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indexUp and down Broadway, in and out of journalism, taken by daguerreotypes, transported by opera, gathering gathering gathering experience—but for what? By the early 1850s, Whitman began to feel what he later described as a “great pressure, pressure from within.” With his thirty-fifth birthday fast approaching, he grew pained by the notion that at the same age Shakespeare was “adjudged already to deserve a place among the great masters,” having by then written such plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III.

paper dreams front coverI imagine that everyone reading this who’s familiar with Ninth Letter and our distinctive format expects me to write something along the lines of “literary publishing needs to be more experimental! more design-heavy! just heavier in general—we need more magazines you can hardly lift!” And it’s true, Ninth Letter is a journal that stands out, literally, on the shelf: oversized, full of color, elaborately designed, packed with inserts, foldout posters, and other gadgets. Some readers adore this; others very vocally do not. The response we most often get from people seeing Ninth Letter for the first time is, “This is a literary magazine?” The answer is yes, if by “literary magazine” you mean a publication which primarily exists to publish poetry and prose of extraordinary quality. But it’s true, we do things a little differently from everyone else. Our mission, in addition to providing a forum for great writing, is to find ways to utilize graphic design so that it illuminates and enhances the literary experience. When our experiments are successful (more often than not, I hope), Ninth Letter becomes a new kind of reading experience. We have been credited with, or accused of, attempting to “redefine” what a literary journal is—maybe we’ve even made that claim ourselves somewhere along the way. But I don’t think “redefine” accurately describes Ninth Letter’s goal. What we really want to do is experiment with what a literary magazine can be. In this new millennium of crossed genres and blurred boundaries in art and media, ever-evolving technology can provide endless opportunities for creative work. Design and writing seem a natural partnership, both in print and online. At least, that’s how we see it.

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People who have known you all your life are often surprised when they read your fiction. People who have held you in their arms, buttoned your pajamas, put band-aids on your booboos, whose children you grew up with. People who are family, and who like to remind you about that once or twice a year over a Rubio’s fish taco at the mall.

thrill of the chaste book jacketSimple Life or Soft Porn?

So wherein lies the cache of the fictive Amish Mädchen on the shelves and in the imaginations of contemporary readers? By what means have the Old Order Amish, who comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, catapulted to literary stardom, so that novels about them repre­sent 15 percent of the top religious fiction titles sold by Barnes & Noble and 30 percent of a Christian bestseller list? What, exactly, is fueling the thrill of the chaste—this wildfire popularity of Amish romance literature and the virtues it contains? And what does it reveal about fiction, the Amish, and the rest of us?

The Gift of No

By Art Edwards

Writing

You’ve submitted your novel manuscript for six months, a year, two years. You’ve submitted it to ten, 50, 100 literary agents. You’ve submitted it to five, 15, 25 publishing companies. And all you’ve gotten for these efforts—when people have bothered to respond—is many clever and not-so-clever variations on “no.”

Well, all is not lost. It’s 2013, which means you can self-publish your novel. For a small fee—or even for free—you can publish an e-book or print-on-demand title and have it distributed to many of the same markets popular writers enjoy. No more do you have to rely on the publishing elite to get your work out there. You can do it yourself, and you never have to hear “no” again.

I received the rejection early yesterday morning, the last one, the one I’d been waiting on.

I finished my third novel, Badge, in late 2010, brimming with the confidence of having finally created something the traditional publishing industry might actually want. Ever since I cracked my first Vonnegut paperback when I was eighteen, I’ve fantasized about spending my life writing novels. Back then, such a dream required—and for the most part still does—getting an agent and a publisher.

Dead Meat

By J.S. Breukelaar

Writing

How do you start a new novel? Where does it begin?

First you straighten up your actual desk, then your computer desktop. Which leads to Facebook, of course, and Wired Magazine, and rereading the last story you submitted, finding a typo. A malignant one—dyzogotic instead of dizygotic in a story about twins. You will begin again. You will.

Dipping Your Toes in Social Media

Social media is here and it’s likely that using it will increase your chances of being read. You don’t have to do it. No one will hold a gun to your head. However, at the very least put your toe in the water and try it before eschewing it.

First, learn what you like in social media. When speaking with other authors we often hear: “I hate Twitter.” “Facebook is stupid.” “I don’t want to blog.” “I don’t have time for this.” Try a different approach. What can you enjoy doing in the world of social media? Who do you want to be online? Who do you want your potential readers to see? How can you craft that person? (For instance, Randy likes giving advice, researching, and being a know-it-all. Voila, her social media persona.

By the fall of 2010, my mother had been sick for a year and a half, already outliving the parameters of her terminal diagnosis. I had been living with my parents for a year by then, and my days were overflowing with her illness, creating a heartbreaking, beautiful, heightened, stressful and joyful existence, if an insular one. To cope and try to make sense of things, I attempted to write about it, but  it wasn’t really working.  This was the most important thing I’d ever experienced in my life, and I felt it should be my next book.  But nothing was taking shape. Aside from a few inspired blog posts, I was failing miserably.

The really great thing about finishing a book is that you go to write your to-do list and ‘book’ is not there. Neither are any number of book-related entries.

Manuscript? Nope. Chapter 3 rewrite? Hell no. Research ‘anal retentive’ for Chapter 40? Ask that guy on Level 6 about formatting? Get the Czech word from Grandma Zuzi for a person-whose-hungry-heart-has-become-a-stomach-that-is-eating-them-alive. Update Evernote. Download that cool mind-mapping app… buy a new pencil sharpener/laptop-case/ring binder/more colored pens (or notebooks, butcher’s paper, chocolate, Merlot, beta blockers, cold medicine, miso soup packs…).  None of that’s there.

My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.

The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us.  Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science’; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”

At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”

This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.

In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”

The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.

So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following

“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”

To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.

But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.

I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.

This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.

 

Here is what a book looks like when it lives on a web site. It’s not ideal. But it’s a book[esque] book, and I made it as close to book-ness as I could without handing you an actual book.

If your eyes, like mine, are tired, you can clink on the pages and they will zoom to a much more reader-friendly size.

 

 

 

 

Soul Work

By Cila Warncke

Writing

Describing her mother, Alice Walker writes: “She is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.” The final phrase chimes in my head. Despite the urgency (“her soul must“) it alludes to a peace concomitant with understanding that creative work is the purest form of pleasure.

I arrived at this understanding roundabout, by a process of elimination. After years of diligently, assiduously failing to profit from the wisdom of others; stubbornly running down alleys and pursuing phantoms, I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way. The sky is linty and the wind whips past the shop-fronts and pebbledash terraces as if they aren’t there, yet my run-hungry body longs to be outside.

It took me a long time to notice my unequivocal parallel reaction to not writing. For a week I have been producing rather than creating. Anyone else might think a few thousand words of research here; an article there; a column; a sales pitch; a dozen cover letters; the hundredth iteration of my CV, count as writing—but my soul knows it doesn’t. Job seeking has temporarily, if necessarily, invaded my life and distracted me from work. Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.

My younger self mistook this Fear for ordinary dissatisfaction. I blamed jobs, boyfriends, poverty and hangovers for wretchedness and sought them as relief. If anyone told me what I needed was “work my soul must have” I wasn’t listening. Words alone gradually won me back. The thrill of recognition on reading Orwell’s Why I Write: “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” The way Fitzgerald’s evocation of: “an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” burns my eyes like the sun. Piecemeal, I discovered that when I write—really create—nothing else matters.

Valerie Solanas wrote that “self-forgetfulness should be one’s goal, not self-absorption.”  This is the delicious secret of creativity: what looks like self-absorption (missed appointments, ignored phone calls, banished partners, skipped meals) is an intensely satisfying act of self-forgetting. If, while writing, I have the slightest impulse to make tea, check Facebook or go to the toilet then I’m not creating, I’m producing.

According to Natalia Ginzburg: “To the extent that the writing is valid and worthy of life, every other feeling will become dormant. You cannot expect to preserve your precious happiness fresh and intact, nor your precious unhappiness; everything recedes, disappears… you possess nothing, you belong to no one.”

There is a word for possessing nothing and belonging to no one: freedom. When Walker eulogises her mother’s creativity she isn’t praising an act of production, however aesthetically pleasing. She is paying homage to the radical wisdom that doing the work our souls must have is a way to claim ourselves and free us from what we are not.

 

Hi, I’m Stacie and I might need professional help. Sometimes I get really bored and end up writing fake excerpts from fake books written by authors I’m not overly fond of to a hopefully humorous effect. Like so:

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Ayn Rand could have written –

Tawnie Fipplestein surveyed the vast grey parking lot in front of him. It takes a man, a real man, to look at an empty lot and say “I’m going to put a horse-meat factory there!” And that’s exactly what Tawnie intended on doing.

He kicked at a small pebble on the ground. Insignificant stone! With its feminine curves and weak nature. He stepped on the stone and it crumbled under his Sperry loafers with an exciting pop. “I’ll crush all the stones,” Tawnie thought to himself, “I’ll leave no stone unturned.”

Behind him was Christabelle, sitting on a park bench and admiring Tawnie’s round yet manly buttocks. “It’s takes a real man to look at an empty lot and say ‘I’m going to put a horse-meat factory there!” she thought to herself. As though he read her mind, Tawnie set his arms akimbo and flexed his cheeks. Christabelle sighed lustily and fanned herself with her kerchief.

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Stephenie Meyer could have written –

I rose from my bed and groaned groggily, the night before still sour on my mind as I trudged towards my pink perfect bathroom. Mother insisted.

“All girls love pink!” she’d said, making my eyes roll so far back in my head I thought they might get lost. I raised my tooth brush, also pink, to my white, straight teeth and thought of Elton. Laurie introduced us the night before. Everyone knew of him, but no one really knew him, as evidenced by Laurie’s halting introduction.

“He lives in the old Manor house. Now, I always thought that place was condemned?”

“No, it’s…beautiful,” he replied, his blue eyes, the color of freshly cleaned toilet water, trained on my face.

Raining again, of course, I thought to myself as I regarded my foamy-mouthed reflection. It always rains here in Spooner, Washington, where I was born and where I still lived. No one ever left Spooner. It was an inescapable place.

I piled my luxurious raven hair atop my head and pulled on my favorite pair of size two jeans. “Sardonica, breakfast!” my mother shouted up the carpeted stairs. I gulped a breath and padded down to the kitchen.

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Dan Brown could have written –

Dr. Bone Inquisitor, Esq. surveyed the scene; one dead woman, covered in cornbread dust, a hanged Pomeranian, and a door stop. What could it mean, he thought moodily.

Chief Inspector Hannibal C. Blount entered the room. He looked around quickly, summing up events, as was his way.

“What we have here,” he started, picking an errant blond hair off his impeccable suit, “is one dead woman covered in cornbread dust, a hanged Pomeranian, and a door stop. What do you think it means?”

Bone knelt over the woman and took a whiff, waving his hand upwards to drum up more of the scent. “Smells like…”

“Maple syrup,” Inspector Blount offered with a snap of his fingers. Bone nodded perilously.

“Exactly,” he said, putting his pen in his mouth. “Maple syrup.”

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Chuck Palahniuk could have written –

This dude, the one who’s blowing me in the alley, he takes my floppy dog from between his dick-sucking lips, looks up, and says,

“Did you know Houdini died from a blow to the torso?”

Keep on sucking, I tell him. He wraps his fat hairy hand around my dong and strokes it as he goes on.

“No, it’s true. Houdini challenged a strong man to punch him in the gut and the guy did it before he was ready. He had to brace himself for the blow.”

“Less talky, more sucky.”

“Marcel Proust was a mama’s boy, it’s a proven fact.”

I push the dude’s face into my crotch. The rest of his words were garbled by my dick and ratty pubic hair.

“Genghis Khan had tiny feet. Marilyn Monroe was really a guy. The colon can hold ten gallons of dung before it explodes.”

Little did I know just how right he was.

This.  Right here.  What I’m saying now.  Everything I will say.  People have said it.  People have asked the questions I’m asking and answered them, but here I am.  Pursuit of new answers is nothing but bargaining with old answers.

 

It became desperate, for me, when I was reading Jonathan Evison’s West of Here.  I enjoyed it immensely at first.  Then I had to stop reading.  I’d already read it before.  There was nothing wrong with the book.

I’ve read almost nothing since.

 

Crabwalk,” I said. “By Gunter Grass.  This is Crabwalk.”

“You think every book is Crabwalk,” said a friend whose own manuscript I had compared to Crabwalk.

“No, just the ones that are, but there are a lot of them.”

 

Crabwalk is about Nazis, kind of, old and new, not that it matters.

 

Scuttling backwards to move forward.

 

Crabwalk is also, in turn, other books and stories and movies and poems.

 

West of Here is Crabwalk and Crabwalk is the “Garden of Forking Paths” (this, too, involves Germans), and that reminds me of Yeats.

 

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

Which reminds me.

 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

 

All roads lead to Eliot.

 

 

Did he say make it new, too?

 

DA DA DA...

 

Nothing is anything but a reference to something else.  And that’s whether we mean or know it to be or not.  That, too, is Eliot.

I can’t have a thought.  Not one.  Not of my own.

Either can you.

 

Trying.  Even trying.  Look at what you’re up against.  LOOK AT THEM.

 

I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind because the description on the back reminded me vaguely of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and J.L. Borges’ “The Library of Babel”.

The fucking Library of Babel.

It’s almost too terrible to talk about.

 

I couldn’t finish The Shadow of the Wind.

 

 

I have a recurring dream about sitting in a study in Buenos Aires watching J.L. Borges write.

 

In the dream he can’t see me.  He keeps daguerreotypes and tiny dishes of loose change.  It is just like the study Eliot uses in my dreams, but Borges’ study is dusty and baroque.  The curtains are brocade. I leave fingerprints on everything.

Eliot’s curtains are linen, rocking in a maritime breeze, and the furniture is immaculate–dark wood and  indifferent ivory.  Surfaces are smooth and cool to the touch.  There are no shadows, no clutter.  He licks his pen.  He watches me watch him.

 

I used to believe in an embarrassing way that I was communing with them, that in the dreams, these men were the men, but they say everyone in your dreams is you.  So I return to these places to be alone with myself, I guess.  Nothing ever changes.

 

Ideas have archetypes.

Containers within which a finite number of related human thoughts rattle and stick.  Stick together, shake apart, rattle, stick again elsewhere.  Then it’s new.  But not really new.  And eventually all partnerships are exhausted.

Like matter, archetypes of ideation can’t be created or destroyed.

This very idea comes from a box labeled “Jung, et al”.

And then again, the archetypes themselves are items in other, larger containers.  Nesting dolls of human awareness.

The largest of which is…what?

 

God?

 

Temporal provincialism is intractable.


Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

 

On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.

 

Oh God.

 

 

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden; shall we follow?

 

…respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.