Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Square Pegs

Someone told me not too long ago that he couldn't figure me out. The analogy he chose was of the square peg/round hole variety. He meant this as a compliment, for the most part, and it's nice to know that I continue to defy expectations.

Let's look at this from a character development standpoint. Suppose, for a moment, that you're reading a book and a character does something you don't expect. Is this a symptom of that character being poorly-written, or is it due to the fact that the author realizes that dynamic characters are more intriguing than static ones?

The truth is, it could be either. On the one hand, a skilled author can integrate that unexpected action into the story in an organic way that ends up making sense down the line, either as part of a larger character arc or as an essential deviation necessary to the story. On the other hand, an author who feels the need to have a character do something unlikely for the sake of throwing the reader for a loop is, in all probability, stuck in a corner and thinks he has to blast his way out.

In the first case, perhaps the unexpected thing is not so unexpected after all--the character could be purposefully quirky for the sake of comic relief, in the case of a secondary character, or for the sake of being a unique, in the case of a main character. Because the truth is that no one in this world conforms to a certain shape of peg. There are diamonds, hearts, stars, ovals, and millions of tiny variations on them. This should also apply to fictional characters, because if your characters each fit a specific template, there's a good chance your reader will get bored.

There's nothing wrong with following certain guidelines, of course. In romance novels, the heroines tend to be outspoken and their sidekicks gregarious. The key, though, is to add your own facets. Perhaps the heroine is outspoken because her mother died in childbirth and she has had to take over as the mother figure for her younger siblings. Maybe the sidekick is gregarious because she's overcompensating for the shyness that crippled her social development when she was an adolescent.

When in doubt, consider your own life. What makes you stand out from the crowd? Take that trait--or set of traits--and pass it on to your characters, not to make a fictional version of yourself but to give your readers something with which to connect. Because as much as we all want to fit in sometimes, there is joy and usefulness in being a round peg in a square-holed world.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Proof

Karina Borowicz
Codhill Press, 2014

When I was in elementary school, my grandfather had a house in Kentucky coal country. We went to visit him for a family trip once, and he woke me in the middle of the night to watch a coal train roll past, not a hundred yards from the back porch. When I read “Passage” in Karina Borowicz’s latest poetry collection, Proof, I felt as though I had been catapulted back to that night:
            […] the crushing machinery
            of distance rolls close

            and is gone with urgency
            an echo trapped
            in the stripped branches […].
And this is not a new sensation for me. Borowicz’s work has the distinction of being able to transport me--and, I suspect, other readers--not only through my own life and experiences, but through hers, as well.

This is, I suspect, thanks to her effortless way of channeling American poets of the past. Whether it’s echoes of Whitman in the way she touches on many different subjects (history, literature, astronomy, biology), dialogues with Emily Dickinson’s ghost in “Emily’s Dress,” or riffs on Robert Frost in “Saw,” Borowicz gracefully reaches back into our shared poetic archives. Yet she remains her own poet, driven by something unseen: “The invisible is calling,” she writes in “The Invisible,” and this invisible thing is, no doubt, her literary genius.

Like Whitman before her, Borowicz is not afraid to reach into her own archives for inspiration. In this case, she shares with the reader a few more of her “bee” poems, hearkening back to her prize-winning collection, The Bees Are Waiting. At the same time, she is in no way averse to moving forward, as the bird in the casually sinister lines “Each day, the woodpecker’s tapping / comes closer” from “Hunger.” Borowicz even admits she has a certain animal-like nature in “Paintbrush,” writing, “[…] I can’t help it my paintbrush / has claws and its fur keeps growing.” It is this primal feeling that pulses beneath her words.

We see this best when the contrast between Borowicz’s more controlled work and her breathless, stream-of-consciousness technique is played up. The side-by-side poems “Frozen Boot” and “Proof” display this well: in “Frozen Boot,” no punctuation trips readers up as we follow the speaker’s progress past a statue, while the measured lines of “Proof” give us a deliberately punctuated list of items left behind by a dead neighbor.

Near the end of Proof, Borowicz writes, “Have I told myself this story before?” Perhaps she has, and all the better for the reader: by the time we are lucky enough to read her lines, she has sharpened them to a gleaming point. As a result, when we encounter the declaration that St. Thérèse is “filled with rage,” we too want God to “show [us] how to make it holy.” Borowicz acts as the conduit here, giving us a glimpse into her world which is abundant with the holiness of well-wrought poetry.

“A Graven Image” provides the perfect example of this. “I want to cut the words in[to paper],” the speaker declares,
with a pin or a penknife,
            want them to be there yet
            not there, a violence apparent
            not to the eye but to wondering fingers.
After all, what could be more holy than providing solid, unmoving words for future generations of poets and readers? In this way, Borowicz earns her place in the pantheon.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Competition

Here's a thing I try not to do: underestimate the competition.

People (some people more than others) will sometimes ask me why I'm so, shall we say, anxious about the quality of my work and/or why I'm so convinced I will soon face yet another rejection letter. The fact is, I have seen the face of my competition. I sat across from them in workshops, heard them give readings, read their work in literary magazines. And I can never forget them.

See, one of the worst things you can get is an ego. It makes you overconfident in your own abilities. It can hinder your creative process, should you decide you don't need to follow anyone's advice about your story/poem/essay. It might render you insufferable to others. 

And this is why I always keep my competition at the back of my mind. They make me work harder at this thing called writing. They fortify me when the pile of NOs is larger than the pile of YESes. They push me not to give up. Because, as selfish as this sounds, I want to be better than them. Do I believe I AM better than them? Of course not. But they act as a brass ring, in a way: something I need to visualize so I continue reaching for the best.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Adventures in Rejection: Residencies and Conferences

Sometimes I forget that I live in a sort of rarefied world. 

It's not every field that requires so much of its participants. We, as writers, spend so much of our time--free time, mind you, because for most of us, this is a passion and not a sustainable career--searching for publication opportunities, sending out submissions, and entering contests in order to have our work recognized. And a lucky few of us are also able to dream of going to one residency/conference or other.

You've heard of some of the big ones, no doubt: Yaddo, Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley. There are many other options available. If you, like me, are a graduate of a low-residency MFA program, you have probably experienced pangs of withdrawal since you earned your degree. Nothing rocks your world like having eight or so days of concentrated, focused workshops or seminars and, even better, time to sit your ass down and write. And you want to recapture some of that magic, so you decide to take a break from submitting individual pieces and try to get yourself a space at a selective conference, perhaps even one of those listed above.

And then someone rejects you. 

But this rejection stings worse than hearing someone doesn't want to publish your poem/story/essay, doesn't it? Of course it does. Because all you desire in this world is to have some writer time. 

I've been there, friends. It hurts, knowing that you'll be stuck in the office or the house worrying about the drudgery of paperwork, dishes, what have you--the sort of everyday tasks that pull you away from your words. Or maybe you're upset because you know there are too many distractions around you, and that's why you have such trouble putting pen to paper. For me, it's a combination of those things. 

If you're able, take a week off from work, get yourself a hotel room, and host your own private residency. I'm not in this position, unfortunately, but there are days--especially in the summer--when I feel freer to ignore things I consider menial or outside the scope of what I truly want to do: write.

This is how I make it work for myself. Oh, and the wonderful extended weekend I was able to spend at the Weymouth Center in North Carolina in June. More on that later, though, in a non-rejection-themed post!