The Writing Process: Finding What Works

When I sit down to work on a story I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just write a draft from beginning to end and be done for a day, then return to the thing, plow through another draft like a farmer tilling a field?” A field would be good. A field has finite boundaries that are usually pre-established by zoning laws or property lines. A lawn would be even better. More manageable. A story knows no bounds. I like to imagine a day when I can plan the time I will invest into a story, from the idea’s inception to the final polish.

Ask different writers about process, and you’ll receive almost completely different answers. Here are some of the most memorable:

Stephen King works on two stories at once, usually a novel and a short story, or else two novels. He writes in the morning, then goes about the rest of his day in what I imagine to be a blissful state of fulfillment and productive thought before returning to edit something he worked on the day before. He takes an idea and runs with it, never knowing the ending in advance.

Margaret Atwood compares her compositions to a running “barrage” at the edge of a battlefront: sentences she’s already typed springboard her forward and then she must continue to write to catch up to the place a particular idea has landed. Not ideal, but somewhat linear. There is at least some semblance of forward motion.

Bonnie Jo Campbell looks to the news—usually stories from her native Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is as unpredictable as its name—for inspiration. She writes for three hours each morning until she completes a full draft and then revises, revises, revises.

Katherine Karlin envisions an occupation, or a lifestyle, for her characters and works towards an ending of which she knows only the emotional timbre or else an image freighted with deeper meaning.

Haruki Murakami writes for three to five hours in the morning before he runs six miles and swims a mile, claiming that the physical strain accompanying exercise builds the relentless work ethic necessary for writing novels. I wonder if the endorphins are at the root of his motivation.0TW4AS1G7D

I’m not necessarily wishing for my writing to come easily, just to find some way to work in a predictable manner. I’ve heard establishing a routine helps. Everybody who’s anybody has a routine that usually involves writing in the morning. The only routine I am familiar with is procrastinating. I’ve never been one for routines. “I’ll write every morning for two hours,” I tell myself day after day, week after week. And I might do so for three or so days on end. Then I
won’t be able to sleep the night before a day when I have to teach or do something else that requires me to function as a semi-coherent human being, and I talk myself out of rising and into sleeping or at least laying and resting. Because dragging myself out of bed would be hard, and laying here is so much easier. Instant gratification.

When I’m tired or feeling uncreative, I do easy things, like brainstorming. I love bulleting. Procrastinators love to make lists (see above). I’ll complete other less important but required tasks in order to procrastinate the real writing—the hard writing (as I write this blog post, I’m procrastinating work on a story that is due on Tuesday and wonder how my writing would survive without due dates). For example: sending an email is a concrete accomplishment whereas spending the same amount of time writing may just result in something you’ll throw out at the end of the day. Then I’ll write three to five sentences and decide I need to do some “research” in order to continue—I’m writing about lilacs, so what does the flower mean, symbolically? Or, what’s that word I’m forgetting? Search: synonyms for “unsure.” Maybe I can’t focus because I’m hungry. I eat a cucumber. Or a doughnut. Look up “calories in a cucumber” and “calories in a frosted doughnut” and decide based not on my research but on how quickly my blood sugar will spike and how the frosting will taste.

I have realized I need to establish a routine during my second semester working towards a graduate degree in creative writing. I haven’t yet been able to count on a time of day, but I’ve taken to writing on paper, where crossing out too much is unsightly and writing too fast is illegible and too many arrows and circles make things confusing. No quick trip to the internet to confirm a fact or a definition is available. The ink of a pen cannot be quickly backspaced on a whim. Unnecessary words are left out because to write them all would cause one’s hand to cramp up. Just write a page. Then turn the page. You’ll probably keep going.

Carly Plank
Creative Writing MA student

Antiwar, Feminist, Environmentalist, Cat Lady: Marge Piercy Visits MU

On Friday, April 15, respected novelist, poet, and memoirist Marge Piercy filled the auditorium in McGuffey Hall with her commanding presence. Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including the New York Times Bestseller Gone to Soldiers, nineteen collections of poetry, and most recently a critically-acclaimed memoir entitled Sleeping with Cats. To an audience of all ages, Piercy read a series of her poetry encompassing social commentary, family relationships, cats, and sex.

In her introduction, Ann Fuehrer of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program referenced Piercy’s history as an activist in the antiwar, feminist, and environmentalist movements, which have influenced her writings greatly. “She would say she identifies as a cat lady, after our conversation at dinner,” Fuehrer joked.marge piercy

Piercy began the reading with what she referred to as “the oldest poem I read regularly,” entitled “To Be of Use.” It was familiar to the older generations of the audience, but most of all to Piercy herself—she barely glanced down at the text in front of her, instead looking around at the audience.

This was the case with most of her poems—it is more truthful to call Piercy’s event a performance rather than a reading, given the emotion and confidence with which she read. Throughout the night, she played with the audience’s emotions, reading light-hearted poems interspersed with more tongue-in-cheek poems centered in social commentary. Amongst all the laughs, Piercy would also get serious, with poems contemplating friends passing away from AIDS during the 1980s epidemic, grief, and poverty.

The common theme throughout most of Piercy’s poetry is what it means to be a woman: “The Scent of Apple Cake” and “Our Never Ending Entanglement” ask the question what it means to be a mother, while “Contemplating My Breasts” and “Tracks” amongst others confront the experiences and various roles of being a woman.

During the question and answer portion following the reading, an audience member asked Piercy the quintessential question: what in your life has deeply influenced your writing? Her response was riveting: Piercy grew up in a primarily Black neighborhood in Detroit and witnessed the first race riots in the 1960s. She was a member of a gang for a while, and she had dear friends die of heroin overdoses and AIDs. These experiences throughout her life have had a profound effect on her activism, which has in turn shaped her writing.

The last person from the audience to address Piercy did not have a question, but instead a heartfelt story. He told her, and the audience, how nineteen years ago his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Piercy’s poem “On Guard” was what brought them through the tough times.

Her response? “I’m so glad I could help you.”

This reading was sponsored by The Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Department of Family Studies and Social Work, the Women’s Center, the Humanities Center, and the Creative Writing Program.

Marissa Lane
English Department Ambassador

Jenny Boully Takes Campus By Storm

English Department Ambassador Tim Thomas took to the Department of English website to talk about Columbia College Chicago professor Jenny Boully‘s time at Miami with both the graduate English program in a four day intensive creative nonfiction sprint course, as well as a reading held last Wednesday in Shriver Bookstore.jboully

Boully was quick to compliment the students she met with and led. “The students at Miami University, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, were a joy to work with and an impressive bunch. I think that kind of diversity is crucial to creating a stellar creative writing atmosphere.”

For more information on the creative nonfiction sprint course and Jenny Boully’s Wednesday night reading, click here to read the full article.

Art Overlapping: An Interview With Bethany Pierce

First year Creative Writing M.A. student Erin Jamieson interviews Miami alum Bethany Pierce on her life as a writer, her time at Miami, and how her art has inspired her writing:

Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, Bethany Pierce graduated with a BA in Art and an MA in Creative Writing from Miami University in 2006. Her novels, Feeling for Bones and Amy Inspired (Bethany House) have garnered critical acclaim, with her debut listed by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top books of 2007. Also known for her paintings, Bethany currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina. For more, visit her website at www.bethanypierce.com.

EJ: You are perhaps best known for your second novel, Amy Inspired. Tell us a little about what it’s about, the inspiration for the story, and the process of both writing and finding representation for it.sm_website-bio-pic_123

BP: Amy Inspired had a rather convoluted origin.  Shortly after Feeling for Bones was published, my editor approached me with an idea for a story about a young English teacher struggling with issues of love and faith and writing. Chick lit was all the rage that year. So were serialized novels. The publishing house envisioned an entire series of books about this thirty-something “spinster” professor. I was wary but broke. I agreed to write the books under a pseudonym, thinking I’d managed a win-win—that I’d get to practice my craft while making enough money to support the writing I wanted to do.

Things didn’t exactly work out that way. I couldn’t keep to the plot outline the editorial team had drawn up; in fact, the story I wrote was so far removed from the original idea, the publishing house released me from my contract. I took my rejected novel back to the drawing board. I’d grown very fond of my characters and wanted their story to be heard, so I tried to find what was most honest in the book and give it room to breath, an effort that required weeding out all the influences of the industry: the dictates of chick lit, the rules of a religiously motivated publisher, the forced conclusions of a predetermined plot. As a result, the book became (rather self-consciously) about all of those things.

By the time I was done with the final rewrite, my editor had moved on to a different publishing house that was a better fit for both of us. I passed the revised manuscript on to his new team, unsure what I’d written exactly, but proud enough of my little Frankenstein to print it under my own name.

EJ: How did your time at Miami impact you as a writer?

BP: Graduate school was my crash course in plot and voice. My professors were wonderful. Through their edits, their criticism, and the example of their own writing, they taught me in two years what it would have taken a decade to learn alone.

Those two years helped discipline my mind for long hours at my desk, snatched at odd hours. They thickened my skin to criticism. They also gave me a valuable feeling of camaraderie. I was fortunate to land in a group of talented fellow writers who became close friends I still talk with today.

In practical terms, my time at Miami also helped me find a publisher. I’d been sending query letters out for Feeling for Bones for several years. While in the middle of my graduate work, my manuscript ended up on the desk of an editor in Chicago who’d graduated from the university a handful of years before. The familiar letterhead piqued his curiosity. We began an email correspondence that led to the revision of the novel and its eventual publication.

EJ: You also work as a visual artist. Do you see this connecting to your writing in any way?

BP: Just in the last year I’ve noticed the two overlapping. I want to push beyond my own limitations in both practices, and this requires a meditative stillness and an increasingly more open imagination. Cultivating that mental space seems to be breaking down an internal wall that kept the two fields of thought separate from one another.

For example, I’ve been exploring a new series of abstractions and in trying to sort out ideas of color and form, I’ve been journaling a great deal about the paintings themselves, something I’ve never done before. I’ll sit in my studio in front of a blank canvas and write about the possible painting for hours. This is exceptionally weird to me, because the paintings themselves are becoming less and less literal.

In return, I find that I’m bringing a kind of experimentation to the writing, a playfulness that wants to build an idea out of the usual order. I’ve had this idea for a collection of essays but instead of writing one at a time in a linear fashion, I’ve been jotting all the random ideas that come to me on 3 x 5 note cards that I file in a shoebox on my desk. Once a month or so I’ll sit down and puzzle out some order to the collected thoughts, assembling an essay the way I used to collage pictures.

EJ: If you had to give advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

BP: Find a way to make the writing itself your first priority. Carve out a specific time for the work and then zealously protect that time from interruption. You mostly learn how to write by writing.

I also think it’s helpful to get to know your personal demons. Whether you struggle with procrastination, insecurity, codependency, envy – get friendly with your devil then find creative ways to diffuse its power during the time you have set aside to write. Whether I’m drafting a story or baking a Bundt cake, I struggle with perfectionism. I’ve found it enormously helpful to make up some rule like write five pages a day and then follow it with total devotion. This satisfies my perfectionist (she loves following rules) and my need to feel productive (no matter how horrible those five pages are, they are done, checked off the list before I’ve even put my pants on for the day) while at the same time allowing that inner creative spirit enough protected space in which to play and explore.

I’ll also repeat what most authors are going to tell you: read a lot.  I’ll add that it helps to read mostly what you love.

Artistic community and collaboration: Joy Sullivan, Artist-in-Residence at the Wexner

Miami MA alum Joy Sullivan is the 2015 Artist-in-Residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH. She shares her experience:

In 2012, I attended Miami University’s MA program in Creative Writing and spent two years growing into the identity of “poet.” This year, at age twenty-nine, I inhabited the role of artist-in-residence for the Wexner Center Pages Program and found poetry to be just as expansive as I always hoped it would be in the world outside of a graduate program.

The Wexner Center Pages Program is a multidisciplinary program that fosters creativity, arts-integration and writing projects inside the classroom. Foremost, it is a unique collaboration between the Wexner Center, local high schools, and teaching-artists. As the 2015 artist-in-residence for Pages, I had the pleasure of visiting high schools and helping students cultivate interest, craft responses, and engage in vibrant conversation surrounding art.

One of the highlights of my experience was working with Pages students on collaborative poetry. This exercise was originally inspired by an activity done in one of my graduate workshops at Miami. I asked students to view a similar object and then together build a poem, line by line. I often asked students to generate questions in this process. Then, we listened to the conversation that was being built as we circled the room offering our responses. I loved watching the sense of ownership and authorship bloom as students took time to ask, listen, answer, and then ask better. The investment students felt in this communal experience became palpable.

Through these activities, I’ve witnessed a change come over each classroom’s attitude towards the experience of poetry. It became meaningful, exciting, and relevant to their shared experience. Asia, a student from Westerville North, said, “This feels just like an awesome mash-up between Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. We’re good at this.” Another student undid me with herunspecified-7 gorgeous line, “I have no simplicity.” Time and time again, through Pages, I watched words win. This experience showed me how deeply essential arts-integration, creative writing, and personal expression remain in education and in the lives of our young people. Simply put, my work this year has been transformative, hearty, life-giving.

I believe in the spirit of Pages and how much I feel revitalized by my experience. How I know it will shape and propel me towards seeking points of entry in my future endeavors that are risky, beautiful, unexpected. Arts-integration is good work. Moreover, it is necessary. For all of us.

 

You can visit pages at http://www.wexarts.org or find their blog here.

Miami CW’s First Event of 2016: Darrin Doyle

This past Monday evening, the Creative Writing Program kicked off this semester’s reading series with author Darrin Doyle. His most recent book, titled The Dark Will End the Dark (published in February 2015), is a collection of short stories that explore the human body and reason. Miami University professor Dr. Joseph Bates introduced Doyle; the two have been friends since they were in graduate school at University of Cincinnati together.

“You can just imagine what it was like to have these suckers coming at you in a workshop,” joked Bates, referring to Doyle’s work, which can often turn dark and disturbing.

Doyle first read a short story from Dark, entitled “Foot,” followed by a few different stories he is currently working on, entitled “Dangling Joe,” “Party Town,” “Possibilities and Considerations,” and “Perfect Sandwich.” “We always ask our students to share what they’re working on, so I think it’s only fair we do the same,” explained Doyle, who is currently a professor at Central Michigan University.

Author Darrin Doyle sits with and signs books for Miami University students after the reading.

Author Darrin Doyle sits with and signs books for Miami University students after the reading.

The pieces that Doyle read all explored different themes. “Foot” is a grisly fable-like tale of a mother’s devotion to her child. “Dangling Joe” is a satire of American society and media, while “Party Town” might resonate deeply with certain residents of Oxford. “Possibilities and Considerations” is an experiment in format that gives a wry, and at some times satirical, insight into life. “Perfect Sandwich” is the story of a man’s desperation to be good enough.

The audience, engaged and enthusiastic throughout the entirety of the reading, supplied no shortage of questions for Doyle, asking about his strategy for writing, influences for different works, and advice on writing a novel. “I’ve written, in the last year, about 23 of these short stories,” said Doyle, referring to his as-of-yet-unpublished works. “It’s weird when you start noticing [recurring] themes.”

When asked what his influences were while writing The Dark Will End the Dark, Doyle said, “Franz Kafka and Flannery O’Connor are two of my biggest influences. Their characters might have a physical ailment, [but] their souls are grotesque… Fairy tales, folk tales, and fables have always had their hold on me… I like the feeling of the surreal that’s grounded in reality.”

As for advice on writing, Doyle says, “It’s great when you’re inspired by an idea… but then you’ve got to sit down and write. One sentence leads to another, and hopefully you surprise yourself a bit.”

Can’t Go Over It: Dismantling the Writing Wall

Creative Writing MA student Katy Shay talks the writing life and about how to beat the writer’s wall.

In my life as a writer I’ve encountered “the wall” several times. By the wall I refer to that feeling you get as a writer where you suddenly cannot write and you cannot believe that you were ever able to write anything. The wall is also known as a block, but runs deeper, as it isn’t simply “I can’t think of anything to write.” The wall, to me, feels like a physical impossibility, not just creatively and mentally, to write. Sometimes the circumstances of life and death can erect the walls and sometimes it seems that they just build themselves. Like you were out running your errands or working and when you came home to write: BAM! Who put this up?

Whenever I hit the wall I get freaked out and feel like I’m never going to write again. Then I start having thoughts about being a fraud, wondering if I was any good to begin with, or falling into a pit of self-loathing about my inability to create/write/do something other than stare at the wall dumbly.

As someone who’s encountered this, I’ve tried to figure out solutions for it. There are a few ways to get around a wall: up, under, around (for walls do not circle the earth). The best and most badass advice is Patti Smith’s who says, “When you hit a wall, just kick it in.” It is extremely good advice; however, it hasn’t always worked for me. I think this is because some sort of anxiety or depression often accompanies the wall brought on by wintertime and eighteen-month-long election cycles and general ennui.

The wall hits me, usually, before I have to start a new project. Sometimes starting projects can fill me with existential dread and so this dread reinforces the wall, making it un-kickable. What I’ve found works best, for me, in these times is to try dismantle the wall. I look at it and ask, what are the bricks are made of? What holds them together? Eventually the bricks begin to loosen and I can switch them around. Instead of trying to move past the wall I attempt to manipulate it, move it, test it and see what’s in there.

So what does this look like in terms of writing? Usually at this point of wall-induced frustration I’ll just sit down and free write, maybe considering the questions above, maybe just writing the word “butts” over and over again (there are some free writes that I’ve done that easily could be turned into Tina Belcher erotic friend-fiction). The point of this is to free myself of the expectation that everything needs to come out perfectly and be immediately a work of great brilliance and genius. Usually I’ll perform this free-writing/reflecting on the block/putting whatever nonsense happens in my brain down on the page a few times in a week (if the wall comes up around a deadline I rapid-fire this process). Once the week is over, I’ll look at what I’ve written down. I handwrite so I usually type up what I’ve written. Then I take it, cut it up, put it through filters, and play around with writing the same sentence five different ways. Generally the finished project is garbage, sometimes it’s decent, and occasionally it’s good. The finished project is less important than the process. By meditating on how the wall got there, taking down the power of expectation, and manipulating the very words the wall is made of I remind myself that I am fully capable of the real work of writing: asking and answering to the self.

The process reminds me of how I write, how I actually get the work of writing done. I am sure your process looks different. Maybe you type at the computer and never edit or always edit or always write with a glass of wine. Honoring and reminding yourself of your process brings the ability to create back into your life. It begins to dismantle the wall.

Katherine Karlin’s ‘Send Me Work’: A Review

I first stumbled across Katherine Karlin’s work in the Winter 2015 edition of The Cincinnati Review.  The story, “We Are the Polites,” is told from the point of view of the youngest daughter of five children born to a large, famous Greek family.  Her name is Honey, all of her other siblings have normal, “non-stripper” names, and they lead clean-shaven, non-stripper lives.  Not that Honey is a stripper (she’s not); Honey is an uninteresting accountant whose life pales in comparison to those of her theatrical siblings.  

You’re probably thinking sad story, I’ve read it all before.  But you haven’t.  Not the way Karlin tells it.  Through Honey’s eyes, everything is alight with quotidian beauty—the small things are her bread and butter, and Karlin lives in those descriptions.  Here is a passage, one of many from “We Are the Polites,” that converted me to Karlin:

In the winter, the sun slides from my apartment by two in the afternoon.  I live in the second-story of a cottage in Somerville, a vantage point from which I can watch the neighborhood change.  That
check-cashing place is now a dress shop, and the Chinese takeout turned into a tapas bar.  The beige paint on the living room wall is frizzled like pencil shavings.  The hot water knocks…These familiar defects are comfortable to me, like the battered wok hanging on the wall or the smell of diesel from the street.  Stick your head out the kitchen window and look sharp to the left: You’ll see a sliver of the Charles.  I like that.”

You may say, “but you’re supposed to be writing about Send Me Work.”  I’m getting there.  The point I have been trying to make is this: how often is it that a short piece you read in just another literary review audibly takes your breath away?  Karlin gets comfortable with the awkward in-betweens that often accompany lofty career expectations.  Honey is just one example of one of Karlin’s characters in a period of transition.  

Send Me Work, Karlin’s 2011 debut short story collection, tells of women in the workplace, often aspiring to become masters of their respective crafts, and many times ultimately failing but realizing something about perseverance along the way.  The stories are the painful yet intricately rendered tipping points that Karlin’s women must face.  Karlin’s stories are heavily inspired by her own experiences, which makes sense when considering the strongest areas of her stories: rich descriptions and realistic dialogue.Send Me Work

Three stories are central to the development of themes in the collection: The Severac Sound, Muscle Memory, and Send Me Work.  This trifecta appears early in the collection, one after another, more reminiscent of sneak attacks than gut punches.

In The Severac Sound, Rachel lingers as a lady in waiting of sorts—she’s the perpetual second chair oboist in a respected symphony orchestra.  Second to Peter, and second in the eyes of their cancer-riddled instructor.  Nothing trumpets the persistent horrors of the stereotypical, overshadowing male figure like the opening line, “Water sprang from the fat penis of a bronze cherub and splashed in a turquoise pool glittering with pennies.”  In the opening scene, Rachel is admiring the fountain in the lobby of her hotel, but the moment is ruined when she realizes the statue reminds her of Peter.  She imagines her aloof colleague as the cherub, “urinating on her hand.”  Karlin uses such subtle moments of humor and elegant detail to avoid reducing her characters to sorry puppets used and pounded into dust by the misogynist societies in which they work.  In the end, instead of realizing dreams or shriveling into crumpled wads of self-pity, Karlin’s women find something to hold onto, the equivalent of a secret that keeps their spirits alive and their nihilism at bay.  I can’t really give much more away without spoiling the ending, but just know that Karlin consistently establishes and undercuts traditional feminist tropes to give her character Harriet a newfound sense of autonomy.

The impetus for The Severac Sound began with Karlin’s experience.  One of Karlin’s good friends was a professional oboist, and she actually travelled with his orchestra on tour across Europe and the US, carrying luggage and doing laundry for them.  She knows the tediousness of readying a reed before rehearsal because she’s seen the process dozens of times.  The story is so strong due to Karlin’s immersion in the subject matter.

Muscle Memory, perhaps Karlin’s most widely read short story to date, is the story of Destiny, a young New Orleans woman whose father died in Hurricane Katrina.  Her father was a welder, and Destiny, in order to learn the craft and support her mother, tries to earn the respect of a welder at the shipyard where she works.  Karlin, drawing upon firsthand experience as a woman working the shipyards, once learned how to weld from the men she worked with.  Augustine, a washed up, bitter character who once recorded a hit record as a one hit wonder, takes it upon himself to school Destiny in not only welding but in his musical heritage, a journey of discovery that parallels the development of Destiny’s education as a welder.

Send Me Work, the title story, is perhaps the most heartbreaking of them all.  It’s the story of Harriet, a failed standup comedienne who was recently fired from her temp job as an accountant and kicked out of her apartment.  Izzy, her longtime best friend, works as a circus clown, and he meets up with her in New York every year.  The moments leading up to this year’s meeting are freighted with Harriet’s memories of past adventures.  And when the two meet again, Harriet holds onto the new memories for dear life:

She would need to memorize all of this: the singing, the taste of tangerine and the seed he spit on the pavement, the fog his breath made.  Someday she would need it.  Holding his arm she glanced up to see, on top of the buildings, the black silhouettes of water towers, staved and coopered and quaint.  She shivered.

The two have an exchange about a radio segment in which listeners call in with popular song lyrics they’ve misheard.  The title takes its name from a misinterpreted Bruce Springsteen lyric from “Drive All Night,” a song from his 1980 album The River.  (This also made the Springsteen fan in me scream with joy like nothing else I’ve ever read before, but that is beside the point.)  Harriet explains to Izzy:

It starts out, ‘I wish God would send me word, send me something I’m afraid to lose.’  And this dude [who called in] always heard it, ‘I wish God would send me work, send me something I’m afraid to do.’”

The misheard lyric, in addition to its function within the story, could be construed as a commentary on Karlin’s writing philosophy.  She writes from experience, meaning that she picks out scenarios or events from her life and transforms them into short stories.  Karlin, and perhaps all creative writers, wait for those little moments worthy of remembering, each one a challenge laden with potential and begging to captured.

Carly Plank

Creative Writing MA 2017

 

How Joseph-Beth’s and Jonathan Franzen Made Books Personal Again

On Tuesday, January 26, 2009, a friend and I drove over an hour round trip in the Columbus snow, spinning out twice, to buy Franz Ferdinand’s third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, at a record store on its release date.

I am positive such an odyssey will never happen again.K04116 Fall am tues

Amazon and iTunes were long established and have grown since. To defrost an automobile rather than double-click a “place order” button seems preposterous now, as does my four-star review of the album for my undergraduate student newspaper. (A new wave throwback album in 2009? Please. Three stars, at most.)

However, the spirit of that trip, of wanting to make the release of art something to be celebrated, shared, an event, is what compelled me and Justin Chandler, fellow MA in fiction here at Miami U., to a bookstore to buy work from a different “Franz”—Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity.

When I asked our current workshop instructor, Dr. Joseph Bates, author of Tomorrowland and The Nighttime Novelist, if he could refer us to any hip bookstores in the Cincinnati area, he recommended Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The establishment is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Past Miami students have interned with the bookstore; conversely, Joseph-Beth employees have been guest speakers for Dr. Bates’s classes. Justin and I saw no reason why we shouldn’t further the Miami/Joseph-Beth relationship.

Remembering my snow-filled album excursion, I suggested we wait until the weekend (and check the weather). We departed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, not a week after Franzen’s novel had been released. During the hour-long car ride, we learned we were both first-generation college students. We waxed past Franzen novels as well as his themes of familial conflict and multinational connection. The discussion proved a solid refresher for the similarly themed Purity.

Joseph-Beth’s reminded me of a Barnes & Noble sans the sterility. Instead of a Starbucks, there was Brontë Bistro. The genres were numerous but weren’t laid out in a boring big box. Rather, some were upstairs, others in an alcove to the side of the entrance, a design which made textual perusal more an adventure.

Not that we had to look far. Franzen’s work was front and center for his release week. We searched through the stacks of Purity and found two autographed (!) copies, both priced the same as non-autographed ones.

After our purchase, we read. Then we discussed what we read, something which I haven’t done outside of a lit seminar in a long time. The camaraderie, the conversation, the change of scenery—all refreshing.

In Franzen’s commencement address to the class of 2011 at Kenyon College, he dissuades technophilia, positing “[w]hen you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?” Whereas the acquisition of books, whether from a bookstore or library, plus the discussion of them in book clubs, was once a way to leave the room, devices such as the Kindle have made human interaction a seemingly unnecessary prerequisite to getting this week’s best seller. One can argue literature’s lesson is to teach us empathy; what happens, though, when we have no one with which to practice that lesson?

Christopher Maggio
Miami University MA student

Making Voices Heard: The Art as Activism Symposium

At 4:00PM on Tuesday October 20th, Oxford heard voices – not in the sense of the supernatural (despite the approach of the 31st), but rather in the sense of strength and leadership in a shifting world.  The voices told stories of culture and heritage, of the ways in which art gave them the language they needed to phrase their reply to the discrimination and inhumanity they witness. With each anecdote and poignant remark, the voices called upon their student audience to remember that it is the student voice to which the world listens. That, though Miami University’s “Art as Activism Symposium” panel may have designated the voices of seven artists to discuss the role of creative expression in the realm of change, those seven voices should not be the only ones expected to speak.

These reminders came from rap artist Darren Brown, poet and Miami University professor Daisy Hernandez, guitarist Barnabus “Doc” Edwards, writer Jennifer Tamayo, and musician Shelley Nicole; Professor Cathy Wagner of the Creative Writing Program and Dr. Tammy Brown of the Departments of History and Global and Intercultural Studies led the discussion.Tammy & Cathy w BLM slide 2

The event may have been labeled as a “Panel,” but the responses of each artist and scholar made clear that they intended to lead an engaging conversation in which the students would be
expected to participate – and continue participating through activism in the university community.

“If people start doing it, it’s a movement.” These were the words of Shelley Nicole on the question of movements in our historical moment. Nicole is a feminist vocalist/bassist in Shelly Nicole’s blacKbüshe, a band described as “the living, breathing embodiment of progressive music.” She used light to convey her idea of an activist, stating, “When you start to wake up you will notice that people try to keep you dim.”

Shelley Nicole performing 2Such questions of systemic resistance through art and expression motivated much of the conversation, particularly as it pertained to the question of what art can do to promote change in a community. Hernandez’s response to this query, that “Art allows us to interrogate
ourselves,” reveals the glory and power within art that each musician, writer and scholar sitting on the panel upheld in their conversation: that art provokes questions and voices concerns that can foster communities of resistance and deconstruct systems of oppression.

Later that evening, the artists’ musical and poetic performances demonstrated this interrogatory power.

At a time when so many communities within the nation and world seem to be crying out for widespread and systemic change, art may be the key to uniting the voices.  The comments of Tuesday’s panelists remind us that the task of creating such art and supplying such voices rests entirely in our hands; it is our responsibility as socially-conscious United States citizens, as informed global citizens, as human beings who desire the promotion of humanity, to speak.