Editors’ Blog

A Struck Bell: Annie Dillard, and the Recognition of Truth in Writing

A few years ago, I heard the opening passage of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek read aloud. It made an impression on me; as I listened to a woman describe a tomcat crawling on her chest in the early morning, leaving a trail of blood like roses, I knew that I would remember it, because it sounded like something I had heard before and recognized. I could smell the musty room, and see the window, the bed, the furniture, just becoming visible in the bluish light from a not-yet-risen sun. These weren’t the author’s words, but this was the image I kept in my head like a stone in my shoe for the next two years, remembering the book and knowing that I needed to read it.

  I had the privilege of doing just that over this summer, a season which has allowed me many hours of reading brilliant and often life-changing books. I’ve discovered that Ms. Dillard’s writing is like none I’ve ever experienced. It is bracing and sharp, a constant incision, and it caters to no expectations – none of mine, anyway. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is a book about nature, and Dillard devotes herself entirely to the natural world around her, rather than adopting that world as a subject for herself. She studies it religiously and finds the religion in it. She is absently bitten, gnawed, stung, trying to inch closer to her subject, and this is also the way her words affect the reader; one walks away from the book feeling raw.

There is almost nothing in the book that interests me literally; I read for hours about muskrats, cockroaches, spiders, and frogs, and often I would reach the end of a page realizing I had absorbed nothing of what I’d just read. The book captivated me for weeks all the same. I finished it curled up on the landing of my sister’s staircase, with half a mind on the page and half on my week-old niece lying a few feet away, caught up in what marvels they both were.

In the first chapter of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis describes a phenomenon that is not man-made but lives inside of us, and feels as natural as breathing even if we are not always aware of it. He speaks of morality, but I bring up the idea because I believe that there is a similar law inside of us which recognizes beauty and truth, just as our morality recognizes right and wrong. I find a book exceptional if it seems that the story it tells exists on its own, and that it would have continued on living had I stumbled upon reading it or not. Annie Dillard is a nonfiction writer, so my initial reaction to her words makes sense; she chronicles reality, and so upon listening I felt as though I was being reminded of something I had already seen or known. This is her style – she relentlessly dissects the world around her, usually in terms of science or logic.

But what is, to me, even better, is if a writer can accomplish this through fiction. Storytelling that sounds like truth is difficult to find, but storytelling that feels like truth is remarkable. Each time I experience such work from an author, like I have recently with Annie Dillard, I am overwhelmed in thinking, I didn’t even know you could do that with words.

This summer I reconnected with an old friend, also an aspiring writer, who dreams of publishing fantasy or science fiction or a blend of the two. We have discussed the differences between our attempts and ambitions – she would prefer to make her readers feel whisked away on an adventure, their horizons expanded to magical impossibilities, while I would prefer my work to foster something that a reader has always known is real but has only just realized.

A popular quote from Pilgrim on Tinker Creek describes this feeling: “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” The best works of fiction I’ve read this summer – Everything Is Illuminated, Remains of the Day, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – have all seemed to me like the stories of people who have lived or are living, and reading about them has only been the discovery of an inevitable reality. Much like holding my niece for the first time – she appears to be an inevitability, even if I never knew her before.

Em[body]ment – A Reflection on How Poetry & Performance Shape Each Other

I was truly dubious to what the art of performance poetry was until I witnessed a Youtube video of Phil Kaye performing a spoken word poem titled “Repetition” at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club.

“I remember the bed just floating there.
Apart – Apart – Apart – 
my mother taught me this trick.
 If you repeat something over and 
over again it loses its meaning.”

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A Summer in Hiroshima

I first encountered Hiroshima the summer after my high school graduation, when I spent a month traveling up and down the island nation of Japan. For me, the trip was one of oncoming adulthood – the first trip sans parents – and one that allowed me to spend more time in the country whose culture I admire so much. In every town I stopped off at, I obsessively ate the region’s delicacies before heading off for a round of karaoke and purikura (Japanese photo booths with decorating options) with friends. It was everything you dream about when you think of Japan – walking along Osaka’s neon boulevards, temple visits in Kyoto, and shopping in Tokyo’s trendiest districts.

Hiroshima was different though in the most startling of ways. Upon first glance, you see a thriving city filled to the brim with shops, restaur

ants, and the occasional shrine or temple. However, the city center serves as a reminder of one of the greatest human atrocities in modern times – the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This not only marked the first use of a nuclear weapon, but also the decimation of a city and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, some of which still feel the repercussions of the bombing to this day.

Hiroshima obviously has a direct tie to the bomb and serves as the leader in the anti-nuclear weapon protest. They’re home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park, centers dedicated to educating the public about what happened August 6, 1945 and its effects on the world. What it wants the world to learn is that under no circumstance should nuclear weapons be used. It’s a lesson I took to heart after seeing all the belongings of a-bomb victims from the famous pocket watch stopped at 8:15 to the nearly incinerated bento box belonging to a school girl, who died in the initial burst of the bomb.

Not everyone has the means to travel to Hiroshima, but everyone should learn about the Hiroshima experience and the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb. Shouldn’t we all, as a human race, learn about what renown author Kenzaburo Oe calls “the worst ever attack on human life?” For that reason, I’ve spent my summer wrapped up in a-bomb literature – a genre of literature that rarely makes it into American classrooms. From Hara Tamiki’s Summer Flowers to Ota Yoko’s City of Corpses, I’ve been wrapped up in what happened that day and the experiences of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors).

One of the most interesting points to come out of A-bomb literature is that it disrupts the American narrative that the bomb had to be dropped in order to save American lives and avoid an invasion of Japan. The Jap

anese authors point out that the Japan was no longer at a place where they could continue the war. There was not enough food to go around for the Japanese civilians or the Japanese military nor were there any other countries left in the war to support Japan. Additionally, in many works, Japanese authors put a certain amount of accountability on the Japanese government as well for the dropping of the a-bomb. Ota Yoko summarizes this point nicely:

“When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the war was already over. The Fascist and Nazi armies had been utterly defeated, and Japan stood alone against the en tire world. A war in which, objectively speaking, the outcome has been settled is no longer a war. In that sense, the war was already over. Had the militarists not held out desperately and pointlessly, the war actually would have been over. The atomic bomb, at Hiroshima or anywhere else, is unthinkable except as the ugly after-echo of a war that had already ended. The war had already ended on the crest of a wave that rolled from Iwojima to Okinawa. So an inversion takes place in my mind. It goes like this: it was America that dropped the bomb on our heads, yet at the same time it was also Japan’s militarism.”

Reading these accounts makes me realize how important a-bomb literature is to the literary world. It may not be creative fiction, but that doesn’t detract from the necessity of it being read. Some topics just aren’t meant to be fictionalized.




From the Books to Home: Remembering Family through Poetry

I never thought I’d be using the medium of poetry to tell my mother’s story. Admittedly, the impression of poetry I had for years was that it was for people far wiser and even far wealthier— to contemplate daffodils or the unbearable pangs of love. (Both of these circumstances are still true.) When I began to take the craft of poetry more seriously in my creative writing courses, however, poets like William Carlos Williams and Li-Young Lee surprisingly brought poetry far closer to home. The Romantics— good old Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron— were put on hold, and for a short while I began to read poetry about old women enjoying their neighborhood plums, gritty farm workers, and first-generation Asian Americans who struggled to preserve the language of their mothers. So the “everyday” life wasn’t left out of poetry, after all.

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Live Long Enough to Become: Musings on Florence Welch’s Useless Magic

As my fellow editors have noted, imbuing writing with those mentally tangible qualities such as the passing of time, a comedic flare, representation, and so on, is no small task.  Some of the most fundamental and prevalent aspects of life are so easily overlooked in their familiarity. But they are often the source of countless hours in revising and editing.  If done well, this struggle goes unnoticed except in the exquisite sensation that what has been crafted on the page is no less familiar than the steady march of the second hand around the face of your wristwatch.  But permit me to withdraw from the effect this skill has on readers and retreat to an effect writing has on the writer. In my experience as a writer, these aforementioned accomplishments are not the only ways in which the seen and unseen intersect.

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The Craft of Stand-Up Comedy

Comedians at the very core of their craft are writers. Every comedian creates his/her own fiction (sometimes non-fiction) and delivers it to an audience. Just like any other writer the intent is to elicit a certain response in the audiences. Whether it’s laughs, gasps, dismay or disgust, a comedian must always write his/her way into generating an emotional response in his/her audiences. The one major difference between an average fiction reading and an average stand-up act is that if a comedian leaves with the audience silent for the entirety of his/her act he/she probably failed, or in industry jargon: bombed. Comedians not only, forge detailed narratives but also implement their own elevated fictitious personas to present these jokes after hours of introspection, and deliver them in a meticulously constructed set.

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Growing Pains and Growth Rings

To start off, Adam made a great point last week: “Silent and intangible, Time is difficult to capture, particularly in writing.” I cannot agree more. Immediately I thought about how time is more easily seen and felt, in a sense. I celebrated my 25th birthday about a week ago, which I have yet to fully grasp because I feel I could have done much more with the time that has passed. I am at that point in life when I am witnessing my friends succeed in their careers after college, get married and start families, purchase their dream cars and homes, etc. Family members and friends ask me questions that are difficult for me to answer, and I usually resort to “In time, I will know.” I would find myself in a rut and overanalyze what I could have and should have done…what am I (not) doing?

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Johnson’s Working Time

Time is a difficult thing to address. It sneaks by, often unnoticed, and neglects to stop in for tea. Silent and intangible, Time is difficult to capture, particularly in writing. In my work it tends to pool in irrelevant places, pushing at the paragraphs, distending any attempt at rigid structure into something bulky and graceless. Editing helps to smooth that out. Eventually, I manage to put enough time into ideas that need it to function and drain it out of needlessly bloated concepts.

Pacing is not a problem I face alone. Moving through time in writing is something that many folks struggle with, finding themselves racing through the story in fifteen lines, or unable to escape a scene that is already too long. Transitions feel burdensome, sentence length is a chore. Everything about timing is hard.

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“Kalani”: A So-Called ‘Hawaiian’ Story

In keeping with some of Misha’s topics from last week’s New Forum Blog post, I’ll also be taking a moment to talk about representation, but from a different lens. We’ll come in a round-about way to consider the short story “Kalani” by Emma L. Dillingham. “Kalani” is the story of a Hawaiian native and some white colonists in the late 1800s, and Dillingham’s was one of the “Six Prize Hawaiian Stories of the Kilohana Art League” printed in the 1899 by the Honolulu: Hawaiian Gazette Company.

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East of Eden, North of Irvine: The Joy of Representation

Summer brings the promise of empty schedules and open books — many open books, hopefully. East of Eden has accompanied me on my quieter days, and my summer is more thankful for the still moments I can retreat into the narratives of the Trask and Hamilton families. East of Eden delicately and painstakingly renders several generations of two families who thrive and suffer on the soil of central California. This is an American story; American in the sense that this is an ‘American narrative’ typically excludes me and my history.

I have accepted this fact. The storytelling and characterization is beautiful. However, I cannot personally relate to the migration of European families who settle down onto rich farmland or fight in too-often romanticized wars. As an Asian American, I don’t expect the great American novelists to tell stories that my family may recognize. So you can imagine the surprise I felt when I encountered, Lee — a character who’s deep introspection has given me joy beyond expression.

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