What you’re holding in your hands (or, as the case may be, staring at on a digital screen) is our soon-to-be-annual Fiction Issue, which contains the results of our recent contest for Arkansas writers. The Arkansas Times used to publish plenty of fiction and poetry back in the 1970s, so this is actually a return to form, not to mention an attempt to shine a well-deserved spotlight on just a few denizens of the community of writers in Arkansas.
The Observer is a longtime scribbler, and not just of stuff that gets printed in the newspaper. We started writing fiction back in seventh grade, after our ambition to become the modern-day Walt Whitman got hopelessly entangled in our inability to keep it short and economical. The Observer sits down at a keyboard and out it comes, like a sweater-unraveling thread. Such is the length, breadth and depth of our blessing and curse. If you’re writing journalism and have the room to run, that can be a good thing. If you’re writing “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”? Not so much.
Though it might alarm you to know that many of the purveyors of newspaper facts and figures are closet fictionalists, such is the case with a lot of reporters. Actors secretly want to direct, cobblers’ apprentices dream of shoving the master off the stool and making the shoes of their dreams, and scads of reporters quietly long to spin the artful lies of fiction. Mark Twain, back when he was plain ol’ Sam Clemens, worked as a reporter. Hemingway, too. So it can be done. As The Observer has discovered, however, it’s damn hard to force yourself to make pants meet chair at your writing desk in the evenings after you’ve spent the past eight hours doing the same thing at work. Somehow, though, we manage.
The Observer, a long-ago graduate of a writing program up in the corn country, also teaches creative writing out at UALR. Semester after semester for 13 years now, we’ve parked it in well-lit, industrial-beige rooms and tried to impart the unimpartable: how to reach down into the guts of your guts and do the work of the artist, that beautiful transubstantiation of large blocks of mortal time into a bare handful of immortal words. Hopefully immortal, anyway.
It’s a cliche, but in our time teaching, The Observer has easily learned more from our charges than we ever taught them. That being said, reading the stories of beginning writers is like a slog through the primordial jungles of Burma. You know it’s going to be hellish. But once in every thousand miles, you might stumble up on a lost city, where beautiful monkeys hold sway and all the godlike statues sparkle with rubies and emeralds. The Observer has found a student builder of lost cities a time or two, someone who is doing things you just can’t teach and doing them by instinct, God having reached down and turned that person’s mind into a Swiss watch that tells the world what’s wrong with it along with what time it is. That’s when the hardest work of the teacher begins: trying to adjust that watch without breaking it. That’s frightful hard, children. Lay Awake and Sweat hard, though another thing we’ve found is that a lot of teaching someone like that is just telling them it’s OK to say what they want to say and then stepping off the tracks.
There we go again, running on. As we said: blessing and curse. What are you reading this for, when you could be hip deep in the fiction found on the next few pages? Go on. Lose yourself for a while. Crawl inside someone else’s head. That’s what reading is good for, friend — The Paper Vacation — along with the greatest gift fiction writers can bestow: the understanding that no matter what feeling, fear or secret lust you hold inside you, you are not alone.