Against the Slippery Slope of Evil: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire”


The road to moral hell is paved with gradual self-permission.


Against the Slippery Slope of Evil: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire”

“Under conditions of terror,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, “most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” Under such conditions, counting ourselves among the few who refuse to comply has less to do with whether we believe ourselves to be good than it does with the deliberate protections we must place between unrelenting evil and our own sanity and goodness, for among the most insaning aspects of tyrannical regimes is the Stockholm syndrome of the psyche they inflict upon us — upon ordinary people, not-evil people, people who consider themselves decent and good, but who slowly, through a cascade of countless small concessions, lose sight of the North Star of their native moral compass.

Therein lies the true seat of terror, the kind of terror James Baldwin meant when he made his chilling observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.” The Nobel-winning dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, who was expatriated for speaking inconvenient truth to power and sentenced to five years at a Soviet labor camp, captured this chilling dynamic perfectly as he contemplated the most powerful antidote to evil: “What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

How to strip that guise is what Wendell Berry, another poet of uncommon insight and courage of conviction, examines in his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire,” first published in 2009, later included his altogether magnificent poetry collection Leavings (public library), and generously read here by poetry-lover and my dear friend Amanda Palmer, with the lovely score of crickets in the summer night:

QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

  1. How much poison are you willing
    to eat for the success of the free
    market and global trade? Please
    name your preferred poisons.
  2. For the sake of goodness, how much
    evil are you willing to do?
    Fill in the following blanks
    with the names of your favorite
    evils and acts of hatred.
  3. What sacrifices are you prepared
    to make for culture and civilization?
    Please list the monuments, shrines,
    and works of art you would
    most willingly destroy.
  4. In the name of patriotism and
    the flag, how much of our beloved
    land are you willing to desecrate?
    List in the following spaces
    the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
    you could most readily do without.
  5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
    the energy sources, the kinds of security,
    for which you would kill a child.
    Name, please, the children whom
    you would be willing to kill.

Complement with Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska, and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman.

Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her work so that she may go on bringing beauty and bravery into this world.

HT Kottke


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Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet


“Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”


Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet

“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.

Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Macfarlane writes:

We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.

Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

[…]

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).

Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).

Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:

“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.

To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.

One of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known, pioneering mushroom illustrations, which scientists use to this day to identify fungi species.

Perhaps the underland’s richest and most dimensional lens on deep time — and space, and self — comes from some of Earth’s most poorly understood yet most essential organisms: fungi. Besides serving as a kind of central nervous system for the forest, fungi account for a quarter of Earth’s biomass and furnish the world’s largest organism — the colossal honeycomb fungus of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, dwarfing the blue whale with its mycelial span of nearly four square miles and its girth of two and a half miles. Four decades after Lewis Thomas wrote about how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most exquisite thing I’ve ever read on the subject, from one of the most poetic science writers who ever lived — Macfarlane draws kindred revelations from the underdog kingdom:

All taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin. Fungi thwart our usual senses of what is whole and singular, of what defines an organism, and of what descent or inheritance means. They do strange things to time, because it is not easy to say where a fungus ends or begins, when it is born or when it dies. To fungi, our world of light and air is their underland, into which they tentatively ascend here and there, now and then.

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Masters at the long view of survival, fungi offer a model of unparalleled grit — they were among the first organisms to return to the site of atomic devastation in Hiroshima and their soil presence is an indicator of a forest’s resilience. With an eye to the wisdom of the more-than-human world, to which native cultures have been attuned for millennia and modern science is only just beginning to awaken, Macfarlane considers how fungi challenge us to reconceive some of our basic human constructs:

Orthodox “Western” understandings of nature feel inadequate to the kinds of world-making that fungi perform. As our historical narratives of progress have come to be questioned, so the notion of history itself has become remodelled. History no longer feels figurable as a forwards-flighting arrow or a self-intersecting spiral; better, perhaps, seen as a network branching and conjoining in many directions. Nature, too, seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single gleaming snow-peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, nor as a diorama that we deplore or adore from a distance — but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part. We are coming to understand our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.

A century and a half after Whitman’s famed observation that we contain multitudes, Macfarlane roots the metaphysical insight in the physical reality of our creaturely nature, entwined with other natures:

We are beginning to encounter ourselves — not always comfortably or pleasantly — as multi-species beings already partaking in timescales that are fabulously more complex than the onwards-driving version of history many of us still imagine ourselves to inhabit.

Given that we have hard enough a time living with full awareness of our belonging to the web of life, of our intricate connection to other living beings, it takes a special wakefulness to fathom our connection to nonliving matter. Even if we know that we are made of dead stars, it is only an abstract knowledge. We so easily forget “the singularity we once were,” as the poet Marie Howe so splendidly captured our cosmic belonging. In the underland, moving through the time-stamped bedrock of being, Macfarlane finds a powerful reminder:

We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But here in the rift it feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle. Over aeons, rock absorbs, transforms, levitates from seabed to summit.

[…]

We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

The mineralization of living matter, with its mediation of life and death, furnishes a profound lens on our humanity, on the interchange between being and has-being:

Geologists and palaeobiologists speak of “trace fossils.” A trace fossil is the sign left in the rock record by the impress of life rather than life itself. A dinosaur footprint is a trace fossil. The enigmatic doughnut-shaped flints called “paramoudra” are thought to be the trace fossils of a burrowing worm-like creature that lived vertically in the seabed during the Cretaceous, its breathing organs just above the level of the silt. Boreholes, funnels, pipes, slithers and tracks are all trace fossils — stone memories where the mark-maker has disappeared but the mark remains. A trace fossil is a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.

We all carry trace fossils within us — the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace — and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Couple Underland, a wondrous read in its entirety, with Macfarlane’s poetic rebellion against the impoverishment of our nature-related lexicon, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd — whose work Macfarlane resurfaced after decades of obscurity — on how mountains deepen our relationship with nature.


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Joanna Rowland’s Storystorm Success Story


by Joanna Rowland

A few years ago I started following Tara Lazar on Twitter. Not only does she have a great blog that is full of resources and is helpful to writers, but she’s also a great author herself. Then I discovered Tara Lazar’s Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo). I used to try and fail at NaNoWriMo, but writing 31 different ideas for a month sounded like a goal I could reach and it would be fun.

I had just sold my second picture book THE MEMORY BOX: A BOOK ABOUT GRIEF in November of 2016 and I needed some time to figure out what to write about next.

Luckily, as a teacher I have the beginning of January off so I can really focus on Storystorm at kickoff. In January 2017, I was up at the family cabin when a snow storm came in. So there on my second day of  Storystorm I just wrote the word storm.  There is so much I love about storms. The only problem was I didn’t have an idea of how to tackle the story. What was my story?

What I’ve learned about my writing process is that sometimes I get a topic before the story. With my first book ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD (Tilbury, 2014), I knew I wanted to write a positive picture book on divorce. I knew I wanted the topic of divorce before I knew what my story was. I was reading WHEN I WAS LITTLE: A Four–Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth by Jamie Lee Curtis to my Kindergarten class. Her book went back and forth with memories of when she was little to her now big age of FOUR. Something struck me in that moment of reading and I thought, What if I write a book about a child that goes back and forth between time with mom and time with dad? I wrote ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD based on that structure and it allowed me to write about divorce and separation and the child’s relationship with each parent in a positive light.

A month before ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD was to be released, a relative that was intended to receive my picture book on divorce and was one the inspirations behind it, tragically lost her father. So then I knew I needed to write a book on grief. I didn’t know what my story was, but I knew it needed to be written. About a month after trying to write about grief, our synchronized swimming team got devastating news that one of our beloved swimmers and coaches was diagnosed with cancer. Within six months, our sweet Marisa, who I used to coach and who swam with my niece and daughters, passed away.  It was so heartbreaking.

I had to get this story right. I think going through grief and taking my youngest to her first funeral at age six, helped me find a way to talk about death with my youngest and find the heart of the story. It still took me over two years to get the story right, but again the topic of grief came before the story.

THE MEMORY BOX: A BOOK ABOUT GRIEF won a gold from The Mom’s Choice Award, St. Jude Hospital read it on their Day of Remembrance to families that attended around the world, and it recently sold Dutch and Simplified Foreign Rights. It’s been such a blessing to see and hear how hospitals and counselors are using it. I think my editor Andrew DeYoung was also touched to see how this book has been helping people. He emailed me on his paternity leave to pitch an idea for a companion. Coming Spring of 2020, THE MEMORY BOOK: A GRIEF JOURNAL FOR FAMILIES will be out. Families will be able to write, add pictures, and draw in their own keepsake journal of their loved one. This can be something they add inside their own memory box.

After the years writing THE MEMORY BOX, I now know when a topic lingers, I’m meant to hold on to it.  I kept thinking about storms and what I could do, but nothing really inspired me. Then as I was listening to the radio, Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” came on and it really made me feel something. So I kept driving around and thinking. I find thinking/writing about difficult topics usually will bring out my best writing or story ideas. I was actually thinking about a childhood friend that died by suicide and how I wished he had stayed. And then the word STAY hit me and I knew I had found my storm story.

I wanted to show friendship through a storm. So my little word storm that I wrote on the second day of Storystorm back on January 2, 2017 took over 9 months to find its true story, but it finally sold to editor Andrew DeYoung of Beaming Books. He took such great care of my second book THE MEMORY BOX that I was beyond thrilled to work with him again.

STAY THROUGH THE STORM is about friendship during a storm. Many kids have fears of actual storms, so kids will be able to relate that fear and it shows ways of being a friend during a real storm. But it is also a metaphor that I think adults will be able to find their own meaning to. One thing I’m very passionate about is mental health and writing books that may help people through difficult times. This story is about being there for one another during the dark and scary times and knowing the storm will pass. You’re not alone.

So my advice is to listen. What topics won’t let go of you? It may take a month, a year, or more, but search for the story that comes from your heart.

Thank you Tara for all that you do to inspire writers and for creating challenges like this where you encourage writers to stop and take the time just to jot down ideas for a month and see where it takes you.

And thank you, Joanna, for sharing your Storystorm success story!

You can visit Joanna at writerrowland.com and follow her on Twitter @writerrowland.

And please join the next Storystorm—a free brainstorming event open to all writers—in January 2020!



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Finalists revealed in 2019 Guardian 4th Estate short story prize


The award for fiction by new BAME writers has selected an all-female shortlist, with subjects ranging across genres, generations and continents

A summons for jury service forces a student to reassess her father’s nurturing skills and the values of the British society in which they live, while a friendship between two schoolgirls reveals the murky depths of Nigeria’s political history. Jenna Mahale’s Packed Lunch and Arenike Adebajo’s The Hyacinth Girls are among six stories in contention for the 2019 Guardian 4th Estate short story prize, now in its fourth year.

The all-female shortlist was selected from nearly 200 entries. Both Mahale and Adebajo hold a fine balance between the personal and the political, as does Jameen Kaur in Once We Were Warriors, which explores the pride and the pain of a Sikh family struggling to deal with a drug-addicted son.

The summer before our family fell apart, a legend started on our estate. I was ten at the time, and like every other ten year old, all I wanted to do was spend summer riding around on my bike at the park near our house. The climbing frames in the park were rusty and completely discoloured – unless whoever built them had intended brown to be the colour of childhood excitement – so it didn’t appeal to many parents as an after-school site. Also, I’m pretty sure that drug dealers used to hang out there but I never met any, so how much of a presence could they have been really, you know?

“Hooligans,” my mother would say, shaking her head as the plantain simmered in the frying pan. She was cooking three things at once, as per usual, and the plantain was always the loudest, though no match for her voice. “That’s what you want to be, abi Marcus? One of those ye-ye boys who hangs around this place, anyhow?”

The night before I was due to begin jury duty for the first time, I asked my dad to help me make a sandwich to take with me in the morning. We had argued about something recently, though I can’t remember what. It was impossible to keep track.

So when I asked him to help me make the sandwich, I was partly extending an olive branch, but partly just seeking a non-hostile interaction with my father.

1964: the year his marriage ended. The year his record stopped spinning, the needle in his groove lifted haltingly, and with a snap returned his tone arm to its cradle.

He had never wanted Marilyn. Not her prim-girl curls hot-combed into place on her head. Not her full-moon face so earnest that the sight of it irritated him. He hadn’t wanted to hear, I’m eight weeks gone! We have to marry, the corners of her mouth drooping. He hadn’t wanted the ceremony in Hackney Town Hall, his signature and hers in the register (but he had wanted the tonic mohair suit that made him look like a prince). He hadn’t wanted to live in rented rooms above a shop, with Marilyn asking, But where will the baby sleep? He hadn’t wanted any of this. He had come to England to find work, to do something with his life, to send photographs of his handsome Jamaican self back home to his Grandma, make her proud. Dear Granny, I hope that when these few lines reach you they will find you well …

‘Check the time and date properly on the ticket. I don’t want us getting a fine. I’m still paying off your brother’s overdraft,’ said Mum, as she pulled herself out of the car.

I was pleased they had come. When they called this morning, I thought they were calling to cancel. It being a Saturday and we all knew what usually kicked off on a Friday night. The police were well versed to the goings-on. But here they were. ‘This is a Bengali area – Tower Hamlets. You know, there were race riots here,’ I said.

When I met Ọláídé, I was on punishment duty. Nabilah’s doing. She was being particularly vindictive after we stopped speaking; becoming a prefect had gone to her head and she’d banished me to the field to cut weeds. The elephant grass was thick, itchy against my calves as I thwacked at stalks furiously. The cutlass was too blunt. Wet ground underfoot sucked at my trainers, spat mud up my legs and spattered the hem of my skirt. I straightened up, and peered at the school building behind me, stark white against clouds that threatened showers.

My classmates would be in the canteen by now, gossiping over fried rice, cool in the air conditioning. Taking a water-warped book and an apple from my satchel, I moved towards the shade of a flame tree.

We are always barefoot. I try to explain this to the police officers who arrive from the mainland.

We’re quieter this way and we need to be quiet when we’re stalking wild animals in the pine forest. Heaven walks in front because she’s the oldest, then me because I’m the youngest, then Bluebird at the rear. When I tell the black policeman we were hunting, Heaven shakes her head. She tells him we were at home. He looks at me, then her, then back at me. We’re sitting at the kitchen table, the soles of our feet muddy and bleeding. Well, says the officer, which one is it?

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Too busy? Distracted by your phone? How to love reading again


If reading has given way in your life to social media and other distractions, it can be hard to return to books – but these tips could help

In 2019, books are not just a last resort when the wifi is down. There are Instagram accounts, podcasts and even subscription boxes dedicated to reading. Chances are you’ve noticed your friends joining book clubs or posting beautifully lit bookstagram photos. Reading is – if it ever was – cool again.

Why? Perhaps for the same reason we’ve seen a surge in interest in hobbies such as jigsaws and cross-stitch: right now, our brains are saturated with digital information so it’s no surprise that we’re returning to unplugged hobbies. (But also going online to talk about them.)

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Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human


“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”


Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:

Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.

You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:

Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:

The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:

We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.

Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:

A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.

The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.

So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.


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'My nerves are going fast': The Grapes of Wrath’s hard road to publication


Famously written in 100 days, John Steinbeck’s novel drew on years of other work and an agonised sense of duty to migrant farm workers

In March 1938, shortly before he began working on The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis to turn down a commission to write about migrant workers.

“The suffering is too great for me to cash in on it … it is the most heartbreaking thing in the world,” he wrote. “I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person’s effort can’t really do anything doesn’t seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money. I can’t rationalise it for myself anyway. So don’t get me a job for a slick.”

Related: The 100 best novels: No 65 – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with a beautiful example of nominative determinism. Isabella Tree’s Wilding has affected Wellfitbooty “more than any book I’ve read in many years”:

It’s the story of a large farm in Sussex, England, which chose about 20 years ago to stop intensive farming and allow its lands to return to nature. It is now home to many threatened species, including the turtle dove and emperor butterfly; is home to all 5 species of British owl, 11 species of bats – and countless other insects and birds.

The author is one of the owners and the style is very readable and engaging – in fact I couldn’t put it down. The principles in the book can be applied to gardens of any size … I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Taking me back to my childhood when I borrowed this off my older brother and thought it was hilarious… It still stands up as a funny and enjoyable read. I’ve got the next couple of books in the series and will move onto them at some point.

For the 15th time I think. I call it my summer book. It never fails to delight me.

An incredible true-story romp about an English spy hired by Lenin’s Cheka to capture himself. Bailey a national treasure who deserves more recognition.

It’s a quiet, understated book, but every line is so well crafted and has such power. The lessons it teaches are, when you write them down, obvious. Everyone needs love, physical contact, to feel wanted and like their company is a pleasure, not a burden. And yet it’s so easy to forget that everybody else feels these things in the cavalcade and clamour of everyday life.. Elizabeth Taylor’s empathy, compassion and ability to portray the irreducible human core of her characters are utterly remarkable and I thoroughly recommend Mrs Palfrey … to anyone who hasn’t read it.

It’s a series of linked short stories about a high-school class in Texas, most of them troubled, and their teacher who is equally so, being confined in a sort of capitalist asylum where they give Wellness Points(TM) for fulfilling various therapeutic tasks. The construction is ingenious – you might say gimmicky, but I like that kind of thing: the title story, for example, consists of the essays written by the students on how their favourite mythical creature might solve some world problem (though a lot of the problems chosen, inevitably, are on a more personal scale). Funny and moving. I love the fact that the most feared teacher is referred to simply as “The Sir”.

I picked this up on a whim in Foyles because it was a beautiful, signed copy. It’s a fast-paced story of three Pakistani young people (one of them British-Pakistani), negotiating their culture, religion etc. One of them is gay and struggling to accept it, another is from a very privileged background, another is from a slum of Karachi. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving it away. I was absolutely loving this and was about to praise it to the skies but I wasn’t too sure about the ending. Still, very good.

Not quite as good as The Corrections and Freedom, but then that might only be because of how the account of Tom and Annabel’s relationship makes me feel. It’s awful – the feeling of dread I felt throughout that section, the nerves, the butterflies, the absurd behaviour. It’s been a long time since a book made me feel that way.

He is amazing at threading stories together. It doesn’t even matter that it’s occasionally haphazard – realising things in a non-linear order affects the way you realise them (and changes what you thought you knew). There have been two or three moments that made me sit up and exclaim “FUCK” or “OH MY GOD”.

Catch-22 attracts all the plaudits but this is well worth checking out as a study of the office environment and the feeling of ‘Is this all there is?’ It’s as sharp as TV’s Mad Men, which I suspect was influenced by it. I read about one third of the book in a single evening until the early hours. It’s that good.

Toni Morrison’s essays and criticism in the New York Times.

“Pour another gallon into the bucket of our national grief, David Berman is gone.” A moving tribute to the great man.

This American Life’s Ira Glass on narrative storytelling.

The novel F Scott Fitzgerald never wrote.

“Even though the letters were from David Foster Wallace, Susan says that the letters as physical objects didn’t seem particularly special at the beginning.” They seem pretty special now.

200 years of Herman Melville.

It is not reassuring to know that a Supreme Court judge was a Shakespeare conspiracy theorist. (Hat tip to Swelter.)

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Not the Booker prize 2019: three more finalists revealed


After the public vote last week, our judges and book champions reveal their choices to complete the six-novel field. Let’s start reading!

We now have a full size Not the Booker prize shortlist. Following on from the public vote, our judges from last year have selected Spring by Ali Smith, while our nominated book champions from Storyhouse library in Chester and Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh have chosen Flames by Robbie Arnott and Supper Club by Lara Williams respectively.

I’m eager to read these new additions – not least because I’ve read what our expert team of selectors have to say about them.

It interweaves the story of the McAllister family with a cast of characters including a grumpy coffin-maker, a fisherman who hunts with a seal, a river god, an alcoholic private detective and an increasingly unhinged wombat farmer. Each of these characters has a very different voice and style, and Arnott is unafraid to experiment with different narrative forms … the way these seemingly disparate characters interact with each other is deftly done and the ending had me in tears. This book has been nominated for Australian literary prizes but definitely deserves a wider readership in other countries.

Our selection caused a lot of discussion but, in the end, we went with the brilliant debut Supper Club. A powerfully visceral read, it tells the story of a secret society of women hungry for more than the awful men in their lives can ever give them. Determined to be more than their lot, they quaff, sing and dance until their bodies grow huge from their defiance. Truly brilliant dark fiction with a cover to die for. We also had the pleasure of hosting Lara for the launch for Supper Club, and can vouch she is as excellent a human as she is a writer. We’re really excited about this new talent and we hope she wins!

Spring is the third of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, a highlight of each literary year with their rhythmic examination of contemporaneous events through wordplay, historical resonance, female artists who capture past decades (here Katherine Mansfield and the 1920s), Dickens, Charlie Chaplin and Shakespeare’s late romances (here Pericles). [Read his full review on Goodreads here.]

Spring is, to me, a profoundly affecting book: about ways of seeing, ways of knowing, ways of understanding, ways of loving. The book’s coincidences, in the words of one of the characters in the book, are of the kind “that sends electricity through the truths of our lives.”

Spring is a timely and powerful novel which touches on the crises of our contemporary world while maintaining a strong core of humanity and a dash of humour.

12. Three readers will be selected by the Guardian to form a panel of judges from those readers who have made substantial contributions to the discussion of the shortlisted books. The process by which these readers are chosen is also left studiously vague and at the Guardian’s discretion. These judges undertake to read at least three of the six-book shortlist before the final judging meeting.

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How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness”


evoke readers emotionsHave you ever read a book for a second, third, even tenth time—just to experience the emotion the story evokes? Clearly the elements of the story aren’t a surprise. You know exactly what to expect. If so, you were benefiting from an author who knew how to evoke reader emotions.

Literary agent Donald Maass says that emotions are most effectively evoked by trickery–when readers aren’t noticing we are manipulating them. He says:

Artful fiction surprises readers with their own feelings.

I can honestly say that, as a reader, the best novels do just that. They evoke such emotions from me—unexpected emotions—that I am stunned by my own reactions.

We writers want to evoke emotion throughout our novels—big, small, expected, and unexpected—so that even when readers know what emotion is being stirred in them, when they see what’s coming, it doesn’t reduce the impact.

The Net of “Surprisingness”

C.S. Lewis said people go back and reread certain stories over and over not to be surprised (because the reader already knows what is going to happen) but for the “surprisingness.” It’s the quality of unexpectedness that delights us, just as it does children who want the same story read over and over. The fact that children know what is about to happen only makes them more excited. Like children, we savor the richness of a story again and again.

C.S. Lewis

Lewis calls the plot of the story “the net whereby to catch something else.” That“something” is what he refers to as “much more than a state or quality.” Real life, he says, is a series of events, but if that is all it is, there is no deeper meaning or feeling of adventure. That net of the story, for a little while, transcends us and entangles us in the wonder and awe of living. That is what Lewis says the best stories will do.

When we can catch readers in a net of emotions—especially unexpected and surprising ones—that’s powerful magic.

Research shows when someone is surprised, dopamine increases and emotions intensify up to 400%. Heightened attention ensues, as does extreme curiosity, in an attempt to figure out what is happening.

Surprise also causes a shift. It forces a change in perspective. Your reader becomes hyper-alert, curious, in the moment, a perfect state for receiving the unexpected emotion.

How to Evoke Reader Emotions That Are Unexpected

art of racing in the rain garth steinWhen I began to read the chapter in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain in which Enzo the beloved narrator dog is dying, I just knew what was going to happen to me, what I was about to get into. Most people relate to losing a pet. Most people share that universal affection for sweet animal companions.

While I have met many readers who confessed they wept their heart out reading this joyously sad scene, I imagine some readers weren’t moved at all. But I bet almost everyone who read that book felt something. You don’t bother to read a novel told in “first-person dog POV” if you don’t like dogs. And it says something that this novel was on the NYT’s bestseller list for 156 weeks.

The key to its brilliance lies solely in neither the wonderful writing nor the universal resonance of “it’s so horrible to lose someone (person or animal) you love.” Rather, it’s the masterful execution of the scene as joyously sad. I chose that phrase to make a point: when unexpected emotions are evoked in us, it awes us.

Pay attention to that.

You wouldn’t expect a scene that has you watching a dog die—one that breaks your heart—to make you simultaneously happy even to the point of laughing. That’s what makes that scene so brilliant. The whole time I was crying in anguish, I was also laughing with joy. The scene was absolutely authentic in every way. It was utterly surprising as much as it was totally expected.

Don’t Try to Name Emotions

I can’t put a name to the composite emotion I felt when reading Enzo’s death scene. I could toss around a whole lot of words, but trying to name complex emotions is like trying to catch the wind with chopsticks. The secret lies in Hemingway’s brilliant advice:

Find what gave you the emotion . . . then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.

Think of it this way. You might not know what to name a particular color shade, but if you have a few tubes of paint and play around with the quantities, you just might be able to re-create the color. That’s what you need to do with the words on your palette to create the same emotion you wish readers to experience.

There is something to be said about building intimacy with characters. It might be hard to evoke emotion in readers for a character to whom they have only just been introduced. This is why Garth Stein placed his most powerful emotional scene near the end of the book, when readers are fully committed to Enzo and Denny, so it might pack the biggest emotional punch.

If you haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the power of “surprisingness.” Those of you  who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story. Note the universal feelings the old dog Enzo expresses that make you think, Me too!

Garth Stein does a brilliant job of not only conveying Enzo’s complex emotions, which are both expected and unexpected, but evoking so many emotions in the reader.

Finding a way to surprise your character and your reader adds micro-tension to your pages. This sparks those emotions in your readers that keep them engaged, whether it be something positive like amusement or negative like outrage or fear. Know how you want your readers to feel and lead them there.

***

Yes, readers love to be surprised. The unexpected surprises us. It might scare us, delight us, or move us profoundly. Yet, often a character’s reaction to a situation is wholly predictable and still it moves us deeply. Consider just about any love story that ends in happily ever after. Predictability really has nothing to do with emotional impact. It’s how the story is shown that matters—how those emotions are conveyed in a way that is believable, masterful, and moving.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in C.S. Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get half off using this link!

Emotional Mastery Course Imag

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you hope to evoke reader emotions by the end of your story? Tell us in the comments!

The post How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness” appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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