On Visuals in Creative Nonfiction

April 17, 2019 § 24 Comments

Hanel_author photo_1_3x4

Rachael Hanel

By Rachael Hanel

One question I often ponder as I read creative nonfiction: Why don’t more books include visuals?

I’m a big fan of the ones that do, such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich, and Memory of Trees by Gayla Marty. I’m not talking about full-on graphic nonfiction, such as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or March by John Lewis. I’m talking about primarily text-based books that use visuals to enhance and supplement the story.

My memoir includes a photograph to start each chapter. I was inspired by The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, where photos at the beginning of each chapter add to the book’s evocative mood. As I was writing my memoir, I had clear images in my head of family photos I had looked at for years, which had sparked my imagination about my family. I wanted my readers to experience a spark of imagination as well.

I had always heard that it’s expensive for publishers to include photos in books, so that’s why it’s not often done. When I sat down with my editor as we talked about getting the book ready for publication, I was shy in asking about the inclusion of photos. I wanted the photos so badly; I was afraid he’d turn me down. Much to my surprise, he said: “No problem. Sounds great. Let’s do it.” He said as long as photos are black and white and printed on the same page stock as the rest of the book, there’s no added cost.

I primarily teach media writing classes at my university job, but on occasion I also teach multimedia and design classes. In my first career as a newspaper reporter, I was taught to think visually—what photos or illustrations can pair with news stories? Can a portion of the text be better expressed through a photo or infographic? Twenty years later, that thought process still guides my work, and I often require my students to include multimedia alongside their written assignments.

When I read nonfiction and visuals aren’t provided, I find myself doing Internet searches for photos. I’m sure I’m not the only one. These people are real, and I want to know what they looked like. Susan Orlean’s description of John Laroche is one of the most perfect descriptions ever written: “John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth.”

Her description only provoked curiosity—I just had to find out what this strange-looking man really looked like.

In fiction, I don’t want illustrations. The point of making up people and places is to be imaginative, and part of the fun for me is to take a written description and try to imagine it for myself. I don’t want illustrations in Lord of the Rings or Pillars of the Earth. That’s also why I want to read a book before seeing the movie—the visuals of the movie will ruin my imagination.

But if people and places are real, readers don’t have to invent them for themselves. So why not be provided visual evidence of the real thing?

Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She’s working on a narrative biography of Camilla Hall, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who was killed by Los Angeles police in May 1974. Find her on Twitter at @Rachael18 or Instagram at @rachael_hanel.

A Review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style 

April 12, 2019 § 15 Comments

brownBy Nancy Kay Brown

I am reading this morning and find myself delighted with this dear book. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer.

Yes, I called it dear. A language usage book? I thought I’d read and mark and set it aside, but it’s not that kind of grammar, usage, style book. Its a book of stories from a copy editor, a job that I would never, could never, do, but today appreciate with new eyes and ears. Listen to this, “As one of my colleagues once described it: You’re attempting to burrow into the brains of your writers and do for, to, and with their prose what they themselves might have done to, for and with it had they not already looked at each damn sentence 657 times.” So true. We need those fresh eyes, with smart minds like his attached.

We do need to expose what we write, whether it be a blog, a letter, oh my, or email, report, or story, to others’ eyes and minds. A proofreader locates errors in punctuation, spelling, word usage, grammar, and format. My mother has always been mine, whether invited or not. She can’t help herself. Yet, a copy editor seems to do it all. The copy editor has to know the piece, listen to the tone and voice, and select better ways to say something, different words and phrases, using the writer’s style and tone. The copy editor can be a change maker, a deal breaker and a heart breaker too. Mr. Dreyer tells stories of arguments on the page between writers and copy editors, including one writers response, scrawled in the margin next to a copy editor’s suggestion: “write your own fking book.” I would never do that, or would I?

The thing I want to tell you, before I get back to my Dreyer, is that in Chapter 1, he presents us a challenge. Go one week without using, he clarifies, not while talking, but writing, these 12 words or phrases:

in fact
pretty, as in, “pretty tedious”
of course
that said

He calls them Wan intensifiers and Throat clearers. I’m going to try it for a week. See any in that list that you overuse or hold precious or maybe want to dump? I am guilty of a few; especially troublesome is “ just.”

I heard an interview with Dreyer on NPR and he suggested that we surely must figure out a better way to make a point. Shall I try?  Instead of “just” I will use only, solely, merely, be more clever, clearer. My week starts now.

Benjamin (I became a first-name friend after merely two chapters!) is fine with a reader closing his book after his challenge, once accepted. I continue reading, though. I am enjoying his conversational tone, shared delight with language, and the assurance I get from him. He’s on my side, our side, to assist us in being the best we can be by sharing his insights, magic, and not so magic tricks.

I have so much more to tell you, but let Benjamin do it. I can hardly wait for Chapter 12, The Trimmables. He wrote that for me.

Thank you, Benjamin Dreyer. Random House found a gem in you, sir. Thank you for caring enough to have this conversation with us.

Nancy Kay Brown recently completed Fallen From the Nest for the third time: a memoir about a grandmother raising the children of her son, from whom she’s fallen out of love. Her stories and essays appear in Brain, ChildFull Grown People and an anthology for rural youth, Fishing for Chickens, edited by Jim Heynen. Her blog, Letters to Montana, is available at NancyKayBrown.com

A Review of Paul Crenshaw’s This One Will Hurt You

April 10, 2019 § 3 Comments

41AzZSPQYzL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgBy Debbie Hagan

A melancholic thread runs through Paul Crenshaw’s collection of narrative essays, This One Will Hurt You, set in the Ozarks, specifically northwest Arkansas, where the writer grew up. He opens with “After the Ice,” remembering his eighteen-month-old nephew who cried in the arms of his “stepfather, who looked frustrated or angry or even lost,” but would quiet when the writer, young and inexperienced in comforting babies, had held him. This memory sticks with him, haunts him, probably always will, knowing now the baby died from being shaken by his stepfather.

“… what is left is a deeper feeling than sadness,” he writes. “But it is less painful. It is like the trees in November, or birdsong before first light; something intangible, full of heartache; a child’s clean smell, a faint memory of your mother, a daughter’s first step.”

Crenshaw weaves poignant images throughout these essays, capturing beauty, mystery, and pain embedded in the hills and streams of the real Ozarks—not Netflix’s made-up version with characters one-step removed from the Beverly Hillbillies, now re-fashioned into con artists and grifters. Netflix’s Ozark isn’t even filmed in the Ozarks, but in Georgia.

Crenshaw takes us to the real place where a pregnant kindergarten teacher plays classical music to her unborn fetus by placing headphones on her abdomen during naptime; where a ghost haunts an abandoned tuberculosis hospital; and where a fifth grade fire-and-brimstone teacher tells the whole class, you’re all going to hell.

This is the Ozarks that I know, the place where my ancestors claimed land under the Homestead Act of 1862 and built their farms. Most of my family still live in this rural, rocky, and somewhat isolated region (a little northeast from where Crenshaw grew up). The bustling little communities that once dotted the hillsides have turned into ghost towns, due to recessions, factory shutdowns, and tighter government regulations on small farmers. People who live in the hills and down rocky, dusty roads, tend to be stubborn, hardworking, self-sufficient, and adept in dealing with adversity. They grow their own food, raise cows, pigs, and chickens, can vegetables, bake bread, sew quilts, and barter for whatever else they need.

“Those who stay here are forced to try to make a living where there is no living to be had,” writes Crenshaw (who left the Ozarks for North Carolina eleven years ago). In “The Night Before Christmas,” he returns to northern Arkansas and is alarmed to see so many burned-out houses—crystal methamphetamine labs.

“Since 1998, in Missouri, only a few hundred miles from my hometown, police have seized 12,354 meth labs, 251,000 pounds of solid waste, and 118,000 pounds of toxic waste,” he writes. “…thousands of houses are sold without the buyers being aware the houses were meth labs.”

Curiosity prompts him to track down five government-seized meth houses. He discovers three have fallen or burned down, but two remain and have toys and bicycles strewn across the yards. “Thirty percent of seized labs have children living in them,” he writes. “In some states, over 50 percent of children in protective services come from meth seizures.” The harsh chemicals soak into the walls and flooring. What long-term effects this has on children remains unknown. However, Crenshaw, who has his own kids, worries about them.

If poverty, remoteness, and drug abuse don’t pose enough of a strain on this region, add the weather, which can seem biblical at times. In “Cold,” he writes:

The summer heat could knock you senseless, suck all the air out of your breath, and in spring, storms whirled up every evening, sending tornadoes out into the lightning-struck night, but when I think of winter I remember the constant cold, the chill air that came down from Canada to frost the fields and sheath the trees in ice. Wind whistles in the chimney, and we’d huddle close to the fireplace for any warmth left lingering in the stones.

While snow isn’t a big problem here, the ice can glaze everything, turning highways into skating rinks, breaking the trees, seeping into the shingles, pulling down phone and powerlines, leaving rural people isolated for weeks.

Yet, Ozarkians soldier on, an attitude Crenshaw demonstrates in the final essay. He and some of his buddies get together on Sunday to relax, drink beer, and watch football. Yet, they’re unable to let loose and really relax between the drunken couple across the street brawling in the front yard to another neighbor making crack deals to a feral dog stalking a kitten across the backyard.

“This One Will Hurt You,” warns Crenshaw, and he’s not kidding. I’m not going to give anything away here. However, I will say, the writer has to make a devastating choice, and others may criticize how he handles it. Yet, he turns this around, practically confronting readers, So, what would you do? Truth is, we want to believe we’ll never face life-and-death moments.

“I don’t remember if we said any words or not,” he writes in the conclusion. “I doubt they would have meant anything. We are shameful creatures, scared of death…. We stood in the gathering darkness and drank, trying to forget, which I can tell you for sure never works.”

Crenshaw searches the soul and wrestles with hard realities and bitter truths, and his essays will cling, fast as a burr.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay “Gargoyles” will appear in the upcoming anthology Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment (Mountain State Press).

An Introvert Writer in Cyberspace

March 25, 2019 § 20 Comments

By Lynette Benton

zz lynette benton

Lynette Benton

As a writer, I’m required to rise above the hubbub, metaphorically position myself high on a stage, and blare out news of my existence on social media. Agents and publishers have abandoned the role of market maker, so I’m forced to develop my own markets, audiences, and followers.

My social media platform of choice is Twitter, mostly because it’s easy to use and limits you to messages of no more than 280 characters. So I must say what I want to say succinctly, a good exercise for anyone, especially a writer. Twitter has often been good to me, sending warm writerly contacts and enthusiastic editing clients my way. Through others I’ve met on Twitter I’ve been invited to submit essays and articles for publication, which helps, theoretically at least, develop an audience for my book-length projects, should I try to publish them.

However, as a medium, Twitter can feel as full of cliques as a junior high school—populated with impenetrable inner circles that make it hard to even identify the individual in-groups with any certainty. It’s like trying to penetrate some snippy gang’s turf. For some time, I circled around the periphery of what might be bad online neighborhoods the same way I’d avoid a reunion of beer swilling bikers. And I wondered if in any case I should try to fit in, whatever “fit in” means in that parallel universe known as Cyberspace. Shouldn’t writers occupy the role of outsiders, observers—at least to some extent?

When I began using social media in around 2008, it seemed as if the way writers did business in Cyberspace had a whiff of seediness about it, like making clandestine contact with strangers in a fog-laced alley after dark. The fact that those strangers were largely compatriots in my line of work only made the contacts seem more suspect somehow. Why did it feel so foreign, so dicey, even demeaning? Maybe because as a group, writers often prefer to hang out with those we cherish and who appear to cherish us in return.

Sometimes I was bored by the whole notion of Twitter and the interactions I saw taking place on it; other times I was downright afraid of it. Since in Cyberspace, everything’s recorded, one way and another, I had a sense of eternally being watched by silent onlookers who were judging and perhaps mocking my stumbling early efforts. Was I trespassing? Overstepping murky boundaries? Flouting rules? There was no way to gauge the appropriateness of my overtures or anticipate others’ reactions. I’d seen what I considered innocent efforts by some on Twitter rebuffed. My own wrist was slapped by a group manager on a professional networking site; he thought I was shilling when I posted an announcement of an upcoming class offered by a large writing organization. I emailed him privately and explained that I had no connection of any kind with that organization. Then I turned around and slapped a different group manager’s wrist for his acerbic tweet (worthy of Simon Cowell, formerly of the TV show, American Idol) about why others weren’t succeeding, as he had, in their attempts to get their writing seen by New York publishing houses. But I hope I did my slapping gently. I suggested (privately) that people would find his message more palatable if he proffered suggestions, rather than accusations.

As a writer, I want to communicate, and the Internet is supposed to be a mechanism for that, but many times I don’t know exactly how or even quite why I’m speaking to strangers in Cyberspace. It might be to buy editing or proofreading services from one another, but back in 2008, when had I ever bought services from people I didn’t know and nobody I knew knew?

Some who write about writing ask you to, “follow” them on Twitter. When you go to their Twitter page you find they have say, 6,000 followers, while they themselves follow less than a tenth that many. (This is particularly true of literary agents.) So I can read their tweets, but they don’t want to read mine. I decline those invitations. I’m interested in two-way discussions, not lectures. Weren’t these new media supposed to be interactive? Weren’t they meant to foster conversation? My efforts in Cyberspace sometimes felt as old school as magazine or newspaper writing. With those media, writers didn’t expect a response or reverberation. We just shot our words out into the paper fray and went back to our work. Now, in this interactive era, words again often seem to fly past people, seldom landing for any length of time on their laptops or the devices in their pockets.

Even with well over seven thousand followers on Twitter and the seven thousand I follow, it can be lonely out there. It feels as if I should bundle myself up in something soft and soothing for these forays into the icy alternate universe. I’m tempted to do what a friend of mine, disgusted with the Internet back when it was regularly called the information highway, threatened: pull over into the breakdown lane with a quiet cup of coffee. Though I’ve made some friends on Twitter, even met a couple of them in person, not one of my close friends, writers or not, is active on that site. I sorely miss their presence there.

Despite the time I’ve spent applying the guidelines laid down by Internet sages, whose Twitter and blog followers number in the hundreds of thousands, the outcomes I aim at—being in touch with people interested in memoir and personal essays or in the writing advice on my blog—appear to hang in dubious suspension, just out of reach. Do those who succeed possess a formula they’re not sharing with the rest of us, like people who copy out a recipe you requested but “accidentally” leave out a crucial step or ingredient in the cooking process?

Whenever writers friend me in an online community, I usually accept—unless they write fantasy, horror, romance or some combination of those wildly popular genres I’ve never been moved by, even in my youth. After I accept an invitation to connect, I’m tentative, uncertain how to proceed. Whose turn is it to send a message? If it’s mine, what should I say? What is expected of me? And remind me, why are we connecting in the first place?

But I know the answer to that last question. I’m exposing myself in this alien dimension to locate and nurture a potentially paying public, as required by agents and publishers. But wouldn’t it be a happier circumstance for all of us if we were connecting for the same reason we sally forth in our real lives: to find ourselves welcomed by a small band of sympathetic souls?

Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families. Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her essay, “Chasing Dragons,” is included in the 2018 anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton

A Review of James M. Chesbro’s A Lion in the Snow

March 22, 2019 § 4 Comments

chesbro_coverBy Shamae Budd

I escaped the mayhem of the birthday party with a slice of cake, sinking with a sigh into the woven fabric of the front sitting-room couch. I was there to support my friend—mother of the birthday boy—but none of the screeching children belonged to me. A ten-year-old girl sat near the window, knees pulled into her chest. I said a few words in greeting, but she didn’t respond. I assumed she was shy. I let her be, spearing a piece of cake—enjoying the quiet. But as I lifted the fork to my mouth, a woman entered the room and asked tiredly, “Are you ready to apologize?” The girl shot back a withering, “No.” My mouth still slightly agape, I realized I had unwittingly settled myself in timeout.

Their terse conversation continued, and I seemed to see a past version of myself in the girl, a future version of myself in the woman. Certainly I had played similar scenes alongside my own mother as an irascible teen. And now, nearing thirty, my husband and I had begun talking about starting a family, having children (who would inevitably become teenagers, as this girl was reminding me). I seemed to be seeing double: a moment that could have been pulled from both my future and my past.

Much like this quiet exchange between a mother and daughter, James M. Chesbro’s debut collection of essays, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, invited me to consider the duality of parenthood. He writes, “All sons are heirs and successors to the way they are fathered.” Chesbro is a devoted husband and father of three, but he is also the son of parents who fought and separated, a father who died young—and these two sides of Chesbro’s experience with parenthood consistently inform each other. Similar to E.B. White in “Once More to the Lake,” Chesbro sees flashes of his deceased father in himself, and flashes of himself in his son—a circularity that becomes both a gift and a challenge.

In “Footsteps,” Chesbro recalls nervously sitting in a cardiologist’s office, not long after his father’s pulmonary failure: “I want to live longer than my dad,” he says, determined not to inherit his father’s legacy of heart disease. And in “Overtime,” he describes himself stomping to the attic after a disappointing football game, reflecting:

When Dad was alive, as I grew older, I vowed to keep football in perspective… And yet, this is how he would have reacted—stunned into silent anger. Dad shakes his head in my memory, and I shake mine back at him. Get a grip, Dad, I think to myself. But here I am in the attic.

These tensions felt familiar—I, too, have been startled by little habits and tones of voice that remind me suddenly of my mother. I see her in a gesture of my hands while I am speaking; I see her in a woman at a birthday party, and am startled when I see myself there, too. What lifts Chesbro’s essays from mere recollection into insight is his ability to move between everyday ephemera and self-scrutiny, revealing the complexity of a self that is at once both son and father.

These sometimes competing roles of father and son intersect compellingly in “Trains.” Chesbro hopes that an inherited set of toy trains will help rekindle a connection with his father, but as he unwraps the trains in the attic he finds only “the paper used as packing material: a bank envelope, an auto insurance business reply card that said I saved $12.30 on my auto insurance with Allstate, and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog Bargain Flash.” The heartbreak is in the mundanity of the detail—the devastating ordinariness of the objects appearing in stark contrast with Chesbro’s hopes for almost transcendental discovery. Eventually, Chesbro allows his son, James, to play with the precious toy trains, which leads, unexpectedly, to the father-son connection Chesbro was hoping to discover: “James struck the red train against the track over and over and over again, like a match to a matchbook. By the time my son went to bed, my mind was aflame with father.” In the hands of his son James, the trains—and memories of Chesbro’s father—come back to life.

This shift from empty-handed grief toward renewed life and wonder in “Trains” beautifully reflects the movement and organization of the collection as a whole. Chesbro’s father—who is so forcefully, even painfully present in Part I of the collection—seems to drift quietly into the background as the collection winds down, not disappearing entirely, but informing Chesbro’s fathering in ways that cause him to connect, to be present, rather than to disengage. Part II—often humorous and filled with slice-of-life essays on parenting—becomes a celebration of Chesbro’s own fatherhood, and especially his young son, James. Chesbro’s re-enactments of wildly rambunctious family dinners, ER waiting rooms, and tumbling block towers reminded me of Brian Doyle’s laughing reverence for family life. And Chesbro’s honest depictions of the joy, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder of fatherhood ultimately left me smiling with anticipation for the day when I will be the mother of that belligerent little girl at a birthday party: participating in a scene I have so far only experienced from the perspective of a daughter.

Shamae Budd received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. She lives in Utah at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, and when she is not writing, she can generally be found among the aspen and pine, on a yoga mat, at the craft store, or walking her big red poodle in the park.

A Review of David Shields’ The Trouble with Men

March 15, 2019 § 7 Comments

trouble_menBy Vivian Wagner

David Shields’ The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is a wide-ranging and sometimes chaotic look at masculinity in our culture, as well as an exploration of his own personal and idiosyncratic experiences as a man.

I have to admit that this is not an easy book to read, not because of the subject matter so much as its strange, free-wheeling structure. Ostensibly addressed to his wife, the book is only partly in Shields’ own voice. Most of the book is actually a wild collage of quotes and paraphrases from books, articles, essays, chatrooms, and interviews. These other sources are cited in brackets at the end of paragraphs, but the citations are cursory, just names or brief mentions of context, and there’s no traditionally academic bibliography to account for them.

Often, while reading this text, I’d come across an interesting passage and mark it, thinking it was part of Shields’ own story, only to find that it was another’s voice or story or comment, something from Brigid Brophy, say, or Bret Easton Ellis or Walt Whitman or Donald Trump.

After being caught this way several times, I realized that the book’s odd structure is not a bug but a feature. It’s what this book is about. It’s a book, at least in part, about resisting a coherent story, about the perils of intimacy, and about the ways that we’re inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live. In the book’s universe, these dozens of other voices are, in all their bewildering and contradictory variety, Shields’ own.

Still, I found myself hunting through the text for Shields. I looked for those passages that were his and his alone. I wanted to know his story. I began to mark those places with a star and “HIS.” And yes, I started to see how these pronouns were inevitably gendering both the text and my response to it.

The few paragraphs that are actually Shields reveal this: He’s writing to his wife. He wants to express both his love for his wife and his frustration with his marriage and himself. He wants to get at what it means to be a man, what it means to be married, and what it means to be on the twenty-first century’s roller coaster of sex and gender.

As he says in a rare moment of straightforward candor in the opening chapter, “This book aims to be a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy. How did I get this way? What is this way? Our marriage involving this way. Attempt to stop being this way. Implications of being this way.”

Shields explores the ways that he came of age as a man in a culture that equates vulnerability with weakness, and this book struggles against this paradigm. He wants to be vulnerable. He wants to tell a different story. He wants to wade through all the vagaries of male sexuality to discover what’s at its soft heart.

In short, he wants to tell his wife that he loves her.

At the end of the final chapter he finally stops quoting and paraphrasing the cacophony of others. It’s him. HIS, I wrote in the margin: “I dearly/desperately want a real marriage—whatever that means. I think it means two people standing before each other completely naked; does such a thing exist? I don’t know, but in opposition to that essay we read in praise of marriage made of masks, I still want it (the unmasking).”

And then, there’s this direct address, vulnerable and pleading and somehow heartbreaking:

Do you love this book? Do you hate it? Will it mark the end of our marriage? The beginning of it? Putative (true?) goal for this book: a greater intimacy (at a minimum, candor?) between us.

The nicest thing you’ve ever said to me (admittedly, this was an eternity ago—on the inside of a card on our third anniversary):

What you think of as your weakness I think of as your vulnerability, which I love.

This passage is addressed his wife, yes, but it’s also addressed to the reader, who has, perhaps, been addled by the pages full of cultural flotsam to the point of giving up. Don’t give up, Shields seems to say. I’m here. I want to connect. I want to change. I want to be with you. Please don’t leave.

And I didn’t leave. I’m not going anywhere. I’m turning back to the book’s first page to try again.

Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.


A Review of Porochista Khakpour’s Sick

March 8, 2019 § 1 Comment

By Magin LaSov Gregg

khakpoursickPorochista Khakpour spoke on the first panel I attended at the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Program’s Annual Conference. The panel titled, “The Body’s Story: On Writing Narratives of Illness,” also included Sandra Beasley (moderator), Sonya Huber, Suleika Jaouad, and Esmé Weijun Wang. This was my first AWP after a Lyme disease diagnosis, traveling now with multiple medications and peripheral neuropathy. But I was eager to learn from Khakpour and her fellow panelists. So, I showed up at 8:50 a.m. and chose a seat that would allow me to stretch my arthritic knee.

To a packed room, Khakpour described traveling with physical challenges, impetus for her memoir Sick, chronicling her life with late-stage Lyme disease.

“I couldn’t find myself in the narrative,” Khakpour said. The myths of Lyme disease are many, the most insidious being that Lyme patients are white, East Coast, outdoorsy, wealthy, and also (of course) making it all up. Sick shatters these myths, revealing Khakpour’s experience with this disease.

Hers is not the story of the victory march and resists militarized metaphors of conquest, battle, and colonization. Hers is the story of the slog, of being ill and on the margins and at the mercy of a broken American medical system. It’s the story of being displaced, disbelieved, and laughed at by hospital personnel. It’s the story of what it means to live, to be in love, to build a writing career, to be an artist, to come of age, to take pleasure, while also living with escalating and debilitating medical symptoms. The end of Sick is not a celebration, but a taking stock of human vulnerability.

“This book is, it turns out, a miracle book, because it wrote its own ending, insisted on its own ending,” Khakpour writes in her epilogue. “It didn’t believe in my bows, my full circles, my pretty arcs, my character development.”

Her epilogue draws distinctions between the book she “sold” and the book she “wrote.” The book she sold was “a story of triumph, of how a woman dove into the depths of addiction and illness and got herself well.” The book Khakpour wrote ends on the poignant realization that “illness will always be with you as long as life is with you. And tragedy will be with you too.”

Because her body is the setting of her disease, setting becomes the controlling device of her story. The narrative follows Khakpour’s travels from California to New York City to New Mexico to Germany. She’s global and bicoastal, as difficult to place as the origin of the spirochetes in her blood.

“If you face yourself properly, you also have to at some point face where you take up space,” Khakpour writes. She not only faces multiple and sometimes contradictory spaces, but begins to accept that something mysterious is taking up space inside of her.

She suspects she contracted Lyme disease as a child hiking in California with her parents, who emigrated from Iran when Khakpour was a toddler. But the precise origin of her infection eludes her. Like many Lyme patients (myself included), Khakpour has no memory of the tick(s) who bit her, nor did she see a bull’s eye rash, which does not manifest in all patients infected with Lyme.

But after her diagnosis, Khakpour actively tells doctors and others that her disease is “CDC level Lyme,” meaning at least five specific antibodies appear on her blood tests. I have done the same, and understand intimately how Khakpour must learn to speak the master’s language in medical settings: “to let them know I was real.” Death is the price of not being believed. And this is not hyperbole.

During her AWP panel, Khakpour shared an anecdote, included in Sick, about young women dying of Lyme disease because doctors do not believe they are ill. Her book’s title is as much a descriptive of her personal story as it is a political statement. Women “suffer the most from Lyme” and “tend to advance into chronic and late-stage forms of the illness most because it’s checked for last, as doctors often treat them as psychiatric cases first,” she notes.

Indeed, it’s not difficult to conflate doctors’ treatment of modern day female Lyme patients with the historical treatment of nineteenth century so-called “hysterics.” Khakpour, myself, and many women have been made to believe that we are stressed or mentally ill, and certainly not physically sick, experiencing first symptoms. How can we be seriously ill when we are youthful, stylish, or even thin? As Khakpour notes, “the experience of going for years undiagnosed and then misdiagnosed as many like myself do can cause considerable trauma.”

She adds, “In the end, every Lyme patient has some psychiatric diagnosis, too, if anything because of the hell it takes getting to a diagnosis.”

In Sick, redemption comes, but not in a miraculous recovery or a body made “well,” whatever that means. Khakpour’s refusal to quit, her persistence, is what saves her. By telling her complicated and unvarnished story without a hero’s journey, Khakpour gives voice to the experiences of countless others who lack her platform or who have not survived to tell the tale.

Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, Solstice Literary Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first essay about living with Lyme Disease (“To Punctuate” Full Grown People) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018. She’s working on a memoir about how she lost and found her Jewish faith after moving to the Bible Belt and marrying a Baptist minister.




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