Round-Down: Writing Assistance Apps–Trendy? Or Here to Stay?

Pathe_phonograph_1898With National Novel Writing Month already halfway over, many writers may be struggling to find new ways to motivate themselves to finish their marathon projects. Whereas old school methods such as the satisfying, yet solitary, thrill of accomplishment may have been enough back in the day, now, technology-hungry, modern-day writers have many more reward options at their fingertips.

The smartphone app Write or Die 2 provides writers with rewards when they reach personal writing milestones. You can set the app to create positive sounds and display kitten images for every word-count or words-per-minute goal you attain. Similarly, you can set the app to make horrible noises and display things such as spiders every time you get off track. It will record your stats and allow you to compete either against other writers, in addition to yourself. Like the app QualityTime, Write or Die 2 attempts to make users aware of how they waste their time while also mitigating the attention-cannibalizing effect technology often has.

If you think you might outsmart a machine, the app has “kamikaze mode,” which will start erasing all your previously typed words until you start typing again. When I was in school, the way to achieve this same effect was to have my writing teacher stand over me during a free write. Every time my pen stopped, she would whisper, “Don’t stop,” until I would, aggravated, write, “I don’t know what to write!!” over and over again until the sheer momentum of not stopping would catapult me over my block (and over my momentary dislike of my teacher).Continue Reading

Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction


Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest publication, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, deals with the aftermath of more than one tragic event. The author was still processing the loss of her father, three years earlier, when her Japanese grandfather passed away in January of 2011. Only a few months later, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and resulting in unfathomable devastation.

Mutsuki Mockett’s relatives owned a temple only twenty-five miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where the radiation levels were so high, the family could not bury the grandfather’s bones.

The author journeys back to Japan to re-connect with family—exploring the ways in which communities are coping, witnessing both devastation and reconstruction, while examining her own grief. The book’s publication marked four years since her grandfather’s death and the earthquake. The catastrophic event is still fresh in people’s minds, the rebuilding efforts continue, and the grief surrounding it could be eternal. Forget the mechanics of writing an ending—how does one reconcile writing “the end,” when life is still unfolding?Continue Reading

Tension mounting


We spend our lives avoiding conflict, and then we reach academia. On the playground we’re told to make peace, but in the classroom we’re praised for our thesis statement that makes an “argument,” that introduces “tension,” that “complicates” a previous notion. Conflict becomes, all of a sudden, the engine of every good story. During discussion, one comment jars a thought, which can clash with another and spark a third, ad infinitum. The young student may find something violent about ideating. Make nice, children—that is, until you begin to write.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. writes,

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Tension lives in the fabric of the sentence itself.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Once You Learn, You Never Forget” by Anthony Varallo


Few images are more boilerplate in capturing the parental role of ushering a child towards independence than that of parent teaching a child how to ride a bike—the pushing, the holding, the letting go, the tears. In “Once You Learn, You Never Forget” (Cimarron Review), Anthony Varallo resurrects this image from cliché into a complicated discussion of dysfunctional parent-child relationships.

In the opening paragraph, it’s clear right away that this particular cycling lesson would never appear on a life insurance commercial.

At long last, after my son has graduated from college, married, divorced, and moved back home, I teach him how to ride a bike…I am explaining the gears when Owen cuts me off and says, “Jesus, Dad, I’m not a child.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m just trying to help.”
“Do you want to know what would help?” Owen says, and rocks from one foot to the other, experimentally. “You not trying to help.”
Owen and I are not close.

Oh, but they are. Much closer than they realize—painfully close, in fact—and that is the reason why Varallo’s use of the first person narrator to establish unreliability works so well. Varallo moves forward, outlining other ways in which the narrator equates conflict with distance, while at the same time failing recognize that conflict is both proof of their intimacy and the effect of it.

Neither of the characters enjoy what is happening, but neither is compelled to stop. There are clues why in exchanges like this:

“Do you know what this reminds me of?” Owen says, and before I can ask what, says, “Me chasing the basketball down the driveway whenever you missed a shot. Remember? You used to pay me a nickel for the ones that got stuck beneath parked cars.” Owen snorts. “A nickel.”

I tell him I do not remember that because I do not remember that. What I remember is Owen sending me bills for overdue allowance, the late fees set at exorbitant rates, seven dollars for making his bed, nine for brushing his teeth.

Character unreliability is fed by selective memory, which has a funny way of fabricating over time. But it’s also fed by how each character understands and uses those memories, not matter how true. It becomes clear that the argument they’re having—who was right all those years ago—doesn’t matter, because each character has only mined history to lay claim to proof for why they are justified and have no need of changing. Neither recognizes their own contribution to the situation.

Both wish the other to change, and have for a long time. Varallo makes this clear through the memories, denial, as well as the title. We’ve arrived at this scene after years of practice. The image of parent teaching a child to ride a bike has now become a symbol of this father and son’s inability to move past early-childhood roles into adulthood.

Varallo’s ending is simple and sad.

‘“I let go of the bike. Owen pedals. Owen rides. His helmet shimmers in the sun. I stand in my driveway, a father watching his son ride a bike for the first time, and wish someone could take a picture of the two of us together, but Owen leaves the driveway, and we’re apart again.”’

The narrator’s feelings are recognizable and true: his companionship with his son is real and, though dysfunctional, fulfilling—I imagine it wouldn’t have continued all of these years if it hadn’t been. But the narrator need not worry. Varallo leaves us little doubt that Owen will soon be back. It’s not as if Owen road away on his own accord. He accepted his father’s help—which, of course, is part of the problem. But not all.

Do-Overs: Star-Crossed


Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone.
I’ll be waiting; all that’s left to do is run.
You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess,
It’s a love story, baby, just say, “Yes.”

Taylor Swift left out the part about Romeo and Juliet dying, though. Why does the Romeo and Juliet story continue to pull the heartstrings of dreamy-eyed teenagers? Since Shakespeare coined the phrase “star-crossed,” in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, it’s been used to describe other pairs of lovers in other stories about teenagers who can’t be together. But Romeo and Juliet is the story of one teenager rebounding hard, and another willing to throw her life away for a dude she just met. It’s a cautionary tale, not a romance. Shakespeare reminds us constantly that the kids are making bad choices (“Young men’s love lies not truly in their hearts,” Friar Lawrence cautions, “but in their eyes.”)

So what gives? What’s the appeal?Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Stillhouse Press

stillhouse press

Founded in January 2014, Stillhouse Press has one book out of the hopper, five more slated for publication in 2016, and the press is poised to take the literary scene by storm. Stillhouse was founded by novelist Dallas Hudgens, who also began Stillhouse’s sister imprint, Relegation Books, and the press operates as a collaboration between Northern Virginia’s Fall for the Book festival and students from George Mason University’s creative writing programs.

Stillhouse’s first book, Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, is a Helen86_Final Cover.inddwonderfully sardonic collection of stories by the late Wendi Kaufman, author and professional champion of authors through her work with Alan Cheuse’s NPR show “The Sound of Writing.” The title story of Kaufman’s collection appeared in the New Yorker, and the rest of her book is equally as strong, with a terrific cast of women narrating their navigations through the modern world at various stages of life. Stillhouse’s other titles, which are slated for release throughout 2016, look to be an exciting mix of poetry and prose by new and established authors.

Currently, Stillhouse accepts submissions of poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction, asking a mere $5 reading fee through Submittable. Stillhouse also awards the Mary Roberts Rinehart prize—$1,000 plus publication; the Rinehart prize alternates between nonfiction and fiction each year for a literary manuscript of 60,000-90,000 words. The 2015 winner is Jacqueline Kolosov, whose manuscript Motherhood, and the Places Between, will be published in September of 2016.

For Ploughshares, Editor-in-Chief Marcos L. Martínez elaborates on the genesis of Stillhouse and shares the essentials of what readers and writers need to know about this exciting new press.Continue Reading

Discovering the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

chagallWhen you’re tired of the same old books but then you discover a new favorite, it’s a major event. It’s like finding liquid water on Mars: wonder and joy and promise where before you’d seen a barren landscape. The big discovery for me this year has been Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), entirely thanks to the beautiful new collection The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). There are Israeli writers I like—Amos Oz and Etgar Keret especially—but Yehuda Amichai I love.

Edited by Robert Alter, Amichai’s original Hebrew has been translated skillfully into English by an accomplished group that includes Barbara Harshav and the late Benjamin Harshav, Assia Gutmann and Ted Hughes, Leon Wieseltier, and Alter himself. They perfectly capture Amichai’s blend of Biblical idiom and playful modernist experiment. I’ll let the poetry speak for itself. Here’s ‘My Father,’ translated by Stephen Mitchell:

The memory of my father is wrapped in white paper
like slices of bread for the workday.

Like a magician pulling out rabbits and towers from his hat,
he pulled out of his little body—love.

The rivers of his hands
poured into his good deeds.

Continue Reading

Round-Down: Amazon Opens Amazon Books in Seattle


Amazon Books, Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore, opened last week in Seattle’s University Village.

The store is similar in appearance to many book retailers, though Amazon Books interestingly (and necessarily) does not note hard prices on its items in-store–the store has a commitment to its Amazon prices, which frequently change.

Because of this, those browsing the Seattle Amazon Books location are encouraged to instead look up prices on the Amazon app while in the store, and are able to buy their books either online or on the spot, at the physical location.

Amazon’s press release mentions that the books in its store “are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. . . . Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners. To give you more information as you browse, our books are face-out, and under each one is a review card with the customer rating and a review.”

Unsurprisingly, most prominent media outlets have covered the news of the store opening. At the Los Angeles Times, Samantha Masunaga details some of the competition Amazon might face now that it’s ventured into retailing books at a physical location and cites declining revenue, digital competition, and smaller rivals as potential issues for Amazon.Continue Reading

A Family Tree of Books You Need a Family Tree to Read


Let’s start with One Hundred Years of Solitude, to prove after last time that I do, in fact, love Gabriel García Márquez, and because where else would I start? By me, there is no better family novel than One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel is nominally the story of the town of Macondo, told via the Buendía family, but there’s really no difference between the two. Macondo shares the Buendías’ fate, which is to be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

In the prophecy I just quoted, Macondo is called “the city of mirrors (or mirages),” and the Buendía family is itself full of mirrors. Every Buendía man but one, Aureliano José, is named either José Arcadio or Aureliano, and they tend to share characteristics with the relatives with whom they share names. There are twenty-two Aurelianos, seventeen of whom are the sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendía (you know, the one who thought about ice before the firing squad). You can see how the family tree printed at the front of my paperback edition might not be much help.

I’m not going to try to tell you that this means every family is like a city of mirrors or mirages, or anything like that. For starters, the Buendías are a fictional family cursed with incest. More importantly, one of García Márquez’s techniques is to push every idea just past the boundary of the real, and the intellectual Aurelianos and adventurous José Arcadios are an example. Family resemblance, taken to funhouse extremes.

There are authors who make giant families easier. It’s not hard to keep a handle on the Trasks in East of Eden or the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. The same is true for Lyman Ward’s family in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I consider a direct descendant of East of Eden, but it might be cheating for me to cite a book whose narrator is a professional historian. And if you’re into writers more recent than Steinbeck and Stegner, I might suggest Sara Taylor’s debut The Shore; its many characters are all descended from the same witchy woman, but you can tell who belongs to which branch of the family by whether the person is vaguely magical or is completely human and, one way or another, completely screwed.Continue Reading

The Words Beneath the Sound: Music Inspired by Literature

As Virginia Woolf famously observed, the best writing often begins with a rhythmical “wave in the mind,” an inner tempo around which syntax and diction are arranged, a guiding beat of artistic intuition that, when struck upon, makes it nearly impossible to set down the wrong word. Other writers have similarly expressed the importance of heeding the aural resonance of language, of prioritizing sound over sense and music over meaning, and ceding control to the mysterious cadence that can string together words so that they beg to be spoken aloud. Poetry, of course, is chief among literary forms for its emphasis on rhythm, a relationship overtly celebrated in illustrious works such as John Berryman’s Dream Songs, or Whitman’s polytonic verse. John Taggart, a poet greatly influenced by the composer John Cage, even argued that the very goal of poetry is to create “sound objects” where poems cease to pursue metaphor and become more like mini-operas, arrangements that achieve the effect of compositional scores.

Unsurprisingly, the interrelation between music and literature also flows in the opposite direction, with composers taking inspiration from authors. Consider The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (The Master and the Margarita), Guns N’ Roses’ “Holden Caulfield” (The Catcher in the Rye), or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath). Instances are equally prevalent among classical works—to cite examples from just one career, the Welsh composer Donald Ibrahím Swann (1956-1967) wrote a full-length opera of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, set music to J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings, and wrote scores to accompany the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, the list of music inspired by literature is predictably vast and continually expanding, often in innovative ways. Here are four recent compositions that, though notably diverse, are united in holding words as their muse:

1. The Trial, by Philip Glass

An icon of postmodern symphony and arguably the most popular living composer, Philip Glass grew up steeped in literature, the son of a professional librarian. It is somewhat expected, therefore, that Glass draws significant influence from writers—to date, he has composed 25 operas with a literary basis, including works inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, Doris Lessing, and Allen Ginsberg. His most recent, The Trial, is an adaptation of the 1925 novel by Franz Kafka. Released as part of the 2014/2015 season at the Music Theater Wales, the opera features eight singers who play multiple roles, an orchestra of only 12 instruments, and a libretto by playwright Christopher Hampton that closely adheres to Kafka’s text while still leaving room for interpretation. “[Kafka] saw the political and social world we are involved in with a clarity that very few writers have ever seen,” says Glass in a video produced by the London Royal Opera House. “He could see what was happening, and he could describe it. Sometimes the music can follow the picture exactly; the music is right on top of the image. But if we start moving away from it—and that’s what we do in the theater—it allows the spectator to help invent the story.” With this emphasis on collaboration, Glass adds a new layer of life to The Trial, lending the sense that Kafka’s compelling yet unfinished novel is, in a way, still in the process of being written.Continue Reading