The Night Circus

The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a love story, a modern-day fairy tale (in my mind), and a battle between old arch-rivals, who think nothing of using others in their never-ending battle to better one another.

Many things work in this book, and work well, but what really pulls this book together is the plot. Two long-time rivals, Hector Bowen, aka Prospero the Enchanger, and Alexander , the man in the grey suit, who tells the young boy he picks up from the orphanage: “Names are not of nearly as much import as people like to suppose…If you find you are in need of a name at any point, you may choose one for yourself. For now it will not be necessary” (27).

The two magicians make a gentleman’s wager–Hector’s daughter Celia is to be pitted against Alexander’s protege–a student he has yet to choose. At some point in time, the two will compete against each other and the outcome determines which magician is the better instructor. It is the biggest wager yet, with the highest stakes–“only one of them can be left standing” (back cover). After years of training, Celia and Alexander’s protege–Marco–are ready to begin.

The Night Circus–Le Cirque des Reves–is the centerpiece of this wager, and it is through The Night Circus the plot unfolds. The Night Circus appears without any warning–no fliers or parade through town announce it’s presence. One day there’s an empty field, the next, black and white striped canvas tents are there. The circus is only open at night. As the acts and activities of the circus progress, so does the wager, but the details of how it is fought unfold gradually, as Celia and Marco begin to decipher the competition and it’s final outcome. The depth of the competition and its ramifications also sink in slowly, showing the selfishness and narcissist traits of Alexander and Hector. The reader is left wondering with the characters how the competition will end, for Celia and Marco have fallen in love, and the ramifications of their love will affect everyone involved in the circus–performer or visitor.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus. New York: Anchor Books. 2012. Print.

Erin Morgenstern’s website

Her blog

Flax-golden tales–one photograph, one 10 sentence short story. posted on Fridays.

Follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Led Zeppelin Teaches Me about Writing

By Matthew McEver

In my second semester of graduate school, my professor returned a short story of mine, inscribed with the epitaph, “Not a story.” I was caught a bit off-guard because I had characters with rich backgrounds as well as setting, dialogue, and premise. Not a story, though.

Among the hats that I wear is that of prose editor—review of manuscripts, short stories. Don’t take what I’m about to say as wisdom being doled out, but as the observations of a fellow struggler. Having written my fair share of stories-that-aren’t stories, I’m quick to recognize one.

When is a story not a story?

A story is not a story when nothing is happening. Your manuscript may have a sense of place, engaging characters, dialogue. Let’s say that your setting is a traveling show and there’s a bearded lady. I’m in. As a reader and a writer, I’m rooting for you. But if I’m a few paragraphs into that story and I can’t grasp the conflict, the dilemma, I’m not sure why I’m here and I lose patience, even resent this burden, because there is great literature that I have yet to read.

My writer-friend, Phil Morris, once said that after at least a few paragraphs, “I need to know what the story is about so that I can start guessing where it all might be headed.” We read stories because we want to see something resolved, and we need to know the nature of the dilemma rather quickly. In songwriting, it’s called a hook—and if you want to hear some examples, listen to Led Zeppelin.

Guitarist Jimmy Page has a knack for reeling in the listener by way of the memorable riff: Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, Immigrant Song. Those songs have recognizable openings that grab me by the throat, which is what I long for in reading the opening of a work of fiction.

Liken the opening sentences of prose to the opening riff of a song. The opening “prose riff” must provide voice, inventory, tone, character, setting, premise. A good opening prose riff can fuel the writing. Be warned, though, that you can fool yourself into believing that a quirky character or premise revealed in a clever opening paragraph is a story. Characters and settings and premises are not stories. They are elements of stories, much like a catchy riff and great guitar tone and thundering drums are elements of a song.

Benjamin Percy’s short story collection, The Language of Elk, features a story called, “The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight.” The first sentence reads, “The bearded lady is dead”—a great opening. What about the rest? Within a few lines, the narrator says, “She was my sweetheart.” At that moment, all sorts of possibilities enter our mind and, as Phil Morris says, we start guessing where this story might be headed. Easily, this story could have been about nothing, weird for its own sake. Percy could have mistaken novelty for story, but he doesn’t.

No matter how vivid the characters or how novel the premise, if nothing is happening then it’s not a story, just like riffs and chords and drums don’t mean it’s a song. (I could drag out many examples of “popular” songs that aren’t songs, but I won’t).

Ultimately, there’s no reason to read such literature or listen to such music because there’s plenty of work out there that is actually about something. Instead of reading a story about nothing, I’ll just grab my collection of Hemingway stories. Instead of wasting my time with hack musicians, I’ll just listen to Zeppelin. Songs that are songs. On vinyl.

 

Literary Citizen-and why you should be one #litcitizen

Lit Citizen-literary citizen. Loose definition—promoting others’ work over your own.

It’s a concept worth practicing—share others’ work instead of relentlessly promoting your own. But not just anyone’s work; share work you believe in.

*Read books and share the good stories, across all genres. Read, and then promote the work that you believe needs shared with the literary world.

*Support literary magazines through subscriptions if you can; but at the very least track down issues at a library, read, and then share the stories that resonated with you with others.

*Buy books and post reviews of the ones you believe need more readers.

*Support authors you enjoy by sharing their work and sending them a note of encouragement/appreciation.

Read more about literary citizenship at the Literary Citizenship blog.

Cathy Day teaches a class on literary citizenship at Ball State University. Check out their website and follow them on twitter.

Become part of the conversation. #litcitizen.

 

 

 

Punctuated Bodies in Rebecca Thill’s “Punctuation”

In the last few months, I’ve really been trying to up my Twitter presence, and in doing so, I’ve come across a lot of new-to-me journals and poets. Consequently, I’ve been reading even more poetry than usual. You read that right. Twitter, the 140 character flurry of information, has led me to read more poetry. Once I started checking my feed fairly regularly, I found that it’s much easier to find the things I want to read. I follow a lot of journals, and those journals post not only their favorite poets and poems, but also blurbs about articles and deadlines for contests and submissions. Yesterday, I got an email that @melancholyhyper started following me. I checked their website, Melancholy Hyperbole, and I was pleased to find some really wonderful poetry, in particular three poems by a poet named Rebecca Thill.

“Punctuation” is my favorite of the three. The speaker uses the images of quotation marks and parentheses to show the positions of her and her lover’s bodies. “Both bodies curved in, / paired arcs, resting on the crux / of back to chest contact, / we create an opening:” (4-7) describe the lovers, and also shows the space between them which leaves room, a physical opening, for the spoken words that indicate a betrayal in the next stanza. The speaker’s lover says “don’t worry . . . she’ll never know“(9-10) while they are in the quotation mark position. After the words are spoken, the speaker turns to face her lover, forming the parentheses. The images of the punctuation serve not only to show positions, but also to frame those words. When the speaker turns, her body holds the spoken words indicating a betrayal inside, between the two of them. They are “(nested)” (15), and the use of actual parentheses here mirrors their bodies showing inclusion and secrecy. 

In the last stanza, the lovers turn back to back, effectively removing themselves from each other. This position is not a mark of punctuation; it serves no purpose. The words themselves have been let out: “Things said, can never be unsaid” (22), and the fact that the lovers no longer form a purposeful mark indicates that they will not be together again, that they no longer work. 

Thill’s use of punctuation as images helps the reader to navigate the poem, and it shows the delicate balance of love. Thill has two more poems on the Melancholy Hyperbole website, “Anatomy of Impatiens” and “Personal Ontology.” Both poems work. Check them out, then Tweet about them. Spread the word, and read more poetry! Thanks for reading. @TheLadyRandom

Marking Time

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

In Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller paints an eclectic collage of her parents’ life in Africa using photos and stories of their experiences, successes, failures and tragedies. All the stories work to reveal the unique personalities of her parents who live as white farmers in different parts of Africa, particularly Zimbabwe when it was ruled by a white minority. They are the last of their breed and are there to see things change despite the violent wars and internal struggles to maintain things as they once were. The story, however, mostly focuses on Fuller’s mother, a colorful and candid character who admits she is not mentally stable.
Besides Fuller’s wit and her vivid storytelling, what works in this book is Fuller’s use of time markers. Fuller is not a linear storyteller, and in writing creative nonfiction, it is sometimes difficult to give readers markers of when certain events actually happened since the writer is dealing with memory and shaping time into meaning instead of into a biography or a historical account. Fuller solves this dilemma by telling specific stories in the order that will achieve her goal which is to show her readers how her parents developed into the people they have become. She does in each chapter by grouping a set of stories with a photo and a date that help to present theme and setting.
The book is divided into three parts, and at the beginning of each chapter in all three parts, she includes a picture with a date and caption. For example, the chapter entitled, “Nicole Huntington Learns to Ride” includes a picture of her Fuller’s mother in Kenya at about age seven or eight in overalls, standing barefoot on the saddle of a white horse. This chapter shares how her mother’s love of horses began. Yet, she doesn’t begin talking about a horse; she begins with a story of a donkey who meets a terrible fate outside her mother’s’ convent school.
The stories jump around weaving in and out of time and place, so the dates beneath the captions beneath the photos help the reader keep track of time and place. When making these shifts in time, it helps to have something to ground the story. The construction of her chapters and inclusion of photos help to do this.
Fuller shares lots of wild and interesting family stories that make up over fifty years and three generations on the continent of Africa. It is easy to get lost in time while reading. Through each chapter, however, the reader is able to navigate the past and the landscape of the continent through the eyes of the Fuller family.

The Gift of Focused Power in First Person Point of View:

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

by Rhonda Browning White

            There’s a children’s game in which a sentence is passed via whisper from one child to another through the room until the last child repeats the sentence aloud. Of course, the sentence has changed. Point of view in a story works much like that whispered sentence: a story changes depending on who repeats it. Each of us—and each of our characters—has her own frame of reference, her own set of parameters, her own way of seeing the world in which we live. Thus, each of has a unique point of view.

Perhaps there is no better examination of a character’s point of view (POV) than to let that character tell the story as he sees it, as he lived it, through first-person viewpoint. Amy Tan tells the story of eight Chinese-American women (four mothers and four daughters) living in America, through each woman’s POV in The Joy Luck Club, and while this may seem a distracted and sprawling way to relate the story, instead readers are given deep and varied perspectives of what it means to be an American through the eyes of these women. Readers gain intimate insight into the workings of the mind of each woman, and we are intellectually involved in each narrator’s thoughts and actions, puzzling through her life as she lives it, ultimately piecing together the whole story from eight viewpoints.

A crucial element for telling a story through multiple first-person points of view is voice. Tan succeeds by layering the cadence of each character’s voice with the dialect and language of her time and birthplace. For example, when daughter Waverly Jong relates her mother’s anger at her for staying out too late and causing her to worry, she tells us, “Standing there waiting for my punishment, I heard my mother speak in a dry voice. ‘We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us’ (100).” Here we see that Waverly is Americanized enough to speak and think in grammatically correct American English, but her mother still carries the rhythms and dialect of her Chinese culture.

Through first-person point of view, we experience the difference in thought and opinion of these two cultures—American and Chinese—and how the two sometimes clash, but other times mesh with such beauty as to provide striking clarity that would otherwise remain clouded without the perspective of multiple points of view. Character Ying-Ying St. Clair, a mother who suffered a mental break following a late-pregnancy miscarriage, expresses her numbness to the pain in first-person voice in a way that would be impossible were the story told by an omniscient narrator: “I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water” (67). Even though Ying-Ying is reporting her past, the experience is immediately convincing, because we feel her numbness to grief and pain through first-person point of view.

Through her use of first-person POV, Tan’s characters have the freedom to explore their thoughts, sometimes digressing, sometimes reflecting, but always coming back to the present moment, so that as readers, we experience the closeness of single consciousness with the character. We understand the character. We achieve new perspective. We are enlightened. There is no greater gift a writer can offer a reader.

 

WORK CITED

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. NY: Putnam, 1991. Print.