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Filtering by Tag: fiction

Relief Issue 7.2 Thinks You're Pretty Smart

Brad Fruhauff

The Picture Book 1939 by A.R. Middleton Todd 1891-1966

As we get ready to print 7.2 (debuting at the Festival of Faith and Writing next week), I've been noticing how many of the pieces ask so much from the reader. If art is, or can be, a difficult pleasure, then I think you'll enjoy issue 7.2, but in that Relief-y way that isn't satisfied with pat answers or disingenuous questions.

Of course, this means that the issue as a whole, which is to say our authors, think that you as readers are pretty smart and can handle some uncertainty, some openness, and some unrestrained wonder—if you're into that kind of thing. The teacher in me wants to make sure you're not among those who sell themselves short. Most people are better readers than they think; as often as my students say they're "not smart enough" for the poems or short stories we read, but when I ask them for their responses, their questions and gut reactions are often right in line with what the piece invites and evokes.

I'll highlight just our Editors' Choice recipients to give you an idea of what to look forward to. In fiction, Amy Krohn's "Master of Light" reads like memoir, it's so full of those inarguable facts that are so indifferent to its heroine's fantasy. Not only that, but Krohn manages to pull off an entire story in second-person narration without it feeling in the least like a cute gimmick. Her story asks "you" to think about what it would mean if your farmer husband suddenly turned missionary and left you behind. The answer "you" come to is both easier and harder than you might expect.

In CNF, Angi Kortenhoven shares an encounter with one of her own students, years later, seeing all his potential being rubbed away by the banalities of daily life. Kortenhoven ends on a bitter note, clinging to hope almost in a plea to the reader to nod in affirmation. She's not offering hope, but asking you whether you can find it in yourself.

Finally, in poetry, Bob Denst adds a subtle twist of playfulness to scenes that are ultimately about great beauty and sometimes sublimity. His "Wildland," in particular, powerfully reverses the normal questions we ask about God's actions or will when natural disaster strikes.

These authors represent some of what I love most about what we do at Relief, finding the stories and memories and metaphors that represent the mysterious or ineffable without trying to tame it.

(Painting by Henry Lamb)

Rituals | 7.1 Author Timothy Reilly

Trevor Sutton

oatmeal 7.1 author Timothy Reilly talks about daily rituals ranging from oatmeal to writing.

For the past several years I have eaten oatmeal for breakfast, six days of the week.  I suppose it’s a ritual: I eat the oatmeal at about the same time each day; I prepare it the same way; it comforts me.

At my age (62), a risk comes with admitting to an oatmeal regiment.  I could be accused of stodginess: one of those “old guys” who gives up wearing belts in favor of suspenders, filling his wallet with store coupons.

I’ll take that risk. I am a firm believer in Rites of Passage (sans suspenders and coupons) and the maintenance of productive disciplines.

I first learned the beauty and benefits of ritual and discipline through my upbringing in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. (I will not go into my pseudo-agnostic hiatus, but I will say that I have returned to reciting daily the Apostle’s Creed).

I spent my early adult life as a professional musician: a tubaist.  It takes a good deal of mental and physical discipline to maintain a professional level of musicianship.  The ritual of regular daily practice is an absolute necessity.

My music career was cut short by something called “dystonia,” a cruel condition that strikes right where it hurts: the musician’s physical means of making music (with brass and wind players, it hits the embouchure).

For the past 23 years my creative ritual has been writing. I write first thing in the morning, six days a week (before oatmeal).  My wife, Jo-Anne (a poet and scholar), maintains a similar writing ritual.

Listening to music is a ritual.  Lately we have been listening to the music of Morten Lauridsen.  O Magnum Mysterium is our favorite.

The other day I found a dead sparrow on our patio.  Jo-Anne cried.  We both thought about Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.”

I buried the sparrow under a tree.  I marked its grave with a stone painted with a cross.  It was a necessary ritual.

Timothy Reilly was a professional tuba player in both the United States and Europe (in the latter, he was a member of the orchestra of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy). He is currently a substitute elementary teacher, living in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti, a published poet and scholar, who also teaches university English courses. His short stories have been published in The Seattle ReviewFlash Fiction Magazine (UK), Blue Lake ReviewSlow Trains Literary JournalAmarillo BayFoliate Oak Literary ReviewPassenger, and several other print and online journals.

Literature, Apocalypse, and National Tragedy

Brad Fruhauff

In the following (a reprint of the editor's note for issue 6.2, available now at a presale rate.) EIC Brad Fruhauff tries to figure out how literature may help us process real life tragedy. Only a few days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary I sat down to watch the first episode of season two of The Walking Dead. The tragedy was not a relevant context in my mind when I began the episode, but by the end the two had nearly collapsed upon one another in a powerful way that, I think, is quite typical of fiction.

Without giving away too much for those who are even more behind than me, the episode ends with a shocking act of violence against a child. When it happened, my breath froze and my heart leapt and all the normal physiological responses to something truly horrible. I was in tears with something like real fear and distress for the child, and for the parents I felt something more like fellowship than the sympathy of the outsider.

As I decompressed during the credits, I thought, “Why—when real tragedies are happening to real children—why am I watching fictionalized versions of them?” The immediate possibilities were discomfiting. Am I simply that perverse? Am I so out of touch with my experience and my world that I don’t feel the contradiction? Am I seeking an escape from real pain in some aestheticized form?

No response to these questions can entirely escape the possibility of being mere rationalization, but the more I thought about it the more appropriate the whole thing seemed, and the reasons had a lot to do with how art works and what it does for us.

I have two small children at home, one of whom attends preschool twice a week. When the news from Newtown, CT, came across the radio that Friday morning, I reacted in disbelief and confusion like I imagine most people did, and I almost couldn’t think about it or my children at the same time. Later that morning, I scanned the Internet for more information, the kind of information that we need to construct a narrative that makes reality possible again. I realized it was not going to be available anytime soon, but I had to get to work, so I took a moment to meditate and live in the grief and despair, to offer my own helplessness up to God in prayer and to seek forgiveness for any lack of love in my own life that may be contributing to a world in which such grave sins befall us. And then I got to work.

My grief began to ebb from that point, as it must have done if I was going to go on living. My sympathy with the parents, families, friends, and citizens of Newtown, however, was necessarily distant. The only route from my experience to theirs is one of imagination—of moral imagination, even. A fictional narrative of the trauma of a child’s injury or death will never be identical to the actual experience (who would want it to be?). But it may have the power to bring one closer to that experience than any process of reflection could. I certainly felt the gravity of losing a child via the fiction much more powerfully than I did via the Internet.

The scandal of such a claim is actually that it seems so old, so dependent, apparently, on a mimetic theory that judges art by its consonance with some pre-existing reality and that comforts itself with the illusion that art provides real presence. This theory undergirds Aristotle’s account of catharsis, for instance. As Romantics like Coleridge realized, though, art need not imitate the reality of our senses so much as the reality of our human or moral nature, the kind of being all artists and audiences share by virtue of consciousness.

This is not, I think, the same as presence. I don’t know if Aristotle thought it was, but the Augustans of the 18th century seemed to. They didn’t make strong distinctions between the sympathy you feel for a person and the emotions you experience in literature. But this is problematic, and not because it treats reality like fiction but because it treats fiction like reality. It’s actually quite important that fictions are not real and that we know they are not real. There are some realities that we cannot quite process—that’s why we have trauma and repression. One of literature’s powers is to create a play-space wherein we can actually begin to feel traumatic emotion and to work through it alongside characters, through a narrative, or through the accumulation of and relationships among tropes—those revealing “twists” of reality we sometimes call images. The whole point of this play-space is to shift the stakes to the level of moral imagination, away from the deadly seriousness of our everyday physical survival.

Aristotle had an insight like this when he compared the pleasure of imitation in theater to the pleasure children take in imitation. And, just like when children play, this kind of imaginative engagement is not escapism but something more like therapy, art’s way of helping reconcile us to our reality, and if it returns us to the high stakes of life a little sadder and wiser, it also helps us to get back on with the business of life.

This is Relief, however, not the Midnight Diner, so there won’t be any zombies or the like. The works in here all act more subtly, inviting you into another’s experience and offering the opportunity, for those who will let the words work on them, to have an experience, to be taken somewhere and to return to a point different from your departure. To approach the world of someone trying to find a normal life after breast cancer, to deal with a rape in a small town and a mother’s anxiety about her daughters, to see a biblical tale anew as a miracle of moral action.

In the wake of a national tragedy, when we are all vulnerable to the impulses born of shock and fear, literature becomes all the more important. When reality becomes unreality it is in fact most real, the veil of comfort is ripped away and the world appears as perverse and inverted as it actually is. Good literature serves as the survival guide for this post-apocalyptic unreality, from which it will not let us escape. Every time apocalypse fires a warning shot across the bow of our complacency, we can choose to respond with the violence of our illusions or with the ennobling force of visionary art. May this issue of Relief serve you well as the world marches on towards its end.

Cauliflower, Christianity, and Short Fiction

Brad Fruhauff

6.1 fiction contributor Caralyn Davis describes her ineluctably Christian imagination. Last week I crunched my way through four colors of cauliflower: standard creamy white; rich amethyst; Day-Glo cheddar; and a white tinged with veins of violet. The web of tailgate markets crisscrossing my adopted hometown of Asheville, NC, allows me to indulge in multihued crucifers. However, when all is said and done, I’m still eating the vegetable cauliflower, not a chocolate bar or a muffin.

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It All Began with a Picture

Stephanie Smith

I have a question for all you writers out there: how do your stories begin?

Do they begin inside you, with a striking thought, image, or scene? Do you observe something in the world that makes you want to put in onto paper? Do you imagine your characters to life, or do you see them on the street, at the Farmer's Market, the corner coffee shop?

Many of my favorite authors, it seems, birth their stories like this: a curious image arises in their mind, an image they see and cannot forget, and they write to discover the story behind the image.

Beloved author C.S. Lewis says that his enchanted world of Narnia began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood.  "This picture had been in my mind since I was sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.'”

Kate DiCamillo was lying in bed one morning, her life in a state of depression, when she suddenly saw a magician, joined by an elephant.  They looked as real to her as anyone, and this curious introduction gave her the motivation to get out of bed and start writing again. The tale of these two characters entwine in what became The Magician's Elephant, a whimsical story about magic, homecoming, and belonging.

Sue Monk Kidd's award-winning novel, The Secret Life of Bees, began with an image of a girl going to sleep in her room amidst a swarm of hovering bees.  Right now I'm reading Traveling with Pomegranates, the author's memoir which gives the reader the backstory behind the creation of her bee novel. I find myself fascinated with the way Sue Monk Kidd collects the smallest of details and finds a home for them in her book.  Simple things like a pink house she saw in a magazine, a childhood memory of bees that hummed through the walls of her old house, and a story about a black Madonna struck something in her and she wove them into her novel.

As much as I love reading fiction, this genre has always been the hardest thing for me to write.  Characters do not appear to me in dreams, or start talking to me in the shower, or hover over my bed in the form of circus animals.  But I do often see images in real life that I pause over and tuck away for later, for a story that will be woven with bits and pieces of things in the world that catch my curiosity.

Here are some of them:

A man sitting on a porch that is covered with wind chimes.

The way a book in my hand vibrates with the live music of a cello playing in a bookstore.

A snippet of overheard conversation, “Once when I was seventeen and wild, I cut off all my hair.”

What sparks your stories into life?

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at