Sex in the cornfields: The agony and ecstasy of dating at a strict Christian college

This piece is part of SJU Writing Studies student Dan Rousseau’s thesis, published on Salon.com last week. Loved it!

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(Credit: MaxyM via Shutterstock)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Indiana corn weaves like a maze of chastity. My girlfriend, Becca, and I are driving in my black Subaru Forester, hunting for a solitary space. I am a sophomore in college and am studying the Bible in hopes of entering the ministry. My left hand dictates the steering wheel, while my right hand is clasped to Becca’s manicured fingers. A double-looped, olive scarf and a single chestnut braid contrast her blue eyes, dilated juniper berries that have been expertly framed.

Our relationship began in high school. Although her allure lay somewhere beyond my league, she, the graceful cheerleading captain, and I, the mop-headed metal drummer, found an immediate Eros — one that remains clothed and censored by burgeoning, Christian morals.

Now, we drive as college mates, best friends and eager lovers. There is necking and driving, reckless passion born of young frontal lobes. Our relationship needs a hidden roadside without an audience, where we won’t make love but will dream of doing so. And in the process, press upon ingrained religious and physical boundaries.

It is early October, and the dry cornstalk still stands. Time-worn, dirt roads are masked by seven-foot plants. We would like the vegetation to hide us while we enjoy the back seat, but it only masks the oncoming traffic: Farmers in ancient pick-ups appear out of nowhere, flash their headlights and roll down their windows. “You kids OK?”

I am wary of authoritative eyes in the harvest and the lips that call nakedness shame. My staunch, self-induced morality whispers, “Sex is reserved for the shadows.”

I am reminded of a juvenile angst.

It was a midnight high wire act: arms out for balance, white socks moved heel to toe. Wide pupils were focused on the stair railing to my right, and fretful ears were fixed on the copper hinges on my parent’s bedroom door. The maple floorboards were bubbled, and my twelve-year-old stride activated a creak. It echoed. I froze, then wrenched my neck to the head of the hall and listened for movement. The air sat still. My pastor father and stay-at-home mother remained asleep.

I considered my sixth grade English class and Poe’s light-footed night stalker. But I was not on a murderous search for The Tell Tale Heart — I was a libido-driven, fuzz-stached pre-teen in search of late-night cable boobs.

My family had just moved to the Chicago suburbs from North Carolina. This was my seventh house. Preacher’s families are often blown about the country, tossing God’s Word to the common-people, and receiving a free month of HBO with each new city.

I crept down the stairs, back hunched, knees bent — attempting to lower my center of gravity. Our yellow lab, Caleb, named from the Hebrew for “dog,” met me at the ground floor. His tail swayed in anticipation of play; dull claws scratched at linoleum. I pinched his muzzle with my right hand. “Not now,” I whispered. The dog’s brow tilted backward. He let out a muted whimper, promising silence. In sympathy, I let him follow me to the beige-carpeted living room, a companion in the carnal exploration.

The television’s cathode tubes hid behind a forty-inch square of black, bowed glass and rested on a two-foot, red oak cabinet. For months, the TV had prodded my budding hormones. I wasted days by flipping through channels, looking for skin. I would spend a half-hour viewing “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” trying to will the gold-plated bra off of Teela: the long-legged, red-haired Captain of the Royal Guard. I would change the channel to “The Cosby Show” and feel palpable tension between myself and Denise Huxtable, portrayed by the tempting Lisa Bonet. The dreadlocked renegade sported extra-large, cable knit sweaters, leaving everything but her high cheekbones to the imagination.

Conjectured pictures moved in my head: The bare chest of Eve from my Illustrated Children’s Bible was plastered over Teela’s sultry hips — all of this capped by a Huxtable smile. Using the thin, grey remote, I powered the television, expecting to find my fantasy girl gyrating on late-night, premium-cable porn.

The erotic light of channel 501 swallowed the space, and my thumb pressed mute. A pale, blonde female security guard sat alone in a surveillance room: naked. She monitored a video feed of a masked, shirtless burglar. I had seen protruding abdominals like his before on the glistening, blue body of Captain Planet. I stared, bewildered as the woman massaged her tight, left nipple and caressed her inner thigh with petite, red-tipped fingers. She bit at her lower lip with the same euphoric agony as a kid lusting after a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card — “1989 Upper Deck, oh baby!”

I was uncertain as to what the woman was doing or trying to do. But the longer I looked, the warmer I felt. My senses clouded, chest trembled and muscles clenched. My left hand was urged to the fly of my baseball-print pajama pants. A sudden wetness was accompanied by dream-like ecstasy, then a return to perspective with my pulse’s decrescendo.

I powered off the television. There was blackness. I could feel Caleb’s warm pant against my left hip. The dog’s eyes shone green and inserted regret. The experience was unknown and therefore was sin.

Becca winces and my perspective is pulled back to the present car-ride, “You’re crushing my hand.” I apologize and blame a pent-up libido. She leans her shoulders toward the passenger window and fixates on the moonlit fields. “You only care about the physical stuff.” My fingers move to her denim-covered knee, a safer spot to prove a gentle agape.

I speak to her backlit silhouette, “I’m sorry. It’s this place. This school. They make it impossible.”

Taylor University’s 40-foot brick bell tower rises like a stalk from the Indiana corn. The bell tower is split into two columns which meet at a head: a symbol of the integration of faith and learning. The 2,000 students are deeply committed, evangelical Christians. The community is tight and secluded; the campus sits in the middle of a 4,000-resident farm town. In this place, which boasts of conservative roots, there is vocal guilt attached to sex: “Should it actually feel good?”

The wing where I live houses 60 men. Our pleasures are secret. I’ve only seen alcohol here once, have never heard porn through the concrete walls but have a hunch the guy two doors down smoked pot when he went home last weekend. Sin is obsessed upon.

We have a masturbation jar. Each time you get your rocks off, you must stuff a dollar in the jar. God is watching. The jar fills fast. I don’t think they do this at state colleges. A buddy of mine says its alright in God’s eyes to masturbate to inanimate objects, “Just don’t lust after girls.” He’s never kissed one.

Taylor’s academic reputation is strong, but so are its rules. In the 1960s, a handbook was constructed of promoted, Godly conduct, and of restricted behaviors that might lead to sin. The University officials who penned the work named it after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, “Life Together.” Bonhoeffer, a radiant theologian, was hanged by the Nazis for planning an assassination of Adolf Hitler and reportedly died a virgin. He showed no regret in missing out on sex, claiming to have lived a full life — although a sexual summary is an unfair judge of the honest man.

Upon signing the Life Together Covenant, students agree to refrain from the following behaviors: dancing, lying, profanity, drinking, smoking, premarital sex, involvement with pornography, homosexual relationships and immodest dress, among others. Refusal to sign the covenant may result in expulsion. While consensus might agree that abstinence, or moderation, from some of the aforementioned actions could promote physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, there is a loss of critical thought in the removal of a student’s free choice to act on, or refrain from, “sin.”

Like an authoritative parent, the University’s sexual mistrust is layered. Dorms are categorized by gender. Men and women are allowed in one another’s rooms twice a week, for four hours. Resident Assistants troll the hallways during visiting hours, like nurses in a psych ward, making sure all lights are on and all doors are open. There is plenty of flirting, but no way to act on it.

Raging hormones are repressed to the backs of minds, where they are interpreted as guilt.

The young women are told that having sex is as painful as labor, while the men place the vagina on an ivory pedestal, of sorts: “I’m going to rail her on our wedding night.” In a community so focused on not having sex, there is much lost in the beautiful intricacies of learning to appreciate the soul and body of a loving partner.

Each fall, the school devotes a week to sexual education. The week’s festivities are referred to as “Sex in the Cornfields.” Men and women fill separate auditoriums where speakers romanticize celibacy before marriage, and outline, via animated PowerPoint slides, ways to reduce and quit masturbation. The term “sex” is thrown around as a ubiquitous catch-all for promiscuous sin, but is never defined. Thus, the sexually illiterate evangelical students develop operational definitions of sex based on their childhood and teenage experiences.

In an effort to define sex, I call upon my own late night, cable-enhanced sixth-grade exploration.

Elementary school sex education videos taught me how to hide a random erection: “Here’s a cool tip, carry your books in front of your penis.” These same tapes showed cartoon testes, with bug-eyed sperm swirling about, chomping at the bit to reach the woman’s high-cheeked, Maybellined egg.

I was twelve and, for two years, had been waiting for a chance to examine real semen, to watch my sperm bounce like guppies. The opportunity had finally arisen. There I stood, dog at my side, holding a fresh, albeit fast-cooling, sample in my pants.

I moved to the kitchen, and trod a wide gate to keep the sperm in place. This was a sleuth mission — the Pink Panther theme song crept from the corners of my subconscious. My parent’s bedroom lay above. The white pantry door was ajar, so it opened with a breath of a push. I scanned past the canned soup, most of it split pea, then found the plastic sandwich bags sitting atop a wire shelf. My hand plucked a bag from the cobalt, cardboard box. This was followed by a soft close of the door. The brass knob’s click was consumed by the darkness.

My sly legs moved to the staircase. I exhorted a whisper at the rustling dog: “Caleb, stay. You’re too loud.” He obeyed and watched me climb toward manhood. I avoided the middle of each step, where the bare wood was likely to groan.

The second-floor hall was as I left it: serene. Although I figured the Holy Ghost and his judging eyes were planted in a dim corner. I slid into my room and flipped the snow-white light switch on. Not wanting to waste precious time, I turned the plastic bag inside out, as I was accustomed to doing when picking Caleb’s poop from the neighbor’s lawn, and reached into the front of my pants. I pulled out a hoard of creamed, buried treasure. With surgical efficiency, I flipped and sealed the bag.

Several thousand loose baseball cards, stacked in eighteen-inch piles atop my honey-cedar desk, were swept to make room for the semen sample. I then rummaged my closet, whose cramped, carpeted floor ramped above the staircase. My hands dug through die-cast cars, a stiff catcher’s mitt, once-lost math worksheets and a battery powered X-wing starfighter; liquid freeze pops, American Girl doll glasses, stale tightie whities and a “Check yes if you like me” note. Then the all-powerful semen-deducing tool emerged: a Wendy’s-brand, Peter Pan magnifying glass.

My eye almost touched the glass, turning it into a monocle of sorts. As the first person to examine my semen, all observations were noted as discoveries. The initial revelation pertained to color. I’d been under the impression that semen was bleach white, but it was more of a linen with a hint of French vanilla. I wondered if my blonde hair affected my semen color. The second detection was of odor. The viscous sample smelled of must — not unlike mildewed baseball pants; I considered a washed uniform to be bad luck. I thereupon became statuesque, with pupils focused on a centimeter-wide portion of the specimen. My eyes were fishing for sperm. In held breath and wishful thought — I swore I saw one move.

A roadside clearing jogs my mind back to the meandering path beside Taylor University. I turn onto a rocky, dim road and ask Becca if she can see any houses. Her vision is better than mine, “I think there’s a house way up there, but it could be a silo. Nothing to worry about. Just pull off here.” I slow the car. Weeds whip beneath the tires. I cut the engine; I turn the lights off. We coincide a sigh and sit for a moment, listening to the wind against the windows. I turn and lean to kiss her, but my seatbelt impedes my progress. She unlocks the belt, then climbs from her chair.

We lay in the backseat, stuck to faux leather, our desires enhanced by the full moon. I am focused on her eyes — not the world outside. She reaches for my jeans.

Suppressed longing escapes.

Fog rises.

A heavy thud hits the passenger side window.

“Oh, shit.”

I force my body off of Becca, hitting my head on the glass moon-roof. She groans, “Your knee is in my crotch.” I look to the window, ready to appease an angry farmer. But all I see is a cud-chewing, flared-nosed, voyeuristic cow — sent by God to protect my virginity. We laugh, re-assume the upright position, turn the car back on and meander beneath the moon.

Dan Rousseau is a Philadelphia-based writer and MA candidate in Writing Studies at Saint Joseph’s University. He holds a degree in psychology from Taylor University in Upland, IN, and has worked in behavioral psychology through the Institute for Behavior Change.

Five Things You Missed at the Oct. 13 Authors Showcase (presented by The Avenue)

By Writing Studies Student Ryan Latini (ryan.latini856@gmail.com and on Twitter @RyanRLatini)

  1. Civil War dreamscapes of voodoo and pistol fire

  2. Passion, cadence, and activism from an open mic up-and-comer

  3. Blaxploitation, Black Panthers, and the fashion sparked by the movement

  4. The sonic surrealism of heavy metal hidden in nature’s underbelly

  5. A delusional, dysfunctional, golden-era obsessed YA heroine as read by a grown man

Oh, you also missed the readings from the five published writers behind these ideas—all current or graduated Writing Studies students: Don Philbrick, Elishia Peterson, Dan Rousseau, James R. Sanders, and Don Corcoran.

The Authors

The Authors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reading was put together to get an idea of what’s getting published by writers in Saint Joseph’s University’s Graduate Writing Studies Program.

I sat down with each of the writers to gain some insights into the works they read and their tips for success.

Dan Rousseau

Dan Rousseau

 

Dan Rousseau: Editor-and-chief of The Avenue. Dan’s piece can be found in the literary magazine, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society.

 

 

 

What are you reading tonight? It’s a piece you wrote in Owen Gilman’s Nature Writing course?

Yes. Sanctuary in the Shadows: Finding Extreme Metal in Nature.

It was published in The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. What is their niche? Weirdos who look like Midwestern youth ministers, but are actually dark, terrifying human beings? (Dan was polite and laughed at my joke.)

It’s an online magazine. Their niche is weirdo stuff, some surrealist stuff—very visceral. My most recent piece is darker and crazier.

Where was that published?

L’Allure des Mots. I got a piece published in there about eating my eyeball—it’s a fictional piece (Dan says, pointing to his eyeball), and I have a piece coming soon in One for One Thousand about real estate racism

Why is this character so special in the piece you’re reading from tonight? What made you combine heavy metal and nature?

The character is essentially me. I’ve got a huge interest in metal. I played in metal bands growing up, and I played jazz in college—ensembles and stuff—but the metal is huge. I go hiking a lot out at Green Lake Park by my house, and there’s a lot of kind of decrepit stuff. I found a dead deer there that was rotting and the idea that nature is all happy-go-lucky is a false idea.

Why do you write? What gets you to sit in a chair and do it?

I like to research things endlessly—politics, sports, religion—so when I lock onto an idea, I can’t stop thinking about it. Writing is a way to stop thinking about it.

What is the hardest thing about writing?

The hardest thing now is publishing. Rejections come.

How do you cope?

I can’t help but see it go somewhere. If I’ve worked so hard on something, I’ll take what they say to me, if they respond beyond, “We don’t want this.” I just have to have it somewhere. I don’t know. It’s an obsessive thing, and if it’s a piece especially that deals with my morals and ideology, I don’t take it personally. I’m obsessive.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I listen to music. Watch documentaries. I like to go out and hike. I was reading an article recently about procrastination and they said, you know, for this writer, there was no such thing as procrastination—there’s only brainstorming time, and for me that’s true. I might go two or three days without putting pen to paper, but when I do get there and have all the ideas, it just comes out in a solid chunk.

(We both smiled, refraining from making a constipation joke)

How do you relax?

I started doing mindfulness meditation. I studied psychology for a little while before I got into writing, and they talked about it but I didn’t do it.

What advice would you give your younger writing-self?

Writing is pretty new. I’ve only been writing for a year. I would have started sooner. I started in ministry, then psychology, and then I spent some great time working with autistic kids, and that was important stuff especially for what I write about.

Favorite books?

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison, and The Sacred Journey by Frederick Buechner.

James R. Sanders

James R. Sanders

 

James Sanders: Fashion editor, stylist, with magazine credits in Vogue, GQ, Glamour, and L’Officiel

 

 

 

Where can we see more of your writing?

I am writing consistently for Vogue—Italy and America—GQ, and Glamour, so just Google James R. Sanders and any of those three publications, and my stories will come up.

I know your successes have come in magazine writing, so what writers inspire you?

A majority of them are fiction writers: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is still just the most important piece of literature that I’ve ever read. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and on the journalism side, Hunter S. Thomson, Andre Leon Talley, Anna Wintour, from Vogue magazine.

Why do you write?

I write because I feel as though my voice is very unique. My perspective is very unique. A lot of writers come from adversity, and a lot of them come from poverty but—and I’m no different in that respect—but I feel as though the things I’ve been able to accomplish, the way that I think, my approach with things, is different. I don’t like people telling me what I can and can’t do. I don’t believe them to begin with. I do what I want. And anything I want I can have. And very few writers believe that. Most writers who come from the poverty and from the bottom—if you want to refer to it that way—they write from that pain, but I use that pain to write stories of triumph when I’m writing fiction or creative nonfiction. When I’m doing journalism, it’s for a check, because I’m broke. I’m going to spend the rest of my life letting the world get to know me because I’m worth it.

Tell me about the piece you read from tonight—how the black panther’s sparked a movement beyond their own movement, a fashion movement—where did this piece come from?

Foxy Momma. It’s a popular phrase from the Blaxploitation genre, and the shortened version appeared online for Vogue magazine, but there is a longer version that is part of my thesis. It was actually one of the samples that got my literary agent interested in the project. It’s important to me. When reading tonight, I tried to beef it up a bit and give it some color, some flare, because journalism can be dry. I don’t care if you’re describing a dress with 1000 sequins, it can still be boring, especially to those who aren’t into fashion as much as I am. I tried to make it interesting.

You certainly did James. Any tips on what to do and what not to do as a writer?

As a writer, my biggest tip is to decide whether or not that’s really, truly, what you want to do, because a lot of people will say they want to do it because of Sex and the City with Carrie Bradshaw who lived in this fabulous brownstone and just wrote and went to lunch and had sex and wrote about it. If you come from a background of nothing, like I did, and all you have is your skill or your talent or your inspiration, then you should take that and let that drive you to get each thing that you want to get. Somebody, somewhere, will read it. This program especially has some unique voices, but there is a place for everyone and no one can really tell you what you can and can’t do, unless you let them and unless you believe them.

What advice would you give to your younger writing-self?

You need to be more prepared, you need to be saving more, and you need to be working. I know you know what you want to do, and that’s great, that’s even fabulous, but you have to prepare for the future because your future is going to get rough, so bitch get it together. Start working in McDonald’s while you’re in college. I understand it’s not fabulous, but look, you don’t have anybody, it’s going to be hard, so you got to do what you got to do.

How do you relax?

Lately I haven’t been relaxing. However, I’d like to think that me relaxing looks like me not worrying about anything, and maybe watching something really stupid and mindless where I don’t have to think. Like maybe one of the Real Housewives franchises, or something with the word “Kardashian” in the middle.

Elishia Peterson

Elishia Peterson

 

Elishia Peterson: Poet, open mic up-and-comer, read Open Season, out of her new collection of poetry, Black Listed.

 

 

 

Give us an insight thematically to the collection.

What I see in my own neighborhood, the things that I write about are either from experience, the things that I observe, or things that I hear. Even if I’m on the trolley or driving, I hear something out the window, or in the mall, I catch those things and that’s how I relate in my writing.

What made you sit down and write Open Season?

It was probably something I saw on the news, some other black man or boy who got shot, and I was just like, “Wow are they hunting for them—are they looking for them?” Something that I saw on social media said it’s open season out here, so that’s where it came from. While you may be educated or have a family, it doesn’t matter. Obviously, it doesn’t matter if you’re educated, poor, wealthy, whatever, you’re a target, so I just had to get this out. I actually read it at the open mic back in July, and I got nice feedback from people. It felt good.

You do open mics?

I’m not quite a newbie, but I’m definitely getting a lot of practice, and I’m more comfortable with speaking in public. I’ve been going to the World Cafe Live for almost the last year. They have a good crowd. They have a jazz night before it, and it leads up to the open mic, so a lot of people come out.

Why do you write?

I write because it’s always been a release for me. Ever since I was a child, I was very shy and quiet, and I found writing as a way for me to express myself. It’s always been a tool for me to say what I wanted to say without any kind of prejudices or problems. So writing for me is just—free.

What is the hardest thing about writing?

It used to be, for me, being critiqued. When I first started here at St. Joes, in the workshops, I’m like, “Please like it.”

How do you deal with writer’s block?

Sometimes I make up songs. I like to sing, so sometimes I’ll make up a catchy song, and be like, “Maybe this could be a poem.”

Any tips for writers starting out?

Take the chance. It’s tough, so take your own initiative to do what you want to do for yourself as a writer, and just try it out and see where it goes. If I didn’t try to put this together myself, this would still be sitting in my computer, or still sitting bound in my thesis. Nothing would have happened, so you’ve got to kind of start it up yourself.

What advice would you give your younger writing-self?

I would just say, trust yourself. Don’t second guess yourself, because I’ve done that a whole lot, where I think maybe I’m not really good enough to do this.

What have you written, and where can we see it?

Well my chapbook, Black Roses: Five Women and Their Mental Breakthrough, which was my thesis, is a chapbook now and it can be purchased online at twopensandlint.com, and I also do open mics at World Cafe Live on Monday nights, 7pm.

Follow Elishia’s blog at www.lablesloveandliving.wordpress.com

Don Philbrick

Don Philbrick

 

Don Philbrick: (pen name: Sawney Hatton) read from his new novella, Uglyville.

 

 

 

Tell us about Uglyville.

It’s a noir-inspired YA novel. Dark comedy. It was also my thesis project and it’s now available on Amazon. It’s out there and ready to be purchased.

What made you sit down and write Uglyville?

I was living in LA for 8 years and doing a lot of work for hire screenplays. I also did a lot of spec screenplays. I had pitched an idea to my agent, which was Uglyville, and he said, “Yeah, write the script.” He thought it was too dark. I think he wanted something a little lighter. But I loved the story, and I thought it deserved to be told. So instead of taking the screenplay and forgetting about it, I decided to adapt it into a book. It worked out really well. I started the program here, and I had just started writing the novella of Uglyville and it just fit into the whole thesis, because it’s not a super long story.

Why do you write?

I’ve always loved story telling. I don’t even call myself a writer—I call myself an author I guess—but really I like calling myself a storyteller because essentially that’s what I love doing. I hope I tell them well, obviously, but I have to get these stories in my head, out, otherwise it just drives me nuts. Cleansing myself if you will.

Like an enema?

Yes, very much like an enema. Put that down—writing is like an enema.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Actually sitting, putting your butt in your chair every day, and putting words on paper. I always have stories to tell, but actually disciplining yourself—it’s so easy to get distracted by Netflix, Facebook, going to get coffee, but the hardest part is just sitting down. It’s intimidating. The blank page, or partially written piece, so to really discipline yourself to sit down in a chair and pump out words is probably the most daunting task of any writer.

What’s the skinny on self-publishing?

So, I have my own publishing company. I just started it in 2013. I put out my first novel called Dead Size through that. It was a learning process.   I wanted to learn the best way of doing things in terms of marketing, printing, all the logistics of it. It really was a trial by fire. It worked out really well. It’s got 35 reviews on Amazon, I have fans, and there are people actually interested in what I’m writing. I want to start releasing works from other authors. That’s my next goal. I think marketing is a lot of fun. Even a traditional publishing company, they have very small marketing budgets, so all the onus of promotion falls on the author.

Any tips on what to do and what not to do in writing and self-publishing?

When it comes to marketing your own stuff, it’s nonstop. You can’t stop. You can’t ever say, “You know something, I spent a month marketing this book, so I’m done.” You can’t think that way. As soon as you stop, you fall off people’s radar, so marketing yourself is constant. If you want to be a writer these days, you have to know how to market yourself, and you have to do it effectively and efficiently, and nonstop.

Favorite authors?

Joe R. Lansdale—he’s kind of the master of Texas noir. They’ve been adapting more and more of his stuff. There was a movie called Cold in July.

Robert McCammon—Swan Song, Speaks the Nightbird. Generally considered a horror author, but he’s more than that.

What advice would you give your younger writer-self?

Start sooner, but I try not to lament.

Where can we read more of your work?

Sawneyhatton.com, and I’m also on Goodreads, Facebook, and all my books are available on Amazon.

Don Corcoran

Don Corcoran

 

Don Corcoran read from his novel, A Road Paved in Iron. He is the first Iron Writer Flash Fiction Champion. He has been published in several anthologies including Urban Harvest.

 

 

For the piece you read from tonight, A Road Paved in Iron, give us an insight into your main character. What do they do that is so special?

Noah is a black Union soldier in the early part of the Civil War. The search for his mother in the heart of the south forced him to face persecution from northerners and southerners alike. In this hotbed of cultural conflict, Noah is at its confluence. He becomes the Wandering Stranger archetype of the Spaghetti Western tradition, only to discover his spiritual inheritance.

What made you sit down and write this work?

I believe we write from our subconscious and gather our best details from what’s had time to percolate in our heads. For my first series I wanted to delve into subjects with which I had a lot of knowledge and experience. I wanted a story that was subtly spooky. The Civil War, institutional racism, and Voodoo seemed like a natural fit.

What is the hardest thing about writing?

Getting it done. There are a great deal of distractions, pieces of life that get in the way. It takes a lot of discipline and support from friends and family to focus on writing, to put to paper enough words to be successful.

Why do you write?

It’s less about what I like and more about what I have to do. I need to write. My head gets filled with the voices of my characters. I have to get them out, let their stories be told. Don’t worry, they don’t tell me to do anything dangerous.

Any tips on what to do and what not to do in publishing / self-publishing?

Most of my experience has confirmed the advice written on countless blogs and books. Promote yourself. Hire an editor and cover designer. Write every day. I believe what the writing community isn’t up front about is to trust yourself and don’t waste too much time and money on books, conferences, and advertising. The writing industry is filled with people who are looking to make ends meets and exploiting new writers has been a recent pastime. I’m not saying you can’t trust anyone, there are lots of really supportive folks out there, but be discerning about what really propels your craft forward and what may be a waste of resources. Nothing makes you a more successful writer than writing and revision regularly. There are no short-cuts.

How do you relax?

Cinema and reading are how I get out of my own head and into the ideas of others. I love film and I am enjoying what seems to be a renaissance of film-making, especially through the medium of a series. We are experiencing such depths of storytelling with groundbreaking feats such as HBO’s The Wire. We can explore deeper social lessons and develop more complex characters. I’m also a big nerd. I spent an enormous amount of time involved in game design and how to tell stories in a huge array of media.

What advice would you give your younger, writing self?

Streamline. I am a generalist – a good quality for most writers – but you can’t do all the things you want to do all at once. Choose something and stick to it. And quite frankly, get rid of the people in your life who are impediments to your dreams.

Where can we buy or see your works?

http://www.drivethrufiction.com/product/110336/A-Road-Paved-In-Iron

http://www.amazon.com/Urban-Harvest-Tales-Paranormal-York-ebook/dp/B00FCLSMOS

http://www.amazon.com/Ironology-2014-Writer-Championship-Anthology/dp/1502745054

Why I Write by Scott Lasley

Scott Lasley

Scott Lasley

 

 

 

 

 

 

In proper form, I have stolen my title from Joan Didion, who stole it from George Orwell. I’m not claiming to be in the same league as either of those wonderful people, but what I am claiming is much simpler: I did it because I can.

For some reason, there is a voice in everyone’s head. For the most part, I’ve found that it depends on your major. Regardless, that voice is saying, “You can’t write. You suck and you probably shouldn’t even try. Here. Do this math problem or go draw a picture. Good job.”

If you can imagine a little pat on the head after hearing that, then you understand what I’m trying to talk about. So many people have this strangely innate fear in them that says writing is out of their grasp, and what’s worse is they listen to that fear. We live within the lovely confines of a language that grants us so much freedom that it scares us. What many people forget is that they already know so many words, they just hesitate to put them on paper, or they think that there is a “best” or “only” way to do it.

I have a simple exercise that I have done with high school and college students alike. Have pairs of students, with one student telling a funny story and the other student typing it as it’s told. It takes maybe 5 minutes, and it shows the storyteller what the story looks like on the page. Sometimes it takes seeing it on a page to let you know you can actually do it.

Working as a writing tutor for the last 4 years, my advice has gotten very simple. Putting words on paper or computer screen should not be intimidating. If anything it can be time-consuming, but you just have to be willing to tough it out. I see writing as a way of finding out what I’m thinking, what I see and what it means. Writing has been a way for many stories to become lasting as opposed to lost. Words can capture what we want to remember! My advice is this: if you can tell a story, you can surely write it down. You are your own personal stenographer!

I think the reason that so many believe they shouldn’t write is because they think there is some mystical dimension that separates a person from a writer; a lack of access to the writerly realm.

Apparently writers aren’t people?

The funny thing is that writers ARE people; they are just people who have a lot of emotions and spend a lot of hours writing them down or avoiding them. Writers are also people who listen to things, watch things, hear things and interact with the world. What I’m saying is that writers are people and people are writers. The space between people and writers is imaginary! Who knew?

Before I step gingerly from my soap-box and run away from the elitist writers trying to chase me, I just want to leave some final words of encouragement. As people, cultures, friends, groups, humans and livers of life, we all have stories to share. Some cultures and languages do not even have a written form, so let’s take advantage of ours! Everyone is capable of capturing their stories with words. It’s a way of saving, remembering, learning and sharing. Without stories, what are we but ghosts in a windy world?

Thanks for contributing, Scott.  You’re right – if you can speak it, you can write it.  Anybody else out there want to share something?  We love hearing from you.

 

WHY CLARITY TERRIFIES ME AS A WRITER: A CONFESSION AND SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE by RYAN LATINI

I envy the writer who conceived of the simple imperative written on the packaging of moist towelettes: “Tear open packet and use.” Kraft’s Shake n’ Bake is also an imperative, but has the added depth of being a gerund coupled with a colloquial-amputated conjunction.

It is precision that I envy.

At this stage in my writing life, my high points come as personalized rejection letters from editors—good rejections that aren’t automated templates of letdown, but handcrafted works of… letdown. In 2008, while shopping around a novella to various contests and publications, an editor called my writing “magisterial.” I think the very use of “magisterial” in a criticism is, well, magisterial.

As I progressed through a few more years of fiction writing, I realized it was not overbearing floweriness that blighted workshops or my own work; rather, it was a lack of precision.

The biggest hurdle facing precision is emoting.

There is no precision in emotion because feelings are not vivid. At best, presenting scenes through the eyes of emotion offers summary disguised as scene. A thought or a feeling may hint at motive and may even toy with action or intrigue, but the fiction comes off best from a character’s action or inaction, both of which must be trusted and need no emotional markers or commentary.

A greater crime is bringing a piece to workshop (or your thesis advisor) and the reader is blocked from the fiction by the writer’s clear attempt at expression. John Gardner tell us that, “Self-expression, whatever its pleasures, comes about incidentally. It also comes about inevitably.” Expressing emotion in summary rather than action not only kills the fiction, but it robs the reader of the actions that linked the progression of a character’s emotional state.

Why does such clarity scare a writer?

In my limited experience, it has been my ego that destroys my fiction.

If I am precise, then you might not know how smart I am—at least that is the fear. It would be like a magician who mastered dramatic flourish, had the best pyrotechnics, most beautiful assistants, and after walking on stage, crazed by the sexiness of his own fanfare, forgets to pull the rabbit from his hat (I believe our friends in marketing call this, “All sizzle and no steak”).

If I was on Madison Avenue, the billboards I created would block out the sun and banner planes carrying my ads (because that’s the hot ticket in advertising) would circle the globe nipping at their own tails.

While it is precision, not concision, which I am advocating for, they often go together. Vividness coupled with irrefutable action is vital. As writers, we must have humility to write characters that do something rather than muse and feel. Keep your aim to express yourself in the journal and on the shrink’s couch—if the writing is good enough, what ever you wish to convey will come across innately. By remaining the silent partner in the business of creating characters, the ego will never outshine the fiction.

My ego thrives in abstraction, emoting, avoiding precision and delaying the effect until…well, until the house lights come on, the scenery is carried away, the beautiful assistants are in cabs on their way home, the smoke from the pyrotechnics has settled, and I am left holding a hat—rabbitless.

And there is my ego, ever undoing its own efforts to conceal itself.

The greatest trick in fiction writing is remembering to trick. Read your John Gardner and don’t stir the dreamer from the fictive dream. Most importantly, remember to be a vivid liar immersed in action rather than a pleading neurotic steeped in abstraction—a bore.

 

Thanks very much to Ryan for taking the time to submit this post.  Anyone in our program is free to do so.  It’s always great to hear from you!

If you would like to comment on this post, you may do so here, or contact Ryan directly at  ryan.latini856@gmail.com.

The Practice of Daily Writing

creative_daydreaming

I am in West Philadelphia, sitting in a cafe sipping a concoction of espresso flavored milk and munching on a croissant (in my head I can’t help but say it with an exaggerated French accent). I have a laptop studded with NaNoWriMo stickers. My desktop image is one of a super-moon over a silhouetted Pennsylvania lake house. I have a journal my sister gave me, a soft suede with a worn leather lanyard, and the Sharpie pen resting on an open page.

My characters have names, goals, and lives played out beyond the pages – hell, I know what tarot spread the chain-smoking Roma-Wanna-Be read them at the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Carnival, to the tinny tune of the Tilta-Whirl. My scenes have motion. I know what way the gun faces on the mantle and why it will be used to send my antagonist’s world in a tailspin behind that very same carnie ride.

My fingers hover over the keyboard. After a few moments, my face bathed in laptop light, my ears assaulted by the faint sound of yet another girl with a guitar, I close the lid and pick up my pen. I resist the urge to doodle. Pen to paper, I seem to be testing Sharpie’s testimony that they never bleed.

I happen to be good at fighting inner demons telling me I suck, or questioning how many times I can give myself a fresh start before I throw in the towel and get a 9-5. However, those demons start fighting imaginary cowboys or interstellar cyborg ninjas and next thing I know an hour has passed with nothing to show but a dot on a page.

What does daily writing look like?

From countless books, articles, and seminars on writing success I feel I can offer you some advice. This is all stuff you will hear when you listen to authors like the late Mr. Bradbury, Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, and Stephen King, and parrotted endlessly in Writer’s Digest and similar periodicals:

Journaling:writers-desk-with-cappuccino

  • Keep a journal with you at all times
  • Journal in the morning
  • Journal in public

Set yourself up for success:

  • Get your friends, family, and co-workers on board with your writing goals
  • Get a writing buddy with similar goals as yourself and revel in their success
  • Prioritize your writing before you do it – schedule it, etc. (I suggest two hours a day)
  • Decide on what project you will work on days before so that choice doesn’t disrupt your writing

The real craft is in the rewrite:

  • Many authors write a little and revise a little every day
  • Put your first drafts away (I suggest a minimum of a month) before revising them
  • Just prior to revisions, read your work aloud

And, of course, you can’t be a good writer without a constant and consistent practice of reading. Sneak in reading however you can (pointedly read the kind of work you want to write).

One Word After the Other

Step One: Live

I believe our best writing comes from our subconscious. The more we’re exposed to the better we will be at expressing our written world. When I decide to write something I ask “what do I know?” I’ve immersed myself in Westerns in all mediums. I am a student of religion and philosophy. My academic and community work is steeped in the history of race in this country. Those are the things I write about. Everywhere I go I visit a Civil War battlefield. When I wrote about Lake Pontchartrain or contemplated St. Louis Cathedral from Congo Square, its based on my experiences being there. Can you write about things beyond your ken? Certainly, but you need to have the scaffolding to pull it off or its never going to resonate with an audience.

Step Two: Pay Attention to how much you write

This will keep you honest and allow you to best compete with yourself. It will help you meet deadlines and create deadlines to drive you toward your goals.

(to be consistent with my revision process I prefer to think in terms of pages; assume 250-300 words per page)

  • Figure out how much raw writing you produce in an hour
  • Decide how much time you have allotted to writing daily
  • There is your daily word or page count
  • Keep track of how many words or pages you write each day, be it in your journal or an excel sheet
  • Once a week do a little planning ahead – how is a character getting to their goals and what’s in their way (I try and plan about 40 pages at a time; roughly each 10 pages is a scene)?
  • Fire your inner editor and just type. Let an idea fuel you and have fun with the process. Your subconscious will do the rest.

And when you dip below your daily quota, consider the why’s – are you not feeling well? Did you stop to fix every comma as you went? Did you let TV or texting distract you? Forewarned is forearmed, right? Knowing what your writing habits are allows you to maximize the precious time you’ve allotted to your craft.

antique-writing-deskIf you get stuck, still write. It’s sounds trite but just write about how you can’t write. Write about how your characters are all jerks trying to fight you for a decent story at every turn. That story will come. All the nitty gritty details will be managed in your first rewrite. Make the details be up to your future self. Your revision process will make you a better writer as well.

But revisions are a topic for another day.

Good Writing!