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.



  • 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:


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.


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).


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.


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

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.”

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.

Books, Inc., 1962. 163-255. Print.

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


In Celebration of Hybridity (Part 2) –Erin Stalcup

Transcendence of Binaries

Postcolonial critic Declan Kiberd applies Frantz Fanon’s three stages of decolonization—occupation, nationalism, liberation—to the Irish context, and writes, “But nationalism, as Fanon warned, is not liberation, since it still persists in defining itself in categories imposed by the colonizer. A revolution couched in such terms is taken away from a people even as they perform it: it is only in breaking out of the binaries, through to a third point of transcendence, that freedom can be won” (184).

Binaries I want to transcend:
Academic versus personal writing.
Public versus private writing.
Political versus personal writing.
Realism versus irrealism.
Genre versus literary fiction.
Fiction versus nonfiction.
Prose versus poetry.
Narrative versus poetics.

Gloria Anzaldúa celebrates nepantla, “a Nahuatl word for the space between two bodies of water, the space between two worlds.” (237). Hélène Cixous celebrates naphtha, a liquid explosive, which “will spread, throughout the world” (1947).

In Bending Genre, Kazim Ali asserts that writing is “part eros, part riot” (34). And he writes:

There are two political realities tied to truth to which the essay as a form is obligated to respond. The first is that authoritative fact, both historically and today, has been used to silence and exclude significant numbers of people, whether forcing immigrants to lie in order to stay alive and safe or perpetuating the idea that transgender people are lying when we assert our own identities and bodies (to give only two examples). The second is that the process of asserting individual truths, of ‘speaking your truth,’ has been a powerful social and political tool in the modern world. These are realities to which the essay is always responding, not by discounting truth, but by acknowledging and embracing the power of truths, and by using the shifting, hidden, exposed, and expansive truths of the margin as collective tools to help us better understand the world, rather than lifting up a blunt instrument meant to convince others that our experience is the right experience. (45)

I believe all the forms of fiction are obligated to respond to these political realities, as well.


In Bending Genre, Mary Capello wonders if creative nonfiction is a literary cyborg (67).

In her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway writes:

‘[W]omen of color’ might be understood as a cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities. […] Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. […] The poetry and stories of U.S. women of color are repeatedly about writing, about access to the power to signify; but this time that power must be neither phallic nor innocent. Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. (2293)


Haraway offers her cyborg imagery as “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia” (2299). Heteroglossia is an apt synonym for any kind of hybrid writing.

Richard Rodriguez argues: “You cannot speak more than one language at a time. There’s no such thing. It’s like being bisexual; you just can’t do it. You can perform architecturally. You can perform, but you can’t be truly bisexual, you can’t be bilingual. There’s no such thing” (qtd. in Lim 533).

Hybrid texts help us get out of binary thinking.

Mary Capello writes, “Hybrid: the new form made possible when areas of thought and experience sequestered in life are allowed to share a space in art” (67).

Hybrid writing is genre-queer, so can make space for genderqueer, bisexual, biracial, bilingual, pomo and poco texts.

If you read this and decide I’m genderqueer, bisexual, biracial, bilingual, you’d be wrong. If you read this and decide I care about those ideas and identities, you’d be right.

I see through postmodern and postcolonial eyes, yes.


Against Reading Art for Autobiography: A Case Study

Genre-queer and genderqueer writing has been around for a very long time.

William Shakespeare’s book of sonnets is dedicated “To Mr. W.H.” The first 126 are addressed to a young man, while 127-152 are addressed to a dark lady. Critics have been trying to decipher what this tells us about William Shakespeare’s life since the book was published in 1609. I argue that Oscar Wilde’s book of fiction, The Portrait of Mr. W.H., offer the best critical lens through which to view the poems: looking for evidence about Shakespeare himself in his art will lead to madness and death.[1]

The truest moment in Wilde’s text is this: “Art, even art of the fullest scope and widest vision, can never really show us the external world. All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognizance. […] It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves” (242). I do not know if Oscar Wilde believed this—that art should be read for what it tells us about us, not what it tells us about its maker (all art, fiction or poetry or nonfiction)—but I know that I do, and many critics unfortunately do not.

According to Noreen Doody, critics have “expressed frustration that Wilde does not clearly indicate whether or not he believes in his own erudite theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (132), even though it is not Wilde’s theory, it is his fictional characters’ theory. Richard Halpern writes, “[T]he logic of the story insists that Wilde can convince others of the theory only if he does not believe in the theory himself” (43). But in The Portrait of Mr. W.H., the characters are not synonymous with Wilde. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, “Oscar Wilde feels free to extend his authoritative insight into the speaker” (36). But, of course, Oscar Wilde does not do this within the book of fiction he wrote, his invented narrator does.

Oscar Wilde’s next novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, led to doubts about his own sexuality, then criminal trials, then his imprisonment.

People have done the same with Shakespeare.

Joseph Pequigney argues that there is homosexual sex in the sonnets, then applies his argument about the sonnets to Shakespeare’s life. He begins tentatively: “If he ever wrote autobiographically, he did so here” (5). Since Pequigney is not certain the sonnets are autobiography, he says he will refer to the “speaker, persona, or poet, rather than Shakespeare” (5), then loses track of his own method and writes that “Shakespeare is in love with the young man” (65). He argues W.S. is bisexual, and W.H. is homosexual (154), and ends his study by insisting that “the treatment of erotic experience […] most likely reflects that of the author, the persona being created in his image and likeness” (224).[2]

Pequigney argues that both Shakespeare and Freud agree that homosexuality is “nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation or illness” (100). While I wholeheartedly agree, those thoughts cannot be attributed to Shakespeare in 1609—Pequigney never addresses the fact that Shakespeare would not have had Freudian understandings of desire, and he did not have access to terms or even concepts like bisexuality and homosexuality. A 2011 anthology punnily entitled Shakesqueer seeks to remedy the anachronism of using current concepts of sexuality to understand writings from an era that had no such conceptions. Madhavi Menon argues that “Shakespeare is queer even though neither he nor a single one of his characters is historically homosexual” (12); Shakespeare “never came out as gay—or, rather, we cannot tell, and that is what makes him so queer” (Menon 4). Menon’s academic anthology “showcases varied ideas on queerness, engaging not just sexual identities, but also race, temporality, performance, adaptations, and psychoanalysis” (25). For her, Shakespeare’s texts are queer, not queered—meaning we do not have to do it to them, they are already doing it themselves.

Yes, all writing is autobiography. But reading for autobiography is the least interesting this to read for.

Another way of saying this: I don’t care how much time James Frey spent in prison, or whatever that debate was about.

Wilde and Shakepeare’s texts are both genre-queer. The sonnets are not genre-queer because they’re both autobiography and poetry, as far as I’m concerned, but because they are doing new things within a genre. Shakespeare didn’t create the sonnet, but he used the constraints with such flexibility and grace and humor and wildness that the form became named for him. Wilde’s text transcends genre: his fiction about another author’s actual poems is the best academic writing out there. Walter Benjamin in Shields: “All great works of literature dissolve a genre or invent one.”

Aside from telling us anything about the author’s queerness, both texts are genderqueer.

Wilde first: Cyril Graham believed “it was better to be good-looking than to be good”

(170), and his good looks are rare: he was “somewhat effeminate” (167), but talented at masculine things like fencing and riding. Erskine found him “handsome, not merely pretty,” as well as “splendid,” “fascinating,” “willful,” and “petulant” (170). Cyril played all the girl’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays, and Erskine says, “Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen” (171). “[A]mbiguity of the sexes” is fascinating to Wilde’s characters, and they admire the ways the stage “suggested a new and delightful type of girlhood or womanhood” (218). Cyril is very much like the Mr. W.H. imagined in Wilde’s text, the boy-actor who plays the girl’s roles, worthy of devotion and even obsession. This Mr. W.H.—whether actual boy-actor or no—is celebrated in the sonnets for similar reasons. Sonnet 20 is the strangest, most erotic poem in the text. Here is what it says:

A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion—

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a women wert thou first created,

Til nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine by thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Here’s what it means: The addressee—a man—has a woman’s face and a woman’s heart. “Hue” has two straightforward meanings, color and complexion, but it can also mean shape or appearance, so a “man in hue,” means the addressee has the color and complexion of a man, and also appears to be a man in form, but all hues are “in his controlling,” which implies he can control his own form and appearance, as well as that of others—he can make himself and others appear to be more or less male. “Control” has a second Renaissance meaning—to challenge or find fault. Therefore, this man also challenges the form and appearance of others, and while “hue” is not a specifically gendered word, given the context of the lines thus far this addressee can be read as someone who challenges the overly strict binary of gendered forms. Line 8 confirms this suspicion—the addressee “steals men’s eyes” and amazes “women’s souls,” confirming his power over both genders (“amaze” meant “infatuate” in Renaissance times, which implies that women do not simply admire this man; they desire him deep in their souls, alongside the men who stare when he walks by).

This womanly man is “the master mistress of [the speaker’s] passion.” This phrase not only conflates gender into one person, it also indicates mastery, so that the person being addressed is the most powerful of all the mistresses of the speaker’s passion, the most powerful of all the powerful females—which is in addition to, not to the exclusion of, being both a male master and a female master.

The next two sentences fully activate the sexuality that has been latent thus far. Line 9 claims that this addressee was first created “for a woman,” which can also be read that he was first made “to be a woman” (Booth 164). Yet, as nature “wrought” this creature in line 10, she so dotes on her that in line 11 she adds something that “defeat[s]” the speaker: “By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” “Thing” was a Renaissance euphemism for both penis and vulva, and while “nothing” specifically meant vulva (as well as “no thing”), when line 13 asserts that nature “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,” it becomes certain what the addition was—“prick” as a verb meant to mark something as different from the rest, and as a noun it already was slang for penis in 1609.

Here, a woman with a penis is a wonderful thing, not abhorred by nature or humans. And this dote-worthy creature is pricked out not just for the pleasure of one woman, but for multiple women. Delight and desire are everywhere in this poem, and shock is registered nowhere in it. The existence of this person who is made of both genders is a very good, powerful thing, exclusively posited in the positive. Themes that run throughout the sonnets—the singular obsession of desire, the dichotomies that exist both in ideas and in people in relationships, and the complications that arise from triangulation—all get unique treatment here, unique not only in the sonnets themselves, but in Renaissance poetry, and poetry since.

Don’t read to find out what I am. Read to find out what I care about, and how I think.



[1] The theory in the novel is that the sonnets were written for William Hughes, the boy-actor who played the female roles in Shakespeare’s drama. To prove this, the characters quote eighty-five different sections of the sonnets throughout the novella. The originator, Cyril Graham, says his theory “evolved […] purely from the sonnets themselves, and depend[ed] for its acceptance not so much on demonstrable proof or formal evidence, but on a kind of spiritual and artistic sense” (177). Others besides Cyril need physical proof that Willie Hughes actually existed in order to believe, so Cyril has a portrait forged of Mr. W.H. This evidence convinces his dear friend, Erskine. When Erskine discovers the forgery, Cyril commits suicide. The unnamed narrator further develops Cyril’s theory, produces more internal evidence, convinces himself it is true, re-convinces Erskine it is true, then mysteriously stops believing it himself, leading Erskine to say he is going to commit suicide to prove his belief in the theory, but the narrator learns he in fact died of consumption.

[2] I prefer Richard Halpern’s treatment in his deliciously titled text, Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan, where he insists that there are repeated references to same-sex “practices” in the sonnets, and if modern readers ignore this they are “guilty of both homophobia and simple inaccuracy” (12), but the practices described in the sonnets tell us nothing about Shakespeare’s own sexuality. Stephen Booth makes the best argument for what the sonnets reveal: “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter” (548).


[More evidence on the matter will appear in Erin Stalcup’s last section–forthcoming Monday, January 5, 2015).

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.


In Celebration of Hybridity–Erin Stalcup

I am bitextual.

I write fiction and nonfiction. But mostly fiction. So I enter into Bending Genre wondering how to apply its lessons and conundrums to my own writing, how my fiction can get bent.

There are lots of facts in my fiction. Did you know that Einstein had a daughter? He never saw her after she was two years old, and none of us know what happened to her. So I speculate. Did you know that Isaac Newton didn’t only name gravity (I claim you can’t discover what is already there, and yes I apply that logic to the continent I live on), he also invented calculus? Did you know Isaac Newton believed counterfeiters should be hanged?

You might not learn these facts from my fiction because they’re a bit buried, and it’s so obvious I’m making so much up that you might not read for accuracy anywhere in there. In other stories I imagine what would happen if gravity stopped. A character invents the “Patrician Portion,” the percentage of tax dollars acquired through luxury purchases which is allocated to the military, a calculation that doesn’t exist in the so-called real world. I imagine real things—keening women, sky burial—happening in the United States, a place where they don’t. One character ghostwrites suicide notes. One of my stories is made up entirely of Missed Connection entries; most of them are written by me, some were cut and pasted from Craigslist. In one story a teenager and her father go on a road trip together and she sees someone commit suicide, and tells her father this, but doesn’t tell him about the much older man she’s been having sex with; when the story was published I told my mom that yes, I went on a road trip with my dad when I was a teenager but I wasn’t having sex and I didn’t see someone commit suicide and she said, “I know. If those things happened you would have told me by now.” In my fiction I imagine Galileo during his actual house arrest, as if a female physicist is reading his diaries, which, as far as we know, were never written. In the story someone says to her what was said to me when I studied physics: “How does it feel to be a female physicist? So rare?”

I quit physics to be a writer.

In my novella, a character discusses taking a class while he was in prison. His teacher brought pizza on the last day, and when she realizes she could have brought a lot more and the men would have eaten it, when she sees how politely they all make sure they get the same amount—six slices each, ¾ of a pie, each, but they would have eaten much, much more—she nearly cries. He’s since been released, and remembers that he wanted to walk out of the classroom, or maybe slap her, when she reacted that way. When she nearly cries for not bringing them enough food, eight pies for twelve men not enough, he both likes and despises her. That teacher is me. I do not know how my students felt about me when that happened.

Speculative fiction usually means irrealistic. Speculative nonfiction just means essay.

One way to view my novel-in-progress is to see it as a speculative essay that considers how we as a collective might respond to climate change, once we all admit it’s really happening. I’d like to believe I invented a genre: pre-apocalypse.

In the novel, a filmmaker makes a zombie movie about pigeons. In the speech before the premiere, he names all of his influences—and since the novel is set 20 years in the future, I got to make some up. He says we don’t need climatologists anymore, we need artists to respond to the beginning of the end of the world. I think we need both—more science, more art.

In the novel, I write from the point of view of a woman who grew up on the land I grew up on, but who isn’t me. Her land burned, mine hasn’t yet. I write from the perspective of characters unlike me: biracial, bisexual, bilingual, homeless, animal. I observe characters unlike myself: genderqueer, non-American, indigenous. Every character is a way of thinking about myself.


A Response to Reality Hunger

Bending Genre begins with David Shields’ Reality Hunger.

He writes: “Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends” (60). I fundamentally disagree.

The only genre distinctions I ever make: something labeled nonfiction means the author wants you to think it really happened, and something labeled fiction means the author wants you to read without worrying about whether or not this really happened. Neither label claims anything about the actuality of the events, just the expected perceptions.

David Shields writes, “Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction” (26). I hope some of the best nonfiction is being written as fiction, also.

David Shields writes, “The novel is dead” (115).

David Shields goes on to say, “Long live the antinovel, built from scraps” (115), but I don’t know why that has to be called an antinovel. He writes, “The novel isn’t dead”; it just isn’t as “central to the culture” as it once was (22). He says that the convention novel “ignor[es] the culture around” it (87). Maybe that’s why it’s not so central anymore.


I believe, deeply, that the best fiction and the best nonfiction today deal with the real world, but make art out of it.

David Shields looks at the evidence, and is frustrated:

I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. […] It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always ‘about what they’re about’—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject. (118)

And: “[S]ome seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered” to conventional plot (17). And: “In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place” (176).

I don’t know if we’re just reading different books, but I look at the evidence and conclude that hybridity is alive and thriving.

Reality Hunger ends up being a memoir about a really smart man bored by most fiction. I’m excited by how much good writing there is in the world.


The first time I read Reality Hunger, I wrote in the margins: “I desperately want to write a book David Shields will fall in love with.”

David Shields says some things I really disagree with. “Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted” (124). But fiction can do this too!

“Essayists are a species of metaphysician […] Novelists go about the strenuous business of marrying and burying their people” (133). But I love metaphysics as much as I love physics!

“Someone once said to me, quoting someone or other, ‘Discursive thought is not fiction’s most effective tool; the interaction of characters is everything.’ This is when I knew I wasn’t a fiction writer, because discursive thought is what I read and write for” (145). You’ve been talking to the wrong person about fiction writing!

David Shields says some things I really agree with. “‘Fiction’/‘nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction” (63). “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative. (Is there even narrative?)” (110). “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre, or the means by which other genres speak to one another” (139). “[A]ll writing is autobiography” (152). “It’s all about you and yet somehow it’s not about you at all” (160).


Reality Hunger came out the same year as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has a (fake) Powerpoint presentation as a chapter; and as Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape From a Leper Colony, which, in part, imagines a false history of a real place. Since then, Kyle Minor published Praying Drunk, a book of “stories” that does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction within the same cover; and Tim Horvath published Understories, which includes nonnarrative studies of cities that don’t exist and a novella about the friendship between an invented person and Heidegger; and Claire Vaye Watkins published Battleborn, where the first story is about a character named Claire Watkins whose father was a part of the Manson gang and whose mother committed suicide—both true facts from the author’s life—who is visited by her half-sister, Razor Blade Baby, whose birth was assisted by Charles Manson’s use of a razorblade (the reality or not of which I have not looked up). Before Reality Hunger, Junot Díaz published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel with footnotes about Dominican history, and a lot of inaccurate references to videogames; and Kevin McIlvoy published a novella that is three revisions of an essay supposedly written by a fifth-grader, his teacher’s notes included; and Don DeLillo published Libra with this author’s note:

This is a work of imagination. While drawing from the historical record, I’ve made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination [of John F. Kennedy].

Any novel about a major unresolved event would aspire to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters. Among these invented characters are all officers of intelligence agencies and all organized crime figures, except for those who are part of the book’s background.

In a case in which rumors, facts, suspicions, official subterfuge, conflicting sets of evidence, and a dozen labyrinthine theories all mingle, sometimes indistinguishably, it may seem to some that a work of fiction is one more gloom in a chronicle of unknowing.

But because this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here—a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years. (458)

I’m not sure if these examples enhance David Shields’ argument, or not. They definitely strengthen mine: hybridity is alive and thriving, within the genre we typically refer to as fiction.

I am trying very hard to do in my fiction the things David Shields is looking for, and typically finds in nonfiction, because that’s the kind of writing I want to read.

But many (most?) people don’t want to read fiction like that.

Recent rejection letters I’ve gotten: “[Your story] offers a fascinating glimpse into an unusual profession, but the plot could use more work/development.” “Your writing is beautiful and the line you tread between reality and not-quite reality is very interesting. The end of the story, however, lacks the same grace and ease of storytelling.” “Readers generally admired this story for the writing—as well as the conceptual nature of the piece. However, we worried about thematic coherence and a narrative through line.”


[Speaking of narrative through-line, Stalcup’s essay will be posted in three sections. This section is the first.]

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.

The Importance of Exercise–Silas Hansen

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the point?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Today’s Goldbarth Challenge¹–Craig Reinbold

Roberto Benigni
Simmons Bedding Company


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


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

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

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

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

The accountant knew this too.


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

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

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

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

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

Minutiae as blinders.


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

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

“And did you fear Hitler?”

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

And she probably didn’t.

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

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

Minutiae as negligence.


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

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

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

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

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

Minutiae as refuge.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minutiae is Life.

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



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

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

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

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

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

Padded-ass bicycle shorts
Felicity Aston
Amur tigers
Guinea worm

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



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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

I took a pencil and carefully created a dot.


Maps are memory.


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

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


Maps help us search.


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


Maps can be their own kind of fiction.


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



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

Creepy Baby–Diana Joseph

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


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?


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.


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.


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

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:


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:


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, ( 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



Academia dot edu


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 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
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

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.

Annie Dillard’s Cat–Liz Stephens

I think more than you’d suppose about Annie Dillard’s cat. Also, Vivian Gornick’s mother. Many of you will see already where I’m going with this. Some of you will already have an opinion on what makes that cat and that mother different from a boy who jumped from a roof of a casino one night, or another, in 2003.

I write literal truth, actual nonfiction. I tell readers exactly what happened, any ways my knowledge of an event is limited, and my bias for or against it, and I make no composite characters (I’m particularly proud of that, too proud no doubt). Life is insanely unbelievable enough, each life rich enough for two lifetimes. I don’t even make up dialogue that is more than one sort of organically transcribed step from verbatim. I may also tell you that an event makes me think of, even “see,” unicorns and leprechauns, but you will understand if I do so that I am speaking metaphorically, or at the very least, claiming only my own experience, not the facts of the experience at large. I’m just like that. I come from a family in which every single member might remember whole decades differently and then proceed to hinge our future personalities on it. So our interpretations are broad. But our factual claims are parsed down to the most excruciating, politest line where our own memory meets the other’s with the least violence. We hate to argue on uncertain ground.

On the one hand, facts. On the other hand, feelings. Desires. Wishes. The kind of memories that are packaged like wedding dresses in clouds of archival cushioning, a sort of tissue paper of bruises and heart squeezes and gasps.

I admire with a hot and sweeping lust the writer Anne Carson, who it seems to me could not give any fewer shits about literal truth but commits wantonly to an emotional reality. Here’s the fairy forest, the beginning of each piece seems to indicate, the mouth of the Labyrinth. Once you’ve reached the center – she shrugs – You are confused maybe? But I told you where we were going, and you said yes. Opposite to this on the spectrum of my trust, and thus my love, are writers like James Frey (poor man, short-hand among us for liar) and John D’Agata, the author in About a Mountain of the boy who jumped from the casino roof a certain night; though on the actual night the boy jumped, the boy is the author of his own life, and others can only relay his facts. When I read a piece that I believe to be true – not tricky in its form, not winky in its rhetoric, not magically realistic in its content – then I expect it to be true. I do not want to fall in love under false pretenses. D’Agata is my boyfriend who tells me he has no other girlfriends, only for me to realize, months later, that he means they are not girlfriends because he does not call them that, and so.

What has all of this to do with cats and mothers?

Annie Dillard begins a memoir of hers, the justly well-regarded Pilgrimage at Tinker Creek, with a passage about her cat jumping onto her and leaving bloody footprints. The blood, I think, distracted people from ever putting too much thought into the cat, least of all its provenance, and anyway, who would wonder at it, a solitary female writer owning a cat, the least surprising development in a memoir perhaps ever. Only at a reading as she was asked about her work did she as she answered supply this electrifying fact: the cat was not hers.

Well, who cares? People apparently. Readers had been told it was her cat, by her. I used to have a cat, she’d said. Still, in the end, it really wasn’t that important. It’s fine, we’re fine. But we had been burned by other untruths from other authors, and it stung, and now there it stands as a cautionary tale to other memoirists. No one wants to be caught with a cat that isn’t theirs.

What stuck for me was really only this. How could such a capable writer, one who connects me so deeply to the whole of the wide and mysterious everyday world, miss such an opportunity for metaphor? The cat of a neighbor, the cat-at-large of the neighborhood, knows her with such intimacy that it would leap through her bedroom window to her, step lightly onto her chest, and print her with its last mission, from the streets across her into the bedsheets, as the author wakes up to the world herself?

It’s hard to write. Sometimes fewer words work better. She was on her way to another, perhaps better, point. All of that can be true, and still. No one wants to be caught with that cat again.

Gornick’s mother in Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments got a composite treatment in which Gornick collapsed multiple conversations into one or two. You are maybe now getting a sense either of the exacting drive for truth that drives memoir, or a sense that perhaps we need additional hobbies. But the fact is, it matters, this imprecision. It is slippery. One likes to know where it is, and where it isn’t. Gornick is an agile writer, like Dillard, and choose this for narrative reasons easily understood. I think writers reacted badly to Gornick’s admission – again, made by herself in a craft conversation with students – because it worried them not in and of itself but because under it writers sensed an abyss. It was a gateway choice.  After it, what? A life imagined whole cloth? James Frey?

No. After it, we address the humans that are writers at play. Memoir is not after all autobiography. You will see why I am so forgiving of Dillard and Gornick’s narrative  manifest destiny momentum, and will marvel at how I have the cajones to talk badly about my boyfriend John D’Agata.

Time and I are intimates. Not sexy intimate but the kind where pillowcases smell like the head of the person who sleeps there and also the way you accidently stare at the lines on your partner’s face of fifteen years instead of remembering to listen to them talk sometimes, or maybe that’s just me. The kind of intimacy you never pursued on purpose.

I track time like a jealous lover, because I am fearful of death. I used to think something in my memory I had yet to unlodge stuck that fear there, something in the way I learned about death. That my father became a priest when I was around ten and I was faced with theology and existentialism at such a combustible age? That the extreme force of will I was born with couldn’t change this one thing ever? The time when my teacher told a room of fourth graders that the sun would be imploding some day and would be taking our descendants with it, but not to worry, humankind might be kaput by then anyway? Was that the day? In any case, I have begun to think it is genetic because my very young daughter worries with it too, like another loose tooth.

And in my obsessive account-taking of time that I call “writing nonfiction,” I did fall in a sort of love with time. We became familiar. I watch its movements as closely as I might a Brassai photograph held to a lamplight: Paris was good that year, that kiss will always have happened, that woman was young once too. It is a lover who will leave me, I am sure of it, but while it is here I will never take for granted its lush face, its deliberate pace, its follies and humors, the moments when I can feel the force of it on me. It is intimate, as I said, my attention.

So when I wrote my first book, a memoir, the only thing I tinkered with truth-wise was time. I knew just how to do; it seemed fair, it was my familiar, and I knew well what worked on it. Other people are other people. I would never mess with their lives. Ask anyone who has read the book: I was extremely fair to other people. Hey, reviews say it. Also, I was accurate about the place I lived to an anthropological degree. No fact-checker would need to wonder about the miles that truly lie between Salt Lake City and Wellsville, Utah, nor about the mores and habits of my Mormon neighborhood from dusk to dawn. The dialogue of everyone is just what they said, the wonderous puzzle of humans saying crazy amazing things or perfectly exemplary every day things just replicated lovingly in the text.

But writers: I moved before the book was done. And the book was about being there.

The infraction is so slight. One trip taken after I moved is included in the timeline as having happened last, just before I moved. But I’ve thought about it a lot. I’m glad I did it too (she says defensively) because in thinking about this narrative choice, I learned something very important.

I think no one writes more beautifully about temporal moments than Virginia Woolf. I’m not the first one to think this – her essay and collection both called “Moments of Being” are anthologized and taught widely ­­– but I’m one of the cadre of readers who believe it. No one else has honored so well those moments that fall in between other moments, the ones that define us in ways we can’t explain when we aren’t looking for it, so much better than those moments we work ourselves up for and stand on the top of the mountain for, waiting on the lightning and the tablets to be passed down. And my time as I left such a beloved place was full of this, the inconveniently sublime. Maudlin ridiculous moments patting trees and sides of houses, hikes of pilgrimage and exodus on days of horrible weather, sitting on my dogs’ graves speaking, it must have appeared, in tongues, to nothing. And in these ways the occasion on which I returned to Utah, the place of the book, after I’d moved, well, it was not on a different timeline. My address had changed but my head hadn’t budged. Splitting hairs? Sure. But did it affect anyone else? No.

And so that’s where my line is. If Vivian Gornick wants to mishmash all her deceased mother’s conversations into one, she’s allowed under my own law of creative nonfiction. She’s feeling it. I’m unlikely to do that largely because I am interested in the mundane aggravation of seemingly worthless time (see above, re: me and Time’s love affair) and what it reveals on further investigation, i.e. all the times our mothers don’t say anything “worth” recounting. But I haven’t tried to telescope forty years of conversations yet, so don’t count me out.

I wrote once that memoir is held by a “tensile strength.” I think unacknowledged untruth, in nonfiction, is the un-annealer, the ruiner of metals and bonds, the thing that anti-climactically releases the tension of the narrative into disparate parts. I think that the truth of this unbelievable life, well-considered and well-loved with the attention of craft and retrospection, is the spring we can’t stop pressing together if only to watch it work over and over, jumping in our hands like a live thing.



Liz Stephens is the author of the memoir The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press. She has served as Managing Editor of Brevity, was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in an upcoming anthology Dirt: A Love Story from University of New England Press.

On Not Being Able to Write It–Wendy Rawlings

In 1988, fresh out of college and working at a macrobiotic deli in a health food store, I had an affair with the stock manager, a married Irishman living illegally in the United States and the father of a three-month-old daughter. In the mornings, when we met before work to make love in the back of my car, he smelled of baby powder and the beer he’d drunk the night before at what he called his local, The Dribble Inn. We flirted through the workday, French-kissed in the walk-in freezer. One day six months or so after our affair began he didn’t show up for work. Just like that, he was gone. This was in the days before cell phones; he didn’t get in touch to tell me that his wife had found out and given him an ultimatum: quit his job or she’d take his daughter away and make sure he never saw her again.

Two years later I’m in graduate school in Colorado, sharing an apartment with some guy working on his MBA. At seven in the morning I get a phone call. It’s the Irishman. He and his wife have split up; he wants to see me again. In his wallet he’s been carrying a note I wrote him. He has read it so many times that it’s falling apart.

He flies out to visit me. I’ve just gotten over the chicken pox and my face is still flecked with scars. We’re massively in love with each other. I have written down everything that’s happened between us, since the day we met, and in his absence I’ve imagined him and dreamed about him and probably misremembered him in a hundred thousand ways. Now we’ve found our way back to each other. I spend most of the next summer in the tiny house he rents with three other men, two of them English and living in the States illegally. For its cesspool problem the house has earned the nickname, “The Swamp,” which we have to navigate to get inside and make love on his twin bed with the trundle pull out for when his daughter stays with him.

I move to Utah to pursue a Ph.D. We maintain our relationship long distance. Two years later, on my birthday, my friends take me to Chili’s for dinner. I’m sitting there wondering why my friends have taken me to a shitty fast food restaurant on my birthday when a waiter steps up to the table and places an ice bucket containing a bottle of champagne in front of me. The waiter is my Irishman. He has come straight from the airport and he’s here to stay.

I’m one of those writers who draws from my own life to write fiction. My first book is a collection of short stories, Come Back Irish. Versions of the Irishman appear in many of my stories. But someday, I tell myself I’ll write a memoir. That memoir.

I have tried for thirteen years to write that memoir.

I have not written that memoir.


Why do some nonfictional stories resist being told? On a table near my writing desk sit twenty-four journals I kept during the years of my love affair with the Irishman. They’re filled with details that evoke the tenderness and difficulty and hilarity of two people from very different backgrounds who fell in love nonetheless. There’s the time I took him to dinner at a friend’s house in a wealthy suburb of New York City and the host presented him with a six-pack of Guinness, as if it was the birthright and duty of all Irishmen to drink six packs of Guinness (N.B. he hates Guinness, is a fan of Budweiser). The day I first met his daughter, at the wedding of one of his roommates, and I got nervous and drank so much wine I threw up all over my green linen dress in his van after (thankfully) we had dropped off his daughter at her mother’s house. He got me undressed and into his bed, and when I awoke several hours later, I wandered barefoot down the street to the Dribble Inn and found him drinking pints with the usual gang. “Ah, barefooted like a peasant,” he exclaimed, and didn’t even mention the embarrassment I’d made of myself earlier. Or one time in Utah, when he was giving me a ride to work in the truck he bought when he moved out there with me and I noticed a black liquid sloshing around in the plastic well between our seats. “A sea of tea!” he said. He was in the habit of drinking a cup of tea on the way to work at Fedex, and over time, tea had sloshed out of his mug and into the well. He liked it like that.

And one time we’ve made love in the back of the van and afterwards he’s hungry, so we go to the drive-thru at Taco Bell, ten in the evening, and he buys a bunch of stuff to eat and we sit in the van in the parking lot while he rests the clamshell on the steering wheel and eats messily and happily, licking his fingers. I refuse to eat anything at this late hour. At the end, folding the clamshell shut, he lets out a despairing sigh. “What?” I ask, alarmed. To which he exclaims, reaching into the paper bag beside him, “I forgot my mild and spicy sauce!”

I’ve often tried to begin the memoir with one of these moments, but it falls flat. We are too ordinary; I cannot in words convey the charm of his accent and the unfettered pleasure he takes in his senses without turning him into a leprechaun.

Have I just not found the right form to tell this story, the right voice? Is the story of two people from different backgrounds falling in love just too played out? Do I simply lack the confidence of Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff? Or are some stories meant only to be lived, not told?

It has been fifteen years since I left the garden-level apartment with the intermittent box elder bug infestation where we lived together. He still lives there, still pays $400 a month for rent, still has the framed Matisse poster in his living room that I forgot when I moved out and and asked him to ship to me in Alabama, where I met my husband and got married ten years ago. Recently I visited Utah again – for an atheist convention, of all things – and met him for dinner. It was the first time I didn’t swoon when I saw him. He was an ordinary middle-aged man eating a plate of fish and chips. In a few months, he told me, he’s taking his Filipina girlfriend to his hometown in Ireland and marrying her.

Is there an algorithm that will predict the moment when a writer can begin productively to translate life experience into nonfiction? Must a certain number of years go by? Or does this impasse mean I’m supposed to give up on my desire to write the nonfiction version and write a novel instead?  In order to write the memoir, must our feelings toward the experience we want to write about be utterly neutralized, as by some reverse alchemy that changes gold back into workaday metal, “massively in love” into mere material? But by the time I’ve reached neutral, will I still want to write that book? If I have to wait until I’m sixty, will I be even be able to summon the intensity of those years?

You tell me. I’m still sitting here with my twenty-four journals, waiting.




Wendy Rawlings is the author of two books, The Agnostics and Come Back Irish. Her nonfiction has appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama.

Not One More.–Michael Croley

The box of shells was heavy. Heavier than I thought it would be and when I opened the lid the bullets all sat in perfect little rows, nose down, gold and shiny with a dot of silver in the middle of each, held in place by cardboard forms. My father had let me pick them up off the store counter and we walked out to the truck and I got in the middle between him and my older brother. I was six years old and this this was the weekend after Christmas. My brother had just gotten a brand new Winchester. 22 rifle and we were driving out to our cabin, forty minutes from where we grew up, to fire it for the first time.

The rifle had been the last present my brother received and when he took it in his hands, a pile of wrapping paper all around us, I thought to myself, a real rifle. Real bullets. No more “bang-bang” noises would have to be made. Instead, we could now create the sound when we went to the cabin and pulled the trigger. The rifle’s stock was so smooth and polished. I marveled at how pretty the wood was and how sure it felt it my hands. My father told us it was not a toy. He went over basic safety measures. Never point the rifle—even if unloaded—at someone. Keep the safety on until you are ready to fire. Do not be careless. Never point the rifle at anyone. He kept telling us that one. As I handled the rifle, marveling over it, I turned without paying attention and when I did I saw it was pointed at my father. I had broken his most important rule. He grabbed the rifle’s barrel and swung it to the side then he reached out and slapped the back of my head. This is one of the two times in my life he hit me.

The cabin was actually a two-story house my father and uncles had built on a hundred acres of land in the country near where they had grown up. For my uncles it served as a hunting camp and a place for their friends to come for the weekend and have a few drinks and watch Kentucky basketball games. For my father it was a way for him to stay close to nature. While my uncle Roscoe busied himself with a variety of elaborate deer blinds all over the property, my father concentrated his efforts on planting an orchard on the hillside below the cabin. I remember going with him to the nursery and picking up peach and apple saplings whose trunks were covered in white plastic and then watching (and helping just a little bit) as he planted them.

My father went to the cabin nearly every weekend and my brother and I went with him and while we were there we went through a boy’s education of rural life, I suppose. We rambled all over that large piece of property, climbing mountains, fording creeks, staying up late with our cousins to tell spooky stories in the middle of the forest with our flashlights turned off. An old basketball hoop with a dusty dirt court served as driveway and most Saturdays the trucks were moved into the grass to make room for pickup basketball games. My father was a good player with strong, quick moves and fakes. He made dozens of bank shots that bounced off the makeshift plywood backboard and through the hoop. I loved going to the cabin not because I loved nature so much then but because I loved being near my father and brother. My favorite memories of those times are when we left to come home on Sundays at dusk in the fall or winter and the air was cold outside the truck. In between those two I felt so safe and warm and I would fend off sleep for as long as possible until I couldn’t any longer. When the pace of truck slowed, I knew we had entered our hometown and the truck would take its familiar rights and lefts through town that led to our house. When I was older I would wake up then, but when I was still young, I pretended to be asleep so that my father would have to carry me in the house.

The cabin was a constant in my childhood. The way I grew up and where I grew up now seems quite suburban, though I wouldn’t have known to phrase it as such then. At the cabin, alongside my cousins, I realized how much closer they were with nature. They were real country boys. One morning, after a poor attempt at squirrel hunting with my older cousin, I watched him skin his kills. He narrated the entire event more, showing me where to make my incision with my knife, peeling and tugging back the fur like someone might on a stubborn banana, and I knew at a very young age, I would never attempt that myself. Early on the elements that marked my cousins as country to me—their knowledge and affinity to the land, their ability to hunt and kill, to skin and cook their game, their knowledge of flora and fauna of the mountains of Appalachia—were, in some ways, always going to be mysterious to me. While his brothers had continued to hunt into adulthood and passed on that tradition to their sons, my father stopped. He hunted growing up out of necessity not enjoyment and I think he viewed that time of his life as something he left behind once he went off to college then the army, then a thirty year career as a business executive. But he loved the woods and he trucked us out to the country with him every weekend where we were surrounded by all these men doing, as silly is it might sound, manly things. Roscoe had a contraption that loaded his own shotgun shells with buckshot. My uncle J.B. and his sons came out and went deer hunting and on Saturday mornings everyone except my father, brother and me, would take off just before day break and with camouflage pants and grease paint on their faces and head out for whatever hunting season was in session. I arrived on Friday nights with blue jeans and books from school to read—nobody judge, though, reading was as important as hunting in my family—but it seemed there was something out there in the woods I was missing that would tell me how to be a man in this world. I felt this very early in my life, longed for it really, even though I could never bring myself to be any kind of huntsman. The arrival of that rifle on Christmas morning meant to me that suddenly I might begin to understand the world of men I visited every weekend and by learning to master the rifle, I would feel connected to the land, to my father and all those other men we were around.

Holding the shells we walked out to where the targets were. Thirty yards away Roscoe had tacked up the concentric circles on old bales of hay. A month or two before this I had already learned how to shoot a bow and arrow but a rifle, a firearm, was a much bigger thing. Remembering now, I realize how nervous my father was. He went over those directions again and I remember a certain obsessiveness I had about the safety on the rifle because I believed as long as it was engaged and the rifle was loaded then everything would be okay. Because it was Tim’s rifle he fired first. The loud pop of the gunpowder exploding rang in my ears. Everyone had come out to watch us. Roscoe and J.B. My cousins. This added some sense of gravitas to the occasion, confirming my own ideas and speculation about manhood and crossing into its threshold. When my turn came, my father was extra careful. He admonished me once more and I kept thumbed the safety because I was sure I was going about it and some terrible accident would occur. Dad had been rated “marksman” in the army and he got me all set up, standing close behind me. He shouldered the rifle for me and taught me how to aim and told me to go ahead and put my finger on the cold metal of the trigger. I rested my cheek on the stock of the gun and looked down the barrel to small nib of the sight at its end. I think I asked if I was doing this correctly, following procedure that is, and I think he was amused at the seriousness with which I took on the task. When he told me I had the all clear, I pulled that trigger and felt the jolt of it in my shoulder, the rush of wind from the bullet exiting the rifle toward its target, the acrid smell of burning powder.

It was awesome. I didn’t even look to see what I had hit. I just wanted to load another bullet and fire once more. My father then went into the cabin and brought out a variety of cans and set them up in the distance for us so that our strikes were instantly rewarded with the somersaulting of Mountain Dew cans. I turned out to be a pretty good shot and emboldened by my success, I kept firing away and my father indulged me. He showed me how to balance the rifle on tree limbs to steady it and then he showed me how to shoot from the ground. We spent the entire day firing that rifle, depleting our supply of shells. And while I enjoyed it the fear that I might mess up and discharge the rifle in the direction of him or my brother was always there.




A .22 bullet is small caliber. I was told when we were learning to shoot that our rifle would only be useful in killing squirrels and rabbits, but .22 caliber bullets punctured the lung of President Reagan and took the life of RFK. Fired from a rifle, the bullet takes advantage of the barrel’s length and travels at a speed of 1,125 ft/s and after four hundred yards the bullet can still be traveling at a speed of 500 ft/s. I didn’t know these numbers then when I was six. I didn’t know them until just a few minutes ago when I looked them up but what I learned as a boy both from my family and from my own experience firing the rifle was that a firearm was a weapon and that the bullet left the chamber with enough force to shake me and to create a whirring sound of its own propulsive force. The sound of gun fire echoed in the valleys below us where we fired all day and were so common out in the country that it became easy for me to distinguish between the sound of a .22 versus a .12 gauge shotgun versus someone who was simply letting off a firecracker.

Last week a Washington Post headline popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed to tell me there have been at least 74 school shootings since the one in Newtown, Connecticut. This came on the heels of another school shooting in Oregon, which came on the heels of another shooting in Las Vegas, in which a man and a woman walked into a fast food restaurant and drew on two officers sitting at a table. I don’t even know if angry is the word to describe how I feel anymore about gun violence in this country. Defeated is more apt. But every time one of these tragedies happens, I return to the six year old boy I was the way my father took so much care and seriousness in teaching me. And I remember how afraid I was then. Holding that rifle and firing and knocking those cans down was great fun but it was incredibly scary. I was aware that at any given moment and one false move and I might kill my father.

I don’t want to say that I grew up around firearms because that doesn’t feel entirely true, but it wouldn’t feel entirely false to say it, either. At the cabin, I watched my uncles and cousins leave to hunt and watched them come back early in the afternoon with rifles over their shoulders. At homes I visited as a boy it wasn’t uncommon to see a locked gun cabinet with exquisite shotguns and .303os and .22 rifles with scopes. Filled gun racks in pickups were a sight in town as we drove to Little League or the grocery store. But there was a power in those sights and a power in those weapons I was taught to honor and in honoring that I was taught to be fearful of their power. Thirty years after I learned how to fire a rifle and with a slew of school shootings and mass killings in between all that, often from the hands of disturbed white males of all ages, I’m wondering if my own upbringing is unique this way.

A few years ago a friend of mine was married in Sea Island, Georgia. As part of the wedding party, I traveled there a day early and like a lot of those old Southern resorts your options for recreation are limited to golf, horse back riding, and skeet shooting. The groom wasn’t a golfer or a horseman, but like me he had grown up in southeastern Kentucky, so he had handled a rifle at some point in his childhood. Shooting was a natural choice. There were nine of us shooting that afternoon. We stepped into these outdoor shooting pavilions that overlooked some marshland. The ocean was whooshing into the coast. The instructors showed us where the secret service had set up in the water for the G-8 Summit in 2004 and told us how extensive their scouting trips had been. They handed each of us .12 gauge “over-under” shotguns. This is the gun you’ve seen in the movies or television that collapses at its breech so that you can fill its double barrels with shells. Load them in, pop it back up, and you’re good to go. As we each stepped into our own shooting stall, my father’s old words of safety entered my head and, because I’ve always had an over-active imagination, I thought about tragedy in much the same way I did as a boy. A ruined wedding weekend, a ruined life with just one careless step.

I told the instructor to pull and I fired away. None of us had any ear protection in so each crack of the gun was loud and the punch of a shotgun, if held improperly against the shoulder—as I did—will leave bruises on the skin. There was denying the explosive power of that rifle. I was an athlete growing up and I’m sure in my time on the football field I suffered a half-dozen concussions, moments when the world went black for a second or two and I woozily walked toward the wrong huddle, but nothing compares to the ferocity of those shells leaving the barrels of the shotgun and the way that ferocity clambers through your entire body, shaking your bones, juicing your veins, heightening your senses and quickening your pulse. None of us were very accurate. In six rounds of shooting I only hit seven clays of the ten you got to shoot at in each round. But if I had been given six more turns in the bay I would have taken them because the gun’s force becomes a drug but we are always warned about the dangers of drugs—alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, meth—to honor and respect the power and influence they can have over us.

My father taught us to respect the rifle’s power to understand it wasn’t a tool, as some like to call it, but a weapon designed to kill. The guns I grew up around were for killing deer and squirrels and birds, but they could kill people. I had a great time shooting and comparing my scores with my friends on the afternoon before my friend’s wedding, but what I also understood then and what I had intuited as a child was that I have never felt less safe than when I holding a rifle. NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre can say that the only thing that can take down a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun but this kind of statement comes not just from someone who is drunk on the mythos of Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry, it comes from the mind of someone drunk on the physical sensation of firing a weapon that has given way to mental dependency.

We keep hearing that we must get guns away from the mentally ill, but anyone who decides to use a firearm to take down a defenseless person without cause or reason must be mentally ill in some form. I’m more worried about the sane, the people we work and go to school with, attend church and play softball with, who fire that first round for fun, who don’t have a father or a culture that tells them this is dangerous and to honor its danger. Today the NRA keeps telling us gun ownership is our right under the 2nd Amendment somehow overlooking the full definition of the word amendment. The only aim of the NRA is to put a gun in every home because that will enrich the coffers of gun manufacturers who will then enrich the NRA, who, in turn, enrich spineless politicians.

The firing of that rifle at six never led me to the secrets of manhood that I hoped it might. I went to school on Monday, bragged about my shooting exploits, and never picked up a rifle again for twenty-six years. But I know how to handle one and what to do with one and I know that each time I see one or come across one I have a kinship to its charged energy and I am fearful of it. I don’t have any real answers for how to stop gun violence in this country but I know that there are a lot of confused men walking around our country with easy access to rifles who think like my six-year old self: The power of manhood lies on the other side of pulling a trigger. But all that lies there is physics, action and reaction, a wake of blood and confusion, the whitewashing and faux handwringing of a country too scared to take responsibility for what it has created and the awful misguided attempts to create meaning from chaos. Randall Jarrell writes at the end of his poem, “90 North”: “Pain comes from the/darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” We cannot grow numb to it.

Disorder, the Trope, and the Storyline–Catherine Reid

Rather than contemplating what it is we do, I’ve been wondering of late why we’re drawn to do it, why we fracture and rearrange, condense and simplify, align the unlikely, and intimate without claiming.  What are we hauling forward that draws us to mess about with brokenness? Which of our experiences make play and rupture so natural? Hallucinogenic moments? A view of kaleidoscoped worlds? The scene of huddled masses seen always from the outside?

Can we even name single moments, when the dis-ordering began?

I think I can, with three that keep repeating on the page—a terrifying kiss, a leap from a window after an arrest, and the years of seeking out coyotes after discovering them as metaphor.  The first was, of course, the best, when I wanted nothing else, the river below us winter-swollen, the sun warm enough to be felt.  And everything at once soft and round and aching and wet, spring beginning in our bodies, around us the loud cracking of ice swamped by high water. Who would ever want to stop, with yielding and splintering suddenly inseparable?

Within hours the known world had fallen away. All those narratives for my life, written by generations of people before and around me, erased by the meeting of lips.  Such joy! Such terror!  (In a car, by a lake, on a roof, on a boat.) We navigated on our own terms; we found our own words (she carved what it meant to her, borrowing from one of the greats: And this our life, exempt from public haunt/ finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks…). We stayed just ahead of being caught.

It became second nature to leave holes in sentences, where few knew what abided. Those who did, we trusted. Those who didn’t gave themselves away. While they were assuming a familiar narrative arc—conflict, tension, climax, denouement—ours was taking place off the page (the don’t-ask/don’t-tell bars, the known-to-be-safe streets, the room that relinquished no sound), and were multi-climactic—but to know that required reading between the lines.

The subsequent dodgings—placards, bottles, questions at social gatherings—may be what made implication so alluring. But it’s far more than vague pronouns, vaguer plans, or sex with a same-sex lover that sets one outside the standard narrative frame.

Take scissors, I tell students, cut that essay into pieces, and then begin rearranging the parts.

A second trope arrived with a different kind of outlaw status, when I escaped out a window after an arrest, which is a felony, which has long consequences, and for which the law brooks no mercy for those impulse-driven. I went out a window. I didn’t think about what would happen next or that I’d get away with it. And then I did. And then I walked to safety, casually, as though those newly deputized weren’t nervous, their German shepherds not restless. As though it weren’t at least a quarter mile to the nearest patch of woods. And then I kept walking until I was long out of sight. Only in my nightmares was I shot in the back.

To live outside all those laws! To have earned exclamation points! To know how tough it is to remake what was altered without much thought.

To know, as well, that this fractured form could easily stand on defiance alone, a world refashioned to our arbitrary liking, sections paired because they sound right or because one moment might have led to another.  And how reckless to overlook the consequence. (Shots may be fired; damage may be done.) For there it is: Align kiss and breast; add winter and ice; and then slip in something like brother and nighttime and locks on the bedroom doors, and how quick readers are to think, Ah, threat, Ah, injury, Ah, so that explains everything. (Think: John D’Agata’s feckless causality with his boy’s suicide in About a Mountain.) If anything, danger should heighten our care whenever we layer memory with scene with fact with metaphor.  And yet, who can really know what happens next?

Prisons could have become my main metaphor, after those years of civil disobedience, though rivers would have been as likely after the hundreds of miles paddled, or even the trail of a longer journey, the 2000-mile walk that became synonymous with the process of becoming and with the kinds of questions any essayist knows to embed (will I survive?, will I reach the end?, will I find a way to reconcile X—divorce, diagnosis, damage, death, as in Cheryl Strayed’s journey through grief in Wild?).  To sleep somewhere new every night—a cornfield, a cemetery, below a highway overpass—constituted practice, draft after draft. (I made it; we made it; only one person I knew was killed.)

Instead I found coyotes, the metaphor that felt most apt (coyotes flourishing on the margins, coyotes surviving best-of-kill derbies, coyotes thriving wherever bounties were legislated to rout them).  I tracked them for several years; I traveled with people who trapped them or snared them or followed them with radio receivers.  Wandering after them in all seasons—finding scat, spoor, hair, bones, the odd things they ate, the places they slept—gave me time to wonder about fear and hate and longing, about ways to feel safe and reasons always to be on guard. I learned how works gain their tension through the clear expression of desire and, in my want for a close coyote encounter, I managed to write myself home, never having been quite sure I’d be wholly welcome after that first kiss launched me out into the world.

Track your nouns, I tell students. Pick one and tell its story.

Kiss. River. Prison. Leap. Brother. Trail. Coyote. We all have a cache of them, the ones that, when laid out, become the stepping-stones, the tile patterns, the blocks of text between white spaces.

I thought I knew mine, all of them fitting into a fairly small sack. I hadn’t expected ring to drop in as well (rose gold to hold us as we each said I do), though, as when first entering any essay, how can we truly prepare for sudden breaks in the storyline?  And yet, in this most recent moment, and after wearing it for a decade, I took it off and walked away.  To be more truthful: I packed some clothes, rented a place, and drove away. Sure, there were reasons, the trauma that preceded me and which nothing I did seemed to balm, the effects of protracted sorrow upon a body, the nights when I wasn’t sure if her will to live would outlast her desire to be gone, but at some point, as the saying goes, the only life we can save is our own.

It may be, however, that my own tropes were what rescued me.  Having wrestled them onto the page for years, recommitting myself each time to the puzzling of sequences, the sounds and rhythms of every scene, may have been what yanked me back to form.  The kiss, the leap, the apt metaphor—each of which could anchor a compelling essay—when taken together may have become more of my storyline than I realized, the narrative I didn’t know I was still writing.

Of course, at its heart, this may simply be another version of the old fate v. free will debate. But our belief in the possibility, always the possibility, that rearranging essay pieces creates a sum larger than its parts, highlights the author’s role and the messy pleasure of the journey.

You can write your own storyline, I tell students, the truest one, the one about you. They nod because they’re agreeable and because my prompts often pan out. But perhaps what I mean, and what I ought to start saying soon, is, Begin with the story that wants to write you.



Catherine Reid is the author of Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst, a memoir/natural history, and Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, a collection of essays. A recent recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the North Carolina Arts Council, she directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Warren Wilson College.





Felicitous collisions under the banner of some other principle–Marco Wilkinson

I am leading my students on a chilly but sunny April afternoon through the woods of a local park.  This is a class on wild edibles, and they have one assignment today:  what is happening around you?  There is a syllabus for this class: it is provisional.   Each class meeting has an agenda:  we rarely keep it.  We are on the hunt for a particular edible plant on this day:  my students have no idea what it is.  Their only job, the true quarry of this hunt, is to notice what is happening around them.  It’s one of our first class meetings, so the students don’t so much trust me and this exercise as much they humor me.  Trust, hopefully, comes later, but at first humor is enough to get by on.

Foraging is a highly seasonal endeavor and what I am trying to accomplish by having my students look around them without knowing what they are looking for is twofold:  to foreground everything in their experience, and to break them of their attachment to a calendrical sense of time. Today’s lesson is in phenology, the ordering of time along a sliding scale of interrelated natural phenomena rather than a grid of months, weeks, and days.  Phenological time correlates the barest golden buds of cornelian cherry with the full riot of willow catkins in full bloom with chocolate-bronze pleated horse-chestnut leaves emerging from sticky bud scales.  What time is it?  Cornelian cherry buds.  When do trout lilies flower?  Willow catkins.

We are looking for ramps, but by the time we reach the pungent, oniony colonies of wild leeks spilling down the forest slopes to the flooded creek, my hope is that the students will understand that when looking for ramps they are really looking for a holistic natural moment, a precise step of an immense choreography.  The whole of the woods is this ramp.  And rather than a being having some inherent time, or even an inherent being, there is instead only relationality.

As a horticulturist, I was trained in taxonomy, to relate plants one to another within a grand schema of families and genera and species.  But what does a ramp know of these things?  It’s wide flopping green leaves bear a closer kinship to its neighbor trout lily’s speckled leaves than any garden onion, but don’t tell that to a botanist.  As a writer, I was trained in creativity (ha!), to open up my writing to the unexpected and the fresh.  But when I leaf through Poets and Writers or I click through a journal’s website and land on their Submittable page, I find myself faced with three gates in front of me: fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.  Is what I have to offer true or false?  lyric or narrative?

If I walk through the poetry portal ($3.00 toll please) must my work be beautiful or deep or sonorous, licentious or licensed?  If I try to get into the nonfiction nightclub will I get stopped at the velvet rope because my narrative is too loose, my logic too abstruse?  And I’ve never even considered trying out for the fiction team…  It’s not that I feel like I’ve been rejected or misunderstood as a writer, it’s just that I always face an existential dilemma in front of those submission categories.  I feel pressured to submit – submit to an alienating artificial scheme of reality.  I consider myself primarily a nonfiction writer.  I’ve written a number of essays and am working on a memoir – scratch that, lyric memoir.  I confess I don’t actually know what this term, “lyric,” means, but I find I have to qualify this project because when I write, my lines loop into sonorous arabesques or illogical cul-de-sacs.  My paragraphs atomize into the non-sequiturity of city blocks.  White space invades.  Apposite memories run riot.   I am not being cute.  It is just that I am trying to share with you (dear reader) how my mind works.  I am reaching out with my reality, like a ramp leaf brushing against a trout lily’s in the sweet ephemeral moment of an early spring afternoon when light still cascades down to the forest floor through the bare tree limbs above.  My nonfiction is just that:  not false.  But what if my non-falsity doesn’t meet your expectations (dear editor)?  Implicit in the idea of any genre would seem to be a judgment of reality, and the inevitable descent of misfits away from this phantom.   Is that what it means to be “lyric” essay/prose/memoir/whatever?  To mis-fit?  Does being lyric give me permission to be a lyre/liar and expand the horizons of the true?

Is this anxiety over what a piece of writing is and what “lyric” might mean merely symptomatic of some process of literary evolution?  Clearly the very presence of an anthology like Bending Genre and this blog demonstrates a community and a concern for work that mis-fits.  But given the existence of this community, how badly behaved can this work be?  Are we merely striking a pose?  The truly misfit is unintelligible.  Are we simply in the midst of a process of speciation? Among taxonomists there are the “lumpers” and the “splitters.” The splitters see speciation everywhere, naming new beings into being for each new trait that is observed.  The lumpers prefer to paint difference broadly, taking a conservative tack on innovation and a wait-and-see attitude. If genre-bending is literary speciation in action, is there a difference between adding another category to a Submittable portal, and the project of leaving “genre” as a genre of thought behind entirely?

I wonder what it might mean to stroll through the stacks of a bookstore, so many trees grown in pages if not in rings, or through the luminous pixels of a computer arranged in constellations, just like those first stories, and try to see things ecologically, so that a story or a poem or an essay or a _________________ might exist not as a species of a type but as a singular organism alive in the same moment and relating with the other organisms around it.  When do imagined memoirs grow?  Trauma cookbook.  What time is it?  Travel-theory-braided- lyric-meta-proem.

Another name for ramps is Allium tricoccum, which binds it by genus (plural, “genera”) to other Alliums – Allium cepa (onion), Allium schoenoprasum (chives), Allium sativum (garlic) to name a common few.  But these relatives are nowhere in sight in the early spring woods.  Closer are those trout lilies whose leaves, though freckled with red, are daintier look-alikes for ramps’ though they are comfortably distant on any taxonomists’ tree off in the land of Erythronium.  I worked for a number of years as a horticulturist at The Cloisters (itself a genre-bender, being a composite of five or so different monasteries and convents brought over stone by stone from France and Spain), where I learned to appreciate that naming things has everything to do with how a thing exists in your life.  Artemisia vulgaris is also “mugwort” precisely because this bitter herb was used in the middle ages as a flavoring agent of ale.  Artemisia absinthium  , its close cousin and one of the ingredients in its namesake intoxicating beverage is also “wormwood” because apart from inspiring visitations from green fairies, the plant was also used for getting rid of worms.   Botanically they are considered close relatives, but functionally they are completely different


.medieval letter harvest

I mention this because the names we give things depends on the scheme by which we are trying to understand them. D. R. Edward Wright has written about Renaissance Italian gardens and a bias in garden historical work towards aesthetic analysis.  He finds this bias rooted in historians’ reliance on top-view plans of these gardens as artifacts by which to understand them.   Primary concerns, then, have been aesthetic ones of structure, color, form.  Instead he suggests that gardens might be better understood functionally.  Not “what did they look like,” but “what did they do” and “what did people do in them.”  The garden as tool rather than the garden as spectacle.

Might this not also be a profitable reimagining of the scheme by which we understand our words.  It’s probably a fool’s errand to try and escape genre altogether, but rather than merely tack on another species to the list, could it be possible to use function as well as form (and a million other vectors too) to prism out just what it is we’re up to?  What might that look like and how would it affect our creative production if the Submittable portals for journals had buttons for “botanical exercises on ethics and joy” or “multi-directional laments” or “painstakingly delusional jeremiads on forgetfulness?”  My examples, and my first impulse in thinking about functional genres, are emotional – genre as parameters of “what my words do to you” in terms of emotional reader response – but these functions might extend in any of a number of other directions.  If these became the criteria by which work was aggregated, what kind of felicitous collisions might occur when poems and fiction and non-fiction and everything else in-between find themselves not understood as different but rather the same under the banner of some other principle.  Organizing along these lines is perhaps another way of saying: What time is trout lily? Ramps.  What are cornelian cherry buds? Horse chestnut leaves unfolding.



Marco Wilkinson’s work life bends genres.  He teaches writing at Oberlin College, where he is also managing editor at Oberlin College Press.  He also teaches in the Sustainable Agriculture program at Lorain County Community College, where he also gardens.  His work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Terrain, Seneca Review, and Taproot.


Uncertain Certainties–Mike Scalise

Recently I put a question to writer-types in my social spaces: what is your least favorite thing about the nonfiction reading experience (besides writers who lie)? I got close to 80 responses, mostly from poets and fictionists, very particular, very vehement: the perceived “narcissism” of memoir (of course), the classist lens of New Journalism, lyric overkill, unnecessary narrative intrusion, “ambulance chasing”—it was a stunning array of ticks that seem to piss people off in a monumental way. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t, but the one that’s stuck closest with me came from a friend I’ll call Annie, a fictionist whose stories tend to bind a humane messiness to the most tired of genre tropes, somehow fueling each with a new, strange life. “The performance of certainty around massively complicated life stuff,” Annie wrote. “The desire to simplify and explain the mysterious.”

I’ve been thinking about this concept since, the “performance of certainty.” Now is maybe the most digestible era for creative forms of nonfiction. Sharing modes have turned the genre more mobile and transferrable than it’s ever been—from #longreads curation to rapid-fire thinkpieces to the Shields-y bloom of the section-numbered, lyrical rumination. But there’s a brand of creative nonfiction that has seemed to thrive more than any other: a kind of blunt confessor’s tale, a one-thousandish-word personal story of often high, earnest stakes and utter danger, where a writer unveils a painful scenario they’ve either survived or endured or been implicated in. You’ve seen these pieces. They’ve shown up in your feeds with accompanying comments like “thank you for writing this,” or “beautiful” or “so brave” or just simply “this.” They’re very often pegged to a news item or pop culture strain but just as often stick to the deeply, deeply, personal, offering a firm, closing insight or a revelation. Its almost a genre, formed in close response to its medium—what to call these pieces? Micro-memoirs? Candids? Unburdenings?—and there are many reasons for their success. The best of them are written so skillfully, with a pitch and momentum that feels acutely visceral (and like with all genres, there are those who elevate beyond even that: Rachel Monroe’s strange, prescient and mindful pieces for The Awl. Matthew Salesses’s still, driving “Love, Recorded” column for The Good Men Project). They’re satisfying, almost addictive reads in that way: as readers, we get to lean in closely to listen to the careful voice of someone’s deeply held secret.

Though I suspect the leading reason for their popularity is the exact reason people like Annie tend to bristle. So many seem built to coax a simple, particular response in a reader upon a piece’s bandage-tear epiphany: To click a “like” button. Or a “favorite” button. So brave. This. Given the modes of consumption in which these pieces thrive, the responses make sense to the work at the heart of it. In other words, these pieces not only display the performance of certainty, but manage to transfer that performance to the reader as well.


For the modern origins of this kind of tale (or better, our responses to it) one could look to the mid-aughts success of Frank Warren’s PostSecret project, which expanded an online audience for the artful presentation of the contained confessional. But when it comes to how those tales often appear in “literary” form—and, more specifically, how they tend to conclude—This American Life’s Ira Glass might be a better origin point. While hardly the first to lean on the technique, Glass has been open for years about the anecdote/reflection building blocks of each of the show’s radio pieces, personal or not, and it’s difficult not to see that influence on storyslam culture, and then, further, on the micro-confessions that now decorate literary social feeds. And make no mistake—it’s good to be reflective. And it’s good to leave it all on the page. Every successful piece needs a negotiated harmony between both halves (situation, story, etc.). But does reflection or insight in nonfiction always have to take the form of certitude?

“Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists,” Philip Lopate wrote in The Art of the Personal Essay, and I believe Lopate’s comment is directly in line with Annie’s, as well as the many who (ironically) “liked” what she had to say. So how can we infuse the performance of uncertainty into our nonfiction narratives yet still keep it digestible, sharable and affecting? How can we shape our short nonfiction with the kind insight that accommodates the similar, thrilling complexities found in the best fiction and poetry (and theater and painting and so on)? To move towards something more ethereal and probing, beyond so brave? Beyond this?

One of my favorite travelogues of the last few years, Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War, is a work of incertitude at its most confident. Haunted for years about her own motivations, as a college freshman, to follow her older, religious boyfriend to South America in order to ingrain, horribly, to the fizzling Sandinista movement—Unferth sets out on a spiritual detective mission to locate the whereabouts of her own shed self. Her tales are frightening, hilarious and wrenching, interspersed with passages from the present-day, truth-seeking Unferth, retracing her old steps as if attempting to re-enact a fugue. The insight-heavy passages don’t come often, but when they do, what you get isn’t a writer making sense of a strange, formative, and traumatic experience, but rather a writer depicting the nagging futility of that reflex. “Why would this trip mean so much,” she writes about 130 pages in, after detailing a multi-day stint of debilitating sickness, “that I’d have to keep going back to find it?”

Unferth raises the stakes—and the messiness—of her search just a few passages later. At this point in Revolution young Unferth’s trip, goals, and relationship have failed brilliantly. Unferth finds herself abandoned in a Costa Rican motel room, weak to the point of delirium, “awake or asleep or dead or dying,” her life, she’s sure, in dire jeopardy. It’s the type of bleak, high-octane writing that’s often seen in today’s online unburdenings, that knifeblade-to-the-throat pitch, one that might be used, by a different writer, to yield a thud of heartbreaking reflection, a sermon almost about what it all means, then a dropping of the mic. But rather than rely on the mere fact of her predicament to deliver the drama, what does Unferth do with that opportunity instead? She wants to talk about balls.


I was on the phone with my grandmother. She’d always been nice to me—my grandfather too—quiet and calm, giving me a bowl of sliced fruit. “You’re not cut out for this,” she said on the phone. “Let me bring you home,” as if I were a ball thrown straight up into the sky. The ball goes up, slows, and for a second it comes to a standstill in the air, torn between acceleration and gravity. There’s always the chance that it will keep going up, that the Earth will release its hold at last. Maybe that’s why we throw balls?

All I thought in that pause was, Huh? I could go home?


There are more writers who do this—who expand the reach (and transfer the power) of their personal stories by being forthright with the nebulous struggle of that story’s burden on them, less so with the exactitude of the story’s meaning. I’m thinking here of the double-backing and pained self-inquisitions of Donald Antrim’s staggered, boundless memoir The Afterlife (see: “I Bought A Bed”), or the detective-like force of Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, which seems beyond any book I’ve read recently the most interested in posing only the perfectly-built, unanswerable question.

But we’re talking about the Internet here. I know. We’re talking scrolling and scanning and bite-sized-ness, quick hits and swift impact, not the years-long, book length perspective afforded to Unferth and Antrim and Manguso. One to twelve-hundred words—that’s likely the editor-sanctioned range one gets for one of these pieces, which is, in digestible terms, the difference between The Sopranos full series run and an episode of Jackass. Is there room for true pathos and well-built, reflective uncertainty in that frame?

But then there’s Cutter Wood, who in 2010 published the 1300-word essay “Golden Ages” in the “Readings” section of Harper’s. Like the web’s unburdenings, the piece is compact, guttural, topic-driven, yet brazen in its uncertainty, reveling in it even. Here’s just the beginning:

History does not tell us when human beings first began to keep their own urine, but we may suppose that in our younger, more nomadic years, the saving of urine, still not yet formalized, took place on a case-by-case basis. Only with the Neolithic Revolution and the ensuing shift to somewhat stationary lifestyles would the reservation of urine even have been given the opportunity to blossom into a concerted, culturally significant activity. Yet it seems that little urine was kept.

Wood goes on like this, taking his reader through the guts of history on a knowing, entrancing wave of maybe and perhaps: how the early communes of the Romanian Cucuteni “may have saved their urine,” on through to urine-saving or non-urine-saving eras of the Scythians and the Huns, to ancient Mesopotamia and how all of these people “were aware of urine” yet left no clues as to how it was first stored. The whole piece is at once a parody of academe presentation-speak, a tour of the shifting roles of our own body fluids throughout governed humanity (at one point Wood contends that the Roman Empire’s “urine conservationists” were “perhaps unrivaled in the history of the world”), and finally a speculative, moving rumination on our collective, bitter history of death-fear. But even in at its most contemplative moments, Wood rarely takes the piece toward anything reflectively definite. “And even though it was relatively customary for commoners as well as royalty to be entombed with a toilet during the Han Dynasty,” Wood writes, “this seems to indicate not a desire to save urine but a presentiment that even into the afterlife it would pursue our hapless souls.” Urine, in the essay, slyly stands in for a greater elusiveness, and it’s in the work of conjuring that grand elusiveness that Wood is able—again, in just 1300 words—to reach a fevered closure of wild, productive messiness, yet still remain allegiant to a familiar, digestible style.

But there’s no need to trace back our cultural history of urine to examine the unleashable power of uncertainty in nonfiction, the ways in which it can take a great, transformative hold on us, even when we get it in short, digital chunks. We only have to look to earlier this year, to the confounding disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the ensuing loop of turgid media speculation that followed in the weeks (and weeks and weeks) after; the theories that event gave birth to, the subtle desperation contained in the pockets of those theories, and what those theories taught us about us. Or, as Pico Iyer put it in the Times, “We imagine how those with loved ones on the plane must be trying to fill the absence, of knowledge as well as of their sons or wives, and how they may fear, even if at times they long for, certainty…we translate the story into our own lives, and think about how the things we don’t know haunt and possess us as the things we do seldom can.”



Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in Agni, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Wall Street Journal, Indiewire, and a bunch of other places. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, Ucross, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University a while back.


The Essay as Walk & Inter-course– Adrianne Kalfopoulou

“I believe our best work on earth is in service of likeness. I don’t know what to call it – moments of interpenetration? To feel the exchange across borders.”  Lia Purpura “Advice”


I am not walking to arrive. I am walking with my class in the midst of debt-ravaged Athens. But I am also part of a louder and larger gathering of voices over the walls, scrawled or carefully stenciled: This is some of the language – “Hello/Hell”; “ΘΕΛΟ, ΘΕΛΕΙΣ?” (Ι WANT, YOU WANT?) the English is somehow less elegant.


adrianne1 adrianne2

Language locates us. Maybe this is why Athens is covered in tags, graffiti, continued and continuing conversations over what figuratively and literally are walling in voices that still, fabulously, speak over and across the concrete of so much hell. Hello then. “Hi,” as I say over Skype — another location in time and space. There is something beautifully subversive about this dis-locating capacity of language that re-orients the subject in its mutable subject state. I wonder, for example, how much of a subject anyone (as any one?) can be once taken over, “whelmed” (to use a friend’s phrase) by circumstance. Trauma will do that instantaneously. I think of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” the incantatory haunting in the poem’s repetitions:

“Black milk of morning we drink you at night/ we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at dusktime/ we drink and drink/ there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta/ your ashen hair Shulamite he cultivates snakes –// “ The repeated, “your golden hair Margareta/ your ashen hair Shulamite -//”[1] which close the poem speak for the haunting as location, the wound also a point of entrance. Purpura’s word, “interpenetration,” an always elsewhere placing. The voices and stencils over the walls of Athens mark already marked intrusions. Any wounding, a violation on an assumption: one keeps walking to find the road again, an intersection where language will orient, give direction: “ΘΕΛΟ, ΘΕΛΕΙΣ?” (Ι WANT, YOU WANT?).

As in Celan, grief’s markings make a sensory haunting of time and space. I traveled to Germany at the beginning of the year where I lived for 3 months, teaching. The landscape was beautiful, the people hospitable, but I carried Athens with me. I find out, too, from Andrew E. Colarusso, poet and editor, that Celan had visited Heidegger in that town. Andrew sends me a section from his essay[2], “Having Walked Beside the Devil: An introduction to Parapoiesis”:

The eros of this space is sublime, so wide as to let in ideas and concepts the size of nations and universes of possibility. Like Paul Celan walking beside Heidegger in relative silence at Todtnauberg, hungry for some affirmation beyond the soft music of the Arnica, Eyebright, the Orchis he was certain to point out for the philosopher. Certainly they spoke on their walk, but it is unclear whether the scion of German poetry, a holocaust survivor, and the bearer of the German intellectual tradition, a passive participant in the horrors of the Third Reich, ever broached the subject of what settled in the historical space between them.

Was Celan’s life ultimately worth the silence he lived with? Had Celan and Heidegger spoken earnestly of the abyss between them, the same dense matter that drew them together, what would one or the other or both have had to sacrifice in order to propel a healing discourse?”

So what might have been the course of their walk if, in Andrew’s imagining, Celan had spoken of that “dense matter” between them: “The eros of this space is sublime, so wide as to let in ideas and concepts the size of nations and universes of possibility.” The intrusions of the walk, also a possibility for healing, the inter-course of a private desire led to unexpected destination? I don’t know what I was expecting in Germany, perhaps a kind of healing from debt-ravaged Athens. I understand the irony.

There was the regular toll of church bells very near where I lived. I bought mushrooms every day from the open market. My consciousness of place, permeated with a January melancholy for as long as January lasted. Unlike travelers of old who stamped their discoveries of place with the language they arrived with (“In the language and attitude of the conquer, Columbus promptly renamed the island he found in the Bahamas San Salvador, claiming it for the king and queen of Spain.”[3]), my arrival dis-placed ways to speak of orientation. The language was foreign, my English inconsequential. I used it to ask for a pretzel with butter in my early mornings until I could make the request in stilted German; the bonds then, when they occurred, occurred in the inter-course or interpenetration of small or larger empathies. Someone suggested I move into a collective when I spoke of financial difficulties. In the collective I learned new recipes and shared Greek ones; we nurtured each other with our different foods as much as with our stories. Lentils, such common fare in Athens, the soup of the poor really, was appreciated as if it were a gourmet offering by my fellow flat mates.

This from Susan Sontag’s “Project for a Trip to China”:


Will this trip appease a longing?

        Q. [stalling for time] The longing to go to China, you mean?

        A. Any longing.

Archaeology of longings.

But it’s my whole life!”[4]


“Will this trip appease a longing?” I came with vague, indiscriminate desires. For one I was happy to be teaching a small, inspired group of students in the masters program. I also became involved in another cartography of longing; the intersection of a place and time, a personal and literary geography of emotions. “Timing is everything” apparently. It did not matter that I was in another hemisphere, the inter-course would take an altogether different course from what I might have imagined in less dis-located times. I owe something then to the ravages of upheaval and trauma as Andrew suggests in his meditation; it brings new articulations — “Was Celan’s life ultimately worth the silence he lived with?” Andrew asks. Of course it was not all silence. We have the brilliant hauntings in the poetry: “your golden hair Margareta/ your ashen hair Shulamite -//”

I left Germany wishing to take with me all I had gathered there; the images of green, the black forest’s agates and jades. I tried to pack everything. But I forgot things.  I left a pair of underwear drying over the heater. I forgot my yoga mat in the overhead baggage compartment on my connecting flight to Athens. Sontag says: “Colonialists collect.” They bring back “Trophies” as in the way Columbus wished to impress the king and queen of Spain, by naming his unknown discovery San Salvador, an island of the Bahamas. But not to blame him too much, man of his times that he was, it’s always tempting to map according to what we want to possess, our traumatized selves re-possessed in some foreign Other. The thing is, there’s no guarantee (in any post-colonial context of the deconstructed subject), that you’ll possess anything close to your assumed desire. Columbus though insisted, to the day he died, that he had discovered a part of India: “Absolutely sure that he had reached the Indies, he called the people los Indios,” (8). Sontag has a grid in her essay “Project for a Trip to China” in which she illustrates “the following Chinese equivalences:” She has five columns titled: EAST, SOUTH, CENTER, WEST, NORTH. The adjectives associated with CENTER are “earth, yellow, end of summer/beginning of autumn/ sympathy” (272). “I would like to be in the center” she says, “The center is earth, yellow…” It includes “Sympathy.”

Sympathy will de-center those ways Columbus constructed his orientation to the world; the self in sympathy is conduit rather than center, a space of interpenetrations. The Greek word for “sympathy” — Συμπάθεια, to sympathize as in to feel for — but Συμπόνια, which is more to the point, is to feel the other’s pain. It is not “The colonialism of soul” in Sontag’s words, but “a border…[where] the soul’s orchestra breaks into a loud fugue. The traveler falters, trembles. Stutters.” (285). It is a strange essay into an “Archeology of longings” — arrival is meant to be a loss of those belongings we started out with, relocation a new intrusion of language: “ΘΕΛΟ, ΘΕΛΕΙΣ?”



[1] Celan, Paul. “Death Fugue” 2000. Accessed May 03, 2014. doi:


[3] The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Third ed. Vol. 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 8. Print.

[4] Sontag, Susan. “Project for a Trip to China” In A Susan Sontag Reader, 268. New York: Penguin, 1983.


Bio: Adrianne Kalfopoulou lives and teaches in Athens Greece. She is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently Passion Maps. RUIN, Essays in Exilic Living, a collection of linked essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press September 2014. She is Associate Professor in the Language and Literature Program at Hellenic American University and on the adjunct faculty of the creative writing program at New York University. 

The Lyric Essay as Time Machine–Julie S. Paegle

[The following is Julie Paegle’s AWP presentation for the panel Navigating Emptiness: The Perils and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay.  Nicole Walker and Kathleen Rooney’s talks, as well as the handouts accompanying the panels, can be found here.]

I’d like to begin today with a quotation by the great Tibetan poet and yogi, Jestsun Milarepa, as translated by poet Gary Snyder:

The Notion of Emptiness Engenders Compassion. 

—Jetsun Milarepa, 1135; trans. Gary Snyder

You’ve all gathered here, day three of the convention at 9 in the morning, to investigate questions of Emptiness—you are clearly, a compassionate group.

Thank you so much for coming to this panel on teaching the lyric essay.

I will be focusing on a tension inherent in the lyric essay, which involves the convention of two genres—the lyric on the one hand, and the essay on the other—with very different relationships to time.  So in their convening, or coming together, they are attempting to bridge a gap, an emptiness, fundamentally opposite approaches to time dictated by their own conventions or traditions.

That is, the conventional lyrical urge is to astonish the reader, to transport the reader outside time, so that she might experience an epiphany, or an anti-epiphany, or a strong emotion, or a self-revelation or discovery, however complicated or incomplete it may be. These moments are dazzling, astonishing, ecstatic in nature;  they halt the inexorable flow of time.

On the other hand, the conventional essayistic mode is to move forward in time—it advances narrative, or change over time;  it relies upon exposition, which in turn relies upon development;  it wanders and wonders and makes arguments.

So the genre of the lyrical essay functions as a kind of time machine, in which the relationship between suspension and forward momentum is constantly negotiated, and renegotiated.

In my experience, successful attempts at teaching the lyric essay rely upon first recognizing, and then developing strategies for, this negotiation between logical development on the one hand and the lyrical, epiphanic developments on the other, moments of self-showing, ecstatic raw perception.

I try to lead my students to questions such as what links the lyric moments? How do a chain of figures add up to thoughts, to something that develops?  How are lyric essays are made essayistic by reflecting on their own figuration?


Today we’ll begin by investigating these questions in the section “Painting Hunger,” and then move on to two writing exercises; the first, under “Echoing Astonishment,” is for advanced students;  the second, under “Coining Argument,” works well for beginning students.


An ancient Buddha said “A painted rice cake does not satisfy hunger.”
Dōgen comments:

There are few who have even seen this ‘painting of a rice cake’ and none of them has thoroughly understood it. 

The paints for painting rice cakes are the same as those used for painting mountains and waters. 

If you say the painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real, the Dharma is not real.

Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting.  The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting. 

Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.  Without painted hunger you never become a true person.

—Dōgen, “Painting of a Rice Cake”≈1240; trans. Gary Snyder

Arguably, the genre of Buddha’s saying—“A painted rice cake does not satisfy hunger”—is two fold.  On the one hand, and as shown by Dogen’s analysis, it is a kind of koan, or puzzle intended to illuminate its reader. At the same time, in its fortuitous marriage of expository development and flashing realization, the saying of the ancient Buddha functions as a very short lyric essay. In a fundamentally illusory, unreal world, seemingly immediate experiences, like that of “painted hunger,” emphasize by contrast the illusory quality of everything else—ultimately, of hunger itself.  Human hunger, human desire, human longing are the patinas or artifices or figurations that enable us to become true human beings.  Coextensively, Dogen’s analysis is also an excellent example of the lyrical essay.  It proceeds via argumentation—a series of propositions—and ultimately turns on an epiphanic realization—hunger, which feels real, points out how painted the entire world is—including hunger itself.

This self-reflection, in which the artifice underneath the “real” is revealed as crucial to the revelation of the real, is part of the magic of the lyric essay.

So how does one help students achieve this?

Let’s move on, now, to the exercise for advanced students:

2.  Echoing Astonishment (for advanced students)

My own background is as a poet, so forgive me as we take a slight detour through two sonnets, the first by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the second by Craig Arnold.


A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity

To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,

Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,

Of its own intricate fulness reverent:

Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see

Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals

The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:
Whether for tribute to the august appeals

Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve;
or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,

In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.
—Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
The House of Life, 1881

Why I Skip My High School Reunions

Because the geeks and jocks were set in stone,
I, ground between. Because the girls I ate
lunch with are married now, most out of spite
—because the ones I spurned are still alone.
Because I took up smoking at nineteen, late,
and just now quit—because, since then, I’ve grown
into and out of something they’ve never known.
Because at the play, backstage, on opening night
she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress
an avocado and a razorblade,
slit the one open with the other, flayed
the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice
—because I thought that one day I’d say yes,
and I was wrong, and I am still afraid.
—Craig Arnold, Shells, 1998

Both sonnets express the lyric force of astonishment—of “turning to stone,” or stopping time.  Rossetti’s poem considers the sonnet as a “moment’s monument;”  that form that converts 14 lines to “one dead, deathless hour;”  just as Arnold’s poem conflates the present with the past:  “The geeks and jocks were set in stone, / I ground between.”  Both sonnets also marshal evidence to support their points;  expand on their opening claims of the sonnet as an ecstatic form;  and end with a closing argument or turn on the exposition.  In this sense, the sonnets perform argument as neatly—arguably, more neatly—than the five paragraph essay.  John D’Agata points out exactly these argumentative features of the Petrarchan sonnet in his discussion of James Wright’s prose sonnet, “May Morning:”

May Morning

Deep into spring, winter is hanging on.  Bitter and skillful in his hopelessness, he stays alive in every shady place, starving along the Mediterranean:  angry to see the glittering sea-pale boulder alive with lizards green as Judas leaves.  Winter is hanging on.  He still believes.  He tries to catch a lizard by the shoulder.  One olive tree below Grottaglie welcomes the winter into noontime shade, and talks as softly as Pythagoras.  Be still, be patient, I can hear him say, cradling in his arms the wounded head, letting the sunlight touch the savage face.

James Wright, found among his few new poems after his death in 1980, as anthologized in The Next American Essay, edited by John D’Agata, 2003

Here again, the sonnet opens with a claim about suspended time (“Deep into spring, winter is hanging on”);  and supports the claim with examples and evidence (“he stays alive in every shady place” and “One olive tree…welcomes the winter into noontime shade”).  The exposition expands its horizon as “(the olive tree) talks as softly as Pythagorus.”  Finally, the poem ends with a concluding claim that spins the original claim, as the olive urges winter to “be patient,”  waiting for its next natural season, and “letting sunlight touch the savage face.”

While Wright’s prose poem is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet, it is also, thus, a perfect lyric essay, moving between suspension and exposition;  image and example;  emotion and narrative.

One approach to helping advanced students achieve a similar balance in their own lyrical essays is to ask them to write them, first, as verse sonnets.  Then, they imitate James Wright’s move of  removing the enjambments. In some cases, the result is amazingly finished at this point.  At a minimum, the students have a tight kernel of a lyric essay that they can, if they wish, expand upon.

I have found a different approach well suits beginning students, who may not have the structure of Petrarchan sonnets at their imaginative fingertips.

III. COINING ARGUMENT (for beginning students)

This writing prompt is adapted from an exercise by Garrett Hongo in The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.

I ask the students to write, anonymously, two sets of secrets:

In the first set, they confess or reveal two secrets using the first person point of view. One secret is true.  One secret is invented.  Examples range from the predictable (I spent all the money in my father’s wallet to take out and sleep with my best friend’s girlfriend) to the quixotic (I helped thirty illegal iguanas cross the border into the country in exchange for a rare edition of an old Crass album).  The writer is to hide the identity of the real secret, using literary and poetic strategies.  Put differently, I ask the writers to craft both secrets so that they seem equally real, or true.

In the second set of secrets, students relate two secrets using the third person point of view  “a friend of mine” or “my brother” or an “acquaintance.” Again, one secret is true, and one  is invented.  The two sets of secrets may be similar, save the pronoun; to the first set of secrets;  but most differ quite radically, beginning with the amount of detail and figurative language the writers naturally use.   Again, the writer is to hide the identity of the real secret.

The students anonymously hand in their secrets and I redistribute them, keeping the sets together.  I invite the students to identify which of the secrets they have received is true, and which character they find most compelling, and why.

From here, the students used their received secrets to write two brief lyric essays, many which take an Apologia form (along the lines of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say”);  or a Confessional format; or a Justification (“Why I Skip My High School Reunions”).  Regardless, something about the pressure of the hidden, “real” secret results in coinages of new argumentations and expositions, while the attempt for verisimilitude employs a variety of figurative, poetic, and lyrical devices.

What Therefore Dinty Has Joined Together…–Sarah Einstein

Last year, at about this time, Dinty W. Moore became The Right Reverend Moore so that he could marry me to my then-fiancé, now husband, Dominik. In the living room of his house, surrounded by friends, family, fellow graduate students, and faculty, The Right Rev gave us some good advice.  Marriage is like writing: you need to show up at your writing desk and at your marriage desk. Marriage is not like writing: writing needs to be attacked, relentlessly, while people need to be handled tenderly, coddled a bit. Show up, be tender.” He then pronounced us husband and wife and everyone dug into the pot luck supper and cupcakes.

He wrote about it here, in Bending Genre, a few weeks later in the essay “Dearly Beloved.” And because everything—marriage, writing, life—moves in circles, here we are again.

Dominik and I are about a month away from our first anniversary, so when I tell you that now I’m going to reverse the thing— to talk about how writing is, and isn’t,  like marriage—you’re going to be tempted to roll your eyes and think to yourself Get back to me in seven, fifteen, thirty years. But one has to start somewhere.

A lot of being married is about cleaning the bathroom and paying the light bill. There are date nights occasionally, but there are dishes in the sink every day. Writing is like this. There are big-deal moments—a piece published, an agent acquired, a book contract—but mostly there are pages to fill, filled pages to revise, revised pages to revise again. There are submissions to manage, rejection letters to mourn and then move past, and a pile of literary journals by the bed to read. It’s all about the day to day.

Marriage demands that you don’t let yourself get sidetracked by appealing alternatives. Writing isn’t like this at all. The best work often comes from letting the process guide you to unexpected places.

Much of being married happens in pajamas. This is true of writing, too.

Being married means that there is someone else around to take bugs outside (Dominik), keep the car running (me), vacuum the floors (Dominik), remember family birthdays (me). Writing isn’t like that at all. Even if you’re working with an editor, ultimately all the bug wrangling, oil changing, vacuuming, and birthday remembering of it fall to you.

Don’t try to fix your spouse. Do fix your work. Keep fixing it until it’s exactly the way you want it to be, and then fix it one more time.

There are bookshelves and bookshelves filled with advice on how to have a happy marriage. There are almost as many filled with advice about how to be a successful writer. Very little of it, this essay included, is actually useful. You have to find your own way. There is no single path.

When you tell people you’re getting married, they will tell you how exciting that is while still harboring a fair amount of unspoken skepticism. The same is true when you tell people you’re writing a book, except they are a lot more likely to voice the skepticism.

Everybody else’s marriage looks better on Facebook. So does everybody else’s writing career. Remember that.


The Ultimate Warrior Believes in Nothing But Forever–Brian Oliu

A question to answer your question: when the plane goes down or the heart goes out, do you kick the doors down or do you let everything occur as it should—a smile on the face before it twists into a chipped toothed mess, a resignation that what is happening is happening without you: hearts work independently of bodies, hearts blink first, hearts jump off the train tracks early without seeing headlights coming the opposite way. We build only to tear things down: construct fortresses of pillows and couch cushions, our stuffed animals safe in their beds as we are—tucked in under pillowcases, their soft heads peeking out from under fabric. We crash into these structures like we are giants, like we are larger than any building that has ever been constructed: we are the unexpected reckoning, we have no time for anything delicate. And then, it is over: our lungs too tired to build again, our work in a heap on the floor. There is no time for any of this, though we believe it to be endless: our hearts in the right place for once—chest-centered and majestic, a spilling out of leaves from under the soup tureen, all things set out for us like a dinner we will never attend. Here, we live in a space between heartbeats, in a world where we try to determine what is rightfully right and wrongfully wrong with no luck: no four-leaf clover, no fingers crossed behind our backs. When we see you, you spin away from us: your back to the camera as you talk to nothing: colorful walls that you cannot see—eyes focused on the blankness of being.

You promise us that you live this: that every footstep you take, every trip to the grocery store to buy bananas for your family, every moment that you turn on a car engine, you are him: ready to destroy everything in your path, ready for warfare, your code existing on a plane that we cannot possibly comprehend, us soft of skin, us who choose to spend our days in bed counting the spirals on the ceiling. Us, destroyer of buildings. Us, who do not sing loud enough to give you the power to shake ropes, to press men larger than we can imagine above our heads, to paint our face the color of something not found in nature—to become larger than life, to become larger than our mothers, our fathers.

These arms are tired. These arms are pressed for time. Dispose of them. Assume the controls of a body that does not have the need for carrying. I will forget all wounds until it is time to drag you home by your teeth. A question to answer your question: to die like you did, not behind the wheel of a car, but in a house that was built by someone who could still lift sheetrock above their heads like I did as a child—before sycamores and straight spines—to die after ceremonies, to die after you were pronounced dead—gone with no semblance of spark, no glorious send off, but a chance to do it over: to be alive when the world is shocked you are still breathing is no easy task and so when the plane goes down and the doors are kicked out do you believe that you are the one chosen, plucked from on high, the neon paint a sharp contrast to the grays of cockpits.

My blood is not yours: it does not run thick, it runs silently while I sleep. I do not act on instinct. I do not throw myself face first into the void, I do not ask for forgiveness before I ask for permission. I am quiet, yet my body is failing. I cannot obliterate because I cannot love: I was never taught these things—you never spoke of love, of wishing to die for a cause until it was too late. Some nights, I drink too much. Some nights, the sky is clearer than coffee, some nights, I do not miss any of this. I show up on my own accord: the truth is inexhaustible. Don’t worry about any of these things: they are minute in their crafting, they will be wiped away with the simplicity of a head-first charge from parts unknown into the only thing I know—to be strong enough to leave everything behind except everything I stood for, to keep my name in my heart and on my sleeve like shreds of fabric. This blood does not bleed deep: no one will think I am alive when I am not. I will tell my stories. I will sing them at any cost. I will keep the spirit close. None of this will become legend.

Start Anywhere–Sara Greenslit

Start anywhere: the once a year mammogram, the anniversary of the mastectomy, the anniversary of first palpating the lump yourself.


It does not matter where you start, just that you do.  The flowers in the yard have bloomed, died, and bloomed again.  It has rained.  It has snowed.  The lake thawed.




This is similar to my scar:

greenslit image




But it’s purple.  It’s simple.  It’s simply there.




What my veterinary medical training has done to shape my point of view: that flat, pink, round lesion on my dog’s arm—self trauma or a mast cell tumor?  A limping, 12 year old lab: Lyme disease, bone cancer or arthritis?  The mole on my arm—freckle or melanoma-rollercoaster-toward-death?


But then, contradictory as ever, I am lacking terrific worry over a recent monitoring breast MRI.  I think, If it’s really bad, surely they’ll call.




A cold creeps in, into my head and chest.  I rattle, I wheeze, I sneeze and hack.  Everything refers to then: the last time I had a cold, I was having chemo.  It was mild, abated by acupuncture.  I had gotten two rounds of flu shots.  I slept all day, regardless.  Tick tock on a loop.  Back where we started, here we go—




I am the breaker of things—the clanger, the banger, the splinter, the chipper, the gouger, the smasher, the cracked, the smacked.  I pound my feet, slam doors, drop plates, books.  Entropy sped up.  Forgivenesses lasped.




Most of my new friends have had a cancer diagnosis.  We introduce ourselves as our malignancies: testicular, kidney, rectal, brain, breast, salivary gland, leukemia.  How many times have I said in the past, Just because we’re both gay doesn’t mean we have anything in common?  Well, being under 40 and having a tumor, it’s a mighty glue.  The ones I most identify with?  Both cancered and gay.




Who are we, if not our illnesses?


I am my body, I am not my body.  I am my mind, I am not my mind.


Take genetic code, take personality, upbringing, nutrition, environmental contaminants.  Take me, take you.  Stir.  Wait.  And yes, no one gets out of here.


Bring in song.  Bird and human, howler monkey and vireo, humpback whale and Stellar seal.


And what about the shifting, calculable, predicted, to the internal flash and back away, or the years of grinding through—


Am I more than a list of symptoms, a rattling-off of diagnoses?




Lying down on the cold, smooth comforter, blinds drawn against the heat, I fall into sleep again, even though the night before, I spend half a day slumbering.


Seeds from the feeder into the dirt have produced a small congregation of sunflower plants, about to bloom, where finch, sparrow and chickadee hide and feed.


And why are the newly opened sunflowers facing away from the sun?




That duck across the street is lame.  The sparrows drinking out of my dogs’ water dish outside—do they have songbird fever?  The mouse feces in the shed—white-footed mouse, and therefore Hanta virus?  Did I bring the dreaded MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) home from work on my clothes?  It’s a paranoid’s picnic of possibilities.




A contemplation of dinosaurs, of schist, algae blooms and ant migrations, wave forms, of saints, Vocalise, spinning and falling maple seed wings, sparrows on the feeder (one red-chested house finch on the end), slow-mo black & white footage of fruit bats feeding at flowers





Andreas Gurksy’s “Ocean” series of the 8×11’ pictures of the earth via satellite

(us, a dust mote, above)


Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, black & white seascapes, the split second of static electricity

(hover here, in these canvasses)




To pause, to watch, fall into one self, to maintain, to persist, resist assist, desist


Re-vision, dis-ease, dis-articulation


Not knowing if it was enough, or too much


Cell cycle (X), and which genes—off/on (p53), monitor, quell and (god) speed


Meta misspelled = meat




Mary Ruefle’s whiting out the words of a Victorian novel to leave behind found poems


Jenny Holzer’s blocked out texts of




Becoming the other


the difficulty being present for one’s own suffering




the CAD not taken…                                                 (complete axillary dissection)


(hush, it’s always there, the mantra: 6×4.4×3 cm tumor)




“I am irredeemable” (Mary Cappello)




Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”: his stark, repeated (elevator?) tone translates to the alarm of a blocked IV fluid line, or the first over-com tone for a hospital code, or the heart monitor, beeping.


Contrast this with the guitar-plucking finches, instruments amplified to pick up their landing, their pecking, one even fidgeting over a stick in the strings—an exhibit in London, seen online




The new German shepherd adoptee has to have emergency surgery for a gastric dilation and volvulus.  While the surgeon is in there, the spleen is removed due to an infarct in the organ’s tail, or lack of blood flow from the flip and twist.  What I think out loud is, Great, one less organ to worry about getting cancer in.




Who hasn’t, by mid-life, suffered some sort of amputation or other?




Re-      cover               Re-      mission




Not gained—not the surety of spirit or religion or manifest destiny.  Just the solid reiteration of Randomness.




Trace backwards, to the source, the first cell(s—has to be more than one, due to lack of a concrete, single mass, but more of a rouge, flamed-shaped contrast-enhancing abnormality = “suspicious”): lymph node biopsy, mastectomy, and surgical biopsy← oncology and plastic surgeon appointments ← stereotactic core biopsy ← breast MRI ←surgical appointment ← mammogram ← left breast ultrasound←gyno appointment ← waiting two months to see if the mass shrinks; it doesn’t← finding the mass on self-exam ← time: months, no, years? for the constellations of clustered calcifications to form.


(Word of the Day

Monday, August 16, 2010


1.The earliest stages or first traces of anything.)




Robert Ryman paints white canvasses white.  He paints because it’s his source of joy.  I identify with the works’ lack, their quiet, their ability to gather all the light in the room.


Kate MacDowell’s hybrid ceramics: a single white arm morphs into petals and leaf, where vein and muscle and bone should be attaching to the torso.




What would it be like to take a series of pictures directly at the sun, but not looking at it, so not to be blinded?  Would all the frames be off, and you’d end up with cloud fragments, an edge of solar flare?  (The soundtrack would be my neighborhood: leaf blower, chirping sparrows, sirens, bass-boom of car stereos)





The metaphors inherent in apoptosis






And what happens to your worldview, when your new group of friends ends up talking about cancer recurrence, these fears, death?







Is it better to be alone with my seething brain, my rage?








No?  (exhale)  Gather yourself up, and begin again:


Start here: a scar.  It’s purple.  It’s simple.  It’s simply there.




1982, Revisited–Justin Bigos

On March 19, 1982, a group of Argentine scrap metal merchants raised the flag of their nation on the coastal, British-occupied island of South Georgia. In the next two weeks, Argentina invaded the island, and then the Falkland Islands, assuming Britain would retaliate.

By June 14, ten weeks later, Argentina had surrendered to Britain. Argentina had lost 649 military, Britain 255. Three Falkland Island civilians had been killed. This is what Wikipedia tells me. In April 1982, I turned seven years old. I lived on Linwood Avenue, on the second floor of a three-family home, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with my mother, sister, and – for a year or two by this time, I can’t remember – my mother’s new man, whom she would marry in the summer of 1983.


Nineteen-eighty-two. 1982. Nine. Teen. A-D. Too. The tip of the tongue taking a trip. I remember:


Breakdancing with my friends Sergio and José, who lived above me, on the third floor. Their sister Janet’s eyes.

Joan Jett’s eyes.

The Dark Crystal, one of the scariest movies ever made, a Schindler’s List for kids.

Our apartment getting robbed. The way the broken glass looked on the floor of the dark hallway when we got home.

The voice of Stevie Nicks.

“Spitting Nicky,” an older kid from the neighborhood who spit even more than the rest of us. His hairlip; his black, spiky hair.

Atari: Donkey Kong, Dig Dug. Q*bert?


I recently finished a story – which, at 49+ pp., I now consider a novella – set in 1982. My protagonist is Nicholas Mikos, Jr., nine years old. I changed Nick Junior’s age in the story after a few scenes. I made him two years older than I was in 1982 because the story began to reveal itself as, in some way, a story of sexual awakening. And so nine seemed more “believable” than seven. But, to be honest, by which I simply mean to remember, and to trust that memory, I began to come of age sexually at the age of five. And not through abuse, as is the case, perhaps, with Nick Junior. Though, his babysitter, his first great love, is twelve. A girl. A girl who dry-humps then does other things to, with, this boy, who is very very willing if not terrified. Who has never heard of the Falklands.


I could have named the babysitter Donna, but I named her Jennifer. I could have named Sergio and José Robert and Pito, Angel and Jorge, but I gave them their real names.

Ron Carlson recently gave a reading at Northern Arizona University, and during the Q&A he said that in each story he has written he has kept something secret, kept something from the reader. One little cryptic thing, not even essential to the story, a name or a color of a house or the smell of a hand soap, that signaled, only to him, some private knowledge. He related this habit in some way to his years of public speaking, but I’m less interested in that rational, perhaps rehearsed explanation than the sheer compulsion to hide. Childlike, irrational. When I gave Sergio and José their real names, I seemed to do the inverse of Carlson: reveal, rather than conceal. But who, except for me, maybe my wife, would know, reading my novella, that these fictions bore the names of real people? What small detail, in Ron Carlson’s expert Q&A performance, was the one white lie, or one small truth, no one else in the room was aware of?


Questions of memoir vs. fiction are worth asking – for the author, and for the teacher and the student. It’s tempting to say that everything is hybrid – Portrait of the Artist, The Fire Next Time; Swann’s Way, Reality Hunger; Anne Carson’s Nox or Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah – and so what’s the point in talking about it. But it’s the particular intersections of genre, when we try to articulate them, maybe fail to articulate them, that seem most interesting. Not just memoir as poem, or autobiography as novel, or novel in stories, but also manifesto in quotations which themselves are mostly derivative paraphrase and conjecture and rant, a manifesto which ultimately, let’s be honest here, is in the end a snobby and endearing memoir of a life of reading a shit ton of books. Or something like that.

It’s difficult to describe literature, the good stuff anyways. The stuff that asks us to invent new ways of talking about it. I am not hubristic enough to believe my novella, or anything I’ve written, falls into such a lofty category. But, I cannot write anything – poem, story, novella, essay, whatever – that is not in some way aware of itself formally. I admire stories artfully and compellingly rendered, but if the story is not aware of itself as story – if part of the pleasure of reading, and I imagine, writing, the story, is not just the story but how the story is told – I ain’t interested. But really, is there such a thing as “the story”? I don’t think so. As a teacher, I say as much, because I sense that many of my students believe that there is a story, somewhere in the ether, or underground, and all they need to do is somehow retrieve it, transcribe it, then hand it over to us, the readers. It’s a strange faith, kind of beautiful. But I don’t believe it. Do I?

In writing my novella/autobiography/pop-song-playlist/top-twenty-movies-of-1982 (except Chariots of Fire, which is wonderful but not a movie Nick Junior had seen), I conducted more research than I ever had, except for the academic articles I wrote on Yeats and Shakespeare during doctoral studies. However, I have never conducted research for a work I labeled memoir or literary essay. In these works, it’s not that I trust my memories, my thoughts – I usually don’t. And that is probably the main reason I have begun to write literary nonfiction. Not to relay, or expose. But to explore, to essay – to find new ways of being wrong about the world. To give it a shot. And another shot. Isn’t that what writing does? In literary writing I am much less interested in factual accuracy than are, say, the crybabies who sued James Frey. Or Maureen Dowd, who, after Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, were shamed on Oprah, conflated Frey’s literary exaggerations with the Swift Boat campaign. In other words, a literary memoir was held to the same standards as journalism. Why? I agree that journalism should be held to very high standards of factual accuracy. But changing the number of days one spent in jail, or the color of Charles Bronson’s eyes, will not cause a country to be illegally invaded.

In conducting research for my novella, I was not looking for facts. I was looking for colors, smells, sounds; sneaker styles, slang; the smiles in cigarette ads. I wanted to re-inhabit, to some degree, some strong degree, what it felt like to be a young boy in 1982 America. I was hoping a whiff, a kind of Proustian magic, might send me back to that distant, indelible year.

My wife and I watched over twenty movies from 1982, every or every other night, depending on how fast Netflix could ship them to us. Death Wish II. Rocky III. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Sophie’s Choice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The morning after I would write a section of the novella, subtitled after the movie from the night before. I made a 1982 pop-song playlist on Spotify, which I listened to – even the shitty songs, like “Centerfold” by J. Geils Band, and “Physical” by Olivia Newton John – throughout the day, and even, sometimes (gulp) during writing the scenes in which those songs are played. I watched dozens of 1982 music videos on YouTube. I bought issues of People magazine from 1982 off eBay. I sat, and closed my eyes. And I did feel transported, partially, as I do in all my writing – one foot in and one foot out – and I listened, which is what we writers tell ourselves we do as we move our pens around and hit the keyboard keys, scarring our beloved heroes for life.


What is writing – poetry, memoir, literary essay, story, novel, novella, or most likely some combination of these – but an invention of self? Or, maybe, a shredding of any notion of a “self.” In either case, even the most obscure writer is like the celebrity. Fact and fiction commingle – in language, in music, in big-screen gesture. What is said needs what is not said. The sliver of memory needs the black hole surrounding it. The mask needs the face. The lie kneads the mother. The sinner is the song.

Here is the poet Ai, the last lines of her poem “Intercourse,” a persona poem in the voice of John F. Kennedy:

There fact and fiction lie

one atop the other fucking furiously,

when one surrenders unconditionally,

the other dies.


Jennifer Jason Leigh lies down shirtless, E.T. reaches out a finger glowing like a lightning bug, the deep-belly bass line of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” tugs at you, tugs at your heart, and it is 1982. Nicholas Mikos, Jr., has left his home, his city, for another, the suburbs, learned new words like rad and gaywad and totally and blowjob. And one night, Christmas night, 1982, he watches The Dark Crystal, the fifth or sixth time he’s seen it that year, but now through the basement window of Jennifer, who he calls Jenny, before something very bad happens to her.

In a few days it will be 1983. Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson, the holy trinity of American pop music, will explode. Mr. T will become Mr. T. People will buy computers, bring them into their homes. My mother will marry George Sandor, and we will move, not to the suburbs, but 3.8 miles away (so says Google Maps), to a new home, in the same city.

But first Nick Junior needs to do something, something he has never done, something he will keep secret for the rest of his life – because he has to, he has to, I tell myself – so that the story can be over.

Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay–Kathleen Rooney, Julie Paegle, and Nicole Walker

Generous reviews make us do wild things. Brevity Magazine’s blog has been devoted to reviews of AWP panels these past few weeks. Sally Ashton wrote “Top Ten Reasons Why “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” Was a Great Panel.”   Kathleen Rooney, Julie Paegle, and I were happy to hear we served the audience and AWP well. We have been asked if the panels and handouts could be made available for those who couldn’t make it to the panel. We thought Bending Genre’s webiste would be a great place to reproduce them. Thanks again to Sally Ashton and Dinty Moore for bringing attention to our panel.

Kathleen Rooney 

The Wilderness of Unopened Life: On Selecting and Working with Course Texts, or Reading List Assembly for the Open Form Essay

I have a terrible confession to make. I have never in my life taught “the lyric essay.”

And yet here I am, sitting on this panel on the “Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay.”

So what am I doing here? Am I an impostor? Have you been punked? No. Here’s what I mean:

I have never taught a class whose title or subtitle contained the words “lyric essay,” although I have taught several classes in which what others might call “the lyric essay” has been studied abundantly.

I have three main reasons for not teaching “the lyric essay” in a way that uses that term. In a kind of lyric essay (or just HuffPo, I guess) move, I will put forth those reasons in a brief list form:

1)    I don’t like the term “lyric essay” because it was never tremendously clear or helpful to begin with, and because of overuse and mis-application its meaning has become so vague as to be almost useless. It’s like the term “postmodernism” that way.

2)    I am not comfortable with the ethical murkiness engaged in and promoted by one of the term’s biggest proponents. And here I mean John D’Agata, the lyric essay editor at Seneca Review since 1997 and the antagonist (depending on your point of view) in the book The Lifespan of a Fact where he was pitted against dogged fact-checker John Fingal of The Believer. In short, I prefer not to endorse such carelessness with the truth even tacitly or by implication.

3)    Finally and probably most importantly—both for this panel and in general—I think that to name something that could be called a “lyric essay” too stringently and to define it too strictly is to fence that thing in before it has a chance to really be free. In other words, calling a “lyric essay” a “lyric essay” risks accidentally crushing it under the expectations of genre before it even gets built. I don’t want students to hear the term “lyric essay” and feel burdened with the idea that there’s a single correct format for that type of writing and god forbid they might be doing it wrong.

Before this panel motivated me to put down my pedagogical reasoning behind this instinctive avoidance of the term “lyric essay,” I didn’t really have an alternative term for it.

Now, though, I feel I should pause here and offer a substituitive name: the “open form essay.” I’ll say it again: “the open form essay.”

Giving credit where it’s due, I got this term from a briefly famous and now sort of obscure poetry anthology published in 1969 called Naked Poetry. The subtitle of this collection is “Recent American Poetry in Open Forms.” In their introduction, the editors Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey write:

There wasn’t even a satisfactory name for the kinds of poetry we were gathering and talking about, and still isn’t. Some people said “Free Verse” and others said “Organic Poetry” (and a few old ones said, “That’s not poetry!”) and we finally came up with Open Forms […] And we took a phrase from Jiménez [Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956] for a title which expresses what we feel about the qualities of this poetry as no technical label could do.

I appreciate this term, “open form,” because it emphasizes that just because a form is not fixed, doesn’t mean it’s not a form. (I like the word “organic,” too, but feel like that sounds too much like fresh produce and ethically sourced whatever.)

The phrase “open form essay” seems to suggest that just because a student isn’t writing in a set structure doesn’t mean they’re structureless. Or just because many beginning writers consider structure to be secondary, invisible, or transparent—because that is how they approach a normal essay or a free verse poem or a traditional (whatever that means) story)—doesn’t mean that that structure is not there. The phrase “open form essay” implies that an essay might be better were the form or structure to become more primary, visible, and prominent, or at least not transparent.

I like the nakedness of the phrase “open form” here, too, as implied by the Naked Poetry anthology’s title because it suggests that neither students nor professional writers should shield themselves with or hide behind or just fall habitually into the neat strictures of poem/essay/story like they might be able to do on their own, without considering the phrase “open form.”

In other words, what I like about the implications of this name and this approach to a class is that it provides a way for a piece of writing’s form or forms to develop organically from the content. I like how the phrase “open form essay” encourages a higher degree of mindfulness about the way that content can inform the shape and even the sound of the piece and vice versa.

Now that I’ve offered this potential alternative name for the “lyric essay,” I’ll talk about how I’ve taught this form in the past, with a particular focus on how I’ve put my course texts together.

I have framed these workshops and their reading lists as either hybrid genre and/or cross-genre. I think that’s the best way to teach good “open form essay” writing both to undergraduates and to graduate students.

The way I learned to prefer this approach was at DePaul University, where we have a course whose number is 309 and whose placeholder title is “Topics in Writing.” Most people choose to design their 309s to be genre-specific: fiction, poetry, or nonfiction with little to no overlap. But thanks to the freedom given to professors for this course, that kind of genre division is not required, and so I never do that. Instead, I take a topical approach that is non-genre specific, but in doing so I hope to encourage the flexibility, formal experimentation, intellectual and creative expansion and rigor that are the trademarks of what a lot of people would call the “lyric essay” and what I like to call the “open form essay.”

I’ve given, as handouts, the front pages of the syllabi and the imitation assignment for two of the 309s I’ve created at DePaul so far.

One is for Writing the Body. The other is for Drift and Dream: the Writer as Urban Walker.

We can pause and walk through the reading lists now, and you can see what I mean about how genre distinctions are highlighted, but with an emphasis on juxtaposition and overlap rather than separation.

My reasoning in assigning such a generic array of books in these classes is that I think students should be thinking not just of content but of form, which perhaps is a contender for the Most Obvious Statement of the Year Award. But I trust that lots of other teachers besides me have found—more often than not—that students frequently have a good grip on what they want to “express” or the “story” they want to tell, but have a hard time thinking of the structure in which they can effectively express themselves or tell that story.

Thus, in a class like this, where one takes a hybrid, cross-genre, or open form approach, I’d argue that one invites and produces a greater range of lyric-ness and experimentation. I’ve also given you the Imitation Assignment that I build the first half of the class around, so we can look at that now, and also the Major Assignment prompt.

Of course, students are not taught that all genres are equivalent or the same. And especially for the major assignment, they are encouraged to pick an over-arching genre with the understanding that a poem is not a lyric essay is not a fiction. And they are also reminded that ethically, what you can do and say and cover and invent in fiction is different than what you can do or say or cover or invent in a nonfiction essay or poem.

But once they consider that macro-level genre decision, an open form approach to both a reading list, imitation exercise set, and major assignment leads to the freedom and joy and risk-taking necessary to create a good lyric essay or open form essay, if you will. (Let’s make this happen.)

In their intro to the Naked Poetry/Open Forms anthology, the editors quote D.H. Lawrence on Walt Whitman, in praise of setting out, as writers, into “the wilderness of unopened life.” (Which is where the title of this paper comes from.) By putting together my reading lists this way, and by structuring the assignments as I do, I try to encourage my students to study these formal armatures, and then discard them, employ them, or graft them to their own as they see fit.

Many students end up writing open form essays, and some have open form essay passages alongside fiction alongside prose poems alongside flash fictions alongside flash nonfictions alongside verse plays alongside whatever else you can imagine.

Does this lead, always, to “finished” or “publishable” works? NO, but in a single semester or 10-week quarter, maybe that’s not the point. This open form approach frees them to think outside parameters they might have thought were fixed and to carry this openness—both in the sense of form and often candor—on into their other work in other classes, other genres, and other settings altogether.

English 309: Writing the Body

Fall 2013: Tuesday-Thursday 11:20 am-12:50 pm (Lincoln Park Campus)

“I wish I was free / of that slaving meat wheel / and safe in heaven dead.”

~Jack Kerouac, “211th Chorus”

Instructor: Kathleen Rooney

Course Texts:

Conrad, CA. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma) Tics. Seattle: Wave Books, 2012.

(ISBN: 9781933517599)

Manguso, Sarah. The Two Kinds of Decay. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.

(ISBN: 9780374280123)

Glenum, Lara. The Hounds of No. South Bend: Action Books, 2005. (ISBN: 9780976569213)

Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. New York: Vintage, 1999. (ISBN: 9780375701290)

Yuknavitch, Lidia. The Chronology of Water. Portland: Hawthorne Books, 2011.

(ISBN: 9780979018831)

D2L Articles and packets:

Thek, Paul. “Teaching Notes.” 1978-1981.

Bordo, Susan. “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body.” 1999.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984.

Weekly Creative Responses


The first six weeks of class, which we will dedicate to the reading and discussion of these texts, will also include a weekly writing assignment. Every week, you will hand in one page of writing that is inspired by the corresponding week’s text. This page should clearly show you, as a writer, interacting with and responding to both the subject matter and the structural features of the text under consideration; the page should also be typed, double-spaced (or single-spaced if it is a poem, or if single-spacing is part of your response), printed out, and handed in.

Please, please, please, do not hand in more than one page. If you do, I will not read it. I will, in fact, throw it away. If your page ends mid-sentence, so be it. Follow the rules. There is method in this madness. I urge you to take these page-long assignments seriously. Genius can be found in one page. It can be found in a few sentences, for that matter: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (Nabokov). Occasionally, but not as often, it can even be found in six words: “For sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” (attributed to Ernest Hemingway). You should strive for such greatness.

We will not be able to workshop each of these one-page pieces by every author each week, but we will workshop 3 of them each week. I will ask for volunteers to sign up for these slots, and no one will be permitted to workshop a short piece more than once. Actual workshops will begin during week 7. Please note that if the class as a whole does not invest itself in the first half of the quarter (reading & discussing the required texts, taking seriously the writing assignments, etc.), then I will cancel workshops and we will re-read the texts and re-write the assignments.

The longer pieces you workshop during the second half of the quarter should (must!) come from the page-long pieces you wrote during the first half. These full-length stories should be not fewer than 12 pages, not more than 15.

Major Workshop Assignment of 12-15 pages


During the third week of classes, you will sign up for the dates on which your major assignment will be due to be handed out, and the subsequent date on which it will be workshopped by the entire class, starting in Week 7.

On the day it is due to be handed out, you will bring in 16 copies (including one for me, and one for yourself) to pass out to every member of the class. On the day it is due to be workshopped, you will be in attendance to receive your classmates’ verbal and written critique.

The only other requirements are that this piece:

a) deal, in some way, with the body, and

b) be inspired by/based on 1 of the 5 one-page responses to the texts.

Please ask me if you have any questions, or would like further constraints or prompting.

English 309: Drift and Dream: the Writer as Urban Walker

Winter 2015: Monday-Wednesday 4:20 am-5:50 pm (Lincoln Park Campus)

“One day this love will all blow over. / Time for leaving the parade. / Is there a place in this city? /A place to always feel this way?” ~“Tinsel Town in the Rain” by the Blue Nile, 1984

Instructor: Kathleen Rooney

Course Texts:

Baudelaire, Charles. Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose. Trans. Keith Waldrop. Middletown:

Wesleyan UP, 2009. (first published in 1869) ISBN: 9780819569097

Katchor, Ben. Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories. New York: Little, Brown, &

Company, 1996. ISBN: 0316482943

Mueller, Cookie. Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. New York:

Semiotext(e), 1990. ISBN: 978-0936756615

O’Hara , Frank. Lunch Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001. (first published in 1964)

ISBN: 9780872860353

Cole, Teju. Open City: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2012. ISBN: 9780812980097

D2L Articles and packets including:

Chtcheglov, Ivan. “Formulary for a New Urbanism” 1953.

“Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf. 1930.

DeQuincey, Thomas. An excerpt from Confessions of an English Opium Eater: Being an Extract

from the Life of a Scholar. 1821.

513-02 Come Together: Presentation on a Piece and on a Literary Device/Convention Sign Up Sheet:

Presentation Date:  Thursday 4/7

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Dialogue on a Dialogue” (25)

Device:                    Dialogue                     Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:   Borges, “Dialogue on a Dialogue” (25)

Device:                    Meta-fiction                  Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Argumentum Ornithilogocum” (29)

Device:                     Argument; Rhetoric    Name____________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Winter Trees” (57)

Device:                    Image                           Name____________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Live a Long Time” (58)

Device:                     Direct Address                   Name_______________________________________

Presentation Date:  Tuesday 4/12

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Captive” (30)

Device:                     Narrative Epiphany      Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Captive” (30)

Device:                     Captivity Narrative       Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Captive” (30)

Device:                     Lyrical Ecstasy            Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “The Unlikely Origin of the Species” (59-70)

Device:                     Narrative Structure       Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece: Walker, “Nor Do I Know The Ways of Birds Clearly” (71)

Device:                     Volta (Sonnet turn)      Name____________________________________________

Presentation Date:  Thursday 4/14

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Plot” (36)

Device:                     Plot                                   Name_________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Plot” (36)

Device:                         Archetype                      Name________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Gonzales, “The Black Torso of the Pharaoh” (103)

Device:                         Metaphor                       Name_______________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Quetzaltenango” (47-48)

Device:             Metaphor, Setting                                  Name____________________________________

Presentation Date: Tuesday 4/19

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote” (42)

Device:                    Parable                       Name________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Parable of the Palace” (45)

Device:                    Nestedness                              Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Psalm” (45)

Device:                    Psalm                          Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Fall Service” (42)

Device:                  Elegy                                   Name________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Mullen, “Dim Lady” (224)

Device:                    Turn on Stereotype      Name_____________________________________________

Presentation Piece: Mullen, “Free Radicals” (223)

Device:                  Concrete Detail          Name______________________________________________

In your brief (10-15 minute) presentation, you should:

  1. Read aloud to the class, the piece in its entirety
  2. Broadly define (on the board or on a handout, and orally) the convention or device, citing your source
  3. Locate the convention or device within the piece
  4. Describe both a.  how the piece engages the device in a conventional, traditional way and
  1. how the piece makes the device or convention new, fresh, turned, or different.

Full points for the presentation involve all four elements, as well as staying within your 10 to 15 minute time limit.

Julie Paegle’s paper has been infected with a virus. We’ll bring it to you as soon as it is less contagious. For now, here are Paegle’s attendant handouts.

Navigating Emptiness:

Painting Hunger, Echoing Astonishment, and Coining Argument in the Lyric Essay

The Notion of Emptiness Engenders Compassion.

—Jetsun Milarepa, 1135; trans. Gary Snyder

1. Painting Hunger

An ancient Buddha said “A painted rice cake does not satisfy hunger.”

Dōgen comments:

There are few who have even seen this ‘painting of a rice cake’ and none of them has thoroughly understood it.

The paints for painting rice cakes are the same as those used for painting mountains and waters.

If you say the painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real, the Dharma is not real.

Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a


Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger you

never become a true person.

—Dōgen, “Painting of a Rice Cake”≈1240; trans. Gary Snyder

2. Echoing Astonishment (for advanced



A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,

— Memorial from the Soul’s eternity

To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,

Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,

Of its own intricate fulness reverent:

Carve it in ivory or in ebony,

As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see

Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals

The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:

— Whether for tribute to the august appeals

Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue It serve;

or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,

In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

—Dante Gabriel Rossetti,

The House of Life, 1881

Why I Skip My High School Reunions

Because the geeks and jocks were set in stone,

I, ground between. Because the girls I ate

lunch with are married now, most out of spite

—because the ones I spurned are still alone.

Because I took up smoking at nineteen, late,

and just now quit—because, since then, I’ve


into and out of something they’ve never known.

Because at the play, backstage, on opening night

she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress

an avocado and a razorblade,

slit the one open with the other, flayed

the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice

—because I thought that one day I’d say yes,

and I was wrong, and I am still afraid.

—Craig Arnold, Shells, 1998

May Morning

Deep into spring, winter is hanging on. Bitter and

skillful in his hopelessness, he stays alive in every

shady place, starving along the Mediterranean:

angry to see the glittering sea-pale boulder alive

with lizards green as Judas leaves. Winter is

hanging on. He still believes. He tries to catch a

lizard by the shoulder. One olive tree below

Grottaglie welcomes the winter into noontime

shade, and talks as softly as Pythagoras. Be still,

be patient, I can hear him say, cradling in his arms

the wouned head, letting the sunlight touch the

savage face.

James Wright, found among his few new poems

after his death in 1980, as anthologized in The

Next American Essay, edited by John D’Agata, 2003

III. Coining Argument

(for beginning students); adapted from an exercise by Garrett Hongo in The Practice of Poetry,

edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

I ask the students to write, anonymously, two sets of secrets:

In the first set, they confess or reveal two secrets using the first person point of view. One

secret is true. One secret is invented. Examples range from the predictable (I spent all the

money in my father’s wallet to take out and sleep with my best friend’s girlfriend) to the

quixotic (I helped thirty illegal iguanas cross the border into the country in exchange for a

rare edition of an old Crass album). The writer is to hide the identity of the real secret, using

literary and poetic strategies.

In the second set of secrets, students relate two secrets using the third person point of view

“a friend of mine” or “my brother” or an “acquaintance.” Again, one secret is true, and one

is invented. The two sets of secrets may be similar, save the pronoun; to the first set of

secrets; but most differ quite radically, beginning with the amount of detail and figurative

language the writers naturally use. Again, the writer is to hide the identity of the real secret.

The students anonymously hand in their secrets and I redistribute them, keeping the sets together.

I invite the students to identify which of the secrets they have received is true, and which

character they find most compelling, and why.

From here, the students used their received essays write two brief lyric essays, many which

take an Apologia form (along the lines of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say”);

or a Confessional format; or a Justification (“Why I Skip My High School Reunions”).

Regardless, something about the pressure of the hidden, “real” secret results in coinages of

new argumentations and expositions, while the attempt for verisimilitude employs a variety

of figurative, poetic, and lyrical devices.

513-02 Come Together: Presentation on a Piece and on a Literary Device/Convention Sign Up Sheet:

Presentation Date:  Thursday 4/7

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Dialogue on a Dialogue” (25)

Device:                    Dialogue                     Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:   Borges, “Dialogue on a Dialogue” (25)

Device:                    Meta-fiction                  Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Argumentum Ornithilogocum” (29)

Device:                     Argument; Rhetoric    Name____________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Winter Trees” (57)

Device:                    Image                           Name____________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Live a Long Time” (58)

Device:                     Direct Address                   Name_______________________________________

Presentation Date:  Tuesday 4/12

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Captive” (30)

Device:                     Narrative Epiphany      Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Captive” (30)

Device:                     Captivity Narrative       Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Captive” (30)

Device:                     Lyrical Ecstasy            Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “The Unlikely Origin of the Species” (59-70)

Device:                     Narrative Structure       Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece: Walker, “Nor Do I Know The Ways of Birds Clearly” (71)

Device:                     Volta (Sonnet turn)      Name____________________________________________

Presentation Date:  Thursday 4/14

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Plot” (36)

Device:                     Plot                                   Name_________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “The Plot” (36)

Device:                         Archetype                      Name________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Gonzales, “The Black Torso of the Pharaoh” (103)

Device:                         Metaphor                       Name_______________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Quetzaltenango” (47-48)

Device:             Metaphor, Setting                                  Name____________________________________

Presentation Date: Tuesday 4/19

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote” (42)

Device:                    Parable                       Name________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Borges, “Parable of the Palace” (45)

Device:                    Nestedness                              Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Psalm” (45)

Device:                    Psalm                          Name___________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Walker, “Fall Service” (42)

Device:                  Elegy                                   Name________________________________________

Presentation Piece:  Mullen, “Dim Lady” (224)

Device:                    Turn on Stereotype      Name_____________________________________________

Presentation Piece: Mullen, “Free Radicals” (223)

Device:                  Concrete Detail          Name______________________________________________

In your brief (10-15 minute) presentation, you should:

  1. Read aloud to the class, the piece in its entirety
  2. Broadly define (on the board or on a handout, and orally) the convention or device, citing your source
  3. Locate the convention or device within the piece
  4. Describe both a.  how the piece engages the device in a conventional, traditional way and
  1. how the piece makes the device or convention new, fresh, turned, or different.

Full points for the presentation involve all four elements, as well as staying within your 10 to 15 minute time limit.

ENGLISH 513-02  Hybrid Forms–Where Poetry and Prose Meet:  Prose Poetry, Flash Fiction, Lyrical Essay,

Poetic Parable, Narrative Verse

Spring 2011                                            TR 2:00-3:50 p.m. (UH 060)                 Professor: Julie Paegle

Office: UH 301.42                                   Phone: (909) 537-5053

Office Hours:  Thursdays 9:00 a.m. to noon and by appointment                    Email:

Required Texts (available at the Coyote Bookstore)

Dreamtigers, Jorge Luis Borges, University of Texas Press, ISBN # 978-0-292-71549

No Boundaries:  Prose Poems by 24 American Poets, Ray Gonzales, ed. ISBN # 1-932195-01-7

Flash Fiction Forward:  80 Very Short Stories, James Thomas; Robert Shapard, eds. ISBN # 9780393328028

This Noisy Egg, Nicole Walker, Barrow Street Press, ISBN # 978-0-9819876-1-3

Required Materials

A notebook/journal for invention

Sufficient typed copies of your creative work for workshop for every student in the class and for me

Typed copies of response letters for workshop, for the writer and for me

Course Description

Some of you may have noticed, in your campus emails today, this call for submissions from the literary journal Carolina Quarterly: The literary icebreaker: “Hey, I’m Bill. I’m a poet.” “Nice to meet you, Bill. I’m Rachel. I’m a fiction writer.” Sigh. The editors of The Carolina Quarterly have grown weary of such small talk. Yearning for a post-genre world, we seek writing that cannot be described in an elevator talk, and yet could be delivered in one. Thus, we are unveiling an experiment in Show, Don’t Tell. The Riding a Gradient Invisible Contest. Send us your poetic flash fiction, your flashy prose poetry, your twitter operetta, your post-pre-neo-un-oeuvre by June 1st to be considered for publication. No more than 500 words per experiment. We’ll give you up to 4 shots per person to get our attention.

These kinds of calls for submissions have become increasingly popular.  In this class, we’ll explore the “post genre” world where poetry and prose meet, through our readings, writings, and class discussion.  Because of the workshop size, each participant will workshop a chunk of writing twice in the quarter.  To help spur invention, the bulk of our writings will occur in a process journal.  These journal entries make up the bulk of your writing grade for the course, and are designed to give you time and credit for invention;  however, I will not be giving written feedback on the journal entries.  You will receive (and give) written feedback on your writings for workshop.

Course Requirements:

Journal: 30 points

Presentation on Convention or Device:  5 points

Pieces for Workshop: 15 points (including workshop logistics)

Workshop Paragraphs: 30 points

Attendance and Participation in Class Discussion:  20 points

Attendance and Participation in Class Discussion:  20 points

The success of creative writing workshops is largely determined by their participants. Attendance is mandatory. You must complete every iota of reading and writing before class. Each absence after two reduces your final grade.  PARTIAL ABSENCES WILL RESULT IN PARTIAL PARTICIPATION POINTS. If you anticipate a difficult quarter in which it will be hard/less useful for you to engage the class and its many assignments in an energetic, disciplined, and consistent way, I strongly urge you to take the course a different quarter. Your participation will be evaluated in terms of preparedness, courtesy, and your comportment in workshop—how well you follow the Workshop Rules (please see final page of syllabus) and the points below:

*It is expected that students enrolled in this course will be willing to engage and carefully consider a range of materials and subject matter. Several texts contain adult language.



*All your writing for the class is publicIn order to create and maintain a safe and respectful workshop space, your writing and participation in class must not target, name, or discriminate against any workshop member or participate in hate speech of any kind (including racism, misogyny and homophobia). Campus wide sexual harassment policies apply in this classroom.

*If you suspect your writing is a message to people in the classroom rather than a serious effort to write a piece, you are probably right and should not submit it.

With this in mind, please take a moment to consider your enrollment in this course. If your behavior in the classroom violates the safe workshop space it will, at a minimum, hurt your final workshop grade.  


Special Needs

If you are in need of an accommodation for a disability in order to participate in this class, please contact Services to Students with Disabilities at UH 183, (909) 537-5283 within the first week of class.


Please note:  this schedule is subject to change in class, on short notice.  Also, to allow me to best respond to your own imaginative processes, some assignments will be modified or specified in class.  If you miss class, please be sure to check with a fellow student whether such a change was announced.

T 4/5:    Syllabus, Student Surveys, Devices/Conventions/Genres/On the Kindness and Unkindness of Kinds


R 4/7:      On Flight, Weight, and Counting I:  Thermals Ridden by Poetry and Prose

Reading:  Dreamtigers, pages 21-29; This Noisy Egg, pages 22-26;  pages 54-58.

Journal 1:  A. Climb a Tree (or at least ten flights of stairs, or go onto a roof or a fire-escape).

B. There or elsewhere: build a Nest (or a collage, but something gathered that you touch, and whose textures might beckon birds).  C.  Write a dialogue (Borges, page 25;  Walker, pages 54-56) between two characters, one who climbs and one who nests.  Let the lines/exchanges fall as they will, where they may.  Your dialogue should include materials (words, gestures, leaps) from the pages you’ve read for today, AND from your own experience of taking flight/s, and of the materials you gathered for that nest.    

T 4/12:  On Flight, Weight, and Counting II:

Reading:  Dreamtigers, pages 30-35; This Noisy Egg, pages 59-71.  

Journal 2:  Return to your dialogue from Journal 1.  Introduce two new characters:  one should be a historical character you can quote in your dialogue (as Walker does with Darwin, or Borges with Eva Duarte);  one should be the personification of an abstraction (Walker’s Birdman of the Black Plague;  Borges’s Someone).  Your new characters might comment on the exchange in the first dialogue;  they might directly join the dialogue;  they might attack or romance the old characters. When introducing the new characters, pay particular attention to the forms in which they speak.  Riddles?  Questions?  Critiques?              

R 4/14:              On Flight, Weight, and Counting III:  Reading: Dreamtigers, pages 36-37; This Noisy Egg, pages 47-48; No

Boundaries, pages 99-108 (Ray Gonzales).

R 4/14:              On Flight, Weight, and Counting III:

Reading: Dreamtigers, pages 36-37; This Noisy Egg, pages 47-48; No Boundaries, pages 99-108 (Ray


Journal 3:  Return to your dialogue on a dialogue (from Journal 2).

  1. Consider a plot, or a problem (as in Borges) that emerges from your dialogues, or that is perhaps hidden therein.  B.  Explore a setting, exotic, strange, dream-like (Quetzaltenango, or Atlantis, or a world of petroglyphs or pyramids or a “valley known for its simple cures”).

C.  Introduce the plot or problem AND the setting to your characters/dialogues.

  1. Bring to class a one paragraph piece in which the plot or the problem urges the language forward AND


E.  a one paragraph piece in which the setting urges the language forward.  Please be ready to share.


T 4/19:  On Flight, Weight, and Counting IV, and also On Psalms and Parables:

Reading:  Dreamtigers, pages 42, 44-45; This Noisy Egg, 42-45; No Boundaries, 220-229 (Haryette Mullen).

Journal 4:  Write a short series of psalms or parables, working in part from your partner’s input in class.

Include a deep image that mutates throughout your series.      

R 4/21: Visit from Nicole Walker

            Reading:  This Noisy Egg, pages 7-19; 25-40.

Journal 5:  Come to class with at least THREE excellent questions about Nicole Walker’s work.

FIRST PIECES DUE FOR WORKSHOP (5-10 pages) from three folks.

F 4/22:  CENSUS:  Last day to add or drop classes.  Extra Credit Opportunity:  Come to reading by Nicole

Walker and me at Beyond Baroque at 7:00 p.m.


T 4/26:              Reading:  Dreamtigers, page 51; No Boundaries, 241-251 (Charles Simic).


R 4/28:   Reading:  No Boundaries: 120-132 (Juan Felipe Herrerra).


T 5/3:     Reading:  No Boundaries:  87-97 (Amy Gerstler).


Journal 6:  Write a prose poem in which you give an archetypal character or urban legend a secret identity

(Herrerra, “La Llorona Power Woman Confidential;”) AND in which you give that character an unusual

occupation (Gerstler, saints, beekeepers, doctors).  Include at least three onomatopoeias and one language not English.   VISIT FROM POET LORNA DEE CERVANTES AS THE VALDEZ FEATURED POET

R 5/5:   Reading:  No Boundaries: 65-75 (Linda Dyer).



T 5/10:   Reading:  No Boundaries: (77-86) Russell Edson).


            Journal 7:  Write a prose poem in which 77-86 (Russell Edson). Write a confessional prose poem in which

you list the Seven Anxieties of _________(a la Linda Dyer) involving at least two dysfunctional family

relationships (Edson).


R 5/12:   Reading:  No Boundaries:  Introduction by Ray Gonzales, xiii-xvi. IN CLASS WORKSHOP.


T 5/17:   Reading:  Flash Fiction Forward:  Introduction IN CLASS WORKSHOP

            Journal 8 Working from your class notes, our discussions of the prose poem, and the two anthology

introductions, list at least 3 differences you expect to find between prose poetry and flash fiction.  Using

these, revise ONE of your prior prose poems as a flash fiction piece.

PLEASE NOTE:  Detailed Reading, Journal, and Workshop Schedule TBA for R 5/19-R 6/9


Against Research–Erik Anderson

When you write nonfiction, or what passes for it, sometimes a person will ask you about research, how to conduct it, say, or else it will come as a lament: I couldn’t do what you do. I know nothing about research. And sure enough, at an interview recently one of the interviewers warned me, with good intentions, I would again be asked about it. Oh shit, I thought, beginning to panic a little – for I also know nothing about research. But as I started preparing a response in my mind, I realized what a lie that was. Since infancy I’ve been investigating the world around me. Even if I hadn’t been to college, I would probably have internalized the itch, often in the form of a question, with which research begins. I would likely know to consult the experts, to read some of the literature, even if it’s just an article about Shingles on WebMD.

Curiosity, I planned to say, is the keystone of our species. Looking into things is just what we do. But I can also see that, in general, the question isn’t about being inquisitive: it’s about how you manage the facts. Not how and what and why you ask, but the way you preside over answers. It aims at determining one’s relationship to truth, and it implies a journalistic standard: that the only acceptable relationship to the facts, in writing nonfiction, is an utterly transparent one. I’m not saying the interviewer believed this, in fact I know she didn’t, but that the question has its own remedial ethos, as though one might ask of a novelist, should one want to strike at the core of her practice, how she plots her scenes – or of a poet how he handles enjambment.

When I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test in high school, I learned I was firmly on the intuitive side of things, and though other aspects of my personality have shifted in the past twenty years – I’ve become less rational over time and more of an introvert – this orientation to the facts has stayed the same. I’m not a reporter. On some fundamental level, it just isn’t who I am and never has been. I’m driven less by detail than by pattern, more by meaning than by the building blocks from which it’s made. It’s a matter of temperament: I don’t like knowing where my questions will lead, though I’m well aware that it’s the questions I’m trailing.

I have friends who use research in a different way, exhaustively planning every purchase, from cars to coffee makers. The final product is inevitably shiny and sleek, more attractive and expensive than my own. But in that shiny pot there’s just coffee, and from what I can tell it’s no better or worse than the stuff I make at home. We both arrive at work on time, in our separate cars, but I’m under no illusions that I’ve spent the commute in the best possible vehicle for my price range on the market. What is this desire to micromanage the products one consumes? Is it that by aggressively attending to the minutiae of existence, its bare and brutal facts, one might exert a measure of control over its unpredictability? Or have we substituted a consumer’s curiosity for an intellectual one? Is the best question we can come up with glass or stainless steel?

On another interview a couple of years ago, I was asked what kinds of things I do with my students to teach them about craft. I hadn’t been expecting the question, though I should have been, so my answer was fairly incoherent, but in the months that followed I thought a lot about how I should have responded. I realized I hadn’t known how to answer because I don’t believe in craft, exactly, in the same way that I don’t believe in researching a coffee pot. Craft sometimes feels like a euphemism to me, or a veil. It’s as though the craftsman were seeking to legitimize himself by deferring the question of content and prioritizing competence instead. But this risks fostering a virtuosity that is, in itself, about nothing, even if this legitimizing gesture makes sense, especially in the academy, where a thing must submit itself to assessment. Craft, that is, can be gauged: how well one uses a semicolon, plots a storyline, manages dialogue, paints a scene. It’s a technocratic approach that lends itself well to the university and its slavish devotion to the STEM fields, even if adopting it means that writing sacrifices a great deal of what makes it valuable.

The other day I met a writer who, by his own account, was part of the first generation to be truly incorporated into the academy. In the ’70s, he said, colleges started looking at writers and thinking it might be nice to have a few of them around to stir things up. And they did initially, but over time, he maintained, as writing and the teaching of writing have become increasingly professionalized, writers have adopted the shape of the academy, rather than the other way around. What this means in practical terms is, often, precisely those practical terms: craft, research, assessment. Fine words, by and large, but what about ones like vision and struggle and attempt?

The same writer told me about a recent interaction with the Dean of his college. There had been a campus-wide push for measurable student outcomes, against which he had understandably revolted. On his syllabus under “Goals,” he had written, “You will still be writing in twenty years.”

“And how are we supposed to measure that?” the Dean asked.

“Call them up in twenty years,” he responded.

He was making a point about technicalities: how they can blind you to the big picture, how pursuing them can even obscure it. His business, he said, was changing lives. It had nothing to do with managing minutiae.

It’s in that spirit I want to propose an alternative model: the pea plant, whose “tendril wending” Amy Leach describes as “swervy and conjectural.” “Like a dancer who cannot quite hear the music,” she writes, peas “are fixed on the imperceptible,” and because “what they want is beyond their powers of apprehension,” “the only direction to grow is yonder.” Even with a lattice, peas can appear chaotic in their growth, total opportunists who cling to anything that presents itself. Some might object here that, though a lattice is orderly, peas don’t seem systematic. And yet, from a genetic perspective, their growth is coherent: they’re simply following their programming. Their searching, which is both aimless and not, is a matter of survival. They do what they must. They send out their tendrils to inquire into the world beyond, but they answer less to that world than to an inner necessity. They don’t care whether their filaments land on metal or wood, on a lattice built for the purpose or on an old bicycle wheel. They only care about the yonder.

Sometimes, when asked about research – when asked about a lot of things, really – I’ve invoked W.G. Sebald, who, I have little doubt, would have enjoyed Leach’s meditation on peas. In one of the interviews contained in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Emergence of Memory, Sebald describes a dog tracing a scent across a field. The dog doesn’t know exactly where he’s going, Sebald says, he’s just following his nose. If you were to map his path, as from above, the route might even appear random or aimless, but in fact the dog’s movement is highly purposive, it just doesn’t conform to our workaday idea of purpose. Which is probably what I object most to in research: one sets out to answer some specific question and – Lo! – one discovers an answer. How much more beguiling, to my mind, to swerve and conjecture, to set out without a question or with only questions – and no investment in an answer. It occurs to me I might write on my own syllabi under “Goals,” should I ever have a Dean who demands it, “You will follow your nose where it leads.” As for measuring success, I suppose one would have to find out where the writer wound up, and if it’s a place no one could have predicted.

Microbivalves–Nicole Walker

In honor of the trip many of us will be making to the Pacific Northwest this week:

I knew oyster farmer who lived on the Puget Sound. He had so many oysterbeds that he could barely see the ocean floor at all. Who needs the ocean floor when you have stacks of opaline shells tucking the whole fecund ocean between their halves? The oyster farmer offered me an oyster. No lemon. No mignonette. No Tabasco. The whole point of being an oyster farmer is that you don’t need anything else. You can survive on the protein of oysters. The world could fall away and you would still have a house, a beach, a vocation, a dinner, and a moneymaker. Not everyone can grow oysters. Most people can’t even open them. He is a gifted farmer. He knows how to seed the oysters directly in the sway of currents to bring the sweetest water, the most succulent plankton and algae passers-by. Oysters are the great filters of the ocean. The farmer does what he can to make sure the algae and the plankton swing by the beds abundantly or the oyster might turn to eating plastic and heavy metals and all the coffee Seattle drains into the Sound.

Palmed in the oyster farmer’s hand, the oyster cinches shut. But he is a gifted farmer and a gifted metaphor-maker. He turns rock into sustenance. One knife jab and the hard shell turned to pulsing organ. Sexy oyster. All the genitals in one. Lick me, it seemed to say, so I did.  The oyster tasted as shiny as the sun, which is why they grow in the sea in Seattle—Seattlers like to keep the sun underground. Save it for a rainy day.

But this oyster was one of the last oysters, rain or shine. The farmer could not make a filter for the filters. The tides were turning red. The oyster industry was in collapse. As carbon dioxide warmed the skies, it also changed the chemical make-up of the ocean. The ocean went from Tang to LimeAid and there was not a mollusk in the world who preferred sour over sweet. Not a Kumomoto or a Sweetwater. Not a Hood Canal or a Fanny Bay. The names themselves suggested doughnut and apple pie, ice cream and caramel. You once put lemons on an oyster as a counterpoint. Now all you have is point point point, make a point. Blue point oysters. A redundancy. As redundant as the farmer who walks along the beach, stares out across the water and sees the bottom of the vinegary, sexless ocean just fine.

In Praise of Quotation–Patrick Madden

Twice in recent months the ghost of William Hazlitt has visited me. The first time, while I was in the shower, a stray phrase suddenly seized my attention: “seeing all this as I do…” I couldn’t quite attach it to a source yet, nor to a reason, but I recognized its importance and held on by mumbling it repeatedly as I rinsed and dried off and got dressed, so that by the time I got downstairs for breakfast, I recognized it as a key phrase in the rumbling crescendo of “On the Pleasure of Hating.” But why had it come to me? To round out an essay I was writing, I realized. The essay was about love, particularly my love for Karina, and the improbability of our ever meeting. It was also about our children, then all prime-number aged (1, 2, 5, 7, 11, 13), and the improbability of them ever being born, much less being born in an order that would briefly become such a mathematically interesting pattern. And it was about the Law of Large Numbers and/or Confirmation Bias, which would declare such idle speculations moot. Hazlitt’s phrase would speak for my feeling that although I recognize that miracles like my marriage and family are statistically inevitable given such vast numbers of people and interactions, I hold to a quasi-magical worldview. “Seeing all this as I do…” It fit perfectly.

When I looked it up, for context, I read surrounding the phrase,

What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads…

This, too, fit my essay, as if written precisely for me. I offered a quick prayer of thanks to the old Romantic.

Which may be why he visited me again, just the other day, as I drove to work. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” he whispered. “What?” I said aloud, not quite sure I’d heard correctly. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” he repeated, and this time I recognized his voice, even knew that he was quoting “On the Pleasure of Hating” again, and that he was giving me a part of my essay on spit, which was really an essay on maturing into acceptance of others. Curiously, I found when I looked it up, he seemed to be inviting me to disagree with him. Whereas Hazlitt had argued that “We give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility,” I was convinced that we can. At least I had changed in some essential way that I no longer felt the same about a friend whom I had wronged, could not reconjure in myself those feelings of disappointment and rage.

I feel quite certain that Hazlitt was OK with that.

The practice of quoting wiser others is engrained in our consciousness from an early age, when we learn, essentially, that our own thoughts are worthless unless they have a point, and our points are invalid unless we back them up with proof from reputable sources. It’s no wonder that, apart from our dutiful classwork, we take a strong disliking to quotation. But essayists use quotation in essays not as ethos-ballast to stabilize arguments nor as linguistic decoration from a lost/loved prose style, but as invitation and conversation as well as humble recognition that we are all influenced, we all think through others’ thoughts, whether we admit it or not.

I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.

— Charles Lamb “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading”

What I mean is that essayists are mature enough to flaunt our indebtedness to others and we want to chat with them, to invite them into our essays as we would a comfortable friend “admitted behind the curtain [to sit] down with the writer in his gown and slippers” (Hazlitt again, from “On the Periodical Essayists”). We’ve long ago discarded the myth of originality as it’s so simplistically sold, and we believe ourselves blessed to be carrying on a centuries-old conversation, exploring the world through old ideas from new perspectives. We likely believe that whatever is well said by another is ours, or, if in a metaphorical mood, “The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterward they make of them honey, which is all theirs,” or, if feeling neither plagiaristic nor fanciful, then “We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates,” which I read years ago and stored in my mind as “We know a man as much by what he quotes as by what he writes.”

I thought it was Emerson, but wanted to confirm both wording and attribution, so I searched online, unsuccessfully plugging in various combinations, in and out of quotation marks, for nearly two hours. [A blight on quotation websites! which clutter search results and never ever attribute their sources!] Thus frustrated, I began to doubt my memory. The only hit came from a site that mashed together four different unattributed quotes on quotation, which I discovered as two from Montaigne, one from Emerson, and close enough to the one I had been seeking, which I could not find anywhere else. Thankfully, Todd the Fashioniste responded promptly to my email about his sources and revealed the original wording. It comes from a likely source, Emerson’s essay on “Quotation and Originality,” which I had open in another tab of my web browser. Had I simply read it, instead of scanning it then returning to my googling, I could have found my elusive quotation in half the time I spent not finding it. [But is this not symptomatic of our times? That we waste our thought in dead-end pursuits instead of reading?]

Of course, I’m not naïve. I recognize that the quotation-includers I’m referring to with my royal we are a small cadre of writers, and that many essays, for many reasons, eschew quotation altogether. So I guess I’m making a subtle argument, which I will now make explicit: We essayists should be proud of our long tradition, which is chock full of quotes, from Montaigne onward, and it would be excellent if we adopted the practice of quoting more often. If my own experience is indicative, then simply reading widely, immersing ourselves in old essays, will make the practice easier, as quotes present themselves almost unbidden whenever we’re dwelling in an essay, when our mind is trained, especially in idle moments, to mull over our subjects. Hazlitt haunts us. Emerson sends us off on a frustrating but ultimately fruitful chase, or perhaps he wishes he had phrased his idea more simply and he offers us a revision.

In any case, if we’re hoping to bend genre and perhaps our natural inclination is to make up some stuff without telling anybody and think that’s it, then maybe we could bend instead in this direction: see our essays as conversations with the past or with our contemporaries, move sideways through ideas in addition to moving forward through narrative. And if we can’t shake the impishness of pulling one over on our readers, perhaps we can do as Montaigne did (and David Shields has recently done, to great buzz, in Reality Hunger*):

[My borrowings] are all, or very nearly all, from such famous and ancient names that they seem to identify themselves enough without me.… I have sometimes deliberately not indicated the author, in order to hold in check the temerity of those hasty condemnations that are tossed at all sorts of writings…. I want them to give Plutarch a fillip on my nose and get burned insulting Seneca in me.

[While I’m at it, perhaps I can be of some practical use. Let me, then, explain my practice of quoting, which I base on many years of noticing how such things are typically done in essays, as well as many years of responding to anxious students who’ve been frightened into worrying more about their citation style than about their literary style. As we’ve just seen, Montaigne was intentionally sloppy with his sources, and his laxity has continued since, though with some tightenings. Basically, most essayists follow the spirit of the law, meaning that we give credit where credit’s due; we don’t pretend to own words we didn’t ourselves write. Here are four common methods for including quoted materials:

1)    Essayists often use block quote format to set off others’ words, usually integrating them wholly into our sentences, sometimes calling on them as counterbalance to our hasty conclusions. Many essayists block quote even short passages, far shorter than the four lines or whatever rule your teachers taught you. After a block quote, we usually give the author’s name, and sometimes the title of the work we’re quoting. Other times we give the author’s name within our own sentences. We almost never, unless forced by finicky editors, give MLA-type full citations of books with publishers’ names and cities and dates and page numbers.

2)    If we don’t block quote, we may subtly slip a quote into our sentences, using quotation marks and an author attribution, either in-line or in quick parenthesis after the quote (again without dates or page numbers).

3)    If the quote is widely known (“be excellent to each other,” for instance), we may simply offer it within quotation marks, to indicate that it’s someone else speaking, but avoid stating the obvious authorship.

4)    Or, if we’re feeling especially roguish, we may fully absorb quoted material, integrating it into our work without quotation marks and without attribution, supposing that certain readers will recognize its source and others will not notice or care. This, in my opinion, is best done in moderation (seldom, with short quotes), and always with a subtle wink, lest one be accused of plagiarism.]

* Funny story: During the Q&A after his keynote address to the NonfictioNOW crowd in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2012, Shields responded to a question about his refusal to cite his sources by saying that in the internet age, readers could easily look up any of the quotes he’d borrowed. To which I challenged that only recently I’d been trying to find an exact translation of Montaigne’s claim that “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition” [I was trying different approximations] and found my entire first page of Google results filled with bloggers [and even the New York Review of Books] attributing the quote directly to David Shields, with no mention of the Father of the Form. I found this disturbing, not so much because I felt Montaigne deserved the credit, but because I envisioned a whole generation roadblocked from discovering the first and greatest essayist (or others). To my recollection, Shields seemed a bit nonplussed. When he’d created Reality Hunger, his web searches got him easily to the original sources, and he seemed not to have considered the ripple effect of fans glutting the internet with faulty attributions.

Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays. He curates an online anthology of classical essays (and other resources) at

How to Turn a Corner–Titi Nguyen

“Behind,” she says into the starched back of the chef’s white coat. Nobody has ever called her voice thin, but neither is it powerful enough to carry over the crack of rainbow chard hitting a hot-oiled pan. He knows not to step back until she passes.

At the top of grease-slicked stairs, “down.” She grasps the metal handrail and descends, gingerly. Her black Reeboks have skidded foot-lengths in this and other treacherous kitchens. Five minutes later, “up.” Her calls bounce off the white-tiled walls unheard.

All night she states her direction and location. The questions she faces at her desk on days off — where she’s located, where she’s headed, her intentions and trajectory—are uncomplicated here in the dining room and kitchen. For a waitress these aren’t figurative musings; where she is is where she’s standing and where she’s going is deliberate, clear. Efficient, too—no one walks to or from the kitchen empty-handed.

Position the plate so the chocolate tuile arches toward three o’clock. Today’s oysters are Hurricane Islands from New Brunswick, small and plump with lasting brine.

She looks at half-finished plates, gauges when last bites will be eaten. The lengthening seconds between each lift of the fork, the lustrous knife propped on its edge like a goddess in recline: signals for her to fire the next course.

Open-handed service. Serve to the left, clear from the right.

Between opening wine bottles tableside and marking guests with proper flatware, she scribbles lists onto her dupe pad: errands to run, e-mails needing attention, unfinished essays, submission deadlines. She looks up periodically, anticipating her guests’ needs. Before position three on table twenty empties her coupe glass, she’ll have caught the woman’s eye, whisked away the dead glassware, and set a fresh, cold cocktail in its place.


– Ask after guests warmly with a degree of detachment. Attentive service can slip easily into overbearing.

– Spend the first half of your subway ride studying menus, then switch to literature. You get so absorbed with stories, someone else’s stories, that you’ll miss your stop almost every week. Cross to the opposite platform for the next train back.

– Win the guest’s trust by recommending the cheaper bottle.

– Follow the dining room traffic rules: the right of way belongs to guests, followed by food, cleared plates, you. Ignore all this when the careless hostess quadruple-sits your section.

– Learn to unwire the cage off a champagne bottle. Press firmly with your thumb to keep pressure; the cork should not ricochet off a guest’s forehead. Perfect the quiet, pleasing dry hiss of bubbles releasing to avoid the ire of the sommelier.

– Nervously serve a celebratory dinner between a writer and her publicist, then Google them when you get home. Read her stories and marvel at his client list.

– Hunger affects people differently: some get quiet, some sullen or pushy, some angry. Know when to forgive diners for bad behavior.

– When in doubt, go with the cooler temperature. The chef can always re-fire the dish. Go too far and the meat will be ruined. Toss it. A chef’s anger is dry ice or skillet-hot—it burns.

– Take courage between the hours of 5:30 and 7:30. Things won’t get moving until eight o’clock. The waiting will underscore the slipping time, sparking desperation in you to flee and do what really nourishes you. Acknowledge the misery then move through it.

– Accept your low check average. You cannot push the $70 roast chicken for two just because the chef wants. Sell only what you believe in.


Seat 1: A small-boned girl with delicate features and brilliant skin. Spice-rubbed duck with braised salsify and haricot verts. Unhappy with the table the hostess presents, a deuce that sits too closely to a riotous five-top, she purses her lips, reins in her displeasure. I mark her for rare.

Seat 2: A boy as dainty as his date. He reads the menu aloud in a coaxing tone, changes his order to accommodate her. He will need a side of confidence, no extra charge.

Kale salad with shaved brussel sprouts, dried cranberries, and crispy shallots

—————————————Course 1——————————————————-

Black bass with hedgehog mushrooms

Mettle poured tableside (compliments)


“Hands.” We come with supplicating palms, open to receive the white porcelain plates, hot from the salamander, their delicate contents precisely placed by long-stemmed tweezers in the shaking hands of culinary boys. Watermelon radish thinned by mandolin. Knobby sunchokes roasted crisp. “Jesus fucking Christ.” The chef glares as a pile of pots and pans topple thunderously onto the floor at the wash station. Fat ochre tongues of creamy sea urchins stirred into saffron gnudi. We turn on our heels. “Walking,” we say.

The kitchen opens out to a service station where the computer terminal lives with coffee cups, French presses, extra bread and butter plates, and silverware. A sharp right turn from this small space leads into the dining room. “Corner,” we say at this bend to avoid collision. In the restaurant’s nascent days someone thought of hanging a mirror to expose this blind spot, but the wall remains an empty field. When food reviewers and bloggers drop by with leggy tripods and lenses zooming in on plump leaves of purslane or a caviar pearl, the functional things get forgotten. So corner settled in our lexicon the way that four-top, all day, 86, soigné, and crumb floated in our minds.

In my nightmares, I am weeded in a section the size of a cruise ship’s deck. A needy guest holds me hostage at his table while he flips through a blank menu. I watch my section fall apart—dead glassware everywhere, food dropping at unmarked tables, twenty credit cards to swipe on a failing POS system. Diners playing musical chairs. But sometimes I don’t have to be sleeping to feel dread of this job, what often feels like a vacuum of lost energy, time, mind.

But there are real pleasures here. A renowned and feared food critic, dining for the third time, is not so ogre-ish but kind. A distinguished poet, a Tuesday night regular, offers to read the bartender’s manuscript, accepting in return only a well-stirred old-fashioned, on the house. The Bengali busser with the terrific smile, a father himself, cradles fat babies while weary parents enjoy their appetizers.

In this space, the same answers to the same questions, the routine regularity, is tiresome, and yet there’s something to be said for the assured movements here, keeping me anchored in a way that the outside, especially my writing life, with all its nebula and unbounded freedoms, does not. A magazine article, a row of jagged cuticles, a television episode, my sister’s number flashing across the phone screen, the night’s dinner, the Internet, afternoon sun on parquet, a nap, dishes, drinks with a friend.


A busser taking a tray of dirty glasses to dish,

a delivery of amuse-bouches walking out,

a frenzied server diving for the freshly washed pile of oyster forks.

At that spot between the service station and the dining room, entering or leaving the kitchen, there is a brief moment before I turn that corner, in one direction or the other, when I don’t know what will greet me. The moment catches, passes quickly as I angle myself to pivot and announce to whoever may be listening – I am fast approaching.

Black Tea, Green Tea–Aaron Gilbreath

As an essayist who dabbles in journalism, I should know what essays are, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where they end and articles begin.

After pitching an idea to one of my favorite glossy magazines recently, an editor there suggested I contact another editor. “I’d emphasize as well that this is an essay in form rather than a straight reported story,” she said, “since I think we’d like to run more essay content.”

As thrilled as I was to see them making room for my preferred literary form, the story I sent wasn’t an essay. It was an article built around a profile. I reported on site, and no ‘I’ narrator appeared in it, but she seems to have classified it as ‘essay’ because it was narrative nonfiction. Of course, I didn’t mention that. I wanted them to publish the story. They could call it whatever they wanted, and maybe my assessment was wrong. Maybe it was an essay. This was an experienced journalist at an esteemed publication whose circulation probably totaled more than all the literary magazines I’d written for combined. She might have some unique perspective that I lacked. Which is to say, her comment left me questioning myself. Did I even know what I was writing half the time?

I don’t think about what my pieces are as much as what they say and how best to say it. Contacting magazines forces you to consider form – essay or article? Column or op-ed? Finished submission or pitchable idea to develop? – but labels have never been one of my central concerns. Writing isn’t mycology. It’s cooking to taste. Yet the exchange got me thinking. Then I quit caring about the distinction and moved on. What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. To me, that seemed like something Montaigne would say.

I’ve actually never read much Montaigne.

            (Of the great French essayist, author Nick Hornby wrote: “I had never read Montaigne before picking up [Sarah] Bakewell’s book [about Montaigne]. I knew only that he was a sixteen-century essayist, and that he had therefore willfully chosen not to interest me.” Hornby is an absorbing essayist himself, which goes against the notion that we must build our abilities on our knowledge of a form’s history.)

I should mention that I drink a lot of tea. That sounds like a non sequitor, but it’s meant as transition. I frequently fall back on tea as a metaphor lately. Eventually the habit will get old, but for now, it works.

When people ask me about the difference between an essay and article, I often say something along the lines of: “Articles convey information, where essays are more concerned with questioning than answering.” If I’m really feeling clear-headed and they seem interested, I’ll tell them: “Articles convey information, and some subscribe to the who, what, where, when, why approach to storytelling, while others employ narratives with scenes, characters and action. Essays can mix narrative and exposition, be first-, second- or third-person, contemplative, tangential, linear or nonlinear, and they aren’t compelled to inform readers as much as masticate and digest.” Few people want a dissertation. They want a quick definition, some basic understanding. I try to keep it simple, even though there’s no simple answer. (I often add, “Essays are definitely not anecdotes,” because that confusion drives me nuts.) I do the same at my dayjob at a tea shop.

“What’s the difference between black and green tea?” customers ask me. Rather than drown them with details about oxidation versus fermentation, the vagaries of caffeine content, varietals, taste and appellation, I just say: “On the spectrum of oxidation, greens are oxidized for less time than blacks, and that process gives blacks a stronger, less leafy flavor than greens.” That usually does the trick.

Like tea, much narrative nonfiction exists on a continuum. Sometimes the boundaries between forms are more gradations than distinctions. You can tell one piece is different from the piece one unit over, but you still can’t say exactly how. And that’s fine if it reads well.

What’s an essay? Maybe this? Maybe not. You tell me.

I sell tea for a living.

The Essay as Collision, or, The Sound of You Not Answering–David Legault


When I worked as a writing instructor—both as a graduate student teaching freshman composition and in my work at a writing center—I found myself constantly steering students away from certain personal narratives, so familiar to anyone in this field as to become cliché: “The Dead Grandma Essay,” “The Car Crash Story,” “The Big Game.” It seems we are drawn to certain events in our lives, the ones that most closely mimic our understanding of story, of what we see in movies: a universally understood setting, some event happens, and we are not the same as we once were.

I grew tired of reading dozens of these “essays,” their predictability: hard work and practice leads to victory at the state championship game, or, the meaning of teamwork and sportsmanship are learned in defeat; we need to be more careful and always wear our seatbelts, we must appreciate how quickly the things and people we love can be taken away. I was (and am) amazed that so many people could have experiences so substantial—so important to their personal mythology—yet they all take away nearly identical conclusions or reflections. What does it mean that the biggest moments of our lives are so unsurprising?


Lately my life consists mostly of waiting. Waiting to hear back on a grant application that could radically alter the next three years of my life. Waiting for news on a manuscript under “final consideration,” whatever that means or I hope it means. Waiting for an update on the 20 or so teaching jobs I’ve spent too much time and money and energy applying for over the past eight weeks, obsessively checking RSS Feeds and Wikis that only serve to fuel my obsessive nature, the hopes of any news at all that will let me leave the retail job I’ve desperately needed for the past two years. Waiting for this beautiful eight-month old girl to please, please, go to sleep.


I am tired of waiting. As an experiment, I tried writing a few essays that are “in the moment,” meaning that, true to the essay form, I am doing my best to mimic my thought process at any given time. The problem with this is that, unlike most of my other writing, I am not allowing myself to fall back on any research, not allowing myself to fragment or weave several narrative strands. I am doing my best to do away with the hindsight that clouds my other work, the distance from events that allows me to shape the narrative into whatever I force upon it. I am trying to find meaning in a world where my purpose is not yet clear.

I don’t think it would be fair to call it a disaster, but close enough to it. In the hopes of writing something meaningful or interesting I end up talking about my problems, worries, fears. I read it back now and it all sounds angry, jaded, afraid. I feel terribly sorry for myself. Of course, this is all accurate, but it doesn’t make for particularly compelling work.

The experiment has shown me how much I rely on certainty. I’m at my worst when I’m so worried, struck with the special kind of silence that comes from waiting like this. I cannot write clearly about what I don’t yet know.


My problem has never been with the students, but the structure of the assignment: what can be expected of a teenage kid when we ask them to teach us about life in five to seven pages? By forcing them to write this way—to demand reflection and conclusions—we are asking them to write about something that has already happened, been overcome. What sort of stakes can be found in such writing?

I find myself rejecting (or at least resisting) the idea of personal narrative. I’m not sure why I’m so bothered. Perhaps it has to do with my general dislike/distrust of memoir, with any story that finds its value in the accuracy of its facts. Perhaps it has to do with the connections I see between this writing and the academic, five-paragraph sort: trying too hard to teach me a lesson, focused on things that are over and done. Or maybe it comes from my Midwestern upbringing: passive aggressive behavior and an inability to share what’s on my mind. Perhaps, ultimately, it comes from a lack of life experience, from a fear of my own ignorance, a worry that I have nothing worth saying.




According to the police report, both vehicles began to reverse from their spots almost simultaneously. The driver of the orange Sedan had backed completely from the parking space, straightening out his car in the lane before noticing the back end of the silver SUV heading toward him. The driver of the orange Sedan honked his horn, though the driver of the silver SUV either didn’t hear the sound or had insufficient time to react. The silver SUV then made contact with the front driver’s side door of the orange Sedan, crushing the front quarter of the vehicle. The driver of the orange Sedan sustained minor cuts and bruising. The driver of the silver SUV was left unharmed.


Perhaps collisions are essays in themselves: an attempt to connect two separate objects, to see how they act upon each other. Meaning comes as the space between them becomes smaller and smaller. Until they become inseparable.



I have been in accidents before: sliding backward into ditches, spinning out on iced over roads. But this accident was the first involving injury, the first time I’ve felt the crunch of impact, of the car’s steel frame buckling, wrapping itself around me, designed to break apart in such a way. I felt the crystalline glass of the window raining down upon me: the cuts and slivers so small as to be felt but not seen, not so easily removed.

inside car 


There are reasons to be grateful: both vehicles were traveling at parking lot speeds, my infant daughter was not in the car at the time; the accident was caught on surveillance camera, absolving me of blame; all injuries were superficial.

There are reasons to lament: I had just got my car back from the shop after a similar accident my wife experienced two weeks prior; several other high-cost emergencies over the past several months, draining our savings; the driver at fault has no insurance.




I am in a daze. I am standing in the cold, trying to find the phone number for non-emergency police situations before saying screw it and dialing 911. I can hear the Other Driver talking on her phone, asking the other end what will happen when the police discover she has no insurance.

I pretend not to hear because I am not yet ready to deal with this information, though it creates an incongruity when the police. The Other Driver insists to the officer that she simply cannot find the paperwork. She knows she is lying, I know she is lying, the officer likely assumes she’s lying, but we leave the scene pretending that yes, it will all be okay and, yes, the ticket will be cleared once you provide proof, just fax it over and all will be forgiven. We leave the scene hoping for it to be true, for our problems to magically fix themselves.


Perhaps the personal narrative is like Zeno’s arrow paradox: for motion to occur, the arrow must change its position. However, in any given instant, the arrow is not moving from the point where it is because no time has passed. If every moment is motionless, and time is made of moments, then motion is impossible.

Perhaps these two objects can never come together. Gaps exist, will always exist. Perhaps this is the reader and writer reaching for a connection that never comes and never will. Perhaps it is our frustration—those silent gaps we attempt to fill with noise—that keeps us concluding otherwise.


The problems do not go away. I leave the scene with the weight of guilt. That the Other Driver has a court date and substantial fines and (much later) fucked up credit because of the collection agency working on my insurance company’s behalf. That my insurance agent assures me that they will go after her for everything she’s got, a tone of malice and retribution I do not appreciate. That I have received letters in the mail from lawyers warning me to act now if I want to sue for sustained injuries. That a local chiropractor has offered me free “recovery alignment” coupons, and I have no idea how they found my contact information. That I am physically fine, my car has been repaired, and by the time I am compensated in an estimated three years, the money will be an unexpected and pleasant surprise.


Perhaps the problems of the personal narrative have nothing to do with cliché, but grandiosity. We like explosions, life & death circumstances, a little sex appeal. We sometimes believe that the personal narrative demands this type of structure: our loudest, most outrageous. I would argue that the essay finds it’s greatest meaning in the white space, the silence, the gaps between what’s been written and what we bring to it.


I receive a text message from the Other Driver, asking if we can take care of this accident without getting our insurance companies involved. She does not know that I know about her insurance, and for whatever reason I continue to play along. But still I must tell her sorry, the cost is just too high, that I needed to get a rental car as soon as possible, that I already received an estimate upwards of 3000 dollars. She responds with an apology, and we never speak again.

The Other Driver has become a ghost. She does not respond when a claims adjuster attempts to contact her by phone and mail. I am told that if she does not respond, my story will be the only one on official records, meaning that she will be completely at fault with no opportunity for defense. I know this to be her choice. Like pretending to have insurance, it seems the Other Driver believes that avoiding the accident—ignoring the calls letters of collection—will make it all go away. She believes her silence may somehow save her.


Perhaps the personal narrative demands conclusions because we desire what we cannot have. We demand conclusions because we there are things we do not like about ourselves: high school championship glory fades, as does our grief. Accidents still happen, mistakes are made, and yet we will continue to do dumb shit anyway. We want there to be more, to feel like every moment holds a special meaning. And if we draw those conclusions, play along with the idea that everything means something, maybe someday we’ll start to believe it.



It is several weeks later with little resolution. My door has been replaced, repainted. Structural integrity confirmed yet reinforced anyway. A well-timed Christmas bonus, along with a rare payment for my writing, just barely covers my deductible. Money provided, as if by magic. Meanwhile, a slew of professional, creative, and personal rejections fill me with an ever-encroaching sense of dread. Outside, snow covers everything, blanketing the neighborhood. The snow muffles, absorbs, and despite the world happening around me, this silence so strong as to be felt.


Mom’s Sewing Club Lemon Dessert (from Barb Panning, via Amy Panning Hardel, July 27, 2011)–Anne Panning

     One day this past summer, I got a craving for my mother’s famous lemon dessert (she died / let me say that right here).  Over the years, my sister, Amy, and I have often called each other up in search of the recipe.  “Is this it?” Amy would say, then read off a list of ingredients.  “No,” I’d say.  “That sounds too much like lemon bars.  It doesn’t seem like it would have that light, whipped texture like Mom’s did.” (“Bars” are what Minnesotans call anything sweet and gooey baked in a cake pan and cut in squares.)

I remembered my mother (golden haired / fatigued) making the dessert on the nights she hosted Sewing Club, an informal group of women who got together once a month and worked on various sewing projects while they “visited,” drank coffee (never alcohol) and ate dessert.  The location rotated month to month, and likely my mother dreaded when it was her turn since we lived in the trailer court (butt end of trailer faced graveyard) and I knew this brought great shame to her.

The women all had names like Pixie (pockmarked / redhead), Diane, Faye  (rich from real estate) and Marcia (knobby tall).  This was the 1970s, and although I have no recollection of feminism hitting our small town, my mother and her friends did demonstrate a certain female solidarity (accidentally?). The sewing part of the club (popped-off buttons / embroidered dishtowels) was just an excuse for them to gather.  As Amy has said later, “It was almost like an ahead-of-their-time book club.”  Men were absent.  My father loved it because he could go to the bar and drink (buy rounds for all / lose money on scratch-offs / get drunk / win points with townsfolk for being fun-loving crazyass guy).  I loved it because I knew it meant lemon dessert was on the menu.

I’ve looked and looked through my mother’s recipe box, which is white with strawberries around the lid and very sticky.

                                    (INSERT PHOTO OF RECIPE BOX HERE)

(but make sure photo doesn’t show the stuff on your bulletin board or little Rolodex with a monkey sticker on it / stage the recipe box somewhere that looks clean yet warm and personal / remove books, cell phone chargers, mugs, mail/ make sure your shadow isn’t hanging over the image / decide against it)

One day I brought the recipe box up to my study and accidentally dropped it, ruining years of careful organization and order (true / not true / it did fall and spill but not so bad).  As I sat there trying to sort the recipes into the correct categories, I noticed that some of them were in my mother’s handwriting (classic Palmer cursive) and some of them were in my grandmother’s handwriting (feathery blue Bic).

I began to wonder: had my mother also inherited her mother’s recipe box just as I had hers?  Like her, I would now add my own recipes to it, making it a three-generation collection of family recipes.  My grandmother’s era (Bacon Grease Molasses Cookies), my mother’s generation (Tater Tot Hotdish), and my generation (Chicken and Chickpea Tagine).  The difference between my recipes and theirs, though (besides the profusion of ethnic dishes), was that theirs always provided a careful crediting of sources:  Tuna Hot Dish (Aunt Rosemary), Egg Casserole (Church), German Sugar Cookies (from Alma Meyer via Laura Litfin).  Mine, on the other hand, were without personal links, a hodgepodge of cultures, places and influences I couldn’t credit even if I tried.

I searched through every single recipe but couldn’t find the lemon dessert (as I write this, it’s snowing / kids are skiing / I’m listening for the mailman /  I keep forgetting this is supposed to be about the lemon dessert). I did, however, find an odd recipe.

Hot Dish for 50.

2 lbs. egg noodles, boiled

2 lbs.  Velveeta cheese

3 lge. cans tomato soup

8 lbs. hamburger

½ lbs. onions, chopped

1 stk. margarine

(For fifty?)  My only guess was my grandma had gotten it from church.  Maybe someone from The Ladies Aid (martyrs) had given it to her since whenever a member of the congregation died, each “lady” (baby soft hair / powdery blush / slacks / sweatshirt with kitty or snowman / navy Keds) was required to bring a large hot dish “to pass.”

I also found a recipe for my grandma’s spaghetti sauce that used to be my favorite. I hadn’t thought of it for decades, and seeing it triggered an intense memory of pleasure and comfort (the Lord’s Supper painting in her kitchen / white metal kitchen cupboards / chickadee feeder out the window / heater blowing behind velvety recliner > my spot).  It was the mildest, gentlest spaghetti sauce ever (almost not a spaghetti sauce).  She’d sauté minced onions in butter until they were very, very soft, then add a can of Campbell’s tomato soup (not generic / not her) and a spoonful of sour cream and a pinch of sugar and simmer until it bubbled.  It made her tiny kitchen steam up and smell sweet and tangy.

But still no recipe for the elusive lemon dessert.

For almost a week, I left messages for Amy (mostly texts / we’re texters), asking if she had the recipe. Finally, one day in July, she called me. After catching up on every little thing (mostly her things), I circled back to the lemon dessert recipe.

“No,” Amy said.  “I never found it, but I have it in my head. It’s called Borden’s Lemon Dessert.”

“What? You’ve had it in your head all this time and never told me?” (upset but acting not upset).

“Well, it’s hard to explain. I’ve never written it down.”

“So let’s hear it!” I said.  “I have a pen. I’m ready.”

It was a gorgeous summer day (maybe / I think).  Sun spilled onto my desk and all over the recipe cards I’d dug out of my mother’s box. I scribbled everything down while Amy narrated the recipe to me.

“So you take one package of graham crackers, just crackers, no butter or anything, and crush them all up for the crust.  It’s weird how pans can be so different. It should be enough if you use a regular pan.”

I asked her if she used the one our mother had given us each for our birthdays once—an aluminum 9×13 with a sliding green cover with our names engraved on them.

“No, mine got a hole in the side of it.  Wore out.” (Could that really happen? / How would a hole form on the side of a pan?)

“Anyway—oh!  Save some of the cracker crumbs to sprinkle on top.  Okay. Then mix 2 cans of Borden’s or whatever brand sweetened condensed milk.  Then the juice of 4 real lemons. I tried it once in a hurry with fake lemon juice and it was terrible.  But maybe use 5 lemons. I can’t remember. Just taste it a lot. It should be tart.”(Our mother only used fake lemon juice / green bottle / yellow cap /real lemons cost.)


            (but why? / is it because the little lemon-shaped squeeze bottle is so iconic of childhood? / the 1970s? / what does it add to this narrative though? / if your mother’s old recipe box didn’t make the cut, why should this? / it’s commodification/ actually, not really / more or less a strong wish to keep readers sustained / stimulated / grounded / it’s unnecessary / decide against it.)  

“Okay,” I said, and wrote it all down.

“So then,” she continued, “refrigerate that for a while.  Then whip like a big carton of real whipping cream, and add sugar—just enough to make it nice and sweet but not too sweet.  Then sprinkle the extra graham cracker crumbs on top.  And it’s best overnight.  To chill it overnight.  You know, so the wet stuff kind of soaks into the crust. Yeah, umm. I think that’s it.”

I told her how excited I was to make the lemon dessert (finally), which brought up a whole other conversation about our mother, and Sewing Club, and the past.

“You know what today is, right?” she said (see title).

Usually I was the one who called my siblings on the anniversary of our mother’s death, so I was glad Amy brought it up.  “I know,” I said. “It seems like just yesterday she was here” (6 years/5 months/23 days/I could figure out the hours but that would be false / exaggeration as lie).

“Really?” Amy said.  “It seems so far away to me.  Like it was so long ago.”

I could feel the way time had softened the edges of my memories.  I could still see my mother’s warm brown eyes, but the basic shape of her face (perfect oval) was slipping from me, the way she held a cup of coffee (Chase Sanborn/Corelle cup) or chuckled as she was telling a story—fading.

“Anyway, I should go,” Amy said.  “I have to go shoot T-ball pictures today. It seems like that’s what I’ve been doing all summer long.” (Amy’s kinder than me / more socially open / I read / I hide / I  fret.)

“Yeah,” I said.  “I have to go get the kids.”

After we said goodbye, I found one of my mother’s blank recipe cards (wanted it to be cute with maybe hearts / cuckoo clocks / spatulas / but no > plain ), and began filling it out.

“Mom’s Sewing Club Lemon Dessert,” I titled it (is it horrible to admit that I’m proud of my handwriting? / I get compliments on it sometimes).  Then, giving credit where credit was due, I wrote, “From Barb Panning, via Amy Panning Hardel, July 27, 2011.” I tucked it back in the sticky recipe box in the section labeled “Sweets,” and felt a small piece of history settle (echo) into place.


recipe boxlemon

Shooting Dinosaurs–Peter Grandbois


Yesterday, I took my nine-year-old son to the video arcade at the local mall.  He wanted to play any game that involved shooting someone or something.  I hadn’t been to the video arcade since I was a teenager, so I was shocked to find so many realistic video games where the goal is to kill another human being. Fathers and sons fed their electronic game cards to the machines (they no longer accept quarters), shooting away, bonding as each looked to the other and smiled before wasting a “terrorist” or two or twenty in a bloody shootout.  My son wanted to play, but I was appalled.  I tried to get him interested in shooting dinosaurs instead.  It worked for a short time, but in the end, he wanted to play the “real” games.  I gave in and soon felt the kick of the machine gun recoil in my chest as I mowed down the terrorists (each bearded and colored just enough to look Muslim).  My son was killed pretty quickly, but beamed at me, proud that I was able to survive a little longer.


For Christmas two weeks ago, my son wanted a Nerf Diatron. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a gun that shoots two Nerf discs at once.  The latest technology in Nerf warfare.  My son already has the other guns in the Nerf arsenal: the Vortex, the Nitron, the Vigilon, and (best of all) the Pyragon.  Nerf gun wars erupt in our house spontaneously, causing our two German Shepherds to bark uncontrollably and the two kittens to run for cover.  The only rule is no shooting in the face.  Unfortunately, that’s what inevitably happens.  I get very uncomfortable when my son aims his gun at my face.  I tell him in no uncertain terms to put it down.  I tell him the game is over.  And yet, when I sneak up on him defenseless, hiding behind the couch, I unleash my bullets at point blank range with a glee I haven’t felt since childhood.   In those moments, he looks at me as if I’ve betrayed him.


My son joined Karate about four months ago.  He loves it.  When not in practice, he spends a good part of his time running around the house, kicking and karate chopping everything.  The day they broke boards in his dojo may have been the high point of his life.  That’s the day they tested for their belts.  I had to hold back my judgment as I watched each student work through routines designed to beat the hell out of another living person.  Some of the candidates for the higher belts were deadly serious as they performed their Katas.  At the end, they had open sparring.  The students wore headgear and gloves as they punched and kicked each other.  My son is convinced he’s going to be the next Bruce Lee.  I told myself it wasn’t so bad that he tried to kick another kid in the face.  I forced myself to smile and clap when he performed actions designed to hurt or maim his opponent.


Because I’ve been an avid fencer most of my life, I tried to get my son involved in the sport of fencing about a year ago.  He was interested in sabre at first, and I would drive him once a week to the club in Columbus where he could practice with kids his age.   I remember the first time he suited up.  I took a picture of him.  I still have that picture.  I look at it often, and each time it gives me a thrill.  To see him posing with his mask and sword.  He has since moved on to Karate, but I still hope to get him back into fencing.  I dream of the day when he and I can travel to a fencing tournament together, when I can watch him fight another kid, trying to hit that kid in the head with his sword.  Fencers scream when they hit, as do people in the other martial arts.  I’ve often wondered what my son’s scream would be like.  Would it be relatively tame?  Or would it let slip the killer inside?


Why is it I abhor the violence in one scenario and encourage it in another?  What makes the simulated act of shooting “terrorists” in a video game any different than the simulated act of shooting each other with Nerf guns?  Is hitting someone with your fist really more violent than hitting someone with a sword?  One could easily argue it’s the other way around.  The sword a grim symbol of our barbaric past.  And yet I frown upon one behavior and encourage another.  Talk about sending mixed signals!  I consider myself a passive person.  I believe violence is a last resort, what happens when all other options fail.  Contrary to the evidence given above, my wife and I raised our son without TV, video games, or violent toys.  We gave in a few years ago only when the mounting evidence became clear that none of what we did mattered.  Regardless of our “guidance,” he spent the vast majority of his day creating games where he killed someone or was killed by someone.  The boy should be given an academy award for the complexity of his death scenes, drawn out in slow motion as he careens about the living room.  My fear is that some day he’ll enlist in the military, that he’ll become something I’m fundamentally against.  My greater fear is that in doing so he’ll become more like me than he ever was before.


I thought this essay was going to be about the ways in which our children are not like us, the ways in which the apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.  I started with that experience at the video arcade, sure of my horror over how easily my son lapped up the violence, and my revulsion at how many other fathers and sons stood beside us, smilingly shooting away.  But as I started writing, I realized something else was going on.  The essay shaped itself around the complicated ways in which as fathers we both indoctrinate our sons into male violence and simultaneously teach them that same violence is wrong.  More disturbing to this author was the further discovery that the essay wanted to move into how those parts we most abhor in our children are really the things we fear in ourselves.  I say this now only because as writers our essays, our stories, our books are also our children.  We want them to be certain things, to behave certain ways.  How rarely they do.  Yet we seldom talk about what this means.  Instead, we make vague statements like: “I followed where the story went,” or “I let he character lead me” as if the story, the character are really separate entities from us.  They are not.  And the twisting turns they take, the conflicted messages they reveal say more about our own messy lives than we’d like to think.

A Photographer and an Essayist Walk into a Bar–Joe Bonomo

—What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.

—Right. And what makes an essay a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are language and time.


—Taking photographs can assuage the itch for possession sparked by the beauty of a place; our anxiety over losing a precious scene can decline with every click of the shutter.

—But every photo’s a documentary of loss, isn’t it? What’s static in an image is finally overcome by change, what Orwell in a different context calls deterioration. An essay excavates that kind of loss and returns, with something, though not necessarily at the starting point. A photo’s a weed in an overgrown garden.


—That portion of reality that can be composed within a frame can be understood. —OK, but what if you and I are looking through the same frame and see things differently? What about what’s outside the frame? That’s where an essay goes, beyond the frame of what can be understood.


—To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.

—Yeah, no doubt. Slide me those peanuts.


—We are the strongest filter we can place before the lens. We point the lens both outward and inward.

—What does the photographer see when he points the lens inward, darkness or light?


—Maybe a photo represents the old quest for truth and a digital image is part of the current search for the good fantasy.

—I’m sot sure that I understand you. Yeah, one’s Facebook or Instagram persona is as refined and meticulously curated as any photo exhibition, but were photographs from another century any less fantastic in their manipulation of space and story?

I see that I’m asking a lot of questions tonight­, sorry—


—When I photograph, I spend a lot of time waiting for a subject to evolve.

—An essay is a kind of slow development, too, I think. In an imagined place murky figures and ideas take shape, chemical reactions of need and memory and truth doing their work, language emerging in the light of a door being opened.


—The irony is that having a photo doesn’t mean you’re going to remember. It only feels like you have a vast repository of memories—


—A number of photos prompt a certain kind of forgetting.

—And when an essay explores that kind of forgetting, it comes up with less than with more, unless loss is what it’s after. Forgetting’s a room where the light switch is broken. We need a new kind of illumination.


—Painting directly from nature is difficult as things do not remain the same; the camera helps to retain the picture in your mind.

—As in nature, in memory things do not remain the same, either. And do you believe that a camera helps you to retain? It seems to me that a photo crops so much more than it preserves.


—Creating a painting from a photograph is like staging a theatrical set and then trying to live in it.

—I don’t have a script yet. And where are my marks? What persona am I playing? Lighting? “Sepia,” “antique.” What do these words mean to an essayist?


—It is not in the nature of lenses to tell the whole truth—


—They are instruments of exaggeration and belittlement.

—Great. The essayist’s darkroom manipulations originate in sentiment, language, desire. We employ the writerly equivalent of wide-angle and close-up lenses, and filters. Choose from Denial, Self-Aggrandizing, or Heroic preset filters. Fish-bowl lens? Puberty. You and I might define “noise” differently but it’s still noise. We might define “exposure” differently but it’s still exposure.


—The picture represents the feelings and point of view of the intelligence behind the camera.

—Intelligence. Do you mean personality? Moral character? Intelligence as a measure of skill-level or of intuition? Either way, yeah, I think that I agree with you.


—Remember that photos lie about values in the distance; they show distant shadows too dark. The best way to know the right values is to observe.

—Yep, and an essay lies about values in the distance, too, and the essayist needs to acknowledge this. (Or not.) An essay is saturated with something other than color, light, and dark. But an essay, too, looks looks looks.


—Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.

—Not everybody believes photographs, but people trust essays. I’d like to think this, anyway.


—A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.



—The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.

—Yep. That’s great. I need another drink.


—I have gradually confused photography with life.

—I get so confused about life photography art.

—I know I know. Last round’s on me.



At the bar with me, in order of holding forth: John Berger, Alain de Botton, Robert Brault, Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Paul Caponigro, Joe Nalven, Peter Fiore, Martin Hand, Theodore Robinson, Michael Chesley Johnson, Walter J. Phillips, Alexey Brodovitch, Martha Saudek, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Jerry Uelsmann, and William Wegman.

A Sequence of Thoughts Without Any Kind of Order–Ira Sukrungruang


Lately, time seems to be all I think about on a personal and philosophical level. Perhaps it’s because I notice age slowing down the ones I love. Perhaps I discovered more gray nose hairs in my right nostril and that freaked me the hell out. Or perhaps this awareness of time comes when our sense of self gets challenged, like mine has in the last few months.

When you think about time, you are really thinking about death.


This should not be a surprise to you: Time rules us. We do not and cannot control it. As much as I wanted to possess superhuman powers when I was a teenager—like slowing time with a snap of my fingers when my eighth grade crush Brenna Murphy—having undergone wonderful changes of the body—ran towards me, I could not. I lived by the laws of time, subjected to a two-month relationship with Brenna that involved hand holding, park kisses, and her chasing me with a butcher’s knife.

Time is an unavoidable fixture in our existence. We live by it. We sleep according to time. We arrange meetings, lectures, and classes by time. We watch our favorite shows and take our medication at certain times. How often do we check the time of the day? How often do we ask, “What time is it?” How many times do we wish for more time to write a meditation on time, a memoir about a certain time of life, or a letter to an ex-wife or a dying parent? How many times have we wished for more time to do all the things we want to do?

It is not surprising then that the English lexicon is infested by clichés of time. All in due time. There’s no time like the present. Time after time. Time and again. Time flies.

Nor is it surprising that writers and philosophers have been contemplating time since the dawn of time.

From Plato: “And so people are all but ignorant of the fact that time is really the wanderings of the sun and the planets.”

Sophocles: “Hide nothing, for time, which sees all and hears all, exposes all.”

St. Augustine in his Confessions: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.”


The holiday season approaches. The landscape of America changes. The department stores are glittered in silver and gold garland. Santa is everywhere with his jolly cheeks and cotton-tipped hat. Bing Crosby croons holiday songs in the grocery stores, and bells beg for donations in a red pail.

Holidays are ripe for nostalgia. They are moments to assess our lives. We move forward. We move backwards. We think whether this holiday will be better than the last. We begin, as most children do, to dream of new toys Santa will sneak under the Christmas tree next year.

Even as a Buddhist, I’m inundated with holiday moments, memories from years past. A mental rolodex of Christmases and New Years. My father and his new Polaroid. The shutter and flash. The seconds it takes for the picture to materialize. Aunty Sue carving the Chinatown duck, her hands and knife thick with yummy grease. My mother’s soft snores on Christmas Eve after working a double shift at the hospital.


Before my mother moved back to Thailand, she gave me over two large boxes of photo albums. I went through each of them, trying to remember our former lives, stilled in photographs. What struck me most were not only the photos of our holidays, but my mother’s perfect print next to the yellowing photos. The date. The time. The place.

I’ve seen this impulse to record in other photo albums. What is this need we possess to not only capture the photo, but to log it in with numbers? Do the numbers mean anything?

I am standing in bright neon pants that flare at the bottoms. A blue octopus is on my head. Behind me is the Christmas tree, delicate ornaments glinting from the camera’s flash.  I’m smiling. Two of my front teeth are missing.

Beside the photo, my mother’s writing: Ira, age 3, living room, Oak Lawn, Illinois, 12/25/79. He is happy.

Two Thousand

Every time I see numbers in an essay, I hear Dick Clark’s voice counting down to the new year. I also think of the apocalypse. I know these two things don’t go together.


I’ve been through thirty-seven Christmases and thirty-seven New Years. After a while, it’s one big mess. A fun, festive mess, like discarded and torn wrapping paper, like bows and ribbons on your pets.

One Point Eight

Every year I go to Thailand to visit my mother and Aunty Sue. They are eighty, and now time has slowed their walks, hunched their backs, clogged their ears, much to my impatient dismay. Now, I help them in and out of cars. I hold them as they walk up and down stairs.

At the Chiang Mai Airport, they play with an eight-month-old baby, who smiles and gurgles and drools happiness. They make faces at him and coo. They caress the smoothness of his skin.

I watch them and think, this baby is me. Both my mother and aunt are really cooing at me, or a version of me that no longer exists, but one catalogued in their memory, a moment where they have stilled time to relive, a joy that can never return.

But it has.

Everything they do, everything they eat, is in relationship with the past. It’s in the manner of their speech. In the moments when they begin, “Back then….” It’s even in how they hold me—longer, stronger, never wanting to let go.

A Gazillion

The memoirist, like my aging parents, does not want to let go either. It’s as if she is in a sci-fi movie, where her memories are displayed in front of her. And she uses her hand to arrange them, moves them around, throws some out. She rewinds. Fast forwards. She does this so that she can create a narrative timeline. The first steps of telling a story. The first steps of understanding.


I’ve become a reluctant fan of the writer David Shields, author of the controversial book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. I say reluctant because of his stance on the genre of my beloved memoir. If one were to flip through Reality Hunger one would find an array of criticism against chronology and narrative storytelling. One would find Shield’s championing of the lyrical structure of fragmentation and mosaic movements. One would find lines like this: “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” Or, “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar.”

Reality Hunger is Shield’s own manifesto, his way of understanding the world—he has said as much in interviews—but part of me turned into that gruff Chicago boy from ages ago, that Chicago boy defending his turf, his little tiny patch of city green because I had just published a memoir about being raised Thai in America and it was chronological and for the past ten years I have devoted myself to this genre. I was like, what the hell, dude? You best step off.

But what also lingered underneath this sentiment was a voice that said, “David’s right, you know.” He is. To a point.

I didn’t completely disagree with Shields. In fact, I marveled, like him, at essays and books that have challenged the traditional structure of memoir—Lauren Slater’s Lying, for example, or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius. I embrace, like him, the “collage” as structure, disagreeing, however, with his assertion that collage is “an evolution beyond narrative,” but rather another option for a writer trying to find form and function on the written page. I found that I loved the books Shield’s loved, like Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception, and loved the books he didn’t, like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

After reading his manifesto and hearing him speak on numerous occasions—he is quite brilliant—I wanted to see how his manifesto translated into his own work, so I picked up The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

Shields uses two threads to tell his story, like a braided essay—one orders the memories he has of his father, never chronological, but fragmented and scattered in no specific pattern, and one discusses how the body ages and begins to deteriorate over time. Let me warn you: If you are a hypochondriac and do not want to be aware what happens at what age, avoid this book. I found myself counting the amount of hair I was losing and gauging my libido on a daily basis.

Despite Shields’ diatribe against chronology and memoir in Reality Hunger, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead is both chronological and a memoir. (David Shields’ nose is probably itchy right now.) It is not chronological in the traditional sense, nor is it a memoir in the traditional sense. In his book, Shields’ father escapes the linear because there is nothing linear about him. He is an enigma, a delicately curved question mark. Shields can’t reconcile what he feels for his father, whether it is hate or deep affection. His memories of his past jump back and forth through time, in no logical sense. But we are never lost in the book because Shields has given us chronology, has imposed order, by telling us about time in the biological sense. Our bodies—our physical presences—are about time. It is the one constant thing that makes us human.


David McGlynn, “Traumatized Time”: One of the magical qualities of creative nonfiction…is its ability to travel through time, to leap without preamble or warning from the narration of particular past events to the immediate and universal present.

One Billion Eight Hundred Thirty Three Million Five

Maybe the countdown to a new year and the countdown to the apocalypse isn’t so different. If there is a beginning then there is an end.


I have to tell you this story. And it has to be chronological.

There was once a boy so insecure with his life, he took diet pills, believing that they would magically make him better. But he did not know what better meant. Skinnier? Happier? Normal-er? He didn’t have the sense, this boy, to ask the questions necessary in understanding the self. He didn’t want to understand the self. He didn’t want to be anywhere in his head, where thoughts whirled and stabbed, where shadows sought to suffocate. He wanted a quick fix, a present-moment action. What’s easier than popping pills? What’s easier than taking a handful of them and washing it down with a swig of beer?

Oh, that boy, oh how he smiled and laughed, oh how he was proud that his appetite had shrunk into nothing. It was as if a stone wall had risen up in his digestive system and turned away all thoughts of food. He snacked on one potato chip a day. He drank one bottle of water. And at night, if he was good, he allowed himself a piece of candy, which he immediately hated himself for.

It did not matter that his friends began worrying about him, how shallow his cheeks became, how his moods were erratic, how he wasn’t losing weight but starving weight off of him.

But look at him. He was beautiful—wasn’t he? People loved the new him—didn’t they? Look at him. He had lost fifty pounds in two months. Look at the ladder rungs of his rib cage. Look at the veins that worm through his hands. Look at his face that has become skeletal.

Look. Look. Look.

The story of this boy is chronological because it is a story of his body. It is a story about the changes of his body—inside and outside. Because his body was once fat, and day by day, his body expelled that fat. Time did that. His body recorded time. His body felt it.

But chronology is also important because there comes a moment when the boy finally registers fault. We need that moment of redemption, of change, because when the boy decides what he is doing is detrimental, is a marker of change in his life. And then begins the process of healing, and the process of healing takes time.

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses : “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”


In Bernard Cooper’s essay, “Marketing Memory,” he states that if you want to preserve memory in its purest state, do not write a memoir. Suddenly, your past becomes a book—shaped, contained, revised and revisited language.

Imagine memory as a big messy glob of clay. A writer then begins to work at it. Press and fold. Cut the excess. Give detail to where there was once nothing. We do this for hours, days, years. We live in our heads. And finally, by the end of it all, our messy memory is not a blob of clay. Finally we have something presentable, readable, compressed, conflated.

The detritus of our clay?

We throw it in the trash. We discard it because now there is no use in keeping something that doesn’t serve our narrative.

One Thousand Ten

The ball dropping. The bomb dropping.

I’m sorry I keep coming back to this.

Happy holidays.

Thirteen Point Thirteen

Let’s get right to it. Writing a memoir, writing chronologically, is an unnatural act. David, I agree with you. But the artist makes the unnatural seem natural. The artist, the good artist, creates her art in such a way we do not question veracity. We just live it. We just follow. We say, Take us wherever you please.


Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water: “Events don’t have cause and affect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common…All the events of my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory of a relationship, or one about riding a bike, or about my love for literature and art, or when I first touched lips to alcohol, or how much I adored my sister, or the day my father first touched me—there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory…”


How does one talk about time when time loses meaning? As person who has gone through depression, I begin to notice, retrospectively, that time has no significance. You are late. You miss meetings. You don’t take the medications you should to get better. You sit in stasis, frozen, a body without a mind, a body without control. You no longer sleep. You no longer eat. Your mind—forever timeless—consumes you, but you spend every moment in this whirlwind of non-linear thoughts.

This is not reserved for the depressed. How about memoirs about abuse, addiction, illness, life-altering accidents, death? How does time affect the narrator? How does time affect the structure of a book? As writers, how can we remain faithful to chronology when our internal chronology is in so much flux?

The answer: we can’t.

I’m not kidding.

As a writer, you are battling two things that prevent this: 1) memory and all its flaws 2) capturing a time in life where time no longer exists.

Einstein said the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. A memoirist is creating an illusion. This is as post-modern as it gets. The writer of memoir is creating a simulacrum, like reenactments of crimes on Court TV. As Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present.” And it occurs to me that all memoirs are seen through this lens. Our pasts are filtered through the gaze of the present, and it is this present that begins to sift, sort and build that narrative.


When I was four, I peed on Santa’s lap at Ford City Mall in Chicago. Or was I five? Or three?

I’m forgetting.

But this is not forgotten. I peed on his lap. And he was pissed.

Ten Thousand Eight Hundred Fifty Nine 

The writing of a memoir is about not letting go. It is not the western psychological therapy of writing it down to expel thoughts and emotions. It’s just the opposite. It’s about writing it down to understand and live and relive and learn. The writing of a memoir is what Lauren Slater wrote once in an interview: “I, for one, expect my readers to be troubled; I envision my readers as depressed, guilty, or maybe mourning a medication that failed them. I write to say, ‘You are not the only one.’”

One Half

I just asked my mother to end this for me. She asked me what the topic is. I told her time and Christmas and writing.

“Tell them,” she said, “that everyone dies.” Then because she is Buddhist and believes in reincarnation, she added, “But you get to be in line again to do it all over.”

The memoir writer is in line again and again. The memoir writer defies time. She goes back, goes forward, stays still. She relives, recreates, reimagines. It’s a ride, you see, and a memoir writer can’t get sick on it. She has to get in line again and again, before what? Time runs out? Time stops. Time stands still?


Maybe we are all waiting for something to drop.

A Gentile Deconstructs “Johnny Lingo”–Lynn Kilpatrick

I grew up, from fourth grade until I graduated high school, in a small town in Southeast Idaho, Pocatello. In grade school, I went to a public elementary, downtown, by the name of Bonneville. The majority of people who live in Pocatello are Mormon, or members of the LDS church.

In grade school, we often watched film strips. I am nostalgic for the film strips, with their accompanying tape deck soundtracks, which beeped when you needed to advance the film. But my concern today is a film, an actual film that was projected on a screen and came on reels. I think we watched it in both fifth and sixth grade, but I can’t be sure.

The film, “Johnny Lingo,” is the story of a Polynesian trader who comes to a small village to find a wife. The obtaining of a wife, in this culture, necessitates bargaining with the local currency: cows. Some of the older village women stand around and brag about how many cows their husbands gave for them. The woman this trader wants to marry, Mahana, is widely viewed as being ugly and worthless, that is, the trader won’t need very many cows in order obtain her hand in marriage. Her father, therefore, asks for three cows, just to insure that if he has to bargain down he will get at least one. When the trader shows up to bargain with the father he shocks everyone by offering eight cows for the woman. Eight cows! The village is astounded.

He is supposed to come with the cows the next day, and many villagers assume that he will simply not show up. But he does, and he gives the eight cows and receives a wife in trade. Capitalism at its finest! He then takes his wife off on a trading trip.

When he returns from the trip with his wife, everyone is surprised to see how beautiful she is. Her father says that maybe he should have gotten ten cows for her. He was tricked! Ha ha ha! She’s a ten cow woman. But only the wise trader knew that.

Now, let’s imagine how this movie might seem to a ten-year-old girl in Pocatello, Idaho who, for the record, is not Mormon and, honestly, does not fully understand Mormonism. I was a Presbyterian. My grandfather was, at the time, a Reformed Presbyterian preacher. The RPs don’t believe in cards, or music (they sing their hymns unaccompanied), they do believe in fire and brimstone, and, if memory serves, kindness. We went to the United Presbyterian church, a more liberal, less rigid version of the same faith.  My father may have stopped going to church by this time, but my mother still took me and my sisters to church on Sundays. I liked church well enough. I even helped out in the nursery.

I was somewhat of a tom boy; I had short hair and I often word corduroy pants. I was sometimes mistaken for a boy. I liked to hike in the hills behind our houses with my friend Annette. I did gymnastics sometimes and played tennis. I liked swimming. I liked to read and I sometimes typed stories on my dad’s typewriter. In fifth grade, I refused to learn the multiplication tables on the grounds that I would never need to use them. I was sent to the euphemistically named “resource room” until I learned them, which took me approximately two days.  I was, for all purposes, a pretty normal non-Mormon girl.

It doesn’t seem plausible now, but I didn’t know the movie was a Mormon movie. When I looked it up (and found it on The Mormon Channel of YouTube), the credits it clearly states it was produced by Brigham Young University. Maybe in fifth grade I had no idea what BYU was. But that’s not the point. The point is, what was I doing watching a Mormon movie in a public elementary school?

To my mind, the moral of this movie is: you should try to find a man who will pay eight cows in order to marry you, for then you will know your true value (eight cows), and then you will feel worthy of eight cows (which, translated, means, what, about $15,000 per cow in 1960s dollars, so $120,000 or a literal fortune?). Once you feel worthy you will become outwardly beautiful. Therefore, if you feel ugly or are ugly, it is because you don’t value yourself enough or because no man has paid eight cows for you. Because, if a man had paid eight cows for you, you would instantly become beautiful. To which, I ask, where is the man with eight cows?

Some may accuse me of being intentionally obtuse. But let’s imagine a ten-year-old girl and try to give her a sense of “building the self-worth of others” (the sub-title of the film). How is it done? Through stating, “Hey, Mahana, I noticed that you are really good at sorting shells. Good job!” or observing, “Mahana, you are very nice to others. Way to be a friend!”?


Self-worth, in this narrative, is obtained through others placing an external, concrete monetary value on you. And not just on you, but on your role as a wife.

Self-worth, in this scenario, is found in obtaining the love of a man, a wealthy man (who else would have eight cows??), and having him decide that you are worthy.  Then, through some magic of alchemy, he pays eight cows for you, and you then become an eight cow woman (that is, beautiful and therefore worth eight cows).

Before anyone claims that we can’t expect a movie made in 1969 to reflect contemporary theories of female self-esteem, let’s remember that The Second Sex was published in 1949 and The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Also, I don’t discount the idea that we should perhaps not look to the Mormon Church for progressive ideas about gender.

Maybe adulthood consists of a series of reminisces whereby we imagine the world different than it was, better somehow, with clearer signals pointing the way we should have gone. Maybe building the self-worth of others should be as easy as eight cows. And maybe “Johnny Lingo” contributed to my burgeoning feminism.

In retrospect, I can correlate my first insight on the arbitrary nature of sign and signifier with my first viewing of “Johnny Lingo.” For what is the establishment of Mahana as an eight cow woman but a tautology of the purest nature? Johnny Lingo pays eight cows for Mahana, therefore she is an eight cow woman. If I say the word “beautiful” and then point to something, anything, a fish perhaps or a cow, then I can link the two in the arbitrary chain of meaning that, I, as speaker create. If anything, “Johnny Lingo” reaffirms the right of the male to decide meanings, worth, signifiers and signified.

Within Mormon theology (as I understand it), each man, upon death, will enter into his own kingdom of Heaven. It is up to him to call his wife by a secret name she is given when they are sealed in the Temple. The children they produce during their lives will also join them in this heaven, which explains (partly) the emphasis on having many children. (More children = more heavenly creatures). Of course, I don’t understand how the male children (who get their own heaven) and the female children (who would be in their husbands’ kingdoms) end up with their parents, but that is neither here nor there. The important point is that Mormon theology is built upon the idea that each individual man can be the patriarch who decides value and meaning within his own realm.

It makes sense, then, that a trader named Johnny Lingo could decide Mahana is an eight cow woman. His deciding makes it so.

I suppose, as a ten-year-old girl, I could have taken this movie as a sign that I was in control of my own destiny. I wouldn’t let anyone tell me I was a three or a one cow woman! I would say, “I’m an eight cow woman!” and it would be so.

Instead,  I poked endless fun of the fact that cows were the currency of choice. I had seen cows on my great uncle’s farm. There were cows on the outskirts of Pocatello. But to say someone was an eight cow woman in 1978 would be essentially saying that she would make a good farm wife. Better to say she was a Mercedes-Benz woman, or one worthy of eight pairs of Jordache jeans.

But, wouldn’t it have been a much better moral (and frankly, a more interesting movie), if when Johnny Lingo appeared with eight cows to purchase her, Mahana instead rejected the entire transaction? She should throw off her wrap, revealing a warrior uniform of her own design, yell some insults in her native language (the equivalent of “Fuck you, mothafuckas!”) and run off into the trees. When we next see her, she would be dirty, and perhaps uglier (by cow standards) than in the earlier scenes. She would be hunched over a fire, cooking some fish she caught with her bare hands. She would look up from the fire and smile, before ripping the fish apart and devouring it.

This, then, is what it would mean to be a worthy woman. To recognize the external value system as arbitrary and capricious, and then to replace it with another system of meaning that is equally arbitrary and capricious (as they all are), but one whose terms are set by those within the system.

I could not have articulated my objections to the film when I was ten-years-old, but I objected to the film all the same. I was walking around in a system that valued blonde haired, blue-eyed Mormon girls. That valued those who accepted the system rather than those who questioned it.

This film taught me that I should seek, above all, to be an eight cow woman. I didn’t even like cows. At the time, I didn’t like fish either. But I did learn something from the film. I learned to recognize that a system wherein commodities were exchanged for women was a flawed and inferior system. And, I did reject it. I would be a thousand-thoughts woman. I would be a hundreds of books woman. I would be a million-word woman. And I would decide what those words were worth.


the dead clown’s knot–B.J. Hollars


The clown informs the room that he requires a bit of assistance.

            “Who here,” he asks grandly, “might assist me in holding a rope?”

            I am the one he selects, not because I possess any particularly impressive rope-holding skills, but because the “room” happens to be my living room, and this happens also to be my birthday party.

            “Young man,” Chuckles says, “please hold this rope as if your life depends on it.”

            In my four-years of life, my life has never depended on anything, though I know I am meant to hold the rope tightly, which I do, gripping either end until my knuckles turn the color of Chuckles’ face paint.

            When he questions me further—“Are you sure you’re holding tightly?”—I tell him I think I’m sure.

            Moments later, when the rope slips magically from my fingers into his, I feel a lot less sure.


            Chuckles the Clown died at 6:00a.m. on a Tuesday in the winter of 2004.  He was 49-years-old.  I was 19 at the time, an oblivious college freshman enrolled in my first creative writing class, anxious to learn how to construct a life in fiction.

At the time of his death, Chuckles and I hadn’t seen each other for 15 years, or so I thought, until my mother revealed that Chuckles had been a member of our church for most of my childhood, that for a few years we likely crossed paths every Sunday.

I remembered him in retrospect—just some curly-haired guy named Charlie who regularly wandered the church foyer following the service.  Sometimes he had a cookie in his hand, sometimes a cup of punch.

Without the face paint or the polka-dotted jumpsuit serving as clues, how was I to guess that the man from my church was my clown?  Charlie’s greatest trick was keeping his other half hidden, muffling the part of him that seemed to make him whole.


            In the evenings, after removing the face paint and the jumpsuit, Charlie hunches over his ham radio.

Hello, he calls into the microphone.  Is anybody out there?

Nothing but static calls back.

He tweaks the knob a half turn to the left, to the right, then makes a move to adjust the amplifier.

Maybe if I just boost the frequency, he thinks, then maybe someone will hear.

He listens for whispers in the static in the hopes of hearing a voice.

Okay, let’s try this again, folks.  Testing 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  If anybody out there hears my count, go ahead and give me a holler.


Will somebody give me a holler?


Please, somebody, give me a holler.  I may be in need of assistance.


            “Let’s give this young man a hand!” Chuckles cries.  My partygoers do.  I smile modestly, though I am not sure what I have done to deserve their praise.  After all, my only task was to hold tight to a rope, though by trick’s end I failed even in doing that.

            “A souvenir for my assistant,” Chuckles says, whirring the rope into a knot, “for when you tie the knot.”

            He hands it to me.

“Thank you,” I say.  “I love it.”

I do not love it.

If it was a balloon animal, perhaps I would love it, but what use do I have for a knot?


For years, when the face paint comes off, Charlie spends his evenings shrouded in radio glow.

He tweaks the knobs, then tilts his head sideways as if he himself might serve as the antenna.

Hello again, folks! he calls.  Anybody out there feel like shooting the breeze?

The static is all but unbearable now.

Charlie wonders how the world can even hold so much static.

Hello? he retries.  Hello hello?  Hello Hello Hellooooooo?

He waits, and when that doesn’t work, he’s back to tweaking knobs, twisting them a quarter turn this way, then that way, listening for the moment when the tumblers click into place.

He tries this for an hour, then two, but the tumblers never tumble.

Perhaps it’s a problem with the modulation, he thinks, or the signal, or worst of all, the antenna itself.

Will the repeater repeat my transmission? he wonders.  Will the repeater repeat my call for assistance?

Adjustments are made, but the cancer remains an echo in his body.

How’s this? he asks, speaking directly into the microphone.  Is this better?  Please, someone, tell me if I am better now.


            At the conclusion of my birthday party, my mother sifts through the wreckage of the wrapping paper in search of Chuckles’ knot.  It is nothing to look at—just some knuckle-sized knot pulled tight from a shred of white rope.  Certainly it is no balloon animal.

Nevertheless, my mother saves it, placing it into a box on her bedside table where it will sit undisturbed for 20 years.  Then, one night, I disturb it—slipping it into my pocket alongside a ring.

That night, when I drop to one knee and ask my girlfriend to marry me, I don’t ask her to marry me exactly.

What I ask is: “Will you tie this knot with me?”

I hold onto one end of the dead clown’s knot and offer her the other.

            “Please,” I say.  “Tell me you will.”


            We married—for better or worse, till death do us part—and paid more attention to the knot than the man who tied it.  His death did not warrant a national day of mourning.  After all, Chuckles wasn’t the most famous clown to die.  He wasn’t even the most famous clown named Chuckles to die.

The most famous Chuckles died on October 25, 1975, on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which another Chuckles the Clown met his tragic/humorous end in a manner ripe for laughter:

Dressed as a peanut, an elephant ate him.

After receiving the news, Mary Tyler Moore watches in horror as her colleagues in the newsroom trade jokes on Chuckles’ unimaginable death.

Newsroom writer Murray Slaughter quips that the tragedy could have been worse: “You know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut!”

Amid the laughter, news director Lou Grant turns to find a mortified Mary watching on.

“We laugh at death,” Lou explains, “because we know that death will have the last laugh on us.”


Hello all you listeners out there!  Are you out there?  This is Chuckles signing off.  But before I do, what do you say to one last joke? 


Why did the clown cross the road?




To get better reception!

Static, still.


            When Chuckles needed assistance in the winter of 2004, I was sitting wide-eyed in my first college-level creative writing class.

            “What makes a character?” the professor asked.  “How do we make a character come alive?”

            I’ve lost the notes, but I still remember the gist.

            How a character only comes alive once you dream him into being.  But sometimes you don’t dream him as much as remember him, modeling your character from some person you used to know.

For example, take a clown you met when you were four and then cement his face with paint.  Next, give him a name—Chuckles, for instance, or Charlie—and strive to make that character round.  How does one make a character round?  For starters, give him a hobby—amateur radio, perhaps—and then flesh him out further by giving him a family and a profession and an obstacle to overcome such as cancer.

No.  Scratch that last part.  Do not give him cancer.  Why would you ever want to give him cancer?  Give him some more manageable obstacle, like being eaten by an elephant.

But please, not cancer.  Anything but that.  It’s hard enough to make your character come alive without giving him a death sentence.


What use do I now have for the knot?

None, except to untie it; to take that rope and suture a story as if my life depends on it.

My life does not depend on it.  Neither does Charlie’s.

What is life anyway but a joke we tell in an attempt to drone out death?

I don’t need laughter, just a radio receiver that cuts through all the static, something to move me through my feedback loop when all it does is repeat.  Because in truth, all I have of Chuckles is a memory that metastasized, leaving me to wonder how many times I’ve relied on feedback rather than relaying the memory properly.

Perhaps what I need more than a receiver is an antenna to help me find the frequency I lost so long ago.  Though maybe I never even had that.  Maybe what I once heard was the myth of a man I’d constructed in fiction, just some curly-haired guy with a name and a hobby, nothing more.

Listen carefully and I’ll tell you a truth: there are limits to the frequencies we can reach. The human ear—despite its range—remains ill equipped to untangle the static from the echo.


Victory at Culloden–Scott Nadelson

My daughter, three, has recently taken to using the word “actually” whenever she wants to convince me of something I won’t likely believe. “Well, actually, Daddy,” she said the other night, shuffling into my office ten minutes after I put her to bed, “I’m not sleepy at all.” Then she let loose an enormous yawn.

One of my colleagues does something similar, only he prefers the phrase “in fact”: “Maybe the students don’t, in fact, want as much feedback as we’re giving them.”

In both cases, I recognize that the actual, the fact, has little connection to verifiable truth. But is it any less real?

Yesterday, when my daughter tried to persuade me that, actually, she was no longer hungry for her dinner but had plenty of room for one of her remaining Halloween treats, I recalled a trip I’d taken to Inverness, which happened to coincide with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. I was on my way to the Western Highlands, where I planned to climb windy peaks and down pints in the most remote pubs I could find, but when I heard about the planned commemoration, I decided to stick around. It was 1996, and I was twenty-two; after living in Edinburgh for most of a year, I knew only the basic details of Scottish history, but I assumed that marking a crushing military defeat and the loss of hope for independence and self-determination would be characterized by somber reflection.

To save money on transportation, I walked the five miles to Culloden Moor, and it turned out to be a good decision. Cars and coaches jammed the road most of the way. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, sat on the lawn around the visitor’s center and lined up in front of the battlefield. Families ate picnics and played games on the moor, with no thought, it seemed, that the blood of fifteen hundred clansmen had once seeped into its soil.

In the visitor’s center, a dozen or more paintings depicted scenes from the battle, and in all of them the sky was ominous, dark clouds seeming to rise up from the line of Redcoats, as if smoke from their muskets had blackened the whole world. But today the sky was unusually clear, the sun strong enough for me to take off my jacket and roll up my sleeves. The men dressed in traditional Highland tartans were sweating, and a number had sunglasses perched on their noses. Many of the younger ones also wore heavy beards, though their ancestors in the paintings were all clean-shaven. They looked less like Jacobite rebels than extras in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which had come out a year earlier, and which depicted battles that took place four hundred years before the one at Culloden.

The official ceremony began with speeches by the mayor of Inverness and a Scottish MP. Then a parade of MacDonalds and Mackinnons, Camerons and Fergusons, Stewarts and Urquharts, each clan with its own set of drummers and Gaelic chants. But all this seemed rushed and perfunctory, the march winding no more than half a mile through the manicured grounds around the visitor’s center before petering out.

And soon I understood why. The real event, the one for which everyone was impatiently waiting, was a re-enactment of the battle itself. Or, I should say, a partial re-enactment. The moor was cleared and the young bearded men in Highland dress lined in formation on its western edge. Photographers readied cameras on tripods. An old guy with big red ears sticking out on either side of a Glengarry cap—a stand-in for the Bonny Prince, maybe—called out orders. The men drew swords. Another order, and they raised their faces to the bright sky. In unison they let out a long, desperate, fearsome shout, their neck muscles straining, faces going red. Then they were charging, bare legs pumping through heather and grass, swords lifted or jabbing, kilts fluttering. Cameras clicked on all sides, and the crowd let out a cheer almost as bloodthirsty as the battle cry.

After running about thirty feet, the warriors pulled up short. The crowd shifted a few dozen yards east. The cameras were repositioned. The charge started again and then stopped. It went on this way until the men reached the end of the moor, far past the marker for the enemy line. There were no Redcoats in sight. No one acknowledged the spot where the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers would have met the charge and slaughtered the clansmen. In this version of the battle, as far as I could tell, the Jacobites won, the Stuarts rightfully returned to the throne.

For years I laughed about the absurdity of the one-sided re-enactment, its shameless reinvention of history. I dismissed the sincerity of those who’d organized the event, who, as far as I could see, had no commitment to the truth. But now I’ve begun to think about it differently, especially in light of recent political developments in Scotland, the fact that in less than a year, the Scots will vote in a referendum on their independence.

The words “actual” and “re-enact” share the same root, coming from the Latin actus: to act. So maybe the actual isn’t just what has happened; it’s what you do, what you perform, what you can make happen. For my daughter and my colleague, what’s real, what’s fact is the imagined outcome of desire. “Well, actually, Daddy,” my daughter said while munching the Kit-Kat I gave her despite knowing she hadn’t eaten enough dinner, “I’ve actually got room for two treats.” A few days later, my colleague popped his head into my office and said, “The students don’t, in fact, seem to mind that I’ve stopped commenting on their drafts.”

The news reports I’ve read about the Scottish referendum have all credited Braveheart with the surge of national spirit among young people, who grew up with the image of William Wallace leading a ragtag band of tartan-clad ruffians against King Edward’s army and shouting “Freedom!” just before an axe falls on his neck. And though that film, too, is a questionable re-enactment, with plenty of historical inaccuracy, overblown rhetoric, and excruciatingly hokey Hollywood melodrama, it has primed the collective imagination for the possibility of change. Its simplified version of the actual, one with clear heroes and villains, with exaggerated emotions and obvious gestures, has ushered in a possible future that might not have existed otherwise.

On Culloden Moor, those bearded men in kilts, swords raised, battle cries tearing from their throats into the bright sky, weren’t recreating Bonny Prince Charlie’s devastating defeat and the end of the Jacobite Rebellion. They didn’t care about the Stuarts’ right to rule. They were playing out the fantasy Mel Gibson had dramatized for them on the big screen, one in which they were actually strong and determined and prepared to sacrifice for their ideals, one in which no one stood in their way.