June 17, 2016 § 26 Comments
By Shelley Blanton-Stroud
I fidgeted in the lobby of an arty Louisville hotel, waiting for the limousine that would take me on an eight-hour bourbon distillery ride, beginning at Buffalo Trace, maker of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.
Though my maiden name is Blanton, I’ve no evidence of relation to old-timey master distiller Albert Bacon Blanton. But I come from Dust Bowl Okies who beat it out of Texas for Bakersfield. And they had outlaw ancestors who beat it out of Kentucky for Texas. So I’d come to believe Albert’s 93-proof blood ran through my veins.
(This, in spite of my being the type of person who mixes her Blanton’s with sweet Vermouth, bitters, Luxardo cherries, and a drizzle of cherry syrup and serves it in a darling vintage glass. Obviously, straight-drinking Albert would have reason beyond DNA to deny me from on high.)
While I waited for the driver, I wrote a bitter journal entry about how I hated the novel I’d begun writing three years before, at age fifty-one, which was stupidly late to start, I thought. Fifty-one’s not when you learn to be a writer. Fifty-one’s when you investigate collagen therapy and fecal implants.
Mostly I hated my obsessive-compulsive process, like I was some rough-drafting Sarah Winchester, forever building crazy rooms in a mystery house no one but me would live in.
My husband would nudge me. “Almost done yet?”
“Soon,” I’d say.
Friends didn’t ask, assuming I’d quit some time back in the awkward years since I’d pronounced—ta-da!—that I was writing. Their radio silence annoyed me too.
It wasn’t just non-writers who made me defensive. I’d been to conferences where nubile stripper/MFAs described the intoxication of writing fast, loose, organic, making me feel even worse about my remedial, doltish process. Making me feel sober, teetotalling.
“Plodder!” I wrote in my journal. “If the novel doesn’t happen naturally, without all this middle-class, middle-management methodology, it isn’t worth writing at all.”
I was ready to burn it.
Then my black-suited driver, sweaty from the Louisville sidewalk, opened the lobby door and said in a Southern baritone, “You’re gonna learn a lot today, little lady.”
Eyes were rolled.
An hour later, a sixty-something tour guide in a snug black tee led a couple dozen of us between two hundred-year-old stone and brick buildings, telling the Blanton’s story in a voice scarred by smoke.
She said first they mash corn, rye and malted barley with Kentucky water that has passed so slowly through limestone that all the earth’s bitter iron taste is gone. Then they add yeast and mash from a previous batch—sour mash—and wait for it to ferment.
I took nine months to research my novel’s depression-era period (books, photographs, newspapers), place (the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, south-of-Market San Francisco, a Berkeley hillside), artifacts (tractors, jitneys, printing presses), sounds (Panhandle dialect, swing-slang, hobo tunes). Mashed it up with family lore, watched it bubble.
They distill the fermented mash, she said, in a column still and then a pot-still, turning the mash into pure spirit, which they call white dog.
Then I wrote fast, once-through. What would be ruined when my main character exploded? What would be left in the rubble? What was the story about?
She said they move the distilled white dog to newly charred Kentucky oak barrels, which give it color and flavor from the caramelized sugar in the char. It sits in one barrel for nine years, each barrel particular, reflecting the sun, soil, slope, where the wood has grown.
I slowed then to get a tomato leaf’s piney stickiness, the proper clink of falling lead matrices, the salty flavor of a wrong kiss. Things like that.
My tour guide said Blanton’s is only aged in the metal-clad Warehouse H, which transfers heat more quickly than brick, aging spirit faster, so it soaks deep into the oak in daytime, and retreats in cooler evenings. It sits farthest from the Kentucky River, causing great temperature swings. They only take Blanton’s from the middle section of Warehouse H. “Location matters,” she said. “Materials matter.”
I wrote in specific places—the Palace Hotel’s Pied Piper Bar, the edge of a Central Valley field, wet with irrigation, the window seat of a Victorian flat, a worn kitchen table, biscuits baking. With specific tools—unlined, nine by fourteen, Kraft Brown Moleskins, with blue and green Uniball pens. On a desktop, laptop, iPad, in Times New Roman, Arial. As a Word, Scrivener, PDF, Notability document. With a stylus.
In and around Warehouse H, I was overtaken by the smell of orange peel, vanilla, caramel—”the angel’s share,” the tour guide said, the water that evaporates from all those barrels over all that time, so that when it’s done aging each barrel has lost 30% of its volume to the air. It’s intoxicating, what is lost. Almost no bourbon drinker in the world will ever inhale, much less taste, that angel’s share.
I cut thousands of words, cut my family’s facts, its myths. They dissipated, un-tasted, because the story didn’t want them.
Then they withdraw the bourbon by hand, filter and dilute it with more Kentucky water, evening out roughness before bottling.
The voice is still erratic, sometimes emotional, sometimes stoic, not yet itself, the girl still fragmented, in need of smoothing.
“Nine years,” the tour guide said. “That’s how you make a single-barrel bourbon.”
I tasted it. Burnt sugar, caramel, orange, spicy cloves—honey on rust.
What I wanted my book to be.
The tour guide relaxed onto a bench, angel’s share wafting off her clothes and gray-streaked hair, sweet, citrus, bitter. She’s an interesting person, I thought.
“Albert made the single barrel just for himself,” she said. “Never tried to sell it.”
I sipped again, let it run in my veins, easing doubt, turning it into something else.
I had time. The novel was for me. The writing itself was for me. Though I would like to share it, there was no rush. I was making it to drink myself.
Shelley Blanton-Stroud teaches college composition in Northern California. Her stories appear in Eunoia Review, Mamalode and, forthcoming, in Soundings Review. She has brought pieces of her novel-in-progress to Bread Loaf, Napa and Squaw Valley writing conferences, where nice people have tried to teach her how to be a fiction writer. She has had less instruction at bourbon tasting, but appears to come to it quite naturally.
June 16, 2016 § 11 Comments
By Corinna Cook:
My friend Bridget, at the end of the essay in which I call her Marion, ends up in a tree. Specifically up on some high, thin branch, like a bird. It has to do with the bent-over way she makes music and the frailty of her body, but it also has to do with the way my friendship with Bridget makes me feel like a dumb stump. Though of course I’m not a tree and Bridget isn’t a bird, and her name certainly isn’t Marion. True or false? True, of course. The essay isn’t devious, it’s just dreamy.
But I notice that when something is true, the specter of falsehood is always there at the table, bony mouth already opening, claiming some part of the conversation.
Do binaries always drag their other halves around like this? I don’t know, but I do find Niklaus Luhmann, German sociologist and systems theorist, was interested in related questions. His reflection on autopoiesis led him to the idea of “coded” systems. Every code, for Luhmann, is some kind of binary structure—true/false is just one example—and the code, whatever it is, determines how that system reacts to perturbance.
So if you think of a coded system as a kind of pond, anything you toss in—a stone, a rubber ducky, a copper coin—would make its splash according to truth and falsity (or whatever makes up the pond’s binary structure). That is, a true stone would perturb the glassy surface in one way and a false stone in another, irrespective of size, weight, the arc of the toss, or even prevailing winds.
Same with the ducky and the coin: their splashes in this pond would specifically reflect their truthness and falseness.
True/false, incidentally: that, according to Luhmann, is the code for science. So this must be what’s going on when we focus on the nonfictionality of nonfiction, scrutinizing an essay’s truths, sometimes even clogging conversation with the suspicious, well, does it even count as nonfiction?—though we’ve set out to talk about literature, this question perturbs and thus activates the system of science. Since truthiness is half of a binary code informing a major system, the notion of falsehood kicks in automatically.
But the binary that’s useful in science is, I submit, of dubious service to literature, for it’s not art’s project to lie. And I can’t, at the moment, think of any art or genre that claims falsehood. Imagination, sure. Surreality, hyperreality, fantasy—yes, yes, yes. But none of these are properly understood as false. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are among our basic literary tools. Hyperbole, irony, personification, imagistic juxtaposition, even the objective correlative—none of these tools are for lying. We use them to communicate.
Of course, probing and challenging genre boundaries is a valid, even stimulating, exercise. But in nonfiction discourse, this particular line of inquiry often takes over. Why? Maybe because, in Luhmann’s terms, we have a pretty straightforward systems problem: too many activated at once. I think of a cartoon rocketship’s control panel now, odd red lightbulbs blinking out of sync with an attendant overlay of dissonant beeps and bells.
Yet for categorization (read: library organization) purposes, does it even count as nonfiction? is a crucial question. Still, is there a way the term “nonfiction” could serve beyond these implied thumbs-up/thumbs-down, yay/nay, qualified/disqualified, on the shelf or off it, true/false stakes?
If yes, maybe we have to skyhook the practical, organizational impetus of genre. This is what I propose: maybe we can treat “nonfiction” selectively—sometimes as a genre, but also sometimes as a lens of reading. Doing so might pacify the science system, soothe and lull it into a state of non-perturbance … allowing us to sidestep, if only temporarily, its true/false binary code.
In other words, as readers, if we have to ask an essay, are you true? Are you true enough to call yourself true? Let’s reorient and also ask that essay: what is the nature of the truth you theorize, or what is the nature of the reality into which you inquire? Or even, what truth do you reveal? And furthermore, what use emerges for your notion of truth?
I enjoy considering nonfiction as a lens like any other to polish and peer through—at any text I wish, discovering what it helps bring into focus—because when discussion of truthiness wears thin, it’s only natural to lower the lens of nonfiction down from the discursive eye and place it back in the tray. It’s quite safe there alongside the feminist lens, the postcolonial lens, and so many others. All are protected from dust, upright in their black velvet slots, like silver-rimmed rows my childhood optometrist kept in his most-opened drawer.
It was, after all, his sculpting of my vision (which is clearer, one…or two?), that revealed to me the architectural precision with which a tree trunk divides into limbs, into branches, and finally into the skyward twigs among which I perceived my friend Bridget, toes curled onto the thinnest perch.
Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently chipping away at a PhD in English/Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her nonfiction appears here and there, including Flyway and Alaska Quarterly Review. She is currently working on a collection of essays about northern sorrows and friendships.
June 15, 2016 § 24 Comments
by Jan Priddy
In my college writing class I assign “The Pigeon Paper.” This is a short expository essay written to address a one-word topic—write about “squash” or write about “salt”—a paper completed in ten days. The first year it was about pigeons—hence the name. We began the assignment by brainstorming what we knew individually about pigeons and considering different structures for an expository paper (comparison, chronology, description); overnight each of us researched and the next day we brought in research and each proposed three potential topics and approaches; then we had a few days to complete a draft for peer editing in class, and a final draft of the paper was handed in the following day.
Long before I began teaching, I had faith both in assignments and research. I believe writing creates learning, because it forces us to examine our knowledge in the face of evidence in black and white. What we force ourselves to investigate with an open mind often leads to surprise. I like surprises.
That first year, three students proposed papers titled “Rats with Wings.” This despite the fact that the only wild pigeons my students ever saw were not park pigeons at all, but a completely different species, the native band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). On the edge of the Pacific Ocean, many of my students will tell you without hesitation that they hate seagulls, and they can even explain why, though no one I know would deliberately hurt one. It is a local attitude with somewhat more justification than their attitude about park pigeons. My students all claimed to hate pigeons without thinking and all of them laughed at the rats title, perhaps because “rats with wings” was the only metaphor they knew of that applied to pigeons. We are all held prisoner by our assumptions.
A generation ago in a course titled “Plant Taxonomy of Western Washington,” my lab partner bent over specimens, scalpel poised like a paintbrush. He sliced flowers perfectly in half for me when it was my turn to peer through the microscope. I counted stamens and ova. As I drew diagrams and searched for proper names in the text, I did not notice silence until it was broken. Someone, also hunched over high black counters and flower parts, asked the air, “What sets human beings apart from the lower animals?”
The conversation began: “Tools,” an answer from across the room. I did not look up from my scope. “Aren’t we the only species that makes and uses tools?”
There was gentle debate. My lab partner handed me a new slide. I could see only my own eyelashes at first. Are humans the only tool-users? We decided not, since Goodall documented chimpanzees fishing for termites. Crows and elephants. Then what makes us special?
“Playing,” I heard my partner assert. “Man is the only animal that plays.”
I looked up from the sexual organs of plants and smiled. I thought, He’s wrong, though I was not the first to say it.
“My dog plays with me,” said another Botany major.
“Cats and a feather,” said another.
But my partner argued with pets. “They are domestic animals, tainted by association.”
“Fawns,” someone offered.
“Adolescent lions,” suggested someone else.
I was paging through the text. The slide showed a familiar sample. I must know it.
“Juveniles.” He shook his head.
“Adult otters swim purely for fun,” I said, at last. I put my hand across the page I was looking for, and I looked my partner in the eye.
And then others spoke in a rush: “Porpoises leap in the wakes of ships. . . . Squirrels play tag in trees. . . . Foxes pounce on dandelions.”
His forehead puckered, scalpel painting the air. “Really?”
My own students quickly discovered that there is more to pigeons than what they have gleaned from television shows or the movies. Pigeons have won military honors, have served diverse roles as pets, entertainers, food, and carriers. As children’s book characters. The stuff of legend. It always goes that way. The opening between what they think they know and what they discover once they explore an ordinary word is a space aching to be filled.
Each year the triggering word is different. One year the pigeon paper was about “paper”, and someone discovered the meaning of a “white paper” and another found paper made from elephant poo. (It does not smell.) Research leads from the obvious to the obscure. Such writing about animals, places, and other subjects often results in surprising discoveries.
While searching for the scientific names of flowers, a generation ago, we all learned something about the nature of life in the world. This year, the “pigeon paper” was about trees. Student essays covered topics from a tree-bark bread recipe and the history of wooden golf clubs to forests rescued in Princess Mononoke and interpretations of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The most practical goal of this paper is to practice APA form and expository structures. Along the way, we find out about ourselves—pure glory.
Under my microscope: a five part flower, many stamens, fleshy calyx-tube. Family Rosaceae, genus Rosa, species multiflora, precisely like the illustration in my text—a local wildflower I saw each day.
A metaphor perhaps? Maybe it is our use of metaphor.
Jan Priddy lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, where she completed an MFA at Pacific University. Her work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, and Pushcart nomination. Her most recent publication is “White Noise” in the anthology, What Does It Mean to Be White in America? She is fond of pigeons.
June 10, 2016 § 12 Comments
Shelby Larson responds to Diane Lowman’s “Am I a Writer or Imposter?”:
I myself have contemplated the merits of calling myself a writer.
It is a title that doesn’t have the same prerequisites the way that “doctor,” “engineer,” “accountant,” and “entrepreneur” do. It’s one I don’t think I’ve properly earned.
From a young age, I didn’t trip over written words the way I did spoken ones. I didn’t turn red when I wrote down my opinion, and I never had to think of what to say when I had pen to paper.
Writing solved problems for me as a child. Being painfully shy, I turned red and mumbled each time a teacher or an adult would look at me. I couldn’t properly express myself verbally, but through writing I could find the words that I desperately needed to say to people.
It was something I did so often and so inadvertently that it stunned me when one of my teachers called me a gifted “writer.”
Wait, isn’t Shakespeare a writer? Jane Austen? J.K. Rowling?
I’m not one of them.
I don’t write 10 pages a day like Stephen King. I don’t write every morning before breakfast like Joyce Carol Oates.
I sometimes barely ever edit my writing, for God’s sake.
Isn’t that the writer’s cardinal sin?
Shouldn’t the ghosts of David Foster Wallace, Dorothy Parker, and Ernest Hemingway come back to haunt me for every unedited page I’ve ever turned in for a grade?
I think of my father when I think of the word “writer.” My mom and I would poke fun at him since it took him 45 minutes to write an email—indeed, there were times I would come downstairs and see him hunched over his computer screen, deleting the paragraph that took him the previous 15 minutes to craft. He chose his words carefully, like a jeweler chooses a precious stone.
He filters his words through a fine sieve. I merely word vomit onto a page.
I merely use written words when I cannot make sense of spoken ones.
I have piles of journals that have been given to me as presents that I’ve never even opened.
I AM an imposter.
I cannot count the number of assignments I’ve turned in at the last possible minute and still somehow received an A. I am not disillusioned into thinking this makes me a successful writer. It says the exact opposite.
And despite declaring myself as an English major, the amount of writing—real, turn-on-your-brain-and-THINK-about-it writing—I’ve done in college has decreased.
I’ve let life get in the way of my interaction with written words. There’s been work, or other non-English classes taking up my time. There’s been traveling. There’s been family. There’s been boyfriends, friends, a social life. I’ve let everything come between myself and writing.
So I make this declaration now:
No more justification, no more excuses.
I want to call myself a writer the way others have called me.
I want to deserve the title.
I want to be able to introduce myself with a large smile, thinking of my large pile of scribbled in journals and 12 gigabytes of Word documents waiting for me at home and say:
“Hi, my name is Shelby.
And I’m a writer.”
Shelby Larson is an avid traveler, daydreamer, crafter, and Star Wars fanatic. She is currently pursuing her BA in English and Women’s and Gender Studies with a minor in Political Science, and is set to graduate this December (despite all attempts to push it back further). In addition to attending University of Omaha, Shelby attended the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway and La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia on student exchange. When she isn’t studying or working, she can be found spending time with her family and friends or binge-watching Law and Order: SVU.
June 9, 2016 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Jennifer Berney:
This week, nearly thirty years after his death, Arnold Lobel (author of the Frog and Toad books) was outed to the world in a New Yorker piece by Colin Stokes titled “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same Sex Love. I read the piece with interest because as a parent and a writer, I’ve been an abiding fan of Lobel’s work. In the countless hours I’ve spent propped against pillows, reading Frog and Toad books aloud to my sons, I find myself always half-immersed in story, and half-immersed in my own wonder at how flawless those stories are. As a writer who works primarily in the genre of memoir, I cannot read fiction without wondering where the author’s life intersects with his art. I am nosy that way.
Most Frog and Toad stories are composed of brief, everyday moments that, when arranged with Lobel’s precision add up to something that is at once startling and funny and layered with meaning. For instance, in one of my favorite stories, “A Swim,” Frog and Toad go swimming in a river. Toad requests that Frog avert his eyes as he leaves the water because he’s afraid that he looks funny in his swimsuit. But then a turtle comes along, and then a group of lizards, a snake, a mouse, and finally a pair of dragonflies. When Frog asks them to leave so that Toad can come out of the water, they insist that if Toad looks so funny, well then they are going to wait around to see.
Each time I read the story (even though by now I know the ending), I halfway expect that it will end with Toad being reassured that he looks fine, not funny, that he was silly to worry after all. But instead it ends with all of the animals—even Frog—laughing, because of course Toad does look funny in his swimsuit. How could he not?
In this and all his other stories, Lobel presents us with a world that is at once candid and charmed, a world that acknowledges that we do look funny in our swimsuits, that our friends may look when we ask them not to, and laugh even if they mean us no harm. It is a world where, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that cookies taste better than willpower. Lobel’s stories always teach lessons, and yet they never moralize.
And so, each time I’ve read Frog and Toad to my children, I’ve wondered about Arnold Lobel himself. One time I looked him up to find the picture above and to learn that he had a wife and two children and that he had died in 1987.
This did not really answer my questions.
I wanted to know where his stories came from, and how he had learned to master the art of storytelling. I wanted to know if he had studied Zen koans or Aesop’s fables, or if he was just some kind of genius.  But I did not want to learn anything that would ruin his stories for me, like for instance that he had been a drunk or an adulterer, or some kind of religious zealot, and so I stopped researching his life and began to simply picture him as the author with the impressive mustache.
It never occurred to me that Arnold Lobel was gay, just as it never occurred to me that Maurice Sendak was gay—a fact I learned just after his death in 2012. Now that I know, I wonder what it means that two of the greatest minds in children’s literature were men who spent much of their lives in the closet. I think that it is more than coincidence, that there is something about having to live in secret that disposes one to work well in metaphor. When we can’t tell our literal stories, we must either get creative or give up.
I think also that the strongest children’s literature is work that explores buried desires and impulses, work that builds worlds where wild things can actually be tamed, and where, if you wait on your front porch long enough, a snail will eventually deliver you the letter you’ve always wished for.
I believe that it’s important to understand Lobel’s sexual identity as a part of his legacy. As a lesbian writer, I feel that I’ve reclaimed some small part of my history any time I learn that an author I’ve admired is gay. I can also acknowledge the possible connection between Lobel’s orientation and the tender affection that Frog and Toad share. However, I worry about the suggestion that we re-read Frog and Toad as (to refer back to Colin Stokes’ title) “a celebration of same-sex love.” Ever since Stokes’ post appeared last Tuesday, others have been quick to hop on that bandwagon. People ran a story titled Are Frog and Toad Gay? and Slate published How Frog and Toad Author Arnold Lobel Explored Gay Intimacy in his Work. But here’s the thing: Arnold Lobel did not explore gay intimacy in his work. That’s kind of the point. He was writing from the closet, compressing his experience into something that readers would find universally true. Frog and Toad are neither gay nor straight. They are archetypal characters and as such their identities don’t require labels—that is a part of their appeal.
Arnold Lobel was not a memoirist. His work doesn’t invite us into his life, but still we want to find him there. We are like the animals who sit on the river bank—the turtle, and the lizards, the snake, the mouse and the dragonflies—all of us gawking at Toad in his swimsuit when he’s so clearly asked us to look away.
 I did find an archived interview with Lobel as I was writing this, and it turns out that he did not study koans or fables, nor did he consider himself a genius. Lobel said, “I’m really rather insecure about writing, which is why I always write my stories complete before I draw pictures. Drawing the pictures is nothing for me. I know how to draw pictures. With writing, I’m in quicksand a bit. I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s very intuitive.”
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Brain, Child, The New York Times, Motherlode, Mutha, and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
June 9, 2016 § 7 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
When I am working with students on their writing, I always tell them that they shouldn’t set out to write a bestseller. They should write the story they feel compelled to write, the one that is burning inside them. The one that only they can tell. Of course it’s good to keep in mind publishing trends and what is happening in the marketplace, but this should not box in, nor define their creativity.
When I impart this sage wisdom, I can only imagine what my students are writing down in their notebooks. Don’t write a bestseller. Write from the heart. I wrote those same notes in writing workshops just a few years ago when I was getting my MFA. As if writing from the heart – writing from the pure core of your unique, passionate self – would be enough to at least get you published. No one ever actually talked about getting on the bestseller list. The true literary giants, the authors we students were supposed to admire were those writers who wrote their books in the thrall of their muse, not the thrall of appearing on The New York Times bestseller list, or getting a mega-deal with a superstar agent. When that sort of success did come to a few of our fellow students, it was almost as though they needed to discount their part in the louche business side of things.
I have decided that this faux modest attitude shall no longer apply to my own writing. I am dying to write a bestseller, and after years of continually scrutinizing the bestseller lists, I think I have come up with a foolproof list of aids that will help me get there.
…Change the title of my novel from The Last Act to Wednesdays With Pugsly: The World’s Ugliest, Yet Somehow Most Adorable Pooch Who Never Graced a Calendar.
…Replace the phrase “sideways glance” with “hot, lustful undressing in the mind.”
…Finagle book jacket blurbs from any of the following celebrities: Simon Cowell, “Bravo, not a false note.” Britney Spears, “It’s as good as that other book I read.” Madonna, “Kathy has made a convert of me.”
…Explore plagiarism as a marketing tool.
…Ask my agent if she thinks I’m too old to enroll at Harvard as an undergraduate. Possible plot line could be – sixty year-old woman enters Harvard as a freshman. Sell it as “Legally (Fake) Blonde Meets Cocoon.”
…Move in next door to Oprah and become her new best friend. (Find some dirt that will destroy Gayle King first.)
…Change name of book to anything with the words “secret,” “Christmas,” “diet,” or “adorable dog” in the title. The Secret Christmas Death of an Adorable Dog? Nine Lives of a Christmas Dieter? Who Moved My Christmas Tofu? A Secret Miracle Christmas Diet for Both You and Your Precious Pooch?
…Look into product placement to attract potential advertising sponsors. My protagonist, a chocolate lover, could just as easily be a Godiva chocolate lover. And drink only Veuve Clicquot Champagne. And wear only Cole Haan shoes. And drive a BMW, Five Series. You get the idea.
…Consider making my protagonist (now a suburban newspaper columnist) a zombie, with cute twin teenage zombie daughters. (Can dogs be zombies? Look into this possibility.)
…Become an undercover nanny, life coach, or personal chef to some really rich people, take notes, and then write a scathing tell-all about them.
…Maybe cutesy, heart-warming dog books have had their day in the sun. Explore possible memoirs using other pets. Maybe Days of the Iguana. Or Clipped Wings: What My Parakeet Taught Me About Overcoming Life’s Obstacles. Or how about Gerbil: Life Lessons From the Flywheel.
…See if I can get adopted into a family that is more dysfunctional than my own so I have better material for a memoir someday. Or ask Mom if she minds if I change her from the nicest mother who ever lived to a pill-popping, alcoholic, obsessive compulsive, many times divorced, always inappropriately dressed, binge-dieting, dog-hating, library book-stealing mother whose six daughters succeed against formidable odds and become perfect mothers with perfect children who always do everything right.
…Try writing a sort of backlash to The Secret. Maybe No More Secrets: Lessons as Plain as the Nose on (Your Adorable Dog’s) Face.
…Forget dogs or any other animals. Title my book anything with “Girl” in the title. Maybe Girl on a Bus. Girl, Found. Girl with a Secret. Or maybe keep it mysterious; how about just Girl…
Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications. She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.
June 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
A continuation of yesterday’s blog interview between Brevity Assistant Editors Alexis Paige and Penny Guisinger, on the subject of short prose, porcupine relocation, Downeast Maine, and Guisinger’s first book Postcards from Here.
Alexis: Stylistically, your writing mixes both plain, spare prose with bursts of lyricism. There’s a push and pull with restraint and letting go, with ordinary and poetic diction. Is this your style more generally? Is the style a function of form—of the micro-essay?
Penny: I want to say that it’s both? (Notice my lack of complete confidence in that answer.) It’s so hard for me to comment on my own style: it’s like knowing what the back of my head looks like. I need a mirror. Or an art critic.
Lyricism is certainly something I strive for no matter how long or short a piece is. I try to balance that sense of grace and lightness in the language with a concrete storyline. As a reader, I like pieces that are grounded in story and use language beautifully. I want a story to lift off the page. In a micro-essay, the charge is to make all that happen quickly, sometimes within the confines of one sentence. I think about Mark Doty’s poetry – his narratives are so beautifully aerodynamic that they soar well above the page. I bet I’ve read Turtle, Swan no fewer than a hundred times, just marveling at how that poem delivers language’s greatest hits: it narrates and pivots and twists and whallops us with beauty and fear at the same time. If I can do that – or even come close to that kind of magic – then I’ve done my job.
I will push a little on the use of the word “poetic” in your question. I hear that a lot: that my work is “almost poetry” and it always rankles me. It’s like there’s this general acceptance that poetry has the market cornered on beautiful language, and that’s really not the case. I love poetry. A lot. But I stridently believe that prose can be beautiful without striving to be verse. (I know you know this, but since you slid that soap box in front of me, well…I can’t help it.)
AP: This book is a portrait of a Maine that most don’t know. Yours is not the Maine of boat shoes and over-priced taffy and families who “summer,” as a verb. You live in the easternmost point of both the state and the United States, a place of rural poverty, guns, right-leaning politics, and scrappy ingenuity. How did you approach writing about place? What challenges did you face in capturing such an accurate portrait?
PG: This part was easy. I wrote about the place I actually live, not the place people think I live. I took a firm “no lobsters, no lighthouses” stance and wrote what I saw and what I know. As a writer always on the hunt for material, I certainly am drawn to those aspects of this place that are grittier than anything you’ll see on a postcard, because those things are more human and nuanced. The challenges of this place are generational and can feel intractable: poverty, drug addiction, isolation, hopelessness. But the gifts of this place are also generational and equally intractable: generosity of spirit, tightly knit families, ingenuity, and isolation. (See how I did that?) It can feel tempting for some writers to romanticize the challenges of this place. There’s nothing romantic about addiction or poverty or hopelessness or guns. There’s also nothing romantic about neighbors who take care of each other – it’s just survival. Plus – truly – I think the nearest overpriced taffy might be about two hours down coast from here. So there’s that.
AP: Many of your postcards render unvarnished moments in your relationships with your kids and/ or with your wife, Kara. Did you have any anxiety about writing or publishing such material? And if so, how do you cope with it?
PG: Of course. I wish I could write less personal stuff, but I haven’t figured out how to do it well. And I want to publish more than I want to avoid anxiety. So I walk that line of telling the truth but not being a jerk about it. I certainly don’t publish anything that will end up putting me in divorce court. I try to practice due diligence in terms of being more culpable than anyone else in a piece and holding people’s stories with respect and reverence. I haven’t always gotten it right. It’s risky business. I heard Roxanne Gay say at a conference, “Remember that you don’t have to write anything. You may really, really want to. But you don’t have to.” I keep that in mind. My decisions are my own.
I keep a line between writing and publishing, which helps. When I’m writing, I try not to think about the people I’m writing about and what they will think or how they will feel. I don’t engage in those thoughts until it’s time to submit something for publication. It’s an important distinction. I am often asked by students or beginning writers if they are “allowed” to write this or that, or if they are likely to get sued for telling X or Y story. The answer is that of course you can write whatever you want, and you should. Publishing is a different thing. And I say that as someone who has very little interest in writing things and not publishing them. If I’m thinking about publishing as I’m writing, I feel silenced. I have to pretend that nobody will ever see it, even though I know that’s a lie I’m telling myself. (Another precursor to authorial madness? Time will tell.)
AP: What is your writing process and practice like?
PG: About a year and a half ago, I quit a full-time salaried position to be a freelance writer. It’s not as romantic as it sounds. My clients are mostly nonprofits, and I’m writing grants, promotional materials, and web content. But I am writing for a living, which is really nice. For the first year, I was focused on how to be a small business owner, and didn’t write creatively much at all. This year, I’ve started trying to set aside one day/week for my literary career. I write for much of that day, then spend the rest of it doing things like this interview or setting up readings. It’s not enough, but it’s building toward something. I’m focused right now on finishing the manuscript for my second book – also a memoir – and it’s a mighty slow process. I’m immersed in the “in the weeds” part of that process, so it looks a lot like aimless thrashing around. Hopefully, it will lead somewhere.
AP: Congratulations, this is your first book! How does it feel?
PG: As you are finding out now, having a book is so fun! Congrats right back at you. I started writing my first book as a high school student, so this has been a long time coming. It’s wonderful and also very weird. It took a long time for me to believe that the book is good – that the publisher was not engaged in an act of charity or kindness. But I think I get it now. It’s very affirming. It’s also very addictive because now I want another one.
AP: In “Marriage,” you write about your wife chasing down and catching porcupines with trash can lids and then driving the rodents some miles down the road. You write, “I do not support porcupine relocation. I worry too much about babies being left behind or porcupine homesickness.” Has your position on porcupine relocation changed?
PG: In fact, yes! I am a flip-flopper on this issue, so I can probably never run for office. Last summer, we put an electric fence around our garden to keep these prickly critters out. It failed to stop this one particularly bad-assed porcupine, who kept walking right through it and committing acts of garden vandalism every night. I got on board – this was war! One night, Kara went outside and saw it in the garden. It ran and tried to climb a tree, but she knocked it out of the tree with this big plastic tub. (I’m not even kidding.) She trapped it under the tub and called for me to come help. Somehow, from inside the house with music on, I heard her and we packaged that animal up and took it for a ride. We will NEVER tell where we released it, but I’m certain that it’s happily munching on someone else’s tomatoes this year. But this summer, we have raccoons. We’re going to have to deal with them next.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays, and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. This year, Penny will appear at the Fall for the Book Festival in VA, the Belfast Poetry Festival in ME, and will serve as the fall Writer-in-Residence at Bay Path University in Springfield, MA. And – since none of that work pays the mortgage – Penny makes her living as a consultant writing grants, web content, and other materials for nonprofits.
Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an assistant editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received two recent Pushcart Prize nominations, and features on Freshly Pressed and Longform. Twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches writing at the college and community level, served as visiting artist at Saint Lawrence University in 2014, and was a writer-in-residence at Bay Path University in 2015. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not A Place On Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published in December. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two dogs. You can find her online at alexispaigewrites.com