December 18, 2019 § 9 Comments
by Victoria Lynn Smith
Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)
I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.
“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.
“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.
Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?
When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s always another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.
Up from the basement, my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”
“I forgot,” I say.
But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?
The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.
I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .
After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a short story that I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.
Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.
Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles, and she is working on a collection of short stories. Her short short story “Tossed” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2019 Contest for short-short fiction. In October she received two honorable mentions in the Indianhead Writers’ 2019 Contest, one for fiction and one for nonfiction.
February 27, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Jehanne Dubrow
This past month, as I’ve struggled with the daily scald of acid rising in my throat, my sleep wrecked by the sensation that I’m drowning in my own saliva, my breathing asthmatic, my waking hours hoarse-voiced and blurry-eyed. I have had many occasions to meditate on my body. The fact is, I do not notice it when it doesn’t summon my attention with pain. I only remember that I live inside a thing called a body when it stubs itself, when it winces or twinges, when it bleeds or scabs over or scars. The pain brings me inescapably back to myself, even as it makes me want to run from my own skin.
In her first book of creative nonfiction, Pain Studies, poet Lisa Olstein meditates on the paradoxes of pain. Pain, she writes, is “vivid even in its opacity, vague even in its precision.” It simultaneously “reduces and expands, diminishes and amplifies,” so that the suffering body is drawn away from others and inward to the pulsing hurt.
Divided into thirty-eight short chapters, the text swirls from ache to ache, nonlinear as the pain it narrates. The book’s title implies that pain is a scholarly discipline. Olstein functions here as both scholar and sufferer, her approach brief and fragmentary, as if she worries that to linger too long on any single narrative might lead her to feel more pain. The book also functions as a series of artist’s studies, each chapter a sketch that presents the outlines of its subject matter. Like an artist’s drawings of a bird or a human hand, Olstein’s studies show us pain from dozens of angles so that we eventually see its whole shape.
Like any good scholar, Olstein grounds her assertions about pain in essential texts, including Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill,” Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” and Elaine Scarry’s landmark interdisciplinary text, The Body in Pain. Olstein’s analyses are wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, because pain too reaches everywhere, touches all corners of a sufferer’s life. She writes about the character of Gregory House—who is, provocatively, both a doctor and a patient—from the television drama, House, M.D. She links the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras to Emily Dickinson. She connects her own chronic migraines to the work of artist Donald Judd, his sculptural installations in Marfa, Texas, prismatic in much the same way as Olstein’s debilitating headaches. “If migraine’s prism could be painless,” she writes, “if migraine mind could be prismed through the lens of a hundred brushed aluminum boxes reflecting desert earth and sky, it would look like this.”
A central preoccupation of Pain Studies is the narrator’s examination of the suffering of Joan of Arc: “I find myself acutely, at times even obsessively, interested in Joan—specifically, in her trial. That is, what she had to say.” Finding references to Joan of Arc everywhere—in the writings of Anne Carson, Elizabeth Willis, even the former UN Ambassador Samantha Power—Olstein tries to understand “Why Joan?” In Joan’s trial, the author finds a menacing reflection of the “doctor/patient” relationship: all those unanswerable questions, all the poking and prodding, all the “deeply biased men” circling the small form of a woman.
As compelling and beautiful as I find Olstein’s language, I can’t decide if her analogy goes too far. She points out that “[t]he word pain derives from the Latin poena (penalty, punishment, execution).” When pain strikes, it does indeed feel like the body has been put on trial.
I was named for Joan of Arc, Jehanne the medieval spelling, how scribes signed the saint’s name on all extant letters. When Olstein asks, “Why Joan?” I can’t quite see my own pain as persecution. I know the hurt comes from inside my body. At night, I lie on a wedge-shaped pillow, my back angled at a 45-degree angle, trying not to choke on the acrid water rising in my mouth. Someone is squeezing my lungs with a fist. But, no, there is no hand around my breath. I have not been imprisoned; I am my only prison. At least for me, there is no burning at the stake.
Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her lyric essays have appeared in New England Review, The Common, The Colorado Review, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.
August 26, 2020 § 6 Comments
Shortly after the seriousness of our pandemic became known, essayist Justin Hocking gave himself a challenge: perform 100 erasures on Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal in 100 Days. Hocking is about 90 or so days into his project, and has released an initial chapbook in PDF and printed zine form: WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP.
As our stay-at-home protocols continue, Hocking is considering extending the “100 day” time challenge, because, as he says, “I’d like to keep executing the erasures right up until the November election.” We caught up with him to ask about erasure prose, politics, and pandemic projects.
Dinty W Moore: I’m intrigued by your Trump erasures for a number of reasons, but one of them is how your work stretches the creative nonfiction genre. Erasure poetry has become common enough, thanks to writers such as Matthea Harvey and Mary Ruefle, but that form most often creates a new poem out of someone else’s words. I’ve seen prose erasure too, but in many cases it results in a sort of poetry as well. What strikes me about your Trump project, however, is that you’re still creating a work of nonfiction: you are using Trump’s words (or maybe the words of his ghost writer) to create an alternate biography of Trump, but still, I think, with the goal of reporting truth. Does it feel that way to you?
Justin Hocking: I think what keeps me engaged with the project – and what keeps me coming back daily to a source text that I find distasteful on so many levels – is the element of the unexpected. Every morning I flip through my copy of Art of the Deal, I really have zero idea what will happen. Sometimes what emerges has a kind of cadence and rhythm that feels like poetry to me, and these tend to be my personal favorites. The Dada-ist absurdity and ridiculous quality of the work keeps me entertained, too. What I could have never expected, though – and what I think you’re getting at – is the way a text published in 1987 can yield a kind of reportage that responds directly to actual events unfolding in 2020.
I’m thinking particularly of pieces like the one created days after the murder of George Floyd, when Trump hid from protesters in the presidential bunker: “I’m/in the/basement/of distressed property.” In another more recent piece, the speaker describes using “very large security people” to keep the streets “free of rights,” and states “I/require/t/ear gas.” This one hit home here in Portland, where we’re concerned about the long-term effects to human health and the environment from relentless CS gas attacks on peaceful protesters. So yes, I haven’t previously considered WHITE OUT in the specific context of creative nonfiction, but the process and results do often have a kind of essayistic quality.
DWM: I notice you allow yourself small drawings – the White House for instance, on the bunker page – as well as erasures. Was that planned all along, or did the idea of drawings present itself by surprise?
JH: I launched the project just using Wite-Out, without ornamentation or color. Then I spotted the opportunity to create a visually striking image of Trump in his bunker by drawing the White House above an all-black box encasing the line “basement/of distressed property.” Drawing the White House felt risky, because my representational art skills are so basic. And I currently only have one copy of Art of the Deal, so there’s not much room for error. But the positive response on social media emboldened me to continue adding visual elements. And to add more color with paint pens: metallic gold, silver, pink, red and orange. The more recent pieces have a kind of abstract minimalist quality that I’m really enjoying. It’s a bit of a silly project, on the face of it, but the daily process feels like a satisfying culmination of my desire to keep busting down boundaries between poetry, prose, visual art, activism, and DIY publishing.
DWM: You are not just busting down boundaries, you are accomplishing something – a quantifiable page count, an identifiable project with a start date and an end date – during a time that many writers find themselves stuck, without words, so distracted by pandemic worries and political turmoil to find any focus. Was that your intent all along, or a lucky accident?
JH: I appreciate the encouragement, Dinty, especially from a writer whose work and aesthetics I admire so deeply. To be perfectly honest, I currently have close to zero bandwidth for my “regular” fiction and creative nonfiction (including another book-length memoir project), for various reasons. Feeling exhausted by our new Covid reality is one reason, certainly. Wanting to make more space to celebrate and amplify the voices of writers of color is another. The Trump erasure project does feel like a lucky gift in this particularly charged political moment, in that it allows me to truncate an authoritarian white supremacist’s bluster on a daily basis, rather than attempting to recount my own relatively privileged life experiences over the course of two or three hundred pages. Though it would be disingenuous to claim the project exists entirely beyond the scope of my own ego or my privileged position in the literary world, of course.
On a more personal note, I want to commiserate with anyone out there experiencing a creative drought during these times. I’ve survived a couple periods of pretty severe illness in my life, when erasures were the only form of “writing” I could manage. I highly recommend the erasure process as a form of creative medicine and/or political activism for anyone who craves it. I also hope to witness more folks making erasures on The Art of the Deal or other similar texts – beyond my own work, I’d love to see this continuing to transform into a minor movement. A cheap paperback copy, a pencil and some Liquid Paper are all it takes to begin.
DWM: What else can you share about your odd and fascinating project?
JH: Just a quick shout out to a few writers and works that inspired the WHITE OUT project: The Place of Scraps by Canadian First Nations writer Jordan Abel; Expecting Something Else by A.M. O’Malley; comedian Sarah Cooper’s Trump lip synchs; and all the students who’ve made their own Art of the Deal erasures in our writing courses at Evergreen State College and Portland State University. Also keep your eyes peeled for Erase The Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry, edited by Isobel O’Hare, that drops in August 2020 from University of Hell Press.
Learn more about Hocking’s WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP and purchase a PDF at his website: http://www.justinhocking.net/ The PDF e-zines are pay-what-you-will, with all proceeds benefiting Portland’s Black Resilience Fund.
Justin Hocking is the former Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center. He is the author of the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, and a chapbook of hybrid poetry/prose entitled PS: The Wolves. He teaches creative nonfiction and publishing at Portland State University.
January 17, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Jaye Viner
I recently finished Paul Tremblay’s collection of short stories, Growing Things. In the back matter, he talks about how he envies writers who always have more ideas than they have time to write. After graduate school, I was anxious about keeping my idea trough full. Neil Gaiman calls it the ‘compost heap,’ which is still stinky but has more positive associations with growing things than with pigs overeating in the mud. For four years prior to graduation, writing classes and the community of teachers and fellow students had provided that constant idea stream that Tremblay so envies. I didn’t have money to spend on more tuition and I had no idea what a writer does to feed themselves. What follows is a list of inexpensive ways I learned to add fuel to my compost heap after school.
The first thing I did was what every writer is always being told to do: read. ‘Best of’ lists, recs from everyone I’d ever met, every source listed in an article I liked. I tried to read about things I didn’t know. But it’s hard to find books when your only search parameter is ‘what I don’t know.’ It was easy to get overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities.
The second thing I did was pay for a year of Masterclass. This was cheaper than getting my hair done and it gave me access to the expertise of people I would never have thought to learn from like Jane Goodall, and Natalie Portman. Not only have these classes broadened my understanding of the world, they’ve given me specialized vocabulary and access into their worlds. Each class comes with a workbook and references, your own curated reading list on a topic you’ve just begun to explore. One caveat, the nonfiction writing experts on Masterclass are limited. But for school addicts like me, it can be a playground of new craft tools and new concepts.
The third thing I did was dedicated time to being online. Note: I do not mean procrastination or floating aimlessly on a newsfeed. This was a strategic, ten minutes in the morning, ten at night to do specific things. I followed the people whose books I read and set alerts so I would know when they texted, because otherwise you never see what you want to see, especially on Twitter. I also joined several Binders groups on Facebook to expand my network of writer friends. Binders groups are a great way to see what a diverse cross-section of people are doing and draw from their successes and stories of common struggle.
The fourth thing I did was download the Duolingo app and commit to studying Mandarin for fifteen minutes as a daily mental practice. Those fifteen minutes take me out of my reality. They give me access to means of expression that are fresh and vibrant. I come back to English seeing it differently.
The Fifth thing I did was take classes on Coursera. Many are free, college-like classes you complete at your own pace. I took a class on Transmedia Storytelling which transformed how I think about author branding online. I’m about to start an entry-level programming class. I’m terrified, but I’m also thrilled.
Obviously, sources of inspiration can come from anywhere. I might be the only person on the planet who worries about where my ideas will come from next. Well, me and Paul Tremblay. Maybe this list isn’t something to inspire so much as broaden. Another book I read recently, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein, argues that the most successful people got that way by doing more than the specific thing they’re famous for. In grad school, I believed that specializing in one genre, and studying only writing, would equate with success. These last two years have been about giving myself permission to generalize and trust that the broad can be just a valuable as the specific.
Jaye Viner is a dabbler in language and color and narrative. She likes cohabitation with walking fur bombs of the feline variety and eating the food. All of the food. She knows just enough about a wide variety of things to embarrass herself at the parties she never attends. Find her on Twitter @JayeViner or Instagram @Jaye_Viner
May 9, 2018 § 3 Comments
An interview conducted by Sarah Einstein,
Essayist Sven Birkerts writes often and compellingly in defense of the artfulness of the essay and its ability to connect us to the sublime. He worries that we’re losing that artfulness to the pull of technologies that clamber for our attention; attention that we need if we are to create or experience art.
Nothing could better describe my own problems with writing at the moment. Even writing this, I’m pulled away by a New York Times “Breaking News Alert” that, really, isn’t particularly pressing. Just another pronouncement from Trump about the Stormy Daniels case, which I could well have waited to read until this evening and probably have gotten by with never reading at all. But everything feels so urgent right now, and so fragile, that it’s difficult to leave the constant demands of the 24-hour news cycle behind and do the quieter, more complex work of contemplation that fuels the personal essay. So I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with him about this very problem, and I’m anxious to (try) to implement his suggestions.
Einstein: I’ve been thinking about the essays in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age quite a bit lately. I first read it in 2015, when it seemed common-sensical to me that both to create and appreciate art, we must resist the temptation to let the internet train us to be gadflies. I read the essays with easy agreement, even if I sometimes checked Facebook between them. And then, of course, the world changed and it was possible not to know the state of the nation if one looked away for more than a few hours. I’ll admit I lost a good six months of productivity to the constant pull of this disaster and that outrage, so sure at first that each one must surely be the last one. It’s only lately that I’ve been able to pull myself away from what I like to imagine was deeply engaged citizenship, but which I am sure was more political rubbernecking, at the hourly pronouncements from the press.
I’m wondering if you think it’s less, or more, necessary now for us to unplug from the constant intrusion of technology, given that it often intrudes to tell us about some new degradation to our democracy? How do we consider carefully when it seems that what we consider is, right now, in such constant turmoil?
Birkerts: You ask the question of the hour, and it frets me daily. We can’t not tune in to crisis-time in the West, but neither can we let our already threatened inner independence get snuffed out. It seems important to distinguish between staying informed and—your good word—“rubbernecking.” Gawking at the “breaking news,” feeling full of dread but mildly titillated, too, we not only burn up huge amounts of time, but we get more deeply implicated in the system that brings us the spectacle—a system which jumps from network news to Facebook to Twitter, and keeps us in thrall with the promise of the resolving next thing. 19th century novels were often published in serial form and structured to the logic of the cliff-hanger, as were soaps and prime-time series after them. Now it’s “breaking news” and click-bait.
The more entangled we are, the less oxygen there is for the formerly free-standing “I.” And also the less content. If you spend much of the day free-styling between platforms, what do you have to work with in the soul-making department, and what will you use to make your art, if art is what you make?
What we need to do is regularly break the media spell. The hypnotist snaps her fingers and the guy on the stage stops acting like a duck. We break the spell not by weaning, but by suddenly stopping. Power failure—“where did you put the candles, hon?” And we need to do this as often as our reliance warrants. Which is something only we know—how deep in we are. By stopping we get an update on our addiction. By staying stopped for a while, we give unmediated existence—what used to be called “life”—a chance. You can’t just unplug and be reading your Knausgaard the next minute. You need some time to once again become the person who can do so.
Great advice, Sven—take it!
Einstein: In a letter to Poetry Magazine, you wrote that you’ve encountered a “withering away of a felt secular connection to something that might be called transcendent” in the culture of our time. I imagine this connection, itself, requires the sort of attention you argue for in Changing the Subject. How can we get this access to the sublime through art back, or do you think it’s lost to us for the time being? Are there writers today who you think are particularly good at fostering this connection?
Birkerts: I like Theodore Roethke’s words here. He wrote: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” I have to believe that for all the media saturation and distraction, that “means” is still viable. But it’s not an easy thing, is it? I will use the old word “soul” and say that our souls—our secular souls—need some saving. Art is a path of attention, of concentration, and in the process, both of making and of experiencing, we are taken out of the nervous percolation of the moment and immersed in the other time. Duration time—which is time during which we are unaware of time whirling by. Absorption. This is the natural habitat—it’s why we were allowed to be children once—and we do recognize this as soon as the immersion happens. But then we forget, need to be reminded again and again that it’s there. The hypnotist’s finger snap.
My big word for a long time now has been “attention.” It must be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote.
Einstein: What do you wish people were paying more attention to at this moment? Is there something you wish we’d pay less attention to?
Birkerts: The ordinary, just for starters. Life begins at home. The dust motes hanging in the light, the cat doing its yoga stretches. The thing registered is less important here than the registering itself. This kind of perception is at the same time a means of self-perception. It completes a circuit. It may not have a further end, and doesn’t need one. What we are doing when we watch or scroll and click is something different. The attention I’m talking about fixes on the real time/space existence of the thing, whatever it is. Scroll-attention happens in a separate time/space zone and it is, given the nature of electronic media, always asking us to lean toward the next thing.
Einstein: What advice do you have for essayists who want to find their way to artfulness in these distracted times?
Birkerts: Hmmmmm….Find ways to keep believing that what you feel needs to be said does need to be said. This means a regular checking in with the true origins of the impulse of the project. It also means keeping company with your kindred, the writers who move you to emulation. As you are writing ask yourself the simple question: “Am I having fun?” I mean this in the craft sense: “Is my sentence-making interesting and surprising to me?” Do not fear the digression—it may be your unconscious tugging at your sleeve.
Einstein: You’re one of the workshop leaders at the upcoming Iota Conference, which consists of four days spent on Campobello Island just over the Canadian border. I’ve been twice, once as a workshop leader and once as a participant, and one of the things I valued most about it was the opportunity to let go of distractions, to focus for a while on art with others of a similar bent. Can you tell us a little about what participants can expect in your workshop?
Birkerts: Given that I’ll have two days with each group of students, I hope to use exercises and conversation to help the writers get closer to the urgency and insistence of their respective projects. I won’t say more, but that is the teaching impulse I feel these days.
Want to study with Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir and Remnants of Passsion, and her essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Sun, Whitefish Review, and other literary journals. She is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her online course Memoir Writing for Happy People runs June 1 – August 31 at Iota Short Prose Online.
March 10, 2015 § 3 Comments
By Kirk Wisland:
Many people have written about Ultrasonic, Steven Church’s most recent essay collection—about the elegant soundscapes, the deep empathy, the alternating mischievousness and profundity. All sentiments with which I heartily concur—but all of which have previously been said.
What I will say is simply that this book spoke to me, that these essays, these ideas, often these individual sentences, popped off the page like firecrackers. I readily acknowledge that part of that crackling connectivity could be sparked simply by a shared frame of reference—that Steven Church and I are of the same generation, from the Midwest, came of age during the last decade of Nuclear Fear, possess similar tastes in sports and rock music. But a few common cultural denominators are not enough to explain the powerful effect of this book.
So many of the soundings in Ultrasonic pinged back ideas from the recesses of my cranium that they became a continuous echo. I could not finish a single essay without stopping to scrawl some note spawned by one of these ripples. Perhaps this inability to stay locked in these essays is just some inherent narcissism on my part, a mind’s need to inject the self into the story to stay interested. But I think the experience of Ultrasonic is so much more than that, because I have read many great books during which I engulfed chapters and stories and twenty-page chunks of text without once ricocheting out into my own sphere of thought.
What makes Church’s Ultrasonic so invigorating is the incendiary alchemy at work on these pages, a churning, visceral process that demands attention and response. This is what the best writing accomplishes. Beyond just making the personal relatable, or universal—noble achievements in themselves—the best writing sparks a conflagration of memories, welds itself to our psyche and becomes a part of our emotional-intellectual-creative forge. And this in turn is the amalgamation of culture itself, how we ingest, interpret, appropriate and re-mix the art of others into our own offering, our own limb of the cultural sculpture. “Art, while perhaps created in one, doesn’t exist in a vacuum once it is given to an audience. Once you turn art loose in the world, there’s no controlling how people interact with it, appropriate it, or abuse it.” Church wrote these words in response to his discovery that some of his favorite theme songs for writing, editing, (and strutting), were the same tracks popular with our post-9/11 torturers. But I will reclaim his sentiment for something positive, as a sounding-line for my own remixes of his inciting sentences—and as an excuse to offer up the backstory of my first encounter with Church’s essays.
In the spring of 2009 I started a yearlong stint as Nonfiction Editor at the Sonora Review. One of the first things I did after taking the reigns was to query Steven Church, this pleasant, burly fellow I’d met after an AWP panel in Chicago where he had used the most brilliantly disgusting writing metaphor I’d ever heard.
Steven graciously accepted and shortly thereafter emailed me a slice of nonfiction narrative centered on his experience as a fix-it guy in an apartment complex. The essay was pretty good. But I didn’t love it. And going against every instinct I had, shouting down my interior dialogue—which kept adamantly assuring me that declining said essay and requesting another one was not a good way for a novice editor to build healthy relationships in the world of writing and publishing—I asked for another piece. And a day later I received an email containing Confessions of a Parasite (since retitled as It Begins with a Knock at the Door), Church’s interrogation of what it means to be a writer in the world, and his worries about the constant semi-detachment of the essayist’s brain. “I was there but not there,” Church writes, describing these decoupling-mind moments. “I was often already taking an experience, filtering it, and crafting it into story.”
I was only a few months into my MFA, after a decade away from school, still uncertain of my place as a writer in academia. I was also wrestling seriously for the first time with the ethics of writing Nonfiction, struggling to forge and weld my first literary limb. “Writing isn’t really a job so much as it is a pathology,” Church’s words sparked up off the page, “a life of the mind that—if you are extremely lucky—someone pays you to indulge. It is an identity, a uniform you put on and never take off…It is a way of seeing the world.” My blind faith when I declined that original offering was apparently guided by a subconscious intuition that there was a forthcoming Church essay that would speak to me so directly. I got the essay I needed.
Ultrasonic ends up being a difficult book to read cover-to-cover, a victim of its brilliance—the continual dithering slaps Church offers up in his essays. I offer up no over-arching thematic interpretations, or summary of the whole book. I’ll just tell you that Ultrasonic is full of alchemic prose that made me pause and re-read, dog-ear pages, highlight and scrawl immediate notes in accompaniment—that my copy of this book is now a collage of beautiful graffiti. So I guess I am writing this for those who have not yet read Ultrasonic. Like the editor of a good movie trailer, I want to entice the reader to find a comfortable chair, grab some popcorn, and experience this book. These are the essays you’ve been looking for.
Kirk Wisland’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The Diagram, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, Phoebe, Essay Daily, and in the memoir anthology Roll: A Collection of Personal Narratives, and the Milkweed Press Minnesota Fiction Anthology Fiction on a Stick. He is a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Ohio University.