June 30, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Jennifer Ochstein
I’ve begun seeing my dead mother’s face in the mirror. Mothers have been dying all along, so this is no new phenomenon. But it surprised me. While I’ve seen her in some of my gestures and actions (honking weirdly like a duck in an attempt to be funny or not answering the phone when I don’t recognize the number), it wasn’t until she died that I saw her ghost in the mirror.
My fixation forms on a common feature, our mouths, the way we smile when caught off guard. Stretched dry and crooked, it replaced her full lips as multiple sclerosis took over. It’s the same smile that causes me now to sometimes stand in front of the mirror like a teenager trying on different smiles or to delete photos in which I detect that same shape on my mouth. I practice and search for the smiles that allow me to see my own face again rather than the shadow of hers. Maybe it’s a matter of vanity, the recognition that I’m a few years older than the age she was when diagnosed with MS.
But more than that, I think it’s the need I have to distance myself from the fact of her death. Her physical absence is most difficult. I don’t want to only see her as a shadow in me. Without her physical presence in the world, I’ve felt more alone than ever. I had certainly imagined her death beforehand. But on the other side of it, it’s the fact that startles me. Sometimes I mutter a liturgy to myself, “My mother is dead. My mother died.” How could she go? How could she be dead? Oddly, I don’t know how to answer those questions. She was here. Now she’s not. I miss her.
I’m also reminded that I’m trying to do what many of us do when it comes to our parents: discover inheritances while carving out space for how those inheritances evolve. I was reminded of this when, about a month after my mother’s death, I read Apple, Tree: Writers On Their Parents, edited by Lise Funderburg. In the introduction to the collection of essays, Funderburg writes, “What other inheritances could be explored through those flickers of likeness we stumble upon … I decided to ask people … to consider that space between the apple and the tree, to make meaning of it.” As I see it, humans are a meaning-making species, and to consider the people we’ve become based on how we’re shaped not only by our inheritances but also those spaces is necessary work. I knew my mother would die and yet I didn’t. How could that be? What does that say about me?
Not all of the writers featured in Funderburg’s collection have seen their parents die, but they, like most of us, try to make sense of the likenesses, inheritances, and the spaces that make us who we are while examining with a keen “I” and eye toward the influence of parents on their children. It’s hard business.
One keen examination of the “I” in light of the eye comes from Kyoko Mori’s essay “One Man’s Poison.” Mori describes her abusive father as a “complete narcissist” (with good reason, which she details throughout), but concludes that the same narcissism has a home in her as well. “The pragmatic selfish streak he passed on to me is undoubtedly a poison,” she writes. As she recognizes the poison in herself, she also realizes that it can be medicinal rather than deadly. Inoculated with small, recognizable doses, the poison acts “like a weakened virus that immunizes us against life-threatening illness.” And in these small doses, she’s able to overcome the legacy her mother left: depression and suicide. Maybe even more importantly, she writes, “ … I inherited the right amount to immunize myself from the greatest danger of all: my father himself.”
Contributor Mat Johnson’s examination of his mother’s multiple sclerosis in “My Story about My Mother,” resonated in particular with me, probably because his mother has MS and my mother died from complications associated with MS. As he details his caregiving and her decline, I see my own mother’s experience as well as my own. This is part of what makes this collection so sharp. The examinations are broad. Rather than sentiment, these essays make use of clarity, the most powerful eye, the kind we all need when considering our inheritances.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor. She’s published essays with America Magazine, Sojourners, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, Lindenwood Review and more.
June 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Ian Maxton
Drones are probably killing someone right now. These words appear in small print at the top and bottom of each page in Sarah Vap’s most recent collection Winter: Effulgences and Devotions. These words are like an alarm going off quietly in an apartment that one searches for everywhere, but cannot find. They are the nagging sense one has forgotten something. They are an earworm of imperial decay. Someone is probably being extra-judicially dispatched, but between those moments, Vap attempts to write. That is to say, she tries to live and work, just like the rest of us.
Winter presents itself as a collection of prose poems, but really, it is a collection of fragments toward a poem. For twelve years, Vap attempted to write a poem about winter. This book is the result. Written in the stolen hours right after waking, her sentences often cut off. Thoughts are left hanging. She keeps getting tripped up on the “I.” “O, the tenderness, I – ,” goes a typical invocation of the self. And these are invocations. Vap is trying to get to the “I” with which Whitman sings himself.
However, things keep getting in the way of poetry. The drones, for one. The death of whales by sonar is another. Her young sons intrude, and she keeps having more of them and loving them anyway. Their voices and hers meld in the same way their bodies once did. She and her family move. She and her partner work degrading adjunct jobs. They keep losing their health insurance. They live, for a time, in an out of the way shack on the Olympic peninsula, a logging road their only connection to the outside world. In the background, winter itself is coming to an end in this region. The impetus for the poem, its occasion, is disappearing.
One of the ways Vap tries to cut through is by putting all of this anxiety on the page. Trying to make visible this country’s vile, invisible wars is an obvious example of this, but whole pieces are devoted to stray thoughts: that the valley they live in may flood irreparably one day, that the flu ripping through their home may never end, that her father’s illness will lead to his death. These last two items are part of how Vap accesses the “I.” It is not through poetic transcendence, but through the body and its daily, grotesque functions.
Vap’s sons are shit-obsessed. They sing odes to poop. They play in chicken feces. They find it all very funny, but in that way that children’s humor is deadly serious, too. They rely on their mother (and Vap’s role in the household as primary caregiver is hard not to notice in the book, even if it goes mostly unremarked upon), after all, to wipe their butts and laugh at their jokes. The asshole becomes a site of both humor and vulnerability. As an absence, Vap transforms it into symbol of the inner self—a place of potential enlightenment. Because it is a site of abjection, as well, enlightenment never quite comes.
The language in these pieces can be haphazard, flat, and rough. It is thrilling to read precisely because it feels unfinished, because it feels as though it has not been worked to death of a dozen years, but accumulated—like mold. Vap’s style can be direct at times, withholding at others. She can indulge in archaic poeticism or blank diarylike entries.
Winter can, at times, feel overwhelmed by guilt, by the knowledge that even the stolen moments that make up its composition are a privilege that comes at someone else’s cost. In an essay for N+1, published in 2006—right around the time Vap began to conceive her winter poem—Elif Batuman wrote that “the single greatest obstacle to American literature today” is guilt. This, she says, “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence.” Batuman contends that this has led to the stunting of our national literature, that our collective way of dealing with this guilt has been an obsessive focus on “craft,” which whittles our writing down to nothing. Writers, she says, act “as if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits.”
But it is difficult not to feel guilty. I sit down to write and the attack begins. My cat is dying. The cupboards are getting empty. There is too much work to do. There is not enough time. Drones are probably killing someone right now. And they are doing it for me. They are doing it for Sarah Vap and her children, too. So we can all enjoy the last few winters we’ve got left. Things keep getting in the way of enjoyment. Shit keeps getting in the way, literal shit. And for some reason we are writing at the same time that drones are probably killing someone.
This is the logic of capitalism. It is perfectly happy to heap its guilt on individuals. And because there is nothing you or I or Sarah Vap can do, on our own, to amend the deep wrongs of our time, despair becomes the status quo. In this perverse logic, if the whales are dying, if the drones are bombing, if winter is ending it is all your fault and there is nothing you can do about it. Vap writes, at what seems to be the end of the book, “Tomorrow, I think, I just won’t try again.” These words read, at first, as a resignation to this logic, as a final defeat. Because if writing is self-indulgence, if writing is a useless act in a world collapsing around us, then the only logical—the only moral—thing to do is to stop writing.
The book does not end with these words, though. In the epilogue, Vap sets the scene for the reader one last time. She is at her desk. It is a dark winter morning—“the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a thought: I am happy.” Thus, the book ends.
There is perhaps nothing more perverse in our time than to admit to happiness. But it is essential that we find it, because despair cannot fuel revolution. Happiness, as a kind of hope, can do just that. Batuman ends her essay with a similarly buoying injunction: “Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things . . . write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.” Winter is, ultimately, the rare book that can take up writerly guilt as its subject and achieve not just dignity, but happiness.
Ian Maxton is a communist writer and critic. He is an associate editor at Passages North and a contributor at Spectrum Culture. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Protean, and Cease, Cows.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Victoria Buitron
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Adriana Páramo a mentor and friend, who I met as a student while attending the MFA program at Fairfield University. Now that this is out of the way, I must admit that her most recent memoir, Unsent Letters to My Mother, has been one of the few quarantine gifts I’ve received while bound to my home. Like Páramo’s previous books, My Mother’s Funeral and Looking for Esperanza, I identified with the underlying feminist themes, how the sentences are cloaked with a sensual tone, and the way facets of home are continuously explored. All of this, of course, has some Spanish sprinkled in to remind us where the writer hails from.
Páramo, born in Colombia, begins her story in the mid-1990s as she and her husband depart from Alaska to Kuwait. We follow her journey in a stifling hot country, as she struggles to fit in among the American and British expats, and falls in love with a man who isn’t her husband. Every few chapters a letter is addressed to her mother, confessional in tone, which demonstrates how the narrator reconciles the woman she has become with the woman her mother would like her to be. She writes, “Mami, please don’t judge,” the inherent message those of us have aimed for right before ripping up a revelatory letter to our parents. Maybe some of us hide these letters in a cabinet drawer, a firecracker that will only detonate when read by its recipient, but Páramo inserts them throughout her explosive book while allowing us to remain invested in all facets of the story.
Although the memoir details the disintegration of a marriage, an affair, killing cats, becoming a DJ and a teacher, plus much more, the different threads of the story come together to create one whole and complete canvas. The braided chapters ground the memoir in an exquisite way, and due to the writer’s background in anthropology, the interactions with the women she meets shine and provide intriguing cross-cultural perspectives. There are vivid descriptions of Elena, the English woman whose voice confounds a nation; the feisty and domineering teenage Salma; and the withdrawn Rina, who gives up all she knows in India in search of a better life in Kuwait. Each has to face the challenges of a country founded on patriarchy, where the extreme levels of wealth are contrasted with modern slavery and discussions of honor killings. Páramo recounts their poignant stories, even the devastating event when she finds her maid close to death from a back-alley abortion, and acknowledges how her definition of injustice isn’t universal.
What captivates me most is the narrator’s search for home. Much like Páramo, I left my birth country in South America to work and study in faraway places. I’ve often asked myself, in a city much different from the one I took my first breath in, “Is this my home or just a place I’m living in right now?” Páramo writes:
The word “home” resonated with all its accommodating possibilities: noun, adverb, adjective, verb, but its linguistic elasticity gave me no comfort. Alaska was never home for me, Kuwait was definitely not home, I no longer had a home in Colombia. I was homeless. Sin hogar.
The narrator sees all facets of home collapse. Her life unfurls, and she is faced with grave choices that will shatter some homes but will go on to shape her own.
In this book, Páramo does what many are afraid to do—bare the truth—without embellishing or demanding an exculpation: “I knew that every encounter with my lover was a simple act of pure thievery, that I was stealing time from his wife, from Hunter, from the lives we were committed to.” She delves into her affair with sharp candor while juxtaposing it within the sociocultural backdrop of a country where her actions beget more than mere gossip. Somehow, she does all of this incisively, while weaving in the lives of women who become her sisters. Unsent Letters to My Mother is a memoir with profound layers, but most of all, it’s a love letter addressed to anyone who has had to decide how to lead their most genuine life while eschewing the judgment of others.
Victoria Buitron is a translator and writer based in Connecticut. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.
June 11, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Virginia Marshall
When you spend all day in your apartment, the little creatures that you normally cohabitate with peacefully suddenly become a big deal. Take ants. Perfectly harmless. If I were the same busy person I was two months ago, I would brush them aside and move on with my day. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am spending twenty-three hours a day in my apartment, along with the rest of New York City. So, the ants, you see, are an issue. I have taken to spraying the counters with a mixture of white vinegar and water every chance I get. I have even started spraying the molding on the floor and the space under the fridge where the ants seem to congregate. It is a battle to keep control over the small amount of space I have left. It is a battle I am losing.
“Chaos is the only sure thing in the world,” writes Lulu Miller at the start of her book Why Fish Don’t Exist. It’s a stellar opening. With the assuredness that comes from over a decade of science radio reporting (she co-founded the NPR show Invisibilia), Miller plunges her readers into the first scene. It is just after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a taxonomist named David Starr Jordan, the star of Miller’s book, is staring at utter chaos: the grand total of his work, the result of years spent capturing new species of fish, smuggling them home and putting them in delicate glass jars in his Stanford laboratory, lies completely destroyed in front of him, shattered by the earthquake.
“It was carnage,” Miller continues. “Fish flesh splayed as far as the eye could see.… It was like an act of Genesis in reverse; his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a mass of unknown.” Rather than throw his arms up in despair like a caricature of a mad scientist, Jordan reaches for a sewing needle and decides to stitch the name tags strewn across the laboratory floor directly onto each preserved fish body. It’s an obsession for order and control to which I can relate, as I stew in an apartment overtaken by ants. Jordan’s craze for order is, in fact, what initially attracts Miller to his story. “Are you a cautionary tale?” Miller wonders at the start of the book, “Or a model of how to be?” These questions take Miller and the reader on a journey from Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, to rocky beaches in New England, to a fledgling university in the Midwest, to a Hawaii resort, and finally, to a former sterilization facility in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Miller picked an interesting if controversial subject for her inquiry: Jordan, an oddball scientist, traveled the world trying to find new species to name and classify. Miller follows his progress with all the flourishes of a radio reporter: “It is now that the music montage begins,” Miller writes at the start of one chapter. “Cue the jaunty sea shanties and roll back the sleeves of David Starr Jordan and put him on the deck of a giant sailboat alongside a dozen men in bowler caps.”
Jordan becomes the first president of Stanford University, and then, halfway through the book (perhaps too late in the narrative to come across as a genuine discovery), Jordan becomes enamored with the idea of eugenics. The book takes a turn: Miller investigates the darker philosophy behind Jordan’s obsession with naming and order. Her star character becomes sinister. One chapter reads like a murder mystery, as Miller traces the rumors that Jordan poisoned the wealthy founder of Stanford University in order to maintain his control over the school.
Miller’s quest becomes more urgent. Jordan, she writes, “remained an ardent eugenicist until his dying day… it was chilling. His brutality. His remorselessness. … I felt sick. I had been fashioning myself after a villain, after all.” Searching for clues, Miller talks to some of the people who were directly impacted by Jordan’s philosophy. She visits a woman named Anna who grew up in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded and was forcibly sterilized there at age nineteen, in 1967. Miller becomes enamored with Anna and her housemate Mary; they are charming, kind-hearted women who live with a hamster named Sugarfoot and two pet birds. Anna carries around a doll, perhaps a stand-in for the child she could never have, and their apartment is decorated with hand-painted pictures. To Jordan, Miller writes, Anna would not have fit into his obsessive classification of living things. To Jordan, the only thing to do was stop genes like Anna’s in their tracks.
To put the nail in Jordan’s coffin and his obsessive ordering of what she comes to see as beautiful chaos, Miller ends on a fantastic turn. According to scientists and taxonomists, the entire category of fish does not exist. Based on their characteristics, species like lungfish and salmon and sharks are more closely related to non-fish-like creatures than they are to each other. The concept of a group of creatures called fish is a lie. Miller is simply gleeful when she reveals this. “I have come to believe that it is our life’s work to tear down this order, to keep tugging at it, trying to unravel it, to set free the organisms trapped underneath. That it is our life’s work to mistrust our measures.”
In the end, Miller finds beauty in chaos. She falls in love with a scientist, a woman, and embraces a new definition of family and love. She and her partner take a trip to the Caribbean and swim naked among the tropical water creatures (not fish, I suppose). It’s a wonderful passage to end on, and a gift to read when you are quarantining in the middle of an urban sea, frantically trying to keep the wild, natural world from spilling onto your counters. So, closing Miller’s book, I decide to watch the small colony of ants wandering in senseless loops at the base of my stand mixer and around my vase of spoons and spatulas. I try to admire their chaotic lives, and instead of reaching for the vinegar, I watch them scurry. My home is your home, I suppose. Chaos wins again.
Virginia Marshall is a writer and radio producer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be read and/or heard in Catapult, The Harvard Review, Atlas Obscura, The Millions, Essay Daily, Brevity, The Normal School, NPR’s Only a Game, and on WBUR. She tweets @vrosemarshall.
June 5, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Carole Duff
I sit among workshop attendees in Leslie Leyland Fields’ living room at Harvester Island, Alaska. Although never actually having been there, I hear fishing boats puttering by outside her house. Fields reaches for a blue marker and writes a prompt in cursive on the whiteboard: For once, I want to tell the truth about when I lied.
Now, in my own living room, I set Fields’ book aside and search my memory. In a past living room of nearly thirty years ago, I see and hear myself say, “I love you,” to a man on the other end of the phone. A lie. The truth: I didn’t love him anymore, and given how much pain had passed between us, it was hard to remember when I had.
Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life by Leslie Leyland Fields is a product of Fields’ three decades of teaching and writing. What sets her craft book apart from others is its spiritual focus. Fields calls us to remember, as the Jewish people were called in the Old Testament, to seek the truth and bring language to the silence, and to teach others.
…do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Deuteronomy 4:9 (NIV)
Fields’ book is a practical guide to writing narrative nonfiction. She weaves her own journey as a memoir writer with scenes from teaching and also offers her students’ work through chapters about mapping, creating scenes knitted together with summary and reflection, gathering stories, discovering their outer and inner arcs, editing, structuring, and sharing. Each chapter ends with “Your Turn!” exercises and examples.
As Fields’ writes: “Every time we lock up a person, an event, even an entire decade in the Closet of Forgetting and Denial, we’re robbing ourselves of the strength and wisdom that can come from those experiences.” And when we unlock ourselves, we pull off our masks and discover opportunities to transform. Transformation memoirs are for me the most meaningful.
Back in Fields’ living room on Harvester Island, she asks, “What was the lie that you told? Where and when did you tell it? Why did you tell it?” Hunched over my laptop, I recall the where and the when of my lie. And the why: Because I wanted “I love you” to be true; because I wanted to hear him say, I love you, too; because I’m not above manipulation to get what I want.
The Closet of Forgetting and Denial opens. By unmasking myself, I find the truth, write the truth, and begin to live the truth. And share it.
Fields: “We cannot be the heroes of our stories because these stories aren’t actually about us. We’re not studying our lives simply to know ourselves better (though this will happen). Or to offer up to the world our own guttural howl and yelp to the moon. (Though occasionally that is just what is needed.) We are not writing to justify or defend or ennoble ourselves. We are far more ambitious. We’re after growth, however painful. We’re after truth, however hard. We’re hoping our words will serve others.”
As you sit in your living room during these strange days of isolation, remember what your eyes have seen and your heart knows. Teach this wisdom to your children and their children after them. Honor the ancient calling, because as Leslie Leyland Fields says, Your Story Matters.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Faith, Love, and Forgiveness. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large, overly-friendly shelter dogs plus a new shelter puppy, who’s learning that living rooms are not for piddling.
April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Dinty W. Moore
I’ve been a fan of Sue William Silverman’s work for more than twenty years, and was looking happily forward to her latest collection How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, never expecting the book release would coincide with this frightening pandemic. But it did, and aside from the peculiar irony of the book’s title, Sue (like many authors right now) faces cancelled readings and book signings, and the general frustration of trying to let readers know about her latest book in a time when we have so much else on our minds.
So, I asked her some questions. It was easy to do that while still socially-distancing, and aside from being a greatly-talented writer, Sue is a powerful teacher and master of the craft.
So, here we are:
DINTY: Your book How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences was released just as the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic stopped us in our tracks. It is frustrating for all authors publishing this season, I’m sure, to have book tours cancelled and book stores closing, but the irony with your book is that it speaks directly to our current fears, of death, of illness, of trauma, of what the final moment might feel like. How odd has it been, trying to talk about a book such as yours at a time such as this?
SUE: It’s oddly ironic, indeed. Many people have commented on the book in the context of our current pandemic. Of course I started writing it over six years ago, so had no factual knowledge this maelstrom was heading our way.
At the same time, given that I’m a hypochondriac terrified of death, the book underscores how I’ve always been on the lookout for Death—pandemic and otherwise. The book is structured, in part, around a metaphorical road trip, as the narrator tries to outrun and outdistance death.
So I’m also not the least surprised by the coronavirus; on some level I’ve been expecting it. I’ve been flying with a face mask, literally, for over 15 years! And in the book I list all the unguents and potions I use to survive death: for example, Thieves Oil. A different formula was developed during the Plague, but I use the modern version to stave off all sorts of new plagues and viruses.
In short, yes, my instructions on how to survive death are ironically relevant.
Pandemic aside, the book is relevant for anyone who generally fears death. However, thematically, it’s also about how to survive life—how to live an emotionally authentic life that will be transcendent.
DINTY: But your book, though focused on “death and other inconveniences,” is full of humor too, gallows humor on some pages, flat out funny moments on others. What are your thoughts on our need for humor right now, as the world faces this frightening and previously inconceivable challenge?
SUE: I’m pleased you see the humor in the book, which I was trying to convey by the title. Humor, gallows and otherwise, revels in the absurdities of life.
When you’re in the middle of a tragedy, the humor isn’t always obvious, of course. The power of creative nonfiction is that we implement a reflective voice to look back and better understand the past, which can involve seeing humor in a situation that didn’t seem funny when we were living it.
One of the essays in the book, “Flirting with the Butcher,” is about my first 12-step meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous. This was during the time Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, and his whole nightmare was in the news. In my then-current state of emotional disarray—I was also struggling with an eating disorder—and I became obsessed with Dahmer. I mean, my anorexia seemed “small potatoes” when I considered there were people with the ultimate eating disorder—cannibalism—out roaming the streets!
Perhaps the most absurd thing about this is that it didn’t seem absurd to me at the time.
DINTY: And of course, the ordeal we are living through now, COVID-19, includes undeniable tragedy – death to some, sickness to others, separation from loved ones for almost all of us. But even this moment will, as hard as it may be to fathom right now, eventually be fodder for humor, maybe even absurd humor. The Greek masks, comedy and tragedy: one comes off, the other comes on. You’ve made a career of writing with wit, grace, and honesty about difficult issues – abuse, incest, addiction, death. Do you have advice for other writers who want to strike that sort of balance in their own writing, the tipping point between too bleak and too lighthearted?
SUE: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to strike that balance. Mainly, it’s important to write in a way that’s emotionally authentic for any given narrative. For example, my first two books, one about incest, the other sex addiction, are darker than the two more recent books, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and now How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, even though they address a few of the same issues. The newer books are more ironic mainly because that’s how I now see those moments in my past. As my feelings toward my experiences change, so does my writing.
In order to discover your own particular viewpoint, it’s crucial to start from a small, specific detail and write outward from that. In other words, for me to write about the COVID-19 pandemic, I might begin my narrative, say, at the moment I told my partner I couldn’t kiss him goodnight because he’d been to the grocery store that day. Maybe a molecule of virus, lurking in the produce aisle, had adhered to him! I begin with the smallest personal detail in order to discover the universal. The universe, like the devil, is in the details.
Don’t get wedded to one voice. Don’t impose how you think an essay or memoir should sound. Listen to how the piece at hand wants to sound. Experiment. As an exercise, try writing a scene two different ways: one perhaps very serious, even melodramatic, the other, say, ironic, humorous, even absurd. Which voice helps you uncover some truth? Which makes you go, “Ah, ha!”
DINTY: When most people think about death and what lies beyond, they imagine either a sort of nothingness, or else some personal image of paradise. Both seem nebulous, which isn’t much help for a writer. How did you address that challenge? What strategies did you use to bring order to ill-defined territory?
SUE: The book is structured in three sections, each titled with the name of one of the Three Fates. There are also six brief sections written as if through the voice of these Fates. This structure is a reminder that death is ever-present, and we have to be creative, lucky, and tenacious in our ability to outwit it. So there’s both a memento mori (“remember you must die”), and a memento vivere (“remember you must live”).
As a writer, I focus on the creative option to live. My aforementioned road trip to survive death is also a vehicle to journey through my life collecting memories, as it were. I “drive” through all areas of my life, from youth to the present, not just amassing memories, but reflecting upon them, making metaphorical sense of them, making sense of my life.
In short, if all else fails—if I’m sadly not able to survive physical death—then I’ve preserved my memories to outlast me. They are now collected in my books after all. The art we leave behind transcends death. There are many reasons to write and create art. For me, cheating death is one of the most central.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog.
Sue William Silverman is author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, the memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, and a memoir craft book, Fearless Confessions.
March 20, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione
On December 14, 2012, a group of five and six year olds might have come to my desk with clipboards and pencils and surveys. They would have asked me questions such as do I prefer ice cream or cookies? Baseball or soccer? At the time I was working as an assistant to a Head of School at an independent school in Manhattan. The year prior to this position, I worked as the school’s receptionist behind a wall of glass doors. My office was catty corner to my boss’s office at the start of the hallway on the same floor as the classrooms that held the five and six-year-olds. I don’t remember if December 14th was a day when students from one of the classes learning about polls included me in their survey. I don’t remember if it was a day when my boss’s own grandson who attended the school, stopped by my desk to ask if he could just say hello to his grandmother. I don’t remember if it was a day when I stepped into a classroom to observe learning in action and to make notes and take photographs for a school newsletter. But I do remember having a break in responding to my emails and opening a news website and seeing the first headlines and images to come out of Newtown, Connecticut. I do remember texting a friend to see if her sister, an administrative assistant at a school in Connecticut, worked at Sandy Hook Elementary. She did not. I do remember my boss standing at my desk and me uttering the words, “There’s been a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut” and her eyebrows lifting. I do remember the heaviness of horror and grief that fell over my school, my community, and the nation as we learned the details of that day. I remember watching President Obama cry on national television. The images that shook loose from the Sandy Hook massacre are etched into my bones, deepened over time with the advent of becoming a preschool teacher, a mother, a US American who has also been touched directly by the effects of gun violence on my family.
In Carol Ann Davis’s forthcoming collection The Nail In The Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood she writes into the surreal of being an artist and a mother raising two boys in Newtown, Connecticut in the shadow of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. She writes about the ethics of image, “how a narrative sometimes detaches the image from its surroundings.” She writes this in response to a fight her two boys are having with neighborhood children inside her home, wasting one of the last warm days to play outside before winter tucks children away for months. She also writes this in response to a poem of Paul Celan and a painting by Arshile Gorky. She writes in response to art, violence, and childhood. She writes not to make connections with the abstract expressionist painters she admires, but to leave “loose threads” in her essays, daring not to pull tight in favor of a tidy narrative.
Davis’s strength lies not only in her poetic prose but what she chooses to shine a light on, including the works of the artists and writers and poets she chooses to dissect. It is what Davis notices that gives this collection of essays its other-worldliness and yet universality. In a gift shop in her town, she observes, “I have watched a full basket of silver mantra bracelets dwindle over five years. All the ones that have sayings such as ‘choose love’ or ‘you are home’ are gone. Two identical ones remain, and both say everything happens for a reason.” With the use of art theory and her own experiences that capture something close to her reality, it is how she argues “image and meaning need not connect” that is most effective, this absence of reason. That in fact, to impose one on the other—image and meaning—would deny the truth of this surreal existence where children are killed in their classrooms and her boys will go through their educational journey sandwiched between a haunting of missing children.
When writing “On The Relationship of Art to the Body” through the framework of artists such as Pablo Picasso and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, Davis attempts to articulate the limitations she feels as both artist and mother in trying to separate her existence and experiences from her children’s and the impossibility of this effort. In quoting Cixous and then responding, she writes, “There is an outside of me. These six words describe the paradox of love. In the moment of knowing that one’s own happiness is tied to another, that one’s own well-being is no longer the most important thing, a door should open to an inside. Instead, one realizes that there is an outside of me, something I can’t protect. Something likely to suffer or even die. This is the terrifying and somewhat unthinkable truth: we are not outside ourselves but rather stuck inside, watching parts that are outside-of-us walk around, jump too high, cross the street without looking, enter their classroom.”
The Nail in the Tree is a collection of essays that reads like a folding of art theory into memoir, a churning of thought and emotion grounded in the terrifying reality of modern day parenthood and the violence of childhood. It is Davis’s conviction that, like the surrealists, to try to create art without acknowledgment of these truths would be “fundamentally dishonest.” In an examination of Eva Hesse’s Chain Polymers, she quotes the late artist, “It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.” Carol Ann Davis’s essays live in this space in between, a creation of necessary loose threads. Much like Arshile Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother, The Nail in the Tree leaves “the seams showing.” Davis equates this deliberate “unmaking” of art as imperative to honoring the full trauma of one’s experience. In terms of Gorky, she explains how “’meaningful’ connections would have sealed away whole parts of his (and his mother’s) experience in a sort of non-existence.” If “broken parts shine truest,” as Davis suggests, The Nail in the Tree is more than a collection of essays but a linguistic portrait of what it is to be an artist and a mother in the United States, a blueprint for how to keep creating in defiance of fear, grief, and meaning.
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione is a MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her most recent prose essay can be found in About Place Journal: Roots & Resistance issue.
March 16, 2020 § 24 Comments
By Marie A Bailey
Caveat: Cinthia Ritchie, author of the memoir Malnourished: A Memoir of Sisterhood and Hunger, is my friend, and I read her memoir keenly aware of my affection for her. I don’t claim to be objective in my review, but, in all honesty, I don’t know that I’ve ever been objective when reviewing any writing. It’s the subjectivity of writing and reading that attracts me, after all.
This doesn’t mean that I would automatically give “5 stars” to Malnourished, although I will. It’s unlike any memoir I’ve read before now. Ritchie’s story of her relationship with her sister is so honest I sometimes felt I was swallowing broken glass.
Malnourished starts haltingly, as if Ritchie is trying to get into position before diving into her memoir. Knowing already that her sister died from an eating disorder, I felt hesitant about reading her story. I knew it would be painful and yet Ritchie’s acknowledgement of how “memory is a funny thing,” encouraged me to dive in with her:
“Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it, how it adds and subtracts, takes something as simple as watching a whale swim along the shore and mixes it up in your mind so that your sister is there beside you, even though she’s been dead for years.”
Richie’s conversational tone—as if we were two women sitting on a living room carpet, our backs against the couch, a bottle of wine between us, talking in the dark—kept me anchored. Even when she admitted to lying: “I lie, I’ve always lied. Growing up, we all lied, though perhaps this is common in most families, the ability and need to lie.”
We all lie. I think of how I might never be able to write a “true” memoir because of the lies told by my family through the years, although perhaps they’re not all truly lies. What do they call it? Selective memory? Choosing to remember some things and not others? Choosing to believe that not telling can mean it didn’t happen.
I cringed sometimes at Richie’s raw honesty as with her take-no-prisoners unearthing of her sexual use of men as she took herself farther and farther away from home, from her sister, Deena. They were close as children but grew apart during high school as Deena became anorexic.
Both of them were subjected to sexual abuse by their stepfather, although Richie never quite tells you that, except in one short paragraph, almost buried in the book. Before then, she doesn’t give you details, but she makes you feel her fear of the creaking of footsteps on stairs, the guilty relief when the door being opened is not the one to her bedroom. That one short paragraph gives you only the least of details, just enough to make your imagination explode in horror.
I cringed at her raw honesty, her (what some might call) promiscuity, her hunger and thirst for touch, just to be touched. I cringed because I recognized myself in a way I’ve never done with anyone else’s story. For once I could reflect on my own promiscuous era and believe that someone, notably Richie, would understand what drove me to that particular brand of self-destructiveness. She absolved me of guilt while she heaped it on herself.
Richie also doesn’t spare herself when describing her neglect or disregard of Deena as they grew older and resumed their relationship. Deena had become “crazy,” and Richie often didn’t want to deal with it. It was a losing battle, as such battles are with families, even those not dealing with abuse and eating disorders. Sometimes, as Ritchie notes, you just don’t have the energy. “We could barely keep ourselves together.” Again, I saw her story in myself, in the way I avoided my father as his mental health deteriorated, not wanting to deal with him when he needed me most.
Malnourished weaves back and forth, in and out of time, and at first that was a little disorienting. But Richie is a poet as well as a journalist and novelist and whatever writing -ist may be included. After awhile I read the ebb and flow of her memories as shifts between fasting and satiety, between lightheadedness and clarity, between not remembering and remembering.
Malnourished is a journey toward understanding: “It would take over fifteen years and her death before I’d understand that I’d never gotten over the closeness we shared growing up.” Malnourished is a journey I won’t soon forget.
Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com. She’s been published in Brevity, by Nightingale & Sparrow, and in various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.
March 9, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Elizabeth Frank
I met Joan Frank (no relation) in person just once. We were in a café in Florence, eating bean soup, sharing insights about the publishing industry and our impressions of Florence: the ubiquitous selfie-taking college students on their junior year abroad (whom her husband, the playwright Bob Duxbury, was there to teach), the dense herds of tourists (not, of course, us), the necessity of purchasing things which came free at home, like potable water and disposable shopping bags, the fact that vital stores were closed all afternoon, and that the homeless wore flowing hoods and velvet skirts, like extras in an opera.
Many of these annoyances Frank includes in her essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place, which was the recent winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and published by the University of New Mexico Press. The essay “In Case of Firenze,” originally published by the TriQuarterly Review is the one which provides the title “try to get lost.”
Frank does get lost, and so will you. The foreign and the familiar are met with the same level of attention and insight. To Frank, “place becomes, finally, the only subject . . . obsession, raison d’etre, riddle.”
More than once, she refers to Shirley Hazzard and I felt, reading Frank, what I feel reading Hazzard, an inclination not to turn the pages to see what happens next but to dwell on the page, to linger in the evocation of scents, vistas, and emotions. Her observations are precise, witty, charming even at their crankiest. Always, she situates you in a specific world (place becomes riddle). In enumerating what France does poorly and what it does well, wine is obviously in the “well” column. Any traveler will tell you that in France, wine is inexpensive and everywhere. Frank tells you that wine is “delicious, kindly priced, wholesome and fundamental as milk.” With “kindly priced,” we are in Frank’s France, under the guardianship of benevolent caretakers. “To travel is to be a fool for awhile,” she declares, to give up control, to give up preoccupied oblivion to one’s surroundings. Travel demands that we pay attention, makes the obvious remarkable.
“North and south yield logical products of their geographical données,” she writes of France. “Butter above, olive oil below; white wines and champagne above, Bordeaux and varietal reds below (berries which have to work to exist) – for all of which we are, without question, better.”
Not everything is benevolent or makes us better. Luggage, that necessary evil, is both heavy and flimsy. Air travel, while admittedly a luxury, is a taxing ordeal. The sun, the entire point of traveling for some, can burn down without pity or relent. Her husband’s penchant for teaching semesters abroad and his visits to his native England, coupled with Frank’s own wanderlust (place becomes obsession), provides Frank with many landscapes to detail in her luminous prose, but she doesn’t require “exotic” inspiration to paint a compelling scene.
Her account of a visit to her childhood home in suburban Phoenix, the “dry, supine, block-on-blockness” of the squat houses of the old neighborhood, is the collection’s most heartbreaking essay, as popsicle-and-lawn-sprinkler, sun-drenched childhood bliss darkens into the interior of a shattering lifelong trauma.
The collection’s merriest piece concerns Frank’s ritual, with her husband, of setting up cocktails and snacks in their motel rooms on the road in order to watch HGTV, although they don’t fit the channel’s demographic of trendy young consumer in pursuit of gleaming surfaces. Their own home (the word “home” contains, she notes, “the meditative OM sound, a sustained vibration that seems to inject our bones with an irresistible promise—sanctuary, safety, peace, freedom”) is a “paid-off 1930s bungalow bought thirty years ago . . . shabby and worn.” (They prefer to spend their money on travel.) HGTV shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper follow a three-act narrative structure: the find, the renovation, the reveal of the new, the sparkling, the shiplap. Traveling, Frank studies homes she passes, wondering about the lives of those inside. In her rented room, she is absorbed by the redemption drama of HGTV, which “suggests it’s showing us exactly that: who lives there, and what kind of lives they—we—are having.”
Place becomes raison d’etre. Place is, in the end, the only subject. Joan Frank is a vastly compelling and lyrical guide.
Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes will be published by Stonehouse Publishing in November 2020.
March 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Hemingway said all true stories end in death. But he wasn’t from Jersey, so what did he know?” quips Sue William Silverman in her latest essay collection, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences.
The book’s title may suggest this is a morbid book; yet, Silverman in her own clever way leans towards tongue-in-cheek, mixing pop culture, literature, and history with her stories and, of course, her unending quest to survive.
But what is death? First, she thinks it’s the Ultima Thule on medieval maps—the great unknown where sea monsters roam. Then again, it could be the ultimate boundary…the great wall. On the other hand, it might be a new path, a grand new adventure. Whatever…Silverman is dead-set to outwit, outdrive, and outrun it.
This latest collection of essays examines her life from age four to present, though not sequenced chronologically. They are stories of survival. Most focus on Silverman’s teenage years in Glen Rock, New Jersey, cruising Route 17 in her gold Plymouth Savoy “for hours, for days, or seemingly forever.” Windows down, hair flying, Stones, Beatles, and Supremes blasting, she’s searching for action: bars that welcome teenage girls, diners with illuminated “Eat Here” signs, boardwalks with rides, and parking lots with guys with packs of Camels rolled in their sleeves.
Terrified of death, teenage Silverman nevertheless taunts it: “When I reach Deadman’s Curve, I hit the gas. I spin around the circle once, twice, as if driving an amusement park bumper car, daring death to catch me in this never-ending circle. I swerve to avoid an unamused driver inching into the roundabout from a side street. He honks, I wave, smile, and press on, driving faster.”
The gold Savoy propels Silverman into a dream world. On the shoulder of the road, she sits and watches a movie flicker on a drive-in screen. “Giant movie stars, night after night, hover godlike over the awed assembly: Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood. Their starry faces glow, projected against the backdrop of night,” she writes. “The movies end. Cars roll from the lot. Tinny voices, from speakers knocked from their posts and dangling on frayed wires call out: Come back, my darling!”
Later, the gold Savoy climbs the majestic Palisades taking Silverman on a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. There she discovers a monument erected to Alexander Hamilton who died in a duel against Aaron Burr. Silverman consoles him: “Generations will visit you on this spot, keeping you, albeit, not the corporeal you, alive.”
It’s here, I realize that the “death” Silverman refers to is not limited to the physical, but includes the soul-crushing spiritual death that dims our lights and steals our hearts.
The gold Savoy moves on to the Jersey Shore, famous for its rides, games, saltwater taffy, and sandy beaches. On a starless night, a man with a knife pulls Silverman into the dark, below the boardwalk. “His hand pins my long braid as if staking it into eternity,” she writes. “A wisp of soul levitates from a somatic body.”
Traumatized, she’s unable to speak certain words. Later, when she returns to the boardwalk, she watches the Ferris wheel hover over her as it did that night, and she sees the ride has since darkened. Now, though, she knows bulbs can be replaced, light restored.
One of my favorite essays (originally published on Rumpus) is “Miss Route 17 Refuses to Grow Old.” At an Adam Lambert concert, Silverman watches the American Idol winner rise onto the stage, glittering in sequins in a feathered top hat, fringed jacket, and black pants. Though Silverman is on the third row, she pushes closer, closer, closer: “In Adam’s presence, we are cloaked in a black-magic trance, a malarial fever, an outbreak of frenzied worship.”
I know this so well. Years ago, I fell under the spell of a goth rock band, known as Rasputina—three women with cellos, dressed in lacy corsets, hair in ringlets, singing outrageously creepy songs about plagues, fires, insanity, suicide, and eating rats. I obsessed over the band’s lead singer, Melora Creager. Her voice, reedy as a siren’s has a wide quivering vibrato. It combined with the cellos and special effects created a gritty, old, faraway sound as if hearing this music from the horn of a Victrola. It became my gold Plymouth Savoy, taking me away from real-life dramas that scared me far more than any crazy tales this band could conjure.
“In short, pre-Adam, I slumped into middle age,” Silverman writes. “But now he and his music jump-started my heart better than any defibrillator.”
No Hemingway death ending here. These essays show a narrator pushing on, doing whatever it takes to rock on.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.