Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Actually Stuck

A Series of summaries from the lectures I attended at my writing residency. At my age, my neural pathways are mostly carved. So, I strive, in my graduate education, to retain just a smidgeon more. This is a record, not of what I was taught, but of what actually stuck.

Ellen Lesser

It seems appropriate to look at apocalyptic literature when trying to craft the end of a short story.  Ellen’s lecture was tailored for the fiction writer, but I found much of it to be helpful in nonfiction craft as well. The current thinking in regards to certainty in the end of life, and even the end of the world as we know it, must be taken into consideration when you are writing for the current reader. What is certain about life? What is certain about salvation? What is certain in these times of global warming, inevitable environmental implosion, and world wars? The writer must be aware of what the general human consensus is if she is to connect with her readers in any real way.

Ellen’s passion for her craft seeped through every sentence of her lecture. I left with not just more tools for writing, but with a deep sense of inspiration. I want to love and know my area of concentration like this brilliant, incredibly human person. I am jealous of all the fiction writers who get to work with her this semester. However, one thing that I added to my writer’s toolbox was the knowledge of how to pitch your language to fit the tone of your subject.

End times stories demand Biblical language. Ellen took us through three short stories included in the anthology Best American Short Stories released annually. She walked us slowly through each story and pointed out how Rescue and Redemption now look to the 21st century reader—and believe me, it doesn’t look good. In fact, if you were to take the three short stories we read, you’d think we were a real cynical lot. Rescue and Redemption look more like gates into the deeper levels of hell. Is optimism even possible in the current climate?

The stories were riddled with religious imagery. There were snakes present, floods, hell-fire smoke, mentions of Eden, crosses, vines and sanctuaries. The infusion of Biblical terms and images worked to support the story’s consideration of how we should live in the end of days.

Of course, my mind honed in instead on poop imagery. Though Ellen kept directing our gaze to the religious slant of the language, I kept hearing the doo-doo slant. (I know, I have Freudian issues.) The story that took place in New Orleans during the Katrina flood was infused with the words refuse, shit, brown chop, crap, log roller, septic, boat hole (maybe that is a stretch, but I swear I heard “butthole”), movement, dump, shit storm.

My bodily function fixation, upon reflection, explains my unfailing optimism even in the end of times. (Wait for it.) I watched the language through all the pieces go from shit to compost to vine-ripened tomatoes. I saw that the writer had included gardens bursting with fruit right in the middle of the protagonist’s apocalypse. The best tasting tomatoes were growing next to his outhouse. Therefore my worldview: Even when life goes to shit, there is another power at work that can turn it all to nourishment. Ah, redemption! Oh, I like this whole pitching language business.

Of course, Lesser taught us so much more, but, alas, that is all of what actually stuck.

Lesser spent most of her time looking at “Rubiaux Rising” by Steve De Jarnatt, chosen for Best American Short Stories 2009, a story about a detoxing junkie trapped in his grandmother’s attic during Hurricane Katrina is miraculously airlifted to safety. You might want to read the end if you want to know what happens when the world does end.

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