October 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Emily H. Freeman
On the way to write with the boys from the group home, we turn off the highway at a piece of land adjacent to Rock Creek, the pristine fly-fishing stream that attracts anglers to Montana from around the world. Mountains loom in the distance, shaded in varying grays from the 20,000-acre wildfire burning in their midst — the Sapphire Complex, it’s called, a joining of what was once three smaller fires, each with its own evocative moniker: Sliderock. Goat Creek. Little Hogback.
Lily, my partner from a local watershed restoration organization, stops the truck and unlocks the gate, and in the distance I see a vast fenced-in area of dried-out dirt surrounding a small pond. It’s a construction scar from a failed development project, Lily explains, putting two words to something I’ve seen, but never named: construction scar. A thwarted attempt at change.
A white van rolls in behind us: four teenaged boys and two staff members of the group home where they live.
We hand out notebooks and pencils at the base of an old cottonwood snag, its sides stippled with perfectly round holes where birds have made feasts of what once lived beneath its bark. My job this morning is to write with these boys, and to be as present and encouraging as I can, in the hour that we’ll spend together. After we write, we’ll take care of the land.
The boys tell me their names, their ages. One says he loves to write, is working on a novel. Another, politely unabashed, tells me he doesn’t like writing at all. A third tells me that he sometimes writes raps and poems, and the fourth, a shy redhead, mumbles something inaudible, barely meets my gaze.
A woodpecker flies to the tree above us, perches on a high branch, as though listening. Lily points it out to the group. “Pileated,” she says. “Largest woodpecker in Montana.”
One by one, the boys turn their heads to look.
We talk about wildfires, about the smoke that’s been filling the valley for weeks, and I ask the boys to write about it.
With such a short time together, and little knowledge of their backstories, I throw out my best hopes for quick and fruitful writing prompts. I tell them to use their five senses, to imagine the fire as an animal, an emotion, metaphor.
Heads bend down to notebooks; pencils start to move. It’s quiet now, save for the intermittent roar of semis in the distance, the chattering of kestrels wheeling overhead. Through the trees behind us, Rock Creek throws its voice into the song.
When it’s time to share, the boys’ voices start quiet and tentative, growing in strength as they realize they have the group’s full attention. The fire is a lion, they say, a tiger, an unnamed mythical beast. It is greed, it is violence; it is an insatiable hunger. Some of the adults share what they wrote, as well, privileging the boys with their own vulnerability.
And then: it’s time. Too short, but writing is only a part of what we’re here to do. Bodies shift and notebooks are rounded up.
We shift our attention to the construction scar, brightly colored plastic flags marking spots where young plants are growing: black cottonwood and mock orange, choke cherry and rocky mountain maple. These are the plants that will restore the soil, create habitat, and heal the land.
The boys know the drill, having worked with Lily all summer long. They walk over to her truck, its bed filled with a 150-gallon tank. She opens the valve, and water drains through a hose into a large container set on the ground. We scoop out bucketsful, then slowly walk through the warming mid-day air to pour out the contents at each flag. At some, a foot-high wild rose grows, branches prickly and resilient-looking. At others, a small red twig marks a willow, and at still others: nothing. Lily insists they be watered anyway, that roots will get established even if there’s nothing to show for it above ground.
For an hour we fill, and trudge, and tend. In the center of the pond, a duck family floats, nearly still, on the water’s surface. Two boys across the pond spot salamanders, catch frogs. Another finds a snake. The reemergence of these small and fragile creatures is a sign that the project is working.
Water gone, we circle up at the truck. Lily sits on the tailgate and pulls up a wildlife identification app on her phone.
“What kind of frog do you think you found?” she asks the boys.
“Leopard Frog?” one offers.
“More likely a Pacific Chorus Frog,” she says.
She finds the frog on the app, turns up the volume on her phone and holds it in the middle of the circle for the boys to hear. Conversations fade, and the frog’s call – a kind of guttural chuckling — fills the air.
In the next two weeks, the fire in the distance will grow to nearly twice its size, with no signs of slowing, evacuation and pre-evacuation orders in place for the houses at its borders.
In the next three weeks, the boys will start school again, moving through already complex channels with an added burden that most of their classmates will never know.
In the next few months, one of them — a high-school senior — will turn 18, and age out of the group home system entirely. He’ll have to move out on his own, and, as much as the staff of his home has done to prepare him for this inevitability, he’ll nevertheless be a not-yet-high school graduate, somebody’s still-young son, navigating the world largely on his own.
But none of that is happening right now.
Right now, we are a motley assemblage of kids and adults, standing within an ember’s throw of a fiery mountain, crowded around a phone from which emanates the call of a small amphibian.
And somewhere in the pond, another frog turns to listen.
Emily H. Freeman has taught writing in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. Her work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.
September 26, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Writers have peculiar behaviors, one of which is sitting alone day after day, month after month laboring over a notebook or keyboard, hoping that what we create in private will ultimately be enjoyed in public. We embrace the contradiction that writing is an act of solitude, but also a social one.
But this contradiction is not without it challenges, as evidenced by how often jarring it is to pull ourselves from the world we make on the page (even if it is nonfiction) to go about the reality of our day. More so, by how anxiety-producing it can be for the writer to move from the private act of writing to the performance of publication. Real time living hardly affords the control or revision of writing, and many writers agree that the months leading up to publication can be nerve-racking.
As someone for whom anxiety is a natural state—I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, OCD, and PTSD more than a decade ago—the marketing process for my book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir proved more difficult than the writing process. I’d assumed that reliving my experiences with mental illness in order to write the book would be taxing, but the thought of marketing made me experience panic attacks and the general feeling that I was being crushed under the weight of my fragile writer ego.
I don’t exaggerate! I saw things, heard things. I counted, doublechecked, twitched. Felt organs sputter inside. In sleep, I ground holes in the mouthguard designed to prevent such grinding. Being “forthcoming” was not exciting. It was miserable. Marketing proved maddening, for as a human I prefer to go unnoticed, a quiet observer made fierce by the solitude of the page, but as writers, we want to be seen.
Hallucinations aside, I am not alone: many writers have reflected on the difficulties of marketing, the challenges that come from asking for attention in a world saturated with selfies and side hustles, the guilt we feel over demanding individual praise when the world seems to be collectively falling apart. I’ve witnessed writers judge others for posting too frequently about themselves, asking them to purchase a book, or simply sharing good news. “Shameless self-promotion” begins most social media posts as a result, an apology that sets the tone for how readers engage with the content. We require, it seems, both humility and humiliation of writers if we are to reward them with a ‘like’ much less the purchase of their latest project.
Once, I was hosting a dinner party for a dozen writers when news broke that a lovely absent friend had secured a two-book deal. Within moments the atmosphere changed from one of merlot’d merriment to acrimony, and most of the table never forgave the writer for their success. It is no wonder writers pause before sharing reviews or media mentions, feel such self-doubt and shame for hoping others will celebrate their accomplishments.
At this same dinner, however, my cat spied a toy mouse on the floor, meandered over and began yowling victory as though a brutal battle had ensued, a bold albeit lazy performance that prompted delight from guests. Years later, I still wonder why our friend’s literary accomplishments seemed suspect while a housecat’s guttural gloating was cause for applause.
There is much practical advice about marketing—don’t dwell on reviews if you are lucky enough to receive them, try to work on new writing but don’t be disappointed when this is difficult or impossible, remember that “book tour” is code for awkward writers, small crowds, and strange questions that aren’t really questions. For me, however, the best strategy leading up to publication was not marketing myself, but supporting other writers, many whom were also in a forthcoming frenzy. This allowed me to engage with the literary community in ways that were sustaining rather than suspicious, and to foster connections with people who love words rather than wondering why family members I’ve never witnessed reading weren’t eager to talk about my writing. Most important, championing good work helped me remember why I love writing and writers in the first place.
I am a patient, enthusiast, forgiving reader. (I may be a better reader than person.) When I find a piece I love, I read it again and again until the muscles in my face have memorized the movement. I read it aloud, often with waving hands, to anyone who will listen. I geek out, students held hostage by my syllabus, or my partner, who cooks dinner while I pace the kitchen ranting about the best metaphor ever before finding another best
I fall hard for writers, reading everything they’ve written, swooning over their language, acquiring extra copies to fling at others like it’s December and I’m hosting my own Favorite Things episode. And yes, like anyone in love, I send mushy messages to writers I admire, though I try to keep the XOs to myself. When I encourage students to contact writers they love, they return to class shocked, whispering, “They actually wrote back.”
The first email I received from a reader about Quite Mad made me catch my breath. I was in the midst of months of mental illness setbacks, uncertain when or if they would end, gasping and heaving, existing beyond going to work and returning home seemingly impossible. I was seeing and hearing things, experiencing panic attacks for several hours each day, convinced a piece of ice was a shard of glass that had slit me belly to bowel on the way down, or that I’d drunk bleach, or that a vein was about to burst. I could not bear to exist in the cage of my body let alone think about marketing my broken self to others. Who would want to read a story about a skittish, frightened brain, a woman so afraid she could not look in the mirror without panicking?
The reader was writing, she explained, because she felt the same, because my book about panic and compulsion and trauma made her feel normal for once and less alone. And suddenly so did I—the private had become public and I had not died or caught fire or shriveled like a tuber into the earth or all the other terrible things anxiety convinces us will happen if we prove fallible.
My mental illness did not disappear with this small praise, just as the release of my book has not quelled it, but this kindness reminded me of the importance of small literary acts—an email to a writer, sharing a beautiful line with others, buying books, gifting books, teaching books.
The way I see it, we have two choices: We can ruin the dinner party by dismissing well-deserved accomplishments (either those of others, but more often than not, our own), or we can yowl. Writing an essay or poem or story, or hell, a whole book, is much more demanding than rolling over and spotting a faux mouse, yet we hesitate to celebrate.
If you are still too shy to yowl for yourself, yowl for others, and know that lovers of words will be happy to yowl for yours.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery
September 10, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Peter Amos
No ideas but in things. Over the last two months, I’ve made my first real push for publication. Prominent magazines and journals often accept a fraction of one percent of submissions. There are thousands of others that accept between five and ten percent. The point being that, by virtue of submitting my own work, I’ve read gobs of essays from a slew of journals.
Coming at anything as an outsider can be fascinating. Everyone is an insider somewhere. I talk about Star Wars with my best friend from elementary school in a shorthand that culls outsiders quickly. With that in mind, I’ve noticed two things about magazines and journals, one related to the other.
The first is that essays are overwhelmingly narrative and skew wildly toward memoir. All people who strive to be better at things tend to over-learn the lessons of their mistakes. No ideas but in things. Write what you know. I hear both phrases floated to support a narrative style grounded in objects, people, events, and action. I’m not sure they mean what I always think.
No ideas but in things –
I twist this phrase frequently to avoid abstraction rather than to suggest ways in which it can be expressed. Nevermind that the phrase is ripped from a beautifully cryptic and meandering sentence. Even in its common usage among aspiring writers, it’s a challenge rather than a crutch. Ideas are better concrete, but the point at which I trust the reader to take my meaning is dangerously close to the point at which I avoid entirely having to have one.
Write what you know –
Writing stems from experience and perspective. But writers don’t only write from what they know, they strive tirelessly to know the thing about which they are curious. You know what you write.
The second thing I’ve noticed about magazines and journals is that the overwhelming majority explicitly forbid the submission of political opinion. I understand immediately. Politics can be divisive and, either way, many journals and magazines are simply working toward a different aesthetic. But that disappoints me.
Writers are notorious radicals in the truest sense. Saul Bellow wrote of great art that “its departure from tradition is the result not of caprice or policy but of an inner necessity.” Writers push against things, poke them with sticks, prick the surfaces to see if they pop, swim over to the deep end of the pool and trawl the floor for pennies. When the world demands lock-step conformity and passive voice, simply walking in the other direction can be transgressive.
George Orwell wrote that political writing is bad writing. He’s also the strongest evidence to the contrary. In context, Orwell argued not against political writing and social criticism, but against dogmatic writing of any kind.
No ideas but in things –
In politics, the phrase is perverted: No things, but in ideas. Political punditry is riddled with euphemism and distant language, but politics are fundamentally about people. No one is better equipped to humanize an idea than a writer. For Orwell to write of his life and his community and his world without engaging the politics of the time would have been dishonest. I’m inclined to think the same of most other lives and communities and worlds and times.
Engaging abstraction – untangling the yarn inside one’s own head – is the first step. Joan Didion wrote powerful stories and pieces of investigative journalism, but also breathtaking and funny contemplations of ideas: “On Keeping a Notebook” or “On Self-Respect.”
Aversion to politics or social criticism, I think, stems from an aversion to being wrong, or fear of being taken as arrogant. But is the confidence to write boldly about an idea more arrogant than a paralyzing fear of turning out to be wrong?
Two more things Saul Bellow wrote:
“There is grandeur in cursing the heavens, but when we curse our socks we should not expect to be taken seriously.”
… and …
“ … there is only the pitiful obstinacy of a ‘position,’ that marvelous dishonesty of modern politics.”
Write about big things or small. Weigh them appropriately. Curse the heavens, but roll my eyes at the socks. Write about them both. Positions are things I occupy in opposition to something else rather than vantage points upon which I look to improve. The “marvelous dishonesty” is not the location, but rather the manufactured opposition or permanence it implies.
I got back into writing by writing about politics and do so almost constantly. In the first months of 2016, I began a piece by saying that “I try not to write about politics but …” I wrote countless other things about which I later changed my mind. E.L. Doctorow, in his first essay for The Nation, laid out what writing about an idea or developing a fiction really means. He writes not because he has a profound thought to express, but because he needs to figure out what he thinks in the first place. He feels deeply about something and begins to explore it. The idea emerges along with the words:
“That is why ideologically committed writers, brilliant political persons, engaged artists, often write material that is born dead. Their ideas are stamped out on their work, cutting and forming it according to needs exterior to it.”
Talking is how ideas spill out. Writing is how one sifts through the bog that’s left over and examines everything for value.
Most political writing is bad writing. But I wish writers wouldn’t abandon politics to ideologues – for the simple reason that writers write well. When the language of solid things, of humanity and action and emotion, occupy themselves elsewhere, the machinery of the world is left to empty words and dishonesty. Writers are radicals in the truest sense. Radical in their uncertainty and desire to humanize every idea, to bring things close and look them in the eye. That’s a valuable perspective in any field, politics most of all.
Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.
September 6, 2018 § 10 Comments
When asked what my memoir-in-progress is about, I sometimes say, “I’m writing about the year I was raped as a teenager.”
It’s a great way to shut down a conversation.
My description is almost always met with awkward silences, lost eye contact, mumbled “I’m sorry’s.” Then I change the subject so they don’t up and leave.
I’m frustrated by this reaction—about 1 in 6 women will be raped, which means 1 in 6 women that you know. My experience isn’t particularly unusual, and recently, reading and writing about it isn’t that unusual, either. It seems that when it comes to talking about writing about it, though, we’re not quite there yet.
At times I don’t mind the awkward responses—in fact, they serve a purpose. It’s healthy to make people face what I have experienced, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. But overall, I find fielding their discomfort exhausting. And there’s only so big an impact that a sentence-long conversation can make.
But being a writer is not only part of who I am, it’s also my job. I like talking about writing, but even if I didn’t, it’s not something I could easily avoid.
Eventually I figured out a workaround: when somebody asks, “What’s your book about?”, I usually mention only its secondary plot.
“I got sick with the plague bacteria while traveling around the world at age 18,” I say. “It’s a pretty weird story.” They nod, enthusiastic, eager, to hear more. They take what I say at face value, satisfied that’s a meaty enough topic for a book-length project, that there’s no second story lurking beneath.
Though this strategy works, I wish I didn’t have to rely on it. I wish I could bring up rape, and writing about rape, in everyday conversations—without ending those conversations. I wish that I didn’t have to hide this central aspect of my identity as a writer in order to fit into social situations. I wish I could talk about the subject of my book as easily as I’ve noticed many other writers talk about theirs.
Recently, there has been an outpouring of books and articles, fiction and nonfiction about sexual violence and rape culture. Authors are incorporating their experiences of violence and harassment into their work—not only including it, but even centering it. These issues come up in writing conference panels and workshops and book reviews. We are talking more—but not enough, and the conversations don’t yet come easily.
Paradoxically, I think the only way to solve this issue is to keep telling my story. For now, that mostly means sharing my story via writing—an option I find far less emotionally draining than facing conversations in person. I’m writing these stories in my memoir, in my personal essays, in my reported articles. But I don’t want to stop having spoken conversations about what my writing is really about—not completely.
What I want is for the responses to improve. I want all of us no matter how difficult it is, to engage with the difficult subject of turning sexual violence into art. Not knowing what to say is not a good enough excuse not to say anything at all—there is always a better alternative than shying away from the conversation. I want the subject I’m writing about to be treated like other books’ subjects: with curiosity, respect, and interest. I want writing and talking about rape to be normalized, because if there’s one thing that feeds rape culture, that allows violence like what I experienced to continue, it’s silence.
So when in doubt, listen. Ask me to tell you more about my book. I hate the initial, awkward moment of telling—I hate not knowing what response I’ll have to handle, I hate the emotional labor involved in “cleaning up” after these conversations—but like many writers, I love to talk about my work: its craft and career challenges and triumphs. And I want the conversation to be about the artistic process of writing about trauma, not about the trauma itself.
As the #MeToo movement grows, as we become more accustomed to hearing stories of violence and harassment, I hope I can answer the question, “what’s your book about?” honestly, without ending the conversation. But until we reach the point where #MeToo stories are more easily accepted in day-to-day conversation—or perhaps, in order to reach that point—I plan to continue writing mine. I hope you’ll join me, whether by listening, asking questions—or writing yours.
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague bacteria, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution—all while traveling alone as a teenager. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Longreads, The Lily, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Lenny, Entropy, and elsewhere.
June 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.
Literary Greatness at the Expense of Female Suffering: On Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop
June 6, 2018 § 23 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
On the morning Junot Diaz’s essay, “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” was published in the New Yorker, Carmen Maria Machado sent this tweet out to her followers:
Hi! Today, please meditate on how easily we accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery.
— Carmen Maria Machado (@carmenmmachado) April 10, 2018
While she made no mention of Diaz in her replies, many writers knew who she was referring to. That week, article after article would celebrate Diaz for his bravery while literary circles whispered about the possibility that his essay was actually part of a strategy to lessen the eventual blow of being outed, #MeToo style, by the women Diaz claimed to have hurt in the decades following his abuse. In just under three weeks, the same outlets who had originally praised Diaz for his candor would publish new articles reporting that several women, including Machado, had come forward and accused him of misogyny and sexual misconduct.
Machado’s tweet calls attention to the long-held belief that a man’s artistic journey is more important than the women he might hurt along the way, and that abuse is sometimes a necessary evil of the creative process—the basis of “good,” “real,” or “authentic” art.
To cite an older example, David Foster Wallace famously credited his obsession with Mary Karr as the driving force in writing Infinite Jest, stating, somewhat crudely, that the book was “a means to [Mary Karr’s] end, (as it were).” Wallace continues to be taught and celebrated today despite Karr regularly reminding us about the terrifying patterns of abuse she endured in the 1990s, including Wallace stalking Karr and her family members, violently kicking her during an argument, and, once, pushing Karr from a moving vehicle. His behavior is (under) documented in his biography, and well-known among writers contemporary with Wallace and Karr. Unlike in Diaz’s more recent case, Wallace’s abuse is not a revelation to the public, but an example of bad behavior consciously ignored. As readers, how do we reconcile love for our favorite books with the terrible acts of the men who wrote them?
This was the question still fresh in my mind when I went to see Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop at an independent movie theatre. As a composition instructor and a creative writing student, I was excited to see what looked like an excellent addition to the genre of French-language films celebrating the power of classroom community and rising above prejudice through writing—like Cantet’s previous film, The Class or Phillippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar.
**Warning, Spoilers Ahead**
The Workshop stars a writer named Olivia, who mentors a group of teenagers through writing a collaborative novel set in their town, La Ciotat. But one student, a troubled young (white) man named Antoine, continually disrupts the class, penning gratuitous murder scenes and taunting classmates with his willfully racist opinions about the Bataclan and Nice massacres. Despite Antoine’s perceptible lack of redeeming qualities, Olivia seems to have complete faith in him, citing his “potential,” and unsuccessfully attempts to unmask Antoine’s machismo façade, encouraging him to express himself to the group.
Olivia learns that La Ciotat, once defined by its now-defunct shipyard industry, has few opportunities for young people like Antoine who are looking for stable work. In this regard, one could draw parallels between La Ciotat’s empty yards and the small Appalachian towns decimated by the United States’ once thriving coal industry. The same palpable despair, misplaced anger, and directionlessness expressed by some young men in those communities are present in Antoine’s character, which serve as a kind of raison d’être—if not a justification—for his extreme beliefs and aggressive behavior.
At home, Antoine is shown to spend his free time playing computer games, watching military recruitment clips, and listening to the French equivalent of alt-right propaganda videos on his laptop. His other hobby consists of stalking his instructor, taking covert videos of Olivia swimming and reading without her consent or knowledge, and studying them later on his computer alone.
If this alarming behavior weren’t enough, the situation takes a turn for the worse when Olivia asks Antoine for an interview on the pretense of researching for a character in one of her novels, which she uses as an opportunity to grill him on his political leanings. Antoine storms out and returns later with a handgun. He forces Olivia at gunpoint to drive him to a secluded location in the dark, refusing to answer her questions about what his motives are or what he wants from her. At one point she tells him, her voice quavering, “I’m really getting afraid now.”
When they arrive at a cliff overlooking the ocean, Antoine sits on the rocks and tells Olivia, after a tense moment of silence, that she is free to leave. Once she is gone, he throws the gun into the ocean, symbolizing, perhaps, a change of heart. He arrives at the workshop the next morning (Olivia having not called the cops, apparently) and reads a letter to the group stating that even with no job, no friends, and an uncertain future, a man should still consider himself lucky to be alive. He leaves, and the film cuts to a scene some months later where Antoine is working on an ocean barge, a smile on his face.
This last scene makes The Workshop a perfect cultural example of how easily the abuse and terrorization of women becomes redeemable in service of a man’s journey to self-realization and fulfillment. Olivia, though a successful novelist, is largely a flat character, functioning as a female sounding-board for Antoine to bounce his male angst from without any real-world consequences. She always allows him to speak in class and patiently listens to his ideas, no matter how violent or vitriolic his rhetoric. She sometimes calls him out on his more racist statements, but only on the grounds that he is intentionally provoking the class and she finds it “exhausting,” rather than due to any moral objection of their content. Perhaps most pointedly, she disregards her own personal safety as well as that of her other students when she chooses not to call the police and report Antoine’s behavior.
With the support of Olivia’s character, Antoine can evolve from a bored, lonely teenager with no sense of direction to a happy, productive young man working on a boat. This outcome would be wonderful if he hadn’t subjected an entire classroom of peers to his violent outbursts and threatened to murder his teacher in order get there. Just like too many powerful abusive men in our world, the consequences of Antoine’s actions in The Workshop never seem to catch up to him. And we, the audience, are supposed to be okay with this: to excuse Antoine because he’s young, or lonely, or feels hopeless about the future. Who hasn’t felt those things at one time or another, the film seems to suggest; we are all human, and we make mistakes, do things we’re not proud of, hurt other people.
I see this same logic in those who exonerate Junot Diaz for his past behavior on the grounds that he was horrifically abused as a child, or David Foster Wallace because he struggled with mental illness for most of his life. Knowledge of these hardships provide context for the choices these men made, but it certainly does not exempt Diaz and Wallace from the consequences of making them.
Still others excuse these men on the basis of their literary genius. Could such nuanced sexist characters like Yunior and Orin Incandenza have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered? Maybe not. But what do we lose in the absence of characters like these, borne of somebody else’s hurt? Some might argue that these works contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is “good” art actually worth? One woman’s trauma? Two? At what point does the value we place on the literature these men produced absolve them of the hurt they’ve caused? Of the suffering these women have endured?
We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about “the artist versus the art,” especially in television and film with Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and so, so many more. Now the movement has come to literature, and it’s time to make a conscious choice about who we read, and why. Because the truth is that a man isn’t born into literary greatness. Greatness is ascribed by the value we readers choose to place on certain works, and the world is full of art worthy of our attention.
And while writers like Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Sherman Alexie may be some of the first men whose place in the literary canon is challenged on the basis of their character, it is important to anticipate that they will not be the last. To use Carmen Maria Machado’s words, we don’t have to accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery. As readers, we don’t have to promote the work of abusers, even well-regarded and widely-anthologized ones. We can choose instead to listen to voices whose art does not come at the expense of others’ safety and well-being. To those who have endured hardships and have chosen to rise above their trauma rather than to perpetuate the abuse they suffered. As readers, we can choose this. We should.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or @zoebossiere
April 23, 2018 § 14 Comments
By Kirsten Fogg
It started with a lump in my throat. Actually, it started before that.
When I embarked on a project gathering stories of belonging, I tried to be witty and philosophical by quoting author Ben Okri. “Listening,” Okri had said in an interview, “is quite close to suffering.” Maybe I didn’t take Okri seriously or maybe I thought I was immune. Either way I’m embarrassed to say that I became a casualty of my own research.
In order to interview people I wouldn’t normally meet, I’d applied to become a writer in residence but no one would have me. After I recovered from the rejections, I decided to continue my research independently and called myself the Writer Out Of Residence. I was thrilled to be part of a festival and had stints with a state library, a hospital, and a hip cafe. In six months, I collected 130 interviews. I just didn’t think it would drive me to therapy.
The thing is when I asked about belonging, people told me about rape and racism – He dragged me from the car by my hair – anorexia and mental illness, attempted suicide, prison and homelessness – I cut off his hand and shoved it in his mouth.
The more I listened, the bigger that lump in my throat became but I kept ignoring it. I’m doing important work, I told myself. It’s research for my book. It wasn’t until I had trouble swallowing and speaking became painful that I remembered a friend’s father who had died of throat cancer.
My GP sent me to the ear nose and throat doctor who squirted bitter anesthetic up my right nostril and stuffed a tube in it to peer into my throat as I gagged. Two GPs, one barium swallow and a cortisol inhalant later, I was lying on a carpeted floor staring at the ceiling and repeating zz sounds.
“Your throat is unremarkable,” the speech pathologist said, reading the ENT report. The pathologist used to sing opera and he looks like he used to sing opera. “It’s called globus pharyngeus. It’s an involuntary clenching of the vocal chords. Can be caused by stress. I see it all the time. Feels like a lump in your throat.”
Ben Okri may not have been referring to vicarious trauma when he equated listening with suffering but the link was there. When I was collecting stories, people opened up to me. They talked to me as if I was a therapist rather than a writer and I had no idea how to handle it. This type of secondary trauma is associated with war correspondents, social workers, or medical and rescue personnel, not creative nonfiction writers like me. But the more we as writers delve into the lives of others, the more susceptible we become to taking on their trauma, simply by listening.
I kept going. At one all-day festival, I interviewed 19 people without stopping and then raced home to look after my children. Everywhere I went I carried those stories with me. I was beaten up about nine times by gangs. The details rolled around my head and the weight of other people’s rage and terror pulled on my limbs. I tried to kill myself. Nightmares and heart palpitations jerked me awake at 3 a.m. and during the day I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide. I ignored the restlessness that pumped through my body like a never-ending sugar high. I kept collecting stories. How could I not listen?
Even writing this, my chest is tightening, my throat clenching. I pause, exhale, and look out the library window at the muddy Brisbane River. After months with an art therapist and the speech pathologist I know more about vicarious trauma and how anxiety affects me.
In my attempt to understand other people’s search for belonging I neglected myself: I didn’t debrief after interviews, I didn’t cut down on my workload, I didn’t find a way to let the trauma out, and I didn’t ask for help. How could I whine about what I was feeling when I was only listening?
At the same time, I felt so responsible for preserving people’s stories and honoring my commitments that I stopped doing activities that would have helped me: I was too busy to run or rock climb and my flute stayed in its case.
I know I’m not the only writer who is suffering and feeling guilty about secondary trauma: Oxford University now offers workshops to students and academics researching difficult subjects and more writers are asking about how to handle this in conferences and on social media.
There is no easy answer. People talk about self-care, going for walks, or hanging out with friends, but those suggestions were too vague. I was in a position of high anxiety and I wasn’t going to stop interviewing people so I needed a long-term solution.
At a writer’s conference in Australia I bumped into Leah Kaminsky, a General Practicioner and award-winning author. If anyone could help, it had to be her: she’s written about death and The Holocaust and seems balanced and happy. Later, when we talked on the phone and I asked about vicarious trauma, her suggestion surprised me. It was, in fact, the one thing I’d been avoiding because I thought it would upset me. She insisted that reading a broad range of well-written books on traumatic subjects was key.
“It helped me focus on the craft of how to actually be the translator of pain and of trauma, rather than being the vessel for it,” Kaminsky said. “I was the translator that was carrying the language of the voiceless to the reader.”
Now I’m surrounded by memoirs and essays on topics ranging from disability to genocide. And it’s working. I’ve got a way to go before that lump disappears from my throat, but concentrating on how other writers have transformed trauma into type is helping me manage the suffering embedded in truly listening.
Kirsten Fogg is a writer and journalist who has lived in France, the U.K. and Australia. Her personals essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction (U.S.), The Malahat Review (Canada) and produced by ABC Radio National (Australia). Her essay “NanaTechnology” was the 2015 winner of the CNFC/carte-blanche contest. Her articles have appeared in international newspapers including The Chicago Tribune. She recently moved her family to Toronto, Canada and can be found — covered in dust and muddling her way through renovating an old house — at www.writeroutofresidence.com.