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By Karen Walasek
Anyone alive who is paying attention knows that we are on a crash course toward climate destruction and that the burning of fossil fuels is the key culprit. Any writer who is paying attention to the adjunct market post 2008 meltdown has noticed that adjuncts are not paid a living wage. There are a great many articles on the extractive crushing of the creative class, the war on education, non-whites, women and the environment. Our food is literally killing us as the militarized mindset of ever increasing pesticide use (let’s kill off the bad guys with bigger and bigger guns) is touted as the only way it can be done, but says who? Writers, of course. We are the ones making the culture, but do we take our role seriously enough? Have you thought about it? In what ways does your writing support or enable the paradigms of destruction that are racing us closer and closer to the tipping points of planetary collapse?
When I left Goddard with my MFA certificate in hand granting me all the rights and privileges associated with that degree, I had the gnawing sense that there was something rotten in Denmark. No offense to my Goddard colleagues, professors or even Shakespeare, but it bothered me that one could craft a beautifully articulated blueprint for a dying planet that could be considered a literary masterpiece that left its readers filled with remorse and hopelessness. It is as if in our esteemed postmodern world we were all subjects of some grand cultural machine that we inevitably had no control over. The only thing that mattered to this machine was how expertly we crafted our sentences while passively describing the rising waters of Anthropocene’s doom and gloom. Oops, stop! You used a cliché. You don’t want to use a cliché, that’s blasphemy! And yet the paradigms that promote a dying planet are not blasphemous? How did we get here and do we know what we are doing? Pardon me for drawing unsubstantiated conclusions, but something tells me there’s a disconnect in the mind of writers that has a heavy sprinkling of denial, and it’s not that we are creative dreamers and have our heads in the sky. It’s something far deeper and darker than that. Who among the numerous MFA programs out are there are talking about the responsibility of the writer in promoting social change?
What about that doom and gloom, no-way-out scenario? Is there something disingenuous and inherently passive in those action scenarios that promote a survival of the fittest paradigm, only to pull a bad sarcastic cosmic joke in the end with a “Guess what! Nobody is fittest, nor a hero, and we all die; hearty har, har.” And we call that believable, realistic, or noteworthy, while anything that falls outside this paradigm is Pollyanna, Mary Sue; or heavens forbid, idealistic or romantic chick lit!
In his book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff makes the point that the words and metaphors we choose shape how we think. My first stop post Goddard was a M.Ed. in education at Portland State University where I dabbled in rhetoric, conflict resolution, sustainability and indigenous nation’s studies. It was here that I also came across the work of LeAnn Bell in a Storytelling for Social Change class. Bell used storytelling as a tool for addressing racism. She categorized stories as dominant, concealed, resistance, and emerging (or transformative). Most of the stories in popular Western culture fall into the dominant story category. They tell us that those wolves on Wall Street control the world and that our planet is dying and we are helpless to do anything about it. They are the ones that say money is the only thing anyone cares about and life is nothing more than a complicated a con game. If we want to follow the plot twists, all we have to do is follow the money. The concealed stories, of course, if I dare get political here in my professional essay, the concealed stories include those like the ones that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are telling. The concealed story is the one that David Graeber tells in his book, Debt the First Five Thousand Years, where he reveals how monetary debt and true obligation are NOT the same thing. The resistance stories include those of Black Lives Matter or the ones about that tribe of brave indigenous people in Brazil who are literally fighting for their lives to stop the Bela Monte dam. (http://amazonwatch.org/work/belo-monte-dam)
I think as a writer the most important question I can ask myself is “Whose story am I telling?”
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This was an excerpt from my novella: In the Neighborhood Named for the Stars. It did not make the final cut, but still has a place in my heart.
As the winter released its full-nelson on the land and the ground water began to seep up through the soggy lawns, I sat alone on the wrought iron furniture on my mother’s front porch, in the early evening just as the glass-sliver stars began appearing in the broad blue wash of sky over the houses across the street. I saw a large, low shadow move between the houses, and being that age, you know, the age before fear? I did not resist my curiosity and went to seek out its source. I saw his long thick tawny colored tail in the patterned lawn light of the Older’s backyard and froze. Before vaporizing into the forest, he turned his impossibly huge head to me and slowly closed his amber searchlight eyes.
I knew well enough not to follow him, turned around and returned to my house. But I wanted to reach out and touch his fur, to speak to his unimaginable wildness. Unable to articulate ideas of this scale, I simply let my mind move on to the present concerns of my young life, dinner and television, content to process it when and if I could, later.
I know now that Puma concolor, is called by 40 different English names. By that count, it is the animal with the most names found anywhere in the world. People in the Midwest call him a cougar or a mountain lion, but he is more kin to a common housecat than any sort of lion. I have witnessed his scream and it sounds more like a woman being dismembered than the roar of any big African cat. Imagine him, glowing golden eyes hunting the tar black night. Loose furred pelt, undulating over taught muscle wrapped bone. Sinew and cartilage stretch connective tissue; silent, predatory and cautious.
More than a century ago he roamed in our woods; reclusive, nocturnal, solitary.
His range is still vast, known to cover up to fifteen hundred miles. One spotted in Connecticut was thought to have been a released exotic pet. A day later, the unfortunate animal was killed by a car: DNA tests proved he came from the Black Hills.
I saw him that night, but I never thought to say a word. Even then I could understand he traveled the underground arteries in secret, flowing between broad rural tracts and narrow wildlife reserves, avoiding the human encroachment that blots up every natural space like a sponge absorbs a pesky spill, An animal like that collapses the distance between present and past; stalking, ambushing, gorging; advancing.
If the man I am now could be in the blackness then, I would speak to that ghost of our Eastern lion and tell him, “You know our woods do not go on forever. You can remember where forever began and can see the end, just over the next daybreak. Your habitat is like a mirage evaporating in the sun of human progress. Yet still you come, traversing interstates in secret, pressed against clapboard siding, crouched beneath closed windows, passing unknowing inhabitants within, gathered around hearths believing their superiority. You know they’re just whistling past the graveyard of a crumbling civilization propped up on thinning supplies of fossil fuel.
Marten and fox will beware your unstoppable procession, set into orbit at a time before time when earth spun on a different axis; they know, in this vernal hour, their season is ended. Puma Capricornensis, proud messenger, driven into secrecy and unaffected by time. I welcome you on your sacred mission. Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.
In this excerpt from my first novel, Happily after Ever, Harry is remembering a Thanksgiving from his youth.
He used to play with the younger brother, Tommy, and he spent countless hours spying on and speculating the mysteries of teen-age sister Patricia, but Harry was in love with Mandy Eastman. Mandy lived next door and was in his seventh grade class, and he would go to unheard of lengths to breathe her air.
Of course, being a major lame-ass nerd, Harry could not be seen with or even look at Mandy in school. There were mysterious unwritten rules and penalties in middle school. It was a wonder that anyone learned them at all, let alone survived the breaking of one of them. Harry knew his place was at the nerd table in the cafeteria, in the corner near the poison ivy end of the dirt play yard at recess, and on Stevie Dobin’s side of a dodge-ball game in gym. (Harry was always on the side with the losers.) It didn’t matter who else was Stevie’s side. The supreme rule, however, was that Harry was never allowed anywhere near girls like Mandy Eastman. One afternoon he saw Dave Hendrickson between sixth and seventh period standing face to face with Mandy, fingering her left breast, and it nearly broke his heart. His twelve-year-old mind couldn’t articulate a feeling of that immensity, but the image stuck with him all of his life. He felt a yearning for Mandy to this day, some eighteen years later, though he had completely lost track of her.
During the summer, Harry’s little street was far away from schoolyard politics and the cliques that governed them. At home on Briar Glen Lane, he and Mandy were just neighbors. Harry would rake leaves for Mr. Eastman, go with the family to ballet recitals for Mandy’s younger sister and generally suck up to all the Eastmans in order to be near Mandy. She usually treated him with the respect reserved for lesser life forms, but during those summers Mandy and Harry were simply kids and shared a love of the trees and woods and creeks. Though not best friends, they were the next-door neighbor sort of “friends by default.”
Patricia was instructing Mandy, unbeknownst to Harry, in the subtle art of tease flirting. Mandy knew Harry had a crush on her. It was obvious to everyone but Harry. That is how Harry found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with ten of the Eastman clan. The main problem was Harry’s allergy to turkey, an allergy of which he was ignorant because he had never even tasted turkey. Harry had a deep visceral aversion to any food that was unusual in texture or possessing a strong smell. His favorite foods, what he actually lived on, were Velveeta cheese, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, and Krispy brand saltine crackers. Harry could not tolerate vinegars in either smell or acidity, and thus would not eat salad. He was suspicious of baked potatoes because his father had once used some sour cream preparing one when he was young. Sour anything caused Harry to retch involuntarily. His mom stopped coercing him to try new foods when he was five. He had ruined her dinners by vomiting in his plate too many times. She simply gave up.
To say the afternoon was a disaster is a gross understatement; like calling a rattlesnake a problematic babysitter. Afterwards Harry didn’t show his face around the Eastmans for months. He avoided using the front door of his own house because he was too embarrassed be seen by Mandy’s mom.
It began well enough, if not a little uncomfortable. Harry had not eaten any breakfast in nervous anticipation of this dinner date. In fact, he was so unnerved by the prospect of eating with so many strangers that he couldn’t tell if he was hungry. The Eastmans were not fundamentalists, but they believed in observing various Sabbaths and thanking the almighty whenever they ate. Because Harry was a guest from outside the family, he held a position of honor at the table. Marjorie Eastman, Mandy’s mom, asked Harry, “Dear, would you like to say grace?” Mandy knew Harry had never attended any church service and would have no idea how to begin, even if he could get over the terror at having all eyes upon him. Mandy and Patricia marveled at his discomfort. The older sister stifled a laugh; it sounded like a snort. The rest of the family ignored the sound, except Mandy’s Uncle Jack, a Merchant Marine cook who had already had three J & B’s.
“Straight up no ice, Marjorie. Thank you.”
He was Mrs. Eastman’s older brother, thus facilitating Family Etiquette Rule #1: The embarrassing drunk brother is always invited to family holiday meals, and no matter how obnoxious, he is never expelled. Mr. Eastman would have the right, if he were stupid enough to exercise it before bed on the eve of a day off, to whine and growl to his wife later after Jack had passed out or stumbled to his car. Paul Eastman, like most men, wanted to get laid, so he would keep his opinion of Jack to himself.
This was years before Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. At this pivotal point in American history, friends didn’t screw with their friends’ right to drive shit-faced, if friends didn’t want to get the living puke beat out of them. Cops normally let drunk drivers sleep it off and released them in the morning. Intervention in white middle class lives was regarded as a civil rights violation. Nobody talked about the many homicides committed by belligerent morons like Jack Monroe.
This Thanksgiving, however, Jack was Harry’s champion. Jack had noticed the way Patricia and Mandy treated the boy. Jack was intimately familiar with being the lame-ass nerd-boy, and he had scars to prove it.
“Christ, Marge,” he slurred. “Why not have Miss Prissy Panties invoke the blessing? And when the hell can we get to the wine, I’m thirsty!” He leered at Patricia through his thick lenses, a possible foreshadowing of abuses yet undiscovered. Harry never knew.
Mrs. Eastman covered her anger like the survivor that she was. Her father had drunk himself to death just in time to spare Marjorie’s mother the trouble of murdering him in his sleep. It would have been self-defense, though, as the old man beat her mom most nights, only beating Marge occasionally as a diversion.
After a moment’s pause to collect her wits, Marge said, “Well then, Patricia, would you?”
The teen tipped her head piously and placed her pale white hands together, fingertips pointing upward toward God. She spoke clearly in her girlish soprano, “Thank you, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive and Lord, may this food nourish our souls as our bodies, and make us truly grateful. Amen.”
She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Jack. He regarded her from beneath sleepy eyelids like an over-fed tiger slouching across the table from her.
“Amen,” he grumbled.
“Make us grateful,” Harry mumbled aloud. He momentarily rose out of the throes of his memory to the dimly lit room in his Nashville duplex.
Out in the backyard, the crows had given way to two grey squirrels, one possessing a woeful stump stuck full of mangy pin-feather-like hair, the other with a proud bush of a tail. They looked remarkably like two bantamweight boxers as they argued over a black rubber super ball. Stumpy was chattering and running around in circles. Bushy, holding the ball between his front hands, was hopping around in order to continue facing his maniacal opponent. Harry could see a small chunk missing from the inky looking globe.
Both squirrels were due to be sadly surprised when they tried to eat that nut.
Harry hardly noticed. A painful memory had his mind in a hellish tape loop. He drifted back.
Anyone who has attended a big-family Thanksgiving dinner knows the chaos that followed. In short, the promise of a civilized meal turned into a pig fest. Several conversations sprang up at once with loud drunken punctuations injected by Uncle Jack. Mrs. Eastman insisted that Harry sample everything on the table. Steaming plates paraded past: ham, turkey (white and dark meat), chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, cream corn, green beans baked with Durkee fried onion curls, sautéed pearl onions, pickled cucumbers with sour cream, boiled summer sausage with sauerkraut, and several plates and bowls containing unidentified sauces in colors ranging from bright red to slimy grey.
Harry politely tried to eat a little bit of everything. He didn’t talk. He sat next to his sweetheart, though he could hardly look at her. He glanced once at her bare knee. She had her hand resting in her lap on top of a white linen napkin. Harry glimpsed her cream-colored thigh below her hiked up skirt. His heart raced, his stomach gurgled.
He tried the turkey and the stuffing. Though the consistency bothered him some, the taste was pleasant enough; nutty and warm, the meat not gamey or dry. He relaxed a little. When the pickled pig’s feet came around, Harry’s stomach groaned again. He mistakenly thought it was hunger. In response, he ate all of the potatoes and gravy on his plate. Up to this time, Harry liked potatoes. Mrs. Eastman, who assumed that the blank place on his plate meant he loved her cooking, responded by plopping down a half pound more, splashing brown, gelatinous gravy over the whole runny mountain. The smell of the sauerkraut assaulted him, preceding an unmistakable wave of nausea. Harry had a gas pain. He would soon learn that intestinal distress was his body’s standard reaction to turkey. He only tried to eat it once again later in his life with similar, involuntary results. He felt ill, but he did not want to excuse himself. He had an unnatural fear of stranger’s bathrooms, and the thought of being sick in one repulsed him.
He thought, I only need to fart, and his stomach lurched again. The noise in the room was deafening. The adults had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. He could tell that Mrs. Eastman, for one, was less inhibited. She was pouring gravy on her mother-in-law’s plate with abandon. The brown goo had already created a lake on the lavender tablecloth and a river was flowing toward Mandy at Harry’s end of the table. Harry could not hold back. He tried to let it slip out unnoticed, but a cramp gripped his lower intestines at that moment and forced him to push involuntarily. What came out of him was not gas. At least, that is not all that came out of him.
The clatter and bustle of the table ceased. This was no pause, no lull. It was instant silence. Diners sat staring at Harry with forks and glasses suspended in midair. Harry sat miserably in what he imagined to be a puddle of diarrhea much like the river of gravy that was pooling around Gramma Eastman’s plate. His gut wrenched again. That was when the smell reached his nose.
It apparently reached Uncle Jack’s nose, as well. He bellowed: “Christ’s balls kid, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?”
Harry hardly heard Jack. Everyone at the table was looking at him, aghast. His stomach lurched again and he looked helplessly at Mandy. He wanted to say he was sorry, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he vomited his entire undigested turkey dinner into his beloved’s lap.
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Writing has a form. Beyond understanding and becoming competent in the traditional elements of fiction (such as plot, conflict, character, setting, point of view, etc.) understanding the language of form can help a writer uncover the (metaphorical) shape of the work. “The Shape of the Thing” refers to the whole form your writing takes, from the twist and turns of a sentence to the more global view of the plot puzzle.
One way to examine the shape of a novel (short story, memoir, essay, etc.) is to look for a character’s arc following a pyramid map. As old as Aristotle, this shape includes rising action, falling action, climax and denouement. The study of The Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s work) adds the influence of myth and archetype in modern dramatic works.
When we take the study of shape and patterns such as found in permaculture and apply them to writing, we uncover a myriad of framework tools that can guide a written work. One way we learn is through example and copying that example. Copying shape is no different. In our workshops we help writers:
Come prepared to play with forms, use diagrams and reduce plot points to post it notes that will swirl around the page. Knowing the shape of your work will help you with the most important aspect of your writing— knowing the shape of your story. Come and expect to have fun at our workshop at the Writer.ly Pub Camp on November 15, 2014 in Seattle for more.
Come hear me talk at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! Yes, I want to go!
NOTE: This article was written by Ron Heacock and Karen Walasek.
It seems like people are waking up. But that does not mean what they are waking up to is new. When I was 20, all of my friends knew it was suicidal to travel through the deep south. There were horror stories dating back decades. Possession of LSD or pot was dangerous, but just being a long-hair in the south was cause for brutality. What we didn’t necessarily realize was that we had chosen our appearance. We made a decision to look like outsiders, but we were ignorant to the underlying meaning. Making ourselves outsiders (through our dress and hairstyles) was a symbolic action. We sought solidarity with all people but especially anyone who was treated differently because of the color of skin, economic status & mobility, religion, ethnicity because they too were brother and sister and they were being wronged, segregated, brutalized all around us. We took on their load as our own.
Many of us had no idea that this was the deeper message at the time. What was important to us was our belonging our tribe. We were free. We could build a new world, a world built on love and acceptance and peace. Even those of us who did not rally or protest, even those who were not artists or musicians, joined this movement. Even if we did not all know what the movement was about.
You will hear that this movement was populated by the young and naïve, like it is some sort of bad thing. Like it was what doomed us to failure. But I think we were simply trying to be childlike – children recognized the need for love, they did not need to lie, they are innocent. We knew that violence and punishment were backward. Our parents created a world for us where we could clearly see that there was a better way. And many people joined that movement for science, understanding, systems, and sustainability. We were kin to pantheistic beliefs in so much as they taught you to recognize the connection between all things, but we were not followers. We developed respect for the concept of elders, we looked for elders worthy of the title.
We found some in the native American shaman, some in writers and artists of the time. And music was understood as the pulse beat of the universe. It was loud and raw and primal, but it had heart and vision and honor. At least that is what we looked for, found and echoed. We sought a connection to the past through a modernized vision of the future. We wanted to be connected, cyclic, sustained. We crafted ideas like deep ecology, social context, spaceship earth.
And later, I got a chance to live in the deep south, and it was sad and difficult to leave. I learned to love it before I recognized the parasite. And upon recognizing one small part, I followed its trail and uncovered the ugly truth. A truth I knew intimately when I pretended that I was a second class citizen. I guess I’d left that truth behind when I cut my hair. I did not realize that Samson’s fate was true, that when you engage in symbolic action, you become your symbol whether or not you still believe in it.
I cut my hair and outwardly became a member of the dominant society. The power of the symbol receded into the safety of my heart. Where it has brewed in a private turmoil, seeking expression through art and music and writing.
It took several years of recovery in the Pacific Northwest to see these symbols for what they actually were and are. The conclusion is simple. Like the awareness of it had been asleep. But I was not asleep. I had a lid on it. I was hidden, seeking safety. It wasn’t until recently that I felt safe enough to come out into the light and stand; ironic that this is the most apt metaphor now that I live in a region where the sun is traditionally a stranger.
But here is the true dope, friends. All this brutality, these lies and this growing militarization is not new. It was always present, sometimes under scrutiny and sometimes completely in shadow. At all periods of our history, the non-dominant group (READ: anyone who wasn’t white, male, European) has been witness and memory of this brutality. These witnesses may choose to forget, they may forgive in order to survive, but their stories are there – in resistance, in protest, often through women, mothers (the largest minority of all).
These stories tell the truth: That we are the real majority and we are enslaved. Enslaved by this idea that the dominant group has any sort of power, any sort of control. We are enslaved by the idea that we cannot voice our condition, indeed, that we, the real majority, are unable to speak, unable to be heard. We believe that we are helpless when it is us that has real the power, the number, the heart, the memory and the vision. We are enslaved by the lies we have accepted about ourselves and the lies we have been told about the dominant power. And we are all hurt by these lies. It is a divisive lie, to try and convince me that my brother hates me or is different, evil, blind, greedy, violent, uneducated, or god forbid poor – which is the worst lie of all. Because most of those conditions are beyond our control, but poverty? That’s just laziness.
Poverty is a tool used to keep all of us enslaved. The well-off are enslaved by their fear that they will become the poor and the poor are enslaved in a structural poverty, where they believe the lie that belittles them against the dominant group.
If it wasn’t so pervasive and evil I could marvel at its perfection.
This has been visited upon humans since the beginning time. It has progressed to the point where the psychopath is in control now – like the top of some sort of career path. It should become a Meyers Briggs designation; the group most likely to become a greedy, power wielding maniac. The group that fights to die. To kill as many of as possible before they go.
We should not be outraged. We should not be surprised. This brutality is nothing new. That story is also a distraction. This new escalating brutality is an old, old parasite who has simply found a new host. We should act as healers to seek out the weakness in the nation’s constitution and focus on strengthening. That is the only way to heal. Everything else is a war. And war always kills. Invasive and violent processes only create reactions, effect to the cause and causes from the effects. An endless feedback loop of damage spreading wider and wider in direct proportion to the force and violence of each retaliatory attack. Healing is not a war.
Healing is what we need. And it is not an airy-fairy notion. Healing and love are essential aspects of the eternal feminine. And the dominant group is also at war with this. So much so that women are actually under attack. How could that be? Would you willingly harm your mother? It makes no sense. Would you kill your actual sister? Or brother? It is insane to think that we support death. So why, in the face of all this evidence we have been sold lies and they are now the status quo, why do we continue to believe what we are told?
Escaping reality or facing reality.
Trigger warning: feminism, women's rights
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