A Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays

August 24, 2015 § 4 Comments

By e.v. de cleyre

empThe only seat left on the bus was half-occupied by a guy who was man-spreading. One thin thigh spilled over two seats, and I squeezed myself onto the last bit of real estate, cursing him.

He said, “Watch out” and pointed to his elbow, where the skin was scraped to expose red road rash. He sat stiff, uncomfortable, trying not to touch me or the seat.

I mumbled, “No worries,” and opened the book I brought for the evening commute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make; to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”

My seatmate cringed each time the bus swerved or bounced over potholes. It seemed I had a choice: engage this human being, pay attention, extend myself, empathize, or stick to reading about and intellectualizing empathy.

“Did you fall off a bike or something?” I asked.

He explained, the bicycle shop where he worked faced the train tracks, and when he left, his tires snagged on iron and steel. He pointed to where it hurt: left elbow, bandaged right hand, knees.            

All I could say was, “That sucks.” Two hundred pages of essays on empathy, pain, sentimentality, human suffering, and all I could conjure were two measly words.

The bus stopped. People left. “I’ll give you space,” I said, and switched seats.

To expect The Empathy Exams to equip me with a deeper sense of humanity is to expect a lot from a book—maybe too much. Still, I found myself staring at the words but not understanding them—instead, wracking my brain for something of solace to offer this man. The Empathy Exams is not a practical guide on how to live an empathetic life, but an intellectual exploration of the subject from a range of angles. My wanting to act with compassion and empathy was a byproduct of excellent writing.

The book, I thought. I could give him the book. But is that what he wanted? To read about pain while he was in pain? And would it only increase his suffering to subject him to my marginalia, my underlined passages? I’m not sure solace would be the result of reading a piece about a conference for a phantom disease or a mugging in Nicaragua—two of a rich tapestry of essays that blend research, reporting, and personal experience. The best books are the ones that alter your habitual patterns—that break you out of your routine (in my case, my evening commute), cause you to question how you participate in the world, and urge you to take action. Was what I defined as an empathetic gesture the kind of sentimental or saccharine (or worse, romantic) thing Jamison writes about? “When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseam.”

What get-well-soon-sentiments could I write that wouldn’t be cheapened by overuse? I scribbled be well on the inside of the cover. The bus reached my stop—his stop too, and he hobbled off the bus in front of me, onto the sidewalk.

“Hey,” I said.

He turned.

“Here,” I said, and shoved the paperback into his hands. He took it. I turned and walked away, feeling not proud but quite trite. I allowed myself to look back only once. He limped up the street with the book in his right hand.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

A Review of Joni Tevis’ The World is On Fire

August 21, 2015 § 1 Comment

A book review from Nina Boutsikaris:

tevisMaybe it’s coincidence that apocalypse keeps surfacing in so much of the recent work I’ve read as a grad student, begging me to reconsider how the word might apply to much more than typical end-of-days visions. Several of the books stacked around my apartment tap into apocalypses far more real and immediate, something more like crisis or unease, creeping decay and paranoia, a special nihilism suited, perhaps, for a post-9/11 world that is increasingly uncanny, confused and technology-dependent. After I read Lucy Corin’s surreal fiction collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, for instance, I had a name for the elusive and pervasive feeling I got from the empty storefronts in my hometown, young couples’ dinner parties, Tinder exchanges, missing dogs, the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue three days before Christmas, the latest Taco Bell creation. I was haunted ruin or the promise of ruin. Which is to say, by everything.

It’s comforting knowing essayist Joni Tevis, must also be haunted—indeed, each of the “Acts,” in her latest collection, The World is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, explore the tension between birth and death—and that her thoughtful probing has generated such a sweeping, rich, and compelling book. On a tour of an antiquated roadside attraction, Tevis questions why a miniature, seemingly innocent “Fairyland” makes her think of Trinity, the code name for the first nuclear detonation. “The truth is,” she writes, “you find what you look for. Maybe not the exact specimen, but once the scales fall from your eyes you must see the world, strange and dark. A red moon floated above a stadium on a noisy Friday night. I could have read there a sign of doom, or atmospheric dust, or both. Just the same, once I saw Trinity I would see it always, everywhere.”

And in “Ten Years You Own It,” she wanders the toxic ex-resort coastline of the Salton Sea asking herself what it was she had hoped to find: “aftermath or prophecy?” She writes, “We stopped to see the disaster, but which one… if you go looking for a portent everything you find will seem like one.”

The true origin of “apocalypse,” as Tevis reminds us, comes from the Greek word meaning “unveiling,” and the book itself acts as such, peeling back mysteries of our spiritual and earthly world. The journey here is both lush and wandering, glittering and sobering—from the gaudy home of a secretly dying Liberace, to the endlessly shifting mansion of tortured widow Sarah Winchester; from the soybean fields where Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, to Tevis’ own fickle womb; from abandoned Boomtowns, to footage of literal “Doom Town” test grounds of 1,021 A-bombs in Nevada. Like a magician, Tevis collects scraps from each of her excavations and carefully weaves them into threads, dusting the fallout of each detonation over the next.

Warnings exist in the disappearance of our birds, in our destruction of the planet and each other—in the way we mimic nature scenes for museum dioramas but can’t wrap our heads around curbing pollution; in the cancer we’ve spit into the air in the name of weaponry; in those we lose to AIDS; in the temporality of life and our futile attempts to hold on to ghosts or recreate our humanness in inanimate things. But Tevis is not one to despair. Apocalypses, as she so beautifully translates them, can truly be songs of celebration.

“There is a crease for grief in any day, but usually we turn away from it,” Tevis writes. Perhaps it is this very act of not turning away, of staying curious and vulnerable, that saves her and in turn us. The World is On Fire masterfully questions, rummages, and connects the obscure with the universal, uncovering truths about faith and resurrection we had been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.

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Nina Boutsikaris teaches and learns at the University of Arizona. Recent writing appears in The Offing, Los Angeles Review, Hobart and elsewhere. She’s currently at work on a collection of intimacies, real and imagined.

Iowa’s New Annual Prize for Literary Nonfiction

August 19, 2015 § 4 Comments

header-UI-PressThe University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and the University of Iowa Press are pleased to announce a new annual prize for literary nonfiction. Submissions will be accepted from October 15, 2015 through December 10, 2015. The announcement of the winner will be made in spring of 2016. Submissions must be book length (at least 40,000 words but no longer than 90,000) and can be either a collection or a long-form manuscript. Both published and previously unpublished authors will be considered, with the winner being awarded a publishing contract with the University of Iowa Press.

The contest will be screened and initially judged by the Iowa Nonfiction Program and its director, John D’Agata, as part of a publishing class taught in conjunction with the University of Iowa Press. Distinguished visiting professor Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, will be the final judge.

UI Press director, Jim McCoy, noted, “This is an exciting opportunity. We’ve long been committed to the publication of quality literary nonfiction through our Sightline Books series. Literary nonfiction, no matter how you try to define it, is one of the most exciting genres currently being explored by writers. It pushes new boundaries. It reinterprets how we look at a number of issues in the humanities and sciences. We can’t wait to see the variety and quality of the submissions. The fact that we also get to exchange information and engage with students during the publishing process is a bonus.”

“The exciting thing about this class and contest is that it’s going to encourage students to clarify for themselves and their peers how they interpret nonfiction, and what their criteria are for great nonfiction books,” D’Agata offered. “It’ll require them to explain clearly why they feel this manuscript is better than that manuscript. And so at a pedagogical level this will be a priceless experience, because what we’ll ultimately learn is that we’re all very different—both as readers and people—and we therefore have different criteria for what makes something good.”

The Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa is one of the most prestigious MFA programs in existence. In addition to its degree program, it hosts a highly regarded visiting author series, the Overseas Writing Workshop, and the Bedell Nonfiction Now Conference.

The University of Iowa Press publishes more than 40 books a year, including award-winning literary nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. The press already hosts the annual Iowa Poetry Prize and the Iowa Short Fiction Awards. More information about the press and the submission guidelines can be found at uiowapress.org.

Thoughts on the AWP Book Prize: “No Winning Manuscript”

August 19, 2015 § 15 Comments

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

Rachel Hanel weighs in on the judge’s decision that no nonfiction book entry wins the AWP prize this year:

On Monday, AWP announced that it would not name a winner for its annual Award Series in the nonfiction category. Part of the announcement reads: “The Award Series guidelines have stated—ever since the inception of the Series in 1975—that the judge makes the final decision and no award is given if the judge finds no manuscript that merits the award.”

(You can read the full announcement here )

I get the disappointment the entrants feel. It’s disappointing enough to not be chosen as a winner or finalist when a decision is made, so it feels especially grating to learn that the entire field did not warrant a winner.

I have entered many contests and have been disappointed many times by not being selected, especially when I thought my work was in pretty good shape. But then I read the winning entry and almost always am blown away. I want to read the winner’s work and say, “Holy shit, that is good.” I feel good for that writer and it reflects well on the magazine/journal/organization giving out the prize.

I wouldn’t want to read a winning piece in a contest I had entered and think, “Hmmmm, really?” That does happen; sometimes judges and journals do feel compelled to choose a winner because people have paid an entry fee. But like the AWP announcement states, an entry fee should not be seen as a golden ticket or a raffle chance. On occasion, no work may stand out as stellar.

The decision was met, unsurprisingly, with criticism. I read a blog post written by someone who had entered the contest and I appreciate his passion and disappointment. I would imagine others feel same as he does.

But I do disagree with a statement he made: “The choice to say that no nonfiction book submitted is worthy of her (or, by proxy, the AWP’s) selection is an outright dismissal of a hell of a lot of artistic, intensely wrought, truth-telling work, and make no mistake: it will be seen as a wholesale value judgment of an entire year’s crop.” I’m sure there was artistic work in the bunch. I’m sure it was intense, and I’m sure the writers told the truth in literary ways. But I would ask this of the entrants: Did you submit your absolute finest work? Are you sure you submitted something near perfection? I wrote seven drafts of my memoir before it was published. It is quite tempting to submit a manuscript before it’s ready. And you know what? I did that. A lot. I think I even submitted it to the AWP contest. But now I realize anything before that seventh draft was not ready. I suspect the judge, Lia Purpura, saw a lot of great work but judged that the writing was still rough.

Now a judge needs to adhere to the highest ethical standards. No work should be chosen if it truly is not worthy from a literary standpoint. But if there are personal issues at play, or a surly attitude, or a need to be a renegade (“I’m going to be the judge who doesn’t choose a winner, so there!”), then that’s a problem. I trust that AWP administration chooses judges who are fairly and honestly evaluating the entries using only the top ethical and literary standards. If they didn’t, their entire reputation would be on the line.

I have no doubt that some of those who submitted to the nonfiction contest will have those manuscripts published someday. I’m sure there were a lot of gems in the bunch. In no way does Purpura’s judgment mean that all the writing was bad, only that it shouldn’t yet take the form of a published book. More work will make those manuscripts shine. Or maybe another judge will deem them publishable as is. Who knows? But if a judge says that no entries are worthy of a book award, I am willing to trust that.

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Rachael Hanel teaches mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press.

A Review of Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of the American Highways

August 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

A review by James Polchin:

motion“Nothing behind me, everything in front of me, as is ever so on the road,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his 1957 novel On the Road giving us a metaphor of postwar America that we would live and die with for decades. I felt it myself some years ago. Having just moved to Chicago’s South Side, I stood at the window of a fifteenth floor apartment, looking westward towards the unforgiving horizontals of the landscape. This flatness was strange for someone from the Northeast used to hills and shorelines. The evening light dimmed and the streetlights came on, and I followed their sparkle toward their vanishing points in the dark horizon of the unknown, which was how I was feeling on my arrival to the city. Of course, after On the Road, it’s hard to see a road as just asphalt and concrete.

Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of the American Highways  navigates the concrete and the metaphorical in a mesmerizing way. “The highway replaces space for motion,” he writes. This claim gives shape to his meditations on the ways motion (and emotion) transforms space, be it the landscape, a canvas, or the scroll of Kerouac’s manuscript. It is Hanick’s native Iowa with its flat fields and sloping hills that gives the book its physical and mental geography. While living in Boston after college, his relationship ends and his office job dims; he moves back to Iowa, into his parent’s basement, and starts painting houses. At the University of Iowa Museum of Art, he encounters Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript for On the Road, a 120-foot long continuous scroll. In that same museum, he also finds Jackson Pollock’s 1943 painting Mural, a wall-sized rectangular work that, in Hanick’s wonderful words, holds a “frenetic bluster” of composition. Peggy Guggenheim had commissioned it for her New York townhouse on East 61st Street. He imagined it as a “stampede of every animal in the American west.” A few years later, Guggenheim would give the painting to the University of Iowa—a throwaway gesture. Why she did this is not clear. Hanick speculates, but the reason seems unimportant.

Kerouac's Scroll

Kerouac’s Scroll

The third subject has little to do with art, or rather less so: Eisenhower’s creation of the Interstate Highway System, a feat of governmental vision that eventually created a network of roads connecting the rural with the urban, the north to the south, and the flatness with the mountains. This network of highways is Hanick’s more compelling subject, offering a historical reality that guides his reflections on postwar American aesthetics with their fecundity and tragedy. Consider this: Pollock crashes his car into a tree on a road in Long Island in 1956, killing himself and one of his passengers just months after Congress passes the Federal Highway Trust Fund. A year later, Viking Press published Kerouac’s On the Road. These faint lines between events make Hanick’s book so strange and engrossing.

Hanick’s meditative approach swirls you into a lingering conversation of facts and reflections, between personal, historical, and biographical. We learn the process of concrete making, gossip about Peggy Guggenheim’s affairs, the Chelsea Hotel rendezvous between Kerouac and Gore Vidal where “Jack blew him, was on bottom, and maybe slept on the bathroom floor.” We learn of Eisenhower’s painting habits, Pollock’s early career in the WPA, the Iowan floods that threatened to destroy Mural, the debates and plans that shaped the Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C., and that Pollock’s mother dressed him in handmade clothes, “in gingham and chambray and fine silk pongee.”

mural

Pollock’s Mural

It’s easy to get lost in the reading experience. Holding on to the intersections of highway history and Pollock’s canvases and Kerouac’s scroll, and the many lives and events that he crosses through is not always easy. The book flirts with you not by promising an end, some destination or arrival, but rather with the pleasure of Hanick’s fragments of reflections, crisscrossing place and time with ease, rendered with lyrical play and precision, never situating you anywhere solid for very long.

Hanick writes near the end of the book, our highways “remain a fixture in our cinematic dreams” as we hold on to the persistence of concrete. But then he reminds us how easily we ignore the fact that “it is only water that will be required to quickly rip” our roads apart. Set within history and experience, Hanick gives us a meditation on longing, even for those things that seem so certain.

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James Polchin teaches in the Liberal Studies program at New York University

Making the Most of A Writing Conference

August 11, 2015 § 7 Comments

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Sarah Einstein’s Collage Essay workshop.

You’re going to a writers’ conference! With workshops and panels and book sales and a lot of strangers and oh dear god what if none of them like me? What if all the workshops are too advanced, or too basic, and I have no idea what the Liminal Space Outside the Academy: A Feminist Perspective Through The Work of Dickinson and Gay As Realized In Graphic Novels panel is talking about? Am I too old? Am I too young? What if I haven’t had anything published yet?

Good news: we’re all welcome. Conferences are a great chance to meet and talk with writers of all ages and stages. Most conferences have purple-haired college kids, blue-haired seniors, and a variety of pantsuits, piercings, ties and tattoos in between.

I’ve just returned from the HippoCamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA. There were some terrific panels (none of them used the word ‘liminal’) on publishing and being a debut author and literary citizenship. It turns out the key to getting ahead as an author is pretty much the key to everything else–work hard, be nice to people, and don’t tweet “Buy My Book!” every hour because everyone else will mute you. Lee Gutkind opened his keynote with a story about a bat in the dining room and getting trapped in an elevator on his way to said dining room (both true), and Jane Friedman showed a fantastic video about the huge increase in available information in her keynote on the state of publishing.

Some thoughts on how to make the most of attending a writing conference.

Before you go:

1) Arrange to stay onsite if you possibly can. Yes, conference hotels are often expensive (join the hotel points club for free wifi), but the ability to run upstairs and change your shoes or grab a jacket between panels is priceless. If budget’s an issue, see if you can get a roommate–most conferences have a message board to share rides and rooms. When your day starts at 8AM and the last reading finishes at 11PM, it’s nice to have a last glass of wine and hit the elevator instead of the pavement.

2) If you have an author website, update it. Make sure your links aren’t broken and that your most current work is represented. If you have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, check your page from a friend’s account and see what shows up first. Any embarrassing pictures? Is your top post a rant? Clean up your social media. You’ll be friend-ing/following a bunch of new people, and you want to give a strong first impression. What if an agent loves your query in a workshop and clicks over during a break? Be you online, but be the best you.

3) Pack comfy shoes, layers and a jacket. Most convention centers and big hotels are freezing, especially first thing in the morning. Dress code at most conferences is Casual Friday–professional but comfortable. Keep the quirky in the accessories unless your book is a Cat Lady Manifesto.

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Always gather around the buffet table.

4) Get on Twitter. Specifically Twitter. If you don’t have it and you don’t “get it,” sign up and have a twentysomething help you figure it out (your teenager is on Snapchat and you won’t need that one). Find out what the conference hashtag is and follow it. Even if you never tweet again, Twitter is where people are commenting on the panels, making dinner plans, and announcing schedule updates. It’s worth it to be in the loop. (Check out the #Hippocamp15 feed here.)

When you’re there:
1) Go to everything. It’s worth getting up early, it’s worth staying out late. Sleep when you go home. That said,

2) Don’t be afraid to bail. If you’re exhausted and can’t focus, slip upstairs to your hotel room and take a power nap. If you’re overwhelmed by crowds, find a corner to eat your lunch in. Chances are another shy writer will join you.

3) Talk to people first. Don’t wait for an invitation. As the Victorians said about fellow houseguests, “The roof constitutes an introduction.” It’s OK to sidle up to a conversation in progress, make some smiley eye contact and start listening. Sit next to someone you don’t know at every meal. When in doubt, start with “How were your workshops today?” And the best follow-up question ever: “What do you write?”

4) Volunteer. If there’s a chance to be read or heard, jump on it. There’s always a pause before the first person volunteers–fill that pause. After the first person it will be a scrimmage and not everyone will get a turn.

Corollary: Ask good questions. Before popping up to the mic or raising your hand during the Q&A, ask yourself, “Will this be relevant to at least half the room?” If your question is “I’m writing a memoir about my mother, do you want to buy it?” phrase it as, “What topics are you seeing in memoir right now, and what are you looking for? Are there a lot of parent-child stories?”

When you get home:

1) Follow up. Everyone whose card you took, send them an email saying how nice it was to meet them, and/or connect through your preferred social media. If you’ve got free time, send out a few links to articles you think would interest specific people. Start building your literary citizenship by being useful and kind.

2) Keep the energy going. Register the domain for that blog idea you talked about. Query that agent who seemed really nice. Ask someone to be your writing buddy.

And of course, write write write.

See you at the next conference!

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines, coming in September from Coriander Press.

A Review of Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover

August 7, 2015 § 2 Comments

letterA review from e.v. de cleyre:

The sun seared skin, turned limbs pink, and I underlined: “This is what we hope for, to lose ourselves in stream and look up some hours later and note that the world has moved: the cat’s crept closer, following the sun.”

Except that today it was so hot, the neighbor’s cat crept closer to my shadow to escape the sun, while I hadn’t crept at all—a testament to the spell of a good book.

A similar sort of spell seems to have a hold on Ander Monson: purveyor of libraries, collector of marginalia, seeker of errata, translator between the past and future selves who inhabit pages. He asks, “If not of books, if not of boxes, if not of libraries or echoes, if not of lines of text paper-chained together, then of what are we composed?”

Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries is composed of essays that Monson wrote in response to books that the author “spent an hour or more inside.” To answer his question with a series of questions: if I am composed of books, what does it say about me that I read Letter to a Future Lover in its alphabetical order, rather than skipping around, as is suggested on page five? And what about my reluctance to underline and make marks in margins with a pen? Or that the only time I ever use a pencil is when reading? Or that I refuse to read at all in the absence of a pencil? If I were someone else, I could be less careful—like the Defacers.

“I didn’t always care like this,” Monson writes. “Look what books have done to me.”

Look: the sudden urge to write in fragments, to underline in pen, to steal from libraries, to write letters to future lovers and leave them on the shelves, to incessantly question, to risk sunburnt skin if it means reading a few more pages, to feel like I could slip into the cracks beneath the pages and nest inside the binding, because it’s more than a book—it’s a conversation, it hums, it is the deepest, most thoughtful mode of communication: “Every sentence is a ping where I am from, bit pulse sent to test a circuit, check to see if someone or something’s listening on the other end. The response could be a year or a century from now, but we still make the call.”

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

 

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