Saturday, January 28, 2017

Evening in America: 31 Years After the Challenger Explosion

January 28, 1986. We were out of school that day for snow. My best friend, Donna, and I were riding sleds off the strip mine across the road from my house.  My mother came out onto the porch and hollered, telling us to come in "right now". She didn't say why but her words telegraphed over the frozen air to us that something bad had happened. 
I had not wanted to miss school that day because we were scheduled to watch the launch. There had been a special station set up for schools to watch via NASA and it was always exciting when the massive television was wheeled into our classroom on its metal stand.  This was a time when children were very interested in the space program and the space shuttles had made us even more interested.   There were action 
figures and model kits and toys dedicated to the space missions.  We learned all about the astronauts in class. We were the children of the Cold War, still three years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there was national pride in the space race.  Like many children, I worried a lot about the Russians and how they might drop the bomb on us someday with no notice.  Somehow the space program assuaged those fears with Regan's "Star Wars" initiative to ward off nuclear missiles and such.

Inside, my mother had built a roaring fire in the fireplace.  She had a talent for making fires.   The heat surrounded us and I knew something was really wrong because my mother wasn't at our heels to make sure we didn't get mud and snow on the carpet. Instead she insisted we come on in without even taking off our shoes. She wasn't crying but her face was shaped by a new grief. She worked in the lunchroom at school, so she had been enjoying the snow day, too. She was still in her nightgown and housecoat and house shoes even though it was almost noon. My mother hardly ever arose without instantly dressing. From the living room I could hear Dan Rather, whom my father still didn't like because he wasn't Walter Cronkite. And then I knew it was something beyond our own lives. "That teacher," my mother said. "All of them." We watched the news a long while, the only time I remember being parked in front of the news like that. They replayed the explosion, the reactions of the crowd, the stories of each of the astronauts, especially Christa McAuliffe. We had been watching her especially close because she was a school teacher, a civilian who was going into space. In the weeks leading up to the launch we had been well-versed in her story through our study of The Weekly Reader, a favorite part of school for any member of Generation X.  It was Morning in America and we were proud of it.  

My father, who worked third shift at the local fiberglass factory (which would explode seventeen
years later, killing seven people), got up earlier than usual and watched, too, in silence. We sat there far into the evening, until President Reagan came on and gave his speech.  He was supposed to give The State of the Union address that night but instead spoke to the country that was united in grief.  Despite what anyone might think of Reagan now, there's no denying the real emotion he felt that night, and his beautifully delivered words were a balm (written by Peggy Noonan, using parts of a poem from John Magee): "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

I asked if I could go for a walk. By this time it was full dark and the whole world seemed stilled and frozen. There was no sound except the distant and insistent barking of a dog.  Our road was completely covered in an inch of ice, then several inches of snow. All the houses held windows glowing an eerie blue from the televisions inside. I looked up at the sky, pocked by hundreds of stars.  I was thirteen years old but in my memory I felt much younger.  I recall it as the first time I ever felt part of a national tragedy, a story the whole world was watching.  Back then I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to us as a country.  I've thought back on it during other dark days in our history since, obviously on September 11, but on other days when we didn't feel as united in our griefs. For my generation, it's the first moment we can all look back on and tell you where we were when it happened, the way my parents's generation can tell you where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, or the way my daughters' generation already speak with nostalgia about 9/11.  For me, it's also one of the first times I realized the power of language, the impact that words can have.  

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Favorite Movies of 2016

1.  Manchester by the Sea is a heartbreaker that feels so real you leave the cinema feeling as if the story has happened to someone you know well and care about.  I think it also boasts the best performances of the year in Casey Affleck's heartbroken handyman and Michelle Williams as a woman doing everything she can to survive.  Rarely does a film so well use sense of place as this one.  It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who also made You Can Count on Me, and--a favorite film of mine--Margaret, an underrated masterpiece inspired by a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem.

2. Sunset Song.  Terrence Davies is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers ever yet this film didn't make much of a splash in America.  It should have, as it is the film that has most haunted me this year with its sweeping scenes of farmers working their fields or the rising chorus as they stroll to church (as shown in the short scene I'm embedding below).  It's a film that uses words like "gloaming" and Scottish colloquialisms, where long scenes have characters singing folk songs, where the lead character, Chris, sits in fields of golden wheat and considers her life.

3.  The Witch.  This is one of the all-time best horror films, I think.  I loved everything about it, especially what it says about the dangers of fundamentalism.  Most of the dialogue is taken from actual witch trial documents of the time period.  The blooms of red amongst the mostly black, white, and gray tones of the film make the scenes of violence even more startling. At least a couple of the scenes are absolutely mesmerizing.

4.  La La Land.  True movie magic, and a soundtrack I can't stop listening to.  Emma Stone will steal your heart.

5.  Moonlight.  The colors, the performances, the sense of place, that "baptism" scene, all of it is masterful, and perhaps its strongest suit is that it takes characters who are so often stereotyped and paints them as dignified, faulted, vulnerable, angry, and everything in between for complex and realistic creations.

6.  Sing Street.  The feel-good movie of the year but I confess the ending left me a sobbing mess.  But in a good way.  This story of a rag-tag bunch of musicians in 1980s Dublin will appeal to anyone who ever had a dream.

7.  Midnight Special.  I'm not a big fan of sci-fi so it's interesting that three of my favorites of the year easily fall into that genre.  This film is by one of my favorite directors (Jeff Nichols) and I love him because he so accurately captures the ways and cadences of rural people.  He really gets country folks in  way that very few people in Hollywood do.  My favorite movie by him is Mud, but I was enthralled by this one, too.  Most of the movie deals with very real issues before it turns more sci-fi toward the end and every moment of that is pretty perfect.  I wasn't crazy about the ending but I loved everything before that, especially Michael Shannon's performance.

7.  Arrival.  The main thing I love about this is that a big blockbuster has as its main character not a superhero but a linguist.  I love what this movie says about communication, language, and the truth.  It's a profound film and Amy Adams' performance is luminous.

8.  Rogue One.  I loved everything about this one, although I went in with some trepidation. Some people have lamented the CGI but I even loved that new layer it brought to the film.  My favorite parts of it were:  the last couple seconds of the film;  the performance of Felicity Jones, whom I love in everything; the instantly-iconic couple Chirrup and Baze; and the new tag-line "The Force is with me and I am one with The Force".  It's excellent blockbuster filmmaking but it's even more profound than that, reminding us that "someone is listening," as Jones's character Jyn Erso says.

9. The Light Between Oceans. Old fashioned romantic filmmaking at its finest.  I'll watch anything with Rachel Weitz in it, and she doesn't disappoint here in one of the most beautifully filmed pictures of the year.

10.  The Lobster.  Rachel Weitz stars in this one, too, and it's easily the weirdest movie on my list.  But I can't stop thinking about it, and especially that silent vogueing in the woods (if you've seen it you'll know what I mean).  Warning:  there is a disturbing scene that involves a dog in this one that almost made me stop watching.  I think the graphic nature of that scene was uncalled for but it's still a very interesting and original movie with some of my favorite actors, including Weitz, Colin Farrell, and the always wonderful Olivia Colman (Broadchurch).

11. Anthropoid.  An intelligent, moving, and tight war thriller about an assassination attempt during WWII.

12.  The Conjuring 2.  I'm a sucker for horror movies but only when they're well-made.  This one is, never relying on cheap thrills, and anchored by very strong performances from Vera Farming and Patrick Wilson.  I especially love how this one takes its time in the way horror films from the 70s.  And that singing scene (in the clip below) was pretty sweet.

13.  Loving.  I had high hopes for this film.  It's based on one of my favorite true stories, it's written and directed by one of my favorite directors (Jeff Nichols, the aforementioned writer and director of Midnight Special), it has some great actors in it, it explores the complex lives of rural people.  It didn't live up to my expectations but I still think it's a very good film.  I love the performances, the sense of place, the realism of it all.  But I kept waiting for a big emotional release in the film where the tension comes to a head and all of the frustration of the characters.  Still, definitely worth seeing.

Biggest Disappointments:
While both were beautifully made I was very disappointed by Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals (which is enjoyable to watch but is ultimately just a retread of Deliverance, complete with a "hillbilly" using a toilet on his front porch) and by The Girl on the Train, which, despite a great lead performance by Emiy Blunt, just becomes two hours of watching women being assaulted.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Books of 2016

My favorite books published in 2016:

1.  News of the World.  Paulette Jiles's short and beautiful Western was deeply moving and it is one of those rare books of which I can honestly say that every single sentence is a gem.  Absolutely the novel of the year for me.

2.  Mothering Sunday.  Graham Swift wrote this elegant and stunning 192 page novel.  Its shortness emphasizes just how masterful it is because in just a few pages Swift creates an entire world and gives us big themes like class, the power of storytelling, and loss, all delivered in prose that is erotic, economical, and powerful.

3.  Raymie Nightingale.  Kate DiCamillo wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Because of Winn Dixie, but this one is almost as good.  A look at the definitions of friendship, family (chosen and blood), and the desire to be a good person.  I absolutely loved it.

4.  Miss Jane.  Full disclosure here:  the author, Brad Watson, was one of my mentors when I was studying for my MFA.  But that doesn't change the fact that this is absolutely one of the best novels of the year.  Watson creates one of the most memorable characters I've ever read and looks at the many different kinds of love there are in the world.  This novel is a masterpiece and I wish everyone would read it.

5.  The Wonder.  Emma Donoghue completely immerses us in a specific place (rural Ireland) and time (the mid-1800s) with two compelling and complex lead characters in this novel about a young girl who refuses to eat and may or may not be a saint.  It's a fascinating look at belief, religion, fanaticism, class, and much more in one of the best novels of the year.  I was disappointed by the ending, which didn't feel quite right to me, but this was probably the book that was the biggest page-turner of the year for me.

6.  The Shepherd's Life-James Rebanks.  This nonfiction look at a sheep-farmer's life in Northern England is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, with stunning sense of place.  It's a lament for a dying way of life and for all ways of life that have gone.  Highly recommended for anyone who loves to read about nature, land, tradition.

7.  Some Writer! Melissa Sweet uses drawings, text, and much more to give us the story of E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and other books.  It's a magical look at one of the all-time best and most fascinating writers.

8.  Upstream.  This collection of essays by Mary Oliver was the perfect balm for me in the days following the horrifying results of the election.  Meditations on nature and the fact that everything that is is holy.

9. My Father the Pornographer.  Chris Offutt is at his best in this moving look at the relationships between fathers and sons and the nature of being creative.

10.  Maxgate.  This novel by Damien Wilkins came out overseas in 2013 but was only released in America this year.  I'm obsessed with Thomas Hardy so naturally I was drawn to this novel about his deathbed days at his beloved manor, Maxgate, from the point of view of one of his servants.  It's a mesmerizing book for anyone who loves Hardy and is especially smart by telling the story through the eyes of a working class woman, Hardy's favorite subjects.

11.  My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite writers and while this is my least favorite of her books (besides The Burgess Boys, which didn't land right for me) it is still a remarkable novel and I've been haunted by it ever since reading it, especially the scene where the young Lucy is trapped in a truck with a snake.  Prose that completely creates a mood.

12.  Spill Simmer Falter Wither-Sara Baume.  The tale of an old man and his dog on the run in Ireland is another one that has really stuck with me although the ending fell a little flat for me.  But the voice is remarkable.

The books listed above were all published in 2016 but I read many other books this year that have been around for awhile (or were published this year but just didn't make my favorites list for one reason or another).  Here's a list of all the books I read this year.  It's not a massive list as I'm a slow reader who savors every word and this of course doesn't include the dozens of manuscripts and student papers I read this year.

Grace Notes, Lamb, and The Anatomy School, all by Bernard MacLaverty, one of my favorite novelists who also wrote Cal, which I read several years ago.  After loving Cal so much I wanted to read as much of his work as I could and this year read three of his novels, with Grace Notes being my favorite of the bunch.  MacLaverty is a master at putting the reader completely in the world he's created and populated with some of the most memorable and likable characters I've ever encountered, all living in Ireland and Scotland during the Troubles.

The Light Between Oceans-M.L. Stedman.  This novel is a bit more blatantly romantic than books I usually read but the author has said that it was inspired by Thomas Hardy, so I had to read it.  The plot is definitely Hardy-worthy, if a bit too melodramatic for my taste.  But it's a beautiful book and made an even more beautiful movie starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender.

Train Dreams-Denis Johnson.  One of the best books I've ever read.

On Elizabeth Strout-Colm Toibin

Hide-Matthew Griffin

The War That Saved My Life-Kimberly Brusker Bradley.  I absolutely loved this book; further proof that YA fiction is some of the best writing around.

The Return of the Native-Thomas Hardy.  I read this while touring Hardy Country during my honeymoon so it holds an extra special place in my heart.

The Loney-Andrew Michael Hurley.  This book was a sensation in England and I read it while over there this spring.  Nothing like a well-written horror story.  And while the plot ultimately fizzled out for me I still think about the mesmerizing prose and the landscape created by the author.

H is for Hawk.  Helen MacDonald's look at grief and hawk-rearing is a must-read for any serious lover of literature.  A masterpiece.

Nathan Coulter-Wendell Berry

Hillbillyland-J.W. Williamson

Fanny Says-Nikole Brown.  A wonderful collection of poetry.

Before the Fall-Noah Hawley created one of my all-time favorite television series, "Fargo", so I had high hopes for this novel.  It's an enjoyable page-turner but ultimately became a bit too unbelievable and hokey for me to absolutely love it.

The Call of the Wild-Jack London

A Spool of Blue Thread-Anne Tyler.  Definitely in the top three best books I read this year.  Tyler's best work, I think.  I'll never forget it.

A Monster Calls-Patrick Ness.  A beautiful book about grief.

A Room With a View-E.M. Forster's masterful novel about being a traveller instead of being a tourist and the way travel can change us for the better.

The Past-Tessa Hadley-I've just started this and am absolutely loving it so far but am not far enough in to give a good review.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Walking to Write: An Exercise in Observation and The Abstract

I'm sharing a writing exercise I'm giving to my writing students tomorrow.

I'll be taking the students into the woods along Brushy Fork Creek here in Berea, Kentucky. This is a quiet area (pictured here as it appears in early spring) full of old beech trees and the meandering creek that begs for people to wade in it, offering a music of running water that is instantly calming.

Once there, they will be given the following handout, which includes a prompt directing them to make a list of sensory details which they will use to write about an abstract emotion. I'm sharing this exercise because I want to encourage more people to incorporate walking into their writing lives. It is absolutely the door to all writing for me.

I hope you might print out the handout below and use it for your own writing exercise. And even if you don't, I hope you'll go into the woods, or walk amongst trees, wherever that may be.

Comments or questions are welcome in the comments section below.

Walking to Write | Silas House | ENG 382

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society….I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking

Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas. J.K. Rowling

Writing is one way of making the world our own, and… walking is another. Geoff Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them…Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.
     Where we walk matters as well. A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Ferris Jabr, “Why Writing Helps Us Think,” The New Yorker

This will be an exercise not only in observation and capturing sensory details but also in articulating the abstract emotions that are so important to writing.

· Observe in silence.

· Explore the woods. You don’t have to walk far (unless you want to), but move around for a little while, walking along the creek or on the paths.

· Make a list of sensory details. Look around and list what you see, fear, taste, feel, and smell. Heighten your senses, getting closer to things to get their full sensory effect. Actually touch trees, mosses, water, etc. Take deep breaths to smell properly. And so on…

· Be still for a time, studying things.

· Allow yourself about 15-20 minutes to write, focusing on capturing an abstraction through your observations. I’d like for you to imitate this passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God wherein Zora Neale Hurston does a remarkable job of exploring the abstract. Imitation does not need to be exact but keep in mind the way Hurston is doing this and come up with your own way of imitating her device (or stick closely to the way she’s done it...up to you):

So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. –Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Here are a few partial sentences that could be possible prompts:

o Death is like the woods on spring day

o God is the trees

o Belief is a creek in March

o Sadness is the color of moss in early spring

o The beech trees are doubt

More Examples of Expanding the Abstract Emotions

She tried to go on with her letter, reminding herself that she was only an elderly woman who had got up too early in the morning and journeyed too far, that the despair creeping over her was merely her despair, her personal weakness, and that even if she got a sunstroke and went mad the rest of the world would go on. But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words, from 'let there be light', to 'it is finished' only amounted to 'boum'. Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul, the mood of the last two months took definite form at last, and she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God.—E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
(boum is French for “a party,” “a tremendous success,” or “a loud noise”—Forster’s meaning is left up to our own interpretation)

The earth was warm under me…queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. –Willa Cather, My Antonia

At the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge.--Graham Greene, The Power and The Glory

(c) 2016, Silas House
Find out more at

Friday, January 1, 2016

What I Know: A Prayer Essay

This year:

Find a creek, river, lake, or ocean, and be still beside it for a time. Sit by an open fire and watch the flames. Sit on the porch and lie on the grass. Light candles. Take a deep breath. Write a letter to someone.

Discover something new everyday. Learn. Tell stories. Listen to old people. Ask them questions.

Do something nice for others when you can and don't hesitate to be kind to yourself.

Read actual, real books and newspapers.

Spend an entire day without looking at your phone. If you feel the urge to post a selfie everyday, take a picture of some other beautiful thing instead.  Remember that there is power in moderation.

Learn to cook or bake something new. Enjoy every meal. Savor your food. Drink water.

Be completely quiet. Turn your favorite song up as loud as it will go.

If someone makes you feel bad all the time, get away from them. Laugh with others. Laugh while you're alone.

Spend time with animals. They make us better people.

Don't judge. Think this: "There but for the grace of God go I" or "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  Forgive others.  Forgive yourself.

--Silas House, from "What I Know: a Prayer Essay"

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Another Country

I hope you might check out my newest short story, "Another Country," which is a contemporary Appalachian retelling of James Joyce's "The Dead", which was just published in the latest issue of Blackbird.  And let me know what you think.