Taboo and Humanization: A Review of Inside These Walls by Rebecca Coleman

Inside These Walls

Inside These Walls by Rebecca Coleman

Could you take a life? Not in self defense, but in cold blood? (Probably best not to answer that question in a public forum.) Most of us would probably say no (and I’m one of them). Most of us might not even ever admit to wondering about any of this (I’ve thought about it because I’m weird). We’re taught at an early age that life is sacred. It’s ingrained. As a species we look for a way to prolong our lives. We instinctively protect our young. But, we also follow court cases and media when there are murders with interest. We watch movies and play games that are increasingly violent. We study this violence with emotion ranging from fascination to horror, but we don’t seem to ever completely look away. Inside These Walls by Rebecca Coleman tackles this level of violence from inside the mind of a very normal woman who happens to be what society defines as a killer.

It seems that Rebecca Coleman has a knack for discussing the taboo. This is the second novel of Coleman’s that I’ve read that’s left me a bit stunned. Her debut novel, Kingdom of Childhood, left me feeling kind of dirty. Stunned, but dirty. We follow a teacher who is as normal as they come — married, son, picket-fence-kind-of-life — who eventually develops a sexual relationship with a minor. It kind of hurts your brain to read it, because it’s done so delicately that, by the time the relationship develops, you actually kind of get it. I closed the book thinking, “Jesus. I can see how that happened.” It wasn’t the sort of response from myself that I’d expected; I didn’t really want to have that response. I can’t help but appreciate a writer that can trigger a strong emotional response, especially one so unexpected. Kingdom of Childhood was also an ABNA 2010 semifinalist and voted a Library Journal “Best Books of 2011,” so don’t just take my word for it.

The narrator of Inside These Walls, Clara, is an inmate in a women’s prison, and as a reader, we never see her leave the prison. Only rarely do we ever catch a glimpse of the world outside the prison, and those moments are only seen through memory. The novel is in a first person point of view, so we’re (the reader) really tight with Clara by the end. Other characters only exist when they step into the prison.

What I found to be the most compelling element of this story is that the narrator has done something completely unforgivable, and we’re shown how to feel compassion for someone who has done something incredibly evil. We see Clara through the eyes of witnesses as she rereads testimony from her own trail, while at the same time we’re privy to how she saw things happen, how she felt about it, and why she did what she did. With this novel, just like Kingdom of Childhood, I made it to the end and understood the deep down of who Clara was. Here’s a hint: Clara really isn’t any different from any other woman.

When we write, we write about what it is to be human. In some form or another, we’re trying to humanize our demons. Coleman does this delicately, almost politely, and shows us what it is to stand on the other side of that line. The one that most of us don’t dare to cross. When you stop and think, “Why would someone ever do (insert horrific taboo event)?” Well, Coleman shows you how. From the inside. From that moment when a characters life starts to veer of course just a bit, tries to correct, and careens out of control.

Rebecca Coleman

Rebecca Coleman, Author

Part of us is always aware that there’s another side to every story. Coleman shows us that bared underbelly of the anathema that seems to say, I am the villain; I am the victim. The paradox at the heart of every taboo.

For more on Rebecca Coleman, check out her author site.

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Lit Mags and the Dating Game

I’m on the side of the more the merrier when it comes to literary magazines. I hate hearing about the big guys in the game that don’t think that web-based magazines produce material as good as major players. There’s a constant debate on the worthiness of even submitting to a magazine that can’t pay for your work. You wrote it. It’s worth something to you. Darn it, why just GIVE it away? But hey, some of my favorite lit mags are nonpaying sites.

Wait! Why am I supporting nonpaying sites?! Because it’s just some normal Josephine/Joe dropping the cash to host a site. They sweat to keep the content current. The nonpaying sites are often the ones that are in for the the love of literature. Because they haven’t gotten big enough to have built thick and scarred submission callouses. Have you ever had 500 submissions to read in a month? I have. It’s a month full of joy, laughter, and stress headaches. Reading through the slush pile is a lot like dating. Fun, exhausting, and sometimes you wonder how the hell you ever got in so deep. Larger magazines have an eager horde of submission readers that head the charge. Smaller magazines are still just a small core of people, or even only one or two editors, that run the whole shebang. If they love your work, trust me, they’ll let you know. I’ve also found that they’re more prone to offering advice or sending me towards other magazines. That’s payment enough for me. For now.

Much like dating, finding the right literary magazine for your work, and getting them to actually accept your work, can feel practically impossible. I suppose that sounds like I’m settling when I send my stuff to places likes this. But I’m not. I would be honored to have my work on any of these sites. There’s the obvious reason that this sort of publishing is positive. It’s exposure. It’s networking. It’s a credit. I want my work on sites like this because I feel more connected to the little guys than the big guys. We’re all struggling for something we love. Me, the love of writing. Them, the love of publishing. I’m happy with this type of relationship and it’s one that I’ll maintain. Who doesn’t at least like the idea of friends with benefits?

I’d love to exchange some literary cooties with almost any magazine. Take that as you will. Currently, these are my top five favorite online literary magazines:

1.   NImageeon’s been my favorite literary magazine for a few years now. I always look forward to new issues and draw a great deal of inspiration from their writers. They’re slowly moving up in the game. The overall focus is on dark literary and slipstream poetry, fiction, and photography. It gets dark. It gets weird. It gets oddly thoughtful on occasionally lowbrow scales. Seriously I found myself completely hung up over a poem about boogers smeared on a wall for a week.

2. The Foundling Review       I love sites that keep fresh content flowing. Foundling has new content up about every two weeks. They’re look to “captivate, entertain, and ruminate in refreshing and creative ways, with a strong emotional core.” I’m big on anything with a “strong emotional core.” I’m terrible when it comes to appreciating photography, but occasionally I even stop and stare at the photography on the site. What really grabs me about the Foundling, other than the writing, is the tidbit following each piece labelled “Author’s Corner.” They’ve taken the time to get a snippet from the author on why they’ve written the piece. It’s fun to savor the writing, take from it what I find, and then go back a day or two later and reread everything with the author’s comments in mind. It’s sort of like reading two pieces in one shot.

Melusine

Melusine 2013

3. Melusine   OK, so some sites run behind. Sometimes people get pretty angry about this. Darn it, you said you’d publish things 3 weeks ago! This, unfortunately, is one of the downsides of small magazines. They do their best to keep to a schedule, but when there are only one or two people running a site, life can get in the way. This is a site that definitely stays alive because of love. The content it luscious, I always love the cover art, and it’s always worth the wait.

4. 365 tomorrows A daily science fiction flash fiction site, 365 tomorrows is solid morning cup of coffee reading. Yes, there are daily flash fiction (even sci fi) sites that pay, but this was the first daily sci fi site that I stumbled across and so it’s been near and dear to my heart since.

5. Every Day Poets    Just like it sounds, this is another site meant for quick literature bites throughout the day. I kind of dig the voting on the site, too. From the submitters perspective, this site can be kind of intense. I’ve had a few pieces rejected and one published on this site. There were roughly a dozen (ok, it could have been less, but it was kind of overwhelming) people that commented on my piece, yes or no, and why, and then I got the entire response with their comments back on why it was or wasn’t accepted. I was brand new to the submission process… so this site is sort of a crash course in learning to handle criticism. They’re blunt. That’s not a bad thing, and if you think about the number of submissions that these guys have to read it’s pretty understandable. Definitely don’t submit to this site if you don’t want to read the admin comments on your work. It could leave you with a good case of the sads. But hey, as a writer, you really need a sturdy pair of big girl/boy pants anyway.

 

 

Poetry Slam at the Pigeon : Welcome to Philadelphia

I’m back on the horse and writing, again! After a whirlwind few months of graduating, finding a job, the holidays, and moving across the state, I’m finally settled just outside Philadelphia.

This past weekend, I went to my first big event in the city, the Pigeon’s Poetry Slam.I’ve lived all across the country — from the countrysides of Maryland and Pennsylvania, to San Diego and just outside Washington, D.C. I’ve met some of the nicest people since moving here. Not even warm, sunny California can compare. Store owners are ready to chat up a storm about the area, where to find the best grub, where the best parks are, and what sort of fun I can find.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the time to enjoy the arts, and since I’ve lived in a town that enjoys them. Philly really puts on a show. The Pigeon’s Poetry Slam was not what I expected. “Come to our poetry reading!” I’ve seen all the signs. I go to as many as I can, but until now, I’ve never seen a packed house for poetry. I’ve never been in a room like this, outside of a literary conference, where everyone nods their heads and shouts out their emotion over poetry. Why didn’t I move here sooner?

I have to admit that this was my first slam. I’ve heard of them, and I’ve watched clips on YouTube, but I still wasn’t prepared. Here’s the Pigeon’s YouTube Channel so you can get a taste:

The competition itself is judged by the crowd. Random people are pulled to score poems, but the entire crowd is very vocal throughout each reading. Well, as vocal as each individual feels that they need to be. It’s an emotional free for all where everyone really respects the right of the poet to air their views. It’s the ultimate atmosphere of acceptance.

The slam also featured Pages Matam. That sounds like an afterthought. This man is no afterthought. I don’t often have the pleasure of meeting/seeing someone in person that makes me pause and think, There. There’s a man that the world needs. His work can be hilarious, it is beautiful, and it’s some of the most visceral work that I’ve ever heard. If you’ve ever looked at today’s youth and thought that there is no hope, well, I saw teens silently watching this man perform “Piñata.” The show was standing room only with a healthy mix of college students and twentysomethings, and not a one whispered. Matam captured us all. I’ve included a video of the poem that really hushed the house and if you don’t feel anything when you hear this… yeah, I might judge you a little. Even if that’s not very nice of me. NOTE: Triggar warning on this link. This is a graphic poem discussing rape.

So, what’s a poetry slam? It’s animated passion. It’s performance. It’s a roomful of people that feel, and want to feel, and want you to feel with them. You should probably go. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed. In the meantime, Philadelphia, keep on showing me how beautiful you, and your people, are.

Writing and Mental Health: Of Tea Leaves and Coffee Dregs

Warning: Rant beginning in 3…2…1

It’s the end of the semester and tensions are running high for everyone. We’ve all forgotten how to sleep. Thankfully, for a writer, we go through this periodically whether we are actively involved in college or not. We’re generally pros at sleepless nights. Of course, we all still lash out a bit faster when we’re running on tea leaves and coffee dregs.

Today was the last workshop for my fiction class. We spent the semester writing short stories and then group critiquing.  Yes, I’ve got 10 years or so of life strapped to my thighs over most of the other students. That doesn’t make me a better writer. I know this. It does mean that I struggle to find the patience with codling. See Workshops and S&M.

So, I’m pretty tired, I’m a bit stressed, and I sit down to a class where someone feels that it’s important to have a balance of positive and negative comments. This is more than a feeling. It’s a speech. While I do feel that it is important to start and end with something positive, I firmly believe that if I wanted to hear what was lovely I’d let my mother read my writing. I need to know what works and then I need to know what doesn’t work. I don’t need to know how much you love the ‘flow’ (a word that I’m really beginning to hate), that there are lovely sentences, and how a character reminded you of this one time when you [insert story of your own]. This wastes time. If we had more than an hour and fewer than 16 people who wanted a say it’d be peachy. Otherwise, let’s skip to the punchline.

The point of a workshop is to have a safe environment of writers banding together to improve our work. I do not want to be coddled. I do not need coddling to up my self-esteem. I do not want to waste my time or someone elses while you flaunt your control of language. I think it’s wonderful that you enjoy critiquing, but I think it would be much more fantastic if you’d let go of just how lovely you found the flow and told me what didn’t work and why. This can be done in a positive way.

Example: “I dug the character, Sam, but I wasn’t emotionally attached to him at all. I think the premise is sound. Who doesn’t love an astronaut monkey from the future finding his soul mate? I just wanted to feel more involved with the monkey love.”

See what I did there? There’s a positive and a negative. There’s actually even some balance to that. We’re now aware that something is right and wrong with Same the astronaut monkey. We did not need a 5 minute session on the color of his eyes matching the color of his soul and in turn clashed with the color of your stuffed monkey that your great-grandmother gave you when you were six. OK, so maybe it isn’t that bad all of the time. But I’m ranting. I can be harsh.

In a college level class I’d  love to see the training wheels start to come off. I understand that it might be good to keep them on for the first few sessions, than maybe have a parent hold on to the back of the bike for a few kids while they pedal, but shouldn’t they be bracing themselves for submission time? What happens when they’ve listened to all of this criticism, revise their story, think that it must now be the most amazing thing ever written, and get a rejection?

For those of us that submit our work we’re used to spending large quantities of our time on a single story only to receive a 1-2 sentence form letter. Sometimes, on a really good day, we get a form letter with a note that tells us why we didn’t make the cut. Those are pretty damn good days. Every now and again we get the letter. The one that says, “Ms. Andrews, We’ve accepted [insert title] for issue # due for release on [insert date]. Please sign the attached contract.” I love those days. Generally, even with an acceptance, you don’t get a whole lot of “wow, that monkey, he was really something!”‘s attached.

We’re at a workshop. We don’t need armor for a workshop, not like you do for the real world of writing, but you might want to learn how to land on your feet when you’re criticized or you might be missing the point.

On a sidenote, if you’re only writing for yourself, as in, “this is therapy. I won’t ever publish” than disregard. If you want to do something with it than please do it!

The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible

Comics anyone? How about just a solid piece of literary fiction? Better yet, you can have both. Neil Connelly’s latest novel The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible  is a combination of literary fiction and superheroes. Or at least, it’s full of former superheroes.

Neil Connelly

Neil Connelly – Photo credits to neilconnelly.com

During a recent interview, self-professed comic book fan and college professor Neil Connelly said that “writing a superhero story was always in my head.” But the inspiration didn’t strike him until his 40th birthday when he and his wife took their two sons to the circus. James, his youngest son, was completely overwhelmed by the noise of the circus, so Connelly took him outside. He says that “I had this moment, an epiphany, while watching James kick around a pinecone. I realized that I’d already done the best thing that I would ever do — making those kids. I could feel my midlife crisis coming.”

The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible by Neil Connelly - LSU Press

The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible by Neil Connelly – LSU Press

The novel follows Vincent Shepherd, a father, husband, and former superhero, who is struggling to find a place for himself. He’s on his second marriage, the next generation is already putting him at risk of being replaced at his job, and most importantly, in Commander Invincible world there are no more super villains. Connelly points out that Commander Invincible feels that “he’s obsolete — it’s not a superhero story, it’s a midlife crisis story.”

Connelly says that comics have really influenced his writing. “Comics had a big impact because of their focus on image and storytelling and how much they fill in.” He’s spent a lot of time studying comics to see how artists accomplish their scenes. Connelly pulled a Dark Night graphic novel off of his bookshelf to show a two page scene of Bruce Wayne’s face as his parents are killed infront of him. In some cases there were very little changes between shots, just subtle shifts to young Bruce’s face. These are nuances that a writer has to impact on the reader without being heavy handed.

Yellow Shoe Fiction, a part of LSU Press, signed Connelly after he tried to find a home for the manuscript with the large publishing houses of New York. Michael Griffith, editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, has said that the goal of Yellow Shoe Fiction is to look

first and foremost for literary excellence, especially for good manuscripts that have fallen through the cracks at the big commercial presses. In today’s publishing world, despite the proliferation of fiction titles in recent years, those cracks seem like yawning crevasses, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to find worthy novels and story collections—whether by new writers on the way to big careers or by critically acclaimed veterans frustrated by New York’s endless hunger for youth and novelty. I’ll cast a wide net.”

The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible is a perfect example of a novel that fell through the cracks of the upper publishing world and into the lap of a small press. The novel is set for release in August 2013. For more information on Neil Connelly and his novels, check out neilconnelly.com.

The Research Trap: Rescued by Drabbles

The best place in the entire world, for me, is the library. The only real vacation that I’ve ever taken as an adult, as in, I picked the place and did what I wanted to do, was to spend an entire week going to the library every day with a big stack of notebooks. It was amazing. I love to research just as much as I love to write, but this is also my fatal flaw. I have to really be careful or I will drown, very happily, in books. Actually, I have lost myself in the stacks before.

Every now and then I sit down to write a novel. I think, this is it, the idea of ideas. I can do this. Then, I start my research. I read books. Next, I read more books. I start using tabs to color code subjects, sticky notes paper my walls in beautiful squares of neon pink, blue, and yellow. I live in organized chaos. I spread my arms and spin in a circle, skirt whipping around me, sticky notes falling like rose petals as the scene fades out…and then back in to me still spinning…and out… and in to the same. It never stops. I can’t stop researching. I might write a few pages, but then I think, but wait! There’s more!

It’s been a long road to recovery from this addiction. I’m honestly not sure that I’ve successfully kicked this problem, but I’ll find out for certain this summer as I plan on sitting down to complete a series of short stories. I’m aiming for a collection of horror stories revolving around one town. No research. Well, little research. Maybe a bit more than a little, but I can do it!

I backed away from even attempting to write a novel nearly 7 years ago when I finally acknowledged that I have a problem. At first, I was frustrated. I didn’t know what to do next. I couldn’t successfully write anything. Even short stories wanted to be researched in great depth. Finally, flash fiction caught my attention. Specifically, the drabble. The 100 word short story.

In a drabble there’s barely room for research. I’m sure someone has figured out how to pack in solid facts into 100 words, but I pray that they never tell me. With a drabble, I began to relearn how to finish a story. I even managed to publish a few with beautiful magazines like Niteblade. Regardless of your opinion of extremely short forms of writing, they taught me how to really condense my writing. As I’ve transitioned back into longer pieces, I’ve found that my prose has become much more solid, but less scattered, much less…rambling. No, honestly. I’m allowed to ramble here because it’s a blog, darn it!

Writing super short fiction was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in regards to my writing. If you’re looking for a new way to improve your writing, and you haven’t given it a try yet, see what you can come up with. It’s also a fantastic way to ‘doodle’ between appointments, to look busy in a boring board meeting, or maybe in math class. Who does math in math class anyway?

Stagnation: Late Night Poetry

Mixing things up with some late night sappy poetry. Ooh, yeah.

Stagnant
with occasional date nights
and mixed laundry.
I’ve been married before.
It is this, right here,
with paperwork and arguments,
with razor wire that wraps
around your soul-
ivy roots gripping each crevice
as it thrusts and pulls
and pushes
and chokes.
It isn’t that I don’t want-
It’s that my stitching was undone before,
the fraying didn’t stop,
and the roots keep pulling down
and down
and down.