Recently by Kelly Cherry:

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Examine your sentences. Use strong verbs wherever possible. Use the active, not the passive, voice. Try not to use the same words everyone else uses, unless you have a particular reason for making your piece flat. Flat is not what usually works, because flat is boring.

Examine your paragraphs. Do they lead from one to the other in a way that makes sense? Does each paragraph carry an interesting thought, a wonderful sentence, a joke, an astute observation, something to mull over? You do not have to have all of these in the same paragraph. George Garrett advised us to touch base with each of our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) on every single page. It is good advice.

If your piece contains chapters, ask yourself if you have started and ended them at the most effectual points. Until you reach the end of the piece, you want each chapter to tantalize the reader into the next chapter. This is called narrative drive. It was not always seen as essential, but today it is essential. Without narrative drive, a story withers on the vine. More… “Poetic Praise”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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All is completed, I said. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment, I said. Except.

Except now you have to do it all over again.

Maybe not all of you. Maybe only most of you. There are, after all, those painstaking writers who meticulously go over each sentence as it appears and polish it until it has just the right glossiness and hint of darkness. When it is as smooth as a milkshake. When it dances or sings or claps.

But make no mistake: Almost all of us have to do all of it all over again.

You may start by running a spelling and grammar search on the file in your computer. The search will clean up a few typos. Which helps, but, sadly, not all that much. After all, this is simply housecleaning, and like housecleaning, you need to do it repeatedly, i.e., every time you add to or alter your piece. You must also read, reread, reread again, and then reread some more. Some readers suggest reading backwards from the last page, especially when what you have written is poetry. What are you looking for? The tiniest things imaginable: reversed quotation marks, for example, and words that lack needed power, or a comma that should be a semicolon, a question mark that should be a period. Check spellings for capitals and hyphens. Check military abbreviations. Check all other abbreviations. This, unfortunately, is not fun. This is tedious. And you may find yourself nearly hysterical with anxiety.
More… “Revise Until You Drop”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Some stories have fantastical endings. Matthew Vollmer’s forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, a smart collection of short stories, begins with “Downtime,” wherein a dentist named Ted Barber is haunted by the loss of his wife, Tavey, who drowned on their honeymoon. He flew back to Valleytown, North Carolina, knowing that his wife’s body was stowed in the cargo bay of the plane he is on. He is now having a hot affair with his assistant, who is formidably competent and would be a great wife, but images and reminiscences of Tavey keep pulling him away from Allison. He has weird imaginings, weird dreams, or perhaps they are hallucinations. They are certainly hallucinatory. He swims with Tavey off the coast of Mexico and, after trying to shake her off — her dimly lit, sketchy, almost transparent body — he gives up. She hangs in and he finds himself giving into her. He allows her to find places in his body where she can hold onto him. He knows this is slightly insane, but he finally decides both women will be with him: one in the real world, one in another world. As odd or weird as this sounds, it is simply a metaphor for how a man whose wife has died must accommodate both the memory and the reality, the woman lost and the woman he needs now. At the same time, the image of the husband taking his dead wife’s corpse into his own body makes a striking impression. It is not unrelated to Franz Kafka’s insect in the Metamorphosis. And if you have not read the Metamorphosis, you must put down this essay right now and go straight there. Then read “Downtime.” More… “Imagined Endings”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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But first you have to write the ending.

Correction: First off, you must avoid any ending in which some godlike savior comes into the story to take care of everything and everyone. This is a deus ex machina, a last-minute, last-ditch, make-everything-right, sort-out-the-kinks-and-crinkles ending that satisfies no one.

Now: write an ending that is not deus ex machina.

We have already described one kind of ending. Beginning in medias res allows us to end with the beginning, which, done well, will then be surprising or informative, or both. More… “Cut the Cord”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I know that some of you have read this book, but perhaps not all of you, so please bear with me.

Nabokov was a Russian who knew English better than most Americans. He wrote Lolita in English and later translated it into Russian. You may have seen a film of it, but no film can depict Nabokov’s sublime and sometimes flamboyant English. The book is narrated (not always reliably) by Humbert Humbert, a literature professor in his 30s who falls in love with a 12-year-old child named Dolores Haze. This is shocking. The child has already had sex and aims to seduce Humbert Humbert. This is also shocking, though it may be one of Humbert’s lies. Humbert Humbert marries the child’s mother in order to be closer to Dolores, or, as he calls her, Lolita. This too is shocking. The book came out in the late 1950s, a few years before the Beatles shocked the world.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Thus the book begins. Humbert attributes his attraction to young girls a result of his loss of a childhood friend. This may be accurate or it may be an excuse. Either way, he agrees to marry Lolita’s mother, Charlotte. But before long, Charlotte falls out of the book. Humbert and Lolita, or “Lo,” launch themselves on a road trip, driving more or less aimlessly around the country. This is part of the middle. While Lo is convalescing in hospital, a Mr. Clare Quilty swoops in, like a hawk, to grab Lo away from Humbert. More… “Menacing Middles”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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This is where you get to play. Fool around. Insert a private joke. This is the no-sweat zone. All you have to do is show your reader around the world the two of you have entered.

Though I suppose I should mention here, before I go on, that not all stories have middles, or the middle is so undefined it’s hard to separate it from the beginning and the end. In Irwin Shaw’s compressed “Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” a man and woman — a married couple — discuss fidelity. She is in favor of it. He is uncertain he can be faithful for life.

They are walking together, down Fifth Avenue, on a sunny November day, but as the conversation develops, a gap opens between them. A crevasse. A tectonic plate. Side by side as they are, there is nevertheless between them a gulf like an earthquake. More… “Daydreams in Dresses”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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“Backstory” is a term used to refer to information that precedes the story at hand. Backstory fills us in on details that will prove important to the story (if it is not important, it shouldn’t be there, and maybe most stories have no backstory). Sometimes backstory weighs so much that it threatens to tip the story over backward; that’s not good either. But you can cut-and-paste until the surface is how you want it to be. Writing is actually a muscular sport and requires a good deal of trying this and trying that. Only if you are willing to do the hard work of lifting what needs lifting can you expect to find your way to that perfect surface.

More… “In the Middle of Things”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Once upon a time, there was time. There was time for a contented reader to sit beside a fire in the fireplace, sip a cognac, and turn the pages of Michel de Montaigne’s marvelous essays. There was time to soak in some wisdom. There was time to absorb the author through his writing. Those days and evenings have gone. Technology stole them.

This is not to say that technology does not have its uses. It does, of course. But though there are uses, much is useless. For starters, information is frequently wrong or scrambled. Or it arrives, as television news often does, in advance of verified facts. Wisdom is the better and safer commodity; it doesn’t crash. Maybe we should have a moment of silence to remember what it felt like to read in leisure, not haste. To remember the pleasure of smelling, touching, palpating a real book. To linger at the end of a paragraph and read it over again, assessing its importance and place in the world. More… “Put the Pedal to the Metal”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Speaking of hell, let’s turn to a brief but encompassing metaphor. It comes from the wonderful Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the Gulag, in the northeast, where permafrost and tundra were prevalent and temperatures could reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit — in which the prisoners had to work all day. Solzhenitsyn called this place the Gulag’s “pole of cold and cruelty.” This is the metaphor:

Hope is slavery.

That’s it. Three words. It occurs in his collection Kolyma Tales, which the Soviet government forced him to renounce. “Hope is slavery” because it keeps the one who is hoping in expectation of a change for the better. There will be no change for the better, Shalamov says, and for him there was mostly not. This is the metaphor of a man who has learned that hope is his enemy. That hope will steal from him his energy and his ability to trust. It is one of the strongest metaphors I have ever encountered.

More… “The Head and the Heart”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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We commonly think of metaphor as a poetic device but it is used in fiction, too, and saves miles of unnecessary words. Metaphor can leap from the desk at which you are writing to darkest Africa or Dante’s hell or your grandmother who died 50 years ago. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It can tie the end of the universe to the beginning of the universe. And all you have to do is compare something with something else.

But in fiction, metaphor should be to the point and relatively brief. A novel in which everything becomes something else stretches credulity and grows tiresome. Yawningly tiresome. The reader has come to your story, novel, or poem to find something out. She has not come to it to play word games.

More… “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Metaphor”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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