Artifacts, Essays, and Exploring a Non-Binary Genre
October 7, 2022 § 5 Comments
In Curing Season: Artifacts, Kristine Langley Mahler blends lyrical, inventive-hermit crab essays with memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of place-based, experimental writing. Curing Season examines the author’s sense of displacement, after being uprooted from her pioneer-like upbringing in Oregon to the Southern traditions of Pitt County, North Carolina, a feeling that surges into her adulthood. It’s about adapting, fragmenting, and extrapolating memories and merging them with truth.
Leslie Lindsay, who talks with Kristine Langley Mahler below, is an award-winning writer living in Greater Chicago by way of St. Louis, with a Minnesota detour. Though they both admit to feeling displaced, the two connected online after Lindsay learned of Curing Season and reached out for an interview. Here, they talk about how to determine structure, the fluidity of genre, being an objective observer, and more.
Leslie Lindsay: What did you learn, if anything, about the craft of writing from working in such an expansive form? You have many threads in Curing Season and examined time in a unique and evocative way.
Kristine Langley Mahler: I held so many of the moments that I reconstructed in the essays for Curing Season for years, and over the years as I wrote about them, I found myself either adding on another layer or stripping off an older layer to examine what material I had used the last time. Time is strange when working with memories that still feel as prominent and imminent as they did when I was younger; as I wrote about in “Alignment,” it was like a time-zoom through a vacuum, because I didn’t know how I could remember my own middle school years with such clarity when I was old enough to have a middle schooler myself. What did I learn? That writing about time is removing mold from a memory. A memory gets soft over the years as it decays, sometimes altered to the point that you think it might need to be thrown away, but if you’re lucky, sometimes the years can be scraped off and you can see the memory as it once was, if a little diminished in size.
L.L.: Curing Season is more than ‘just’ a reflection of a displaced childhood, but a formally inventive and elegant exploration of form and memory. Did writing it change how you think of ‘standard genres’ of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir? The reading experience gave me the sense that genre is fluid—non-binary–and I loved that interplay.
I love that phrase—that genre is non-binary. So many writers are stretching the boundaries of those traditional fences around the genres, and nowhere is that more exciting than within nonfiction and memoir. I learned so much about how to reconsider “what the genre is” from the work of boundary-breaking pioneers like Jenny Boully, Sarah Minor, and Elissa Washuta (among so many others!) and I carried those possibilities with me as I wrote Curing Season.
L.L.: I often think of writing—memoir especially—as narrative archaeology rooted in curiosity. We can’t possibly know how it will end, or what we’ll uncover, until we do. In Curing Season, you chip away at the pieces of lost time, fragments of memory, and the trauma of uprooting to a semi-foreign land, plus the death of your best friend. Did writing about these moments provide clarity?
I think that every time I reencounter a memory, I understand it a little better. I called the essays “artifacts” because I was thinking of them in the anthropological/archaeological sense—artifacts are the remnants of a specific era, people, and place, but their historical significance is only understood through context, which might have disappeared over time. The more one studies the context, the better one can understand the artifact. I am always gaining new context for my memories, and so I am also always noticing new facets notched into them which suddenly make sense.
L.L.: What I loved about the hybridity of Curing Season is that it became a portal into not just your experience, but invited readers to extrapolate events and experiences as a participant. In other words, readers are not just an objective observer but interlinked with the narrative. Was this a conscious decision on your part? How did you determine the structure?
Absolutely, a major goal for me with Curing Season was inviting readers into the experience of determining meaning from the work. I wanted readers to consider how I was consciously shaping memories—because I revealed my biases right there on the page—and how they themselves might have shaped moments from their past for various reasons. I wanted to bring readers, who might have felt like outsiders themselves at one point or another, to the doorway while reaching out a hand to pull them into the darkness if they were willing.
L.L.: What advice might you give to writers on structure?
For both essay structure as well as book structure, I think my advice might be the same: consider the subject material and how your work can be shaped to complement it. It can be such a fantastic opportunity to take a piece (or book) and make it resemble the core material right there on the page. I do that with several essays in Curing Season (for example: “Shadowbox” and “Mädchenfänger”) but also with the book itself, which is thirteen essays because a part of me will always be thirteen (the age I was when I finished 8th grade).
L.L.: Can you tell us a bit about your next project?
My true “next” project is already wrapped—I have a slim essay project called A Calendar is a Snakeskin coming out with Autofocus Books in 2023, which is a collection of three related essays examining the selves I needed to shed within the span of one calendar year, but I am also working on a big book project called Home Trap, about the privilege of home, ancestry, and what it means to belong to a place—which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read Curing Season!
Leslie Lindsay’s writing has been featured in The Millions, The Florida Review, Levitate, The Rumpus, ANMLY, The Tiny Journal, Essay Daily, Hippocampus, Psychology Today, Mutha Magazine, Ruminate’s The Waking, Visual Verse, Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Motherwell, with forthcoming work in The Smart Set and ELJ. She was recently accepted to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop and has participated in continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University. She resides in the Greater Chicago suburbs and is at work on a memoir exploring ancestral connections. She is a former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. and can be found @leslielindsay1 on Twitter and Instagram where she shares thoughtful explorations and musings on literature, art, design, and nature.