The Importance of Exercise–Silas Hansen

We’re reaching the end of the semester here in central Indiana—what I like to call the revision portion of the class. We finished workshop last week and now I am talking to my students about how they can revise—“fix,” they say—their essays before they turn in their final portfolios in early December. For the past four years, I’ve taught this section of the course by talking to my students about my own revision process.

In graduate school, I would write an essay—a first draft—all the way through, without self-editing or censoring. (Okay—I can hear my MFA thesis advisor scoff from 200 miles away—without self-editing or censoring as much as I could have.) I didn’t think very much about what the essay was going to be “about” until I was done. I just wrote.

When I was finished, I’d print a copy of my 15-25 page draft, read it once all the way through, and then, upon my second read, I’d re-write things. I’d move things around. I didn’t fix my commas or run-on sentences or take out the extraneous semi-colons (my favorite form of punctuation from ages 20-25) or make the sentences sound pretty yet. Instead, I was, as we say, killing my darlings. I drew X’s through entire paragraphs. I chopped off a section on page 4 and stuck it in the middle of page 12—sometimes I even got out a pair of scissors and some tape and literally chopped and stuck. I re-wrote sections in the present tense, or changed things to the second person, just to see what would happen.

Then, when I knew what the essay was going to look like, I set it aside. I never threw it away, but I didn’t let myself look at it. Instead, I opened up a blank Word document and started typing my second draft, entirely from scratch. Perhaps this was not exactly the most efficient way to do things. I probably would have finished much more quickly if I’d edited the original document instead. But then I would have looked at the document—so pretty, so finished, I’d think—and I wouldn’t have wanted to chop it up. It would have been harder to make a mess of the first draft. It would have hurt.

By forcing myself to start over again, I got past the mental block we often have when we try to make our essays better. I tell my students all the time that second drafts are often messier than firsts, but that this mess is absolutely necessary for a good third draft. The first draft is how you figure out what you’re writing about, I tell them; the second is when you bring that subject to the surface. The third (or maybe the tenth, depending on the essay) is when you can make it look pretty. Start over, I tell them. Read everyone’s comments, and then start over.

*

This isn’t really a blog post about revision. It’s about exercising.

I end almost every class I teach with a writing exercise, as do most creative writing teachers I’ve ever met. Write about the earliest memory you have, I told my students last week. Make a list of choices you’ve had to make and then write about one of them. Make a list of all of your identities, and then write about how two of them are in conflict with each other. Spend ten minutes drawing a detailed picture of a room you’ve spent a great deal of time in, then put it aside and start writing about something that happened there.

When they’re done, sometimes I have them start over: Write the same scene in the second person instead of first person. Write it in present tense instead of past tense. Write it from someone else’s point of view.

Virtually every time I give one of these exercises, a student asks, “Are we going to turn this in?” Often, they do. I sometimes have my students work on them outside of class and turn them in for a grade, or else I collect them that day just to make sure they can do whatever it is we just talked about—write a scene, describe themselves as a character, provide reflection.

But I’m always careful not to call these essays. They’re not essays; they’re exercises. They’re practice. My students are writing—exercising—not because it’s going to lead to a perfect essay they can turn in for workshop or maybe even publish; they’re writing because this exercise will make them stronger writers for when they do write an essay.

One of my favorite exercises to give them is what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo called the “hermit crab essay” in Tell It Slant, or what David Shields and Matthew Vollmer call a fraudulent artifact in their recent anthology, Fakes.

If you haven’t heard of this form before, the quick definition is a piece of writing that looks like something else on the page—a syllabus, an outline, a letter, a how-to guide, etc. Some great examples are Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer,” Brenda Miller’s essay “Table of Figures,” Ander Monson’s “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mind vs. the Mine and the Harvard Outline,” and Michael Martone by Michael Martone—a book of contributor’s notes.

I love teaching this form, and giving my students the exercise of writing one for themselves, for two big reasons:

1) This form can sometimes trick the writer into saying something they wouldn’t normally allow themselves to say; they can get to more complicated and complex subject matter, and darker and more difficult topics because they are often too busy thinking about how best to utilize the form to worry about saying too much. There’s less self-censorship.

2) These forms create new possibilities for their essays. Students often default to narrative memoir because it’s familiar to them. Many of them haven’t read much nonfiction before they come to my class, but they understand how stories work because they’ve read them all their lives. This structure feels safe. This is why we get so many essays that are written like short stories about (insert important life event here: the death of a grandparent, going away to college, traveling outside the United States for the first time). But when they decide to write in the form of a Facebook profile, they’re forced to think more carefully about their subject. It’s no longer about a life-altering moment, but about something bigger than that. It’s not an essay about how sad they were when their grandmother died, but an essay about how we grieve—particularly in the public sphere. They ask bigger and better questions about their own experiences—questions that move the work from anecdote to essay.

But back to my original point, which is that making a mess and exercising for the sake of exercising is good for us. This writing exercise is exactly that—a messy, wonderful exercise.

In the end, very few of my students end up leaving their pieces in the form they originally chose. Some start over with new forms—a syllabus instead of a Facebook profile, a Twitter feed instead of an outline—or with new subject matter, once they’ve figured out, thanks to their first draft, what they have to say. Some take away the shell or artifact entirely and write a more traditional essay—maybe narrative, maybe lyric, maybe something in between. Many abandon the project entirely by the time they have to focus on one essay for workshop. But across the board, their work is better for having tried it.

So what’s the point?

Exercise. Forcing yourself to think critically about the choices you’re making in your essays instead of choosing what’s easiest, or least risky. Getting to subject matter and questions you wouldn’t have written about in a different form. And, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover a better way to write your essay.

*

I have been thinking about the importance of exercising recently because I think it’s something we all forget—or, at least, it’s something that I recently forgot. Most of us start in that mindset where we are too attached to our first drafts and original ideas, but we eventually break out of it and became better writers for having experimented with new ideas, made mistakes, and learned from them. Eventually, though, many of us forget it, or stop prioritizing it. We give these exercises to our students, but we don’t do them ourselves. We don’t have time, we say; we’re too busy.

Remember what I said about how I revised in graduate school? When I’d write a draft, read it, and then start over from scratch? I don’t do that anymore.

I finished graduate school a couple of years ago, spent a year working two jobs and adjuncting, and am now—luckily, thankfully—thirteen weeks into my first year as an assistant professor. I found the time to write last year, and still do, but it feels like the stakes are higher now. When I was in graduate school, the point was to experiment and make mistakes and grow and get better. Now, the point is to finish work and publish it.

When I find time between department meetings and planning for three classes and filling out the paperwork that comes along with a job in academia to finish a first draft, I don’t want to think about starting over from scratch. I don’t have the time to waste, I tell myself, and so I try to skip that messy second draft and jump right to the cleaned up, perfectly revised final draft. I treat everything I write as if it’s going to be an essay—a perfect, publishable essay.

But those cleaned up, revised drafts aren’t nearly as good as the would be if I treated each first draft as an exercise and let myself, or maybe even forced myself to make more messes.

How do I know whether or not the essay could be better in present tense, or second person, or in something other than clear chronological order, unless I try writing it that way? What if I could discover or notice something new through the exercise of rewriting it?

We tell our students this all the time—to try something new, even if they already like their essays the way they are, because we know it might make their work better, and the exercise will definitely make them stronger writers.

Perhaps I (and maybe you, too) need to take our own advice and keep exercising for the same reasons.

 

 

Silas Hansen earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University and is currently an assistant professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. His essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere.

Today’s Goldbarth Challenge¹–Craig Reinbold

VH1
Loofah
Roberto Benigni
Simmons Bedding Company
Shit

*

Adolf Hitler’s interior designer once said of her erstwhile employer, “He preferred smooth, but not shiny, textures to rough ones”; “He was not fond of brown.” In response to the question, “Did you fear Hitler?” she replied, “No. I had no reason to fear him.” Several of the other Nazi nationals interviewed echoed: “No,” “No, never,” “Never,” “Never! There was no reason to fear him.” The German sculptor Arno Breker responded, “Respect, yes—but never fear.” Only the Reich architect Albert Speer, the infamous “Nazi who said sorry” at the Nuremburg trials and who served twenty years at Spandau Prison, broke the mold, saying, “No, but I knew he could be dangerous.”

*

Inspired by Chuck Klosterman, who once watched VH1 for 24 hours and got paid to write about it for SPIN, I used to have my CNF students do a Stunt Essay—an assignment that led a number of less-imaginative undergrads to binge on their own TV of choice, led a few others to get stoned at work, and prompted one very large male student to skinny dip in his apartment complex pool one oven-baked Tucson afternoon. Others were more adventurous: a student wrote about going for a Philippe Petit in the mountains, slack-lining between two high rock formations. Another, a young woman, walked from one end of south Tucson to the other in the middle of the night, chronicling the taunts and catcalls. Another told her parents she no longer believed in Jesus. For one essay—the one I’m really thinking about—a student set out to join the Century Club, drinking 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes.

This student was taking my class during a summer session, his last three credits before graduation. He was finishing school with an accounting degree—accounting, boring but practical—because his deadbeat dad had disappeared twenty years earlier and he was looking to support his mom. His essay’s frisson came from the fact that he set out on this party-game quest alone in his apartment, from the fact of alcoholism in his family, and from the awkward canoodling of youthful whimsy and oncoming adult responsibility. He made it to 80 shots, then lost his frozen-pizza dinner in the sink.

I really remember this essay, and him, because later in that class another guy was questioning whether people actually cry during movies and I responded that just the other day my wife and I had watched Life is Beautiful for the first time, and right near the end, just as Roberto Benigni puts on a brave, smiling face and goosesteps (a jokester to the last) past his hiding son, and is led behind a nearby wall and casually killed by a random Nazi stooge just a minute before the end of the war, I myself started crying—nothing like a bawl but enough to qualify. Without missing a beat, this student, the accountant, told us that Life is Beautiful happened to be his favorite film, and he always cries at the end too.

For me, it was the pointlessness that did it. It’s not just that this nameless Nazi asshole killed Benigni’s character so ignobly, no. It’s that he didn’t have to kill him at all. He could have just as easily let him live. But he didn’t. I know it’s just a movie. But c’mon, it’s not just a movie. How arbitrary killing and death can be! Life is beautiful? Fuck. Life is terrible.

The accountant knew this too.

*

A martial artist friend once told me it only takes 15 pounds per square inch to crack a human skull, and I’m not sure I believe this, or at least there must be a lot of variables in such an equation, but his point was: it is remarkably easy, at least on a how to level, to kill someone. With that in mind, I think too of how easy it would have been not to kill Benigni’s character in Life is Beautiful. At least the action itself I mean—to shoot or not to shoot—seems so simple. His death was called for, why? Out of spite? This wasn’t combat. The war was winding down. Easy enough to spare the man. Why not let him live, the SS-commander—or whoever was in charge—none the wiser?

The task falls to you. Why not just say no?

A young Marine I once interviewed admitted that in preparation for the 2003 invasion of Baghdad they were instructed, explicitly, to kill everyone they saw—the elderly, women, children—and that he and everyone he knows did just that. This was off the record though. He’d asked that I switch off my recorder. So take that admission for what you will. Personally, I have little doubt the order was given. And most, I imagine, did what they were told.

There’s something about being ordered, maybe. There’s the training, yes, and maybe a lack of empathy, or a general lack of thought. Thinking gets you killed, after all, is a soldier’s mantra. There’s the easy absolution the public doles out in wartime. We—most of us, most of the time—would probably do the same, would succumb to the social pressure, would do what we are told to do. Wouldn’t we? There are so many justifications. Unless the noose is around our neck it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye, to pretend it’s not as bad as all that. We miss so much, let so much go, we’re so distracted by the ins’n’outs of everyday living, by life’s inevitable minutiae.

So I hesitate to condemn this young Marine—or anyone—now. I hesitate, and to be honest, my toddler son just threw his yogurt on the floor, and the dog’s whining to go out, and dinner’s not going to stir-fry itself. There’s so much more pressing shit to think about.

Minutiae as blinders.

*

Here I think of that interior designer—Hitler’s interior designer, who forty years after the fact relayed the banal: “He preferred smooth, but not shiny, textures to rough ones,” and “He was not fond of brown.” That always kills me—you know, in the funny way. Not fond of brown. How dainty, how refined this designer must have thought herself. Imagine the way she wisped to and fro in his palatial home, ordering around armchairs and end tables and giant mahogany desks and velour-upholstered couches. Imagine her wielding a palette book the size of a window shade, splashing color after color on the wall of Adolf’s office, Adolf nodding politely, but ultimately uninterested, until, finally, he pounds a fist and shaking his head violently side to side bellows, “Not that one! I will not have these walls painted the color of shit!”

Her dignity un-besmirched—in fact reinforced—by the interspersing years, she relays to her interviewer, “No, he was not fond of brown.”

“And did you fear Hitler?”

“No,” she replies, affecting a sip of her post-lunch digestif, peach schnapps served in delicate crystal—glassware smuggled from the Reich palace to her own snug landhaus at the end of the war maybe. Spoils of war spoiling her now. “No, I had no reason to fear him.”

And she probably didn’t.

Her job was to prettify, to color within the prescribed lines, though not in brown, never in brown—and why should she have thought beyond her afternoon adornings of the Führer’s palace? Who can see beyond the pretty colors and the way the sun comes out after lunch, and the five o’clock whistle and five-thirty tipple? We can’t be blamed, can we, as distracted as we are by the ins’n’outs of everyday living? We can’t be blamed for missing the big picture, can we?

But what else was happening in that palace—in that city, that country, on that continent—while she was obsessing about where to put a sofa?

Minutiae as negligence.

*

Five years into our marriage my wife and I finally admitted there was a canyon growing between us. We’d bought our bed—frame, box spring, queen-size mattress—off Craigslist for $200, and though it had served us well, we couldn’t lay down any more without immediately rolling to center, which may have been fine when we were newlyweds, but these days we need sleep. Sleep requires comfort. And comfort, after the first year or two of marriage, seems to require space.

So one Saturday last July found us in a Mattress Firm showroom, lazing on our backs on a spanking new Simmons Beautyrest Black Alexia Extra Firm number that was like laying on St. Peter’s pillow, an elegant construction of Energy FoamTM and Dynamic Memory FoamTM, with a support system featuring 800 advanced pocket coils individually wrapped to adjust to a person’s unique body contour. With no price listed, Erik, the kindly youth who assured us he was not working on commission, had to look up what the damage would be: $2,689—though he could float a deal, say 20% off, so, a very reasonable $2,150.

We were prepared for this and proceeded on to last year’s model on the less well-lit side of the showroom. This castoff was $599. And it was just then, as I realized we were actually going to spend more than a week’s wages on a mattress, that the previous day’s New York Times cover photo flashed to mind—a picture of a beach all sand and shimmer, and a Palestinian boy in the foreground, mangled by a stray mortar. It was a stunning photo, brutal, but also distant, removed, as if the camera was a mile away barely seeing what it was seeing—a fine metaphor for the actual war in Gaza last summer, as I was updated every morning, listening to the news via headphones while I ran the daily Excel reports at work, and when the death toll was given and the political commentary over I switched to a Stephen King novel I was listening to on CD, Under the Dome, which was kind of great, and though similarly maudlin, had the benefit of being fiction.

How could we be mattress shopping while people were dying in Gaza? This was the obvious question, but I kept that crazy guiltiness to myself, and we bought the mattress and our sleep has never been better. And in any case, aren’t we morally obligated, in a way, to take advantage of our particular privilege? What happiness would be added to the world, what suffering alleviated, if we had deferred to the obscure needs of the distant many and out of some strained sense of solidarity not invested in this simple, if expensive, creature comfort? Sleeping now, so peacefully, have we not added to the sum total of the world’s well-being just a little? Is that not kind of noble, in a way? Doing what small things one can?

We bounced out of the store around noon and since Chipotle was next door decided to grab a burrito for lunch. Normally reserved for special occasions—like dinners-in-the-car as we drive up north on a Friday after work—this was a treat, but what the hell. You can’t spend 600 bucks on a mattress, of all things, and then begrudge yourself a $6 burrito. What the fuck is $6? Nothing. Or at least, you know, it’s all relative. Anyway, the burrito was delicious. Life is always lighter with a full belly.

Minutiae as refuge.

*

The Sunday after September 11, 2001, just moments before all that patriotic warmongering was set in motion, in an uncharacteristic display of insight and calm, my local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published on the front page of the Arts section a poem that began:

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.

and ended with an image that has stuck with me since:

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.

with a bunch of other stuff in-between. I was really moved by this poem, and I saved that newspaper. For years it was rolled up behind a row of books on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I wanted to save it, but I suppose I didn’t want it too close to me. Not when I had so much else to think about.

Awhile later I discovered Wisława Szymborska. It was spring break and I was shacked up at a friend’s grandma’s house in a retirement-town in Florida. (She made us pasta—spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna—every night.) Sunned-out, I went thrifting for books. Being an English/Philosophy major, I was into buying random books of poetry back then, and was immediately attracted to View with a Grain of Sand’s plenty sexy cover. And what a sexy name, Szymborska! I had no idea who she was but I bought those collected 100 poems, for 25 cents, a steal really. Eventually I found my way to “Reality Demands”, page 184, originally published in The End and the Beginning (1993). The closing image

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.

reminded me of something, from somewhere, but what? Later, in the shower, all wet and lathered and going to town with a loofah: epiphany. The next time I was at my parents’ I dug out that old 9/11-themed newspaper and there she was, my crush, Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner apparently.

Her poetry—actually all the 20th-century Polish poetry I know—offers this: life is very, very serious, and very, very funny. This a principle so real, so true, it can be elegantly illustrated with the most banal, everyday image of a gust of wind, air moving from high pressure to low, as it does every second of every day, all the world round, knocking a hat off a head, once more showing us who’s boss. Funny, but totally serious. Trifling, but somehow profound.

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.

Think of those t-shirts that everyone and everyone in my 6th-grade class wore under their uniform polos, when we were just dying for the bell to signal it safe to strip off that Catholic school conformity and reveal the true nature of our unique selves to the world: Basketball is Life. Soccer is Life. Volleyball is Life. Hockey is Life. Fresh Prince re-runs are Life. Theatre is Life. Music is Life. Reading is life. Nike is Life. Chess is Life. Mountain Dew is Life. Giving blood is Life. Super Mario Bros. is Life. Mint Chocolate Chip is Life. is Life. is Life. is Life.

Minutiae is Life.

How right we were that everything and everything could be summed up so easily.

 

_____________________________________

[1] For years, I’ve been spreading a rumor that Alert Goldbarth’s genius is at least partially the product of a less-than-elaborate system of collection involving thousands and thousands of many-colored notecards. Imagine his closet, full of shoeboxes, every shoebox filled with notecard upon notecard upon notecard, and recorded on each notecard an observation, a word, a quote, a thought, a name, whatever random thing caught his curiosity long enough for him to find a pencil. And whenever he’s stuck on the page, on say, a clammy Wednesday afternoon, confronted by the typewriter, his writing passing lamely from Thing A to Idea B to Experience C to Epiphany D, when everything he writes is too predictable to live, in those moments, he need only go to an old shoebox—maybe the box that brought home is first pair of Onitsuka Tigers back in 1978—and randomly pull out a handful of notecards upon which he finds the recorded curiosities:

“Hoofdman!”
“The Flea”
A bosom made buttocky / amberthatched snickerdoodle
View of Delft
Plague

And from there it’s merely a matter of stitching together, of figuring out how to get from this weird hallo, “Hoofdman!” to some talk of the plague, with a bosom made buttocky in-between. It’s about making connections between the seemingly random—and suddenly Goldbarth’s writing displays that trademark chaotic intelligence we love. He pulls shit out of the box and somehow puzzles it together. E.g., this is how we get from the city of Delft circa 1700, to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the “father of Microbiology”, to fleas to flea genitalia and flerotica, to 20-year-old Goldbarth’s afternoon romps in his girlfriend’s topiary-esque “central garden patch”, to Vermeer and Vermeer’s View of Delft, to Daniel Defoe, to the plague, to the compassionate humanistic morality that I find so comforting—some astounding associative leaps. And yet as he shows us, these leaps are actually quite small. The connections are there for any essayist to see, except that not just any essayist can see them. He’s got a unique brain, that Goldbarth. A brain like fly-paper. A brain like an atom-smasher.

At some point in the semester I assign students “The Goldbarth Challenge”:

  • Five whatevers are written on the board. Say, for example:

Padded-ass bicycle shorts
Felicity Aston
Amur tigers
Guinea worm
Ketamine

  • Pick at least two
  • Make some meaningful connections
  • This may involve research
  • You have one week to write this essay
  • This is not an exercise in making an essay out of nothing so much as an exercise in learning to make an essay out of anything
  • In that, it’s just like life.

 

 

Craig Reinbold’s work appears in recent issues of the Gettysburg Review, Mud Season Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Brevity, and a number of other more or less literary places. He also helps curate the Essay Daily, a blog-cum-conversation about all things essay.

North 20°54, West 156°14 – Maggie Messitt

1.

In 2009, my mother’s youngest sister went missing.

2.

Today, my writing room is wallpapered with maps. Brooklyn, The Rockaways, Greenwich Village, and Long Island City fill my western wall. Eugene, Olympia, and Yelm sit in the northeastern corner while Maui, New Orleans, Asheville, and Mineral fill the southeast. And a map of the country traces my aunt’s 51 years in string and colored paper, from southern Illinois to the Haiku bush of eastern Maui.

3.

I have become my own cartographer with my own language and my own terms.

4.

My obsession with maps started inside a barn alongside an unnamed road in northern Illinois—a hoarder’s antique shop on the way to Galena. My mother was shopping for furniture. I was digging through boxes. I was ten and already obsessed with true stories where people and places and discoveries were hiding.

At the bottom of a box, I spotted a thin, geography textbook from 1885, A.S.Barnes and Company embossed on the back cover. I ran my fingers along its 96 pages of illustrations and lessons. I started to page through the book backwards: Oceania, Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, North America, the World. I read the lists of the longest rivers and highest mountains out loud: Am’azon, Nile, Mississippi, Missouri, Niger, Congo, Yang Tse-Kiang, Everest, Aconcagua, Chimborazo, Sorata, Illimani, Kenia, Wrangel, Kilima Njaro.

But, no one was listening, so I purchased it for a quarter and brought it home.

5.

Maps are about boundaries and perception. They are about recognizing and being recognized.

6.

In 2003, when I first told my parents I was moving to Africa (where I would live for eight years), my father sat in silence for a few minutes before walking to his den, retrieving the biggest atlas I had ever seen, and plunking it open on the kitchen table. He silently flipped to South Africa and peered over the country, searching for the town to which I was moving. But, it wasn’t even on the map.

I took a pencil and carefully created a dot.

7.

Maps are memory.

8.

Google Maps now allows me to time travel. Some mornings, when I’m homesick, I make my way back to 2007. I look for my Land Rover parked outside of the little cottage on Lerato where I once lived, my forever home in South Africa. With one click, I am married again, waking up beside the dam, drinking coffee on the porch while the dogs run their noses, tracking the previous night’s movement—zebra, warthog, hyena, impala and leopard. And there are giraffe drinking on the opposite side of the dam.

Other times, in the middle of the night, I rewind my way through Maui, where my aunt went missing. I drive Hana Highway and peer down roads that lead to the Pacific, and up toward Haleakala. But Google hasn’t travelled down these roads. I am desperate to do a grid search, replicating 2010 when investigators walked side-by-side, three-feet-apart, scanning for her body. I zoom out and from the sky look for signs of a tent or a blue hammock in the trees, but everything is simply too dense. Untraceable. Unknown. Unmarked on the map.

9.

Maps help us search.

10.

I’ve drowned in maps. Tourist maps of Maui. Irrigation. Rainfall. Rivers and tributaries. Historical and present day. Each with so many boundaries. To cope, I find myself creating abstract bodies of topography and watercolor. I pare away the borders, preventing movement from here and there, and begin to reimagine the space as permeable, migrant, inclusive. I see options for where she was and where she might be. I see more clearly.

11.

Maps can be their own kind of fiction.

12.

Walking in the wilderness is not new to me. I lived in wild spaces for nearly a decade. My father, raised in the wilderness of Chicago, could stand anywhere in the city and tell you, based on having memorized the grid system, exactly how far you were from The Loop and the lake. He took pride in this skill and, despite having raised us as suburban kids, he still tried to quiz me. I never passed. But if you dropped me in the middle of the bush or a city, I would confidently find my way home. Africa heightened my already strong sense of direction, but in remote and wild places, street names are useless. Directions are tied to landmarks: tree names, geographical features, objects hanging in trees, stories attached to corners and forks, and character descriptions of streams and rivers. The road may have a name when you look on a map, but if no one uses that name or even knows that name, is it real?

 

__

An independent narrative and immersion journalist, Maggie Messitt has spent the last decade reporting from inside underserved communities in southern Africa and middle America. Typically focused on complex issues through the lens of every day life, her work is deeply invested in rural regions, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Messitt currently resides in southeast Ohio where she’s completing her doctorate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in April 2015, is her first book.

Creepy Baby–Diana Joseph

The Creepy Baby is a cartoon infant in a flowing blue nightgown.  He looks like a cross between the cherub from the Gerber ad and the Roswell alien. He takes up half the page while his utterances fill the other.  Though I drew him again and again, I never knew what he was going to say until he said it.

convenient

Pregnant women are told they will feel an all-encompassing rush of love, a powerful and overwhelming tidal wave of love the first time they see their babies. They will fall in love at first sight. My son Teddy was born on November 19, 2010, but I didn’t love him at first sight. I didn’t love him an hour later. Or the next day.  Or the day after that.  Days turned into weeks then months. I still didn’t feel particularly attached to him.  He was like a Key Lime pie.  Though I like every other kind of pie, I’m not crazy about Key Lime.  When someone offers me a piece, I say, no thank you, none for me! unless, of course, the situation requires that I choke it down out of social courtesy.

I was like someone who agreed to take care of a Key Lime pie until his real mother showed up.  I sang to him, rocked him, nursed him, bathed him, cooed and smiled at him.  I told him, along with everyone else, that I loved him but I was only going through the motions.  I was determined to keep these terrible thoughts and feelings to myself because what if someday he finds out?

smile

I don’t know exactly when the phrase zero-to-three first popped into my head.  I only know once it was there, it was always there.  I hated thinking it, but I couldn’t not think it.  I’d read somewhere that the most important years in a child’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development are ages zero to three.  During that time, he learns to walk and talk, eat with a fork and use the toilet, say please and thank you.  What he experiences from ages zero to three sets the foundation for what he knows about love. What he knows will impact him for the rest of his life.  I thought zero-to-three meant if I wanted to be a good mother—which I did want, very much—I should kill myself before I caused my baby any serious psychological damage, only killing myself would have to wait until he turned three so I didn’t cause him any serious psychological damage.

Even then, I understood that thought—and the others like it—was crazy.  Since crazy people don’t know their thoughts are crazy, good thing I wasn’t crazy. I was, however, exhausted, ashamed and very sad.  On February 14, 2011, when Teddy was ten weeks old, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression, a serious but common and treatable condition.

Except for various reasons, I went untreated.  So I remained exhausted, ashamed and sad for a long time.  Zero-to-three evolved from being a disturbing, intrusive, unwanted thought to sounding like a pretty good idea.  I used it to remind myself that this exhaustion, shame and sadness had an expiration date.

postpartum

I needed the reminder.  Otherwise, I got caught up thinking about Sisyphus pushing that huge boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down.  He pushes it up again; it rolls back down.  Up and down, over and over, again and again. It never ends.  (I noticed a similar lack of resolution in the songs I sang to Teddy.  The wheels on the bus go round and round all through the town but the bus never reaches a final destination. Though the itsy bitsy spider climbs the water spout, it never makes it to the top.  The song that never ends really does go on and on, my friend.)  It seemed to me that if a fictional character from Greek mythology could spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, a good mother could, for the sake of her baby’s psychological well-being, wait three years to kill herself.  Compared to infinity, three years is nothing.

Good thing I’m not a good mother. I must be over postpartum depression because I have a hard time recognizing the person who cooked up zero to three.  Who was that cold-hearted woman who didn’t bond with her baby?  She might have been Teddy’s crazy mother, but surely she isn’t any Diana Joseph I know or would care to know. I want to reach through the fog and shake her, tell her, get a grip!  knock it off!  What is your problem? Pull yourself together!  She’s so embarrassing that it’s tempting to pretend that she never existed.

Except she did.

There are times when I wonder if she still does.  During a game of Hide and Seek, is she the one calling out, Oh Teddy, where are you?  I can’t find you! while flipping through a People magazine—or is that me?  When all signs and symptoms indicate yet another ear infection, is hers the unsympathetic voice saying, I don’t have time for this—or is it mine?  Who is that wild-eyed woman so worn out from arguing with her toddler about brushing his teeth that she shows him pictures of meth mouth?  Look! she says.  Here’s what happens when people won’t brush their teeth!

Am I the one who felt guilty when he burst into horrified tears?

Or am I the one who felt smug that it got the job done?   

I’m working on a memoir about my experience with postpartum depression, maternal ambivalence, motherhood and identity. I worry that writing about those subjects is a bad idea.  I mean, aren’t there already enough “momoirs”—does the world really need another? Haven’t we heard plenty about how being a mother is hard? Isn’t it whiny, navel-gazing and narcissistic to blather on about how exhausted, ashamed and very sad you were?  Depressed people aren’t really known for their get-up-and-go; they’re more famous for their lay-around-and-mope, and who wants to read 200 pages of that?  Boo hoo hoo! Save it for your journal, lady! Tell it to your therapist!  Maybe you should continue to keep the terrible thoughts and feelings you had to yourself because what if someday your son finds out?

These are hard questions which is what makes them good questions, important and necessary questions.  The thing that’s both irritating and interesting about answering them is that they lead to other Big Questions:  How do I keep from coming across like a whiny, navel-gazing narcissist? How do I accurately describe isolation, loneliness, self-doubt, depression, anxiety while at the same time tell a story that doesn’t have a lot of plot, just a woman in conflict with who or what?  (Herself?  The baby?  Cultural attitudes about motherhood?)  How can I use everything I know about craft to find a new way to say that being a mother is hard?

I think the Creepy Baby was a start.

On Dissertating–Harrison Solow

If you ate an apple without knowing it was called an apple, would it be any less an apple? Would you enjoy it less, be less nourished by it, discard the memory of it, simply because it had no name?

All my life, I have been writing in unnamed genres, ex-categorically, happily, and obliviously. My first book was called “a portrait” because it wasn’t a biography, or really anything else, and was shelved (I made notes) in these sections of bookstores across the country: Spirituality, Philosophy, Entertainment, Biography, TV History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Religion and Literature. In her review of my most recent book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, Harvard editor Heather Hughes wrote this: “Harrison Solow seamlessly weaves form and content to create an engrossing hybrid work: epistolary novel cum memoir cum literary critique cum advice column…Masterfully done.” My poetry is prose, my prose is often called poetry, my nonfiction appears to be fable, my fiction, fact. None of this has ever mattered to me, since I have enjoyed the taste and texture, substance and nutrition of apples in countries whose languages I do not speak and loved books whose categories I could not label. I don’t need a name to experience something real, worthy, useful or beautiful. I hope my readers feel the same.

But…

When it came time to submit my PhD thesis, category became significant. Or so I thought. For a time I laboured to determine a category under which my creative and critical dissertation in English Letters would fall. I spent considerable effort wrestling with my work so that it would have a clear predominant strain. And six months before my PhD dissertation was due, when I had a manuscript of about 400 pages, I threw it away. This is because I had attempted to do what is recommended by every academic with whom I’ve spoken and every piece of advice on the subject I’ve ever read – make notes, organize chapters, write for a certain number of hours or write a certain number of words or pages a day, methodically, steadily. But that isn’t the way I work and I shouldn’t have attempted this process. I adhered to it for about a year or so and it did produce copious material, but what I ended up with was exactly what that process indicates: an organized, methodical and, to me, a highly pedestrian, boring piece of work. So I destroyed it – all physical copies were shredded and all digital copies deleted. My supervisor nearly passed out. (For the rest of the story, see http://on.fb.me/1rXGbbA)

After I wrote my new thesis, my next efforts were directed toward determining how to justify the polymathic nature of my writing, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t my job to squeeze the content of my writing into a pre-existing form, or to write differently so that no explanation of form was needed, or to apologise for the nature of my work but rather to transcend the notion of form entirely as I had always done – and simply to introduce the work as the multi-faceted tale that it was.

This is how I ended up describing it:

ABSTRACT

The Bendithion Chronicles is an epistolary, mixed-genre literary work: a creative thesis with a critical commentary about an enigmatic encounter with a Welsh-speaking village, portrayed in contrast to the Hollywood film and television society of which I have long been an intimate part. It is a reflection on a pilgrimage in the Chaucerian tradition; a series of recondite tales rooted in fact, but, as Bill Roorbach wrote in The Art of Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 6.), “true to the encyclopaedia of self” because “the writerly mind will always err on the side of truth over facts”.

In tribute to Welsh storytelling, historically an indistinguishable blend of fact and fantasy, The Bendithion Chronicles is both fiction and nonfiction. It is my conviction that no word equals its referent. There is a meaning in any experience described within a book, that cannot possibly be in the book. Nowhere have I seen this personified, indeed, living, except Wales:

 The Welsh have survived as a nation chiefly by cunning and reserve. […] Those sweet smiles are sweet, but they are well under control. It is performance that greets you, polished and long practiced, played on a deceptively cosy stage set with brass pokers by the fire… (Jan Morris, The Matter of Wales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 215–216.)

My significant encounters were with first-language Welsh-speakers, whose intermittent appearance behind those smiles had both an I-Thou magnetism and a liminal but discernable invitation that sent me hypnotically to Welsh classes to embark on a journey of another kind: the lifelong acquisition of an ancient, bardic tongue. And therein lies the tale. These chronicles are essentially a romance with ephemera. They should be heard, not read. It is only because I cannot sing that they are in fact, written. They are word-performance. They are Eisteddfod. *

This Abstract had two effects.

First, I publicly claimed my authorial voice. This is a powerful thing to do and I’m not sure I had consciously done that before. Certainly when at lectures, signings and readings of my books, there were challenging questions asked, but my authorial voice was never challenged – if only simply because the books were already published. In this case, the work was not yet published and there was a great deal at stake, since the granting of a British Research Doctorate is solely dependent on the thesis and the viva voce (oral defense of the thesis) in which one’s supervisor has no say and is often not even in the room. There are no classes and no grades and no thesis committee or any other mitigating factors that could contribute to a GPA or an assessment process. This is it. The five to seven years of research replaces the entire process of an American PhD programme and it all comes down to this moment. The orals are conducted by professors who have nothing to do with the candidate’s work and may not even know the candidate. In my case, both the examiners were from other universities, Cambridge and the University of Sussex. It was rather a large gamble, as a writer and a scholar, to eschew traditional moulds (as much as I like, respect and honour them) and present a work that had no precedent.

But this is how I enter the world – through this complex series of perspectives – the natural consequence of the kind and number of worlds I’ve lived in, internally and externally, as well as my innate propensity to multiplicity – and it was profoundly significant not only to declare that but to stake those seven years and the granting of a doctorate on a leap into a genre-less void.

The second effect of writing an Abstract was to introduce the notion – to my readers at least – that scholarly research is not incompatible with creative expression, that fiction, while often opposed to fact is not opposed to truth, and is merely another path to it. It started a conversation about genre that continued long past the granting of the doctorate. During my research, I had come across few such conjunctions. Elif Batuman’s Possessed: Adventure with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them was a fascinating hybrid – as was The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel About Autoethnography by Carolyn Ellis. I didn’t find a great deal more out there. Recently of course, Patricia Leavy’s work has garnered well deserved attention for merging “the creative arts and scholarly research across the disciplines” but it’s a very new concept and when I initiated it into my traditional programme several years ago, it had a trailblazing effect.

In any case, that is how I wrote my thesis and that was all I had to present at the viva.

Of course, I was worried about its reception, but not enough to falsify my voice. And, happily, the leap into unchartered territory was well rewarded, The examiners loved it and their evaluations of this cross-genre work reinforced my commitment to authenticity of voice, solidified the course of my future books and, although I am not a fan of discussing writing in general, my willingness to talk about genre at all. The examiners’ 20-page evaluation of the work included these comments:

“Solow has a polymath’s range of expertise in fields that include scholastic philosophy, Jewish and Christian mysticism, critical theory, theology, and science fiction. It juxtaposes the world of rural Wales with the Hollywood studio system, in a topography of improbability.”

“It is sui generis in terms of form. I know of no work with which or to which The Bendithion Chronicles may be compared. It both draws from, and transcends the literary forms from which it draws.”

“One challenge of reading Solow’s work is keeping a grip on the endless reaching out towards multiplicity. The thesis is organic, open-ended and intentionally resistant to closure, though it is, on the other hand, remarkably all-encompassing. It demonstrates the considerable multiple realms of knowledge it is truly necessary to identify as constituting the actual foundations of any significant creative work, and in particular of The Bendithion Chronicles, reaching out as they do to such a subtly complex weave of interconnected ideas, cultural and historical roots and a philosophical enquiry. This does mean that any reader searching to identify a conventional academic model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis might have found himself or herself frustrated. Of course, it may be inferred from Solow’s approach that…the whole notion of synthesis is a convenient fiction and she demonstrates her position with such imaginative brilliance…that for me the successful accomplishment of her objective is not in question.”

These were wonderful assessments to read – but I do not include them here because they make me feel good or because I think my work was imaginatively brilliant. I think these comments were engendered by surprise at the juxtaposition of genres – by a delight in the serious exploration of form. I incorporate these remarks into this discussion because they are meaningful in two ways.

First, they enthusiastically embrace the expansion of the definition of a book. These evaluations came from two truly brilliant scholars whose own works follow strict genre rules and who were not initially receptive to such a departure from form. By taking the chance that my work might recommend itself outside the box simply by being authentic, creative and substantive, a new conversation about the way we learn, the way we combine facets of learning in a non-linear, even liminal way, opened up in the world of letters in that place and in that time and has continued to this day.

And second: I am now working on turning this thesis into a book that is not only a story, but a way to find the connections – and there are always connections – among the various disciplines of academia, the creative industries, the spiritual traditions and the cultural vagaries in the world and to demonstrate that this process and this work need not be categorised to be worth reading.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction of The Bendithion Chronicles:

“Religious literature is characterised by parables, exempla, midrashim, folk tales and fables – all fictions, created to reveal perceived truths. Those who wish to perpetuate these ‘truths’ must map out the spaces between recorded events and fill them in: populate deserts with saints and stone tablets, spin fairy stories, anecdotes and whispers into cohesive allegorical histories, weave tapestries, paint ceilings and write eternal tales: a Canticle of Canticles, a pilgrimage to Canterbury, a Genesis, a Narnia, a Chad Gadya. And, in other eras, an Inferno, a Pilgrim’s Progress, an Iliad, A Space Odyssey.

Inside this literature lies a history of ideas, my history of ideas and thus my relationship to literature, art and science; to revelation, philosophy, and rhetoric; to astronomy, music, and law – to all the codes of my culture; and outside it lies the one lone nation of Wales.

My small story of Wales is as elusive and authentic as these tales and as organic and fanciful as their origins, as true as any writ and as fallible as any also. What I am arguing is that in the telling of any story, in the recounting of any history, in the description of any revelation, if the object is to tell a truth and not merely to list facts, then the only difference between a fiction created to reveal a perceived truth and that truth itself is the eye (or ear or heart) of the writer (creator). And the beholder. That difference is what constitutes the liminal. For this writer, Wales, like the fairy stories and implausible saints above, like the fingers of fire creating Commandments, like sirens in an Aegean sea, is a truth wrapped in fables, a numinous sphere. The argument follows. The story follows that.”

_______

Many thanks to Nicole Walker for inviting me to be a part of a fascinating discussion in an unfolding literary world.

*The Eisteddfod is a traditional festival of Welsh literature (poetry and fiction), music, recitation, dance and theatre performance, all in the Welsh language. This tradition dates back to 1176 when an historically significant celebration was held by Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth in his castle in Cardigan. The tradition subsequently fell into abeyance but was revived in the eighteenth century. The Welsh word ‘eisteddfod’ comes from ‘eistedd’, meaning ‘to sit’, and ‘bod’, meaning ‘to be’, which together means ‘to be sitting’, or ‘to be sitting together’. (As Welsh is a mutated language, the word ‘bod’ is mutated into ‘fod’ in this compound word.) More information can be found on the official Eisteddfod website at: http://www.eisteddfod.org.uk/english/

__________

Dr. Harrison Solow has been honoured with multiple awards for her literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, most notably a Pushcart Prize for Literary/Creative Nonfiction.

She is one of the two best-selling University of California Press authors of all time (at time of publication) and holds Literature and Writing degrees from three different English-speaking countries including the rare distinction of a British Doctorate in English Letters with (according to the examiners) a flawless dissertation.

She is published by various presses and has been, among many other incarnations, a former Franciscan nun, editor of a Jewish magazine, a university professor and the science fiction specialist/consultant to the SyFy Channel. Her latest book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, (http://amzn.to/1m93gaW) about the relevance of literature, has been called “the treasures of a cultured mind” and is now a college course text.

Dr. Solow lives in California & elsewhere with her husband, producer/writer Herbert F. Solow, the former Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios and the executive force behind Star Trek, Mission Impossible and other iconic series, where they both write and consult in the entertainment industry.

Follow her on

Twitter: @HarrisonSolow

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drharrisonsolow

Medium: https://medium.com/@harrisonsolow

Academia dot edu http://bit.ly/academiasolow

Squarespace: https://drharrison-solow.squarespace.com/

Nonfiction Like a Brick–Nicole Walker

Sometimes, when you’re writing, you feel you’re beating your head against a wall. That’s not only an appropriate metaphor—it’s part of the point and part of the fun.  This is not to say writing is exclusively a masochistic endeavour. Why do it if it’s only painful? But the “wall” in this metaphor is an important element to writing and one that helps to make creative non-fiction a literary endeavour.

I teach and write both poetry and non-fiction. This last semester, I taught a poetic forms class to my graduate students. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles. I wanted my students to know the forms to help them to understand in their work, which tends toward free verse, why they break lines, why the poem turns when and where it does, and the possibilities of rhyme and repetition. But I also wanted to make them suffer a little. Not because I’m a sadist (at least not in this class), but because when there are bounds, chains, rules, laws, something inside the mind breaks free. The language becomes sharper. Images become rich. The meaning intensifies. You only have so many iambs to get your point across. These chains and laws are the wall. Your head, beat against that wall, shakes free newly creative ideas.

Walls are inherent to creative non-fiction. A wall of truth and memory. Truth and memory are as great a law as fourteen lines to a sonnet. If, in your writing, you are tied to the truth, attempting to get at the truth makes your language sharper, enriches images, intensifies meaning. “Tie up my hands with your chains, they are bound to set me free,” said St. Augustine. Or maybe it was the band No Means No. Either way, it’s one reason I stick with the term “Creative Non-fiction.” Even if it’s oxymoronic, the “non-fiction” is what helps to make the “creative” happen.

Last winter, my mom invited me to speak to her book club about my book that had just come out. It was hard for her, in a way, to have family secrets spilled all over Amazon.com. But she was proud too. It was thanks to her that I loved literature. We had books in every corner of the house. She had an English major. She scribbled in journals of her own. Her book club fostered in me a sense that books brought people together. One of the members of the book club, Kathy Lake, asked why I combined stories about my father’s alcoholism with stories of how the Mormon settlers transformed Salt Lake Valley from an arid desert into a cradle of green. I answered, the way the Mormons transformed the mountain streams to reconfigure the valley below was similar to what my dad was doing with his drinking. Trying to change a seemingly unchangeable situation. The rivers flowed down the mountains, funnelled into the Great Salt Lake. My dad drank a lot of liquor. The Mormons made reservoirs to stop the rivers before they reached the lake in order to irrigate their farmland. My father went to AA, Betty Ford, Minneapolis Rehab Center to try to stop the drinking. In the end, the Mormons were more successful than my dad—they transformed the landscape. But, as I spoke to the book club, I understood that the content of my book—that one spends one’s whole life wrestling with granite-like forces—paralleled its form, and that truth, natural force that it is, has to be contended with in writing.

When I reach for a memory, for instance, of my dad getting up from watching Dallas to get what I then thought was a drink of water, I envision the scene. I can hear the clinking of the ice cubes. The jug-jug of the water filling the glass. The shifting blues coming from the TV screen. In my memory, the glass is filled with water. Later, when he is sick with cirrhosis, I have to rethink my memory. Was it water? If it was vodka, how does that change things? Does it change the smell in the room? The colors coming from the TV? Yes and no. The TV still shimmers blue, but now that blue is a little darker. The innocent sound of ice now sounds like the dum-dom-dum of mystery revealed. J.R. Ewing’s words are even more sinister. That truth, or those truths, combine to make different kinds of senses. One is a new, logical sense. If my dad is sick, then maybe he was drinking. But there’s another layer to that sense, an intensified meaning. That my dad, though drinking, sheltered me from what he was doing. That the drinking, at that moment, had no sinister result. That in my memory, water is water and my dad is my dad. That the truth was possibly different is what makes it interesting, puts some stress between memory and logic, and gives me reason to put the story to language. The language—“blue,” “Ewing,” “ice”—deepens the meaning as does double duty trying to be faithful to both memory and truth.

Shelley wrote in his defense of knowledge, “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know.” Knowledge, truth, memory are the laws, the chains, the givens against which writers flail. It is our creative faculties that turn those truths and memories into meaning.  The knowing is the wall. The creative faculties the head. If our heads, like our genres, become bent a little in the banging, it’s worth it. We created something new.

 

Nicole Walker received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, USA. Her nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, won the 2011 Zone 3 non-fiction prize and will be published next year. She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). Her work has appeared in the journals Fence, the Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, New American Writing, the Seneca Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She has been granted a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

 

This essay originally appeared at Writers and Artists: The Insider Guide to the Media. 

Bending Genre–Margot Singer

Once—just once—I wrote a story that that I didn’t need to revise.

From shining idea to fingers tapping at the keyboard to my workshop mates smiling in appreciation and urging me to send it out, capped off in short order with publication in a respected literary journal and a prestigious prize—only once did this lighting bolt of good fortune strike me.

This is what I used to tell people. I remembered it vividly: the feeling of flow as I sat at my desk writing, the flash of insight into structure, the ease with which the words and images and paragraphs fell into place. The rest of the time, of course, writing was the usual hard slog, a slow and painstaking process of groping about in the dark for structure and meaning, turning sentences around in my head, cutting and pasting, giving up and starting over again.

And then one day, standing in the shower, hot water beating on my head, it came to me that I had got it completely wrong. It wasn’t true that I had produced a perfect piece of writing—not even once. The reality was that I had struggled with a previous incarnation of the piece in question (and there they were, multiple drafts of it, stuffed away in my files) that amounted to a failure I had forgotten about, or blocked out, until now. My so-called perfect story was, in fact, a phoenix risen from the ashes of those failures, resurrected four years on.

The point here, however, is not the slipperiness of memory, or the power of wishful thinking, or even the contingent nature of the truth. What’s relevant is what happened in the process of revision (a process I hadn’t even consciously thought of as revision)—what I did with that lump of discarded raw material—that succeeded in bringing it to life.

I had been trying to write about my grandmother. I didn’t have much to go on—only my childhood memories of her and the stories she used to tell. I did some research, but the little information I could find felt thin. I tried to stick to the facts about my grandmother, but I kept writing about myself, and I wasn’t sure how to make those strands connect. The writing felt constrained, hemmed in. I gave up.

When I came back to the material, four years later, I approached it initially as fiction rather than nonfiction. I called my grandmother by a different name. I gave myself a different name as well. I opened up the gates. I gave myself permission to invent.

But what emerged was not fiction but a hybrid, a story-essay braided into three discrete narrative strands: a first person memoir; a version of my grandmother’s stories narrated in the first person in my best approximation of her voice; and an explicitly fictional section, narrated in third person, in which I imagined what my grandmother’s life might have been like.

To say that the third strand was “explicitly fictional” is not to say I lied.

Even in that third strand, which was the most exciting part to write, I either stuck to the facts or made it clear that I was deviating from them deliberately. For example, while I imagined my grandmother having an affair, even my least open-minded relatives understood that I wasn’t suggesting she’d actually had one. Rather, it was apparent that I was imagining her having an affair because I was having one at the time. In other words, it wasn’t story about a woman having an affair so much as an essay about the longing for connection, about the desire to find a reflection of oneself in a person one loves. It wasn’t even an essay about my grandmother (not biography) so much as a meditation on storytelling, on the persistence and elusiveness of the past.

What I discovered was the power of opening up a story beyond the bare-bones skeleton of fact. I learned that there’s a kind of magic portal that opens when you use words like maybe or perhaps. When you use the subjunctive mood (If it had happened this way … ), the conditional tense (It might have happened like this …). So long as you tell the reader what you’re doing (which is to say, if you are honest), I came to see, you can do anything you want.

Here is what I remember. Here is what I imagine. Here is what I think. How powerful they are, these modes of perception (truthful modes) that spread their wings beyond the narrow confines of reported fact.

So dare to bend genre, to flex the confines of story, essay, memoir. Admit what you don’t know and take off from there. When you discover the true meaning that you’re seeking, it might not even feel like the hard work of writing and re-writing at all.

Margot Singer is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She also teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., USA. She is the author of a collection of stories, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, the Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose and the Thomas Carter Prize for the Essay.

This essay originally appeared at Writers and Artists–The Insiders Guide to the Media.