May 23, 2019 § 5 Comments
by Vivian Wagner
One cool, April day, seven years almost to the day after my father’s suicide, I sat outside a coffee shop reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. As cherry blossom petals fell around me and onto the pages of the book, I came across this passage in one of its essays, “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness’”
It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always of everything.
The essay ends with the idea that maybe, by joining our wildernesses of sorrow, we can find something like joy:
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Not for the first time in reading The Book of Delights, I found myself crying. And then, as if on cue, a woman walked past with a cup of coffee. I smiled at her through my tears, and she smiled back. It was a brief moment of empathy and connection, of sorrow and joy.
It was a moment, in short, that could have come right out of Gay’s collection.
The Book of Delights is about how everyone lives on a knife edge between life and death, beauty and horror. The book spans the course of a year, from one birthday to the next, with Gay recounting in what he calls “essayettes” his everyday observations and experiences, joys and sorrows. Discussing everything from gardening to race relations, the book’s underlying premise is that connecting with others—particularly in a world rife with division—is central to living a full and happy life.
This practice of writing the essays for the volume is both meditative and interactive, and it leads him down crisscrossing paths shaped by his deep sense of empathy. These are essays about care and concern, and though on the surface they focus on the specific and idiosyncratic details of his daily life, they ultimately aim for a kind of universality, the hidden network of roots and mycelium that holds a culture’s forest together.
In one essay, “Found Things,” for instance, he describes seeing birds swooping through the Detroit airport and witnessing the way their presence brings people together. The idea delight expands through sharing is one of the central themes of the collection. He’s always looking for the small and seemingly insignificant connections we make with one another—a pat on the arm, a friendly glance, a song—that are evidence of shared humanity and, which might well be the same thing, shared mortality.
Race and class are two other central themes in the book. As a black man in the U.S., Gay understands viscerally the ways that people do not always connect and can, in fact, be cruel, dismissive, and violent toward one another. These essays look head-on at the tensions in American culture, even as they seek to find ways to open up fissures of communication, empathy, and understanding.
In one essay, “The Negreeting,” he talks about his desire for communication and acknowledgement between black people on the street—and the disappointment he feels when it’s not always forthcoming. In another, “The High-Five from Strangers, Etc.,” he looks at how what counts as pleasant or delightful is not always universal. As he says,
I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.
And in “Microgentrification: WE BUY GOLD,” he describes sitting in the sun by a café and being told by the owner of a neighboring pawn shop to move along. He doesn’t even need to mention racism in this essay; it’s there in full view.
Nonetheless, the essays in this book all wend toward ground where connections might be made, even if they’re brief, barely-there wisps of recognition. Throughout this collection, Gay remains hopeful that empathy will win.
In its search for connectedness, The Book of Delights is not at all sentimental or trite. Rather, it looks squarely at the rifts between us—rifts that take the form of everything from hatred to casual disassociation—and still dares us to find the tomato plants and songs, the cups of coffee and tears, that we share.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.
May 22, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Anita Gill
Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story explains that when writing memoir: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Debra Gwartney knows this. It’s evident in her extensive body of work, including her first memoir, Live Through This, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Oregon Book Awards. Since then, she’s published essays in journals and anthologies that turn the lens inward, confronting her own vulnerabilities.
Gwartney’s second book veers from the traditional structure of memoir, using a lesser-known historical event as a springboard for her own personal narrative. In I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Gwartney juxtaposes her memories with the story of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women settlers to journey westward. This genre-bending manuscript won the 2018 River Teeth Nonfiction Prize and publication this past March.
A fifth-generation Idahoan, Gwartney first learned about Narcissa in fourth grade. As an adult, she moved away, raising her family in Arizona and Oregon. Every trip back to Idaho, Gwartney confronts her complicated tie to her ancestors’ land. She writes this book with a burning desire to prove she’s part of the land where her family once had shops with their surname proudly displayed, and where her relatives hunted, rafted, and served in the community.
The book is structured into four sections, relating events in Narcissa’s life to Gwartney’s life. Clearly the writer differs from Narcissa. She lacks the pioneer’s religious fervor and her proselytizing ambitions. “But like Narcissa, I stayed. I did what was expected of me. I stepped into the only adult life I would let myself want,” she writes. Gwartney’s interest in Narcissa comes from a deeper place, especially looking closer into the first few years after Narcissa has arrived in Oregon and her only child drowns. Gwartney links to her own near-death accident, making a risky choice to raft along Idaho’s Salmon River. Chapter after chapter, Gwartney uncovers differing accounts about Narcissa, each contradicting the next and molding the independent pioneer woman into a more and more complex character.
Narcissa isn’t a role model of western expansion, but rather Gwartney’s conduit to understand her own complicated relationship to the land and her own family. During a trip back home as an adult, she inherited a book about Narcissa from her grandmother’s library, “a version of history set down in black and white, never to be altered,” she writes. “And hadn’t I done the same with my own? Told and retold the stories of my childhood so often that the memories finally calcified. Probably time to break it apart, my own past and, for some reason I had yet to decipher, hers.”
In a story which Gwartney narrates with such detail, richness in description, and thoughtful reflection, she also embarks on her exploration fully aware of the stakes involved. Even though this story is about white pioneers venturing into the wilderness with the earnest ambition of doing God’s work and saving the “savages,” Gwartney acknowledges the unforgivable displacement of Native American tribes. She points out the faulty political rhetoric that diminished the natives’ claims to the land, along with the post-Whitman vengeance laws allowing U.S. Marshals to kill “any Native American deemed a threat to life and/or property.” As Gwartney passes the problematic art in a hotel that portrays Native Americans as inhumane, she recalls in her research when two chiefs of the Cayuse tribe were forced to sign the treaty in 1855, thereby handing over their lands to white settlements.
On the surface, my life is nothing like Gwartney’s. Contrary to the author, I lack the generational roots to a place, because I’m the daughter of an immigrant. But the driving force in Gwartney’s memoir is the need to claim her place in the family and the land she came from, a people and life that she was raised in but then left. When reviewing my own essays, I’ve noticed that same desire shines through my words. I hoped that in returning to my father’s home country, I could unearth my link to my own ancestors. I wanted to know that even with my father’s decision to move to the other side of the world, I could touch down in India and feel an innate bond to home. Everyone wants to belong, so maybe it’s not a surprise that this memoir exploring home in the American West resonates with me, a second-generation immigrant.
Gwartney’s latest book reshapes memoir, adhering to its central tenets, yet branching into new forms that enhance the narrative. In this hybrid of memoir and history, Gwartney has created her own style of storytelling.
Anita Gill is a teacher and a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Hair,” was the winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, selected by Kiese Laymon. Gill’s wolrk has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She will be a Fulbright Fellow to Spain for 2019-2020.
May 21, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Rebecca Gummere
It goes like this. In December, seeing a miraculous remnant of green nestled beside your house, you rescue the tiny idea of a plant and bring it inside, placing it among the thirsty coleus and trailing tradescantia and the shy pink geranium. You tend it all through the winter, uncertain of what it will become. You think you know, though, what manner of vine it is, already excited for how the leaves will unfurl and the tendrils will trail around your living room, all grace and beauty and color and light.
Then one day as it is taking shape you see the thing, really see it, and you realize it is not what you believed it to be at all. It is not the elegant vine you thought, with smooth leaves of many shades of green. But, okay, you make a deal. You recognize it now as a fragrant wild-growing herb many consider a weed. You adjust your expectations. In the summer it will offer tiny yellow flowers, and you can put a sprig of it in your iced tea.
Some weeks later you look more closely. The leaves, now covered with hair-like spikes, give off no aroma at all when crushed. Not the wild herb, then? What the hell? And now comes a sense of betrayal, the effort you’ve put into caring for this thing, bringing water, freshening with rich soil, moving it from window to window to chase the sunlight, and all of it coming to naught. It is as if you fell madly in love, only to waken one morning next to an ogre.
You should toss the whole mess into the weeds, let it go back to the earth. And yet…this living thing, and your investment of time and hope while cold winds howled, does that count for nothing?
You grudgingly decide to keep it, see what happens next. After all, the days are lengthening, the snow has melted, and your sudden better mood has stirred a dormant curiosity. Winter ends, you move all the plants out onto the front porch, and when you water them, you eye with mingled suspicion and wonder the messy tangle in the small clay pot set apart from the others.
One morning, while examining the plant, a bruised leaf gives off the familiar scent, and you realize, it is the wild herb after all! And now you begin to see, you think you get it – in its infant state, not yet fully developed, the plant could not look, or seem, or feel, or smell like what it would become. Patience, you remind yourself, is a virtue. You repot the plant in a larger container with fresh new soil, and set it beside the other growing things, ready, even eager to see what the next phase of development will bring.
The plant is teaching you that you are only partly in charge of its final form. You are moving toward acceptance of the mysteries surrounding the development of living matter, most of which happens while you are not looking, most of which happens in dimming and darkness.
All of this is to say: Writers, do not give up. (I say this as one who recently did but found I could not fully take to it.)
The propagation of living, growing things, which our stories most surely are, often means a lot will happen without our permission. Keep going anyway. Just because you don’t yet know exactly what the work will become does not mean its future is not already woven into its secret architecture, which you will uncover through your faithful tending. (Is this not the very definition of organic?)
I have come to believe there are no wasted efforts in gardening or writing. All is useful, even if only for the momentary peace that comes with turning over good soil or unearthing a hidden bone of your own story. And keep in mind, cuttings that seem unsuccessful on their own can be trimmed, rooted, repotted, grafted.
Keep writing, using the tools of your craft – rake, hoe, trowel, tiller, fertilizer, pruner – and trust you can go from idealized version to unexpected wildness to mystery and revelation.
Just don’t quit.
Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, the Masters Review Anthology, Vol. VII, and other publications. She is currently working on a memoir about a recent nine-month solo cross-country journey, Chasing Light. She blogs at www.rebeccagummere.com.
May 20, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Whenever I give a reading or a workshop, I’m usually asked this question: What advice do you have for new writers? I always offer the same answer. The first thing I say is that to be a writer you must be a reader. And I usually quote Samuel Johnson, who says, “’The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man (or a woman) will turn over half a library to make one book.” The second thing I say is to get into a great writing group, which can be more difficult than picking up a book and reading. I know this because I’ve been in some disastrous groups. I’m also currently in the best writing group in the world (not to brag … okay, I’ll brag). We call ourselves The Wordy Girls. I have thought about how we found each other and how we make it work, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
- Limit your numbers. My current group has three members, and because it’s the right three people, it works. I would say no more than four or five. Any more than that, and you will get too much conflicting feedback on your work. My group is comprised of teachers, writers, and editors, and we are already reading and commenting on lots of pages. Reading too many pieces will make your writing group feel like work. Also, because we are all busy, scheduling meetings. even with just three of us, is sometimes challenging. And if you do what we do—give each other presents for meeting our writing goals—you will have to spend way too much money on gifts if there are too many people in your group. More on this later.
- Choose people whose work you want to read but also who you want to see. When the pages come in before we meet, I can’t wait to sit down and read them because the writing is so good. Choose writers whose work you want to read. Also, I love the people in my group, so I look forward to spending time with them at our meetings and retreats. This is another reason to limit your numbers; it’s not hard to find two people you like whose work you admire. It would be much harder to find six or eight such people. Once I was in a group with two women—one was ethereal and cerebral, the other was, shall we say, hedonistic. The hedonist wanted more body, more sensuality, more sex. The cerebral one wanted to stay on the philosophical level of everything—writing and life. Both were good writers; both had something to say. Truth be told, the hedonist was the more fun person; the cerebral one, the more careful reader. But in the end, they were terrible readers for each other; they couldn’t cross the divide to really see each other’s work. I sat on the sidelines, watching the wreckage. That little group didn’t last long. The moral of the story is that great writers, and even great people, don’t always make a great group. Some of it’s alchemy, but keep trying until you get it right, because it’s worth it.
Once you find your people, give your group a name and establish traditions. As I mentioned, we are The Wordy Girls, and one of our traditions is to set goals at the end of each meeting; these goals pertain to writing, revising, or sending out work. At the next meeting, we begin with our previous month’s goals, and if met them, we get presents from the rest of the group. We give small gifts like funny socks or journals, but you never want to come to a meeting and admit that you don’t deserve a present. By establishing traditions, you’re treating your writing group like the sacred space that it is. Once you create the right group, you will learn each other’s themes, obsessions, and writerly tics that hold you back, things you may not be able to see on your own, and that is the greatest gift of all.
- Set clear and reasonable expectations. Because of our busy schedules, meeting once a month works best for us. We limit submissions to 20 pages, with a one-week window to read each other’s work. We sometimes ask the group if we can send additional work for feedback between meetings, which is super helpful, especially when we are on deadline. Also, be sure every member of the group has something important to contribute at the meetings and retreats beyond feedback and critique. One of our Wordy Girls is excellent cook (her gluten-free lobster macaroni and cheese is to die for); the other is an amazing bartender, who can whip up a craft cocktail like nobody’s business. I do my best to be worthy of the group. When I let my writing group read this, as I do everything I am about to put out into the world, they assured me that I am worthy. They said that I keep everyone on track (I am the keeper of the goals), make everyone laugh, take photographs, and motivate everyone to write and send out work. One Wordy Girls told me, “The motivational factor for me is huge. I want to meet deadlines for you, and I want to write better for you.” The same is true for me: my writing group makes me want to be a better writer, and so I am.
- Find people who are in the same place with their writing as you are. As I said before, everyone in my group has a graduate degree, we have all taught college writing classes, and we have all completed multiple book manuscripts. We are all in similar places in our writing lives, and we have similar goals, which is to say, we are all serious working writers. Find people who are in roughly the same place as you are. If you just finished your MFA, find writers in the same place as you are. If you are just starting out, attend local writing workshops or classes and scan the room for people you might like to meet with. And then stalk them, but nicely. There are at least three writing groups in my town that were born from my community college writing classes. If I had more time, I would create a Grindr for writers, but I don’t, so you will have to do this part on your own.
- Avoid the Drama Queen and the Green Monster: These two writers—I know you know them—are toxic for your writing group. There is no place in your writing group for drama or worse, jealousy. If someone in your writing group is interrupting the critique process because she needs to call her drug dealer, it doesn’t matter how great a writer or careful reader she is of your prose. She has to go until she deals with the drug dealer and the drug problem. If not, she will hijack your meetings. The other member of your group, who might be as brilliant as can be, but who must go, is the jealous writer. You will have to hide your successes, diminish yourself, and in the end, you won’t be able to trust her, even though she is brilliant. Trust me on this one. This person is even worse for your writing than the woman who is trying to score cocaine between stories. These are people who deserve your compassion and maybe even your friendship, but they should not be allowed into the safe space of your writing group. “All writers,” you might say, “are dysfunctional,” to which I answer you this: Not true! I should mention that the woman trying to score drugs has since stopped using, which has enabled her to finish her wonderful book, so timing could also be everything.
The writerly camaraderie of the Wordy Girls has sustained me and my writing life over the last 15 years. I hope you’re able to find your own wonderful group of writers who will celebrate your successes, lament your rejections, and feed your writing life. And if you have another tip for creating and maintaining the perfect writing group, please add it in the comments.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, National Geographic’s Traveler, CNN, The Rumpus, Longreads, and The Normal School, among others. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, teaches in the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College, and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. For more information, see her website at www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram at suzanneroberts28.
May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?
Here’s an excerpt:
During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”
In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.
So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.
Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.
May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments
Michaella A. Thornton, in a flash essay from our May 2019 issue, released this week, writes beautifully about her one, her only child, and what the stranger in the grocery store will never understand:
I will not show you photographs of my pin-pricked stomach, a quilt of blue, green, and yellow bruises with Band-Aids of the solar system over fresh injection sites. I will not show you the hardship of lying prostrate on our marriage bed, ass in the air, gritting my teeth as my husband administers the long, nightly needle, progesterone shots to keep me pregnant. He never complains; he never tells anyone else what he is going through either. I will not show you our loneliness together. I will not show you him holding a fresh, perfect baby as the doctors put my organs back into my body, as I throw up into a kidney-shaped pan, crying over and over again to my newborn daughter, “I love you. I love you so much.”
May 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
In her insightful craft essay, “Genre as a Vessel for Presence,” in our May 2019 issue of Brevity, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction:
Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.
That’s just a bit of Joy Castro’s wisdom and analysis. Read the full craft essay here.