It’s Never Just Me: Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”

October 2, 2014 § 10 Comments


An informative, fascinating inside look at Jill Talbot’s writing process:

JillTalbot-243x366According to my laptop, my first draft of this essay was saved on March 12, 2013, when I was teaching an Advanced course on the flash essay at St. Lawrence University.  On the first day of that class in January, I challenged my students to avoid the established themes, the easy-groove patterns, and the go-to predilections we had all come to know of each other’s in the beginning workshop. I even told them I’d do it, too, because I write what I ask my students to write (I’ve read Brenda Miller describe how one of her essays came from a writing exercise she did with her students.) So I told them I’d do it, too, and that meant one thing:  no Kenny. Their eyes widened.

I said, no, really, he won’t be in any essay.  When I said it, I felt as if I were standing out on some essayistic ledge.  Then I knew:  I could write about my twenties in Texas to find out who I was in the years before meeting him. What choices did that girl make that led her to love a man who would end up leaving?  So I started a series of flash essays about my dusty, self-destructive twenties in Texas. In fact, one of those essays, “Stranded,” appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Brevity.

All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven began with Hemingway.  I was flipping through The Garden of Eden and came across one of my underlines: “When you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”  And I thought, yes, it is, so I decided to try to write an essay about how I was doing that back then.  I included the Hemingway line as an epigraph and started the essay: “Because you’re Jill Talbot, it’s all empty beer cans and skinny dipping.”

That semester was one of experiments, so not only did I write with my students, I also signed up for a workshop date, and I submitted a draft of this essay titled “Self-Portrait.” One student said about the opening line: “We’re tossed out of the essay if we’re NOT Jill Talbot.”  That allowed me to see I was not using the 2nd person as direct address. I was writing to myself (and as essayists, we have to make connections with our readers).  When it came my time to speak in workshop, I mentioned what the bearded man said that night—about there being a “little Jill Talbot in all of us,” and they suggested I put that into the essay.  I’m glad they did.

The next draft was titled “Scattered,” and it was.  It wasn’t clear I was addressing a younger self or even writing about the past because the draft was in present tense. At one point, it was in the past tense, but that implies distance and reflection, and this girl of the essay had neither. I was trying to capture a phase of my life from a collection of moments—like photographs—and those are always in present tense. I did try a draft in the first person, but I decided “Jill Talbot” needed to be different from the name at the top of the essay, and I had to make clear that this was the twenty-seven year old version. I let the title do that.

The guitar player, the lover, the PhD student in geology, and the Texas/Mexico border were always there, though not as united in form.  Initially, the only parenthetical in the piece was “(this one a PhD student in Geology),” but when I was still revising the draft in early 2014 (when I had the privilege to be teaching with David Lazar and asking him at the Panera on the corner of State Street and Congress about his parentheticals), I realized I needed to be stylistically consistent, so I added one in each section.

One major change that didn’t come until an entire year of revisions?  The diction. The third section, the Geology section, always had “surveying her neck” and my favorite word in the essay that came from my then neighbor, Dr. John Huntley, a paleontologist in the Geology department at St. Lawrence—who is now rocking it (sorry) at the University of Missouri.  But back in New York in 2013, I called him one day and explained, “I want a geology-related word like erosion but something more sudden, destructive, aggressive.”  And that’s how I got “corrade empty streets.” Only after looking at the draft for a year did I realize each section needed such precision.  So I tuned the guitar section, let the bearded man “[play] the same chord” and “[strum]” the water; I added the bob and weave between me and my lover’s wife, the “sheets taut as a boxing canvas,” and the phone throwing rings like punches. And I slowed down the Texas border scene by pushing the lyricism—all those “s”s and “t”s—which in my mind whispers the beginning of a certain word. Because I still wish I could tell that twenty-seven year old woman standing on a rock to stop so she will no longer feel that “desert inside.”

[Side note on considerations when submitting to a particular journal: There was a line, a line I really loved:  “In the back bedroom, where you thought he would be fucking you by now, the phone throws its high-pitched rings like punches.”  But I hoped to place the essay in Brevity, and I couldn’t recall one “fuck” in the archives—beyond Lee Martin’s “Talk Big” and William Bradley’s “Julio at Large”—and neither Martin nor Bradley were using the word the way I was, so I took out that phrase after deciding Brevity wasn’t a “fucking” journal.]

As for Hemingway? I held on to him for dear life, worried the reader wouldn’t get “danger” unless I held it at the top of my essay like a flashlight guiding the way. But one afternoon, I tweeted: “To epigraph or not to epigraph this flash essay is my question.” And while a few of my followers suggested “Yes!” Ryan Van Meter replied, “My vote is no.”  And that’s all it took—I admire and envy his writing so much I immediately deleted the Hemingway. Only then did I understand that the epigraph wasn’t a flashlight, it was a weight, because it’s my job to show the reader the danger. I added “All or Nothing” to the title in a private nod to Hemingway (not to mention Sinatra) and to hint that with all the “Alls” I had going on back then, I had nothing.

In the end, the most problematic portions of the essay turned out to be those one-liners. In fact, the second major revision began: “It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.”  It didn’t take long for me to see I couldn’t begin with the abstract—I had to begin with “empty beer cans and skinny dipping.” After all, the essay is about emptiness and baring myself.

I’ll end here with the progression and revisions of what ended up being the final five lines. By the way, thanks to Steve Edwards who showed me that “82 west out of Lubbock” was the only way for the essay to end. With “Jill Talbot” trying to leave herself behind.

It was lightning storms in the distance. 

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

It was “Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

Letters you now wish you’d kept.

It was all Marlboro Lights in a soft pack.

Pay phones outside gas stations.

82 west out of Lubbock

***

It’s all notes in the margin. 

A tired story.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

“Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

82 west out of Lubbock.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

It’s the Hemingway professor. 

And it’s dangerous.

***

It’s all underlining words in used novels.

And hole-in-the-wall bars.

It’s letting the machine get it.

Pay phones near exits.

It’s all the hard mornings in the same black skirt.

America’s Greatest Hits.

82 west out of Lubbock.

Gold drinks from a silver bar.

It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do. 

It’s dangerous.

***

It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

A pay phone on the corner.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

82 west out of Lubbock.

 ___

Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.

 

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