What you have heard is true. He was born in a cone of sunlight, or perhaps it was a streetlamp, his birth beneath the skirt of stars, or perhaps there was no light and the cone of sunlight or lamplight has been invented for the sake of remembering, for the sake of memory. His father was present, either way, that big man with the frayed belt, whether it was daylight or night, brightly lit or dim, and he was carrying a camera, some boxy thing that he held near his waist and studied, chin bent to chest. Or maybe it was his mother we remember, the mother that stood with her camera on the balcony overlooking the runway, the planes buzzing down one after another in a haze of dust on that dry day, leaning into the railing, thinking, maybe this plane, or maybe the next, holding her camera at the ready, a Kodak Instamatic, eye glowing behind the viewfinder. And the light is different when we tell it this way too, perhaps not a bright cone nor a dark night, but something in between, a mist, the sky an undulating gray cloth, a scrim of mercury. Today the truth is not with the mother, today the story is not hers. We’re telling it this way: there is the father and his Hassleblad, there is his father waiting near the terminal in his overcoat, hiding his bulk, tucked into an alcove, waiting for his son to arrive in a cone of light or darkness or rain. Today our truth is this: the father, the camera, the rain, steam rising from the asphalt. Today our truth is light, mostly, and rain, light and rain, here and there, puddles like silver trays dotting the tarmac. The actual story changes. Do you think we do not notice? Do you think we care? We have our last story, our last memory, our last remembrance. There is no other way to say this. We’ve forgotten everything, or do not know what we had, or never had anything to begin with. We can remember our names, certainly, and our children and our jobs and the movies we’ve seen and the loss of our virginity and the fire that took half the city and the bombs and the cold nights that came later and the heat of the fevers that left us shaking, but those stories, those memories, are loose, untied, untethered, unattended, without tendency, ghost-memories barely present, absent the cone of light or the skirt of stars or the mist that drives us to our knees. We have his father. We have his mother. We circle now, waiting for morning, when we begin again.
they said don’t leave us but who could look where he was looking and not leave, that’s what he asked himself as he was pulling away the brick, the first brick, down on his knees in the basement near the cistern, pulling away the brick and sliding down in the hole, or falling into the hole, stretching thin and just zipping down there, blasting into that dark fire, that dark fire, like an electric flare he’s pulled, zipped or zapped, like a hand reaches up and grabs him and pulls him thin, pulls at that one thread until all of him unravels and he’s just a longer sort of thread, and he’s gone, and who would he understand a thing like that anyway? Who would miss him now that May was gone? He’d go over to the Waterson’s where Frank is surely on the porch watching the finches, old Frank who wouldn’t remember his own name if Dave or Doris or one of the others didn’t say, Now Frank, or Here you go Frank, or How about a grilled cheese? Once, when Billy himself was a child, way back at the beginning of the thread, he’d gone to the Waterson’s to see Dave and there was Frank passed out on his stomach in the middle of the living room floor, ass hanging out for all the world to see, and Dave said, Ignore him, he’s so gross, and he’d never been able to see Frank the same again, even after Frank was on the wagon and sang in the church choir in a red robe. His voice carried through the whole church, a deep and lovely bass, and even though he never could shake the image of Frank lying dead drunk and buck-naked, he was sorry that he was so far gone that he couldn’t join the choir when they sang for May, Amazing Grace, it was nice, sure, but Frank Waterson’s big bass voice clear and sober as a judge ringing out, you couldn’t just replace that, and May would have enjoyed it so, and then he was home, eating tray after tray of casseroles and lasagna and deli-platters and hiding in his room drinking cans of Coors and then hiking down to the overpass and wishing for something awful to happen and then he was down in the basement looking at the old cistern and he saw the bricks move, just one at first, just the one, and the light coming from behind the bricks and it only made sense that something else was happening on the other side of the bricks and the field stones and the soil and the sediment and the layers of shale and granite and iron and all that pressure so far down, it only made sense that he’d see the opening when he was down on his knees, that’s how you found your way he remembered as he reached out, tugged on the brick, that’s the only righteous path, to be on your knees, looking in the right direction, and then he pulled the brick free and he was a long string zipping down into the core, either filling up the world or being filled with the world, he couldn’t tell which, and he was light, a particle, a wave, radio, x-ray, gamma, ultra-violet, transverse, longitudnal, electromagnetic, mechanical, a string, a thread, oh May, oh, he was gone
I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Snay’s house. I’ve just finished cutting her grass. My shirt is soaked in sweat. I’m waiting for my mother to come pick me up. Her car should be coming down Fisher Street any minute. This is years before my dad dies so she still has that shitty green Ford wagon that burns oil and smokes for ten minutes every time she starts it. Later, with the insurance money, she buys a Pacer that she keeps until she dies and leaves it to my sister who drives it for two more years before it burns up on the highway while she’s driving to Lawrence to buy cocaine and when the police get there they arrest her for driving under the influence, her third strike, and she spends four years in state prison where she reads Audre Lourde and comes out clean and clear and with the help of a social worker goes right into college, gets a degree in Women’s Studies and then a job teaching underprivileged kids in a poor school district in Houston where she meets her partner Lucy. They’re finally able to marry in 2015 and I go down to Houston for the wedding and find out that my old friend Paul lives just a little way out, in Galveston, and he wants me to come over and sit on his deck that looks out over the Gulf and when I’m sitting there I’m reminded for some reason of the time my mother dropped me off at soccer practice and wanted to kiss me goodbye and I said, Mom, please, not in front of my friends. I got out of the Pacer and she sat there in the parking lot for a few minutes and then drove away. I start crying right there with the water lapping below the deck and Paul says, It’s the Gulf, man, she’s so pretty at this time of day, it’s not the first time she’s made somebody cry. Then my mother is driving down Fisher and the exhaust haze fills up the street behind her and all the rest is way far in the future and none of us suspects what’s coming.
Interested in reading my novel Apocalypse Nation? I’ve decided to post the novel in serial format on Medium. Click the image to find links to both the current and previous installments.
Why so many drafts? Why so much work?
It’s because you have to get everything into the piece. You can’t pick or choose, not in the beginning. Everything has to go in. All the characters, the landscapes, the details, the dialogue, the mysterious stuff that bubbles up from inside that you can’t control, the mystery, the entire story arc—you can’t leave any out.
Early on, it seemed like it was imperative to only write what I thought needed to be there. I attempted too much cutting and paring from the start. It took me maybe ten years to learn that I had to include it all. And it took another five years to discover that I have to take most of it back out. I have to put it all in at the beginning but then I have to take most of it out by the end. That’s why it takes so long. How many times did I get stuck somewhere in a story and decide that the only way forward was by “figuring something out?” How many times did I let that stalled motion kill the story, while I slogged through the muck of “figuring”? There’s no figuring involved. I simply had to learn to put it all in and then be patient. The stuff that needs to be cut loose will rise up all by itself.
It’s like moving into a house. You have all this stuff that you bring in. You might have thrown away a few things before you moved, but still there’s boxes and bags everywhere. You brought everything that you thought was important. All the boxes sit around and you maybe set up the bed and hook up the cable that first night, but you’re exhausted from loading and hefting your stuff. And then you probably have to go to work the next day so you let the boxes sit for a while, pick through them after you get home, or on the weekends. After a few weeks, you’ve been living with all the stuff out and about and you can see things a little more clearly. You have the spices in the cabinet and the DVD’s in the rack and the sheets and towels in the closet. You’re really starting to see the place—really starting to make it feel like yours. Some pictures go up on the wall and then you decide you need a new lamp and maybe some new curtains. The pile of stuff is no longer that big. You get the place decorated the way you want it, adjust the angle of the television, bring in some plants to brighten up the study. Finally, you decide that you really love the place and you’re about to settle in and relax for a while. It’s then that you notice all the leftover boxes. A lot of that stuff that you brought with you is now superfluous. So you begin to throw stuff away. Some of the stuff you store in the attic, just in case, but mostly you can clear out everything you don’t need. Only once all that stuff is gone can the place be really finished.
It’s the same way with drafts. Everything goes in the first draft, even the stuff you don’t think you’ll need in your new place. Everyone works differently, of course, and you may start throwing stuff out early, but I’ve found that I can’t go throwing stuff away until I find out what I need. That’s what’s happened with my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. I thought I was done drafting. It felt “finished.” But I was still at that stage of home decorating where I was blind to all the boxes in the corners, filled with unnecessary belongings. With a little editing help from a fantastic new friend, I found that I had a lot of things I could cut, throw away, reshape, or store in the attic. Now Apocalypse Nation is bright. It is a literary thriller—as much about people and sacrifice as it is about things that go bump in the night. I have hope that it might find a home. You are going to want to read it. Stay tuned for further developments.
For one thing, the chandelier is too low. Imagine trying to walk your way around those baubles twenty or thirty times a day, cocking your head to one side or the other, all that energy wasted for what? Who would live like that? Everything in the house is in disarray but nothing more so than the chandelier with it’s crystal tears and rings and wires. There are dishes in the sink and cloths scattered over the floor and drawers open and contents spilled out across the floor, batteries, scissors, that postcard from the vacation to Puerto Rico where you fell on the sidewalk and ran crying to the thin woman under the awning who helped you find your parents. You were how old then? Five? You cried when you stood on the balcony and watched the ocean stretching back home, your fingers holding fast to the railing as your parents packed the suitcases. You vowed never to leave no matter the consequences, but you did. You left that day, the plane humming on the tarmac hot on the soles of your sandals. You never returned and so broke your vow, the first of many. Maybe that’s why it upsets you so now, the postcard torn from the drawer and lying on the old green carpet under the crooked chandelier, it’s light bent over the room like some old hunched crone calling your name. You said you’d come back, the crone says. We waited for you, all of us. We had dinner prepared. We had the grill ready. The children are singing still.
Last semester, a student came to me and told me that he had to write a paper about a class at UNH. He asked if he could interview me and sit in on a couple of my fiction writing classes. I said yes, but only if he made me sound like I knew what I was doing when he wrote the paper. His name is Kenny Cashman. He wrote an excellent paper. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the subject. He effectively described the tone and nature of my undergraduate intermediate fiction writing course (the only thing different about this semester’s course is that I no longer have the long braid that my students mention here). He told me I could post his essay below. Thanks Kenny!
A Class About Stories
Professor Clark Knowles, simply referred to as “Clark” by his students, walks into the classroom and writes two quotes, both about writing, on the white boards at the front of the room. Most of his students have already arrived and are sitting down in the array of desks in front of him. As Clark writes on the board, the students continue on with their side conversations. Clark engages in conversation with a few students, and then he addresses the rest of the class. When it is clear that class has begun, the students’ side conversations end. Clark begins by reading aloud a quote from Donna Tartt.
“Very nebulous. You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess. If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book, you’d think, ‘This person is crazy. This could never be a novel.’ That’s how all my books have felt when I started writing them. Trying to explain them to people was like trying to explain a dream.”
Clark then uses a novel that he is in the process of writing as an example to explain the quote to the class.
“It’s finished, but it’s a huge mess, because it’s just a first draft. Trying to explain it literally is like trying to explain a dream. If I say, ‘Oh, it takes place partly in the afterlife, and Napoleon plays a big role in the book, and part of the book takes place in Egypt when Napoleon was waging his Egyptian campaign, and part of it takes place in Japan in the year 2080, and part of it takes place in small-town America, 1960,’ that’s, like, nuts. That sounds crazy. That could never be a novel. But when I wrote it down, it seemed to be working.”
Clark teaches Intermediate Fiction Writing Workshop at the University of New Hampshire. Students in his class are expected to know the fundamentals of writing, and he thus focuses more on creativity and good stories than the technical aspect of writing.
The class takes place in a plain-looking university classroom with bare walls and two whiteboards at the front of the room. The wooden desks are arranged in a semicircle close to the walls of the room.
“I try to do some writing exercises outside, with the weather permitting. I try to get over to the art gallery because I think it’s a great place to, you know, just break out,” Clark says when asked about the creative energy of his classroom. “You can’t really be creative in these rooms with the fluorescents and the hard-ass desks.”
Clark’s own office is a square room decorated with shelves of books and miscellaneous posters, including a rather large one of Homer Simpson. While we discuss his class, Clark sits in his desk chair, his laptop on the desk in front of him. When he stands, he is six feet and four inches tall. His brown hair is long and tied back into a ponytail, and he wears rectangular glasses with rounded edges. He has a deep voice that naturally projects and fills the room both when he is speaking to me in his office and when he is addressing his students in the classroom.
Before class begins, Clark’s students file into the semicircle of desks as they enter the classroom. Before Clark comes in to begin the class, they discuss the riots that occurred on Main Street the previous night after the Red Sox won the World Series. One of the students, a blonde boy named Aidan, eats a bagel as he tells his friends about how his jeans still smelled of pepper spray the morning after the riots.
I seize the opportunity to talk with the students before the start of class, and I ask the group what was the biggest factor in their decision to take the course.
“Clark’s ponytail,” Aidan says, and everybody around him laughs. Then, he gives me a real answer. “It’s a more beneficial class than 401 or Literary Journalism in that it forces you to write creatively.”
After arriving and presenting his daily quotes, Clark starts the class with any relevant announcements before sitting down in his chair at the front of the room and beginning the workshopping process, during which the class discusses what they liked and what they thought could have been done better in a story. While Clark towers over the students when he stands, he sits on the same level as the students before him as they all prepare to workshop a student’s writing.
When I ask Clark what his favorite part is about teaching Intermediate Fiction Writing Workshop, he answers instantly.
“Break,” he says, and then he laughs. “I always go for the laugh, if I can.” After thinking for a moment, he comes up with his real answer.
“Seeing somebody get it,” he says. “Even if it’s only for a paragraph…I’m not an editor, so I don’t break stuff down that way, but I love being able to point out, ‘See? This paragraph is the key paragraph of the whole piece because of what you do with this one detail.’ Seeing somebody knowing that they got that little, small thing is cool.”
Students are always given their peer’s story prior to the class when it is to be workshopped, and Clark removes the names from all of the stories to encourage unbiased comments from the writer’s peers.
At the beginning of the workshop, Clark asks if anybody thinks they know who wrote the first story, and a student correctly guesses that the story was written by another student named Alex. Alex then reads an excerpt selected by Clark. Alex’s piece is the story of a few teenagers who are having a hallucinogenic drug trip and one character’s struggle with a romantic interest named Emma. After Alex finishes reading his excerpt, Clark asks him where the idea for his story originated.
“It kind of came from just, you know, this summer, writing about festivals and seeing all kinds of people and all kinds of different things,” Alex says.
“Never indulging, though,” Aidan interjects. A few students laugh.
“In your writing process, you’re still early on?” Clark asks.
“Yeah, this is, like, a shitty first draft,” Alex says.
“One step above shitty.” Clark laughs. “You fixed your commas and stuff.”
Clark redirects his attention from Alex to the rest of the class. “What’s working best for you so far?”
Clark always has the person whose story was workshopped last begin the discussion. This time, it is a girl with light brown hair who starts things off. “I really liked the tone all the way throughout. I couldn’t have written this story with that tone.”
A boy with short brown hair raises his hand, and Clark calls on him to speak next. “I also liked the description you used, like on the first page, the third paragraph. After Emma just left, obviously he’s pretty bummed. And you conveyed that well just by describing the room and the setting, rather than just saying that he’s upset.”
Clark speaks next. “You couldn’t help but notice Emma. ‘Short, lovely, green-eyed Emma.’ Even though that’s only the slightest bit of physical description, because of the tone, you get a good picture of who she is. It works nicely.”
Clark then calls on a girl with long, blonde hair, who had raised her hand. “I like how the narrator felt like a friend. I feel like you were able to get away with talking about drinking, and smoking, and doing drugs so much and have it not be like, ‘Okay, I get it; you’re drunk.’” Clark laughs. “Just because it was so casual. It was just like a conversation.”
There is a pause, and for a few moments, nobody speaks or raises a hand. Then, a boy with a beard and a baseball cap raises his hand, and Clark calls on him.
“Some stories you read, you have to overanalyze or think hard, and this was just kind of relaxing to read. I kind of just went along for the ride. It’s refreshing to read something like that.”
“Does anybody else have something to add?” Clark said. He often asked this of the class, but he never called on anybody to speak if they didn’t have their hand raised.
A boy who is wearing a baseball cap backwards raises a hand. “My favorite part was when they actually started the trip. Your descriptions of the world and the way they were viewing it and that shift of mentality, I thought you described it really well. Like on page nine, there are a lot of good descriptions like ‘the trees swaying like colony of ants and puffs of Milky Way shooting across the sky in a fantastic geometric display.”
Aidan then chimes in. “That was my favorite part of the story, too. Whether you did it on purpose or not, the writing changed. The writing during the trip was way more fluid, I feel, whereas everything else was a little scattered because he’s anxious and overthinking this girl and stressing out about drugs and cigarettes and stuff.”
“Even if you compare the sentences,” Clark says, “you’ll see a big difference. And that might be because you were finding a groove–”
“It got a little later in the night,” Alex says. A few students laugh.
“I was wondering if the music lingo was tough for people who weren’t musicians,” Alex adds. Students around the room speak all at once, all saying that the language wasn’t too confusing.
“The only word that confused me was on page seven,” Aidan says. “Talking about swing dancing in the middle school gym, ‘he found it to be much more useful than juggling scarves or taninkling.’”
Students murmured their agreement with Aidan.
Alex laughs. “Taninkling was this dance thing that we had to do in the middle school gym. It’s, like, with these sticks, and…” Alex attempts to pantomime taninkling from his seat as he explains it, but he drops his hands in defeat as the class begins laughing. “I don’t know.”
“What kind of school did you go to?” Clark says. The class laughs some more.
“Public school,” Alex says, smiling. “But, yeah, it was like the most useless thing, and we spent, like, two weeks learning how to do it.”
“There’s a story right there,” Clark says. “Some kid in a taninkling class.” Again, the students laugh.
“There were a whole bunch of those things in this story that really worked,” Clark says as the laughter dies down and he brings the class back together. “But that’s obviously good stuff. Let’s talk about where Alex can take what he thinks is a shitty first draft back and sort of unpack it a little bit.”
Jason, a UNH faculty member who is taking Clark’s course for fun, speaks out. “The part I had the most trouble with was…the fact that nothing happens. There’s no consequences for any of this. There’s a great conflict setup with Emma at the beginning that never goes anywhere, and there’s potential for conflict with Julia that resolves itself without ever getting into actual conflict.”
“Trouble, right?” says Clark. “You need a little more trouble.”
“Yeah,” says Jason. “There’s nothing at stake here.”
The student with the beard and the baseball cap raises his hand again. “The one thing I wrote was that because it didn’t really have a conflict or resolution or anything, it didn’t feel like a short story. I love the style and everything you had, but missing that piece, I wasn’t really sure what you were doing.”
The blonde girl speaks out next. “I think that because this conflict with Emma kind of disappears, the end kind of feels rushed because it’s just all of a sudden, ‘everything’s great.’ It kind of ties it with a bow. And I just wasn’t ready for it to be resolved already. I just feel like everything fell into place, but we didn’t even see a shift in character. We weren’t there when he had a realization when he was tripping or something; he just woke up and everything was dandy. So maybe just another scene or something like that.”
Jason speaks out again and pitches an idea for such a scene. “Well, I mean, he’s on acid; he’s going to be hallucinating, so he hallucinates Emma and hashes it out with her, and he works through it and finally realizes, you know, maybe I was being a dick, and that’s why things didn’t work out. Or maybe he realizes something about her and that it was just never going to work out no matter what he did.”
The blonde girl speaks again. “I had an idea that she would come in when he was tripping and stuff, too, or just plague his thoughts a little bit.”
“Even if it wasn’t hallucinating, I think that that might be a scene to play around with to bring her back in,” says Clark. “Even if it’s an actual visit from her, it’s going to be weird because of his state of mind at the moment. You don’t necessarily have to have a hallucination.”
“Any other closing ideas?” Clark says a moment later. “Did we miss anything that somebody wanted to bring up that we didn’t? Unfortunately, these go by quick. I do have a title suggestion, though.”
“Yeah, I hate that title,” Alex says.
“On page six, you have your title, I think: ‘Somewhere far from real.’” Clark says.
Quiet “oohs” bubble up around the classroom, followed by laughter.
“Why don’t you just do title ideas for everyone?” Aidan says.
“If I see them, I throw them out there,” Clark says. “For this one, that totally jumped out.”
“Did we miss anything you wanted us to get?” Clark says to Alex.
“Nope. The one thing I was thinking was that maybe if it was in first person, would that kind of clear up a little more of the confusion?”
“What do people think?” Clark says to the class. “I mean, you could try. I’d always say give it a shot; give it a couple pages and see what happens.”
Aidan turns to Alex. “I mean, given the nature of an acid trip, I feel like first person would give you a lot more freedom with describing what he’s seeing and the thoughts in his head.”
“I’d give it a shot, and even if you end up not liking it, you’ll figure something out about the characters,” Clark says. “It feels like it’ll give you a lot of freedom, but it’s really a trap. Really, it’s a way of limiting yourself. But try it. It’s not a bad idea to try it.”
“I try to make it clear that I’m just an opinion,” Clark says when asked about his participation in workshops. “I think I have good things to say, but I want to encourage disagreement. That model where everybody talks, and then the teacher sort of chimes in and says what’s really going on with the story–I don’t want to do that. It’s more of a conversation…I try to just include myself in the conversation.”
This writing workshop is a place where students can go to tell stories about anything they want; Clark has made it clear that there’s no censorship, and story topics range from drug trips, to urban rhapsody, to post-apocalyptic societies.
“I think we all do kind of the same stuff,” Clark says when asked how his class differs from other fiction writing courses. “I’m probably not the most demanding, in terms of reading other things. I ask a certain amount of reading short stories…I think I’m demanding creatively…that might be the only difference, maybe? That I spend less time reading stuff and more time focusing on the writing.”
On the wall opposite where I sit in Clark’s office, a quote–his favorite quote about writing–is written on the wall. “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Out doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
“It’s by Henry James,” Clark says when asked about the quote. “I’ve been down here fifteen years, and I didn’t have a window, so I decided to write it on the wall…It just speaks to what writing is to me…I love ‘the madness of art’; it’s my favorite part of the quote…I think that anything good I’ve ever written, I really didn’t have much to do with. I got out of the way. That’s the madness of art.”
Advice about “getting out of the way” of your own writing is exactly what you will receive in Clark’s class, along with how best to tell a story and what it means to be creative.
“I don’t really know if I teach writing anymore,” Clark says. “I feel like, in a creative class like this…that the conversation really is about being creative, about what it takes to be creative…I think for the most part, it’s really about finding a space where you can sort of tell the story that you feel like telling. That’s such a huge part of it.”
It was nice standing there with Barbary in front of the stone head speaking like old friends. In fact, I’d begun to imagine that I’d known Barbary for a long time—or had known him in a different life or would know him—but as soon as I started pondering how or when we might know each other, my headache returned and I wanted more than anything to rest, to stop moving, to go home to where my loved ones awaited and dinner was almost ready, to enter that world as completely as I could, to dig my feet down into some cool soil and guzzle water from a cool stream. As I felt these things, a strange tingling began in my arms and legs, as if I had rested too long in one place and my limbs and fallen asleep, the pins and needles of awakening. I held up my palms and wiggled my fingers. A new light seemed to come from my skin and tiny particles of dust orbited my wrists. I looked up again at the great stone face and saw its jaw loosening and an empty tunnel forming behind its great stone lips. I held up my hands once again and saw the dawn light mingle with my light, with the prism now unleashed from within me, perhaps near my heart, were it was warm.
Oh, Barbary said, look at you.
A fantastic book by a writer that is sure to write even more powerful work. It’s hard to believe a writer as young as Boianjiu could write something so assured and powerful. It’s called a novel, but it could very easily be considered linked stories–many different POV’s–narrators–stories–all centering around three young woman in the Israeli army. The most powerful story, “The Diplomatic Incident”, is an amazing act of story telling. Boianjiu effectively includes nearly half the globe in this story–pulling characters from Israel, Egypt, the Ukraine, and Somalia–switching points of view–bringing people from factories, from the desert, human trafficking, refugees camps, the military, the country, the city–all converging on a small observation post on the Israeli/Egypt border, to one guard tower and one particular moment in two female guards’ lives. In fact, pretty much every story here has the scope of a novel, but the tight control of language required by short stories. Consider my socks knocked off.