December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:
After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled. People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region. I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.
Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people. These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world. That’s why home is where the heart is. That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood. If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us. What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.
Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many. As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts. And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein. Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality. Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.
On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.” Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state. The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we. No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.
Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms). Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability. There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door. It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim. To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix. Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over. The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other. A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth. It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair. We kiss with the same mouths we eat with. We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically. The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.
Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism). These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors. This is our private territory. Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts. In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others. Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential. It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself. In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books. In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.
May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Josey Foo discusses how she came to write her exquisitely minute essay “So Little” in the new issue of Brevity:
Use of the third person was necessary because this piece happened to be too close. Use of the third person is for comfort. The person (me) feels like an intruder in the space between the chair and the window. Her motivations are all suspicious. She feels she has grown into something that must stay still and is distorted otherwise. At the same time she’s just trying out her body, hanging her body this way and that to feel strengths and weaknesses and wondering whether any of it is real.
I wrote a book a few years ago with the dancer/choreographer Leah Stein that were poems and notes on dance, and performed with her and her dancers in Philadelphia in 2012. I had to go up on stage and walk about, reading poems from memory as the dancers simply moved. They didn’t second guess their movements. They approached their bodies and movement with joy while I was filled with panic and just wanted to stop and think the whole thing through for one moment and then do it again for the next.
February 25, 2014 § 7 Comments
Guest Blogger Suzanne Roberts offers some excellent and amusing advice on how to behave at the VIP parties:
You may think it’s as easy as drinking too much gin and falling off a barstool at the lobby bar. But it isn’t. That’s standard fare at the annual AWP conference. No, to make a fool of yourself at the AWP takes some planning, some research. And a way to sneak into the VIP party.
Here’s what you do. Wait until the last night, when you are so exhausted you can barely remember your own name. Then find someone who has an actual invitation to the VIP Party. Did you know that such a party exists? Of course you don’t! You weren’t invited. And as it turns out, that’s for a good reason. But lucky for you, your friend was. But the guards—yes they have actual guards at this event and they are not poets, so you can’t offer them a cigarette and sneak by them—they take their job of protecting the famous writers from the likes of you very seriously, and your friend has more than one plus-one. In fact, he has five. Though your friend is good looking, is it possible that he has that many dates? Because the five-to-one-fantasy appeals to poets and non-poets alike, you and your plus-five package get into the party, and the guards start to wonder if they themselves should start writing verse.
First things first: sashay over to the buffet and free bar and gorge yourself on shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon, carrot sticks and chardonnay. You will have been too busy grazing to notice, but your friends have left the party. But by all means, don’t leave the party yet! Stay until long after the Pulitzer-winners and Poet Laureates are long gone. Stay until the guards indicate that it is time for you to stop with the shrimp and go get your coat. But first stuff your purse with bread sticks, carrots, and celery. You are your mother’s daughter after all, and in her words, they are just going to throw it away.
In the dim light (note the dim light) of the coat check area, you will spot a man who looks vaguely familiar. You try to place him and then decide, Why, that’s Nick Flynn! You have never actually met Nick Flynn, but you saw him give a reading at a literary magazine party in a dark bar the night before (note both words: dark and bar). Turn to Nick Flynn and tell him, “I just loved your reading last night.”
“Thank you,” he will say, pulling on his coat.
Because you don’t want to leave this exchange so quickly, and you are full of shrimp cocktail courage, you say, “My husband loved your book,” which is not just flattery, it’s actually true. Your husband read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in one night.
“I’m so glad,” he says, looking at you from the threshold of the door.
“Oh yes,” you continue, stuffing your arms into your own coat. “He wouldn’t come to bed. He loved your book so much. He couldn’t put it down. He sat on the couch reading it all night.”
At this point a woman at the coat check says, “Hot damn. Poetry over pussy.”
You correct her, “No, Suck City,” meaning, of course, the memoir. This is an honest mistake. Nick Flynn writes poetry, too, though you can’t imagine your husband staying up all night reading poetry. You are pretty sure he hasn’t even read your last poetry book.
“Yeah, I guess it might have been suck city, if he hadn’t chose poetry over pussy,” she says.
“No, not the poetry” you will say, still trying to clarify, “Another Bullshit Night.” The woman laughs, but you swear you see her mouth the word “Turrets” to Nick Flynn.
This little repartee is not enough! You must follow Nick Flynn and dominate his attention for the entire walk through the indoor mall and back to the hotel lobby. And when the small talk about the party begins, make sure to tell him how you snuck in to the VIP party. He will look at you with a strange look, but not nearly as strange a look as when you say, “I just loved Suck City. I mean I love the poetry, too. But Suck City was so great. I’m looking forward to Suck City on the big screen.”
When he speeds up, desperate to catch up to his friends, make sure to match his pace step for step because you aren’t done.
Then tell him, out of breath because of your swift clip, “We…have…a mutual friend.”
“Who’s that?” He will look doubtful. Maybe not so much that you have a mutual friend but that you have any friends at all.
You tell him the name of your mutual friend. She is your colleague, and you know her to be one of Nick Flynn’s very best friends.
“I don’t think I know her.”
At this point you will hit—maybe punch is the better term—Nick Flynn’s arm and say, “Of course you do!”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You blurbed her book!” Make sure a carrot or breadstick falls from your purse when you say this.
“No, I didn’t.”
You will be adamant because you are sure that Nick Flynn blurbed her book. You have seen it right there on the back cover. How could he forget? “You did so,” you will say, “plus, I’ve seen you two together on facebook.”
You are met with a puzzled look.
But don’t give in. Rather than to take in the facts before you, be sure to stick to the facts in your head. Refuse all the signs. So Nick Flynn will have no other choice but to assent. “Maybe I do know her,” he will finally say. “Maybe I met her at the Atlantic Center of the Arts?”
“You see!” You are triumphant. Later you will tell your colleague about this little exchange, and she will say “Please tell me you didn’t say my name.”
You will have to admit that you did.
Nick Flynn shakes his head and says “Maybe I’ve had too much to drink.”
You have read Nick Flynn’s books, and you know he is a recovering addict, so you think, What? Nick Flynn has been drinking? O-no! But you say, “Me too” to cover your bases. Something in you knows that even if it isn’t true, you should say you have had too much to drink. Way too much to drink.
You continue to walk together, and every so often, you ask questions that Nick Flynn seems unable to answer, or you exclaim “Suck City” in reference to his memoir, and each time he looks at you like you are deranged, like you are a woman capable of sadistic ritual, bizarre and vicious crimes. Like he wants to escape but doesn’t want you to know he’s fleeing, just in case you will follow him. Which you are already doing.
And then Nick Flynn tells you he has to find his husband.
“You’re married to a man?”
The last you heard, Nick Flynn had married the actress Lili Taylor. But rather than question this, just think: Well things sometimes change.
When you finally arrive back to the hotel lobby, your friend Rodney will see you talking to Nick Flynn, and he will come up, introduce himself, and ask him, “How did Obama ask you about the inauguration? Did he call you or what?”
And you will turn to look at Nick Flynn and his face will suddenly rearrange itself. Not familiar because he was in the dim bar reading about his father the night before, but familiar for another reason—this was this face that filled the TV screen on inauguration day. And all of a sudden, you will be at a loss for words. But then you say this, which makes things worse, not better: “I didn’t know. I mean, I’d forgotten. I mean that you were the inaugural poet. But your poem, it was just great.” Your friend Rodney will look at your with a wrinkled forehead, his mouth opened into little frowning O, and you will smile and say, “Super great,” the word great trailing off, swallowed by the din of the lobby.
At that, Nick Flynn—now Richard Blanco—will make his escape. He will say, “I need to find my husband outside.”
You will think, Ah yes, husband. Of course he has a husband, as your brain reshuffles itself.
You will then try to explain what just happened to Rodney—an abbreviated version—and you will say, “Oh my God. I have to go outside and find him, to explain what happened.” You make for the lobby’s revolving door, but Rodney pulls you back, saying, “Oh no you don’t. I think you’ve said enough already,” to which you can hardly disagree.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net
November 18, 2010 § 3 Comments
Creative Nonfiction magazine is looking for interesting, true stories that focus on food, including restaurant reviews; tales of meals gone awry; secrets, tips and kitchen short cuts; confessions from cooks, chefs and/or servers; an examination of the kitchen life; and so on. To be used in the upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).
To nominate, you’ll need to know the title or specific URL of the post. Nominate your own work, or that of someone else. Nominate as many posts as you like, though the good folks at CNF mag ask that you not nominate the same post multiple times.
The deadline for nomination is 11:59 PM EST, Monday, November 29, 2010.
Nominate at: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/blog_nomination.html.
June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
Glamour’s Seventh Essay Writing Contest
18th Annual SiWC Writing Contest
Non-fiction: maximum length 1,500 words.
Prizes: 1st: $1000 and anthology (per category). Honorable Mention(s) $150 each.
Deadline: September 10, 2010
Fees: $15 per submission
Memoir (and) Competition
Prose limit: 10,000 words maximum. Graphic memoir limit: Must fit on no more than twenty 7” x 10” pages. Narrative photography limit: Up to 5 images.
Deadline: August 16, 2010
Creative Nonfiction Immortality Competition
Essays must be unpublished, 5,000 words or less and written on the subject of Immortality.
Deadline: August 6, 2010
Creative Nonfiction Food Competition
Essays must be unpublished and consist of 5,000 words or less. Submissions must be true stories that incorporate or involve food.
Prizes: 1st: $1000, 2nd: $500
Deadline: September 3, 2010
April 15, 2010 § 1 Comment
Jay Nicorvo, in a recent Guernica essay, offers a convincing examination of what is wrong (and right) in publishing these days, and begs to differ with Ted Genoways’ recent essay on “The Death of Fiction.” Nicorvo’s argument, in brief, is that the big NYC houses have lost their connection to readers, while “limber, light-on-their-feet” indie publishers see nothing but opportunity in the new media new market. He makes good sense, and give us hope.
These days, editors at commercial publishing houses … no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information … And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well — blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.
It’s the Ted Genowayses of the world, editors at literary magazines, university and independent presses, who still … (choose) those manuscripts which, to the best of their subjective judgment, are really the prettiest as they see them. And while we’re still in the recesses of the Great Recession, even as retirement funds and university endowments begin a gradual rebound, university-affiliated publishers are feeling particularly pinched. But the more limber, light-on-their-feet publishers—those not tied to state institutions funded by tax revenue—the indie publishers mission-driven to publish literature, they’re the ones surviving and even thriving, thanks to changing, cheapening technology and the preferred tax status that their missions afford them. This, the privileged position of the first degree, may be a main reason why the incoming editor of The Paris Review is leaving a storied commercial publishing house, and an imprint thought to be a last commercial bastion of the literary novel, for independent publishing.
… The best writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors need to change what, and how, they acquire. And what better encouragement for change than a terrible economy? Or, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry, aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.
May 29, 2017 § 9 Comments
By Jan Priddy
The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.
Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.
More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.
Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.
Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.
Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.
My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.
Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.
It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.
For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.
It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.
Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015
May 25, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Lynn G. Carlson
The resident dog at my vet’s office is named Beulah and she is clearly senile. Her black-lab muzzle is grizzled and her eyes are opaque gray.
She stands in the center of the waiting area on unsteady legs and makes eye contact with me, then moves her eyes to a blue ceramic jar on the counter marked Biscuits. Then she looks back at me.
When I look over at the jar, and back at Beulah, it sets her tail to wagging so hard she almost falls over.
Beulah looks at the jar, then at me. Over and over. Nothing breaks the trajectory of her gaze, not even when a german shepherd happens by on his way to the examining room and jams his nose into Beulah’s butt. A tabby-cat yowl coming from a crate not five inches away from her doesn’t even seem to register.
“Can I give Beulah a biscuit?” I ask the gal at the counter. “She looks hungry.”
“Nah. She’s already had four this morning. Thing is, as soon as she eats the biscuit, she begs for another. She does that all day long.” The woman leans over the counter and smiles down at the ancient dog. “Beulah never remembers that she just ate a biscuit, and I guess she never gets full.”
Something about this chills me. Something bothers me about that idea of being in a constant state of yearning.
Maybe because I recognize it in my own life. Maybe because I see a little of myself in Beulah’s fixation on more biscuit.
Like, for instance, the way I crave the feeling you get when you send out a “My writing got accepted!” email to friends and family.
How I yearn for the next infusion from the Muse. Words, gimme, gimme more words.
How easily I forget a good writing session and pine for another.
Yeah, Beulah, I feel your pain.
I can’t help this dog with her cravings and forgetting, although I do go over and give her a good head scratch.
But—and this is the thing—unlike Beulah, I can turn from my cravings. I can stop and say thanks to the Muse for guiding me in my garden-at-night poem, for helping me find the tendril of thought that strains towards what the poem is really trying to portray.
I can remember that I had a solid journaling session this morning, complete with the arrival of a memory about my college days in Gunnison, Colorado, when I had no car and walked everywhere. And because I was on foot and not in a car I noticed how the lines of snow on the mountains inched upward in May.
I can observe, and even admire, the way snippets and memories coalesce into a personal essay that explores why I am so obsessed with my elderly mother’s eating habits.
I can even appreciate a wobbly dog who pushes me to acknowledge the nourishment that writing gives to my life and helps me, for a moment at least, to feel full.
Lynn G. Carlson is a writer who lives on the prairie outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming with a retired firefighter, a span-triever and plenty of gophers. She has published poetry and nonfiction in various literary magazines and has an essay in NPR’s This I Believe archives. In 2016 she served as editor for Watch My Rising, an anthology of stories and poems about recovery from addiction. Lynn blogs at www.writingwyoming.com.
May 11, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Sonya Huber
Katherine McCord’s book Run Scream Unbury Save, winner of the 2016 Autumn House nonfiction prize chosen by Michael Martone, is a whetstone of a fragmented and poetic memoir in bursts and paragraphs. You will emerge from each page emboldened to capture the exact this-ness of your day as a shadowbox-diorama with that exact plastic dinosaur and this exact wad of sponge for trees you colored insufficiently with a green marker (remember?). McCord’s work is “stream of consciousness,” but not a cup of tepid pondwater of raw free-writes or the journal stuff of “why am I sad today?” That stream is not the first pass but the final barrel-roll through the linebackers of an extended sports metaphor that flails like a wipeout on an icy sidewalk because what do I know about football anyway? McCord’s layered entries glance off narrative threads having to do with her family, crafting, her sister, texting, wasps, writing, the CIA, seasonal affective disorder, dreaming in horses, and teaching, among a million other things. The binding material here is a voice that flutters like a bird-heart, hurtling the gaze of the reader through the sky and dropping all pretense of packaged experience, opting instead for revelatory and intimate association.
Stream of consciousness as a phrase (William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890, thx Google) was first used in a literary sense to describe the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce (i.e. in Ulysses) and the work of Virginia Woolf (see The Waves for some awesomeness). Stream of consciousness reconstructs with careful attention and precision the feeling of thought with all its bright sparks and twists and rapidity. In contrast, my typical journal entry starts like this: “I’m feeling shitty and I’m not sure why,” (though it’s always vague catastrophes impending that I am sure I can predict) followed by an attempt to talk myself down from whatever current fear I’ve got whipped up into a healthy meringue. But the “meringue” in that last sentence—I wouldn’t journal with that word; that’s me talking to you, not me talking only to me. Beyond the sinkhole of my journal, the associations captured by stream of consciousness present a portrait of a moment and a mind. What I don’t write in my journal is this: These days I’m afraid because Trump just announced an increase of troops into Afghanistan. And that country—never been there—makes me think about the Soviet invasion of as reflected through the 1980s in Mr. Joe Miller’s history class (cinder-block painted in so many layers of yellow that it had started to look over the years like glossy cheese). The 1980s were also about fears, and the cassette “Songs from the Big Chair” from the band Tears for Fears, waiting for the bomb with every day being the day before the day after, and I felt like maybe those dark-eyed men wearing tons of hair gel understood. But what Big Chair? I could wonder about it for hours as if knowing which chair would keep us alive. What kept us alive in the era of the Big Chair was dumb luck, I assume, plus not having an erratic tyrant in charge with a hair like an orange meringue. (Too much? Or not enough? If I apologize, my dead socialist relatives will unbury themselves, run/scream/buy plane tickets, reconstruct their own skeletons to ship their German skulls over the ocean just to look me in the eye with their eye sockets and ask, “Too much?”)
There is something in the details that will save us in the face of the vague and imprecise erasure of the world. Details—like a horse trough somehow painted with glitter that McCord’s daughter uses to store her clothes in—offer the solace of the particular and the real. McCord’s details dredge this “stream of consciousness” that pursues its own fluid self with avid reckless attention, steering always away from abstraction and vagueness of emotion toward the shocking vivid precision of remembered sights, sounds, smells, slants of light, feelings, and street corners. McCord’s short entries string together, given a sense of propulsion precisely by her own breathless quest for honesty, confiding in the reader that she can’t quite find the thing she means to say and so she returns on each page with another angle, refracting and pursuing the quickening edge of life and consciousness itself.
Sonya Huber’s newest book is Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.
May 8, 2017 § 3 Comments
By e.v. de cleyre
In “To Capture the Castle,” an essay in her collection Lost Wax, Jericho Parms recounts an arduous climb to the summit of Croagh Patrick. The essay weaves its way upward, over the landscape of Ireland, tracing the outlines of other individuals on the pilgrimage, and winds its way through memory.
“I can understand pilgrimage as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul,” Parms writes. “To summit a mountain, to complete a trail, to reach an ancient monument offers a tangible sense of arrival. The worn and weary legs of a pilgrim are but a physical expression.”
Reading Lost Wax, I’m transported to pilgrimages I made in and around Lhasa, in 2010; a climber, like Parms, but one who did not make it to the summit. Seven years later, I still circle around Tibetan monasteries—not in person but in writing. Around and around I go, tying recollections together like prayer flags, and stacking anecdotes like cairns.
The essays of Lost Wax are a journey in their own right, though not a physical one. Instead of putting one foot in front of the other on an incline, Parms puts down a memory, then a metaphor, then a realization—all of it circling toward the summit, all the while acutely aware of the richness of colors and feeling.
In “Honey,” Parms recalls the untimely death of a goldfish, and the wet orange scales practically drip off the page. “A Chapter on Red,” much like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, utilizes color as a way into writings on life, a way to make sense of seemingly unrelated disciplines or events. In it, Parms asks, “But what about the stories and myths we tell ourselves, the meaning we make, in order to endure?”
Like pilgrims scurrying up a mountain, writers climb in faith. Unable to see over the next hill or page break, we trek onward and upward in search of solace or reconciliation or shared meaning or greater understanding—even of something we may never fully comprehend.
“I can understand pilgrimage as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul.” I can understand how writing, like walking, is a kind of pilgrimage—how the movement of an arm over the page, albeit small, primes the body and brings about a new mental space. We may not possess answers to all of life’s questions at the end of an essay collection, but we may field solace, having climbed the seemingly insurmountable subject of memory and family, and made it out alive.
e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Midwest. She holds a BA and MFA in creative writing with a focus on nonfiction, and her essays and reviews appear in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.