Novel Feelings: Rachel Greenwald Smith on Emotion and US Fiction

Here at Central Library we’ve recently received our copy of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, the first book by Rachel Greenwald Smith, an assistant professor at St. Louis University. It was published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press this past spring. The title is a mouthful, printed in caps on the funereal all-black jacket, but don’t let that fool you: from what I’ve read so far, this looks to be a compelling and accessible work that explores a fascinating topic: the nature of the feelings that literature evokes, and how those feelings relate to the political and natural climates around us.


(Woman Reading, c. 1930. Seattle Municipal Archives)

The book has a provocative thesis: Greenwald Smith builds an argument against what she calls the “affective hypothesis,” namely the idea that we read fiction because it allows us to identify with the personal experience of other individual human beings — the basic trope of “sympathizing with characters” — a process that makes us more empathetic, and teaches us how to become better individuals ourselves.

(It has been interesting to read parts of Affect and American Lit alongside Robert Silverberg’s 1972 novel Dying Inside, which chronicles the erosion of a telepath’s powers. Protagonist David Selig’s telepathy is an obvious metaphor for fictional creation, but the book finds those powers failing: a midlife crisis novel with a supernatural glow, and one that acknowledges the limits of fiction.)

My first contact with Greenwald Smith’s work was her brilliant essay “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics.”  In it she presented a portrait of the contemporary fiction scene that feels intuitively right to me: one in which the disruptive postmodern aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s have been fused with the more traditional, linear, character-based forms favored by commercial publishers and many MFA programs.  Avant-garde techniques (once associated with the radical left’s critique of mainstream society) are still deployed by many prominent writers for stylistic or thematic purposes, but fused with more traditional elements, such as intimate characterization and linear narration, to make the work more palatable and marketable.

“Compromise Aesthetics” uses Rachel Kushner as its main example, although one could include any number of current writers under this label, for example Ben Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet, which adopted the experimental language play of his early work (as a corrosive language virus) in the service of a thriller-like plot. I certainly think of my own fiction writing as these terms, hoping to appeal to adventurous, intellectual readers without alienating others who are strongly drawn to character and narrative. The idea of “compromise aesthetics” could also be helpfully applied to the collapse of the distinction between literary and genre fiction among 21st century writers: I hope that Greenwald Smith will explore this in her new book, an expansion on the ideas laid out in this essay.


These kinds of compromises seem inevitable in what Greenwald Smith calls the neoliberal era, when market values have seeped into every aspect of our lives, and the individual is encouraged to think of herself as a corporation of one (and a novelist files as a small business on his taxes). Affect and American Lit shows how a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections adopts these economic metaphors for emotional life, so that one of the characters, Gary Lambert, tracks his own feelings as if they were stock indicators.

This brings to mind how the language of economics permeates the writing workshop, as we talk about scenes being “earned,” becoming “invested” in characters, the “payoff” of a climactic scene. Even the notions of “growth” and “development” in characters start to have a Morgan Stanley ring after you’ve spent a while with Greenwald Smith’s book. Literary character, conventionally defined, reflects and reinforces the economic structures around us. In this model the reader also approaches the text as a consumer, seeking pleasure, satisfaction, value, takeaway.

Greenwald Smith persuasively argues that there are other, stranger feelings that literature can evoke in us, feelings that we haven’t yet named, which might help us to re-conceive our relations to each other and the nonhuman parts of the environment around us. She gives a striking example: the grieving protagonist of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions playing with his dead children’s Legos. The image is emotional, but in an unclear way, and with a undercurrent of queasiness. We don’t quite know how to label this feeling or where to store it. Greenwald Smith seeks out these “impersonal feelings” or “ugly feelings” in a number of contemporary works such as Ben Marcus’s bizarre and disorienting, but also rigorous and logical, story collection The Age of Wire and String.

It strikes me as a hopeful project: this study of mixed modes and genres, and the ways that literature performs emotion in unexpected ways that unsettles us. In this sense Greenwald Smith descends from radical literary thinkers such as Victor Shklovsky and Berthold Brecht. Her ideas are similar to Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization” which has been tossed around in fiction writing circles for a while, but Greenwald Smith looks to restore its political edge: the underlying sense that the world has not been fully documented and understood, that our familial and cultural systems are still mutable, and that written language can still expand to depict emotional states for which we haven’t yet found the names. For truly novel feelings, which “index the possibility of change itself.” To evoke such feelings and perceptions is, I think, the ambition of the fiction writers I most respect. My college days are over, but I kind of wish I could take Greenwald Smith’s class at SLU, because she offers here a rich and invigorating framework to talk about what literature does to us, and where it might go next.

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“A Minefield of Myth and Memory”: John Keene’s Annotations

“The form of a city changes more quickly, alas, than the human heart,” Baudelaire wrote in his poem “The Swan” (published in Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857). Here in St. Louis, where I’ve lived now for over a decade, the pace of change is somewhat slower. On my lunchtime walks downtown, it often seems that the same buildings are undergoing an endless process of renovation, lurching toward vaguely defined, gentrified future when “creatives” will dwell there. At the same time, it has changed. Walking through the Delmar Loop the other night with a young friend, my wife and I spoke of bygone places like Riddles Penultimate and Streetside Records in the melancholy tones of tour guides. We’ve been here long enough that our mental maps of the city no longer quite line up with what’s out there: or our memories hang over the city, a tracery of the foreclosed and demolished and vacated, not really there in any actual sense but present as a ghostly shadowing.

We didn’t grow up here, and many of our friends’ memories run deeper than ours. They can tell us stories of the Checkerdome, the Library Limited, Mississippi Nights. Place as a series of palimpsests, containing not only the physical form of the city, the shaped terrain, but everything that has been thought and said and imagined about it.


For a long time I’ve been wanting to write something about John Keene‘s Annotations, which I think is one of the most remarkable books about St. Louis, though I’ve never met anyone else who has read it. (I might have called this post “The Best St. Louis Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.”) Published quietly in 1995 by New Directions, its understated title and gray-scale cover guaranteed its obscurity, arriving already a cult object that would be discovered only by a few. I am not sure if this is what Keene intended, but the humility of the title, as well as the slinky, elliptical methods of the writing, suggest that he might not have minded. It’s a work that falls halfway between poetry and prose, and does not go out of the way to explain itself. It has the feel of something private, something written out of necessity, a book one eavesdrops on as much as reads.

As the title suggests, the book sometimes has the feel of marginalia or endnotes to a main narrative that is missing. That could be frustrating to some readers, but it also is one of the special pleasures for a St. Louisan, recognizing the local references that are dropped into the narrative like incantations: Homer G. Phillips, Chatillon-DeMenil, Natural Bridge. These names, dropped seemingly at random into unrelated paragraphs, begin to build an associative logic, and show how cities and memory are inextricably linked (as Calvino also realized).


Though hardly a straightforward one, Annotations is also a vivid coming-of-age story that speaks of a sensitive, artistic, black boyhood in North St. Louis and later the western suburbs (Keene attended the St. Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur). It deploys a narrative voice that can dwell in luminous specificities:

Many backyards wore a chain-link garter that stretched out to the alleyway, and so whenever the rudipoots shattered their wine or soda bottles into smithereens of glass, it always fell to us to sweep them up. Now-or-Laters. Snoopy, the second in a cavalcade of pets, would parade regally about the screened-in porch. Daddy soaked then bathed him in a pan of gasoline to strip his coat of mange, so that when we spoke of him at all, it was as “under quarantine.” Children often see with a clarity that adults ignore.

This may give some sense of the way Annotations can move in and out of abstraction. It is childhood observed with crystal precision, but also great distance. The signifiers of childhood — Penrose Park, Chain of Rocks — become a kind of code that is still vivid and evocative but not fully legible, either to the narrator or the reader. It’s tempting to quote Keene at great length, but one more passage should suffice to give you a basic idea of how he operates:

One could still go tobogganing down the steeper part of Art Hill, but there were lesser hills much closer in the more historic parts of Webster, where the dauntless ones could sled or ski-board on a stolen trashcan top. On your back, in the snow, making angels the sun would summon. White swath. Summer they awaited for its bounty of trips and excursions, such as a return to Meramec Caverns or Silver Dollar City, now, from what he read, not far from where the Klan was presently headquartered. A cathode bath usually proves easier than self-immersion in a written text, thus did the ends of those evenings eddy through that small, transfixing screen. On the other hand, you noted at the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which you attended with your classmates and chaperone, that although painting had once served as the transcriptor of the soul, it now mainly served to break the hold of mechanical reproduction.

What brilliant associative leaps make up this half-page: from the sledders to the snow angels, from the snow angels to the white robes of the Klan, to the “snow” of a TV set at the end of the evening, to the blizzard of color in a Monet. This book may be Keene’s own version of impressionism. It does not connect all the dots but is all the more powerful and distinctive for its ellipses, and the way it acknowledges that growing up is not some linear and legible process, but a jagged and halting course, sometimes progressing, sometimes regressing. Likewise the voice of Annotations can be there or here: channeling the voice of a child with magical intimacy, then speaking from afar in the abstract jargon of an academic. As a retrospective portrait it feels uniquely truthful.


Annotations runs a slim 85 pages, including notes — these notes contain some of the most fascinating material in the book. “Rudipoots,” in case you were wondering, is defined here as “a colloquialism akin to ‘ghettoheads,’ meaning an ignorant or foolish person.” We also learn, for example, the meaning of Treemonisha: “A 1905 opera by Scott Joplin, written while he was resident in Sedalia, MO, and not premiered until 1972, in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the opera is the salvation of the black race through education, and Treemonisha, a young woman, is the protagonist.”

I don’t want to give away too many more of Keene’s Easter eggs, but this appendix beautifully unravels the culturally mongrel roots of St. Louis, which Keene describes as “a Creole core.” (Elsewhere, Keene wonderfully describes his own family as the result of “vibrant miscegenation.”) There’s a deep historical mind at work here, running from French-speaking slaves to the protests at Jefferson Bank, and the city’s ugly racial tension is not glossed over. Cops that could be relatives of today’s say “stop and don’t move”; a white cashier mouths a racial slur, thinking the narrator is out of earshot. He’s not. Still, Keene is attuned to what is best about the city, its rich, pungent multicultural soil.

It has been twenty years since Annotations came out. I’ve already read it twice and am probably just beginning to unlock its mysteries. Still, I was greatly excited to learn that New Directions is publishing another full-length work of fiction from Keene. It hits the shelves this week. The man has hardly been idle, teaching at Northwestern, Brown, NYU, and Rutgers, writing poetry, collaborating on art installations, and translating work by the controversial Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst. His new book, Counternarratives, a collection of stories and novellas, has been called “an extraordinary work of literature” by Harper’s and “suspenseful, thought provoking, mystical, and haunting” by Publishers Weekly. Hopefully this new publication will bring more readers to a great writer who beautifully excavated his North St. Louis roots and can be added to a list that includes Chopin, Williams, Eliot, Burroughs, Shange, and Gass. In any case, I know what I’ll be picking up at Left Bank Books later tonight.

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Poetic Voices: The Conversation Continues

At the halfway point of the Poetic Voices of the Muslim World series, I’m amazed by the conversations and encounters it has made possible. A South African mother and son speaking with a Bosnian couple at a lecture on Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar; a large group of diverse St. Louisans talking philosophy and spirituality outside the opening event with Rumi translator Jawid Mojaddedi and musician Amir Vahab (while eating delicious snacks); a lively lexical debate between library patrons and noted Qur’an scholar Bruce Lawrence in the auditorium at Carpenter Branch.

As for the patron who was seen licking one of the exhibit panels at Central Library, I don’t know what to say about that … except visit the exhibit (seriously! we cleaned it!) which will be up through June in the Locust Atrium.


I certainly won’t forget the wonderful recitations by Sumaya and Sabiri Ibrahim from Masjid Qooba in south St. Louis. Pictured here with Dr. Bruce Lawrence, they wowed the audience with their first-ever recitations of suwar (chapters from the Qur’an) in public. Patrons have told me repeatedly how grateful they are to be part of a different kind of conversation — to encounter a side of Islamic cultures that is usually left out of the shrill media debates. These events have been a reminder that the library is a place where cultures meet and where singular conversations can take place.

Farzaneh Milani

This week brings our third renowned speaker to St. Louis Public Library. Dr. Farzaneh Milani, Professor of Persian Literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Virginia, will present her talk “Veils and Words: Iranian Women Poets of the 20th Century” at Schlafly Branch on Thursday night, May 14, 7:00 pm. The program demonstrates how Iranian women poets have been a moderating and modernizing force in their homeland.

Among the poets she will discuss is my personal favorite, Forugh Farrokhzad. After marrying young and losing custody of her child in divorce, Farrokhzad went on to write remarkably frank, confessional poetry that confronted the hypocrisies of mid-twentieth century Iran. Early poems such as “Sin” defiantly express erotic desire:

I have sinned a rapturous sin

in a warm enflamed embrace,

sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,

arms violent and ablaze.

While in her later poem “Another Birth” she reflects beautifully on the poetic process:

I plant my hands in the garden soil–

I will sprout,

I know, I know, I know.

And in the hollow of my ink-stained palms

swallows will make their nest.   (tr. Sholeh Wolpe)

Farrokhzad was also an accomplished filmmaker whose short film The House is Black, set in an Iranian leper colony, won several awards. After dying tragically in a car accident in Tehran at the age of 32, she attained rock-star status in Iran, and her works were banned after the Cultural Revolution in 1979. Her publisher was ordered to stop printing her books, and he refused; he was jailed and his warehouse was burned to the ground. (Sholeh Wolpe, “Forugh Farrokhzad: A Brief Biography”)

Dr. Milani will also discuss another fascinating poet, Simin Behbahani, aka “the Lioness of Iran.” Behbahani can be seen in this Youtube clip reading from her elegiac and spirited poem “For the Dream to Ride.” It may be the translation, but I detect some great MC-style braggadocio in this,  e.g.:

I speak as long as I’m alive; fury, roar, and revolt

Your stones and rocks I fear not; I’m flood, my flow you can’t halt

Anyway, it’s well worth the three minutes to check out Behbahani reading her poem in the original Persian. And we hope it will inspire you to join us for Dr. Milani’s event at Schlafly Branch, to be part of the great conversation that the Poetic Voices series has brought about.

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“Only My Words Bear Me”: Poetic Voices of the Muslim World in St. Louis

No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me, a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world around me

–Mahmoud Darwish, “A Rhyme for the Odes”

translated from the Arabic by Amira El-Zein

Quraeshi artwork 2

The St. Louis Public Library is proud to have been selected as one of four public libraries in the country to host Poetic Voices of the Muslim World in 2015. This vibrant exhibition, which displays in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library from April 27 to June 30, features captivating photography and calligraphic masterworks, as well as the work of poets ranging from Rumi to the well-known contemporary poet Adonis. Alongside the exhibit, the Library will be presenting a series of programs and performances that celebrate the rich traditions of the written and spoken word in the Islamic world. In addition, branch libraries throughout the system will be hosting supporting programs, from a documentary about heroic librarians in the Bosnian War to the comedy concert film “Allah Made Me Funny.” Pick up a brochure at your neighborhood branch for the full schedule of events. We hope to see you at one of these wonderful programs!

Poetic Voices of the Muslim World is presented by Poets House and City Lore, in partnership with the American Library Association and the St. Louis Public Library along with the public libraries in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Houston. It is funded by the Bridging Cultures Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.


 A Song of the Reed: Rumi with Dr. Jawid Mojaddedi

Wednesday April 29, 6:30 pm Central Auditorium (reception at 5:30)

In this talk, scholar and translator Jawid Mojaddedi discusses the beauty of Rumi’s Masnavi: its folk tales, sacred history, entertaining stories and lessons, all written in rhyming couplets. This talk is followed by a performance of the poems set to music (in English and Persian) by distinguished composer and Persian classical performer Amir Vahab with his ensemble.


The History and Poetics of the Qur’an with Dr. Bruce Lawrence and Qur’anic Chanters

Wednesday May 6, 7:00 pm Carpenter Branch Library Auditorium

In this seminar, distinguished scholar Bruce Lawrence gives an overview of the structure of Islam’s holiest book and introduces the subtleties of the text through a close reading of several different English translations. This lecture is followed by a recitation of Qur’anic verses by a reciter from a local mosque.

Farzaneh Milani

Veils and Words: Iranian Women Poets of the 20th Century with Dr. Farzaneh Milani

Thursday, May 14 7:00 pm, Schlafly Branch Library Auditorium

Professor of Persian Literature, author, and translator Dr. Farzaneh Milani explores the work of Iran’s three great women poets of the 20th century–classical poet Parvin E’tesami (1907-1941), iconoclastic modernist Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), and the “Lioness of Iran” Simin Behbahani (1927-2014). She also demonstrates how Iranian women have emerged as a moderating, modernizing force at the forefront of the renegotiation of boundaries in their homelands.

Sylviane Diouf

Islam and the Blues with Dr. Sylviane Diouf 

Wednesday, May 20 6:30 pm, Central Library Auditorium

Through images and recordings, award-winning historian Sylviane A. Diouf of The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture illustrates how the blues, which originated in the American South, may have evolved from the techniques of the recitation of the Qur’an and the call to prayer in West Africa. She plays early blues recordings side by side with African recordings of the call to prayer and invites audiences to catch the similarities.

Additional Resources

Poetic Voices of the Muslim World website:

Poets House:

City Lore:

Oxford Islamic Studies Online (available under Online Learning & Reference tab at

Muslim Heritage

Rumi (works, bio, interpretation)

Poetry International Rotterdam (search by language & country):

Dunya Mikhail – Iraqi poet

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here (Jaffe Center for Book Arts):

The Library of Arabic Literature

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Young Eliot

I hope to post about this at greater length at some point, but didn’t want to let “the cruelest month” pass by without mentioning Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, a new biography of the poet by Robert Crawford. We’ve just received our copies at St. Louis Public Library and it looks to be an engrossing and well-researched account of the early years, including Eliot’s childhood here in St. Louis.


The reviews so far have been excellent — check out, for example, the always great Michael Dirda’s piece in the Washington Post — generally agreeing that Crawford has benefited from the changes to the Eliot estate. Previous biographers had to go through Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, who was very restrictive in terms of granting permission to quote from the works. This kind of estate lockdown has never made sense to me, and it probably opened the door for the highly critical biographies of Eliot that have appeared over the past two decades. He remains a controversial figure (one of the commenters on the Dirda article refers to him as “not just a miserable human being, but a poetaster and thief of the lowest order”) but Crawford seems to offer a more nuanced view, based on close research of the early years. You have to have some sympathy for a kid who was forced to wear a truss for his double hernia and furthermore had enormous ears.

He spent his early years just down the street at 2635 Locust, now the site of a parking lot and a plaque in his honor; a post at Distilled History makes the case that St. Louis should do something more to honor the poet, and offers some Eliot-inspired drinking suggestions. Anyway, Crawford’s book covers the 1896 tornado, Eliot’s connections to Unitarianism and the St. Louis Philosophical Society, and notes that Prufrock’s was a St. Louis furniture store around the turn of the century. Should make for fascinating reading for anyone interested in the poet or St. Louisan literary history.

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Letter to a Future (Library) Lover

Marginalia_(5095211566)Marginalia from a 1704 printing of Newton’s Opticks now held at the Boston Public Library.

So, I’ve been reading around in Ander Monson’s challenging and beautifully designed book from Graywolf Press, Letter to a Future Lover. The book’s subtitle, Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, gives you some idea of Monson’s preoccupations. It’s a lyrical and dense read, a series of brief personal essays composed in the form of letters. Monson defines “library” broadly, finding inspiration in a video game archive, a seed library, a biosphere; likewise he’s interested not only in the collections of these libraries but the ephemera their users and custodians leave: love letters, scrawl, catalog cards, binding instruction sheets.

If you spend enough time in libraries, you recognize the phenomenon. Not only those stray artifacts that fall out of a book–a bus ticket, a sales receipt–but notes deliberately left within, for the edification of the future user. We have a patron who will take three or four books off the shelves, borrow a few sheets of scrap paper, and stack it all together in an odd pyramid: the books, a religious pamphlet or two, his cryptic but precisely drawn notes. Maybe he too is a librarian at heart, trying to make these materials speak. It is hard to say exactly what he wants to convey, but whatever it is, it’s directed toward the future reader.

In his essay “Dear Defacer,” Monson writes a letter to the troubled and erratic soul who has been scrawling angry notes in the margins of an encyclopedia from his college library: “I want to know your name, what makes you go, why you play this strange.” Puzzled and upset as he is by the contents of the marginalia — as any good librarian would be, please don’t do this! — he also respects the impulse behind it, the move toward feedback and conversation.

Which brings me to this: as Monson recognizes, the library is not a static thing, but a flexible structure for sharing information. While its traditional form, with its catalog cards and bound periodicals and stiffening codexes, is dearly beloved to us, what really defines the library is this sense of community and shared ownership, the conversation that can take place in the pages of a novel, or in a meeting room where people come together over a hobby or obsession, or via a digital connection to a database.


The St. Louis Public Library is asking for your feedback as we plan our course for the future, both near-term and long-term, because I’m sure we can all agree that a library is a beautiful thing that should be preserved and creatively nourished. This is your chance to bring your ideas, your crazy and improbable inspirations, your ragged grievances.

There will be a series of public meetings at Central Library and the regional branch libraries, from 6-8 pm on the following dates: Tuesday March 31 at Central Library, Wednesday April 1 at Schlafly Branch, Thursday April 2 at Julia Davis Branch, Tuesday April 7 at Carpenter, and Wednesday April 8 at Buder Branch.

Please register to attend one of these important events here.

I can’t guarantee that it will be as subversively thrilling as defacing a library book, but on the other hand you’ll have the pleasure of knowing that you’re helping to define the library of the future. Think of it as a letter to a future lover. Or marginalia for a future reader, who won’t be reading quite the same text, thanks to you. To quote Monson again:

You understand that this place breathes, expands, contracts with cold and breath, the infusion of new words: it yet shows signs of life in spite of what you’ve heard about the young and their reading habits. Treating a library as a crematorium for yesterday’s knowledge does no one any good. Instead let’s keep it live … so that when we leave its premises it still embraces us … so that we might think the world a library and by so thinking, and our feeling, and our stealing, and our starting something new here, make it so.


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The Doll Speaks: Dina Young’s “Frozen Charlotte”

This past month, members of the STL Scribblers community were challenged to write a 750-word story. We read the entries aloud at the last meeting and voted on them; congratulations to Dina Young, who wins the first ever Scribbler Flash Fiction Contest for her story “Frozen Charlotte.” (What was the prize, you may ask? Twenty-five bucks of book money and infinite glory!) It is Scribbler’s distinct privilege to publish the story in its entirety here. But first I asked Dina a few questions about its genesis and her other projects.

What was the inspiration behind “Frozen Charlotte”?

Walking my dog one day last summer down an alley behind Shenandoah Avenue near our house we wandered into a large empty lot where a house was demolished several years before.  With my little dog leading the way we poked around in the straw and loose dirt that covered the area and found bits of broken glass and china, a 1940 penny, a clay marble, an old gas jet, and a small porcelain doll head.

A few days later we went back to the same lot and I looked near where I’d found the doll’s head and found the doll’s torso nearby.  I did some research on the web and learned that a porcelain doll like the one I found was known as a “Frozen Charlotte,” after a mid-nineteenth century cautionary tale of the same name.

I couldn’t help but wonder where this doll had come from and what its life was like before it ended up there in the dirt.  Since the doll wasn’t talking I started to create a story to answer those questions.

How did the word-count limitation affect your process?

I needed to do a little trimming from the first draft of the story, but not a great amount.  I constantly checked the word count.   In trying to keep the story short, I learned not to waste words by including details that weren’t necessary to the story.  The length requirement didn’t change the story I wanted to tell, but it definitely affected the style of the story telling by keeping it very straightforward.  This is my first experience writing flash fiction and I’ll definitely be doing more of it.  I think this approach may also serve as a tool to help in getting unstuck when writing longer stories.

Can you tell us about the other project you’re working on?

I’m working on a novel about a man whose headstone I came upon one day while walking through Calvary Cemetery.  His name was Prosper Meeker, and he died in 1933.  Given his distinctive, Dickensian name I was curious to find out who this man was. Surprisingly I found some references to him on the Internet when I searched his name and learned that he survived a horrible accident as a child.  Through some pretty extensive research I’ve learned a lot about Prosper’s life in early 20th century St. Louis, not enough to constitute a biography, but certainly enough for a novel.  I’m intrigued by his story and want to share it with others.



by Dina Young

Day fades into night and into day again. The unrelenting sun gives way to the cold darkness in an unceasing pattern that sets the rhythm of my life. I’ve languished in this place for years slowly sinking into the earth. From the corner of my eye I see glass and pottery shards sharing a similar fate. They cannot see or comprehend what lies ahead as I do. I am no longer whole. My head lies face up in a small depression, and my torso, missing most of my limbs, is a foot away. Though my eyes are still bright and my lips still beautifully rouged I am old and broken. In this peculiar situation my only comfort is to think back on happier times.

Life began long ago when I was created in Germany. I, and the thousands of others of my kind, represented the very finest in artistic and technical achievement of the day. We may have been mass-produced but our eyes, lips and other features were individually hand painted by the region’s craftsmen.   If I may be permitted to boast, the blue bows at my calves and golden rings in my hair required double- glazing, which set me apart from many of my sisters and made me more valuable.   Along with others like me I was packed in excelsior and nailed into a wooden crate for an adventurous voyage across the sea to what I hoped would be a new home in America. There followed a trip on a steamboat, and then one by train then at last I saw daylight while on a wagon which brought me to Simmons Hardware store. There, along with my fellow travelers, I was placed on a shelf where I could see customers, especially little girls in pigtails with bows on their crinoline dresses. You may think me haughty but I’m proud to say I was the first of my lot to go home with a little girl. Her father paid the monumental sum of 50 cents to acquire me.

What followed constituted the happiest time of my life. I lived with the little girl and her family in a two-story red brick house on Shenandoah Avenue, in the south of St. Louis.   The girl’s father worked at the Fox Brothers Milling Company nearby and she often waved at the upper story windows of the factory on our way to school in the morning. I was her constant companion riding along in the patch pocket of her pinafore, my arms permanently bent at the elbow, resting lightly on top of the pocket ensuring me a good view of the neighborhood and the comings and goings of the people who resided in it.   Often at school the little girl would set me down under an oak tree in the schoolyard to visit with her friends and the others of my ilk brought to school by their little girls. I have no qualms in saying I was the prettiest of my kind there, a fact my little girl did not hesitate to announce.

Life went along pleasantly and I felt content. I even grew to like the family dog, a rotund bull terrier that often waddled over to the chair where the little girl sometimes left me and roughly sniffed me with his perpetually wet nose.   One day the little girl’s older brother, whose greatest joy in life was making his little sister suffer, took me from the chair where I sat and unceremoniously deposited me under a heating grate in the floor in the little girl’s room. He thought this an act of genius and laughed about it to himself for days while the little girl searched everywhere for me.   This is where my tale turns tragic. While savoring the sight of his little sister’s anguish the boy contracted a virulent strain of influenza and died three days later. In his febrile state the boy tried to tell the little girl where I was but the family and the doctor judged him delirious. From my prison I could see the family grieve for the boy while I grieved for the little girl.

No one ever did find me beneath the grate. I remained there for many years watching as families moved in to the house, lived there for a time, and then left. I was released from my prison only when the house was demolished. Now I lie here among many other broken things waiting for what, if anything comes next.

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