The Long and Short of It

Sometimes, I just want to sink into a thick, wide-ranging novel. Getting lost in a world completely unlike my own, or sliding deep into the consciousness of a character—my earliest reading memories are of experiences like this, whether I was reading Black Beauty or Little Women.

Over the last several years, I’ve been drawn a bit more toward work that is lean and spare. I suspect this is because I feel inundated by news and social media on all fronts (who doesn’t?), and I long for something focused, quiet, and controlled. Then again, sometimes the best way to drown out the everyday noise and chatter is to dive deep into a long book. It’s like food cravings: sometimes all I can think about is pasta drenched in a hearty meat sauce—but then, on another day, a crisp, fresh salad calls my name.

Lately, I tend to ping-pong back and forth between these reading tastes. I’m reading Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. James’s book is over 600 pages long, and is the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Drawing on African myths and narrative traditions, James has created an entire universe which, while rooted in African sources and sensibilities, is also profoundly original (the book includes maps of the various regions and locations which the characters inhabit, such as The Darklands, The Blood Swamp, and The House with No Doors) and unabashedly expansive (it also includes a list of all the characters, which is helpful, given that there are over 50). I’ll be honest: I don’t want to enter the world of Black Leopard every day. It’s a violent and complex one, and sometimes, after a day of work and kids, that’s not what I want. But even on the days I don’t visit, I marvel at the scope of the book, and the many threads it weaves.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis clocks in at just over 700 pages—but it includes about 200 stories. The longest are no more than 8 or 9 pages; the shortest, a paragraph or two. Many of them are singularly unnerving, not only in content but in form: how does she compress an entire narrative down to a couple of pages? When I read Davis, I often finish a story and my first instinct is that I’m disappointed that it’s already done. But this isn’t because the story seems incomplete—if anything, it makes me a little sad to realize how succinctly a story, or a life, can be summed up (not that it’s easy to do as a writer!).

Reading Marlon James, I’m reminded that, as a writer, I have the right to go big, and to offer my readers entire worlds. Lydia Davis, meanwhile, reminds me not to burden my stories and poems with anything they—and the reader—don’t need.

I’ve now tried my hand at writing a (still unfinished) 250-page novel, as well as several poems that are no more than a page. I’ve written lyrical essays that clock in at 15 pages, and barely 1 page. The writing has its own necessary length—whether it’s 500 pages, or 5.

Language and Landscape

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I try to hike at least a portion of the Pocket Road trail here in Beacon at least once a week. On my last couple of walks up the trail, I’ve been leaving my headphones and podcasts at home, and instead paying extra careful attention to the rapidly evolving foliage, and the swollen creek rushing down the mountain—because I’ve been reading Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane.

Published a couple of years ago, Landmarks traces Macfarlane’s explorations of the relationship between land, language, and history across the British Isles. I’m reading it slowly, savoring all of the linguistic nuggets he unearths, and it’s on my mind during my hikes in my own familiar terrain.

I’m only a couple of chapters in, but Macfarlane has already introduced and discussed several fascinating examples of nature-influenced language. For example, in the historical northern Scots dialect, “blinter” refers to the dazzle of winter stars on a clear night. Imagine—someone, at some distant point in Scottish history, looked up at the stars night after winter night, and knew he (or she) needed a word to describe this seasonal, regular part of his (or her) landscape and life.

Macfarlane’s overall point, as he notes, is that “language deficit leads to attention deficit.” He couches this point primarily in our linguistic relationship to the natural world, which places him in a long line of British writers and poets (Wordsworth writing about the Lake District, for example).

Americans have their own history of locating themselves and their language in the land (Thoreau’s Walden comes to mind). Last fall, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, before I visited Arches National Park in southern Utah, because Abbey worked in and around Arches and Moab as a park ranger in the late 1950s. Like Macfarlane, Abbey believes passionately that our relationship to the natural world is sacred, and in danger of being lost—and worth writing about and recording, because

“This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

While Macfarlane locates people’s history in the geography of the British Isles, Abbey finds his own natural home in the desert:

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

I’ve never written directly or deeply about the landscape of the Hudson Valley—my own native, most-loved region. Macfarlane and Abbey make me wonder if it might be time to learn more about how people have traditionally spoken of and interacted with this land, and write about this sweet valley that has nourished three generations of my family. 

Time for me to hit the trail again, I think, and find some inspiration on the mountain.

Let’s Get Political

by Kristen Holt Browning

Politics and writing: do they mix? Up until recently, I would have said “no.” I thought works of fiction and poetry that overtly articulated political opinions or worldviews were artless and heavy handed. 

But it’s 2018, and regardless of whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, politics is everywhere. A very smart teacher recently told me, “All poets are contemporary. You write in the present you live in.” Her point was that your work has to speak, both formally and linguistically, to your era. If it doesn’t, it isn’t honest, or relevant. And if we live in an era saturated by politics, how can our writing not absorb and reflect that reality?

On the face of it, the new novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s presented as the memoir of Jack Sheppard, famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker, who served as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera’s Mack the Knife (or, maybe you know him from the Bobby Darin song).

Jack is raised as a girl, although, upon reaching adolescence, he (his preferred pronoun) takes to wearing male clothing and taping down his breasts. Bess, his lover, is a prostitute of South Asian descent. This is a multicultural, polyglot world, where people decry, undercut, and push against the social, economic, racial, and gender constraints and categories put upon them—something that is happening as urgently as ever in the twenty-first century. Confessions of the Fox is a propulsive story that encompasses grand themes of identity and individual self-determination, and that also happens to couch its plea for a rethinking of our ideas about gender and diversity in gorgeously inventive language.

Good poetry pushes language as far as it can bend without breaking it completely. It’s the opposite of bland and simplistic political sloganeering. In Morgan Parker’s collection There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, pop culture intertwines with urgent political rage to present a wide-ranging overview of black womanhood in contemporary America, as in the opening of “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”:

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped

Like your body I wish was mine but as dark

As something in my mind telling me

I’m not woman enough for these days

Parker offers a wide historical range of black female experience, as when she writes a poem on the Hottentot Venus that manages to take in slavery, capitalism, and white domination of black bodies:

No one worries about me

because I am getting paid.

I am here to show you

who you are, to cradle

your large skulls

and remind you

you are perfect. Mother America,

unleash your sons.

Everything beautiful, you own.

Rosenberg and Parker are both expanding the inclusive limits of writing. Their work is political in its topics and obsessions, in the stories it chooses to honor and represent. This, I think, is how politics is best embedded in writing: by incorporating the entirely of one’s world, insisting on the necessity of one’s desires and concerns, and thereby expanding the worlds of others.

Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?