The Significance of a Backdrop

By Steven Shatkin

Let’s play a game. I am going to describe a story (don’t worry, it’s one you have heard before), and all you have to do is guess what it is. Sound easy enough?

So, this story is about two groups of people at odds with each other. One group is made up of “civilized” colonizers with more advanced technology and great cities far away in their homeland. The second group is made up of the “barbaric” natives of land these two groups encounter each other in. They live a tribal lifestyle, are deeply religious, and (most importantly) possess something valuable they do not let the colonizers take. War seems inevitable, but the colonists introduce a young man to the natives in a hope he will help them take the treasure. However, the young man meets a young woman among the natives and falls in love. After conversing with a source of ancestral knowledge and learning more about the natives, the young man realizes the error of his people’s ways and sides with the natives in the conflict. Peace is reached (for better or for worse) and the young man is accepted as a member of the natives.

Think you know it? Well, I have three answers for you: Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga, Disney’s Pocahontas, and James Cameron’s Avatar. All three stories, as well as many more I am not well-versed in, share the same plot, but it would be ridiculous to say they are the same story. What allows these stories to each exist as its own, unique story is the power of setting.

Setting is as important as the protagonist of a story, despite how passive of a character it may seem. Dune cannot exist without Arrakis, Pocahontas without the discovery of the Americas, nor Avatar without Pandora. Setting shapes characters by defining the obstacles and boons they will encounter of the course of their journey. These slight changes in development allow a story to be seen in a new light, hence revealing new truths and aspects of the story. Try to imagine a book completely devoid of setting. The end result would feel abstract and lacking in detail, and the characters would seem as if they were missing a defining feature.

Another interesting case where the setting of a story is with Sophocles’ Antigone. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is an Ancient Greek tragedy about Antigone trying to bury her brother, Polynices, who betrayed the city. However, Creon, the king of Thebes, declared that Polynices shall remained unburied. Antigone defies Creon until she is jailed and kills herself (right before Creon comes to set her free) rather than submit to his decree. During World War II in occupied France, this was one of the plays French theatres were still allowed to be performed. The French had set the play in occupied France and seen Antigone as the tragic hero who died for the sake of defying an oppressive tyrant, while the Germans had set it in a German controlled territory and seen Creon as the rightful king who lost everything before the righteousness of his laws and methods were seen. The two settings imposed on the story, as you can see, led to two radically different interpretations of the characters and their decisions.

I feel I should also mention how setting is also important to forms of writing aside from standard prose. Playwriting heavily relies on setting, but is able to have it exist as a more abstract element than with the written word. One good example of this kind of setting is in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, where, even though the play is set within the confines of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, most of the scenes take place between the scenes of Shakespeare’s play. Because of its physical location in the abstract, Stoppard’s play is able to better explore more metaphysical concepts and premises than one founded solely in the concrete. Another style of writing that can make good use of setting is poetry. Though poetry is less reliant on setting than prose, setting is still a crucial aspect of some poems. “Deeply Appreciated” by Tony Barnstone is one such piece where setting is central to the poem. In this poem, the speaker watches an interaction between a homeless woman and a young man on a shuttle from LAX where the man ends up in tears after realizing how undeserving he is of what he possesses. It is the setting of this poem that allowed such an interaction to occur, led to the lives of the characters being what they are, and left the man alone at his stop under the judgmental moon.

In brief, every story has been told before once you break it down to its basic elements. Though this may at first sound discouraging to the aspiring writer, it also must be remembered that every story has yet to be told in every way. The unique choices a writer makes with the setting of his pieces leads to unique characters, unique challenges, and an overall unique story. Remember to take careful note of setting in what you read and write. See how they change the characters and imagine what a different setting can do for the piece.

Happy writing!

 

Theme in a Cardboard Box

By Justin Jones

Within the realms of literature and poetry, the concept of theme never fails to be at the forefront of intellectual discussion. In any class that involves writing, you will most likely hear this word thrown around, and you will be encouraged to unravel its clandestine mechanisms. Theme—the main idea or underlying message of a piece—is not always easy to understand. It takes a careful eye to notice the various details within a story or poem, and it takes a creative mind to place these details into categories that begin to suggest multiple themes. Over the years, your teachers, professors, and peers have projected their interpretations of theme while you, to the best of your ability, tried to put all the pieces together. But have you ever wondered why theme is often difficult to assemble?

Theme is a jigsaw puzzle.

It is a collection of rounded and grooved wooden pieces sitting messily in a cardboard box. This is not to imply that theme is an enigma or a challenge of thought, but rather, it is a disassembled representation of a larger concept. As a reader your responsibility is to open the box, dump the pieces on the table (or floor if that’s what you prefer), and assemble the puzzle using the clues in front of you. As you read a story or poem the puzzle beckons to you and implores you to put it together, each piece providing a bit more context.

So you attempt to make sense of this mound of toothed, wooden shards.

You pick up the first piece of the puzzle, the feelings of the characters, and set it down. Then you notice another piece, the conversations between characters, whose edges fit together with the first. Next you take a third piece, the experiences of the characters, and piece it together with the others. This process continues until all of the pieces of your jigsaw puzzle are connected. You look at the completed puzzle and can see a clear picture, a clear theme. When you’re done putting it together you can place the pieces back into the cardboard box and rest comfortably with your newly ascertained understanding.

I must admit that theme is much more than a jigsaw puzzle, though. Theme lends itself to a variety of interpretations, and it cannot be represented as a universally consistent picture. In reality, the puzzle pieces can change shape, which is terrible for preserving the identity of a puzzle and great for benefiting the reader’s capacity for interpretation. Pablo Picasso once said that “if there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.” Fortunately, we live in a world with many truths. Therefore, Picasso’s understanding of artistic theme can be applied to that of literature. Every story or poem that you encounter will be different in some way, and there will always be an array of themes from which you can make your own judgments and decisions.

So when you’re questioning whether a certain theme is a legitimate representation of a story or poem’s various details, know that the puzzle is only as put-together as you allow it to be.

On Rhythmic Prose

By Ben Smith

When we talk about poetry, what sorts of techniques do we consider? Rhyme scheme? Sure, sometimes. Form? Absolutely. Prosody? Without question. And, of course, one of the most important ones: rhythm. Poetry, being the most musical form of writing, is all about rhythm. It’s all about the beat of the words: how they feel, how they sound in conjunction with one another.

Now what about prose? What do we talk about there? Character, plot, POV, dialogue; maybe if we’re looking closely we’ll talk about strong verb choices, sentence variation—but how many people really care about the music of it? So here’s the question I want to ask of all the prose-writers out there, all the memoirists, the novelists: What about the language?

Tom Robbins, the master of uber-rhythmic prose, writes in his 2014 memoir that “people read with their ears as well as their eyes,” and this, for me, at least, rings resoundingly true. Of course, in fiction, our primary obligation must be to the character, but if we forget about the language, we become dull, we become unimportant. There’s a difference, after all, between prose that says something significant, and prose that sings it.

So what exactly does rhythm do for a piece, other than making it exciting? Well, first and foremost it allows us to control the tone of the piece. For example, let’s look at this sentence from the opening pages of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses:

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity.

This is a pretty long sentence—about five lines in my copy—and it’s absolutely ecstatic. From the absolute breathlessness of the sentence’s rhythm we learn that this narrator, in spite of the substantial event that precedes this passage (a terrorist attack on an airplane mid-flight), is thrilled about the circumstances. Sure, the diction has something to do with it, but mostly it’s about the way the words fit together. The characters, in falling, feel weightless, and because of the way the writer controls his language, we are made to feel the same way. Of course, not all of those words need to be there. Not for clarity of narration. Some of the actions described in that sentence are there for the purposes of rhythm, because the author wants us to feel his narrator’s elation.

The second thing rhythm does is control pacing. In writing something fast-moving (a thriller, for example), you might use short, terse lines, in order to get all the necessary information on the page while shuffling the reader through the story in a (hopefully) electrifying fashion. More introspective stories might require involved or languid sentences. And both of these go back to tone: suspense and tension come with choppy sentences—or choppy clauses (substituting different sorts of punctuation for periods can often create a more rushed feeling; Colum McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, for example, contains a page-long sentence describing a car crash, in which a comma separates each independent clause). Leisurely sentences, though, or ones with more complex constructions, let the reader really consider what’s happening. In other words, the way you build sentences does a lot to control how your reader feels about what he or she is reading.

There’s quite a bit more to say about rhythm (fragments are good for you! never construct any sentence like the one that came before it!), but here are the bare bones of the subject. In short, it’s important. All of us, whether poets or prose-writers, would do well to put an equal amount of thought and effort into both the content and the style of our writing, because therein lies the difference between good writers and great ones: great writers have mastered the rhythm of their sentences. Good writers say, great ones sing.

Mosaic Art & Literary Journal with Audeamus Honors Journal Presents

Please join Mosaic Art and Literary Journal in collaboration with Audeamus Honors Journal for an open mic night of poetry and prose at Back to the Grind in downtown Riverside. Meet the editors of UCR’s two undergraduate journals, experience a local space that celebrates artists, and maybe even read some of your own pieces.

Sign-ups for the open mic will begin at 6pm. Bring your own work to read or explore past issues of either Journal.

55 Never Looked So Good. Plus, We’re Open for Submissions!

Welcome to Mosaic 55!

Mosaic Art & Literary Journal is excited to open up another year of good reads and great work.

Since 1959, Mosaic Art & Literary Journal has showcased the work of dedicated writers and artists. What started out as a casual poetry group has since become one of the West Coast’s oldest literary journals. We like to think that part of that is due to our commitment to quality, creativity, and outreach – and because we’ve been in the hands of passionate editors.

Mosaic is a fantastic lit mag in its own merit: from the custom water-color covers of 1982, to the multimedia edition of 2008, to 1993’s nuts-and-bolts binding, we’ve sought to bring good work together under creative “roofs.” In fact, each edition is so unique that we’ll bring a selection with us to open mics for the audience to peruse. Often at our readings, local authors will find their pieces in our older editions. We get excited when we realize that we’ve been part of their creative development!

But there’s another reason that Mosaic is such a meaningful publication – one that we hope many people will get to experience first-hand. Mosaic acts as a catalyst for vital relationships between editors, contributors, and the community. Let’s talk about that.

Housed at the University of California, Riverside, Mosaic provides students with meaningful literary experiences. Our editors are passionate about good art. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and, well, may have a greater craving for Oreos than your run-of-the-mill editorial team, but their commitment to finding and publishing quality pieces is unconditional. Many of our editors are interested in pursuing careers in writing, visual art, and publishing, so Mosaic’s publication process is valuable to the way we build our knowledge base.

Our editorial board is on the lookout for compelling, well-crafted pieces – from contributors like you! Whether your niche is travel essays, mythology-inspired photography, or detail-driven short stories, we want to find the best creative work and show it to the rest of the world. Our contributors have come from as close as UC Riverside faculty to as far as China. We’re serious about publishing polished, engaging pieces – so get drafting!

At its heart, Mosaic is about community. One of the ways we demonstrate that is by cultivating involvement in the Riverside arts scene. Thanks to our partnership with the Gluck Fellows Program of the Arts at UC Riverside, we’ve been able to connect with the city in unique ways. Our goal is to build creative spaces for budding and seasoned writers alike. We’ve done readings at local bookstores, at bars, at coffee shops, with other great lit mags like The Inlandia Institute, and we’ve even hosted an art print workshop at the Riverside Art Museum. If you’re ever in our neck of the woods, check our Facebook page for events and updates!

We’ve got some great changes coming this year – contests, articles, events, and more. Be prepared to see more of us online – and we want to see more of you! Like us on Facebook, send us your creative work, and drop in at a reading (or five). We’d love to chat. And on that note –

Submissions are Open!

Send us your fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, plays, visual art, and photography! Submissions will close on January 31st, 2016. Make sure to review our submission guidelines for details.

We hope you’ll join us this year as we celebrate 55 years of writing, reading, and wonderful art. Happy submitting!

Alex Villamor
Co-Editor-in-Chief, 2015-2016

Now Accepting Editor Applications for the 2015-2016 School Year

Hello, readers and writers! We’ve come to that time in our school year again!

Mosaic is looking for new UCR undergraduate Mosaic editors!

Before we get into the details, here’s a little bit abut us: We’ve been publishing artwork and writing from students and writers all around the world for over 50 years, and we’ve been able to touch the creative pulse of the Riverside community through our partnership with the Gluck Fellows Program of the Arts. We’re looking forward to another wonderful year – and we want your expertise!

We are currently looking for UCR undergraduates of any major who are interested in becoming fiction/nonfiction, poetry, and art editors. Editors on our staff will be reading, selecting pieces, and editing this year’s issue. Any student interested in learning more about becoming an editor can attend one of our orientation dates:

Monday, May 11th, HUB 268 from 2:30pm-3:30pm

Wednesday, May 13th, HUB 260 from 2:00pm-3:00pm

Friday, May 15th, HUB 268 from 2:30pm-3:30pm

If you’d rather submit your application earlier, a direct link to our application titled “UCR Editor Application” can be found on the second most right hand widget. Just click the link and fill us in! Applications will be open from now until Friday, May 22nd at 11:59pm.

Thank you for your interest, and good luck to you all!