Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Reading

New, tiny fiction

Here is something new for me: I wrote a tweet-length story and it has been published by Tiny Text (@Tiny_Text), a Twitter-based literary magazine that publishes writing of 140 characters or fewer.

My story, “Spoiler Alert,” boils down all stories to a single, tweet-length formula (really).

You can check out the story here, then dive into Tiny Text’s many fine, super-compressed pieces here.

New fiction at Euphony

I am very pleased and proud to have a short story, “Cruelty,” in the Spring 2016 issue of Euphony, out of the University of Chicago. You can read the story online here.

A little background on this piece. This is all that remains of a novel I wrote during graduate school, then drastically rewrote several times after graduation. That novel (working title: “Isolation Drills”), after lots of reworking, featured a narrator who was making an academic study of pornographic films and who met and began to date a woman. It was a classic first attempt at a novel, with lots of stuff pulled from my life (NOT the porn thing!), not much plot, and some not-very-well-drawn scenes and characters. The whole drafting process was an invaluable study in what’s required for a novel and how to write one (plan! Revise!), but I’m grateful I don’t have to look at or think about those pages anymore.

Even so, the central conflict of the novel and the relationship between the two main characters stuck with me, and at some point last summer I had two related thoughts: “Is there any way I can salvage anything from those multiple drafts and hundreds of pages?” and “What if the perspective shifted from his to hers?”

And so “Cruelty” came to be.

Fiction’s power to explain the world, using Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example

Not a new or penetrating insight here, but I recently came across a striking and somewhat unexpected example of the power that good fiction has to show us something of the world we live in.

I recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not a huge science fiction fan. I just saw it in a bookstore while traveling last month, and thought, “Yes. I am going to read that right now.”

I knew the basics of the story from having seen David Lynch’s film version, and more recently from having seen the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I’d recommend far more than the Lynch film. I knew about sandworms, the spice melange, and a villain so disgustingly fat he had to use little rocket-powered suspensors to keep from smothering in his own girth.

The novel surprised me in a couple ways. First was a massive amount of heavy ecological stuff, featuring a lot of well-developed explanations of the desert landscape and how certain groups were working to cultivate it with the long-term goal of creating a lush, liveable planet, plus lots of great details about the lengths people go to to conserve water (including, most fascinatingly/disgustingly, suits that capture sweat, urine, and feces and wring all the moisture out of them and essentially dumping that moisture into a kind of Camelbak reservoir that allows the wearer to drink it). Second was the heavy, heavy attention to intrapersonal and non-verbal communications in the book.

Item #2 really surprised me because I figured most of the book’s 800 or so pages would be filled with descriptions of sandworm battles, palace intrigues, and so on. That stuff is there, but on nearly every page there is an incisive description of a character using a certain kind of special training—I’ll just call it witchcraft, which is how it’s sometimes referred to in the novel, though it’s (often) less magical than that and more a situation of recognizing intonations of voice, body language, and so on, to read people deeply and accurately—to see through hidden motivations and anticipate another character’s next move.

Here’s a case in point, and the example I wanted so share. It’s a scene where Baron Harkonnen, the fat villain mentioned above, speaks with the Count, an extremely devious court hanger-on, and the Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha, whom the Baron is grooming to eventually take over the desert planet, Dune. The Count has just said something insincere and kind of belittling to the Baron. Feyd-Rautha is standing by, watching and learning. (Note: the weird “mm-m-m” seen below is a quirk of Herbert’s, a verbal filler that a number of characters use for reasons that don’t seem worth the weird typographical experience of reading this stuff.)

“You are too kind,” the Baron said. He bowed, but Feyd-Rautha noted that his uncle’s eyes did not agree with the courtesy.

“When you’re mm-m-m ironic, that ah-h-h suggests you’re hm-mm-m thinking deep thoughts,” the Count said.

There he goes again, Feyd-Rautha thought. It sounds like he’s being insulting, but there’s nothing you can call out for satisfaction.

You can see all this non-verbal communication: Feyd-Rautha reading his uncle’s eyes, and the Count also reading the discrepancy between the Baron’s words and expression, and then responding by saying something kind of catty and ironic about the Baron “thinking deep thoughts.”

But what I really want to point out here is that what Feyd-Rautha notes is basically the very definition of “micro-aggression.” I was immediately struck by a sense of recognition upon first reading this passage. (From looking around for a quick definition, I see that “micro-aggression” is often linked to race and to white privilege, but I’m using it here more broadly, the way Feyd-Rautha defines it: This guy is being passive aggressive, going right up to the line but holding back enough so that if I said something, I’d be the crazy one, and he’d be able to back up and say, “Whoa, buddy, you’re putting words in my mouth.”)

The idea of micro-aggression, so far as I can tell, is relatively recent. Here, Herbert is using Feyd-Rautha to call out something that simply didn’t have a name back in 1965, when Dune was first published. In some ways it’s an incredible insight, and it suggests a remarkable depth of character that Herbert accomplishes in Dune.

I love finding stuff like this, recognizing the real world in fiction and, in doing so, seeing the world a bit more clearly. That’s a trite observation, I know, but it’s such a difficult thing to achieve in fiction that I find these instances worth recording and sharing.

Writing Studio: Slightly shameless plug of an upcoming writing class

Later this summer, I am going to be teaching a class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that I think/hope may be of interest to some of my readers (local ones, anyway).

The class is “Writing Studio” and it’s not so much a class as, well, studio time dedicated to writing (as the name may suggest).

Just as students in other disciplines at the PCA have studio options, and can drop in once or twice a week to work independently with ceramics, screen printing, sculpture, etc., students interested in writing will now have the opportunity to come in to the PCA’s education building once a week and get some writing done.

The class stems from a basic observation I’ve made throughout my courses at the PCA: most of the writers who’ve come through my classes have the most trouble not with point of view, plot, etc., but with the struggle to find time to write and to keep writing (both in terms of keeping their seats during a single writing session and coming back to the writing desk day after day). Building a healthy writing process, and the discipline to keep it up, is among the most pressing challenges for any writer, especially those just getting started. (And working a day job doesn’t make those challenges any easier.)

“Writing Studio” is meant to address these challenges by offering a dedicated chunk of time each week, as well as a space where students can come to work quietly, buoyed by the presence of others doing the same thing. Along with time to write, the course will offer a sense of community and the opportunity to discuss ongoing challenges, troubles, and triumphs. The aim is to give writers time and space to get work done during the five weeks of the course and to launch them into a productive and sustained writing routine long after.

I’ll supplement the core of the course—in-class writing—with writing exercises, craft lectures*, and availability for one-on-one feedback and discussion. But by and large, the class is about giving students a place and a time to come, sit down, and write.

The class runs five Mondays, beginning July 11 and concluding August 8. Each class will run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

If this sounds like something that may be of interest, I hope to see you in July!

*An important note: “Writing Studio” is designed to work for writers in any genre, so readers who don’t write fiction (as I do) may still find something useful in the class, even beyond writing time.

Found Poetry from the Chicago Manual of Style

At my previous position, as a copy editor, I had a fair bit of downtime and access to the Chicago Manual of Style (15th or 16th edition for you grammarphiles who might be wondering). To pass the time and to make myself a better editor, I’d read through it until I started dozing off. Along the way I wrote down some of the more notable example phrases and sentences the Manual used to illustrate various grammatical principles. These are from all over the book, representing any number of grammatical rules.

I’ve given the poem my own title, but if you’ve got a better one, suggest it in the comments.

“The Onslaught of the Word”

We the voters will decide
Children, stop misbehaving
A limo carried the band
I hoped to see many deer, but I saw only one deer

The governor delivered a speech
The shops are crowded because the holiday season has begun
The troops retreated in winter
High in the tree sat a leopard

My show dogs are Australian shepherds
The balloon carried a pilot and a passenger
Place the slide under the microscope
The queen consulted the prime minister

Everything else was returned; the medicine the villain withheld
An assembly of strangers was outside
George Washington, our first president, was born in Virginia
Robert Burns, the poet, wrote many songs about women named Mary

The husband has worked hard to produce this crop
You must husband your land thoughtfully
More school districts are mainstreaming pupils with special needs
The poor are always with us

We cannot avoid the here and now

Swimming in that lake can be dangerous

To discover the truth is our goal

What the people want is justice

The father told the father’s daughter that the father wanted the father’s daughter to do some chores
The father told his daughter that he wanted her to do some chores

Keats and Yeats Are on Your Side

I’ve got great news that is great news only to me: cleaning up my work area this afternoon, I found an index card I’d long thought lost. The card had appeared in a book (I don’t remember which book) I’d bought at a yard sale or a library book sale or in a used book store. On the index card was taped a passage cut from a photocopied page of something—a newspaper story, a magazine article, an academic paper; something. It was a note on the life of the poet John Keats. He’s one of those poets I’m sure I read in AP English, but don’t remember particularly, and so having an index card fall into my lap that told of his view on life did not at first mean much to me beyond the distinct small thrill of encountering something left by a previous reader of this book.

But the more I read the passage, the more wonderful it seemed. I thought it would make for a great blog item, something others might enjoy, and then I lost it. I hadn’t memorized the text, and so I couldn’t really Google it.

Anyway, today I found it, and here it is:

Keats

If the type is too small for you, here’s what it says:

Keats believed that life was given for him to find the right use of it, that it was a kind of continuous magical confrontation requiring to be met with the right answer. He believed that this answer was to be derived from intuition, courage, and the accumulation of experience. It was not, of course, to be a formula of any kind, not a piece of rationality, but rather a way of being and of acting. And yet it could in part be derived from taking thought, and it could be put, if not into a formula, then at least into many formulations. Keats was nothing if not a man of ideas. [Emphasis added — I.H.]

And here I’ve found the passage online. It’s from Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden, and the passage is from a Lionel Trilling essay on Keats. The “I.H.” who adds emphasis in this passage is Irving Howe, in a New Republic piece “On Lionel Trilling: ‘Continuous Magical Confrontation,'” published in 1976.

What to say, really, about the content of the passage? You don’t need to know or like Keats, I don’t think, to find something beautiful and inspiring in Trilling’s description of how Keats lived his life.

Anyway, that’s my story. I’ll be putting the card somewhere safe this time.

New Favorite Paragraph (a Facebook Note, Rescued from Facebook)

From You Can’t Win by Jack Black. (No, not that Jack Black.) If you’re interested in hobo hygiene, read on. If you like liberal use of quotation marks, friend, read on:

“The ‘Johnson family’ became so numerous that a ‘convention’ must be held. In any well-ordered convention all persons of suspicious or doubtful intentions are thrown out at the start. When a bums’ ‘convention’ is to be held, the jungle is first cleared of all outsiders such as ‘gay cats,’ ‘dingbats,’ ‘whangs,’ ‘bindle stiffs,’ ‘jungle buzzards,’ and ‘scissors bills.’ Conventions are not so popular in these droughty days. Formerly kegs of beer were rolled into the jungle and the ‘punks,’ young bums, were sent for ‘mickies,’ bottles of alcohol. ‘Mulligans’ of chicken or beef were put to cooking on big fires. There was a general boiling up of clothes and there was shaving and sometimes haircutting.”

(This is part two in a series of items posted in the little-loved “Note” feature within Facebook, now rescued for posterity and, hopefully, a larger audience.)

Football Mailbag Item Demonstrates Something about the Varied Nature of Humankind

I am a habitual reader of Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column on si.com; in fact, it often disrupts my Monday morning routine when I’m not able to dive into writing before the new column is posted. It’s Monday, and there’s a new column up, but I want to draw attention to an item in last week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (a follow-up column with additional items, stuff pertaining to that week’s Monday night game, and a reader mailbag) before it’s lost on the internet forever.

I don’t really have anything to say about this or to add to what King writes. It’s just . . . interesting. Here goes:

“WELL, THIS IS AN INTERESTING TAKE. ‘I apologize for the rant but after seeing Arian Foster from the Texans looking like a baby bird getting fed by its mother when getting water I couldn’t hold it back anymore. I’m tired of watching football player standing there and letting someone squirt water in their mouths both on and off the bench. I know there are going to be a lot of reasons (time, face mask etc…) put out there. But for me those can be left at the door. Might as well turn in your man card if you need someone to squirt water in your mouth. Not sure why this bugs me so much. Am I the only one?’
— From Murray Galbraith, of Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia

“I believe so.”

Grammar Heroics

Apologies in advance for the bragging nature of this post. Sometimes, though, we surprise ourselves, and we have something of an obligation to let the world know about it.

Two grammar-related exploits to relate:

First, several weeks ago, I was meeting with two writers about a comedy project. It was our very first meeting and we were laying out plans for how things would work, how often we’d meet, etc. One writer proposed “bi-weekly meetings”; i.e., twice a week. The second writer frowned and said that he thought bi-weekly meant every other week. The first writer chuckled mirthlessly and said no, he was quite sure bi-weekly was twice a week. The second writer was coiled up and ready to strike when I intervened.

“Boys, boys,” I said. “Stop this quarreling. ‘Bi-weekly’ is an auto-antonym. It means one thing and its opposite.* You’re both right.”

They were thunderstruck and looked at me with perfect awe evident in their countenances. I nodded solemnly, as if to say, Yes, it’s true in answer to their unspoken question. “I’m a copyeditor,” I said to the second writer, by way of explanation for my pharisee-like authority on this matter. (I had already discussed that with the first writer, the organizer of this project. We were at a coffee shop and while waiting to order drinks I’d spotted a typo on the shop’s menu and remarked drolly, “You can’t turn off the gift.” (That he did not laugh at all was, in retrospect, probably a sign that our partnership was destined to go nowhere.))

The second feat of grammatical derring-do is more typographical in nature. I’ll make the point by simply reproducing a bit of text I wrote recently (in a fiction project):

Jessup touched his elbow. The contrast between Jessup’s fervent eyes and the rest of his face, blotted out by gauze and medical tape, was both funny and unsettling. “I told those people, ‘Whenever you make a mistake, when you pull a real doozy and you’re feeling low, that’s God tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Listen up. I’ve got work for you.”’”

Relevant/exceptional part bolded. Did you get that? Can you handle it, America? A quote within a quote within a quote. Triple-nested quotations, resulting in this grammatically sound line of five (almost) identical characters: “‘”! I’m sure someone somewhere has gone bigger, but that’s not what it’s about for me. It’s got to be organic, you know?

Anyway, a couple of feats I needed to crow about. Please forgive me for wasting your time with these.

*It occurs to me now that “bi-weekly” might not qualify as a strict auto-antonym (list of examples here) because “occurring twice a week” and “occurring every other week” are not actually opposites, just different frequencies. But those guys don’t need to know that, and hopefully they’ll never find out.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

(That is, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!)

A pair of songs in honor of the day, both from The Pogues, one of my favorites. First, a nod to Irish folklore:

And next, an homage to the Irish immigrant experience (which I’d say St. Patrick’s Day is really about):

I find “Thousands Are Sailing” pretty powerful stuff. Particularly moving are the lines around the 4:28 mark: “Wherever we go, we celebrate / The land that makes us refugees / From fear of priests with empty plates / From guilt and weeping effigies.” It seems a nice summation of the Irish experience in leaving home for America.

Finally, name-checked in “Thousands Are Sailing” is the Irish writer Brendan Behan. (Pogues songs are fascinating to me in part because they are so densely referential; they could benefit from footnotes a lot of the time. Listen again to “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” and count all the names of people and places dropped in there. It’s staggering and adds a richness to the lyrics that more than offsets the occasional mystified feeling I get listening to the Pogues.) I’d thought Behan was an old-time Irish hero, a la Michael Collins or Wolfe Tone, but ah, not so. He’s a writer who wrote in English and Irish, and is the author, most famously, of Borstal Boy, a memoir.

I just started Borstal Boy yesterday, but man. It is already giving me chills. Here’s the opening:

Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs:

“Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart. Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you.”

I knew by the screeches of her that these gentlemen were not calling to enquire after my health, or to know if I’d had a good trip. I grabbed my suitcase, containing Pot. Chlor, Sulph Ac, gelignite, detonators, electrical and ignition, and the rest of my Sinn Fein conjuror’s outfit, and carried it to the window. Then the gentlemen arrived.

Behan, 16, has just arrived in London with orders to carry out a terrorist bombing. He’s taken to prison, which is grim, and a lonely prospect for a 16-year-old:

As I stood, waiting over the lavatory, I heard a church bell peal in the frosty night, in some other part of the city. Cold and lonely it sounded, like the dreariest noise that ever defiled the ear of man. If you could call it a noise. It made misery mark time. (pg. 9)

Ah, there is nothing like Irish writing when it’s good. (On that point, see here.) I’m looking forward to the rest of the book more for the casual bits of poetic prose that are all but guaranteed, much more than the sure-to-be-dire story of Behan’s time in a “borstal”—an English reform school.

Anyway, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh, everybody. Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh