Just Breathe

by Rhonda Browning White

In the chapter titled “Paragraphs” in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them , she suggests that some paragraphs can “be understood as a sort of literary respiration . . . Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale at the start of the next” (Prose 66). “The drama,” she tells us, “peaks in the center of the paragraph” (Prose 71).

I’ve thought of this often since reading Prose’s book, and when I come across a paragraph that really grabs me in a story, I examine it carefully, and I’ve discovered in many cases that the paragraph indeed has that feeling of a literary respiration.

For example, Richard Ford’s short story “Optimists” from his collection titled Rock Springs contains a paragraph that I feel concisely offers the first-sentence inhalation and last-sentence exhalation experience that Prose discussed. Ford writes,

The most important things of your life can change so suddenly, so unrecoverably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connections, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that’s happened and by all that could and will happen next. I now no longer remember the exact year of my father’s birth, or how old he was when I last saw him, or even when that last time took place. When you’re young, these things seem unforgettable and at the heart of everything. But they slide away and are gone when you are not so young (Ford 187).

This inhalation and exhalation of a paragraph is also found in Katherine Anne Porter’s short fiction titled “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” found in the collection by the same name. The selection that follows also serves as fine example of how to end a paragraph with what Prose calls “greater weight than what appears in the middle” (Prose 76).

He really did look, Miranda thought, like a fine healthy apple this morning. One time or another in their talking, he had boasted that he had never had a pain in his life that he could remember. Instead of being horrified at this monster, she approved of his monstrous uniqueness. As for herself, she had had too many pains to mention, so she did not mention them. After working for three years on a morning newspaper she had an illusion of maturity and experience; but it was fatigue merely, she decided, from keeping what she had been brought up to believe were unnatural hours, eating casually at dirty little restaurants, drinking bad coffee all night, and smoking too much. When she said something of her way of living to Adam, he studied her face a few seconds as if he had never seen it before, and said in a forthright way, “Why, it hasn’t hurt you a bit, I think you’re beautiful,” and left her dangling there, wondering if he had thought she wished to be praised. She did wish to be praised, but not at that moment. Adam kept unwholesome hours, too, or had in the ten days they had known each other, staying awake until on o’clock to take her out for supper; he smoked also continually, though if she did not stop him he was apt to explain to her exactly what smoking did to the lungs. “But,” he said, “does it matter so much if you’re going to war, anyway?” (Porter 156-7).

Just when we are lulled by this rhythmic list of Miranda’s and Adam’s busy activities, Adam’s declarative question leaves us breathless with its weight. The pressure the characters face of trying to fit so many experiences into time shortened by both illness and the fatal risk of war are impressed upon the reader by the ticking-clock rhythm of the paragraph, as well as the jarring mental alarm sounded in its final sentence.

Do the paragraphs you write breathe? Consider beginning an important  paragraph with a sentence that sets up the reader or foreshadows a crucial moment to come (inhalation), then ending it with a sentence that takes away the readers breath (exhalation). Perhaps it’s the technique you need to breathe new life into an airless story.


Works Cited

Ford, Richard. Rock Springs: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1990. Print.

Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.

Biblical Allusion in Flannery O’Conner’s The Violent Bear It Away

By Matthew McEver

In The Habit of Being, O’Conner surmises, “The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic… full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments” (350). This notion provides impetus for her final novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Here are repulsive characters, conflict between intolerant religion and intolerant humanism, kidnapping, arson, murder, and rape—yet rampant comicality, much of which owes itself to O’Conner’s allusive use of biblical literature, particularly Old Testament prophetic literature and New Testament symbolism. Relentlessly, she projects this material through a darkly comics lens by working within the paradigm of Southern do-it-yourself religion.

Uncle Mason is a Tennessee backwoods John the Baptist. Ordinarily, prophetic figures wish to proclaim an urgent message to the masses. Uncle Mason’s ministry never goes beyond his own kinfolk. His baptism obsession is also caricatured. Baptism is a rite intended to express that God has claimed an individual, yet Uncle Mason kidnaps his relatives in order to baptize them. First, he kidnaps his nephew Rayber. He recounts his four-year-sentence in a prison for the insane as persecution of the righteous, making reference to wearing a strait-jacket which, in his eyes, puts him in the same company as Ezekiel—the prophet bound by cords (although Ezekiel bound himself as a symbolic act). Subsequently Uncle Mason abducts seven-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater, sequesters and “educates” him. Here, O’Conner borrows from the successor motif (i.e. Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha). When Rayber intervenes with the intent of rescuing the child Francis, Uncle Mason acts in the manner of the Apostle Peter, swinging not a sword but firing a gun and taking a wedge out of Rayber’s ear (Wood 227).

Francis Tarwater’s calling to prophetic ministry dominates the novel and reads like a pastiche of Jonah and the Prodigal Son. It is not the word of the Lord that comes to Francis; it is the voice of the old man. Daunted by his uncle’s calls, Francis grows defiant and drunk, burns the property down and leaves for the city, confident that he has incinerated his dead uncle’s body. By implication, young Tarwater must preach to a city that has forsaken its savior, but this mission takes a back seat to the baptism of Rayber’s son – the baptism that eluded Uncle Mason, which takes on the character of a vendetta more than an act of piety. The Prodigal motif is apparent in the manner in which Francis leaves and returns home. Refusing to bury the uncle’s body is act of sacrilege, a shunning of religious identity. He squanders his prophetic inheritance and returns home in the wake of being chastened by a sodomizer. The theft of his hat, perhaps a symbol of self-reliance, is the ultimate humiliation. What is raped is his insolence.

Fittingly, O’Conner renders a devil figure or inner demon that tempts Francis into abandoning his calling, but in keeping with the tone of the novel this accuser is more of a hillbilly Satan. “Ain’t you in all your fourteen years of supporting (your uncle’s) foolishness fed up and sick to the roof of your mouth with Jesus?” the stranger asks (39). O’Conner’s construction of the inward accuser allows for an internal dialogue that provides insight into Francis’ mind that would otherwise be unavailable to us as readers given that young Tarwater is such a guarded character. When, in the novel’s conclusion, a stranger in a lavender vehicle wearing black, offering Francis a ride, a special cigarette and a flask of whiskey, we realize that he is none other than the countrified Satan incarnate. “There was something familiar to (Tarwater) in the look of the stranger but he could not place where he had seen him before” (228). Aptly, the stranger offers whiskey that tastes “better than the Bread of Life” (230), leaving Tarwater naked and unconscious off the side of the road,  stealing Tarwater’s bottle opener and hat – objects that we’ve grown to associate with Tarwater’s droll pigheadedness. Given the references to the lavender car and the lavender scarf used to bind Tarwater, we might conclude that O’Conner intends to evoke the color of Lent, a time designated for the purging of sin.

The Violent Bear It Away could not exist without the fanaticism of its characters, but the novel is not a parody of religious radicalism. Ultimately the heart of this story is the battle for the soul and the scandalous nature of the prophetic calling. O’Conner renders Francis Tarwater as though he were Jonah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah. The wrinkle is that she renders this character in a Southern setting as a rebellious teenager, home-schooled by a do-it-yourself hellfire evangelist. Her genius is in the juxtaposition of these absurdities with sober themes of temptation and grace. The only drawback to reading O’Conner’s work is that she was not around long enough to give us more.

O’Conner, Flannery. The Habit of Being. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. Print.

_____. The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960. Print.

Diamond Mining

By Liat Faver

            Several years ago, not long after my sister’s death, I read the first two chapters of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I couldn’t continue. The same thing happened when I tried to read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. Both books evoked too much pain. I’m sure I’ll be able to read these good books someday, when I’ve gained sufficient distance from my own sorrows, or something. For now, I’d rather drop an elephant on my foot.

Most of my friends know that this past year has been one in which magical thinking was needed. My mother’s stroke, preceded by Hospice, followed by two mini-strokes, and her confinement to bed, the sudden death of a lifelong friend, and most recently, a breast malignancy that brings my own health to the forefront, and the lack of Fairy-Godmothers, have given me a lot to grow about. I don’t get much enjoyment from reading these days, and writing has become mostly a keeping of notes for future “real” writing. For that someday, when I can focus again, or stay put for awhile, or something.

Maybe if I had more help, maybe if I had a spouse or partner, maybe, maybe, maybe some combination of circumstances would allow me the energy and spirit to tumble those letters and enjoy the word-wallowing I like to call writing. Or, perhaps I’m doing the best I can do, and need to realize this is what it is, and be satisfied that time is on my side. It only looks like it’s on my face. Tequila, please.

What gives us creative energies? What takes them away? What makes the writing stop working? I feel most creative when life is satisfying, and it only needs to be moderately so. On the other hand, deep pain can draw me to ink and paper like bees to flowers. However, daily routines with little variety scour away the thrill of feeling emotion. Feeling becomes inconvenient and time-consuming, best relegated to a gathering of wits in a cool room when I can be alone long enough to let the stuff run over me like a mudslide, and if I need to, drown for awhile. And after that, allow my mind to drift somewhere without direction, like a soft movie or TV show. And I am lulled and soothed and the cacophonous edges dissolve.

Some days, I wake up lured to the pages and words and somewhere between that first thought and the ten that follow, the alphabet fades and there is so much to do—so much the same—so sad—so unpromising.

The deliverance in all of this is that these days hold magic, if one watches and listens carefully. When moments of light come from my mother’s eyes, and the recognition and recall are there, and the intimacy of what we are sharing is a precious chapter at the end of our life together here, and I can see that she knows what is really happening and is as present and calm as ever, and she says she loves me, and thanks me for what I am doing, and briefly, she isn’t confused, or frightened, or vacant, or powerless. All the years of singing and dancing, grace, struggle, falling and getting back up, spill into the room she lives in, and time ambles and gallops and the miracle of this love is overwhelming. These are diamond days.

Contributor News-Rhonda Browning White

Contributor Rhonda Browning White has a post on Ploughshare’s Writing Lessons blog where she writes about her experience as a student in Converse College‘s low-residency MFA program

Writing Tips to Get You Through the Summer Doldrums

Read your fiction aloud. Don’t do this on an early draft, or you will drive yourself crazy trying to tie plot threads together and fleshing out characters. Wait until you are editing sentences, single words even. Then read your piece aloud. It doesn’t need to be read to someone (though it can be), but by turning the words on a page into sound you will notice so much more. Hidden grammatical errors will pop up, awkward word choices will be revealed, and boring, stilted dialogue will fester. Really, try it. It took me a long time to give it a shot (I can’t remember who recommended it to me), but it significantly improved my drafts. After all, which do you expect to help more: reading a draft for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time in your head or giving real voices and sounds to your narrative?

Experience other forms of storytelling. I write; that’s my form of expression. But there are so many other types of stories to be had. Watch a TV show, see a movie, listen to an album, read a novel, play a video game, admire a painting, dive into a comic book, hear a spoken word poem, check out an anime, sit around a campfire and take in a ghost story, go see stand-up comedy, try to talk your way out of a speeding ticket. Narratives permeate the world around us, but I’ll be the first to admit I subconsciously limit myself in what I consider when I write. The written word has so much to offer, but it doesn’t have everything. When you are burned out and can’t write another word or you just need a new source of inspiration, give a different medium a shot.

Write a Wikipedia article for your characters, places, and events (it could be a regular encyclopedia article, but this it is the twenty-first century). This is a longer exercise, and I find it to be particularly helpful on stubborn stories that refuse to move forward. Separate a character’s lifetime into the early years, middle age, and late life. Fill in those categories with a few lines of description, circle important nouns, and start new articles for each of those nouns. The circled will act as the links in a Wikipedia article. After a bit of work you’ll have a network of people, locations, and events with the basic framework for the world of your story. You can work on this network as long as you like, from creating a scant few connections fleshing out minor characters to developing a rich history of the people and lands that populate your work.

Give any or all of these tips a try. Hopefully they work for you, and if they do, pass them along down the line.

“Words that burn”: Honesty in Denise Duhamel’s Blowout

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of what is considered confessional or post-confessional poetry. Many times, it seems the poet is simply using poetry as a venue to publicly confess rather than trying to create art. This is most definitely not the case in Denise Duhamel’s new book Blowout. With grace and brutal honesty, Duhamel writes about the slow, agonizing death of a marriage, the joyous discovery of new love, and the points in-between when it seems that nothing good will ever happen again. Duhamel’s readers are invited in to the intimate world of the speaker, and there, they recognize themselves.

In “A Different Story,” Duhamel describes discussing the writing process with a friend over a meal. The friend thinks that what writers do, steal other people’s stories and make them their own, is creepy. She states, “Imagine how you’d feel / if someone re-created your life and it wasn’t very pretty” (44). The speaker’s response is to “start to write the poem in my head, the one / describing  my blubber, my crowded teeth, my penchant / for gossip, the smell of my feet after a long day / in pastil sandals. My character is cheap, / fearful, controlling, duplicitous, a dunce” (45). The speaker immediately leaves the restaurant to “get it all down before someone else does” (45). It is this kind of honesty in creating the speaker that makes each of these poems personal to the reader. It makes us think, what would someone write about me? What would I be willing to write about me?

The speaker’s experiences with the end of her marriage are almost too painful to read, but they do not dwell on themselves. In “Mack,” we find that the husband has racked up a fifty dollar bill for watching porn, fifty dollars that they do not have. Besides that, the reader knows from reading “Madonna and Me” that any money the couple has has been earned by the speaker. The husband is unemployed. As heinous as this is, when the speaker is nearly run over by a Mack truck because she is so upset, we forgive her for “wishing my husband would kiss me for twenty / minutes straight because, if he did, I knew I’d forgive him” (13). The speaker reminds us that there was a beginning to this end. At some point, kissing her husband was romantic and exciting.

The reminder that bad endings often have wonderful beginnings is reinforced in “Old Love Poems.” The speaker uses the celebrity marriage break-up between James Taylor and Carly Simon to make her point. “How could they part / having written those love songs? And how could they go on / singing those love songs after the divorce?” (58). The speaker had written love poems about her now ex-husband, and those poems “are on shelves / in libraries and in people’s homes” (58). Published poems don’t go away. Someone, somewhere might, at any given point, be reading a love poem written to a husband who turned out to be someone “whose body left an imprint on the couch / like a chalk outline at a crime scene” (10). The reader recognizes the unstoppable spirit present in a speaker who can still be “grateful” for those poems, for those moments.

The same speaker who, in the end, falls so deeply for a new love that she writes an “Ode to Your Eyebrows” has had to feel the particular emptiness of a cold marriage bed: “The year before he left / we avoided being awake in bed / at the same time and, when we were, / we lay on our backs hoping the other would take over” (69). The same speaker who can once again write a love poem “Having a Diet Coke with You” once felt this way: “I remember crying at the spa during my scalp massage / the masseuse’s hands were so tender I sniveled into the sheet / she explained that this sort of outburst happened a lot / to women who weren’t used to being touched with kindness” (87). 

Poet Thomas Gray wrote: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” Denise Duhamel’s Blowout, while definitely personal, resonates with the reader. These poems live and breathe. In their honesty, they burn their way into the reader and say, no matter what, there is always hope.

Duhamel, Denise. Blowout. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2013. 

Summertime posts

Summertime–a time for outside activities–like reading a book on the deck or swing; suspension of regular school schedules for a few short months, picnics, barbeques, and for this blog–a chance to experiment with different formats and topics. The schedule is the same, but the format may be a bit different. Let us know what you think. 🙂