Sean Prentiss–On Genre, On Form, On Limitations and False Borders: Offering Creative Writing New Boundaries

Part I

I am an essayist. Ever since I started keeping a journal when I was eighteen, I’ve thought in essay, in narrative, in truth. My life is offered back to me in the mirror of creative nonfiction, in finding metaphor and art in life and fact.

*

Since that first river heartbreak:

Those late nights, when stars are the only

friends, I floated beneath

the surface of water.

The peace of silence.

Since then:

a poet.

*

I relapse into fiction once or twice a year (maybe like those younger-day mistakes I used to make during late nights when I drank too much and chased after the shadow of the moon).

When someone tells me a story and I think, I need to let that story wander where it may. And I will follow along. During those short windows, I explore invention, fiction.

 

*

The art of the empty stage: drama. A genre I’ve never studied. But the camera is so close, intimate, like falling in love, that first night. The hardest kiss. Or the night of the breakup. Nights alone.

Though I don’t know drama, I understand the feeling aloneness on a stage, a hot beam illuminating our essential aloneness.

*

Part II

I teach an intro level, multi-genre creative writing class at a small Vermont university. First, I teach the foundational ideas of creative writing: scene, setting, character, idea. Only then do I teach the four genres.

*

Definition: Genre is a category of writing based on shape. The four major creative writing genres include poetry[1], drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

*

Title: The Teaching of Genre in a One Act Play.

Setting: A stage filled with twenty desks and twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, walks across the stage.

Teacher: “Genre is a way to categorize writing based on its shape.”

Students nod their heads.

Teacher: “Creative writing has four genres. Can anyone tell me what they are?”

Smart Student: “Fiction …? Poetry?”

Professor nods his head.

Other Smart Student: “Drama?”

Smartest Student: “Oh, and real stuff.”

Teacher: “Yup, creative nonfiction.”

Classroom is filled with smiling, happy students and proud professor.

Smart Student: “How are the shapes of fiction and nonfiction different?”

Teacher: “Err. Some genres are based on shapes, like poetry and drama. But some deal with whether they deal with truth or fiction.”

Smarter Student: “So genre is either shape or truth/lack of truth?”

Students look confused.

Teacher wrings his hands.

Teacher: “Okay, let’s start over. We have prose, poetry, and playwriting. Those are our three shapes of writing. These are the shapes a piece can take on the page. Prose is any writing done in paragraphs. Poetry is any writing done using line breaks. Drama uses playwriting techniques.”

Students smile again.

Smart Student: “Wait, are poetry and drama true or invented?”

Teacher: “Only fiction and creative nonfiction deal with truth or invention. Poetry and drama just deal with shape.”

Smartest Student: “Why?”

Teacher paces in front of classroom.

*

Is this confusion between truth and shape within genre merely a problem for the random professor? Merely an issue in the classroom? No. For this writer, there are a plethora of problems with our current system of how genre seems to use both shape and truth as its defining characteristics, that tries to meld together these differing ideas on what genre is, that offer only false borders.

As a writer, I am stuck trying to explain my writing to editors, agents, readers, and publishers.

I write micro-essays that look like poems. What do we call that?

Creative nonfiction poetry?

Prose poems?

Lyric essays?

How will the reader know that these poem-like things are truths? How will they understand that truth is the heart of these pieces and the shape serves the truth I am trying to get at?

My friend, Julia, calls these hybrid pieces that span shapes Thingamabobs, which just highlights the problem. Julia and I, and so many other writers, are forced to create unclear terms to try to define something that should be easily defined. We are writers. We work with language. How is it that we have no language here?

And then there is the issue of bookstores. I read environmental and nature writing. When I go into a bookstore and search for nature writers, I look in the Nature Writing section. Easy enough. Unless I want environmental poetry. Then I need to go into the Poetry section. Here, I’ll find nature poets like David Budbill and T’ao Ch’ien kissing covers with lyric poets like Ezra Pound and ultra-talk poets like Mark Halliday and confessional poets like Sylvia Plath. These poets are lumped together for their reliance on line breaks, on their shape. This organizational system of gathering likeminded things together might tell us to call a house and a cardboard box the same thing since they share the same rectangular shape.

Also, the reader often has an unclear understanding of what they will be receiving from the writer. Is that poem true, invented, or something else?[2] What is the small paragraphy-thing? A prose poem? A lyric essay? What is the difference? We can be more clear with the reader. We can tell them exactly what they will be holding in their hands. Genre, or shape, is normally easy for a reader to see just by examining a piece of writing. Most poems clearly use line breaks. Most fiction and creative nonfiction clearly use paragraphs. But truth/fiction is not something that can be seen. It can only be told to the reader. Once the reader knows what they are reading (genre and truth/invention), then they can decide on how to use that information or if that information is even important. But right now we often don’t provide that information to the reader.

Finally, as writers, we have been taught to write truth or fiction in prose, to often ignore truth or fiction in poetry and drama, and to see creative nonfiction as only prose. These are artificial limitations. These constraints hem us in for no reason. A poem can be true. Creative nonfiction can use playwriting techniques. Fiction can use historical information and fact. Drama can be true or invented.

*

Etymology of Prose: Prose is birthed from the Latin word for straightforward. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and traditional uses of punctuation.

Etymology of Poetry: Originated from the Latin word for poet, poetry originally meant maker or author or poet.

Etymology of Drama: Drama comes from the Greek words for to act, to perform, to do.

Etymology of Genre: Originates from the French word for kind, sort, style.

Part III

What is genre?

We saw the definition and etymology above, but let’s start here. We have four genres:

  • Creative nonfiction
  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Drama

That’s pretty simple.

Before we visit with genre, let’s examine how the use of (or lack of) truth affects pieces. Maybe truth will offer clarifying ideas. Here’s a simple chart looking at truth in our genres.

Truth/Invention in Our Genres Truth/Invention
Creative Nonfiction Truth
Fiction Invention
Poetry Unclear
Drama Unclear

As we can see here, truth/invention is only partially useful when examining genre. Truth/invention works great with creative nonfiction and fiction but doesn’t work at all for poetry and drama. So truth doesn’t clarify enough for us. It leads to more confusion.

Next, let’s examine the keys to figuring out what makes a genre a genre.

Genre What Makes It a Genre?
CNF Truth + Paragraphs
Fiction Invention + Paragraphs
Poetry Line Breaks
Drama Playwriting Style

Though this chart is simple, it’s also confusing.

Two of our genres deal with truth or lack of truth (fiction and creative nonfiction) plus shape (paragraphs).

Two deal with shape (line breaks or playwriting).

So we are no farther along. Genre is unclear (because two of the genres focus on truth and two focus on shape) and truth is ineffective because two of the genres don’t care about truth.

*

Title: The Teaching of Genre and Shape Overlapping, a Two Act Play (Act I)

Setting: a stage empty expect for twenty desks filled with twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, stands at the board looking at his diagram, which he has labeled “Illustration of Genre and Shape Overlapping.”

prentiss graph

Teacher: Points to illustration. Looks confused. Tries to explain how genre and form works. Sputters. Erases work.

*

Thesis:

  • As a professor, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to students.
  • As the writer of a textbook, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to readers.
  • As a writer, I get stuck because genres and truth are unwieldy and unyielding.

What if I want to write creative nonfiction in poetry form?

What do we call that? Essay? Memoir? Poem?

If we call it essay, we wonder about shape.

If we call it poem, we wonder about truth (or lack of truth).

I could go on and on.

[See confusing illustration above.]

*

Part IV

We need to move to a system that offers rational borders and removes the false limitations that have been set on our genres. What is the solution to this overlapping confusion of genre and shape?

Let genre teach us only the shape of a piece since the term genre originated to mean style and never was meant to include fiction or truth. Maybe this problem originated with the invention of the term “the fourth genre” for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is not the fourth genre (and fiction isn’t the third genre). Rather, prose is the third genre but before creative nonfiction became popular, fiction was seen to equal prose. Now we see fiction and creative nonfiction as genres rather than as types of prose.

Once we have moved to three genres (poetry, drama, prose), then let us create a new category that deals with truth or invention. I propose veracity.

Definition of Veracity: The observance of truth, or truthfulness, of a thing, something that conforms to truth and fact.

Etymology of Veracity: From Latin, meaning truthful.

So we will have two (or three) veracities. Veracity only teaches us about the truthfulness or invention of a piece.

Veracity What Makes a Veracity
Creative Nonfiction Truth
Fiction Fiction
Hybrid[3] Inhabits truth and fiction

And let us have three (or four) genres. Genres will only teach us how a piece will look on the page.

Genre What Makes a Form?
Prose Paragraph Form
Poetry Line Break Form
Playwriting Playwriting Form
Hybrid Multiple Forms

*

Dichotomous Key to Veracities:

Nonfiction:

Habitat: Lives in areas of sunlight populated by truths, facts, memories, and speculations.

Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.

Appearance: Carries the appearance of the writer’s life or the life of those who the writer has studied.

Times: When the writer wants to examine the factual, the truth, the real in a moment.

Fiction:

Habitat: Lives in caves populated by invention.

Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.

Appearance: A changeling. Can appear like the writer, like other humans, or entirely unlike humans at all.

Times: When the writer wants to create something new, when the writer longs to invent.

*

Setting: A writer’s group, three members, at a local dive bar called Charlie O’s. Practicing a new way to view genre and veracity.

Jess: So what would you call Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay?

Jess and Julia in unison: “Hybrid/hybrid.”

Julia: “What about Moby Dick? It’s fiction and nonfiction and it is prose.”[4]

Jess: “Catcher in the Rye is fiction and prose.”

Jess: “Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle? Nonfiction/Prose.”

Sean: “The ancient Chinese poets, like T’ao Ch’ien? Creative nonfiction and poetry.”

Jess: “In Cold Blood?[5]

*

What does this new system allow that sees genre as poetry, drama, and prose? That offers a scale for veracity of a piece?

One: It makes the teaching life easier. This simpler view on genre and veracity is easy to teach. Every piece of writing is:

  • Either true, invented, or something hybrid (veracity).
  • Either poetry, prose, drama, or something hybrid (genre).

We can go back to calling a cardboard box a box and a house a house.

Two: It allows writers flexibility to conceive of how they should write on the page. Writers may no longer need to feel constrained by genre and veracity because we’ve separated truth and fiction from genre.

Choose a genre(s).

Choose a veracity(s).

Write.

Three: This system allows publishers a way to clearly articulate what they want. Again, just choose a genre(s) and a veracity(s) and the writer will know what to submit.

Four: This new system instructs the reader more clearly on what they will receive. The contract is clear between writer and reader. Veracity teaches us about truth/invention. Genre teaches us about shape.

*

I am an essayist. But I see my truths, attempts, tries at understanding life not always in the long paragraphs of prose. Sometimes my brain, heart, hands need, yes, other forms.

To tell

my truths through poetry.

I don’t want

to be

constrained by form.

Let my words, like the waters

of my life, wander.

[1] There exist hundreds of definitions for poetry. Most offer major flaws in how they categorize poetry. The only definition I have found that doesn’t have major holes (because of its simplicity) is that poetry, almost always, uses line breaks to determine the shape of the poem. Except when it’s called ‘prose poetry.’ And once again, the professor looks confused.

[2] My friend Karen just said that she reads most poems as “real” or “based on the writer’s life.” I read most poems as invented by the writer. We, the reader, have no idea if a poem is real or invented.

[3] Hybrid texts intentionally blend fiction and nonfiction, play with fiction and nonfiction, or have fiction and nonfiction share space. We can continue to work to decide where the hybrid boundary begins and ends, but it seems that the hybrid space could be reserved for pieces that mix or play with truth and fiction.

[4] We decide on fiction and prose because the heart of the novel is about the invented story not the nonfiction on whaling.

[5] We’d still need to work out some kinks (like where to place In Cold Blood), but the kinks are smaller and on the edges of the borders. So rather than dealing with major issues in how our genres and shapes overall and confuse, we’d have to deal with smaller borderland issues like Is IN Cold Blood nonfiction or hybrid.

Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.

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Solera Method–Barry Grass

The other night I opened a bottle of HandFarm, from Tired Hands Brewing Company in Ardmore, PA. It’s a Saison (or Wallonian-style farmhouse ale) that’s been aged in Chardonnay barrels. The base farmhouse ale is tasty enough: chewy grain flavors spiked with flavors of minerality, lemon juice, white pepper (not from the use of actual lemon or pepper; those flavors are some of the thousands of possible flavors created during fermentation). But the time spent in used oak gives it additional notes of vanilla and a slight woodsy astringency. In the barrels the mixed fermentation cultures – brewer’s yeast isolated from rural southern Belgium as well as native microflora & bacteria from Pennslyvania – flourish and multiply, lending a kumquat-like lactic sourness, and a funk that calls to mind horse stables — their smells of sweaty manes, manure, and old hay.

***

This is an essay on craft and, rest assured, I do not make drinking part of my process. I’m bringing up alcohol to illustrate a point. While enjoying this farmhouse ale, the sun waving goodbye over rowhome rooftops in South Philly, I began to think about writing in terms of beer. The initial metaphor I was teasing out between sips was that bottling a beer is like publishing an essay. Your thoughts brew and brew over the course of drafting and, of course, you want to end up with your sharpest, most finely crafted version, so you stop drafting at some point, stop thinking. You have a sense of when the essay is as good as it will be, knowing that you can overdraft a piece, can overthink the subject and let slack the tension. You bottle it for distribution when it’s at its peak. HandFarm, however is a bottle conditioned beer, meaning that the yeast is active in the bottle. The beer, quite purposefully, continues to develop in ways commensurate with variables of time and storage. Just as I’m sure you’ve noticed how essays from James Baldwin or Eula Biss have only gained potency with time. Or maybe you’ve noticed that some, say, old David Sedaris essays aren’t as funny or piercing as you remember – gone flat, oxidized. Our relationship to our essayed thoughts, as well as any reader’s relationship to our thoughts & their own thoughts, and everyone’s relationship to the world at large, is quite active. Digesting the sugars around us. Boozing up the place.

***

“The most important part [of making Balsamico] is to maintain the life of the vinegar,” says Giuseppe Pedroni, a master Balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, Italy. For him there is no growth or progress, no final product, without the preservation of that initial spark. The first vinegar must inform all others.

***

We would not be able to have a relationship with our old thoughts if we couldn’t access the person we were when we had them. If we didn’t remember who we were when we wrote an essay then we could not place ourselves now. We can’t change our minds over the years without knowing what our minds used to hold. This epistemology is holding up an idea I’m trying to access in this essay, which is that retaining an intimacy with the self’s past, any and all past selves, is necessary to age beautifully. While it may be close to impossible to control how any one essay holds up to you or the world it thinks about, you do have more control on how to hold up as an essayist.

For this I return you to HandFarm. This bottle is from the 5th batch of HandFarm, with each new bottling more complex & integrated than the last. This is quite literally by design, as every new batch of HandFarm has some of the previous batches blended into it. This is not like baking bread, where each new loaf is puffed up by literally the same yeast, a mother yeast. HandFarm would be more like if each new loaf of bread contained within it an actual hunk of an old loaf of bread, which itself enveloped an even older piece of bread, and on and on down the line. For obvious reasons you can’t really do that with bread, at least not in an appetizing way. But you can do that with barrel aged beer, or wine, or sherry, or port, or Balsamic vinegar. This process is most commonly called the Solera method. Liquidity hybridizes the old and the new. A fluid becoming. No seams or stitches.

***

Most Solera processes involve removing half of an old barrel’s contents to bottle, refilling the barrel with fresh liquid, then doing it again when next they bottle. Sometimes you remove half from the first & largest barrel only to place that siphoned liquid in a second, smaller barrel to age further. Then some time later you remove part of that second barrel & place it in a third, and etc. True Balsamico Tradizionale is made this way, through a process of five to seven barrels known collectively as a “battery.” A fresh battery of barrels is started for major life events, like a wedding or childbirth, and the first bottling from that battery won’t happen for a minimum of twelve years.

According to beer writer and technologist Lars Marius Garshol, it would take about 184 years before the last remaining molecule of the Balsamic vinegar that started a Solera is emptied out, if we define “completely emptied” as some molecular biologists and mathematicians do as “one five octillionth of the original.” Zeno, I’m sure, would regard the Solera method as paradoxical.

***

Time in the barrel will change a thing. I like to over draft my ideas at first and then give a considerable amount of time before I revise them. That’s what works for me. I enjoy seeing how far my thinking has come in the weeks between. I like to feel the influence of new perspectives & experiences tugging on the old text. I tend to prefer the speakers of my essays be “a version of me from a general time in my life” rather than “a version of me on one specific day.”

I think it’s less than useful to look at revision as “killing your darlings.” Even in the act of pressing the delete key I don’t think of it as a killing, a reaping. I think of it as vaporization. I think of it as the Angel’s Share: the phenomenon where some of the water volume of liquid aging in a barrel will evaporate, leaving the barrel filled with something more concentrated, more potent, than before.

***

Solera, in Spanish, means “on the ground,” referring to where sherry barrels were quite naturally kept before artisans started experimenting with subterranean and lofted storage. In English, we have plenty of clichés and idioms about the ground. Keeps me grounded; on the ground floor; common ground; break new ground; cut the ground out from under my feet; lose ground; hold your ground; gain some ground; I’m just run down to the ground; old stomping ground; doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground; what moral ground do you have.        There’s a sense of commonality with the word. We share it, even when we frame it antagonistically (lose/hold/gain). It unites us. Everyone walks upon it. Everyone recognizes it as the starting point – ground level. So if you think of your essays, your body of work as an essayist, as functionally a Solera method, then the process makes sense. We can’t not ground our essays. Our essays can’t help but walk the land they share with each other.

***

Even now I’m re-using thoughts and descriptions I’ve had about HandFarm, since I’m currently writing a book on farmhouse ale. It’s partly a memoir of my family’s farming history as a way to access why I love farmhouse ale so much and partly a more journalistic look into why farmhouse ale is sharply rising in popularity in the United States and I’m not saying any of this as a plug to prospective agents (though my email is in my contributor note!) but rather to demonstrate that this beer is working its way into many of my seemingly disparate thoughts, and that’s not a mistake to let the subject of my book project creep into other things I’m working on. The realization I’m having here is that it’s entirely natural.

I try to write about my grandparents escaping a hardscrabble agrarian life and along the way this beer, or another like it, shows up in my essaying, creating tension, trying to smooth away the cracked-earth of a droughtstruck farm with its gestures towards the beauty and romance of the pastoral. I try to write about the craft of essay writing using this beer merely as a way in but it fights me for the focus.

And this is nothing to shy away from or edit out. This is epistemological. This is how we stay connected to our thoughts, how none of our essays are truly written in a vacuum. Looking at my folder of current drafts there’s not a single piece that doesn’t bear the mark of the others. There’s the interviews I did at Boulevard Brewing Company for this Saison book, looking out on the brewery’s big roof towards fields of corn and soy north of Kansas City. There’s the Missouri pastoral coming up in a different essay as evidence of privilege and as contrast for citizen outrage over police fascism across the state in Ferguson. There’s the emotionally draining late nights spent watching livestreams of Ferguson juxtaposed with the elation of the World Series run for my Kansas City Royals in another. There’s the last baseball games my grandfather would see before he passed away, and there’s the news around the time of his passing that my mother got diagnosed with cancer, and there’s the weeks I spent this past semester in something like depression, and there’s the first draft I wrote after weeks of not writing — wherein a jean jacket I bought reminded me of Roger, a poet/teacher/friend, who passed away a few years ago & the memory that Roger introduced me to craft beer in the first place.

***

This is a Solera. Somewhere in every essay I write, yours too, is a bit of the previous blended in, which itself had some of the one prior to it, which in turn implies a whole cosmology for every essay. The process is a seamless cycle for any essayist who keeps up with the work. Just because we finish an essay doesn’t mean those thoughts & the emotions they kicked up don’t get blended back in with the next barrel. This is how we think, learn, live. Either we age our thinking and blend it back into new thoughts or we must regularly go back and make current each of our essays, as Montaigne felt the pressure to do. You tell me which feels more natural.

***

In Marsala, Scicily, a solera method is used to make Marsala wine. The term in Italian that the winemakers use is in perpetuum.

***

Steven Church, talking about his essay “Seven Fathoms Down” (DIAGRAM, 13.5), explains “This is the third essay that I’ve written and published about the same event, each one a different essay, exploration, and attempt. I suppose it’s some sort of testament to the lasting power of such things, though not a testament I set out to write. It may seem like bullshit, but the essay found its way to the drowning and I didn’t see it coming. I just followed the pull.”

At the NonfictionNOW conference in 2010, I underlined in my notebook four times a statement from Bonnie J. Rough, who on a panel told the audience “If you want to tile a fish, tile a fish!” That’s great advice. So often I’ll hear someone – a student, a colleague — say that they can’t write about, say, their parents’ divorce again because they’ve “already written The Divorce Essay.” Nah, son. If that divorce keeps wanting to come up in your writing then let it. You don’t get just one shot at any subject. These things are a part of you forever and they are yours to use, to frame with and re-shape and reconsider, forever. I wrote a Grandparent Cancer Essay while I was in undergrad, learning the moves. I revisited the jaundice, the funeral, the anxiety in a different form years later in one of my first published pieces. I find myself revisiting it all again now that all of my grandparents are dead, now that my head is as bald by choice as that grandfather’s head was by nature, now that I’m cleaning his old work cap and wearing it around to protect my scalp.

You carry all of your prior essays with you from new draft to new draft. You just might not be aware of the blend percentage. The first essay you ever published is there in your most recent. Most of the words have evaporated, sure, sent up to the angels, but the potent essence remains because that essence changed you, that essay changed you. To even recognize it means it’s still there.

Barry Grass is originally from Kansas City but now lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches writing at Hussian College. His chapbook, “Collector’s Item,” was released in 2014 by Corgi Snorkel Press. Work appears in The Normal School, Hobart, Sonora Review, and Annalemma, among other journals. If you have a solera going, send samples for judgment to barrygrass@gmail.com

Kirk Wisland–Goodbye to All of Those

I used to say write like everybody you know is dead. It was my signature phrase, a gentle cudgel used to subdue the kind of self-questioning fear that often stunts a writer wading into uncharted waters. An exhortation to write wild, brave and free. Of course this was also when I wrote mostly about the living, when I wrote about the dead primarily as a passing referent, a milepost on my narrative journey. After my grandfather died. Before my grandmother died. When my cat, or aunt, or grade-school choir director was still alive. Mostly I wrote about those who would never read my words. I didn’t worry about my mean-spirited (but true!) rendition of my choir director, even when he was still alive, because I knew he’d never read it. And on those rare occasions when I did write about the dead, I wrote mostly flattering things, gentle odes to those passed on.

But when a longtime friend shows up in your newly-adopted state and drinks himself to death in your presence—a real-life Leaving Las Vegas played out over several weeks—then you will write the dead. The imperative of knowing, of witnessing—whether it be for atonement, or to honor, or to punish—you will write the dead. I am still writing the dead, although the story has trickled out on me at ninety pages—too short for a book, too long for an essay. An Essayvella?

*

Last summer I started writing by hand again, scrawling away in a gray composition notebook. Perched on the balcony of our carriage house apartment, surrounded by my potted palms and tropical plants, I let the summer breeze lull me into believing that I was playing the part of Hemingway in Key West, rather than Appalachian Ohio.

I hadn’t written with any serious intent in a notebook for six years, having finally trained myself during my MFA program to “be creative” on my laptop. I had been cursed with a stubborn certainty from the earliest years of my literary dabbling: a certainty that one could not—or at least I could not—type creatively in the same manner as I scrawled my barely-legible notebook odysseys. But after a decade of writing longhand, and then turning around and typing those words into a Word document, my wrists were perpetually sore, and my forearms plagued by a recurrent tingling numbness. Fear of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, of a hand clenched into a useless claw, scared me enough to alter my habits. So I pushed on past my ingrained superstition and discovered that in fact I could conjure expression from the percussion of my fingers on the keys. And every muscle and nerve from my knuckles to my shoulder blades thanked me.

Part of my decision to return to writing longhand was about trying to rediscover the joy of writing I used to know before I was a “Writer.” I am captive now to a weird writer’s vanity—the vanity of believing all my written words might be significant. It’s an absurd idea. I still generate far more future trash than I do marketable prose. But I no longer feel good “free-doodling.” Writing has become a commodity, or more accurately the time I have for writing is a commodity, and thus I feel the pressure to make that time count. Each word part of a sentence, part of a paragraph, part of a final essay to be submitted, part of a book of said essays to be offered up as sacrifice to the capricious gods of publishing. By getting “serious” about writing, I robbed the act of fun.

I used to spend hours maniacally scribbling away in coffee shops, putting mostly future-less prose to page. Sure I was going to be a writer someday. But I wasn’t there yet, and my 90s daydreams of writer greatness were barely more realistic than my previously imagined futures as a rock star or NBA power forward. Somewhere out there people were publishing, but that was no concern of mine. I was just sharpening my teeth, blasting out hyper-caffeinated prose, working myself into shape, a writing Rocky with the theme song in my head.

Then one day you publish something. Then you get into an MFA program. Publish a few more things. Become Nonfiction Editor for a lit journal. Go to some conferences. Get into a PhD program. Compile a big enough Word document to have a book or two or three. And where once I merrily dashed off reams of sketches without intent, now I agonize over all the work—the finished pieces still searching for homes, all my megabytes of stalled stories, embers of essay. Now I cringe when the word-flow dams up, when the “essayer” fails to bear fruit. Now I feel the pressure to produce. Now that I have stepped into the ring I have to confront, each time I write, the fear that it might not happen, that nobody is guaranteed a book contract just for finishing their work, that I might peak with a few good essays and then fade away…

*

I wrote the dead swamped in grief. I wrote in regret. I wrote in anger. Lambasted myself on the page for being unable to save my alcoholic friend. Lambasted him on the page for being unwilling to save himself. I wrote in forgiveness. I wrote in love. I wrote in remembrance. As the years scrolled by and the death receded back in the rear-view mirror I wrote with increasing detachment, when I wrote him at all. The tidal wave of early words slowed to a river, then a stream, then a trickle. I had said all I could say, disgorged my pages and turned instead to dabbling with rearrangements, trying to make the puzzle pieces fit into some semblance of a whole. I missed his April birthday this year, for the first time since his death. Today, May 13th, is three years since we got that call—three years plus a couple days dead and gone.

*

The past is malleable; we shape it and polish it until it resembles what is most palatable to our current selves, and our reflection of those previous incarnations. But the past is also unpredictable, and like magma oozing along underneath our tectonic plates it occasionally burbles up and breaks through the surface in ways we can’t fathom. Early October, the mid-George W. Bush years, waiting for a train at the Milan airport. It had been six years since that summer in Holland, my brief interlude as romantic expat abroad, and yet waiting for the train I could feel the swell of nostalgia and sorrow bursting up from a long-dormant core, spurred by the simple fact that it was the first time I’d been back in Europe since those events. Melancholy seeping from my pores like magma, and a visceral certainty that I could punch through the wall of the tunnel to find that other me, that other past lurking in shadows just outside the corner of my vision.

*

I think part of the allure of blogging is not just the immediacy of your words, the timeliness in response to current events, but also the immediacy of the self. This is who I am, right now. This is my life, my ideas, my brain on the page at this moment, date-stamped for perpetuity. This is the real-time wine and wafer; eat and drink and be one with me.

Because even in the quickest publication turnarounds there is normally a lag-time of months or sometimes years between those words you wrote at that moment when they were fully you, and the day those words go public. By the time my words see the light of day I am often tired of them, having rolled the Sisyphean literary boulder up the hill, writing, shaping, re-shaping. And then you see those words from this lag-time, where they are always that younger you, always a slightly different version, so that in reading yourself at the moment of publication you are reading your own history.

Some of my oldest Word documents pre-date the Millennium. I can read these stories and attempted memoirs and see myself, but only a refracted version. In a sense I reclaim my history every time I reread them, which is why it is simultaneously exhilarating and frightening to read those old pieces—or to delve into my old journals, which date back nearly a quarter-century. In the intervening decades those memories were sanded down and sun-bleached, but then I will re-read that passage from the journal of an angst-ridden 19-year-old and be viscerally reminded of who I was then, of that younger, smaller me that still exists in this older form, still forms the inner rings of the tree of me. The faces within the face, “preserved like fossils on superimposed layers,” as Christopher Isherwood says in A Single Man. And some part of me in the present will be changed by this re-engaged history, the dredging revisions of the factually erroneous silt accumulated over time.

*

Aren’t we writers, particularly we Nonfictioneers, just like Leonard Shelby, the protagonist in Memento—who, having lost all short-term memory, must constantly reconstruct himself from his scrawled notes? Those important truths tattooed all over his torso, never to be forgotten. Aren’t we writers tattooing ourselves every time we publish?imgres

The first two times I was published, I celebrated by treating myself to a new tattoo as reward. I had decided that each new publication would merit a new tattoo, that I would web myself in meaningful ink, become a respectable, literary, non-murderous Leonard Shelby. But I haven’t kept up that tradition. I meant to, but as subsequent publications happened I realized that they were not all of equal significance, and probably not all worthy of their own ink. And I had other things to spend money on, other people to consider. Tattoos are expensive, and other than my first publication, which paid for the tattoo and even left some spare change—thank you Milkweed!—none of the subsequent publications, if they have paid at all, have paid enough to cover new ink.

*

I have moved on, for the moment, to writing the living. Writing a book about my biological father, or more accurately about our relationship, and what it meant to grow up with a gay father in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis. This is a story I’ve always known I had to tell, one that friends and professors alike have chided me for delaying. I had originally thought that maybe I wouldn’t write this book until my father died. That maybe out of respect for him, I ought to wait. But I realized something important, in the process of writing the book of the dead friend: it isn’t easier when they’re gone. In many ways it’s harder. What you might think of as the advantage of avoiding those awkward moments—they’ll never read it—are offset by the guilt one feels for writing them without the possibility of correction. Of being able to say anything you want. Of presenting their likeness without consent.

Part of me fears certain passages I’ve written already about my father, things that will surely hurt him to read. Part of me also fears the passages I haven’t written yet, the stories I’m slowly working myself up to, the ones I can’t imagine having a conversation with my father about. But we can do that. We can talk. And maybe in talking about these events, the stories themselves will become better, truer—more purely Nonfiction—as we hash out the differences in our memories to find a palatable shared truth. Isn’t that much more likely to be true than my singular version of events? Isn’t that more fair, more honest?

*

Those old Microsoft Word documents are in danger of becoming outdated, of living past the current technology’s ability to reach back and speak to them. It’s weird to think about because we always assume that technological improvements are without consequence, inherently positive. But of course with each passing year the incentive diminishes for the engineers at Microsoft to make sure that the newest version of Word is still configured to be compatible with antique, pre-Millennium versions of itself. And I keep ignoring the compatibility messages when I open one of these ancient scrolls, confident in the fact that we no longer live in the dark ages of technology when Apple and Microsoft spoke separate languages, warring across a tech channel like the French and the British. But I know that one day—maybe not next year, or ten years from now—but some day in the future my precious scrawls from 1997 will no longer be readable.

Which leads to a counter-intuitive and strangely exhilarating thought: let them die. Delete all. Delete them all. Like John Steinbeck burning The Oklahomans—his first attempt at The Grapes of Wrath—and starting over from scratch. Imagine the weightlessness of returning to a blank slate. Of digitally burning everything not already in print. Of saying thanks for all the practice, now toss those canvasses into the bonfire and begin anew. What if we could start over? What if we could erase everything we’d ever written, and truly forget? What would my next sentence be if I knew I would never re-read my old words?

Kirk Wisland’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The Diagram, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, Phoebe, Essay Daily, and the Milkweed Press  Anthology Fiction on a Stick. He is a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Ohio University. He has not yet hit “delete all.”