This story is precious to me, there’s a hefty amount of prestige and history associated with this festival, and it’s in my hometown. It feels like something of an alignment, pieces of a puzzle finding their right place.
I’ll be attending a ceremony on Oct. 12 where I and the other winners, finalists, and honorable mentions will be reading from our pieces. Having read the other stories, I’m humbled mine is in such great company, and I’m eager to meet everyone involved with this year’s contest.
My sincere gratitude to everyone who gave this story their time, energy, and consideration. I’m deeply honored this story found others who thought something about it was worthwhile.
Read “A Winter Bloom” here, and read the other pieces and judge commentary here. If you’re in the area, consider attending the festival on October 21. You can register in advance here.
I don’t read a lot of military fiction. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien will forever occupy a space on my bookshelf, but I feel like few people who become good soldiers are predisposed to being good writers. The mindsets would seem to be contradictory (independent thought versus collective thought, you get me), which isn’t to say there aren’t good military fiction writers, just that I think they’re rare.
I think Benjamin Inks is something of a rarity, and I think there’s an important distinction to be made with regard to his debut book, Soft Targets: this isn’t a collection of stories about soldiers so much as it’s a collection of stories about people who are soldiers. Similarly, Inks is a veteran, but I think it’s important to know he’s a writer who’s also a veteran. These stories demonstrate, while he was serving in the military, he was observing his world with the depth of perception and thought of a writer in conflict.
I think comparisons to Tim O’Brien are fair. Inks isn’t writing about the nature of war so much as he’s writing about the nature of living with it, all aspects of the before, during, and after. This is a book of stories about people and how war affects us, and the stories are told by someone who knows that effect intimately.
I found many of these stories deeply affecting. “Learning to Be You” is maybe the best piece of literature I’ve read this year, and “Love in the Time of Combat Injuries” is as close as you can get to a romantic comedy in a veteran’s hospital while maintaining authenticity.
Authenticity is important, too. These are stories by a veteran who not only lived the life of the soldier but lives it still. Its authenticity is evident in the book’s every pore and unmistakable in its inspiration; these stories are unlike any you’re likely to read elsewhere because the experiences they’re based on are unique and lived.
Furthermore, Inks calls into question the very idea of “veteran,” not to disrespect the title but to lift it up. Inks ponders whether “soldier” is something someone becomes or if it’s something they’ve always been and always will be. He explores what that means in scale, from the very intimate to the societal and cultural to the cosmic.
There are a lot of deep, heavy thoughts in this book, and I think its physical size betrays its material weight. At the same time, stories like “Jack Fleming Lives!” and “American Nesting Dolls” offer some levity while exploring the nature of storytelling in regards to the stories soldiers tell themselves. Are they even true? Or do they obscure the truth for the sake of coping? Is there truth in the obscurity itself? I think Tim O’Brien would have a lot to say about that.
If you’re looking for some military fiction that will provoke deep thoughts and move your humanity in ways you are either craving (even if you aren’t a soldier) or have never actually experienced (especially if you’re not a soldier), Soft Targets is a good bet. For my money, Soft Targets gives me such a humanizing and normalizing view of soldiers that we so rarely get. We see them without their weapons and body armor. We see them, and we connect with them, and we feel for them, and we love them for who, not what, they are.
When I started reading The Ferryman, the latest novel by Justin Cronin, I had a sense that I pretty much knew what I was in for. I was wrong.
To use a rollercoaster metaphor (because I think cliches should be played with, not dispensed), sometimes a book offers a clear day and you can see all of the ascents and dives, twists and turns, before that first ratcheting climb even begins. Sometimes the fog rolls in off the bay and you can’t see a damned thing, so you just hold on as you’re taken up and then dropped into a gray void. The Ferryman is a bit like riding a rollercoaster inside of a mirror maze. You think you see what’s coming, but what you actually see is a reflection of yourself, eyes and mouth agape, an embarrassing squeal ringing off your tongue.
Rollercoaster aside, The Ferryman isn’t a thriller. It’s not a plot-driven story seeking to play with your expectations for the next twist. Don’t get me wrong. This book will thrill you. Even when you’re reading it and you think, maybe this is a thriller, that’s the mirror again. It’s almost as if Cronin is begging you to ask yourself why you’re trying to pin this book down at all, and it challenges you conceptually in the most extreme ends of the creative spectrum. So, let’s shed the labels. It’s a story about intimate, life-affirming love shared between partners, family, or friends. It’s a story about cosmic philosophies regarding our species and its fundamental state of being. And it’s a story about everything in between.
The Ferryman is a book of wonder, mystery, heartache, and existence. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s a terrifying book. It’s a book that will immerse you in calm waters, and it’s a book that will exhilarate you with violent storm surges.
If nothing else, The Ferryman is a book with a concept that, if you’d told me everything about it—spoiled it utterly—I would have said a book like that can’t work. And yet it does, and that fact, above every nit-picky reservation or petty grievance a reader might have, elevates The Ferryman to something like a literary magic trick.
I have a short story out today in the new issue of Haven Speculative. Please give it a read if you’re inclined to do such things. It has an apocalyptic ruin, robots, and a man with life-creating power and a heap of good intentions. Let’s see what he does with it.
I think it’s important to know your strengths as a writer. That way, you can embrace them and lean into them but also challenge yourself to grow in other ways.
One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get is about my prose. It’s nice to hear, because I’ve worked very hard to develop that as a strength.
Now, I’m not claiming I am the best proser that ever did prose. I’m simply saying I think my ability to construct a sentence is one of my strengths. I have many weaknesses. Believe me, no one knows my weaknesses as a writer better than me.
I attribute some of my prose acumen to one of my other artistic loves: music. There was a time in my life when I considered myself a musician, and for many reasons, I shifted focus to fiction. However, I think the time I spent studying, composing, and thinking about music tuned me toward the melody of words. Some writers struggle with voice and tone in their writing. Those are elements that come naturally to me. I often tell people I can’t write a character until I hear them speaking to me. I usually get a funny look for that, but it’s true. Every character, at least the way I write them, has a voice, a musicality that gives their personality color. Once I hear them, my job is to help readers hear them, too, using text. That’s the goal, anyway.
I do think some writers are naturally inclined toward writing good prose. Writers are, and this is true, people, and every person has natural abilities. That isn’t to say I believe in the “it” gene for anything, really. I think everyone can write good prose if that is what they want from their writing.
What are your strengths? What are your goals? How can you leverage your strengths to achieve your goals?
Stephen King was fundamental to my formative years in storytelling, and I know I’m far from alone in that. His writing has touched millions, and his reputation has preceded him for many more than that. You know all of this.
(If you really just want the review, scroll down to the subheading. You can’t miss it.)
When I was discovering fiction writing as a central part of my life, I found myself connecting with and inspired by his stories more than many other writers’. Like the literary elite, who might still puzzle over what it is about King’s work that people like so much, I’ve spent much of my studies thinking about why his work resonates with me. Is it the fascination with the dark and macabre? Is it some deep-seated psychological need for me to gaze into the unknown? Do I ironically find delight in terror? Wait, is there something wrong with me? I think if it were any of these things, any horror author would do, and that’s at least not how I work.
Bringing to an end this long drought of new stories in print and plentiful rejections, I have two new shorts out this summer. One is the previously mentioned “I Am Emergent,” a story about two computer scientists, their life’s work in artificial intelligence, and the lengths to which we’re willing to go to save someone we love. This one is out now in the anthology WHAT REMAINS from Inked In Gray Publishing, which you can find here.
The most recent one is a story I’m particularly fond of. “The Only Memorial You Can Ever Have” appears in vol. VIII of Deracine Magazine. It is one that I set out to challenge myself with in every conceivable way. From perspective to tense to narrative voice to narrative distance to character perception and beyond, virtually everything in this story is something I’ve never even attempted before. And after everything, I think it works, and it moves me powerfully. I hope you check it out and agree.
Of note, I think, is that I don’t think “The Only Memorial You Can Ever Have” would have come out of me if not for the MFA program I’m currently in. We often talk about the value of MFA programs, and I think, in those conversations, they’re viewed as whether they’re necessary or whether they produce writers of greater caliber. After two years in one, I think that’s the wrong way to look at MFA programs.
The value of my MFA program, to me, is in this story. It provided me the environment to experiment and take risks. It offered the support structure that held me up when I took those wobbling steps. If I hadn’t pursued an MFA, I’m confident this story wouldn’t exist, because I wouldn’t have pushed myself in ways I needed to push myself for this one to come out.
That isn’t to say I think MFA programs make better writers, that they’re always good, or that they’re even necessary. It’s just to say this is a story that came out of my MFA program that I’m proud of and demonstrates how my writing has grown, broadened, and evolved.
Thanks to both Inked in Gray and Deracine. I hope you check them out.
The short version is I was accepted into George Mason University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. I’ll be starting this fall with full funding, including tuition remission, a stipend, and a GTA position. For the next three years, I’ll be taking classes, writing, reading, and teaching full time.
Last week, a young writer asked if I had any insecurities about my writing. My initial response was, yes, of course I have insecurities. I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t on some level insecure about my writing (and in general about everything for always and forever).
However, after some retrospection, I realized I’m in a much better place than I was when I started.