Category Archives: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: “Lord, we make mistakes.”

In our last foreseen post of the In Memoriam series, Phong Nguyen, author of Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, shares a smaller regret.

The first story I ever published, “Memory Sickness,” was accepted by Agni in 2005. The circumstances were unusual. I was visiting my grandfather—an English professor with literary ambitions of his own—who was suffering from many of the ailments of the very elderly: angina, dyspnoea, restless leg syndrome, and, within a month, congestive heart failure. He was always on an oxygen tank when we visited, and he rarely left the bed. We visited my grandparents regularly because we lived only an hour away and considered it a privilege to be able to familiarize our young sons with their great-grandparents, who seemed to be not only part of another generation but part of another world. My grandfather was born in 1919, an officer in World War II who trained pilots. He learned to fly a plane before he ever drove a car.

I got a call from a senior editor at Agni giving me the good news, and scheduling a follow-up phone meeting to talk revisions. This was positively the first time in my writing career that I had ever received good news, and I thought I was prepared to make any kind of sacrifice necessary to improve the story.

~

The next day, before I had the time to withdraw it from other journals, I received another phone call, this time from a literary contest, stating that “Memory Sickness” was their grand prize winner, and could they publish it in an upcoming issue of their journal? I told them I would call them back.

Since he was there beside me, I asked my grandfather’s advice. I told him that there were two journals that wanted to publish my work—one was more prestigious, but the other was more lucrative—and I had no idea what to do. I was a grad student who could have used the money for rent, food, diapers. I thought he would tell me to take the highest bid. But he said simply, “You made a commitment.”

There is no wisdom here. The significance of this moment was not in the answer, but in the asking. I return to this moment now and then: a brash young writer full of the importance of his modest successes, soliciting advice from a dying man. How vain and narcissistic I feel when I return there. The scale of his accomplishments—the war he fought, the children he raised, the legacy of teaching he left behind—dwarfed my own. Yet the pride I felt in my own miniscule achievement must have oozed out of me and stuck to the walls.

~

When I next spoke to the editor at Agni, he had already sent me detailed edits, and I had accepted most of them. One of the deletions, however, we debated for a long time before I eventually gave in. The line in question was a repetition in the story, at the end of the following passage: “Some sinners confess on their death beds. Some sinners confess on Sundays. The rest of us live with chronic pangs of conscience like migraines. All I know is that no one is guiltless. We make mistakes. Lord, we make mistakes.”

The narrator, Roth Chey, is Catholic, and he is talking about his experience as a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge regime. The “mistake” he is referring to is his choice to kill a fellow boy who would have turned him in for planning an escape. That last line “Lord, we make mistakes” is not rhetorical. It is a direct address to God. And if it was a dramatic usage, then it was earned. But in order to get the story published in Agni, I had to concede this line, and now every version of the story in print and online is without it. For a moment I contemplated giving it to the other journal to be its contest winner, but I did not. Do I regret it? No. I have larger regrets.


Phong Nguyen
Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen is editor of Pleiades and author of Memory Sickness and Other Stories. He directs the Unsung Masters Series, for which he edited the volume, Nancy Hale: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master. Nguyen teaches fiction and American literature at the University of Central Missouri, where he lives with his wife, the artist Sarah Nguyen, and their three children.

In Memoriam: When Sound and Sense Collide

Chauna Craig lays to rest a rhythmic line of her short story “High on the Divide” in this week’s In Memoriam:

First lines come to me when I walk to work, sometimes in a slow gathering of words in my head, sometimes in a flash, a complete first sentence that yearns to stretch into story.  In the latter case, I repeat the gift sentence to myself, sometimes aloud, afraid I’ll forget it before I can write it.  I’m not surprised that many of these first lines emerge or evolve rhythmically.  The beat of my feet on the sidewalk, words chanted to hold them in place.

See?  Even there, I sneaked in some dactyls:  BEAT of my FEET on the…

Rhythm is as natural as a heartbeat.  It slips into every day speech, often unintended and unnoticed. Terrance Hayes once mentioned at a poetry reading the beauty of hearing perfect iambic meter from the mouth of a man ogling a woman at a gym:  I’d like to get me some of that.

Rhythm, especially when you pay attention to it, is powerful, powerful enough that my language-loving self can silence my feminist self awhile to appreciate the irrepressible rhythm and energy of that line.  I’ve never forgotten Hayes’ example, and I still share it to sensitize students to the rhythm around them (though I let my feminist self make a few comments too).

Of course when an editor agreed to publish my short story, “High on the Divide,” with a few changes, one of which excised an intentionally rhythmic line, I balked.  That’s a bloodless way of saying that as I reviewed the suggested kill, my heart fluttered erratically while a voice in my head screamed “Nooooooooo!”

I always let that voice finish its tantrum in the privacy of my own head.  It comes from a child raised on Dr. Seuss, a girl who would soothe herself to sleep by repeating sentences with a different emphasis on each word to test how the meaning changed.  That girl sprang out of bed one night to tell her mother that if someone said, “I’m not not going to bed,” it meant that she was going to bed, that two nots cancelled each other out!  “That’s called a double negative,” her mother answered.  And the girl was crushed to realize that her own private discovery had already been identified, catalogued, and put on display in the Museum of Grammar, Useful and Otherwise.

I cut that passionate word-loving girl a lot of slack.  I listen to her because she keeps me connected to the visceral wonder evoked by language.

But I know my own tendencies too.  Every writing Hyde has its Jekyll, and every Jekyll needs a Hyde to rein in the monster of excess.  When I was in graduate school, my Jekyll was a professor, an expert in postmodern literature and the backhanded compliment.  He summarized one of my critical papers:  “You let a fine turn of phrase stand where more sustained thought would serve you better.”  Ouch.  While I mocked his stuffy arrogance, the comment stung most because I knew it to be true.  I switched to creative writing.  But there is no excuse for flab or showiness in any genre of writing.

This first line of “High on the Divide” came to me on a morning walk when I was thinking about Butte, Montana:  The men are descended from hard-rock miners, their lungs gone to granite, their hearts chunks of ore.  I distinctly remember repeating it as I walked, in part for the sheer pleasure of the sound and rhythm.  By the time I sat to write, I continued in the same vein.  Next lines: “On the rocks,” they say when they order their bourbon.  “On the rocks,” they say when I give them their Cokes.

The editor cut that last line.  I’d created it for the parallel structure, the repeated words and rhythm, the variation at the end that demonstrated the bartender narrator’s caretaking role as she tries to protect these drunks from themselves.  That opening paragraph reads aloud beautifully, in part because of the hypnotic effect of the rhythm and repetition.  I could have made a form/content argument to keep that line, and that’s what the little language-lover inside begged me to do.  Remember, she likes sentences that sound good, that soothe her to sleep.

But if that were my purpose with language, I’d write lullabies.  Just as the narrator of that story needed to be jolted out of her hypnotized state, so did I.  That lovely-sounding sentence didn’t even make sense.  If you order bourbon and someone hands you a Coke, there are a lot of things you might say, but “on the rocks” isn’t one.

I knew the editor was right.  There was something sharper and faster about the first paragraph without that line, and in a story of a thousand words, I didn’t have the luxury of indulging in rhythmic nonsense.  It always hurts to say goodbye to pretty things that have outgrown their usefulness, but I’m finally ready to bury this one.  Rest in peace, original third line of my story.  I raise my glass of bourbon—on the rocks—to your memory.

You can find “High on the Divide” here, in Damselfly Press Issue 25.


Chauna Craig
Chauna Craig

Chauna Craig’s stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, GreenMountains Review, Quarterly West, Seattle Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere.  Her fiction awards include descant’s Sandra Brown Short Fiction prize, the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award in Fiction, and Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. She has also received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook, and the Heinz Foundation and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  She teaches creative writing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In Memoriam: Getting the “Fuck” Out

Theodore Carter admits to a genre “frak-up”  in this week’s edition of In Memoriam:

When I type “fuck,” I mean it. I don’t do it a lot. It’s naughty and often distracts from my syntax and storyline. Still, sometimes, there is no other logical word to show a character’s frustration, disappointment, or anger. Omitting it can be more shocking than including it. Such is the case in my story “The Thirty-Ninth President and the Thirteenth Tentacle,” when one of my primary characters, a tentacled alien named Veltra, voices frustration over her orders to follow a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter.

I enjoy experimenting with genre and do my best to keep my reading broad. I’m proud that like Mark Twain I’ve published in The North American Review, the oldest literary magazine in America. I’m also proud to have read manuscripts for Weird Tales, the long-running pulp magazine which published Stephen King’s early work.

From this background, I wrote a short story based on Jimmy Carter’s UFO sighting. (Seriously. It happened.) I was thrilled when Bruce Bethke, the originator of the term “cyberpunk,” accepted the story for publication in Stupefying Stories.

However, as an editor, Bethke doesn’t condone the vulgarities spewed by my alien character. When I received Mr. Bethke’s edits, I wrote back:

“I noticed you replaced “fuck” with “frak”. Would it be possible to use “F–” instead?  I like the idea of Veltra using a word especially offensive to Jimmy Carter and fear “frak” could be misconstrued as alien talk.”

What I didn’t know, and what Mr. Bethke told me any Sci-fi fan should know, is that the “frak” comes from Battlestar Galactica and is a well-known euphemism for “fuck.” My trekky siblings would have been horrified at my ignorance. My creative writing instructors may have exhaled in relief.

As a writer, I sometimes work in one tradition one day and another the next. Sometimes this means sending stories to vastly different markets, and it always means reading a wide variety of material. For me, these gaps between genres are ripe for creative exploration. The risk is that there are cultural touch points that I miss. For instance, I’ve never watched Battlestar Galactica.

Mr. Bethke and I settled on a first mention using “F—,” then subsequent uses of “frak.”I felt a little sheepish at having exhibited poor knowledge of the genre and wasn’t about to fight.

I usually bow to the editor. I want his/her audience. Mr. Bethke has a defined aesthetic. He knows what the frak he’s doing. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t have sent him the story in the first place.

You can check out the September 2012 issue of Stupefying Stories and read my story. If you’re a true Sci-fi fan, “frak” may be the perfect word in it. However, I still think that if I were an alien following Jimmy Carter around Georgia before he became president, I’d wonder just what the fuck I was doing.


 

Theodore Carter
Theodore Carter

Theodore Carter’s fiction has appeared in The North American Review, Potomac Review, and A cappella Zoo. He has also published in genre mags and themed anthologies focused on humor, horror, erotica, super powers, and Jimi Hendrix. He has an M.A. in creative writing from The Johns Hopkins University.

You can find out more at www.theodorecarter.com.

In Memoriam: The First Failed Novel

In this edition of In Memoriam, forthcoming QFP author Sherrie Flick says goodbye to Sarah and Robert, her failed friends.

Early in my writing career I embraced flash fiction. By the time I was a senior in college, it was mine. I was in love. I had written longer stories, sure, but once I got inside sentences and rolled around in the compression involved with flash—I was trapped, happily trapped, in those tiny worlds.

Years passed, I wrote more very small stories. More and more and more. My professors in graduate school stepped forward every so often to ask one question: why don’t you try writing a novel? In retrospect, I understand why they asked me this question. Of course, I do. It’s a smart question, a move they thought would advance my career. But to me it sounded sacrosanct: flash was what I believed in. It was my hardcore crush and I was not going to cheat on it with something as long and amorphous as a novel.

Then one day a weird fuzzy feeling descended upon me. I was working on some writing and I felt … bored. Shocked, I kept right at it. But soon, I decided I really did need to break free from my own self-created flash rut. So, I embarked on a novel. I embarked on a novel like one would embark on a quick trip to the grocery store. Just jump in the car, drive to the store, and buy some food. But.

It just wasn’t that easy.

The “novel” I tried “writing” was about a couple of characters—Sarah and Robert. They’re newly married and embarking on complicated lives in a new city. For a time, Sarah and Robert showed up in everything I wrote—long or short. It was the Sarah and Robert show again and again. The “novel” unspooled ambiguously. It went and went. In fact, I still think about Sarah and Robert every so often like friends I’ve lost touch with who just refuse to join Facebook.

Versions of Sarah and Robert eventually ended up in my real novel, the one without quotation marks around it. The one I wrote deliberately and did get published, 12 years later (Reconsidering Happiness, 2009). But those pages and pages that I unrolled? Interestingly, they got cut up and refigured into many smaller stories. Pieces of flash, mid-length stories, long stories. Some of those stories show up in the book QFP will publish in 2016. In some, my characters’ names have changed, in others: there they are, my friends. My failed friends.

I mourn this novel that never was. I’m not sure why. I feel a longing when I think of it. The potential that it held. How naïve I was when I gave the form my first try. How much I had to learn before I could tell a big story, how much I had to learn before I could write a better piece a flash, something that pushed me way beyond the boredom I felt that one day at my writing desk.


Sherrie Flick
Sherrie Flick

Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, a semi-finalist for the VCU First Novelist award, and the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting. Her flash fiction appears in many anthologies and journals, including Norton’s Flash Fiction Forwardand New Sudden Fiction, Ploughshares, Booth, Fiction Southeast, andSmokeLong. She has received fellowships from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She lives in Pittsburgh where she works as a freelance food writer and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA and Food Studies programs. Her book of stories, Whiskey, Etc., will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in 2016.

In Memoriam: La Ligua

In Memoriam is a series of posts dedicated to the words, the lines, and the books that—for one reason, one editor, or another—never saw the light of day. Below, forthcoming QFP author, Victoria Kelly, says goodbye to the opening lines of an old story.

“Ema was the first to be lost. And now her father Elias sits her image like a stuffed toy on his mantle, trying to remember who was this Ema besides a girl with green eyes and his daughter. Should he remember the way she was, or what she would have been?” 

During my third year as an undergraduate at Harvard, I spent three months in Vina del Mar, Chile, on a study abroad program. Although it was winter in Chile at the time, Vina del Mar was a beautiful city, a vacation destination—white sand beaches and blue ocean and restaurants on cliffs that overlooked the water. In the mornings I would run on the boardwalk and dozens of stray dogs would follow me.  I would buy freshly baked bread downtown from tiny shops and eat it with manjar, a popular caramel spread.

But Chile also had a darker side.  It was haunted by The Disappeared, two thousand people who had “vanished”—imprisoned, tortured and killed—during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s.

Two hours by bus from Vina del Mar was a small, dusty city called La Ligua, that was famous for making the most wonderful meringue-filled pastries. Vendors dressed in white would spend the mornings on sidewalks around the town, holding wicker baskets full of these pastries. Part of my program involved living for one month, alone, in a Chilean city of my choice, and doing research for an end-of-term project. I had decided that, as an English major, I would visit La Ligua and write a collection of stories about the town, which had charmed me. The place felt like a town out of a storybook, far removed from the chaos of modern life. Not a single person in La Ligua spoke English; in the center of town was a bubbling fountain and a photographer who took pictures with an old, early-century camera. I found a small hotel near the town square and set out to write a short story about a pastry-vendor struggling with the memory of his teenage daughter, one of The Disappeared. The sentences above were the first sentences of my first story.

But after only a few days, I got violently sick from a stomach virus I had caught while visiting Argentina. I ended up so sick that I had to leave the program a month early and go back to the United States for medical care. I was never able to finish the stories I had set out to write. All I have now is that first sentence and a long collection of notes for a story that will never come to be. I feel too far removed from the place now, years later, to write about it successfully—it is the kind of story that need to be written sitting on the edge of the town fountain, in the middle of all that dust and sunlight. So I would like those first sentences to lie here, in this blog, and rest in peace.


Victoria KellyVictoria Kelly received her B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where she was a U.S. Mitchell Scholar. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in dozens of anthologies and journals including The Best American Poetry series, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and North American Review, among others. Her debut novel will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. She lives in Virginia with her husband and daughters.