June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Megan Sweeney
A hermit crab seeking more spacious quarters finds an empty shell, waits by the shell if it’s not the right size, and when other house-hunting crabs arrive at the scene, enters a queue of crabs arranged in descending order of size. As soon as the largest crab moves into the available shell, each remaining crab vacates its shell and climbs into the next-size-up, hoping for a good fit.
Like a hermit crab trying on shell after shell, I’ve spent the past few months reading a stack of creative nonfiction. Each time I inhabit the spaces an author creates—her ways of seeing, habits of mind, and orientation to self and others—I hope to experience a sense of home. Lately, though, I’ve begun to feel confined by familiar floor plans. I find myself longing to encounter an “I” who is neither barricaded nor all-engulfing, who leaves ample room for others, an “I” whose introspection includes looking outward, attending to difference both inside and outside of the self. When I enter spaces that house pain, I often want deeper engagement, more genuine dialogue with this resident intruder. I’m eager to spend time in capacious, aerated rooms where experience is distilled, where narratives forged in fire are carefully wrought amid cooler flames.
Lia Purpura’s All the Fierce Tethers is just this kind of place.* In Purpura’s ample spaces, I feel hermit-crab-home. There, it’s possible to mind, to stay with things and make oneself a hospitable place, to hold and be held long enough to see a slug iridesce or a hare exchange one coat for another; to appreciate small moments, the boundedness of lives, the E pluribus unum of an ant hive; to feel the full mess of syringe-assisted peace or the imported, rebuffed peace of boundary-crossing Baltimoreans, so earnest in its imposition. In Purpura’s dwellings, there’s time to still the parts of a day, to conjure a beloved’s presence by adopting her gestures; to explore being unspecialized by a tree or rearranged by all the seeing. It’s work to hold, Purpura writes, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work. Investment—not “money down” but the older form, “the act of dressing to encounter the holy.”
Home to shy and alert screech owls, Purpura’s shelters have state-of-the-art acoustics. They enable ways of listening a listener hardly understands, like listening in to the ground suffocating beneath us, attending to both the presence of ease and the presence of ruin, hearing what we cannot name (an elegy that mourns a thing it never knew), or noticing the mental conversions we perform to prevent grief from overrun[ning] the banks [we] make. Purpura’s abodes accommodate being agog, unguarded, and sincere. And they make space for reading at a range of scales: reading land as body, reading the letter the day wrote me, reading shadows as expressions distilled, and reading a place like a poem by attending to all its dimensions. Under Purpura’s roofs, metaphor is an ecosystem, a way of revealing unseen dependencies, and humans, creatures, and objects are rekinned. The ghosted, shuddery call of the loon isn’t a simple sound of crazy; it’s the grief of a desperate, mercury-poisoned, coal-poisoned bird that cannot care—for its young or about its fate. Listening in, we hear ourselves in the loon’s call.
Reading All the Fierce Tethers has rearranged me. Like species of hermit crabs that find long-term shelter in the company of another—the green-eyed hermit crab who lives with sea anemones on its back, or the Japanese hermit crab who inhabits living coral—I want to reside in the spaces that Purpura creates. I want to be altered, again and again, by her reminders of what it means to be in relation, to live fiercely tethered.
*All italics indicate language from Purpura’s text.
Megan Sweeney is Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her publications include an award-winning monograph, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (2010); an edited collection, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading (2012); numerous articles about reading, African American literature, and incarceration; and lyric essays published in Brevity, Entropy Magazine, and Bennington Review. Sweeney recently completed a creative nonfiction manuscript titled Mendings, and she is currently writing a book about prison garb.
May 23, 2019 § 6 Comments
by Vivian Wagner
One cool, April day, seven years almost to the day after my father’s suicide, I sat outside a coffee shop reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. As cherry blossom petals fell around me and onto the pages of the book, I came across this passage in one of its essays, “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness’”
It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always of everything.
The essay ends with the idea that maybe, by joining our wildernesses of sorrow, we can find something like joy:
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Not for the first time in reading The Book of Delights, I found myself crying. And then, as if on cue, a woman walked past with a cup of coffee. I smiled at her through my tears, and she smiled back. It was a brief moment of empathy and connection, of sorrow and joy.
It was a moment, in short, that could have come right out of Gay’s collection.
The Book of Delights is about how everyone lives on a knife edge between life and death, beauty and horror. The book spans the course of a year, from one birthday to the next, with Gay recounting in what he calls “essayettes” his everyday observations and experiences, joys and sorrows. Discussing everything from gardening to race relations, the book’s underlying premise is that connecting with others—particularly in a world rife with division—is central to living a full and happy life.
This practice of writing the essays for the volume is both meditative and interactive, and it leads him down crisscrossing paths shaped by his deep sense of empathy. These are essays about care and concern, and though on the surface they focus on the specific and idiosyncratic details of his daily life, they ultimately aim for a kind of universality, the hidden network of roots and mycelium that holds a culture’s forest together.
In one essay, “Found Things,” for instance, he describes seeing birds swooping through the Detroit airport and witnessing the way their presence brings people together. The idea delight expands through sharing is one of the central themes of the collection. He’s always looking for the small and seemingly insignificant connections we make with one another—a pat on the arm, a friendly glance, a song—that are evidence of shared humanity and, which might well be the same thing, shared mortality.
Race and class are two other central themes in the book. As a black man in the U.S., Gay understands viscerally the ways that people do not always connect and can, in fact, be cruel, dismissive, and violent toward one another. These essays look head-on at the tensions in American culture, even as they seek to find ways to open up fissures of communication, empathy, and understanding.
In one essay, “The Negreeting,” he talks about his desire for communication and acknowledgement between black people on the street—and the disappointment he feels when it’s not always forthcoming. In another, “The High-Five from Strangers, Etc.,” he looks at how what counts as pleasant or delightful is not always universal. As he says,
I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.
And in “Microgentrification: WE BUY GOLD,” he describes sitting in the sun by a café and being told by the owner of a neighboring pawn shop to move along. He doesn’t even need to mention racism in this essay; it’s there in full view.
Nonetheless, the essays in this book all wend toward ground where connections might be made, even if they’re brief, barely-there wisps of recognition. Throughout this collection, Gay remains hopeful that empathy will win.
In its search for connectedness, The Book of Delights is not at all sentimental or trite. Rather, it looks squarely at the rifts between us—rifts that take the form of everything from hatred to casual disassociation—and still dares us to find the tomato plants and songs, the cups of coffee and tears, that we share.
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.
May 22, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Anita Gill
Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story explains that when writing memoir: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Debra Gwartney knows this. It’s evident in her extensive body of work, including her first memoir, Live Through This, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Oregon Book Awards. Since then, she’s published essays in journals and anthologies that turn the lens inward, confronting her own vulnerabilities.
Gwartney’s second book veers from the traditional structure of memoir, using a lesser-known historical event as a springboard for her own personal narrative. In I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Gwartney juxtaposes her memories with the story of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women settlers to journey westward. This genre-bending manuscript won the 2018 River Teeth Nonfiction Prize and publication this past March.
A fifth-generation Idahoan, Gwartney first learned about Narcissa in fourth grade. As an adult, she moved away, raising her family in Arizona and Oregon. Every trip back to Idaho, Gwartney confronts her complicated tie to her ancestors’ land. She writes this book with a burning desire to prove she’s part of the land where her family once had shops with their surname proudly displayed, and where her relatives hunted, rafted, and served in the community.
The book is structured into four sections, relating events in Narcissa’s life to Gwartney’s life. Clearly the writer differs from Narcissa. She lacks the pioneer’s religious fervor and her proselytizing ambitions. “But like Narcissa, I stayed. I did what was expected of me. I stepped into the only adult life I would let myself want,” she writes. Gwartney’s interest in Narcissa comes from a deeper place, especially looking closer into the first few years after Narcissa has arrived in Oregon and her only child drowns. Gwartney links to her own near-death accident, making a risky choice to raft along Idaho’s Salmon River. Chapter after chapter, Gwartney uncovers differing accounts about Narcissa, each contradicting the next and molding the independent pioneer woman into a more and more complex character.
Narcissa isn’t a role model of western expansion, but rather Gwartney’s conduit to understand her own complicated relationship to the land and her own family. During a trip back home as an adult, she inherited a book about Narcissa from her grandmother’s library, “a version of history set down in black and white, never to be altered,” she writes. “And hadn’t I done the same with my own? Told and retold the stories of my childhood so often that the memories finally calcified. Probably time to break it apart, my own past and, for some reason I had yet to decipher, hers.”
In a story which Gwartney narrates with such detail, richness in description, and thoughtful reflection, she also embarks on her exploration fully aware of the stakes involved. Even though this story is about white pioneers venturing into the wilderness with the earnest ambition of doing God’s work and saving the “savages,” Gwartney acknowledges the unforgivable displacement of Native American tribes. She points out the faulty political rhetoric that diminished the natives’ claims to the land, along with the post-Whitman vengeance laws allowing U.S. Marshals to kill “any Native American deemed a threat to life and/or property.” As Gwartney passes the problematic art in a hotel that portrays Native Americans as inhumane, she recalls in her research when two chiefs of the Cayuse tribe were forced to sign the treaty in 1855, thereby handing over their lands to white settlements.
On the surface, my life is nothing like Gwartney’s. Contrary to the author, I lack the generational roots to a place, because I’m the daughter of an immigrant. But the driving force in Gwartney’s memoir is the need to claim her place in the family and the land she came from, a people and life that she was raised in but then left. When reviewing my own essays, I’ve noticed that same desire shines through my words. I hoped that in returning to my father’s home country, I could unearth my link to my own ancestors. I wanted to know that even with my father’s decision to move to the other side of the world, I could touch down in India and feel an innate bond to home. Everyone wants to belong, so maybe it’s not a surprise that this memoir exploring home in the American West resonates with me, a second-generation immigrant.
Gwartney’s latest book reshapes memoir, adhering to its central tenets, yet branching into new forms that enhance the narrative. In this hybrid of memoir and history, Gwartney has created her own style of storytelling.
Anita Gill is a teacher and a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Hair,” was the winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, selected by Kiese Laymon. Gill’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She will be a Fulbright Fellow to Spain for 2019-2020.
May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments
Michaella A. Thornton, in a flash essay from our May 2019 issue, released this week, writes beautifully about her one, her only child, and what the stranger in the grocery store will never understand:
I will not show you photographs of my pin-pricked stomach, a quilt of blue, green, and yellow bruises with Band-Aids of the solar system over fresh injection sites. I will not show you the hardship of lying prostrate on our marriage bed, ass in the air, gritting my teeth as my husband administers the long, nightly needle, progesterone shots to keep me pregnant. He never complains; he never tells anyone else what he is going through either. I will not show you our loneliness together. I will not show you him holding a fresh, perfect baby as the doctors put my organs back into my body, as I throw up into a kidney-shaped pan, crying over and over again to my newborn daughter, “I love you. I love you so much.”
May 13, 2019 § 1 Comment
Our 61st Issue has launched, featuring a range of startling, melancholy, angry, and funny flash nonfiction from Patricia Foster, Och Gonzalez, Gordon Grice, David L. Ulin, Sheree Winslow, Jeff Newberry, Liza Porter, Sarah Beth Childers, Megan Pillow Davis, Jenny Apostol, Deborah Thompson, Caroline Crew, Suzanne LaFetra Collier, Jennifer Anderson, and Michaella A. Thornton.
In our Craft Section, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction, while Randon Billings Noble defends “themelessness” in assembling an essay collection.
With paint can photos by Elizabeth Fackler.
April 30, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Elizabeth Jorgensen
“Your life is filled with gripping tales,” I tell my high school creative writing students. “Scour your life for dramatic moments, emotional scenes or frightening experiences and write your own stories. Write well and a publisher may want to share your stories with the world.”
When my sister qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games, suffered a flat tire in the triathlon, and proclaimed her goal to win gold in 2016, I took my own advice. But the tale was so big I needed a book. I partnered with my mom, Nancy Jorgensen, who had published two books in the field of choral education (From the Trenches: Real Insights from Real Choral Educators and Things they Never Taught You in Choral Methods).
After my mom and I completed our manuscript, we submitted it to publishers, agents, and editors. The rejections packed our email and mailbox, forcing us to ask, Is our memoir good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it? Despite rejections, our answers remained yes, yes, yes.
In my classroom, I projected a tweet from YA author Erin Hahn (@writer_ep_hahn): “Every author you respect was told no. Their email alert dinged and it was bad news. They entered their work into a contest and heard crickets. They cried buckets over a bad review. They felt inadequate. But they didn’t stop writing and you shouldn’t either.”
The tweet resonated with my students. I asked them to discuss their own rejections. I advised them to revise and submit elsewhere and then took my own advice.
Our memoir, Go Gwen Go, starts in 2010 when USA Triathlon recruited Gwen for a sport she never heard of. She rebuffed them at first, but eventually dabbled in swim-bike-run and surprised herself with success. She quit her job as an accountant to train full time. As she pursued the Olympic dream, our family agonized over her bike crashes, her relocation abroad, and her competitive losses. But, we celebrated her new skills, races won, and finally Olympic gold.
More than a sports tale, our memoir is a family story. I envisioned mothers, book clubs, and memoir fans delving into our family’s story. I saw my students enjoying how this is a book about the magic of possibility—that a 24-year-old accountant could remake her life into a dramatic athletic career.
The book explores themes of risk, the courage to invent a new life focus, and the unconditional family support that makes extraordinary accomplishments possible. Readers enter the secret world of Olympic training, professional coaching, international travel, sponsor funding, anti-doping requirements, athlete nutrition, and sports physiotherapy. They are privy to the personal life of a professional athlete, complete with medical crises, weddings, divorces, and holiday celebrations.
Gwen is followed by 42,000 fans on Twitter, 65,000 on Facebook and 138,000 on Instagram. They want a glimpse inside an Olympian’s life and the family that brought her to the pinnacle of sport. They want to peer inside sponsorship, agents, media tours. They want to know what it’s like to experience the Olympics, your sister/daughter the gold medal favorite.
After seeing Hahn’s tweet, I googled “rejected manuscripts famous authors” and saw a list that included Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Sylvia Plath. Many were told their ideas would “not sell” and “I wonder if any publisher will buy it.” I would not compare myself to Vonnegut, Hemingway or Alcott—or have ideas of grandeur for my own manuscript—but I was reminded that rejection connects all writers.
One rejection letter called our manuscript “delightful” before admonishing: the book won’t sell. Another editor said we submitted “a very worthwhile submission, particularly in memoirs” but reminded us that “because of the limited number of trade and regional titles” he would have to decline.
Each rejection challenged my mom and me to keep writing, keep believing, keep working. And to keep reflecting, perfecting, polishing. What should we cut? Where do readers want more information? Should we combine our voices? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone read it?
I shared the rejections with my students. I projected letters and chapter drafts and talked about how I felt. I reminded my students (and myself) that writing is an art form, with different audiences reacting differently to each piece. I said, “Writing is not a science, so it can always be updated, modified, changed. You just have to keep working, keep pushing forward.”
Almost two years after we finished our manuscript, Meyer & Meyer Sport, Europe’s largest sports publishing house, said they too believed—that they wanted to publish our story.
I am thankful for Hahn who reminded me it’s okay to feel inadequate, but to keep believing, keep writing and keep working. And that’s the message I relay to my students when they doubt themselves and ask, Is my writing good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it?
You just need to find precisely the right publisher who will believe as much as you do.
Elizabeth Jorgensen’s memoir, Go, Gwen, Go, co-written with Nancy Jorgensen, is available for pre-order. Her shorter works appear in Wisconsin English Journal, Azalea and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She has presented on sijo (Korean poetry) at National Council of Teachers of English, Wisconsin State Reading Association, and The National Consortium for Teaching About Asia. This blog post was inspired by Jorgensen’s blog for Marquette University’s College of Education.
April 29, 2019 § 2 Comments
Wandering Aengus Press has launched its inaugural book awards and is now accepting creative nonfiction manuscripts as well as manuscripts in fiction and poetry (and hybrids too). We will publish up to three prize winners this year. The press is dedicated to publishing works to enrich lives and make the world a better place, because why not do as much good as we can in the world with what little time we have?
The deadline to submit is May 31, 2019. The sooner you send in your manuscript, the more time our editors will have to spend with it, so for your own sake, please don’t wait til the last minute.
The Wandering Aengus editors will select the winning manuscripts, and we’ll announce the winners by September 1, 2019. The winning manuscripts will be published as perfect-bound books by Wandering Aengus Press or our imprint, Trail to Table Press, with full distribution via Ingram. Winners will receive 50 copies of their book. Authors will have input into the cover design and interior design.
Learn more and submit your best work at http://wanderingaenguspress.com/index.html.