July 22, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Vivian Wagner
At Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio last month, I played a soon-to-be-released collaborative role-playing game called “Turning Point.” Unlike RPGs that focus on dungeons and elves, this one focused on a woman in a contemporary setting trying to decide whether to undergo a new treatment for her chronic fatigue syndrome.
It was a remarkable and moving experience, one that illustrated for me the ways that role-playing games exist in a permeable and fluid space between fiction and nonfiction, game and story. Over the course of playing the game, which was led by Senda Linaugh, who co-designed the game with Phil Vecchione, we worked together to construct and act out scenes from our main character’s life. I found myself telling stories that were, at least in part, based on my own experiences, and it was fascinating to see how we wove a collaborative character out of the particulars of our lives.
In the beginning, the game had several scenarios from which to choose. The one we went with was called “I Want a New Drug.” The basic premise of this scenario was that our main character would have an illness and be in the midst of deciding whether to start a new treatment for that illness. Together, we had to determine the specifics of the character, the illness, and the treatment.
Our character, we decided, would be named Violet. She was 49 and lived in Columbus, and she’d recently been divorced. In order to better live with her chronic fatigue syndrome, she was considering an experimental treatment that used soundwaves that would be delivered via an implant in her skull. We recorded the specifics about Violet’s life on a character sheet, including the fact that she had a cat and liked to knit and crochet, and then we had to improvise and act out several scenes from her life. Ultimately, our goal was to understand key components of her personality and experiences that would lead her to decide to go with the treatment or not.
One of the first scenes we did had to be with someone in her life who’d been ill. I jumped in and said I’d play a young Violet speaking with her bed-bound mother. All of a sudden I found myself constructing a scene that echoed elements of my relationship with my own mother, who had been ill with emphysema and bed bound for most of the latter part of her life. Through tears, I acted out a scene with Linaugh, who played the mother. As we improvised, others threw plastic heart tokens to the center of the table—one of the ways we measured the effectiveness and importance of various scenes.
I was surprised how without thinking I was drawing on real experiences to construct a narrative in a presumably fictional game. There were layers of meaning and experience in this game, I realized, that transcended any traditional notion of play. As we progressed through other emotional scenes, I realized that others were drawing on similarly personal elements of their own lives to construct this story.
Playing an interactive, collaborative, improvisational game is not exactly the same thing as writing either creative nonfiction or fiction, to be sure, but it seems to me that it could be considered a kind of emerging subgenre of both—one that will likely appeal to new generations of creators who’ve been raised on video games and have come to expect some degree of interactivity in their art.
At the end of the game, we tallied up various votes and tokens, ultimately discovering that Violet decided to do the treatment. She was ready to experiment, to try a different path. And I think we, as storytellers, might be, as well.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. Her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Muse/A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gone Lawn, The Atlantic, Narratively, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Bending Genres, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington); a full-length poetry collection, Raising (Clare Songbirds Publishing House); and three poetry chapbooks: The Village (Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books), Making (Origami Poems Project), and Curiosities (Unsolicited Press). Visit her website at http://www.vivianwagner.net.
July 19, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
Has knowledge of Laika already broken your heart? Do you hear her name and quickly shut down your emotions before you lose control of them? Do you think of her, traveling through the emptiness all those decades ago, and wail your sorrow into the nearest soft object? Well, then, brace yourself and join me. Because we are going to look head-on at Laika, the first living being to orbit our planet, for at least the length of this review.
Kurt Caswell’s detailed, deeply felt biography, Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog, covers not just the most famous dog of the century but also her context. Caswell writes of many other animals in space and space programs, offers thumbnails of the Russian space program and the history of animal experimentation generally, and speculates quite compellingly about the men who worked with Laika and how she herself experienced her journey. This last is the touchstone of the book: what was in Laika’s mind as she sat patiently in her capsule, as she underwent the enormous physical stress and pressure of liftoff, as she died. Caswell returns to these questions again and again. Laika’s actual mind is, of course, a mystery, but Caswell’s perspective on her makes the book a warm and meaningful read.
While the American space program experimented with monkeys in the 1950s, because they were similar to humans, the Russian space program used dogs instead. Monkeys “proved difficult to train and vulnerable to the stresses of spaceflight,” the Russians determined. “They just weren’t very tough…. The Soviets knew dogs, and they knew how to work with them.” (Blame Pavlov.) A variety of dogs were acquired, most of them hardy, friendly strays, and were cared for very well as they were trained and tested. Caswell tells stories of the space program staff loving the dogs, having strong bonds with them, feeding them special treats. “The space dogs of Soviet Russia were not lab animals, I think,” Caswell proposes. “They were cosmonauts, highly trained working dogs with a job to do.”
As with police dogs and military dogs, though, the job was dangerous. Everyone involved with the space dogs knew they would not survive being shot into space. Getting Laika safely back to earth was not possible with the technology of the time, though shooting her into space was. She was the best fit for the job of first animal into orbit both literally—she was a small dog, and the smaller the better in space programs—and because of her temperament. She was profoundly patient, capable of sitting in a confined space for 20 days, and she took well to space training.
And so, on November 3, 1957, up she went, inside Sputnik II. She died of overheating after a few orbits, but she passed on a wealth of information about the status and survival of living beings in space, such that Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit a few years later would not have been possible without her.
The Soviets who worked with Laika offered her all due credit, and the nation put up multiple monuments to her. Caswell, too, depicts her as a hero in Laika’s Window. He also doesn’t shrink from asking questions about the ethics of Laika’s story: “What does it mean that we use animals for our own designs, our own purposes, to improve human life, for wealth and power? What does it mean that we sacrifice them instead of ourselves?” Both his philosophizing about Laika and his sentimentality about her should be demerits on the book’s quality, but in this case they are perfectly placed. Laika cannot help but inspire sentiment, and if you have no curiosity about what went through the mind of a dog who saw the earth from above, I am not sure you should be reading books at all.
The only off note in what is otherwise a sure and confident book is the epilogue, which editorializes that we, the human race, must establish colonies on Mars. Caswell says that he started the process of writing Laika’s Window thinking the opposite, that we needed to sort out the problems of this planet first, but writing the book changed his mind. Reading it did not change mine. His insistence on this point, after the sensitivity and level consideration he brought to Laika, seemed out of place. Still, this final note hardly mars a marvelous tribute to a heroic dog.
After reading in such detail about her, though, I am not reassured that Laika had a noble fate. I clenched my jaw painfully in order to write this review, and a picture of Laika will tell you why. She looks like a sweet little dog, eager and friendly, and, science be damned, she died a lonely death at the hands of the human race. Now she is immortal, when as a street dog in Moscow she might not have lived past 1960. But when I think of her, sitting in a tin can, running out of air one breath at a time, I am indifferent to what her life might have been. My heart breaks for what was.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in early 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.
July 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Melissa Matthewson
If you think of life as a series of devotional moments and, also, of cognitive reasoning, or at least a thinking of one’s self in relationship to others and in relationship to our most vulnerable moments, especially fear, then it reasons that we might arrange a self in such a way that we might interrogate our insecurities, or at least, expose our vulnerabilities. That in this, we can find profound connection with each other. That’s the hope. Perhaps this is the function of art—and why we need it so urgently—that is, art reminds us of our own possible transformation through collective inquiry and beautiful expression.
For instance, I was stopped at a train crossing recently, commuting to work, morning near eight, and paused at the edge of the tracks, taking in the surrounding landscape as the train and the patterns of graffiti art tagged on the steel cars rumbled by. And in the significance of this small moment, I recognized the tessellations of change scratched into the train car, a representation of both beauty and the loss of beauty, which equates to me the purposes of literature: to show the dark and the light.
To think further on this, perhaps the reason I devour books, is to an encounter an inquisitive mind who challenges my notions of the world in unexpected ways. Further, the essay, when written well, makes me feel less alone and serves as an instrument for transformation. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.” This is all to say that this is what Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s essay collections does—takes a circumstance of our lives—fear—and transforms it into a book of timeless ideas from which we might or could transform.
The essays in Fear Icons, the inaugural prize winner of the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press, are invigorating in that they present to the reader a stylistic candy shop from which to sample: essays as letters to iconic figures in popular culture as well as explorations of motherhood, violence, culture, pain, politics, to name a few of the subjects. In essence, Schlegel’s style is spare, controlled, precise, sometimes proceeding with caution. What Schlegel does best is to reveal the dark underbelly of the human condition—asking hard questions about who we are, what we fear. The work is smart and precise in its word choice. At the outset, she asks, “Who are we to each other when we are afraid?” She engages with a historical line of authors – referring to the shadow texts at the back of the book. From Barthes to Maurice Sendak, from Terrance Hayes to Anne Carson, Schlegel situates her own thinking and inquiry within a tradition of thinkers and artists, lifting the narrative to new heights. She also experiments with hybrid forms and lyric narrative—braided essays, letters, fragments, dates and time, numbers, illustrations, white space. Each form speaks to the content that lie within the essay.
My favorite part of Kisha’s collection is when she reveals herself, as the “I,” the persona who shifts and changes as we encounter various stories within the book. She is a compelling character in her own right and she invited me into her stories such that I felt comfortable following her lead. I particularly favored the essays in which Schlegel reveals herself as parent and the ways that we fear for our children and also love them. In one essay early on in the collection, “Gun,” Schlegel opens, “I needed something to be beautiful again, so I took my son to The Nutcracker, to see the sugar plum children dance.” The imagery set forth here feels encompassing and visceral. As in all of Schlegel’s essays, there is an attention and devotion to language, to beautiful sentences, which as both a reader and writer, is what makes me fall in love. As she continues in “Gun,” Schlegel reveals the beauty of motherhood: “For a brief moment, I only felt the weight of his warm body. I feel his legs dangling against my legs, his knees over my knees. Our bodies moved together. He was a little planet in my orbit, and I was a planet in his.” This, juxtaposed to the thread in which Schlegel investigates the violence, death, and trauma of the Newtown school shooting. As she watches her son play, she writes, “I turned away so I couldn’t think of dead children while looking at my living child.” She describes her fear in this essay as she imagines a shooting in a movie theater and how she might respond, how she imagines surviving. She continues to investigate both her own life, her son’s, and the ways we fear, damage, and wound each other, both in specific ways and subtly. Schlegel seamlessly integrates an anecdote into the essay to reveal her own fears by telling the story of a little girl building blocks with her son in the library. She imagines the girl will do something to harm her and writes, “A part of you dies even though you live, the destruction moves all too easily from one person to another. I’m not comfortable thinking this way, but there it is: the idea that the wounded will wound.”
In an essay in which she explores the persona of Dolly Parton, Schlegel visits the Dollywood Amusement Park, and the replica of Parton’s home is the point from which Schlegel investigates notions of beauty, time, nostalgia, and preservation. Parton has changed her appearance in every way possible and in this transformation, Schlegel asks, “What’s it like to preserve yourself this way? What is it that makes us care?” She continues thinking about the persona of Dolly, how we both admire and turn away, with, “Dolly bubbles onward, floating somewhere between a down-home country song and that figment of timelessness called fame. She stays a comfort and so strange, ours and not ours, hers and not hers.” Schlegel then turns her attention to nostalgia, to the strangeness of being human. She thinks of herself as a girl, all the possibility held within, writes of herself, remembering, “I sit cross-legged in the clover, feeling all the strangeness of being alive only to die.” Schlegel doesn’t look away from the difficulty of living, of pressing on in her essays to investigate the dark realm of being, of time, and diminished selves, and “the magpies are already gathering in the corner of the year, waiting for what remains.” It’s an essay that builds through layers and accretions, exposing our terror, exposing our comfort, showing us what it’s like to live.
All in all, I think what is most admirable about Schlegel’s essays is her unafraid progression—she’s not fearful of trying to write the dark, the hard, the sad. She wants us to confront fear, and she does so with depth. I admire her smart, thinking mind and the way she crafts language in surprising ways to show us something we need in order to live—to transform, as Borges said, for the eternal.
Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Guernica, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives on a farm in the Applegate Valley and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is forthcoming from Split Lip Press (Sept 2019).
July 17, 2019 § 10 Comments
In William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, Steve Almond discusses a book that changed his life—John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner—and argues that novels are not merely books, but instead “manuals for living.”
Almond never disappoints: his prose is always powerful, provocative. He is a respected teacher and literary advocate. He is funny. He is generous.
So we tracked him down to ask a few questions about his idiosyncratic book-about-a-book and Steve’s prolific, wide-ranging writing life.
Here we go:
Dinty W. Moore: You write in your book that prior to encountering the novel Stoner, you “assumed the point of literature was to document the lives of the driven and depraved, the lawless and lust-riven, in short: the memorable… It hadn’t occurred to me that the story of every life is, from a cosmic perspective, one of obscurity. You are alive for some brief span, then you die.”
Is this a revelation limited to the fiction writer side of you, or did it influence your view of, and writing of, memoir and nonfiction over the years?
Steve Almond: Yeah, that line “You are alive for some brief span, then you die” is vintage Almond — you can hear the guy making a rather desperate play for the Beach Read crowd.
What I’m saying here applies to all genres of writing, and more broadly to all human endeavor, to the delusion that we can achieve “immortality” by means of our ambitions. The truth is, most of the meaning we find and create in our life comes in the private moments during which we seek to pay attention (and therefore love) the people around us, not in our striving public deeds.
I’m not trying to depress people here. I’m simply trying to get Americans in particular to pull their heads out of their asses, to abandon the ridiculous idea that a life is worth living, or regarding, if it involves public acclaim, the killing of many people, the accumulation of great wealth and power, the fucking of a celebrity, etc. We’re really lost as a culture. How else could we wind up with such a cruel and vapid leader?
That’s why Stoner registers to me as a revolutionary book. It posits the perfectly absurd notion that what ranks as heroic and redemptive is the act of bearing witness to your life. Stoner suffers a great deal in his life. He betrays his parents and never forgives himself. His marriage is a failure. He fails as a father. His career goes nowhere. By the math of the obituary, he’s a nobody, a never was. But at the same time, he leads a life of deep meaning. He rescues himself from a life of agricultural servitude. His soul is awakened by literature. He works very hard to be a good teacher, to transmit love and attention to his students. He experiences a transcendent passion.
And thus, at the end of his life, he’s able to silence the voice within himself (within all of us) that says: Hey, you were a failure. He never amounted to much. Nobody took notice. He delivers this remarkable line, maybe the most hopeful line in all of literature:
He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure—as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been.
Omigod. You guys. That’s what I want to feel at the end. Hell, it’s what I want to feel every minute of my life.
Dinty: You mention the “swamp of reality television” and a mania that has infiltrated our literary culture, “with agents and editors stalking ‘larger than life’ stories ripe for cross promotion” alongside “our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward, our readiness to privilege action over contemplation. Our tireless compulsion to be known by the world rather than seeking to know ourselves.” Though I don’t think you mean it this way, some of what you say here echoes recent critics of the memoir, especially those who question modern trauma narratives. What about this? What would the novelist John Williams have to say about the various memoir controversies and dust-ups of the past decade or so?
Steve: The point of Stoner—or at least one of the central points—is that what matters isn’t the quality of a particular life, but the quality of attention paid to that life. That’s what marks any piece of autobiographical work as special, from St. Augustine to Knausgard to Didion to Laymon. It’s the author’s attention to his or her own experience, and their determination to go beyond self-regard into the more dangerous and thrilling province of self-reflection.
What I’m talking about in regards to reality TV, or “larger than life” stories is the voice of the marketplace, the absurd (and again, quintessentially American) idea that what makes a life worthy is some garish “hook.” It’s this kind of capitalist pressure that induces writers such as James Frey to lie to the reader, to gin up drama by making up stuff that didn’t happen to them, or by causing authors to lie about their own identities and experiences.
The entire point of Stoner is that every human life is full of remarkable drama, because every human being comes equipped with an inner life, a set of yearnings and fears and confusions that are concealed from the world and yet persistently, unavoidably, experienced. It is the mission of all art, but literary art in particular, to engage with this inner life.
The problem with fake memoirs is simply that the writers are lying to their readers. Because the definition of creative nonfiction really isn’t that complicated, in my view. It’s a radically subjective version of events that objectively took place. The moment you start making stuff up you’re engaged in the making of another kind of writing: fiction. Which is just wonderful. But you can’t bullshit the reader about what you’re up to.
Because your readers are all you’ve got. They are your allies, your collaborators. You owe them clarity and you owe them truth. There’s no need to pander to the lesser parts of them, to chase ambulances or flog the language for beauty. Pursue the truth–tenderly, ruthlessly–and the residue of that pursuit is beauty.
Dinty W. Moore founded and continues to edit Brevity and the Brevity Blog.
July 16, 2019 § 34 Comments
By Sarah Anne Strickley
I recently read a piece online about how the Internet is like the industrial revolution in that we won’t understand its impact until we’ve gained significant distance. But, as an editor with more than twenty years of experience and as the current faculty editor of a bi-annual journal, I think I can say right now that the Internet has transformed the business of literary journals into a system that actively works against the practice of reading for pleasure.
For more than two decades, writers have argued the various advantages and disadvantages of digital media. Digital journals are more portable, accessible, cheaper, and more easily transmitted than print journals. They have, for all intents and purposes, won the war. Case in point: the idea of starting a new print magazine now sounds insane; only the bold, the idealistic, and the angry endeavor to do it. Shout-out to my good friends at Oversound!
The comparatively smaller monetary investment required to start an online journal means that a broader range of literary tastes are serviced in a digital publishing landscape. It also means that traditionally marginalized voices have a greater chance of circumventing those old, fusty gatekeepers. But the massive proliferation of literary journals online has, among other things, diluted the meaning of publication to the degree that we’ve clung to pre-digital hierarchies as a defense against chaos.
Despite our market-expressed preference for disruptive digital technologies, we still trust The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Granta and handful of other top-tier publications to tell us who is writing the most important, must-read work today. (There are notable all-digital exceptions to this rule, of course. You’re reading this diatribe on the Brevity blog, after all.) The important difference now, though, is that we don’t want to pay for access to that information, which is one of the reasons why journals like Tin House, Glimmer Train, and The Normal School, to name only a few recent (and painful) examples, are closing up the print-issue shop.
As many avid readers are quick to note, the experience of reading physical books is different enough from the experience of reading digital books to retain its value. That’s why indie bookstores are in the midst of an exciting resurgence. But there is a broader audience for books than there is for literary journals. The audience for literary journals is predominantly made up of writers. We can quibble over the reasons, but the cold, hard truth is that writers have decided that they don’t want to pay for access to literary journals. The medium has not retained its value; it is, therefore, unlikely to experience an approximate resurgence. But does that necessarily mean that it’s dead?
Only publications with established, dynamic, and diversified funding structures—and a heaping helping of straight-up grit and luck—will survive the current extinction event ravaging the literary publishing planet. I won’t sentimentalize the days of yore (journals have always been propped up by generous donors, selfless editors, and affiliate institutions), but I will say that I deeply regret the disappearance of so many wonderful and daring publications. It is my sincere belief that the world will be less interesting for the loss of them.
Like many writers who are also editors, I have the very clear sense that we are reaching a highly regrettable inflection point. As a writer myself, I know the frustration of paying journals to spend a year (or more!) not reading my work only to fire off a form rejection, but I also know what the back end of a literary journal looks like: a tiny budget, a reliance upon an unpaid editorial staff, a fraught relationship with costly digital submission managers, a shrinking audience, and an unwieldy fire hose of digital submissions aimed directly at our heads.
My experience is anecdotal, but it’s also common enough among literary editors as to be depressingly representative of the state of affairs. We know that a substantial percentage of the writers who submit to our journals do not read our journals; many of us have long-since abandoned the hope that a readership of writers would be willing to pay to sustain our literary journals; and we’re also often the targets of some writerly hostility. (Ask me about the writer who began e-mailing one of my undergraduate editors when he didn’t like the response he’d heard from me, or the writer who decided her best poems were too good for us post-acceptance and sent us three others instead.)
It’s easy to become apathetic in the face of apathy, to throw up your hands and say: what’s the point of all this? Two recent trends have convinced me that the meaning may have fallen out of the endeavor: It’s not at all uncommon for a certain tier of writer to demand as a prerequisite to responding to a query letter that an editor promise to nominate the work (sight unseen) for certain honors and awards. And it’s not at all uncommon for a different tier of writer to list the number of publications earned (sans titles of journals) in cover letters. As in, “I have published in 122 journals.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? Increasingly, it’s the mere fact of the publication in the context of cover letters to editors and agents that matters, not the fact that the reading of the publication might offer a unique (and valuable) pleasure to the reader. It’s a numbers game. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much of a taste for math. What I love, instead, is the thrill of discovery, the opportunity to reconsider what I know of genre conventions, the chance to lose myself in a story and wake up an hour later with my head on backwards.
Where else can you read Lydia Davis or Carmen Maria Machado published alongside writers publishing their first poems? Where else can you encounter variety within variety: a creative non-fiction category, for example, that features flash, longform reporting, and lyric essays? Or an 83-page poem published alongside a series of translations? Where else can you read literary reviews that are written in the service of explicating a book-length work in literary (and distinctly non-commercial) terms—for the sheer love of it?
The work of the literary editor is about providing a rich readerly experience to an audience that is far more likely to read a tweeted photograph of a printed page or follow a link posted to Facebook than to purchase an issue and/or read it whole. But those of us who keep on keeping on are often the ones too in love with the business to ever stop. Bringing writers together and sharing their work with others is often a thankless, soul-wearying endeavor. It’s also the most wonderful job I know.
I’m convinced that online journals have a shot at sustainability (the journal I edit is online, so I have become a digital strategizer and a shameless crowdfunder) but we appear to be reaching a point where writer/reader apathy collides with editor apathy. I fear that the tension might erupt in a conflict that precipitates yet another round of extinctions. I’m not sure how we fight back—perhaps no one knows—but I do know that it would help if the tone and tenor of the business were less antagonistic and more celebratory. We’re all on the same team, I find myself repeating to myself. And then, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering: Are we on the same team?
There are certain technologies that always endure cultural paradigm shifts and words are one them, of course. I hope we come around to discovering their value in the context of the literary journal again—and soon. With any luck, I’ll still be here. Reading the slush. Forever.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Copper Nickel, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at www.sarahannestrickley.com and visit Miracle Monocle at http://louisville.edu/miraclemonocle
July 15, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Melissa Oliveira
When a potter says a glaze is crazed, she means that a pot’s smooth, glass-like surface has turned out cracked. Whether it appears thick as a parched salt flat or fine as a spider’s web, crazing arrives with a dreaded high, recurrent pinging from within the cooling kiln. It’s often blamed on a mismatch between clay and glaze: the inner clay body and the outer surface shrink while they cool, but if they longer “fit,” stress causes the surface to pull apart—literally, to craze. I learned this definition a decade ago, when a few hours each week sitting at a potter’s wheel helped, with therapy and medication, to ease the depression and panic attacks taking turns at the wheel of my psyche. At a glaze workshop one night, I wrote the word crazing in a slip-stained notebook, alongside percentages of flux and silica, good solid recipes that wouldn’t lead to glaze instability. Crazing is all I remember now, suggestive as it was of a rift between outer and inner, of the care given to surface concerns undone by my inability to hold it all together.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s recent Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir reminded me of this time; in many ways it is the book I wish I’d had back then. A hybrid of both personal narrative and reported facts, Quite Mad speaks directly to the “binary that exists in our understanding of mental illness… that pits the self against the disorder, the individual against their own body and mind.” The book explores this rift by blending the author’s own story of PTSD, OCD, and anxiety with research into America’s past and present treatment of mental illness. To cover so much material could have resulted in an unwieldy book, but Montgomery’s keen curiosity guides us through history, social criticism, and the author’s lived experience.
The book’s opening scenes present Montgomery in terms of contrasts: she is a young, successful PhD student who is nevertheless tortured by anxiety. Her symptoms have literally brought her to her knees, and she finds herself daily in a university bathroom stall, vomiting as her mind spins with anxious, obsessive thoughts. They have, to some degree, haunted her since childhood; her parents, overburdened by financial stress and the demands of an ever-expanding family of biological and adopted children, each with their own traumas, were “too kind”: called to help others, but with little left over for indulging anxiety. Now, as a grown woman, the symptoms converge on Montgomery.
After this “patient history,” Montgomery doles out parts of her own story, using them to segue into various topics, like how women with mental illness have fared in popular consciousness (even back as far as Margery Kempe), to America’s present-day reliance on pharmaceuticals. Montgomery writes, “We cannot accurately describe our pain, because pain exists beyond narrative”: a disclosure I appreciated, when so many stories about mental health try to force a conclusion at recovery as though the story ends there. Montgomery, rather, writes, “I did not get better,” and we see her at different stages. How Quite Mad delves into the concepts of “recovered” or “better”—and how each term is laden with cultural expectations of behavior—acknowledges both a complicated history and an ongoing personal process.
Her work about the historical treatment of women is especially strong, with sharp commentary on how “the notion that the female body was inherently ill” resulted in violence masquerading as treatment. “Why does the world we’ve created for women lead to their madness?” She writes, “Consider this: Paris, 1825. Doctors testified that if a woman insists she is not mad, her denial was absolute proof of her insanity.” From gendered drug marketing campaigns to forced sterilizations and lobotomies, Montgomery covers important ground directing our awareness to how bias, racism, abuse, misogyny, and profit-seeking have always factored into treatment.
“The stories we tell about mental illness,” Montgomery writes, “label it both chronic and curable because to talk of disease without cure is problematic for a country concerned with triumph.” Instead of triumph, she offers a reprieve whose narrative designs feel, to me at least, somehow closer to life. The “mental illness memoir” serves a special purpose for some of us; in reading them, we read for explanations, or to name our experiences, or for reassurance that we aren’t alone. Quite Mad joins several recent works, from The Glass Eye to Heart Berries to The Collected Schizophrenias which, thankfully, seem to be working toward new ways of writing about mental health.
Melissa Oliveira’s writing is published or forthcoming in Ploughshares Solos, AGNI, The Normal School, RHINO Poetry and others. Her book reviews appear in Hippocampus, The Kenyon Review Online, The Rumpus, PANK Online and more. She currently lives in Berlin, where she is working on a novel-in-stories about the divided city.
July 12, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Cathy Elcik
In a world where writing means the syncopated click of touch typing onto a screen filled with digital words, trailing black ink across the white pages of a notebook feels like a Brontosaurus wailing at a meteorite of progress, but I still prefer a ballpoint dinosaur to electronic progress. I prefer paper to computer screens. I prefer ink to pixels.
Just as the scriveners of Melville’s time might have taken one look at a ballpoint pen and said they’d prefer not to upgrade their quills, I’m suspicious of the cursor on my laptop that blinks with the impatience of a tapping foot. I prefer the quiet patience of blank paper spread out like a field of fresh snow inviting me to make my mark.
A laptop may be able to perfectly typeset my thoughts as I write them, but a first draft has no business being easy to read. A first draft shouldn’t herald itself in a cacophony of clattering keys. A first draft should arrive with the raindrop-quiet of the popping sound my ballpoint makes skittering through the cursive-and-printing hybrid of my handwriting. A first draft needs the whisper of the thoughts I haven’t made sense of yet to be echoed by the whisper of my hand gliding across the page as I finish with one word and move onto the next.
On paper my thoughts can be crossed out. On paper my thoughts can snake up a margin to avoid separating related thoughts between the front and the back. On paper my thoughts physically change the page they’re written on: notebook pages filled with ink on both sides make a satisfying crinkle when turned, notebook pages with ink on both sides are crisscrossed with indentations, a tangible topography of ideas; notebook pages filled with ink on both sides waft the clean and acrid smell of black ink, a scent as beloved by this longhand writer as the smell of low tide to a beach lover.
A laptop only listens while I sit upright, but pen and paper listen as I lay on my stomach, my right hand filling my notebook, my left hand stretching out straight, my head resting on my bicep, and my fingers securing the pen against the calloused landing pad of my middle finger so it can leap and twirl, a ballpoint ballet of truth and secrets.
And though it’s true our brains are the original computer—our memories the original ROM, our synapses the original RAM—biological kinship doesn’t mean a laptop’s a better tool than a pen. A piece of tech that requires a fan to prevent its hard-drive from melting down may not be the best tool for a writer whose cerebral hard drive is prone to anxiety meltdowns. Instead of strapping into the digital fast lane where my touch-typed thoughts can be zapped—fast, fast, fast—onto a screen, pen and paper slow my mind long enough for my heart to get a word in edgewise; pen and paper slow my mind long enough for my heart to encourage me to wait for truths that filter up as slowly as water from an aquifer; pen and paper slow my mind long enough for my heart to swell when she recognizes that a truth I’ve waited for so patiently reveals me as clearly as the gentle wave of her long, long neck reveals a Brontosaurus.
Catherine Elcik holds an MA in creative writing from Boston University and is a longtime member of Grub Street’s writing community in Boston. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative, Carve, and the Drum. These days, she’s using her ballpoint pen to work on her novel-in-progress.