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The Millions: Inferno: (a Poet's Novel) by Eileen Myles

Inferno: (a Poet's Novel)

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A Year in Reading: Bijan Stephen


I don’t know how to think about the passage of time except in cliché — pieces completed, leases signed, commutes commuted, lessons taught, moments Instagrammed — but recollecting years in terms of books read, books loved feels more vital than trite. A bookshelf marks time in the same way seasons do, or the way that old blog posts tell us who we were then, those people in photos laughing at jokes no one’s heard in years.

This year, I read books mostly on the recommendation of friends; despite that, each title I finished seemed somehow appropriate to what was happening, to me and in the world. While I can’t recall all of their names, I could probably tell you the things I absorbed from their pages. Here are the best ones I remember.

There was I Think I’m in Friend-Love with You, by Yumi Sakugawa, which I read twice because it was so beautiful in its illustrations and its evocation of totally consuming friendship; and then later, I read Lit, Mary Karr’s third memoir, which thrilled me with its electrifying description of substance abuse. I loved Michael W. Clune’s heroin memoir, White Out, for its chaotic and careening prose — “Dope gives me a new, dope body. And the way the world looks from deep inside the dope body! From high atop the white tower. The world. It would break your human heart to see it.” — and his second memoir, Gamelife, for the same reason. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was brilliant in its plotting and conceit, and I enjoyed it so much I lent it to a friend impulsively over glasses of champagne.

I left my copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts with a person I love, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with books that completely understand the subject. I read Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, in its entirety, drunk on different trains. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, on the other hand, I read entirely on my phone in a bed that was temporarily mine. I was in motion when I read Eileen Myles’s Inferno, which I consumed between leases and between the subway stops that cover the distance from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

I read a galley of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stunning (and now National Book Award-winning) Between the World and Me in a frantic afternoon, and finished it, in tears, by sunset. I didn’t Instagram that view, but I did post a picture of the book. It got 21 likes, and I was a different person then.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Ask the Writing Teacher: Story Arc(s)

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Dear Writing Teacher,

Could you explain in as much detail as possible what a story arc is?

Thank you,
Narratively Challenged

I’m gonna be straight with you: I have put off answering this question not only because I’ve been busy editing my novel and potty training my kid, but also because it fills me with a swampy kind of dread. The thought of a student asking me this question in a classroom, where I would have to improvise a coherent answer, is enough to make me retire. Story arc?! It feels like I’m stuck in that dream I have fairly often, the one where I’m pushed on stage to perform a hip hop dance routine I’ve only just learned and haven’t sufficiently rehearsed.  The horror!

Okay, okay, deep breath, 5-6-7-8, here I go…

At some point, you probably learned the traditional notion of story arc:  there’s an inciting incident, then rising action, then a climax, and then a resolution–or, as I like to say in a husky voice, a denouement. Your sixth grade teacher probably showed you that familiar story arc graph, the one that looks like a steep mountain, or maybe a mountain range. Years later, someone might have said to you, “A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end!” Someone else might have cried out, “You need to introduce conflict!”

Honestly, all that stuff leaves me cold and confused. Once again, I find myself considering retirement.

The truth is, I’m not sure I know anything about story arc as it’s traditionally discussed, so I can’t really describe it in  detail. That’s not to say, however, I haven’t investigated the topic, for myself and my students. I have. Story arc continues to perplex and thrill me.

Two years ago I wrote an essay about the plot lessons of Irish crime writer Tana French, which touches somewhat on this topic. In that piece, I explored the ways French subverted my preconceived notions of plot. This essay might be useful to you as you think about this sticky topic. And now, I will quote myself, attributing it as such, so as not to pull a Jonah Lehrer:
If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is…what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.)

Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too.

Arc is tied into notions of plot because both concern action, event, and change as they relate to character. I want to say that arc is the structure on which plot hangs. And now, a second later, I want to say that arc is the unfolding of plot, the specific path that events take to enable a character to move through a story. And now, two seconds later, I want to say that if plot is the what and the why, then arc is the how.  As you can see, I’m still working all this out in my mind.

While plot always emerges from character (at least, for me it does), I don’t think arc necessarily has to be related to character. There are multiple ways to think about arc when you’re writing. The first is, indeed, with character. There’s the oft-trotted-out rule that the story’s protagonist has to change for the story to be successful, and though I agree with that much of the time, I don’t think that’s always the case. Change should occur, but not necessarily within a character.

If it is character, you’d be wise to (binge) watch the television series Orange is the New Black to chart heroine Piper Chapman’s transformation from prissy, naive, and entitled young white woman to young white woman who is learning (trying? failing?) to shed her prissiness, naivete, and entitlement. Prison has changed her — hasn’t it? One could argue that the former version of herself would not — spoiler alert! — have beaten the shit out of a fellow human being. The arc is terrific because you can chart its progress: you can see how every conflict that arises pushes Piper and molds her. The question is whether you can see that same cause and effect in your own work.

I watched Orange is the New Black as I read Donna Tartt’s forthcoming novel, The Goldfinch (that’s right, people, I snagged that galley!), which is a massive and magnificent story about an orphaned boy and his relationship to art, the world, and himself in the wake of terrible grief. In both the TV series and the novel, I kept my eye on character arc. In each, the hero’s view of him- or herself shifts, as does his or her behavior. In The Goldfinch, however, that change is slow and complicated, and for much of the book, it’s the unchanging, repetition of destructive behavior that’s tragic yet dramatic. In Tartt’s novel, the hero’s desire for meaning, coupled with a need for solace and connection, pushes the character to act, be it in a new way or an unchanging one. His arc is thus thornier than anything on television, but it’s no less compelling. It reminds me of what my friend and colleague Adam Cushman, who recently taught a seminar on story structure for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, told me: “The greatest story arcs are layered, and conflict us emotionally. I call this falling forward, or using creative destruction as a way to create emotion.”

Another arc I’m interested is in the reader’s. As one scene follows the next, the reader amasses more and more information about the characters and their turmoil, about the situation they’re in. A reader thus experiences her own series of revelations and emotional responses, which may or may not mirror the protagonist’s. (Side note: I recently re-read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and it got me thinking about how, with speculative fiction in particular, much of the narrative drive is puzzling together what’s happened to the world, and how, and why. Exposition-gathering is its own satisfying arc! Discuss among yourselves.)

Aside from — or instead of? — thinking about your character’s arc, you might consider your reader’s. What do you want your reader to feel at the beginning of your story? How about at the end? What needs to occur, what information needs to be supplied, in order to make your reader feel such-and-such?

What I really want to know is: What if a character doesn’t change, but the reader’s perception of that character does? (I think, in fact, this is what Oryx and Crake does, and does well.)

The last kind of arc that interests me is the arc of language. (The Arc of Language should be the title of my next novel. I promise it’ll be beautiful but super boring.) This can refer to how language evolves within a text as a whole, or within a chapter or even a paragraph. This is actually the arc I pay the most attention to during a first draft, for I don’t yet know enough about my characters or the story to make huge decisions. In many cases, language sheds light on the choices I need to make for the manuscript as a whole.

In my classes, I love to teach John Gardner’s “foreplay paragraph,” which is what he calls a paragraph that precedes a big reveal–like that of a dead body. In this kind of paragraph, the writer has to signal to the reader that something big is up ahead, while still making the prose good enough that the reader won’t want to skip over it.  In this exercise, Gardener is tipping his hat to the way language itself evolves in a narrative: to signal, reflect or incite change. Next time you’re writing, consider if your piece records any kind of aesthetic change. Does the language start lyrical and move toward something more minimal? Does the voice go from barbed to vulnerable and back again? If you want, you can isolate a paragraph, and consider how it moves, how it affects the reader, how it reveals character, setting or conflict, as it progresses. Sometimes arc is best understood when considered on the smallest level.

And now that I have thoroughly confused you, here are some homework assignments that might help turn my abstract ramblings into something more applicable to your writing life:

1. Read a short story with a friend. Afterward, draw the arc of the narrative without discussing it with your friend, and have your friend do the same. Interpret the word “arc” any way you see fit; the point is to make the narrative visual. Then, compare drawings and discuss their similarities and differences. I highly recommend doing this exercise with “In a Bear’s Eye” (from the collection of the same name) by Yannick Murphy, which is lovely and strange. I once had my students break into groups to draw this story’s arc. Each arc was so different from the next, but they all made sense.

2. After you’ve written a short story or a chapter, take a look at your scenes and/or sections (if it’s summary). On an index card, write down what happens in each scene or section — keep it brief. Next, write down what the reader has learned plot- or character-wise, and then, what the character feels at the beginning of the scene versus what he or she feels at the end of the scene. Lastly, write down the questions raised and answered by the scene. These questions can be specific and literal, or not (anything from “Where is the dress?” to “Why does she believe herself inadequate?”) Some questions might carry from scene to scene, never to be answered, and others might be quickly resolved. Any scene that doesn’t ask or answer interesting questions, and doesn’t push the reader and/or the character into new territory, probably should be revised or cut. Please, remember: don’t do this until you’re finished with a draft! You don’t want to over-think matters!

3. Find a paragraph from fiction that you really love, and retype it as if it were your own. Then, taking the structure of this paragraph — its syntax, its sentence-lengths, its logical twist, etc. — write an emulation paragraph that copies only form, not content. Here’s one from Inferno by Eileen Myles that I am currently reading and rereading, which you might like to use:
The next book we will read she said, pulling the shade on existentialism for the moment, is a much older text. It’s part of the tradition, but is a very modern book, quite political. She had this cute glint when she was being smart which was always. She wasn’t big smart, she didn’t clobber you with words. She just kind of befriended us like wolves but she believed that wolves were good and could be taught too. But she was from New York, was Jewish and had been born intelligent. She was blonde. Are Jews blonde. I didn’t know. I would learn so much more. Sometimes her jersey was nearly green but that was as dark as it got.
Unexpected and great, right?

Maybe this last exercise has nothing to do with arc, but it’s fun and difficult, which is how I would describe writing to my grandma, or my gynecologist. Also, it’s an important reminder that a story arc is made up of words and more words, that’s it, and thank goodness.

Godspeed, Narratively Challenged, this is all I’ve got.


The Writing Teacher

Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to askthewritingteacher@gmail.com.

A Year in Reading: Emily M. Keeler

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Years ago, a lover read me a John Ashbery poem, “At North Farm.” We were sitting at his kitchen table, and my head was on my arms, and his voice as he read was ringing through the old wood, through my hands and into my head; the poem and his voice walked through me arm in arm.

A few weeks later, I asked him to read me the one about the cat again. He had no idea what I was talking about — the poem wasn’t about anything, as far as he could tell, even if it had a narrator — I mean, speaker — who puts out a dish of milk at night. He still reads poetry like a perfect kind of pop music, near-meaningless lyrics that nudge you toward a feeling and let your own mind suggest the rest.

I accepted that here was another thing I knew nothing about, and that though I might like a good poem or pop song every now and then, I’ll always be on the anxious, vigilant look out for characters and narratives — in essence, I will always want something to interpret. I want to know what it’s all about.

So it was a relief this year to be given Eileen Myles’s Inferno. I started reading it almost as soon as it was in my hands, and I couldn’t put it down. Inferno is, of course, “a poet’s novel” and so it hit me at the perfect half way point; Eileen is the poet, Eileen is the narrator, and the book is about her and New York City and poetry and sex and love. I felt all shook up by the messy intractable beauty of some of the lines, but even more so by the willfulness of this narrator, this character, this poet writing herself into being. “So I’m beginning to wonder about the book I’m in”, this poet, Eileen, says in the middle, and I think to myself, yes, what is this about? And she answers: “You always get to know how the real person fared,” you come away knowing that something happened. And because she wrote it down, in some way it also happens to you, the reader. This, it dawned anew on me, is what it has always been about; some magic thing is transferred from the page to your mind, and room is made for the richness of a new feeling or thought.

Afterward, I was changed and ready to explore. Guilluame Morrisette’s I Am My Own Betrayal was a great next step — a combined poetry and short fiction collection on the theme of willful alienation that reads with a warmth and humor I wasn’t expecting from this Montreal based member of the so-called “Alt Lit” community. Here’s a real good part from “I Don’t Know What A Poem Is But It’s Not Preventing Me From Writing Poems,” one of my favorite of his poems — perhaps for obvious reasons: “and licking your face/ is a sensation poetry cannot reproduce/ but fuck nature I rejected nature.”

Natalie Zina Walschots, another Canadian poet, tickled me with her newest book, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillians, getting down into deliciously crackling and submissive syllables the eros of imaginary evils—I just melt as she supplicates to King Pin: “my body / a blister / that you squeeze”.

Michael Robbins’s Alien vs Predator is like an album I’ve played on repeat; the poems are hard and funny and stuck now like ear worms in some old part of my brain. They’re sitting there waiting for when I just really need to catch up to my breath by hiccuping along to the short stepping swagger of “My New Asshole” until I hit that humbling, defenseless last line…or for when I’m hit with the urge to be pushed further into the delight and despair of being alive today, being not quite punk as fuck or as hard like metal in this mercurial and fast moving world, by tugging petulantly on the black jersey sleeve of “I Did This to My Vocabulary.”

And of course, I went back to Ashbery, too, to page through his Selected Poems and give myself over to his about-nothingness, to the seeds of feeling that are planted by language.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

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