Beyond and Back: Writing That Risks

Robert O'Connell

Writing That Risks CoverIn her introduction to the collection Writing That Risks, Liana Holmberg describes the contradiction that inspired her call for submissions. “We are awash in an ocean of influences—from The Metamorphosis to the Matrix—colliding currents that churn up strange connections and unexpected insights,” she writes. “Yet few writers explore these rich confluences, sticking instead to the familiarity of mainstream realism.” Writing That Risks is a testament to what can result from escaping that familiarity. The pieces featured exhibit their writers’ obvious glee at being encouraged to ignore common complaints regarding feasibility or believability. Indeed, Holmberg notes that “many of the authors told us these pieces were the closest to their hearts but the hardest to get mainstream publishers to take a chance on.”

These writers—some of whom are being published here for the first time—all approach risk differently. Many of the stories and poems have a supernatural tint; there are ghosts, aliens, time-travelers, shape-shifters, and various futures and alternate pasts. A familiar humanity, though, sits at the heart of most every piece in this collection. Take as an example Erin Fitzgerald’s story "2020." The story follows an unnamed female teenager who lives in a not-too-distant but highly dangerous future in which people scrounge for scraps and seek cover from dangerous weather. We learn of the narrator’s gift for cooking and her love for a television actor—with enough “credit” earned from scrounging, she can power a television for an hour at a time—but the story ends with her displaying a harrowing acceptance and perseverance in the face of ongoing difficulty: “For centuries, everyone wore head coverings outdoors. Then for a little while, no one did. Now everyone does again. Hats. Boots. Cloaks. Weapons. Protection.” The setting is strange, but the struggle is familiar.

Part of the excitement of reading this collection comes from seeing how the various weirdnesses will be directed back toward the recognizable. Jenny Bitner’s “We ♥ Shapes” centers on the mother of a child who repeatedly morphs into various animals without much warning or control; it becomes a rumination on the difficulties, dangers, and rewards of parenting. In Olga Zilberbourg’s “From Here to the Moon,” a young American man chats with an alien future version of himself, and this odd encounter emboldens him to return home and visit his father, who suffers from dementia.

Writing That Risks includes experiments of form to accompany its experiments of content. Among the most striking works included is Thia Li Colvin’s piece “Tennessee,” which consists of just two sentences. “My father was a pretty big guy, but now I got him in a jar in my closet,” Colvin writes. “He ain’t so big now.” The piece sits stark on the page; the author’s name and title hold the eye as much as the brief prose, and together these elements make us build and challenge assumptions about the narrator, place, and tone (Colvin’s contributor’s note further confuses the text: “…lives far to the west of the western u.s., with her two daughters and husband”).

Libby Hart’s poem “Blueness” poses a different challenge. The narrator offers a string of imperatives ordering us to “erase” the color blue and its various connotations:

Erase an astronaut’s view of the earth.
Erase the color of his eyes.
Erase midnight. Erase cobalt.
Erase sapphire, navy, and cyan.

Lest we hold out for an explanation of the metaphor, Hart clings at the poem’s end to the color itself: “Erase the bluer, bluest blue.” A few pages later, Joanne M. Clarkson’s “Mirror Writing” examines the quiet power of the reflection, with the second page of the two-page poem set in reverse type that requires a mirror to read. It ends by inviting the reader to look up from the words reflected and at the reflector itself: “Come closest to the glass. / See? There is only / one eye.” Reading any one selection from Writing That Risks is like reading two pieces. At first, something jars us; we learn that we have only two sentences with which to work, or that the protagonist meets an alien, or that we will need a mirror. Once we get to the meat of the piece, however, the strangeness can be seen as a necessity rather than a conceit. Perhaps the quasi-familiar extraterrestrial is the perfect analog to the son visiting his father. Perhaps extreme, mysterious brevity is the truest way to approach the too-deep relationship between father and daughter.

Writing That Risks features writers with vast imaginations but also, more importantly, talents for parsing human problems. The collection is filled not with gimmickry but with true experimentation, the kind that works toward a goal other than novelty. We live in a strange world; it needs strange writing.

Writing That Risks
Ed. Liana Holmberg and Deborah Steinberg
Red Bridge Press, 2013
ISBN 9780989425100



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