A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Obsessive Compulsive

April 17, 2014 § 3 Comments

A guest post from Alexis Paige:

beretAs a teenager when I thought “writer,” I imagined berets, rooms wispy with smoke, lithe fingers craned over typewriters, and international intrigue. Someone might have told me then that I was mixing up writer with spy. Someone might have told me it would never again be Paris in the 1920s. That it was 1991 in America and women wore absurd shoulder pads (like lipsticked linebackers), Bel Biv Devoe had not one, but two, hit songs on the radio, and every time I flipped on the news a fem-bot was talking about Clarence Thomas and pubic hair. My stand-out success as a writer had been a paper on Jane Eyre that my AP Women’s Studies teacher mimeographed and passed around to the class, and which I wrote the night before it was due. Under extreme duress.

Surely I had an undiagnosed mental disorder, for I could not simply sit down with one clean sheet of paper and write out a tidy, alpha-numeric outline and then follow said outline as I typed merrily for a reasonable window of time and during which I did not chew pens or sit in various weird bird postures in my chair. As I began the paper (if began is the right word for spending an hour choosing which notebook or journal to write it in, and another looking up mental disorders in the encyclopedia), I tore out sheet after sheet of the same bumbling intro paragraph. The discarded sheets littered the floor around my chair, next to an exploded pen, a thesaurus, and class notes that were written in two separate notebooks and in the margins of various vocabulary handouts. Perhaps I kept my feet up in the chair because the mounting paperwork felt like circling sharks, the floor like dangerous waters.

I radiated pride (and fake humbleness) as the teacher handed out my star paper, throughout which I had parroted the prior week’s vocab words (ignominy, bildungsroman, Byronic hero), but other than this one glittering paper, I had no reason to believe I could be a writer. I resisted writing, for one. I was undisciplined, only got in the chair once the conditions became so dire that I was like a NORAD analyst pulling the overnight shift. Yes, I was a strong student and loved to read, but my research papers were hopelessly disorganized, my arguments muddied, and I had written only a few short stories, bad Mother’s Day “poetry,” and some clever mix-tape titles. The short stories all starred “Alex,” a bumbling, suburban white girl who jogged by one “Sean O’Henry’s” house incessantly, and who spent untold hours listening to Prince tracks while making prank phone calls from the mission control center of her best friend’s bedroom. At the time, I thought fiction meant changing people’s names but leaving the soundtrack intact.

Further, I was so averse to clutter and paperwork that instead of writing phone messages for the priest at the church where I worked afterschool (Our Lady of Teenaged Hormone Repression, I believe it was called), I just memorized the names and numbers of the callers. Even if I could find the pink tablet on which I was supposed to take the messages, beneath the Hoarders-esque piles, I wouldn’t have written them down and added to the mess. (Almost no one called anyway, except Father Tom from our sister parish across town, The Virgin Mary’s Cherry, or Sister Deirdre from CCD, the Catholic education program we just called Central City Dump.) Father Joe would poke his head in to the office, and I would say, “So and so called,” and he would nod through the dust motes and slouch away into the caverns of the rectory. And then I would call around to all the girlfriends I had left only hours earlier at the end-of-sixth-period bell, to bitch about the clutter and speculate on the movements of one Sean O’Henry. Years later when I worked at a law office (as a FILE CLERK), the records room gave me the vapors, with its groaning cabinets and files like disembowelment wounds. Ghastly.

downloadThe point is somewhere in my heady staggering toward becoming a writer, I overlooked a central necessity: paperwork. Literal reams. Triplicate backups of printer cartridges. Piles of papers stacked all over your apartment that, despite how neatly arranged, yip and swipe at your attention constantly. Sticky notes written in semi-conscious cursive unintelligible the morning after. Stacks of books: the I-can’t-believe-you-never-read-X-stack; the stack to understand the how-can-you-never-have-read-X stack; the hopeless-bourgeois-climber stack; the stack to escape from the seriously-you’ve-never-read-X-and-call-yourself-an-intellectual stack; and finally, the books on your bedside table, the your-mother-doesn’t-even-love-you-lullabies-for-self-esteem stack.

So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when the wheels fell off of my already tenuous sanity last week as I found myself searching for notes on a scene that I had written, oh some time fall? winter?, and which suddenly seemed urgent. This was the scene that was going to crack open my book. This was the Kafka ice axe scene, which had emerged brilliant and fully formed one morning while I inhaled a muffin and prepped for teaching an 8 AM composition class. Naturally, I marked its arrival on a sticky note and stuffed it in the back of whatever book I happened to be reading in fall? winter? The sticky/ scrap note situation in my life is dire, and don’t even get me started on the dust motes.

But even worse is the situation on my laptop, with its too-many and probably-redundant files of essays, memoir, and what-have-you. (It’s an emerging genre, okay? It’s an offshoot of flash transcription, okay?!) There are no fewer than I-have-no-fucking-idea-but-prolly-at-least-a-dozen drafts of my memoir-in-progress saved on my desktop and on various thumb drives, all with increasingly hysterical names:








and, finally, 2014KILLYOURSELF.doc.

So how can a writer manage all the minutiae and paperwork?

The hell if I know.

I wish I had some practical advice that would change your writing life—the 12 habits of highly productive people, the writerly equivalent of the perfect t-shirt fold, some filing system, a clever mnemonic. But I still have my oak tag journals from second grade. I still have every school notebook, every diary, every boozy journal I ever wrote in—all stuffed in one grandmotherly valise, which I only call a valise because everything sounds better in French. And for drafting I use what can only be called the Hot Mess Method.

My best advice?

Accept the hot mess, make tidy stacks once in a while, chew as many pens as you need to, write anyway.

Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program

On Writing, Survival, and Empowerment

April 16, 2014 § 5 Comments

Our managing editor, Sarah Einstein, sits down with fellow graduate student Kelly Sundberg to discuss her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” which appeared in the April 1st edition of Guernica Online. “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is a lovely, very intimate portrait of Sundberg’s marriage to an abusive man and the mixture of love and fear that made up her experience:

Sarah:  The essay has gotten quite a response, particularly on MetaFilter, where it’s currently ranked the second most popular post of the week and has nearly 200 comments. Many of these responses are from women sharing their own stories. Can you talk a little bit about how this essay and your blog Apology Not Acceptedwhich also talks about surviving an abusive marriage, have impacted how you feel about both your experience and also about what it means to write publicly about that experience?


Kelly Sundberg

I started writing publicly as a response to what I felt was a lack of accessible stories like mine. A few months after I left my ex-husband, I was running on a treadmill, and a pop song came on with the line “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I remember feeling a terrible sadness when I realized that I was not stronger. The platitude hadn’t worked out the way it was supposed to for me. I had compulsively searched the internet for stories about domestic violence, but much of it wasn’t recognizable to me. The authors weren’t grappling in the way that I was grappling. They weren’t angry in the way that I was angry. They weren’t grieving in the way that I was grieving. Most of the stories I read were redemptive narratives, and they glossed over what happens when someone leaves an abuser. The journey doesn’t end the day the victim leaves; it only begins. In many ways, my life grew harder in the wake of leaving the relationship. I wanted to try to write an honest account of what I was struggling with because I suspected that I wasn’t the only one. I wrote the first draft of “It Will Look Like a Sunset” while sitting in my bed after my son had gone to sleep. I wrote it in one sitting, and I was crying the entire time, but after I finished it, I slept through the night for the first time in months. I felt unbound, as though I was no longer required to keep his secrets. I was empowered after years of powerlessness. In response to my writing, many people have called me brave, but I don’t feel brave. These words were trapped inside of me, and they needed to be let out.

I wrote the blog in much the same way. The blog was a reaction to the failure of the legal system to protect me or get justice on my behalf. When his court case was egregiously mishandled (over a year after he had been arrested), I had to struggle with the same feelings of powerlessness that the abuse had caused. I learned first-hand that, when it comes to domestic violence, the problems in our legal system are endemic because the people within the system are so disillusioned that they often stop trying to help the victims. I was struggling with feelings of powerlessness and anger, and I decided to put a voice to those feelings in a public forum. I didn’t know if anyone would read the blog, but I wanted to assert my agency in that way. It turns out there was a hungry audience for this subject matter. Thousands of people have read the blog.

Sarah: I think every memoirist struggles with what to share and what to hide. It must have been a difficult decision to publish this piece and to begin speaking publicly about abuse on your blog, particularly because you still co-parent with your ex-husband. Can you talk a little bit about that decision-making process and about where you draw support for it and, perhaps, where you have encountered resistance to it?

Yes, that has been the hardest part, not because I think I’m doing anything wrong, but because people are very judgmental about mothers, and so, if they are going to choose to condemn a woman, attacking her parenting is an easy target. I think it’s important for people to realize that my son was there. He was the first witness to his father’s violence. He knows what happened. When we moved out, he told me that his predominant memory of us as a family was of “Daddy yelling, and Mommy crying.”  He was seven years old and has a memory like a steel trap. There is nothing I can do to protect him from that reality. What I can do is empower myself and empower other women to show him that abuse is never okay. I am fortunate to have many cheerleaders in my life who have encouraged me to keep writing, to keep stripping away the shame of toxic family secrets, and to move on with a life of honesty. I have strong friendships, and I have a writing group on Facebook with some of my best friends from my MFA program (including you, Sarah!) We call ourselves the Dance Fight Writing Group, and the members of that group are always my first and safest readers for any piece. They know how to give me honest feedback without ever criticizing my personal life or decisions.

Sarah: One of the things that struck me, and many readers, about the piece is that it remains clear throughout that you loved your husband and many of the descriptions of your time together could still fairly be called loving. That complexity is so difficult for writers to manage, and you’ve done it so well, that I was wondering if you could talk for a minute about the craft issues involved in creating that kind of balanced tension?

The common mantra in nonfiction is that writing shouldn’t be therapeutic; the therapy needs to come first. I think that’s generally true, but when I started writing this essay, I hadn’t worked through my issues yet. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to write the essay. I asked a friend, a poet, if he thought I should wait to write about the abuse, and he pointed out to me that I might not want to revisit those feelings later. He was right. I’m glad I started this essay when I still felt disoriented by the abuse because if I wrote this essay now, it would be very different. I don’t love my ex-husband anymore, and I don’t have as much sympathy for him—it would be difficult for me now to render the loving scenes so lovingly—so the first issue in crafting the essay was timing.

The next thing that I knew I needed to do was to segment it. The essay needed a balance of loving affection and brutality. I wanted to portray the see-saw of love/violence that is symptomatic of abusive relationships, as well as the dissociation that accompanies domestic violence. I was existing in two very different realities, and I had convinced myself that only one of those realities was authentic. A fragmented structure was the only possible way for me to write the essay.

The essay went through multiple revisions. My writing group read it, then Dinty W. Moore gave me feedback and encouraged me to add the final scenes from Idaho, and finally, Katherine Dykstra, the nonfiction editor from Guernica, took me through a heavy editing process. The original essay had some more lyrical components that didn’t fit into the revision. They were some of my favorite lines, and I miss them, but they didn’t fit within the context of the new draft. Once the lyrical components, which had been the connective tissue were gone, we actually had to cut and paste the crots in order to re-achieve that balance. It was a big task, and I’m grateful for Katie’s sharp eye and dedication to the final product.

Sarah: I know your current project is a book of linked essays entitled Demolition, and that many of the essays in it cover events during your marriage, but that the abuse is not an overt theme of the work. Could you tell us a little bit about that project, and about how you feel your public revelations about your marriage might impact the revision process, if at all?

I wrote Demolition in the three years during my MFA. When I started the book, the abuse was infrequent, and when I finished the book, the abuse was escalating, so I hadn’t even acknowledged to myself that I was being abused. Still, the essays are dominated by latent themes of violence. The title essay is an essay about a Demolition Derby that parallels the destruction going on in the arena to the destruction going on in the interpersonal relationships in the stands. The book itself is modeled after a demolition derby with three sections: The Herby Derby: Small and Volatile, The Powder Puff: Contained Violence, and The Championship Round: Everyone Wins/Everyone Loses. There is a babysitting essay with a thread where a girl role plays with her Barbie’s to show her father punching her mother. Threads of violence, like those ones, extend throughout the entire manuscript.

Even though there are no public revelations about abuse in the book, it is very much a book about loss of innocence, and so I don’t have any plans to revise it to make the abuse more explicit or acknowledged, because at the time, I didn’t think of it as abuse. If anything, I would think of my book Demolition as a perfect example of the tension-building stage in the cycle of violence. Ideally, the book will work in tandem with the project I’ve just undertaken about surviving abuse. I think they can complement each other and give a deeper, richer understanding of the experience of gender violence.

Patrick Madden visite la Tour de Montaigne!

April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Madden_MontaigneQuotidiana connoisseur Patrick Madden guest blogs on his (almost) tour of Montaigne’s Tower:

The first goal on the Madden Family European Road Trip Vacation (after my semester directing a study abroad program in Madrid) was my own pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower in the Perigord region east of Bordeaux. We arrived after a long day in the car and were surprised to find a chain blocking the entrance. Turns out the site was closed not just on Mondays, as David Lazar had warned me, but on Tuesdays as well. After a few minutes of pleading in fake French, I got to speak to the gardener, who spoke English, and who graciously led us on a tour of the grounds, including some wild- and tame-life encounters (birds, lizards, a snake, and several donkeys). I told him how I was a disciple of Montaigne, wrote my own essays, was editing a book paying homage to the master essayist. He said he wasn’t much for reading Montaigne, but he sure liked caring for the plant life around his place. Laurent’s patience and kindness were extraordinary, and as my family turned finally to leave, he gave me, a lifelong teetotaler, a bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne wine (2001 vintage). In all, it was an utterly pleasant afternoon, despite my getting so close but failing to visit the tower.

The way I figure, I can take this thwarted pilgrimage two ways. I can be disappointed, upset, what have you, or I can do like an essayist and use what really happened to my benefit. Like Alexander Smith said of Montaigne:

Each event of his past life he considers a fact of nature; creditable or the reverse, there it is; sometimes to be speculated upon, not in the least to be regretted. If it is worth nothing else, it may be made the subject of an essay

Or as Paul says (in my paraphrased appropriation):

All things work to the good of them that love the essay.

When I set out, I had hoped to see with my own eyes the inscriptions in the beams of Montaigne’s library. Sure. But had I joined a regular tour, I’d never have met Laurent. I’d have been processed through the attraction like so many glassy-eyed high-school kids. I’d have paused and examined, yes, and I’d have taken some pictures, but I did those things anyway, from outside the walls, and one of the things I considered is this:

That there’s something appropriate about being stymied in an essayistic quest, because essays were never about completing things; they distrust the very notion of tidy endings. Much better, it seems to me now, that I missed the dusty tower and instead strolled the grounds with the gardener, who, like the Great Dead Man he and I serve, contains within him the entire human condition.

And, as my friend Brent Rowland pointed out, with my Rush T-shirt on, “this is the most Pat Madden of all Pat Madden photos ever taken.” When I go back in a few decades, trying to make it in the tower, I’ll be sure to carry a volleyball for the picture, so I can out-Pat-Madden even this one.

Beyond AWP: The Benefits of Attending A Smaller Writing Conference

April 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

Creative Nonfiction magazine’s marketing associate Jennifer Stewart guest blogs on the merits of smaller, more intimate, more accessible conferences, now that the annual AWP Extravaganza packs in upwards of 13,000 writers. (Jennifer makes a more specific pitch for CNF’s own smaller conference, just a little over a month from now, on the CNF website, in an article entitled “Ten Reasons Why You Should Attend CNF’s Writers’ Conference.”)

AWP Bookfair Madness

AWP Bookfair Madness

You have bills to pay.  You have a job demanding your attention.  You have writing, of course, and never enough time to do it. Bottom line – why should you spend good money to travel somewhere else to listen to other people talk about writing?

Despite the financial cost and the travel time, going to conferences is a vital part of being a writer.  This probably isn’t new information to you, so we won’t even need to mention the usual things people say about conferences, the networking and the panels and the (occasional) open bars and the stories resulting from that open bar that you will wittily deliver to friends back home. And while you can get plenty of those experiences at a big conference like the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, which can be a delightful (if somewhat overwhelming) experience, there are myriad other writing conferences around the country, many of which can offer a more intimate and focused experience.

I would also argue that you can get more out of a smaller conference, which provides more intimacy and more face time with attendees and presenters. Likewise, smaller conferences, because of the intimacy they breed, invite more honesty, more guard-down talk about publishing, and what’s really going on.  It’s a rapidly changing environment and the role of the author in the process is expanding.  Smaller conferences are a good way to get a feel for this fluidity, and perhaps some inspiration for how you can make this dynamic work for you.

Some of these smaller conferences can be considered half conference, half writing retreat; some focus on what’s trending in publishing.  The best ones, perhaps, offer a little something of everything. Here are four good reasons to invest in a conference this year:

  1. Inspiration — Because conferences take us out of our daily lives and plunk us down in unfamiliar territory, they can be energizing, even if (sometimes perhaps especially if) you have a disagreement with a presenter, writer, or speaker.  This is energy you can translate to the page.  Some conferences even help people along by offering workshops, boot camps, or individual writing sessions.  These sessions force you to get words out, because, well, people are watching.  Writer’s block disappears when you realize you might be THAT writer, the one who couldn’t start the assignment. Which leads us to the next point:
  1. Accountability — If you go to even a few conferences, you’ll realize that this writing world, this literary world … it’s small.  That brunette you talked to at AWP last year, whose name you couldn’t remember even if a firing squad was involved?  You’re going to run into her again.  And when you do, you want to be able to say, “Yes!  I’ve written the essay I told you I was working on.”  So just in case she’s at the conference, you’ll draft that essay, so help you, you will.
  1. Camaraderie — Social media is great; of course it is. And who could live without email?  But electronics can’t compete with face-to-face interaction.  Suppose that brunette tells you about submitting to this new trendy literary magazine she found out about on Twitter.  They rejected her.  You tell her about how you submitted to a different trendy new literary magazine and your work was also rejected.  Maybe you go on to tell each other about a contest or a call for work and eventually you both get published and it would never have happened if not for (insert conference name here).  This sounds like networking, but really, that’s just a fancy way of saying, “make friends who work in your industry.”  It happens quite naturally at a conference.  And this can, perhaps, be most helpful in the agent arena.
  1. Access — You can, of course, meet agents at bigger conferences, but at a smaller conference you often get more face time with them, and you can even arrange this in advance.  Some conferences offer manuscript critiques with agents and editors, which means they read your work before they ever see you.  You are automatically off the slush pile, and you are likely to get a more thoughtful and detailed response, even if it’s still a rejection. In other words, smaller conferences offer meetings with agents that have the potential to speed up the publishing process.

We should stop thinking of attending a conference as a luxury, or as penance for being a writer.  Writing conferences do good.  They can be fun.  And perhaps most importantly, they help writers be writers.  And we need all the help we can get.

Jennifer Stewart is the founder and director of Burlesque Press, which hosts the annual Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball in New Orleans, and publishes The Burlesque Press Variety Show.  Jennifer was also the winner of the 2010 Faulkner Wisdom prize for Novel in Progress for her novel Wanton Women.

The Far Edges: Interview with Joe Wilkins

April 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre Week here on the Brevity blog. Earlier this week we posted an interview with one of the anthology’s editors, Sean Prentiss, and an excerpted chapter of the book from John Rovner. Today, in our final installment, a follow-up interview with Sean’s co-editor Joe Wilkins, conducted by Steve Coughlin.

joe wilkinsWhat are the limitations of a craft book?

JW: A craft book is by adjectival definition a book that explores a particular craft. We’re lucky in the creative writing world in that our craft is the very medium of which most books get built, so our craft books—I’m thinking here of some of my favorites: The Writing Life, The Situation and the Story, Burning Down the House—both explain and model; we get to hear about and hear how we might craft a deeper, more powerful piece of writing. All this is to say, I don’t think there are many limitations on creative writing craft books. The books I mentioned above contain chapters and sections that read like personal narratives or lyric investigations and chapters and sections that much more explicitly outline how to (or how not to) go about the craft of writing. With The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, we’ve tried to honor that tradition by gathering essays that are coming at craft from all different directions. Some, like Kim Barnes’s “The Art and Absence of Reflection in Nonfiction: What is the Why?,” are more proscriptive. Others, like Lia Purpura’s “Advice” and “On Writing ‘Advice’,” dodge and feint, attempting to spin the reader’s usual notions of craft around.

I am fascinated by the technique in nonfiction of the composite character. At what point does the combining of characters and the framing of narrative push an essay into the genre of fiction?

JW: For me, it all depends on the story. Does the frame fit the story? Does it allow the story to truly become itself? The same kinds of questions apply, I think, for composite characters or time compression or many of the other “controversial” techniques in creative nonfiction. Ander Monson, Bob Shacochis, Nancer Ballard, H. Lee Barnes, Erik Reece, and other writers included in The Far Edges speak not exactly to but through these questions, helping us as writers fixate not on the controversy but on the fundamental reasons—from nonfiction as translation to nonfiction as a unique space of literary witness—we might choose to write true stories the way we do.

As nonfiction continues to experience more innovation, do you have any concerns or reservations of form taking precedent over content?

JW: I don’t mean to be glib, but I’ll just say, nope. Think about a sonnet or an epistolary novel: the form doesn’t take precedence over or constrict—it allows. Though as creative nonfiction writers we do have the obligation to toe the line of truth as best we can (though I’d argue that obligation, too, is a kind of form that allows rather than constricts), I think the vast and varied forms we’re seeing in contemporary memoirs and essays are fascinating and exciting—and, very often, true.

Prentiss_Wilkins.inddWhat obligations do writers have in acknowledging verifiable truth versus what is often referred to as personal truth?

JW: Okay, this is my assignment answer: go read Robin Hemley’s “Lines That Create Motion,” Sean Prentiss’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Nonfiction Mind: A New Philosophy for Understanding Truth and Creative Nonfiction,” and Judith Kitchen’s “Gone A-Sailing: A Voyage to the Edge of Nonfiction (in which I Follow My Own Exercise for Writing about a Photograph),” all of which are included in The Far Edges, and report back to me.

What excites you most about the future of nonfiction?

JW: Last semester, in my literary nonfiction class, one of my students wrote a smart, challenging, heartbreaking essay partially built around standardized test questions she’d invented. My student is of Native Hawaiian and white ancestry, and with her essay she really got a hold of so many powerful questions: Who am I? Who are my people? Where do I belong? That essay excited me, as did so many others I read in that class, as have many of the memoirs and essays I’ve read in the past year. Nonfiction is simply at an exciting moment in its history. All kinds of powerful stories are being told in all kinds of striking ways.

Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.




The Far Edges: A Story About a Girl

April 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

In an excerpt from the recently released The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, Jonathan Rovner ponders what creative nonfiction writers can do when our reality “becomes not just somewhat, but remarkably nondramatic? What happens when the conduits through which our emotions flow seem frivolous and somehow beneath mention among civilized people?”(Our “Far Edges Week” interview with co-editor Sean Prentiss ran on the blog yesterday.)


vertI watched Vertigo in college, because I was in college and it was the sort of film you were supposed to watch. I liked it well enough and promptly forgot all about it. But for whatever reason, the film has recently resurfaced from the morass in my brain where old movies go to die, and so one night I biked down to retrieve a copy from the nearest locally owned video store (that is, I streamed it on Netflix). As you may know, it’s a very weird movie. At its heart is Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak, which isn’t much of a mystery if you’ve ever seen Kim Novak. But I found myself marveling at the cinematic crispness of Stewart’s obsession. Here he is trailing her to an old Spanish mission, and an art museum, and San Francisco Bay. Eventually the two of them fling body against body against the moody wet backdrop of a redwood forest. Oh, sweet release.

But it was the quieter moments that drew me in: Stewart tailing her in his car, or awkwardly interrogating the owner of an apartment house. The potential dangers behind every door, the frantic dread of losing Novak in traffic or the cold indifferent waters of the Bay. And studying Stewart’s face—pallid and sweaty, creased with hope and anticipation and fear—I realized that I’d had those same feelings not so long ago, but my obsession didn’t look anything like his. It didn’t look like much of anything.

I envy his obsession, the narrative satisfaction of it. But it’s 2012. It’s hard to get there from here.

So this is a story about a girl, and of course any time a guy says that it’s a dead giveaway that it’s really about him. Okay, it’s about me. You know my name, and I’m not going to tell you hers. But I’ve come to detest bland pseudonyms. If you’ve got a story about a girl named Lara and change her name to Anne, what’s the point? You may as well go all out. This is my story about Ms. Clarissa Applesauce.

Some background: In the fall of 2008, I moved from Denver to Eastern Kentucky to take a job teaching English at a small university that will go unnamed. Due to the particulars of regional heritage (whatever that means), Nom de Guerre, KY was in no sense a College Town. It was, rather, a typically sad rural town that happened to have a university within its city limits. I took a small studio apartment just off of Mainstreet—a block of mostly empty stores kept that way by the two families who had owned it for decades and were determined to keep the 21st Century (and much of the 20th) from intruding upon the bucolic calm of their Appalachian paradise. I lived across the lot from Mainstreet’s most lucrative business: a drive-thru liquor store that opened at 7AM and did a brisk business with the early risers.

And thus did I find myself marooned in a foreign land far from home, and it seemed the perfect time to embrace my inner ascetic, that contemplative monk I’d always sensed dwelling deep in my chest who would only come into his own if forcibly divorced from the din of constant and easily accessible stimuli. I would live, if not like Thoreau, at least like my literary heroes from the Twenties. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nate West, John Fante—whatever their faults, none of them had to endure the ignominy of finding themselves clicking mindlessly on a link entitled “Keira Knightley Goes Shopping.”

So I declared my life television and Internet free. I had my music, my books. In this grand fantasy, I saw myself hunched over in my walk-in closet of an apartment reading Proust and Tolstoy, maybe even Finnegan’s Wake. Why not? We all know one hour of unperturbed silence has as many minutes as three or four hours of random Internet puttering or stupefied television viewing. Come Eastern Kentucky or high water, I too would live deliberately.

In retrospect, I view this experiment as a scientific one: can a man survive for an entire year feeding on nothing but delusion?

Because, of course, once stimuli were gone, I missed them terribly. Whatever the ultimate benefits might be of plodding through Remembrance of Things Past, they in no way could compete with the free and depressive clarity of clicking from website to website, seeking something, anything, to temporarily distract my brain. My daily routine went like this: teach in classroom, hang out in office with the magical “Internet” that existed there, come home to throw oneself down on bed or floor. Either nap or stare at ceiling. Eat. Return to office till midnight, drown self in Internet. Reflect on life. Contemplate buying volleyball to talk to. Without a scintilla of evidence to the contrary, pretend tomorrow will be different.

Tomorrow: repeat today.

I lived like this for nine months. But then (cue upbeat hopeful emo song), I met a girl—the aforementioned Ms. Applesauce. I struck up a conversation in Nom de Guerre’s only coffee shop, which was actually a small alcove off the town’s only bookstore. She was reading Slaughterhouse-Five. In what can only be described as my smoothest pick-up line ever, I asked her if she liked it. She referred to it as a great “cuddle-buddy.” I still have no idea what this means. But conversation ensued and numbers were exchanged and we planned to meet for a drink a few days later.

I was a new man, and spent those intervening days in a whirl-a-gig of euphoria. I walked up and down the bombed-out streets of Nom de Guerre dreaming of all the adventures that awaited us—road trips to Nashville and Asheville, star-spangled nights camping out in the Smoky Mountains or romping through the cheap tourist paradise that is Gatlinburg, TN.

These flights of fancy were ridiculous, but they sure beat lying on the floor counting the speckles in the ceiling.

I suppose I could draw out our first (and, spoiler alert, only date, paint a colorful scene and detail the social anxieties and social cues and social etceteras. But let’s not. The bare bones go like this:

1. She brought three friends. They talked in a closed-circuit about people I’d never met and events I hadn’t attended.

2. Besides her friends, she knew about 78% of the other patrons. (If you were born in Eastern Kentucky, it’s apparently impossible not to know at least 2/3rd of the people in any given room.) They swallowed her up.

3. She got really drunk. I got regular drunk.

4. I sat alone at the bar—oh, glorious cliché—for god knows how long and eventually watched her staggering out of the bar with her friends.

5. I walked home.

Cue sad hopeless emo song.

End of story.

Except it wasn’t.

That night was only a prelude to the real story, which began the next day when she sent what I’ll refer to as E-mail#1. She apologized profusely, told me she was fresh from an abusive relationship. The abuser had been her fiancée. They’d set a date and everything.

I wrote back something heartfelt and dripping with empathy. I’m pretty sure I included that James Wright poem about wishing words were grass. Thus began our electronic correspondence. She told me she was no good at this; she was shy and nervous. She needed to go slow.

Sure, I said.

I returned to Colorado for the summer. We “talked” via e-mail and text message. I wore out the buttons on my phone crafting exquisitely edited texts. I drafted e-mails, printed them out, and sat outside on my brother’s porch late into the night revising until they were just right. I gently pushed for a phone call, but she had a thing about talking on the phone.  It was too…immediate. Too close. Uncontrolled.

Sure, I said.

And of course it was weird, and unorthodox. But those adjectives are right up my alley. Who wants a non-weird orthodox girlfriend?

She convinced me to join Facebook, which up till then I’d successfully avoided on the basis of some vague, hard-to-explain principle. Sort of like the Indians who feared cameras could flash away their souls. But I was in the long grass now, and I guiltily clicked on her photos and Older Posts. My mother had taught me from a very young age not to be the kind of person who rifles through people’s drawers when they’re not home. But this was a new kind of house—windows wide open, not a locked door in sight. Or like a diary left open on the coffee table, adorned with a post-it note that screamed READ ME!

So I did.

I pondered every male face for hints—which one of these yokels was her erstwhile fiancée? Which were potential suitors? I took mental notes of her likes and dislikes, which didn’t disappoint. She liked The Godfather and David Bowie in Labyrinth. She loved Bob Dylan and obscure underground bands I’d never heard of. If my friends had invented a girl to torment me, they couldn’t have done much better.

And still came the e-mails and text messages—every day, every other day. She’d text me when she was tromping through the mud on her parents’ stamp of eastern Kentucky soil; she’d text me when she had a nightmare. She sent YouTube links to songs, snippets of philosophy. I studied her e-mails and texts as though I could uncover hidden nuance and meaning—the lonely kabbalist at work. They couldn’t just be words. Too much was riding on this. “Too much,” naturally, being the omnipresent fear of another year of wretched Appalachian solitude.

We made plans to meet again when I returned to Kentucky in August.

August came. E-mail#58 (all numbers are approximate) made plans to meet for a hike. Two days later, Text#2,144 introduced a reason to delay. I would hear nothing for a week, then be greeted one fine morn by an e-mail explaining that some minor catastrophe—ex-boyfriend drama, sick grandfathers, the weather—was to blame. And we’d start over.

I grew impatient and ever more confused with her excuses, which were legion and rarely creative. My only excuse, presumably, was desperation. To be fair, I was desperate. But also intrigued. She was smart, and interesting, and damaged in some irresistible Sylvia Plath (or, if you will, Fiona Apple) way that fed my admittedly naive Savior fantasies. This was 2009, remember—a time of hope. I was the change she’d been waiting for.

Each new message was the proverbial shot of adrenaline straight into my atrophied heart. When two or three days passed without hearing from her, I grew restless and sunk. I’d send a text, and wait. Then a follow-up text. And wait. I’d send an e-mail, and wait. And wait.

She seemed to have an otherworldly ability to gauge my level of frustration. As soon as I was ready to completely and irrevocably be rid of her there would come the familiar Pavlovian vibrating beep of a new text message to just-barely renew my battered hopes.

Parry, thrust.

Step forward, step back. Make plans and break them.

This went on for over a year.

Let’s not draw this sad story out any longer. But rest assured that I didn’t quit Facebook the first time I tried. And I couldn’t quit her. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but more than that, it felt like I was being jerked to and fro by a girl and a relationship that didn’t even exist. An unhealthy relationship I could handle, because at least it would pass the time. But this was metaphysical humiliation. If a normal face-to-face relationship is a simple (or even not-so-simple) math equation, then this was some abstruse mathematical proof full of symbols you’ve never seen before. Or else pure gibberish.

I’d erase her e-mails and texts, and resolutely tell myself not to contact her or respond when she, with the painful regularity of an iTunes service agreement, butted her electronic head back into my life. My resolve would crumble as soon as my phone started to buzz or I’d see her name pop up in the e-mail tag.

I don’t know what else to call it, if not an obsession. I don’t think Jimmy Stewart had anything on me. But I couldn’t explain it to my friends, or hardly to myself. The fact that it was playing out on a virtual stage was beyond humiliating. There was no “there” here. I rebuked myself for feelings that weren’t “real”—how could they be? Real things happened in the real world, a place of trees and tables and sidewalks and sticky barroom floors. This was happening exactly nowhere.

Eventually she just stopped. Eventually I moved on. But what this odd not-love affair from an odd time in my life spurred me into thinking is this: so much of life today—its victories, defeats, confusions—now comes to us in ways that seem tremendously uninteresting. Even if I filled the long spaces between texts and e-mails with local color (and eastern KY has plenty of that), it wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that this massive and consuming event in my life was taking place on a stage bereft of what we would traditionally consider tension and drama. I was sitting in my office checking my e-mail, or sleepwalking through my days until my phone buzzed with an incoming text. Pathetic might be a word I’d use, but dramatic it was not. Nor was it evocative, or resonant, or any of the other chipper workshop words we use to describe effective prose.

The great premise and promise of creative nonfiction is that—regardless of a few minor costume changes—these things are True. They happened to us, and they matter. But they also have to be interesting. What happens when our reality becomes not just somewhat, but remarkably nondramatic? What happens when the conduits through which our emotions flow seem frivolous and somehow beneath mention among civilized people?

Beneath us they may be, but they’re still here. And they won’t be going away anytime soon.

In the first act of Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart trails Kim Novak to the art gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. We get the establishing shot: Ionic and Corinthian columns and a Roman arch. Very classical, very classy. Inside, Stewart squints at Novak, who sits prim and stiff on a bench and gazes up at a painting. A bouquet of pink flowers lay beside her. She wears a cold grey dress-suit. Stewart strolls behind her in his gangly way, in his ill-fitting brown suit, with his furtive glances. He holds his brown fedora loosely with both hands. Novak’s hair is pulled back in a coiled French twist. The background music works to heighten the sense of thick museum silence.

No words are spoken. No words need to be spoken. And though Vertigo is, obviously, a work of visual fiction, that scene plays out in countless iterations countless times a day, in public spaces all over the world. A man looking at a woman. Deep feeling— lust, heartache, trepidation, hesitation, irritation—conveyed through fleeting glimpses and body language. No direct dialogue is necessary.

Clarissa Applesauce and I had words; it was all we had. Words sent to one another through the ether, through broadband and wifi. Words that presented themselves out of a void. Words without accompaniment, without context or environment to inform or enrich them. Words, words, words. The transcripts would total hundreds of pages, but they wouldn’t add up to anything approaching a compelling or enticing narrative.

Give me a rider on horseback passing love letters from one end of town to the other. Certainly I’ll paint you the local color: trees in full bloom or autumn rags, the wind through the rider’s hair or rain slanting violently down. The breathless gallop of the horse. But I’ll also give you the clanging of the bell announcing his arrival, the sky behind him as he stands framed in the doorway, his outfit, awkward greetings and pleasantries, the passing of the letter, the tactile feel of unfolding the envelope, a sense of the handwriting.

We’re worlds away from that, of course. But even a phone call has its awkward pauses, stumbles, tonal shifts, accusations, affirmations, endearments, silences, frantic pleas, or the jerky breathlessness of pacing around a room. I can do that. And I can do the meeting of eyes across a crowded party, all gestures and posturing; or a walk through the park; or even the quick freighted brush of knee against knee beneath the table in a pizza parlor or coffee shop.

But in the end, I haven’t the slightest idea how to write in full dramatic flourish of the highs and lows of my virtual Appalachian romance. And though I’ve since engaged in more traditional, “normal” (not to mention healthy) relationships, even these couldn’t be honestly rendered without the ways in which emotion in this second decade of the new millennium is bound up irrevocably with communication systems that didn’t exist a generation ago. A fun first-date is validated with a text good night, or a friendly e-mail the next day. Burgeoning relationships are punctuated with flirty and affectionate electronic missives, many of them containing grammar mistakes, truncated words, fatuous emoticons. Fights play out through the same satellites and wires. Who wants to read about that? And who wants to write about it?

As far as I can tell, the answer is no one. The answer for most writers is to hit the IGNORE key. Which may be a feasible option, I suppose, for writers of fiction. Just pretend it doesn’t exist in our lives. Create a fantasyland where the characters act like it’s still 1992. Pretend, as they do on television, that drivers and passersby and coffee shop patrons aren’t all acting as though they have advanced OCD, or like addicts who can’t go five full minutes without chasing the virtual dragon. This is the new normal. This is how we live.

Of course, not every event in our lives needs documenting. I’ve never felt cheated when a memoir doesn’t take bathroom breaks. But this omission feels different. We are engaged in a deliberate bout of wishful thinking, an almost childish game of “Let’s pretend.” Most people I know under forty (and that’s most people I know) dive into the Internet first thing in the morning. Even my friends who pride themselves on their hyperactive lifestyles—bouldering, skiing, rafting dangerous rapids—will plug back in as soon as they’ve finished their play-date with nature, and still spend significant hours of their days in front of a laptop or hunched over the computer that lives in their phone.

Significant is the operative word. Shouldn’t these modes of communication be recognized for the multifarious and important functions they serve in our lives? Can they be, in any way, interesting? And if our creative nonfiction can’t find a way to integrate this great and/or sad truth about how we spend our days, what does that say about our craft? Maybe we’re just fiction writers in disguise, sweeping under the rug what we find distasteful or shallow or boring about modern life in order to tell those truths that we find more elevated, more heightened, less embarrassing. Just reach for the preordained grace notes. Follow the old script. Aim for the same rote moment of clarity or flash of insight. One more tired epiphany on top of a mountain.

And to be honest, if I encountered a character in an essay or memoir who spent a significant portion of his days checking e-mail and reading texts—who acted as many of us act—I would almost certainly laugh. How preposterous he seems, grasping after his silly gadgets. A caricature, really. A flat one-note joke.

I don’t have a solution to this problem.

I read somewhere that one of many reasons The Simpsons is considered such a landmark achievement is because it was the first show to portray a family doing what families had been doing for decades: lounging around and watching TV. But that’s satire. It’s comedy. And while I might be able to successfully render my “unreal” relationship with Clarissa as pure farce, it wouldn’t be True. Maybe it was a farce of sorts, this connection built on clipped text messages and sitting alone in rooms at my computer waiting, waiting—god, the waiting!—for the next thrust of virtual contact, but there was also passion and anxiety and hope and desperation and secret sharing between two damaged souls.

And none of it was funny.

*                                  *                                  *

As a postscript, I should probably mention that I received an e-mail from Clarissa about a year ago. She was attending vet school on an island in the West Indies. She just wanted me to know, she wrote. She described how it felt to drift off to sleep at night listening to the ocean, to wake up listening to the ocean, to walk barefoot on the white sands near the ocean. All that crap.

I composed my response as concisely as possible: Glad to hear it. Be well. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop there. What was the point? I asked her. Was there a point? Did any of it mean anything?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I really needed to know.

She got back to me in less than an hour. I wrote all about it in my diary, she said. I don’t want to re-write it all. Send me your address and I’ll send the pages.

I doubt I can successfully convey just how gratifying was the promise of a tangible letter. I might never see her again, but answers were coming. The pages, either heavily-bonded and fancy or thin and cheap, would be torn, neatly or in haste, from a diary bought at some high-end craft store or maybe Wal-Mart. The pages would be covered in tidy printed script or cramped cursive, written with ink from a pen she had received as a gift or maybe cribbed from a motel. A pen she had actually held in her small and almost chubby hands, which I remember being oddly and cutely out of proportion to her thin frame. The pages would come in an envelope she’d sealed with her own spit, the lipped fold of the envelope pressed shut with the tip of her finger. The letter would travel physically from an island halfway across the world. It would pass through the hands of uncaring strangers. One day, jetlagged and road-weary, this letter would arrive in my curbside mailbox. I would separate it out from bills and coupons. I would hold it in my hands.

Anyway. I’m still waiting.

Jonathan Rovner learned to write at Walnut Hills Elementary, just south of Denver, Colorado.  His work has recently appeared in the Indiana Review, Wag’s Revue, and the 2013 Best of the Net Anthology.

The Far Edges: Interview with Sean Prentiss

April 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

Sean Prentiss

Sean Prentiss

An interview with Sean Prentiss, one of the editors of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, a new anthology of craft essays published by Michigan State University Press. Steve Coughlin interviews Prentiss on his motivation for putting The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre together and his thoughts on what to expect as this genre continues to expand and be redefined:

Where did you come up with this idea and how does it differ from other creative nonfiction anthologies?

SP: When I was in graduate school at the University of Idaho in 2006, I loved the discussions about creative nonfiction that we’d have in Mary Clearman Blew’s Techniques of Creative Nonfiction. But it often seemed as if it was just our class talking to ourselves, we were dancing in tight circles. There was no larger conversation going on that we could be a part of. There were no articles written about the pedagogy of creative nonfiction that we were aware of. So we had nothing to push us further into a discussion on what creative nonfiction is or where it could go or how it could challenge itself.

That void made me want to find the splintered conversations going on in classrooms and bars and conferences and bring them together in a collection that creative nonfiction writers could gather around and join in with.

And what we were going for here is to find the newest conversations, the ones farthest away from the center. So our writers do not wrestle often with the more traditional ideas. Instead, they linger of the edges.

What are some of the important conversations The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre explores and why are these conversations important in a larger context?

Prentiss_Wilkins.inddSP: Our authors explore a wide range of conversations, which is one of the fun things about this anthology. It meanders across and deeper into so much of creative nonfiction. Mary Clearman Blew leads us into her entry into creative nonfiction, which allows us to see how our view of creative nonfiction has evolved in the few decades since creative nonfiction has been taught on campuses. Brenda Miller, Ander Monson, and Jon Rovner all look at how technology affects creative nonfiction. Nancer Ballard and Bob Shacochis examine the use of time in creative nonfiction. Erik Reece writes about the need to bear witness in our writings. Lee Barnes, Joe Wilkins, and I delve into different corners of memory. And Kim Barnes and Brevity‘s Dinty W. Moore examine why we write and how to boil that reason to the surface of our writings.

These conversations are important because they allow writers more space to play, more styles to write within, more borders to explore, more questions to ask, more answers to contemplate.

How could this anthology supplement the classroom experience for creative writing students?

SP: When I taught senior level creative nonfiction classes, I often had to piece together readings for my students. I kept looking for a single text that advanced students (seniors or grad students) could read that would create a semester’s worth of dialog on creative nonfiction and re-shape how they write creative nonfiction. So this book is designed to fill that niche.

Judith Kitchen offers an essay that is also a writing prompt on speculation. Robin Hemley teaches us about interpreting life. Joy Castro shares her beautifully written essay, “Grip,” and then she explains how and why she wrote “Grip.” So the reader gets an insider’s view of writing, gets to live in the mind of the writer.

How has creative nonfiction evolved over the last few years and what directions do you anticipate it going in the future?

SP: It has moved away from memoir told chronologically, which is what we studied a lot in grad school. Back then, creative nonfiction felt as if it was static, as if there was little room to explore. You started at the beginning of your story and created scenes that carried you to the end.

But that has been blown apart. We have so many experimental slivers of creative nonfiction popping up. The lyrical style that Lia Purpura writes about in her essay “Advice and on Writing ‘Advice.’” The use of translation of a life that Hemley writes about really explodes biography. The heavy use of speculation to arrive at truth that Kitchen delves into. The research heavy essay that Nancer explores. The mythologies of memory that Lee Barnes writes about.

What excites you most about creative nonfiction? What are some potential concerns you have for the genre?

SP: I am excited for the growth within creative nonfiction. There is so much room for so many styles of writers. And that didn’t always seem to be the case.

I’m excited about the new discussions going on in the other anthologies and in magazines and lit journals, all the new pedagogical ideas being discussed. It’s as if we are watching creative nonfiction transform from a teenager to an adult. Individually, I’m excited for our discussions on memory and truth.

I have no concerns about creative nonfiction. I have had plenty of arguments with friends about creative nonfiction—what it is, what it can do, and where it should go. At the end of those debates, I might not agree with my friends’ ideas. But I love the space these disagreements allow. These spaces allow for new styles of creative nonfiction and new ideas on what creative nonfiction is and where it can grow.

Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.


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