Fireside Chat with Borges in this week’s episode of The Drunken Odyssey podcast

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This week I’m packing up my fall wardrobe as I get ready to head north for the Burlington Book Festival and the official kick-off of the Juventud book tour (remember, you can still donate at Vanessa’s National Book Tour and help offset expenses – thank you!) What makes great listening while packing? Why, none other than The Drunken Odyssey podcast about the literary life. In this week’s episode, host John King and I discuss This Craft of Verse, the wonderful collection of lectures by Jorge Luis Borges. You may tune-in to our rather meta fireside chat-about-a-fireside-chat here: Vanessa Blakeslee discusses This Craft of Verse by Borges. Enjoy!


My “Top Ten Books on Writing” at Read Her Like an Open Book

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Be careful what you read. I say this because as much as the proliferation of “top ten” lists all over the Internet perturbs me, the list-as-blog-essay has penetrated my brain as well. Although the seed really was planted the other day, when I got to thinking how useful it would be to jot down a list of the craft books I’ve found most indispensable throughout the years and share it with my students. But why not just share my carefully-crafted list with them? And voila, the blog-post-as-list-essay was born. Hopefully mine isn’t as annoying as the “Top Ten Signs Your Boyfriend is Getting Ready to Dump You” variety. Quite the contrary. I hope you’ll find these books — selected without any political correctness, with in fact more male authors than female — as indispensable as I have. In assembling my go-to craft reads I didn’t let myself think too much, just knelt at the dusty bookshelf and quickly pulled off the ones that I’ve returned to the most.

Perhaps one day I’ll have my own to proudly add to the shelf, chock full of pithy wisdom, earth-shattering analysis, and inventive writing exercises. But for now, you may check out my “top ten” list here:

Interview with Ross McMeekin at Green Mountains Review Online

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The bittersweet realities of expat living, Catholicism, and American short fiction master Andre Dubus are just a few of the subjects that cropped up in my conversation with fellow VCFA alum and fiction writer, Ross McMeekin, now featured at GMR Online. Ross asked so many fresh, perceptive questions of my work; it was a real pleasure to answer them.  You can read our discussion here:

Catch my “Advice to Beginning Writers” at the Grist blog

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The good folks at Grist literary journal invited me to write an essay for their blog. In light of becoming a debut author this month, I chose to respond to the famous quote from John Steinbeck about just why it takes so darn long, sometimes, to become a writer worth reading: “It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” Steinbeck wrote this in a letter to a writer seeking his advice, circa 1963.

You can read my take on the subject here:

“Inside the Nest” at Atticus Review

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I’m honored to have been named this month’s Featured Fiction Writer at Atticus Review, where I had the pleasure of discussing the craft of fiction writing as well as my debut story collection, Train Shots, with editor Jamie Iredell. You can read the two stories — both aptly chosen for their Jesus-theme — and our conversation here. “Ask Jesus” is included in Train Shots and first appeared in The Madison Review and subsequently in the snazzy Australian journal, Going Down Swinging; I’m thrilled that its poised to gain an even larger audience online. “Jesus Surfs” was a finalist in the Wordstock Short Fiction Contest and published in the Wordstock Ten anthology. It’s one of my favorite stories, a homage of sorts to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one that I hope will find its place in another collection of mine someday.

You can read the interview and stories at Atticus Review here:


Language Specificity and Character in Katherine Mansfield’s “Revelations”

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Character arc in the short story often depends on how the writer employs descriptive detail—certain techniques illicit certain effects, and the external circumstances which the character faces often determine the amount of concrete and abstract detail necessary. To truly render the emotional undertones of a scene, the writer may use concrete detail to spring into the abstract, and vice versa, weaving back and forth from the concrete portrayal of looks, behavior, and surroundings to ground the scene and propel the action forward. In her story “Revelations,” Katherine Mansfield uses the most crucial, necessary specifics of both concrete and abstract details in building seemingly inevitable resolutions to her characters’ dilemmas.

As Monica enters the hair dresser’s shop, Mansfield transitions from the preceding paragraph of exposition, where we get Monica’s thoughts on how the shop usually is, and that she feels she is her “real self” there. Thus, the first and second lines contain more abstract language to capture the internal: “But to-day—how curious! Madame hardly greeted her.” Now able to move further into the external, immediate scene, Mansfield renders concrete visual and auditory detail with her next descriptions of Madame’s looks and behavior: “Her face was whiter than ever, but rims of bright red showed round her blue bead eyes, and even the rings on her pudgy fingers did not flash…When she called through the wall-telephone to George there was a note in her voice that had never been there before.”Mansfield could continue giving us more detail, but in order to maintain the effect of “revealing and concealing,” she chooses to sprinkle the details throughout the rest of the scene. In her next line, she moves to a handful of observations and Monica’s reaction as she as digests them, and so the language Mansfield chooses is more abstract: “But Monica would not believe this. No, she refused to. It was just her imagination.” Because Monica’s internal reaction to the dismal external reality is to refuse her observations, and she clings to her lofty expectations of the salon visit, her subsequent actions organically follow her pattern of thinking. Continuing to give us Monica’s reaction in the abstract vein would be superfluous; next, Mansfield returns to the concrete to give us a precise picture of Monica’s reactive looks and behavior: “She sniffed greedily the warm, scented air, and passed behind the velvet curtain into the small cubicle.”

As Mansfield builds toward the climax, she does so in a way that continues to force Monica to internally face her external reality. The wind blows outside and George doesn’t come, making it more difficult for Monica’s thoughts and emotional state to remain the same. First Monica notices her jacket and hat still hanging on the peg, a sign of George’s delay, and the quietness of the shop. Then Mansfield launches into the abstract: “Monica wished she hadn’t come. Oh, what a mistake to have come! Fatal. Fatal. Where was George? If he didn’t appear the next moment she would go away.” This paragraph uses concrete details of surrounding and behavior more sparingly, allowing us more insight into the transformation of Monica’s thoughts and their effect on her behavior. The external circumstances force a response. Monica removes the kimono, her “fingers trembled,” and Mansfield decides to use this opportunity of detailed, concretely shown tension to turn inward, revealing information the reader needs to know as the protagonist’s inner state launches into flux. “There was a tugging feeling at her heart as though her happiness—her marvelous happiness—were trying to get free.”

In the ensuing sequence of events, the external circumstances wholly determine Monica’s reactions. George appears at the last minute, so Monica gives in to carrying through with the appointment. Mansfield focuses several lines on George’s appearance, and here demonstrates that the portrayal of characters, how they observe and react to one another, does not necessarily have to occur in the concrete-to abstract-back to concrete pattern of revelation. Probably since the most recent lines dwell on the more abstract, internal workings of the protagonist, Mansfield’s description of Monica’s reaction to George’s awful appearance start with her inward reaction, use less descriptive language, and move outward: “How queerly he smiled!” (she must validate her observation); “It was the mirror of course” (she tries to refute it immediately). She turns around and is forced to greet him face to face. Now Mansfield moves outward and forces Monica into the more specific details of reality: “His lips curled back in a sort of grin, and—wasn’t he unshaven?—he looked almost green in the face.” Where before Mansfield tells us he simply “smiled,” here we are shown his smile is not so simple, but fraught with turmoil.

On the micro level, the degree to which Mansfield describes a particular look or a gesture depends on its purpose, the emotional weight it must play out in the story. For instance, the second to last paragraph of “Revelations” begins, “George took a brush”—a description of simple action. However, the ensuing line in which George reveals the death of his child (the story’s climax) Mansfield intensifies by coupling this delivery with the playing out of his gesture in more concrete detail: “And then suddenly he raised himself and, looking at Monica, gave a strange wave with the brush and said…” This maximizes the emotional effect on Monica in the scene and directly contributes to the overall effect of “Revelations.”

Mansfield chooses her details from varying degrees of specificity to the more general depending on the natural progression of events as they unfold. Had she failed to make such deliberate choices, not only might her stories struggle to achieve the same poignant epiphanies at the end, but her character arcs might meander rather than unify. Her balanced technique of interweaving from the internal to the external, and vice versa, pausing to focus on the most significant, revealing behaviors and thoughts of characters at the precise moments, allows the stories to resonate to their utmost potential.

Plot and Joyce’s Epiphany in “Araby” and “The Dead”

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Joyce’s concerns with character-focused, psychological fiction unfold simultaneously with his plot lines in order to render his final effect of epiphany. While Poe’s preoccupation of a story culminating in a “singularity of effect” seems similar to epiphany, Joyce’s moment of illumination occurs more cerebrally within the character than the more emotionally-charged endings advocated by Poe. Joyce takes Poe’s theory and complicates it by maintaining a closer “third person” protagonist whose thought processes unfold concurrently with the Aristotelian/Freytag models of plot to achieve his epiphany. In “Araby” and “The Dead,” Joyce uses plot chronologically, determining and fueling the action with the interior processes and choices of the protagonist combined with external obstacles, to mine the greatest depth and breadth possible in the ending’s epiphany.

The third person protagonist’s preoccupations in “Araby” appear immediately following the exposition and description of setting in the beginning, with the rising action. His infatuation has him fantasizing about his friend’s sister often and the line, “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” renders the simple plot one of a “hero’s journey.” We know what he wants is lofty, out of reach. The rare opportunity of the two characters meeting in the next scene, an external event brought about by the dead priest, incites the protagonist to make a choice: he gives into temptation and willingly takes on an obstacle, Araby, for the chance at winning his love. Thus, plot and character unfold with each propagating the other to the fullest extant of the narrative moment.

Joyce uses external obstacles in the following scenes regarding the protagonist getting permission to go to Araby, raising the stakes first with his uncle’s casual dismissal, then with the time passing, and then with the slowness of the train to diminish the chances of the protagonist reaching the bazaar and drawing out suspense for the reader. The external circumstances change the protagonist internally, as after all his obstacles have nearly been overcome, the emptiness of the setting makes him timid, even disillusioned. “Remembering with difficulty why I had come” he makes an effort to achieve his last obstacle, buying something to win his love. The climax occurs quickly in which his disillusionment increases and causes him to decline, giving up all he had been striving for in one instant. The brief falling action further informs us of his futile thoughts and feelings as he leaves the bazaar, the description of his internal desolation heightened with the external bleakness of the lights going off, all building to the ending’s epiphany, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity: and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Joyce’s epiphany complicates Aristotle’s resolution of a protagonist’s recognition from ignorance to knowledge with a much deeper level of insight and impact, by choosing the organic, concurrent evolution of character and plot throughout the story.

Similarly, “The Dead” follows the unfolding of Gabriel’s inner obstacles as he is faced with external forces, leading to his revelation at the end and inevitably so, as Joyce makes careful choices causing the plot and character to evolve together so that the most illuminating epiphany will be achieved. Joyce uses the encounters with the three women at the party to reveal different character aspects of Gabriel as the rising action occurs chronologically. First he questions Lily and makes her feel uncomfortable, showing his ineptitude at relating to those of another class and then forcing money on her. Miss Ivors corners him, a second obstacle, and he gets angry at having nothing to say about her passionate cause, revealing his reluctance to live a full, involved life.  His failure at attaining the final obstacle, intimacy with his wife, propels the direction of the action even further inward, as Gabriel must face his true self and the “deadness” of his soul.

Discovering that his wife was thinking of a former lover and not him in the climactic moment determines the nature of the epiphany that must come at the end. The revelation triggers a surfacing of internal emotions, and as Joyce’s point-of-view allows us full access to them, the suspense continues after the climax and throughout the story of his wife’s lover as the falling action ensues. His wife asleep, Gabriel is forced to face himself alone, the hero at the end of his tragic journey. While his thoughts and realizations bring about sadness, as the narrator states, “The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree” his approach to the epiphany is a more intellectual one. He sees his life as passionless. The mounting emotions combine with the rational revelations to bring a spiritual element to the resounding epiphany, “His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon the living and the dead.”

These emotional and logical internal processes combined culminate in a spiritual illumination of human experience, exemplifying the potential of the epiphany as a craft device. The intent of achieving such an effect at the end informs every choice in both “Araby” and “The Dead,” along with the evolution of the close third person point-of-view. Without this approach, we would not be granted the clear insight into the thoughts and emotions needed to follow how the character’s inner state drives the plot. As the external obstacles are faced, so the internal follow, and the subsequent choices made by the protagonist propel the story and character toward the epiphany. Our ability to comprehend the epiphany determines solely on this ability to follow the character’s continuous internal process from the beginning with each obstacle faced. With such a focus on character, it may appear at times that Joyce’s focus on plot is obscured, but without use of his specific manner of external events revealing character and character choices subsequently driving plot, the story dependent on epiphany at the end would utterly fail. Joyce gives us a well-devised map, and we are never lost.