Nonessential words: Tips for Cutting Word Count

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As a writer of short stories, I find my short stories aren’t short enough. Too many times I get excited about finding the perfect journal to publish in only to read their submission guidelines and discover my short story exceeds the magazine’s word count guidelines. Decision time. 1. Move on from not so perfect journal, or 2. Though William Faulkner usually gets credit, it was was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said, “Murder your darlings.” It means CUT! It’s not a big deal to cut a few hundred words, but when you’re over by a thousand words or more it means cutting details, dialogue, and superfluous words. You do need to cut items that do not drive the plot. Here’s a real life dilemma I had with a Civil War speculative novel I am writing. I put these conjoined twin brothers in, gave them two whole chapters, and everyone in my workshop group said while they loved their story it did nothing for the novel. I was rather attached to these men, spent quite a bit of time researching them and imagining their lives, but my workshop was right, so I cut them. They may find their way back into this novel or they may find their way into something entirely different, but for now they went bye-bye.

Also, don’t make the mistake of submitting over the word count guidelines. I’ve lied about word count in the past. I suppose there are worse things in this world to lie about. Remember when you thought you were pulling one over on your eighth grade English teacher by adding nonessential words? Rules are there for a reason. It’s a waste of your time and the editors who upon seeing your blatant word count violation, rolls his or her eyes and tosses your lovely story into Never, Neverland. There are too many reasons to get rejected, don’t give them an easy out.

I’ve listed the various genres next to their word counts below. Please do not hundred percent me on these numbers. I didn’t pull them out of the sky, but I also wouldn’t swear on the Bible or my mother’s life. You may also notice inconsistencies between flash fiction and short story word counts. I’ve seen flash fiction publishers go up to 1,000 words. A big chunk of short story publishers, in my experience, think 2,500 words is magical. Herein, lies the problem (for me). I’ve been experimenting with Nano fiction, Micro fiction, and Flash fiction lately. More is not always better. Don’t believe me. I see a correlation between the tiny house movement and modern writing. I wonder about how popular trends affect readers. Do you see where I am going with this? Social media has given us ADHD. If stories are getting shorter and shorter, could it be that readers do not have the attention span for longish fiction? It could be a time or commitment issue. Either way, publishers of short stories are requesting smaller word counts.

So, you’ve decided to go with option two a/k/a murder. Before you cut a conversation out and/or all your adverbs (do go sparingly on adverbs, though. I made a funny. See? Sparingly and adverb…haha) start cutting superfluous words. I recently cut about 300 words that were taking up white space. Here’s a list of my favorites. Enter them into FIND in Word and kill, kill, kill. It is remarkably satisfying.

Joy-killing Words (plus-ly): all, almost, begin, could, down, from, just, might, may, of, rather, start, some, sudden, that, the, then, up, which, very, and -ly

In addition to cutting your adverbs, be selective with adjectives as well. You can also cut connectives (and, but) and prepositional phrases by looking for prepositions (of, in, from).

If you are writing in passive tense, please stop. No really, stop. My joy-killing word search method will weed out some passive voice issues, but not all. Active Voice: I cut joy-killing words. Passive Voice: Joy-killing words must be cut. While you are only cutting one word, one word turns in two, three, even fifty. Plus, active voice is more immediate.

For those non-writer types who for some reason follow my blog (thanks MOM), if you don’t trust an under 50-word story, here’s a famous six word story accredited to Hemmingway: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” The reader fills in the blanks. If there’s an arc there’s a story. An arc doesn’t ensure a good story, but you can’t have a story without one. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Nano Fiction: 55 or less

Micro Fiction: 300 or less

Flash Fiction: 500 or less and up to 1,000

Short Story: (starting at 1,000) or 2,000-7,500

Novelettes: 7,500-17,000

Novella: 17,000-40,000

Novel: Over 40,000 (or starting at 50,000*)

*See NaNoWriMo where you can sign up to write a novel in a month. It’s how I wrote my first novel, not that the 30-day version was good, but it was definitely a start.

Live the story you want to read!

A Homage to Cat Lovers, featuring Buddy: My favorite Feline-Based Short Stories

Buddy, missing Since 12/5/2019 and Found 9/1/2020

I am writing this post is to honor charities, rescuers, fosters, adoptees, and all lovers of cats, but in particular to honor my sister, Aleea, who after searching for NINE MONTHS for Buddy, finally brought him home yesterday.

When I started writing this post I wanted to honor writers who figured cats into their stories, but before I finished I received amazing news from a fellow cat lover, Aleea. Some may describe my sister as a crazy cat lady, but regardless of what animal pulls at the heartstrings, Aleea turned that love into something more: she rescues adult cats and kittens at her home, places them with adoptees, supports cat charities, and has even gone so far as to taking in motherless kittens and feeding them with syringes. Five in her bathroom at one time! A couple of years ago, Aleea started caring for a tuxedo cat she affectionally named Buddy. Eventually, she was able to adopt him to a loving family. Shortly after his adoption, however, the new parents called Aleea and told her Buddy went through a vent into their ductwork. Buddy got spooked. No matter how many times they called for him, he never resurfaced. My sister and the family were devastated. Aleea put flyers all over Marietta asking folks to be on the lookout and provided information for his return. We assumed the worst, but Aleea did not give up looking for Buddy. Through a site called LostKitty.com, a kid recognized Buddy and contacted the adoptive family who called her. An elderly lady (with six cats of her own) had been caring for Buddy. The previous family decided Buddy was probably best living with Aleea given his last grand escape and she brought him home yesterday.

This time, I wanted to use my blog to pay homage to Buddy, who certainly used one of his nine lives in the ductwork, and also to support and honor those who care for our feline friends. After nine months, Buddy has returned and is healthy and happy. While Buddy follows in the footsteps of his famous counterpart, Puss-n-Boots, he has yet to reveal his adventures. And for dog lovers, your turn is coming soon. That is, if I can find one story where the dog doesn’t die or the story revolves around revenge for killing someone’s dog. Seriously, I know of only one dog story where the dog actually survives. One, folks!

I hope you all enjoy this collection of my favorite cat short stories and please share Buddy’s story as well as the stories I gathered here as an ode to felines and their devotees.

Hemingway may not have been loveable, but he was a cat lover. His multi-toed kitties still populate his home in Key West, so it’s no surprise that cats influence his stories. “A Cat in the Rain” makes it to the top of my list because of its sheer economy (only five pages long) and it’s one I make sure to reread at least once per year. In a nutshell without giving too much away, a husband and wife are stuck in the hotel in Paris on a rainy day, the wife is bored, the marriage is not all that, and the cat is used to express what is missing from their relationship. Bad marriages, Hemingway, Paris, and a cat, mmm? Sounds like a pretty common Papa story, but boy is it good one. Yes, you do have the time to read it and I’m handing it to you here: “Cat in the Rain”

Oh, Joyce Carol Oates! Need I say more? She is what I consider to be the epitome of a good writer. Her stories stick with you, are haunting, disturbing in the very best way. My favorite feline story of hers, “Miao Dao,” is from Book Four of her Dark Corners Collection and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can download it for free and listen via Audio Books, or you can purchase it for $1.99. Two and a half hours of creepy. One reviewer gave it a one star and wrote “NO!” I was immediately intrigued. In terms of length, it’s more novelesque. I like to listen to Audible before bed and have a bad habit of not putting the timer on. This will scare the crap out of you, so I don’t recommend falling asleep with it pumping in your ears. To read: “Miao Dao”

Of course, I must mention Stephen King. Cats typically factor into his stories. The most famous kitty being Churchill from Pet Semetery, but I’m honoring short stories, not novels here. “A Cat From Hell” from his Just After Sunset short story collection is every bit what the title implies. One of the reasons I was attracted to this collection is because a great deal of the stories are set in Florida and I enjoy reading about southern based locales, so for my southern reader fans, this is also must. Oh! There’s a good dog story in this one, but it does belong in the category I mentioned above. To read or listen: “Cat From Hell”

Angela Carter’s version of “Puss in Boots” from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is surely the inspiration for the cocky kitty we all love from the Dreamwork’s movie. It’s filled with innuendo and adult humor. I just purchased the 75th Anniversary edition on Amazon. If you are are fan of fairytales, buy this for your collection. She also reinterpreted “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and Neil Gaiman credits Carter for the inspiration for his work. To purchase: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, I must include this tiny morsel, “The Price,” which proves black cats not only bring luck, they may be the only thing between you and your worst fears. This is another short one you can read in five minutes (2,400 words). To read: “The Price”

This mini-anthology would not be complete without a crazy cat lady story provided by the master of magical realism writer, Italo Calvino. “The Garden of Stubborn Cats” is about a city of humans who once lived in balance with their feline friends, but over time built skyscrapers, concreted over everything, and dominated almost every square inch for themselves, leaving only the garden. Do I think Calvino is commenting on man’s relationship with nature? Yep, but you decide because Calvino is as complex as our feline companions: To read: “The Garden of Stubborn Cats”

If you want to comment with additional stories, a no-spoiler synopsis, and a link to read, listen or purchase your favorite feline-based short story, I will be happy to add it. Dog lovers, do not feel excluded. When I gather enough dog short stories (meaning at least a few where they don’t expire), I’ll put together the canine version of this post.

And, welcome home, Buddy. We missed you mister! Meow!

Writing About Childhood Trauma, by author and guest blogger, Susan Zurenda

My Character Eli Winfield and Childhood Trauma by Author of Bells for Eli, Susan Zurenda

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Trauma is a complex word. We associate the term most often with military personnel who are exposed to war trauma and who experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with PTSD suffer such symptoms as flashbacks, nightmares, emotional withdrawal, anger, and fear. My maternal grandfather had PTSD from his service in World War I. Then, the condition was known as Shell Shock. My grandmother couldn’t manage the magnitude of the war’s effects on her husband and also raise her daughters, so my grandfather was sent to live with two sisters.  He misused alcohol, often physically shook with fear, and sometimes seemed to hallucinate when re-experiencing his traumatic events. But exposure to traumatic experiences doesn’t affect only those who are exposed to war. The consequences of repeated trauma have always been part of the human condition.

In my novel, Bells for Eli, my character Ellison (Eli) Winfield experiences another kind of trauma that begins with a devastating accident at age three when he swallows Red Devil Lye from a Coca-Cola bottle.  His father had been using the substance, because it has properties similar to helium, to blow up balloons for his son’s birthday party.  Eli’s calamity generates trauma on top of more trauma until it seems more than a young child can bear. But Eli survives. He is a fighter and by age 12, it appears he has conquered his ordeal. He looks normal on the outside. He has friends. With his tracheotomy gone, he can even swim like other kids do. As a teenager, he develops into a handsome young man adored by girls.  Only, really, he isn’t thriving. Underneath, he’s still in survival mode.

My novel is inspired by a similar traumatic incident one of my first cousins experienced at a young age. I was only a child then myself, so I don’t actually know, but I don’t think in the 1960’s when my cousin Danny’s accident happened that people believed childhood trauma could have permanent consequences.

We aren’t living in the 60’s anymore, and we’ve come a long way in understanding, but I still hear adults say things like, “He was so young when that happened. He won’t remember it when he’s an adult.”  Or, “Those experiences will make her tough when she’s older. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  In reality, it may be that trauma exposure to a young child is especially injurious. Children and their brains and nervous systems are still developing and being traumatized can negatively affect brain development.

In response to childhood trauma, or trauma at any age for that matter, the body courses with adrenalin and cortisol to help the victim fight or run away. But a child often can’t escape his or her traumatic circumstances. Living this way for a long time can have a big impact on the body and the psyche. Even if later in life the child finds him or herself in a functional supportive environment without pain, the stress response that was so adaptive in the traumatic or abusive environment might be maladaptive for a flexible, connected, and fulfilling life.

As a result, children who suffer trauma might grow up responding quickly and decisively to the smallest signs of threat. As a defense mechanism, they might also suppress their emotions. Such children often don’t want to be quiet and still because if they are, their memories surface. With their high cortisol levels, these children often yearn for excitement that distracts them so that they don’t have to feel anything. In my book, Eli is unwilling to self-reflect, but he develops into a young person with tremendous compassion and caring for others in need because he understands suffering and persecution.

Not every child experiencing repeated trauma will develop PTSD symptoms. A 2012 (Idsoe, Dyregov, & Idsoe) study found that for students who experienced bullying, 27.6% of boys and 40.5% percent of girls had PTSD scores within the clinical range. And anywhere from 12% to 52% of people who had a long term, chronic illness as children will have PTSD or other lingering emotional side effects from what they endured.

My character Eli experiences both situations: a long-term painful medical condition and relentless bullying by his peers. And though no one in the novel seems to focus on a connection between Eli’s adolescent behavior and his childhood experiences—least of all him—he is indeed among those trauma survivors who remain permanently scarred.

Despite his limitations and pain, Eli is an amazing boy. He never quits. Other boys mock him for being a weakling, but what Eli lacks in physical strength he makes up for in spirit. On his first day of school—it’s second grade because he wasn’t yet strong enough to attend public school in first grade—a boy named Willard Timms is the first to react to Eli’s abnormal appearance. Sitting behind him while their teacher, Mrs. Hammell, distributes textbooks, Willard asks Eli about the string running from his nose and behind his ear and secured at the back of his neck. Eli ignores the question. Willard then tugs on the string, causing Eli to gasp and rise up from his seat. Mrs. Hammell harshly scolds Willard who dutifully begins to unpack his school supplies and seemingly forgets about Eli.

But bullies can be persistent. Not long after, at recess one day, Willard retaliates. Following is a short passage illustrating Eli’s torment. His cousin, Delia, is the first-person narrator here and throughout the novel.

[On the playground] I asked Eli what he wanted to do, if maybe he wanted to walk with Nealy, Gloria, and me. 

“Let’s swing,” he said. We walked over to the long line of canvas strap seats. Most of them were empty, so we had our pick. I could see Gloria and Nealy in the distance, walking the perimeter of the playground, but I couldn’t join them. I had to stay with Eli. 

Our legs pumped hard; we were in an unspoken competition to see who could reach the highest point, when three boys stepped in front of us. One of them was Willard Timms. 

“What’s sissy boy doing? Swinging with his girl cousin?” Willard said. He reached out and caught the chains on Eli’s upswing and brought him to an abrupt stop. They faced each other, Eli sitting—his breathing labored from his exertion on the swing—and Willard towering above him. The other boys, Jimmy Watson and Joe Cribb, stood nearby. 

“You’re nasty,” Willard said. “You know that?”

 “You’re the one who’s nasty,” Eli responded. I stopped my swing quickly by lowering my feet and dragging them in the dirt. Every muscle in my body grew tense. 

“Let’s see who’s nasty,” Willard said. He looked over at Jimmy and Joe. Eli stood up from the swing, facing Willard.

I wanted to run for Mrs. Hamell but there wasn’t time. 

Willard swung at Eli’s face. Immediately, a thin stream of blood appeared, trickling from Eli’s nose. But Eli did not fall and he did not so much as whimper. He stood erect, his nose bleeding down his lips, and kicked as hard as he could into Willard’s groin. My heart squeezed with pride when Willard screamed in feral pain. I imagined a phrase Eli sometimes repeated going through his head: All’s fair in love and war. 

Jimmy and Joe stepped up, ready to pounce on Eli, but by then everyone on the playground had tuned in, including the teachers. Mrs. Cousar arrived first and separated the boys. She grabbed Willard’s ear, twisting it until he was forced to lean into her. With her other hand she yanked Eli’s arm and dragged both of them to Miss Crockett’s office.

By early adolescence, all outward appearances of Eli’s accident have disappeared. He wears no string, the tracheotomy is gone, and he breathes through his nose. He exhibits no foul smell because the opening in his stomach has been closed. And after a series of trials, he proves himself to the other boys and is no longer bullied. He possesses a natural brilliance and is gifted with charm and charisma. A talented musician inspired by the sound of bells, nothing lures Eli more than a bell tower, especially the old fire tower with its enormous alarm bell behind his grandmother’s antebellum home.

Eli is a boy full of potential. He is empathetic and has a keen awareness of others’ pain. And it’s stimulating to be his friend because risk does not scare him. But Eli embodies many PTSD symptoms which impair him. He angers quickly; he blocks his feelings; he exhibits self-destructive behavior, and except for Delia, often has difficulty trusting others. And as has been the case since childhood, he is adept at hiding his internal physical and emotional pain.

As he ages, Eli’s persistent need for stimulation to distract him from dealing with his emotions becomes more problematic. He listens to no one. He uses illegal drugs to excess. His need to forget surpasses everything.

Eli is a tormented young man. Yet he is also a young man with a tremendous capacity for love and compassion.  His accident changes the typical relationship he and Delia might have had into one of deep complexity. It grows into an incomparable love, blossoming into an intimacy that cannot be, for they know to love one’s cousin in that way is taboo. Theirs is a world where cruelty and pain threaten two cousins whose extraordinary love prevails.

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel: Fiction Series Part II

Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel

head and shoulders sitting SBZ, credit Anna Beckham

The point-of-view is something I believe writers would enjoy debating. How did you settle on this narrator? Why not tell it from Eli’s perspective? Did you experiment with different points-of-view or was this something you were firm about from the beginning? 

I did debate whether to tell the story from a first person narrator’s perspective or third person limited, but I always knew the story would come from Delia’s heart and mind. After experimenting a bit with both points of view, I decided on first person because it was more intimate, and I wanted the reader to feel close to Delia. Keeping readers out of Eli’s head was a given because Eli is a child and later a young man who not only keeps his feelings to himself, but tries not to examine his own feelings. One of the tragic consequences of Eli’s childhood trauma is his need to escape his feelings by any means possible. Also, Eli is stoic by nature, so instead of knowing any specifics about the physical and emotional pain Eli endures, the reader feels Eli’s pain through Delia. To have the story come from Eli’s point of view would have defeated some of my main purpose for the character.

I couldn’t help but notice that Eli’s name is also found in Delia’s name. It made me think about William Shakespeare’s famous quote: “What’s in a name!” I assume this was not accidental. What is the significance behind your choice in these character’s names?

I chose the name Ellison to connote Southern aristocracy. Ellison is often a surname, and Southerners are crazy about naming their children for last names reminiscent of a family line.  I gave him the nickname Eli because Ellison seemed too heavy a name for a child; plus, Southern children often have nicknames. The name Adeline has a lovely old-fashioned charm, and traditional Southern parents often choose “old” names. I learned the name Adeline suggests a desire for love and companionship as well as a penchant for adventure. My character Adeline fits this description. I gave her the nickname Delia for the same reason I gave Eli his nickname. What I did not consciously realize when I created these names is that the name Eli is literally inside the name Delia. A close friend with whom I taught English for many years asked me about the connection after she read my early manuscript. She thought I had created the names on purpose to fit together, but I did not. Thus, I consider the names Eli and Delia to be an excellent example of how a writer’s subconscious works!

Do you think the bells, especially ones specifically pointing to a certain chime or song, create a pseudo soundtrack to Bells For Eli?

I played the piano for many years and started college as a music major, graduating from college with music as my minor. Maybe for this reason I wanted Eli to be a musician. Who knows?  At any rate, he is a talented musician with a particular love for percussion instruments, especially bells. There’s a lot of music in Bells for Eli, and I like your idea of considering all the pieces in the novel as a playlist that helps to define both Eli’s and Delia’s characters. Whether it be “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin lifting Eli into a sense of peace or “Love Can Make You Happy” by Mercy causing Delia’s heart to ache for her cousin, music underlies feelings and circumstances in Bells for Eli.

Was there anything symbolically you would like to add about your use of bells? Or, John Donne’s poetry that maybe readers haven’t picked up on?

Bells have many meanings in the novel, both literal and symbolic. I’ll name a couple as a teaser, but I don’t want to take anything away from the reader’s own satisfaction in discovering how bells enrich the novel.

As bells are said to herald the arrival of a supernatural power or spirit, to be the voice of the sound of revelations, I hope bells provide imagery to deepen the strong mystical/spiritual element in the novel. Bells often announce momentous occasions, and Eli, with his adventurous and risk-taking nature, is always making an “announcement” of himself in adolescence.

I’d like to leave the connection of John Donne’s bells in his beautiful poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to situations in Bells for Eli for readers to experience at the end of the novel.

Is the town of Green Branch and Magnolia Manor based upon/by inspired real places?

Green Branch is typical of many small towns in the South in the 1960’s-70’s, but it is not based on a particular town.  Much of Green Branch is imagination, but there are definitely bits and pieces of several towns I’ve known incorporated into my fictional setting. For example, the model for the town clock that Eli and Delia climb sits on Main Street in Winnsboro, SC. It is the oldest continually working clock in America. Congress Street, where Eli and Delia live, has an eclectic array of houses built over a number of decades, not unlike an old downtown neighborhood in Spartanburg, SC, where I live. The model for Magnolia Manor is my great-grandparents’ home out in the country in Lancaster, SC, my hometown. This home actually has an old bell alarm tower that I climbed as a child. It’s still standing today.

Will you describe the readers’ reactions to the relationship between Delia and Eli?

I have been deeply touched by readers’ responses to Delia and Eli and their relationship. I can’t tell you how many people have told me their relationship moved them to tears. I love the words a reviewer used recently, saying Delia and Eli’s relationship was treated with “such tenderness and delicacy.” Overall, readers have been tremendously receptive to the love that binds Delia and Eli, and I am grateful that my characters have this effect.

What is next on your agenda? Do you have any current events coming up? Have you started writing anything new?

I had over 50 events scheduled among 8 states between March-Memorial Day, most of which were postponed or cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Slowly, I’m starting to do live events again, small or private ones with proper precautions in a controlled environment. I have a dozen or so events coming up from August-October. But people are still cautious, as they should be, as I am.

I have begun writing a second novel which doesn’t even have a working title yet. I’m about three chapters in. The story requires three points of view, and I’ve got to see if I’m up to the challenge of keeping the threads from each viewpoint both connected and separated. These three main characters are a high school English teacher, a privileged, brilliant Caucasian teenage boy, and an impoverished, equally smart (but without the boy’s educational advantages) biracial teenage girl. We’ll see where it goes!

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

 

Fiction Series Part I with Author, Susan Zurenda: Review of Bells for Eli, A Novel

IMG_1203Bells for Eli by Susan Zurenda: A Review

There are some books that you enjoy so much when you near the end you sort of panic and force yourself to stop reading. Thirty pages towards the end of Susan Zurenda’s novel, Bells for Eli, I had such a moment and deliberately set the novel on my nightstand to take up the next day. I don’t often pace myself or even cut myself off for the mere pleasure of extending a good read, but I did so with Bells for Eli.

 Bells for Eli is told by an older Adeline, called Delia, reflecting on her years growing up with her first cousin, Eli. More than just a first cousin, he is her neighbor, her best friend, her true (and forbidden) love. Bells for Eli begins in August 1978 and flashes back to 1959 when Eli drinks lye, permanently damaging his esophagus. He undergoes surgeries and extremely painful procedures, and as a young child is unable to even eat—his mother grinds up food and inserts it into his stomach—and then moves forward as Delia and Eli grow up. The narrative has a dreamy quality, beginning with the prologue when Delia falls asleep in the cemetery, wakes up to the Green Branch town clock’s bells chiming, then contemplates herself and Eli while walking home. From the prologue forward, you are on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop. During scenes when Eli drives his new Camaro on Christmas day or when he climbs the bell clock tower, I held my breath. A handsome and reckless young man in adolescence, Eli falls in love and tries desperately to replace Delia with another version of her in Isabel. Despite his tragic accident, Bells for Eli is a celebration of Eli’s life.

The novel’s point of view—told from the point-of-view of first-person observer and protagonist, Delia Green—resembles the point-of-view in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald—I will say I consulted Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and mulled point-of-view over, wondering if this was a hybrid between first-person central and first-person peripheral. Is that possible? Who is this story about?  It belongs to both Delia and Eli. Notice the similarity between their names. Is that coincidental? I don’t think so. I think the bells ring for both characters; they are both central to the story. They both suffer, learn, and love equally, but yes, the “I,” or the first-person narrator retelling this story is Delia, and she is the clear protagonist. Eli’s surgeries, the pain, being an outsider throughout his childhood all shape his life, but these events also equally shape Delia’s life. This point-of-view is tricky and masterful on Zurenda’s part. I seriously pondered it, wondered about the choice, and then considered how the point of view creates empathy. Sympathy and empathy are different creatures. This book is about empathy. If Eli told the story, we could commiserate with him, but only to a point, especially if he constantly complained about pain. Having that distance from the actual pain creates a sense of empathy which defines both Delia’s and Eli’s character. Ultimately, this choice in narration works because there is enough distance from Eli so that the narrator doesn’t become whiny; rather, Delia learns and changes and at the same time the reader learns and changes.

The story is a reflection from an older narrator, but when Delia recounts being four-years-old or sixteen-years-old, or whatever age, the voice, imagery, the setting, the dialogue, the action is captured from the perception of that age and time. This is difficult to pull off and shows a level of control not all authors possess. It’s tempting and much easier to speak in the narrator’s current voice. In Bells for Eli, you forget, as a reader, the “I” here is the older Delia and feel like you are experiencing what she felt at age four, at age sixteen, and the narrative supports it via historical and/or cultural references—some of them quite humorous. Though the novel has its tragic moments, it’s imbued with amusing anecdotes that rocketed me straight back into my own childhood and teenage years. I had a vivid sensation of being a child and standing before a rack of Barbie clothes encased in plastic with pure want coursing through my veins when Delia’s friend Gloria boasts about her Barbie’s Executive Career outfit. Zurenda takes you back to a place in time with references to Dark Shadows (a vampire soap opera my own mother watched), Delia’s Ziggy tee-shirt, or Delia and Eli being “placed in the red group, the top group” after reading from “Friends Old and New, Dick and Jane readers.” Oh, I recall this same process in grade school! In addition, some of my very favorite images are from the viewpoint of a very young Delia, describing Uncle Gene’s eyebrows as “caterpillars,” or imagining the white flowers of Mimi’s magnolia trees as popcorn. Thinking like a child, a teenager, a young adult and making the dialogue or imagery realistic for the age while maintaining the narrator’s voice is no small feat.

Now onto bells. Bells, bells, and more bells. As the title suggests, you need to pay attention to bells. One of my favorite literary devices is the symbol. Most organized religions use bells in rituals or services; some say the sound of a bell is the voice of God. Ringing bells are used to warn, as alarms to wake us, to honor people, to celebrate, to announce someone’s arrival, to ward off evil spirits. I could go on and on. Each time a bell appears in Bells for Eli, whether it is the clock bell tower in Green Branch or the doorbell at Magnolia Manor, new levels of meaning surface, and I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s chiming Big Ben and Zurenda’s bells have the effect of deliberately jarring the reader from the narrative. Woolf is reminding us that time is not linear. We live in the past, present, and future. We live in our heads, like Mrs. Dalloway; likewise, we relive Delia’s past, connecting it to her present, and ultimately the bells reinforce the fluidity of time with no beginning, middle, or end.

The bells also provide an auditory text. When a specific tune or chime was identified, I literally stopped and listened. Eli loves bells, and they play a significant role in his life. Zurenda’s bells are not arbitrary. When Delia and Eli visit Magnolia Manor, for example, “he nearly fell into the hedge jumping out of the car to get to the door and ring the bell.” Not only is this a wonderful example of something a kid would just do (I recalled fighting with my sisters over elevator buttons and doorbells), it says something important about Eli’s character. He is more connected to the divine, closer to it than others, because he faces a near death experience as a young child. He lives his life on the edge because of the mental and physical pain he undergoes. Attempting to escape the cruelty of his childhood, and desperate to fit in, he takes dangerous risks that revolve around bells because they help him escape his thoughts. In adolescence, Eli becomes heavily involved with drugs, simultaneously escaping and experimenting, always looking for something deeper, mapping out his philosophy. When golden bells make heavenly music during an LSD trip, they represent Eli’s need for peace. The bells remind the reader that time is brief, to wake up, live in the moment. In a world largely driven by visual imagery; it’s refreshing to read a novel that relies so heavily on sound imagery.

Thematically, Zurenda questions how love can transcend societal norms, but the book also explores loyalty and the strength of friendships and family. In addition, there is a sense of mystery that surrounds the main plot that keeps you reading which mirrors what happens between Delia and Eli. Bells for Eli is aesthetically pleasurable to read—the cultural imagery, bell symbolism, allusions to John Donne’s poetry—and is a real gem for Southern literature.

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

 

Feeling Naughty? Tune into Bad to the Bone, a Poetry-themed Radio Show on melodically challenged

tony-hernandez-JO2ryr8t7f8-unsplashReplay of Bad to the Bone melodically challenged Poetry Show If you missed my Bad to the Bone themed poetry show on melodically challenged with K.B. Kincer last time around, you are in luck because WRAS-Album 88, Georgia State University College’s Radio Station-Atlanta is replaying it this week. Tune in Thursday, July 23rd OR Sunday, July 26th at 7 PM EST. For local listeners turn your radio dial to 88.5 FM. To Tune in Online visit link: WRAS-Album 88

 

Author Event: Ruth Reiniche presents Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative July 16th, 7PM EDT

Ruth Reiniche presents Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

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If you have enjoyed my academic series with author Ruth Reiniche, please consider attending her discussion hosted by the Georgia Center for the Book Event on July 16th at 7PM EDT where you can discover more about Reiniche and her book Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative.

TO REGISTER: Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE:  Charis Books & More, An Independent Feminist Bookstore or via Mercer University Press

Academic Series Part III: Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown by Author & Guest Blogger Ruth Reiniche

GA CollegePhoto of Georgia College Admission’s Building, Alma Mater of Flannery O’Connor

Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown

Mrs. Watts was sitting alone in a white iron bed, cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors. She was a big woman with very yellow hair and white skin that glistened with a greasy preparation. She had on a pink nightgown that would have better fit a smaller figure. (O’Connor WB 33)

     Since Dawn has been kind enough to give me this space, I want to talk about a project I have been working on for about a year now. It is an extension of my “sign language” analysis and my working title for the project is Sign Language: Stitching a Landscape. My argument is that telling our stories, regardless of the style of the text, will alter the landscape of our perceptions and of our lives. My project focuses on women’s stories. I believe it is crucial to know the thoughts and desires of the women who lived before us and it will be necessary for the women that follow us to know what we valued, how we faced fear, and how we loved. As evidenced by my work on Flannery O’Connor, the voices of texts that are not the printed word, but are given form by narrative, have long compelled my attention. The texts I am examining in my current research are “hand-made.” When a writer incorporates the construction of a “hand-worked” text such as a weaving, a quilt, or a knitted garment into the plotline of her novel or short story, the fictional work bursts open in a way that could not be accomplished by other means. These kinds of texts are highly gendered. For several years I have been collecting works in which writers have embedded “hand-made” pieces to construct characters and to indicate context by illustrating patterns and motifs from the larger world. Essentially, it is a way of holding the past, present, and future in the palm of one’s hand. My contention is that when these “hand-made” items appear, they speak with a sign language that transcends time and place. It is most often a language of feeling that is expressed in a woman’s voice and by the work of her hands.

       This, strangely enough, takes us back to Leora Watts’s “pink nightgown.” In my work on O’Connor, I referenced how she uses paintings, ads, and films, mostly generated by males, to amplify her narrative. However, it is O’Connor, herself, who assembles the objects that visually define her female characters: the pink nightgown, a nail clipper, a dandelion hair accessory, a chifforobe, a broom. I see O’Connor as the designer and maker and her characters as her creations.  I, now, want to move beyond that work and into the hands and minds of makers and their creations who are embedded in pieces of literature.[1] Why are they there? Do they fit my “world in the palm of the hand” criteria?

      I will now describe two short examples from novels that I am currently analyzing.

     Early on in her novel Northbridge Rectory, Angela Thirkell uses the knitting in a mother’s hands to illustrate the enormity of facing the presence of inconceivable dangers. Mrs. Villars is a young rector’s wife whose responsibility it is to organize the “war work” of her husband’s first parish. We join Mrs. Villars as she discusses the connotation of the word “living” with her parish knitting group, all of whom are working on some war project: knitting garments to supplement the uniforms of British soldiers (WWII).[2]

‘It is quire dreadful,’ said Mrs. Villars, putting down her knitting (which was mittens for her younger son in the Royal Air Force), ‘the way some people behave with words so that you cannot use them. “Living” has almost got out of control’ (6).

This was the tenth novel I had read by Thirkell, so I was accustomed to her way of bringing the outside world into the context of the small English village, but Mrs. Villars’s mitten arrested my attention.  Why was she knitting mittens for a soldier? Thanks to Google, I found knitting patterns officially designed for soldiers’ mittens. Requirements for these mittens included olive drab yarn and the addition of a trigger finger to the basic mitten shape… a trigger finger.[3] Mrs. Villars had probably knitted various sizes of mittens for her son as he grew up and she now sits in her parish knitting group making him adult size mittens that require a trigger finger. No wonder she is obsessed with the slippery connotation of the word “living.” Knitting a mitten, for Mrs. Villars, is a hopeful act of faith that her son will be alive to wear them when she finishes. In this one sentence Thirkell uses this mitten with a trigger finger juxtaposed with the word “living” to open the door to the world war raging outside of this fictional English village as well as in the real world that roiled around Thirkell as she wrote in 1941.

     While Thirkell’s mitten serves as a metaphor for a mother’s wish to protect her son, a quilt serves as a metaphor for a life in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the novel, as Baby Suggs is dying, she calls out for color.

There wasn’t any except for two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout. The walls of the room were slate-colored, the floor earth brown, the wooden dresser the color of itself, curtains white, and the dominating feature, the quilt over an iron cot, was made up of scraps of blue serge, black, brown and gray wool—the full range of the dark and the muted that thrift and modesty allowed. In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild—like life in the raw. (46)

An analysis of the life of Baby Suggs, born a slave and living with intolerable loss is too complex to carry out in this space. The two orange patches, however, speak directly to us as readers, reaching out beyond the frame of the work, in the same way that characters in O’Connor’s single panel cartoons did. Those two orange patches impel us to look over the landscapes of our own lives and wonder. What if we knew we would have only two orange patches? Would we go on? Would it be worth it? What are we to do about these orange patches presented to us by Toni Morrison?

     To me, it is the contemplation of these questions that necessitates the need for storytelling in our lives. I know I do not stand alone when I think of Mrs. Villars’s mittens as I make masks for my grandchildren to wear to school or when I consider the patchwork of a valued human life…a life that matters.

 

Works Cited:

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin, 1987.

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.

Thirkell, Angela. Northbridge Rectory. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 1941.

[1] These are some of the texts with which I am working: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, In Love and Trouble by Alice Walker, A Single Thread by Tracey Chevalier, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell, and on and on.

[2] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/155022412145736074/

[3] https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/soldiers-mittens

https://olive-drab.com/od_soldiers_gear_gloves_mitts.php

UPCOMING EVENTS:

July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link 

Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

PLEASE SHARE ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA, LIKE, AND LEAVE COMMENTS HERE! 

Academic Series Part II: An Interview with Ruth Reiniche, Author of Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

Relaxed HeadshotAn Interview with Ruth Reiniche, Author of Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

Why Flannery O’Connor? What attracted you to this project? Are you also an illustrator, a photographer, or an artist of any kind?

While I was working as a secondary English teacher, I pursued many areas of study that led me to this project: child development, psychology, film, the fiber arts, and summer employment with Michigan Council of the Arts. I traveled all over Michigan to take classes from the various universities. When Grand Valley State University, only a ten minute commute from the high school where I was teaching, offered an M.A. in Literature, I decided it was time for me to return to my first and most steadfast love. I began to take every author study class available. Inevitably, I enrolled in a class on Flannery O’Connor taught by Dr. Avis Hewitt. Our first assignment was to read Wise Blood. It stopped me in my tracks. I had never read anything quite like it before. At this point my literary studies had become focused around illustration and pictorial technique and I became obsessed O’Connor’s process. Dr. Hewitt pointed me toward a fellowship that allowed me to read the Wise Blood manuscript in the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. After that I was hooked, and I began to spend summers in Milledgeville reading manuscripts, all in pursuit of solving the mystery of O’Connor’s artistry.

From start to publication, how long did it take for you to conduct the research and write Sign Language?

I focused on O’Connor during both my M.A. and PhD. studies, writing papers and attending conferences while spending part of each summer in the O’Connor Collection reading manuscripts. When I began the research, however, I really did not envision that a book would emerge as the product of my work. I think I was mostly enjoying slipping into the sense of connection and timelessness evoked by directed study. I try to nurture that kind of joyfulness found through research in my Freshman Composition students at University of Arizona. The idea of the Sign Language book began to take shape after I had retired from teaching high school and when I began my doctoral studies at the University of Arizona.

How do you think Flannery O’Connor would have reacted to the adaptation of her novel Wise Blood into a movie? What do you think about the movie?

Most writers are not happy with the movie versions of their books. I would imagine O’Connor would be the same way. I see books and movies as separate creative endeavors unless the author is directly involved in the film production. The movie is John Huston’s marketable construction of O’Connor’s novel.

What else did you want to say about O’Connor’s pictorial texts that perhaps was cut from your book?

I think the most prominent missing element of my book is illustrations or images. These were not cut; I simply could not afford to pay to use them. The images that I discuss are all available online, however. Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES

I read a 2011 article in The Guardian  about O’Connor’s cartoons and the writer compared her linocuts/cartoons to Persepolis: A Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. Could you envision O’Connor writing and illustrating a graphic novel if she were alive? 

I thought a great deal about this question. I think O’Connor would be very interested in today’s graphic novels. However, there many variables when considering whether she would actually have done the illustrations for a novel in the contemporary manner. First, the linocut is a very time-consuming process. Second, I think the single panel cartoon was her oeuvre. It really allowed her to frame that “gesture” which indicates “where the real heart of the story lies” (O’Connor in Thompson).

I have been thinking about what kinds of graphics O’Connor might like. How would her iconic characters respond to taking static shapes? How would her message differ? I agree with The Guardian article that the early cartoons have similarities to the graphics drawn by Marjane Satrapi in her graphic novel Persepolis. 

The most striking similarity, of course, is the use of stark black and white ink which in itself is a choice that predicates a certain sign language. O’Connor’s cartoons, however, are fashioned to tell a story in a single panel and using a caption where Satrapi’s formulate a sequential narrative and all that entails.

I, then, began to think about what a graphic novel of O’Connor’s work might look like. What types of illustrations would she like in adaptations of her novels? I chose two examples that, in my opinion might align with O’Connor’s particular narrative. The cover of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damien Duffy and John Jennings illustrates the use of gesture in a way that, to me, is reminiscent of the style of O’Connor’s graphic narrative.

I also think the cover of the first Walking Dead comic by Robert Kirkman and Tony More would be in a style that O’Connor would like. Though, the main character appearing as the American cowboy might not be to her liking, but I think that the American dystopic street scene would appeal to her very much.

This exercise was fun, but it probably tells much more about my interpretive analysis than it tells about Flannery O’Connor.

I loved your comments on the comparison of Ruby from “A Stroke of Good Fortune” to Picasso’s “Girl before a Mirror.” Did you discover any other similar pieces of famous art, not mentioned in Sign Language, that you saw in O’Connor’s characters?

As I wrote about O’Connor’s characters, I referred to an actual collection of images I had put together that visually resulted from my character interpretations.

The Wise Blood characters come from a kind of upside-down world where the opposite of what the reader expects happens. They possess a unique amalgam of realistic and bizarre behaviors creating a tension that compels and captivates readers throughout. The WB characters are the most like the characters that inhabit O’Connor’s single panel cartoons. They reach beyond the frame uttering “captions” that upend stereo-types and clichés: “ Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher” (34); “I’m going to preach a new church—the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified” (55).

I always pictured Hazel Motes as walking dead through a dystopic, postwar, cold war America. Eastrod, the small town that he left to go to war has disappeared and he no longer seems to find a welcome anywhere. He has no home. The memory of his mother’s and grandfather’s warnings reverberates throughout the novel and serves as momento mori underlying each scene. The concept “still life” along with the Vanitas (example) by Barthel Bruyn the Elder embody Hazel Motes in my imagination.

It took a little research for me to formulate a visual image of Enoch Emory. What exactly is his heart’s desire? Enoch is a complex character who functions under the demand of a single emotional directive. He simply wishes to be loved and taken care of like the zoo monkeys he resents. My Enoch image is the gorilla in the movie poster for the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young . That movie marks a movement from the gorilla suit to stop motion animation. When Enoch dons a gorilla suit (now passé), he is not transformed into the beloved ape of the film. That cinematic, movie poster image is upended and we are left with poor Enoch, the somewhat repulsive, unlovable zoo employee, now clothed in a moth-eaten, scruffy gorilla suit.

I have a strong affinity toward Sabbath Lily. Being taken care of by a man seems to be her only way of survival in the American urban milieu that engulfs her. She simply wants a husband, home, and family. Her desire for the potato peeler reveals her desire for a kitchen in which to peel those potatoes. She imagines that Hazel Motes can give her this life which for her has been pictorially constructed by advertisements. Sabbath Lily has obviously studied the images of the domestic goddesses portrayed by advertisers and uses any tools available to recreate herself. I would look at 1940’s Coca Cola advertisements when writing about this side of Sabbath Lily’s character. She attempts to personify the “Coke girls” with no accessories and no means. O’Connor pushes Sabbath Lily’s character development deeper when she creates and frames the “unholy family” portrait in Sabbath’s last scene in the book. I envisioned a dark version of Leonardo DaVinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” when I wrote about Sabbath Lily in this scene holding the “new jesus.”

I am old enough to remember desiring pink baby doll pajamas. While many O’Connor critics think of Leora’s ill-fitting pink nightgown as a way to laugh at her, I prefer to think of a young Leora that might have desired this nightgown in the first place. I also prefer to think it once fit her figure, but as she aged and as her existence became more difficult to maintain, she turned into the distorted figure confronted by Hazel Motes. In my mind, I always represented this Leora with the picture on the front of a 1950’s Simplicity sewing pattern displaying these shorty pajamas .

Annie Lou Jackson Wickers (Hazel Motes’s mother), Sara Ruth (“Parker’s Back”), Mrs. Greenleaf, and Sabbath of the manuscript are represented very distinctly in my mind by Dorthea Lang’s photos of depression era women.

I poured over pictures of child evangelists to get a vision of Lucette Carmody. I finally decided on Aimee Semple McPhearson. Lucette is the only present female and a pivotal character in The Violent Bear it Away. It strikes me that it would be interesting to do a study of Lucette, the girl in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” and the girl in “A Circle in the Fire.”

I kept these images in a file on my computer while I wrote. It is important to remember, though, that my visualizations are based on Flannery O’Connor’s sign language coupled with my own experience and perception. This is exactly how she meant it to be, I think.

Sign Language was not written as a discussion of racism, which you clearly state, race and racism cannot be overlooked in O’Connor’s works and I’ve read some controversial letters O’Connor wrote to friends. There is quite a bit of ambiguity around this issue. Do you have a simple answer regarding the issue of racism and O’Connor?

Every day I rise at 5:00 AM. I sit at my table which, at the moment, is piled high with books and papers because I have not had anyone over for dinner since March. There is a soft breeze mummering with sounds from the Sonoran Desert drifting through my open window. These mornings are my time for writing and no matter where I go or what I do in the future, I know I will always think back on my desert house in the mornings. However, If I slightly change my position, I can see the plumes of smoke rising from the Buckhorn Wildfire that has been raging here in Arizona for weeks. Even though my desert dwelling offers solace, it also is a source of isolation from the coronavirus. Daily, on the television, I have watched America rage and burn. My heart breaks as I listen to the plaintive voices that arise with anger, protest, and grief. We do not exist in a vacuum. American literature does not exist in a vacuum. Times change. Perceptions change. Tolerations change.

Based on the current state of flux in America, I feel that there is not and there should not be a simple answer regarding racism and O’Connor. We must move forward, always, in truth. We must listen to myriad voices…voices that will interpret through generational and cultural lenses.  We can take direction from O’Connor’s own words in her 1961 letter to Betty Hester when she wrote, “In the future, anybody who writes anything about me is going to have to read everything I have written in order to make legitimate criticism…” (HB 442). Paul Elie, in his June 22, 2020 New Yorker article evaluates the dilemma we, as O’Connor scholars,  are facing in this way:

After her death, the racist passages were stumbling blocks to the next generation’s

encounter with her, and it made a kind of sense to sidestep them. Now the

reluctance to face them squarely is itself a stumbling block, one that keeps us from

approaching her with the seriousness that a great writer deserves.

How did you manage you PhD project and ultimately decide on it? For others contemplating a PhD what advice would you give regarding the process?  

As I have already noted, my PhD. experience was rather out of the ordinary. When I knew that I was going to retire from a high school teaching career, I began to think about things that I still wanted to do in my life. I had determined that I was going to move from Western Michigan to Tucson, Arizona to be part of my grandchildren’s lives as they were growing up. The next thing on my to-do list was to earn a PhD. in literature. I applied at the University of Arizona and was accepted by the English Department into their doctoral program. One thing that simplified the graduate studies process for me was that I did not intend to search for a tenure track position and leave Tucson. This gave me freedom that I would not have had otherwise. I was able for the first time in my life to study and learn without the pressure of employment. I have continued to work as a lecturer in the Writing Program at UA. This accomplishment has marked one of the best phases of my life.

 Are you planning on doing any writing conferences or speaking engagements about what you discovered in Sign Language? If so, when and where?

July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link 

Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

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Works Cited

Butler, Octavia, John Jennings and Damian Duffy. Kindred: A Graphic Novel

      Adaptation. New York: Abrams, 2018.

Elie, Paul. “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?” New Yorker, 15 June, 2020,

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor

Accessed 22 June, 2020.

Kirkman, Robert and Tony More. The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By. Beverly

Hills: Image-Skybound, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988.

—–The Habit of Being. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

—–Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2004.

Thompson, Phillip. “Flannery O’Connor in her Own Words.” Grace & Violence: 23 April,

  1. https://kudzucorner.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/23-april-2016-flannery-oconnor-in-her-own-words/

Academic Series Part I: Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative by Author, Ruth Reiniche

RuthREVIEW: SIGN LANGUAGE: READING FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S GRAPHIC NARRATIVE BY AUTHOR, RUTH REINICHE

There has been endless critical analysis about Flannery O’Connor, so much that I wondered if there was anything new to say. Well, it turns out there is. Ruth Reiniche’s Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative, provides a fresh and innovative look at Flannery O’Connor’s pictorial visions drawing from her early years as a cartoonist at The Colonnade, her progression from the linocut into living art or tableaux vivants identified in her characters, O’Connor’s symbolism comparted to fifteenth century still life paintings, to a look at her dualistic writing methods where Reiniche identifies elements of photography in her short stories and novels thereby constructing “verbal snapshots.” Sign Language is a study on the evolution of O’Connor’s pictorial text and how it is translates via various art forms that scholars, professors, students, fans of O’Connor, and serious writers could all benefit from reading.

Reiniche first focuses her initial attention on O’Connor’s undergraduate years at Georgia State College for Women where O’Connor worked as a cartoonist on a weekly paper, The Colonnade. O’Connor created linocuts to produce her cartoon images and added amusing captions beneath them. The cartoons are simple flat depictions in black and white and are quite charming. Essentially, this method is a type of printmaking that involves cutting or gouging a design into a sheet of linoleum which is later inked with a roller. It is similar to wood printing except that linoleum is much softer than wood, making it easier to manage. We’ve all seen linocuts, but perhaps were unaware of the technique. For instance, most are familiar with the famous linocut “Don Quixote” by Pablo Picasso. One of the many points I found interesting was Reiniche’s comparison between O’Connor’s cartoons in The Colonnade to well-known New Yorker cartoonists James Thurber, Helen E. Hokinson, and George Price. I particularly liked her comparison of Hokinson’s empty-headed rich society woman to the coed cartoons O’Connor illustrated for the campus newspaper. Reiniche suggests these depictions of Southern womanhood would later emerge in O’Connor’s fictional characters. In the cartoon images of women, O’Connor used clothing to interpret the various social cliques on the campus: “The “Girlie-girls” wear puffy sleeves and pinafores; “smart” girls wear glasses, sensible clothing, and saddle shoes: and WAVES (the woman’s section of the U.S. Naval Reserve stationed on the campus of Georgia State College for Women) are “far-sighted,” serious, and detached from the coed scene that surrounds them.” Unfortunately, Sign Language does not contain the images Reiniche so accurately describes, and I am sure the lack of images had something to do with publishing costs. It is easy enough to locate the cartoon images online which is what I suggest readers do. What is relevant is the cultivation of O’Connor’s flat, black and white linocut cartoons into what would later develop into some of her characters. Writers do not one day simply acquire a style or technique; it takes years to hone the craft. Whether you are an emerging writer or an established author, understanding O’Connor’s pictorial process is beneficial when considering your own development of character and scene and as a writer myself, I found it rather encouraging to see a master of fiction, like O’Connor, develop the flat characters (in her cartoons) and turn them into flesh and bones.

Reiniche contends that O’Connor pictorial text in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood can be viewed through the same medium as a painter of still life and specifically fifteenth century vanitas. This is a fascinating correlation and I believe a very obscure one. Reiniche compares the scene in Wise Blood where Hazel Motes returns to his childhood home as a “virtual vanitas still life framed by skeletal shell of what use to be his home. Both Hazel’s head and the shell of the house have been described as skeletal or skull-like. In place of the candle, O’Connor has chosen two “twisted” envelopes” [Hazel lights on fire while he traverses his childhood home].” Skulls, snuffed-out candles, rotting flowers, fruit, maps, hourglasses, and gold are common symbolic objects found in vanitas, reminding us of man’s mortality (skulls, rotting flowers) pictured alongside the temptations of wealth (fruit and gold) with Hazel Motes burning letters symbolic of the snuffed-out candles in a vanita. The shell of the house is a skull and even Hazel’s head is also described as skull-like with his mother’s empty chifforobe as the heart of the home acting as a pseudo-coffin. Finally, Hazel leaves a note, what Reiniche likens to his memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) on his mother’s chifforobe, threatening to hunt and kill anyone who steals it. I struggled reading Wise Blood, but the vanita connection makes me want to revisit Wise Blood with new eyes. As a reader of O’Connor, I have realized that I only touched the surface of O’Connor’s religious motifs and symbols of redemption and man’s fall from grace. What Reiniche has discovered provides a deeper level between writer and reader. It magnifies O’Connor’s dualistic narrative between the real and the spiritual or the divine. The reader is not simply reading words on a page but experiencing O’Connor’s vision and in that way becomes an observer. Writers are known for their powers of observation, but this manner of observation has the effect of placing the reader before a framed piece of art in a museum.

Reiniche contends that O’Connor’s linocut cartoons evolved into “recognizable tableaux vivants that suggest the work of both classical and contemporary artists.” The tableau vivant which began more as a parlor game later progressed onto the stage, and are live recreations inspired by paintings, literature, mythology, and Biblical stories where individuals are staged to reconstruct an image. There is a theatrical aspect to living art even though the framed models are silent and frozen in time. Like Reiniche, I also saw visions of the characters and scenes O’Connor describes with concurrent images flashing before me as I read. It is quite easy to imagine her scenes framed in a tableau vivant manner. Moreover, the correlation between the tableau vivant and particularly post WWII images of women in advertisements was particularly interesting. We’ve all seen these offensive 1950s advertisements of men spanking women for serving flat stale coffee or images of a pregnant woman being able to resume her breakfast cooking duties now that she is on a morning sickness pill. Reiniche likens these advertisements to the tableau vivant—women being defined and staged into domestic roles of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family. Although Reiniche explores all the female characters of Wise Blood, my favorite example is the character of Ruby, from the short story, “A Stroke of Good Fortune.” (Note, Ruby is “absent” from Wise Blood. If you read Sign Language, Reiniche provides a wonderful breakdown of the novel’s female characters in the published version of Wise Blood verses the manuscript version, as well as a thought-provoking reason for the “removal” of Ruby.) While Ruby did not make the cut in Wise Blood, her evolution from the manuscript into “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and her pictorial interpretation is fascinating. For those of you who are art teachers or creative writing instructors, this would be a wonderful teaching tool to demonstrate to your students. Reiniche describes Ruby as being “defined by the products advertised daily on television and in women’s magazines” and Reiniche remarks on her resemblance to a cartoon titled “The Crop” O’Connor did for the college yearbook. “The Crop” features a college girl’s head surrounded by groceries, captioned with “Where our pennies go.” Ruby contemplates herself in the mirror before ascending the stairs to her apartment and O’Connor describes her body as a funeral urn, or as Reiniche points out, the momento mori you would find in a vinata. Ruby doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror: “her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack…against her right cheek was a gritty collard green…[and] mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head.” There is no difference between her and her sack of foodstuffs—her entire body is designed for consumerism and domesticity. I always rooted for Ruby. She desperately wanted control of her own body, her disdain for her pregnancy is palpable. This was before the Pill. Reiniche made me even more sympathetic for Ruby. It wasn’t just her future of child rearing and house duties at stake, but her entire body, constructed into the 1950s ideal housewife—a sort of slavery trapped in her female form.

I’ve often seen O’Connor’s characters as caricatures, over-exaggerated and over-the-top. Ruby’s struggle up the stairs is near annoying as are the internal complaints of the displaced father in “The Geranium,” and am I the only one who was glad the grandmother was murdered in “A Good Man is Hard to Find?” Most writers would say caricature is a bad thing, as bad as a cliché, but the characters in comics must be over-emphasized for effect, because you have a limited time to make a statement with sometimes only one action (think of O’Connor’s single-panel cartoons) and a caption. I find O’Connor’s characters more effective in shorter form and prefer her short stories to her novels. For myself, a little goes a long way with O’Connor’s characters. Yet, the characters I mentioned previously are not caricatures, but (and this is my opinion) only become fully articulated at the end where the reader undergoes a moment of understanding with the character. I think Reiniche sums it up well when she proposes that the difference between O’Connor’s novels and her short stories are that the novels are “virtual galleries of pictorial moments, [while] the short stories showcase one or two signs that reverberate throughout the story as a whole.” She refers to these pictorial moments in O’Connor’s short stories as “gestures” though some use the phrase” “moments of grace.” For myself, these “gestures” have more force behind them because O’Connor’s message is conveyed in the briefest form. Her short stories hit you hard. Reading Sign Language, I now understand how O’Connor became so efficient with delivering her message. She taught herself early on via her cartoons, reworking and reworking those characters into her fiction, designing characters you come back to time and time again, like the misfit or Ruby.

There are so many interesting points in Sign Language. Unfortunately, I can only touch on the ones that resonated the most with me and one of those points is how Reiniche employs the methods of French theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes. Barthes created a technique for decoding photos in such a manner as to reveal a message. Reiniche uses Barthes’ system first the short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and later in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away. For brevity sake and because more readers are familiar with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” I will look at Reiniche’s treatment in O’Connor’s famous short story and how Reiniche’s identifies Barthes’ theory of studium and punctum and the effect those theories have on the text. (As a note of interest, Reiniche takes a step-by-step approach, distinguishing what she calls “verbal snapshots” in the novel The Violent Bear It Away and in doing so identifies a “double consciousness” that (and I agree) should be considered when reading O’Connor.) Not to oversimplify, but the punctum is the emotional response that the viewer has with the photo; it is more individual and outside the control of the photographer because it draws from the viewer’s personal experiences, whereas the studium is universal. The studuim may be what initially appeals to the viewer and provides recognizable symbols that reach across culture, religion, history, and affect the viewer congruently. I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at least annually and I reread it after reading Sign Language, employing these concepts of photography to the images conveyed. According to Reiniche “the studium of the photographic moment is the historical significance of the child juxtaposed with Stone Mountain. The punctum is the wave. The child’s wave as the family places the scene in the family’s present even though the grandmother tries to freeze the child in the past by calling him a “’pickaninny.’” Reiniche describes Barthes’ punctum as “an element in the photograph rising and shooting out of it like an arrow piercing the view and inflicting a wound.” I am huge fan of the American photographer William Eggleston whose photos of the American South have always translated into an O’Connor story for me. Eggleston is famous for his color photography and his images are of the common man and woman doing common things, much like O’Connor’s everyday person. Yet, they both draw out something much deeper and transcend the mundane. I think Reiniche hit the target here. O’Connor’s writing is dualistic in nature and is much like viewing a photo and uncovering O’Connor’s divine in the ordinary. There is an element of voyeurism in reading O’Connor I had not realized until I read Sign Language, as if I am looking through the camera eye of O’Connor and receiving her messages via her “verbal snapshots.” I’m not a poet, but I imagine this would be an excellent approach when constructing visual imagery, because the snapshots are rapid visuals designed to provoke a response. Creative writing instructors would do well to have their students examine stories through this method Reiniche points out as well.

If you are serious writer, the techniques Reiniche describes will make you want to reconsider your own visual text and methodology. Reiniche was inspired to work on this project when she was reading the unfinished copy of Why Do the Heathen Rage? where she discovered O’Connor’s pictorial method. O’Connor’s character, Walter Tilman, was writing a letter using photos. He arranged and rearranged photos and analyzed his visual message. Reiniche realized she had unearthed O’Connor’s technique via Tilman and recognized it is as a type of sign language, or the “visual metanarrative that coexists with the linear narrative” in O’Connor’s work.  This method reminds me of my own workshop experiences where instructors sometimes use visual prompts and assign writing exercises. What Reiniche has done for me by writing Sign Language and defining O’Connor’s pictorial technique is to provide me as a writer a new way of consuming and articulating imagery from mass media, photography, still life, abstract art, and on and on, a way in which to translate my own fiction, and of course, a much more profound appreciation for Flannery O’Connor’s work.

TO PURCHASE : Mercer University Press or Amazon

Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

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