What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.

Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.


Read these! Our contributors’ (and then some) work from around the web

Regular contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has several poems published around the web:
“The Art of Deception” page 64 in the Minetta Review

“Guess My Name” and “Linen” at CSHS

A short story from Kyler Campbell. You can download a free issue and read his story “Caretta Caretta” & short interview from Driftwood Press. Story starts on page 13.

Travis Burnham is a fellow Converse alumi and his short story “The Bone Washer” is up at Bad Dream Entertainment.

Jeffrey Schrecongost, another Converse grad, whose post was highlighted a few weeks ago, has a short story–“Mouthwash” up at Gadfly.

Poet Melissa Dickson Jackson is the author of Sweet Aegis and Cameo. Another Converse alumni and she has a blog post up at North American Review titled A Poem in Flight: Memory and Truth.

Check out contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson’s children’s book Rocko RocketRocko also has a Twitter account. Lots of good stuff happening here!

Core faculty member and fiction member Leslie Pietrzyk, author of A Year and A Day: A Novel and Pears on A Willow Tree has an interview up at Reader’s Lane. Leslie also has a blog at Work In Progress and edits Redux: A Literary Journal


Black as the Devil’s Dreams: Thoughts on Place in Pete Dexter’s Deadwood

by Matthew McEver

Attributed to Chief Seattle is this quote: “(The white man) is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on… he treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

Writers like to talk about sense of place, but we’re often guilty of using place only to decorate the page, to point to our mastery of the language, rather than using place to bear witness to greater truths about human beings. We take from the land what we need, and we move on. Thankfully, there are writers who have used place in order to say something about human behavior.  

The sense of place in Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood is an excellent example. Deadwood is representative of the literature of the American West, but it is a subversive Western–a Western that refuses to champion rugged individualism and progress, as many Westerns have done. Deadwood, South Dakota was an illegal settlement in Lakota territory, and the strong sense of place in Deadwood reminds us that people destroy one another over land. Characters in the novel are hyperbolically violent and wicked because ownership of land has historically been tied to human violence and wickedness.

Dexter refuses to exalt Manifest Destiny. Instead, he caricatures westward expansion by blending comedy and horror, seamlessly. The novel’s characters are so morally deteriorated that nothing phases them. They engage in droll, flippant commentary in response to gun violence and, in one instance, rape. The role of dark humor in Deadwood is to undermine the “heroism” and intrepidness of those who displaced the Lakota by amplifying their depravity, suggesting that the legacy of American frontier expansion is actually that of amoral opportunism.

The novel opens with a parody of the journey westward, the archetypical passage to Eden, as a caravan heads for Deadwood. Historically, the Black Hills Gold Rush instigated the settlement and development of Deadwood, but here and throughout the novel, Dexter downplays the economic impetus. The impulse driving this journey is not as much greed as it is debauchery. The caravan consists of twenty-eight wagons, but “most of them are full of whores” (6). Furthermore, Dexter’s use of setting alerts us to the spiritual condition of the people when he describes the hills as being “black as the devil’s dreams” (Ibid). Dexter is turning the journey-of-progress motif on its head. These characters long for Deadwood not because it promises prosperity or renewal, but because it will cater to their base desires. Deadwood is not Eden, but Sodom.

Dexter undermines the notion of westward expansion as a higher calling by suggesting that Manifest Destiny brings out the worst in people. Virtually all characters in Deadwood are in varying degrees of downward trajectory, a moral equivalent of reverse-Darwinism. The town is full of violence, yet the characters are so desensitized as to shrug it off, treating violence as mundane. Saloons and hotels have bullet holes in the ceilings. One cartoonish scene involves Handsome Banjo Dick Brown who, while onstage, narrowly escapes the throw of an axe from a cuckolded husband, manages to return fire—hitting the axe-man with five bullets—and resumes his song. Such pastiche gains full impact when offset against the somber tone of characters detailing Indian violence, particularly the “terrible mutilations” suffered by Custer’s army (26). Characters speak of Custer’s death almost with reverence. The discrepancies, the comic violence offset against gruesomely somber violence, suggests that only Indian violence is horrible—or real for that matter, but White violence is all in fun.

Dexter could have offered lyrical descriptions of the landscape with no purpose beyond decorating the page, calling attention to how well he writes about place. But place in this novel serves a higher purpose. Place in Deadwood tells us about the base desires of the characters, tells us something about our commodification of land.

The lawless character of the town in the novel underscores the inherent amorality of Lakota displacement in the name of progress. And because Dexter creates tension between the real and the imagined, between fiction and history, he seemingly mocks biased history, history told by those who conquered. By placing the horrors of history and the amorality of frontier opportunism and violence alongside comic absurdity, Dexter defies a myth that serves the cause of American hubris.


Dexter, Pete. Deadwood. New York: Random House, 1986. 

Feast or Famine?

By Liat Faver

A note at the beginning tells us Ernest Hemingway worked on A Moveable Feast for years after it was first written, and made more revisions after it was finished. Feast takes place mostly in Paris between 1921 and 1926, with side trips to smaller French towns and a ski trip to Austria.

Hemingway starts with descriptions of the Café des Amateurs that he avoids because it houses “dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness” (1). We begin to feel “all of the sadness of the city,” that “came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street” (2). Hemingway depicts his settings clearly, putting the reader in a chair at his table. This is the Hemingway I know and love; the one through whom I live vicariously, and well.

Hemingway tells himself to “write the truest sentence that you know,” and if he finds he is writing “elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something,” he can remove “that scrollwork or ornament . . . and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” (7). He makes a point of not thinking of his topics while he isn’t writing, so his ideas will be fresh when he returns to them.

In a detailed portrait of a spring morning, we join him in his room where “the windows were open wide and the cobbles of the street were drying after the rain.” A goatherd approaches, stopping to sell fresh milk to a neighbor and “went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing” (27). This paragraph, uncluttered and easy, is one the reader wants to revisit, to savor colors, textures, scents and sounds. He brings us so close we feel we are a living strand of his hair, or the sweat on the bill of his cap “in the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks” (48).

What Hemingway does best is engage the reader by mixing us in on his color palette. He writes from an interior dwelling that makes us feel we are living inside his mind, behind his eyes. When he meets Scott Fitzgerald and begins a journey with him and Zelda, his story turns outward, and we see less of his creative process. His thoughts revolve around Fitzgerald’s dysfunctions, and his illustrations become ordinary, almost predictable, and less interesting.

A Moveable Feast is not a bad book, but it left me feeling I’d had a great appetizer and only a few bites of the main course. Perhaps its value lies in revealing the youthful Hemingway, with his awkward sentence structure and naïve vantage point. Painful lessons are learned, and we find ourselves, in the beginning, loving his immaturity and, in the end, loathing his betrayal of his wife, Hadley, and ultimately, himself.


Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. London: Arrow Books. 1936. Print.


Fairy Tale Influences in Donald Barthelme’s Short Fiction

The following is an excerpt from a longer work on the influence of fairy tales in contemporary short fiction.

Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was a contemporary writer best known for his weird and witty short stories. The short story “Game” can be understood as a kind of modern fairy tale.

“Game” is the story of two men, Shotwell and the narrator, trapped in an underground bunker. They hadn’t planned on being in the bunker for very long, but when the story begins they have been in the bunker for one hundred and thirty-three days. The two of them have the power to launch a nuclear missile, though that is never explicitly stated. “If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys…If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies,” (Sixty Stories, 56). Each man has one key for one lock. Both men have been instructed to watch the console, but also to watch each other. If either behaves strangely the other is under orders to shoot him. Not only does each man have a .45 issued to him, but they each also have a concealed firearm. Shotwell plays jacks by himself, refusing to allow the narrator to play. The narrator writes descriptions of natural forms on the wall (4500 words describing a baseball bat in one instance) using a diamond in a ring he bought for a woman. Neither man can tell if the other’s behavior constitutes as being ‘strange’. They both attempt, at different times, to reach both locks by themselves, but the locks are placed too far apart for just one man to reach. The narrator claims to know what Shotwell wants to do (turn both keys and let the bird fly), but he refuses until he gets his turn with the jacks.

“Game” opens with an image of Shotwell and his jacks. While it does not provide the immediate distance from reality that a fairy tale beginning does, the opening to “Game” does show what the narrator’s focus is. The narrator is obsessed with Shotwell’s jacks, he even goes so far as to attempt to pick the lock on Shotwell’s attaché case to get to them. The second paragraph of “Game” gives the reader their first glimpse into the world these characters inhabit. Both men are trapped in an underground bunker, waiting for a prompt from the console which never comes. In short, the narrator and Shotwell are trapped (it is worth noting that their situation is similar to that of the fairy tale hero being trapped in the deep, dark woods). In the opening two paragraphs the reader knows this is a story about isolation and the effects it can have on a person. However, the opening of this story isn’t fully realized until the ending, when the potential consequences of the narrator’s obsession with the jacks are revealed. “…I understand what it is Shotwell wishes me to do. At such moments we are very close. But if only he will give me the jacks. That is fair. There is something he wants me to do with my key, while he does something with his key. But only if he will give me my turn. That is fair. I am not well,” (Sixty Stories, 60). If the narrator gets his turn with the jacks, then the bird will fly. Thus, the very first image in “Game” contains all the stakes of the entire story (and being a story about nuclear weaponry the stakes are high indeed). Not only does the opening of “Game” function in the same manner as the openings of fairy tales by introducing the reader to the truth of the world, but it also presents the central image and conflict as well.

There are only two real characters in “Game”: the narrator and Shotwell (there is a third character, Lisa, but she is only mentioned in one, albeit telling, line). The two characters are quite similar in many respects: they both want the bird to fly, they both have concealed weapons which take up “a third” of each man’s attention, and they have both tried, all alone, to turn the keys at once. While both of these men are enduring incredible stress from being trapped in the bunker for such a length of time, Shotwell is holding up better than the narrator. Shotwell’s activities strengthen, or at the very least maintain, his connections with the outside world (in the form of working on his business administration degree program), while the narrator uses his last item from the outside world (a diamond ring for Lisa) and inscribes descriptions of natural forms on the walls. Just as in fairy tales these two characters can be seen as simple representations of a single, more complex character. Isolation is a difficult thing to endure, and the characters in “Game” could be interpreted to be an isolated person’s desire to give up (the narrator) and their desire to fight on (Shotwell). By Shotwell refusing to give in to the demands of the narrator (in the form of the jacks) the determined aspect of the character wins out over the aspect that wants to give up. If, however, Shotwell were to give in and allow the narrator to play with the jacks it would have disastrous consequences for the world of “Game” and for the person stuck in isolation.


Poems of Witness: Kathleen Nalley’s Nesting Doll

As I was thinking about my blog post due today and which poet I should write about – yes, I have been and probably always will be a world-class procrastinator, no matter what I teach my students – it occurred to me, again, that I was avoiding the obvious. Kathleen Nalley’s chapbook Nesting Doll, winner of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative’s Chapbook Series chosen by Kwame Dawes and published in 2013, has been sitting on my side table since I got it back on September 13, 2013. Don’t get me wrong. I love this book. It hits hard and makes the reader keep her eyes open, both qualities that make poetry work. But I know the author. I know her well, and that has kept me from writing about this collection. Until today.

Nalley’s poems are hard to read. Not hard like inaccessible, but hard like, Damn. The reader is asked to be inside the heads of a male rapist and a mother who knifes her two children; to be inside the heads of a girl sold into the world of sex slaves and a woman who layers on weight in response to a world of sexual abuse. In “First-Round Draft Pick,” the speaker describes himself raping a drunk girl, “She woke up when I tightened my belt / around her wrists, whining something / about losing her virginity” (14). He states that he never takes no for an answer, and that he “learned it / from [his] dad” (14). The cycle of abuse is fully described in a very few lines, and the reader cannot look away.

In “Fat Lady Singing,” the speaker responds to years of pain including being violated by her father, by peeping Toms and depraved strangers, and by a “German transfer student, / five years her senior,” (18) by putting on weight. “[A]n extra helping of potatoes” becomes “the baggage. Her body became / its own armor and chink” (18). The reader understands this layering, the series of shells that protect the woman within. This echoes the title poem. In section two, “Becoming,” Nalley writes “Outside, you cary history, / weight in years and kids, / line from too much time / smoking or drinking or exposing / yourself to sun, a hated job, hours / upon hours of drying and folding // clothes, socks, your sex, guilt” (6). The final lines of this poem emphasize the power in the series of identities, the “dolls” that encase each other in ever-larger forms to shape the woman: “Seal the / queen last. She’s rough to the touch. / If there are splinters, pick them out” (8).

But it is hard to read these poems full of pain, full of anger, full of things that, as Kwame Dawes writes of the chapbook, “we prefer not to look at.” And yet we read them, and we are empowered by their rawness, their unflinching look at the oftentimes not-so-nice world of being a woman. I think I put off writing about this collection because I was worried about not having the words to show its true craftsmanship, and I can only hope that I have done my friend justice. I encourage you to read this beautiful chapbook with open eyes and a clenched fist. These are poems of witness, and they, in all their honesty, work.

Nalley, Kathleen. Nesting Doll. Columbia, SC: Stepping Stones Press, 2013.

Falling and Flying-South 85 blog

Good writing advice from Jeffrey Schrecongost at the South 85 blog:

Greed. Guilt. God.

The big ones, yes? The ways in which the three interrelate are what I seek to explore in my fiction. People who need more than they need. The pain of remorse. The nature of a faith that comforts some and confuses and disappoints others.

Read the rest of Jeffrey’s post at South 85.

Follow Jeffrey on twitter

Four Quotes on Love That Can Save Even the Worst Romance Novel

By Yolande Clark-Jackson


     The truth is: I’m not a fan of romance novels. My dislike of the genre mostly lies with the fact that the title gives away the plot. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading a book that leaves me with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings. I do. It’s just that before I open a “romance novel,” I know it will be filled with “I love you’s,” and a series of clichés to follow. They meet, they fall in love, they’re happy, and then there is a conflict. The conflict is resolved and they are reunited and live happily ever after, or fate keeps them for living happily after, or one or both of them die.
I’ve learned from reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, however, that no matter how predictable the features of a love story, or any story for that matter, it is the writer that makes the difference. Reading about two people truly in love can be thought-provoking and inspiring, and this can happen if the writer writes about love in the way Jan-Phillip Sendker does.
     Yet, it does help that Sendker works to avoid predictability. His story begins with a daughter who is looking for her father, and on her quest for answers, the daughter and the reader are eventually and unexpectedly led into a romantic love story. She finds answers through a man who is shrouded in mystery. He not only tells her about her father’s past, but he tells her a love story. And since the love story is told through the lens of the past, the reader is able to allow for some of what sounds like legend, so nothing appears overdone. Finally, Senker doesn’t have the characters in the story dialogue about their love. He shows what their love looks like through the specific actions of the characters. If a romance writer could incorporate the following four passages or anything like them into his or her story, he or she would win more hearts and minds.
     Sendker makes the reader consider the power of love early on by avoiding clichés about the things that attract one person to another.
     “I have often wondered what was the source of her beauty, her radiance. It’s not the size of one’s nose, the color of one’s skin, the shape of one’s lips or eyes that make one beautiful or ugly. So what is it? Can you, as a woman, tell me?
I shook my head.
I will tell you: It’s love. Love makes us beautiful. Do you know a single person who loves and is loved, who is loved unconditionally and who, at the same time, is ugly? There’s no need to ponder the question. There is no such person.”
      Questions are posed to the daughter and the reader so there is time for reflection.
     “How can anyone truthfully claim to love someone when they’re not prepared to share everything with that person, including their past?”
      The narrator illustrates how this particular love he speaks of in this story is authentic while elevating it beyond the common physical and mental weakness that makes one out of control to a spiritual experience that strengthens both members.
      “Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person ─a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot. No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”
      And lastly, he explains how most people lack the understanding of true love and that these two lovers shared an understanding of what most do not.
“We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes as uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize.”
      This love story was not just about the two lovers from the past but about love itself. I found that after reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, that there were so many levels to peel back and take away. I was not only left with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings, but by the end, I was also met with surprise and inspiration.

Karin Gillespie–Writing advice, The New York Times, and a Writer Unboxed

Karin Gillespie is a friend and a writer with a strong sense of humor. She’s also full of great writing advice. Below are excerpts of where she’s been on the web lately, with links to the full articles:
From A Master‘s in Chick Lit:
I’m a genre writer. Gary Shteyngart hasn’t blurbed any of my novels, and Marion Ettlinger has never photographed me for a book jacket. I’m more at ease with the sequins and shirtless men at the Romantic Times conference than I am with the serious eyewear at poetry readings. When critics describe my work, which is basically chick lit, they don’t say it’s emotionally astute, sweeping or a tour de force. They call it “a fast-paced screamer.”

Read the rest here.

From How I Got Published in The New York Times on My First Try (and What Happened Next)

One of my favorite movies is Julie and Julia. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the true story of a young woman named Julie Powell who cooks Julia Child’s recipes and blogs about her experiences. Powell is eventually featured in the New York Times and after the paper comes out, she’s deluged with calls from agents and editors. And later, of course, Amy Adams plays her in a Nora Ephron movie. What more could a writer ask for?

Read the rest at Writer Unboxed.

Follow Karin Gillespie on her website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter.