Surprise Party

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief


Fall is here. You’re hiking through the woods, crunching leaves beneath your boots, when you hear something else crunching overhead. You look up, into the trees. Not a bird, not a squirrel, but a giraffe. Surprise!

In your normal life, the surprise would raise questions in need of answers. (Is there a zoo around here? Did I fall and hit my head? How did I get to Zambia?)

In your writing life, however, surprise exists for its own sake: to create something new, even transcendent, from the material at hand. In a story, surprise might mark a turn in characterization or plot. In a poem, surprise evoked by a perfect juxtaposition is what poet Tina Barr calls “a way to enlarge the circle the poem makes.”

Both poetry and prose in this issue offer examples of surprise. This is one of the attributes of the Editor’s Choice poetry selection. Our fall 2014 Guest Editor, Cynthia Lindeman, explains her choice: “The poem seamlessly fuses the festivity and sexual anticipation of a modern wedding with the spiritual ecstasy and purity of Shaker song and dance. Now isn’t that a surprise?”

As for stories, “Wednesday,” by Kelly Schueneman, uses an object, a sweet treat, to generate surprise: “I peeked into the bag that had been left on the wooden picnic table at the three other donuts that lie within – little ticking bombs of normalcy.” The self-contradiction of the words themselves surprises, as does what the main character reveals to us during the act of eating one of the “little bombs.” Read “Wednesday” to see for yourself how that moment is enhanced and deepened by the element of surprise.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” So goes the often-quoted advice from Robert Frost. In a Paris Review interview from 1960, Frost quotes himself, explaining that by “tears” he meant not only the writer’s sadness, but also the hard work (think “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”) required of serious writers. How can writers follow Frost’s maxim and imbue their own work with surprise?

Heather Newton helped her students with this challenge in her spring 2014 course titled “Such a Character.” She asked, “How can we make our fictional characters just as compelling as real-life ‘characters,’ without sacrificing credibility or resorting to stereotype?” One of her students, Erin Huizen, polished “Certain Ghosts” in response, detailing the surprise at the feel of prosthetic skin: “Ram ran his own remaining fingers along the palm, gently, in a way he wouldn’t touch another man’s hand if the hand were really that man’s hand. Its softness surprised him, like a succulent leaf. He’d never imagined that’s what one of those things was like, always figuring them to be stiff and rubbery like a mannequin’s.”

The Craft Session essay, “Aesthetics of Constraint,” by Beth Keefauver, explores the genre of flash fiction, and offers advice for those interested in trying it. She writes, “Flash tells a story. And to have a story, we must have change, a break in pattern, a shift in the ordinary.” The flash story must, in other words, induce surprise in the reader; it must, as Frost advised, surprise the writer as well. Beth creates for students exercises in the counterintuitive: rules of constraint that result in “the intensity that is so essentially characteristic of flash.” How can constraint, the supposed enemy of creativity, be generative of creativity instead? Read Beth’s Craft Session, try her “secret” approach, and be surprised.

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