Candy holidays, Pynchon’s “Marmalade Surprises,” and a writing prompt

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Vintage postcard: Tractor at work in an orange grove near Fullerton, California.

The last of the candy holidays is almost here. Each of these holidays comes with bowls and bags and boxes and general excesses of candy:

  • The sugar bender starts with Halloween
  • Skips Thanksgiving for Christmas
  • Continues through Valentine’s Day
  • Peaks again at Easter (No, not Peeps.)
  • And finally slides home at Mother’s (and Father’s) Day

A box of chocolates could be an acceptable gift on any of these holidays, except maybe Halloween. But on All Hallows Eve, the big neighborhood news is often which house is giving out full-size candy bars (not to mention the health-conscious house offering apples and oranges and thus to be avoided).

These holidays each have their confectionary oddities that can linger for months:

  • Halloween—Orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy
  • Christmas—Bitter green-striped candy canes
  • Valentine’s Day—Tie: wax lips and box after mini box of pink and red Nerds
  • Easter—Palm oil “chocolate” bunnies
  • Mother’s Day—Mystery chocolates in a box with no flavor diagram

My apologies if any of these are your favorites, but most of them appear on “worst of” lists.

No matter how cringey these candies may be, they have nothing on the sweets in my favorite scene from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the novel during a grad school semester when I was assigned to read a book or more each week, and at 759 pages, Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a challenge. I may have been loopy with exhaustion the first time I read the candy scene, but it still makes me laugh today:

…He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingénue’s thewse— “years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

“Serves me right,” Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry … mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away the bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it might be pure nitric acid, “Oh mercy that’s really sour,” hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple-three more candy jars down off the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

“Now you’re getting the idea!” Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, “you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks….” (116-17).

Slothrop encounters many more candy abominations before and after this in the full version of what has been called the “Disgusting English Candy Drill.”

Okay, so let’s see if we can get a writing prompt out of all this:

Intentionally or not, characters may weaponize holiday foods, treats, and other delicacies. In turn, the characters receiving the comestibles may struggle with how to be polite, how to at least try the food, how to escape with or without explaining, how to stay true to their own rules for eating, and so on.

Another potential aspect of this drill is encountering a food so consuming (no pun intended) that paying attention to anything outside of the food becomes difficult. It’s as if the volume is dialed up on the food and down on the world.

Write a scene or memory where struggles with food are at the forefront so that issues among the characters/people can only leak around the edges. Don’t forget to call on sensory details in working with the food. Note the different ways of eating and tasting (Pynchon incorporates the soft palate, nose, tongue, teeth, molars, eyes, and more in just this portion of his scene). Besides spoken words, how do the characters communicate through the handling, offering, and eating of the food (for example, power, rejection, resignation, surprise, etc.)?

I’d be interested to hear whether this prompt yields any useful results. Please post your comments.

Clearing the Writerly Mind

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Vintage postcard: From Rim o’ the World Highway to Lake Arrowhead, California. (Mt. San Bernardino, Greyback, and Mt. San Jacinto)

You have time to write, the computer is on, but your mind keeps straying because:

  • There are bills to pay.
  • Someone needs you to do something for them.
  • You want to order that thing before you forget.
  • Someone else’s writing, posts, messages, etc. suddenly seem like must-reads.

Quiet the nattering

You can stage your own intervention: a breathing exercise.

“Breathing exercises can lead to control over the mind,” writes Arthur Liebers in Relax With Yoga, which was published in 1960. Liebers shares an exercise from a Sanskrit text dating back to 1893.

Here’s a streamlined version of the breathing exercise. (I’ll share some of the more intense instructions later in this post.)

Start in a comfortable sitting position (this can be done in a chair at your desk) or assume Lotus Pose.

  1. Inhale through the left nostril
  2. Hold
  3. Exhale through your right nostril
  4. Hold
  5. Inhale through your right nostril
  6. Hold
  7. Exhale through your left nostril
  8. Hold
  9. Repeat steps 1 through 8.

Recommendations:

  • Feel free to use your hands on the sides of your nose to shift the breathing from side to side.
  • Use whatever count for the breaths and holds that you find comfortable (for example, a count of eight).
  • Repeat the pattern several times (maybe, four times).

The combination of the rhythmic breathing, the concentration needed to move the breath from side to side, and the length of four cycles helps me find my focus.

Original from Liebers

If you’re wondering what I consider “intense,” the prep work in Liebers’s book calls for one to “Cleanse the gullet with a strip of cloth, the width of four fingers, by swallowing it and then withdrawing it” and “Cleanse the nostrils by putting up a thread and drawing it out by way of the mouth.”

Also, here are the original instructions from Relax With Yoga :

“The Yogi assuming the Lotus Pose should draw in the prana (breath) through the ida (left nostril), and, having retained it as long as he can, exhale it through the pingala (right nostril). Again, inhaling through the right nostril, he should hold his breath as long as possible and exhale slowly through the left nostril. He should inhale through the same nostril by which he exhaled and having retrained the breath to the utmost (until he is covered with perspiration or until his body shakes) he should then exhale slowly, as exhaling forcefully would diminish the energy of the body.

“These exercises should be performed four times a day—in the early morning, at midday, evening, and midnight—slowly increasing the number from three, each time, to eighty. Their effects are described as ‘to render the mind and body slender and bright.’ Although in the direct translation from the Sanskrit, the ida is named as being he left nostril and the pingala as the right one, these words more properly designate the two supposed conduits which connect with the nostrils, and thence conduct throughout the entire body the vital air (the prana) that enters with atmospheric air.”

Liebers, Arthur. Relax with Yoga. New York: Bell Publishing, 1960.

Worst Writing Group Ever

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Vintage postcard: Dumping ore into a pocket at a shaft station, Cliff Copper Mine near Phoenix

For the past decade or so my writing group has, on average, taken months to get back to me. In a couple cases it has taken them more than a year. Good turnaround is about six to eight weeks.

When they do respond it has usually been brief and vague. These may sound familiar:

  • “After careful consideration, we’re sorry to report…”
  • “We enjoyed reading it, and though it doesn’t quite…”
  • “We read your submission carefully and regret…”

Time

A benefit of continuing with this group has been time:

  • Time for my own work to become distant enough that I can read it like a laser-eyed stranger
  • Time for me to read other writers (both successful and less so)
  • Time to further develop the craft of revision, storytelling, structure, line, and so much more

Encouragement

Another benefit has been encouragement, especially when editors include personalized notes, more detailed rejections, or invitations to submit to them again.

Nonetheless, I still had a strong reaction when I read the following quote in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer:

“[G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, [said an assistant editor at The Missouri Review], when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.”

Friedman went on to describe the social media response to the original blog post, “Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good” by Michael Nye. “His post provoked a significant backlash from writers who felt tired of banging their heads against the wall—pursuing success within a system that never seemed to work that well in the first place,” Friedman wrote.

While rejections no longer sting as much as they used to, I connected to this conversation and not just because I have rejections from TMR dating back to 2002.

Paying for feedback

I’ve found a couple bright spots. One is the “in progress” designator in Submittable, which may indicate when my work has made it past the first readers.

A larger one is the feedback option offered by some publications, such as Tahoma Literary Review. Sometimes it’s a small fee for a few paragraphs of commentary. Other times it’s a lot more money for an in-depth critique. I’ve paid for an in-depth review on a project that was especially important to me through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Continuing Studies. Faculty member Christine DeSmet offered concrete feedback beyond what I’ve received from family readers and writer friends, who might have been concerned about hurting my feelings.

Persistence

One thing my continued participation in this “writing group” shows is persistence. In the face of years of rejection, I continue.

10 ways to access literary magazines before submitting: How to research markets for your writing

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Vintage postcard: On the turn at Gulfstream Park Race Course, Hallandale, Florida

The warp speed way to exit the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts isn’t what you want, but writing that is poorly targeted may get just that treatment at literary magazines.

As a former fiction editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review, I remember the easiest (and most frustrating) rejections were the texts that weren’t in the universe of our submission guidelines: Literature written for very young children. No. Graphic sex and bestiality scenes with little story. No. Academic essays. No.

NOTE: See the Hayden’s Ferry Review website or Submittable portal for their guidelines. They’re currently seeking submissions for their “Magic” issue.  

While university literary magazines run by graduate or undergraduate students may demonstrate changing literary tastes or themes from year to year, they seldom make wide swings away from a core mission. Therefore, it’s easy for the editors at almost any publication to see who submitted works for consideration without researching guidelines or reading published issues first.

Ignore the oft-heard advice “read an issue before submitting” at your peril. Here are 10 ways to access current literary magazines. Many ways to do this market research are free.

Printed sources

Strategies for getting your hands on recent publications include:

  • Sample issues: Many literary magazines offer online pay portals.
  • Book fairs: Associated Writing Programs and other writing conferences and festivals.
  • Newsstands: College and commercial bookstores.
  • Libraries: Current periodicals sections, especially at college and university libraries. (free)
  • Literary magazine offices: Many magazines exchange copies with their peers, but you may need to know someone on staff to gain access. (free)

Electronic sources

Exploring a magazine’s content continues to get easier through online options:

  • Web excerpts: Content may include pieces from current or past print magazines. (free)
  • Web-only content: In addition to excerpts from print issues, some magazines offer web-only content. Note the submission process and guidelines may be separate from that of the print issues. (often free)
  • Publication newsletters: Magazines such as Kenyon Review offer weekly newsletters that link to content currently available online. (free)
  • E-magazines: Print magazines may offer pdf versions that can be downloaded immediately. Prices for these e-issues tend to be lower, possibly noting the absence of printing and shipping costs.
  • Databases: Some literary magazines are indexed by databases available through college and university libraries. While some entries list only bibliographic information, others offer full-text files of individual sources (short stories, poems, essays, and so on). (free)

While reading an issue before submitting may help you target your writing efforts to more receptive publishers, the process also makes for good literary citizens. As much as you work hard and want your work to be read, other writers and publishers want the same thing.

Distractions: Don’t let Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone keep you from your writing projects

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Vintage postcard for the Aquarium Bar in Milwaukee. “Everything in the bar is alive—fish, frogs, alligators, turtles, lizards, etc.”

The first month of the fall semester is in our rearview mirror, and it’s about time for the first big papers and projects. So I thought I would share a couple things about writing productively that I reacquainted myself with over the summer.

“The writer is the person who stays in the room.” This is from fiction writer and teacher Ron Carlson, who is currently at the University of California, Irvine. (He served on my MFA committee at Arizona State University.) This quote comes from his craft book Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence (Graywolf).

Carlson also advises writers not to stop, not even to look up a word in the dictionary or a detail online. Move forward with your draft, and only your draft. Go back and clean it up later.

If Carlson is any indication, his advice works. He has published eight books of fiction, and his stories have been included in the Best American Short Stories series, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and more.

None of this is easy. The forces pulling you away from your writing include “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator, and oh, there in the other room is Mr. Television, and there’s Mr. Bed,” writes Carlson.

When talking with my students about distractions I add Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone and Mesdames et Messieurs Friends who want to hang out, drift, eat, and more. Then there’s Ms. Puppy and Mr. Kitten who need your attention so viscerally they will knock your laptop to the floor after walking across the keyboard. (The eating of homework is so ’80s.)

When I ask my students to write during class, it amazes me how weak their bladders become. One or two at a time, students saunter to the bathroom. Sometimes they pass the closest restroom and opt for one farther away. I rarely sense any urgency, except that they’ve been told to write and we all know how hard that can be.

So stay in the room. Stay in the chair. Stay away from technologies that may have been designed by marketers and psychologists to pull you deeper and deeper into their thrall and further away from your own thoughts.

“[T]he Internet is the enemy of the writer’s day,” writes Carlson, and I see this in my own productivity as well as in that of my students.

Stay on task. On goal. Focus on your own thinking and your own writing. Fight for it. You’ll thank yourself later.

Review of ProWritingAid editing app: Calling in reinforcements

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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

I’ve tested ProWritingAid, an online editing app, on nonfiction and fiction projects, and I’ve had positive results both times. I started out using the free version, which limited me to examining 500 words at a time. This meant one of my projects, at over 5,000 words, needed to be broken into 10-plus pieces.

Of the report options and filter criteria available, the following led to the most useful revision work for me:

Style—Flagged passive and hidden verbs, long subordinate clauses, and repeated sentence starts.

Overused—Noted my tendency to start sentences with –ing verbs, as in: cleaning, frowning, sitting, turning, panting, and so on. Also, reported that my writing was high on to-be verbs (was/were).

Readability—Designated paragraphs as “easy,” “slightly difficult,” or “very difficult.” I looked closely at sections underlined in red, meaning “very difficult.” As a result, I saw ways to break sentences and weed out extraneous material.

Diction—Highlighted vague and abstract words. For example, I used “would” and “about” in places calling for more precise wording.

Repeats—Underlined phrases that recur. For instance, how had I missed the repetition of the eight-word phrase “I got down on my hands and knees”? The report also identified repeats in shorter word groupings.

ProWritingAid isn’t a substitute for a human writer/editor. However, in the often solitary work of writing, revising, and editing, using the app felt like calling in reinforcements.

The app helped me focus on slow or awkward sections of my writing. The result: I trimmed several hundred words from my nonfiction project while making the language and sentences more precise. I had a similar experience when using the editing tool on a fiction project.

Note: Soon after trying the free version, I received a 50 percent discount offer from the Writer’s Digest free weekly enewsletter. I liked the app, especially with the discount, so I paid for premium access.

P.S. Just for grins, I ran a poem through ProWritingAid. The summary report gave me my first 100 percent score. Among the high points were that my vocabulary was more “dynamic” than 96 percent of the software’s users. At same time, my sentence variety was assessed as being “very low” because I used too many short sentences.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were: