Lying in Translation: Notes Towards a Truthful Memoir–Brooke Champagne

In the grocery stores, dime stores, department stores of the New Orleans East neighborhood where I grew up, my grandmother stole and I lied.  It became part of the rhythm of our days:  Lala brought us into the English-speaking world, where the Americans talked like chirping, or was it squawking birds—I can’t pin down the analogous word, but I knew she didn’t like the sound of it, ese maldito ingles—and she spoke only Spanish, so I served as translator.

Very quickly I learned I must lie. Because at TG&Y off Michoud Boulevard, Lala deigned to purchase household items like toilet paper or detergent, but stole whatever tchotchke it was I wanted. In the check-out line the cashier might ask how we were doing, to which Lala would reply in Spanish, “I’m fantastic, you dummy, because I’m stealing from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” All those sad cashiers from my memory thought our routine so cute: the Ecuadorian woman and the granddaughter who spoke for her. That nice lady who complimented their haircuts, or the orderliness of the store. The woman who, no matter what inexplicable foreign sounds were coming from her mouth, was, according to her granddaughter, always having a nice day.

Lying in translation was simply part of my childhood. I couldn’t tell the world the truth about who Lala was. At home she was my world, and I hers—mi amor, mi vida, mi tesoro—but in public she made me cringe. She couldn’t even speak English, and it didn’t matter that she declined to learn by abstention because she hated the language so. All the world’s books, as far as I knew, were written in English. In this language, learning happened, so in my estimation, Lala refused to learn. I identified Spanish with fierce love and anti-intellectualism, and English where rules were made and followed. My English expanded through school and the limitless stories and worlds offered by books. My Spanish had one character, one plot, one god, and that was Lala. She both admired and begrudged my time with reading, and I knew the day would come when I was forced to pick a language. The more ensconced I became in the English-speaking world, especially when I was at home with Lala, the more of a traitor I became.

Sometime in my adolescence I permanently defected to English. I spent the first ten years of my life speaking Spanish every day, and in the subsequent twenty-five years I may have spoken three months’ worth of the language. I learned to love American boys and men in English, but because of Lala, I thought for some time I’d never be able to grapple with complex ideas in Spanish. In Spanish I only felt. In Spanish one was either the betrayer or the betrayed. Spanish was my dreamy past, and English the a more certain, stolid present and future.

The irony is that when I became a writer I had no interest in writing fiction, or at least in fictionalizing our story. I didn’t want to create a zany Hispanic grandmother performing zany stunts. I had to write her. But through force of childhood habit, I was out of practice in telling her truthfully. And for all the “what is truth in memoir?” debates surrounding this genre, I think the foremost strategy for writing it is pretty straightforward: try not to lie. Tell the truth as you remember it: don’t make more or less of anything or anyone, including yourself. For me this has been complicated by not only my early propensity to lie, but that the truth as I remember it happened in Spanish. Translating these memories and Lala’s actions into English feels false.

In considering this false feeling, I’m reminded of a moment in Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory, when as a boy he’s asked by a friend of his, a gringo, to translate what Rodriguez’s Mexican grandmother has just yelled out to him from her window: “He wanted to know what she had said. I started to tell him, to say—to translate her Spanish words into English. The problem was, however, that though I knew how to translate exactly what she had told me, I realized that any translation would distort the deepest meaning of her message: It had been directed only to me. This message of intimacy could never be translated because it was not in the words she had used but passed through them. So any translation would have seemed wrong; her words would have been stripped of any essential meaning. Finally, I decided not to tell my friend anything. I told him that I didn’t hear all she had said.”

What Rodriguez expresses here is the untranslatability not of language, but of people and their intimacies. I feel already the person I’ve sketched so far is more Latina imp than Lala. How to capture her largeness, her generosity followed by her startling moments of pettiness, without allowing the reader to hear and understand her voice directly? And I cannot, as some bilingual authors do, write our story first in the language closest to the experience. My Spanish is no longer, and perhaps never was, that strong. Today I can still tell Lala I love her and narrate the changing details of my life; I can still make her laugh. But if she were unable to hear, I couldn’t write any of it for her in a language she could understand.


In his 1800 essay “On Language and Words,” philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposes a specific marker for the mastery of a language: when the speaker is capable of translating not words but oneself into the other language. This issue of retaining one’s personality and authentic self across languages remains troubling because in my distance from Spanish, I’m not sure how much I can accurately define who I was when I lived in that language, or who I am within Spanish even now. I recall my young, primarily Spanish-speaking self as devoid of personality, as completely dependent on Lala’s love alone, as a vessel in which the only thing more powerful than the will to please was the silently-brewing mutiny over my leader and her language.

When I think of who I am in Spanish now, when I speak it with Lala, I wonder if I’m still more who she would like me to be—the loud, brash, fearless woman she once was—than I actually am. In Spanish I search more vigilantly for the humor, the absurdity, the magic of living, I find colors and sounds bolder and more daunting, I hear in every sentence a song. It’s an exhausting way to live, which may be why I don’t do it (or speak it) often. To be an always-on vaudevillian in one’s second language is no small task.

With that in mind, let me translate a joke from Spanish.

Last winter I visited Cuba to prepare for a writing exchange this summer between my students at the University of Alabama and Cuban students at the University of San Geronimo in Havana. As part of our exploration, a colleague and I visited the Tropicana Club, famous for its lush tropical gardens, stunning light shows, and nearly-nude dancers.

We arrived early and as I was served my first drink, an icy Cristal cerveza in its tall green bottle, a bird shat all over the left side of my head, shoulder, dress. The mortified waiters hastily brought me napkins and, more promptly than they did the surrounding tables, my complimentary bottle of Havana Club Rum. Everyone apologized profusely: disculpeme, perdoname, que pena. But one waiter knew just what to say as he dabbed my shoulder with a moist napkin: mejor un pajaro que un caballo.

Better a bird than a horse.

And the waiter’s joke made me laugh. Made me forget all about the bird shit. But the more I’ve thought of the joke since, what it would be like if someone told it to me in English after I’d been shat on by an Alabamian bird, I don’t think it would hold the same weight. I don’t know if it would be as fun. Magical realism isn’t just a writing genre in Latin American cultures: it’s a way of seeing the world. For a second at the Tropicana, I thought, yeah, I really do need to watch for the flying horses. No: los caballos que volan.

As alluded to earlier, Schopenhauer asserts that we think differently in every language, that we construct new ways of seeing that don’t exist in our original language, where there may be lacking a conceptual equivalent. A further inference might be made, which is that we feel differently in every language, too. A bird will more readily shit on me in Spanish, in the language where I’ll more readily laugh at it. It makes sense for me to momentarily fear flying horses in Spanish, as ludicrous as that sounds when I’m translating it now.


When I write about Lala, I could tell just the facts: when she was five years old she watched her mother die of tuberculosis, choking on her blood; she was taken in by three vindictive aunts who chopped off her hair, made her kneel on rice so often she rarely had skin there; she’s a raised eyebrow away from five feet tall, but in my memory she’s massive, capable of flooding the kitchen and drowning us with her tears when she cried, and she cried often, in her fear and her anger that I didn’t love her enough. In her I saw all those sad stories manifested in her body. She could literally drown me. I did my best not to make her cry.

That’s the problem with facts. The truth of how I read her and felt about her slips in around them.


Translating words and phrases from Spanish to English, while a vigorous academic exercise, isn’t my greatest difficulty in writing about my past with Lala. What’s most confounding is finding a way to translate her actions. What if I told you of one of the specific ways in which Lala loved: how she kissed me as a child, kissed every place, every powdered part? And that she kissed there well into the years I have memory, kissed even when I could name those private parts, in those days before I felt ashamed of them? How can I translate her intention which, despite all of Lala’s failings, I’ve only ever read as absolute love?

I can tell you that in English-speaking MFA workshop critiques, Lala’s love has been compared to the destructive, perverse one found in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, the memoir in which the narrator recounts her love affair with her biological father. What happened to me was abuse, I’ve been informed, and was advised by some peers not to write about it. Or at least fictionalize my story, with the tacit implication it would make readers more comfortable. Is it through these kisses, they asked, that I want to be known as a writer?

Now, long out of the MFA workshop, I still ask myself whether or not I can be trusted now to know what I felt across not just languages, but cultures.

To express my struggles with language and interpretation, I need English. To express the most important parts of myself, how I learned to love and how I learned to be, I need Spanish.

But what does it mean if my facility with Spanish isn’t what it used to be? Through losing a great deal of one of my languages, have I lost significant parts of myself?


Now just one more story (or is it a riddle, or a joke, a puzzle?), one that Lala told me dozens of times growing up. It’s the refrain of my childhood: el cuento del gallo pelon. The story of the bald rooster. Here’s how the story often went:

Lala: Do you want me to tell you the story about the bald rooster?

Me: Yes!

Lala: I didn’t say anything about yes. I asked you if you wanted to hear the story of the bald rooster.

Me: Please, just tell me!

Lala: I don’t understand what you mean by please. I’m simply asking if you want to hear the story of the bald rooster.

Me: I want to hear the story! You’re getting on my nerves!

Lala: Here you sit talking about nerves and stories when I’m trying to tell you my story of the bald rooster.

And on and on this non-story would nightmarishly go. Through this story neither teller nor listener ever leave the question—the story is never finished. It requires perhaps the devotion of a child to continuously ask for more when resolution is this improbable, and a lover of language to begin the circuitous dialogue in the first place.

This story, as is turns out, is an appropriate metaphor for my work on the Lala memoir. I’ve been writing parts of it for eleven years, off and on. Friends say “tell me more, tell me more,” and I respond, I am telling it. Lala. Memoir. What are you writing? I’m writing it. This story. That story. And on and on the dialogue goes with no resolution.

I don’t know if there’s any solution to the “how do I write this memoir?” dilemma other than to write first and worry over potential problems later. If there’s a solution to my own, it may be in its tentative title.  Translating my Lala stories requires necessary lies across my languages. Though translation may be maddening, may feel false, may require stops and starts, the alternative is the silence Richard Rodriguez answered with when asked what his grandmother had said.

My grandmother is called Lala. I want to tell you what she said and what she did. How her love could be frightening, and sublime. Through the best words I can find, if not always the exact ones, I’ll try to show you.

Works Referenced

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York:
Random House, 1982. Print.

Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet, eds. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002. Print.

Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Louisiana Literature, among other journals. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays, and her memoir about her grandmother, Lala.

Light–Traci O. Connor

I used to think I was born for big
things. I would be well-known,
admired. Change the world.
But fame is for the dead. Van Gogh,



Once, Francesca Cuzzoni refused to
sing the first aria in Handel’s
opera. Madame, he said, I know you
are a veritable devil, but I would
have you know that I am Beelzebub,
chief of them all.

Handel was either a musical genius
or, if Sir Isaac Newton can be
trusted with anything, unremarkable
save for the elasticity of his

Then Handel took the
soprano by the waist and swore that
he would throw her from the window…

Michelangelo in a
windowless room
late at night. Picture him by
candlelight, working tendon
from bone, muscle from muscle
as if untwining lengths of
braided hair.

Or Professor von Hagen in a
black leather fedora exchanging
fluids for plastic in the most
splendid parts of the human

lungs laced with purple veins,
translucent sheets of flesh.

Watch bones bend in his hands.
Watch him fashion, form, sculpt, create.

What is art if not tender
revelation? What is art if not
dedicated to love? Look to the
body. Touch it. Run your
fingers over the shapes of it.
Taste it. Smell it.

The ecstasy of an ear drove Van
Gogh to madness, forgetting
hunger and thirst in the sun
with his canvas empty before

When I connect the freckles on
the back of my left shoulder, I
have a Chagall. Aqueous sky.
An anchorless range of
mountains. A tilty, four-layer,
rum chocolate cake.

What is it?

A man, drunk, is dismembered by a
passing train. His wife buys a red
dress, her heart filled with wet
ash. The dress is blue red, cold red.
She licks sugar from her fingers.
The scrape of her shoes on cement
make her think of rats.
She sits in the kitchen with her feet on a stepstool
wearing the same expression she puts on for church.

Sir Isaac Newton heard the opening of the dawn.
Thomas Edison was afraid of the dark.
Lord Carnarvon and his dog died at the precise moment
the power failed in Cairo.

Think of the clipped light caught
in the wife’s kitchen window:

a measure of blue,
a stitch of green,
a ribbon of pink across

the bridge of her nose.

How it comes on swift wings,
such small disturbances of


Traci O. Connor is a novelist, poet, flash-memoir writer, and author of the short story collection, Recipes for Endangered Species (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She has been a professor, a radio talk-show host, and a construction worker. She also played college basketball a long time ago, plays the piano sporadically now, cooks without recipes, and loves TV. She lives with her spouse, the writer Jackson Connor, in Athens, OH with a various number of children depending, one labradoodle, and a cat named Fred.

Permissive Sieves: Comparing the Lyric Essay and Ghazal–Heidi Czerwiec

“I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.”

—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Like many writers, I come to the lyric essay from a background as a practicing poet. And the poetry I’m known for practicing often is written in received forms, like the sonnet or triolet, and as such, I’m often tapped to teach poetic forms to students. My experience with forms is why, while trying to stretch my teaching and my own writing by teaching a hybrid forms workshop last semester that included the lyric essay, two things struck me.

There’s an oft-repeated (at least by me, to my students, ad nauseum) saw that originates in a letter from Theodore Roethke: “‘Form’ is regarded not as a neat mould to be filled, but rather as a sieve to catch certain kinds of material.” [1] Sonnet-sieves catch short arguments or questions to be answered. Villanelles and triolets strain out all but the most obsessive turnings-over of topics.

Since this is the mindset with which I come to writing, as I was teaching my class, I found myself thinking of the lyric essay as its own poetic form – asking not how to define it as a “mould,” but trying to determine what kind of material is suited to its sieve.

To do so, it might help to review some of the qualities and structural features of the lyric essay, in order to think about what kinds of content they might facilitate. The lyric essay represents a collision of opposites: poetry with prose, music and meaning, the realistic with the speculative. It often presents its material content through parataxis, juxtaposition, fragmentation, and collage in a way that makes representation a dynamic process. Its disjunctive leaps, hesitations, ellipses, elisions, non sequiturs, and self-contradictions subvert the privileging of writing as the product of the Romantic unified “I.” It may suppress linear progression in favor of circularity, meditation, imagination.

Yet the lyric essay balances this instability by keeping the reader’s attention at the level of language with lexical and syntactical richness, repetitions of sounds, words, phrases, motifs, and braids. What’s important emerges through accretion of patterns, either by imposing a pattern on what otherwise seems to be chaos, or by revealing an underlying or hidden pattern. The deceptively simple packaging of prose uses brevity, the speed of its progression, and often colloquial language to persuade the reader to quickly accept any odd or surreal details and/or to move across juxtapositions assuming connections, yet can make surprising turns even more surprising.

As a result of these qualitative and structural features, the form of the lyric essay “sieve” seems to attract or catch the following kinds of material:

  • the surreal or absurd, either because the subject matter is surreal or absurd or in order to subvert logic or a prevailing paradigm. The speed of the prose moves the reader through its odd logic, while the lyric patterning reveals a larger truth or beauty.
  • embodied oppositions or tensions, within a form that does the same through shifts of point of view, style, tone, and/or collage.
  • meditations, especially where the author isn’t sure what s/he thinks. The form allows the author to approach the material from several angles simultaneously (often through lists, fragments, or braids), while the “lyric” poetics attempt to impose or reveal patterns. [2, 3, 4]

The second thing that struck me, after considering the lyric essay as a poetic form, was its similarity to another poetic form that emerged in American poetry around the same time. The lyric essay was first named by Deborah Tall, then-editor of Seneca Review, in 1994 in a note to John D’Agata, and the journal devoted at least part of its space to the form starting in 1997. In 1992 Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali introduced contemporary poets to the medieval Persian form, the ghazal, in an essay “Ghazal: The Charms of a Considered Disunity,” began publishing his own, and prodded his colleagues to write poems in the form, which he published in the 2000 anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. [5]

For those unfamiliar with the ghazal: it is a form written in couplet stanzas, of at least five couplets but with no maximum limit. In the opening couplet, both lines end with short refrain immediately preceded by a rhyme; in subsequent couplets, only the second line has the rhyme and refrain, and the final couplet often is signaled by incorporating the poet’s name. (For several examples, see the Poetry Foundation at Yet a hallmark of the form is its seeming disunity: as Ali explains, “The ghazal is made up of thematically independent couplets held (as well as not held) together in a stunning fashion…. Then what saves the ghazal from what might be considered arbitrariness? A technical context, a formal unity based on rhyme and refrain and prosody.” [6]

In both the ghazal and the lyric essay, what’s important is what’s emphasized by pattern, yet each form gives the writer as much or as little room as desired to approach the topic from any number of angles. The effect may be a cohesive progression building on the central theme or refrain idea, or disjunctive fragments linked only by the theme/refrain’s central hub. Both invite the reader to engage with the form, co-creating meaning in determining how the piece hangs, or doesn’t hang, together.

In some examples of the lyric essay, the fragments on the page visually resemble the ghazal’s brief couplets, as in Fanny Howe’s “Doubt” or this excerpt from Claudia Cortese’s “The Red Essay”:

1) Setting: The barn. Sometimes, I can’t remember if there were stars, fall air
clear or smoky, the shape of the moon’s face.

2) I read Perrault’s moral to my students: Attractive, well-bred young ladies should never talk to strangers, for if they should, they may well provide dinner for the wolf.

4) Afterward, Bill died, and I was glad. Afterward, he sang Meatloaf to me and I held him and laughed.

1.5) Other times, I can see the barn door wide open, grass below soaked in starlight. I could have

screamed or clawed. I dreamt saltwater
taffy, sister’s sticky kiss, how we kicked
pigeons with our skirts over our heads.

I worried about his feelings, that he’d feel rejected.

3) I said, Let’s go back to the house. I’m cold. Please. Stop. He said, It won’t take long. I won’t go in all the way. We negotiated. What do you name that? [7]

In this excerpt, Cortese holds in tension trauma memoir and fairytale, anecdote and critique, prose and poetic fragments, linked by the motifs of the wolf and vulnerable girl, and by the proper nouns she does name – Perrault, Bill, Meatloaf, etc. – even as she struggles to name her experience. Other lyric essays may not use fragments, but incorporate thematically or stylistically autonomous parts to achieve tension. Each section of Nicole Walker’s brief triptych “Fish” approaches its common subject from a different point of view and a nonfiction style – nature documentary, memoir, food writing – and but ties the three sections together through motifs and words that echo throughout the piece: the act of straining, “flesh,” “hold,” “circling.” [8] Likewise, Brian Doyle’s moving 9/11 essay “Leap” links a collage of eyewitness accounts, apocalyptic biblical quotes, and meditative speculation via the repetition of “hand in hand” to transform the horror of bodies leaping from the Twin Towers into a prayerful, elegiac image. [9]

The above examples lend themselves to what Wordsworth called “process of mind”: they demonstrate the experience of a mind exploring and discovering a complex topic, and they engage the reader in this process. The fact that both the lyric essay and the ghazal reached a critical mass in popularity at the same moment may signal a readiness for forms which, as Agha Shahid Ali puts it, “evade the Western penchant for unity,” whether unity of speaker, style, or source – forms which allow for a multifaceted exploration of its content. To return to Ali, as he phrases the question, “Do such freedoms frighten some of us?” [6]



[1] Kinzie, Mary. The Cure of Poetry in the Age of Prose (U Chicago P, 1993). Print.

[2] Lindner, April, “Eloquent Silences: Lyric Solutions to the Problem of the

Biographical Narrative,” The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Crosscurrents, ed.Steven P. Schneider (U of Iowa P, 2012). Print.

[3] Lopate, Phillip, “The Lyric Essay,” To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary

Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013). Print.

[4] Sajé, Natasha, “A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem,” The Writer’s

Chronicle, March/April 2012. 33-49. Print.

[5] Ali, Agha Shahid, “Ghazal: The Charms of a Considered Disunity,” The Practice of

Poetry, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992).


[6] —, “Ghazal: To Be Teased into DisUnity,” An Exaltation of Forms, ed. Annie Finch

and Kathrine Varnes (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002). Print.

[7] Cortese, Claudia, “The Red Essay,” Mid-American Review (34:1, 2013). 25-6. Print.

[8] Walker, Nicole, “Fish,” Quench Your Thirst With Salt (Zone 3, 2013). Print.

[9] Doyle, Brian, “Leap.” Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Lex Williford. (Touchstone, 2007). Print.



Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who teaches at the University of North Dakota and edits poetry for North Dakota Quarterly.  She is the author of three poetry collections including the forthcoming A Is For A-ke, The Chinese Monster (Dancing Girl Press), and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. Recent or forthcoming work appears in Barrow Street, Waxwing, and Able Muse. Visit her at

In What She Left Behind – Maggie Messitt

In What She Left Behind – Maggie Messitt

  1. “There really wasn’t anything of value,” the detective declared, handing me a brown paper bag, folded in half, marked evidence. I left the Maui police station without looking inside.
  2. Last summer, I spent hours and days into weeks tracing over copies of her handwritten letters, transporting myself back in time, finding ways to feel how her hands moved, how the position of her fingers would have gripped the pencil, and to feel her story hit the page.
  3. I once sat for two days spinning and spinning microfiche of the Eugene Weekly, looking for her in the classified ads from 1999. She was there, tucked inside the smallest ad she could buy.
  4. I’ve read I Know Where I’m Going three times—a borrowed book returned to me, instead of her. I hold on to it and thumb through its pages looking for signs of life. It had been preserved on a shelf for the better part of a decade. Elsewhere in the book borrower’s house, sits a paper sculpture, tiled with Wonder Bread logos—a handcrafted gift from my aunt.
  5. Somewhere in Manhattan, on the office wall of a musical friend, is a framed photograph of them after a concert at the Southpaw. A green scarf covered her hair.
  6. I’ve listened to a copy of a ten-year-old mixed tape on loop, and I imagine her doing so as she painted, or sculpted, or wrote.
  7. At some point, I slipped her handwritten recipe for flax crackers inside a vegan cookbook in my kitchen. It falls out every once in a while.
  8. I find unassuming entrances into post offices she once frequented, those that feed into nooks of silver-faced boxes in Greenwich Village, Yelm, Eugene, New Orleans, and Paia. I sit on the floor near her old mailbox. I place my hand, flat against its door and close my eyes. This is where I talk to her. And, as I stand up, dusting off to leave, I make sure to touch the keyhole with my pointer finger.
  9. She once stayed in a house that backed up into Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, in New Orleans. Like me, she loved to wander the stories marked in stone. She found peace in the cemetery. And, so, on the island where she was last seen, not far from Haiku where she last lived, I found myself wandering through the ocean-side cemetery of a Buddhist temple. I could see her in the beads left behind for others, and the jars of water, each intended for mourners to wash away the worries of this life before sitting down to speak with or share a meal with the deceased.
  10. One hundred days ago, I sat on the floor of our hotel room in Maui and emptied the brown paper bag with my mother. Inside was a collection of the long past and near past. Inside, sat a strangely curated and sparse time capsule, items collected by the police for the sake of identification: a pocket knife, a flashlight, a box of crayons, a birthday card from my mother, a photograph of my eldest sister, decades old, sheets of artwork, and a prominent illustration of Legba.


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 and working on her next book, a hybrid of investigation and memoir, the story of her aunt, an artist, missing since 2009. The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa (April 2015) is her first book.



Justin Hocking–Escapology

First, you slip your arms through the overlong sleeves of a brand new white jacket. That new clothing smell: bleached cotton, crisp canvas. The discovery of curious leather straps and metal buckles, the function of which are yet unclear.

The discovery—stranger still—that the sleeves are sewn shut.

For argument’s sake, let’s say this jacket has a particularly tight fit. Let’s say that, straps cinched and buckles fastened, the snug garment pretzels your arms across your chest, left arm over the right, pressing your thumb-knuckles into your ribs, a tight vertical belt running from your navel to your coccyx.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re literally tied in a knot.


Now, let’s say you’re hanging upside down on the stage of a vaudevillian theatre. Dim chandeliers sprout from the ceiling/floor like ornate stalagmites. Your head beats with blood-thrum; your hair hangs like single, limp wing. Stage lights hot as stove-tops, circles of your own sweat darkening the dusty stage floor.

Picture, now, a live audience—three hundred inverted heads.

You writhe and strain against the restrictive coat, thumping and wriggling, skin burning and chaffing, like a pupae tearing free from its silk casing.

You have sixty seconds.


Two years ago I had coffee with an editor of a well-regarded literary journal, known mainly for publishing high-caliber literary fiction. We sat down to talk about an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir that I hoped he’d publish in special-themed edition of the magazine. The excerpt describes the narrator’s emotional descent and increasing self-destructiveness after a break up and a traumatic robbery incident. Each section of the piece is prefaced with an actual surf report, which act as a kind of emotional barometer: as the narrator’s psychological state becomes more dire, the surf grows larger, more life-threatening. But at this editor’s request, I’d stripped the surf reports from the piece, to make it more conventional, more capable of standing alone from the larger book. Because I so wanted the excerpt to appear in the magazine, I was willing to make these changes, to excise the one element that I felt (and still feel) makes the chapter most formally intriguing.

In the small talk before we got down to business, the editor mentioned something about how he likes authors who write with a great deal of restraint.

Only after the magazine rejected the revised piece, a month or so later, did I realize this comment had been likely been aimed, more or less directly, at me. Not only had I wasted my time on a fruitless revision, but I’d also been relegated, apparently, to a category of writers who do not write with a great deal of restraint.

The rejection left me in the dark for a day or two, the embarrassing little Fourth of July sparklers of my own insecurity singeing the thin skin of my inner wrists. The truth is I’m attracted to writers who use restraint, who place themselves willingly in something of a literary straitjacket. I’m thinking of Amy Hempel’s stunning self-control in The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, an essayistic short story in which a flawed young narrator visits her terminally ill friend in the hospital. Cemetery manages to be satisfyingly emotive without a shred of sentimentality or cliché; there is zero tugging at the conventional heartstrings, but it’s also deeply felt and paradoxically generous. It’s rumored to be Hempel’s first published piece—edited by Gordon Lish, that dark emperor of restraint—and it’s as close to a perfect short story as I’ve read.


Several months after its release, I was invited to visit a friend’s book club, to discuss my memoir. We had a lively conversation, at the end of which one woman asked me the following question:

How do you know whether or not you’ve given too much of yourself away?

She was a doctor, and struggled with knowing when and how much of her own stories to share with patients. She was interested in discussing larger questions of How much do you reveal about yourself? and When do you to maintain professional boundaries?

I’m afraid, though, that I took her line of inquiry too personally, as a condemnation.

I believe firmly in making oneself vulnerable on the page; I’m a constant proselytizer of this gospel. But having released an emotionally raw memoir, these days part of me feels prone to want to write with more restraint, more camouflaging, more obliqueness.

When does vulnerability become weakness, I find myself constantly wondering—and have I crossed that line?

The answer is, it probably depends on who’s reading your work.

There are times, like when I received an email from a thirty year-old schoolteacher in New Jersey, with the headline “Your Memoir Saved My Life,” that I’m glad I wrote what I did. There are other times—like during the book club Q&A session, or when I read certain online reviews (something I’ve since quit doing, as a strict rule), or when I think of my male in-laws reading my memoir—that I’m not so sure.


Restraint and seclusion were often used to control the behavior of people with mental health conditions. However, in recent years, clear consensus has emerged that restraint and seclusion are safety versions of the last resort and that the use of these interventions can and should be reduced significantly.


I want to make sure I don’t conflate the concept of restraint with the practice of utilizing literary constraints. As so many of us know, writing with self-imposed constraints can be freeing. In a recent interview with author Steven Church, while discussing an essay in which he limited himself to riffing only about the topics “shoulders” and “crowns,” he said the following: It is a bit paradoxical, I suppose, that putting handcuffs or constraints on my thinking also allowed my thinking and research and essays to expand in fascinating ways while also leading to many moments of discovery. . . I highly recommend it.


Lately there’s been quite a lot of dissing of the confessional mode, dissing of memoir, at least in high-literary circles. Having just released a memoir, maybe I’m just overly sensitive to it. In a recent interview, Megan Daum said something to the effect of I don’t confess, that makes it sound like I did something wrong. Shortly afterward, in another interview, Charles D’Ambrosio said something disparaging about writing in a goopy confessional mode. These are both writers who I imagine would eschew the label memoirist in strong favor of the term essayist.

I would argue that 90% of the time we talk about “confessional writing” we’re talking about work that reveals mental dysfunction, addiction, intense emotional states, etc. I’m thinking now of O.G. Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell, who wrote about his struggle with mental illness in Life Studies. The label of “confession” often also extends to admissions of having been raped, or sexually abused, or otherwise victimized. Or, in the case of St. Augustine, of lust and promiscuity. So, one could argue, the railing against “confession” is also a covert stigmatization of these issues, as not ok subjects for polite social or artistic discourse.

But I tend to agree with Megan Daum that confession is maybe not the right word, that it has conservative Catholic undertones that imply “sin” and “guilt.” And as for D’Ambrosio, who is himself a Catholic, I agree that goopy confessions might be best reserved for the privacy of a confession box or a therapist’s office.

Maybe what we’re going for is just plain old expression, a word I do like, with its connotation of pressing emotions away from our bodies, rather than aiming the barrel inward—the opposite of depression.


In the comments section of a recent online article about the film version of Wild, a male commenter/troll wrote something to the effect of Cheryl Strayed must be stopped. Stopped, as in restrained. As in: restrained from sharing so many of the details of her life in such a public way. As in: restrained from achieving such stratospheric success for having been emotionally honest, and talented. In a recent radio interview, Strayed said, half-jokingly, that if she’d known so many millions of people were going to read her book (including, presumably, the mostly male trolls who harass her) she never would have revealed so much about herself.


I sort of don’t want to tell you something, though I’ve long since let the secret out of the bag.

I’d kind of rather just hang here, knitted up safely in my strappy canvas jacket.

In the section I was hoping the aforementioned literary magazine would publish, I admit to having a very hard time transitioning onto some antidepressant medication in the wake of having a gun shoved in my face. During my conversation with the editor, he mentioned that my revelation re: the meds was maybe a bit too much, too revealing, too vulnerable. Too heavy. I suspect this was part of the reason they ultimately rejected the piece, even after asking me to revise it.

I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea that the piece didn’t work outside the context of the larger memoir, or that the revised version just wasn’t all that good.

But I’m also left with the feeling that these things—e.g. an adult human being actually really needing some help—are not to be discussed. At least not in work that might appear in the pages of a well-regarded literary magazine.


Straitjackets were invented in France, of all places—that bastion of libertè and equalitè—by an upholsterer named Guilleret, working on contract for the Bicetre Hospital in 1790. Most historians consider straitjackets a major improvement from the ropes and chains previously used to restrain the mentally disordered. Such implements included handcuffs, which have been around in some form since the Bronze Age.

Across the channel, one hundred and some odd years after the invention of the straitjacket, T.S. Eliot formalized his concept of impersonality in poetry, otherwise known as the objective correlative. His proclamation decreed that a poet’s personal emotions should never be stated directly on the page, that instead the poet must find some object or image suggestive of them—e.g. a patient etherized upon a table—and only then can s/he evoke the same feelings in the reader.

As William Carlos Williams later put it, there should be no ideas except in things.

The objective correlative, one could argue, is a kind of straitjacket designed to keep things from getting too messy, to restrict the writer from revealing too much or embarrassing himself with vague sentiment. T.S. Eliot went so far as to wield it against Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, whom he felt was too unrestrained in his emotional outbursts.

The objective correlative is absolute doctrine in most contemporary university writing departments—this device that was instituted nearly a century ago by a brilliant but repressed man from St. Louis, living in perhaps the most emotionally reserved culture on the planet.

(The etymology of the word reserved traces back to England in the 1650’s, meaning self-imposed restraint on freedom of words or actions; a habit of keeping back the feelings.)

Of course, the objective correlative worked exceptionally well as a device for rendering T.S. Eliot’s period of mental collapse in The Wasteland. Even with all its impenetrable literary facades and intertextuality, Kate Zambreno calls it totally amazingly hysterical and emo.

My question, though (and part of Zambreno’s): is the objective correlative still working for us? All the time?
Is part of the reason so many of us have moved (escaped?) over to creative nonfiction because there’s (sometimes) less demand for elaborate obfuscation, for byzantine references meant to signify emotions and experiences? Because we can employ the objective correlative as an accessory, rather than a muzzle?

Is the whole concept of emotional restraint a white male European thing? Or, more specifically, a British thing? (I’ll admit that almost all of my ancestry is British; I’ll also admit that there’s a strain of Protestant gloom, seriousness, and inexpressiveness that runs in my genes, and that I’m constantly both wielding and working to overcome it.)

Wasn’t British colonization, with its attendant “civilizing” (which Herman Melville referred to as “snivilizing”) a way to restrain the more demonstrative, scantily clad “heathens”?

(Circa 1200, the concept of a “Wild Man” was a “man lacking in self-restraint,” otherwise known as a “primitive, or savage.”)

Was the American colonization of Hawaii—with its subsequent missionary suppressing of native pursuits like surfing and nature-worship and nakedness—itself a form of restraint? Or possibly my comparisons here are strained; perhaps it’s disrespectful and reductive to tether the awful history of colonialism and patriarchy to literary aesthetics.


Wearing an institutional straitjacket for long periods of time can be quite painful. Blood tends to pool in the elbows, where swelling may then occur. The hands may become numb from lack of proper circulation, and due to bone and muscle stiffness the upper arms and shoulders may experience excruciating pain. Thrashing around while in a straitjacket is a common, but mostly an ineffective method of attempting to move and stretch the arms.



I worked briefly with a creative writing student who was not doing well, mentally. His writing was completely unrestrained, nearly incoherent—a kind of unmitigated gut-spilling that was painful to read. More than painful, it was frightening: a scrum of raw emotion and clutter cribbed from an online mental health chat room, mixed with diary-like confessions, but submitted as a short story. I consulted with an expert, who suggested I ask this student to leave class, that it wasn’t a safe environment for him or the other students. I dreaded the conversation, but he agreed. He admitted he wasn’t taking great care of himself, that he wasn’t really in a place to have his written work parsed by others. When he stood up to leave my office, a cigarette butt that had been clinging somehow to his jeans was now stranded on the red fabric of my Ikea chair.

On the other hand, I’m often most enthusiastic about student work that delves into personal darkness, that takes big emotional risks. One of my current MFA students is working on a lyrical, hybrid memoir about receiving electroshock therapy for Bipolar Disorder; she’s braiding this personal narrative with a natural history of lightning; the combination is thrilling, emotionally resonant, and often disarmingly humorous. The writing invites and encourages you to look away at regular intervals; it gives you a chance to breathe. The outward expansion balances the inward diving, the uninhibited self-revelation.


Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up, Kate Zambreno writes: At the time Fitzgerald published these essays his fellow male genius contemporaries—Hemingway and Dos Passos and the rest—were like what the fuck are you doing, Scott? This sort of ripped-from-the-heart memoir wasn’t considered real writing, wasn’t manly. Wasn’t manly? Wasn’t LITERARY.

And then there was Zelda Fitzgerald, of course, who was restricted from writing/publishing about her own intimate experiences within the mental health system.


The first recorded mention of handcuffs: In Virgil’s telling of the myth of Proteus, the Ancient Greek shape-shifting prophet. Anytime men approached him for answers to their insipid existential questions, he shifted forms and escaped. Until Aristaeus, son of Apollo, used handcuffs to restrain the god, because he needed desperately to learn the secret behind the colony collapse of his bees.

The “Flexible”

The “Snap”


The “Twister”

La Puocette
La Corde

Menotte Double

The Swing Cuff

Now we have disposable cuffs, first introduced in 1960’s, similar to zip ties. They’ve been described as Great for riots or other situations where officers need to secure lots of people quickly:

wrist ties

riot cuffs




tri-fold cuffs




Plastic restraints, though, are believed by many to be more likely to inflict nerve or soft-tissue damage to the wearer than metal handcuffs.


In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine maintains a posture of relative distance and reserve, writing mostly in the second person about the experience of being a black woman in America. But something shifts halfway through the book; there’s a sense of the author slipping surreptitiously and gracefully from her own self-imposed restraints, especially when writing about men in her life—men so often placed in actual physical restraints: The hearts of my/brothers are broken. If I knew/another way to be, I would call up a/brother, I would hear myself saying,/my brother, dear brother, my dearest/brothers, dear heart—



I don’t think I would have particularly liked Ken Kesey in the 60’s, or any decade, for that matter. The way he treated women, the way the Merry Pranksters fucked the woman they nicknamed “Stark Naked” for 1200 miles in the back of their hippy bus, then abandoned her, wearing nothing but a blanket, in the middle of Texas when her bad LSD trip turned into a psychotic breakdown, when she could no longer deal with being the “star” (read: sex object) of their misguided cinéma vérité. No one stayed with her in Texas to make sure she was ok; no one so much as made a phone call during her brief hospitalization. Perhaps the only truly human moment in the entire history of the Prankster’s dumb-ass bus tour: Stark Naked running off the bus, literally naked, to embrace Larry McMurtry’s child, because she so missed her own toddler back in California. Then there’s the story of another woman—a friend of Neal Cassady’s—gang raped by twenty or more Hell’s Angels at Kesey’s place in the redwoods, with Kesey’s and Cassady’s apparent consent. A knot of rage tightens in my stomach when I think about it, like I want to go ballistic on Kesey and Cassady and the Angels—a wrestling scrum I’d certainly lose, but not without getting a few good shots in.
Sometimes I want to meet macho with macho; sometimes I lose myself.

I don’t always know how, exactly, a man is supposed to behave.

I often find myself fantasizing about times when I was wronged or manipulated (or when someone like Stark Naked was wronged or manipulated), and how I should have responded with fists or elbows or swift takedowns, even if I wasn’t even born yet.

Maybe it’s my own history of exploitation by immature, egocentric men.

Physical restraints are particularly traumatizing to people who have been victims of physical and sexual abuse.

In Barry Lopez’s essay for Harper’s, entitled “Sliver of Sky,” he shares an emotionally candid account of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a cunning sociopath, who also happened to be a pillar of the community. Lopez explains that as a young adult—long after the abuse ceased—he experienced something akin to a blind rage whenever he felt he was being taken advantage of in even the smallest of ways.

In other words, us survivors have a hard time restraining ourselves, and we honestly regret certain instances when we fail to do so, just as I will soon likely regret the previous lines about hippies (who I actually tend to like) and about wanting to punch Ken Kesey (it’s too late for that, and I have no plans to ever actually punch anyone).

And what I’m trying to actually get to is this: despite how much anger he elicits in me, I also can’t help wondering, if Ken Kesey was still alive—if he was sober—what would he say about the idea of restraint? The man who wrote the unhinged novel that helped set in motion the legislation that banned nonconsensual psychiatric hospitalization?


1) Each use of restraint or seclusion poses an inherent danger, both physical and psychological, to the individual who is subject to the interventions and, frequently, to the staff who administer them.

2) The decision to use restraint or seclusion nearly always is arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and generally avoidable.

3) Many inexpensive and effective alternatives to restraint and seclusion have been developed and successfully implemented across a broad range of mental health facility types.


In 2006, a mentally ill cartoonist and zinester named James Chasse died in the custody of the Portland Police Bureau as a result of being severely beaten and restrained.

After spotting him apparently urinating in public, the 250-pound Officer Chris Humphries tackled the 145-pound Chasse on the pavement, breaking sixteen of his ribs. The blunt force of this trauma was likely the cause of his death, but Chasse very well might have lived had he not been placed in arm and leg restraints—had he not been essentially hog tied—and had the police not delayed medical attention for over two hours.

One uncanny detail from this terrible story: decades before, the seminal Portland punk rock band The Wipers wrote a song about James Chasse, entitled “Alien Boy,” with the following lyrics: they hurt what they don’t understand.


Though Gordon Lish was largely responsible for establishing Raymond Carver’s early writing career, the more mature, newly sober Carver grew deeply weary of Lish’s minimalist editorial style, his violence with the red pencil. Carver could no longer abide Lish’s surgical editing of anything human or sentimental from his work; this legendary writer/editor skirmish nearly wrecked Carver’s precarious mental health. Carver eventually worked up the courage to jettison Lish; he re-published his classic short story “The Bath” in the revised (or perhaps more original) form of “A Small Good Thing.” “A Small Good Thing” is the warmer, more human story—the one I’d choose if, say, I had to spend a few days in the hospital. But during my stay, I’m sure I’d notice, for the fifth or sixth time, all the places where “A Small Good Thing” could’ve used more stern editing, as when the doctor calls the female main character little mother, or in the highly charged final scene, when the baker says, Sweet, sweet Jesus. They’re slightly cringe-worthy lines, just as we’ve all probably written many of our own cringe-worthy lines.


I run in different circles, as we all do. Sometimes, surrounded by other writers at AWP or elsewhere, I feel like, why do we all have to come up with fancy, aestheticized ways of describing our feelings or experiences? Why do we have to worry about being cliché with every expression? In conversations with other writers, I fear saying something hackneyed, something common. I can’t help but wonder what kind of repression this engenders. But then, say, in a group of non-writers, someone delivers a packaged phrase, and I wish they’d deliberated on a more unique, artful way of expressing it.

I’m stuck somewhere in the middle.

I fear that too often, I just remain silent.


Unlike many contemporary writers, (e.g. David Foster Wallace, David Shields), I don’t really know shit about western philosophy. My background is in psychology. Not that I’m particularly proud of this—I mostly hated all my research-focused undergraduate courses in Behavioral Neuroscience. Yet, in ancient Greece, the word psyche was represented symbolically by the emergence of winged creatures from a chrysalis. Psyche, then, connotes the transubstantiation of the soul from one form to another—a process requiring a period of darkness, inversion, restraint, followed by a chewing through of the tight silk camisole.

A chewing through and eventual flight.

I’m interested, then, in philosophical questions about how we think and what we can know, but they rarely feel as exigent to me as the questions how are we transformed by darkness and loss and how do we heal?


If you were writing this essay, would you include a section about Eric Garner? About choke holds as a form of restraint? Would you worry that including this—as well as the James Chasse reference—may diminish their importance, or might be seen as self-serving, especially in juxtaposition to a conversation about aesthetics?

As literary writers, we’re supposed to stay clear of overt politicking or didacticism; we don’t employ slogans unless they’re writ large on a protest sign, and even then we often feel embarrassed by their lack of subtlety.

And for God’s sake, under no condition should we rant.

Perhaps all you want to express is the basic human horror at the fact of an asthmatic man being choked to death while essentially begging for his life, but you yourself risk the accusation of an improper use of restraint.


Methods for escaping from handcuffs:

  1. slipping hands out when the hands are smaller than the wrist
  2. lock-picking
  3. releasing the pawl with a shim
  4. or simply opening the handcuffs with a duplicate key, often hidden on the body of the performer before the performance.


But what if I told you that I camouflaged the gender of the student I mentioned from my writing workshop? Perhaps I’m just as guilty as T.S. Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald for “silencing the madwoman,” for restraining creativity in its messiest, most inchoate form. Perhaps I was just scared. To my credit, the mental health expert I consulted was female, and herself a writer. I didn’t force the student out of my class; I just brought up the idea that perhaps focusing first on his/her health was more important than writing, just at that moment. The student agreed.

I invited this student to re-enroll the following semester, but I’ve yet to hear another word, just as I’ve yet to re-submit anything to the literary journal that rejected me.


Recently, after a reading by a group of hip young poets, my fiancée said, that wasn’t poetry, that was just vomiting words.

Maybe what we need are occasional intense bursts of unrestrained writing, like in Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a work of semi-autobiographical fiction in which a newly sober narrator says I was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that. It’s one of few such bald admissions in the book; maybe that’s why it works so well.


I can offer up these manicured little examples about when to exercise restraint in our writing, and when to break free, but the truth is that I don’t really know. I wonder how Whitman would weigh in, or one of the young Ferguson protestors, both of whom might encourage us to break out of the zip strips and run amok through the halls, down the police-lined boulevards, to swarm the streets and reclaim the freeways in the name of the people, of justice.

But I’m equally inspired by another of my current students, who is also writing about mental health and addiction issues (also with a lot of humor), while honoring her literary heroine Sylvia Plath. Unlike Plath, though, she’s working to tell her story without spilling so much blood on the page.


In 2013, Sofia Romero, also known as Sof Strait, set the world record by escaping from a straitjacket 49 times in one hour.


I guess at the end of our careers and lives, I don’t want us to look back and say, above all, we restrained ourselves. Or perhaps even worse, the passive tense version, we were restrained, implying that someone else has clicked the shackles around our wrists and ankles, removed any slack, and pocketed the key.

Restraint, then, as something we employ constantly, constantly—49 times in an hour—but that we slip out of just as easily—49 times in an hour—and by which we’re never truly rendered helpless, motionless, silent.


It’s not actually necessary to dislocate one’s shoulder to escape from a straitjacket. This was a fictitious rumor created by Houdini, to scare off his competitors in the realm of escapology.

The most common way to escape is to hoist your arms over your head and then simply peel the jacket off your torso.

Houdini used to perform the feat behind a curtain, but discovered it’s much better received with the heavy fabric pulled to the either side—spotlights trained on our slick, upside-down brows—allowing the audience to directly witness our struggle.


Works Referenced:


Haimowitz, Urff & Huckshorn. “Restraint and Seclusion: A Risk Management Guide” (online PDF).; September, 2006.


Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York, NY: Scribner (reprint edition), 2007.

Johnson, Dennis. Jesus’ Son. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992.

Lindstrom, Brian. Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse. Breaking Glass Pictures, 2013.

Lopez, Barry: “Sliver of Sky: Confronting the Trauma of Sexual Abuse.” Harper’s Magazine, January 2013.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2014.
Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York City, NY: Picador (sixth printing edition), 2008.

Zambreno, Kate. Heroines. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012.

Online Etymology Dictionary (

Straitjacket, Houdini, and Sofia Romero histories from Wikipedia’s Straitjacket and Escapology entries. Handcuff history researched on, Wikipedia and


Justin Hocking is the author of the memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf, 2014) — a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the 2015 Oregon Book Award. He is a Co-Founder of the Wilderness Writing MFA Program at Eastern Oregon University, and the Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. His work has also appeared in The Normal School, Orion, Poets & Writers and The Rumpus. He is a current Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient, and winner of the Willamette Writers’ 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in writing, publishing, teaching and literary outreach. More information is available at

mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi: an idiot’s mediation on voice–Timston Johnston

Bear with me.

A bucket list item checked off and a high school dream come true, this year, someone dresses as me for Halloween. I’m easy to replicate, but I’m particular, and a few mistakes are noticeable: the hat, too new (a Detroit Tigers ball cap, yes, but not sun-bleached, no sweat stains); the plaid shirt’s squares are too small, and the color, a dull shade between late-autumn tan and dying feather grass, something that goes well with chiropractic waiting room chairs, a shirt that says suburban weekend-warrior at an in-law’s barbecue; the shoes have no red; black socks instead of stretched, holey, and dirty white. The beard, drawn on. The jeans, however, are right: carpenter and just loose enough, an out-of-date, but working, T9 phone in the side pocket. The black hoodie is acceptable, and so is the undershirt, gray with mostly unseen writing, but it has not been given to him by my father as an afterthought with a stack of old mail. Otherwise, notable effort.

With this list, I admit my own life has a style guide, that these are the rules I must follow just to be myself, an odd but completing satisfaction unearthed in high school when I found out others knew me as that guy who wears plaid. This everyday attire had nothing to do with me liking plaid; it had everything to do with me believing plaid is slimming. Since then I’ve maintained a life of consistency. Summers are hot under layers, but I have what every adolescent begs for: an identity. This is Tim: he likes plaid. He likes hats. He likes golf. He’s grumpy. Don’t say anything about thin crust pizza. Avoid topics that could lead to Adam Sandler. Never bring up parallel parking.

During Halloween night, other-me, out of character, says something along the lines of he sees why I do this loose-plaid-and-jeans lifestyle; he’s never been more comfortable, never felt so relaxed. Others disagree, say my style looks fine on me but on him, a man whose everyday clothing is fashionable and snug, is unappealing and borderline wino. This is not when I become agitated. I become agitated when we sit next to each other on the couch, right legs crossed over our left knees. I think of Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball, their speechless mirroring of each other, but this isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is that we are not speechless. I speak. I point to a rug, the fireplace, the TV, teaching him, You hate that rug. You hate that fireplace. You hate that TV. But I don’t. I’m upsetting myself. I like that rug. And that fireplace. I could do without the TV, but it hasn’t done anything personal to me. He repeats everything, tries to get the tone of my voice just right, I hate that rug. I hate that fireplace. To hell with that TV. The voice is off, a cookie-cutter stoner haze of words. A slow, sleepy monotone. Tom Waits, circa 1989.

He wasn’t close to becoming me. The clothes, the monotone, the expected distain—all a forced exaggeration of me. However (and this is the point I’m ultimately trying to make), I’m already an exaggeration of something that isn’t completely me. This exaggeration of me is a tiny version of myself (say, three percent), the side of me who’s on guard, who’s aware of surroundings, who keeps others at a distance from my true self; my true self, who only makes an appearance when I drive long-distance alone. And that person is nuts. And not monotone. He ranges from bass to quite an impressive alto. Hates novelty mailboxes. Loves red houses and barns and June-high corn fields. He air-banjos. He sings along to The Beatles, Diana Ross, and The Beastie Boys as a second-rate Bob Dylan impersonator. Speaks Spanish and faux-Russian to oncoming traffic, to passers-by.
But that loose psych ward patient (who points and shouts to Ohio drivers as people once projected to lepers: Unclean! Unclean! (Sorry.)) is not my writing voice. This, now, is my writing voice, another nameless being within me who believes that sometimes a series of pretty words can trump the cohesiveness of straight-forward narration. Imagine Chaplin’s Tamp while singing his nonsense song in Modern Times (also allow this comparison so show you just how full of myself I am—Sing!! Never mind the words.). Who I am in reality has nothing to do with this writing-voice you read. Even if I were to read it aloud, my voice would become manipulated, would strain pitches and heartfelt tones in all the right spots, would forget to breathe, would pause for the laughs, would refuse to look up before and after transitions. Add in all the ahs, ums, grunts and jaw clenches you want, it’ll never come close to how I speak normally: unarticulated, lazy emphasis on Ts and Ws, elongated Os, uses four words when eight will do, substitutes noises for most responses requiring yes or no or I don’t know.

I don’t know anybody different, don’t know of anyone who speaks the way they write. Aside from maybe Hunter Thompson. Maybe James Baldwin. Maybe David Mamet. Maybe Truman Capote. Maybe, and hopefully, Bill Watterson. Probably hundreds and thousands of others. I’m okay admitting I’m wrong, but I can’t end every paragraph apologizing for idiocy. Even though I should.
If you choose to believe me, what does this say of the essay? What is the essay (What is tree bark? What are IKEA instructions? What are Kraft American cheese slices?)? Does the voice you use in the essay absolutely have to represent your true self? For me, it’s imperative that it doesn’t, because my fake-esque writing voice is what makes me readable, what turns my boring grocery list of apples; cumin; flour; cereal; pie pan into do not buy the honey crisp, it’s out of season; avoid stickerless avocados and bananas—what’s the point? nod to the produce man, treat him has a human. Could make a difference. He works hard and seems lonely. This is (not the greatest example of) style. An act, a performance, a ruse, a mildly-inaccurate costume worn every time I write, hoping the consistency makes my words true (however false they will always be), something that teases deep within, look at me be you.

I look at the essay as a self-love letter read by strangers; it’s the duty of the writer to lay out the perception of the heart, mind, and soul as accurately as possible, and it falls on the reader to have blind faith, to retain that meaning, flip it around and make sense of it as best as one can with whatever’s offered. Voice is the symmetrical face and steady bank account, silver bows on red boxes. Meaning is the secrets learned in the dark that take away that superficial flavor. Reader and writer must have faith in that voice, trust it, and fall in love with it so deeply that nothing would ever tear it away. Reader and writer must accept, simultaneously, that there is always a chance to be let down hard (consider this very conclusion). If this pain is worthwhile, appreciate what you take and eventually lose, grow and disintegrate with all of it, but know that the essay, and all the baggage that comes with it, is never (and shouldn’t ever be) completely understood. And if you truly do understand it all, listen to me: you hate that rug. You hate that fireplace. You hate that goddamn TV.



Bio: Timston Johnston received his MFA from Northern Michigan University and is the fiction editor of Passages North and the founding editor of Little Presque Books. His work appears in Midwestern Gothic, Ghost Town, Cartagena, and Cheap Pop. If he’s being completely honest, he only likes the let-the-sunshine-in part of “Aquarius.”



In Celebration of Hybridity (Part 3)–Erin Stalcup

Irreality Hunger

My students often want to write fantasy and science fiction and crime fiction and horror and that’s fine by me. But I tell them it has to be about this world, too, our reality. It somehow has to reflect back to us, however fantastical it gets. I show them The McSweeney’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales—“genre” fiction by “literary” masters—and stories by Aimee Bender and Manuel Gonzales and Wells Tower and many other writers as examples of what I’m talking about.

They say they want to escape reality through their writing, offer readers an escape, but Flannery O’Connor says, “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system.” We talk about this.

I don’t have a no-genre rule in my classroom, because that would exclude my own writing from my teaching. Louise Erdrich just published science fiction in Granta. The walls are coming down. But I do expect students to transcend the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working in, and not just duplicate formulas.

I’m very interested in the line between the possible and the impossible.

I’m interested in irreality.

In the introduction to Extreme Fiction, Robin Hemley and Michael Martone argue that the “‘traditional’ story with which readers today are most familiar is actually a recent invention,” and carries with it expectations of “realism” and “narrative,” which are not synonymous (1). They then trace the tradition of nontraditional fiction, both fabulist (not realist) and formalist (nonnarrative) (1). They say:

The irreal is a kind of allegory, not so much like the traditional religious allegories of Medieval times but of a more personal nature, in which the representations are perhaps more ambiguous and not necessarily contingent on dogma. The irreal encompasses all we have learned in the past century about the human mind, combined with our belief systems of several millennia. The irreal simply suggests an alternative way of viewing reality, one in which characters and images are meant to stand for something else (something that may itself be ambiguous or open to interpretation). (6)

In Bender’s “The Rememberer,” the speaker’s lover is experiencing reverse evolution, probably because he told her they think too much, and is weirdly getting his wish to think less. In Gonzales’s “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” a plane has been circling Dallas for twenty years, and the passengers have to decide how to live now. In Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” a Viking who’s not that into it anymore has to keep pillaging. The story ends with him where he wants to be, home with his family, thinking:

I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.

I want what hasn’t happened to tell me about what has, what might.

Another Kind of Reality Hunger

Some unconventional fiction is very realistic. Cynthia Reeves has written a manifesto called “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! And Other Myths About Nontraditional Fiction” (read the entirety here: She writes that some writing

reflects diverse styles and techniques that allow a writer to convey ideas and emotions through nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational means. The word “nonrepresentational” would seem to imply the opposite of realistic; however, the nonrepresentational is not antithetical to realism, especially as it applies to the way we engage in or reflect any number of altered psychological states (e.g., dream, hallucination, mental illness) as well as the way we experience time (largely through its forward arrow, but also by seamlessly parsing the present moment with moments of memory and anticipation). In attempting to depict these and other extraordinary experiences of reality, the nonrepresentational might in fact be more representational of reality than traditional modes of expression.

Narrative and realism are not synonymous.

Reeves asks:

  • Would a different sort of marketing strategy for literary fiction—one that embraces traditional and nontraditional realism—promote a more significant readership of all fiction?
  • Would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries, a process which sometimes results in new forms and new ways of expressing ideas, if readers and editors were more liberal in the application of the term “realism”?
  • Similarly, would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries of realism if writing programs broadened their training to include a larger portion of, and more rigorous training in, modes and techniques of nontraditional realism?
  • Would all of these explorations result in a more vibrant, relevant American literature, literature unafraid of grappling with life’s “true” reality—its complexity and ambiguity, its struggle to achieve something outside of the self, its effort to embrace the “other,” its ability to make the reader feel?

I want more nontraditional reality. I want more irreality. I want it all to tell me more about reality.


There’s fiction in my nonfiction and nonfiction in my fiction and hopefully a bit of poetry in all of it, and some of it’s real and some of it isn’t, but don’t worry too much about that.

Hybridity is alive and well. Writers are transcending binaries as ways of exploring identities and ideas and irrealities that broaden our conception of and compassion for what it means to be alive.

I’ll give the last word to my teacher, and my students.

In an interview with r.kv.r.y literary journal, Kevin “Mc” McIlvoy says:

In the literature of the wisdom tradition, the reader is invited to feel what she/he knows inside the work. Wisdom offers the feeling-knowing response, which is quite different than the knowing-knowing reaction. I also firmly believe that the best experimental literary work (Beckett and Woolf and Nin; Lydia Davis and Steven Millhauser and Jim Crace, for example) consistently originates from the writers who are most radically committed to wisdom. […]

I’m happy there are so many different kinds of work thriving in the contemporary world literary tradition. By my reckoning, the fiction receiving the most attention from American publishers concentrates upon offering completeness: a story with a well-constructed shape or arc; a defined beginning, middle, and end; a crystalline sense of irony (the recognition of human duality); a balanced treatment of dramatic elements; an imaginative regulation of language serving content.

Sadly, in the U.S. we have so many writers with amazing book manuscripts in hand who cannot find publishers only because their books offer fullness instead of completeness: a story with centrifugal force that resists finding a center; a story that is marvelous in its disproportionality; a story that gives irony its due without giving it primacy; a story that allows dynamic balance (unstable terms of engagement) to override balance; a story in which the transformative (sensation-generating, playful, pleasure-making) language is allowed, at certain moments, to overwhelm the transactive (meaning-making, plot-preserving) language.

The literature of completeness confirms for the reader the mind’s recognition of an always-emerging order in human experience. […] The literature of fullness confirms for the reader the always-emerging chaos of human experience. With a great love for the palaces of the literature of completeness, I prefer the ruined palaces of the literature of fullness [….] I find my body responds more fully to the body of the ruined palace: where entry and exit are no longer perfectly clear; where the original purpose for the structure is a compelling riddle, where the large and small structures are only barely evident and, as a result, the body responds to many rooms at once and the mind must relent its will to compartmentalize.

Because of this quote, a student of mine who is a musician is titling his next EP Ruined Palaces.

“I love writing for its ability to capture truth. That doesn’t just mean nonfiction, there is a lot more to truth than just reality.” These are the first two lines of Noah Shute’s fiction portfolio, submitted in my intro class.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Boderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd edition. San Francisco: Aunt

Lute, 2007. Print.

Bender, Aimee. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. New York: Anchor, 1999. Print.

Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of History and Criticism. 2nd

  1. Vincent B. Leitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 1942-1959. Print.

DeLillo, Don. Libra. New York: Viking, 1988. Print.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York, Riverhead, 2007. Print.

Doody, Noreen. “William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and the Art of Appeal.” Shakespeare and

the Irish Writer, Janet Clare and Stephen O’Neill, eds. Dublin: U College of Dublin P, 2010. 123-135. Print.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. “Domain.” Granta (2014). 9-24. Print.

Gonzales, Manuel. The Miniature Wife. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Print.

Halpern, Richard. Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud,

and Lacan. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. Print.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in

the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st ed. Vincent B. Leitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 2269-2299. Print.

Hemley, Robin, and Michael Martone, eds. Introduction. Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and

Formalists. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. 1-12. Print.

Horvath, Tim. Understories. New York: Bellevue, 2012. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.

Lim, Jeehyun. “‘I Was Never at War With My Tongue’: The Third Language and the

Performance of Bilingualism in Richard Rodriguez.” Biography 33.3 (2010): 518-542. ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.

McIlvoy, Kevin. “A Conversation with Kevin McIlvoy.” By Mary Akers. r.kv.r.y quarterly

literary journal. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

—. The Complete History of New Mexico. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2005. Print.

Menon, Madhavi, ed. Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Minor, Kyle. Praying Drunk. Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2014. Print.

Pequigney, Joseph. Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Chicago: U of Chicago

P, 1985. Print.

Reeves, Cynthia. “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! And Other Myths About

Nontraditional Fiction.” Waxwing (2014). 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New

York: Columbia UP, 1985. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Stephen Booth, ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.


Shields, David. Reality Hunger. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.


Tower, Wells. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. New York: FSG, 2009. Print.

Watkins, Claire Vaye. Battleborn. New York: Riverhead, 2012. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Mr. W.H. The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Basic

Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.

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Yanique, Tiphanie. How To Escape from a Leper Colony. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2010.