October 26, 2016 § 1 Comment
By Mike D’Angelo
Luke Dittrich has a stark inheritance. His grandfather, William Scoville, was the second most accomplished lobotomist in the history of medicine. This prominent neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital had a career that ran parallel with one of the most scientifically fruitful and morally dubious periods of our medical advancement: the early and mid-century era of American psychosurgery. While this brilliant anti-hero looms over the story, Dittrich’s preoccupation is primarily with the result of his grandfather’s most famous miscalculation in Patient H.M: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.
Henry Molaison had been afflicted with severe epilepsy much of his life when he consulted Dr. Scoville about further possibilities for treatment. With little more than a hunch, Scoville suggested a medial temporal lobectomy, and on August 25, 1953, he drilled two trephine holes into Henry’s skull, vacuuming out nearly all the contents of the medial temporal lobes—his amygdala, uncus, entorhinal cortex, and hippocampus. The result of the operation was a form of anterograde amnesia. No definitive improvement had been made to Molaison’s epilepsy, but now, at twenty-seven years old, he could not form new memories.
Molaison’s brain began processing his life in spans of mere minutes. He often repeated himself mid-conversation and had no recollection of what he was doing. Within a few short years, young Henry had become Patient H.M., a medical phenomenon who helped uncover new ground in the science of memory. Hundreds of academic papers were written about his case, and much of his remaining life (he died in 2008) was spent as a test subject for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), answering sensitive questions or performing challenging tasks under observation without compensation. Molaison was a willing and often cheerful participant.
Dittrich deftly draws together diverse shards—surgical practices from ancient Greece, his grandmother’s treatment at an asylum, the Nuremberg Code, Walter Freeman’s lobotomobile— without ceding control of Molaison’s troubling story. While Dittrich achieves a subtle, grounded panoramic, I waited for a more visceral reckoning with his family’s past. Instead, he is a cool authorial presence, questioning and considering rather than staking his own convictions.
For this reason, episodes from Dittrich’s own life, such as a stint in Egypt as a young reporter, can read like distraction. They are a kind of reportage, an additional tessera in an already complex mosaic, rather than the gut-wrenching reflection I sought and believed this writer could give. Still, it is Dittrich’s personal connection that gives the story its true gravity.
It’s why I picked up the book— and why many friends have sent me articles about Patient H.M. I too have a personal stake in the story of psychosurgery. In 1967, my own grandfather was treated with an experimental surgery in his medial temporal lobes because he had experienced violent blackouts. After nearly ten months of treatment, this distinguished engineer and father of seven was divorced and living on the opposite coast. He had become permanently unemployable and in constant confusion and pain. He frequently had delusions that his doctors were still doing tests on him, still stimulating sections of his temporal lobes by a remote control to see how he reacted. An unsuccessful $2 million lawsuit was filed against his doctors. My grandfather spent the majority of his remaining life in a psychiatric ward of the VA Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Dittrich is wary of judging this troubling history with a contemporary lens—a concern I share. He calls the temptation of anachronistic outrage “presentism”—a temptation I grapple with. This journalistic posture prevents his outright condemnation. Instead he offers sharp questions to the medical establishment that allowed patients who needed treatment for their illnesses to become unwitting subjects of career-building experiments. His mostly evenhanded tact has still elicited vigorous response from the scientific community. Dittrich has come under fire from M.I.T. for claims he made about Suzanne Corkin, Molaison’s longtime researcher at M.I.T. Shortly after his book’s publication, Dittrich became the subject of a letter printed in New York Times which was signed by over 200 scientists and disputed his characterization of Corkin.
If there are shortcomings or missed opportunities in Patient H.M., its ambition and scope make it an impressive page-turner. A harrowing and controversial finale recasts this well researched narrative into a drama with Shakespearean hues. It left me reeling.
The history of psychosurgery and the life of Henry Molaison are vital because they reveal a callous disregard that can exist among even the most revered doctors in our society. We must be reminded of their fallibility. The consequences are too grave.
Mike D’Angelo is a teacher and writer who lives in Massachusetts. He holds a BA in classics from the University of New Hampshire and has studied at Union Theological Seminary and the University of New Hampshire’s MFA program. Mike is at work on a book about the life of his grandfather Leonard Kille.
October 24, 2016 § 5 Comments
Here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin we have a hero: Justin Vernon, the Grammy award-winning musician of Bon Iver fame. I first heard his name a year or so following the 2007 release of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” a haunting album made all the better by the haunting story attached to it. According to legend, after a rough stint in North Carolina, a down-and-out Vernon left his broken band, his broken heart, and his bout of mononucleosis, and returned north to Wisconsin. Upon his return, he grabbed his recording equipment, then holed up in his family’s cabin, emerging three months later with what would soon be deemed a critically-acclaimed album.
This oft-fetishized story is of interest to artists and musicians alike due to our shared question: What in the hell happened in that cabin during those three solitary months? Interviews with Vernon offer a bit of insight (some writing, some strumming, some reruns of Northern Exposure), but I’ve always wanted to know the real story. What he saw when he looked into the dark of Dunn County as the next layer of snow draped down. And what he felt as those first notes began to hit their marks, when he discovered that his now famous falsetto enhanced everything.
As Vernon concluded his southern stint and returned north, I headed in the opposite direction, leaving the Midwest to enroll in the graduate writing program at the University of Alabama. There, I endured no broken bands, no broken hearts, no mononucleosis—which admittedly, left a budding nonfiction writer such as myself with few stories worth putting to the page.
Yet in the spring of 2010 things changed. In my final semester, I took a class from visiting nonfiction writer Dinty W. Moore. While driving us to a local barbecue joint, Dreamland, for lunch one day, I began asking him about the limits of nonfiction. How far can you bend an essay before you break it? At what point does a fact become a fiction?
That afternoon, over banana pudding and ribs, Blurring the Boundaries was born. For the next two years, I’d serve as the project’s editor, asking contributors to share work that explored “the borderlands between genre.” Additionally, I asked writers to provide a behind-the-scenes “mini-essay” on their writing process for their included work. I wanted readers to know what happened when nobody was looking.
Nearly six years removed from that fateful lunch—and as we approach the four-year anniversary of the book’s publication—it’s clear to me now that my interest in “what-happens-when-nobody’s-looking” was motivated by the same curiosity that has kept me wondering what occurred in that cabin when Justin Vernon found his voice. Of course, the legend is always more interesting than the truth, but the truth can often prove more helpful. In their “mini-essays,” the Blurring the Boundaries contributors confirmed for me that writing—like all art—is a terribly messy process. The only part worth seeing is the final product, though an unflinching glimpse in the messy middle is where we artists stand to learn the most
I’d always hoped that Blurring the Boundaries might provide that unflinching glimpse. I wanted to demystify the notion that great art comes in the form of a lightning bolt. I wanted to highlight, too, that even the writers we admire most spend a lot of time rolling around in the muck. I suppose what I was truly after was an honest portrayal of the difficulties of making art. Sure, it’s nice to imagine Justin Vernon’s silhouette on the midnight snow as his muse whispered all the right notes. But I imagine it wasn’t as lovely as all that. Sometimes we create our best work—as I do—while donning a bathrobe in a basement beside a furnace. It’s not glamorous; no one ever said it would be.
Beyond all this, I also intended for Blurring the Boundaries to showcase the value in the experiment, especially when the experiment has the potential to fail. I wanted to commend the risk-taking, provide a space where it was okay for writers to try something uncomfortable and untested. As a result, some of the anthology’s essays feel unfamiliar to readers, and to my mind, this unfamiliarity is proof of their success. If one goal of the anthology was to provide an “exploration to the fringes of nonfiction” (as the subtitle notes), then the fringe should feel unfamiliar. That’s what makes it a fringe.
A few weeks back, Justin Vernon released his latest album, “22, A Million.” It’s nothing like the one that came before. Pitchfork described it as “strange and experimental” while Rolling Stones added that it sounded “like the work of an artist starting over from scratch.” Don’t be fooled; these are virtues, and part of the reason the album’s been deemed a “sonic masterpiece” as well.
Last weekend, I ran into Justin Vernon while washing our hands in a bathroom. I played it cool, tried to act as if I wasn’t washing my hands alongside a musician I deeply admire. We shared some small talk—I mentioned that my creative writing students would be analyzing his lyrics during our poetry unit—and he thanked me.
He thanked me.
But of course, I wanted to thank him. Not only for giving us the myth of the man in the cabin who made music, but for subverting that myth as well. And for releasing a new album fully stripped of the very things that made him famous, for having the courage to reinvent a wheel rather than retread the one that worked so well. “Some use technology as a tool of correction,” the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Vernon and his collaborators use it as a trigger for forced errors…”
Indeed, it’s an album that revels in its “messiness.” One that, at least for me, confirms that it’s okay to be “strange and experimental”, that it’s acceptable to start from scratch. The album reminds me, too, that though it’s always a risk to take a risk, it’s a risk not to take one, too.
My hope is that Blurring the Boundaries might affirm the same message. To remind readers and writers of a simple truth: that art isn’t always easy or pretty or clean, but that’s what makes it art.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. Hollars serves as a mentor for Creative Nonfiction and a contributing blogger for Brain, Child.
October 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
A prize of $1,008.15 and publication in Quarter After Eight is given annually for a prose poem, a short short story, or a micro-essay. Ander Monson will judge. Submit up to three pieces of no more than 500 words each with a $15 entry fee, which includes a subscription to Quarter After Eight, by November 15. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.
Deadline: November 15, 2016
Entry Fee: $15
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Quarter After Eight, Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest, Ohio University, 360 Ellis Hall, Athens, OH 45701.
October 19, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Samantha Tucker
Lately, my only urge is to rant. It may take a decade of psychic distance from this election to accurately essay, to try and understand each experience: the saturated realities of Facebook feeds, the talking heads and the buttons on lapels, the chalk messages on campus. I’m not experiencing this time with any nuance; my emotions roll like sea surges, rising, abrupt, cruel, from miles away, crashing down, unfurling shock and horror though I stayed and waited, long observed the tide gathering strength. It is not so unlike the moments after the news of a loved-one’s death, this build, this unavoidable torrent. You stand through it, or you do not, and hopefully after it resides you can be found on the ground, mostly intact.
I’ll be voting in Ohio this year because I’m currently a student and instructor at The Ohio State University. I’ve kept “The” at the beginning of the school name because 1. I am a creative nonfiction writer and teacher, thus I relish insignificant truths, and 2. It’s not insignificant. That capital “The” is not only an official word in the school name, it also signifies an essential Ohioan-ness, a common, endearing exceptionalism. This is a state full of corn-fed, routine-Americans turned Astronauts; Buckeye Beloveds become National Leaders; everyday voters predicting the future of a nation.
We’ve been discussing essays vs. events in the Intermediate Nonfiction class I teach, though I failed my students as I was mistaken: the phrase is actually essays vs. experiences. I learned this from Stephanie G’Schwind, a dear mentor and friend of mine, the commander-in-chief of Colorado Review. In an article with Essay Daily, Stephanie wrote, “I see this frequently in submissions to Colorado Review: truly interesting things—sometimes amazing things—happening to people, that don’t translate into very interesting essays. As many of us nonfiction editors have said, writers sometimes confuse experience with essay, rather than finding the essay in the experience.” But I’m even farther away, confusing event with experience, and so how far am I from the point of essay? It is not enough to capture, vividly, the moments essential to our lives. We must push farther—how do these moments resonate? In time, place, history? How do experiences add up to self? To community? And can you convince your reader your version must be recorded? I watch the first debate in an indie Columbus theatre with too many people who agree with me. We boo and hiss at the big screen. We cover our eyes with our hands, our shirts, our foaming glasses of beer. It may be difficult to know which one you’re writing, experience or essay, without a certain amount of distance, I tell my students. I call my parents after the debate, and my stepdad is weary, my mother resigned, exhausted. She has been since 30APRIL2008. What denotes an experience? I ask my students. I walk home after the debates, sob in the dark, clutching my phone like a buoy. How do we move from event to experience to essay?
If I gave into lack of nuance and time and distance, I’d stop every passerby and whisper: My brother was killed in Iraq in 2008. His name is Ronnie. I’d put my arm around their shoulder and treat them like an old friend. This experience is not precisely related to your right to vote, I’d tell them, though my mother may promise it is. Don’t you feel sorry for us now? Aren’t you interested in how I’m voting? Shouldn’t my opinion hold more sway than your blowhard uncle using memes incorrectly? Shouldn’t my rage push you farther than your Socialist undergrad roomie from Northwestern, shouting “LIVE BERN OR DIE”? I’d grip them tighter, or pull them face to face, beg their attention rather than their retreating back. Do you know someone looking to publish my tangential Op-Ed? It’s about a series of personal experiences loosely if undeniably linked to current experiences. My brother is dead, I’d remind them. Someone hear my voice.
My students are brilliant. They are intuitive, absurdly-gifted. They speak of the “I” and the “Eye” in essay, they beg for scene when it’s needed, and seek narrative interiority, the writer at the desk, when the detailed showing is weak or inadequate. They dutifully read Tell it Slant and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Eula Biss and Rachel Toliver. They are generous with each other in workshop, in peer feedback, in class discussion. This, above all else: they are generous. I am grateful for these inspiring Ohioans. Generosity is relative to hope. Hope is just the promise of more time.
In June, I went to Kansas City. I scored hundreds of AP exams with several thousand other composition instructors for eight hours a day in a concrete-floored event center. A man sat by me at breakfast. He wore a ball cap and snapped the New York Times. He was a retired prof from a small, private university in California. “You say you’re an essayist?” He seemed astonished. “Well, can you tell me what essay means?” I set down my banana and said, “Yes, I can. Because, as I said, I’m an essayist. It means to try.” This retired prof from a small, private university in California was truly delighted. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, or that’s what I want, right now, to say he did—exclaimed, oh my’d. “No one’s ever known that before! Wonderful! Enjoy your test scoring!” As he sauntered away, all pep in his step, I muse at how many people have experienced his low-key interrogations.
A student of mine keeps deleting her work. She feels embarrassed, like she overshared in one instance, or as if she has nothing important to say. Our nonfiction class is voice-focused, both in considering word choice and cadence and craft-related causalities, but also in “What does one have to offer? How does your perspective inform the world?” I tell my students the personal is political. I tell them the personal, at its best rendered, is universal. They take this to heart; they are desperately generous. I ask my student to stop deleting her work. I ask her to set, what she is unsure of, aside. I ask her to wait. Wait it out, I say. Distance is trying.
Samantha Tucker is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for Guernica, The Toast, Bust Magazine, and has work forthcoming with Ecotone. Tucker’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher.
October 18, 2016 § 10 Comments
You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?
For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?
First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.
Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.
Lesson number one: Persistence.
One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.
Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.
Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.
Lesson number three: Start from scratch.
When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.
Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.
I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.
Lesson number five: Shake up the process.
By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.
Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.
Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.
When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.
Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)
When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?
Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)
When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.
Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.
I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.
And wondered what to write next.
Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)
Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.