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.

100×10–Eric Lemay

Sometimes there are words. Sometimes there are big words with small ideas. Sometimes there are small words with big ideas. Sometimes you can push go. Sometimes you can hear the small words make big sounds. Sometimes there is big skill. Sometimes there are genres that you can only play. Sometimes there are platforms that don’t allow frames. Sometimes, to get the Bending Genre essay of the week, you have to click here. And then again, there.

Writing in the Major Key–Joe Oestreich

One day nine years ago, I bellied up to the urinal next to a fantasy writer named Charlie. This was during the second year of my MFA, and the fiction class that Charlie and I were enrolled in had just finished workshopping a story of mine. After we zipped and flushed, Charlie said, “Hey, man. I heard one of your songs on the radio the other day. Good stuff. Really poppy.”

He was talking about Watershed, the band I’d played in since I was a teenager, the band whose budding success had driven me to drop out of college as an undergrad and, years later, whose frustrations had pushed me back to school to try for a master’s in creative nonfiction. As Charlie had said, Watershed’s songs are poppy—and fast. The kind of songs where boy-meets-and-loses-girl in three chords and three minutes. Every now and then one of them got played on the radio, and I smiled at how cool it was that a classmate had heard it. “Thanks, man,” I said.

Charlie turned toward the sinks. “But here’s what I’m wondering,” he said. “Why doesn’t your prose have that same kind of, I don’t know, concision, I guess. That same quick, hard burst of joy?”

His question stumped me for a second. I’d come out of that day’s workshop feeling good, thinking the class had liked my piece: 6,000 words chronicling a disintegrating marriage in the Detroit suburbs, via a painfully detailed backstory and narrated from the POV of (stick with me here) the wife’s Guatemalan trouble doll. Clever! Meta! This story had come on the heels of my first effort, an 8,000-word behemoth that was also about a rocky Michigan marriage, with an even more painfully detailed backstory, this time from the POV of a small town tow-truck driver. Gritty! With social class sensitivity!

My fiction was positively breezy compared to much of the nonfiction I’d been writing, longwinded essays that left no personal crisis unexamined. My fellow nonfictioneers were largely doing the same, and in our workshops we dissected pieces about death, disease, sexual abuse, and—that ever-present staple—white men plagued with chronic dissatisfaction. Now that I think about it, sitting next to some of my classmates’ manuscripts on that workshop table, my essays, earnest as they were, were comparatively lighthearted. But measured against the song Charlie had heard on the radio, a lot of my work was, well, what’s the opposite of poppy? Sludgy?

I don’t remember exactly how I answered Charlie in that bathroom, but I probably unleashed a screed about how prose writing gave me the space to delve deep into character, motivation, and the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. Because this was grad school, I likely used the word ontology. I almost certainly used privilege as a verb.

The truth is I didn’t know then why I could write concise and joyful songs but had trouble writing concise and joyful prose. I think I know now. As an MFA student, I didn’t yet have the experience or training to write poppy. I hadn’t earned the confidence. I thought that in order to be taken seriously, I had to take myself über-seriously. I thought that longer + sadder + darker = more important. I thought that real writers wrote in the minor key.

*

I see now that this was the same mistake I’d made as a high schooler in the mid-Eighties, when I first picked up a hand-me-down acoustic. I figured myself to be a smart kid. I was good at calculus and physics, and I dominated American civics. I knew I could easily become a chemical engineer or a lawyer. But those jobs were for pudgy suckers with Sansabelts and comb-overs. I was going to be a rock star. Not some headbanging baffoon, but a serious musician-type, like the guys in my favorite band back then, Rush. But every time I strung together the three chords I knew—A, D, and E—it always came out sounding silly and simple. How could that be? I read Ayn Rand. I was sincere, dammit. Striving to be intense. I wanted to write songs that mattered (the italics here indicate that I am bringing two clenched fists to my forehead in tormented earnestness—to be followed immediately by earnest torment).

One day I brought my acoustic over to my friend Colin’s house. He also played guitar, and he had decided that the two of us should start a band, the band that would eventually become Watershed. While I was strumming away on my trusty A-major chord, Colin told me to shift my index finger so that it sat on the first fret of the B-string. I wrestled my fingers into position, and there it was: A-minor, the sincere sound of my sincere heart. Ayn Rand played on six strings. From there I learned D-minor and E-minor, and before long I was writing lyrics like He finds disillusion here, disillusion there. He drinks from the well of his own despair. My minor-ness was boundless.

This reliance on minor keys didn’t last long—only all through high school and my first three years of college. But after my bandmates and I dropped out of school and into a rusty van, we learned what disillusion really looked like (playing humorless, five-minute ballads for the bartender and the doorman on a Tuesday night in Charleston, WV), and my sense of what counted as an important song changed. I stopped listening to Rush and started listening to the Replacements. I slid my index finger back to the major position and got to work writing three-minute power-pop tunes.

Why the switch in sensibility? If you would have asked me then, I would have said that I had finally figured out the kind of song I was actually good at writing: quick and catchy. I would have said that I’d gotten better at my craft and that “lightweight” pop songs are much harder to write than “serious” minor key dirges. I would have said that songwriters too often use the minor key as a shortcut to—or a substitute for—meaning, as if minor chords automatically give a song gravitas. I would have said, “Rock songs don’t need gravitas. They just need to fucking rock.” I would have used those exact words, and I would have been exactly right.

I’m twice as old now as I was then, so I can see that there’s an additional element I didn’t quite understand. Before I dropped out of school, everything I knew about heartbreak and hardship was purely theoretical. My life was simple. It kicked ass. I was a civics-dominating, Rush-loving, suburban kid with nothing more dire to worry about than talking my mom into letting me see the R-rated Risky Business at the megaplex. Because my day-to-day was so poppy, so major-keyed, I had the luxury of tormented earnestness. But as soon as I dropped out of school, hit the road, and started getting my ass kicked a little bit, then I lost the need to write glum and dark songs. When my life edged toward minor, it freed me up to write major. And by then I was a practiced enough songwriter to know how to do it.

 *

Sorry for that painfully detailed backstory, but I’m exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. And right now, in the present, my life still kicks ass, but it’s much more complicated than it was nine years ago when I had that exchange with Charlie or twenty years ago when the band was playing for the bartender and the doorman in West Virginia. Now I’m the father of a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. Now I have to think about the quality of the kindergarten I’ll soon be sending my son to. Now I have to monitor childhood speech development and cognitive milestones, and I have to find a way to explain to my kids that yes, we do in fact live on a big blue marble that circles the sun. And yes, some day the sun will go dark.

Now that my life is so wonderfully complex—and now that I’m a more experienced and confident prose writer—I’m trying to write with more sweetness and light. I’m trying to write with self-deprecation but not self-flagellation. I’m trying to avoid writing (and reading) essays that strike the same minor key notes my own work has struck time and time again: excessive gimmickry, admitting ones own faults and limitations in a naked attempt to gain the reader’s sympathy, the inclusion of backstory under the guise of exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present but really doing it mostly for nostalgia’s sake, exaggerating the innocence of children to amp up sentimentality.

I’m trying, but it’s not easy.

Writing in the minor key is easy—for lots of reasons. From a craft perspective, stories need trouble, and trouble ain’t cheery. From a practical perspective, ours is a community that rewards the sincere and solemn, as most literary journals lean to that side of the scale. Then again, the fact that last year’s AWP Conference featured two separate panels on how to inject humor into creative nonfiction suggests that we already suspect we’ve been taking ourselves too seriously.

Mostly, though, the minor key is easy because the material presents itself so easily. Death and suffering are everywhere. So are beauty and happiness, of course, but we often avoid writing about them because we don’t want to seem Pollyannaish. Safer to go either sad or ironic. Which, by the way, is how “important,” hipster bands typically cover mainstream pop songs: either in a whisper or while flying a postmodern devil-horn fist. Both ways can be cowardly. 

*

After starting to work on this essay, I put it aside for two weeks so that my wife, kids, and I could travel to Ohio to spend some time with my wife’s mom, who, according to her doctors and home hospice care workers, had only a few days to live. I hate to admit this, but while we were staying at my mother-in-law’s house, essentially waiting for her to die, I found myself processing the events not so much as lived experiences but as potential essay topics. Needless to say, all of those topics were dreary. An afternoon of shopping became “Buying My Son His First Funeral Suit.” An excellent curried-chicken salad dropped off by a neighbor became “The Last Grape on the Serving Spoon.” And, yeah, I know it. Despite my original intentions, this essay, the one you’re reading now, took a sharp turn toward the minor key. Like I say, I’m trying, but it’s not easy.

Maybe I can learn from my mother-in-law. She was a piano teacher, and the hospital bed she spent her last days in sat in her living room, two or three steps from the piano bench. A few hours before she died, she smiled and told all of us who were gathered around her bedside that when she looked back on her life, “It was awesome.”

In the moment that was as minor as minor gets, she played one last resounding major chord. A quick, hard burst of joy.

 

 

 

____

Joe Oestreich is the author of Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. His second book, Lines of Scrimmage: A Story of Football, Race, and Redemption (co-written with Scott Pleasant), is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he co-edits Waccamaw

Stone Houses: a Poem about Fiction within Nonfiction–Sonya Huber

The “really real,” as William James called it, will not be theorized.
My theory was I could tell just the vivid rollercoaster parts.
My writer friends read those pages and said there’s not enough ketchup and too much mustard, so to speak.
“Off the record,” I said, and proceeded to tell them the extra-page details, the ham, bacon, and eggs: the intimate details that made him three-dimensional,
the secrets that would give it all away.
(sigh) they said: “That should be on the page.”
Dammit, I said, in so many words.

I have to say the real thing, but I can’t, cannot,
or think I can’t.
My lovely writing friends write fiction, and they got my fiction brain humming:
Driving northbound on the highway home from that writing meeting I saw how I
could maybe give him a different job, a different city, a different passion—
extend the preface caveats wider to fit in all the dilemmas
and beg for reader pardon.

In fact: in the next moment, stuck in rush-hour traffic, I thought it would be perfect to make him a stonemason
and he would build perfect stone houses, you see, and the metaphor
took me away and I could see it and as I drove
I made the specific sculptures he might create, and I saw this phantom
as his hands strewed gravel, made Stonehenge, taught me words like
igneous and basalt which I already knew but was pretending
for the sake of this geologic fantasy that I did not know
because that made it neater and slightly
better than it was.
I was not really driving on the highway
I was falling in love with this man I’d never met, this man who made analogous art
and I could taste it.
I heard the song of fiction and it was meaningful and good.

I passed exits and off-ramps and knew next with
a sick feeling in my gut like a cruel word or getting fired that
the promise I made for this specific project and only to myself, the formal constraint, was that each sentence should be true.
Each effing sentence.

Could I do it anyway? But that won’t work because I’ve written almost this whole book
(think of the time)
and written myself into a corner of sorts. What now—what the book needs…

Then, I-95 south of Bridgeport around exit 25, I broke up with nonfiction.
I hated it: nonfiction’s flat, frizzy, fizzed-out demanding bitchiness.
There was nothing on that nonfiction highway: no art, no sweetness,
no stonemason
just green square metal signs and the humidity and the asphalt
and it was as sucky as when I was ten, without hope that the future could be
strung with sentences. Like I was ten
and with really bad hair. A home perm. That bad.
(Oglivy. Bangs curled in the wrong direction. The unavoidable really real.)

The relentless realness of facts slung by like roadside debris
and I wondered when exactly I had taken this fraternity pledge
this Bodhisattva vow complete with hazing
Just let it be a novel let it be why not rewrite it as a novel
I had wanted to write fiction, you see, and loved it first. I wanted to
but am not a novelist only because I
am
not
that
good at it.

Or: It turns out I am writing nonfiction because I am stubborn.
I could just switch sides.
There are no sides. There is only the bargain in each project that I make with my self. And those bargains are only as good as every stupid human promise like
I love you.

But then as the difficult industrial lace of rust and fences hemmed me in
and the smokestacks of Bridgeport anchored the sky as I sped past on I-95
I realized I only had to say the next true sentence
and the next true sentence is this:
there is something I cannot tell you
but here is why I cannot tell you
and here’s how it feels not to tell you
but here’s what I can tell you:
I can tell you how he liked his coffee.

and I can tell you the size of my grief at carrying secrets
which is the weight of being alive
and I can tell you why secrets matter sometimes
more than pages
and I can tell you how my thin worn-out secrets
and the promises I make to myself like formal constraints
make me believe
I am still trying to be a good person even though
I have made so many
mistakes.

Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program.