Oct 312010

Ah, you useful little “but.”  You have been discussed at length in craft books, lectures, advisor phone calls, and, of course, critical essays.  So much is embodied in your unassuming three letters.  You can almost stand alone (and in French you often do: “Oui, mais…” [insert pursed-lip ‘pfffssst’ here]).  You are king among conjunctions.  You are worthy of an ode:

Oh, but, inherent contradiction,

You give my work such pleasing friction….

I won’t go on.

Recently, I looked at how but-constructions operate not just poetically or grammatically, but functionally, through the course of entire essays.  I examined two works: Wendell Berry’s “An Entrance to the Woods,” which is about a two-day hiking trip into Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and Annie Dillard’s “Seeing,” which is about different ways of understanding the physical world.  (You can get your hands on both pretty easily – they’re in Lopate’s “Art of the Personal Essay.”)  Today I’ll cover Wendell Berry; check back in a few days for Annie Dillard.

Institute for Southern Studies, www.southernstudies.org

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Oct 302010

Herewith a startling and idiosyncratically romantic Steven Heighton short story “A Right Like Yours.” Many of you know Steven from previous appearances on the pages of Numéro Cinq, including his lovely poem “Herself, Revised” (very popular here), his novel excerpt from Every Lost Country, his book of essays The Admen Move on Lhasa, which Rich Farrell wrote about here, and his handful of Horace odes in translation, which you really ought to take a second look at for their grace and intricacy. Of these odes, David Helwig wrote to me in an email: “They seem to me technically brilliant. And therefore moving.” (Remind me to ask him if I can quote him.)



By Steven Heighton


He is short but he has shoulders and I think he wears the flattest shoes going, cheap sneakers of some kind, and that is attractive, that he doesn’t try to elevate himself in any way. His look is shy though, maybe cold, with green eyes that don’t meet your eyes but look at your mouth or chin in the same way as, when you’re in the ring, the other girl will stare a little below your eyes. So maybe he does it to practice. Always be in the ring, Webb Renton tells us.

I choose to think he is just somewhat shy.

It started because I was training for my fifth fight and my sparring partner had hurt that ligament in the knee that’s called, I think, cruciate but we just say crucial because that’s what it is. The other girls at the club are either on the little or the huge size and Trav is about the same weight as me, though he is shorter, and toward the end of a workout Webb yelled at him to get in there and give me a couple rounds. Trav’s face then—like someone told him to throw himself on a grenade. People started gathering ringside. Like I said, it was the end of the night, and I would have been interested too. I don’t think the coach had ever put a girl and guy in to spar that way.

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Oct 292010


Another Numéro Cinq What-it’s-like-living-here piece, this time by Shelagh Shapiro, a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate, short story writer, author of that lovely Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry Infinity Falling,  and producer/interviewer for her own amazing radio show Write the Book. Listen to her latest show, an interview with Richard Russo here.


What it’s like living here

From Shelagh Shapiro

The View From The Baby’s Room

You moved here – out to the country – nineteen years ago. One-year married and seven months pregnant, you slid the moving boxes around and directed other people where to carry the furniture. The mosquitoes got so bad with doors open all that day, you took to vacuuming them out of the air. When you first looked over the property, you woke up a raccoon in the barn. Groggy and comfortable, he didn’t bother you. That night, you and Jerry slept in the baby’s bedroom at the back of the house, because the water bed wasn’t filled yet in your room. (All the next day, the bed would fill, that sixty-foot hose snaking up through the bathroom window.) The baby’s room faced the pond—as it does still—and the peepers lulled you to sleep.

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Oct 282010


Alan Michael Parker is an old friend and colleague from my stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. (Coincidentally, we have two Davidson graduates who appear frequently on Numéro Cinq—Contributing Editor Gary Garvin and Cynthia Newberry Martin of Catching Days.) Among his many claims on my affection, Alan had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire. His most recent book of poems is Elephants & Butterflies (BOA Editions) and his most recent novel is Whale Man (WordFarm Books) which is due out February, 2011. It’s a great pleasure and delight to introduce him to the pages of Numéro Cinq. These three excerpts are from a new novel in progress, The Committee on Town Happiness.



All Swimming Pools

No diving. No skipping. No three-legged competitions. No talking to the lifeguard from behind the lifeguard stand. No eating in the shallow end. No keys in the water. No unlabeled towels. No food dyes.

All swimming pools are to be skimmed daily with the use of skimmers attached to telescopic poles, those good ideas made better. All swimming pools are to employ regulation geometric symbols: triangles for fish, circles for rescue rings, squares for the Snack Hut, rectangles for chaise lounges, etc. Color coding may apply. Primary colors may apply, given the recent popularity of goggles.

No hiking boots inside the fence. No pets in water six inches above their heads. All swimming pools offering consumer services shall employ kitty corner entrances and exits—the latter through the gift areas, to encourage community. When we buy together, we are together. No indecency. No metal belts.

All swimming pools shall appoint a Wildlife Officer who shall successfully complete Level Three Wildlife Training. All swimming pools shall post the hours of All Swim. All swimming pools shall offer shallow ends and deeps, to remind us of our progress in life, with demarcations clearly marked in graduated units, to remind us of all we trust.

In case of emergency, all swimming pools shall be prepared to accept displaced persons; all Snack Huts must be equipped with sleeping bags and hurricane lamps. Sterno and a flare gun, safety cones. One torch per every three employees. In case of inclement weather, T-shirts may be awarded. “I Survived…” slogans are acceptable. No underwater lighting. No realistic inflatables.

The Marching Band

Petitioned by the Active Mothers in Support of the Marching Band (AMSMB), we considered previously undirected funds. Granted, the timing of the request seemed carefully timed, raising more than one eyebrow, our fiscal year concluding, earmarked monies marked for non-displaced expenditures and needing to be spent. We saw there were expenses, naturally: the unfortunate state of the glockenspiel, for example, and the need for eighteen sets of snap-on straps. No one mentioned the excessively woolen caps. Was it all so serendipitous? Is serendipity to be believed? We wondered, when the AMSMB was joined in an amicus motion by the Pre-Holidays Happiness Sub-Committee (M. Barriston, W. Weiss). Of course, every petition has petitioners, every dollar its admirers.

If only. In the subsequent filing period, the “cooling off,” due diligence and discoveries. Around the practice field, an empty trombone case, a bell. Two uniform shirts balled in the trash behind the former Sewing Notions store (now boarded up with cardboard, tightly X-ed with tape). Then there was the unfortunate bassoon that no amount of cleaning would unclog. And the note intercepted from the clarinetist: such antipathy between a first and second chair.

After four, we could still hear the muted, brassy airs from far away, drums quick as a rabbit’s heart. Not that anyone would deny a child music, but. Who was that playing, considering the recent losses? The AMSMB appeared perplexed. So we voted, 5-2, to wait. “Maybe they can march in place,” quipped F. Czerniwicz, not all that helpfully.

Report from the Committee on Town Happiness

It would not have been feasible to keep adding members to our ranks, even though we had our feelings and our losses, so we voted, 4-2, not to open up the rolls (S. Avumito and W. Weiss abstaining, since they were so new). When the vote was tallied, we were wide-eyed. There was the outside prospect of a pall.

But on to business: the Committee on Town Happiness has been thinking about the Community Garden. All those mirrors of our personalities; who grows the cukes, who the cosmos, who the daffodils, who the ornamentals; who comes to dig at night rather than go home. Who composts, who sprays and with what. Who shares. We have voted, 6-1 (M. Barriston recused, due to her portfolio) that Community Garden plots shall hereby be awarded based on the applicant’s commitment to the Community Garden Market. We have voted, 6-1, to establish a Community Garden Market, staffed by volunteers who already work for the town. Not strictly “in this time of need,” although the phrase was entered into the minutes.

We think that growing and marketing vegetables and flowers together will bring us all together. Our bodies are what we have in common, after all. The organism business, the willingness to participate as people. We voted, 5-3, to recognize the relationship between togetherness and happiness—and maybe, as M. Espinoza said, the tightness of the vote was telling, but maybe not.

We, the Committee on Town Happiness, would like to thank the three representatives from the Community Garden who came so promptly despite the sirens, and who shall henceforth be recognized as the three representatives of the Community Garden Market. We thanked them formally, 8-0. The smiles accompanying our unanimity were what we most encouraged all to see.

–By Alan Michael Parker

Oct 252010

LR & S Umbagog


Herewith an essay on the techniques for indicating thought and emotion in prose while avoiding the pitfall of sentimentality. Laura-Rose Russell is a former student and a recent Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and a spectacular nonfiction writer. Please read her piece “Scented” in the Gettysburg  Review and you’ll see what I mean. This craft essay is Laura-Rose’s graduate lecture at VCFA, a terrific example of the genre, at once fiercely intelligent and passionately engaged and packed with craft information, a lesson on reading, and a narrative of her development as a writer. She does something in this lecture I’ve never seen anyone try before. She actually takes an example text and strips out the representation of emotion, motive, etc. to further clarify the profound effect these techniques have on a piece of writing.


There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality

By Laura-Rose Russell


Sentimentality is an excessive expression of emotion, one that goes beyond what is warranted. The problem with sentimentality is that it actually diminishes the impact of events it is meant to enhance. Sentimentality also reduces the credibility of the writer or character that expresses such emotion. Debra Sparks says, “Sentimentality and coldness are falsehoods, two extremes of dishonesty. Sentimentality gives a moment more than it has earned, coldness less.” Sparks, in an article called “Handling Emotion in Fiction Writing,” points out that the word “sentimental” didn’t have a negative connotation until the 19th century, when it came to mean, not only excessive emotion, but emotion period. To be sentimental meant “to be governed by sentiment in opposition to reason.”

But when we say that writers should avoid sentimentality, we don’t mean they should avoid emotion altogether. Tolstoy says, “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them” (qtd. in Sparks). What, then, is excessive emotion? Is there a chart somewhere that we can refer to? How much emotion am I permitted when I lose my car keys? How much when I lose a loved one?

We are all familiar with the advice to show rather than tell, and nowhere is this emphasized more than regarding emotions. “Good writers,” John Gardner says, “may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the character’s feelings” (Burroway, 80). Janet Burroway discusses how Stanislavski, the founder of “Method” acting, “urged his students to abandon the clichéd emotive postures of the nineteenth century stage in favor of emotions evoked by the actor’s recollection of sensory details connected with a personal past trauma . . . Similarly, in written fiction, if the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may be triggered by the reader’s own sense memory” (80). “Get control of emotion by avoiding the mention of emotion,” says John L’Heureux (Burroway, 81). The message seems pretty clear: don’t name emotions.

But during a recent workshop I attended, Douglas Glover, one of the workshop leaders, broached the subject of explicit versus implicit information. We were debating whether a character in a student’s story was essentially self-serving and taking advantage of another character or whether the character was fundamentally well intentioned but seriously misguided. Glover interrupted our debate to ask us where in the text were we getting the information to support one argument or another? We would cite this line, or that phrase, and Glover would point out that these words and phrases were actually quite ambiguous; we were coming up with a wide range of interpretation regarding points that were pivotal to the story. “Isn’t this what writing is about?” we asked, “suggesting things and letting your reader ‘read between the lines’?” Glover said as writers we do not have the leisure to be quite so ambiguous. Is it any wonder why we were confused? We were trying so hard to follow the rule we had been taught: show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell.

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