Sep 172010

#1: At War with Clarity

It might seem anti-climactic to end these posts with a topic as simple as clear-writing, but this lesson encompasses those that preceded it.  In fact, with little exaggeration, all the previous nine posts led straight to this one.  Clarity does necessarily mean simplicity.  It also does not mean strict realism or attempts to capture verisimilitude.  Clarity in writing is not just how the writer conveys words but how he thinks about writing.  It involves being clear and in control of what you are trying to say before you put pen to paper.  It’s not always expressed on the page, but clarity must be discovered in the writer’s mind.

For most of my writing life, I’d been at war with clarity, which meant I’d been at war with my own mind.

Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that clarity was not a virtue in writing, but a sign of weakness.  I wrote with a thesaurus at my side, convinced that if I up-armored my stories with big words and abstract characters, no one would notice the stumbling mess of structure and inept storytelling which those words tried to conceal.  I didn’t realize that I was fighting a counterinsurgency against my own confusion and ignorance about the nature of good writing.  All my attempts to gussy up my prose took me further and further away from the heart of a good story.

When I wrote a weak scene or if a chapter stalled out, rather than staying with it and thinking my way through (which demanded the hard work a writer must do), I would race back to some earlier part of the book and start blasting plain words off the page.  I filled my stories with half-deranged characters speaking through hijacked, quasi-intelligences in the form of fuzzy characterization.  I littered my pages with obscure allusions to even more obscure books.  It’s fair to say that I sought confusion, hoping that it would pass as mystery or intrigue.  These stories were destined to fail because with each escalation of vagueness, with each minefield of fancy rhetoric and symbolism, I crept further and further away from anything resembling a real story.  I didn’t realize that the true enemy in these pitched battles was my inability to write a story.

And it felt like hard work, struggling as I imagined real writers struggled.

The truth was that I had no fucking clue what I was doing.  But what I wouldn’t do, what I fought against tooth and nail, was being obvious.  If someone reached for a dictionary to read my stories, then kudos to me!  DG nicely summarizes this conundrum in his essay “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise.”

“The fear of being too obvious is a common failing of inexperienced short story writers.  Excessive obliquity leads straight to the purgatory of vagueness…Students speckle their stories with symbols, clues and hints instead of saying what they mean and telling the reader how to read the story like real writers.  They want to be interpreted (the effect of too many English literature classes) instead of being read.”

Because I didn’t know how to tell a story, I masked my ignorance with vague and abstract images.  I thought that by using big words, and lots of them, I could camouflage  the utter lack of a story.

Clarity meant simplicity, and any lunkhead could tell a simple story, I figured.  Only an artistic lunkhead (like me) would spend hours looking for the perfect word.     Continue reading »

Sep 172010

Several months ago, when this re-entry into hell began, I set out to collect and share some of the many lessons I’d learned from the brutal, tumultuous orgy of unrelenting pain and suffering at the hands of  NC moderator.  While this list evolved, I’ve had time to think of ten more, and ten after that, but for the sake of those poor readers who’ve followed this serial installment, the end is near.

Here is the opening statement from my original post:

What follows are informal thoughts on the top-ten things I learned this semester.  Caveat 1: I learned way more than ten things.  (At least eleven or twelve.)  I’m setting out to reveal the 10 most consistent mistakes I made and looking at a few outside sources to help clarify my explanation.  I hope that the NC moderator (and my former advisor) will feel free to comment, correct or criticize any of the entries for future students.  (I’m also sure that future students will be better-versed in these things, and less likely to make the same mistakes I did.)  Caveat 2:  I didn’t come from a literary background, so please don’t laugh too much if some of these seem woefully obvious.

And now, without further delay, a recap of the top ten, counting down towards the grand finale, the number one thing I learned last semester.

10.  Use attributed dialogue

9.  Pronouns Without Antecedents Are Abstractions

8.  My Dirty Little Secret: Grammar Issues

7.  Letting Go

6.  Letting Characters Speak the Truth

5.  My Love Affair with Abstractions

4. Use Caution When Exiting the Bathtub: Shy and Retiring Plot Problems

3.  Deficiencies of Desire

2.  Verbs

1.  Will be revealed later today.

-Rich Farrell

Sep 172010

Trekking on top of the Perito Moreno glacier

An Estancia in Patagonia

Donigan Merritt

Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, like to refer to their city as the Paris of Latin America. It is not. (Neither was Prague when calling itself the new Paris.) Depending on one’s level of chauvinism, this may or may not be seen as a compliment, but what Porteños can accurately claim is that their city is the most European and the least Latino city anywhere in the Americas.

Buenos Aires is thought to represent Argentina, but it does not. At least Porteños should hope it does not. People outside of Latin America usually know five things about Argentina: Eva Peron’s crying song, the “dirty war,” the economic meltdown and debt default in the early years of the 21st century, steak houses, and Patagonia. Wise Porteños should claim that Patagonia is representative of the real Argentina.

Somewhat similar to “dude ranches” in the States, an estancia is a working ranch that now takes in guests to make ends meet. Although the word estancia simply means ranch, and many, if not most, are working ranches, not bucolic B and B’s with a few decorative cattle and sheep, plus a couple of decked-out gauchos strolling about in picturesque berets. Many estancias are huge, thousands of acres, particularly in the West Texas flat of the Pampas, where gauchos still work much as they have for two centuries.

The estancia at Nibepo Aike

Not all estancia guest ranches are alike. I have visited two. One just an hour and a half’s drive from the center of Buenos Aires, the other a long flight down the length of Argentina, to the bottom of Patagonia. The former is more hotel (two swimming pools, for example, one an infinity pool), with the only ranching activity being performed as a show for guests; their feature was horseback rides along the creek. The other was a working ranch with a large herd of range fed cattle, and even larger flocks of sheep. That one, Nibepo Aike, located a rough one hour slog on a ragged dirt road from the airport in the town of El Calafate, houses the few guests it can accommodate in a wing of the ranch house that used to bunk gauchos, and offers mainly one service: food and drink. Although they are helpful with directions and setting you up with excursions.

Joined by six friends from Europe, my wife and I spent a few days at Nibepo Aike this past January (mid-summer down here), using it mostly as a base from which to explore the nearby glaciers, in particular, the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the only glaciers in the world that is not receding rapidly; no one is quite sure why it is still expanding. The estancia is, convenient for explorations, on the far edge of the Glacier National Park, at the terminus of the dirt road from El Calafate – terminating because just past the estancia is the impassable Andes range and the border with Chile.

The view of the Andes and one of the small glacier lakes from the Estancia

The rooms are along each side of a narrow, creaking hallway leading away from the large main room, behind which is the kitchen, from where an amazing amount of food is delivered three times a day. Most of the décor remains from the days before guests were taken in, and the few additions fit nicely with what’s already there. My favorite piece was an ancient Underwood typewriter made into a lamp.

There is a large stone fireplace in the main room – a wonderful evening treat even in the middle of summer (it’s not much further down the road to the jump off to Antarctica, it’s worth remembering), to while away the late hours with a glass, or a bottle, of Argentina’s fine vino tinto – Malbec. When we were there, it was full, but that means only two other couples; with our eight people, that took all the rooms. One couple was Swiss, the other from Buenos Aires.

Gauchos bringing in the sheep in the afternoon

Awakening the first morning early, hoping to get in a long hike in the nearby hills, I encountered grazing cattle milling about on the lawn next to our room. The gauchos were already on their horses and at work. On the way in to have breakfast, two gauchos moved a group of fifty or sixty sheep along the road out front.

We spent that day hiking around one of the small lakes just a short walk from the estancia, and in the hills behind the estancia, that grow up to be the Andes on the other side. That night we were treated to a full Monty parilla (it means grill or BBQ), during which Malbec flowed through our glasses like water and burdened platters groaning under the heaping weight of cow and lamb parts, half of which I had never considered edible before. (I still hold that opinion about some of it.)

Only able to eat a bit of yogurt the next morning, we were picked up in a van and driven to the Glacier National Park, where we boarded a boat on Lake Argentina and wandered around among ethereally blue ice bergs and ice islands on our way to Perito Moreno.

Cooking up the lamb

There is no way to write about this that can come even close to what it looks like, up close and personal, and even less to be able to describe the sound of ice cracking within the glacier itself, and chunks the size of buses or houses exploding away from the glacier’s leading edge. The best I can do is say that ice cracking in a glacier sounds like a howitzer firing next door.

To come to Argentina and only see Buenos Aires, is like going to the United States and only visiting New York. What is best about this country, what is best about the United States, for that matter, is not to be found in its signature cities, but in the “out there,” and Patagonia is the most out there place I have ever seen.

—Donigan Merritt

Sep 152010

These photos were just too good to leave in the comment folder under the Novel-in-a-Box contest post. This is Anna Maria Johnson’s novel-in-a-box entry actually in a box–a lovely entry in a category all by itself. (Photos by Steven David Johnson.)


Sep 142010

DG’s friend and colleague at VCFA Nance Van Winckel has sent in two new photocollages to grace our pages. These are cross-genre, off-the-page, photo and graffiti mash-ups that push against the constrictions of conventional form in delightful ways and fit rather nicely in the Numéro Cinq aesthetic. Think of them as Not-Not Poems. Look at Nance’s web page for the latest news and links to online poems and stories. But also check out her Off The Page video from the summer residency and her Pho-toems by Nance Van Winckel video.

WORMHOLE IS TO THEORY AS FLAME IS TO FLINT (photocollage, 30" by 18")

ROO 'N BOOM LOVE MORE THAN YOU (Photocollage, 16" x 24")