Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to all mother’s out there from the North American Review.

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Did you know that Mother’s Day was first celebrated in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother at St Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, which now holds the International Mother’s Day Shrine? It was her campaign to make “Mother’s Day” a recognized holiday in the United States that began in 1905, the year her beloved mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Anna’s mission was to honor her own mother by continuing work she started and to set aside a day to honor mothers, “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world”.

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On May 9, 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day as a national holiday and “as a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Today, the United States and most countries celebrate Mother’s day ion the Second Sunday of May but not all. For more information on when your country celebrates Mother’s day click here.


Ruby Nerio Barron is originally from San Antonio, Texas, who is currently attending theUniversity of Northern Iowa in pursuit of her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. Ruby ultimately wants to work for the Department of Corrections as a Mental Health Counselor as well as a Psychologist. She wants to make a difference in the rehabilitation process of inmates who are in the prison system. Passionate about all aspects of psychology, Ruby also has “mucho amor” for reading, writing and all sorts of literature. She adores working for North American Review as the Social Media Coordinator, Intern and when needed volunteer. Ruby resides in Cedar Falls, Iowa

For the Love of Bucket Lists By Jessica Morey-Collins

In Nicholas Sparks’s A Walk to Remember, a virginal Jamie Sullivan has only a few years left to live. After much cantanker and conflicting interest, bad boy Landon falls in love with her, and she—after a time—reciprocates. Over the remainder of the narrative, the purity and power of her love calls forth his ambition and retunes his moral compass. The role of ambition in their love is explored through the conceit of Jamie’s bucket list.

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Much of their courtship centers around this bucket list. In the film adaptation, Landon (played by mega-hunk Shane West) makes Jamie (played by a pale and angelic Mandy Moore) feel special by applying a temporary tattoo of a butterfly to her shoulder, so she can check off “get a tattoo” from her list. (Although—not really Landon, ugh.)

The characters make it through the obstacle course of their circumstances and personal differences and find love. They cross the nuptial finish line, thereby crossing off Jamie’s #1 bucket list item: to marry in the church where her mother and father wed. They spend a brief hiatus in bliss, then (spoiler alert!) Jamie dies, leaving Landon bound for medical school and sad, though he has experienced “more love than most people know in a lifetime.”

Continue reading

Following Your Character Down the Rabbit Hole by Chad Koch

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Conrad, my main character in “Equinox”, barely existed in the first drafts of this story. He was supposed to be a teenager dealing with his dad going off the deep end, but instead he was somewhat shy, somewhat hesitant, somewhat sad and confused. He was barely a side character. I tried pushing him into an ending–forcing him to blow up on his dad—but that ending didn’t make any sense at all. I didn’t see Conrad making that decision–and worse, because he was only “sort of” sad and confused, I didn’t really see him making any real decisions at all.

I was caught in the black hole of revising without progress. I changed endings, added plot devices, removed plot devices, and rearranged paragraphs. I added single lines of dialogue. I erased other lines of dialogue. I changed the setting from mostly Conrad’s home to mostly Conrad’s school. None of these decisions did anything except create hours of work, a countless number of interchangeable drafts, and, of course, still left me with a character that wasn’t able to take any action I wanted him to.

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Let me step back and say that as a kid, I was pretty nerdy. I don’t mean book smart nerdy or honors program nerdy, but video games nerdy, playing Dungeons and Dragons nerdy.  I loved running table-top role-playing games as the “dungeon master.” I’d make up dramatic stories where one of the people in the party would be afflicted with an illness that could only be cured from a potion held by a dangerous goblin. I’d relish having my friends see the game turn upside down as I revealed to them that the world in which they were slaying dragons was actually not a world at all, but the dreams of an insane wizard!

I didn’t need to think about characters and their motivations when running these games. The players automatically played “heroes”–the kinds of people you’d expect to be slaying dragons. And obviously it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that the “it’s just a dream” trick came out of nowhere because in the world these heroes belonged, people ate magic and miracles for breakfast.

I learned a lot about plot and setting from all this gaming but understood very little about character. And so, when I started writing, I knew the trajectory of the story–I knew the very last scene—before I even wrote a single word. This was great–at least in the first draft. I could pound out the five or six scenes and get to the dramatic conclusion no problem. However, looking at it a few days later, the writing would feel stiff, stale, and overly directed. The ending didn’t really match anything the characters were up to. There was a plot with an ending, but the characters could never realistically achieve or earn that ending.

Back to Conrad . . .  At the time, actually, I don’t think I even considered the character “Conrad.” I thought of him as a vehicle for my plot. People who read early drafts told me something about the character seemed off. Perhaps they meant flat? They sometimes thought of him as crazy. He acts completely differently than he thinks. He’s not insane, I’d say to myself, he’s just boring.

I hate free writing. I want to be in control. But after enough revolving, unchanging drafts, I got a suggestion to write “off the page.” I was told to follow my character. It was something I’d probably heard before but simply ignored. I’d never considered not writing a character within the context of a story, so I thought it was a waste of time. I approached it cautiously. What does a character do when exciting and dramatic things aren’t happening around them? Well, Conrad went to the park, he rode his bike around the high school, and he nearly put me to sleep with my own writing. It meandered. There were a couple pages of him eating apples and watching TV. I was bored with it and ready to give up.

Boris_Semeniako-big-31 blog for chad But then something appeared out of nowhere. I can’t point to anything in particular other than the boredom in my head gave way to mischievousness. I suddenly wanted Conrad to break the law. Nothing major. He was going to shop lift, like everyone does as a teenager. It started at a gas station, but then, and I have no idea why, I had him in a Walgreens. But why? Was he going to steal pain medicine to make crystal meth like on Breaking Bad?Just what was in a Walgreens?

In the story, one of the things Conrad grapples with is his coming to terms with being gay. I had trouble inhabiting the experience of a teenager in that situation now that I’m an adult and a lot of the awkwardness has thankfully been forgotten. So I found myself walking around a Walgreens near my house. I was a little embarrassed and felt crazy for doing this on behalf of my character. I was ready to buy a soda and leave, but then I walked past the pharmacy.

Next to the counter for prescription orders was a shelf of condoms. A lot of condoms; of all types and styles. Wouldn’t this be exciting for any fourteen-year-old boy to see? Maybe. But I didn’t really see that as interesting for Conrad. He wasn’t really at the stage where he’d want to use one or even think about that possibility. Which was a weird thought for me to have–this question about what Conrad might be interested in was something I hadn’t considered until I started writing away from the plot.

I turned the corner and the shelf extended farther. It had other prophylactics, but at the very end there was an entire section devoted to personal lubricants. There were tingly ones, self-heating ones, some that had a flavor of strawberries, and others that smelled like coconuts. That’s when a bell went off in my head, as if Conrad himself was telling me: that’s it! And then everything made sense.  Wouldn’t these be the things a boy that age would be curious about?  Wouldn’t he secretly want that instead? As some way of trying to uncover what real sex might feel like? I followed Conrad’s lead and suddenly everything about the story opened up. His curiosity about boys in gym class, his wonderment of the older boy Daniel, his desire for love—all of it came to life. Conrad started to have a direction. The ending of the story completely changed. The largest struggle became cutting back on Conrad’s thoughts and feelings. He suddenly made sense to me.

From then on, I’ve started following my characters as part of my first drafts. I’ll end up with several two-page rabbit holes in laundry mats trying to steal a candy bar out of a vending machine, hiding under the bed to avoid church, or hacking into a significant other’s email account to see if they’ve said anything good or bad. Somehow the characters rise from these nooks and crannies of non-stories. They become people, and the stories themselves become clear.


Chad Koch’s first published story received Transfer Magazine’s Leo Litwak Fiction Award. He was the 2012/2013 Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review co-Editor-in-Chief, and the 2010 recipient of the Miriam Ylvisakar Fellowship. He recently received his MFA from San Francisco State University. “Equinox” is his third story to be published, and it was published in issue 300.1, Winter of 2015.


Top illustration accompanies the story “Equinox” in issue 300.1, Winter 2015. Catherine Byun, a freelance illustrator based in San Francisco. She spends her time drawing, watching movies, and hiking around California. Her work appears in the North American Review’s Winter 2014 and Winter 2015 issue.


Middle illustration by Errata Carmona, a freelance artist who focuses on graphic design and illustrations for magazines, book covers, children’s books, branding, posters, logos, etc.

Bottom illustration by Boris Séméniako, a freelance illustrator since 1999. His images have been published in major french newspapers and magazines, such as Le Monde, L’Express, L’Humanité, Le Monde diplomatique, and Les Echos.

Both artists and their portfolios can be found on http://purplerainillustrators.com/.

Notes on “Frankie at Fort Lewis” by Jo Ann Heydron from issue 300.1

In “Frankie at Fort Lewis,” I tried to imagine what would happen if the political differences between members of an extended family rather like my own were put to the test.  If a family emergency arose like the one in this story—a battlefield wound that threatens to be fatal—would we show up for each other? If we did, would we reach inside ourselves for patience and fellow feeling or take the opportunity to air some of the judgments and resentments that we drag along behind us?  Both, I decided. Definitely both. So I tried to make room for both in the interchanges between Frankie and Amy, the twenty-something cousins in this story.

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For me writing this story (maybe writing every story) was an exercise in remembering how particular a mix each of us is of traits and opinions, generosity and self-protection. Soldiers wear uniforms to identify themselves as members of a group, and Frankie arrives at Fort Lewis believing that this self-designation is all encompassing. She regards Amy’s injured husband, Stephen, as “indistinguishable” from Amy’s father and brothers, who are also in the military, until she remembers how Stephen joked with her at his wedding about her multiply pierced ears, until she notices that Stephen’s baby boy has inherited his wide mouth, until Amy tells her that Stephen was troubled by what happened at Abu Ghraib. She sees Amy and her mother, Frankie’s Aunt Liz, as equally committed to the life of military wife until she understands that Amy is trying as hard to separate from her mother as Frankie is from her own.

I’m interested in the space between remembering that all of us are alike in feeling pain, fear, and love, and noticing we are all very different, too. Making assumptions about others is a dangerous business, whether they are members of our families or perfect strangers. I’m exploring that space in this story, probably ineptly, but I’m a slow learner, as the members of my family would no doubt testify.


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Jo Ann Heydron’s father retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant, and she spent many happy childhood hours at the PX, the pool, the bowling alley, and the movie theater of McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California. Both her sister and brother served in the Army, but Jo Ann has frittered away her time reading books and raising children. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in English from what were once stellar and inexpensive public universities in California (see how her political opinions creep in) and an MFA from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Her stories have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Pilgrimage, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel and a memoir. Jo Ann is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.


Illustration: Jess Fink  is an illustrator and graphic novelist. She is the author of We Can Fix It, a Time Travel Memoir and Chester 5000 xyv (Top Shelf). Her work can also be found online at JessFink.com. Fink is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.

The Story as Essay: Or, What I’ve Accidentally Learned by Teaching Comp by David Ebenbach

About ten years ago I wanted to write an article about how writers, who often teach composition courses, are the last people on Earth who should be teaching composition courses. I had good arguments: First of all, it’s hard for writers to understand and communicate with people who so dislike writing that they only take a writing class when it’s required, and, second, we don’t spend as much time thinking about grammar as administrators might like. Above all, I thought, people who write stories and poems don’t necessarily have all that much to say about the very particular kind of stuff that gets written in these classes—argumentative essays, mainly—because those essays are so far removed from what we do.

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Well, nobody wanted my article; magazine editors didn’t see the same problems that I did. They told me that writers get a lot, in fact, out of teaching composition courses. Naturally, this made me feel sulky and misunderstood.

Ten years later, I can say they were right.

Of course, there are the obvious benefits—the pleasures of learning how to articulate what we know about writing, of being pushed to think in new ways, and of kindling real interest in writing among students who aren’t expecting to like it. In general, I have found teaching to be good for the mind and for the soul, and comp means encountering students and ideas that I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. But there’s also been an effect I never would have expected: teaching the argumentative essay has changed the way I write short stories.

I mean, I should have seen it coming. I’m constantly telling my students how their papers need to be like short stories, how those papers need to have (like a good short story) precise detail, a compelling voice, obstacles, and suspense. So I already knew that short fiction could teach us about how to write essays. Why should it surprise me that the connection goes both ways? If an essay can have plot (will the author turn out to be convincing, or not?), why can’t a short story have arguments?

Indeed it can; in fact, without even intending to, I have found myself writing some stories that actually resemble the argumentative essay.

The signs are subtle in my story, “Our Mothers Left Us,” which doesn’t offer an argument, exactly, but which, like the essay, uses each paragraph to make a separate point. In a typical short story, individual beats/scenes are broken into a number of different paragraphs, including lines of dialogue and actions and so on. In “Our Mothers Left Us,” on the other hand, I move chronologically from one thing to the next, and each time there’s a new beat in the narrative, it gets its own single paragraph. In one paragraph, the mothers disappear; in the next the kids search for them; in the next the fathers become involved; et cetera. The story accumulates in clear, distinct steps, which is an ideal (for essays) that I harp on in class.

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My story, “We’ll Finish When We’re Done,” operates in a similar way. In this case there’s dialogue, and lots of paragraph breaks in this one continuous scene—but the story, about a surprisingly enthusiastic barber, builds (just the way I teach my students to do it) point by point. First he gives the customer a trim, and then a more drastic cut, and then a military buzz, and then he shaves him bald. Step by step, the cut gets closer—believe it or not, it gets closer than bald—just the way an essay gets closer and closer to the vindication of its thesis.

And then there are the stories I’ve written that don’t just resemble the form of arguments but instead actually become arguments. In “The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy,” the speaker—a collective voice—tries to explain why the group didn’t invite this one guy to the orgy they just had. In a sense it’s a backward argument, because the speaker rejects (rather than advancing) one argument after the next—specifically, it isn’t that the guy is prudish, or bad in bed, or unattractive, or a bad guy. In fact, he’s great in all those respects. And so the story is resisting the final impulse to become an essay; it’s trying to fail to explain what happened, by trying not to embrace a thesis. And yet, I have to admit: by the end of the story, an explanation—a thesis—creeps in anyway. I won’t include the spoiler here, but suffice it to say that the power of the argumentative essay is inexorable.

What I never expected was that this power would come to shape my fiction-writing. And yet I’ve already written a handful of argument stories—not just these but others, like “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy” and “Counterfactual”—and I assume that there will be more of them. These stories will have their place. It’s good, in fact, for a writer to try on new forms—the short-short, the letter, the recipe, the instruction manual, and (why not?) the argument.

At the same time, I do worry a little: if I spend more and more time thinking about students’ composition papers, will more and more of my stories end up neat and orderly and driving to a point? Will I stop developing characters and plots in complicated and uneven ways—in organic ways—and instead only move things forward in discrete, distinct units?

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Which brings me to the point of this essay. Because there’s another thing I’m always telling my students: if you can become conscious of your writing habits, good and bad, then you will have some power over them. In other words, it’s one thing to try on a form, to use it as a tool when you need it, and it’s another thing to have it sneak up on you and use you. That’s why you need to pay attention to your writing. And I’m hoping that this little bit of attention-giving (i.e., the attention I’m giving it by writing about it right here) will help me turn this form into a choice instead of an inevitability.

These days, I wouldn’t claim that teaching composition is such a bad gig for a writer. In fact, I like it a lot. But maybe it’s time to start teaching something else. Math? Genetics? Business? Music composition? After all, I could be writing stories and poems in the form of quadratic equations, DNA sequences, earnings reports, or arias. What you learn by teaching forms—any and all forms—is that there is an orgy of possibilities out there, and that you are definitely invited.


2014 Hairston 08David Ebenbach is the author of two books of short stories—Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) and Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press)—plus a chapbook of poetry called Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books). His first full-length collection of poetry, We Were the People Who Moved, won the Patricia Bibby Award, and will be published by Tebot Bach in 2015. With a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Georgetown University. David is featured in issue 297.2, Spring 2012. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

“Pale Ghosts” by Dolly Reynolds from issue 292.5

This weekend we featured Dolly Reynolds’s nonfiction story in three parts beginning Friday November 7th, Saturday November 8th and this is the conclusion, part three and four of “Pale Ghosts” from issue 292.5, September-October 2007.

Thoughts from the author: dolly bread loaf photo

I wrote this piece as a personal essay response to the murder of my mother in 1997. It seemed then such a huge and unmanageable subject, but writing “Pale Ghosts” helped me decide to attend grad school and focus on my writing in a serious way. I am now a 3rd year MFA student at San Francisco State and am working on a book length memoir about my family, the murder, and its aftermath. Continue reading

“Pale Ghosts” by Dolly Reynolds from issue 292.5

This weekend we will be featuring Dolly Reynolds’s nonfiction story that appeared in our September-October 2007 issue. It will be in three parts beginning today, Friday November 7th and concluding on Sunday November 9th.

Thoughts from the author: dolly bread loaf photo

I wrote this piece as a personal essay response to the murder of my mother in 1997. It seemed then such a huge and unmanageable subject, but writing “Pale Ghosts” helped me decide to attend grad school and focus on my writing in a serious way. I am now a 3rd year MFA student at San Francisco State and am working on a book length memoir about my family, the murder, and its aftermath.

I’ve been back to Connecticut twice this year to visit the reservoir where she was killed. The first time, in August, the reservoir seemed unbearably haunted; I thought the trees would reach out and grab me like in the Wizard of Oz. The second time, just last weekend, I went with the police chief who found my mother and stayed with her body all night. With his quiet, solid, decent presence, the reservoir became a beautiful, light-filled, and ultimately hopeful place. The two trips made me see that spectral visits and hauntings depend a lot on our earthly circumstances and frame of mind.

Here is part one of “Pale Ghosts” from issue 292.5, September-October 2007.

I wait for my mother at night, but she never comes. She’s with him, perched at the edge of his cot in his cold and sleepless cell. He pulls the ripped sheet over his head and bites down on his lips to keep from crying out. I know because I read his confession at the sentencing. I try calling for her as my husband snores gently at my side, but she never answers. My mother is spending night after night with the man who killed her instead of with me.

I.

I grew up with a rice ghost. She lived with us in my grandparents’ house along the Connecticut shore. Each summer she welcomed us with mounds of white rice piled on the cushions in the breakfast nook. The house was not winterized and had been locked tight since my family had closed it up the previous September. My mother treated these offerings with reverence, cupping the translucent grains tenderly and then letting them slip through her fingers like water. The rice was kept in a blue ceramic bowl used exclusively for this purpose. At times I’d see my mother plunge her hands into the shiny grains and then touch her fingertips to her forehead and her heart. She never cooked the rice or threw it away, at least not that I ever saw.

“Our ghost was jilted at the altar,” my mother explained to me. She had spent her childhood summers at this house and thought of the ghost as an eccentric aunt. “So heartbroken she died later that night. That’s why she leaves us rice. She doesn’t want us ever to forget what happened to her at her wedding.”

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The explanation made perfect sense to me. I believed a rice ghost was a common and well-recognized type of ghost, like vanilla ice cream or patent leather shoes. It was easy to imagine our neighbors sweeping up after their own ghosts, sand or peppermint ones.

The ghost often joined us for our nightly cocktail hour on the porch, which began at 4:00 p.m. and went on until nine or ten o’clock at night. Dinner may or may not have happened, but there was plenty for my sister and me to eat: salty peanuts, carrots and celery sticks, and stuffed green olives that my grandfather had soaked in gin. As dusk settled over our house, the ghost began her nightly constitutional: strolling the upstairs hallway, opening and closing doors and cupboards, and trotting up and down the stairs. Her footsteps were light, though the runner that covered the creaking floorboards was thin and frayed.
“Welcome, friend,” my grandfather would say, raising his martini glass to the ceiling in salute.

My family’s summers with the ghost meandered along their boozy, balmy way until my mother’s brother was killed. His small plane plunged into a lake near Albany during a November storm; he was twenty-eight. My uncle had stood waist-deep in the frigid water and helped all the other passengers to safety. No one knew he had a ruptured spleen. He died on his way to the hospital.

We shattered. The following summer was our last along the Connecticut shore. My grandmother was mute, my mother was grim and resolute as she boxed up the few belongings we would take with us from the house. There was nothing in it of much value, except of course, for our friend, our rice ghost. Cocktail hours were silent now, and interminable. Though we didn’t know it then, my grandfather had entered the dim twilight of Alzheimer’s. Half-chewed peanuts dribbled down his chin as my grandmother blew her nose and lit another True Blue. The rice ghost grew louder and more insistent now that our focus had shifted from her tragedy to our own. That September, we locked the front door for the last time, leaving our friend alone, with no one to accept her mounds of rice. The night before we left I watched my mother smash the blue ceramic bowl against the wall in the garage.

Part two of the series will be continue Saturday, November 8, 2014.

Dolly Reynolds has a JD from UC Hastings and is currently an MFA student at San Francisco State. Her work has appeared in many literary journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She works as a veterinary nurse and lives in San Francisco by the ocean with her husband and their twin daughters. Dolly’s essay appeared in the North American Review September-October 2007 issue.

Image by: Ethan Bifano, who is a professional artist who specializes in science fiction, fantasy, and conceptual oil paintings. He can often be found hiking the trails of Pennsylvania. Ethan’s image is featured in issue 299.3, summer 2014.

Demystifying Plot by John Fried

Often, when I teach fiction writing workshops, I feel a bit like a guy peddling fortune cookies, each with a classic saw about craft inside. Show, don’t tell . . . Put your character in a tree and throw rocks at them . . . A problem with endings is a problem with beginnings. My students nod kindly. Many of them are science majors, taking a detour into humanities (or more often fulfilling a requirement) and they take notes, as if they plan on returning to these sage pearls of wisdom before the midterm. (Punchline: There is no midterm.) I sometimes feel that they want to make sense of how a story works in the same way they want to understand how the pancreas functions.

blog image 11-6And of course, it’s not like I don’t believe the things I say. Despite sounding like a fiction-writing Magic 8 ball at times, I know these adages contain valuable truths about craft and storytelling. More often than not, I’m repeating sayings that my previous teachers have said to me or that I’ve read and then tucked away.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time teaching fiction writing and trying to write fiction myself, it’s that all of these sayings don’t mean a thing until you actually start writing. You can spend a life time thinking about writing and never get a story down on paper. There are shelves of books at the library devoted to craft. Talking about writing only gets you so far. In fact, these kind of gems of advice can be even more destructive than helpful. It’s like getting up to bat in a baseball game for the first time and trying to keep all the advice of your coaches in your head at the same time. Keep your eye on the ball. Keep your bat back and hands together. Stay loose. Drive the ball. If all goes well, these ideas become part of your muscle memory, habits you sink into, but at first, they’re more often a sign that you’re just thinking too much. They are the multiple voices in your head that only make writing that much harder. A friend of mine once said that this was why she couldn’t write for a year after she finished her MFA. Too many instructions that she had to forget before she could start to write again.

So these days when my students are writing their first stories, I try to simplify the process. I don’t ask them to come up with a plot. Instead, I give them one. I take the plot of a classic story, something they’ve read and we’ve dissected, and tell them to use the structure and inciting action as a means to their own story. Someone is coming to stay at your character’s house and your character is not excited about it. (See Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.”) You work every day in a service job you have no love for and have to deal with at least three customers over the course of the story. (See Jim Shepard’s “Reach for the Sky.”) It’s a holiday and your character is going to have dinner at the house of people you’ve never met before. (See Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims.”) Plot, I try to show them, is largely generic. It’s the characters you invest in those plots that matter. Character, I try to show them, trumps, plots every time. In the best situations—to borrow another one of my fortune cookie sayings—character is plot.

In doing so, of course, I’m trying to give them a leg up on the story process. They don’t have to worry (as much) about where to start or what’s going to happen. They have a basic road map. At least that’s what they think. It’s their job, I tell them, to make the story their own.

blog image 11-6 - 2Sooner or later, most of them realize I’ve given them everything and nothing, all at once. They’ve still got the arduous task of figuring out whose story it’s going to be and what kind of a character he or she is. They’ve still got to explore the inner life of their character and make us understand their inner world. They’ve still got to put the actual flesh on this skeleton and bring it to life. They’ve got to make their story, for lack of a better expression, transcend the simplicity of the plot.

The end result is often a mixed bag. I get stories of baristas dealing with obnoxious coffee-drinkers. I get stories about a new roommate who moves in with the college kids. (“Write what you know!”) Or the opposite: A vampire couple is invited to have Thanksgiving dinner at the werewolf family’s house. Spoiler: Turkey isn’t the only meat on the menu.

No matter what the variation, the bottom line is that the students now have a story. A story that often lacks conflict, or where they rushed to reach the finish, or where there’s little to no resolution, or where believability is stretched to its limits, but a story nonetheless. A beginning, a middle, and an end. And they have the stories of their peers to look at objectively and consider what’s working, what’s not, and what’s still left to do. And with that, they can join the conversation about writing, instead of thinking about it in the abstract. They can see all the adages about craft come to life in their own work and the work of their peers. And they can then embark on the next challenging task: revision. Because that’s where the real work begins. As the saying goes.

John Fried’s fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, Minnesota Review, and North American Review. He teaches creative writing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. John is in issue 295.2, Spring 2010.

Images by: Julie J Seo, a paper-collage illustrator based in New York City. Her clients include Society of Illustrators, 3X3 magazine, Amelia’s Magazine, Richard Pearmain, and Visual Opinion Magazine. You can see more about Julie at www.juliejseo.com.

Distant Yet Personal by Julia Lynn Rubin from issue 299.4

Throughout middle school, I was bullied by multiple people. The bullying wasn’t physical in nature, but emotional and social, which perhaps made it all the more traumatizing. Even today, at age twenty-four, I still feel its lasting effects in my most vulnerable moments. I tried to capture that intensity, pain, and hyper self-awareness in “Like Snowflakes,” a story that is at once distant from my own specific memories yet intimately personal—and intimately adolescent.

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Writing has always been a way for me to contain and eradicate pain and trauma, while also honoring the associated feelings and experiences. My characters are purposefully morally vague and contradictory and confusing because I think people are often morally vague and contradictory and confusing.

This story came rather naturally to me; I wrote with an intimate intensity as well as a purposeful detachment from my characters, not always fully understanding them and their motives, but always accepting them.

Julia Lynn Rubin is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and has written for a variety of digital publications, including The Content Strategist and Wetpaint Entertainment. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she is working on her first novel. She will be featured in the upcoming 299.4 Fall 2014 issue of the North American Review.

This illustration accompanied “Like Snowflakes” in the 299.4 print issue of the North American Review. The artist, Catherine Byun, is a freelance illustrator based in San Francisco. She spends her time drawing, watching movies, and hiking around California.

Throwback Saturday featuring Rebecca Foust with “Pulled Plug” from issue 295.2

Rebecca Foust was a James Hearst Poetry Prize Finalist in 2010. 

I wrote this poem sometime in 2008, not long after I first returned to writing after a 35-year hiatus, and so it was an early experiment in sustaining a longish poem (anything over a page was long for me then) and one made of short lines organized into tercets. The length was dictated by the length of the story I wanted to tell, for this is a narrative poem based, as many of my poems are, on an experience from life.

Capture

My mother’s second husband was a “Full Bird” army colonel who earned his promotions through battlefield commissions on multiple tours in Korea and Vietnam. The Colonel was fiercely proud of having come up this way and scornful of “college boys” who, when they got into real battle situations, did not, he said, know their ass from their weapon. An intelligent man, he escaped a poor, rural upbringing on a Pennsylvania farm by joining the army, and it was the army that paid for his college, graduate school, and the PhD in military history. After retirement, the Colonel lectured at war colleges and published two books in his field. He was an ambitious man, torn between disdain and admiration for higher institutions of earning, and a voracious reader. But all the reading I saw him do was through the narrow lens of his obsession with military tactics and history, and the only poet I ever heard him recite was Rudyard Kipling.

Before he married my mother, the Colonel fathered one child, DeeDee, a daughter who shared her father’s ambition and strong sense of grand destiny, but lacked the critical ingredient of his iron will. During her childhood, her father was mostly gone on military business and tours of duty. When he came home, he showered her with gifts and attention, and then went off again to drink with his men. The Colonel’s dream was to send DeeDee to West Point, and he pursued it even in the face of mounting evidence that she would not have the requisite test scores and grades.

Deedee did get admitted to West Point, presumably because her father had “pulled” strings, and she lasted less than a year before flunking out. Always an indifferent student, Deedee fell in with a bad crowd. We began to hear rumors about drugs—pot, cocaine, speed. All to which her father, rabidly anti-any-drug besides gin, turned a resolutely blind eye.

“Screw the sumbitches,” the Colonel said after Deedee got kicked out.  “We’ll send her to Harvard, or Wharton,” and he began to write away for the applications. Deedee came back home and began spending time with another West Point dropout, a young man who, the time I met him was as close to being in uniform as you can get in civilian clothes: pressed black pants, white button down shirt, and spit-shined oxford shoes. The news of his death from a morphine overdose sent shock waves through the family, and it was shortly afterwards that Deedee got into the car her father had bought her and drove across the county to San Diego where, she announced, she intended to live.

For a few years, nobody talked much about Deedee. By then, I was living in San Francisco and so was the closest family member when the call came. “Deedee’s been in a car accident,” Mom told me. “Can you go? No one else can get there before tomorrow.” So I packed an overnight bag and caught a flight to a San Diego, then went straight to the hospital where this poem opens, to find Deedee was on life support. I sat with her until her mother arrived, followed a few hours later by the Colonel and my mother. We stayed for three days, shuttling back and forth between the hospital and the dank motel where the four of us shared one room. The poem is in that room, with its cinderblock deck overlooking the ocean, in the ICU, and in the hospital’s chapel where the Colonel, an avowed atheist since childhood, went every day to pray.

When we returned to the motel room it was to collapse on one of its two beds or fold-out couch to wait for the return of the Colonel, always the last to leave Deedee’s side. Just before making the trip from Pennsylvania he’d gone to the local thrift store to buy a suit for his book readings, and that was what he wore—all he wore—while in San Diego: a three-piece navy-with-pinstripe, tight across the chest and made of a wool much too heavy for a southern California climate. He began drinking on the plane and did not stop, so that the sweet smell of ferment oozing from his neck and palms made the doctors step back and roll their eyes when he pressed them with his urgent questions. On the last night, it began to rain, and the Colonel force-marched the four miles back from the hospital to the motel. When he opened the door, the room filled with the smell of sweat, mothballs, wet wool, and gin, and we asked him to go outside on the deck to air out. He stayed there all night, pacing back and forth, back and forth and reciting “Gunga Din.” The next morning he walked back to the hospital alone to sign the papers to disconnect his daughter’s life support.

Return to San Pietro

Since the story inspiring this poem was already so heavy and fraught, I wanted a form that could hold it without collapsing under its own weight; that’s why I settled on short-line tercets, after experimenting first with longer lines and blockier stanza structures. The Colonel represented so many things I reflexively loathed: the military, war, alcoholism, misogyny, racism—all that. And yet there was something delicate and piercing in his fierce loyalty to and grief for his lost-in-the-woods daughter. As for Deedee, I sensed and feared her dark side and was put off by her coarseness and swaggering braggadocio. So I gave her a wide berth at family gatherings and did not look her up when she moved to CA.

In the ICU I saw a different Deedee, a more vulnerable, childlike creature, something feral and shy. She lay on the gurney, nude, covered only by a light blanket. Her face was unmarked except that her eyes, closed and hugely swollen, looked like ripe plums. I had plenty of time waiting in that room to notice her glossy black hair, and smooth, freckled skin. And, when the nurse came to take her vaginal temperature (brusquely it seemed to me) I saw the rest of Deedee’s young strong, and curiously unmarred body as well. Yes, except for those eyes she looked exactly like she was sleeping, and for the first time, I thought her beautiful, too.

Frost Place photo_8-18-14Rebecca Foust’s books include All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song and God, Seed. Foust is the recent recipient of fellowships from the Frost Place and the MacDowell Colony. New work is in Hudson Review, Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, Narrative, Sewanee Review, and other journals. Since 2007, Foust’s poem’s have appeared in 7 issues (the most current will be featured in the next issue 300.1) of the North American Review, she won second place for the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2012, and was also a James Hearst Poetry Prize Finalist in 2013.

Photo Credit: Maudelle Driskell, she is the director of the Frost Place, at www.frostplace.org.

Illustrator Clay Rodery lives in Houston, Texas just down the road from NASA Mission Control (which accounts for a lot). Clay is featured in issue 299.3, Summer 2014.

Gloria L. Huang on her story “Ordinary Things” from issue 299.4

“Write what you know” must be one of the earliest writing clichés in my memory. Presumably I dismissed this advice out of hand, which would explain my dim recollections of a nine-year-old self penning dramatic stories involving kidnappings, abandoned children, sudden blindness—none of which, I am happy to report, could fall under the category of “what I know.”

Over the years, somewhere in my written life, things changed. More and more, my experiences became the seeds from which my stories were born, whether the experience was significant or mundane, personal or secondhand. I began to find it easiest to start from within a memory or a feeling, and spin outwards from there. By the time I was finished writing, however, the story bore only a fun-house resemblance to myself. Speckled pieces of my life were scattered across the words, but twisted into something different, unrecognizable. It was the ultimate game of “what if,” played to conclusion in my written world.

“Ordinary Things” rises from this method of writing. Having a baby threw my life—not to mention my writing career—into deep, unfathomable chaos. I found it difficult to write about anything else. And let’s be honest, for a while I found it difficult to write at all. Just as children grow and change, so did my life and my stories. I started writing “Ordinary Things” one day when the country was gripped in the aftermath of another mass shooting, and I dared to imagine the terror that someone trapped in that situation would feel. This imagining shed new light over my entire life, and I realized that what I would miss most of all, what I’d be most afraid of losing, would be the little things—the tiny moments that flit by without fanfare, that make up your life in the end.

Ordinary things - pic

The narrative of “Ordinary Things” is split between more personal musings on the choices involved in having a family, framed against a hypothetical consideration of the paralyzing fear someone might experience if trapped in a grocery store with an unidentified shooter. The merging of these two lines of writing was somewhat accidental, for the former grew naturally as I explored the latter. The story that emerged captured more than my attempt to understand an unthinkable, terrifying experience. It also constituted my written acceptance of a life, both real and written, that had transformed irreversibly. Though I might miss the freedom of life and writing enjoyed by my past self, I know now that there is beauty in the ordinary things.

Gloria - blog

Gloria L. Huang is a freelance writer. She received her B.A. with Honors and Distinction in English Literature from Stanford University. Her fiction has been accepted for publication in literary journals including The Threepenny Review, Arts & Letters, Gargoyle Magazine, The Antigonish Review, and Skive Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel.

 

 

 

This illustration also accompanied “Ordinary Things” in our print issue.  The artist, Anthony Tremmaglia is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014. http://www.tremmaglia.ca/