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Inspired by the Maze
I enjoyed reading the profile of Swamplandia! author Karen Russell, “The Strangeness Quotient” (March/April 2011) by Eryn Loeb. It was inspiring to learn that someone of Russell’s ability and talent compares the writing process to “navigating a vast, mazelike swamp.” As a beginning writer, I now realize there is no need to get “stuck” in any particular place in a story. Considering Russell’s experience with process freed me from the myth that writing must have a neat formula with a fixed beginning, middle, and end.
My first issue of Poets & Writers Magazine arrived and I was excited to read Kevin Nance’s cover profile of poet Nikky Finney, a story about a writer’s responsibility to be fearless (“The Wider Sky,” March/April 2011). In the middle of retelling a defining event from Finney’s youth in which she fights with a white boy for calling her brother a nigger, the author chickens out and uses the phrase “the N-word.” This is not truth telling. This is not fearlessness. The boy did not call her brother “the N-word”; he called him “nigger.” To use the politically correct substitute not only undermines the whole point of the article, but also neutralizes the impact of the event, insulting the courage and integrity of Finney as a black author in a still racially divided America, and the intelligence of the audience of Poets & Writers Magazine. I hope this was merely a moment of cowardice on behalf of Nance and not the trend of this magazine.
In our interview, Nikky Finney said “N-word” in telling the anecdote, but I didn’t repeat the story as a quote; I paraphrased, so the choice of “N-word” in the article was mine, and I take responsibility for it. Rainey Taylor has a strong point, but I would argue that it’s a subject of considerable complexity, not the cut-and-dried matter that Taylor presents. As we saw recently with the controversy over the new, expurgated edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (NewSouth Books, 2011), there continue to be many thoughtful people of all races who take great offense at that still-hated, still-painful term being used in any context. And I made my choice largely based on that. My article made clear what was said on that school ground in South Carolina without repeating the word itself, and I remain comfortable with my decision, even as I recognize the validity of the opposing point of view.
Makers Versus Merchants
Thanks for Gabriel Cohen’s “Publishing in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview With John B. Thompson” (March/April 2011). The article implies what I’ve been thinking for a while now: Most people writing book manuscripts today will never be published. And this is a good thing, because it will eventually nudge out those writers who are solely intent on publishing. Many forget that the job of the publisher is to publish; the job of the writer is to write.
As a writer, teacher, and 1950s student of the Palmer Method of penmanship, I empathize with the nostalgia Eileen Pollack feels for the process of handwriting described in “Track Changes: Ditto Machines to Digital Literature” (March/April 2011). I write by hand all my first drafts. When typing them into my computer, I edit. Works for me.