I’m Not Not Telling the Truth

October 7, 2014 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Penny Guisinger:

fakingWriters like me know that there’s a certain defensiveness in our genre’s name: creative nonfiction. It’s like we need you to know that what we write is true, but it’s also creative. We want  you to know that we’re not writing software manuals.

Further, it’s the genre that defines itself by what it isn’t.  Non fiction. What we write is not fiction, because fiction is not true. We write what is not not true. I looked up “double negative” in the dictionary, and read that it’s a “syntactic construction containing two negatives and having a negative meaning.” Our genre has a negative meaning. That’s not easy to live with.

Maybe if our genre had a sexier name, or at least a more accurate one, fewer careers would be ruined, fewer dreams dashed on the jagged rocks of the Oprah show. Maybe that’s why we try to think of something else to call it – reportage, personal narrative, lyric essay –  something that doesn’t work so hard to hold our feet to this hot thing people think of as “truth” – for we are not not ever really able to capture what is not not truth.  (I don’t even know what that means.)

In October 2013, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and spent a hungry afternoon wandering through an exhibit called Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.  I was hungry because I couldn’t find the cafeteria, but also for the incredible works of art I was seeing. Images that were made from multiple negatives sandwiched together or transformed through darkroom trickery like dodging and burning, adding and removing light. Photos that were printed, photocopied, photographed again, painted on, then re-photocopied. And I thought, “That’s creative nonfiction.”

One of the earliest photographic prints, made in 1846, is an image of four monks posing on a terrace in Malta. But an examination of the negative shows a fifth monk standing behind the group. The photographer, working undercover in the darkroom, just took that fifth one out. We don’t know why, but we also totally know why. It made a better story, or it fit the rhythm of the piece better, or it made a cleaner composition. The fifth monk was clutter – a distracting, irrelevant detail. His removal made the image more true to that artist’s vision of the world. It was what he wanted us to see in what he was seeing. He made a choice.

Even straight photography has a slippery relationship to the truth. According to the incredibly expensive book I splurged on from the exhibit at the Met, “…there is no such thing as an unmanipulated photograph. The process of making a photograph – of translating the constantly changing, full-color, three-dimensional world into a flat, static, bounded image – involves dozens of conscious and unconscious decisions.” Early prints had no color, and had to be painted by hand to look “real.”  Inflexible film emulsions required that land and sky be captured in separate frames then sandwiched together in order to show what the scene really looked like. And I can tell you from my years spent as a wedding photographer that I had to work hard to capture images of the weddings people planned rather than the weddings they actually had. Capturing reality requires acts of omission and other treacheries.

For us it’s all about the alphabet and how we stick letters together on the page. Those are our truth-making tools – and sometimes people don’t like how we employ them. Remember all the trouble John D’Agata got himself into back in 2003 when he  unapologetically changed some facts to get at his version of an artful truth? Among other things, he described “invisible black mountains” behind the Las Vegas skyline, and the fact checker (because he checked) felt that the mountains would be more accurately described as “brown.” There’s more to the story than just that adjective, and it’s an easy case to make that he changed too much. But at AWP 2012 in Chicago, in a room filled with hundreds of writers just like us, a shouting match broke out over D’Agata’s choices. Or his transgressions. Or his artistic brush strokes. People were actually yelling at each other about this piece of art. There were calls for greater accountability, more truth.  I think most of us can get behind that. After all, we’re not writing what’s not true, remember? Yet, it feels impossible for us to hold each other’s feet to the fire in terms of facts when we probably can’t even agree what color the flames are. Are they orange or are they red? If we can’t even ask for hard facts from our cameras, why would we demand it from our writers?

There’s a line from a last year’s NYT review of Scott McClanahan’s book Crappalachia in which the reviewer notes that”…the truth may be unimpeachable, but the facts are up for constant review.” Photographic memories are no better than photographs. Memoirs are just memories. Essays are just attempts. Reportage is not reporting. And have you read a software manual recently? They’re packed with confusion and lies.

Creative nonfiction writers: we are not not the writers of truth that is not not creative. Do you not know what that doesn’t mean? It means we’re not not artists.

___

Penny Guisinger is an essayist whose work has not not appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Solstice, and other not unamazing places. She isn’t not the founding director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and she didn’t fail to receive her MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.

 

Digested Research and Nonfiction Writing

October 5, 2014 § 3 Comments

Holy_Trinity_B_Falls_3We’ve just run across Julija Šukys’ blog “Writing.Life.” in which she adroitly examines the craft of nonfiction writing, including a recent post that delves into what she defines as the “holy trinity of creative nonfiction” – SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.  In the snippet below, she discusses the hardest part for many new writers, digesting the research:

For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.

When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.

Read the full blog post here.

 

 

Why a Good Editor is Like a Good Psychotherapist

October 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

Nina Gaby

Nina Gaby

A guest post from our friend Nina Gaby:

At a recent writer’s workshop on short form essay writing I scuffled to the edge of my chair, the proverbial ADHD kid, as if I knew all about the idea that had only made a half sentence out of the workshop leader’s mouth. The ever patient Barbara Hurd, the workshop leader, was recapping a craft article from September’s Writer’s Chronicle by Sean Ironman where he describes the z-axis in essay writing. This is an article that I had not read much less heard of, but I had already figured out the moment she began to talk. “Pick me! Pick me!” I waved from my seat. Just the mere suggestion of an axis that spanned a third dimension was too much for me to quietly bear alone.

Ironman describes the process of artist Joe Rivera. The award winning cartoonist Rivera often talks of moving his paintbrush not only up and over along the obvious x and y axes of the page, but also up and away from the page– the z axis. “The z-axis is the artist’s distance from the page,” I would later read. “When the brush is kept close, the mark is thick and dark. The farther away the brush is from the page, the thinner the mark. Altering the thickness and darkness of a line gives the image perspective, depth.” [1] So the axis must continue, I extrapolate. Not just past and present but through. Piercing the heart of the page. I totally know this, I think, I’ve just not heard it put quite this way. It’s just like what I do as a therapist, like what I did as an art student. Like what I’m trying to do as an editor.

Hurd used this as a means to explore the craft of the short essay, reminding us that the obvious story was very different from the real story, depending on the writer’s distance from the page. Yeah, yeah, I read Gornick, I am impatient. I know the difference between the situation and the story. But then she told a workshop participant whose words were just shared that she still hadn’t exposed the real story. I got uncomfortable at that, stopped waving my hand. How many times have I let the real story slip by? “Keep going,” said Hurd. Deeper.

I move the mental brush back and forth, up and down, as I generalize this to the process of editing, which I had just spent two months doing. I am a somewhat neophyte essayist, putting together my own anthology, and by virtue of that, becoming a neophyte editor.

But I am not a neophyte psychotherapist. Nor am I a neophyte artist. I know about the pressure on a line, the quality of a shadow, when the z-axis may be too close to the bone, when to draw back. Too much. Too little. It’s all about the contract we have with the subject – be it image or patient or essay contributor. Splice, slice, dice. With permission, of course. Find the connective tissue. Respect the data and the discomfort. I found myself doing the same thing with the 24 essays handed to me by the contributors of my anthology. At first I’m not even sure I know what I’m doing. Then I realize – it’s the same thing I always do.

My first day back from the writer’s conference I entered my workplace, my “real job,” to find a handwritten letter left for me by a patient who had been discharged while I was gone. “Thank you for helping me save my life.” Note I didn’t save the patient’s life, as if I were an EMT in the field shoring up blood or a surgeon in the operating room splicing pieces together. My contract intact – I just helped.This, the very same day that I prepared my anthology’s final manuscript, gathering together all that data for the publisher.

And the contract is the same, the parallels obvious as I wave excitedly from my imaginary seat. “Here,” says the patient, the writer, “I offer you my words, I offer you my narrative, I offer you my history.” The patient’s own thoughts, like the writer’s own words, may just need some help searing a path through the extraneous tissue, a flashlight along the z axis, getting to the vital energy at the heart of their matter.

[1] Sean Ironman, Writing the Z-Axis: Reflection in the Nonfiction Workshop, The Writer’s Chronicle,September 2014

____

Nina Gaby is a past contributor to the Brevity blog. By day she is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and the rest of the time a writer, visual artist, serial television addict and sometimes blogger at www.ninagaby.com. Her anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women,which includes two flash essays, is being published in early 2015 by She Writes Press.

 

 

It’s Never Just Me: Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”

October 2, 2014 § 10 Comments

An informative, fascinating inside look at Jill Talbot’s writing process:

JillTalbot-243x366According to my laptop, my first draft of this essay was saved on March 12, 2013, when I was teaching an Advanced course on the flash essay at St. Lawrence University.  On the first day of that class in January, I challenged my students to avoid the established themes, the easy-groove patterns, and the go-to predilections we had all come to know of each other’s in the beginning workshop. I even told them I’d do it, too, because I write what I ask my students to write (I’ve read Brenda Miller describe how one of her essays came from a writing exercise she did with her students.) So I told them I’d do it, too, and that meant one thing:  no Kenny. Their eyes widened.

I said, no, really, he won’t be in any essay.  When I said it, I felt as if I were standing out on some essayistic ledge.  Then I knew:  I could write about my twenties in Texas to find out who I was in the years before meeting him. What choices did that girl make that led her to love a man who would end up leaving?  So I started a series of flash essays about my dusty, self-destructive twenties in Texas. In fact, one of those essays, “Stranded,” appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Brevity.

All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven began with Hemingway.  I was flipping through The Garden of Eden and came across one of my underlines: “When you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”  And I thought, yes, it is, so I decided to try to write an essay about how I was doing that back then.  I included the Hemingway line as an epigraph and started the essay: “Because you’re Jill Talbot, it’s all empty beer cans and skinny dipping.”

That semester was one of experiments, so not only did I write with my students, I also signed up for a workshop date, and I submitted a draft of this essay titled “Self-Portrait.” One student said about the opening line: “We’re tossed out of the essay if we’re NOT Jill Talbot.”  That allowed me to see I was not using the 2nd person as direct address. I was writing to myself (and as essayists, we have to make connections with our readers).  When it came my time to speak in workshop, I mentioned what the bearded man said that night—about there being a “little Jill Talbot in all of us,” and they suggested I put that into the essay.  I’m glad they did.

The next draft was titled “Scattered,” and it was.  It wasn’t clear I was addressing a younger self or even writing about the past because the draft was in present tense. At one point, it was in the past tense, but that implies distance and reflection, and this girl of the essay had neither. I was trying to capture a phase of my life from a collection of moments—like photographs—and those are always in present tense. I did try a draft in the first person, but I decided “Jill Talbot” needed to be different from the name at the top of the essay, and I had to make clear that this was the twenty-seven year old version. I let the title do that.

The guitar player, the lover, the PhD student in geology, and the Texas/Mexico border were always there, though not as united in form.  Initially, the only parenthetical in the piece was “(this one a PhD student in Geology),” but when I was still revising the draft in early 2014 (when I had the privilege to be teaching with David Lazar and asking him at the Panera on the corner of State Street and Congress about his parentheticals), I realized I needed to be stylistically consistent, so I added one in each section.

One major change that didn’t come until an entire year of revisions?  The diction. The third section, the Geology section, always had “surveying her neck” and my favorite word in the essay that came from my then neighbor, Dr. John Huntley, a paleontologist in the Geology department at St. Lawrence—who is now rocking it (sorry) at the University of Missouri.  But back in New York in 2013, I called him one day and explained, “I want a geology-related word like erosion but something more sudden, destructive, aggressive.”  And that’s how I got “corrade empty streets.” Only after looking at the draft for a year did I realize each section needed such precision.  So I tuned the guitar section, let the bearded man “[play] the same chord” and “[strum]” the water; I added the bob and weave between me and my lover’s wife, the “sheets taut as a boxing canvas,” and the phone throwing rings like punches. And I slowed down the Texas border scene by pushing the lyricism—all those “s”s and “t”s—which in my mind whispers the beginning of a certain word. Because I still wish I could tell that twenty-seven year old woman standing on a rock to stop so she will no longer feel that “desert inside.”

[Side note on considerations when submitting to a particular journal: There was a line, a line I really loved:  “In the back bedroom, where you thought he would be fucking you by now, the phone throws its high-pitched rings like punches.”  But I hoped to place the essay in Brevity, and I couldn’t recall one “fuck” in the archives—beyond Lee Martin’s “Talk Big” and William Bradley’s “Julio at Large”—and neither Martin nor Bradley were using the word the way I was, so I took out that phrase after deciding Brevity wasn’t a “fucking” journal.]

As for Hemingway? I held on to him for dear life, worried the reader wouldn’t get “danger” unless I held it at the top of my essay like a flashlight guiding the way. But one afternoon, I tweeted: “To epigraph or not to epigraph this flash essay is my question.” And while a few of my followers suggested “Yes!” Ryan Van Meter replied, “My vote is no.”  And that’s all it took—I admire and envy his writing so much I immediately deleted the Hemingway. Only then did I understand that the epigraph wasn’t a flashlight, it was a weight, because it’s my job to show the reader the danger. I added “All or Nothing” to the title in a private nod to Hemingway (not to mention Sinatra) and to hint that with all the “Alls” I had going on back then, I had nothing.

In the end, the most problematic portions of the essay turned out to be those one-liners. In fact, the second major revision began: “It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.”  It didn’t take long for me to see I couldn’t begin with the abstract—I had to begin with “empty beer cans and skinny dipping.” After all, the essay is about emptiness and baring myself.

I’ll end here with the progression and revisions of what ended up being the final five lines. By the way, thanks to Steve Edwards who showed me that “82 west out of Lubbock” was the only way for the essay to end. With “Jill Talbot” trying to leave herself behind.

It was lightning storms in the distance. 

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

It was “Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

Letters you now wish you’d kept.

It was all Marlboro Lights in a soft pack.

Pay phones outside gas stations.

82 west out of Lubbock

***

It’s all notes in the margin. 

A tired story.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

“Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

82 west out of Lubbock.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

It’s the Hemingway professor. 

And it’s dangerous.

***

It’s all underlining words in used novels.

And hole-in-the-wall bars.

It’s letting the machine get it.

Pay phones near exits.

It’s all the hard mornings in the same black skirt.

America’s Greatest Hits.

82 west out of Lubbock.

Gold drinks from a silver bar.

It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do. 

It’s dangerous.

***

It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

A pay phone on the corner.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

82 west out of Lubbock.

 ___

Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.

 

Defining the Ideal Essay

October 1, 2014 § 9 Comments

Samantha Tucker Iacovetto

A guest post from Samantha Tucker Iacovetto:

There is this leaning in that happens when I read an ideal essay. It’s like peering over the gilded edge of the Grand Canyon; like stepping on tip-toe to secret out the scent of my husband’s glorious beard; like pressing my nose to the glass at the zoo’s lion exhibit, his breath and mine steaming the opposite sides of the barrier.

When an essayist like, say, Lia Purpura drops the reader into a space like that—a space that is a precipice, a tipping point, a long and unblinking gaze into an unassuming sugar egg—I lean in, and succumb to the vertigo.

“Lean in!” My mother barks through the phone when I lament the stresses of graduate school, of teaching college composition, of finding time to write something that beckons. She is full of handy and irritating blue-collar colloquialisms: “Self-responsibility!” “You better look at the man in the mirror!” “Don’t put all those eggs in one basket!” Now I find myself weaving her philosophies in and out of the classes I teach, where I insist rhetoric and composition is not just a mandatory class on writing, but instead, a conduit for social activism. Her philosophies demanded me a place in academia, accompany the family histories I record, and guided me away from the manifest destinies of a small town upbringing, a food-stamped childhood, a drug-addicted father.

I once read not to lean towards something but, instead, away from everything else. The library in Fountain, Colorado, insists on metaphor: it waits between the two sets of railroad tracks that dissect my town into “rich” and “poor.” Reading was the one-way ticket out.

Now that I’m gone, I find myself constantly looking, leaning back in the other direction.

Joan Didion says to “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” I nod in autoethnographic ways; I situate the history of a family—from a military town with a crumbling red, white and blue façade—in a universal, cultural context. Throughout my search for causalities, I keep on nodding terms in this way: wherever I’ve lived in the past ten years, I have put up a large National Geographic map. I pinpoint our latitudes and longitudes. At once we are—were—global, my family and I: my mother in Fountain, my sister at a Naval base in Spain, me and my husband teaching in South Korea, my brother—then, now, forever—in Iraq.

An ideal essay is hard to define, but easy to point to. An ideal essay mines the “I” in efforts of high exposition. It is driven by a need to testify or witness, and demands the same of its reader. It is a glimpse of something uncomfortably recognizable, a requiem for the quotidian, a look over the newly-gilded edge.

And so, I read—I write: to keep on nodding terms, to examine the arc of my, of our, leanings.

____
Samantha Tucker Iacovetto is a nonfiction MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for the Colorado Review blog, Show Business Weekly, and Springs Magazine. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is nearly finished—and in need of a publisher.

Welcome to Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

dsc_0074

Karen Babine

A guest post from the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies: Karen Babine:

Here’s something I’ve learned over the past three weeks, since the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies went live:  Google Analytics is my new favorite form of entertainment. In realtime, I can watch how many people are on the site, where they’re located, and how much time they’re spending on each page. When I worked for Mid-American Review and we gave away free copies at AWP, it was a thrill to walk by somebody perched in a chair in a hallway, reading the magazine, flipping the pages, and it was always hard to resist the urge to interrupt and ask what they were reading, what they thought about it. There was a conversation happening between page and reader that I could see—and the same is happening here, even though it’s not paper. Google Analytics is my new version of walking-by-somebody-reading—and this is a good thing.

Assay is designed to be a space where all perspectives on the genre are not only welcomed, but celebrated. Nonfiction is claimed by composition and rhetoric, and literature, as much as it is by creative writing. We have more to gain by talking with each other than we do by insisting on a hierarchy of who owns the fourth genre. The seed idea for the journal came out of the realization of just how much critical work is being asked of our creative writing graduate students, especially in PhD programs, with little published nonfiction scholarship for them to draw on—and fewer opportunities to publish what they produce. The idea of nonfiction studies incorporates more than creative writing workshops; it must include nonfiction-as-literature and nonfiction-as-rhetoric/composition, as well as dedicated space to consider the theory and pedagogy of the nonfiction classroom. Often critical introductions are the only place these discussions happen—I’m thinking of Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, even the state-of-the-art introductions to the year’s Best American Essays—and as a result, they are separate notes, to be played individually. Or, even worse, they are the staccato or tenuto that tells us how the note is to be played, never truly part of the composition.

We take the journal’s name from a quote from Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow, who wrote that “There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this.  Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained.  You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land.  What you absorb will eventually change you.  This change is the only real measure of a place.” This idea of the essay (to try) and assay (to test) forms the basis for the philosophy of the journal and what we want to see in the work we publish. The goal of Assay is to test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality.

Maybe it’s how my brain works, this core belief that there are many different—and right—ways to explore the questions and curiosities in front of us. Sometimes putting on G.K. Chesterton’s hat feels right—but sometimes, we want to go running after that hat with Derrida or Ursula Heise. We envision Assay to be a space for short pieces that come out of “I never thought about it that way before” moments, musings of the brain on nonfiction subjects and texts that aren’t represented in current publications.  We hear in passing what a colleague is doing in a class, perhaps an old hat like first-year writing or something narrow and specialized, classes we wish we could sit in the back row and observe. Maybe we have heard of Writing Marathons, but we have no idea how to implement them in our classes (stay tuned to the spring issue for this). In another sphere, our TAs often receive excellent pedagogical support for teaching composition, but creative writing pedagogy is much rarer. (It’s a long-term goal to compile a syllabi bank, like ASLE has collated for environmental studies, so look for that initiative in the future.)

A couple of days ago, I posted to Assays blog and asked which volumes of Best American Essays are your favorites—and today, on another Facebook page, Donna Steiner asked who we’d like to see as a future editor. These are the kind of organic conversations that Assay wants to foster, on our blog and discussion boards (as well as Facebook and Twitter), as reactions to what we publish as well as realtime issues and questions within nonfiction studies. (For instance, Derek Hinckley’s Riff on Alison Bechdel appears in our first issue—and Bechdel just won a MacArthur Genius Grant.) To take advantage of these opportunities, we are launching several between-the-issues initiatives, one of which is a dedicated series of guest posts to our blog. Karen Craigo’s guest pedagogy post, on the ethics of teaching your own work, is a good example of what we’re going to be looking for.

Another between-the-issues initiative we’re excited about is our In the Classroom project, and we’re looking to compile pedagogy resources, available to anyone teaching nonfiction, from creative writing to journalism to literature to rhetoric. We are also seeking syllabi for courses in creative writing pedagogy (we are going to be most interested in those geared toward nonfiction, but multi-genre courses are acceptable). We want this to be a community resource, to start and sustain conversations about what we’re doing in the classroom.

Being online gives us a platform to engage with each other in ways that traditional paper does not—though I did not want to lose the link to paper, so we include printable PDFS with each piece we publish. While there’s no way to track how many people read a particular work printed on a book’s page, I can see exactly how many hits a particular page gets and know that 300+ people have read Wendy Fontaine’s article on the neuroscience of memory and its effects on memoir. Ned Stuckey-French’s terrific essay-on-the-essay has (as of this posting) received more than 1800 hits, according to Google Analytics.

So, welcome to the first issue of Assay! We’re very excited about the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices, from traditional literary scholarship to looser forms, from interviews to pedagogy. Submissions are open for the spring issue, which will go live on March 1st, 2015, and there are a lot of truly exciting submissions coming in already—and we hope that you will add us to your list of publishing venues, for yourself as well as for your students. Forward us to colleagues in your department outside of creative writing, whoever might be teaching nonfiction texts. We’re looking for representations that come out of ethnic literature courses, critical theory courses, and other sources of conversations we should all be a part of. If you have a great class discussion, write it up for Assay (or suggest to a student that s/he do so). While we don’t have a firm submissions deadline for the spring issue, January 1st is a good benchmark.

In the meantime, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to the magazine on the website. Feel free to let us know what you’d like to see in future issues, how we can better serve your work as a writer and reader, as teachers and students.

So the Was Turns to Is

September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:

So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch

Lynette D'Amico

Lynette D’Amico

When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.

My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of  Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.

I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.

Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”

I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:

“The impossibility that she is dead.”

“How impossible it is that she is dead.”

“It is impossible that she is dead.”

“The impossibility of her dead.”

I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.

Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.

In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:

…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.

In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?

___

Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for howlround.com.

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