Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

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Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday:

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s novel Lab Girl.

It reads:

“Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

Winter has always felt like the time of year that we are meant to look inward, self-reflect, and evaluate our surroundings. Recently, however, I’ve constantly found that to be more accurate of the summertime. When everyone is out and present and attempting to extract every bit of life they can out of every minute of the day. That is when I find myself to be searching for happiness, for what will satiate that desire to be satisfied with my own existence and what it has culminated to. It is difficult to pause in this time of everyone’s constant joyous celebration, of movement, of momentum, and reflect on our perspectives and what we have gathered over the course of this time on this planet, but it is simultaneously pivotal in shaping our understanding of our surroundings and being able to derive happiness even from the most confusing/darkest/tumultuous of times. I write to remember these times, the difficult and the prosperous. To remind myself to never forget to reflect on the entire landscape and not just the single object in my immediate line of sight.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Miriam Toews “All My Puny Sorrows”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows.

It reads:

“Then Elf tells me that she has a glass piano inside her. She’s terrified that it will break. She can’t let it break. She tells me that it’s squeezed right up against the lower right side of her stomach, that sometimes she can feel the hard edges of it pushing at her skin, that she’s afraid it will push through and she’ll bleed to death. But mostly she’s terrified that it will break inside her. I ask her what kind of piano it is and she tells me that it’s an old upright Heintzman that used to be a player piano but that the player mechanism has been removed and the whole thing has been turned into glass, even the keys. Everything. When she hears bottles being thrown into the back of a garbage truck or wind chimes or even a certain type of bird singing she immediately thinks it’s the piano breaking.

A child laughed this morning, she says, a little girl here visiting her father, but I didn’t know it was laughter, I thought it was the sound of glass shattering and I clutched my stomach thinking oh no, this is it.”

It’s the fears and hopes and dreams and pain and confusion all stirred up inside us. The parts that we don’t want to show to the world, but can easily cut right through us and spill onto the pavement. Onto the shoes of those closest to us. Random moments can cause the glass piano to push at parts of our skin, to stretch it to its breaking point. Those moments are terrifying. When our skin is taut and the imprint of the piano can be seen through our clothes, can be seen by everyone around us. But even worse than that is when, without anyone even knowing, without a forewarning, the piano shatters inside us. Those moments are scariest of all.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Jose Saramago’s “Death With Interruptions”

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Our words this week are an excerpt from Jose Saramago’s 2005 novel, Death With Interruptions.

They are:

“It seemed that families, suffering an attack of conscience, had passed the word from one to the other that they were no longer going to send their loved ones far away to die, that if, in the figurative sense, we had eaten of their flesh, then now would have to gnaw on their bones as well, that we are not here just for the good times, when our loved ones had strength and health intact, we are here, too, for the bad times and the worst, when they have become little more than a stinking rag that there is no point in washing.”

In a book split between an exploration of the ramifications of a country blessed/cursed with a mysterious cessation of death and the personification of death herself, Saramago spins and blends seemingly unfathomable ideas into surreal yet plausible human situations. This excerpt, taken from a passage in which the living begin to feel the guilt creep in after normalizing a practice in which a state sponsored mafia discreetly disposes of near-dead bodies just over the border, highlights an element of human  sociology worth focusing on. Too often relationships, even intimate ones, find themselves on foundations of mutual benefit rather than commitments of support. Life is hard and for many it’s easier to shed the stress of caring for those in their life at their lowest rather than sacrifice without certain benefit. Sometimes your friend relapses regardless of how much time you spend. Sometimes your brother makes the same self-destructive mistakes regardless of your guidance or warning. Sometimes your parent’s disease drags them on the edge of death indefinitely regardless of whether you can shoulder the emotional weight. I think love has a lot more to do with sacrifice and selflessness in times of pain and need than we’d like to believe. That actually might be what it’s mostly about. – NR

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David Bersell’s “Dear Chris Crutcher”

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We are honored to host an essay from Issue 4 alumni David Bersell’s new collection The Way I’ve Seen Her Ever Since out now on The Lettered Street Press.

Read “Dear Chris Crutcher” below.

Dear Chris Crutcher

My name is David Bersell and I am in the seventh grade. You are my favorite author. I’ve read all of your books. Running Loose is my favorite. When the runner found out his girlfriend died in a car accident I felt terrible. But I also felt good. Like I was him. I read Stotan first. I picked it up at the library because of the swimmer on the cover. My brother started swimming in high school and got eighth place in the breast stroke at State’s. I play backup point guard on my school’s basketball team. Some of your book covers don’t make sense. There’s a hurdler on the front of Chinese Handcuffs but the main character does triathlons not hurdles. Also I was wondering if you’ve heard of Walter Dean Myers and Carl Deuker. They also write really good sports books. My school’s having an Author Fair and I picked your books for my project. I need to write a summary and draw a scene for each one. I think I’m also going to pick my favorite characters and write your biography. Usually I don’t try at school. English and Gym are the only classes I like. I read in an interview that you used to hate school too. You said you picked your college because you went to look at all the catalogs in the library and it was the only one that was red. The rest were black or blue. When I was in fifth grade I forgot I had a book report due so at the start of class I scribbled down a report for an imaginary novel. I remembered a cover I had seen about a math nerd so I made the story about how he has no friends but then he wins a math competition and gets to go to Washington, DC and the kids at school think he’s cool. My teacher gave me a B. I think I’m going to try writing a book soon. In class during notes and every night before I fall asleep I imagine stories.

Your fan,

David

David,

Thanks for taking time to write your responses to my stories. Sounds like you (and your brother) are quite an athlete. It also sounds like you have already figured out some of the things I figured out to get through school with minimum effort. That works, but I should let you in on a secret. Someday there will be something you really want to go after and you’ll find yourself putting your entire intellect into it. Trust me. You’ll love it.

I know what you mean about some of the covers. I complained about that hurdler on Chinese Handcuffs, too. So much that they changed the cover.

I have read a lot of Walter Dean Myers. He and I know and respect each other a lot. Don’t know Carl Deuker as well, but I hear great things about his work.

So, good luck with your writing and your athletics. Sounds like you have a lot going for you and you know how to enjoy it.

Sincerely,

Chris Crutcher

Dear Chris,

I was barely friends with Steve—spring track, he charged the hurdles with anger, then lay in the grass, listening to Hendrix—and I only knew Carl because I had a crush on his ex-girlfriend.

We were seventeen.

That means I loved them.

The next weekend, Carl and Steve’s friends gathered at the crash site to drink in their honor. I wrote a poem, and when that wasn’t enough, I wrote a short story, imagined the violence.

The road curves to the left, but the car speeds ahead, no swerve, no breaks. It only takes a second. The metal and plastic and rubber blasts from the ground. I know this is supposed to be sad, but isn’t it also magical, the car transforming into a spaceship, Carl and Steve alive and weightless for one more second, angling up from the earth, shooting higher, through the branches and swallowed moonlight?

And I know the spaceship doesn’t stay up. I clipped the photographs from the newspaper. I know about the graceless fall, the snap of foreheads against windshield, the after.

But what if Carl and Steve were driving even faster, what if the tires kissed the rounded incline of the road’s edge just right, what if the exhaust malfunctioned at the perfect moment so the pipe sucked blue fire into the night?

What if the Carl and Steve kept flying?

Picture the car rumbling through our atmosphere, above our houses and hideaways and parents pouring coffee and sighing, all our dogs and Saturday mornings, Carl and Steve curling around a cloud of purple gas with the bass turned up, Carl and Steve nodding at the rind of the universe, how cute, how fragile, Carl and Steve closing their eyes and waiting for whatever mystery comes next, all those minutes, all those galaxies and unlived lives, all that open space, hanging like a sail, waiting to be filled.

Chris, you were right.

When I was seventeen and couldn’t sleep, I read passages of Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, aloud in my bedroom. “The water turned colder, raging, and the sand became wet, and Blair would sit by herself on the deck overlooking the sea and spot boats in the afternoon fog.”

And when Ashley had a nightmare, or I was too sad to speak, we read The City of Women, by Sherod Santos, a lyric collage about ex-lovers and divorced parents, one more time. “Who we are is composed of what, perhaps only what, we can never reclaim form the rubble.”

I owe so many: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, We the Animals, Chloe Caldwell, Major Jackson. “The Fourth State of Matter.”

My friends.

I teach at summer camps and in high school classrooms because I know how writing can be a superpower for the adolescent and hungry.

Is that why you write Young Adult?

After I read at a teen writers workshop, a student asked why I always wrote sad stories.

I said, “I don’t try to be sad, just realistic.”

Then she said, “Isn’t it sad how love’s dead?”

She meant it.

“There’s love, just not how you think,” I said. “It’s there, it’s just hard. Like writing. It’s hard, beautiful work, but it’s worth it.”

“But there’s no romance.”

“No, there’s romance, too. Believe me. You just have to wait.”

She told me about watching her little sister grow up. “The loss of innocence, it’s already starting,”

I wanted to cradle her and stop telling stories, but I knew protection was a child’s myth, so I needed to write the truth. I needed to describe the pain, because there is always pain, and the glory, too, crafting pieces into a quilt, a window and a mirror, my love.

Chris, I’m sorry this is so belated: thank you for writing back.

All the best,

David

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Editor’s Note for Issue 5

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The following is the full Editor’s Note for Issue 5:

“When Nick and Kathy asked me if I would be interested in helping them edit another great issue of their magazine it was one of those wonderful opportunities that seem to come out of the blue, at exactly the right moment. A last second shot to force overtime. A bloop single to extend an inning.

In short, before this issue, I had been drifting from the literary sphere for quite some time. I was starting to get further from writing than I had been since before I decided to pursue a degree in Fiction six years prior, as a naive and hopeful college student. By the time I graduated college, my writing was well-practiced and a big part of who I was. I found my voice and compiled a manuscript. I edited the university literary journal. I won awards and got published. It was all coming up roses. But suddenly, after graduation, I was in the real world and everything–like every single thing–was more complicated. The routine and deadlines were gone. The feedback was harder to come by, and I struggled to put myself out there. The time to write was replaced by a full-time job. I got caught in a bad situation. And I got tired.

I had a few successes in the following years that kept the fire alive somewhat. For instance, appearing in this magazine’s debut, something I still am very proud of. And my podcast somehow managed six episodes of great content before calling it quits last July. I tried desperately to hold onto the show, but I found I couldn’t chew what I was biting off. All the while, I was kicking around on an idea for a novel, one that would never really take flight. It just turned into another thing I felt guilty about neglecting.

My passion for storytelling still seemed to be there somewhere. I’d get the itch every now and then, if a moment caught my eye. But the stories started getting buried by everything else. Work. Relationships. Financial obligations. The uncertainty of it all. I became jaded, distant, and felt like I had no answers. I started to doubt why I ever wrote in the first place.

That’s when Nick got ahold of me. I have always been a fan of Sobotka, but really I am a fan of these editors. I’ve followed their journey closely, and admire their dedication to their journal and their cause. Working on this issue and experiencing their persistence to fine-tune the content was exactly what I needed. I needed Kathy’s positivity and Nick’s encouragement. I needed to read again. I needed to write and revise this editor’s note twenty-seven times. I needed to do this. The writers and poets whose works appear in this journal should be commended for their dedication to the craft that is written word, for pursuing a duty in truth telling beyond the lens of common observer.

Because that is what writing is. It is persistence. It is revision. It is fine-tuning yourself and your reality. It can teach you discipline and show you compassion. It can grab you by the shirt collar and remind you that nothing is over until you pull it all together and finally say it’s finished.

So that is why this issue exists, and why people like Nick and Kathy make magazines.  For those of us who need the buzzer-beaters, for those who can deliver the shot. The writers and poets whose works appear in this issue have all persevered for the reader’s sake, toiling and trudging through drafts and rejections, throwing aside certain stories and poems that never seemed like they’d pan out, only to revisit them again and again until they were triumphant. They are champions of the page, and I am very happy to present the product of their labor in a physical medium that can exist in your hands.

I encourage you to acquaint yourself with the images, characters, and themes of this journal. And then I invite you to pass along what you’ve seen and what you’ve read. Share this book. Lend it to a friend. Ask for it back, and then lend it to another friend. Leave it on your coffee table, or in the back seat of your car. Tell people where to buy it, or where they can submit their own writing. Because literature is best described as a cycle. It is experience, followed by reflection, followed by expression. The cycle restarts when we come across the stories that inspire the reflecting that allows us to digest experience. It helps us laugh and cry, shudder and flex, and ultimately cope and grow. We have done our part as editors, to find these words and make them available. Now it is up to you to perpetuate the spirit of Sobotka. Now it is in your hands.

Grant Garland
Champaign, February 2017”

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Wordsmith Wednesday: J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

It reads:

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Most people who have any recollection of Harry Potter are familiar with this quote. It is spoken to Neville by Dumbledore while he is passing out House points at the end of term.

Harry Potter is something I always seem to return to in times of turbulence or disorder within my life or the outside world. The story it holds is one eerily applicable to our present day. When I read this quote, I can’t help but see it as a guide to our role in this world right now. It’s a reminder of the importance of standing up for what we believe in even when it is against those who we view as friends or family. This is the moment to stand up and fight. Keep it up even when it seems, and is, tough.

– KK

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