Sophfronia Scott, Author Writing, laughing, and loving

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

March 14, 2017 | Book Reviews, Writing | Permalink

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Any writer can break the rules of our craft. If he does it poorly the resulting pieces remain at our feet and the confused reader is left to kick at them unsatisfied, like viewing the aftermath of an accident. But if the writer succeeds, he breaks rules to the point where he actually plants the resulting debris and a new form grows. The reader takes in the nascent creation with either bewilderment and possible dislike or sheer wonder. From the comments I’ve consumed about Lincoln in the Bardo, readers report from both viewpoints. Here’s my take. I started on the bewilderment side and ended this book in wonder.

George Saunders’s debut novel is set in a time of upheaval, the early days of the Civil War, when the country was only beginning to realize the horrible depths it was careening toward. President Lincoln’s young son Willie, age eleven, takes ill and dies. His body is placed in a crypt in a cemetery populated by a whole community of less than restful souls. But one night Lincoln, burdened by worry and grief, feels impelled to return to the tomb to visit his lost child. What he leaves with and how he does so is a striking fulfillment of this tale.

Here’s where the rule-breaking comes in: The story is told at a distance, through the observations of the dead souls and through historical source material Saunders uses abundantly though I couldn’t tell which of these many footnotes were based on real material and what was imagined. Fiction craft lessons often teach writers to create characters who are active, not passive, and who can bring urgency to the narrative while at the same time inciting emotion, positive or negative, from the reader. When I began reading Lincoln in the Bardo, I was skeptical. I didn’t see how Saunders could conjure urgency, action, or emotion when the main character, President Lincoln, is for the most part a quiet, introspective, grieving presence and everyone else, a host of strangers without historical significance, was dead.

My curiosity kept me reading and I’m glad I did because Saunders succeeds in all this and that is the miracle of the book. I won’t say how he creates urgency, but I will speak a little on the emotional aspect.

At first I wasn’t interested in these ancillary characters. They spend a lot of time talking, stating their cases, and telling their own death stories. They rarely listen other than to appraise another person’s situation and compare whether they are better or worse off than the other. I kept wanting to get back to Lincoln: Where is he? What’s he doing? But there came a pivotal scene, which I won’t reveal here, where that situation changes and I realized or recognized something I can only describe using the lyrics from John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus”: “I am he as you are he as you are me/ And we are all together…”

They are us. These characters represent all of us.

The scene provides a kind of light for the lost souls and one character, Mr. Vollman, observes, “My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!” These souls are essentially seeking, as we who are living are also seeking, a sense of connection—a certain wholeness. How they come to it is one of the most touching parts of the narrative. Their realization opens the world for them and, for me, turned the book into a profound statement of empathy, compassion, and what it means to be human. As a reader I felt moved; as a writer I felt delight over what the author had accomplished. I wanted to read the book again, immediately, so I could better understand and appreciate how Saunders, with such expert craftsmanship and many twists and turns, had built the book.

Writers read for enjoyment, yes, but we also read to learn what art is possible to craft from our tools, which range from basic words and sentences to scintillating, airborne imagination. With Lincoln in the Bardo, an impressive demonstration of skill and imagination, Saunders, simply put, shows a new way of presenting a story. I hope he inspires many writers to let loose in mind and spirit, and see what we can share in our own ongoing quests, acknowledged or not, for wholeness.

View all my reviews

When Writing Seeds Sprout

February 2, 2017 | Publishing, Writing | Permalink

I have so much on my plate for 2017 but it’s all exciting and you will see many changes. Look for my new novel, Unforgivable Love, from William Morrow. The publication date is September 26, 2017. The cover design is underway and I’m thrilled to share it with you because I’ve been writing about the book here for a few years now. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see this historical fiction, a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons set in 1940s Harlem, come to life!

waw-episode2-sophronia-scott-800x800To celebrate the book I’ll launch a new website featuring a new blog and of course I’ll be traveling! I’m already scheduled to teach at the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop in Princeton and Pasadena, the Writing for Your Life Workshop in Nashville, and the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers in the Catskills. Next week I’m headed to Washington D.C. for the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) where on February 11 I’ll speak on a panel, “Writing White Characters,” with fellow faculty members from the Regis University Mile-High MFA.

Also coming up: My essay collection Love’s Long Line Alone has been acquired by Ohio State University Press for its 21st Century Essays series to be published on its Mad River Books imprint. And I’m hard at work on a spiritual memoir about raising a child of faith in a secular world. Paraclete Press is publishing it and I’ll let you know when it and the essay collection have their publication dates. This fall you’ll be able to read more of my spiritual writing in Forward Day by Day, a publication of daily meditations produced by the Episcopal Church. I wrote the daily meditations for all of September 2017. You’ll want to get it, either online or at a church near you. I’m honored to share, hopefully in a helpful way, with the more than a half million readers worldwide who use Forward Day by Day as a resource for daily prayer and Bible study.

I’m still writing regular posts for the blog at Ruminate Magazine. In fact, one of my pieces, “The Importance of Non-Writing Writing” was Ruminate Magazine‘s most read blog post of 2016! You can read it by using this link. I’m happy to continue creating for one of my favorite literary journals.

I feel as though all of the writing seeds I’ve been planting for the past five years, starting with my work earning my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, are finally beginning to sprout. Of course there’s more work to do and I’m on it. But I believe in taking the time to express gratitude for the beautiful garden of words I see coming up around me. I hope you’ll stay with me as we see how it all grows.

In the meantime, please enjoy this fun interview I recorded recently for Word After Word: A Podcast On Writing.  Paul Matthew Carr, David Hicks, and I talk about my writing habits and the genesis of Unforgivable Love. You can listen in at this link. More soon so stay tuned. I’m glad you’re here.

Yours,

Sophfronia

Book Review: Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

May 3, 2016 | Book Reviews | Permalink

elevenhourscoverDestiny would have it that when two people meet, especially when they are of disparate personalities and cultures as Lore and Franckline, the main characters created by Pamela Erens for her third novel, Eleven Hours, they have something to learn from each other. Perhaps there’s a need, a bit of karma they have to work out between themselves. Lore, a young white teacher, arrives alone at the maternity ward of a New York City hospital with a birth plan so dense it may as well be a legal brief. Franckline, a Haitian immigrant in the early stages of her own unannounced pregnancy, is the nurse overseeing Lore’s labor. She recognizes right away the thorny patient may have something to teach her.

“This girl in room 7, so solitary, so wary, seems a sort of warning. Franckline should not become like that, a person too shut up in herself, too frightened and proud to share her pain. There is a side of her, she knows, that gravitates in that direction, toward that pride, that aloneness.”

Lore’s pride is actually more the response of an injured person. Betrayed by the father of her baby, she seems to chide herself for all the signs she missed. Her birth plan could even be a “not again” notion on her part—she attempts to wrangle control once more by foreseeing, she thinks, every possibility and accounting for every detail of the birth. But Franckline seems to be there to let Lore know life will happen anyway, despite such careful planning.

A bond develops between the two women and its formation is the core story of Eleven Hours. It’s a swift read, just 175 pages, but nothing about the book feels rushed, including the well-observed progression of Lore’s labor. In all the right moments Erens astutely relates how the insistent pain of childbirth can make minutes feel like hours and a short walk down a hallway seem like an expedition across the Sahara. She takes risks to maintain a sense of immediacy: point of view shifts going back and forth between Lore and Franckline happen without warning and can be disconcerting in the early pages. So often workshop instructors warn writers against muddying the point of view waters. But having read the author’s first two books, The Understory (2007) and The Virgins (2013), I know she can tell a great story in unconventional ways. In other words, good writers can bend the rules. And Erens is an excellent writer.

Eventually I came to see what Erens was doing as all of a piece—the two women as one voice communicating all the various experiences of womanhood: love, loss, fear, jealousy, hope, anxiety, just to name a few. Lore and Franckline are not as different as it seems and neither are we as readers. This provides another level of immediacy, opening the doorway to our own connection with the book as we see ourselves within and making the eleven hours experienced in the novel time well spent.

 

 

The Mentor I’ve Never Met

March 10, 2016 | Writing | Permalink

Here’s my latest on Ruminate Magazine’s site:

The writer Frederick Buechner

I’ve never met Frederick Buechner—let’s start there. In case you don’t know him, here’s the quick rundown from his website: Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is an American writer and theologian, the author of more than thirty published books. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been awarded eight honorary degrees from such institutions as Yale University and the Virginia Theological Seminary.

He’s also my writing mentor.

How is that possible? The author Dani Shapiro explains it well in her blog on having mentors you’ll never meet: “But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.”

Frederick Buechner, when I reach out to him through time and space, is such a mentor to me.

To read the rest of this essay please visit Ruminate by going here.

I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, you should also know–and I’m really psyched to share this–I’m teaching at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary, June 7-10, 2016. It’s going to be an exciting event and I’m looking forward to visiting the area–I bet Princeton is gorgeous in June! See you there.

Blessings,

signature

 

 

The Gifts of My MFA

January 15, 2016 | Writing | Permalink

For many years I held close to my heart the desire to go back to school to get my MFA in creative writing. I had this feeling that I was in a place where such intensive study would help my art immensely. But whenever I shared this thought I would get some combination of these two responses:

“You don’t need an MFA, you’ve already published a novel.”

“Why? Do you want to teach? Teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. You won’t be able to write. You won’t be able to find a job, the market’s saturated.”

For some time I listened to these responses and kept the idea of an MFA to myself. Here’s the thing about that first comment: yes, I’d written and published a novel. But I always felt as though it were an airplane contraption I’d built on my own in my garage. Yes, I managed to get it off the ground and it flew and flew well. However I had the sense that I could build a jet, maybe even a rocket. And I needed help to do that.

My diploma

My diploma

I finally decided to go for my MFA in 2011. You can read about the journey that took me to that decision in my essay “A Change in Direction” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers. I started the program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), graduated in 2014, and it was the best thing I ever did for my writing life.

This is the season for applying to MFA programs and I know many writers are now struggling with the same questions and considerations I had. I’ll share here the gifts of my MFA in the hope that it will help others in their decision-making process. Here’s what I received from my MFA:

A community of writers: This perk is mentioned so often it’s almost cliché but let me add to it. It’s not about just having a big group of people in the same room who know your name and you all have in common this thing about putting words down on paper. It’s about the people you find within the group—the people who turn out to be your people. Though we only saw each other every six months (VCFA is a low-residency MFA program) I developed strong bonds with a core group of friends who came to know me and my work well enough to inspire and challenge me in ways I didn’t expect. I grew as a person and as a writer because of their influence and this still goes on today.

A way of writing: I knew I could write but I didn’t know why. I felt I could have a better technical grasp of my craft. It was like I was waving around a sword (or a light saber for you Star Wars fans) but I really didn’t know what I was doing with it. Now in my writing I can hold the sword with more confidence and wield it with intention and more precision. And, I should add, I’m writing more and more consistently. I’ve finished one manuscript and I’m close to completing another as of this writing.

New genres in which to play: I entered VCFA as a fiction student. For me the genre of nonfiction was the journalism background I had come from and I didn’t see myself writing much of it in the future. But I learned that creative nonfiction covers a wide array of writing from essays to memoir to literary journalism. A friend convinced me I was already writing it in essays I’d published in places like More Magazine. So I became a dual-genre student and received my degree in both fiction and creative nonfiction. I read and explored poetry as well.

reading challenge badgeA way of reading: I’m slow reader and before the MFA I’d be lucky if I got through a half-dozen books in a year. But reading is a major tool for a writer and I knew I would have to read more if I was going to improve my work. I don’t read any faster, I think, but my time at VCFA taught me if I’m diligent and consistent I can read a lot more than I did before. Now I read about 40 books a year even now that I’m 18 months past my graduation. If anything I would love to read even more because it’s hard to balance the new books coming out with classics I haven’t read yet plus books I read to help with what I’m writing at the moment. So much to read! But at least I am reading and I love it.

The writing world opened: The great thing about an MFA is all of what you receive doesn’t stop after graduation. The writing world is open to you and you can participate in it as much as you like. I attended my first conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) while at VCFA. It’s a huge gathering of about 10,000 writers and at these events I have the pleasure of meeting in person writing friends I’d met via social media and seeing again writers who had visited VCFA—generous, encouraging teachers such as Richard Bausch and Brian Leung who remain wonderful, encouraging friends. I’m attending AWP in Los Angeles this March speaking on a panel and participating in an offsite reading.

New opportunities: The teaching landscape is difficult to navigate but I’ve found the opportunities best suited to me do come my way. I’m thrilled to be on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program in Denver, Colorado. I’m also teaching courses at the Fairfield County Writer’s Studio and this summer I’ll present two sessions at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at the Princeton Theological Seminary. I wouldn’t have made the connections that made these opportunities possible if I hadn’t gone for my MFA.

So these are my gifts and I’m grateful, tremendously grateful for every single one. If you’re considering the MFA journey know this: your own gifts are waiting for you. It’s up to you to decide to receive them.

 

%d bloggers like this: