Wordsmith Wednesday: Kelly Link’s “The Summer People”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday stems from Kelly Link’s short story “The Summer People,” in her collection Get In Trouble.

It reads:

“When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.

Sometimes they don’t even pay you, and that’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing it for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you’re on one side of the equation, and sometimes you’re on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y’all stay.”

So much of life is transactional. Currency can take form as physical money, or time, or advice given and taken. We often forget that at the base of almost every interaction is an exchange of goods. If we forget this, if we begin to give and give and give, we lose ourselves in the process. Our individuality becomes intertwined with those whom we are looking after.

In “The Summer People,” Link explores the loss of identity and individuality within a family and, particularly, at a young age. Franny is indebted to The Summer People. Her Ma was indebted to them. There is no other life, there is no other option, she must always listen and do what they ask. They gift her with useless, beautiful, unique, outdated objects/toys/knick-knacks, as a thank you for scouring the city for their needs. Though this relationship has tilted to one side, this is all she knows, this connection with The Summer People is what defines her.

It is easy to lose ourselves in our relationships with others, allowing what we do for them to validate us as human beings. Reminding ourselves where we stand in the midst of these transactions helps us to keep a firmer grasp on our individual identity.

– KK

Kelly-Link

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Issue 6 Authors

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We proudly present our Issue 6 authors!

Prose by:

Irving Greenfield
Helen Grochmal
Thomas Elson
Riley Lalumendre
Reggie Mills
Alison Roland
Ashley Roth

Poetry by:

Emily Allison
Amy Bales
Robert Beveridge
Kersten Christianson
William Doreski
Brian C. Felder
Jonathan Greenhause
Ann Howells
Selina Kyle
Sean J. Mahoney
Christopher McCarthy
David Stevens
John Tustin
Georgette Unis

Issue 6 Flyer

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

Jehran

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

mariam toews

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

bersell book