Sormé

By Mojgan Ghazirad

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It is called sormé in Farsi, the black soot that women use to magnify and beautify their eyes and face. You can name it eyeliner, but in reality, sormé does not “line” the eyes. It is used inside, on the inner pink rim that harbors the eyelashes.

I saw the sormé-dan, the jar containing sormé, first time in my grandfather’s pistachio robe. I was a curious little girl, eager to explore the gifts and gadgets he had brought from the Hajj Pilgrimage. The sormé-dan was a souvenir he’d bought from a salesman in Mecca’s Bazaar. It resembled a pocket watch, a tiny arrow jutting out from the twelve o’clock location. The picture of Mecca’s cubic shrine was engraved on one side of that brass jar and Medina’s emerald mosque on the other. He twisted the arrow and pulled the metal rod attached to the arrow out from the jar. The rod was blackened with sormé. He drew the rod against the back of my hand. A narrow black line marked the touch. Then he drew another line and a tiny little V of a flying bird emerged.  Then another V and another V and soon a flock of birds flew in the peach sky of my skin. He showed me how to apply sormé on the eyes. He separated the eyelid from the eyeball and carefully dabbed the inner rim with continuous soft strokes until the pink line surrendered to a black coat. He didn’t press the rod too hard, just a caressing, tender touch, enough to blacken the rim.

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Applying sormé is a delicate task. It’s scary when the sharp stick is aimed at the cornea. One wrong move and it can scratch the eye. But this is how women and men in my country have been applying sormé for thousands of years. If you don’t put your heart in it, you will make a mess of your face. Just like using charcoal on a snow-white blank paper, you have to be mindful of every line that you draw. Even the softest accidental stroke of the hand can fade the boldness of the lines. Just a tiny drop of that fine powder under the lower eyelid is enough to ruin the look of your face. And if you try to clean that betraying dot, it will seek revenge by leaving a tarry hue under the eye: never will the two eyes be the same again. This is the reason many women avoid sormé nowadays. It deserves the attention and delicacy our rushed world lacks.

My grandfather used sormé to heal his clouding eyes. He said, “Sormé sooyeh chasm ra ziyad mikonad.” It is considered by many a medicine more than a cosmetic in the East. Muslims say it was the tradition of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, to line eyes with sormé. They apply it during the month of Ramadan and on Eids to pursue the path of the Prophet. Egyptians believe the blackness surrounding the eyes shields them from the ominous rays of sunshine. Indians paint the newborns’ eyes to protect them from the “evil eye.” Persians believe it accentuates expressions of love. Somehow this supreme, black powder brings protection, treatment and affection for the ones who wear it. It has something to do with lining hope for a better future when it adorns the eyes.

I always wondered why Persians believe using sormé accentuates expressions of love. I used to apply the sormé and stare at my face in the tall mirror hanging in my bedroom. I had hard time believing the blackness added beauty to my eyes, though it did highlight them in the constellation of my face. The voiceless powder cried to be seen. Eyes grabbed immediate attention: “Seekers of beauty! Do not sail around and get lost!” Like a bright lighthouse in a deadly storm, the blackness pointed to the light that resided in the sea of inside. Is that why they said sormé accentuated expressions of love?


“We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores.”


Persian poets love using sormé as a metaphor for light—in contrast to its stygian blackness. Naderpour, a contemporary poet, says in his Sun’s Sormé poem:

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               The whirling winds my sole companion.

               When the night bore down on me,

               I only asked for death in my sleep.

He pictures himself as a blind owl in a deep black forest, sunrays pricking him one early morning in his dark nest. He imagines the sunrays as rods containing sormé. The rods line his eyelids with light and bring back vision to his eyes:

               But it was your warm hands, dearest love,

               Your hand and your infinite fire,

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               You brought sight with your sun’s sormé.

In the love poems of Attar, the great mystic poet, winds bring dust from faraway lands, from the land of the beloved. Even a speck of dust from the beloved is a cure, those tiny particles she shakes from her cloak. The wind-brought dust becomes sormé, and makes him see the silhouette of the beloved:

               The dust that morning breeze

               Veers from her door to me,

               Is the sable sormé,

               That brightens the world in my eyes.

There is a secret when stones are crushed to dust. The stibnite or the sulfur compound of antimony is abundant in Iran. For three thousand years, Persians have pried tootiya—the stibnite—from the mountains near Isfahan and grinded the stone in tiny mortars to make the fine black powder. They believe when a stone is pulverized into powder, the idol of grandiosity is broken into tiny pieces of modesty. By applying the powder, the secret in the stones is released and the eyes able to see through the veil of ego. You can see what’s hidden from the eyes. Fables have it that Khosrow Parviz, the great king of the Sasanian Empire, possessed a special sormé that when he applied, he could see through the earth for almost a year.

But while sormé can bring light to the eyes, it can be a silencing sword for the throat. There is an adage in Farsi that says, if you swallow the sormé, you will lose your voice. Bidel, a mystic poet, sings this adage in a beautiful poem:

               My lute of hope is broken and I am silenced forever,

               Of all the colors, I wonder why sormé has stolen my voice.

Sormé is destined to guide one from the glitter in the eyes to the lilting throbs of the heart. But if you use it by mistake on your lips, you will diverge into a dead-end, a hushed-voice chamber, rather than into flowing songs of love. 

~~~

I take my little girl to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. We come out of the Jameh Mosque after the prayer. This is the first time I have taken her with me to the mosque, and I want to show her how Muslims pray together in Iran. Raised in America, she has never prayed in a mass. She likes the flowers woven in the rugs. She thinks it is poetic that we caress the flowers with our foreheads while we genuflect during the prayer. We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores. We pass a tiny turnery that has hundreds of wooden handicrafts. Every little object in the store is embellished with patterns of petals and twisted twigs. She likes the colors and configurations of the crafts. She pulls me into the turnery and points to a bulb-like jar. “What’s that?” she asks.

The old salesman brushes his grizzled beard and puts the azure-colored jar on the counter. A sharp arrow is pointing to the sky from its narrow neck. Tiny flowers entangled in each other, ornate the surface of the jar. “It’s a sormé-dan, little lady,” the salesman says to my girl. He pulls the arrow out from the jar and a thin blackened applicator appears.

“What’s this for?” she asks. I have never told her the story of sormé. I have abandoned using it since I came to America. The old antimony stone is long forgotten in the mountains of Iran.

The salesman asks for my girl’s hand. She looks at me and I nod. She places her hand on the counter and the old man nears the applicator to the dorsum of her hand. A black line appears. He dips the rod back into the jar and strokes her hand with a soft touch again and again. The magical flock of birds appears on the peach sky of her hand. She smiles. She wants the azure jar. The old man reveals the secret of sormé: the medicine, the evil-eye catcher, the beautifier, the eyeliner, the illuminator, the heart’s pathfinder. He says it accentuates expressions of love, and smiles. He keeps the love-emphasizer for the last. She stares at him with her large, beautiful black eyes. She has hard time believing the old man.

He wraps the sormé-dan in a parchment paper and puts it in a brown bag. He puts two vials of stibnite powder tightened with a cork in the bag and hands it to me. His fingertips have tainted black from handling the vials. He has sormé in his eyes like my grandfather. I wonder if he has visited Mecca and seen the thousands of men who apply sormé after the Hajj Pilgrimage.

We swing back to the bazaar. White pillars of light descend from the domes’ circular openings. Tiny black dust particles dance in the light, twirling up to the dome. Maybe a young lover has passed these narrow alleys and the sudden breeze has swept dust into the bazaar. Maybe the beloved has shaken her cloak near the old wooden gate.

Sunshine stings our eyes as soon as we come out. My little girl squints and tries to find her love-shaped sunglasses in her strapped handbag. Doves fly to and from the mosque’s dome in flocks of thousands. She sails her hands in the air like the doves. The black Vs on her hand merge with the birds in the sky. “Mommy, have you ever put sormé in your eyes?”

I smile and I nod.

They say sormé accentuates expressions of love. It’s the secret pathway to the heart.


Faculty Pick

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Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

Richard Adams Carey - There are books that you enjoy and admire, and then books that you so enjoy and admire that you take them into your bones, and their phrases and themes become part of your own DNA as a writer and storyteller.

Such a book for me was Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.” Published in 1986, the work is a steaming broth of travel, history, folklore, ecology, and philosophy, its subject matter a part of the world as big as China, no more populous than Seattle, and as remote to most of us as the moon.

The impressions of European, Russian, and American explorers in the Arctic are quoted liberally, but Lopez—radically for that time—gave equal or greater weight to the oral histories and belief systems of the Inuit and Yupik peoples he moved among. He is particularly eloquent on what Western explorers called “the native eye,” that nearly occult sensitivity to the nuances of sky, water, landscape, and wildlife behavior that has been lost to Westerners since, more or less, the Agricultural Revolution.

Lopez’s knowledge of and respect for that other mode of being and this other-worldly geography was rocket fuel for me as I researched and wrote my first book, “Raven’s Children,” about the life and struggles of an Alaskan Yupik family. Lopez’s empathy for all things human, along with the grace and precision of his language, inspire me to this day.

 

My Church

By Zachary Scott

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Have you ever seen the sun as it breaks the horizon and rises over the ocean?

Have you ever looked down from a mountaintop, surveyed the bustling life on the lake just beyond the sea of green treetops, all the while knowing that you’re merely a spec, a blip in the timeline of Earth’s long life?

Have you ever witnessed the messy glory of childbirth?

Or, conversely, have you ever wept silently in the corner of a room, watching as someone who witnessed your first breath breathes her last—your heart broken, your spirit overwhelmed with awe?

Have you ever stood naked, chest deep in a river, churning into a torrent as the skies open into a downpour? Have you felt the current rush around you, your body the rock refusing to erode as Mother Nature washes away your sin, baptizing you, again?

Have you ever sat, still, in a moonlit sanctuary beneath the cross, and even there not felt alone?

Have you ever bared your soul, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, expressed your deepest fears, your greatest challenges—only to be swept away by love, support, understanding?

Have you ever dared to ask the universe for something—anything really—and then receive it?

Or, perhaps, you were denied your request, but found yourself stumbling into something far greater than you would have ever been courageous enough to ask for?

Have you ever experienced love at first sight?

Have you ever felt, in an instant, a molecular connection to another person—to a person you seemingly have nothing in common with, a person who lives their life in a manner completely different from your own?

Have you ever forged a new family? Out of strife? Out of shared goals? Common ground? Over rich coffee or copious amounts of alcohol? Out of a desire for a deeper connection to the planet? To fellow humankind? Out of a calling to be the voice of the future? A voice of the present?

If so, you’ve been to my church.

*

“God hates sin. He hates sinners. If you don’t change, you’re going to Hell. But, the good news is that all you have to do is admit your sins and ask for his forgiveness, and stop being gay, and he will forgive you. It breaks his heart when people sin and refuse to turn away from them.”

My best friend’s girlfriend said that to me shortly before he moved halfway across the country to live with her and her cult-like, hardline, neo-evangelistic family. They were the ones who actually believed that nuclear war would soon be breaking out – and I don’t mean in a few years or decades, they believed it was immanent – and that God’s reckoning was soon to be upon us.

I didn’t really stay in touch with my best friend for a while after that. He had been among the first to whom I’d come out to, and he was overwhelmingly supportive. We went to our last semi-formal dance together because he thought I should be able to go with a guy after having come out. Then he met her and was smitten and followed her to the Midwest. It’s okay, though, he realized her flavor of crazy, we’ve reconnected. And though he lives even further away, we keep in touch, and he’s got a beautiful, sane wife, and an adorable baby.

After being informed of my sinful, God-angering nature, I swore off religion. I swore off God. To be clear, I hadn’t been raised in a church-going household, but I’d been taught about heaven, and believed that there was a God. I buried any questions I had about the Divine. I refused to accept that there existed an all-powerful deity who created humans as they were, but then dared to condemn them for their innate, hardwired, feelings. Shortly thereafter I began to read the Bible. If I was going to do battle, it was best to know the playbook my enemies were using.

That came in handy when I was able to argue, in a tiered classroom, looming angrily in my semi-agnostic liberal glory, a row above the strange little woman who lived with her grandmother and believed that because of Leviticus 18:22, homosexuality was a sin and same sex marriage should not be allowed or recognized by our government, that Leviticus also condemned the cotton-poly blend she was wearing that day. When someone had a scriptural argument to hurl against the sin that was an inherent part of my being, I was prepared and willing to leap to my feet with evidence from the same book that refuted the claim they raised.

The funny thing about reading something so often is that you eventually stop reading it as just a manifesto of your enemy, and more for what it is. You begin to find comfort and inspiration in the words on the page. Jesus may have been angry at times, but he was righteous in his anger against injustice. He ate with sinners and outcasts. He lived with and loved those whom society had forgotten about or condemned. Yeah, sure, he flipped tables that one time, but his anger was never ignited by who someone loved, or the color of their skin, or the gender they identified with. He called out hypocrisy. He called out judgement. He called out hatred and apathy and violence. His followers did so because he was preaching a message of radical love and acceptance. His mother trusted that God had plans for her son, and she followed and supported him because she saw that light shine from within him. She made the sacrifice of standing aside as he made his own sacrifice for us – if the story of his life teaches anything, it’s that love reigns in the kingdom of heaven, and that we ought to make it reign here on earth.

A few years after that inciting incident, I found my way to Buffalo, New York, and to a religious studies class. My eyes opened more to the world of spirituality, and my heart swelled with the desire to better know God. I studied what I could of the religions of the world, finding myself drawn to the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the radical world of progressive Christianity – the ones who actually strive to live the teachings of Christ. I prayed with an Indian student at a Hindu temple, asking Lord Ganesh to help keep my heart pure and focused, and to remove the obstacles that held my prayer hostage. I lit candles to the Holy Mother, asking for intercession at the minor basilica in the city. By the time we moved home from Buffalo, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had been regular attendees of the Pilgrim-St. Luke & el Camino Nuevo United Church of Christ in our intensely diverse neighborhood.

Home, in northeastern New York, I spent nearly six years studying on my own, attending yoga classes, falling in and out of regular prayer and spiritual practice. Something was missing from my life, and it wasn’t a mystery. After finishing my undergrad and applying to Southern New Hampshire University’s Master of Fine Arts program, I made the eleventh-hour decision to attend seminary instead. Chicago Theological had an online Master of Divinity program that would lead to ordination, and I was convinced that this was the only way to effectively study religion, and further convinced that I was being called to lead a congregation as its pastor. To this day, my semester at CTS remains one of the most invigorating times of my life – ten thousand dollars well spent.


“I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity.”


It was during my single, formative semester at CTS that I began to regularly attend the First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls. It had been the home church of my maternal great-grandmother, Clara, and I had been swept away by the kindness of the young, bearded pastor as he prayed with the family during her final hours. The reception, held in the fellowship hall after her funeral, was further divine interference, as kind members of the congregation welcomed and consoled our family, and especially when two white haired women took my hand in theirs and emphatically insisted that my grandmother had spoken sweetly of my husband and me, and that we were truly welcome to visit them whenever we wanted. So, a year later, deep into my first and only semester of seminary, I met with Michael, the pastor, over beer and hard cider at a local brewery to discuss what being a Presbyterian was all about.

As I write this, I am entering the final year of my first term as a Ruling Elder and member of Session – the governing body of the congregation, nominated by committee and approved by congregational vote. Michael and his wife, Lauren, are among my dearest friends, and I’ve become completely immersed in the family that is this congregation. I was not wrong when I thought that I heard the call of God to religious leadership, I just got off at the wrong exit. We are a truly welcoming community. Everywhere you look, churches are hanging banners that read, “all are welcome,” but their theology and practice don’t reflect that message. I often comment that I want a banner of our own that reads, “all are welcome, and we really mean it.”

I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity. I am open about my increasingly liberal ideologies (which became even more liberal during seminary) and share my excitement and passion with pride. When I fall on my face, there are dozens of people to pick me up. I have shared my journey with them, and they’ve embraced it as wholly a part of me. I have spoken plainly about my struggles with depression and anxiety and have been dragged from the brink by these people who refuse to love with any less than their whole hearts. Together we work to make our community a safer, healthier place full of abundant welcome and acceptance. What’s more, my belief that creating that kind of loving energy and sending it into the universe will have a tremendous butterfly effect, and will return to us all, is respected and shared by many.

I have asked the universe and I have received. Sometimes it’s not quite what I was expecting, and sometimes I am refused what I first asked for, only to receive what I truly needed. But I trust that the Divine has guided me to where I am and will continue to do so. The angry and frightened eighteen-year-old, whose best-friend’s crazy girlfriend insisted he would burn in hell, would not have believed that he would someday be a thirty-year-old professor, Christian leader, writer, uncle, and husband. My journey has been one of hills and valleys, and there will be more to come. But faith is not easy. Trust in something all-powerful and beyond adequate description with words is not easy. Willingness to bare your soul, show your bruises and scars, along with the moments of celebration, is not easy. Nevertheless, in my church, I’ve found the support that guides me through all those difficulties. Tonight, I will read more about my chakras. Tomorrow, during my lunch break, I will read more from the Upanishads. Sunday morning, I will prepare communion, welcome back my friend from sabbatical and help him lead worship. Next Thursday, I will teach my students how to write effectively, and discuss gender issues in our society, and then attend the monthly meeting of the Session, where we will worship and prayerfully make the decisions and do the business of leading our congregation forward into the bright, bright future.


Cashier

By Laura Dennison

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   “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

            My classmates always had lofty goals in response to this question. They wanted to be equine veterinarians, or paleontologists, the President of the United States or multimillionaire major-league baseball players, maybe all four of these things. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a cashier when I grew up. I guess you could claim I was a seven-year-old realist.

            Lucky for me, unlike most of my peers, I’d fulfilled my lifelong career goal three times over by the tender age of twenty-one. Cashier gig number three was at a convenience store/sub shop on the campus of the college I attended. At 3 a.m.—the end of my shifts—I could walk home on streets that were clear and quiet save for the occasional possum or straggling drunkard. I wanted nothing more than this—to deep-fry frozen mozzarella sticks (even as speckles of the hot oil splattered back on my face); to grill steak-and-cheese subs and layer the meat with slices of the soon-to-be-oozing gooey, white American cheese I’d never eat myself; and to slide the change—the seemingly worthless pennies—through my index finger and thumb and into the cupped hand of a waiting customer.

            The chaos of getting all the orders cleared off the overhead screen, the changing in and out of the dozens upon dozens of pairs of greasy disposable gloves, the thud of the roll of quarters breaking in half as I slammed them against the sharp black edge of the register—in this nightly grid, the store pulsed with an energy so strong it left no room for my own pulse to sail too fast and fill me with worry. In those moments, the makeup of meats in an Italian sub was far more important than my brain’s neurochemistry and whatever might’ve been worrying me that day.

            And so, as far as I was concerned, working as a cashier was still ideal. The thought of jobs where I’d be in power—where I’d lead or be responsible for the lives of others—left my stomach turning, my palms sweating, and my mind willing me to go toast breast for a BLT. Because despite occasional customer complaints that could sometimes seem the contrary, nobody dies if the bread is too crusty. If I could rent an apartment and visit the dentist regularly on gas station clerk’s salary, I’d be the first one to sign up, graveyard shift or not, and bachelor’s-degree-be-damned. My seven-year-old realism has turned into what could be perceived as twenty-one-year-old laziness or lack of ambition. I realized that a woman graduating from a four-year college should perhaps purchase a pant-suit or a pair of slacks and a matching argyle sweater so that, upon graduation, she could take a job behind a wooden desk, where she’d write important emails and take phone calls.


“There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. “


But here’s the truth: in between my first two cashiering jobs, I’d spent a few nights in a psych hospital and dropped out of college. Instead of returning to what now seemed like pointless, antiquated, stuck-up study of English literature, I decided I wanted to do something with my life that would actually help other people in the way that the nurses and attendants at the hospital had helped me. And so I enrolled myself in a three-week crash course to become a licensed nursing assistant. This is what I considered “the real world,” and the real world had done nothing but scare me.

            My first glimpse of the real world was at the Work ‘n Gear store, where I purchased the white scrubs all student-nursing assistants were required to wear while in training.

            “Be sure to wear nude underwear with these,” the gray-haired cashier told me with a wink as she rang up the scrubs. “Any other color will show straight through—even white.” She flashed me a nicotine-stained smile and I let out a stab of a laugh, then stuffed a handful of crumpled one-dollar bills into her hand as I thanked her.

            “Rookie mistake,” she added.

            The three weeks that followed could also be described that way—rookie mistake. Our class met in a nursing home basement, and our RN teacher informed almost all our learning, sans the state exam, would be hands-on. Soon, the hands I’d once used to take notes in Brit Lit with perfect penmanship turned clammy and tremulous as I tried to shave a grown man’s beard with the same model of cheap, disposable safety razor I’d used to cut myself with in the dorm bathroom less than a month earlier. My once-crisp white uniform was soiled daily by a rainbow of body fluids—blood, bile, vomit, diarrhea, saliva—you name it, I wore it.

            In the eight-hour days I spent dunked into “the real world,” my eighteen-year-old self learned about the human condition and aging. I worked with another woman to shower the shriveled, leathery body of an Alzheimer’s patient who could no longer stand. As we rubbed soapy washcloths on his shoulders and underarms, we tried to ignore his erection poking up from the shower chair. My LNA partner-in-training bent down to scrub between the delicate, peeling purple skin of the man’s diabetes-riddled feet.

            “Ooh, scrub a little harder,” the man moaned. I locked eyes with my partner and she shrugged. I glanced out of the shower stall, over to the patient’s waiting wheelchair. It was only sometimes that, back in his room, he could lift the black-and-white photograph at his bedside and tell me—with confidence—that the young woman standing and grinning beside the young man in the photograph was his late wife. I wondered what it would be like to want for someone or something you couldn’t remember you missed.

            But I couldn’t wonder for long, since there was lots to do in the nursing home. Bottoms to wipe, for example, and diapers to change. If we were caught uttering the word diaper, though, we’d be subject to a write-up, because such language was thought to rob the residents of dignity. Only I learned quickly that dignity can be damaged in ways far deeper and more haunting than a few brown smears left accidentally on the bedsheets overnight.

            Jane, for instance. She hated the nursing home. She had a photo album tucked away in the drawer of her bedside table, and she’d once shared the album with me. I turned the pages in awe as I realized how she’d shrunk. Once maybe over two-hundred pounds, she’d shriveled to mere bones encased loosely in thick, molasses-like ribbons of yellowing skin. She was starving herself to die. The head nurse had told me so.

            “Make sure she eats her breakfast,” she’d told me one morning. As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on the next room down, where the resident has pressed her call button. She hugged her clipboard tight across her chest. “She’ll fight you; don’t give in,” she said before disappearing down the hall.

            I felt connected to Jane, maybe because we’d both had thoughts of opting out. And maybe also because of that mutual understanding, I hated to make her eat. I’d sit the back of her bed up and set her breakfast tray in front of her and she’d whimper.

            “No, not today. Not today.”

            But usually she’d eventually choke down some orange juice and a mouthful or two of toast. And it would usually come right back up, into the kidney-shaped pink basin I’d hold in front of her to spit into. I’d rub her back as the saliva and bile slithered up her throat. It got to a point where the body fluids stopped bothering me, but Jane’s determination to leave the nursing home in whatever way possible? That never did.

            Then there was Mae, who, according to her files, was only 67. The head nurse had us practice changing colostomy bags on her, and Mae would watch and utter something as I snapped off the bag, cleaned her puffy, pink intestines of any residual poo, and snapped a new ostomy bag back in place. It was only after a few rounds of doing this that I came to understand her slurred syllables.

            “Thank you!” she’d cry out through one corner of her stroke-riddled mouth. I’d learn to wave and smile, but it still hurt. Because here was a woman, unable to control her own body, controlling her manners better than I did half the time.

            Each day at the end of the course, I’d return home to shower and try to cleanse myself of the atrophy and decay of the place. Then I’d say a quick prayer, hoping I’d die before I got old or ill.

            When the three weeks were up, I went to take the state test and passed all of the nursing board’s requirements. I didn’t use my license once. The next available semester, I reenrolled at a four-year college and signed up to be an English major. I wanted to be nobody’s keeper, nobody’s caretaker—to touch paper rather than flesh.

            There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. Now I’m living at twenty-one, a few months shy from graduating with a bachelor’s degree, staring into the big, hollow vortex of time. The future’s like a black hole. Once it sucks matter in—once it sucks me in—there’s no escaping. Nobody knows much about it, either. Even to the frat-bro business majors and those girls who knew they wanted to be equine veterinarians since they were four years old, the future is ominous and uncontrollable. And when I start to gravitate near it, it threatens to swallow me whole.

            The trouble is, the future’s spinning ever closer, and I have no idea what I want to do come graduation and summer. Or the rest of my life. At my parents’ urging, I sometimes log on to job-search sites and scour for administrative assistant type jobs without much luck. I have noticed, though, that there are plenty of nursing assistant jobs available—hospices, home-health aides, assisted living facilities. All I’d need to do’s renew my license.

            It’s been years, but I still remember exactly how it felt when Jane—the same patient who was intentionally starving—would forget who I was even if I was standing right in front of her.

            “Have you seen Laura?” she would ask me, shivering under a thick layer of quilts. “I had this nice nurse named Laura. Where’d she go?”

            I would turn from her and try to subtly flip my name badge over temporarily, so that the block lettering that read L A U R A wouldn’t give me away. The goal has always been the same: don’t think about Laura. Just move onto the next thing. When Jane got confused, I’d try to distract her. I’d grab the earring holder by her bedside and have her pick out which pair she’d like to wear for the day. She once chose a pair of turquoise studs, and after I’d fastened them to her ears with gloved hands, her smile quickly drooped to a frown.

            “My daughter gave me these,” she said, one hand reaching for a stud. “I think.” She scrunched up her face. “Oh, I’m not sure. She never visits anymore.”

            It’s this memory, more than all the others, that stop me from applying for any of these types of jobs, even if they’re right there for the taking, listed on the black-and-white of the screen.

            Another truth: every time I search for post-college jobs, I start to cry. People have stopped asking me about the future because of this; it's only tolerable so many times. The tears are involuntary, like all tears are, I guess. But scrolling through those listings gets my heart racing, my mouth dry, my head hazy and fuzzy until I see the computer in triplicate and then I shut it off.

             As always since the hospital, I try to take things a day at a time to get by. The trouble is, too many days have passed. Sixteen years of schooling, and I still feel like I have no skills. I don't know a thing about Microsoft Excel, still look at fractions like they’re an alien life form, and would be clueless if I had to pitch a tent. When I describe my accomplishments, they’re all in the past tense. I have this plastic running trophy in my bedroom at my parents’ house that I won when I was fifteen. I can’t bring myself to take it down. Draped around it are my high-school National Honor Society cords, my Varsity letters, a Top 25 ribbon from a cross country race, four half-marathon finishers’ medals, and old notes from teachers encouraging me to pursue writing in college.

            I speak in the past, my mind living in reruns: “When I did this . . . When I did that . . . Remember when? I wish I still . . .

* * *

There are only a few weeks left of my job in the University’s convenience store, and until my graduation. In my dining-hall uniform cap and blue t-shirt, I pass the hours straightening out the inventory on the shelves, dusting them off, and pulling all the products forward. Then there is the constant motion as we make the food that fuels the drunken droves. I fold a quesadilla on the grill and cut it into thirds. I think nothing of myself, just the orders off the monitor, and this is when I am happiest—exhausted.

            Of course, the cash register slides open with a clunk. I grab the change and count it back, sliding the coins from palm to palm. It seems like nobody ever wants their change, though. They leave it behind, in the leave-a-penny take-a-penny jar. Without a thought, they walk away. Funny thing is, I would take that change if I could. That is, if I were allowed to. The rules dictate that dining-hall employees can’t take tips, so I usually don’t. I get so afraid of such simple little risks.

            But sometimes, when nobody is looking, I take the change anyway. I slip it into my pocket to put in my piggy bank for later. There’s no harm and low risk in making myself twenty-five cents richer, and I figure if nothing else, all of this slow change has to add up to something substantial eventually.

            I do these things meticulously—slowly—so that nobody catches on. But I do these things deliberately, so some part of me must think that I am worth of this change.

            If someone were to ask me today, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I might not reply “a cashier!” anymore. I might just say, “I don’t know.” What I really might mean by that is, “Judging from everything I’ve seen, I don’t know how to go on.”

            At night, I still think of black holes pummeling toward me, a collision course.

            But for now, I’ve found the rhythm, and living—avoiding the future—is easy enough. Making change out of twenties, refilling the gigantic vat of mayonnaise, counting out the number of chicken fingers to shove in an order box. Until 3 a.m. rolls around and I walk home to the black holes barreling toward me, closing in on either side, twisting like tornadoes, I’m safe from time.

            Eyes shut for just a second. Deep breath. Open the eyes and smile. Now the long line at the register doesn’t seem so bad.


FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Marcus Burke


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MFA candidate Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty and author of Team Seven: A Novel, Marcus Burke, about his education, writing, authors he admires and future plans for the characters featured in his debut novel.

What’s the difference between a short story collection and a novel? Which one is Team Seven?
The difference between a short story collection and a novel are somewhat like this difference between sitcoms and movies. Sitcoms may return to a storyline but reserve the right not to do so, whereas with movies they have a grand continuity. When I first started writing Team Seven, I though it may be a linked collection but it became a novel. With a short story collection every story can generally stand in its own, so when characters return elsewhere in the collection their presence must be re-explained. Where with a novel it’s like taking down those partitions, and being able to write with the assumed knowledge that the reader is keeping track of the information being presented, so when things return or come back around there doesn’t have to be the same level of contextualizing.

So, Team Seven was published back in 2014, why don't you tell us a little more about what inspired you to tell Andre's story and how you came up with the title.
Team Seven came together very slowly, there are a few ways to answer this question. My original intent wasn’t to write a book but to do a homework assignment. It was early on during the fall of my sophomore year and I’d just become a creative writing major. And being intimidated of my new classmates a few weeks into the semester, I remember skipping an Intro to Fiction class. I was on the basketball team, it was preseason, and I probably did some sort of workout at the gym. I was yet coming into my studious ways. Anyway, later that day I saw a classmate in the training room and asked him what the homework was, he told me it was to write a first person narrative, and I did. Team Seven was written very out of order compared to the table of contents. The first chapter I wrote was, “The Big One-Two, which eventually became the novel’s fifth chapter. After I wrote that section, I then wrote the title chapter, Team Seven. The motivating idea in writing Team Seven was to get something not easily talked about off my chest. Another motivation for writing it was the enraging depiction of black men and women, and the black family, within mass media. I wanted to humanize a group of people that are generally pre-judged by society before opening their mouths. I wanted to give more voice to the group of folks that nurtured me as a child. They have valuable insights and valid stories if only given the platform, coupled with people willing to listen.
Aside from all that, I was a hardcore athlete growing up and I was, at a time, lumped in with the “bad kids,” and I know what it feels like, to feel locked out of school, and how fast a problematic educator can turn a student completely off to the idea of reading, and education. Never mind the idea of reading for pleasure. With my public education being so intensely Eurocentric, I was generally bored by most of the books I was given to read in school. It wasn’t until one summer during high school, while I was stuck in the house with sun poisoning, that I found The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Souljah and read it cover to cover. That book felt like an olive branch into the conversation, so I wrote Team Seven as an olive branch for people that maybe don’t like to read books.

Where is Andre now? Can we expect a sequel? 
I’m working on the next novel now. It is a follow-up, but it doesn’t return to the dramas of Team Seven. There are things from Team Seven referenced but it’s a very different book. I’m still working with Andre and his family so some characters do come back. Team Seven is the second book in a trilogy, even though it was released first. I’m writing the trilogy out of order too, I guess. I published a chapter from the new novel in McSweeney’s this past spring.

How would you say your undergrad experience affected you as a writer as compared to grad school and what advice do you have for those who may have had similar experiences?
My undergraduate experience was helpful and damaging in its own right. My classmates were vicious initially until my professors praised my work. In my first workshop, I remember a girl writing me a letter telling me that she was a grammar and punctuation “elitist” and that reading my work was “thusly painful.” I sort of laughed and thought, who even uses the archaic word “thusly”? Anyway, being that I was a basketball player, I was accustomed to trash-talking being a part of competition and didn’t take the comment to heart. More than dealing with awkwardness in the classroom, dealing with an intense amount of racism came along with being a student on the campus of Susquehanna University. 
I was there for Obama’s first election and it was a crazy time. At night the locals would ride around campus in trucks, high beaming students of color, yelling racial slurs, and throwing stuff. That and countless other incidents occurred. It was a mess, really. With all the drama and fighting that came along with the existence of a black man on campus, I took great solace in writing, it was an outlet for a lot of angst. So I guess I’d tell other young brown writers studying at predominantly white institutions that are maybe feeling lonely, agitated and/or confused: your story is needed and valid. Seek community even if in small numbers. Keep on pushing until you find your folk. Hold onto your visions and your dreams. Your future audience needs your presence and example.
As for my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I was given time to read and to shape and define my own aesthetic, and I worked with an AMAZING cast of writers like James Alan McPherson, Marilynne Robinson, Peter Orner, Ben Percy, etc. It was an honor to study alongside so many writers that I admire and respect. My time at the Writers’ Workshop changed the trajectory of everything, truthfully.

What's your writing routine? You always say that everyone's processes often change, care to elaborate a little more on that?
Generally, I shape my writing around whatever’s going on in my life, which is why I say my writing routine is always changing. I’ve written at night, in the morning, afternoon—it just depends. I generally try to accomplish something each day in that arena, either reading or writing. Sometimes I’m writing more than I’m reading. Other times it’s the reverse. After I’ve written a lot, I need to step back and do some reading, it’s like going back to the well. Lately, I’ve been writing in long hyper-focus chunks of time, usually from mid-evening into the early morning.

What's the best thing you've ever gotten out of a workshop as a student? The worst?
The best thing that came out of workshop for me as a student was finding readers. It’s invaluable to have people you trust read your work and vice versa. Those are life-long friendships. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback or it’s hard to hear, it’s better received when you know there’s nothing but goodwill and integrity in the criticism. Even if I was in a workshop that did not consist of my ideal readers, I always thought it was interesting to hear how so many drastically different aesthetics were reacting to my work.

 Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

You've had a lot of success in your career so far from Team Seven, such as getting a starred Kirkus Review to publishing in McSweeney's, and it's clear that there's more to come. What do you think is the key to success and how do you stay humble? 
I’ve been blessed and pray there’s better ahead. I can’t say there’s any one thing to point out as a key to success. I’ve had to be persistent, resilient and faithful. When I started writing, it was a deeply personal thing that I didn’t even tell people about. I took my approach with basketball and applied it to writing. I became disciplined and put in the hours in order to give myself a chance. But I shouldn’t list those things as though l was given some secret formula or that the highlights of my writing career thus far have happened because of those things. Persistence, resilience and faithfulness, certainly helped, but there’s a lot more to it. There were a lot of people that helped me along the way. I had an amazing family, teachers, friends, and mentors supporting me. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known somebody when they have good will and good intentions for you. I was hungry and took a lot of risks and certain things came together at crucial moments. Around year four of writing the book I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could finish. 
I’m unsure of how to answer the part of the question about staying humble. It feels strange to try and qualify one's own humility and speak to it. More than anything, after I published my first novel, I had to decide what type of writer I wanted to be. I had to figure out what it is that I got and wanted to continue to get from writing, and what I wanted for my writing career. It took a great deal of soul searching to sort all that out, which is nice, I suppose. Well, I guess, all that is to say I feel most alive and at ease in my soul when I’m being creative and in the throes of working on a project.

What books are currently on your nightstand?
It’s beautiful to see so many black writers getting much deserved attention. I recently read two books that I enjoyed immensely, Naffisa Thompson-Spires’ collection, Heads of Colored People, and Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. With Heavy, simply put, the book is amazing. That’s a brother that writes with a mind blowing amount of heart, courage, empathy and honesty. His work always inspires me to dig deeper. Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican, I’m really enjoying that at the moment. And I also have Ruth Joffre’s Night Beasts, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone. I started it but had to pump the brakes. You ever start reading a book, like it so much you realize you’re reading it too fast and have to slow your roll? Sometimes I don’t want some books to end.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Disquiet on the Set

By Amy Jarvis

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My short-lived, somewhat volatile film career started with being cast as an extra on the television show One Tree Hill. I was enthralled with being on a film set: the lights, the cameras, and, in one particular episode, finding myself standing next to Chad Michael Murray (who was, of course, a major heartthrob at the time) on a Wilmington street that had been transformed into another city, while passersby grouped together and watched the show being filmed.

After appearing in eight episodes of the television show, I began submitting headshots to other production companies. It wasn’t long before I landed a featured extra role in the movie River Guard. My role was simple – one of the primary characters was the bartender, Banger, and in the scene we were slated to film, I was to portray his on-the-side girlfriend. I watched the director as he pointed to my starting point, explained that I was to approach the bar, act as though I hadn’t seen Banger in a while, and he would do the same. My nerves jumbled in my stomach the first time I stood on my mark and heard the countdown of quiet on the set, rolling, background, action. I approached the bar, climbed onto the stool. Banger looked over and threw his arms up. I smiled at him. Then he leaned on the bar while we pretended to talk. I playfully touched his arm, laughed silently, and drank my vodka cranberry—minus the vodka—being careful to make sure the ice didn’t clank against the glass because the boom mics would pick up the noise. The actor who played Banger reassured me that I was doing great, each time we reset and repeated the scene, over and over.

In the following scene, I was directed to leave the bar, which meant counting down and walking across the dolly in front of the camera. But I was still reeling with anxiety, which resulted in my moving into frame several seconds after my cue, which forced me to cross the dolly more quickly to compensate, which caused me to accidentally kick a misplaced paint can, which in turn tipped over with a bang and rolled, until it collided into the wheels of the camera. I froze, my heart pounding against my rib cage, and looked around the set, at everyone staring in my direction.

There was a painfully long silence that followed, in which the only sound was the paint can rolling, until it came to a merciful stop. The director cleared his throat, yelled cut. Then they started the scene again. This time without me.

*

Following River Guard, I landed a featured role in the movie The Remaining. I was sitting in the front row of a church with several other extras. The scene was to be about the survivors of a religious apocalypse who find themselves under attack. While we waited for filming to begin, another extra sat down beside me.

“You’re perfect,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re perfect,” she repeated. “For film.”

She told me she was the costume designer for River Guard and that she had noticed me on the set. I stared in an effort to place her. Her spiky hair, lined eyebrows and lips.

“How tall are you?” she asked.

“5’2,” I said.

“No you’re not, you’re 5’3,” she said. “What size are you, two or four?”

“Two or four, depending.”

She nodded thoughtfully, still appraising me. “You need an agent,” she said. I didn’t tell her I already had one. “You’re the next Shailene Woodley or Lily Collins. The industry will love you.”

Several minutes later, she retook her seat across the aisle, and the director approached and offered me a featured role. As he instructed hair and makeup to make me look as though I had just survived an explosion, I looked back over at my spiky-haired acquaintance. Told you, she mouthed.

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The scene in The Remaining was as follows: I was supposed to be watching the news on an iPad and reacting to the devastation. Several main actors would be around me, and they would do the same. The director stood in front of us, the camera placed directly in front of my soot-covered face. One of the crew members turned on the string of LED lights around the screen (since electronics don’t actually work in film; it’s all CGI), and the director began his countdown – quiet on the set, rolling, background. My muscles tensed. Action. I imagined meteors falling from the sky, people being attacked, dust, rubble. I knitted my eyebrows together and bit my bottom lip. I was so determined to make sure my acting was on point that I felt nauseous when we cut twenty seconds later.

In an effort to soothe my nerves and the lightheadedness I felt, I stared down at the iPad. After a moment everything became a blur. The room narrowed.

“Can we get some emotion out of you, Amy?” the director asked.

I looked up, confused. That’s when I realized that in my anxiety-induced state, I hadn’t heard the director’s count. We were filming the scene again, and I was staring blankly at the iPad at what was supposed to be devastating news. I swallowed, narrowed my eyes, and exhaled a slow, shaky breath.  

“Good. There you go,” the director said, before calling cut twenty seconds later.

Following my featured scene, we moved on to the second scene of the night, in which demons attempted to break through the ceiling of the church. Only there were no demons, no loud banging, nothing shaking the rafters. The director explained that he would count, and gave us specific spots to look at with each number. I held my breath as the director counted down to action.

One. I gripped the row in front of me and looked forward, toward the altar. Two. I cowered in my seat. Three. I looked toward the back of the church and pretended to scream. Four. We reset and did the same thing, over and over again.


Amy Jarvis is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FICTION


Excerpt from the story Hats

by Curtis J. Graham

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Sergeant Ticker was a third battalion Kill Hat at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. He was not authorized to speak to recruits, only to punish them creatively. During the day, he forced them to wear each other’s uniforms and fill their pockets with mud. He made them windsprint throughout the dinner hour until there were only five minutes left for eating. He denied them use of the bathroom until one of them pissed their trousers. But at night, Sergeant Ticker told stories, and the recruits listened.

He was careful never to overindulge. The moment he suspected the recruits were humoring him, feigning interest, he would deprive them for a time. He’d say they had mistaken his kindness for weakness, and he’d make them do something hot and difficult until one of them fainted. After a week or so without any stories, the recruits would send a representative to his office at the far end of the squad bay to ask for the next installment.

Ticker told his recruits the adventures of Sergeant Hayfield, a character he’d been refining since he was a Corporal. The idea for Hayfield came from a World War One recruiting poster. It pictured a square-jawed Marine with a crooked smile. His khaki shirt was sunbleached and wrinkled. He wore a canted helmet and carried a rifle made of hardwood and steel. He was extending his empty hand, inviting you inside his world. “Want Action?” it said. During his two cycles at Parris Island, Ticker had crafted a legacy for Sergeant Hayfield. After lights out, he would pace the center causeway and tell the stories he’d imagined.

“We left Sergeant Hayfield in Belleau Wood, France. The skirmish is over, an Allied victory. His platoon has fallen back to safety, and he alone has remained to fight the scattered enemies. It’s dawn now. There’s mist rising through the trees, and frost on the rocks. Hayfield stumbles through the undergrowth. He’s ditched his M1 in favor of a single shot Gewehr. Dead Germans are spread out like squirrels, and ammunition is readily available. His fingers shake from the cold as he feels their pouches and pockets for bullets and bread.”

The recruits knew better than to tell the other Hats about the stories. Ticker had promised he would punish them beyond words. Further, they would never know how the adventures ended. Near the end of each training cycle, Ticker would leave the recruits with an incomplete story. If they survived their Crucible and became Marines, they could find him on graduation day and hear the final installment. He left the offer open, but no recruit had ever come to find him.

His daughter Mindy had grown fat, and for this reason, Sergeant Ticker found her difficult to love. Mindy had grown up quickly in seven years. She had a cell phone and small friends who slept over and put makeup on each other’s faces. One morning, Ticker came home to find her lying on the couch eating Cap’n Crunch, dry and by hand. He’d just wrapped up an overnight shift that involved monitoring a suicide case, a night of pointless vigilance. Seeing Mindy, he nearly kicked over an end table. She’d been gaining weight gradually, but now her wrists were as wide as her hands. He made the decision to drive her to the base hospital. He scheduled appointments for her with pediatric nutritionists and cardiologists. It was time for a change. In the weeks to come, letters arrived in the mail, test results. Mindy had a mild condition of the pituitary. She would be monitored, but may continue to gain weight.

It was a pre-dawn schoolday, and Ticker stood at the kitchen island with an array of meats and cheeses spread across the plastic marble. He could see into the living room, where raindrops sat on the dark windowpanes. The central air kicked on overhead with the sound of mechanical breathing. He took a slice of bread and weighed it in his hand. “Goddamned Wonder Bread. White death.” A car drove by outside. Ticker watched a square of light trace across the wall, stop, and move back the way it came. The bread in his hand felt spongy and warm, like it was absorbing the imprints of his fingers. He peeled off a slice of cheese—white American, fat free—and slapped it onto the dented bread.

Mindy walked in. Her socks patted on the pale shag. “The school bus just drove past the house,” she said. Her forehead poked above the far side of the island, and all Ticker could see was her curly bangs. It reminded him of her infancy, months of sink baths and dish towel dryings. Mindy walked around the island and sat on a small plastic stool by the sink. “You gonna drive me after?” She asked.

Ticker caught a sour whiff of mayonnaise from the open jar. “Well what else would I do, make you walk?” he squirted some mustard and pressed the two halves of bread together, facing in opposite directions. For a moment, he debated switching the pieces around, making them uniform. Instead, he closed his eyes and whispered his mantra: “Marines are dying in Afghanistan.” It was the bigger picture he gave his recruits, the grand idea that both inspired excellence and swallowed small mistakes.

Ticker heard Mindy’s voice coming from behind him, a whisper. “Marines are crying in Candyland.” He turned. She was resting her chin on her fists. He handed her the bagged sandwich. “That’s not what I said,” he told her.


Curtis Graham is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FICTION


One True Thing

By Ashley Martin

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10 p.m., Friday night.

              I’m lying in bed, binge watching Stranger Things and cheating on my diet, that I swear I will be faithful to tomorrow. Probably.

              I have settled into my independent-single-lady life in what feels like the lamest way possible. In the early days of the divorce, when I was high on heartache and repressed emotions, I somehow saw this happening differently. I think I was expecting it to feel a little more Beyonce, and a little less Liz Lemon. But it’s not glamorous or sexy, it’s just… quiet.

              I scroll through Facebook for the forty-seventh time and try to post something witty. A line cast into a crowded attention pool. No bites.

              It’s not that I’m friendless, it’s just one of those nights when everyone is busy with everyone else. I tell myself this is good. It gives me alone time; time for self-care, and self-love, and self-discovery, and selfies.

              Still, I’m considering chalking up the evening as a loss, but then my phone does something highly unusual — it rings. Not a text or Facebook notification – an actual ring. I answer to the voice of my sister, back stateside after completing an international book tour. She wasn’t supposed to be in until next week, but plans changed and she’s here now, and she wants to know if I want to go out to the bar. I jump at the chance. It’s been a year since I’ve seen her, and honestly I am dying for an escape from my own company - you know what they say about too much of a good thing.

              I throw on a push-up bra and some eyeliner, and catch myself in the mirror on the way out the door. If Single-Mom-Living-On-Tacos-and-Tequila has a look, I am nailing it. But no one ever looks at me when I’m out with her, anyway. She, the blonde, chic, jet-setter, with her blue eyes, and her size 2 apple-bottom jeans, and boots with the fur. I’m kidding about that last part - she wears Louboutin’s.

              I’m slipping on my sexiest pair of Old Navy flip-flops when my phone rings again. Expecting it to be her, my breath catches in my chest when a different but dearly familiar number flashes across the screen. I feel like someone emptied a packet of pop-rocks into my stomach; the sensation is still new and delightful.

              It wasn’t until recently that I’d realized how much I had missed, even forgotten, the kind of joy that comes from these small, surprising moments in life. Not like when your husband of 15 years shows up with his pregnant girlfriend one night and tells you he’s leaving you. I mean the kind of unexpected gift that fills you with a sense of peace and euphoria all at once; like the sunset that catches you off guard, or the spontaneous kindness of a stranger. Or when someone makes you feel worthy of love again, long after you had laid that hope to rest.

                I answer eagerly and the voice on the other end spills over the way it always does, like the smoothest Whiskey. Rich and warm. Intoxicating. A vice I have no desire to walk away from.

              You see, I am a big feeler of all the things. I don’t just wear my heart on my sleeve, I cloak myself in it. I crave sincere vulnerability, both in the giving and the taking. I find the greatest sense of fulfillment in breaking myself open wide, and pouring out unabashedly into the rare few who find their way into that inner sanctum.

              So, when I find people that I bond with on a soulular level, who too prefer to swim in the deep end of life, I dive in. Subtle is not part of my vocabulary. I will love too hard, I will connect too deeply, and I cling too tightly. But not with many. Not with most.

              In fact, I need less than one hand to count the number of people this has happened with, and so when I find them, I fight to hold on until they are severed from me by a force beyond my control. Of those I have loved this way, only my sister and this shot of Whiskey remained.

              I fear even that is on borrowed time.

              Each time we hang up the phone, it ends with a resigned admittance that this probably shouldn’t happen again. There is context and technicality to consider. We need to cool it before it gets out of hand, and someone gets burned. I know that that someone will be me.

              And yet.

              I have begun to accept the beauty and power of these moments. This walking blindly into the fire just to feel the heat again. Because they mean I am alive. They mean I have not been excommunicated from love. They show me what my life, now stripped of everything I thought it was, has become: a messy, breathtakingly beautiful experience of being an authentic human who is.

              I know it may not last, but in this moment, it is real, and it’s true.

              It’s just one true thing.

              And right now, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, I find that’s all I need


Ashley Martin is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

NONFICTION


Learning to Handstand

By Ashley Bales

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To begin you throw your face at the ground and hope your arms catch you. Learning to handstand is a plunge. It’s a pivot downwards, a swing of the legs, a jump, and you’re upside down. At the beginning you’re pitiful and intimately familiar with your own graceless hops. At every step you know where your body is: your legs frog out, your toes reach back, you grip your quads like a lifeline. But attached to what? You look forward, feet in the air, and your hands are impossibly far from your eyes. Your feet land back on the ground, having completed a failed leapfrog, minus the partner. But you overcome the embarrassment because anything worth learning begins with flailing, searching through familiar but inappropriate tools for one that may at least get you started. You have to begin with flailing frog hops, because that’s what you’ve got, and so you do. You jump your feet again into the air, you swear your toes reach further back, but your ass, with a newfound gravity, pulls you back down.

       These early trials will last longer than you like, but one day your hands come down, your legs swing up and they stay there. You’ve found space and your body disappears into it. You lose yourself. Your weight is sucked out of you and you can’t feel your body. Like Peter Pan, you can fly.

       But today we have the benefit of technology to steal all magic from the world, so you record your accomplishment and see that your minutes of flight are unrecordable milliseconds and your legs retain the kinks of an airborne amphibian. The bliss of losing your body is a step, but not an endpoint. It is the adrenaline, endorphin rush of risk, of lost control. But like any tantrum throwing toddler, being out of control may feel powerful, but won’t get you anywhere. This is when you are able to begin. You’ve learned enough to throw yourself into a precarious balance, now you have to learn the trick of control, build the necessary supports, master the tools.

       I’m not there. My supports aren’t entirely built in yet. I need a wall, a steadying hand at the ankle. But when I’m upside down, struggling to concrete myself to the vertical—only the practicality of my bones to fight against—I begin to be able to find my body: pelvis neutral. Abs in. Ribs together. Ribs down. Elbows forward. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders over fingers. Look at the ground. See the ground. I am solid, physically placed. My body is learning a vocabulary of awareness and balance. Space holds different possibilities and I begin to have the ability to exist in the world inverted.

It’s brutally hard.


Ashley Bales is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FICTION


Sweaty Palms

By Morgan Green

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On the walk home from the bar, the two of you forced your sweaty palms together like pieces from separate puzzles. You found yourselves looking towards the barely lit street rather than each other, making small talk about things you pretended not to know from the past four years. He’s from Maine but loves the Steelers because his Grandpa lived in Pittsburgh and took him to games before he passed. You tell a well-practiced anecdote about how you and your brother used to fight over whether to watch Pocahontas or Power Rangers on television until, finally, your Great-Aunt just bought another set. He breaks the hold to wipe the sweat off his hand but doesn’t reach for yours after that.

       Do you promise to sleep over? you ask, because you long to have the familiarity of something other than doubt to hold onto tonight.

       Yea, sure. Whatever.

       After that, there’s a bit of a lull in the conversation, so you try to remember if you’d even made your bed before you left. The ground is still damp from when it rained that morning, but you’d changed out of your boots and into black sandals for the bar. You avoided wearing lipstick in case you had someone to kiss, so you made up for it with your maroon top that makes your boobs look great. The taste of tobacco from the Marlboro you guys shared lingers bitterly on your tongue, so you apply some chapstick in hopes that the smell of the mint will distract you. It doesn’t. He gets the wrong idea and grins before kissing you.

       Did you want to smoke another cigarette before we left?

       Why? You want one?

       Nah, just wondering.

       You hooked up once two years ago at a party his fraternity threw and prided yourself because he was the first guy you felt comfortable enough to give a firm no to. He fit your type—dark hair, pale, and some sort of amalgam of scrawny and muscular. You liked them big enough to pick you up but not enough to throw you down. He’d started with the story of his grandfather when you asked why he had a poster of Artie Burns on his wall rather than girls in bikinis. You kept the lights off even though you didn’t plan on making eye contact anyway. Unlike the others, he held you afterwards rather than slamming the door on the way to flush the condom. Back then, the silence felt comforting before you drifted off, but now it left an open space for questions that didn’t need to be answered.  


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Kelly Stone Gamble


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Since graduating from the Mountainview MFA program in 2012, Kelly Stone Gamble has gone on to publish two novels as well as award-winning short fiction. Recently, she agreed to an interview where we discussed writing, publishing and her success as an author.  

So, Kelly, your latest novel, Call Me Daddy, is the second in a series featuring your protagonist, Cass Adams. Can you give us a little info on what the story is about? Also, how did the idea come to you?
In Call Me Daddy, Cass finds out she’s pregnant and isn’t quite sure how to deal with it, while Clay—the stable one in the relationship—finds himself struggling with “daddy” issues. I actually got the idea sitting in church one day while watching a new father proudly introducing his baby girl. And you could just see how terrified he was.

You write that the town of Deacon, Kansas, the setting for the Cass Adams series, is loosely based on your real-life hometown of Baxter Springs, Kansas. Is the character of Cass also loosely based on you? 
Ha! Not at all. I think there are bits of me in all of my characters, but I’m not about to tell anyone which bits that might be.

I am curious about your path to publication. What was the process like? And what lessons have you learned?
That’s a big question! I actually do an hour-long presentation on the publishing process I went through titled “Writing is the Easy Part.” Condensing that, I would say everyone has a different path. I had an agent, then I didn’t have an agent. I had a larger press interested in my book, but they wanted me to rewrite it from one POV (that wouldn’t have been my book). I finally found Red Adept Publishing, and I couldn’t be happier with them. There are many paths to publishing. Everyone needs to find what’s right for them and go for it!

Fill us in on your writing process. Do you have a set time that you like to write? Duration?
Not really. I write when I feel I have something to say. I’ll think of a good line, or a good scene for one of my projects, and I write it. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than that one inspiration, other times, I’ll start and continue writing for hours. I don’t work well when I say, “between 8 and 9, I’m going to write.” Because when 8 rolls around, I usually have nothing to say.

How long did it take you to write that first book?
17 days. I knew the story I wanted to write. It took me over a year to edit it, though. I actually got the idea for They Call Me Crazy sitting in the bar at the Mountain View Grand, watching an infomercial on koi ponds. I said to the bartender, Troy, “they look like graves,” and his response was, “it’s your story,” and from that moment, it was. Incidentally, Troy and I became good friends and he was a valuable resource, or you might say a muse, for me while writing the first two books. He’s in the acknowledgements of all three books in the Cass Adams series.

Do you find working off an outline helpful? 
No. I need to know where I’m starting and where I’m going, and then I write whatever comes to mind. I can edit it later, but getting the story down, and several great scenes is enough to keep me moving. It’s kind of like taking a long walk, half the fun is not knowing what you are going to see on the way.

Do you ever get writers block? If so, what did you do to combat it? 
I’m always writing something. It may not be on one project, in fact, I hit walls all the time. But when I do, I just put that aside and move on to something else. I have four novels in progress right now, and who knows which one I’ll finish first. Sometimes I’ll write a short story, or a poem, or an essay just to give my mind a rest from a larger project, and when I’m ready, I go back to one of the novels. So how do I combat it? I keep writing. 

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 
Author Scott Phillips has given me several bits of advice, many I won’t repeat, but probably the one that sticks with me is “Write what you want. If the writing is good, it will find readers.” I think there are too many writers trying to focus on a particular genre, or trying to write “literary fiction,” when the reality is good writing finds readers. The tagline for the SNHU MFA program used to be “Go write your book”—not what someone else wants you to write or what you think will sell, but your book. It’s great advice.

The first book in the series, They Call Me Crazy, climbed up the USA Today bestseller list. That has got to be exciting. Have you given any thought to your books becoming movies or a TV series, as Hollywood seems to be constantly on the lookout for best-selling properties? If so, do you have a dream cast in mind? Any thoughts on who you would like to play Cass? 
I am talking with someone currently about movie rights but can’t say much more about it than that at this time. I can think of several who would be a great Cass—Winona Ryder would probably be my favorite. But definitely Larry the Cable Guy for Daze Harper!

Do you have more books planned for Cass Adams? 
The third and final book in the trilogy, Call Me Cass, comes out in 2019. It’s currently in the editing line at my publishing house, Red Adept Publishing. I have a Cass Adams short story, “A Crazy Christmas,” coming out in the anthology Tangled Lights and Silent Nights this Christmas. Additionally, I am publishing another short story, “Daze before the Storm,” which will be out prior to the release of Call Me Cass.

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What do you miss most about your time at Mountainview? 
What I miss are hugs from Merle and Rick and just listening to Craig talk. I miss Katie doing the Rock Lobster on dance night. I miss being part of a group of adults donning pirate hats and fake tattoos and rowboating to Smuttynose Island. I made friends in those two years that I’ll keep for a lifetime, and since then, have become friends with many students that graduated before and after me. I never could write much during residencies, I was there for experiences that would inspire me to write later. Being around others that had the same goal, to write a book, was a wonderful experience. A few years ago, one of the alums organized a retreat and it was wonderful to be a part of that community again. I’d love to see that happen at least every few years—maybe in the desert next time?


W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

BOOKS


Still A Work In Progress by Jo Knowles

Review by Daniel Charles Ross 

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One of the hit film releases of late summer so far has been "Eighth Grade," a look back at what tumult kids experience in middle school on the foggy horizon of adulthood. This motivated me to look back at our own Jo Knowles' most-recent novel "Still A Work In Progress" which, natch, occurs in middle school.

     I was privileged to read an Advance Reader Copy of this book in July 2016, and I'm acquainted with Jo Knowles from the Mountainview MFA program. Frankly, none of this disclosure holds any special meaning at all, because "Still A Work In Progress" was an extraordinary glimpse into the minds, the lives, and the very existence of middle schoolers whether I liked it or not.

     Jo Knowles knows kids. She knows their likes, their loves, their terrors, and even their simple irritations. She knows how parents are sometimes left dumbfounded by family events that overtake them, and that all families matter but all families are not, in fact, created equal.

     In her book, main character Noah tries to navigate 8th grade in much the same way a space alien would navigate Times Square, sometimes lost, sometimes befuddled. Middle school is confusing in all respects except when he's in art class, where he excels. Girls are weird but strangely compelling, and schoolmates are sometimes nuttier'n a junkyard dog. Well meaning, of course, but made crazy by–what else?–girls.

     Without spoiling anything, it's safe to say Noah's older sister, Emma, is hobbled by a recurrent problem that embroils the entire family. It's during this time that Noah realizes how important his sister is to him, and how unimportant are the other distractions in his world.

     What is perhaps most engaging about this story is the compassion Jo exhibits through her characters. The strengths are paradoxical: Noah is strong, his father is weak (as a dad myownself, I was frankly dismayed by Noah's dad's behavior. Don't @ me), and mom is somewhere in the middle. Noah is a success, generally, but his sister is a failure at controlling her debilitating, self-imposed problem. Some of Noah's classmates are mature in relationships; some of his teachers in the small school are friends; and there is a hairless cat mascot roaming around as if it owns the place, because, evidently, it does.

     Middle-school gold.

     There is laugh-out-loud humor and watery-eyed pathos. There are kids we all went to middle school with and some we wish we had. The story is less a novel than a time machine, and one size fits all.

     I have high confidence that middle schoolers will read this evergreen story with recognition (and a little dismay)–as adults will, too. If "Still A Work In Progress" fairly represents the state of middle school today, it hasn't changed much since I was in 8th grade. That makes for a compelling, page-turning story of extraordinary and universal meaning for everyone. 
 

Five stars: One for anyone facing the blank page. One for characters we recognize and embrace as ourselves. One for a descriptive and sensitive deep dive into rarely seen family dynamics and the effect they have on our children. One for the hairless cat as the quirky  kind of character you just don't see every day. And one for a Jo Knowles canon that has six other works just as good.

Strongly, unequivocally recommended.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—was a Mountainview MFA student in 2015. The thriller that was to be his thesis, Force No One, comes out in the fall.

FICTION


No Longer Authorized

By James Seals 

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Tell me how you feel about me, Jane said. She and Will were in bed. He was lying supine, legs apart, arms splayed. Her right arm and leg rested across his body, her head nestled against his shoulder.

       Tell me how you feel, Jane again whispered. She sounded like she was falling asleep.

       Will stared at the whirling ceiling fan and wished for the Good Old Days. But he couldn’t say that phrase aloud. Nor was it permitted to say When Times Were Easier or Back Then. When the Expressive Language Association, the ELA, was instituted by the government four years ago, the ELA’s priority was to end Language Inaccuracies, or, more correctly, to enforce Language Accuracy, which had been determined to lead to Emotion Intelligence. Those phrases and many others had been labeled General Terms, then they were banned.

       Will thought about his feelings for Jane. He wanted back the liberties from the days when they first met…

       You’re So Wonderful, Will had said to Jane.

       Jane smiled. You Make So Me Happy, she replied.

       Now Will smiled.

       Or they each used similar words or phrases that satiated each other’s feelings. Will, though, wanted to say that he Loved Jane, but that word had been forbade.


“When emotions calmed, the ELA, with haste, enacted Word and Term Changes to books and songs and such for fear of new uprisings.”


During the first year of the ELA’s establishment, Free Speech Advocates protested against Language Accuracy. The ELA felt flabbergasted by these objections. They had believed that the Expression Ignorant Society needed much help. So the ELA created sentence starters: How Do You Feel About . . . What Did You Think of . . . I feel that . . .  I thought that.

       They plastered these phrases onto billboards and acted them out in commercials. After a few years Free Speech Advocates lost members as they were exiled for Word or Term Over Usage, chanting one too many times: Let Us Speak and using wordsmiths – Milton, Donne, and Shakespeare (all banned) – for posters and flags.

       When emotions calmed, the ELA, with haste, enacted Word and Term Changes to books and songs and such for fear of new uprisings. Microphones were installed throughout the country. A green light shone, displaying a warning, after someone spoke a word or phrase that had been Listed for Possible Removal (Beautiful, Like, How You Doing, Outside The Box) and an ear-piercing buzz sounded, leading to exile, when someone misspoke, using a banned word or phrase.

       The ELA had banned Love with immediacy. The ELA’s labelings happened during the time of Careless Speech. Will and Jane during that time had attended verbose parties and effusive dinners. People had chattered nonstop and without regard. Will remembered entering music-filled rooms, crowded with stylish dress and primped hair and bright lights.

       How Are You Doing? Will often said as he shuffled by friends, acquaintances, strangers.

       Cool, someone replied.

       Then Will said to a group, It Is What It Is.

       Everything Happens For A Reason, A friend replied, laughing.

       At The End Of The Day, Will later said to an acquaintance.

       Believe You Me, some stranger offered in return at the end of the night.

       Phrases all now outlawed.

       Also, during the time of Careless Speech, words similar to Get and Literally and nonwords such as Irregardless and Conversate were spouted without thought. So the ELA met, ending those Generalities and Nonwords. They too purged society of words used wrong: Terrific and Ultimately, and gross sounding words: Squirt, Chunk, and Discharge. They freed society of confusing words: effect and affect; and their, they’re, there. All exclusions were meant to help create a Clarified Society.

       Will really wanted to say the word Love because he does have strong emotions for Jane. The ELA had explained, Citizens without restraint used Love to describe feelings for someone, for movies, for songs, for activities and even for bananas. Then the ELA had asked, How could someone Love all these things? Will remained quiet, knowing that if he used a banished word or phrase the government would exile him.

       Will continued to watch the fan rotate. He distracted his mind or avoided answering Jane’s question by trying to follow the revolution of one blade. He felt it impossible to track, as he felt it impossible to consider accurate words. Will though was no different than many persons within this new time period.

       Within four years of the institution of Language Accuracy, the ELA identified a change from a Careless Society to a Downfall of Social Interaction. The ELA felt angry, hurt, frustrated. They watched and listened as fewer people met for parties or dinners. When people did gather minutes ticked in silence, or those individuals who refused to learn new words or to concentrate on emotions or who feared the green light and piercing buzz – in fact there were fewer citizens in this new world of exactitude – sat muted, listening to those with a precise vocabulary and identified sentiments speak unabated.

       Soon people stopped asking about feelings. Then friendships ended: no one had anything to say. Then couples separated because one of them was unable to explain his or her feelings. Then married folk divorced as one or both of them told the truth.

       I am bored with your company, a husband said.

       You gained too much weight, a wife replied.

       Jane again said, Tell me how you feel about me. Will believed she had fallen asleep. He had hoped she had fallen asleep. He laid as still as possible. He had taken shallower breaths. Will thought of words and phrases to say: adorable, fabulous, Girl Of My Dreams, Everything I Have Always Wanted. He laid struggling to identify his feelings toward her, just as he had struggled to identify his feelings toward events and bananas.

       Then he said, There are no words to explain how I feel.

       Jane shot upright. Will though closed his eyes then sighed at the sound of the piercing buzz. 

NONFICTION


On Podcasts, Glitches and Endings

By Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

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I’ve taken to listening to podcasts while I clean one thing or another or drive solo somewhere. When I find one I love, my kitchen sparkles and I run lots of useful errands. My favorites are fiction. Whether they hook me or not, each one teaches me something about telling a story, building a world, developing characters and their voices. When I get through a series, they teach me a lot about endings; what’s effective, and, just as educational, what isn’t. Respectively, I’m thinking of two podcasts in particular: Wolf 359 and The Black Tapes. Some spoilers ahead, but I urge you to listen to them (whether you read the rest of this piece or not) and decide for yourself.

       I don’t know anyone in real life who listens to the same podcasts I do, so Reddit has become my proverbial water cooler for such things. Last year, I discovered The Black Tapes while it was on a brief hiatus and shortly before it was due to end. Many on Reddit had listened since the show started a couple years earlier, so their wait between episodes and seasons was considerable, especially compared to my latecomer’s instant gratification up to that point. It was so good – scary, haunting, and smart. The longtime listeners had a lot of time and energy invested, which likely had an effect on their reactions to the short third and final season in general, and the final episode specifically. It didn’t really resolve – well, anything, but that was how the writers chose to end it. When the final episode finally came out, I paused my steel-wooling of dried-on beans from a pot, looked at my little speaker, and said, “Huh. Well. OK.”

       When I checked in at Reddit a day or two later, I quickly realized that fans were, to put it mildly, not pleased. People swore they would never give money to this group of storytellers or any of their other podcasts again. They said they would try to pretend that there hadn’t ever been a third season, and if anyone ever asked them about it, they would say just listen to seasons one and two, and just stop there. They said the finale’s writing was lazy, slap-dashed and half-assed. Amateurish and insulting and negated everything that they had previously loved about it. And goddamn it, we trusted them, and they do this.

       A typical episode was anywhere between 33 and 47 minutes; the final episode was only 27 minutes, 18 seconds. And that included three rather long advertisements plopped in the middle in two different spots. In retrospect, they did leave us hanging. There was a near-constant threat of world annihilation in the world of The Black Tapes, but they didn’t ever actually tell us the outcome. I’d bet that a certain sock company’s revenue decreased after that one.


"I tend to trust the storyteller. Whether or not I like the ending of something is irrelevant; once a thing is out there, how it ends is how it ends."

Conversely, Wolf 359’s finale clocks in at just over two hours (and they never ran ads – just did the Patreon thing). Not everything wrapped up as nice and comfortably as we listeners would have preferred, yet people almost universally adored the ending. The writers clearly took their time. They resolved important threads while unraveling another, and they did tell us what happened regarding the threat of world annihilation. We have no idea where these people will end up, but their story began, middled, and ended in a specific context; that context is really all they needed to resolve. I may have cried, but just a little.

       All of this got me thinking about what readers and/or listeners feel are owed to them in an ending. In these days of instant feedback and the possibility for interaction with people writing or voice-acting on something like this, we listeners can sometimes feel like we’re part of it. The reality is, we are not.

       I know what it’s like to see or hear or experience something arty and instantly feel a pull, a connection. Be it a book, music, a stand-up comedian’s set, or an exhibition at an art gallery, it’s like, “This is a something that I never even knew I wanted or needed, but now I do, and it’s in me, and I’m in it.” It’s powerful.

       I tend to trust the storyteller. Whether or not I like the ending of something is irrelevant; once a thing is out there, how it ends is how it ends. I see people calling bullshit on different endings (Twin Peaks, Lost, even the original Dallas – which, well, ok, actually, yeah.), and they always have reasons for their opinions, usually very well thought-out ones. But I always find myself thinking, “But how do you know that? How do you know better than this thing’s creator(s)?” And I really do want to know how they know that. Because I’m at a loss.

       There’s a significant character in Wolf 359 that’s an AI (Artificial Intelligence) autopilot for the space ship (trust me, they make it make sense). Her name is Hera, and when her computer voice speaks, it glitches sometimes; it sounds sort of like a stutter. And here’s where you should really skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler from episode 41, “Memoria.” In this especially poignant episode, we find out that Hera’s programmer – the one who created her to not only know vast amounts of information, but also to kind of think for herself – hardwired the following two phrases to play in a loop in Hera’s brain/code: “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.” Hera’s creator did this as a way to “clip her wings” if she started thinking for herself too much. Turns out, it caused the vocal glitch. It also caused Hera to not pull things off that she was actually perfectly capable of.

       What an insight into human nature! What a thing to identify completely with as we try to write, as we try to get better, as we try to get other people to believe in us and help us get our work out into the world. To get people to trust us, the storytellers.

       In my own writing, I know that what I need to do is trust my training, my reading, my knowledge of my characters, my connection with creativity and inspiration as much as – actually, more than – I trust other story tellers. But it’s so hard.

       At 47, I’ve completed writing and [for now] revising my first novel. I’m proud of it, and I’m trying to get it out into the world. Yet there’s this annoying glitch in my brain... Even if I wrote a scene that touches someone, or maybe even a couple or a few, if the ending isn’t what they would have done, will they feel let down? Will it negate everything that came before? The parts they liked or even maybe loved? I hate letting people down. But I gave it everything I had, I followed the characters into sometimes uncomfortable-to-me places, and I did my best to be true to them. And that’s all I can do.

       Podcasts are not just an escape, just as stories aren’t just an escape: they have the power to make us recognize things in ourselves, in humanity, and even the universe. They have the power to disappoint as much as enlighten and satisfy. What a wonderful and terrifying pursuit this is! And, like Hera, all we can do is recognize that glitch that makes us undermine ourselves, move the hell past it, and keep writing. Keep getting better. And if a few people are disappointed, so be it; let them try it.  

FICTION


A Moment to Breathe

By Jessica Nicole Knop

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I excuse myself to the bathroom before anyone else can hug me.

           It’s not that I mind the hugs, I just hate all the useless condolences that come with them. Thanks, but I don’t need you to tell me you’re sorry for my loss, or that he was a good man. I’m aware of both. I know everyone is just trying to comfort me, but here’s a newsflash: I don’t feel comforted. I feel angry and frustrated, and I swear to God if one more fucking person tells me that my husband loved me, I will scream. I’m aware that he loved me, you idiot. You’re not being helpful.

           I look around our bathroom, with its fresh coat of mint green paint, and I laugh. You fought me for three months about this goddamn color, but in the end, we compromised. I got the mint green bathroom, you got a beer tap in the new basement.

           I rest back against the vanity, taking in the scope of the renovations: new paint, new shower, new vanity. New renovations for a new life together.

           A tear rolls down my face, its gravity dragging me to the tile floor. Another tear. Then another. Through blurry eyes, I stare at where the floor meets the wall, and I realize something for the very first time:

           You were a shitty painter.


Jessica Nicole Knop is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

NONFICTION


That Which is Never Spoken

By Michael Helsher

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I’ve taken walks in the forest for most of my life, but I have never once seen an owl when I’ve heard hooting in the woods. Over the years, I came to think of them as the invisible guardians of nature, wise beyond words, exceptionally good, especially at keeping the vermin population in check.

     Once in a while, I’d get spooked by an owl’s hoot echoing through a forest. My senses would go on full alert, absorbing the natural surroundings, until the unnatural sense of myself was gone. Then, if I was lucky enough to hear another hoot, it would make me giggle, just a little, because it reminded me of my favorite line in Walden: “Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men.”

     Ten years ago, I usually carried with me a beat-up copy of Thoreau’s Walden wherever I went. I suppose it was a replacement for the Catholic Youth Bible I once burnt, buried, and planted a seed over up on top of my favorite hill in the forest. Walden was a stand-in for what the Bible might have meant to me back then, that is if there had been someone with the wisdom to cause my young mind to want giggle about some of the wise passages in it.

     But the Bible, sadly, was shown to me to be about nothing other than the serious business of instilled existential guilt, coupled with a list of rules I had to follow to avoid having my soul roasted for eternity. In my 20s, 30s, and half of my 40s, I was pissed about that. I railed against the Catholic church and felt myself to be a victim of the poison of religion. I even went so far as to pretend I was an atheist, even though my heart said otherwise.

     I’m not sure why my resentment faded, but I know now, down deep—somewhere close to where the invisible hooting owl cuts into my giggle reflex—that “goodness is the only investment that never fails.” I know the spirit of what Thoreau was trying to say with those clunky words.

     Goodness isn’t nice, and rarely is it spoken. It’s being spooked by an owl hoot. It’s all the clumsy first times. The last times. The long-gone good times and even some of the bad times. It’s the monster outside my bedroom door when was a kid. It’s the pain I felt when I held my dog while she took her last breath.


"The memory still burns bright in me. It reminds me of a question Thoreau asked himself in his journal. What is religion? he wrote, to which he answered, That which is never spoken."

We were discussing Henry David Thoreau in an Early American Lit. class, when I saw across the room a young lady who was bouncing in her chair, her arm stretched up like she was wanting to touch the ceiling. Two people got picked before her, but she didn’t flinch. She kept bouncing with her hand held high. When she finally got her chance to speak, she grabbed some papers off her desk and began to stutter. “I… I mean. I mean it’s just, it’s like…” She dropped her papers back down on the desk, inhaled deeply, let out a long heavy sigh and said, “I love Thoreau.”

     Laugher erupted all around the room.

     The memory still burns bright in me. It reminds me of a question Thoreau asked himself in his journal. What is religion? he wrote, to which he answered, That which is never spoken. So with that in mind, the young lady in my early American Literature class had a religious experience, because she couldn’t speak, and made us all laugh, and caused the moment to be branded into the ever-tangled web of experience I call my memory. Save for the three words she uttered in frustration, nothing else about that moment was spoken.. 

     The memory is one of those investments that “never fails.” And the moment was a religious experience for me as well. Religious in the spirit of the Latin word Religio, which Joseph Campbell translated as “to reconnect, linking back.” Linking back, connection, devotion, resonance, these are a few of the many words that can be used to describe the one, the big one, in English. The one that everyone wants. “The word” that links us all the way back to the beginning. Ancient Sanskrit has 96 words for it, none of which I know how to speak.

     But truth can be spoken to some degree. And at 56 years old, I’m still learning how to speak it. The best way to learn how to speak the truth, I’ve found, is to stop lying. That was and still is, brutal—because everything I thought I knew about myself turned out to be a lie.

      Hearing an owl hoot in the woods is a good sign. One that always makes me giggle. Just a little. They are wise beyond words, exceptionally good, especially at keeping the vermin population in check.


Michael Helsher is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Justin Taylor

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Recently, Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor, about his latest project, as well as his new role as the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor.

What is your current book about?
My last book was a story collection called Flings. It came out in 2014. The stories weren’t connected, though a few characters popped up in multiple pieces. Right now, I’m working on a memoir, which still feels bizarre to me to say. I don’t want to get into too many details, because it isn’t finished yet, but it’s a book about my relationship with my father, who was an amazing but also difficult man. It’s also about my relationship to Judaism, which turns out to be equally complicated.

 Credit: David Benhaim 

Credit: David Benhaim 

What’s your writing routine?
I don’t have one. I’m bad with schedules. But when I’m trying to really dig in on a project, I do find it’s good to write every day, or to write one day and edit the next, make sure the fire in the hearth doesn’t burn out, you know? I like to write in the mornings when I can, preferably before I’ve seen email or my phone or the internet, because my head is still clear. The best is when I’ve got like half a day to myself, say between three and six hours, and I can turn all the devices off, relax and read some poetry or something, let the urge to write build up a bit instead of having to scramble, and then I start when I’m ready and go until I wear myself out. That’s a best-case scenario, obviously, not the norm.

What authors do you admire most?
Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and Don DeLillo are three big ones for me. Virginia Woolf, especially The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Saul Bellow. There are other authors who I have admired very much but no longer return to very often. Though I still remember what it felt like to read them and be blown away. I think it’s possible to love a particular writer, or a particular book, but then to hit the limit of what you can take from them and so you move on. Like a relationship that doesn’t end badly, it just—ends. So that’s one answer. Also, In the past couple of years, I’ve written critically on Percival Everett, Thomas McGuane, and Mary Robison, which meant I got to know their work extremely well. I spent between six months and a year with each body of work, and developed all kinds of ideas about how each writer works and what their strengths are. I’m a huge advocate now for Robison’s Subtraction, for McGaune’s novel Ninety-two in the Shade, and for Everett’s Erasure, Watershed, and God’s Country, just to name a few since he has written so many. I could go on but I probably shouldn’t.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student? The worst?
The best was probably learning to line edit. I had one professor whose aesthetic was severely minimalist, and who had also been a magazine editor for most of his career. He had no patience for redundancy, cliche, or self-indulgence. Every sentence had to earn its place, and it turned out that most of them hadn’t. There was a set of values and aesthetic biases behind what he was doing that are not necessarily universally shared, but they were worth understanding, and the practical skills he taught me, in terms of editing and self-editing and also in terms of not settling for the quick fix, have been invaluable ever since. Conversely, the worst workshop experience I think I ever had was with a different professor at that same school. Nice guy, smart guy, but he was lazy, so he smothered us in easy praise to mask the fact he wasn’t reading us closely or challenging us to be better. So you wound up with a genial workshop, and all these stories you thought were ready for the big leagues, and then you had to find out the hard way later that they weren’t even close. It was a lot of wasted time.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
I’m not sure who told me these things, or what was told to me and what I figured out for myself, but here’s my handy three-step process for revision:
    1) Write the first draft by hand
    2) After you type up that draft, print it out and do the next edit in hard copy again. Shifting between the physical and digital space helps keep your critical eye fresh, plus it forces you to type up every set of notes into the document, which effectively becomes another round of editing. (It also helps to read your work out loud.) Repeat this process as many times as necessary. 
    2a) Invest in a laser printer. It’ll save you money in the long run. 
    3) Never type up your edits the same day you make them. Leave a night’s sleep between marking up your printed manuscript and inputting those mark-ups into the computer file. This is how you avoid accidentally butchering your work because you were in a bad mood or the coffee was too strong.

So you’re a visiting professor at Williamette University, how did that come about?
I was nominated for a position that they have there, the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor, which is a one-year appointment that rotates among the various departments at the school. So the English department made a case to bring me in, and I guess we beat out the other departments and whoever they had nominated. This is a slightly more academic title than I usually end up with, but the work is about the same. Last school year I was the Artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi Ph.D. program (home, by the way, of the wonderful Mississippi Review) and before that I was the Writer-in-residence at the Butler University M.F.A. program in Indianapolis. So in one sense it’s pretty familiar territory, but it’s very exciting for me because I get to live at home in Portland instead of some random city, and because Willamette is a very special school. It’s the oldest school in Oregon, I believe, and it sits in the heart of downtown Salem, across the street from the State Capitol. It’s a gorgeous campus, and I’m optimistic about the upcoming school year.

You’re teaching a multi-genre introduction to creative writing, and a 19th century lit seminar on monsters. Tell us more about that. Also, what’s your favorite book from the reading list you assigned?
Yes, two classes I don’t usually teach, so it’ll be a real treat to workshop poetry and nonfiction as well. We’re reading eight or nine books in that class, including Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Asali Solomon’s Get Down, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, but I might be most excited about Terrence Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. It just came out and I think it will yield a lot of strong opinions and good discussions. The Monsters class was challenging to put together, and I’m a little worried I’m trying to pack too much in, but we’ll see how it goes. We’re doing a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales. I found this great anthology that Italo Calvino edited called Fantastic Tales—it’s got Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Le Fanu, and much more. Oh and we’re reading this wild little Swiss novel called The Black Spider, recently translated by Susan Bernofsky for NYRB Classics. I might name that as the favorite only because I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen when I teach it.

How do you balance teaching with writing? Do you feel as though teaching slows down the process at all?
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, sure, spending time doing anything other than writing is lost writing time. And sure, after a full day of teaching (or line-editing student fiction) you’re not going to be able to give your best energy to your own work. So on a day when a lot of teaching-work has to get done, it’s pretty likely that not much writing-work is going to get done. On the other hand, I find that working with students is intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. You get to meet people at the moment when they’re finally getting the chance to focus on their life-long passion, and you get to help them on their way. It’s awesome to see students have breakthroughs, figure out how to finish a story, get published for the first time. So I guess the answer to your question is: Short term, yes, teaching can slow you down, but long term, it gives a lot more than it takes. And I haven’t even mentioned money. We’ve all got to earn a living somehow, and if I wasn’t doing this I would be something else, probably with longer hours and worse colleagues.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Neither is all that valuable. Praise is always nice to hear, and it can be very useful for an aspiring writer to hear what is working. And of course we all need to learn how to take (and how to give) criticism. The piece wouldn’t be in the workshop if it was already perfect. But I think that “praise and criticism” is too often code for “good and bad,” which is just such an impoverished language for talking about stories. This isn’t like scanning Yelp reviews deciding where to go for pizza—oh it says the breadsticks were soggy, but the drink refills are free… Forget all that. More than anything else, what I want a workshop to do is tell the writer of the piece what we see in her piece—not what we feel about what we see, but literally: What is on the page? You can get a great argument going about a story just by asking the workshop, What did you think this was about? Or even, What happened in this story? You will get 10 different answers. When people summarize, paraphrase, or describe, they immediately reveal what they as readers thought was important. They reveal what they as readers forgot about or didn’t understand. So the writer comes away with a lot of hard data on the way she is actually being read, which tells her something about the distance between what she was trying to do and what she actually did. How she uses this information is up to her, but it’s a lot more useful than “I really liked the part with the ferris wheel but I was sad when the dog died.” Or worst, worst, worst of all: “I really related to this because it reminded me of myself.”

What are the top myths people have about the publishing industry?
I don’t know, maybe that it’s a strict meritocracy, which it isn’t? Or that there’s any kind of consensus on what constitutes “merit,” which there also isn’t? Every time you ask yourself the question, “How did [Bad Book X or Bad Story Y] get published?” the answer is really simple: Someone was able to convince someone else that it was actually good, and/or that a lot of people would want to buy it. Most editors do want to publish smart, challenging plotless novels and beautiful heartbreaking books of poetry that will sell 300 copies, but that desire is not the only thing, or even the main thing, on their minds. They can’t afford for it to be. And with magazines it can be even more complicated, because the editor there is probably also thinking about things like the news cycle, or how this piece fits in with the 12 other pieces in the issue, or what the other magazines in their competitive tier are also working on. None of this, by the way, is good news or bad news (though it is of course very annoying that Bad Book X got published, or that your story got rejected), it’s just true. So the best thing for a new writer to do is to try and understand this whole ecosystem, and imagine what that same world looks like from the POV of some of its other players: the agent, the editor, the assistant editor, the marketing team, and so on. Then you have to go and repress all that shit or you'll be too depressed to write anything—which is its own kind of challenge—but sooner or later the day will come when you’ll want to have access to all the information. It won’t make the process seem more fair, necessarily, but it will make it seem less random and insane.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
No. It is one hundred percent, without exception, a waste of time and energy for this simple reason: you’re trying to imagine something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as “publication,” there are only publications—magazines, journals, websites, publishing houses—each with its own sense of identity, its own sense of what is important, or what kind of work it would like to be publishing. You might submit your story or your book to twenty places before it lands somewhere, and it’s impossible to write something that’s equally “for” all of them. At that point you’re writing the TV Guide. You don’t know who those editors are, or what they’re looking for, or how your piece might or might not fit into the particular issue of the magazine they’re putting together right now, or how your book might fit in with the two dozen other books currently on their publishing schedule. The only thing to do is do the best work that you possibly can, put it out there, and see who wants to give it a home.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

POETRY


Human Origami

By Kirah Lynn Brouillette

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Two minutes in the morning—
before consciousness shapes
your dream-softened face—
I bend my knees, 
tip my chin up,
(we are cheek to cheek)
and fold myself
around you.

I want to surround you.

I want the first pass
of nose and lips
against your hot, sleep-cleansed skin.
I want to tug your bed-tousled hair
and lick a snail's wet path
from collarbone to ear;
to that dark nestling place
where earlobe meets your strong, curved jaw.
I want to trace finger-loops
over your breathing belly,
until instinctively you swing your hips
squaring them to mine;
bearing them to mine.
I want to loop my arms around you
and press my hands
against the taut plane
of your chest,
lifting your knees
up and in,
tucking my face
into the crook of your neck (the sweetest place)
wrapping
you in me

Human origami.

NONFICTION


Bedtime Stories

By John Will

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One of the greatest challenges I’ve found as a writer is simply keeping up with all the demands a family can place on the imagination.

              Take now for example: It’s bedtime for my kids, and I just finished a chapter of our make-believe story about Beatles and Bottle the T-Rexes, who are both trying to escape a volcanic eruption. Telling my boys this tale has made me examine the process of how I tell stories. As I sit at the keyboard and think, I can hear the boys upstairs casting spells at each other.

              Tim: “Abra-ca-zee, abra-ca-za, I turn you into a mega zoo-rah.”

              Isaac: “And I turn you into a zebra.”

              I’m supposed to be writing about what it’s like to be a writing dad. Thankfully, the boys just gave me an idea, so you’ll have to thank them that this piece has a focus.

              At my final residency for my masters’ last January, a colleague came to me and said that they found my writing to be quite disturbing. I accepted this information with the few graces I have, then the conversation lagged. My colleague was about to depart but turned back to me and said, “Where do you come up with this stuff?”

              By this stuff, I think she was referring to the workshop piece I just had critiqued by my peer review group. As a quick aside, that story was published in Assignment online.

              Anyway, the story is one wherein nothing bad actually occurs, but with every fiber of your being you know the protagonist is twisted and has done something unspeakable. Without ruining the plot, the story is about a guy who owns a party company with bouncy houses for rent. The only other detail you need to know is that half of the story takes place at a birthday party.

              My colleague found my work to be disquieting, and her question was really meant to ask, “How can you think about stuff like this?” My answer at the time was something like, “I just have lots of bad dreams.” But that answer wasn’t really the truth. I didn’t know the truth until just a few days ago. So let me use the previous story to explain how I come up with content.


"Then, last week, I was writing a chapter for my new WIP (work-in-progress). The chapter came about because I was envisioning a canoe trip with my sons, and how we would survive if disaster struck."

              First, if you don’t yet know from reading my Lines of Literature via Twitter (or the repostings I do on Facebook), I tend toward horror. We can quibble over genre if you’d like, but underneath it all, I write horror.

              I was a few weeks away from a deadline at school and had no idea what I was going to write as a critique piece. None. Instead of sitting at my computer worrying about it, however, I was playing with my kids. We just bought a small bouncy for my son for his third birthday. We had it inflated, and the boys were jumping happily inside. My mind, as it so often does, went into preparation mode–always be ready for the worst to happen. And with a bouncy house that could be bad indeed. But as I watched them jump, I realized that they would be fine and never know the danger implicit in any fun activity.

              Boys safe, I let my mind wander the halls of its prison. It knocked on a door labelled, “Bad Things." It turned the handle and went inside.

              The story, dark as it is, emerged from that door. My mind fled back down the corridors to its cell and slammed the door. But at least I had a story to write.

              An earlier story came about because I was sitting in church, remembering what services had been like for me as child, before the advent of children’s church. I was thankful my boys did not have to endure the same thing but instead could enjoy the company of their peers while learning their Bible lesson.

              In the story that emerged from that journey to “Bad Things," a man blows up his life hoping to find a better life. While that may not sound like horror, watching a man’s descent into insanity is terrifying.

              Then, last week, I was writing a chapter for my new WIP (work-in-progress). The chapter came about because I was envisioning a canoe trip with my sons, and how we would survive if disaster struck. This story emerges in small doses from ever-more-frequent visits to “Bad Ideas," and it is as dark as anything I’ve ever written

              It occurred to me when I finished my writing for that day that all of the inspiration for my stories, despite being found in “Bad Ideas," have their genesis in one inescapable fact: I love my children dearly and am utterly terrified of anything truly bad happening to them (boo-boo’s and owies don’t count, and neither does a “B” on a report card). My subconscious processes this terror and stores it in “Bad Ideas," where, if I am brave enough, I can bring the ideas into the light of day and face them more comfortably there. And by taking my worst fears for my children and turning them into stories, I am able to come to grips with my fears, and show them how small they really are once they leave my mind.

              So, that’s the dirty little secret: I write horror because I love my kids. Please, dear friends, don’t tell anyone. An author has to keep up appearances, after all.


John Will is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. You can follow him at https: The Writing Dad, a blog dedicated to the adventure of being a dad and an author at the same time.  

RESIDENCY RECOLLECTIONS


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There are no days more full than those we go back to. ― Colum McCann

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black—For many of us, the week-long residency at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield, NH is something that we cherish. It’s a magical place, a retreat, where like-minds enjoy being away from the pressures of adulting, and rather, focus on nothing but their stories. Because we feel so strongly about our time together, we here at Assignment decided to ask some of the current MFA Candidates, the alumni and faculty what they missed, learned and loved about past residencies.

After attending three residencies, I can say with certainty that what I’ll miss most after my fourth residency week in January are the people. I’ll miss leaving the rest of the world behind to spend a week in the company of writers, people who intrinsically understand the challenges and rewards of practicing the craft of writing. I’ll miss the opportunity to dig deep into short stories in morning workshops. I’ll miss the chance to learn together from visiting agents and editors. I’ll miss the student and faculty readings. I’ll miss it all, but the community fostered by the staff and faculty—and my fellow learners—rests at the heart of what I love most about residency. ~ Margaret McNelis

My favorite moment of every residency is the Friday night slideshow. I’m always touched by the photos of students learning, writing, sharing, and enjoying each other’s company. The thoughtfulness and joy on everyone’s faces reflect the magic of residency. You can see the shift in photos taken early on in the week, to those taken toward the end. Friendships have been made. Confidences have grown. Dreams have been born. And cohort bonds have all become stronger. Plus, there’s always at least one cute alpaca pic. ~ Jo Knowles, Faculty

My family called my first week of residency, worried I’d careened off a mountain on my drive up after they didn’t hear from me for days. I told them I’d found my people. I couldn’t remember going to any other gathering where everyone else was just as passionate about the same thing as me. It just felt right. ~ Eric Beebe

The Mountain View is dead quiet at 4am. We walk the silent halls, my coffee cup is stained purple with red wine and his smells of cinnamon whiskey. We pause in front of a painting of hunting dogs.
       “It’s weird how every floor has the same pictures,” I say. 
       “They’re not exactly the same,” he says. “The painting on the second floor has twelve dogs. This one has eleven.”
       We rush down the stairs.
       “See," I say, not sure if I'm victorious or disappointed. "Eleven." ~ Sarah Foil

When I think about the four residencies I attended, the thing that sticks out most vividly is the mornings: 28 in total. Leaning over to the personal-size coffee maker (that I brought to every Residency) on the nightstand, flicking it on, and slowly coming to and watching the light slink across the walls and ceiling while my favorite coffee from home-brewed, making my room smell like morning. Then, sipping the dark roast with a billow of half and half, gazing out the windows at the sunshine-yellow clapboards of the Mountain View Grand, and around the room, which I set up just how I like it, reviewing the day’s schedule. Each morning, the cusp of bringing new learning into my mind and spirit. Each morning, looking forward to strengthening friendships with other writers. Each morning, giving myself permission to take my writing as seriously as everyone else already did. ~ Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

My favorite memories from Residency all center on how we, as colleagues, pushed one another to continuously perfect our writing and to hone our work into stories that deserved to be read. One semester, after having my piece workshopped, a colleague approached me for a personal discussion of the work.
       “How do you come up with such creepy material?” she asked.
       “I have no idea,” I said. “But I’m glad it made you feel creeped out. It was supposed to.”
       “I was creeped out,” she said, “but it was the wrong kind of creeped out. It was the I-don’t-want-to-read-this-anymore creeped out, not the wow-this-is-wrong-that-I-enjoy-this-stuff kind of creeped out. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, work on making your material more subtle and more complex.”
       Every word I’ve written in the almost two years since have been filtered through this piece of advice. ~ John Will

One special pleasure was the peer workshop group I shared with Lydia Peele. It was a mix of nice personalities and uniformly strong manuscripts. All such workshops provide to their leaders a mix of don't-do-that and yes-do-this in the storytelling, and it was great fun, over and over again, to find so many beguiling examples of yes-do-this. ~ Richard Adam Carey, Faculty

I call the top moments in my life: "Patronus moments." It's lame and nerdy as hell, but I think of them whenever I'm really sad and I need the extra boost of remembering a better time. Expecto Patronum is actually Latin for "bring out my protector," so it felt appropriate both for me and the other characters in the Harry Potter universe. These moments include bid day in my sorority, when I got my littles, my time in Budapest, the Twenty One Pilots concert, Leadershape, and now: residency.
      I'd cried for an hour when I first got the letter from Lisa telling me that I'd been accepted into the program. I don't have the words to explain the amount of shock and gratitude I felt, but I knew it was one of those rare moments where I'd get a taste of what it means to finish first. Residency exceeded any possible expectations I could've dreamed of and more. I'm surrounded by a group of wonderful, inspiring, dynamic people who all share a love of what matters most to me: writing. It's such a wonderful program, and I couldn't possibly praise it enough. At least I'll have the next two years to try. ~ Morgan Green

Every time I return home from a residency, I miss that insular feeling of being holed up 24/7 with other writers and lovers of books. I relish forgetting about the rest of the world, even as we think and write about our concerns for its fate. I love the deep immersion, the thinking and talking only about our craft. What a gift that is. And really, now that I've experienced it first as a student, then as faculty, I can say it is a necessity. ~ Amy Irvine, Faculty

Strangely, what I liked most and what I liked least about Residency are the same thing: Peer Review. It was painful. Being the newest of the bunch, I was scheduled at the end of the week, so I could get acclimated before entering “the box.” I’d come to the program because I needed help with my writing; I was stuck, but couldn’t figure out why. As I participated in my classmate’s peer reviews, something in my mind began to gel until I realized what I was stuck on. I write a great nonfiction landscape, but it’s just that—a landscape. It’s sterile and devoid of emotion because even though I’m in the story, I’m absent. I write around me rather than in me. When my turn in “the box” came, my mentors and peers were wonderful, and the overall theme was that my story was missing in my writing. I realized that either I needed to open up and expose myself and my family, or I needed to switch to fiction. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being vulnerable. When I came out of “the box,” I didn’t think anyone was more surprised than me when I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a painful experience, but it was also a week of growth and insight. And as scary as it is, I’m sticking with nonfiction. ~ Debi St. Jeor