Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

by Rhonda Browning White

 

Successful stories are emotional stories: we connect with that which moves us. A writer’s work is at its best when the reader feels emotion alongside a character. We must take care not to cross that very fine line and overdramatize a character’s feelings; otherwise, a reader will be about as patient with the emotional scene as with a toddler’s temper tantrum.

An excellent example of understated yet powerful emotion is present in Leslie Pietrzyk’s “The Circle”, a Pushcart-Prize-nominated short story appearing in the Winter 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review. “The Circle” relates the stories of two characters—one a young female narrator grieving her husband’s recent death, the other a grief counselor named Ruth who is in denial of the cancer that’s taken root in her breast—deftly juxtaposed and intertwined. Death and cancer: two painfully grim subjects that if not handled correctly, especially when examined in one short story, risk leaving a reader morose and depressed, potentially swearing off the author’s work forever. The last thing needed in a story of this gravity is melodrama, but there is equal danger in making light of such serious subjects through use of glib dialogue, inappropriate humor, or unrealistic character actions.

Fortunately, Pietrzyk’s “The Circle” conveys honest emotion through the body language, dialogue, and the internal thoughts of both of her point of view characters, without veering across the line into melodrama. One case in point is the recent widow’s bleak expression of hopelessness when describing the room in which her support group is held:

“Drab, large, as shapeless as something with four walls could be, so that while the room was rectangular, the boundaries felt ill-defined. Alternating between stuffy and chilly. Windows high up on the walls, offering squeaks of light but no view. Fluorescent lighting with a slight buzz. An unplugged coffee maker on a long table covered with a plastic, red-checked tablecloth with dark brown burn circles where someone had set down something hot. It was a room where sad people collected, people with vast problems. She stared at a wall calendar with a picture of a European castle, wondering why something seemed off, and finally realized she was looking at last month’s dates.”

Pietrzyk doesn’t tell us her character feels hopeless, nor do we see the young woman moping, shoulders sagging, as she drags herself into the room. Why? Because that would be melodramatic. Instead, as we see the room through the character’s eyes, we feel her heavyheartedness.

We see a concurrence of bleakness—this time expressed through anger—in grief counselor Ruth, when she refuses to call her doctor, refuses to schedule a breast biopsy, and lies to her friends about doing both. We feel her resentment when she takes control of what she worries may be the short amount of time she has left.

“People ramble through grief at their own pace—tiptoes to raging bulls—and Ruth does not judge. It’s not a race.

“No, what Ruth finds disturbing is the steady gnaw of anger as she listened to the widows speak that first night. She’s been tired lately, maybe, or about to get her period. Maybe that ill-advised Mexican meal. But today, home after work, after not calling the doctor, she realizes why: those bitches are alive, and she is dying.”

Again, the expression of emotion is restrained, yet ruthless, and in a story that deals with difficult topics such as death and cancer, this is crucial. There can be no histrionics, no clichés, nor any falsely callous song and dance. This careful balance when walking the fine line of emotional expression in writing is what allows readers to engage and immerse in the story and experience truthful emotions alongside and through our characters.

 Gettysburg Review Winter 2013

 

 

 

Everything I Never Told You-Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel and she sets the bar high. Her novel revolves around the a Chinese-American family living in small town Ohio, a rarity in the 1970s.

What works in this novel is Ng’s use of a third person narrator, and through this narrator, we learn how deeply dysfunctional and non-communicative the Lee family is. The novel begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this Innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast” (1). Lydia’s death reveals how isolated each family member is from all the others. Set apart from their community because of the bi-racial nature of the family, they are also set apart from each other. Lydia’s death isolates her family further from their community–her death is a suspected suicide–and, when most needed, each other as well.

Ng’s third person narrator slowly reveals the inner thoughts and disappointments each family member harbors. Through her death, this narrator also shows each family member struggling to cope with what the each wanted reality to be, and the truth. The old saying is the truth shall set you free. In this case, the truth severs the frayed threads tying this family together, sending each of them tumbling through their grief, unmoored from each other.

Lydia is sixteen and a perfect mix of her genetic heritage: “But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too” (3). The ‘they’ in this quote are Lydia’s siblings, her older brother Nate and younger sister Hannah. Within the first few pages, the narrator reveals several secrets. Nate and Hannah know black-haired, blue-eyed Lydia is the favorite child out of the three. The only hidden secret is the parents unaware their other two children have picked up on the favoritism.

Marilyn Lee sends Nate and Hannah off to school and takes a mug from the cupboard, a routine gesture in a morning suddenly thrown off the routine. As she does so, she flashes back to a memory of Lydia when Lydia was eleven months old. Marilyn left Lydia playing in the living room on a quilt, and had gone into the kitchen for a cup of tea:

             “Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway. She had started and a red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she was taking in the kitchen for the first time. ..The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?…Marilyn often had her back turned, opening the refrigerator or turning over the laundry. Lydia could’ve been walking weeks ago, while she was bent over a pot, and she would not have known” (4).

Here we learn through the narrator Marilyn doesn’t know Lydia as well as a mother should, especially when it comes to walking. After a short time, Marilyn calls the police and James at work. Eventually, through the narrator, we learn this isn’t the first time the police have been called about a missing family member.

We also see James, grading history papers in his office. He’s a tenured faculty member, a professor of American history, at Middlewood College. When younger and:

“still junior faculty, he was often mistaken for a student himself. That hasn’t happened in years. He’ll be forty-six next spring…Sometimes, though, he’s still mistaken for other things. Once, a receptionist at the provost’s office thought he was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” but becomes defensive when people “blink.” (9).

He still feels the outsider, set off by his ethnic heritage, even though he’s as American as the people he is talking too.

Throughout the novel, Ng’s effective use of the third person narrator continues to reveal the secrets of the Lee family and how those secrets keep the family isolated from each other.

Toward the end of the novel, Ng also uses her narrator to flashback to Lydia, when she was alive, allowing the dead girl at the beginning of the novel a voice in her own story. It is an inner story that has shaped Lydia’s life, one she needs to revise, with devastating results.

The novel raises questions: how well do we know family members? Is what we “know” true, or assumptions, because it’s far easier to deal with assumptions–what we want to be true–than what really is? Everything I Never Told You is a novel that has stayed with me, long after I finished reading it.

Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. New York:Penguin Group. 2014. Print.

Celeste Ng’s:
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James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird”

At the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every other year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, I heard James McBride discuss his novel The Good Lord Bird. He had wanted to write a novel about the abolitionist John Brown, but wanted to do it in a way not done before. He more than accomplishes this goal with his first person narrator Henry “Onion” Shackelford, a ten year old slave boy in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who is kidnapped by John Brown following an argument between Brown and Onion’s owner, Dutch Henry Sherman. Unfortunately for Onion, who is a male, but like most colored boys in those days, he wore a potato sack for his clothing and with his light skin and curly hair, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl.

Onion narrates this novel and begins his tale by stating “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” (McBride 7). Onion is a confident narrator, and this confidence makes the novel, as he relays his efforts at trying to pass as female and his adventures with John Brown. He’s an adult, looking back on his life, and his sure voice carries the cadence, humor, and words of someone who’s experienced much and takes pride in relaying his story.

Onion is an exceptional storyteller with the strong cadence of his voice and his choice of words. “Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death–his or the next man’s–unless the subject of the Lord came up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him…Next when he spoke, he were talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire” (16).

Onion takes great offense to being mistaken for a girl by Brown: “Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, with him [Brown] waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck on the “daughter” section of the speech…Everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like the men” (18).

Onion describes Brown’s actions during a fight in Pikesville, a slave town. The fight is taking place outside, in an alley: “Well, I don’t know if it was that lit cannon belching smoke over his shoulder that done it, or them rebels losing heart when they seen the Old Man hisself in person standing in the clear, untouched with their bullets zinging past his face, but they turned and took the tall timber…And with that cannon fuse lit and burning home to its maker, the Old Man stood right next to it and watched the fuse burn to nothing and fizzle out. It didn’t hit the hammer. The thing was dead” (197)

Onion’s voice paints a picture that is hard to miss–Brown standing in an alley, oblivious to the danger he is in. Onion’s voice paints vivid scenes–some funny, most not–throughout the novel. Onion grows from a ten year old boy to a young man, present at Brown’s final stand at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout, Onion’s voice is strong and uniquely his because of word choice, and the cadence of his speech.

The Good Lord Bird won The National Book Award for Fiction.

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.

 

 

 

 

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

 

Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

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

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus

 

 

South85 Journal

South85stack-1South85 Journal is the official literary journal of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program.

“I won’t change anything the first year,” I said to both retiring Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gray and Contributing Editor Rick Mulkey when I took over as Editor-in-Chief of South85 Journal this past December.

That was before I led my first staff meeting at the Converse Low-Residency MFA program, where I was inspired by the enthusiasm of the staff.  Not only did all of the previous staff members (except Sarah Gray, of course) decide to stay, but quite a few new people joined us:  David Colodney, Kristi Hébert, Rebecca Landau, Connie Thompson, and Jacob Allard.

I left the meeting with my mind racing with ideas about what to do with everyone who was interested in serving our journal.  Improvements I knew we needed to make – like a weekly blog, a social media presence, a review section for the journal, and a brand – became possible immediately rather than in the months – or even years – to come. We now have a Blog Editor, a Review Editor, an Artistic Director, and a Social Media Director.

With these new positions, we have created a logo, redesigned our site, started posting to our blog weekly, begun conversations on Facebook and Twitter, and planned reviews for our upcoming issues.  In addition, we have kept up with our regular task of reviewing work submitted to us for our 2014 issue.

So, if you haven’t visited our website lately (or ever), please stop by.  If you like what you see, here are three ways you can support us…  and none of them involving donating or spending any money: `

1.  Read

One of the most important things you can do for any literary journal to read  it. As much as writers say they write for the love of writing, writers also want to be read. And without readers, there would be no reason for literary journals to exist. So, check out our past issues. If you like what you see, sign up for our e-mail newsletter, and we’ll let you know when the next issue is available. Also, visit our weekly blog for a little literary inspiration. You can subscribe to it using your favorite RSS reader, or sign up to receive posts in your inbox.

2.  Contribute

If you are a reader, a writer, or an artist, we want to see your work! If you love to read and want to tell others about good books, join our staff as a reviewer. If you’re a writer or an artist, you can contribute your work to our journal. Our reading period ends April 30, so don’t delay if you have something good to show us! We are looking for poetry, creative non-fiction essays, short stories, and visual art. Also, we have a weekly blog where you can share your thoughts on all things literary with other likeminded people. Visit our submissions guidelines page for information on all of these categories.

3.  Participate

We are not a static, stuffy journal of the past! We want our readers and contributors to be a part of the conversation. Plug in by following us on Twitter and liking us on Facebook. We are planning some fun contests using these two outlets starting this summer, so you don’t want to miss them.

Thanks in advance for your support!  We look forward to seeing you online, and please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any ideas about how we can improve our journal.

Debby DeRosa holds a BA in English from the University of South Carolina-Columbia and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College.  In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of South85 Journal, she is the Marketing Manager of Five Star Plumbing Heating Cooling in Greer, SC, and she freelances as a copywriter and content developer.

 

Author interview-Shannon Huffman Polson, author of “North of Hope”

Several weeks ago, Shannon Huffman Polson’s book North of Hope was featured on Why The Writing Works. Today’s post is an interview Shannon kindly agreed to, taking time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions.

North of Hope

WTWW: Your memoir North of Hope A Daughter’s Arctic Journey is a very personal story through grief. How difficult was it to not only write this book, but then release it out into the world?

SHP:Writing memoir is a funny thing in that you may include some memories that are so intimate you may only have shared them with a spouse, but I think it’s this willingness to be vulnerable to write toward the truth of the work that is the heart of writing, what allows a book to connect to a more universal human experience. This connection is the whole purpose of writing a book. It’s also important to remember that a book has limitations; 250 pages is not the same as an experience or a life. One of the most difficult things is crafting the narrative, deciding what must be included and what (no matter how important it seems) must be left out in service to the story. I think it’s important for both writers and readers to remember the possibilities but also the limitations of a narrative.

WTWW: Your web address is A Border Life (dot) com and on your website your state you “write about the difficulties of navigating borders.” Why borders? What other borders do you hope to explore?

SHP: The idea of edges and borders has always held me. The idea of “a border life” comes from Thoreau (“with regard to nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays…”- Thoreau, Walking) When I first started writing seriously, one of the tensions I felt most strongly, and still do, was that of life in the city, where work has required I, and now my family, live most of our time, set against life in a more rural setting, the strengths and weaknesses of both. I think a third book might look at this more deeply. I am also aware of borders of life and death, of self and other, of women and men, as those that we are forced to live with every day. I love the idea of the ecotone as well, the border between ecosystems that is a transition area, a place where two ecosystems integrate. Borders are infrequently as hard and fast as they are drawn on maps or held in arguments, and I think this area on the edge, this requirement of integration, is where the possibilities for our own growth lie.
WTWW: You end your book with an afterword about the dangers the fragile ecosystem of the coastal arctic plain face from development. What do we stand to lose if this ecosystem is developed?

SHP: We would love one of our very last wild places, and that part of us that can hold a place as sacred. There is only a tiny percentage of the Alaskan coastline that is undeveloped, and it’s a tragedy that we can’t agree to protect it. Now, of course, the threats are much more complex, from the rapid changes occurring due to warming in the Arctic areas which changes this fragile landscape in unimaginable ways, both on land and in the sea where there is no longer sea ice (where even I experienced it in 2006.) This puts whole ecosystems and the animals and birds that rely on them at risk. What we don’t seem to see is that in our connection to wilderness, it puts us at risk too.

Wilderness is so much more than a place on the map; it is a place in our consciousness, a place that allows us to understand the fullness of potential and possibility, and love in all it’s terrible and beautiful forms. I am afraid of the way our culture seems to be losing the ability to see the sacred, in wilderness, in each other. Our connection to the wilderness, felt or not, is both body and soul. When we destroy the wilderness, we are destroying ourselves.
WTWW: Any other writing projects you’d like to discuss?

SHP: The book I’m working on now is exploring ideas that come from my experience as one of the first women to fly attack helicopters after the combat exclusion clause was lifted in 1993. I’m not yet clear what the key themes will be; certainly connection and aloneness, narrative inclusion and exclusion, and men and women, though I’m constantly surprised at what comes up as I do my work, so I’m not yet prepared to give a full answer about it, but it’s both terribly risky and exciting. Stay tuned!
WTWW:  What are your interests outside of writing?

SHP: I‘m an avid chorister, and sing with an incredible group in Seattle called Seattle Pro Musica. I love to hike, backpack, and ski— nordic, alpine and backcountry. I love spending time outside in Washington and Alaska, or anywhere, with my family, my husband and two happy active boys. That’s most of it!

WTWW:  Anything else you’d like to discuss?

SHP: Thank you for having me visit your blog community!

Thank you, Shannon!

Connect with Shannon:
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If you wish to read more of her writing, Shannon also contributes to Image Journal’s Good Letters blog.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

North of Hope-A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

North of Hope“The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska… Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky…Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Artic Coastal Plain…The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk…

As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece…It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule” (19).

These paragraphs begin Shannon Huffman Polson’s memoir North of Hope. It’s a paragraph full of information and questions. Polson is in an airplane battered by its circumstances—the windows are difficult to see through and the stairs are of questionable stability. She’s in a small Native village “at the end of the world.” The airstrip is dirt and the cold knifes through her clothing. Boundaries blur. Its obvious Polson has traveled to a place far off the usual Alaskan tourist path; this is not a place for the casual visitor. It’s a hard land; a desolate one.  All of these details lead the reader to a question: why is she here?

Polson answers that question throughout the rest of her book. She is here to repeat the last journey her father and stepmother started a year ago, but never finished; they were mauled to death by a rouge grizzly bear. Her memoir is also a story of her journey through grief; a journey she started by singing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor with the Seattle Symphony “every Monday…after Dad and Kathy’s funeral” (43).

Polson’s writing brings the reader alongside as she undertakes her parents’ last journey through a harsh, fragile, and beautiful land; a place most people will never experience. Her memoir is about loss, the difficulty of grieving as she chooses to embrace the pain, and hope as she finishes the journey—both down the river and through her grief.

I took this book on vacation with the intention of reading it, but then my husband, who is not a reader, picked up North of Hope, and I didn’t see it again until he was done. It’s a book that has stayed with both of us.

Read the first two chapters here.

Polson, Shannon Huffman. North of Hope. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2013. Print.