Want to Learn to Be a Better Writer? Here's Your Textbook.
Writing is a craft. Like others, much of the perfecting is found in the verb itself, in this case, the physical act of putting words to paper. Sweat inducing work is a requirement for every breed of artist, even if it means being stationary. Writing steps away from the pack however, in that few artistic endeavors so vigorously demand ingesting the work of others. While a painter’s work can be informed and inspiration gained from gallery viewings, in the world of writing, reading is a necessity. Everything is up for grabs. From newspapers to novels, there are few written words that are not worth study, though the mileage may vary. Every so often, a collection of work is compiled that doubles as both art and textbook. Five Points: A Journal of Literature & Art (Vol. 14 No. 3), is a bound lecture hall for those who seek good writing.
Published by GeorgiaStateUniversity, Five Points features established writers and poets, each bringing their own brand of talent to the table. Mark Jarman paints a cold porridge portrait of a young newcomer’s first day at school in “Boy with a Buttercup.” Details of memory usher in the awkwardness of a sniffling adolescent in an ill-fitted suit, and though his particular fate is left unclear, the reader is assured that his adulthood will be mired in mediocrity. Jarman wryly observes, “Looking at that boy in memory, / wearing an outgrown uniform, or hand-me-down, / the runny nose a sign of every child in that place, / pigeon breasted boys with weeping chilblains, / girls with eye teeth eaten by sugar, / I have understood a century of English lit.” It is a thoughtful and amusing comment, though Jarman, with the introduction of a “tubby” observer (possibly the narrator himself), reminds the reader that the chilled knee-knocking sniffles of childhood discomfort are not restricted to one culture or region.
Featured poet A.E. Stallings utilizes formal verse to create message-in-a-bottle poetry. She attacks the concept of mutual subjugation in “The Sabine Women,” opening with the Walt Whitman tinged verse, “O Ravishers, O Husbands, you have won: / We are the country that is tamed by children.” In “The Pull Toy,” a simple child’s toy is anthropomorphized; like a brave knight subject to age after years of chivalrous service, it is cast aside and left hoping for a new love to dutifully follow. Stallings relates domesticity to the tools of warriors in “Cast Irony,” a beautiful work relating the mishandling of the common iron skillet to the weakened battle armor of an ancient soldier while tossing in a clever aside of the wills of knowledgeable matriarch versus newly married maid, or as Stallings writes:(Though there must have been betweenTwo eras, awkward overlapEnacted in the kitchen When mother-in-law and daughterWrangled over the new-fangled,Over oil and water In proverbial mistrust,Brazen youth subject to iron ageAs iron is to rust.)
The story-telling voice provided in Five Points ranges from a child’s hurried whisper to a prize fighter’s crazed haymaker. David Kirby delivers an agile rope-a-dope prose poem maneuver on what could happen when writers converge on a bar. Though it opens disguised as a ‘Walk In The Bar’ joke (“The novelists are complaining that their books / are out of print, while the poets at the conference / are just glad they had a book in the first place”), underneath the narrator’s street wise cracks is an adrenaline shot to the chest for any writer who would consider sleeping on the job.
The best fiction is a carved “I was here,” on austere furniture and the tales laid out in this journal often leaves splinters in the hands that roam the notches. In the short story “Ethnic Ken,” writer Tania James delivers an opening line that could baffle many, though few of those would be people who were raised by the elderly: “My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel.” As the story lays out the coming of age episode in young Amy’s life, themes such as the classic Outsider syndrome due to being a first generation American meets the universal discomfort of growing up. But it is the details that give the story a pulse. It speaks volumes when the nine year old narrator, unwilling to voice her wish to pair two dolls of the opposite sex, intones, “…it would’ve been too embarrassing to confess that I wanted my dolls to get romantic when I myself wasn’t supposed to get romantic for another fifteen years.”
James Rioux’s essay “Tattoos, Death Metal, Shaving, and Other Ironies,” is a meditation on communication and its surprising outlets, as well as the beautiful tragedy of death. The well known construction of the English sentence is repackaged, thanks to the speaking device of a young man with cerebral palsy. The narration shifts between two periods of time, all gorgeously summarized by the resulting enigmatic tattoo that reads, “’GoI.’ —M.R.”
George Singleton is behind the headline mimicking title, “Ray Charles Shoots Wife Quenching Earth,” a story that revolves around a mysterious hole in a backyard and the ever more curious mysteries of marriage. Singleton opens with, “Until my wife discovered the unending tunnel in our backyard, we’d approached our record for ignoring each other, which is to say she’d not spoken to me for four days.” Their marriage is summed up in one humorous sentence when the title character, several paragraphs later, states, “I reminded myself to fetch the ledger and mark down that she spoke first.” Though further background is provided later, the previous sentence is a wonderful example of how to take exposition (which can be a clunky matter in itself) and condense it into a sleek bit of storytelling.
Each of the Five Points contributors has numerous credits to their names. The combined skill sets come together to create a memorable anthology and many experienced writers would benefit by submitting to this journal. However, simply reading Five Points would benefit every writer. Technical aspects can be taught, but whirling around with turns of phrase, different ways of telling the truth through make-believe, all of the small screws that hold together the cog work machinery of poetry and fiction, all of these are handed out and freely given inside the work of other artists.
Take what you can, then give back.