It’s Cool to be Strange: On Messiness, Bon Iver, and Blurring the Boundaries
October 24, 2016 § 6 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.