A Review of Jody Keisner’s Under My Bed and Other Essays

September 2, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Jeannine Ouellette

When I was ten years old, my mother’s boyfriend, Spider took my sister and me to the Rialto Theater in downtown Casper, Wyoming. My mother had recently divorced for the second time, life was bleak and increasingly violent, and I was in it for the popcorn. I could never have known—and to be fair, neither could Spider have known—that John Carpenter’s Halloween would gain notoriety as the most boundary-breaking horror film of its time for, among other firsts, the fact that the killer Michael Myers never dies. I could also never have known that I would, for months and months to come, arm myself with a giant kitchen knife during the latch-key hours before and after school, during evenings alone when my mom was at class or out with Spider, and sometimes in the dark of night, when I found myself wakefully alone in a sleep-hushed house. During this era of my mom’s second divorce, I was gripped by terrors I couldn’t possibly name or understand, but Michael Myers gave them a grotesque and unmistakable masked face from which to run—or wield a knife against.

Jody Keisner understands both the power and danger of giving outlines and heft to our otherwise amorphous fears. In her luminous new collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, Keisner interrogates fear—personal and collective—from one sharp angle after the next, with a special acuity for the fears known best by women and mothers. As Keisner’s essays build through the book’s three parts—Origins, Under the Skin, and Risings—their themes reflect and refract elements of one another, creating a prismatic experience of how it feels and what it truly means to be afraid, as well as the impossible yet necessary quest for resolution.

Keisner shares my history of an arguably too-early introduction to horror—in her case, the “chest chomp” scene in the classic horror movie, The Thing—and she analyzes the horror genre itself as she traces her path forward toward the point, during young adulthood, when she develops an urgent and years-long compulsion to check under her bed each night. Both the protagonist and the narrator seek, through facts and figures, to simultaneously assuage and validate the persistently frightening reality of being female in the United States:

I understand statistics. The probability of a serial killer breaking into my home and murdering me is exceptionally low, currently 0.00039 percent…. Serial killers, though, are cagey. According to the algorithms produced by members of the Murder Accountability Project (map), the number of serial killers walking around the nation on any given day is likely in the thousands (if a serial killer is defined as someone who murders two or more people in ‘separate events’).

But Keisner does not limit her excavation of fear to intruders, attackers, monsters, or even the degradations of the human body, such as the chronic illness she eventually endures. Rather, she looks unflinchingly at her own roots—starting with the working-class Midwestern family into which she was adopted, with a loving but volatile and hot-tempered father: “After my eighteenth birthday, I moved away for college. I never lived full-time in my parents’ home again. If it wasn’t a holiday, I didn’t make any effort to see or speak to my father. I ran like hell.” Through both the storms and the silences, Keisner’s mother, caring but willfully passive, stands by.  

Keisner also attends to an array of more subtle yet profound fears, including the shadow of trauma from previous generations, the impact of words both spoken and withheld, and the worries that commonly emerge during the course of a long relationship, such as, do I still love this person the way I once did, and, if not, will I ever again? That’s essentially the question, in the inverse, that Keisner’s husband poses to her one day in her stunning essay, “The Neural Pathways to Love,” in which Keisner plumbs the depths of neuroscience to better understand the transformations in her decade-long relationship:

[W]hy, late at night, do I sometimes sink to my knees in the kitchen and put my face into my hands and weep silently so that Jon and Lily won’t hear? It has taken me a while to recognize these moments on the kitchen floor for what they are. Expressions of grief. Of loss. Of fear. Our relationship is changing. The ‘true love’ stage is over and I mourn it. I hope for something else in its place, but what? And when? How long should I wait? I don’t have answers to these questions.

When I first read “Neural Pathways” in 2019 in The Normal School, I was so wowed by its intelligence, honesty, and grace that I reached out to Keisner directly to tell her so. In Under My Bed, Keisner’s writing about motherhood is similarly dazzling—from the intense anxiety that plagued her after the birth of her first daughter to the resurfacing of her own unresolved adoption grief upon the adoption of her second daughter:

There is a deep, wide space inside of me where a birth mother’s love, reassurance, shelter, and genetic likeness should be—the in-between space where closed meets adoption. After this realization, I am determined to allow my child-self to grieve these feelings of loss, not just for what for I’ve lost, but for what Amelia has lost, too.

Ultimately, the most mesmerizing quality of this probing collection was the way in which the essays and passages, no matter their ostensible subjects, gathered luminously round the single dramatic question of Keisner’s love for and fear of her father, and the heartache spanning the divide between those poles. Like moths in the glow of a flickering porchlight, Keisner’s essays flutter stubbornly toward the origin of their own existence. In “Runaway Daughter,” the book’s penultimate chapter, Keisner and her family attend a railroad event with her now retired parents. She writes with wrenching precision about the reality of truces, of compromises, of imperfect forgiveness:

And I’m here with my husband, six- year-old daughter Lily, and infant daughter Amelia, standing next to my father in a rail yard that I don’t think is much to look at, because I’m trying. I’m trying in the way people do when a relationship is damaged, yet still meaningful, in the way that finding meaning isn’t always a straight path or pretty once you get there.

Later in the same essay, Keisner points to an old photograph of her family taken during her father’s railroad years:

In the picture, the railroad ties my father uses to prevent yard erosion are visible behind us, but only because I look for them. The coal tar creosote on the railroad ties melts, smelling of burnt rubber. Years later, I will read that the creosote is toxic, silently seeping into the soil and water, causing cancer in the bodies of railroaders who frequently handle the railroad ties. But on this day, bad news is not yet something I’ve grown accustomed to and we smile like people do in photos, like this is who we are.

Keisner no longer checks under her bed at night (and I no longer wield a kitchen knife), but her relationship with fear is not over. After all, life without fear is not only impossible, but ill-advised. Yet, her relationship to fear is undeniably transformed, in the way all relationships must transform to survive. In the way we ourselves must also transform to survive, in a continual process both delicate and harsh. As Keisner aptly observes, “It’s dangerous work to love another human being. But we love anyway, knowing that we will fear for our children, parents, loved ones, and for ourselves. Knowing that, as it is with all fears, this one too, burns.”

__

Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.  Her work appears widely in literary journals such as NarrativeMasters ReviewNorth American ReviewCalyx, and more, and in many anthologies such as Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men; Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives; and Feminist Parenting. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel.

A Review of Jill Christman’s If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays

July 8, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Sonya Huber

If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays gives you what you didn’t know you needed: sloths and loss and Swedish Fish candy, alligators and avocados and bird girls, pain and loss and hard traveling back to confront that pain, googly eyes and wayward skirts and lipsticks uncapped in purses, electric eye contact with a fetching poet across a dive bar, all woven with joy. This expertly crafted essay collection works as a memoir and clocks in at a slim 205 pages, but it feels like water, like each sentence is a tumbled and smoothed river stone.

Jill and I met in the bathroom during a nonfiction conference in Ohio sometime around 2004 and decided in that instant—with our matching knee-high black boots and our smart eyeglass frames, in our young motherhood and our urgent need to write amid and out of the mess—to be friends. Whether you meet Jill in a university bathroom or in the pages of this book, you will feel yourself lucky and chosen. You will wonder how a woman as smart and layered, and as generous and funny, might ever have chosen you. And it feels, as always with the magic Jill creates, as though she has chosen you.

I’m obsessed with voice in writing, and the subtle moves that a tapestry of voices can make toward framing the space for a conversation. Some voices have elbows to nudge the reader around, and others stand on tiptoe to make sure the reader knows who’s boss. As I thumb through my dog-eared copy of If This Were Fiction, one thing I notice about the music of Jill’s sentences is that they are speakable and readable, that they ride the length of a breath, fitting easily within the lungs and throat and mind. Jill’s voices on the page are focused by story-telling and crafted like a thoughtful and urgent conversation with a friend.  

Jill and I also worked together at a low-residency MFA program, and one of our colleagues, Joe Mackall, once said, “I read nonfiction to figure out how to get up in the morning.” And I think that is why I am still here, at this glowing screen. Joe Mackall’s anti-Machiavellian dictum–add something to a reader’s life, make the day’s hard beauty a bit more bearable–is the ethic that drives Jill’s sentences. The music of her sentences builds a bond with the reader of trust in which difficult things can be said. Whatever loss, fear, or violation she pursues, she is with the reader in the telling, rooted in a day closer to the present that serves as a lens, bearing the weight of the tale, sharing a carefully considered story in which heartbreak and beauty can both be borne.

In the essay “Slaughterhouse Island,” Jill pauses for a moment in a larger story about a rape to flit toward a bike accident, then asks: “Do you understand yet why we blame ourselves when we are hit, dragging the shame behind us like a twisted rim?” It’s a moment Jill carefully nudges back to the center of contemplation, the moment of feeling oddly embarrassed by her own injuries, by the fact of an accident that happened to her, not because of her. The questions in these essays are not rhetorical; they are the urgent mysteries at the edges of my own peripheral vision, and in reading that sentence I stopped short. Yes, why? Why is this our inheritance, our programming? Christman’s questions–I think she once shared a handout with that very title to help students focus their essays–shine a light on what a reader might dismisses from their own experience. In those moments it feels as though the writing itself is listening to the response welling up in the reader, responding in kind.

The title of this collection is drawn from an essay in which Christman wonders how she’d describe herself in a novel, during a scene in which the action of a brave wade into a river cave might look like “the apex of fearlessness.” The imaginary novel would probably have a sequence of events in which the closing shot offered a lens through which to interpret all that came before. And this is the thing about action without reflection or narration: the reader is left to impose their own meaning or to borrow from repeated tropes to interpret that action–oh how brave—without really being able to see what bravery looks like in one’s own life.

The lovely thing about finely crafted essay collections like this one is that, as tightly as it is structured, one does not feel the impending press of resolution, the casting-ahead desire to see the plot explained. In the best essay collections, we don’t need a denouement because each moment is reflecting upon and enhancing all the others. Christman’s wondering, considering voice doesn’t falter for a moment. Nothing is done for the mere experiment, nothing as text itself, nothing to flex about her technical prowess. The essays are funny and sweet, tragic and wise, but all are composed of parts so necessary that you may find yourself coming to the end and wondering if you even read it, or if it was a dream from your own mind.

Or maybe it just feels this way because, in a sense, I’ve grown up in nonfiction alongside Jill and her stories. And lucky for you, this book gives you easy access to enjoy the same care of this badass woman who refuses to be a badass (which, as we know, is the mark of a true badass). Come along into the river cave, on the kayak, to the scary island, into love and fear in all its forms, to absorb and treasure the avocados and the sloths and loss and wonder and surprise. And the friendship.

___

Sonya Huber is the author of seven books including the forthcoming Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto; more at www.sonyahuber.com.

A Review of Rick Campbell’s Sometimes the Light

July 1, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Stephen Corey

Having to admit to myself that I’m not the world’s most perspicacious reader, I was about halfway through my second reading of Sometimes the Light before suddenly answering my own persisting question about Rick Campbell’s choice of title for this striking first essay collection (after seven poetry books): “Oh,” sez I to myself, “and sometimes the dark, dummy.”

And now I have to admit to you, my reader, that the term through in my first sentence is a bit misleading and should probably be replaced by finished with, since my reading was on the unconventional side. I did begin at the beginning with Campbell’s “My People, My People: Riding the Rails in Coach,” a reminder of the far-too-often lost values (and difficulties) in that mode of travel. Then—I think some other obligation was pressing me for time—I turned ahead a bit to the two-page “Stinky Money,” which was hilarious (and ultimately proved itself to be the funniest thing in the book). And then I made a larger forward jump to the three-page “RIP BB,” whose five titular letters proved to be an encomium for the late jazz master B. B. King based on the essayist’s viewing on Roku, years after the fact, President Barack Obama’s special White House event “Red, White, and Blues,” which concluded with an impromptu vocal duet by the President and King—with Mick Jagger dancing in the background.

These two brief pieces hooked me into looking next at most of the other five-pages-or-fewer essays, a choice which took me to (respectively) just-hatched sea turtles; failures with teenage romance; a bizarre summer job that included tossing babies into a still-segregated city pool in Florida; and the author’s ending up, by impure chance, in a Pittsburgh airport restroom taking a whiz next to one of his all-time baseball heroes.

Trust me: we’re going someplace here.

Overall, the collection’s nearly two dozen works are pretty much balanced lengthwise in the page ranges of under-5, 5-10, 11-15, and 16-20. More meaningfully, there is a similar balance of essays focusing on Campbell’s most recurring subjects: family (more often than not its difficulties), sports (particularly baseball), writing (especially poetry), and travel (whether by hitchhiking, train, or car). Most meaningfully, everything about Sometimes the Light sneaks up on the reader because Campbell’s attractive voice—informal but organized, questioning but assertive, folksy but educated—draws us toward all of his topics whether we thought we’d be caught up or not.

Let’s say you have no interest in baseball and have never heard of Harvey Haddix. Nonetheless, when “Perfection and Hard Luck Harvey” reexamines the 1959 Major League contest that many sportswriters and fans say “is still the greatest game ever pitched—twelve perfect innings,” and is “certainly the greatest game a pitcher ever threw and lost,” the essayist takes us not only into the complexities behind that specific game, but into consideration of the nuances and niceties that can factor into all that we do or don’t achieve.

Or let’s say you’ve never thought much about the state of Florida, except that it contains Disney World along with a whole bunch of beaches, and (maybe) that once upon a time some Spaniard thought it held the Fountain of Youth. Campbell, whose first two decades of life in the Pittsburgh area gave way to more than four all over the Sunshine State, gives us a handful of essays that deepen our awareness of a much more varied and complicated region—and remind us not to look too simplistically at our own: “You must pay attention in a way that the attention-grabbing landscapes of the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada do not demand.” Especially noteworthy are the rural and decidedly un-touristy western stretches of the Panhandle, where Campbell has now lived for many years and whose placement in the famous Rand McNally road maps, he tells us, consists of an italicized note saying “See Insert at Bottom.”

Rick Campbell’s major life steps—from factory-town boy, to beach-and-highway-and-train vagabond, to English professor and professional writer—were neither quick nor easy. Sometimes the Light descends into its darkest moments in long essays about his openly and unapologetically philandering father, his long-suffering but finally defeated (physically as well as emotionally) mother, and—in some ways saddest of all—his younger brother, whose entire too-brief life was an unrelenting string of disappointments and failures in spite of Campbell’s many years of endeavoring to give him more guidance than came from anyone else.

Still, this book is not dark overall. “Appaloosas in the Vineyard” gives us a finely detailed experience of the author’s discovering what revealed itself to him as being the rural place where he ought to be living. “A Homecoming: Walking in the Snow,” showing us in two-and-a-half pages one way to set loss into perspective, concludes with this huge small epiphany: “As my walk ended, I didn’t know where I was anymore. For a while, walking on the Little League field had felt like home. Now, it was a place where I once lived.”

From Campbell’s long life as a writer come “Worthy to Receive: Philip Levine and Me” and “What Thou Lovest Well,” which offer original, spot-on looks at two of the most important American poets from the past half-century and more—Levine and Richard Hugo. And in yet another upbeat key, “The Blender: A Road Trip” memorably recounts a warm, unique, late-adolescence 700-mile odyssey to deliver the titular kitchen appliance to a never-met young woman on behalf of her mother.

But wait . . . there’s that two-page “Stinky Money” I mentioned in paragraph two. Long ago, the hitchhiking author and a like-hiking buddy entered the Bank of Harvard—yes that Harvard—and

walked over to two red velvet chairs, unshouldered our packs and sat down. Scott unlaced his right boot, and I set to work on my left. Now we had the guard’s full attention and a couple of sleepy tellers were watching too. I pulled off my boot and took out $300, mostly in twenties. Scott had $200 in his. Soon the stink of dirty socks that had not been aired out for three days, and had hitched from around Erie, PA, to Cambridge, began to fill my nostrils. It rose like a plague from my feet. The money was clammy and hopelessly stuck together like a clump of wilted spinach.

The balance of this taut essay—just a single page more—is given over to Campbell’s hilarious exchange with a teller’s “puzzled and betrayed” expression while trying to determine how to handle a tellering situation her Ivy League bank training had surely not covered. Placed third in the lineup of Sometimes the Light, “Stinky Feet” weirdly preps us for the wide range of subjects and girds us, somewhat, for the distinctly unfunny but very memorable circumstances confronted in much of what is to follow.    
___                                                                                     

Stephen Corey‘s As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2020, came out from White Pine Press in the spring of 2022. and in 2017 Mercer University Press published his Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal. Literary, and Cultural. In 2019 he retired after thirty-six years of editorial work with The Georgia Review.

The Brevity Blog and Book Reviews

June 25, 2022 § 5 Comments

We understand the disappointment that some have shared since learning that the Brevity Blog will not be featuring book reviews going forward. The decision is not taken lightly, but was deemed necessary due to time and staffing issues. Though our blog editors understand the importance of promoting small press books, it became increasingly obvious in tracking our site statistics that book reviews were our least-read feature, while also among the more time-consuming.

Please note that Brevity and the Brevity blog will still promote small press memoir and nonfiction, but primarily through craft essays by book authors, author interviews, and other posts that contain explorations of the writing and publishing process.

Our blog editors are working on a volunteer basis, and we are doing as much as we can with the resources available. We’re grateful we can provide a venue for hundreds of writers who generously share their knowledge and their work with the Brevity blog audience. 

Dinty W. Moore

Editor-in-Chief

A Review of Brahna Yassky’s Slow Dancing with Fire

May 20, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Jennifer Lang

By the time Brahna Yassky, author of Slow Dancing with Fire: A Memoir of Resilience, realizes her skin is on fire, it’s almost too late; fifty-five percent of her body, including her right arm—her painting hand—is marred. In her early thirties, she spends three months in a burn rehabilitation unit followed by the better part of a year in her parents’ house outside NYC, where she has no choice but to surrender and accept help with the mundane acts of living, from being fed to being dressed to being driven. Over time and with a tremendous amount of outpatient therapy and unconditional support from her family and her own determination not to be considered a burn victim, she regains enough strength and mobility to return to her loft in Tribeca, where the accident happened.

In the first four chapters, as Brahna floats in and out of a morphine-induced state in the hospital, she flashes back in time to her earlier life: childhood, lovers, painting. The constant switch between her present realities—the medical staff check-ups, the bandage changes, the therapies—and past memories mirrors her foggy state of mind.

Brahna puts a lot of emphasis on beauty, exteriors, and appearances, and on seeing and being seen. But when she looks at her skin and finally understands the extent of the damage and the finality of her body after dozens of surgeries and skin grafts, she wishes she were invisible. For the first time, she is forced to look at the world through a different lens. That shift in perspective becomes a journey of healing, of self-acceptance, and of understanding that beauty is inside.

Her journey, of course, doesn’t happen overnight or all at once but slowly, over time. First, she widens her circle, lets extended family and select friends visit, dares to show herself. Then, still unable to paint, she focuses on others, sharing art with people in need like the elderly, disabled children, and low-income schoolkids. Each experience makes her appreciate how much joy it can bring and how therapeutic it can be to those who are lonely or lost, broken, or burned. Next, she earns her credentials as an art therapist.

But Brahna writes:

In the year since my accident, I’d become obsessed with the intimate knowledge of how life  can change drastically in a flash and was drawn to people who had that experience. I saw other people’s flaws as the most interesting parts of their faces and bodies. Mental and physical wounds were the stuff that moved and inspired me, but I still couldn’t accept them in myself.

To accept her new body means accepting loss, both physical and emotional. The summer after the incident, when she rents a house in the Hamptons and starts living in the world per her doctor’s recommendation, her only sibling and his partner, two of Brahna’s biggest cheerleaders, visit. Dressed in scar-compression garments, she bikes and plays tennis and swims in fresh water every day, but none of it is easy or comfortable. When she expresses her desire to drive to Montauk and buy fresh fish to put on the hibachi that she didn’t dare light, her brother says he came to relax, not to be her chauffeur, which sends her into a tantrum. Much to her shock, the men pack up and leave, unable to and uninterested in catering to her needs or wishes. Their once close relationship becomes distant and painful. And because of some deft foreboding earlier in the book, we know it will not end there or well.

In contrast to losses, Brahna gains experiences she never imagined. Her open-mindedness and willingness to try new things lands her making a short movie about the accident then writing this memoir. Her need to overcome and accept her new body is inspiring and contagious. While I’ve never experienced physical trauma, I’ve had my own version of drama and had to dig deep, to be resilient, to reinvent myself, to start anew every six years after my husband and I moved—countries, continents, cultures—in search of home. Sometimes it takes reading about other people’s resilience to recognize your own.

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Jennifer Lang, born in the San Francisco Bay area, lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as assistant editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat—practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003—with her legs up her living room wall, Lang’s experimental memoir-in-shorts Places We Left Behind will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.

A Review of Tarn Wilson’s In Praise of Inadequate Gifts

May 19, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Renée E. D’Aoust

One summer when I was about seven years old, I decided I wanted to set up a little stand to sell things. (I had probably seen a Charlie Brown cartoon where Lucy sets up her lemonade stand.) The problem was twofold: no one ever came by the dirt road at our island cabin, and I didn’t know what to sell. I didn’t have any lemons to make lemonade, and we were on a rural island with no stores. My mum and I brainstormed what to sell: fresh-caught fish, bouquets of fir boughs, funky driftwood. “How about salt crystals?” I spent two days drying salt water to make salt, and I spent a further two days sitting at my little stand on the dirt road with three little baggies of homemade salt. I made a price list. A sign. Mum brought me a chair from the cabin. I was a patient, persistent kid.

Though I’ve never met Tarn Wilson, I was drawn to her because she spent part of her childhood in British Columbia on an island, which she writes about in her first memoir Slow Farm, and I spent summers as a kid in the same Canadian province on a different island. I first heard Tarn Wilson speak on an AWP panel many years ago and became absolutely hooked.

Wilson doesn’t shy away from hard questions, nor does she hit you over the head with wise answers. One of the most wonderful characteristics of her writing is her capacity for compassion. She has suffered hardship, but her ability to love has not suffered. So it’s no surprise that compassion features prominently among the many salient qualities of her most recent essay collection In Praise of Inadequate Gifts: A Memoir in Essays.

Wilson welcomes us into the many challenges she has faced in her life: a traumatic childhood, a savior complex, a divorce, even teeth that grow wonky and have to be fixed again and again. But not once do we feel sorry for her. Such is her craft and humanity that we journey together toward a better tomorrow.

That tomorrow is today. In each of these twelve essays, Wilson draws the reader into how she discovers that the process of writing is “a disclosing eye, revealing some of what has been invisible.” Wilson is able to write herself into a new way of living: “Obsession imprisons us in repetitive thinking; after my obsession eased its grip, I was able to take action.” In this quiet and lovely book, Wilson frequently breaks the veneer of distance between reader and writer: “I break the unwritten rules of essay writing. I’m not supposed to show you the movie camera at the edge of the scene. But I have no other way to tell you the whole story.”

The “whole story” includes trying to figure out how to be a better human in our broken world. Her hippie family is broken through divorce, assault, and undiagnosed mental illness, yet Wilson tries to have a “perfect little life.” After all, if everything is perfect, particularly if she is perfect, she can control her environment and bad things won’t happen.

But it’s impossible to maintain control as a kid; things are by definition outside a kid’s control. She experiences “flat grief” and loneliness; Wilson doesn’t know how life can ebb and flow and be made whole because her home life has always been turbulent. The perspective of a writer makes healing possible; Wilson writes: “When my story is assembled, always imperfectly, always with a few under or overfilled joints, I look down from the top, as from an airplane.” And yet, even when assembled, ever conscious to be honest, she’s not sure her story “is true”:

How can I know if the story I’ve told is true? I can’t. But I can tell I’m getting close to truth when I’ve found the right pattern, made the right connections, and feel an electricity I don’t understand that pulses through the sentences and makes the story live.

Sitting at my little stand that summer long ago in Canada, I finally sold some of my hard work. I sold my homemade salt on credit, because when the island hippie Richard chanced by our cabin, he ambled down to my stand, delighted to find me patiently waiting for someone, anyone. Of course, he didn’t have any actual money with him. (He said he would pay me later, and he did. A quarter.) He listened to me explain the process of making salt crystals; he was compassionate as I spoke and clapped when I did a little salt dance jig. This is the kind of compassion Wilson leans into, “Love that touches down, moves through a particular person at a particular time, then lifts. Love that might follow [us] anywhere.”
___

Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press). She teaches online at Casper College and North Idaho College. Follow her on Twitter, @idahobuzzy.

A Review of Olivier Haralambon’s The Cyclist and His Shadow   

May 18, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Cheryl Anne Latuner

For my husband, born in France, there are only two sports: soccer, which he played semi-professionally before moving to the U.S., and cycling. Soccer plays year-round on our TV, and I’ve come to know teams, players, even coaches, as well as terms for play—off-side, corner, penalty, shoot-out—watching the players dribble up and down the field, ball between their feet. But come July, our TV is tuned to the twenty-one stages (race days) of the three-week cycling marathon, the Tour de France. Here are players and teams, too, but the players are virtually unrecognizable, helmeted in their casques, and I have a hard time figuring out how exactly the teams in their same-colored shirts are playing together, scattered throughout the vast peloton, the horde of cyclists making their way along hundreds of miles like ants on the march. There’s the occasional échappée (escape) of the leaders from the pack, but literally nothing much else to watch—heads bobbing up and down, bikes tilting side to side. All I can focus on, beyond gorgeous views of French countryside, is how each cyclist manages to keep up that same repetitive motion of peddling mile after mile, how he endures the climb, day after day, up all those extreme French mountains at grades of as much as seven or eight percent. I try to imagine the suffering.

Now, in The Cyclist and His Shadow, translated from the French by François Thomazeau, Olivier Haralambon tells us exactly what it is to be that cyclist, his suffering—and his euphoria. Haralambon’s book is something quite different from an experiential description you might find in an adventurer’s magazine. It is, rather, a poetic treatise on the existential reality of the cyclist, its prose a mesmerizing pastiche of virtuosic descriptive language and metaphor, as if the author wants not merely for us to understand what it is to pedal in the cyclist’s shoes, but how it renders the cyclist something other than himself—in body, mind, and soul. Linguistically, Haralambon captivates even the never-professional-cyclists among us. As someone who has long loved and studied French, I hear the flavor of the original in what the translator calls the “slipstream” of Haralambon’s language, vividly wrought to inspire our imagination and pleasure.

“Who never fell asleep in front of a Tour de France stage?” Haralambon begins, rhetorically, knowing that for many of us, “cycling races are a dreadfully monotonous spectacle.” He writes,

You might notice, that the pace of [the cyclists’] legs varies, that they accelerate sharply from time to time, that they stand up on the pedals and then sit back in the saddle; you might, should you know the toughness of some climbs at a given place, roll your eyes at the speed at which they tackle them, but…after a puzzled bout of disbelief, halfway between respect and pity for the sight of their suffering faces, you look away and turn to something else.

But cycling was something Haralambon could never turn away from, after the moment he first rode, at the age of thirteen, on a country road, and “found myself in the space opened inside me by the landscape separating my eyes from my muscles…and my soul was ripped open like a fruit whose overripe flesh was a promise of infinity.”

In passage after passage, I hear echoes of the long tradition of French philosophic musing, as Haralambon exposes for the reader the ineffable that he has experienced through cycling:

I loved pedaling breathlessly beside the demon of my shadow. I pulled it behind me mercilessly for tens of thousands of kilometers and it never ever let me down. I sweated, cried, spat, came, dribbled, bled sometimes on the tarmac and the landscape. I have loved the bike and I have loved racing fiercely because they gave me a form of trust in the unfathomable immensity of life, in the verticality of time. Without it, without them, I would never have had the slightest feeling of eternity—not as a myth but as an experience.

Far from being the perpetrators in a “monotonous spectacle,” “the best competitive riders,” he argues, “are among the cleverest and the most subtle individuals in the human race…as delicate as ballet dancers and more astute than many writers.” As if to prove just that point, Haralambon exhibits his skill as a writer on page after page, as in this passage about coming of age as a young competitive rider:

We felt like rising stars…all the neighborhood girls were at their windows, chatting and calling each other. The façade of the building looked like an Advent calendar. Behind them, you could feel the polished kitchens, the put-away dishes and the pink rubber gloves thrown over the faucets like the remains of Michelangelo in the arms of St. Bartholomew on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Though Haralambon gives the insider’s privileged view of all the facets of competitive cycling—the training, the solitude of the individual, the “monstrous” nature of the rampaging peloton, even the doping—it’s his encounter with the existential that drives the narrative. Reading this book, I forgot what I had witnessed, obliviously, every summer on TV. I began to feel myself inside the soul of a person dedicated to two excruciating and unaccountably rewarding activities, cycling and writing, and to see the parallels between Haralambon’s experience as a cyclist and all the endeavors artists undertake that lead to transcendence:

He pushes on the pedals, rotates them, makes them dance, and moves ahead in the direction designed by the road lined by spectators…Yet the landscape that is the background of the show is not the real place of his meticulous effort. He performs and creates from the resonances of his solitude and carves in himself his own share of space.…He works with all muscles on the rough, indistinct, and endlessly improvable material of his most intimate life.
_____

Cheryl Anne Latuner is author of the memoir Baby at My Breast—Reflections of a Nursing Mother and is at work on No Long Island Girl. Her essays and poetry have appeared in journals such as Literary Mama, The Comstock ReviewNaugatuck River Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, and in Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words. She loves taking long walks, practicing piano, and visiting her young adult daughter in Paris.

The * Fact * of * Memory

May 16, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

THE

The challenge Aaron Angello set for himself is daunting, maybe a little insane, borderline brilliant, and truly fascinating. For roughly four months, Angello woke at 5 am, brewed himself a cup of coffee, carried his cup to a small writing desk, and wrote – one per day, in order – a word from Shakespeare’s 114-word 29th Sonnet.

One word. The word “the,” for instance, or “of,” or “bootless,” or “possessed.”

He sat with the word a while, and then, “Once I felt I was filled with that word—as if the word filled my body, not just my mind—I began to write.”

FACT

The fact is, a single word can take you anywhere. The mind works that way. The word “Beweep,” for instance, a very Shakespearean word, leads Angello to imagine a Gallery of Forgotten Words, “pile after pile of bodkins and blunderbusses, jolly-nobs and junts, lacerts and lam’s grass.”

But The Fact of Memory is not a book about Shakespeare, or even just a book about words. It is a book about how the mind works. About memory. About rumination. Fabrication, And narrative structure.

The sonnet is deconstructed word by word, and then built back up again, to find stories Shakespeare himself had never imagined.

OF

The simple word “of” appears only once in Shakespeare’s sonnet, and Angello’s brief chapter – the book, essentially, is flash nonfiction, with a robust lyric bent – imagines a vintage movie, a projected backdrop, two actors, a scratchy old 78 rpm record, skipping on the song lyric “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” the way our minds skip over and over a remembered detail, an old song, looking for truth maybe, or just a story, or what may pass for a story, what may pass for a truth.

The way images break apart, reform themselves into narratives, remembered, felt deeply, but ultimately not real.

MEMORY

The 29th Sonnet does not use the word “memory” anywhere, but the word “remembered” appears once, as in “For they sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

Angello remembers his own sweet love, youthful love, a rooftop in New York City, jealousies, guilt, and failure. No wealth, or kings. It is a different time, a different thinker’s thoughts.

He remembers detail after disconnected detail of this tragic past love, then writes, “But this isn’t a confession. I’m making all of this up.”

Which we sometimes do when we reconstruct memory. When we try to reconstruct our truths, word by stubborn word.

The fact of memory is not simple. The Fact of Memory is complex.

__

Dinty W. Moore is the editor of Brevity.

A Review of Melissa Febos’ Body Work

May 13, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Brian Watson

I wasn’t expecting my mother’s question.

She knew that I was working on my memoir; I had called early in September 2021 to let her know that a publishing company had requested the manuscript—an exciting turn of events that later led to a kind rejection from the publisher.

I had given her a very rough outline of the manuscript. How I had grown up gay, how my failure to process my father’s death when I was fourteen affected me, my choice to move to Japan in 1988 in the hope of escaping the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the United States, and how my ten years in Japan unfolded me.

Can you send me a copy? I want to read it.

Imagining my mother reading about my roughshod sexual education (my first adolescence as a frightened queer kid) and emotional evolution (my second adolescence where feelings were finally allowed to join the physical) had me suddenly nervous. But I ordered a copy of the manuscript from the local print shop and mailed it off.

My stepfather called first, telling me he loved it and couldn’t wait for it to be properly published. My mother, he said, was still reading it, going more slowly.

She called at some point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that point in the year when, by law, family drama must occur. I overstate it, of course, but the conversation included this moment:

You write very well, Brian.

Thank you, Ma.

I like it. But I have to tell you something, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.

Yes?

I had to skip over parts of it. There were things I just didn’t want to know.

That’s okay, Ma.

It reassured me to know that, as close as she and I had become over the years, we still had mutually respected boundaries.

There are some details in a grown child’s life that no parent is meant to know, especially when that grown child has the kind of early adulthood pastimes that I had.

I didn’t write a memoir to free myself, though in the process I did.

The first few pages of Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative hit hard, and I started to vibrate, emotionally. My first adolescence, the ten or so years before I left for Japan, was an awful combination of urgent sex and fear. Fear of grief—my father died when I was fourteen—and a fear of exposure as a gay man to my family.

I had put some raw content on the page (and revised it and revised it) and it unnerved me. And it was more than my learning how to cruise other men in Manhattan at age fifteen. It was a trauma I was walking back through. I had concerns beyond the writing and its impact on me, however.

Anyone who writes the story of their individual trauma, and especially those of identities that have been historically oppressed and abused, is subject to the retraumatization by ongoing perpetrators: the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonizing nation(s) in which they must live and learn to heal.

I have taken classes with other writers of memoir, I have taught a few as well, and I hear the fear. Women, queer people like me, Black Americans, and other people of color? We were vulnerable to trauma even before we started writing. Were we about to allow others to dig deeper in our wounds?

Shortly after [Abandon Me] was published, during a post-reading Q & A, a woman stood up and asked me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’

Another fear that I and other writers of memoirs share is blowback. Within the traumas we write about, there are often specific persons we can point to as those who victimized us or who intensified the trauma. People love to share the Anne Lamott epigram, If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better. I’m partial, myself, to one of the lines that Allison K Williams has taught me to use, I can’t wait to read your memoir, Aunt Martha.

Memoirs have the potential to burn bridges, to destroy relationships. I feel this keenly as I write.

…I wanted to be able to tell both stories. That felt more fair. Still, I felt the violation of that narration. [The other person’s] version was not my story to tell.

Telling my story is enough. Talking about my choices, the impacts of other people on me, and my ultimate successes—getting the manipulator out of my life, finding a way to be out of the closet professionally in Japan, of all places, and discovering the changes I could make that allowed me to finally fall in a truer love—are the ways my story will reach readers, the people I want to be present for.

As memoirists, we, too, speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others. While I know that the person helped most of all is myself, part of my own healing has come from the hundreds of strangers who have written to me, claiming that I told their story, too, and that reading it showed them that it was possible to tell.

Body Work is a work of courage. And in reading it, I was imbued with a new courage myself. What a wonderful gift to the writing community.

Thank you, Melissa.

___

Brian Watson is currently revising and querying his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Saitama, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. His recent essays have appeared in Brevity’s online blog. His other book reviews have appeared in Hippocampus magazine. He is the author of an upcoming article on marriage equality in the US and Japan for JETs on Japan magazine and was recently interviewed for a May episode of the Second Adolescence podcast. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com and Twitter  @iambrianwatson.

Opening Literary Windows to Better Understand Our World

May 6, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Candy Schulman

It began during the pandemic lockdown. Teaching my nonfiction writing workshops to Zoom rectangles, I could hear Black Lives Matter marches outside my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their voices made me understand that my own reading habits and recommendations to students were still not diverse enough.

My millennial daughter pointed out that I was drawn to work by women whose lives mirrored mine. These writers made me feel less alone in a complex world. One weekend my daughter’s friend read aloud the first paragraph of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had….If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.”

Kawakami’s first novel, Heaven, was about bullying. This heartbreaking, deeply disturbing allegory transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn—where I too had been bullied at fourteen, 6,894 miles away from Osaka. My essays on bullying were similar to Kawakami’s experience, and also different. Reading diverse authors emphasized the universality of the human condition.

Next my daughter recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel spanning 300 years, from Ghana to American slavery and beyond. It was so disturbing that I could not read it before bedtime. In my classes I’d often paraphrased Kafka’s claim that the job of an artist is to make us uncomfortable, not happy. Gyasi’s horrifying descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves emphasized Kafka’s view that “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”

As writers we need to “wake up” in order to surprise our readers and create original voices. With over two million books published worldwide, I was grateful for my daughter’s guidance. I’d introduced her to reading and was always proud that she grew up to love literature. Now she was teaching me.

I followed her recommendations as if she were my book club leader. Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, illuminated her shame, depression, and racial identity struggles as the daughter of Korean immigrants in America. As soon as I read the last page of Hong’s hybrid memoir of personal experience and cultural criticism, I put it on my syllabus. An Asian American student emailed me: “Minor Feelings changed my life. Thank you.”

I studied books and styles I might never have read before. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an inventive memoir about psychological abuse in a love relationship between two women. Its innovative structure where each chapter is crafted around a narrative trope made me think anew about ways we order our essays and memoirs.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, a Chinese American coming-of-age story begins, “Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house…” Her first paragraph was the lengthy kind I urged my students to divide into shorter morsels. Yes, a writer could break the rules—once traditional craft is mastered.

One night in class, after workshopping a student’s personal essay written in the second person, I warned that the “you” voice was tricky and rarely effective. A student recommended “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” a second person epistolary essay by Ocean Vuong. His brilliant lyricism, in spite of numerous transitional spaces, was the kind I warned students often made prose feel jumpy. I changed my mind when saw how effortlessly Vuong achieved it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Writers need to stretch and grow. I tell my students that learning to write is a lifelong process. My essay style has evolved over the years. Broader reading tastes have enabled me to penetrate new boundaries in style, format, chronology, and language. All writers can spread our literary wings across oceans. After 35 years of teaching, I’ve expanded my knowledge about the craft of writing—as well as systemic racism, slavery, immigration, and prejudice.

My teaching syllabus has evolved from mostly white voices of women who’d grown up with more than one or two windows in their house. The daughter of first-generation Americans, I was raised in a modest Brooklyn house with five windows. My apartment today has eight windows. I keep opening them as wide as possible, inviting a wide array of today’s literary voices into my writing life and my classroom.

___
Candy Schulman is an essayist, memoir writer, and creative nonfiction professor at The New School in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Longreads, Salon, among others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press), Same Time Next Week (In Fact Books/Creative Nonfiction), and forthcoming Embrace the Merciless Joy (McSweeney’s). Candy has twice won the Best Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and notable honors from Best American Essays.

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