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.

In Defense #1: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to this Form

Converting a TV Script to an MFA Play—the first installment in a series about defending a Master’s Thesis.

by Jacqulyn West, Nonfiction Editor

In order to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree, you have to write, complete, and defend a thesis. Your committee guides you through the process of writing, and finally spends about an hour interrogating your work, at which point you answer their questions in order to defend the choices you made, and ultimately, the quality of your work.

Since the Arkansas Writers Workshop allows candidates flexibility in choosing a genre, these can look widely different from one another. These reports are based on my observations at the defenses of our upcoming graduates.

First up is Shua Miller, Arkana Scriptwriting Editor, who is the first in our program to write and defend a script for his thesis.

We gathered in a conference room on the third floor of Thompson Hall, the building where most of our Writing courses are conducted. The wide room is filled with long tables arranged in a U shape surrounded with big office-style armchairs.

Shua sat at the end of the left side of the U – the hour’s hot seat. His committee lined the outside to his right, and the audience took the other side of the room, filling the remaining seats on the opposite side. Many of us had completed our teaching and classes for the day, and came for the comedy we were sure would ensue. We were not disappointed.

Originally, Shua intended to write a TV series with an ensemble cast about some misadventures in a small Arkansas town in order to complete his MFA and create a script that could be filmed with the help of some talented folks across central Arkansas. That did not work out, but the descriptions of what he had planned had me laughing out loud only a few minutes into his defense. I won’t give any spoilers, just in case that opportunity manifests in future.

Shua’s thesis advisor insisted that the work he completed for the MFA would need a defined end point, but Shua didn’t want to end his TV show after only one season. Back to the drawing board, where he decided to table the TV idea and instead write a play to complete his degree.

Meanwhile, the November 2016 elections obstructed that plan. Shua says he heard from and about many outraged artists who couldn’t make art following the presidential election, and after some days of sorrow, rage, and reflection, decided to use his response to fuel yet another new trajectory for his work.

Shua thought a master’s thesis should be a little confusing and theatrical, but still had that quiet voice inside reminding him that simple is good, and encouraging him to use the skills he developed as a graduate student in writing, but the first draft of his play came out too pretentious. He actually created more work for himself by trying to make the work complicated instead of following his instinct to simplify, an instinct that had been honed by his coursework.

But how can classes about poetry and fiction inform and improve play writing?

Shua says they all tie into each other. From poetry, he learned an economical focus on images, and used that economy in constructing concise informative dialogue among his characters. Prose taught him how to describe efficiently by using fewer but better words. Both forms helped him understand pacing, diction, and word choice. Now he writes to find the musicality and rhythm of how his words can best fit together.

The play, tentatively titled “Stamp of Hope,” depicts an angel and a demon working in the bureaucratic behind-the-scenes offices of hell. This appeals to me in a serious and personal way because I was an administrative specialist for a university English department before coming to UCA to join this program. I already like this play.

“The things we imagine when we think of hell—fire and brimstone, tortures and flames— those things are like an amusement park. But someone has to do the paperwork in the office to make sure those things run. That’s what this play is about.”

I’m laughing through tears and squirming in my seat.

“This vision of hell is more like science fiction than traditional or Biblical depictions.”

I’m nodding so vigorously that my chair is squeaking.

“Most of all, I don’t want my audience to feel like I’m telling them what to think through the characters or the action.”

I’m wishing I had the means to produce this play, because I know there are people like me who would empathize, sympathize, and laugh – like me – through relatable tears. People who, like Shua’s unusual creatures – including the human office manager – are doing with their time, how they interact with each other, and their own internal struggles, and still manage to find hope in the most desolate of places and situations.

While some defenses can be intense grilling sessions, this one felt more like a conversation, dashed with smart office humor and enough humility to make it accessible to just about anyone on a scale from demon to angel.


Jacqulyn Harper West is a poet of unfinished parts who prefers writing nonfiction. Her heart is in classic country music, especially the Bakersfield sound, and her scholarship ranges from feminist explications of her hometown’s cultural heritage tourism sites to code-meshing and hip hop as texts in first-year and creative writing pedagogy.

Everything is Now Political

The future of the literary journal in the age of Trump.

by Mark Lager, Poetry Reader

“Everything is now political. We have the responsibility to make the political personal.”

Roxane Gay challenged booksellers with this statement. She challenged booksellers to extend their scope beyond their usual predominantly suburban, predominantly white demographics. She challenged booksellers to share marginalized voices. She cited as examples bookstores in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles that had reached out to minority communities.

She had already caused controversy in the publishing industry by withdrawing her new book How To Be Heard from Simon & Schuster as an act of dissent. Some commentators had criticized her demonstration as another posturing of political correctness. They were wrong in their assumptions. Her choice was a bold and courageous move.

Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Threshold, had originally planned on publishing the book Dangerous by the alt-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos. His speeches and writings have tapped into much of the same misogynistic and xenophobic fears and hatreds which fueled the ascendancy and election of Donald Trump. Protests against his college tour turned explosive in California on the campuses of UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

Despite his disgusting and divisive rhetoric, the ACLU decided to defend his First Amendment free speech rights. Censoring Milo Yiannopoulos and others like him reinforces his supporters’ suspicions of the liberal media, which will only encourage even more dangerous and outrageous alt-right agitprop. Censorship is never the answer. Counterdemonstrations are essential and important.

Simon & Schuster eventually did the right thing: they canceled the publication of Dangerous. However, the burning question still remains: how many more major booksellers will consider publishing someone like Milo Yiannopoulos in the first place? Will the publishing industry’s attention seeking (through a figure like Milo) continue?

Joy Peskin of Farrar, Straus and Giroux has detected a disturbing pattern here between the political and publishing worlds: “It’s not a coincidence that Trump went from a reality television star to president of the United States, thanks, in part, to the radicalization of the white working class. And a lot of the leg work was done by Milo and his mentor, Steve Bannon…If you think Trump’s presidency is the last gasp of the white male patriarchy, think again.”

Authors, booksellers, bookstores, and literary magazines need to step up to the plate as Roxane Gay has done. They need to address the issue of inclusiveness. This is absolutely fundamental now because of the forces of bigotry and racism previously beneath the surface but now unleashed by the presidency of Trump.  Literary journals must create communities of marginalized voices, what Roxane Gay recently nicknamed “sacred spaces” so that writing will progress, not regress, in this current charged climate.

Minorities have always faced an uphill battle in their writing being published and now this could only get worse if literary journals do not continue to disseminate these voices.

John Freeman argues that an alternative to the contemporary literary magazine is one which is international. Freeman says that “corrective narratives” are necessary right now in order to counteract the dominant capitalist and corporate narratives being used to manipulate the populace. However, Freeman also says that these narratives themselves should not be didactic on a moral or political level. They should simply present a region of human life which goes against these narratives.

Can a piece of poetry or fiction accomplish this ambition without being political? According to Roxane Gay’s more radical stance, this is no longer viable.

“The overlooked, the misunderstood, and the silent” are the voices which Arkana promises to share with the world in our mission statement. We have included voices which contemplate the complexities of life in China and London, of genocide in the Middle East, among other voices. All literary journals need to keep pushing themselves beyond their borders. It is only through this process that we will be able to combat the insular mindset which has prevented progress for such a long time and create communities which are truly inclusive.


Mark Lager is currently enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His work has been published in Chiron Review, Circumference, Columbia Journal, and Denver Quarterly.