Dispatches | February 10, 2014

By Michael Nye

Last week, snow started falling on central Missouri, beginning some time around 6 am on Tuesday, and didn’t let up until Wednesday morning. We received about eight inches of snow, and there are certainly areas of the country that have been hit with more. Back in 2011, right here in sunny Columbia, Missouri, we were hit with something crazy like seventeen inches of snow, an event that was appropriately named “Snowpocalypse.” With nasty falling temperatures and harsh winds, the University of Missouri was shut down on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Which means there was no week three of the internship class.

All four semesters I have taught the Internship in Publishing class, and I only teach the class in the spring, a class has been cancelled due to snow shutting down the university. Hey, it happens. With it being so early in the semester, this means we’re scrambling a bit when it comes to the reading. With a six week break from the previous semester, we have quite a backlog of submissions; nonetheless, I don’t want the staff to feel overwhelmed, particularly the new interns, who are still learning what type of manuscripts to pass for additional reads. Losing a Tuesday (which, along with our class, is when we pass manuscripts) early in the semester gives me heartburn.

This also leads me to another question: what do I write about week 3 of the publishing class when there was no class?

I assure you that you will have no interest in how I spent my two snow days, which involved, in some order, these things: writing my novel, shoveling my driveway, watching movies on Netflix, finished reading one novel and starting the next one, cooking, laundry, getting locked out of my house, couch naps, and reading articles about the Boston Celtics.

Anyway, I’m looking down the barrel of a “what should I write about?” moment that, I think, plagues writers all the time. Whether it’s a writer working on a deadline for a book or a newspaper, a student finishing a series of poems for workshop, a person just writing in his own four-corner room, or any of the other myriad writing situations I might come up with, this question permeates our mind. There is a feeling that there is one right, true and obvious answer to this question. And I think it can lead to some missteps in the quality of a story.

Writers, particularly ones that are unfamiliar with literary magazines, can sometimes strain to be “literary” in all sorts of ways. Plots about unhappiness, usually through a divorce or a separation of a low-level university job are “literary.” Characters who drink lots are “literary.” A story littered with five-dollar words is “literary.” Same too with the plotless story where nothing happens and nothing changes. This is all “literary.”

I’m not sure where all these misconceptions of literary writing comes from, but it certainly isn’t reflected in what good literary magazines actually publish. Strong, memorable stories break all sorts of rules and conventions. Sure, any of the items from the previous paragraph can be in good stories. But in the stories that struggle to be literary (and you can think of other tropes, too; it would be a long list), those characteristics are the entire story. There’s nothing else there. The stories that end up getting published are the ones that transcend those conventions, and explore the narrative and emotional depths of a story in a way the imitators cannot.

Thought over. Let’s close with the ending of one of my favorite short stories, James Joyce’s “The Dead” which just so happens to describe a snowfall. Here it is:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye