September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )
By Emily Franklin
1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).
2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.
I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.
Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.
3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.
Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.
4) What am I searching for – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?
And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?
5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.
And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.
When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?
The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.
6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.
Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.
September 21, 2017 § 4 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. William Bradley cut his 2010 essay, “Julio at Large” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by William’s reflections on the process.)
By William Bradley
One summer day my dad came home with the newspaper in his hand. “Do you know this girl?” We had been in the same homeroom when we were middle school students and had taken ninth grade history together the previous year. “She’s missing,” he said. “Her parents think she was kidnapped.”
Of course, she hadn’t been. I imagine deep down, we all knew. So when we learned two weeks later that she and her companion—a boy who hadn’t been reported missing—had been charged with indecent exposure, having sex on a beach in Florida, I think many in the town sneered, called her a slut, thought she was damn lucky to not be prosecuted for her sinful behavior.
This was rural West Virginia in the early 90s. Conservative Baptist country. Most everybody knew—just knew—that girls like her were trouble.
I didn’t really “know” this though. I wasn’t a Baptist myself; nor was I a conservative. I was just me—weird, anxious me. I didn’t want to judge her, but I was kind of scared of her. Sex as a concept terrified me; sex on a beach seemed unthinkable.
I didn’t see much of her after she returned. We started our sophomore year in the high school, where the homerooms were not arranged by alphabet and she was no longer taking the same classes those of us who were college-bound were taking. And I moved away that November anyway. Decades later, I would try to look her up online—Facebook, Google, Twitter—but she was gone. Vanished again.
We were never really friends. Now, 25 years later, I just remember us as kids who sat near each other in sixth grade homeroom, kids who giggled sometimes. That, and the last time I recall seeing her, sophomore year when I usually didn’t see her at all. I was walking through the school parking lot one morning, and I saw her standing beside a car, smoking a cigarette, a behavior that was only recently banned. We made eye contact, and I almost said hi to her. But she frowned, narrowed her eyes. Ready, I think, for a fight over whatever I said to her. I just looked down and kept walking.
William Bradley’s Thoughts:
It occurs to me only now, over seven years later, that when I wrote “Julio at Large,” I was really attracted to the idea of youthful rebellion, of refusing to follow the rules, of sneering and proclaiming one’s own status as both anti-Christ and anarchist, as Johnny Rotten shrieked (before he became a fan of conservative control once again called Lydon—and honestly, before a lot of parents of “kids these days” were even conceived). I was in my mid-30s and working at a private college that seemed to become more regressive and disdainful of its students on a weekly basis. I think on some level I had begun to romanticize the idea of fighting the power, raging against the machine, or in some other way telling clucking adults with sticks up their asses to mind their own damn business. I knew by then that I was a sell-out and a square, but I was still young enough to have a silent respect for kids who refused to do as they’re told. And in most ways, I still do.
But thinking about Julio all these years later, I wonder if I actually wrote the thing correctly. I mean, it did what I wanted it to do at the time, but when I think about that story as a middle aged man now, I’m struck not by Julio’s coolness, but the cruelty she must have endured. Why did she decide to run away from home? It might have been for fun or passion or something else we’d romanticize. It might also have been something darker—an abusive parent, maybe, or a manipulative older boyfriend who could drive when she couldn’t and must have had an interest in public sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.
Of course, the goal was never to write her story. I lack the knowledge and the right to claim that I can. My hope was to write the story of my response to what I thought I knew. So in that sense, I know it succeeds. At least partially. Because the truth is, these days I don’t really think of Julio’s coolness—I think of the sadness I imagine she might have lived with. Again, I know very little about her, really. But the memory that comes to my mind now is that final scene in the parking lot. Her obvious anger when she saw me. Although we had never had a hostile exchange, it seemed like she had come to expect cruel confrontation after her return to our town. So rather than think about how cool I thought she was when I was a frightened 14 year old boy, I find myself reflecting more on how sad I think she was—or at least, might have been—now that I’m a 41-year-old man.
William Bradley is the author of Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. William passed away in August 2017 and he is greatly missed.
September 19, 2017 § 5 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Shane took the challenge himself, cutting his brief essay “Icky Papa Died” from 2009 down by more than 200 words. The result is below, followed by Shane’s reflection on the process.)
by Shane Borrowman
I was relieved when my great grandfather died.
I learned, a year too late to celebrate, that he’d been buried beside my great grandmother—in a grave unmarked and expected to remain that way.
No one would spring for a tombstone.
A horse-thief-turned-burglar-turned-forger-turned-rapist probably can’t expect better, even if he is family.
The last time I saw him I was twelve, and he was standing stolidly in his white gravel driveway, asking, “Are you mad at me? Your mother sure is.” I nodded, dropping an armload of brightly colored books into the trunk of my parents’ red Volkswagen.
He was remarrying. No one was anything but mad at him.
Thirty years after I nodded my answer, I discover his prison records.
“His picture,” I say over dinner and around a mouthful of steamed broccoli, “was right on top of the file. Didn’t look anything like him.”
Elizabeth shrugs, doesn’t point out that the picture is of a thin boy, while the great grandfather I remember was sixty-five and fat and liked to push his thumb into the bottom of pieces of chocolate to glimpse the filling, leaving a sweet smelling cardboard container of violated candies no one would eat.
John is three, sits to my left, knows I’m going to make him eat broccoli before he leaves the table. As I speak of family and criminal records, he furrows his brow and asks, “What papa?”
A simple grammatical structure for a complicated question. I chew, consider answers. John can’t grasp that my father is his grandfather; this discussion is already nothing but abstract genealogy.
Elizabeth steps in: “This papa died a long time ago.”
“He got dead?”
I nod. Because I’m an English teacher, I almost never correct my son’s grammar, even when it’d be a good way to change the subject. John immediately shares his new knowledge across the table with his twin sister, leaning from side to side to see around the collection of salts and spices that serves as a centerpiece: “Hey, Sam! The Icky Papa died!”
I notice that “got dead” has become “died” and that my great grandfather has gone from being an abstraction to being an icky. He was icky, yet my instinct is to defend him.
“Honey,” I might say, “We don’t call people icky. That’s not nice.”
I can’t correct John because he’s right and because I smiled when I learned that Chips was dead.
“Honey, eat your broccoli.”
At bedtime, I spin the story of Terry Troll, bridge builder in my Kingdom of NeverEverWas. John stops me: “Daddy? The Icky Papa died?” His voice is filled with anguish that hurts deep in my chest.
“Were you mad?”
My knees pop as I stand. “No, I wasn’t mad.”
John rolls to his side, faces the wall, falls asleep with his arm over the battered orange and green cover of Go Dog Go. I watch, feet planted solidly on the graying bedroom carpet
Shane Borrowman’s Thoughts:
In May of 2009, I published “Icky Papa Died” in Brevity 30. It wasn’t the first text I’d ever written about my great grandfather, but it was the strongest over time, an essay that still chokes me up when I read it aloud (most recently at a Spoken Word Festival in Dillon, Montana). That original essay came in, by my count, at 704 words.
I’m shocked, in retrospect, that I didn’t cram in exactly 750 words. I write short…but I don’t tend to be a writer who can resist one more line of description, one more adjective or adverb, when the space exists for it. Maybe a new sentence fragment.
Late in 2016, as the contributors who join me here worked, I returned to “Icky Papa Died” with the intention to halve the text, the intention to cut those 704 words down to a slim and trim 352. To drop the middleweight down to a welterweight without losing any punching power or stamina.
I could only bring “Icky Papa Died” down to 491 words—a reduction of only 213 words. Worse, I think I did almost irreparable damage to the essay’s foundation. The new, slimmed-down essay seems, as I read and re-read it, to lack context, to lack meat on the bones of its story, to lack, well, power.
There are moments where I like this new version of that old story better: “John is three, sits to my left, knows I’m going to make him eat broccoli before he leaves the table” has a nice flow to it, better than the slightly longer original, which took 25 words and two separate sentences (as opposed to 20 words in a single sentence—not a huge change, but a good one).
But those moments are rare in this new iteration of “Icky Papa Died,” and with the exception of these limited points, this new essay lacks the poetry of the first.
It’s still got a good opening line, though…
Shane Borrowman is a professor of English at the University of Montana Western, where he teaches classes in nonfiction, the history of technology, and zombie cinema/literature/gaming. He is author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books, including Mistakes Were Made: Reflections on Being a Mediocre Father, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing, Authenticity, and Rhetoric in the Rest of the West. His current writing focuses on the intersection of family, memory, and the collapse of copper mining/smelting in southwest Montana.
September 14, 2017 § 7 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Steven Church took his very brief essay “Lag Time” and doubled it in size. The result is below, followed by Steven’s reflection on the process.)
by Steven Church
It doesn’t thunderstorm in the Central Valley of California. Not like the apocalyptic storms from my memories of home, where my father still lives. We’d watch those storms roll in from the southwest and they’d settle in and sit over our town of Lawrence, Kansas, their whole weight pressing down on us, often dumping rain for days on end. I remember driving once through a hailstorm, and the insanity of ice stones the size of golf balls, pounding onto the roof, sounded like the end of the world.
I still listen for thunderstorms at night here in Fresno when the sky half-promises, hoping for something big, but they rarely deliver the noise I need to take me back. They rarely cause me to question reality and memory. But the locals still latch onto them, often asking, “Did you hear that thunderstorm last night?” to which I’ll often answer, “That wasn’t a thunderstorm,” with the same incredulous disdain that Crocodile Dundee used in his iconic line, “That’s not a knife.” If I could, I’d conjure up a Kansas blade and say, “THAT’s a thunderstorm.” But every now and then, grey-blue clouds pregnant with electricity will drift through our valley, dropping their tendrils of lightning, and I’ll think again of lag time and loss. As I write this, it is almost May 16, an anniversary my family doesn’t celebrate; and here in the Valley we are perched on wayward edge of spring, still clinging to the last wet and cool remnants, before we tip irrevocably into the relentless heat of summer–that time where weather ceases to exist here and is replaced instead with the weight of air measured in pollution counts and particulate matter.
My father used to say: If you count the time it takes between the flash of a lightning bolt and its noise–If you time the lag, Dad would say, you can tell how close you are to the lightning. My brother and I often lingered in the pre-storm with him, standing in the front yard during tornado weather, watching a green-soup sky boiling with clouds, pulsing and churning like an ocean overhead. We’d stand there with our neighbors, dwelling in the pause between cause and effect. All of us gazing at our potential demise, counting intervals between what was and what will be. And if there is an objective measure of a “split second” it would have to be close to the time between the flash of intimate lightning and the sound of its ear-stunning crack, a noise that tingles up from your toes, and ripples through your belly—a sound the body hears before the ears, a sound that shakes your foundations; or maybe it is similar to that time I sat on the porch swing at the lake where I lived in college, and heard the lodge dinner bell ring itself, the clapper vibrating like an ear-bone, a split second after a flash and lightning strike to the metal tower; or the time between a blue racquetball’s jump off the wall and the sound of its impact; or the gap between when your ear hears a noise in the house at night and the second your brain registers it as normal and safe (the sound of a dog’s dreaming whimpers, the metal rattle of the refrigerator) or something different, maybe dangerous (the wheezing croup cough of your baby, the jiggling of your front doorknob, or just a simple phone call in the middle of the night); or perhaps a split second is a more subjective measurement, the kind of tiny gap where I lose myself again and again in memory. A split second is perhaps a divide, a liminal space where physics and family overlap. It’s how long it takes for everything to change, how long it takes to remember what is missing. It’s the time it takes for one world to end and another to begin. Untethered by time, longing for storms, I want to drop this loss into the hundreds of miles of distance between my father and me, as if it will fall and keep falling until it disappears or dissipates into the void. But the loss never leaves. It is always there between us. I wish I could let go of the ringing, the jiggle of the doorknob, the hand on my shoulder, waking me up; wish I could forget that rip in my father’s voice over the telephone twenty-five years ago, and that interminable pause after the words rolled out, It’s Matt. Your brother. There was an accident, and just before the crack of the plastic phone settling into its cradle, because in that lag, that brief second between what he said and the impact of what it meant—your brother is gone–it was possible that things would always sound the same between us.
Steven Church’s Thoughts:
It’s perhaps interesting to note that the original version of “Lag Time” began as one segment in a much longer braided essay titled “Ultrasonic,” that focused on racquetball, blue noise, physical transcendence, escape, and worries over the health of our unborn child. It was an outlier, a segment that pulled the reader out of the main focus of the essay. I hadn’t, at that point, mentioned my younger brother’s death, and so it was a clear case of a “darling” that needed to be killed. Except that it didn’t want to die. It wanted to LIVE! And to exist on the Brevity site. And to grow up from a little 411 word essay into a ‘big ol’ 800-something word essay. It was interesting to try and revisit the essay and to expand it without compromising the economy of the piece. Mostly I tried for some added clarity, but without telling the reader everything; and clearly I’ve tried to focus more on weather and thunderstorms early on. I’ve had a couple of readers tell me they didn’t know that my brother had died after they read the piece, and I realized that it’s not totally clear that’s the case. I guess I wanted to “fix” that with revision as well.
Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals and the forthcoming collection of essays I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood. He also edited the forthcoming anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School and he Coordinates the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.
September 14, 2017 § 7 Comments
Guest Editor Shane Borrowman’s introduces The <750> Project, wherein he asks past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it:
I begin things badly. First lines come to me both slowly and unnaturally, and I admire most those writers whose talents lead them to strong opening lines:
Norman Maclean’s “The day I was born, as I was to be often told, my father gave me a dog for a birthday present. Very early in life, then, I was to learn about the power of odd coincidence, because my dog turned out to be a duck dog and my father turned out to be a duck hunter and evidently, at least in my infancy, I did not resemble a duck and the dog did not give a damn about me” (“Retrievers Good and Bad”).
Caroline Knapp’s “It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out” in the prologue to Drinking: A Love Story, and Joelle Fraser’s “I wake up in December and I’m twenty-six and married and living in Spokane, a city that spreads over the dry prairies of eastern Washington like a slow burn” (“The Dive Bar Tours,” perhaps the finest braided essay in the memoir The Territory of Men).
All memorable, powerful lines that set memorable, powerful stories in motion.
Because I begin badly, I gravitated toward the short form naturally and early in my writing career. In 750 words, there’s not room for a weak first line. The whole thing has to get rolling immediately, or it’s not going anywhere. Like a punch, the short form has to fly with strength, straight from the shoulder, straight from the start, or it won’t have any effect when it lands.
The <750> Project began in the summer of 2016, and the idea hit me like a whistling roundhouse, probably one thrown by a lefty, since I don’t seem to have ever learned to effectively block my right side. It started as I was driving between Twin Bridges and Dillon, singing along with The Gaslight Anthem and thinking about my great grandfather’s prison record. I’d written about him in Brevity and had shared the essay with students many times, sometimes talking to them about how I’d write the essay, “Icky Papa Died,” differently, if I had the chance. I began to think concretely about what I’d write if I took that essay and made it longer. Or shorter.
And the idea for The <750> Project hit. Hit so hard I’m surprised it didn’t leave a mark.
I turned down the music. Woke up my wife. Asked her to write a few notes so the idea wouldn’t escape. As soon as I got near a computer, I emailed Dinty. He emailed back. We kicked the idea around, did some fine tuning as we worked through other projects and their attendant deadlines, finally landed in September of 2017.
We invited four Brevity authors to return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it. No one turned us down. No one asked why such modification mattered, and we gave no directions beyond our word-length request. This willingness to dive headlong into such a nebulously-defined task only confirmed the fact I’d suspected, along with thousands of other readers and writers, since 1997: Brevity writers are awesome.
Ann Claycomb returned to her essay “WQED, Channel 13: Programming Guide,” from Brevity 31, with the task of making the work shorter, while Steven Church took “Lag Time,” Brevity 33, and built 411 words to 806.
William Bradley trimmed “Julio at Large” (Brevity 32), as Emily Franklin’s “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland; Results of My Top Three Searches” (Brevity 18) expanded from just over 500 words to north of 1000.
And as these writers returned to their work with an eye towards adding or subtracting, they also reflected on their situation, on their process for revision and the rationale for their inclusions and deletions in what were already fully-formed, fully-functional, fully-successful essays.
These four authors have walked a line simultaneously fine and fuzzy as they embarked on The <750> Project, retaining the stories they shared in Brevity‘s pages without losing the poetry and power as the work either stretched or contracted. It’s no easy task to return to something originally built short and to make it shorter or longer.
I know. I tried.
Shane Borrowman is a professor of English at the University of Montana Western, where he teaches classes in nonfiction, the history of technology, and zombie cinema/literature/gaming. He is author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books, including Mistakes Were Made: Reflections on Being a Mediocre Father, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing, Authenticity, and Rhetoric in the Rest of the West. His current writing focuses on the intersection of family, memory, and the collapse of copper mining/smelting in southwest Montana
May 30, 2017 § 12 Comments
We were blessed to have Brian Doyle appear in the pages of Brevity seven times, stretching all the way back to issue four in 1999 and as recently as May 2015. His voice was like no other. His love of the world and everything in it seemingly boundless.
And God, was he funny. So blessedly funny.
Until the next sentence, when he made you cry.
We will miss him, greatly, and remember him, grandly. Thank goodness he left us his gorgeous, gracious words:
Mea Culpa I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they were.
Sachiel the Tailor What I am saying is that holes come and I make them go. I am in the business of closing holes. If all was well, if all things kept their composition, then I would have no work. But that is not the way of things.
Imagining Foxes We did not see a fox. I can assure you we did not see a fox. I could trot out my brother and sister today to testify that we did not see a fox.
A Child is Not Furniture But money is not the be all. If it was the be all then what is the point? The point is what you do without the money. The point is what you do with dash and brass. This is who you are. You are not what you can buy.
Ed You have but to meet Ed and you are Edified and Educated; the man is a force of nature, true to himself in every particular, forged by Russian Jewish parents, blessed by marriage to a Catholic girl from Idaho who once exploded a pie in a state baking contest, and graced finally by two children, male and female, who only grin when asked to explain their father, and it is this grin that seems to me a wonderfully summery thing, a flash of love in a world of pain, a warm pause in a cold year.
Pop Art They are cruel, and move in herds and gaggles and mobs, and woe unto the silent one, the one who looks funny, the one who speaks awkwardly, the fat one, for she will be shouldered aside, he will never get the ball, she will never be asked to jump rope, he will not be invited to the pool party, she will weep with confusion and rage, he will lash out with sharp small fists.
Her Numbers After a moment I realized that it was the number of the person who had inspected the new sandals my wife had worn that day, but for an arresting instant I thought I had found her secret number, her interior mathematical name, the parade of numerals that had worked its way to the surface of her skin after 30 years, and it sent me swimming into the sea of symbols that attempt to identify, quantify, specify her, to pin her down for a moment in her restless exuberant passage through time.
February 28, 2017 § 3 Comments
Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige discusses the art of writing place and grief with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize:
PAIGE: First, I have to say that I admire this book so much—for its technical and emotional acumen. Kafka famously said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I favor such grievous reading. I want to be moved, I want blunt-force trauma to the head and heart. Riverine accomplishes both; it made me puzzle over and admire technical and formal maneuvers and also made me swoon at its beauty and keen pathos. Did you set out to reach the reader on both fronts concertedly? Were you conscious about achieving certain effects with readers, and if so, how did you conceive of those effects?
PALM: Alexis, thank you! That’s the highest compliment. It was part instinct on the front end and part crafty planning on the back end—lurching into the magic that’s generated while writing, then trying to make editorial sense of what I was drafting. Early in these chapters, I wanted to bring together my tendency to think peripatetically, my curiosity and loneliness which have followed me everywhere, my sense of longing and loss, and my love of language. Topically I wanted to investigate the way places shapes us, the marks we leave on each other through both love and violence. I wanted to show the way I think—amused at the way that physics and biology and nature play out in everyday life. I needed a way to tell what is, aside from the event of the crime and my relationship with the boy who committed it, an otherwise ordinary tale. And so the way that I wrote about the ordinary became very important. Nothing around us is ordinary, I found, looking closer. Everywhere, the land is not ours. Everywhere, the past has a dark underbelly. Everywhere, what appears to be one thing is something else. What I lack in narrative impulse—sometimes sidestepping intense, revealing scenes in favor of the quiet image or the extended metaphor, I try to make up in intellectual inquiry. Writing this way began to take on a swirling quality, and I wanted the reader to feel that with me. This vortex of thinking through experience. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just a love letter to the world that says, is anyone out there who experiences life the way I do?
PAIGE: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?
PALM: Avoidance was its origin, then a gradual acceptance of my own truth. I wrote around the heart of the narrative—around the crime, around the boy. The earliest essays are located in the middle of the book. I couldn’t untangle my life in this river home, so I broke it down into smaller “maps” I could tackle, as if cutting cross-sections from experience and flattening them in order to see them. I mapped the bar I grew up, I wrote an essay that toured the different churches and religions I tried, another that takes apart the cornfields I worked in and looks at them politically, socioeconomically, and so forth. When I read what became the epigraph—“Every map is a fiction” by D.J. Waldie—the rest clicked into place. The mapping became an organizing principle, as well as a method of thinking about experience. A gigantic metaphor for life. A map, after all, never stays the same and contains a hundred misrepresentations, summaries, erasures in every iteration. Maps are a kind of precise lie.
PAIGE: Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here is rich with place identity, from your hardscrabble Indiana hometown to the menacing pastoral of Vermont. (Thank you for resisting the romantic portrait here, by the way.) The book’s central river, the Kankakee, figures as a literal, metaphorical, and even stylistic force. How did place identity, and the rendering of micro- and macro- portraits of place, shape the book’s structure?
PALM: I began writing with flashes of scenes—writing those important moments that define a life. In those scenes I discovered the personal set of symbols that visually represent the same stories, the places I’ve inhabited. So in the book, place—the window, the mapped cell, the river, all appear as images, which become story, which become metaphor, and unfold again as images in a different location. The mapping recurs, the window watching recurs, the jails, fishing, abandoned structures recur. Vacancies recur in the forced vacation of the Potawatomi, in Corey’s absence, in the loss of life inflicted by his crimes, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in the one square inch of silence, in my thinking of the children never born to the sterilized Abenaki of Vermont. The river works the same way, even stylistically as you say—story meandering, then forced by my own hand to run elsewhere, then spilling over itself to where it naturally wants to be, flooding a map, rendering it false. All the while leaving stories in its wake. All of this is to say out loud what I most feel about place: something happened here. It changed people. It changed you. Don’t forget. Notice the linkage across time. Notice everything still alive in a single moment, a single vista.
PAIGE: In addition to the book’s focus on maps and mapping, the narrator/ writer seems driven to map not only places but also individual subjects and how they fit together. You deliciously and obsessively catalogue and map subjects ranging from sex offender registries to entropy to cultural violence to desire to eminent domain. So many ranging curiosities and events come together, as if the narrator understands the larger world through the act of putting it together fragment by fragment. The book’s identity too seems to emerge out of the narrator’s impulse to suture fragments and to impose order upon them, beautifully, I would add. Can you describe your process of managing such a range of subjects with depth, and with such a varied approach formally–from cinematic scenes to philosophical musings to research-driven expositions to lush, lyrical passages? There’s so much to talk about regarding the relationship of form and content in this book. How did you navigate all of it?
PALM: I realized about halfway through compiling the narrative stories that I didn’t want to write a straightforward narrative. It pained me and bored me to be in just my own past for as long as it would take to finish a book. I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger and John D’Agata’s edited anthology The Next American Essay and Wendy Walters’s Multiply/Divide and Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost. These books excited me formally and gave me permission, somehow, to pursue this more Frankenstein-like narrative that stitched together and wove together the narrative with my ideas about the world and with the external world itself—other books, films, history, physics, notes from a congressional committee’s findings, and so forth. There was little order, almost not at all until the last edit when I arranged the pieces into a chronology and stitched through them a connected narrative. Writing this way was like Pac-Man. Consuming all of those things outside of my own story and digesting them. The book is a little wild, it’s not as restrained or held together as you might expect of a memoir. I took some satisfaction in preserving this wildness and letting the accumulation do work I couldn’t plan for—I wholeheartedly believe in Judith Kitchen’s admonishment to writers to follow digressions to see where they lead—both in writing and in life. To do it again, I might exercise a bit more control. But I don’t know—it’s a record of my intellectual excitement, a record of what I felt after reading those works that moved me to try what felt natural to me—this piling on of seemingly unrelated things until every last one became inextricable from the rest. It was a risk and there was definitely some push to be slightly more focused, or clearer about how certain things connected, but I think we found a compromise that everyone was happy with. Sometimes you read a memoir full of characters and situations that entertain but still come away not knowing its author. I didn’t want that. I think the form and content of this book reflect exactly who I am, in all of its human messiness.
PAIGE: You won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for this book. What was it like when you heard the news, and what has the larger experience been like? Any advice for aspiring contest entrants?
PALM: I already was in talks with Graywolf about a book deal when I received the call from Fiona that Brigid Hughes had selected Riverine as the prize winner. Because I wasn’t expecting a phone call from the press, I immediately thought they were calling to drop me. Silly—and certainly evidence of my feeling like an imposter. But it was good news! I was shocked, I cried. It was way better than what I imagined winning the Publishers Clearing House scam that I bought into as a kid would feel like. I remember telling Fiona that this would change my life. The book has a narrative hook to be sure—my relationship with a man convicted of murder and my thoughts about class in white, rural Indiana and its attendant issues. But the formally peculiar approach to telling that story was another part of why it was chosen. That meant everything to me because when I was experimenting with that Frankenstein-like approach I was discouraged from it by my writing peers—those same peers who admired the unexpected styles and forms we see in Maggie Nelson or Eula Biss or Leslie Jamison. But I pressed on privately, certain I was on to something, even if I wasn’t executing it very well yet. To other writers I would say don’t let everyone else tell you how to write. Trust your ideas, follow your own digressions, read work that informs your work in some way, and assume you will get to where you want to go. Assume you are able to endure rejection and various other roadblocks. You are. I never assumed failure. I assumed if I kept working hard, looked at each step as an opportunity to learn, kept reading and writing with my whole heart and head, I would succeed. The prize has opened doors for other opportunities but as yet, I haven’t had the time or mind to sit and write something worthwhile. So what I take away from the prize, in addition to the great honor of being published with an extraordinary press, is an endorsement from people I admire and respect that enables me to keep trying my ideas—some people will like them. Try your story in an unexpected form, try it in a dozen different structures and see what happens. Maybe nothing, but maybe something.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com