The Wide Net and Other Stories by Eudora Welty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Wide Net is Welty’s second collection of stories. I’ve read her memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, her Pulitzer prize winning Optimist’s Daughter, and a few of her more well-known stories, but this was my first experience reading one of her full short story collections. My favorite story in this collection was the title story, in which a simple country man gathers up a rag tag team of other country guys to go looking for his missing pregnant wife. It’s actually quite a funny story with characters that felt real enough to touch. The river, the animals, and trees are still fresh in my mind. Doc, the owner of the “wide net” has this little jewel of monologue:
“‘Any day now the change will come. It’s going to turn from hot to cold, and we can kill the hog that’s ripe and have fresh meat to eat. Come one of these nights and we can wander down here and tree a nice possum. Old Jack Frost will be pinching things up. Old Mr. Winter will be standing in the door. Hickory tree there will be yellow. Sweet-gum red, hickory yellow, dogwood red, sycamore yellow.’ He went along rapping the tree trunks with his knuckle. ‘Magnolia and live-oak never die. Remember that. Persimmons will all get fit to eat, and the nuts will be dropping like rain all through the woods here. And run, little quail run, for we’ll be after you too” (48).
Can you get more Mississippi than that? Some of these stories I couldn’t have understood without the benefit of Google. For example, “First Love” is the author’s imagining story of Aaron Burr’s clandestine meetings and subsequent capture and trial for treason near Natchez, Mississippi. “Asphodel” is heavy with Greek mythology, and “A Still Moment,” is a chance meeting between John James Audubon, a preacher, and a bandit. Still some of these stories, I didn’t completely grasp. They were dreamlike and just generally mystifying, full of vague signifiers, and possible allusions to sex and sexuality? I read these more for the the feeling that they invoked rather than trying to fully grasp the literal significance.
Welty’s descriptions of nature are astounding, eerie, mystical. “Late at night the whole sky was lunar, like the surface of the moon brought as close as a cheek” (19). These are the kinds of unearthly images that will stay with me from this collection.
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How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m five years too late in reading this book, but better late than never. Kiese Laymon is not afraid to spit fire, to point fingers, to get to the heart of the truth. This book is worth reading just for the essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” Like this line: “I’m not the smartest boy in the world by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that easy remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just slower, more acceptable ways for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America” (45). Damn. I didn’t realize that Laymon was such a devotee of hip hop–a few of his essays dive into this passion of his, some of which went over my head. But his language flows as if it is supposed to be read aloud. So good. I wanted to read this book of essays before diving into his memoir. Glad I did.
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Last week I completed the first semester of my creative writing MFA! I passed with all A’s, but more importantly, I feel like I have gained confidence as a writer. Here are some highlights:
- I wrote fiction and not all of it sucked. Going into the program, I knew my strength was in writing nonfiction, but that I wanted to use the MFA as an opportunity to try new forms and expand my skill set as a writer. My fiction workshop (well, all my classes, really) was still very challenging, but I produced a few things that I’m proud of, including a story that my MFA program chose to submit to the AWP Intro Journals Project. And best of all, I had fun making stuff up.
- I learned how to give and receive constructive feedback. It sounds cliche, but I learned just as much reading others’ work as I did sharing my own. I tried to be generous in giving suggestions, enthusiasms, and critiques. In turn, I was more aware of avoiding certain pitfalls in my own writing. Or I tried to emulate a craft technique that one of my classmates had done to great success. And hearing others’ feedback on my work was validating and helpful. I learned that in nonfiction, I need to tell more, give more insight into my thought process, offer confident, “sweeping generalizations” (a la Phillip Lopate). In fiction, I learned to heighten and draw out the tension, to not end so quickly and abruptly, to explore my narrators’/characters’ impulses and desires more fully.
- I read diverse and interesting books! I took a class called “Works in Conversation,” a literature class where we explored “literary fan fiction.” We read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, among others. In my fiction workshop we read experimental works by Amina Cain, Steven Dunn, and Carmen Machado. In that workshop, we wrote “imitations” of these authors’ styles or some element of their craft. I found that the imitations gave me room to play and helped me free myself from self doubt.
- I wrote a lot. I REVISED a lot. There was a lot of emphasis on revision in both my fiction and nonfiction workshops. Not just little revisions, but big structural revisions. One of my essays transformed into something completely different than how it started, save for a couple paragraphs. I learned that nothing is wasted, even the 12 pages of dialogue and description that didn’t make the cut. Often, it wasn’t until a few pages in, that I figured out what I was really writing about. This discovery process was in turns frustrating and exciting.
Last semester I took 11 credits, which was overwhelming, especially when multiple creative projects were due the same week. I didn’t have time or energy for the gym. I ate more frozen pizza than a normal person should. I didn’t go out much with friends. Next semester I’ll be taking 6 credits–a fiction workshop and “Forms of Drama.” I’m looking forward to pacing myself, taking more risks, submitting more of my work, and generally diving deeper into my writing.