The Language of Appalachian Storytelling: Cat Pleska’s Memoir Riding on Comets

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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An interview conducted by Jeanette Luise Eberhardy:

I return to books that invite me to be “the reader as artist” which Toni Morrison described in her essay by the same title. When I read like an artist, I can almost feel the opening of my imagination with the language of story where heart and mind join together. For me, this experience with imagination is particularly strong when a writer explores the connection between story and nature, including the nature of family. In Riding on Comets: A Memoir by Cat Pleska, I listen for the sound when she writes “thunder’s timbre deepened and boomed and rattled the glass in the windows.”  And when Pleska describes an underground spring flowing towards a creek, I can see how it “stains the grass like tears on a cheek.” I trust this storyteller who expresses such a deep understanding of our place in nature.  I join her when she begins to build a home within herself from what memoirist Mary Karr calls “a passion for the watery element of memory.” Understanding this passion is how I am able to take the leaps of imagination with little knowledge of the storytelling traditions in Pleska’s Appalachian culture.

Last week, I caught up with Cat Pleska at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington DC. At this writer’s conference, we were invited to open our perspectives on storytelling by “braiding subgenres into a coherent whole” and “experiencing broad ranges of cultural and artistic events.” I asked Pleska to share with us some of her perspectives on language and story and culture.

Jeanette: When you wrote your memoir, what were you hoping for?

z cat.jpgCat: I wanted to bring forward the language of story from my culture. In my memoir, the glue that held a rambunctious, challenging family together was our stories and our habit of gathering on a hot summer night as we watched fireflies light up the ground and trees to mirror the millions of stars in the night sky. We told stories all night long.

Jeanette: Language of story from your culture?

Cat: In my family storytelling tradition, we bring you to the edge of the moment, forgoing the traditional setting of backstory, so the lesson, the meaning, is embedded in the listener’s psyche sooner, without giving away the surprise at the end. We deliver the scene quickly so the listener may “see” the setting for the lesson and “feel” what’s about to happen. Embedded in this approach to story is the cultural understanding of our way of learning from each other. Today we often call this type of storytelling memoir.

Jeanette: What is memoir to you?

Cat: Memoir is asking yourself the right question that helps both the writer and reader connect at the level of the heart. Asking the right question allows you to explore the experience in a curious way, that may bring to light the deeper meaning of it.

Jeanette: What was one of your underlying questions?

Cat: One of the most pressing questions I faced was how to express navigating my relationship with fear.

Jeanette: Like in your story “Devil’s Seat” where you challenge yourself as an eight-year-old to climb out on a rock formation?

Cat: Yes, I climbed out, facing a perilous drop below the rock outcropping, but when I scooted back from the edge, I saw my father’s and my grandfather’s initials carved in the rock surface. Every child who undertook that challenge of fear took a small rock and carved their initials into the surface. I carved mine larger than theirs.

Jeanette: Is there a connection between the larger initials you carved in the rocks and your interest in evolving the stories in your culture?

Cat: The men in my culture embraced the unexpected and were therefore seen as brave and courageous. The women were the keepers of stories on how we survived. In my memoir, I am integrating both of these types of stories. As I wrote, I felt that I had no choice. I was driven to combine the courage one needed to face the unexpected with the courage needed for survival. That is to say, a larger story than the one told by men alone or by women alone.

Jeanette: Your comments remind me of what Edwidge Danticat said: “When you have no choice, when it haunts you…that’s the time to tell your story.”

Cat: For us, storytelling was all entertainment and connection and shared knowledge and a bonding with relatives so that when daylight dawned, the family remained together. The way in which we wove our stories was unique to our, one could say, mini-culture within the larger Appalachian culture. The way we told stories developed into a style that denoted our methods, our techniques which involved an almost unconscious word selection and syntax development, that to this day I rarely hear from any other culture. That weaving of particular language and style further helped me bring together my stories of the men and women I write about.  

Jeanette: We enter another culture’s stories in a variety of ways. For me, I may begin by sensing the writer’s connection to nature. For others, they may appreciate the use of humor. And still for others there is this deep recognition of Pleska’s instinct to explore the use of language of story in her culture. Whatever our way into stories that are different from our own, we can enlarge our sense for living in our beloved communities on this precious planet and transcend what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

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Cat Pleska, MFA, is an educator, author, editor, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and is a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, and her first book, Riding on Comets: A Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015 and short-listed for the 2015 book of the year in the memoir category by Foreword Magazine. Cat is the 2016 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for Support of the Arts. Her cookbook One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce: Recipes you’ll Relish was just published by Mountain State Press. She teaches in the humanities program for Marshall University and is a full time instructor for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.

Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. Eberhardy serves as Program Director, 1st Year Writing and Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin, Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S.  Eberhardy is the recipient of the 2016 MassArt Faculty Fellowship Grant for her project: Global Meaningful Work. She publishes on the craft of writing and she is currently working on the book Why I Write. Why I Create: Global art students show how they express themselves. Eberhardy can be reached at WivInc.com.

Hippocampus Magazine Releases First Book

February 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

From our pals at Hippocampus:

 

4150n0szxwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Hippocampus Magazine is pleased to announce the release of its first print title from its book division, Selected Memories: Five Years of Hippocampus Magazine. The collection features 33 essays or memoir excerpts first published in the online magazine between May 2011 and early 2016. From the jacket copy:

Selected Memories: Five Years of Hippocampus Magazine is a celebration of where we’ve been and a testament to the power of telling true stories. Since we launched our journal in 2010, we’ve published more than 600 pieces of creative nonfiction from more than 500 emerging and established writers. We’re proud of our contributors, and we admire their bravery for sharing pieces of themselves. This collection is a representation of our first five years. It’s filled with more than two dozen stories that moved us, made us laugh, made us cry, made us want to read them again.

The books division is actively seeking queries for memoirs, essay collections, and other book-length works of creative nonfiction, and it also plans to produce the occasional anthology. To learn more about what Hippocampus is looking for, visit books.hippocampusmagazine.com.

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Mood Rooms and Mary Cappello

December 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Mary Cappello

Julija Šukys continues her interview series “CNF Conversations” this month talking with Mary Cappello about her new book, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Šukys and Cappello discuss day breaks and breaking into song, breaking of a silence, slow reading, meandering, the almanack as literary form, readerly inclinations, the slow reveal, Ben Franklin and Djuna Barnes, non-knowledge, useless knowledge, contemporary affectlessness, hiding in full light, feelingful faces, ASMRs, minimalism and excess, mood disorders or attention shifts, moods as residues of familial feeling, mood and essaying, reading rooms, the universal mood room, anger rooms, hallucinogens, South Philly picture windows, and walnut dioramas.

Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to the complete interview:

Early in the book, I ask that we “consider a relation between moods and rooms as reciprocal: we experience moods as containers of ourselves and we create rooms in their image at the same time that we create rooms to alter our sense of those invisible containers: our moods.” I believe that if we were asked to think about it, we’d each be able to identify the rooms—significant architectures—that helped to constitute us as feeling subjects in the world; each of us has our own repertoire of rooms that have shaped the sort of feeling beings we have become.

Mood rooms are there for the asking, and they are definitely something to seek out and to create, alone and together. Since writing the book, my partner and I or friends and I will find ourselves somewhere and suddenly remark, “That’s a mood room!” or we’ll understand a place retrospectively now as a mood room. Now, I feel like I’m always on the look out for them, and there are so many I didn’t even try to write about in the book, from an unusual cemetery in Berlin to a an opera house the size of a trailer in Munich.

Recently, post-election, this week, at least, I’ve found myself desiring a very dark, cove-like, cave-like room in a library where I can do nothing but read, read, and read. In solitude. And without a computer screen. Books, not brightly-shining digital files. But I’d also love to be with people and engage in real discussion about what’s going on—again, over and against FB chatting and web surfing.

Just today I read an article in the New York Times about the phenomenon of “anger rooms,” and I wondered if the Times thought reporting on such rooms was timely given the combination fear of and predictions of Americans’ anger, past, present, and still-to-come—the anger that was the supposed motivator of the outcome of the election; and the anger that the outcome is fueling; and the anger that will erupt when none of the president-elect’s more benign promises comes to pass. Anger rooms, by the way, are businesses that have sprung up that offer a consumer the chance to smash objects—often enough computer parts, but not only—with things like baseball bats for a nominal fee. I want to say that such places are the opposite of mood rooms and more like impulse management padded cells. The idea of them scares the shit out of me, but this could be because my father smashed things in our house constantly and it never put him in a better mood. Once objects fail to do the trick, people who find release by assaulting the physical world eventually move onto living things. Jerk-off rooms like this are not the sort of mood rooms I’m interested in cultivating.

You can read the full interview at http://julijasukys.com/?p=4405

It’s Cool to be Strange: On Messiness, Bon Iver, and Blurring the Boundaries

October 24, 2016 § 6 Comments

B.J. Hollars

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Bon Iver

Here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin we have a hero: Justin Vernon, the Grammy award-winning musician of Bon Iver fame.  I first heard his name a year or so following the 2007 release of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” a haunting album made all the better by the haunting story attached to it. According to legend, after a rough stint in North Carolina, a down-and-out Vernon left his broken band, his broken heart, and his bout of mononucleosis, and returned north to Wisconsin.  Upon his return, he grabbed his recording equipment, then holed up in his family’s cabin, emerging three months later with what would soon be deemed a critically-acclaimed album.

This oft-fetishized story is of interest to artists and musicians alike due to our shared question: What in the hell happened in that cabin during those three solitary months?  Interviews with Vernon offer a bit of insight (some writing, some strumming, some reruns of Northern Exposure), but I’ve always wanted to know the real story.  What he saw when he looked into the dark of Dunn County as the next layer of snow draped down.  And what he felt as those first notes began to hit their marks, when he discovered that his now famous falsetto enhanced everything.

As Vernon concluded his southern stint and returned north, I headed in the opposite direction, leaving the Midwest to enroll in the graduate writing program at the University of Alabama.  There, I endured no broken bands, no broken hearts, no mononucleosis—which admittedly, left a budding nonfiction writer such as myself with few stories worth putting to the page.

Dreamland-Logo.pngYet in the spring of 2010 things changed.  In my final semester, I took a class from visiting nonfiction writer Dinty W. Moore.  While driving us to a local barbecue joint, Dreamland,  for lunch one day, I began asking him about the limits of nonfiction.  How far can you bend an essay before you break it?  At what point does a fact become a fiction?

That afternoon, over banana pudding and ribs, Blurring the Boundaries was born.  For the next two years, I’d serve as the project’s editor, asking contributors to share work that explored “the borderlands between genre.”  Additionally, I asked writers to provide a behind-the-scenes “mini-essay” on their writing process for their included work.  I wanted readers to know what happened when nobody was looking.

Nearly six years removed from that fateful lunch—and as we approach the four-year anniversary of the book’s publication—it’s clear to me now that my interest in “what-happens-when-nobody’s-looking” was motivated by the same curiosity that has kept me wondering what occurred in that cabin when Justin Vernon found his voice.  Of course, the legend is always more interesting than the truth, but the truth can often prove more helpful. In their “mini-essays,” the Blurring the Boundaries contributors confirmed for me that writing—like all art—is a terribly messy process.  The only part worth seeing is the final product, though an unflinching glimpse in the messy middle is where we artists stand to learn the most

I’d always hoped that Blurring the Boundaries might provide that unflinching glimpse.  I wanted to demystify the notion that great art comes in the form of a lightning bolt.  I wanted to highlight, too, that even the writers we admire most spend a lot of time rolling around in the muck.  I suppose what I was truly after was an honest portrayal of the difficulties of making art.  Sure, it’s nice to imagine Justin Vernon’s silhouette on the midnight snow as his muse whispered all the right notes.  But I imagine it wasn’t as lovely as all that.  Sometimes we create our best work—as I do—while donning a bathrobe in a basement beside a furnace.  It’s not glamorous; no one ever said it would be.

Beyond all this, I also intended for Blurring the Boundaries to showcase the value in the experiment, especially when the experiment has the potential to fail.  I wanted to commend the risk-taking, provide a space where it was okay for writers to try something uncomfortable and untested.  As a result, some of the anthology’s essays feel unfamiliar to readers, and to my mind, this unfamiliarity is proof of their success.  If one goal of the anthology was to provide an “exploration to the fringes of nonfiction” (as the subtitle notes), then the fringe should feel unfamiliar.  That’s what makes it a fringe.

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B.J. Hollars

A few weeks back, Justin Vernon released his latest album, “22, A Million.”  It’s nothing like the one that came before.  Pitchfork described it as “strange and experimental” while Rolling Stones added that it sounded “like the work of an artist starting over from scratch.”  Don’t be fooled; these are virtues, and part of the reason the album’s been deemed a “sonic masterpiece” as well.

Last weekend, I ran into Justin Vernon while washing our hands in a bathroom.  I played it cool, tried to act as if I wasn’t washing my hands alongside a musician I deeply admire.  We shared some small talk—I mentioned that my creative writing students would be analyzing his lyrics during our poetry unit—and he thanked me.

He thanked me.

But of course, I wanted to thank him.  Not only for giving us the myth of the man in the cabin who made music, but for subverting that myth as well.  And for releasing a new album fully stripped of the very things that made him famous, for having the courage to reinvent a wheel rather than retread the one that worked so well.   “Some use technology as a tool of correction,” the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Vernon and his collaborators use it as a trigger for forced errors…”

Indeed, it’s an album that revels in its “messiness.”  One that, at least for me, confirms that it’s okay to be “strange and experimental”, that it’s acceptable to start from scratch.  The album reminds me, too, that though it’s always a risk to take a risk, it’s a risk not to take one, too.

My hope is that Blurring the Boundaries might affirm the same message.  To remind readers and writers of a simple truth: that art isn’t always easy or pretty or clean, but that’s what makes it art.
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B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test  In February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. Hollars serves as a mentor for Creative Nonfiction and a contributing blogger for Brain, Child.

Finish Work: The Twenty-Year Memoir

October 12, 2016 § 32 Comments

By Marc Nieson

nieson - photo.JPGGrowing up, I delivered newspapers after school. Every day, for some ten years. And forty years later, I can still remember the front stoops and names of many of those customers. Some nights I’ll even dream about that paper route.

One spring afternoon, though, stands out above all the rest. I was biking down Jeanette Drive with my usual back rack piled high with Newsday when I came upon a man repairing a customer’s front brick steps. Unable to reach the mailbox, I set the paper down before the garage door, then paused to watch him work—his flicked troweling of cement, his gentle tamping of the bricks, his repositioning of string line . . . the thickness of his wrists, the worn knee pads wrapped round his dungarees. He worked with such precision and control, such utter grace. Not an ounce of fat on any of his movements. I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing, and how to do it. Maybe even the why.

I stood there for a good half hour, just watching him work. And I remember thinking if I could ever do something that well, anything really, I’d be a happy person.

*

SchoolhouseCover.jpgThis month, I’m publishing my memoir. Or, finally publishing, I should say, since it’s been twenty years in the making. Why so long, you ask? Questions of perfectionism, procrastination? Sure, in part. Admittedly I’m a writer who works and builds things slowly, who lives slowly. In great part, that’s what Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape concerns—a classic coming of age tale about young love and enduring landscapes, about life lessons that came slow-learned and hard-earned. A trail many memoirs traverse. Then again, some of us move slower than others. “Stumbling toward hindsight,” I call it in the book.

Still, 20 years?! How could that be? How does one sustain it?

I could try to claim extenuating circumstances. Other projects that took priority, like earning a wage, raising a child. But all writers contend with such conflicting responsibilities, if we’re lucky. After all, it’s what you build daily in life that truly matters. And, admittedly, I did not toil away at this manuscript day-in day-out for twenty solid years. There were many days when anything seemed easier than the heavy lifting, the utter tedium of showing up at the desk to write again. Many years when anything seemed preferable to facing the material of my life. Many drafts wherein I couldn’t even write the full name of a key character—using an initial was all I could muster.

Still, I stumbled on. Six years into the project I felt it was finished. Next followed the dance of hubris—my partnering with a NYC agent, the flood of publisher submissions, the trickle of rejection letters that were all kind and complimentary, but my memoir (set primarily on a remote Iowa hillside) was too quiet and removed for a wider readership. For a few months I believed that. Why should anyone care about my little schoolhouse story, my belly button lint? Deep inside, however, I knew the issue wasn’t the remoteness of the book’s location, but of its rendering. For a memoir, it wasn’t as forthcoming and vulnerable as it needed to be. It wasn’t done yet. Wasn’t plumb, or true.

And so I set aside the manuscript on a high shelf. For a good decade the box gathered dust. From time to time I’d scribble something on scraps of paper and slip them between its cardboard flaps. Meanwhile, I wrote other tales. Fictions, filmscripts, postcards. I got married and became a parent. I pushed strollers and park swings. Stacked Legos on the floor, words across a page.

And then a funny thing happened. Time moved on. Somehow I was older. Sometimes, all that’s needed is the practice of years. Time, not only for a writer, but for a person to grow into one’s words. To open a box.

The last drafts of Schoolhouse came in their due time. It’s still a quiet book, built brick by brick, I guess. Like Goethe once wrote, “Do not hurry; do not rest.” In retrospect, I suspect the book got done as quickly as it could. I’m fairly pleased with its level of craft, but more so with the solidness of its intents. I feel the story now offers a reader what I’d always hoped it could. Plus, I’m happy it’s found a home with a quiet independent Iowa press, located just down the road from where the schoolhouse once stood. If I could, I’d deliver one to each of your doorsteps.

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I have no doubts that bricklayer doesn’t remember me, or that stairway he built on Jeanette Drive. It was just one of many he completed. In the end, it’s the work that matters, not the project. Each row of bricks or sentences, carefully placed. A structure to make true.

Writing, too, is a little like a stairway. Always another plateau to climb. Writing, an ongoing apprenticeship. We scribblers and stumblers, journeymen. And that’s OK. There’s always more work to be done.

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Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. His memoir, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape is just released from Ice Cube Press. He’s won a Raymond Carver Short Story Award, Pushcart Prize nominations, and been noted in Best American Essays. He teaches at Chatham University, edits fiction for The Fourth River, and is at work on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.

 

You Put Together a Book: How Does That Make You Feel? An Interview with the Anthology’s Editor, Sherry Amatenstein

September 28, 2016 § 4 Comments

By Estelle Erasmus
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I have a history with Sherry Amatenstein, the editor of How Does That Make You Feel? Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch, and a therapist herselfWe were both magazine editor-in-chiefs at concurrent times in the mid to late 1990s with competitive publications. In the midst of this cut-throat competition, we founded a friendship, confounding our publishers.

After I dropped out of the publishing scene to get married and have my daughter in midlife, after a long struggle with infertility, Sherry and I reconnected. That’s when I learned that she was putting together an anthology with the unique viewpoint of therapy from both sides of the couch (therapists and patients). Anthologies are tricky. I have known people who have gotten involved in less than stellar publications, with less than adept editing and curating. I knew for sure that with Sherry at the helm I wouldn’t be.

I had a long buried secret in my past, that I’d told to a handful of people (including my own therapist of many years), but I knew that in Sherry’s capable hands, the story would not be made into click bait.

Thus, along with 33 other widely published writers, such as Patti Davis, Anna March, Susan Shapiro, Janice Eidus, Pamela Rafalow Grossman, Amy Klein, and therapists/writers like Juli Fragra, Jean Kim, and Jessica Zucker, I entrusted my story to Sherry.

I wrote about the sex-talking therapist I had sessions with as a teen in an essay I titled, “Therapy Undercover: Satin Shirts and Sex Talk.” There was a great early review of Sherry’s book in the Washington Post the other day and in Tablet.

I spoke with Sherry to dish the therapy dirt.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

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Sherry Amatanstein

A: An early ambition of mine was to be a therapist. As a child of Holocaust survivors I was immersed in pain. I thought of becoming a therapist, but winded up going into publishing instead.  Then I volunteered at a suicide hotline, and at Ground Zero Food Service after 9/11. When I became a therapist in midlife, it was the culmination of a dream, because I had wanted to do it for so long. Frankly, becoming a therapist has been very hard work, but it has helped me to accept myself more. We are all crazy and neurotic. Being a writer and being a therapist are very similar. It involves being curious about other people, listening and writing.

I felt that the therapist is this blank screen, and then your patient projects on to you what they want to project. There is this profound exchange in the room, a compelling connection, but when you leave after 50 minutes, it’s over.

I put together the book, because in the age of the Internet, a therapist can’t be just that blank screen any more. I decided I wanted to demystify the process and obliterate the boundaries for people who are in therapy as well as therapists.

People idolize therapists and treat them in ways that are not good for them. I wanted to illuminate the relationships from both sides. I also did the book to preserve therapist’s sanity. We have to take care of ourselves. It’s like you are never off duty. I mean, I sometimes get calls from patients who are suicidal.  You need to set boundaries, and be there for patients as well.

Q: What did you look for in contributors?

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Estelle Erasmus

A: Everyone had to be a professional writer. For a lot of people it was like a therapy session writing these pieces, because some of them had difficulty going to such a deep, dark place. Your piece was really good right off the get go. I have to say I was like a shark. Whenever I saw anyone had any therapy related stories, I pounced.  I also met writers I loved at events and invited them to submit. Once I had the deal with Seal Press, it became even easier to get people to contribute.

Q: How did you approach the essays from the therapists?

A: It was harder to get therapists who were good writers. Some very well known therapists dropped out of the book at the eleventh hour, because they were worried about exposing themselves. I was looking for a wide range of voices and for them to reveal the truth about their doubts, fears and processes.  Jean Kim, talked about her own therapy, Jenine Holmes wrote about how black people don’t go to therapy, Megan Devine wrote about feeling “imposter syndrome” as a therapist,  Nina Gaby’s piece talks about boundaries between therapist and patient.

The therapists are showing that they are real people and don’t need to be placed on pedestals. I had concerns about displaying their essays, but I thought it was important. My point of view is you can’t do this work without caring about the people.

Q: Do your patients know about the book?

A: I’ve been telling my patients about it, although I’m a little nervous about it. I’m still me, but I wanted to be revealing in a way that didn’t hurt my patients. I run groups for writers with self esteem issues. Most knew I’ve published other books in the past, but I don’t mind if they don’t buy my book.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Right now, I’m not looking into doing another book. After this experience, maybe I’ll dive further into my therapy.

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Estelle Erasmus is a widely published journalist, writing coach and former magazine editor-in-chief. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, NewsweekVox, Next Avenue/PBS, and more. She is the chair for the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2017 New York City conference. Her website is EstelleSErasmus.com and her twitter handle is @EstelleSErasmus

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and author of The Q&A Dating Book, Love Lessons From Bad Breakups, and The Complete Marriage Counselor. She has written for Hemispheres, Brides, MarieClaire, vox.com, qz.com and DAME.com. Her website is howdoesthatmakeyoufeelbook.com  and her twitter handle is @sherapynyc 

 

 

Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing

August 22, 2016 § 8 Comments

Two recently released creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (Excelsior Editions, 2016) and I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offer a stunning array of  contemporary creative nonfiction writing, and coincidentally both offer candid interviews with the writers about inspirations, challenges faced, and decisions to fully realize these works. Such frank conversations can lead to teachable moments in the classroom. In this two-part blog post, Jeanette Luise Eberhardy and Debbie Hagan not only examine these anthologies, but also lessons to be learned.

z cnPart One By Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

When I teach creative nonfiction writing to art students, they are most interested in two skills: omission and perhapsing. The skill of omission, examined by John McPhee in an essay in the New Yorker (2015), asks the writer to carefully consider what details are excluded. Art students relate omission to their understanding of negative space—that space on the page that remains after a mark is made. They recognize that marks or thoughts that are omitted may reveal more about the messy business of living. The skill perhapsing also considers what is missing. Perhapsing, introduced by Lisa Knopp in a craft essay in Brevity (2009), gives the writer a way to wonder about circumstances in a nonfiction narrative without making up facts. The word perhaps (or other phrases such as could have been or may have been), signals to readers that the writer has left the realm of direct observation or documented research. Omission and perhapsing allow the writer and reader to explore the space between the known and the unknown in the context of the ever-evolving self. A new book of essays considers the mysterious nature of the vast territory between the known and the unknown: Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, edited by Jen Hirt and Erin Murphy. In this anthology, the layers of experience are represented in a wide variety of forms including segmented and lyric essays, blog posts and personal narratives, graphic essays, as well as the definition essay. Here I will focus on essays that experiment with using omission and perhapsing to open up writing and to enlist readers’ participation in this conversation on celebrating life.

The complicated work of examining the impact of omission is addressed by writer Faith Adiele in her definition essay, “How to Make Sense of the Postcolonial Nation-State: A Definition Essay Using Material Lifted Almost Entirely from the Internet as Annotated by the Author, Herself a Nigerian American.” Adiele uses material from the internet to examine instances of “cultural appropriation and stolen narratives” on Nigeria. Adiele, born to a Nigerian father and a Nordic-American mother, assesses what is omitted from the definitions of Nigeria by striking a line through the original internet text (and leaving it in her essay). By making explicit the implicit biases, she invites the reader to actively participate in a conversation on the extent of inaccurate information about Nigeria. She creates a more truthful story about Nigeria to preserve diversity with respect for the generations that came before her as well the generations that will follow her.

In the essay “Kestrel Avenue,” writer Cheryl Strayed also explores the relationship between the skill of omission and the on-going nature of shifting perceptions. Strayed compares a newspaper article on a bank robbery she wrote at age eighteen with this essay written twenty-eight years later. The earlier newspaper report left out the fact that her family knew the bank robber. Her eighteen–year­–­old self did not want to admit this knowledge. In the interview following her essay, Strayed identifies the tension between knowing and refusing to know. We know that at the heart of any “refusing to know” is the fear of loss. A few years before the incident, Strayed’s family provided shelter to the bank robber when he was passing through town. What was the loss Strayed did not want to face? Readers may wonder and consider their own peculiar fears around loss and withholding knowledge.  The students that I teach are most interested in Strayed’s last question in the interview: “What role does omission play in truth-telling?”

zz Eberhardy Photo B&W

Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

The skill of perhapsing also plays an important role in transforming truth into art. In “The Third Step,” Sheryl St. Germain begins her essay on doubt by perhapsing what sort of day it was when her friend’s son was killed on his motorcycle. “A sunny day? Blue skies? Trees budding? First fragile flowers in bloom?” This particular use of perhapsing introduces the humble feeling of not knowing while the writer participates in a funeral service in a church where she no longer believes its creed.  Perhapsing helps to make visible her struggle with conflicting needs: wanting to believe in something, showing compassion for the dead son, respecting the grieving family, and acting with integrity with herself. Perhapsing opens the space to reflect on these conflicting needs. This may be why students acknowledge the impact of perhapsing more than any other skill they learn during my creative nonfiction writing courses.

More subtle forms of perhapsing are shown in the space between word and images in Kristen Radtke’s graphic essay “The City of the Century” where a young woman reflects on photos she and her friends stole from an abandoned cathedral. Through  research on the internet, the main character discovers the photos are from a memorial service for a twenty-four-year-old urban explorer who was run over while trying to take pictures of an oncoming train. Drawn images of ruins of the church, railroad tracks, and the young woman who discovered the photos accompany this text: “I stare at the pictures for a long time to draw conclusions that are not mine to draw.” The space between the panels may prolong the opening of readers’ perceptions and suspend simplistic notions they might entertain about what it means to feel vulnerable in this moment. Together images, words, and the space between panels create an artistic bridge that helps the reader imagine the many layers of this experience. In the interview after the essay, Radtke explains that image, word, and space play off each other and express the feeling that “we don’t always get things right,” which can lead to a “much richer dialogue.” Perhapsing in all its forms offers the opportunity to deepen this dialogue in a more authentic way. And isn’t this what the writer hopes for—a genuine conversation with the reader?

The use of space is also important in the segmented essays in this collection. For example, in Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Tooth and Claw,” compassion is explored in many forms: a neighbor who tenaciously controls the growth of dandelions in her grass (using a sewing scissors) while she cares for her husband who had a massive stroke a few years earlier; the writer’s interest in growing Italian dandelions; the rugged nature of this plant with its important healing properties. The space between each segment in Moore’s essay leaves room for reflection and permits readers to make their own meaning.

While I teach a variety of skills in creative nonfiction writing—using evocative objects for central images, creating mind maps to exercise the skill of conceptual blending, experimenting with sequencing information, and building scenes with dialogue—students have taught me that omission and perhapsing help them to realize and remember this truth: we see more than we understand.  At the end of one semester, a student said, “Now I can look for the skills and techniques in other writing. I especially look for perhapsing to see what it brings to a piece. I like seeing what was added and imagining what was left out.” Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with Writers offers new opportunities to consider the way we hold conversations with our experiences and with our readers.

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Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, designs educational experiences for students, artists, and professionals on crafting stories for meaningful work. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin (2014), Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. Eberhardy serves as program director, 1st Year Writing, and assistant professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

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