The Comedian Carrying an Umbrella: Teaching E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

February 15, 2019 § 6 Comments

watkinson_headshotBy Geoff Watkinson

First published in 1941, E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” traces White’s middle-aged pilgrimage back to the lake in Maine where he spent the Augusts of his childhood. It was the first essay I ever taught, at 23-years-old, as a teaching fellow during grad school.

White’s language is conversational and grounded; the plot of returning to a significant childhood location is universal; and the theme of accepting mortality is The Big One, worthy of a lot of discussion. I felt comfortable teaching it.

The opening paragraph expresses the nostalgia for such a significant childhood place:

“I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”

The lyricism builds a bridge for me to connect with my students. I tell them about the cabin at Fairview Lake in northern New Jersey that my grandparents owned when I was small and my memories of bear tracks in the snow and snakes in the trees and the dozens of sunfish my brother and I caught.

I ask my students to write about their magical place before continuing our discussion—their “holy spot” or “cathedral,” as White calls it. We consider sensory details, using White’s essay as the foundation—“how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”

White’s approachability makes it easy for a first-semester college student to get through the essay. The difficulty comes from the larger symbolism and metaphors: the essay is a definitive example of peeling back the onion to reveal more and more meaning. It becomes challenging, for example, to try to make sense of White’s dizzying sense of “living a dual existence,” as he writes “I began to sustain the illusion that he [his son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there.” When the dragonfly first appears, White becomes convinced “…beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” The passage of time feels like an illusion.

The lake was a “constant and trustworthy body of water.” As the essay progresses, White is both haunted and comforted by this notion, struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. The baton has been passed from one generation to the next as White recognizes that he has taken over his own father’s role while his son has taken his childhood position.  Through metaphor, White acknowledges his relative insignificance in this circle of life, as depicted by the school of minnows, “each minnow with its small, individual shadow…”

There is the metaphor, too, of the reducing number of paths from the lake. When White was a child, there were three paths; that number has been reduced to two, representative of the thinning possibilities of his own life: “For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative.” White places the changes in greater context, focusing out from his individual experience to a lyrical recognition of “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible…”

As the end of our first class, we are left trying to make sense of the thunderstorm that emerges over the lake: “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect.” The children scream with delight after bathing in the rain and there is “…the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.” The entire class has been building towards this moment.

Who is the comedian? Is it God?

White writes, “Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched [my son], his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he bulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

Why does White feel “the chill of death” and how do we make sense of this?
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Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and he is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.

On Reading Outside Our Genre

February 11, 2019 § 7 Comments

zz_nina_bw_02smallBy Nina B. Lichtenstein

I have just been humbled by how work-shopping and reading manuscripts outside of my genre—my CNF comfort zone—has been a tremendous gift and revelation. Fresh out of my MFA program’s winter residency, I am inspired by everything I’ve learned, but as usual, growth does not come without pain.

About six weeks before the residency was set to begin, in anticipation mixed with both curiosity and excitement, I clicked open the shared Google doc folder containing the seven different 40- to 60-page CNF and fiction manuscripts for the “Extreme Workshop” I’d signed up for (“extreme” because normal MS length for workshops is eighteen pages). I’d had a literary fiction project percolating in me for some time, and decided to give it a go, eager to get a feel of whether this was something I could do.

I downloaded the first MS, the page-count ticking in at fifty-eight. I took a deep breath and scanned the opening paragraph, including the author’s letter to us readers. Words like “fantasy fiction” and “sub-genre” and “LitPRG” and “video games,” jumped from the page, as my eyes glossed over. Yeah, ok. No. I’ll save this one for later, I thought as I closed the doc, and opened the next one. Then the next, and the next, only to realize that four out of the seven manuscripts were not only popular-fiction, but its subgenre fantasy-fiction, or its sub-subgenre, urban fan-fic. I recognized nothing about the characters and their worlds or conflicts. When I’m at a bookstore, I never, ever, stop at “that” table or browse “those” shelves. I noticed my fingers going numb and a prickly feeling behind my eyes, or was it along my hairline? Something like panic. Oh. My. God. I. Can’t. Even…

With a great sense of relief, I found the one CNF piece about mourning the loss of a parent, and read it in one, enchanted sitting, and then the one, literary fiction MS, where I was swept away to communist-era Hungary with all its fascinating, dark, and complex realities. Eventually, there was no way around my fate: I had to tackle the fan-fic pieces. It was not easy. After completing the first read-through of MS #1, but before writing my feedback letter to the author, I sent the workshop faculty leaders an email pleading for help. I had to be coaxed down from the ledge of despair. I felt stupid and useless, wallowing in self-doubt, unable to see the bigger picture of what I had to offer, or what the writing could give me. While waiting for the emergency intervention, I willed myself to keep calm and compose the three-page commentary, beginning by stating my uninitiated fan-fic reader status, but vowing to do my best to offer constructive suggestions on plot, character development, scenes, pacing, and the like. I sent it to my teachers, to see if I had managed to generate a reasonable response. Then something surprising happened.

About two hours after they answered my email, reiterating the advantages of reading outside our genre and telling me my feedback was thoughtful and well written, a letter ticked in to my inbox from the very author whose MS I had freaked out about. He admitted having trouble reading my CNF MS (about Jews in Norway during WWII, family secrets, and collaboration), and said he had to force himself to complete it, and feared he would be unable to provide any useful critique. He wondered if I had any suggestions, adding he was aware of the irony that he was asking for advice from the person to whom he was supposed to give counsel. I suddenly realized that reading outside of one’s customary genre isn’t just a challenge for me; that we writers are all in this together. His candid letter made me feel better, and I thanked him for his honesty, adding some guidelines I had tried to follow when I critiqued his MS.

When the ten-day residency began in middle of January, set in the wintery landscape of Freeport, Maine, I spent the first half in a CNF workshop, pouring over often-deeply intimate memoir pieces about illness, trauma, and spiritual journeys. The last day I told the lively group of writers how apprehensive I was about the second half of the residency, and all the fantasy fiction shoptalk I anticipated. I expected to feel like a fish out of water and an outsider, not able to follow the way of the current or appreciate the otherworldly lingo. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.

In the Extreme Workshop, my MS was workshopped the first day, and at the end of the session, I was euphoric by all the helpful feedback and validation my fellow students had provided on my project. For four days, we gathered around a massive conference table at the Harraseeket Inn, discussing the many elements of what makes a good story, regardless of its genre; while flames flickered in the quiet gas fireplace we were lucky to have in the meeting room. Where a CNF’er pointed out the need for a fan-fic’er to go deeper into the character’s mind and motives, a fan-fic’er suggested how to improve the pace or increase the stakes in a CNF’ers piece. It was a writer’s dream for a workshop: each participant brought their unique strengths and lens, accumulated over years of honing the craft and sensibilities of their specific genre, sharing generously, and critiquing compassionately.

I don’t believe any one of us left dissatisfied, and I, for one, learned a valuable lesson: that my preconceived notions about what I am capable of as a reader, and what type of writing can be helpful to read as I develop my craft, were misinformed and needed to be shed. Instead, it is exactly by reading as widely as possible that I will optimize my understanding of what works best in storytelling and world building, regardless of genre.

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Nina B. Lichtenstein
 is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith MagazineLiterary Mama, and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 2nd semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.

10 Books Better Than My Brother’s

December 20, 2018 § 18 Comments

By Spencer Wise

What I remember of my sister’s room growing up was her little pot pipe shaped like a troll, melted candle drippings on her nightstand, and piles of books on the floor. Tons of them. Books I could never understand because I couldn’t understand anything.

When I was 13 and Laura was 15, I begged her to explain the quotes she wrote in lipstick on her mirror.

Anais Nin: I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.

Did she mean Rambo? I would definitely remember if someone had said, ‘I must be a mermaid, Rambo’ in First Blood.

“I could explain it to you,” she said, “but I don’t think you’d get it.”

Laura made me want to be a writer out of her sheer disdain for me. So when I finished The Emperor of Shoes, I sent it to her and waited. How long had it been? Did she take a break? Go for a run? Fall down the stairs? Then the phone rang.

She loved it.

“How much?” I asked.

She said, “It’s in my top 200.”

And with those words I’ve been condemned like the Ancient Mariner to list the 199 books ahead of me. I have a PhD in English, and I don’t know if I’ve even read 200 novels. I lie awake at night counting. There are a lot of great books. But 199 ahead of me? Laura’s out of her mind.

And then I think Flaubert.

Well, shit, Flaubert is better. I’m not insane. I don’t think my book is better than Bovary. And I start feeling okay.

Then a little voice pipes up: Grace Paley. Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. Are we counting nonfiction, too?

I think my book is good…it’s timely, provocative…Proust. Zora Neale Hurston. Flannery O’Connor. That’s not even getting into contemporary authors. At some point I think I’m done. That’s it. No more authors come to mind. And then the little voice says: Fitzgerald.

I try testing out my place in the rankings just to see how it sounds. Austen, Voltaire, Marquez, Wise.

It doesn’t sound right. I try again. Woolf, Brontë, Homer, Wise.

It really just doesn’t work.

Laura still refuses to apologize. “It’s a compliment.”

Would it have killed her to say top 150?

But it’s too late.

I finally broke down and got most of her list, but she was just as obtuse and infuriating about describing these books as she was about explaining a Depeche Mode song to me 20 years ago.

Laura’s Christmas Shopping List of 199 Books that are Better than Mine (but for sanity’s sake, let’s just do 10)

#1: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
There’s a talking black cat named Behemoth. I don’t know why you’d need more than that. The devil comes to Moscow. Pontius Pilate gets a cameo. I have no idea why. Laura won’t tell me because, well, I wouldn’t get it.

#2: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
“I spilled a bottle of Mom’s perfume on it intentionally, so I could cherish it forever. She was so freaking pissed.”

Laura says the magic of the prose has worn off a little but not the smell. “The book is just a sniffer at this point. It’s also better than yours.”

#3: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
I want to point out that this is not a novel and shouldn’t be counted against me. Instead, a quick story: As kids, Laura tricked me into believing that the way Chanukah really worked was, she got 8 wishes a day for me to fulfill. Wish 1: Carry this 40-pound bag of kitty litter upstairs.

#4: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
When my agent was searching for a publisher and I was mostly in a fetal position on the floor, I asked Laura why editors weren’t buying my novel. She said, “I don’t know, but maybe consider jumping back and forth more in time. And you should probably put a shtetl in it. Yeah. A shtetl and more time travel.”

Wait, so you mean something exactly like this novel?

#5: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
“It’s about mothers and daughters. Feeling misunderstood. The story of my life. Travels back and forth in time. Which you should really consider for your next novel.”

#6: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
“I’m not going to tell you again why I loved The Sheltering Sky.” (She’s never told me.)

Quick story #2: I asked Laura’s advice on a cool outfit for my 7th-grade dance and she dressed me as Robert Smith from the Cure. It wasn’t a costume party. Everyone was in jeans and sneakers and I had black eyeliner and tight black jeans and hairspray-spiked hair. That night I forever lost sweet Betsy Bronstein to hulking blond Sam Velishka, who looked like a Polish resistance fighter from WWII.

#7: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
“Oh my god! I can’t explain every book to you.”

#8: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
“It’s about a little boy.”

This is pretty much all I got out of her. It’s about a little boy. He might stand there for 400 pages for all I know. What are you waiting for? Run to your nearest bookstore.

#9: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
She loves this book and so does Barack Obama (remember the good old days?), so I think this is a good holiday gift.

“A trilogy much better than yours. Spanning worlds. Liu’s a genius.”

“Can I get a synopsis?”

“It’s 10,000 pages. You do not get a synopsis!”

It’s about the Cultural Revolution and Aliens invading Earth. Sounds fantastic. I’m buying it for myself.

#10: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It’s about life in a Russian Gulag and it’s guaranteed to scar whoever you buy it for.

It’s non-fiction.

I told you Laura doesn’t know what a novel is.

#199: The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise
“Meh.”

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Spencer Wise, author of The Emperor of Shoes (Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins), has also contributed work to Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and The New Ohio Review, among others. He is an assistant professor at Augusta University in Augusta, Ga. Follow him on Twitter @spencerwise10.

Reading Like a Writer: On Uncertainty

November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments

By Jennifer Berney

Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”

The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.

[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]

Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.

In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.

Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:

Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?

To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.

Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.

This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.

This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”

Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

On Reading Deeper and Writing Better

October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:

I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice. 

Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:

People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.

You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care. 

Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).

An Aging Writer’s Guide to Vision Problems

October 5, 2018 § 7 Comments

By Karen Zey

aging_writer_eye_guide

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Karen Zey is a Canadian writer with a youthful spirit and aging eyes. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Memoir Magazine, Prick of the Spindle and other places. Karen received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015. You can find her sipping tea at a Pointe-Claire neighborhood cafe, on Twitter @zippyzey or at www.karenzey.com

The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True

September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments

Loree Burns 4 copyBy Loree Griffin Burns

I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.

But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.

Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.

Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”

I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.

When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”

And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.

I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.

That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?

When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.

I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
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Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.

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