An Excerpt from Mental Illness and the Poetics of Failure

Brief musings on costumes, artists, and mental illness.

by Drew S. Cook, Poetry Reader

A surprising number of photographs of people dressing like Sylvia Plath for Halloween can be found via a Google image search. One might ask: what does a Sylvia Plath costume look like? I imagine her 1953 interview of Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle. In the months leading up to the interview, she shopped voraciously, feeling a tremendous pressure to not only give a good interview, but to meet the standards of appearance that were aggressively asserted both by Mademoiselle and society at large. Despite the pressure, Plath delivered in terms of both substance and form, nailing her first interview for the magazine, to which she wore a highly fashionable dress, fitted jacket, pearls, and gloves.

If we accept The Bell Jar as autobiography, then the entire Mademoiselle-New York adventure is prelude to a significant mental health crisis. Yet, this is Sylvia Plath. Driven by self-loathing and genius to persist, to outshine, to overcome, Plath’s smile seems genuine in the photos that remain of that momentous occasion—after months of certainty that she will fail, she discovers that she is knocking it out of the park. This is the smile of a mentally ill person who has, yet again, kept herself alive in the land of the sane. Three years before her fateful encounter with Olympic-tier gaslighter Ted Hughes, Plath is a young woman who, on her own in the big city, survives. She despairs, she is outside, she is neurodivergent, but she belongs wholly to herself.

The iconic moment with Bowen is not the costume, though, that Halloween celebrants choose. To them, Sylvia Path is a woman—any woman—with a cardboard, mocked-up oven over her head. Plath is only her suicide, only her sickness. She is not even a poet anymore. Instead, she is just a joke about a chronic, sometimes fatal condition known as bipolar disorder.

Plath’s story offers a cautionary tale to mentally ill artists. No matter one’s achievements, no matter the effort, to write as a mentally ill person is to expose oneself to ridicule from bad actors, and uninvited psychoanalysis from the well-meaning. It is, in the terminology of feminist rhetorical theory, to subject oneself to “containment.” One can no longer write about a thing; rather, one is perceived as writing from a place.


Drew SCook is many things: an expert in obsolete operating systems, a student of literature and poetry, a psychiatrically disabled person. He is other things, too, and grew up in the Ouachita Mountains, whose sights and sounds continue to inform his writing. Drew is currently a Co-Executive Editor at Trio House Press. His poems have appeared in Nimrod Journal, Pleiades, and elsewhere.
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Notes From Bethabara Park: Cheri Paris Edwards & The Other Sister

 

Personal reflections while writing a book review.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Country Way East, Okemos MI, Wednesday, March 16, 2017:

I believe that novels have the mystical ability to enter our lives at a moment in which we find ourselves standing at the crossroads in-search of something that changes our hearts and minds in an effort to teach us a deeper meaning of life and love and purpose. Perhaps this is the point of Cheri Paris Edwards’ novel: The Other Sister.

My love life stinks. For the millionth time, I’d reached the conclusion that my girlfriend and I had no future, besides the meaningless banality of frivolous momentary interludes of empty sex, drama, and random cafe-affairs of aimless chit-chat.

“… I keep replaying the discussion we’d had at Venice Cafe. It rang loudly in my head, trying to capture some profound meaning amidst it all. Anyways, perhaps I spoke too much and didn’t allow you to speak enough. Perhaps there were questions left without space and time to call them out and allow them to be answered. …”

Tom’s Oyster Bar, Detroit MI, Thursday, March 17, 2017:

I pulled into Downtown Detroit and headed straight to Tom’s Oyster Bar to think about Velma’s note. I ordered rum and reached into my jacket for Edwards’ book to read over notes, marginalia, and to think about the impact it had on my immediate circumstances. Edwards’ book is about safety, and the sacrifice of new beginnings, Sanita Jefferson returning to Illinois for an unrealized reunion with her ecstatic parents. Regardless of her sister, Carla’s cold receptions, Sanita plants her feet firmly on the yellow brick road and sets out for new horizons of promise and prosperity. Then she runs into Terrance Catching.

*phone vibrate*

“Confessional: I’m not sure you noticed but I placed my leg next to you on purpose. Today I wanted to touch you. I looked at you and thought of what it would be like to have you hold me, hug me, touch me. Then I thought to myself, no…he would hurt you – not on purpose, not intentionally – it’s just how he is made…how he has come to become in this world….”

St. Michael Hotel, “Whiskey Row” Prescott AZ, Saturday, March 19, 2017:

I arrived in Prescott just before the sun set low when the gentle breeze cooled native souls, where cowboys reminisced, and “Preskitian” residents told olden stories to thirsty tourists at Hooligans Pub. Rowdy, arrogant, raucous mid-westerners (the ones harboring feelings of entitlement and privileged belonging) drank Modelo beers and propped up their Walmart western boots on Hooligans ledge overlooking the nostalgic panorama that is Whiskey Row. Down below, restless vagrants meet at the intersection of South Montezuma and East Gurley Street to discuss the day’s strategy for panhandling enough change to get cigarettes and whiskey. Later that night they would meet up across the street in Courthouse Plaza to divvy up the ante before heading on over to Bird Cage Saloon for the two-dollar draft and cheap Tequila shots.

*phone vibrate*

“In my past relationships, I’m often quick to nurture, fast to heal, to capture and conceal secrets, hurts, pains. Your writing, like mine, is your place of healing…I get that…but where does Jeremy house his love…for himself? for the women both past and present in his life? I know I risk much sharing these thoughts with you. But, the older I get the more I appreciate risks and honestly… from others, from myself to myself…please come and see me when you return to Michigan. I will get you from the airport if you need.”

I would often follow them to BCS where I listen from a short distance to their sullen proclamations of love lost, sacred land long gone, and familial discount. They talk about the futility of life, where they have come from (mostly Chino Valley, Phoenix, and various Native American reservations), and where they are going (mostly nowhere and everywhere). Prescott treats its homeless community very well, offering food, clothes, money, and a warm cot if the weary destitute so desire. Every night around midnight the desperate winos and raggedy hobos congregate at the southern tip of Montezuma Street, just outside of the St. Michael hotel where they plan to head on up to BCS for a little revelry, reflection, and relief. I sat over in the far left corner and thought about the love of my life, Velma Duke, while reviewing collected thoughts and notes on The Other Sister:

  • The Other Sister is a good read…I really like the writing…Edwards is a good writer…
  • Edwards has a gift for story-telling and understands the art and craft of novel-writing. ..
  • Good characters, deftly constructed…
  • Good moral messages…spiritual meanings and good commentary on that which afflicts society today
  • Common current event themes of disease, death, destruction, HIV
  • Good use of biblical themes…thou shalt not judge.
  • Good array of family matters and complex relationships…

Bethabara Park, Winston-Salem NC, Saturday, April 2, 2017:

“Love’s in need of love today… Don’t delay, send yours in right away. Hate’s goin’ round, breaking many hearts. Stop it please… Before it’s gone too far.” –Stevie Wonder

I finished my review of The Other Sister while sitting in the back-booth of a quiet, rural suburban breakfast retreat over near Wake Forest University by historic village of Bethabara Park. I drained my orange juice, left a small tip, grabbed my Chrome Book, got in my car and headed towards University Avenue – toward High Point to visit an old friend. I Jeremyed in Damian Marley’s Road to Zion and thought about Edwards’ overall message, an essential lesson on hope, love, community, and sacrifice – all the things the African-American are in desperate need of. Sanita’s (Jazz) double-life antics catch up with her, sending her back home to face her dubious reality. Carla leads a respectable life of promise and prosperity, committed to excellence, having played by the rules, working hard to achieve and triumph. This is the complex dice both play out in this Christian amalgam of faith, love, and hard-lessons learned. Demonstrably, Edwards is from the old-school, and TOS is saturated with biblical themes, religious characters (conflicted in secular contexts, of course), and goody-two-shoe morality, which at times seemed boring at worst, contrived at best, but typical and unoriginal to say the least. Yet, the point is clear with TOS, and we get it. Love your family, forgive people, and allow for redemption in the face of repressive odds. Love is key….and we need it. All of us.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.

Interview with Playwright Sharai Bohannon

An interview about writing, plays, and MFA programs.

Conducted by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

I asked Sharai Bohannon for an interview to discuss the debut of her play, Craigslisted, and she happily agreed. Later that day I visited the set of Director Trent Reese’s production of Bohannon’s play to get a better feel of what the play is about. After breaking from a scene rehearsal, the cast returned to the center area of the stage. “I need you on books,” Reese said to his production assistant. Then he turned to his cast and shouted toward center-stage, “We need pace, we need drama, we need action.” Heads nodded and Reese turned towards the top of the small seating area to take birds-eye view of center-stage where characters “Dave” and “Maggie” try to work through a complex dilemma of love and betrayal. Reese has a genuine smile and jovial personality but he is very much in charge of this production. Reese told me that Bohannon’s play was chosen in efforts to support more unpublished playwrights. After rehearsal I returned to campus to make arrangements for my interview with Sharai Bohannon:

Arkana: Your play, Craigslisted, will debut on September 15 at The Lantern Theatre in Conway, Arkansas. I know that the play took shape and form during the last half of graduate school. Can you elaborate on the conception and development of your play, tell us what it’s about, and how it made its way to Lantern Theatre?

SB: I was nearing the end of my time in school and worried about how I was going to pay off all of my student loans and find work with the modest collection of degrees I have. When it was time to begin my thesis play in earnest those fears sort of manifested in Maggie. I wrote a SUPER rough draft that was chosen for Texas Tech University’s 2015-2016 Lab Season and also chosen for the school’s WildWind Performance Lab where we workshopped it until it was a completely different, and better, script. All of the subsequent drafts happened because we had all of these smart artists in the room giving me feedback and making me look at everything from different angles. While I owe everyone during that time some major gratitude, Kamarie Chapman was the MVP because she served as the original Dramaturg and helped me narrow the monstrosity that I’d written down to the smaller list of what I really wanted the play to address. She also had the original idea of “seeing what was on the screens” which became all of the projections that are seen throughout the play.

During my last year of grad school, I was sending the play literally everywhere that had a submission opportunity that fit the script. My friend Trent Reese (who is directing this current production and is on the board of The Lantern Theatre) sent out a note to playwrights from our undergrad letting us know that The Lantern wanted to do more new works. Eventually, my play was chosen and it’s been a fun whirlwind ever since. Trent also directed my very first play in undergrad, and The Lantern produced my first non-academic production, so this production does bring me full circle in a couple of ways. I’m excited to get into town and thank everyone in person and see everything come together during tech week.

A: How do you decide what to write about? Where do you find inspiration?

SB: Lots of times projects find me. I’m definitely guilty of forcing some pages out because an opportunity calls for it, or just so I can keep saying I’m a playwright, but the projects that I love come from sitting down with people who spark my imagination. I’m currently working on a retelling/adaptation of Faust with my friend, Sophie Duntley, because she had the idea and asked me if I wanted to collaborate on it. We started firing ideas off of each other, discussing the gender politics of there being a Lady Faust, and now we have a wonderful cast, a wonderful venue, and I’ve been spoiled by having a writing partner to help shoulder the stress of writing a full-length. I hope she realizes what she’s done because I definitely want to do it again (and soon). A different project that I’ve been loosely working on started as an inkling because I had the final image in my head. I started writing but wasn’t really excited until I went on vacation and a different friend randomly mentioned a topic that sort helped to make everything I wanted make sense while allowing me to learn about an important topic. That’s all I can say about that one right now because it’s still sort of abstract and I don’t want to start committing it to being something that it might not be.

A: What is the job of the (African) American Playwright?

SB: I think the job of the African American Playwright it is to write what’s in their heart and on their mind. I believe that’s the same of any playwright though. Everyone on the planet has different views of the world that comes along with being born into our ethnicity, gender, society, upbringing, family’s income level, sexuality, etc. I think the job of The African American Playwright is to not let people get in their head for being true to themselves and their vision. It’s very easy for someone to tell you what you “should” be writing instead of evaluating what you have actually written.

A: What have you found to be the biggest struggle publishing your work?

SB: I’ve only had one piece published so far. I typically submit to productions, workshops, and residencies though. There is something about a play being published that makes it feel permanent and I definitely enjoy the freedom of changing things up from production to production. I went to a Sarah Ruhl event earlier this year and she also mentioned that a play isn’t finished until it’s published when someone asked her how she knows when a script is done. I’m not saying that I’m not interested in being published but I admit that I’m not putting enough energy into that part of being a playwright at this current moment. I’m still really excited by having a dialogue with production teams, hearing actors make discoveries that influence the next draft(s), and watching audiences respond to my work (which is the most honest feedback there is).

A: What are some of the challenges currently confronting the writing community?

There are a billion writers and a lot less than a billion opportunities. I also think the lack of funding prevents most of us from pursuing it full-time. We have to support ourselves which often means writing gets set on the back burner and/or we’re forcing work that is not our best because we’re tired and only have so few moments to write while riding trains or eating lunch. It’s a hard field we’ve chosen and I don’t think we talk about that enough.

A: What advice would you give to current MFA students?

SB: Take the note and say thank you. I see lots of playwrights argue with every single note they are given and it’s obnoxious. I’m not saying every note you’ll be given should be treated as the gospel, but if you’re defensive all of the time then you’ll miss the notes that are helpful too. The flipside of that is to learn which notes to ignore. Lots of people want to help, and sometimes they seem right, but you know your play at the end of the day and need to know what best serves your script. It’s a balancing act that I’m still learning myself, and being too far on either side isn’t ideal.

My second piece of advice is to make your own writing communities. Having friends who understand what you’re going through, and who are facing the same concerns, is invaluable. I learn from my writer friends every day and like to think that we’re indirectly responsible for encouraging/supporting each other to do better as artists.


Sharai Bohannon’s Words of Wisdom:

On playwriting: Figure out who you are and write from that place. There are enough people trying to imitate someone else. Write about what excites you instead of what you “should” be writing.

On race, class, and gender in writing and MFA programs: You have to be your own advocate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” be writing. I tend to write strong women and some people don’t know what to do with strong women so would encourage me to put more male voices in my work, or want me to attach my characters to men to “give them purpose and goals,” and I rightfully refused. I’ve also had people tell me that they were hoping I would give them “the black scene” when they asked me to contribute to something but were surprised that I followed the guidelines of the assignment. I’m not saying all of this just to end the interview on a negative note, but to sort of point out how easy it is to get outdated/offensive feedback in these situations that makes you just want to give up. These are the situations where having your own writing community, knowing what types of feedback to ignore, and writing the types of stories you want, comes in handy. Focus on the mentors/faculty members who actually get it and learn as much as you can from them because those are the ones who have actual things to contribute to your development anyway.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.

Book Review: The Turner House

 

A review of Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, left me feeling ambivalent, hopeful, encouraged and nostalgic. I liked her novel but I felt that it didn’t work hard enough to envision southern black life in 1945, to capture an honest and complete snapshot of Detroit. At times TTH read more like a passenger on a train bound for Somewhereville, riding through a Detroit train depot, snapping phone pictures while simultaneous trying to stake awake.

The (Turner) house serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with the dysfunctional Turner family: loss of stability, instability, isolation, community change. Flournoy said in an interview with Miriam Grossman of Kirkus Reviews that she supposed her novel would explore “very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that has never really been written about in fiction. I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income.” The following excerpt places the novel squarely at the doorstep of Detroit’s current issue:

Problem with black folks is that we’re too quick to cut our losses and let white folks decide what happens in the cities we live in. Sure the mayor is black, damn near the whole council is black, but we don’t have the real money or property. That’s how they keep us on the run (203).

Good stuff. I also liked the WWII flashbacks to Detroit’s Hastings Street, Paradise Valley days, and post-Reconstruction Arkansas. Here, Flournoy’s sense of nostalgia is easy and mellow, but I would’ve liked to see more of the violent, racialized reality of southern life rather the subtle allusions to black life in 1945. Most southern blacks were seduced by Ford’s $5-a-day wage promise, many sought peaceful refuge from vicious, unchecked, racist violence. Flournoy gives us none of that, just under-analyzed snapshots hurried away into pointless narratives which seem to go busily everywhere and nowhere. We get no real sense of the duality of (street) danger and (economic) vibrancy for which Hastings Street is famous. (WHERE IS JOHNNY LEE HOOKER?) The colorful ambiguity, the effervescent charm, and the ambivalent dynamics are never fully explored nor do we ever truly understand how the Gotham Hotel (inasmuch as why black entertainers visited this particular hotel) could boast such regular prominent guests as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, B.B. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the inimitable Billie Holiday.

Flournoy’s research for her novel included Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and Elaine Latzman Moon’s Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 as source material. Sugrue’s study gives some attention to the area known as Black Bottom, who the people were and what the area was about. Moon is an excellent source, too, but there are other sources as well for anyone thinking about Flournoy’s topic beyond her book. The digital archives at Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library is loaded with primary sources on black (and white) life in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

I found my family story in this novel, particularly the men in my family, how they came to the north for industrial jobs, leaving behind families of wives, sons, and daughters, never to return, seduced by big lights, equal rights, sturdy paychecks, Paradise Valley, and sexy, sultry women like Odella Wither. The anguishing alienation of migrant dislocation is captured quite well in TTH (i.e page 112). Even with its minor flaws and mistakes, The Turner House is still worth the read.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.

ARKANA UPDATE

by the Arkana Staff

Hello friends of Arkana! After our brief summer break, we’re excited to let you know that we’ll soon be back to considering submissions and preparing Issue 3. So, send us your strange stories, mysterious musings, and silenced voices—we can’t wait to hear them!

We were also excited to be featured on New Pages last Friday. If you’re new to the journal or just curious as to what we’re all about here at Arkana, feel free to head on over to New Pages— New Lit on the Block: Arkana. You’ll learn about where we get our name, who some of our editors are, and what we’re looking for when we go through submissions.

As always, thanks so much for being readers and writers interested in what we’re interested in— the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the silenced. Stealing from what was said in the New Pages article, we at Arkana strive “to champion the arcane,” so send us your best work (in any genre) that discovers and rediscovers the secret wonders of what it means to be human. We want to read YOUR work, so please send it our way soon to be considered for inclusion in Issue 3.

And also as always—head on over to arkanamag.org to read our first two issues and see more specific submission guidelines for yourself!

Directed by Alan Smithee #6: The Line of Action

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Movies manipulate time. Real time seems to freeze and hang suspended until the final credits, when you stumble out of the darkness and wander around the parking lot trying to find your car, the world suddenly hard and huge and real again—too silent and serious compared to the world of light and shadow that you just left. Even the onscreen dramatic time jumps and flashes back and flashes forward, carried along by music, dialogue, and sound effects. Movies let you feel like you cheated time—you stole some back. For an hour and a half or two hours, you experienced a story that would have taken you days, weeks, months, or even years to experience in real life.

Most narratives do this. Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

One of my favorite movies is Once Upon a Time in the West. As a very quiet and slightly musically-inclined person, my favorite character in that movie is Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica,” so named because he never gives his real name—he is known mainly by the harmonica he carries on a string around his neck and the mournful musical motif that he often plays. The movie is an epic—set in the magnificent mythological American West, where conflicts of good versus evil, tradition versus progress, and man versus man are played out in operatic proportions. I literally have goose bumps by the end of the movie every time I watch it.

Harmonica is on a quest for revenge—he wants to kill Frank, the cruel antagonist played to perfection by somebody who I had always thought exuded kindness and principle, Henry Fonda. Harmonica goes doggedly after Frank with single-minded focus and unrelenting purpose. The wheezing harmonica motif underscores this determination, this desire for revenge burning inside of a man who seems so cool and collected on the outside.

That sense of grit is romanticized. It reminds me of my dad as a high school freshman going out for football and breaking both wrists on the first day of practice, then going out again as a sophomore and breaking both wrists on the first day AGAIN.

It reminds me of me as a girl going to the week-long softball camp hosted by the Waxahachie High School softball program every summer, and every summer getting sick, turning ghost-white and getting lightheaded and dizzy, the coach always hosing me off, giving me a popsicle, and calling my parents. Every. Single. Summer.

Grit? Maybe. Also, more likely, just being a stubborn idiot.

Stories can get you out of the rut your life is in. Stories can allow you to let go of the stubborn memories of the past and move on. Stories can change your heart, your mind, and your very soul.

Storytelling isn’t self-help therapy any more than listening to stories is. Whether you’re writing, reading, watching a movie, or making a movie, even though you’re probing the mess you are—displaying your dysfunction—you’re also crafting a narrative, manipulating time and facts, and putting on a new identity. You’re rediscovering the world and inviting others to join you in your rediscovery. It’s a craft, it’s a calling, and it’s hard work.

Which brings me to the title of this post: The Line of Action. The almighty “line of action” in movie-making is an imaginary line drawn in front of the camera—you put the camera on one side of the line and don’t cross it, thereby avoiding continuity problems editing. Of course, like most rules, this one gets broken every now and then, but generally it keeps the action or dialogue from being confusing, with random reversals of left and right screen space, when it’s edited together.

Just like with the name “Alan Smithee,” I tie a bunch of meaning to the phrase “the line of action” that isn’t really there and doesn’t have much of anything to do with the concept.

The phrase reminds me of the line in the sand drawn by William Travis at the Alamo. The line of ACTION. The phrase gives me the feeling that you’re about to make a choice that you will act on, a choice like the ones often at the climax of a short story, a book chapter, or a movie scene. You will make this choice and you will change because of it. You will cross the line of action, even if it might be confusing. Your life will take on a new trajectory.

Take a look at Arkana. The small literary journal that’s really a tiny bleep on the radar of hundreds of literary journals popping up online. Yes, there’s stubborn grit and passion that keep us going and will keep us going in the future. Yes, there’s the belief that writing and storytelling is more than just therapy—that it’s not for the individual but for the community.

But more than all that, what will keep Arkana, and all literature, alive is a belief in the power of change.

We are small but mighty. Literature here and everywhere is the line of action. Time builds forward like a stone wall separating what was and what could be, but we cross that wall and carve stories out of the stone, beauty out of the boundaries.

Voices out of the silence.

That’s why I love movies, stories, and being part of a literary journal. The world gives you a million examples of dysfunction and hate to turn you bitter, but as long as there are people promoting, creating, and experiencing art then empathy is being shared and there is hope for the future. There is an audience held together by light they can see through the darkness. There is the hush of emotion, the quiet of reflection, and the smell of popcorn.

And the bitterness fades out.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.

Directed by Alan Smithee #5: When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

My mom will probably read this series of “Directed by Alan Smithee” posts and call me a liar.

It’ll probably be like watching the movie adaptation of the book you really love—gasping and head shaking and accusations of “That’s not how it happened!”

I exaggerate—I lie. Which parts, I don’t even know. Whenever my mom tells stories about me as a kid I don’t remember the instances the same way as she does at all. She mentions things that I didn’t even care about and don’t even think of anymore. She never mentions things that I still have dreams, even nightmares about.

In my favorite John Wayne/John Ford movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a reporter near the end says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” When I re-watched this movie recently, as someone who just spent two semesters working as an intern at the Oxford American, where the bulk of my work was fact-checking articles before they were published, I gasped at that line. Facts corrupted? The Truth turned into a farce, a myth, a legend? Over my dead body and the dead bodies of noble fact-checkers everywhere!

Oh, please. Here’s another thing besides being a liar that my mom knows about me that you should probably know too: I’m a bit melodramatic. I used to tell my mom sunlight was searing my retinas. I once thought I was going to die from eating an overcooked hot dog.

But ah, who cares? Where would the world be without a little lying and melodrama? The single tear, the mentor’s satisfied smile and nod, the lush orchestration as the hero rides off into the sunset with his arm around his girl. That stuff doesn’t exist in real life.

However, the feelings generated from those instances do exist.

Or so I like to think.

Stories and art bottle up those feelings in convenient little containers so that people can carry them around. It’s the old “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” idea. Except really I think that truth doesn’t exist AT ALL without a good story. I hear somebody talking about Christianity, preaching at people, I think the whole religion is a load of crap. I read the bible or hear a believer tell a personal story, I think I need to jump into the next body of water and be re-baptized. Maybe being a storyteller I’m a little biased. I bet physicists think physics is the absolute, where-it’s-at, capital-T Truth. But I can’t shake the feeling that the world, at least as we humans know it, needs art, needs stories, whether they be fiction or fact.

I, of course, am a bit heavy-handed with the fiction. My name should be a disclaimer for “take what follows with a grain of salt” just as Alan Smithee’s name is a disclaimer for “some stuff went down” and “some stuff hit the fan.” I always feel so insecure writing nonfiction. In an earlier post I wrote about bawling when watching Bambi. How can I be sure that I cried because Bambi’s mom bit the dust or if I really just found “Little April Showers” insufferable?

Dispute not with her: she is a lunatic. This random Shakespeare quote sums it up—I’m crazy, I’m a bit delusional, I don’t fit in with the rest of the world a lot of the time—so take whatever I say but take it with a touch of skepticism.

My stories are like magic tricks—meant to make you believe in them even when you know they can’t be true.

I’d be an awful magician. After each trick I’d want to explain excitedly how it was done. I might even assign some larger meaning to it—relating it to my life and storytelling and art until all the magic has been displaced into words. I’d probably write some rambling blog post about it.

How much can anybody really remember about anything? And who has ownership of a childhood story—the child who felt the moment or the adult who could interpret the moment?

The answer is neither of the above. Sorry, Mom, but the ownership of any story rests with the storyteller and the listener. The storyteller calls the legend fact. The listener “prints” the legend, buying into the charade instead of disputing it.

Basically, when the fiction becomes truth, print the fiction.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the rough-and-ready John Wayne character calls the tenderfoot Jimmy Stewart character “Pilgrim.” What a lovely nickname, really, even though the Wayne character means it to be kinda demeaning. Really the movie is about the legendary Wild West and the dying of that legend as the frontier closes and the land becomes “civilized” with lawyers and schools and fair democracy. A lot of the movie is about questioning the legend—Jimmy Stewart doesn’t buy into Wayne’s macho tactics of tough talk with a hand on a pistol and gritted teeth, the traditional Wild West way of dealing with things. Meanwhile, though, Stewart becomes his own legend—the Pilgrim who came and tamed the West.

The movie is a classic for a reason—it’s as relevant today as it was in 1962, when it was released. It makes you think about storytelling, legends versus facts, how legends play into politics and influence government, how in turn those legends have real-life effects.

It makes you realize that every story, no matter how honorably told, is shaped in a way by the storyteller’s sensibilities and perceptions. But it also makes you realize that you as a listener also have a bit of ownership over the story—you get to decide what you’re going to swallow, what you’re going to find meaningful and carry around with you.

In other words, you believe what you choose to believe, Pilgrim.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.

Directed by Alan Smithee #4: The Look

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Once upon a time, I lived on my family’s land in a house my grandfather designed on FM 1387 in between Midlothian and Waxahachie, Texas, near a tiny little town called Ovilla. This land, although we moved into Waxahachie when I was ten, is often the image I think of when I come across the word “home.” The scratchy knee-high grass. The goats and cows. The black fence and mimosa blossoms. The smell of honeysuckle. The blackberry bush and the peach trees.

I spent the first ten years of my life standing on hard, quartz-ridden black dirt underneath an unrelenting sun, surrounded by whispering wind and miles and miles of cedar-tree-spotted plains. I was, I liked to think, the next link in the chain of Wild West warriors that made up the Hayes clan.

I liked to think I was Texas tough.

Of course in reality I was a scrawny underweight girl, all knees and elbows, prone to ear infections, afraid of the dark, who got stage fright ordering at restaurants.

I’m more of a romantic dreamer than Texas tough. There’s a Kodak photograph buried somewhere in my parent’s attic of me as a six- or seven-year-old at the state fair, standing next to my father and grandfather. I’m wearing a black cowboy hat and black cowboy boots—(they HAD to be black because I wanted to be an outlaw, not a lawman)—that my grandfather had bought me. I’ve got a stern look on my face, like one wrong move and I’d shoot you dead. I adored those boots and that hat because they were sort of like a costume you could wear out and about without Mom telling you to put on something more presentable. No, they weren’t my beloved Batman, Tigger, or Scooby Doo costumes that I wore at home—but at least they were something.

At least they were an outward representation of the character I felt I was building myself to be.

Now, let’s not start philosophizing about how “everyone wears masks” and have some sort of existential identity crisis in the middle of a lousy blog post. I’m just saying people like building and rebuilding their character—the person they present themselves to be—and that who they end up being is one part who they are, one part who they were brought up to be, and one part who they want to be.

And when I first saw The Big Sleep, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be Lauren Bacall.

Although she was a New York girl, she should have gotten an honorary Texas tough badge. Brash, but cool and collected. Never screechy or hysterical like a lot of the other girls in the black and white movies I watched. Even when she played a minor role, she seemed to be in control of the whole film somehow, all the character development, action, and scenes playing out according to a master plan of her making.

She had “the Look.” Sexy. Sassy. Dangerous. A strong woman who could be the femme fatale, the young debutante, or the doting lover but in any case wasn’t naïve, wasn’t lost, wasn’t unfocused, knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. She was the forerunner of the strong women portrayed in this year’s Wonder Woman box office success.

I do not possess anywhere close the level of cool conveyed by Lauren Bacall. But recently I read her memoir, By Myself and Then Some, and was amazed to read that her famous “Look” came about when she had to lean against the wall with her face pointed down so she could raise her cigarette to her lips without her hand shaking from nervousness.

Toughness is in the way you carry yourself, not in what you feel. It’s a piece of your character that you choose to put into place—not something God-given, not something granted to only Texans or brassy New York actresses with smoldering good looks.

Which is good news for us who don’t feel so tough sometimes.

And good news for us writers, who need a bit of toughness, perseverance and resilience, just to keep putting our pen to paper or our fingers to the keyboard. Writing is tough. It’s about as relentless as the sun over my Texas homestead, about as hard as that quartz-ridden black dirt. And it means putting on masks, wearing costumes out and about, pretending life on your family’s rural land was idyllic and meaningful—assigning meaning to yourself and your experiences and sharing them, declaring them important for others to understand and recognize too. Pretending the quartz is diamonds. That takes guts, grit, toughness, and that’s writing.

Of course maybe I’m overthinking it. At the end of the day, maybe being a writer has nothing to do with toughness or the reshaping of your identity—maybe a writer is just plain and simple one who writes and can’t NOT write.

Maybe you just are what you are—your look is just your look—and it’s as simple whistling according to Bacall’s famous double entendre line from To Have and Have Not:

“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.

ARKANA UPDATE

A brief compilation of Issue 2 Notes from the Editors.

by the Arkana Staff

Issue 2 has been live for about a month, and we as the Arkana staff have had plenty of time to reflect on the work in our last issue. Here’s what our genre editors are saying about Arkana and our second issue:

“We sought a synthesis of the real and the ideal.”

“To me, this is the important work of Arkana: fully committing to diversity in a way that goes beyond mere lip-service or checkmarks in boxes.”

“When we get a piece that shows us a slice of someone’s experience that we’ve never seen published elsewhere, or a piece that opens up an exciting thinking space—like a hidden passageway in an old familiar library—that’s when the staff starts having conversations.”

“The characters in these stories are survivors.”

“We read each piece that is submitted and publish excellent prose with a clear voice that elucidates people’s real lives.”

“There was a feeling that we had touched common humanity and heard voices we needed to hear that we hadn’t exactly heard before. There was an awe that always accompanies the taking in of good art.”

“We trust our contributors to be the experts of their experience.”

“Please tell a struggling artist how much their work means to you. We all need to know that somebody is listening, that somebody cares.”

“We want to hear your voices. We want to continue to hear the voices that have been silenced, but speak to us and bring us the awe.”

Comb through our editor notes to read more about how our second issue came together and what it represents—where does Arkana stand in the modern world and publishing industry? As poet Oliver de la Paz said in his interview with us (included in issue 2), writing can be a time machine. It can transmit the past, transform the present, and transport us into the future. So make sure to take a look!

And submit, submit, SUBMIT! We want to read your work, see your passion, hear YOUR voice. We probably won’t be reading work until the school year, but we accept submissions on a rolling basis—so send ‘em our way whenever they’re ready. We can’t wait to get started on the next issue!

Follow our blog for periodic behind-the-scene updates, notes from the editors, and personal musings from our staff. Head on over to our main website for submission guidelines, more info about what exactly Arkana is, and just to read and/or listen to (because we have a brand new audio feature) some great new literature.

We’re so glad to have you—go to arkanamag.org now!

Directed by Alan Smithee #3: Match Cut

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Hands down the best thing about movies is that you can use them as an excuse to eat popcorn.

When I was a kid, me and my dad would have movie nights. Typically the billing consisted of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, the Three Stooges, or old Universal horror pictures—Dracula, Frankenstein, and, my favorite, the Wolf Man. At first I cared little about the movies—I didn’t really get why they didn’t have any color, or why the actors talked so fast and stiffly—but I absolutely loved the way my dad made popcorn. At the time I thought he was some kind of master popcorn chef who knew this amazing secret ingredient that no one else knew to add. In reality, all he did was melt butter in the microwave and pour it into the popcorn bag. My job was to shake the bag using both hands, careful not to spill popcorn everywhere—though I don’t know why I had to be careful about making a mess when he didn’t. He never covered the bowl of butter with plastic wrap, so our microwave ended up looking like a warzone, much to my mother’s chagrin.

The Wolf Man is, I think, the first non-animated movie that truly captivated me. It was the first movie that made me care more about the story than the popcorn. I was amazed especially by Maleva, the gypsy woman who tries to help Larry Talbot after he is bitten by her son, a werewolf. I liked her mysteriousness, her sensitivity, her knowledge, and her dedication to her family.

And of course I was also captivated by the whole idea of werewolves, human beings transforming into out-of-control beasts.

I wasn’t scared at all by the movie. Maybe I’d already been desensitized somehow by television (I used to like the show Cops), other movies (Bambi?) and brow-beaten bible stories, but I didn’t hide my eyes or bury my face in my father’s shoulder when kind, mild-mannered Larry Talbot turned into a giant man-eating wolf. Not a bit. Instead, I couldn’t look away. How AWESOME, somebody becoming something else, something so different that his own father doesn’t recognize him!

But Maleva did recognize him.

The match cut is a transition in film editing in which one shot cuts to another shot that has graphic elements—a subject or action—matching the previous frame. It makes readers see parallels between two different subjects and also can represent a jump in time. For instance, in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the monkeys throws a bone into the air. The bone tumbles against a blank sky, and then there’s a cut to a satellite tumbling in space. So the audience can follow that time has shifted forward and that there are parallels between the bone and the satellite—two of the few things easily followed in 2001.

I wonder who I would be match cut to if the options were Maleva and Larry Talbot. This is one of the many pointless question I wonder about. I also wonder about why I wonder about so many pointless questions.

Yet this isn’t a pointless. Somehow I think this question says something about my heritage, my vocation, my very essence.

Heavy stuff for a pretty cheesy 1940s Universal horror flick. Allow me to elaborate:

My mother’s side of the family is traditionally more stoic, more mysterious, more sensitive. There are bigger holes in the history of that side of my family—my grandfather’s “lost years” in between getting out of the Army in his twenties after WWII and marrying my grandmother when he was around forty, my grandmother’s tendency towards silence and pragmatism when asked about anything. How they come from swampy Caddo Lake in East Texas hidden among the weeping willows and curtains of gray moss. They remind me of Maleva.

My father’s side of the family is more passionate, hard, tough. I have heard stories about my great-grandfather—my father’s father’s father—his resilience and quick temper, how he raised his several brothers and sisters single-handedly during the Great Depression, how when he got mad he would very slowly and deliberately take off his glasses, fold them, put them in his pocket, and then commence to pummeling whoever was the poor soul that had made eye contact. I have seen threads of that temper in my grandfather and father and most certainly in me. Especially when I’m driving and somebody cuts me off.

That side of the family reminds me of the werewolf, Larry Talbot—the man suddenly turned beast.

Most likely I’m a bit of both, and since I’m really not that unique a human being, you could assume that if I’m a bit of both everybody is a bit of both, too.

You need both to tell a good story.

We at Arkana claim that our mission is to find stories that “work to discover and uncover the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the silent.” In the Wolf Man Maleva always recognizes Talbot, even when he’s a monstrous beast that even his own father doesn’t recognize. Stories, or at least the kind Arkana is after, wouldn’t work without both the dysfunctional monsters and the people able to still see the human in the beast.

A good storyteller combines the out-of-control nature of passion and feeling with the quiet wisdom of reflection.

And a good story listener supplies the popcorn.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.