Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

Tag Archive: books

  1. Reading Magic and Loss

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    Over the past few years, I’ve read fewer books than ever before, and of those books, even less fiction.

    I’ve said that the internet has melted my brain, wrecked my attention span. Or maybe the problem is my 50-something vision, or my glasses, or the quality of the light by my bed.

    I listen to podcasts while walking Sadie and getting ready for work and washing dishes; I read everything from news to email to long articles to social media to forums to product reviews on the internet from waking to sleeping, on my desktop, laptop, and phone.

    I listen to audio books on long drives; the music that calls me is still the music with lyrics I care about.

    There is no shortage of words in my life; only a shortage of (the reading of) books.

    But still rising from all those words is a longing to be immersed in another person’s thought processes, as well as the ability to make notes and reread, that comes a weekend with a physical book. And I was determined to finish reading a book.

    On the top of my stack was Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan. I’d heard her interviewed on Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast and I was intrigued by her story and the possibility that the internet is “among humankind’s great masterpieces,” as the blurb on the back of the book suggests.

    Part philosophical deep dive, part history, part memoir, Magic and Loss touches on many of my preoccupations: technology (and the way it’s changing my brain every day), one person’s story, religion, writing and story telling.

    And Heffernan wouldn’t judge my 2017 reading habits: As she says, “Codices, scrolls, leisure, work, epic poetry, tweets: let’s call it all real reading.”

  2. Celebrating Mona

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    Today I went with Mona to a lunch meeting of her women’s club, the Friendly Villagers.  We were there to talk about the book we wrote together.

    As the event ended, her niece leaned over to me and said, “You know, Mona has another book to write. One about her mother. She once published a newspaper on cloth because there was no paper.”


    Ask for women’s histories, and they rain from the sky.

  3. On Seeing

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    Last night after I published my post on relationship bokeh, I went to bed and opened John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (recommended, as so many good things are, by Jeanne).

    I began to read where I had left off, a section called “To Beautify the Gaze.”  I imagined that O’Donohue had joined me in conversation.  He writes,

    “Each of us is responsible for how we see, and how we see determines what we see.  Seeing is not merely a physical act: the heart of vision is shaped by the state of soul.  When the soul is alive to beauty, we begin to see life in a fresh and vital way.  The old habits of seeing are broken.”

    Today I refocus consideration of my “old habits of seeing” to include not only the ways I have seen others but also the ways I see myself.  Do I see myself with compassion or am I impatient and judgmental?

    O’Donohue concludes this section, “The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything.  When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and sanctuary.”

    What would happen if we held ourselves and others by seeing in this way?


  4. With Gratitude

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    From Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: 

    “Every artist secretly hopes his art will make him attractive.  Sometimes he or she imagines it is a lover, a child, a mentor, who will be drawn to the work.  But alone in the workshop it is the soul itself the artist labors to delight.  The labor of gratitude is the initial food we offer the soul in return for its gifts, and if it accepts our sacrifice we may be, as Whitman was, drawn into a gifted state–out of time, coherent, ‘in place.’ And in those moments when we are gifted, the work falls together graciously.  (Not always, of course.  For some the work may fall into place regularly, but most of us cut out a thousand pairs of shoes before the elves begin to sew.)”

  5. On Magpies: Part Four of a Four-Part Interview with Lynne Barrett

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    If you’re just arriving at these Lynne Barrett interviews, you’ll want to catch up on Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

    If you want to meet Lynne, she will be reading from and discussing Magpies at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland) and Justin Torres (We The Animals) on Sunday, Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., in Room 3209, (Building 3, Second Floor), Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus.

    With gratitude to Lynne, one last question:

    Angela: What advice would you give to readers of this blog or to the writers in my workshops, many of whom will not be likely to take university creative writing classes?  What should they do to become better writers?

    Lynne: First, and always, read. And then reread. Writers are people who read a lot and think about what they’ve read, and go back and unravel how the effects a work had upon them were created, which you can only do on second, third, fourth reading.

    Keep a writing journal. Copy out things you like by hand. Eavesdrop and write down things you hear that strike you. Record what you notice so you get used to turning your noticing into sentences. The journal is both useful as a practice and valuable later, when you may be stuck, and you can go back and find a detail or a moment you’ve forgotten that has gained new meaning with time.

    For people who can’t take university classes, other workshops in the community, like yours, are a great option. I also recommend going to writers’ conferences, both for the access to published writers and to editors, and for the chance to meet other aspiring writers you can stay in touch with.

    And without traveling, you can read good writers’ blogs. I’ll recommend here Beyond the Margins, which has a great group of writers contributing useful posts on all angles of craft, the writing life, and publishing. The large community-based writing organization Grub Street in Boston  is republishing some of their older posts in their daily newsletter, along with many other useful things. On the other hand, stay off the Internet completely when you are actually writing, as it is a pit of procrastination.

    If you have a life full of other demands, set yourself tasks that you can actually accomplish.  Write a paragraph each day, if that’s what you have time for. It will still mount up, and you’ll be thinking about what a paragraph is, what it can do, how short it can be, how long. Or assign yourself other tasks. Here’s one: Each day for a week describe a meal (remembered or invented). Don’t worry about anything but getting the food right. And try not to look ahead at the rest of this assignment. (I know, that’s impossible. See anxiety and suspense, above.) At the end of the week, choose one, and write the scene where that meal is prepared. This may take many writing sessions. Don’t worry, take your time. Then write the scene where it’s eaten. Then write the scene that follows right after the meal: how are the characters different than they were before it? What happens that can happen only on this particular occasion? Before you know it, you have a story.


    Lynne Barrett is the award-winning author of the story collections The Secret Names of WomenThe Land of Go, and, most recently,Magpies. She co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion and The James M. Cain Cookbook, a collection of Cain’s nonfiction. She is the editor of the new collection of prose poetry, flash fiction, and flash nonfiction Tigertail: Florida Flash, to be published in Oct. 2011. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. Her essay, “What Editors Want,” published in The Review Review, was featured in the L.A. Times Book Blog and republished in Glimmer Train’s digest. She has received numerous awards, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She teaches in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Florida International University and edits The Florida Book Review.

  6. On Magpies: Part Three of a Four-Part Interview with Lynne Barrett

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    Part One of my interview with Lynne Barrett is here, and Part Two is here.

    If you want to meet Lynne, she will be reading from and discussing Magpies at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland) and Justin Torres (We The Animals) on Sunday, Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., in Room 3209, (Building 3, Second Floor), Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus.

    And now, Part Three:

    Angela:  At your Books and Books reading, John Dufresne introduced you as “The Empress of Plot” because of your beloved and popular FIU classes on Plot.  How does your theoretical understanding of what’s necessary for a good plot inform your writing of one?

    Lynne: In the class, I teach plot not as formula but as a set of concepts that can help a writer through the morass of inventing, revising, and structuring. It’s there not to constrict but to encourage students to make their stories stronger, and of course I do try to listen to myself (though I don’t always obey, any more than the students do). To me study of plot, story, and structure is analogous to studying dance or acrobatics or other such training: you will feel self-conscious as you learn the moves, but then as you get stronger you are freed to play and you can do things you wouldn’t have been able to before.  That’s certainly how it’s been for me.  I know that sooner or later I’m going to have to make it all hang together, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make a mess as I’m drafting and wondering how this can all possibly work out.  Sometimes I get a structural idea and see if I can pull it off, very much like using a form in poetry, but the goal is to make something that dances.

    Angela: Is suspense necessary to good plot(ting)?  In all of the stories here, even those that might not be considered “suspense,” there is an element of anxiety. I’ve typed the first lines of some stories here:


       “Language this,” Avery said, the first day I worked at

    “One Hippopotamus”

       Lightning: I wake to the flash, see Carlos’s clothes, the surface of a man thrown over the chair.

    “Gossip and the Toad”

       Tally McTeer left the Bubble Room and headed homeward, thinking through the last tidbits she’d call in for her column.

    “The Noir Boudoir”

       On a warm Tuesday morning in late October, the tail end of the hurricane season, I sit in my car outside the Delphi and pretend I’m on a stakeout: a honed tedium.

    “When, He Wondered”

       Maybe it was at the Fenwicks’ playoff party in January, when Tom went to the kitchen for a beer, and Elise came up behind him as he turned in the cold exhale of the refrigerator.

    “Cave of the Winds”

       Azalea, Barry, Caterina, Darryl—three Tropical Storms and a Category One—formed off Africa in July and meandered into the North Atlantic without harming anyone, but their arrival started up the jitters.

    In almost all of them, you generate some anxiety in the title and the first line.  How is that important to your sense of what makes a good story, what makes good storytelling?

    Lynne: At the start of a story, I want to generate anticipation, which is central to suspense. Even the anticipation of pleasure has some potential for anxiety, because pleasure carries risk both that it won’t work out right and that, if it’s wonderful, it will soon slip away.

    I don’t usually write the first line first—I often write a lot finding my way to it, and I inevitably revise, and re-revise, the beginning in light of the end and middle. Looking at these examples, I see many things I was doing. There’s often some kind of orienting detail about where we are and who we’re with. We need to know a little something to build anticipation on. As readers, we grasp onto those first bits of information and begin, immediately, to imagine what this story might be, knowing also that the story can (and should) turn in surprising ways. But those “facts” are combined are other things which the reader may not consciously notice at the time which pay off later. So, for example, “Links” starts with Avery giving the narrator an order, in the imperative, in what turns out to be his style of short, brusque, idiosyncratic sentences. While I wouldn’t say that suspense is evident at the start, to me “first day of work” carries a hint of anxiety, and getting an order like that does, too. But the command turns out to have other layers of meaning as she “languages” the whole story for us. At the same time “” may sound like fun, or possibly satire, and there’s also the fact that the reader can see, before that first line, a section header which is another command Enter Here in blue and underlined. That’s the first of the “links” of the title, and from it, ideally, the reader is picking up the fact that there is something usual about the story’s structure and, I hope, finding that intriguing.  So even in this short space there are layers to what’s being opened up.

    The start of “The Noir Boudoir” invokes the tedium of a stakeout, which may seem very quiet for a story that’s about multiple murders. But “honed tedium” isn’t the same as boredom, is it? Something about “honed” says more than that to me. I wanted to get across fast that the narrator is a former cop (now antique dealer, as we soon learn), and his experience and ability to patiently persist are part of what will make him the right guy to solve things.

    On the other hand, if there were an “anxiety score” we could give to the lines, I’d say that the opening of “One Hippopotamus” has a lot, in its glimpse of “the surface of a man.” That’s a relationship story. This goes back to my answer to your genre question: relationships of all sorts are full of anxiety and mystery, I think. All trust carries risk. For that matter, what do we know about ourselves?  “When, He Wondered,” with a question implied in its title and that “Maybe” at the start, setting up uncertainty, is very much about Tom discovering what he’s capable of.

    Can’t say more!  I want the reader to be anxious to read the stories.

    Tomorrow: Part 4, for writers.




  7. On Magpies: Part Two of a Four-Part Interview with Lynne Barrett

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    If you missed Part One of my interview with Lynne Barrett, you can find it here.

    If you want to meet Lynne, she will be reading from and discussing Magpies at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland) and Justin Torres (We The Animals) on Sunday, Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., in Room 3209, (Building 3, Second Floor), Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus.

    And now, Part Two of our interview:

    Angela: Many of the stories in Magpies are set in Florida—how important is place in your writing?  Do you see setting as merely a backdrop for character and plot or as something more important?  Do you visit the places you write about, taking notes, or do you write from memory and imagination?

    Lynne: I don’t think of it as backdrop—it’s much more three-dimensional than that. I’m very aware of the space characters move through, what can be seen from where, and how the sensory elements of a place affect those who are in it. In a story like “One Hippopotamus,” which takes place during one night, with a couple in bed talking when the electricity has gone out (hmm, there’s electricity again!), we can see only what the narrator sees, in flashes of lightning, but sounds, smells, and her spatial knowledge of her tiny house, are all used so that we feel the structure around them, and beyond that the storms moving over it.

    Anywhere I go, I think I observe places, letting them sink in, and seeing what resonates later. So that’s another bit of the Magpie in me.  I invented sinkholes (ancient and new) for the story “When, He Wondered.” I’ve seen real ones, but I also did research, including speaking with someone who had done diving in the kind of underwater river that’s in the story. I think we should always feel that this particular story could only happen in this particular way in this particular place (even it its an imaginary place). It matters what the weather is, the time of day. It matters that when Tom in “When, He Wondered” goes to the driving range with his old friend, it’s around sundown, and he can see their elongated shadows competing, just as it matters how hot and sunny it was it was when they first discovered the underground river as boys.

    Angela: You write across genres—there are elements of crime, fantasy, relationship-based fiction in this collection and even in individual stories—do you think about genre conventions as you write or does the story drive the process?

    Lynne: Certainly I’m aware of conventions, but I don’t view them as walled-off from each other or constricting. Anything is fair to use as long as you do it well. That said, character most drives my choices. So in “Gossip and Toad” I wanted to write about a professional gossip who has come to that work through a natural inclination to say stinging things, and I felt her professional nastiness should have unanticipated consequences. Some of these consequences could be in a purely realist story, but I borrowed one from the fairy-tale “Diamonds and Toads,” where an evil character speaks and spiders and toads come out of her mouth.  I guess this could be called fantasy, but it is so much a way of making an element of character visible, I think of it as like something in Ovid, mythic, the psychological externalized. And then I played with it as if it were absolutely real. If I had to label the story, I’d say it was magical realism, which is a wonderful oxymoron that covers a lot of possibilities.

    Tomorrow, Part 3, from the Empress of Plot.

  8. On Magpies: Part One of a Four-Part Interview with Lynne Barrett


    As my MFA thesis director, Lynne Barrett alternately pushed and pulled me through the writing of my memoir-still-in-progress, and for that I will be forever grateful.

    In addition to being one of the best editors and teachers I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a few), Lynne is also a brilliant writer, and her new short story collection, Magpies, is pure glittering literary pleasure.

    If you’re anywhere near Miami, or you can get here by Sunday, Lynne will be reading from and discussing Magpies at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland) and Justin Torres (We The Animals) on Sunday, Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., in Room 3209, (Building 3, Second Floor), Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus.

    Lynne was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me, which I’ll post in four installments, beginning today and continuing through Thursday, while I write my NaNo words.

    Angela: I want to start with the title of your book, Magpies, which, as you note, is not the title of any one story but is mentioned in the story “The Noir Boudoir.”

    Ray Strout, the narrator, says, “These are my fellow members of the species Magpie.  We are small-time antique dealers, which is to say we are collectors who sell to support our habit.”  Ray, in particular, is “into paper ephemera.  Books, magazines, letters, photos, bills, matchbooks, anything like that interests me.  There’s history in paper,” according to Ray.

    I’m wondering whether you think writers are Magpies, and whether your writing process resembles the Magpie’s search for glitter.  You mention in your essay that you thumbtacked an index card with the word “Magpies” on it to a bulletin board above your desk.

    What other glittering objects might we find on that bulletin board and how do you think they might show up in future stories?  What are some of the other ways you collect bits of glitter that might show up in your writing?

    Lynne: Yes, writers grab scraps of language and images and bits of human behavior and hold onto them until, somehow, they transmute. Certainly I do. It might be that someone else would find no glitter to them at all, but I post on my bulletin board small images and objects, phrases thought of or overheard, sometimes a quote. To give an example, I have an old rubber stamp of a woman in bathing suit and cap, poised to dive, and I know that she represents a story I’ve been working on. I have two photos, Ella Fitzgerald young and Ella Fitzgerald old, and somehow she is a divinity presiding over that same story, though it may be that no one who reads it (someday, when it’s done and published) would see the connection.

    But some things you only learn are obsessions when they find a way onto the page. I grew up in New Jersey, not far from Edison’s house and laboratories. My great-grandfather worked there circa World War I, as some kind of low-level lab assistant. When I went there on school trips, it was a national historic site, with much of the old red brick complex closed off. It has since been renovated, I hear, but the lab we toured looked as if they’d simply left it the day work stopped, beakers and tools still in place. I can remember the smell of it, chemical and musty. It all seemed very far off and long ago. Even though at the time I had no great interest in science or technology, the place and what was invented or refined there, light bulbs, phonographs, motion picture machines, somehow have haunted me as these things have multiplied and morphed into what we have now, both wonderful and inescapable. In Magpies, in the story “Links,” the young dot com entrepreneur likens himself to great 19th century inventors. (He’s particularly taken with Fulton’s steamboat.) His Silicon Alley office is in an old 1800’s brick building, rewired with high-speed lines, while the narrator lives in West Orange, the town where the Edison site is. Even though I did not directly mention Edison’s labs, I know they were in my mind when I wrote a story about 21st century ambitions, delusions, and dreams.

    Part 2, on questions of place and genre, tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

  9. thank you


    “absence can be present, like a damaged nerve, like a dark bird”
    The Time Traveler’s Wife.

    Thank you Griselda for this dark bird.

    Thank you Amy for the book that found its way to the top of the stack at just the right time and for this sonnet by Wordsorth:

    Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind

    Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
    I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
    But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
    That spot which no vicissitude can find?
    Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
    But how could I forget thee? – Through what power,
    Even for the least division of an hour,
    Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
    To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return
    Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,
    Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
    Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
    That neither present time nor years unborn
    Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

    Thank you Crescent Dragonwagon for sharing your post about Beanblossom,  reminding me that there will be a long view and I must waste nothing.

    Thank you Elizabeth and Paula and Marjory  and Bridget for friendship via comment and tweet.

    Thank you Alana and Judith for showing me how to blog grief.

    Thank you Julie and Bindu for phone and text support.

    Thank you friends and family who would prefer not to be blogged about.

    Thank you Jeanne for all of the above and more.



  10. Interview with Norma Watkins, 3 of 3

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    This is the last part of my interview with Norma Watkins–check out part 1 and part 2 if you missed them.

    These questions focus on writing, memoir in particular.

    Angela: Early in The Last Resort, you, as the narrator, ask, “If I got that wrong, what else have I misremembered?”  Sometimes I am tempted to write each scene of my memoir as if I’m on a witness stand.  Would you talk a little bit about the roles of memory and imagination in narrative nonfiction?

    Norma: I always tried to check the facts, but in any memoir, the truth is the narrator’s. My cousin John Fontaine’s reaction to my book was: “If ten people had written this, there would be ten different stories.” That’s true.  Self-perception is flawed because we stand inside what we are trying to see. People in Mississippi objected to my depictions of others: My father was more charming and caring; my cousin was not a bully; they didn’t drink that much. The only answer you can give is to invite the critics to write their own memoirs.

    Angela: Writers in my workshops are often concerned about the reactions of family and friends, past and present.  What advice would you give them, and me, about worrying about what other people will think?

    Norma: This is a huge concern in the South. Whatever you say will kill your mother. I offer several outs: use the mask of fiction; tell readers you have changed names; change your name; or wait until they die. I personally like what James Houston said: “Write now; worry later.” Telling the truth is an act of courage.

    Angela: Sometimes I find the critic/teacher side of myself analyzing and editing faster than my writer side can write.  You’ve got a similar background to mine—how do you keep the inner critic from taking over?

    Norma: When you’re creating a story, you have to turn the critic/teacher off. Lose yourself in the tale, in dialogue and scene. Escape into the dream of the story. There’s plenty of time to bring the finicky critic back in revision.

    Angela: In your acknowledgments, you thank your writing group, “Mixed Pickles.”  What advice would you give to a writer who wants to form a group?

    Norma: I love my writing group. We have worked together for so long, we are able to give each other good advice and criticism without fear of wounded feelings. We become co-creators for one another—“Have you thought about this?” “What if…” I would say to people wanting to start a group, take a class and notice the students who seem on your wave length. It’s good for members of the group to be, within reason, at the same writing level, so you aren’t spending all your time with a beginner.


    I have thanked Norma privately, but want to thank her publicly now for being so gracious in answering my questions.  Thanks, Norma!