My Grendel Essay — Now Published

I’ve had an essay published in the third issue of New Reader Magazine. On their site, you can download the entire (gorgeous) magazine for free. My essay appears starting on page 54.

The essay is called “Thoughts and Slayers: What We Do About Grendel, Our Oldest and Most Persistent Villain.” Here is a quick blurb about it which appeared in my query letter when I was trying to get it published:
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“Even though “troll” used to mean something a lot worse than “random jerk on the Internet,” Beowulf, the oldest surviving poem in the English language, can still help us make sense of current events. What does an Anglo-Saxon epic have to teach us about mass shootings, immigration, or even Congressional gridlock? Given that sometimes our most daunting monster is the one already in our midst, quite a lot. In “Thoughts and Slayers: What We Do About Grendel, Our Oldest and Most Persistent Villain,” I explore what Beowulf has to say about problems we still struggle with. Centuries after it was composed, I use a combination of social/cultural critique to suggest what we can do about the various Grendels still wreaking havoc among us.”
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This essay was shortlisted at more than one magazine but was selected by NRM first, so they got to publish it. I’m really, really proud of this work and hope you’ll enjoy it. If you’d like a teaser of it, here’s the opening…
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The oldest surviving poem in English highlights much of what we still struggle with, centuries later. It involves a monster who destroys the mead hall, the most communal of settings.

Grendel lives. Sadly, he thrives.

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is a part of our language’s literary canon and cultural heritage, and the poem’s first and most infamous villain remains a threat to us. In the story, Grendel, the monster who attacks the inhabitants of modern-day Denmark, is a vaguely humanoid beast with impenetrable skin who kills and eats the Danes, gobbles them up like jelly beans right in their own mead hall, every night for twelve winters. His monstrosity, however, comes from more reasons than just wrecking shop in the Danes’ mead hall, and he’s still vitally important for what he represents within our society, far removed from Dark Ages Denmark and those who fought against him, or chose not to.

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The epic contains surprisingly little physical description of the monster. When I used to teach Beowulf to ninth graders, I would talk to them about what I called The Grendel Situation and then ask them to draw pictures of him. Mostly they came up with fangy, clawed, hairy, green creatures dripping with the blood of half-Dane corpses. What they could not yet internalize was the abstract evil Grendel presents and the practical, tangible dangers that make him relevant now. They could not yet see that we, too, are living in the mead hall.

(Read the rest of this essay at New Reader Magazine.)

 

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Poem-A-Day: e.e. cummings

I don’t remember whether I’ve posted this poem before, but even if I have, I don’t care. It’s one of my absolute all-time favorites, “Me up at does” by e.e. cummings. It would be redundant to say that cummings plays with language conventions in ways that are conspicuous and interesting. So did Emily Dickinson, whose work I also love. (So does Marie Marshall — but more on her poetry tomorrow.)

“Me up at does” is one of those poems that I like to splash up on the board in class when we’ve got fifteen or twenty minutes to fill and want to do a little analysis work that can be contained and stretchy and fun, and that can make my high school students feel perhaps a little more accomplished after they’ve done it. (If anyone wants the lesson plan for this assignment, let me know.)

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Me up at does

 

Me up at does

out of the floor
quietly Stare

a poisoned mouse

still who alive

is asking What
have i done that

You wouldn’t have

 

 

Trashy Tuesday Book Reviews

This week I want to highlight another blog, one I read entitled “Snobbery.”  It’s by a self-proclaimed book snob, and it’s really great.  (Okay, both parts of that last statement are really oversimplifications, but go with it.)

One thing the author does is review wretchedly, comically unworthy books, reading and explaining them so we are saved the misery.  (Please dear God, don’t let my books ever end up there.)

But I thought you might enjoy some of this, and so this week I have her permission to feature one of her “Trashy Tuesday” reviews.  This is the link to the review of the first book of the Mortal Instruments series.  Enjoy.

Reader Question: Themes in Your Short Story

Here’s the question that came in:

On my current short story that I’m editing, my friend pointed out to me that there’s a pretty strong theme of feminism, and I can really see where he’s coming from. I didn’t intend for this theme to exist though and in fact meant for another theme that is completely irrelevant to this one. Is this a problem then? Because I’m worried that the feminism might detract from the other theme, or something like that. But on the other hand, maybe its good that people can get different things out of different reads. What do you think?

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This is a great question.  I think that sometimes, when we write, our subconscious minds layer in things that we didn’t know we were thinking about or didn’t expect would come into the story (or poem, or play, or essay, etc.) at hand.  There have been several occasions when my writers’ group has analyzed a chapter or a scene in such a way that made me think, yeah, of course, that’s exactly what I was going for, but I had no idea of it at the time I was drafting it.  Writing is a funny beast that way.  And when I say funny, I mean extraordinary.

Feminism may be a philosophy that matters to you on a personal, daily basis.  Literature does not exist in a vacuum; writers are always influenced in one way or another by their lives, their experiences, their environment.  The adage that one should write what one knows doesn’t mean all fiction comes from one’s own past, but rather that we need to acknowledge that the more we know about a subject — or an emotion, or a theme, or the Human Condition in general — the more authentically we can write about it.

I don’t see anything wrong with having more than one theme in a single manuscript, even if they seem unrelated to you at first blush.  Back in school we used to joke that a piece of literature was deep if it “operated on so many different levels.”  We were being tongue-in-cheek and cracking ourselves up with this quip, but it was funny in part because it is true.  If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have become a cliché in the first place.

Hope that helps.  🙂  Anyone else want to chime in, feel free.

 

Answering Your Questions…Or At Least Trying To

I’ve been fielding questions about writing from my current and former students via email lately.  Lots of them.  And sometimes, similar questions from different people.  I’d like to open this forum up for discussions about writing — anything from creative writing technique (that’s my background) to literary analysis (that’s my background too) to grammar (really just a hobby).  I don’t profess to be an expert on anything, really, but if you pose a question in the comments section here, I’ll answer it to the best of my ability in a new blog post.  Then anyone else who’s following this blog — and I know for a fact that several of you are also writers — please feel free to chime in on the discussion as well.

This should be fun.  🙂