by Lynn Marie Houston
The postman leaves a cage of babies,
angry ones who rattle, buzz, and hum,
babies who are hungry, who kick segmented legs
through the open spaces in a metal screen.
I feed them generous blasts of sweetwater
from a spray bottle, I mother them. I shake them
out of a hole in the shipping box and into
the hive I’ve made. Within weeks,
the foragers are already teenagers
wearing orange, pink, and white
from the yard’s blooms. As I lean in close
to watch them leave the hive and return with
nectar and pollen, one of them passes too close,
entangles herself in my hair. I feel her wings
against my scalp, legs tugging fine strands,
the painful knot of us—mother and child.
Lynn Marie Houston holds a Ph.D. from Arizona State University. Her first collection of poetry, The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press 2015), won the 2016 Connecticut Press Club prize for creative work and went on to take 2nd place in the nationwide competition sponsored by the National Federation of Press Women. Poems and essays by her have appeared in journals such as Painted Bride Quarterly, Ocean State Review, Word Riot, Squalorly, and many others.
By: Andrew K. Clark
Book: Even As We Breathe
University of Kentucky Press, 2020.
“Good literature is felt in the body.”
AKC – South 85: Tell me about the decisions you made around including Cherokee folklore in the novel. I am thinking of Spearfinger and other lore you included.
Clapsaddle: I wanted anything I included to be pretty natural. I wanted it to be something characters would reference casually anyway. I didn’t want to teach folklore through the narrative, so just as I would think about dialogue, for instance, I would think about what aspects of Cherokee stories or culture would be relevant in that moment. I needed it to serve a purpose, that it added another layer to the narrative. And there may be some instances where these inclusions might not be obvious to all readers, just those who have experience with Cherokee culture. That’s fine with me too. There are different layers for different readers.
AKC – South 85: I have a question around point of view. Cowney is an adult looking back on his life rather than telling the story from a teenager’s point of view. Tell me about that choice.
Clapsaddle: One of the most significant considerations when I was drafting the novel was to pay close attention to voice, mostly because of my experience with previous manuscripts. I had to spend so much time revising voice that I wanted to make sure I was being mindful about the voice I was selecting. I had read and teach Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and that was almost a trigger for me to recognize that I liked the retrospective voice, almost providing advice to the next generation based on one’s experience. It allowed me to present a character who was obviously well educated later in life. That’s another thing I felt I had to be careful of, I didn’t want to present native characters who seemed ignorant or uneducated, even though he or she was still a teenager. To do so would have blended so easily into stereotype. I wanted to provide a Cherokee character who could be intellectually reflective. So, the retrospective voice allowed me to do both: show him young and learning but also provide a voice that is more representative of our culture and people.
AKC – South 85: One thing I’ve heard you talk about in other interviews is the Great Smokies Writing Program. Tell us about how that program and the larger writing community have affected your work.
Clapsaddle: As you’ve probably experienced yourself, we live in a very rural area so finding a writing community is more difficult than if we lived in a major city. So, I’ve been involved with the North Carolina Writers Network for a number of years. After my first manuscript didn’t look like it was headed for publication, despite winning some awards, I wanted something new. I felt I was ready to start a new novel but I love structure and so I took a writing workshop with Heather Newton at the Great Smokies Writing Program that UNCA (University of North Carolina at Asheville) coordinates. The name of the workshop was “Git ‘Er Done – Write Your Novel,” which sounded cheesy enough for me, but it was great because [the program] set out a structure. The assignments were to write a synopsis, to write a first chapter, a final chapter, and a climax chapter. And that was incredibly challenging for me to write a synopsis for a novel that didn’t yet exist. But that workshop gave me the structure I needed to be successful as well as some early feedback on my ideas. As a mother and full-time teacher, it allowed me to sit down in short segments of time and build the novel. That’s what I needed. Everybody writes differently but I really need to know where I’m going. That workshop taught me how to set that up for myself. I expanded my network to the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop that Hindman Settlement School hosts each year and that has been instrumental in building my network. I talk to someone every single day from Hindman. If it were not for that workshop, Even as We Breathe wouldn’t have been published. Fireside Industries is an imprint that came out of the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop and University of Kentucky Press. Silas House became my editor, partly through Hindman.
AKC – South 85: What can you tell us about your next book?
Clapsaddle: (Laughing) I’ll tell you what I know. It is set in contemporary Cherokee and my protagonist is female, probably late 30s. What I am doing is looking at traditional Cherokee origin stories, extracting the values and themes from them and applying them to this modern context and exploring Cherokee politics in a way. I want to get at the tension between traditional and contemporary Cherokee culture.
AKC – South 85: This is more of a writer’s question. You had a first manuscript that won awards but didn’t publish. Having gone through your experience with Even As We Breathe, do you have a sense for why that was the case, or is it still a mystery?
Clapsaddle: I know that manuscript needs work, if I were to return to it. I know there are things I could do differently. But it’s still a bit of a mystery to me. It was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether, excerpts were published, etc. The more I get to know about this business, it really is being at the right place at the right time. I can tell you that I’m most interested in moving on to the new project rather than looking back.
AKC – South 85: You have a rich non-writing life, as a mother, teacher, and an avid mountain biker. Tell me how your non-writing life informs your writing.
Clapsaddle: One of the reasons I returned to teaching was the energy in my high school, both for the students and being around colleagues who are always thinking and troubleshooting issues. With students it’s the good, bad, and the ugly of teaching, right? I just think it’s a more authentic experience of the human spectrum. The kids are coming from different places, backgrounds, and ideas, and I need to approach them all the same. It just makes me think differently. It keeps me from getting in my own bubble. It fires something creative in my brain although it can be exhausting. With mountain biking, we are fortunate to live in a great place for biking and hiking, and I think reading should be a physical process. Good literature is felt in the body. It’s important for me to have a physical experience when I’m thinking about what I’m writing. Mountain biking does that for me. Mountain biking is like storytelling. You make it to the pinnacle to see where you’ve been and then you try to find the most exciting resolution possible without killing yourself.
AKC – South 85: If readers have enjoyed Even As We Breathe can you point them toward any other Easter Band of Cherokee artists they should pay attention to?
Clapsaddle: There are some really talented visual artists in the ECBI. Bear Allison is a wonderful photographer that everyone should check out. There’s a jewelry maker, Alicia Wildcatt who I really love. There is a group supported by the Sequoya Fund called Authentically Cherokee that supports our artisans on their website you can see the work directly.
AKC – South 85: Tell us about your influences.
Clapsaddle: I love a lot of the classic southern writers I studied in school, even though I now know some of them are problematic. I love Faulkner, I really do. The first native author that inspired me is now considered very problematic, but I will always say Sherman Alexie’s writing influenced me. He helped me realize I could write about where I am from instead of trying to write about something I’m not familiar with. Then it was those great Appalachian writers like Ron Rash and Charles Frazier and of course I now have Silas House for a mentor. Currently, I really love Louise Erdrich. She’s kind of my literary hero. I also love to teach Toni Morrison to my AP Lit students.
AKC – South 85: Tell us about your writing rituals.
Clapsaddle: I do a lot of writing off the page as I said before whenever I get outside or go bike riding. I might think about a sentence for an entire ride. I like structure, so I try to sit down to write with an objective in mind. I sometimes go to my family’s cabin to get a change of scenery. But I love my writing space at home. I have a lot of windows and I decorate it with things I collect: rocks and feathers, seashells, etc. I want to have natural elements nearby even when I’m inside. Sometimes I build music playlists with songs that fit the space I want to inhabit in a scene. When I’m focused on word choice and syntax, however, I usually have to turn the music off.
Andrew K. Clark’s work has appeared in UCLA’s Out of Anonymity, fall/lines, The Wrath Bearing Tree, and other journals. Main Street Rag Press published his first full-length collection of poetry, Jesus in the Trailer, in 2019. He is searching for a home for his first novel, The Day Thief. He is a native of Asheville, NC, and an MFA candidate at Converse College.
By: Russell Carr
“The online conference surpassed my expectations.”
Writers need community. We read each other’s work, give feedback, and help each other grow. It’s also nice to know there’s someone else out there struggling alone at a desk, holding you in mind. Many people find such communities at writers’ conferences, so much so that there are hundreds throughout the country. I enjoy them because I usually receive the best feedback on my short stories and personal essays within conference workshops, and I also gain friendships with fellow writers. Even though I’m usually shy around people I don’t know, I always enjoy mingling with a crowd of writers. They get what I love to do. Conferences also give me the opportunity to hear lectures from leading writers and educators. By the end of a long weekend or week, I leave tired but motivated. At the beginning of 2020, I planned to attend at least two writers’ conferences during the upcoming year. But by late February, COVID-19 changed my plans. I’d like to share my experiences with a few conferences, without naming names, during this time of social distancing and cancelled gatherings, and offer some lessons learned that might help you decide whether to attend one in the age of Zoom.
In the before times, 2019, one of my friends attended a writers’ conference and loved it. She encouraged all of our mutual writer friends to apply for the conference in 2020. Most, if not all, of us who applied were accepted into it. We joked about a conference takeover, but our goals were really so see each other in person again and to learn from other writers.
Then the pandemic hit. The conference was to be in the May. In March, the organizers held out hope to still have it, but soon many states were shutting down. They cancelled the conference, with the plan to return in 2021. Of course, we were all disappointed, but understood. At that same time, schools that had shut down were scrambling to figure out how to continue. Zoom was just beginning to be used for classes. Understandably, the conference didn’t want to enter that experiment so soon after the pandemic struck. We all hoped to attend next year.
I’d also signed up for a summer writers’ conference separate from the one with my friends. I’d discovered it the prior summer. Then, it had been a nice adventure. It was about an eight-hour drive from my home, so that meant ten days without the usual work and home responsibilities, which my wife supported (Thanks again, Liza!). Being there without any friends meant I made many new ones. There were the conference regulars, some of them having attended ten or more summers and joked that it was their adult summer camp. There were other first-timers like myself and those in between. And then there were the faculty and staff who were very friendly and approachable. What I liked about it was just how laid back everyone who attended or taught at it was. I ate with different people every day. I stayed in a dorm, single room, and within a few days, I was having scotch every evening with a new friend there. During the day, I attended great lectures and readings, discussed them with new friends, and received great feedback on my own writing in workshops. By the end of the ten days, I knew I would return for more in 2020.
After the first conference I’d planned to attend with my friends was cancelled, I feared my summer plans were lost also. But even as the early struggles with transitioning to online meetings and school continued across the country, the summer conference organizers announced that they wanted to try an online version. Watching the troubles my son was having with online school, I was skeptical. But I decided it was worth trying, at least to get the workshop experience and lectures. I was nervous as the first day it approached. I didn’t like the idea of my experience depending upon my technology skills or the whims of my broadband.
The online conference surpassed my expectations, but it wasn’t the same as in person. The organizers did a great job getting the technology set up and sending out explanations about accessing each activity. My workshop was outstanding, among the best I’ve participated in. All of us did accidentally interrupt each other at times, but we were sensitive to that risk with Zoom and allowed for it. Occasionally, connections froze, but that didn’t stop the overall momentum that the workshop leader established and continued through hours of discussion. She told us that she’d led a workshop with Zoom through an MFA program’s summer residency a few weeks earlier, and her experience showed. The lectures were also great, and there was the added perk that I could turn off my camera. Then I could stand up, walk around, check my phone, but still listen and not distract anyone.
But there were some limits that no one could change. The conference tried to encourage participants and staff to hang out after hours in Zoom meeting rooms. People did, but, with the limits of online technology, only one person could speak at a time. If there was someone I wanted to talk with individually, I could reach out through private chat, or leave the group meeting room and call him or her directly. Also, I missed the meals with random participants and instructors. So, outside of workshop, it was difficult to make new friends. And because of limited ability to have individual conversations, I don’t know nearly as much about the people I did meet: their opinions they won’t share in a group, how they stand while they talk, what they like to drink or eat, or even their heights. All the body language. We connected, but didn’t.
As the pandemic continues, we all have to take what we can get when it comes to social interactions. Fortunately, everyone is learning more about using online opportunities and how to adapt them to our expectations and needs. I encourage you to continue to seek out connections through those writers’ conferences that are still happening, even if you don’t leave your desk to attend them. Online conferences also offer new opportunities. With so many of them moving to an online format, this can be an excellent time to attend ones that have been too far away, such as overseas or ones on the opposite coast of America from you. Their online versions are also cheaper, since they don’t have to include room and board.
Some things to look for, in my opinion, are how the organizers plan to conduct online workshops and lectures. Will the groups for workshops be smaller than their prior in person ones, for instance, so all participants can talk more easily in them? Do the organizers have experience with online programs, such as also participating in MFA programs? Lectures can still happen in large groups, but beware of ones that are described as large discussion groups, panels, or question and answer sessions. Those can prove very difficult to participate in. Will the times fit with your schedule, including a difference in time zones? The conference might start late or early to accommodate time zone differences. Will there be breaks between events? I found that I needed more time away from the computer screen than I needed between in-person sessions. If the conferences is still meeting in person, which I don’t recommend, how do they plan to implement safety precautions? How does that change room and board for the conference?
While we all wait as the vaccines are being distributed, I hope to meet you at an online conference!
Russell Carr is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Maryland. He has a BA in Russian Literature from UNC at Chapel Hill, an MD from the University of Tennessee, and an MFA from Converse College. He recently retired from the United States Navy after twenty years of service. He was the review editor for South 85 Journal for two years, and currently serves as the journal’s fiction editor.
By: Keagan Herring
Probably one of the hardest things as a writer is staying motivated to write. It’s not that you don’t want to write. Your mind is filled with all these creative and awesome ideas but sometimes the process of getting your thoughts down on paper exactly how you see them in your head takes time and serious effort. You sit there for 10 minutes… 15 minutes… suddenly it’s an hour later and you have one fragment of a sentence and anxiety that you just spent the last hour doing nothing. You put your pen down and think, “I’ll just go do some other things and it will clear my head to write.” But then clearing your head turns into a week and that fragment settles into the pile of papers on your desk, never to be seen or heard from again.
You promise yourself you’ll sit down and write something again soon… when you have an opportunity. But then opportunity never presents itself. Work gets in the way, children become a huge distraction, and obstacle after obstacle presents itself. It’s not that you are procrastinating; it’s just life that gets in the way. So, when do you find the time or motivation to do what you dream of doing?
First, before you think about when to make time, you should assess how important writing is to you. What is it that you do to relax or de-stress after a long day at work, or a busy day with your kids? Perhaps you treat yourself to a glass of wine and your favorite tv show. Or maybe you grab dinner from your favorite restaurant. Or you may even treat yourself to a massage. Whatever it is that you do, you do it because you feel you deserve a break. Sometimes these activities that you treat yourself with take an hour or more. So why not spend just 15 minutes jotting down some of those awesome ideas you have constantly rolling around in your head. Putting ideas to paper, if even just notes, can sometimes lead to enormously great ideas. There is nothing worse than thinking about jotting down a great idea, not getting around to it, and then losing it from your mind completely.
One of the best ways to stay motivated is to find yourself a group of like-minded writers who get together maybe once a week and do short prompt writing. If you don’t know of anyone who is currently doing that, then set a group up yourself and invite a few people whom you think would benefit from this activity. But instead of meeting in person, because let’s face it, who has time for that, plan to do it on Zoom or some other platform you are comfortable with. Set up a time that works best for you. If your friends or associates are as interested in this as you are, they will show for the meeting. Pick one or two-word prompts and do 15 minutes of writing for that prompt. Some groups who meet do several prompts which can make the meeting run 30 minutes to an hour. It is your group so it is entirely up to you. Some groups share what they’ve written, some don’t. Again, that is up to you. The main purpose of this exercise is to get your creative juices flowing. The prompt may have nothing to do with anything you are considering for your poems, short stories, novels, etc… But sometimes these prompts can lead to unexpected outcomes. For instance, you may have a prompt of the words “beautiful” and “hag” in which you write a comical but sad short piece about an old lady with a dry sense of humor. Then suddenly, it hits you! She would make a great secondary character in that story you started six months ago! Or perhaps none of your prompt writing leads to anything significant… until one day, it becomes your collection of short stories for your first published collection. Without prompt writing, you would have had nothing to pull from to even consider publishing.
Another great way to stay motivated is to not try to sit down with the mindset of writing a novel. Start yourself with reasonable goals and work up to the harder ones. Most accomplished, published book-writers suggest writing anywhere from 1000 to 2000 words a day. For some of us, that is a very daunting goal. Just like anything you try to perfect, you must build up to it. For example, if you were asked to run a five-mile race but had never exercised a day in your life, you wouldn’t run right out and try to run five miles. The smarter thing to do is to test your limit the first time you try, go as far as you feel comfortable and leave it at that. Then, on day two, you go to that comfort level and just a little further; day three, a little further. Trying to run five miles when you haven’t ever run before will leave you breathless, exhausted, and disappointed when you come nowhere close to your goal. This leads to disheartened views about your capabilities and eventually you will quit trying. Writing is very much like running a race. Sometimes you have deadlines or people expecting things from you. That is why it is important for you to start off comfortably and work your way towards those exciting goals. Sitting down and writing 100 words seems both hard and easy… but as you start writing, you suddenly realize that 100 words becomes 156 before you know it. “Okay, that wasn’t so bad. Tomorrow, I will try 200 words.” And 200 turns into 317. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so scary and before you know it, you’re writing that 1000-2000 words a day! It truly is all about conditioning your brain in much the same way you would condition your body for a race.
A final idea, though none of these are all the ideas currently out there, is to keep a memo pad with you to jot down ideas or blurbs that suddenly pop into your head. Perhaps you were standing in line at the grocery store and the mother in front of you has two teenaged boys with her who are highly disrespectful to her, the cashier, and dressed like little hoodlums, which prompts you to ponder how a mother could let her children act or dress like that. But then it becomes a heart-wrenching story about a woman who is actually the aunt (their mother recently killed in a drive-by shooting) and though not having the financial capability nor the experience to take on two teenaged boys, does so because otherwise, her nephews would end up in foster care, or possibly in jail at some point. Suddenly, you are imagining this whole story line that could be the next Lifetime movie! But you didn’t have a memo pad with you, or an index card, or something of the sort, to jot down this exciting idea. By the way, for those of you who prefer to digitalize everything, there are all kinds of apps you can install to quickly record your ground-breaking ideas versus writing them down.
If none of these ideas work for you, then perhaps you are not a writer after all… I’m just kidding. Who am I to tell you what you are not? It is up to you to find that sweet spot that works for you. Reach out to the people who know you best, the professors, writers, and friends who write, and ask what they find to be motivating for them. There are so many opportunities for success. And by success, I don’t necessarily mean being published or making millions… Your success is measured by what you want to do with your writing and how you go about achieving it.
Stay motivated and you will do great things!
I am a writer.
I am an actor.
I am an improviser.
I am a teacher.
All of these titles are a part of who I am and each one has influenced my writing in some way. Today I’d like to look at acting and improvising.
Throughout my life I’ve focused on two main art forms: acting and improvising. Use of dialogue in both is essential to each art because it shapes how a scene works out in plays and movies. I had read probably over a hundred plays before I hit college to obtain my Bachelor’s in theatre education and then had to read yet more plays. Plays were important to us actors–not just to perform, but to understand how a playwright gets us to say what he/she wants us to say.
So, Jake, what the hell does this have to do with writing fiction or nonfiction? Simple: DIALOGUE. I spent most of my life learning how to perfect the art of speaking to another actor or actress on stage. More importantly, I spent my time learning how to read a script to see what the writer is telling me. Not just their literal words, but the same literary techniques we use as writers.
For example: Shakespeare (I know…starting tough) would use the sounds of the words to help show what a character is feeling. Here we have A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene II:
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
The sounds in this passage are sharp, biting. Letters like “t” are abundant in this passage; rumors abound that Shakespeare used this alliteration to show the character’s feelings on wanting to “cut through the other character.” Some modern playwrights have taken on this technique, and we as fiction writers can do the same.
Look at how your dialogue sounds. Listen to it in your head, say it out loud, record it and listen to it, or even have some friends or family read that part out loud and really listen to how it sounds. Can you cut another person down with your t’s? Can you show sadness by having someone speak with more long vowel sounds, so it almost sounds like they’re crying with consonants? One of my favorite directors’ dialogue mantra was “vowels are the emotion of a sentence; consonants are the intellect holding it together and helping it make sense.” How much of this can you apply to your writing?
The art of improvisation has a simpler way of helping me in my writing. Many times (mostly when I was starting out after getting a better handle on the language) I would stop myself and re-read what I was writing only to trash the whole thing. Many other writers have their own way of saying it (i.e. Lamott’s way is “write a shitty rough draft”), but with improv, you are working with your teammates to create something that is brand new and comes from absolutely only in the creative part of the imagination. Rule number one of improv to allow this creative process to continue is called “yes, and.” This idea of “yes, and” is a beautiful one; it means “yes, I accept what you’re giving me, and I’ll move the story forward.” Improv, as well as all acting, really, is nothing but story showing. Actors get up on the stage and show the audience a story (I say showing and not telling because an acting mantra is “show us, don’t tell us.”) In improv, we’re not just showing a story–we’re creating one that stays true to these characters we’ve envisioned. It’s truly the most organic form of story creating that I’ve gotten to experience. We commit to our characters and allow him or her to carry us on a story, and if we deviate from what that character would do, our audience will notice it–and most likely wake from their fictive dream.
The same can happen to us as writers. We create a story and a couple of things can happen. We decide half-way through our rough draft that the story created is utter bullshit, we change the character’s personality and make him or her to do things that don’t ring true, or we just force the story to go a way that’s unnatural. One thing I’ve incorporated in my more current writings is this mentality of “yes, and.” I create my characters, I commit to the characters, and during the rough draft I don’t EVER say “no.” I let them make up their own minds. I let their actions push through, and I let their actions dictate what happens in the story. I will go back and edit later, maybe removing an action that doesn’t fit as well as I thought it did initially, but I find that my “shitty rough drafts,” to snag a line from Lamott, are significantly less shitty than I thought they were. It makes my edits go much more smoothly. So, the next time you hit a snag in a story, look back at what happened and say to your characters “yes, and” and then build your story further.
Jacob Allard is the Managing Prose Editor at South85 Journal. He graduated Converse College with his MFA in creative writing in 2014. When he’s not writing or editing he is usually found teaching, improvising, acting, or enjoying the outdoors or the City of Richmond, where he calls home.