January 8, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Curtis
“It’s one of our great tragedies of contemporary life in America, that families fall apart,” the playwright Sam Shepard once said. “Almost everybody has that in common.” I kept thinking of Shepard’s quote while reading Debra Di Blasi’s memoir (if that’s the right word) Selling the Farm: Descants From a Recollected Past (C & R Press, 2020). Written in a series of lyrical vignettes, the book is an elegy to the wild Missouri farm where Di Blasi grew up and to the complicated family who bore witness to it.
In Di Blasi’s hands, memoir is not a work of confession. As she writes in the prologue, she views autobiography as pretense—observing the past inevitably alters it, and any memoir that fails to recognize this fact is fiction. She calls attention to her self-editing through white space, indented text that often breaks the fourth wall. As Di Blasi explained in an interview about the book, “The intent is not only to illuminate the many facets of remembering but also to reflect the process of writing and revising one’s recollections, exposing the fallibility of memory and the intrusion of self-aggrandizement.”
Instead of autobiography, she categorizes Selling the Farm as “a biography of a place I happened to intersect.” In this place-based biography, narrative takes a backseat to lyricism. Animals occupy as much space (if not more) as humans, and human conflict reveals itself in brief, nightmarish flashes. Her parents fight. Her father rages. The family lives in squalor. Her mother tries to overdose on aspirin. A sister dies from cancer caused by chemicals in the groundwater. A mysterious fire consumes her childhood farmhouse.
Yet there is light amidst the darkness. Though Di Blasi and her four siblings lack the conventional comforts of indoor plumbing and happy parents, they are rich in immaterial gifts, in “a kind of wealth high beyond the flat innertubes and broken dolls of childhood.” The book is a kind of extended meditation on the wonder of childhood, a phase unburdened by memory, when time is experienced “head-on.” This is not to say the book romanticizes childhood. The siblings wreak havoc on their natural world like small, vengeful gods, pulling wings off grasshoppers and shooting frogs to placate their boredom. They were, she admits, “terrible.”
But the country cruelties are outnumbered by moments of staggering awe. Marrying prose and poetry, Selling the Farm is the kind of book you want to read with a pen on your lap, to mark its slippery metaphors and juxtapositions. Earth is “licked clean of time,” algae “resembles metallic threads loomed for a queen,” coyotes “come nosing the night’s lost virginity.” In one of my favorite vignettes, Di Blasi recalls the sensory thrill of being the first to lay boot tracks in a snowy field. “I’d reach the stand of black-skinned elms with iced branches clicking like graceless castanets. Turn in the blue knives of shadow. See where I’d been. The past, I saw, would dissolve in the heat of each moment, each step of the way.” It speaks to Di Blasi’s skills as a writer that she’s able to turn this ordinary event—stomping through fresh snow—into a transcendent statement on time’s impermanence.
The book advances seasonally, beginning with autumn and ending with spring. To end with a season of rebirth hints at hope; instead, Selling the Farm ends with the death of Di Blasi’s sister. This is a book, after all, about grief—grief for a sister, for a family torn asunder, and for a farm lost forever.
Or is it? “Do the trees remember us?” Di Blasi asks near the end. “I choose to believe that somewhere inside a sweet wet ring of uncut tree trunk’s an unchanged piece of who we ever were.” The sun melts our boot prints. The house burns down, or is sold. Our families age, and yes, as Sam Shepard noted, they fall apart. But certain places in our lives are so influential they never leave us, and perhaps we never leave them.
Like Di Blasi, I was raised on a rural cattle farm by parents who didn’t always get along like the smiling sitcom families I envied. My childhood farm was smaller, and less hardscrabble, than Di Blasi’s, but I saw myself in her story. Like her family, my parents sold the farm years ago. Today when I visit them, I sometimes ask my father to drive me back there.
That’s it? I think, looking out the car window at a vista of baled hay and rolling hills—pretty terrain, if common. In my memory, the farm is a cathedral of green, shaded by towering oaks that know my name. Such is the reverb of “memory’s echo,” as Di Blasi calls it. I found myself wishing she had returned to her old farm in person to make a similar assessment, but maybe it’s for the best we leave these landscapes in our mind, congealed like the tree branches inside a snow globe, shaken but sealed in the moment before our childhoods rise in flames, or evaporate in smoke.
Sarah Curtis is a writer in Michigan. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, Salon, the American Literary Review, and the anthology River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on a biographical memoir. More of her writing can be found at sarahcurtiswriter.com.
December 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
More than twenty years before Jennifer Worley takes us behind the scenes of the Lusty Lady club, in Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power, I was slinking across the stage of one of the many strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach. ‘Sex work,’ a term later introduced by prostitute, performer and activist Carol Leigh, highlighted that our activities involved the same economic and labor considerations as any trade or profession. While the term wasn’t in use when I was a struggling dancer, by Worley’s time, it had become part of the vernacular. She and her cohort in 1990s San Francisco would make an imprint on efforts to recognize sex work as real work, through their landmark success at unionizing and eventually owning the Lusty Lady, and their ultimate takeover of the club is the framework for Neon Girls.
Worley’s evolution as a stripper from outsider to insider started while working toward a master’s degree in English literature, needing to increase her income and work fewer hours. A Lusty Lady advertisement promised $22 an hour—twice what her entry-level publishing job paid. (Sex work is still generally more profitable for women than other service sector employment.)
The Lusty Lady wasn’t a typical club with a raised stage and a solo performer—the kind of place where I’d danced. Rather, the Lusties were sealed behind glass—untouchable. Usually, four girls swayed, wiggled, and spun around poles in a 10 x 15 room with mirrored walls and ceiling offering an orgiastic illusion. The stage was designed so the ladies could manipulate what was seen. The group performance encouraged a sense of sisterhood.
All the Lusties picked stage names, but names did more than assure their privacy—they impacted and defined their personae. Worley became “Polly,” and after living for five years with “an unfortunate split-second impulse” that labeled her more schoolgirl than seductress, she re-emerged as Delinqua, reflecting Worley’s transformation through her experience as a Lusty. Most of the women, with their chosen stage names—Sizzlean, Decadence, Cinnamon—and their adopted personas, developed alter egos giving them newfound confidence in their mainstream lives.
After about a year at the club, Worley began tackling the administrative dynamics of the Lusty Lady. Performers were being prioritized for shift assignments by race, hair color, and breast size. An incident involving being filmed (forbidden but difficult to control) heightened Worley’s motivation. “I hated the idea that men I didn’t know or trust now had records of the work I did, that they could carry Polly, naked and unawares, from the safe refuge that birthed and nurtured her, into that other world where I had to live my life.”
Worley’s academic background is evident as she explains the Lusties’ place in the lineage of sex workers. We learn how sex-worker liberation may have started on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill—known more nowadays for the neighborhood’s feral parrots than for the Chilean women who settled there during the Gold Rush. They took in laundry by day and sold sex at night, probably establishing the city’s first red-lantern district.
A tradition of resistance among sex workers laid the foundation for the Lusties’ unionization campaign, initiated in Spring 1996. Said Worley, “This wasn’t just about some one-way windows…It was about confronting the systems that commodified women’s sexuality for the benefits of everyone else involved.” They picketed in front of the theatre, chanting “Two-four-six eight, don’t go here to masturbate,” with passing cars honking in support. Within a few weeks, their union contract was ratified, affirming their right to organize and advocate for themselves. Over time, the workers transformed the club into a cooperative.
At the Lusty on and off for over ten years, Worley describes how the “Bright passionate women…had drawn me out of my graduate student shell and into the Lusty fray…to get involved and make change. … I felt responsible for continuing the legacy of sex workers…” But, performing one day, suddenly the tears began falling, and she was enveloped by shame. It was over for her. On her last day, she returns to the club—the “tiny little pit”—where she’d “grown up.”
This kind of introspection highlights what’s missing for me in the narrative. More instances of self-reflection would give the reader a better understanding of Worley’s emotional process. How did she go from Polly to Delinqua to tears in front of a Private Pleasures booth? “It was confusing to feel this depth of shame so suddenly… But this was not the sudden belated eruption of some long-repressed shame…; rather, it was an accounting for the many ways I’d bracketed and sidelined my own aspirations for the sake of the collective.” That bracketing seems to have sidelined her from her feelings, although she acknowledges resentment for how male authority governs the world of commercial sex, their preferences determining who’s hot and who’s not.
Worley has invited the reader into a world unfamiliar to most, Stripping the strippers of their negative stereotypical identities, they’re revealed flesh and blood, thoughtful and intelligent, with the same life goals and challenges as anyone. While our experiences were separated by more than twenty years, Worley confronted as I had the feminist implications of working as a professional sex object. In sex work, the experience of personal power can be simultaneous with feeling exploited.
Worley endured and came into her own working as a Lusty. In contrast, for years I’d kept my own brief stint as a dancer a secret, until one day it became part of my life story. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d had the moxie and the self-confidence to make the stage my own. Worley gave me an intimate glimpse into that world.
Nancy Jainchill’s writing has focused on sex positivity, feminism and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Entropy, the Albany Times Union, and Brevity among others. She is a psychologist living and working in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @nancyjainchill.
November 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
I have always been a doodler — in grade school, high school, hiding in the back row of large college classrooms, eventually in faculty meetings, and often just to pass the time while waiting in a doctor’s office. Having a pencil or pen in hand and some paper, or for that matter a little free space in the margins of a magazine, has always been calming for me, meditative, and amusing, all at the same time. So I was pretty darn excited to hear that Rebecca Fish Ewan had a new book out, Doodling for Writers. How do these little scribbles of ours improve our writing? In more ways than I imagined.
I was especially pleased by the book’s release because Rebecca wrote a stellar craft essay on the graphic form for Brevity and has been featured more than once — see here, and here — on the Brevity Blog .
I was so tickled that I decided to doodle a picture of her to celebrate:
And it was the most horrible doodle ever doodled. Worse even than the drawing I did of my friend Jackson’s Labradoodle:
But Doodling for Writers is nonetheless a clever, lively, funny little book, and the advice is sound. On pacing and voice, for instance:
“Voice and breath are inextricably linked. In poetry, line breaks indicate a breath. In prose, it’s, commas, that, signal, inhalations. When I draw, I become more aware of my breaths. The lines I lay down on the page keep pace with my breathing. If I want calm still lines, I slow my breaths, which in turn slows my heart rate, which then calms my hand so it can give me the line I need.”
Fish Ewan offers up a wonderful chart detailing the links between perspective in drawing and literary Point of View. She has excellent points and pointers as to how exploring our characters in ink can help us learn more about the folks we write about in our memoirs. The prompts throughout the book are brilliant!
I like also that she regularly advises tossing out the rules, like the one about how to draw heads, which never worked for me, unless I was trying to draw the head of a pig:
The real message of Doodling for Writers is that one corner of the creative brain can stimulate another corner, that drawing, or doodling, can happily stimulate the writer’s mind, and that, what the heck, writing can still be fun (like drawing.)
Dinty W. Moore is the editor-in-chief of Brevity and he drewed these pictures all by his self.
November 20, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Tom Montgomery Fate
Even though Michele Morano’s last book, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, was published a decade ago, I still return to it for her incisive reflections on the relationship between language and culture. Perhaps this is why the focus of her new book of essays, reminded me of an assignment I once gave to my students while teaching in the Philippines: Write a one sentence response to the question, What is love?
Those Filipino students, all who were tri-lingual and struggled with English, wrote things like: “Love is like the mango––ripe, sweet and everywhere” and “Love is patient, like slow, bubbling rice.” This was quite different from what my students in the U.S. wrote when I gave them the same assignment. Most wrote something close to this: “Love is a strong emotional feeling or bond which a person has for another person or thing.”
The point of this simple exercise is to distinguish between writing that explains and writing that reveals, to move from abstract concepts to concrete imagery. It was interesting how the Filipino students seemed to more readily give examples, to show love rather than attempt to explain it.
All good essays and memoirs must answer the question—What is love?—to some degree. But most readers are not looking for a new definition or explanation of love. Rather, what we want, is an artful invitation into the writer’s experience, so that we might find a bit of our story in theirs.
And that is what readers will find in Like Love, largely due to Morano’s raw honesty about her struggles to love a variety of men, her parents, and even her newborn son. The book is a weave of Morano’s childhood and adulthood, with each chapter jumping forward/backward in time. This allows her to explore her evolving understandings of love and sex and friendship and family––and how they blur and converge, or don’t.
In the second chapter, Morano’s mother leaves her abusive father for Jan, a woman she worked with. It’s the seventies, and lesbian relationships are less accepted, so eleven-year-old Michele, and her younger brother, Michael, have a lot to digest that night they flee with their mom to live with Jan and her children. But it gets harder. One night (a month after they’ve moved out), they return to their old house (where their father still lives), and break in through a window. They hurriedly snatch up all the stuff they want—clothes and books and appliances. Then the police and her father arrive.
This is an important but confusing chapter, in that it weaves the two nights together (the escape and the break-in) and echoes the confusion in Morano’s young mind. After the break-in, she writes, “All the way back to Jan and Maggie’s house, I felt sad for my father, guilty about the evening’s events and excited by a shift.” The shift is in her self-perception: “Now I was someone else, someone whose personality involved keeping quiet, guarding secrets, becoming a repository of stories.”
And these stories that Morano has been guarding and distilling for forty-plus years are widely varied—in theme and style. She attempts to define love in a segmented riff on Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (subtitled “Or Twelve Ways of Looking at Love”), in a riff on Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” (“How to Tell a True Love Story”), and in a dozen more conventional essays.
But it is her struggle to love her mother, and to love being a mother, that both frames and thematically undergirds the book. None of the other love relationships are as complex, or as deeply rooted. And it is a relationship that touches all the others.
A few months after moving in with Jan’s family, Morano’s mom––Rita––decides to move them all back in with her husband. So, Michele and her brother must return to their old house, to a place, and parents, who still don’t feel like “home.” When their mother decides to leave a second time, “it felt, like a rupture, a turning away, like the love of my life was gone.”
“Sometimes I fantasized about my mother dying,” Morano later writes, “which would at least have the benefit of allowing people to understand the pain I carried. Instead my mother, who I loved and resented and missed so deeply…had left me behind.”
In a late chapter, Morano’s mom––now in her sixties, and disgruntled by retirement due to disability––decides to visit her daughter in Iowa City for two weeks. Michele, now a PhD student and teacher, is falling in love with her eventual partner, Kevin, at the same time Rita visits. Morano magically weaves these two love stories together—the lifetime of suffering love between her and her mom, and the breathtaking day by day joy of falling in love with Kevin. As the chapter progresses, and Morano’s love for Kevin intensifies, so does her love for her mom. She feels a “tsunami of tenderness.”
“I had known this woman, this body, my entire life,” she writes, “first with the unencumbered adoration of a toddler, later with the capacious devotion of a child who recognizes flaws and feels more deeply because of them…. But I did love her, as steadfastly as I would ever love anyone.”
The loose braid of this love, and her love for Kevin, is tightened by a third strand in the final essay: Morano becomes pregnant at forty-three, and gives birth to a son. Unlike the rest of the book, this chapter is written in the third person, and the emotional distance is arresting. Rather than saying “I did not love my baby,” she writes, “She did not love her baby.” And here, Morano’s own childhood surfaces as she considers how to love her son: “What, she wondered, would love for a child—real, deep, unconditional love—feel like?” (italics added)
By book’s end, it seems Morano knows. She is resilient and compassionate, and living the answer to that question—What is love?–– every single day––as the daughter of an imperfect mother, and the mom of a curious little boy in search of his own answers.
Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books of creative nonfiction. The most recent is Cabin Fever, a nature memoir (Beacon Press). His essays appear in The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Iowa Review, and Fourth Genre, among others, and have often aired on NPR and PRI.
November 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Sarah White
JoAnne Silver Jones’s Headstrong: Surviving a Traumatic Brain Injury recounts how the author survived an out-of-the-blue assault by a stranger that left her with fractured hands, a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), and, as she would discover, lingering PTSD. Writing helped her learn to live with the daily challenges of her physical, mental, and emotional wounds. Her book is dedicated to “those kindred spirits who live daily with the consequences and invisibility of TBI and the trauma of random violence” and her message to those kindred spirits—and us all—is, ultimately, “Choose hope.”
I started reading with hope of a window into a supremely difficult experience, but little hope of finding the story well told. I’m a ghostwriter; I recently spent most of a year trying to help a young man write about his recovery from a near-fatal stroke. He had enjoyed creative writing prior to his stroke and by the time we worked together, he had regained his ability to work, counsel stroke survivors, and even run triathlons, but he had not, we found out, recovered his voice as a writer. Page after page he perseverated on the events of the stroke and when he wasn’t repeating himself, he leapt like a goat back and forth over his life story. Frustrated at my inability to be more help, I finally had to refer him to a more seasoned ghostwriter.
Therefore, to me, what Jones has accomplished with Headstrong is astonishing. She tamed her brain—and found meaning in her difficult story.
The first chapters describe the traumatic attack and its immediate aftermath. Flashbacks show how the family dynamics of her childhood shaped her response: Don’t complain, don’t reflect, move on, be strong. “I grew up with secrets and silence, boldness and stoicism,” she wrote. In her Jewish-communist family it was acceptable to rail against injustice in the abstract but unacceptable to speak of one’s own pain.
Here’s what I saw through the window Jones opened into her experience: the very real damage wrought to finances, to relationships, and to self-concept. Undergoing occupational therapy, she realized, “The trauma was becoming a cloak—something I could wrap myself up in, to maintain distance from ordinary life. I cleaved to my identity as the assault victim.” Her psychotherapist diagnosed her with anhedonia—the loss of a sense of pleasure.
Jones regained physical strength in due time. Regaining the ability to experience pleasure took much longer. The impact on her loved ones—wife, daughter, and friends—was significant, and is given its due in the book.
Jones returned to her work as professor but the fight for accommodations for her new disability nearly broke her. “It took some time for me to see … I had become the example of what happens when an attempt is made to contravene power brokers,” she wrote. And yet, her life’s work as an anti-racism teacher and activist was too important to quit.
She discovered she could not use the same coping structures that had worked for her pre-TBI, and so, found new ones; I thought of them as “Projects.” In Jones’s Project of Dogs, she sought emotional support from animals. The first did not work out, but the second did. In the Project of Research, Jones sought to understand the human brain. She hoped knowledge would help her understand and move on. Research did yield some results, but left her always wanting more. Her Project of Writing turned out to be the key that opened the door to a new way of being in the world.
Jones could no longer regulate her emotions, but she could use writing to give them constructive purpose on the page. She began to write in earnest, enrolling in writing workshops and retiring from her job in order to have more time to write. In doing so, Jones achieved what I was never able to with my young stroke victim—lyrical, beautiful writing.
Much of the book is written in a straightforward voice recognizable as the bold stoic she was before the attack. But the power of her storytelling grows as the book progresses. She achieves some brilliant passages. I particularly liked what I’d call a lyric essay on page 194-5 that begins, “There was a shooting today. It happened in Colorado or Kansas, Washington or Maine,” and ends, “All now join our invisible club made up of the legions of us whose lives are shadowed by violence.”
Headstrong succeeds at its purpose: It shines a light on one person’s experience and offers helpful insights to others.
Sarah White provides writing services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities from her home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Typical projects include books, articles, and life histories. She also teaches memoir writing through small-group workshops and one-on-one coaching.
October 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Debra Wilson Frank
When my husband died suddenly at forty-four of an undetected genetic heart defect, I was bereft. Entering the funeral home’s side entrance, I felt myself separate from my body and perch above the door where I could view the whole room, including myself, walking to the front row, dressed in black, blond and thin, ten pounds gone in ten days.
Natasha Trethewey experienced disassociation too, as she stepped through her mother’s apartment door the day after her stepfather, “Big Joe,” a troubled Vietnam vet, murdered her mother. As she writes in her memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, she “felt as though I were watching someone else….”
The thresholds of the funeral home for me, and her mother’s apartment for Trethewey, were metaphoric entrances into lives changed forever—into new versions of ourselves. Trethewey, then a college student, responded with “willed amnesia” and decided to leave Atlanta for good, her memories locked away in “mute avoidance of the past,” while I was midstream in my life, with young children, and found myself revisiting my long-avoided past. My stepfather wasn’t a murderer, but he ruled my mother, who handed over the grocery money for his drugs, and her daughters (I was twelve and my sister, sixteen) for his other appetites. When I escaped into the safety of my father’s home after nearly a year, I put the experience under my mental floorboards. I even stopped writing, something I’d always done as a kid, to ensure nothing seeped out.
When Trethewey moved back to Atlanta three decades after the murder, she found reminders of her mother’s life and death everywhere and realized she needed to face her past. The result is an exquisitely-crafted memoir that reflects her poetic gifts. Trethewey served two terms as United States poet laureate (2012 and 2013), and her collection, Native Guard, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
The book is structured with remarkable symmetry—the opening and closing so well matched, I thought of a palindrome. Trethewey begins with a quote from John Banville in The Sea, “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” and closes with a scene in which her mother (Gwen) allows fifteen-year-old Tasha to take the wheel during a road trip—a prelude to learning to drive—and the author feels her mother’s heart beating so close to her own, it’s as if she has not one, but two hearts. It’s an elegant and touching way for the author to express her love for her mother. The memoir starts and ends with that love.
The bookend of hearts brackets a second set of bookends—a dream Trethewey describes at the beginning and again at the end of the book. Three weeks after her mother’s murder, Trethewey dreams the two are walking around a track, her mother with a bullet hole in her forehead. “Do you know what it’s like to have a wound that doesn’t heal?” Gwen asks.
The dream conflates the murder with a real incident that happens just after Gwen goes to a women’s shelter to escape Big Joe. At a high school football game, Tasha is standing on the track with the other cheerleaders when she sees Big Joe enter the stadium. On a hunch, she smiles and waves at him. Later she learns he’d come to kill her—to punish Gwen. Tasha’s kindness changed his mind. The dream acknowledges what Trethewey resists. If Big Joe had killed her, he would have been locked up, and her mother’s life would have been spared. When Trethewey revisits the dream at the end of the book, she recognizes her own wound that won’t heal—her survivor’s guilt.
Within this frame, Trethewey tells her story, mining her memories for the metaphors that help her make sense of the trauma that haunts her.
In one poignant scene, after Gwen, newly divorced, and Tasha, then six, having moved to Atlanta, the girl watches her mother dress for her job as a cocktail waitress in Underground Atlanta and notices the daffodils she’d picked earlier that day on the dresser. Gwen’s costume includes a belt made of bullets. Looking back, Trethewey wonders if maybe it’s the night her mother meets Big Joe. “. . . her body ringed in the objects of her undoing.” She goes deeper with the metaphor, evoking the myth of Persephone, who is lured by yellow narcissi to her doom in the underworld. Has Trethewey as a little girl supplied the flowers that lead to her mother’s destruction? Survival guilt reaches across time to make it seem that way.
Later, now married to Big Joe, her mother celebrates completing her graduate degree with a party. In a memorable moment, the crowd parts, Soul Train style, and Gwen dances between them. Trethewey recalls that image with another nine years later when mourners part for her mother’s casket to pass between them on its way to the hearse.
Trethewey uses this pattern dramatically in her scenes throughout the memoir, connecting different moments in time, so she doesn’t just narrate events, she embeds her reflection in them.
At the end of the book, when Trethewey revisits the “wound” dream, she writes, “This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose…. It’s the story I tell myself to survive.”
As Trethewey did, I had to exhume my past to make sense of my life. The trauma of losing my husband was a second abandonment that plunged me back to the first—and like a toggle switch, I started writing again. I discovered a tougher kid than I remembered, a younger me who might show me how to weather an even worse blow. A story that could show me how to survive.
Debra Wilson Frank holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published in The Rumpus and her work will be included in the anthology, Being Home to be published by Madville Press, in September, 2021. She is writing a memoir about early widowhood and her traumatic childhood. Debra lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and her two adult children.
October 9, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Cara Siera
I’ve heard it said that every middle-grade girl has a “horse phase.” Whether that generality is true or not, I know that I certainly did. I grew up on five acres in the rolling hills of Tennessee. My dressing table was covered in model horses, my bookshelf full of titles like The Black Stallion. At fourteen I learned how to work, mucking stalls and tending horses and sheep on a neighboring farm. Often, I was up before daybreak to complete my chores before school or out at the barn in the middle of the night, having come home late from weeknight religious services.
One afternoon, my equestrian employer asked me to pay her a visit outside of my normal working hours, and portentously commanded, “Bring your walking shoes.” We trekked across the pasture, over a grassy knoll that gave way to a deep valley.
There, alongside Cocoa, the brown quarter horse mare, stood a knobby-kneed foal. “She’s yours,” my employer crooned.
It’s that type of speechless elation that drives 13,712: A Journey. In his debut work, J.D. Massey provides a warm and intimate invitation, in a rambling rural style, to witness some of life’s wonders: the birth of a foal, new heads of grain emerging from the soil, and taking into his arms a long-awaited son.
But, alas, these moments of ecstasy are but commas amid life’s sentences. The journey, despite its joys, is rife with tragic human challenges—the death of a parent, debilitating mental illness, a first love suffering from addiction, family strife, an unwanted abortion, the inability to conceive a child, and the long road to successful in vitro fertilization.
These latter aspects distinguish 13,712 as offering unique insights. In 2019, one BBC news article described the perspective of would-be fathers as “a voice rarely heard among the passionate multitudes in the U.S. abortion debate.”
But the presentation in 13,712 would hardly register as debate in the general sense of the word. Never do the pages seem to brashly declare that the reader must take one position or the other. Rather, it is as if the author is saying, “This is what happened, and this is how it made me feel. Make your own moral judgment.”
13,712: A Journey is deeply, yet subtly, grounded in time and place. Mentions of events like the death of Elvis Presley, the release of a classic Gordon Lightfoot ballad, or a 60 Minutes television interview with abortion provider Dr. Susan Wicklund anchor the narrative, linking it to the reader’s own experiences. Where were you when 9/11 happened? That’s the kind of flashbulb memory we can all relate to.
And, although I wish to leave you to experience the surprise of it, a summary of 13,712: A Journey would not be complete without a mention of its vacant pages. These empty pages do not occur at the book’s frontmatter or backmatter, nor are they a printing error. Rather, it is an invitation.
Even when a nonfiction writer is willing to lay bare his or her soul in bitter ink and brittle paper, some words are just too painful to pen. Yet the author told me via email, “It struck me yesterday that there will be people, none of whom I will ever meet, that will use those blank pages to write their own story or at the very least fill it in with their own thoughts.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is that the story continues. The book’s cover image is an actual snapshot of a farmer-father watching his ten-year-old son follow in his footsteps, making his first solo round on the combine. His joy at this momentous event was tempered by the reality that the beautiful-looking crop itself had been irreparably damaged by weather and that its value was depleted by half.
That setback gave Massey the final push to pen and publish 13,712: A Journey. Massey chose a print on demand publishing option rather than waiting on the mercurial moods of the traditional publishing house. Why? It is an attempt to save the beloved farm he writes about. American farmers have seen a number of lean years. Since the book was published in February of this year, 2020 has further burdened the agricultural breadbasket with economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating weather events.
So, Massey writes on. His forthcoming collection of short stories, entitled Daddy, Tell Us a Story, is set for publication later in 2020.
Cara Siera is a freelance writer and photographer. She is the author of Life Is Stranger at Worthington High and Captivated. Her work has appeared in The Red Mud Review, Fearsome Critters: A Millennial Arts Journal, and elsewhere.
October 5, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Natalie Johansen
I know I am not alone in noticing recent trends toward divisiveness as we move further from the ideals of civil discourse. It’s disheartening how often conversations with my family and friends, no matter how innocently begun, end in tension. When I picked up Patrick Madden’s recent essay collection, Disparates, however, I found an immense reprieve from rigidity. Madden’s essays offer relief—they offer laughter, provoke pondering, and delight in playfulness. In his collection, Madden posits questions and complications but doesn’t feel obligated to provide all the answers. He holds with Montaigne’s philosophy: “I do not understand; I pause; I examine.” These essays tend toward reflection and sly away from polarization, which is, in part, what makes the collection so refreshing.
Madden’s collection begins with a preface that offers two dictionary entries for “disparate.” In one sense, “disparate” refers to things that are incongruous or miscellaneous—pieces that don’t neatly fit together. Madden applies this definition to essay collections generally, writing that collections are usually disparate pieces held together by theme or style; by titling his own word Disparates, however, Madden tells the reader not to expect a common thread running throughout his collection: “…what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” Even though I read the collection in order (it’s the predictable rule follower in me), I imagine that the essays within could be read in any order without losing anything essential. In that sense, it’s kind of like a musical album; of course, I imagine artists spend time agonizing over the sequence of songs on a record, but how often does the reader obey that order? The title of Madden’s table of contents (correction: one of his tables of contents) supports this idea: “CONTENTS (MAY HAVE SHIFTED).”
The range of ideas explored in this collection support that sense of disparity. Madden cartwheels from meditating on inertia to mixing proverbs to creating a period-accurate Montaigne costume (the last one might be useful for students who ever wonder what professors do in their free time). As is true of his first two essay collections, readers are as likely to encounter quotations from classical essayists as they are to encounter lyrics from classic rock.
Despite the fact that his love of the classical essay is ever apparent, several works in the collection borrow forms that would be foreign to Madden’s literary forebearers. The first essay in the collection, “Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” is an eBay listing for a partially consumed Dasani water bottle from a Michael Martone reading. Madden describes Martone’s habit of finishing leftover water from the readings that he hosts, so the lucky buyer would have the opportunity to imbibe the literary backwash from a herd of talented authors. Elsewhere in the collection, he creates an essay by feeding his first two collections into computer software that generates a predictive keyboard based on his previous work. One of my favorite form essays in the collection is “Repast,” a word search essay that doubles as a touching tribute to his mother. These form essays create playful tone that runs throughout the collection.
On that note, I return to the definitions of “disparate” Madden offers to preface his collection. For the second sense of the word, he draws on the Spanish language: “1. noun Absurdity, inanity, frivolity; nonsense, claptrap, rubbish; balderdash, malarkey, drivel.” What follows this definition is a meditation on the idea of disparate as folly; he points out that although this sense of the word is often derogative, his purpose is to reclaim the beauty of nonsense and frivolity as Madden “reassert[s] the value of the disparate, which controverts reason, which shakes our certainties, which lightens our burdens, which alleviates our sorrows and brings us to laughter…”
In this collection, some essays take on the task of frivolity in obvious ways, while others carry more emotional weight; all are allergic to conflict and polarity. Disparates delights in the world and celebrates the essay. It was a joy to read.
Natalie Johansen teaches writing at Southern Utah University. Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Eunoia Review, Segullah, and more.
September 30, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Jessie Male
As I write this, we are living in a world dominated by a virus. Conversations are centered on who is most susceptible and what are the long-term effects. Media outlets tout commentary on the war we are fighting and who will come to the frontlines. We avoid close quarters and eye others with suspicion, wondering what is permeating inside. In the worst-case scenarios, the virus attacks a whole family. Grief can come in so many layers it is difficult to locate the core.
This is 2020. Yet it is also 1950. It is three years before my mother and aunt contract polio at the ages of five and eight. Throughout the United States, headlines inform families to be wary of swimming pools and to watch children closely. It is common to hear about isolation and quarantine. And in Sicily, Nadina LaSpina is only sixteen months old, a hearty and independent child, already walking on her own. Decades later, she writes: “I was never sick, never a fever until…until that fateful night when Crudele Poliomielite, Cruel Poliomyelitis, invaded our happy home and stole me from my family” (4).
Louise DeSalvo, memoirist, craft scholar, and my mentor, once said: “Memoirists are the collective memory of culture. This is why memoir is attacked. Culture trades in forgetfulness.” I return to this quote many times while reading LaSpina’s Such a Pretty Girl: A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride. Throughout the memoir, LaSpina recalls the failures of the educational system to adapt to students with diverse physical needs, the many forms of stigmatization she experienced due to her use of braces and a wheelchair, and the enforced desire of cure or “normalcy.” As I read her work, I am struck by how it resonates, not only with my own mother’s experience with polio in the United States, but the current circumstances in which we exist. This is not the first time we’ve encountered a virus, and though there are certainly elements unique to the current moment, there is so much to be learned from the past.
Disability Studies scholar Tobin Siebers argued that the most successful forms of disability life writing utilize a “rhetoric of realism,” that reflects the complexity of disability. These are works that do not devolve into the overcoming narratives preferred by many in mainstream publishing, nor do they erase physical pain and grief. LaSpina has curated such a memoir, capturing her complex and shifting responses to her body and disability identity. Of becoming increasingly immersed in disability activism, she writes:
For years, I’d been—and indeed still was—terribly conflicted. I wanted to be around other disabled people, with whom I felt most comfortable, be part of our movement, and fight for our rights. At the same time, I wanted to be accepted in the nondisabled world; I didn’t want to be seen as different. (146).
This passage reflects the internalized ableism informed by an early life shaped by a father who desperately sought a cure or way to “fix” his daughter’s legs. Yet by the conclusion of the book, LaSpina narrates the tremendous pleasures she takes in her disabled community and activist groups. One of the several photographs included in the memoir capture LaSpina at a rally, her hair split down the middle, long dark hair blending into a winter coat, and holding a large protest sign. LaSpina recalls the evening of her first arrest, at an ADAPT protest, sitting in a jail cell and speaking “to each and every one of my strong comrades…shar[ing] stories of struggle and hopes for a better world” (237). Such moments solidify LaSpina as a leader amongst prominent disability advocates such as Judith Heumann and Laura Hershey. LaSpina adds: “The bond I developed with each one would last a lifetime” (237).
Like most successful memoirs about disability, Such a Pretty Girl complicates the narrative of “recovery.” LaSpina spends much of her early life trying to “pass” as nondisabled, using crutches and prosthetics to limit her use of a wheelchair. But by the 1980s, symptoms of post-polio begin to emerge, and a fellow activist tells her: “You need to stop walking and use your wheelchair. There’s only so much you can ask of your body” (157). With this, LaSpina navigates new frustrations, as well as new ways to move through the world, some of which provide greater ease. In this, LaSpina constructs a narrative of changing disability status, and documents shifts in the ways she gives and receive care.
When I teach courses in Disability Studies, many students identify an absence of disability history within previous coursework. Though most have heard of the ADA, they are unaware of all that went into and emerged from the law, as well as all that isn’t recognized by it. In this regard, Such a Pretty Girl takes on dual significance. It is not only a powerful memoir chronicling an individual woman’s immersion into disability culture and activism, but an important record of a vital and evolving rights movement.
Jessie Male is a nonfiction writer and PhD candidate in Disability Studies at The Ohio State University, though she resides in Brooklyn with her husband and rescue dog. She has an MFA in memoir from Hunter College and an MA in English from Ohio State. Jessie’s creative writing appears in Guernica, Bustle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, BOMB Magazine, and other print and online publications. Jessie is a 2011 Edward Albee fellow, which supported work on her memoir Mirror Pain. She is currently on faculty at NYU Gallatin, where she teaches a fall seminar on Disability Art and Culture, and a spring seminar on Disability Memoir. You can reach her @ProfJMale and jessiemale.com
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.