Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lorrie Moore and the Tragically Humorous

In Elissa Schappell’s introduction to Lorrie Moore in 3x33, she highlights the way in which Moore has the ability to take tragic, disturbing, or generally heavy situations (or a mix of all three) and bring them to life not only through startling metaphors, dialogue, and description, but also through witty, satirical humor and brilliant wordplay. In doing this, it would seem she would shift the weight from the situation, but as Schappell notes, this isn’t the case – instead, she ends up enhancing the atmosphere. In the human experience, there is little that is simple and one-sided, and even as we go through the most pain, we find ourselves laughing. As Schappell puts it, “Grief is messy and uncontainable – humor happens.” The result of Moore’s efforts are characters that are startlingly human from start to finish, and feel the full range of emotions. Would you agree?

In Moore’s “Referential”, a mother deals with her son’s struggle with mental illness. As he becomes progressively worse, her lover, Pete (the only character with a name), begins to pull away, even though he is the only one who seems to have an effect on the son. While decidedly grim, the narrative, told from a limited third person perspective of the mother, contains witty, interesting thoughts, and the son’s dialogue, while obviously disturbed, is tragically humorous. Is Moore making a statement about mental illness as a whole here, or about life? Are the characters believable in their humor, especially when it comes to the mother’s sharp, insightful wit? What do you think of her idea of “mutilation as a language”, and is it meant to be darkly humorous – and, in this, is there truth? Is the mother’s narration reliable, or perhaps a sign that she is also mentally unstable? How well was this executed?

Do you think you could create characters that echo Moore’s and feel many emotions but often deflect with wit? Does Moore do it believably herself? 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Alice Munro: "Train"

This illustration by Raymond Verdaguer
 appears beside "Train" at
In her interview with the Paris Review, Alice Munro says she has worked from “a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.” She says, “I don’t know how I got that feeling of being on the margins, it wasn’t that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin.” In “Train,” Jackson is a drifter, a man who walks away from relationships, who sees Mennonite boys singing in his dreams. He jumps off trains hoping for a “cancellation,” instead finding “an immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and looking out the window.” Jackson, who begins a “skinny nerve-wracked soldier,” enters a strange and wandering life, from the moment he indecisively starts back the way he came. How is Jackson, like the narrators of “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Friend of My Youth,” and “Save the Reaper,” experiencing life from the margins? How does this affect the way he reacts in situations? Do you believe his character? How could you use Munro’s approach in your own writing?

Here's the link to the interview:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Junot Diaz and the Fulgurating Sadness

If "Miss Lora" is the first story you ever read by Junot Diaz, it might feel like doing a cannonball into a freshwater lake.  The water, as if spring fed, is an ice bath, and you smack, splash, and sink in deep.  You come up gasping for air to swim to some safe place, where you decide you must read his other stories, whether those anthologized in 3x33 or his whole first collection, Drown, or his second collection, This Is How You Lose Her.  You must also read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

For those who have read other stories featuring Yunior and Rafa, "Miss Lora" feels like another kind of bomb exploding.  Yunior's relationship with this older woman, amidst a landslide of sadness, does apocalyptic damage.  Why does Miss Lora do this to him?  Is their secret affair born out of abuse (her abusing him, her having been abused by her history teacher)?  Or born of mutual sadness and Yunior's loneliness and confusion after Rafa's death?  Or is it born of cultural expectations, explored in Yunior's statement that his father and brothers were both "sucios"?  How does this breaking of the adult/child taboo look different to us because of the reversal of genders, with a woman abusing a boy?  Does Yunior's searching in the end--his failure to find Miss Lora, the story's end on a photograph of them blinking, smiling--also feel explosive?

What is Diaz up to?  How does he do it?  Can you write an explosive story?

I just ran across this article Junot Diaz published in the New Yorker this past April: the MFA v. POV.  Go read it, and consider your career and education, and how what you read is limited by the people putting it in your path.  Incidentally, Helena Maria Viramontes's book Under the Feet of Jesus was given to me in graduate school by my amazing professor Susan Strehle, and it influenced my writing and teaching.  I have since met Viramontes on several occasions, and she is one of the loveliest human beings I've ever encountered.