and withholding from Congress what they had done or not done.

I was a recent college graduate with a degree in American Studies—a combination of history, political theory, and literature—and I was watching the American president lie about his administration’s involvement in the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. It seemed that the more Nixon resisted telling the truth, the more truth came out. The president had an enemies list and he used the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS against those enemies. He bugged the offices of political opponents and hired people to infiltrate groups peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. The infiltrators were to commit acts of violence so as to damage the peace movement.

President Nixon tape-recorded many of his White House conversations and, after a series of court cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes. On August 9, 1974, seeking to avoid impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned as president. Less than a month later his former vice-president and then President Gerald Ford pardoned the president.

So part of why I write is to pursue the truth. Maybe that’s inner truth—what it is to be a person. Sometimes, though it’s more social, more political. I don’t plan it but in writing I butt up against social reality. In the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space, I imagine the life of a sixteen-year-old Basque girl who in 1902 immigrates to the invented town of Wolf, Wyoming. In Wolf, Zelestina meets a slightly younger orphaned half-Arapaho, half-Shoshone girl. As the two become friends they, the narrator, and the reader discover connections between the oppression of Basques and American Indians.

All this leads me to the Trump presidency, a presidency guided by the absence of guidance, by a quixotic individual and quixotic appointees who say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. The president governs by bluster and ego. And it turns out he is willing to lie regularly, publicly, and bigly. Of late we have heard him explain the recently passed House of Representatives health care proposal in terms that are the opposite of what the bill actually says.

In his lack of commitment to the truth, the president’s actions and speech endanger our society for, in the absence of a commitment to the truth, citizens cannot know what to believe or how to respond to events. In a small way, this repudiation of the truth threatens literature by threatening the integrity of our individual and collective inner lives.

I feel unsettled speaking about Trump when I meant to speak about writing but I have never before felt so concerned about the possible destructive consequences of a president’s actions. I’m uncertain if I can sit down at my desk and work on a poem or story. For the first time since I was in my twenties, I’ve felt that maybe I made a big mistake being a writer. Maybe I should have gone to law school. A lawyer after all might be able to help us resist some of the inhumane proposals President Trump has made—a 25 billion dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, executive orders that use race, religion, and citizenship to selectively keep people out of the U.S., budget bills with hidden agendas such as abolishing funding for reproductive health care services provided by Planned Parenthood or ending the Meals on Wheels program that serves many older and housebound people, health care reform that would lead to millions more Americans having no health insurance while exempting the U.S. Congress from the effects of the proposed reform. It’s just too much—cavalier cruelty against the poor and less powerful coupled with bold proposals to give ever greater advantage to the rich and powerful.

I guess I could write about it. And if I did, my thoughts on craft would be guided by the situation we’re in. I would try to speak spontaneously and personally as if to a friend and with as much emotional honesty as I could muster.

-----

David Romtvedt
"I was born in Portland, Oregon but grew up in southern Arizona. It was hot. I received a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop then worked with the US Peace Corps and Maison du Qu├ębec in the Congo and Rwanda. Later I worked building a children’s park and playground in Jalapa, Nicaragua, during the war against the U.S.-supported Contras. In Jalapa we were bombed by American jets flown with Honduran markings. After some years doing any job I could find—mostly labor--I began working as a writer, musician, and teacher in the artist in schools programs of Alaska, Washington, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming where after ten years of work in other states I was thrown out of a school for reading a poem called “Our Distance” that appeared in my book How Many Horses. I've taught as a half time professor at the University of Wyoming for twenty-two years. My most recent books are the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space (University of Nevada Center for Basque Studies, 2015) and the poetry collection Dilemmas of the Angels (LSU, 2017). Though I’m disheartened by the politics of the Trump era, I’m grateful to be here."





Tuesday, May 16, 2017

THE BOOK, THE STORY

post by Lynn 


Have you ever had moments when you started to doubt the importance of writing, of story?

I have.

I have had the thought run through my brain that says what I am attempting as a writer is, well, hardly substantial. Hardly life altering.

The last time I had a thought along those lines I coincidentally received a poem via email, from one of the authors who contributed to the Watch My Rising anthology that I edited last year.

That author’s name is Jim Littwin, and he attached the poem to some other comment, during an exchange we were having about the anthology.

Out of the blue, you might say.

Jim wrote the poem about an experience his father had during World War II. His father, John L. Littwin, was a captain in the Army Air Corps. He was shot down on his 53rd mission, and captured by the Nazis in May of 1944.

Here’s the poem, which was originally published in Whetstone, of Barrington, Illinois in 1985:



The Book

“Tell a story, they said.
“Keep our minds off the cold.”

My father didn’t answer.
He was just as cold,
     just as tired.
He could count his bones
     by touching them.

They trudged in snow,
feet wrapped in gunny sacks.

The moon looked like bread.

The Nazis, black helmets
     glinting like hell stars,
clawed the ranks of prisoners
to tear away the wounded
     and the slow.

The wishes of his men
and the rhythm of their walking
     made a book appear
before my father’s eyes.

He saw it floating there.

He began to read,
and men huddled round him
     to be near the story,
the story pulling them.

When my father reached out
and turned his hand
     in the frozen air,
an airman asked
     what he was doing.
“Turning the page,” he said.

And their feet and the cold
     were forgotten,
the guards in black helmets
     forgotten,
and my father read
     till his fingers froze.

With the sudden silence
     and crunch of snow,
     someone asked,
“What’s wrong, Captain?”

“My hands,” he said.
“I can’t turn the page.”

And the airman
     reached out, turning
     his hand in the icy air,
and my father went on reading.

They lost no more
     to the cold that night.
They lost no more
     to the snow.

          Jim Littwin (c) Whetstone, 1985




I read the poem.

I re-read the poem.

The doubts dissolved.

My stories may never matter in the way that John Littwin’s story mattered on that long ago march, but story matters.

Story matters.

Thanks, Jim Littwin, for sharing that story, that poem, with me.

How did you know I needed it?




Jim Littwin’s work has appeared in Story Quarterly (Volumes 5/6 and 10), Whetstone (Volumes 7, 12, 15), Willow ReviewThe National Catholic Reporter (7x), St. Anthony Messenger (4x), Hyphen Magazine, The Daily Herald, Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology, Midwest Magazine, and other publications.

He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction, a Whetstone Prize for Poetry, and a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship.

To read another fine poem by Jim Littwin, “The Lost Gospel,” you can get a copy of Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology at Powells.com, Amazon.com or from Recover Wyoming.


AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT

Memorial Day is coming up. Time to go lay some wreaths on the family graves at the cemetery in Lusk, Wyoming, including on that of my father, James B. Griffith, Jr., a veteran of World War II.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief

Image from http://marvel.com/
by Susan

Like half the world, it seems, I caught Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the theater this last weekend. WOW! I hadn't seen the first one, so I had to run out right away, rent it from the library and watch it twice.

Both movies were absolutely entertaining and also, frankly, ridiculous. Yet, I was more than willing to go on a journey that involved faster than light travel, a talking raccoon, and a sentient tree with limited vocabulary.

Ah, suspension of disbelief. A story is a spell the writer weaves, and the goal is to not do anything to break the enchantment.

I'm a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy reader, so I'm willing to play along with almost any concept. Waking up transformed into a giant cockroach? Let's see where it goes. An infinite improbability spaceship drive? I'm in. A world resting on the backs of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle who swims through space? Great setting!

Still, there are books I struggle to finish or can't get through because they snap me out of the spell. One Thousand White Women lost me with a main character I couldn't believe and a supporting cast of stereotypes, some offensive. I love a good Earth-ending asteroid story, but when I read Shiva Descending, I noticed that the meteor strikes seemed to only hit cities, leaving the 97% of the world that is rural land and ocean untouched. (Spoiler: Ogallalla, Nebraska, gets it.)

So what makes me willing to enter into and believe a writer's world? Clearly, given my reading and viewing tastes, it's not strict compliance with reality. Instead, these are the factors that stand out for me.

  • Convincing characters: This, to me, is the most important of all. Make me love them or hate them. Give me a rich, fully-developed character whose motivations I can grasp and whose actions are consistent with their own personality, history, and society.
  • Internal consistency: The story's world doesn't need to be consistent with the real world, but it does need to be consistent with itself. This is where your hidden backstory -- the things you know, but don't include in the story -- will come in handy. Readers will feel particularly cheated if the writer changes the rules of the world to extricate the hero from a sticky wicket. Superman can't suddenly develop a tolerance for kryptonite halfway through the comic book.
  • Getting the facts right when they matter: When Andy Weir first wrote The Martian, he posted chapters online on his blog and invited readers to fact-check him on the science. The result? A riveting story that became a best-seller and was made into a major motion picture. Even thought it's a fantastic premise -- one man inadvertently stranded on Mars -- the attention to how the science works keeps the spell intact. 
Finally, tell me a good story. Frankly, make it worth my while to believe you. You're a writer -- I know for a fact you're lying to me. Give me a good enough ride that I'll become willingly gullible.




Tuesday, May 2, 2017

TELL ME THIS...

Interview: Lynn with author Laura Pritchett



In Laura's recently-released novel, The Blue Hour, readers are introduced to the tight-knit community of Blue Moon Mountain, nestled high in the Colorado Mountains. These neighbors form an interconnected community of those living off the land, drawn by the beauty and isolation all around them. So when, at the onset of winter, the beloved town veterinarian commits a violent act, the repercussions of that tragedy are felt all across the mountainside, upending their lives and causing their paths to twist and collide in unexpected ways.

I recently caught up with Laura, who had just returned from a book tour, and asked her a few writing and writing-life-related questions.

You’ll be intrigued by her responses. I promise.


Hey, You 


Lynn: 

In Chapter One of The Blue Hour, we are introduced to Sy.

Well, we actually become Sy, in a way.
You bring your wife into focus. She is standing in front of you, only inches away, tucking her short blond hair behind her ear. In the past, she has been angry with you, angry with your selfishness, angry at your supposed mental illness, angry with your physical body and its pains, and she has also showed signs of pity and compassion and fear. 
Obviously, you write this chapter from the second person point of view, a fairly unusual—and often cautioned against—point of view.

How did you decide to do that? Did writing it present any challenges?

Laura Pritchett:

I normally stay away from second person myself. If it’s not done well, it falls flat—it can feel forced and gimmicky and author-ly. So I hear you. In this story, though, I found a rare instance when I thought it was essential: I was telling the story from the point of view of a man who is mentally ill, and in order for the reader to sympathize with what he’s about to do—which is horrible and painful—we need to understand where he’s coming from and what’s going on in his head and heart.

To my mind, I needed to do this in the most direct way possible and in a unique way that signified his view of the world. In other words, I wanted form to inform content. I imagined him speaking to himself, the reader, the universe—trying to explain what he was feeling, and why. Second person was the way he came to me, and it was the best choice for this particular story, in my opinion.

The Inner Realm 


Lynn: 

In all of your fiction that I’ve read, the reader gets to spend a fair amount of time in the heads of your characters—thinking, deciding, ruminating, wondering.

As in Chapter Four of The Blue Hour, when we are in Ruben’s head:

… he needed to get his own brain and heart straight. 
Jess was too young. Needed more life experience. Should not, under any circumstance, get married. To him or to anyone. 
But he loved her. She was perfect. There were so many things he respected: how she had a complete life of her own, that he did not at once become its center. Her preference for action over speech, but when she did talk, it was imbued with culture and oddness. How she pursued her best self. Engaged with the world with confidence and trust. He appreciated her desire in bed. But mostly her desire for life. He felt physically better when Jess was around, both less anxious and in less pain. 

This is an aspect of your writing that I am very drawn to, and enjoy as a reader, but I have a couple of questions.

Fiction writer Kent Nelson cautions about writing thoughts. He talked about the issue during a Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference (and I paraphrase from my notes):

Thoughts—a hard issue. Thoughts are not action or events. Too often thoughts are explanatory, used to dispense information. They can draw the reader out of the story by making the reader aware of the writer working behind the curtain. It doesn’t work so well if the character is talking to himself for the reader’s benefit.

How do you find the right balance of action and introspection for your story?

Laura Pritchett:

Well, I love Kent Nelson and his work, and I totally understand, respect, and agree with what he’s saying here. Too often, writers (especially beginning writers—which is fine, because they’re just learning!) use thoughts as a way to “info dump.”

But I will argue, and I think Kent would agree, that some novels are expansive horizontally (across time and space) and some novels are expansive vertically (inward, towards human experience). The beauty of a novel (as opposed to a short story) is that you have this distance.

In this novel, I wanted to go vertical. There’s not that much expanse covered in time or space, after all (it’s all on one mountain, during one winter), but I could go deep into the inner recesses of these folks. Indeed, one of my great goals as a writer is to explore psychological and emotional truths. I am far less interested in plot --- and far more interested in interior landscape.

I work really hard not only tell a good story, but to explore and illuminate emotional and psychological truths. I prefer those kind of books, I prefer those kind of discussions. To my mind, that is the writer’s hard task—and privilege—to dig deep into the interior recesses of my characters, so as to render the human experience in all its wacky contradictory wonderfulness. To my mind, this includes thoughts.

The trick is how to do it well. It almost never works to put something in italics and use third person. For example: Writing thoughts is hard, he thought. That’s horrible. The trick is to simply be in the mind of your narrator.

Lynn:

Is there something about the way you write introspection that helps it work?

Laura Pritchett: 

1. Don’t use italics!

2. Don’t filter through your narrator. Run right at the thought/emotion.

3. Make sure that interior life/thoughts are interesting and unusual. Otherwise, don’t bother.


The Conversation 


Lynn: 

In a workshop I attended last summer, author Kim Barnes talked about how writers become part of the conversation of their times (I’m paraphrasing).

Then she asked us a question:

As a writer, what kind of conversation do you want to be part of? 

How would you answer her question?

Laura Pritchett: 

Literary writing. I’ve always loved those books, always wanted to be part of the world (even if, say, I could make more money writing commercial/genre lit). I’m not a snob --- I’m a fan of all writers and writing, but I love books that focus on the words, on the poetry, on the language, on challenging cultural assumptions.

Fill in the blank 


Lynn: 

Would you fill in the blanks below for us?

Laura Pritchett:

One thing writers should do is

Read. And buy books, so that you are part of a community, and so that you’re fostering that community that you say you care about. Buy books not only books in the genre you write in, but subscribe to (and thereby support) at least one literary journal, which will keep you open to new writers and genres.

One thing writers shouldn’t do is

Think about publishing and finished product before they’ve focused on the process, the art of it.


What fuels my creativity is…

Walking in nature.

What saps my creativity is… 

Laundry. Ha! Just kidding. A truer answer is that current world events—which cause me despair—are sapping my creativity. It’s hard to find the spunk and spark when you’re losing so much that you care about.

I cringe when I read a piece of writing that

Has dialogue tags such as “he sighed” or “he grumped,” or “she whined.” People don’t normally grump or sigh words. They say words. We should know from context that he is grumpy, that she is whiney. I dislike dialogue tags in general, but especially ridiculous ones.

I cheer when I read a piece of writing that

Has voice. I’ve been asked to judge several contests lately, and that’s a joy, but I’m surprised at how many authors don’t sink into a voice. They sound more like an academic paper.

If I couldn’t be a writer I would be a

Oh, dear. Now it’s too late! I guess I’d be a lawyer, fighting for the good. Lawyers use language a lot, and at times, they have power and influence. I am an idealist, a believer in the power of words to affect change.




Laura Pritchett is an American author whose work is rooted in the natural world. Her four novels have garnered numerous national literary awards, including PEN USA Award for Fiction, the High Plains Book Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and the WILLA Award.

She’s published over 200 essays and short stories in magazines (including The New York Times, The Sun, O Magazine, Salon, High Country News, Orion, and others), mostly about environmental issues in the American West.

Laura holds a PhD from Purdue University and teaches around the country. She is also known for her environmental stewardship, particularly in regard to land preservation and river health. She has two books forthcoming—a novel, The Blue Hour (Counterpoint, 2017) and Making Friends with Death, Kind Of (Viva Editions, 2017).

More at www.laurapritchett.com.