Writing Prompt: The Pitiless
In Volume One of his collected letters, Gustave Flaubert wrote that “the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.” He went on to say that writing that achieves this often has a pitiless aspect to it. Its “somber depths turn us faint, yet over the whole there hovers an extraordinary tenderness.”
This prompt is based on this idea that writing from a point of severe detachment can set the reader dreaming. So choose a moment of heightened drama to write about. I often suggest a death scene to my students, but it can be any moment that’s full of extreme tension—a scene of violence, of heartbreak. Write about this moment focusing purely on the concrete details, avoiding any commentary, any statement of how the characters or narrator feel, erasing any hint of melodrama. The idea is, through describing this moment without emotion, in an almost pitiless manner, great feeling will be evoked in the reader. I do this exercise in fiction classes, but it can be done in any genre.
Biography of Alistair McCartney: Alistair McCartney recently published The End of the World Book: a Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, April, 08), which was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. Currently at work on his second novel, The Death Book, he teaches creative writing in Antioch University’s MFA and BA Programs. See what he’s up to at http://alistairmccartney.blogspot.com
I’ve chosen public transportation and my own two feet as my preferred means of navigating the city. Every day I make it a point to venture out with my camera and a small notebook and just take in this landscape that is Los Angeles. It can be a short tour around the neighborhood, a visit to the Shoe Repair man or a six mile walk. I take a personal object along with me to leave at a bus bench or atop a newspaper vending machine and try and imagine who may have come across it; might this be something they were looking for or had lost? Will they carry it home? Will it remain there for me to find again? Questions posed, and there begins the writing. I have received many, many beautiful gifts on the sidewalks of the city; this is my thank you.
Biography of Marisela Norte: Considered one of the most important literary voices to come out of East Los Angeles, Marisela Norte has performed her work throughout California, the US and the UK. Her words can also be found in the anthologies Microphone Fiends, Bordered Sexualities: Bodies on the Verge of a Nation, The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, Bear Flag Republic, American Studies in a Moment of Danger, American Quarterly and Rolling Stone’s Women of Rock. In 2008 she received the Ben Reitman award for Peeping Tom Tom Girl , her first collection of prose. Norte is currently working on Sociedad Anonima a collection of photographs and short fiction.
A good way to get started on a new piece is to put down your initial ideas in the form of a letter. Address the letter to someone in your life who absolutely does not understand your work (your parents, workmates, landlord). As you refine the letter, you may get a clearer picture of what you want. You might also become so frustrated in the effort to make your work accessible that you strike out in new territory just do defy expectations. All outcomes are good!
Biography of Brendan Constantine: Brendan Constantine is a poet based in Hollywood. His work has appeared in numerous journals, notably Directions, The L.A. Review, Ninth Letter and RUNES. H is book, Letters To Guns, is just out from Red Hen Press. New work is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Chaparral, Askew, Luvina, and the anthology Bright Wings.
Eloise Klein Healy with Nikita
The Red List
Very quickly and without thinking, write a list of ten red things you have owned or come in contact with in some way in your lifetime. When you read down the list, one or two items will “vibrate” a bit more than the others. Choose one and start a free write about the object. For example, you might have had a red sweater in the fourth grade. It’s OK if you find yourself taken away to another topic–just keep on going. The exercise works on associative powers of language and experience. If you can time yourself, write for five to seven minutes. Now you have some raw material and you can see if you can create something with it. Any color can be chosen–a blue list, a green list, whatever.
Biography of Eloise Klein Healy: Eloise Klein Healy is the author of six books of poetry: Building Some Changes (Beyond Baroque Foundation); A Packet Beating Like a Heart (Books Of A Feather Press); Ordinary Wisdom (Paradise Press/re-released by Red Hen Press); Artemis In Echo Park (Firebrand Books), nominated for the Lambda Book Award and released as a spoken word recording by New Alliance Records; and her collections from Red Hen Press, Passing, and most recently, The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho. The Inevitable Press published her chapbook Women’s Studies Chronicles in the Laguna Poets Series.