Monthly Archives: April 2015

It’s Complicated

jki

What do the three men pictured above have in common? If you guessed, “They’re all white dudes!” or “They’re all sociopaths!” you would be correct, on both counts. But Walter White, Hank Moody, and Tony Soprano share another important characteristic, one that demonstrates one of the best ways to complicate a character. All three men have daughters whom they love very, very much.

It was no accident that, as Breaking Bad came to a close, the last thing Walt does with his family is stare lovingly at Holly as she lies in her crib. I didn’t finish Californication, because the show’s writers decided to put the whole thing on repeat after the third season, but Wikipedia informed me that it ends with Becca’s wedding. And throughout The Sopranos, Tony tells Meadow that she’s more like him than her mother. The major plot line at the end of the series stems from Tony seeking revenge after one of his rivals says some not-nice-things to Meadow at a New York City restaurant.

I call this the “Give the Guy a Daughter” phenomenon. If you have a character, in particular a main character and especially a man, that would be very easy for the audience to absolutely and totally despise, give the guy a daughter that he loves and prizes above all else. We will forgive many sins if the man loves his daughter.

There’s probably a lot of psychoanalysis that could go into this phenomenon, especially regarding the sort of inverted “Daddy Problems” thing going on here. Also, we should probably talk about how women characters don’t get any bonus points for loving their children because it’s just expected, whereas men characters, by simply being around their children, get to revel in the audience’s good graces. But I’m more interested in the mechanics. The “Give the Guy a Daughter” concept works because loving a daughter absolves the man of some, not nearly all, but some, of his moral reprehensibility. If he loves his daughter, he can’t be all bad. But not all characters are monsters, and non-monster characters also need some complicating.

In a tweet not too long ago, Guy in your MFA talked about how his main character having an affair demonstrated emotional depth. It was a smartass remark, but something I often see in short story submissions. The main character is a little boring, maybe a husband who works as an insurance salesman, or a wife who teaches second grade. How does the writer spice it up a little? Throw in an affair. Voila! Now we have tension! Emotional depth! Lies! Perfection!

If it works for Don Delillo, it will work for you.

I brought the “Give the Guy a Daughter” thing up with some of my EIU friends a while ago, and they helped me brainstorm some other ways to complicate a character. If a woman character is spectacular in every imaginable way, make her clumsy. If the character is a total nerd, have him/her listen to hardcore gangster rap. If the character is Catholic, make him guilt-free. Minds will be blown.

I think these concepts work because melding opposites immediately creates tension, and tension leads to drama, and drama leads to a good story. What strikes me as odd is what does or does not become cliché. It seems like the “Give the Guy a Daughter” and “Affair Equals Emotional Depth” concepts could go on forever. But does anyone want to read about another alcoholic priest? Or English professor having an affair with a student? Or writer with writer’s block?

Perhaps the best way to figure this out is to catalogue some other repetitive, but not quite cliché, character complications. Readers, what do you got?

–Sean Towey

Bluestem At AWP15: Postcard Contest

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Thanks to everyone who came by the table at AWP in Minneapolis to say hello. If you picked up a postcard for our 2015 contest, we look forward to reading your work! Here’s a reminder of the contest guidelines:

1. Pick up a Bluestem postcard  at AWP and write an amazing poem, story, or essay on it.
2. Mail that postcard to Bluestem Postcard Contest c/o English Department, 600 Lincoln Ave., Eastern Illinois University,  Charleston, IL 61920. Don’t forget to give us your digital contact info.
3. Top entries will be considered for publication in an upcoming contest issue of Bluestem (online and/or print).
4. One grand prize winner will be awarded $50.00.
5. Limit one entry per submitter. No submissions
considered by current or past students, faculty, or staff of EIU.
6. All submissions must be postmarked no later than
April 30, 2015, to be considered for the contest.
7. Look for winning entries on bluestemmagazine.com.

Last year we had lots of excellent entries for our contest, and we cannot wait to see what this year will bring. Here’s a look at last years winners featured in the June 2014 Online Issue:

“Dear Dad” by Judy Halebsky
“Through the Viewfinder” by Sarah Shaffer
“The Youth Minister & His Wife Go to the Pool” by Anne Kniggendorf

“You Do You”: It won’t be for everyone

A couple of weeks ago, Colson Whitehead published an op-ed in The New York Times Magazine titled “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture.” In a glorious moment of online irony, the piece, an anti-narcissism salvo from a writer who just published a memoir about playing poker, showed up on my Facebook newsfeed at least ten times. We are now using media dedicated to self-aggrandizement to share our thoughts on the deleterious effects of narcissism in our culture. Go team.

Whitehead’s main point, which has previously been made by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, is that the “you do you” mindset leaves no room for criticism. If everything is relative, no one action or actor is bad or good. As Whitehead puts it: “‘You do you,’ taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei.”

I agree with Whitehead that the prevalence of narcissism in our culture is a problem. However, the piece is extremely bitter. Someone from Generation X calling someone else “narcissistic” is extraordinarily annoying, in a pot-kettle-black sort of way. My other issue with Whitehead’s piece is that it ignores the positive justifications for the “you do you” ethical imperative, which can be summed up in the phrase “Who am I to judge?” The idea is that, because we can never truly and totally understand the inner-workings of another person, we should not judge that person’s actions. It’s not that I don’t want to criticize another person, it’s that I don’t have the right.

The culture is not nearly as hopeless as Whitehead proposes. There are not a whole lot of people saying “That thing in Ferguson? That was just Darren Wilson being Darren Wilson.” Or “That thing in Charleston? Michael Slager being Michael Slager.” Or “That thing in Indiana? The Indiana State Congress being the Indiana State Congress.” We are willing to make moral judgements about the actions of others in specific circumstances.

I believe the issue is a little bit deeper, and perhaps more pernicious, than critics of the narcissism present in millennial culture wants to admit. The “you do you” mindset is only partly, as Whitehead supposes, about protecting ourselves from criticism and assuaging our fragile egos. It is also about creating a moral horizon that everyone can follow. With the rise of modernism and postmodernism, any and all ethical paradigms went out the window (some for very good reason). But there weren’t any ethical paradigms left to replace the moral horizons flattened by the postmodernists.

About the only ethical imperative left in our society is: never disallow others from being themselves. Which tells me lots of things not to do. But it doesn’t tell me a whole lot about what I should do, besides keep being me.

Our nation is very good about discussing the protection of individual rights from systematic injustice. Taxation without representation. Civil Rights Movement. Gay Marriage. But what we are not very good at talking about is what happens when individual rights battle other individual rights. What happens when a woman’s right to control her body runs up against freedom of religion?

The time is coming when “me being me” will somehow affect “you being you.” The real question is, what will we do then?

 

–Sean Towey

Drinking and Writing and Drinking

A writer is an anxious creature. There is the little gnawing creature at the back of your head telling you the words you insist on putting to the page are not only incomprehensible and stupid, but boring. You’re a boring person. Then there are the rejections from literary magazines, short in length and long in an ability to crush confidence. Finally, there’s Duotrope, a web site that writers use to keep track of their submissions and to predict the arrival of the aforementioned soul-crushing rejection letters.

But then there is alcohol, which provides writers with self-assurance while simultaneously disappearing disappointing memories. In my opinion, the writer’s anxiety re:failure has directly lead to the writers-as-alcoholics stereotype. Seeing as AWP, where thousands of writers gather to drink and talk about writing, is this weekend, it is a fitting time to explore what various writers have said about booze.

The following quotes are all from Goodreads.

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
—Dorothy Parker

I don’t know much about Dorothy Parker, but, judging from that quote, she seems like she was a lot of fun. Because here’s the thing about hooking up with someone because you were drinking to forget about how you want to be a writer—it could become material for a great short story.

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” 

Sylvia Plath

Hardcore alcoholics, the type of people who maintain a near constant buzz, drink vodka. It’s odorless, clear, and pairs well with any other liquid. The amazing writer Sylvia Plath, who is unfortunately more famous for her mental instability than her syntax, nails the writer’s love-affair with drinking. It is both self-destructive (swallowing swords is not healthy) and confidence-boosting. We call this sort of relationship tragic.

“War and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.” 

William Faulkner

Well-played, Mr. Faulkner, well-played. Perhaps there is a direct proportional relationship between the amount of time the United States has been at war and the rise of microbreweries. If we can’t defeat the terrorists, we’ll out-drink them using our best home-grown American hops.

This might be apocryphal, but I heard a story about Hemingway driving to Faulkner’s house to tell Faulkner he had to drink less. If Hemingway is telling you to sober up, you’re in a bad, bad way.

“I drink because it’s the only time I can stand it.”

—Truman Capote

I love this quote because what is the “it”? Life? Writing? Love? All of the above?

There are a lot of great non-drinking writers, too, for example David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace. Also, no proof exists to show that the hard-drinking writers would have been worse off if they didn’t drink. It strikes me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry might have improved had she gotten sober.

Overall, I think we tend to romanticize the writer-as-drinker lifestyle. Writing, like anything difficult, is best done sober. And if you’re writing to uncover the hard truths about being human, imbibing a substance that’s greatest attribute is dulling life’s hard edges doesn’t seem like a solution.

 

–Sean Towey

April 2015 Contributor News

Bluestem is excited to announce our past contributors’ newest accomplishments! Check out what our writers have been up to!

Jerry Bradley’s story “Derangement” appeared in the Print 2014 edition of Bluestem and has been collected in an anthology called A Shared Voice. He is better known as a poet than fiction writer, and his 3rd collection of poems, Crownfeathers and Effigies, came out in 2014 from Lamar University Press.

Eric Burke’s short fiction piece “Mineral Rights,” which appeared in the September 2012 Online issue of Bluestem, has been included in a video of his short works titled “Fog.

Sarah Jubar (previously Kendall)’s fiction piece “Turducken” appeared in Bluestem in December of 2011. She is currently working on a novel, and her most recent publication “How to Tolerate the Dawn” (flash fiction, nominated for a Pushcart Prize) appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Short, Fast, and Deadly.

Michael Lauchlan, whose poem “Evensong” appeared in the December 2014 online edition of Bluestem, has a new poetry collection! You can read the press release for Lauchlan’s new book Trumbull Ave. here.

Sandy Longhorn, whose poem “Seized with a Small Fever” appeared in the Spring 2014 Print edition of Bluestem,  has a new book: Alchemy My Mortal Form.

Jim Meirose‘s short story “The Rowboat” appeared in September 2014 edition of Bluestem. His new novel Mount Everest will be published by Montag Press in 2015.

Matt Pine, whose fiction “Winter Vacation” appeared in the June 2012 Online issue of Bluestem, is starting a new weekly lit-web-type-think. It’s called How It Feels To, and he is currently seeking submissions. He wants to solicit short pieces on how it feels to… Well, how it feels to do anything. Like clean your apartment. Or roll out a yoga mat. Or teach a child how to hold chopsticks. Or how to hold chopsticks yourself. Any form is welcome.

Doug Ramspeck has appeared in multiple issues of Bluestem, the latest being the December 2013 Online edition with his fiction piece “Three Crows.” Ramspeck’s latest book of poetry, Original Bodies, was published in December 2014 by Southern Indiana Review Press and received the Michael Waters Poetry Prize.

Bradford Tice, whose poetry also appeared in the Spring 2014 Print edition of Bluestem, also has a new book available–What the Night Numbered.

Joe Weintraub, whose work appeared in the Spring 2012 print edition of Bluestem, had a productive year in 2014, with fiction published in Midwestern Gothic (Summer 2014), Oyez Review (Spring 2014), the special “Chicago” issue of Chicago Literary Quarterly (2014), and the special “TV issue” of Chicago Literati; here is the final story, “Braverman and the Dancer from Soul City.