Teaching (and knowing) the best of the best

Monday, October 24, 2011

This coming Wednesday, I'll be at Rutgers-Camden for a reading, a talk about new trends in young adult literature...and a workshop.  As I considered just what I wanted to convey during that workshop hour—something about precision and continuity, something about the speed of one sentence as flared against the long, quelling quietude of another—I began to think about the novelists and short story writers I am infinitely lucky to know.

(And I rush to say that I know so many talented people—humorists, memoirists, bloggers, poets.  It is my hope, with this blog, to give voice to them all, one way or the other, in time.)

Today I share some of the lines I'll be discussing at Rutgers-Camden.  We'll be talking about what makes these passages work, what we can learn from them.  As I type them in, I catch my breath.  These, my friends, are writers

He was heading to the bathroom to brush his teeth.  His starched shirt made crisp noises as he walked.  He wore brown-and-blue suspenders and he'd tucked his tie in his shirt to save it from his three-minute egg.  I said nothing, just smiled and lifted one eyebrow.  And he looked at me oddly, the way he did more and more in those days, as if I'd spoken too quickly, overlapping my words and rendering them foreign.  He said he had to go to work, and I dropped his fingers, and he went in and brushed his teeth.  The sound of the bristles against his gums, doing their ugly work, was like an assault, as if he was scrubbing me away.  — Kelly Simmons, The Bird House

Death, which used to seem so remote, now feels to Clara as though it is everywhere, like the universally disliked relative who arrives early to every gathering and shows no discernible sign of ever going home.  She can sense it turning against her own work, lurking in the notion of permanence surrounding portraiture, skulking around the very idea of catching a person at one moment and documenting them, just then.  This is what death does, she thinks, stony-faced, staring right into her own eyes.  Catches us all.  Stops time. — Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

Evelyn eyed Sarah's lunatic ensemble: hair blasted from its elastic band, bath-splashed T-shirt, teeth spackled with pulp from oranges she'd sucked hungrily at lunch because she didn't have the patience to peel.  "I'd go nuts if I didn't work," she said.  "I mean, what do those women do all day?"  Elizabeth Mosier, The Playgroup

Even now, in middle age, she preserved the vital though self-deceptive hope that anything might change and nothing need be done meanwhile. She still had a kind of vision, she still could see, and she still was moved by perceptions as poignant as consciousness. But nothing came of it; nothing was expressed. She had fallen to a place where people worked at tolerable but not thrilling work, a lifetime of work whose chief reward and motivation was (never quite enough) money. If she died tomorrow, she would leave behind no aborted masterpiece. — Ivy Goodman, A Chapter from Her Upbringing

When the cinema went dark, the audience stirred to life.  People leaned toward the shapes in the seats next to them.  "What happened?" they asked.  "Did you see?" — Jessica Francis Kane, The Report

Tapping a cigarette on the dashboard, Eric lights it and sucks, the smoke hits the back of his throat like a branding iron.  He holds his breath, then blows the smoke in a disappearing draft.  He wants to pop his chin, blow a smoke ring, but he's never learned how.  He isn't sure, either, if it's cool.  — Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Why She Left Us

I judge their hands.  I say to myself, yes, that guy fights fires in the mountains.  Or no, that guy's not a roofer, no matter what he claims.  Armand has spadelike hands, troweling hands, and they convince me he speaks a certain kind of truth.  He woos me with the fused joint of his ring finger, the corrugated grasp of his palms.  —Alyson Hagy, Ghosts of Wyoming

In all the years they've been together, he's never hurt her, never raised a hand or even his voice, but he's smashed five sets of dishes, broken several glasses and a figurine he had bought her as a joke, a Scottish terrier with a tiny gold chain. — Caroline Leavitt, Pictures of You

For a single moment she accepted the situation and had the kind of prosaic thought that gains weight in the timing of its application—that her time had come, as it had come to many before her and would to many again.  Then she felt a split second of peace, during which she continued to make sense of what was happening in the odd, lofty way that came upon her every once in a while and made her wonder about herself. She thought with an amused clarity that her ingrained sense of her own insignificance was finally coming in handy, enabling her to accept being blown where the wind took her, like a piece of dandelion fluff. — Alice Elliott Dark, "Home"

She would waken and find herself trussed and pinned to the earth with violin strings, like Gulliver in Lilliput. — Karen Rile, "No Ear for Languages"

Before dawn, when the souls of the dead hovered in the greying sky, the women gathered in the synagogue courtyard.  Lilian Nattel, The River Midnight

This final excerpt is from Kathryn Davis's miraculous The Thin Place.  She is not a friend, but we're going to be talking a little about magic realism in the class (thanks to one of the submitted workshop pieces), and so she is necessary:

There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake.  One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall.  This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock, still reeling from what they'd seen, what they'd done or failed to do.  The dead souls no longer wore gowns.  They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living.  — Kathryn Davis, The Thin Place


Elizabeth Mosier said...

Wow -- what great company! xoxo

kelly said...

Thanks for megaphoning our passages!
Proud to be with the other writers.
And you.

reiko rizzuto said...

Lovely to read all these passages, Beth. Thank you for including me, and for reminding me of these lines written in another lifetime. You are always teaching me, and I am grateful, and envious of the students who will be sitting with you at Rutgers! xo

Alice Elliott Dark said...

What a beautiful collection of writing. Thanks, Beth

Lilian Nattel said...

As I was reading, I was thinking that I wanted to say, great selection, then noticed my work among them. How wonderful to be included in that company!

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