April 18, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Sheila Siegel
According to all the books on writing that I have read, I am not a writer. I am a psychologist, an anti-slavery activist, and a reader, but I am not a writer. Yet, I have written a book.
I approached writing as I do everything, with focus and determination, but, when I am writing, get stuck, and feel I have nothing to say, I don’t sit down at my computer and stare at a blank screen as other writers exhort. I get up and read, paint, or take the dogs for a walk.
I don’t blog even though it sounds like a good idea. I don’t journal although I have bought several with all good intentions. I had a five-year one where each day was given three lines. After six months, I had made one entry. I gave it to a friend who wanted to write.
I have taken memoir writing courses. I am in writing groups and workshop my pieces diligently. Sometimes this is not all that helpful. During one critique a fellow student suggested I show less and tell more. Had she not been listening? I have read as much as I could stomach of Bird by Bird, and devoured books on memoir writing by Mary Karr, Stephen King, Abigail Thomas, and Ann Patchett. I no longer use adverbs in dialogue and have learned to incorporate “carnal details” to make my scenes come alive. I have improved my craft. I am a better storyteller than when I started, but I am not a writer. I don’t do writerly things. I don’t force myself to keep going on. I rarely feel blocked because I just stop trying until I am ready to sit down at the computer again.
I don’t write essays, or letters to the editor or look for ways to make money through writing. For me, I need a book under my belt to give me credibility so that I can do what I really want which is to give talks on the problem of global slavery, a field I have been working in for the last 4 years.
Although my friends and family badgered me to write, I resisted.
I told them, “I am too much of an extrovert. The idea of sitting alone day after day holds no appeal.”
I have written articles and a dissertation that have been published. It was enough, until I got sick.
While working in Haiti, doing trainings on trauma informed care, I contracted ciguatera, food poisoning that attacks the nervous system. Chronic fatigue is one of the side effects and once I had recovered enough I began to write. I had energy for nothing else.
As I wrote, I tried to become better. I sought out writing classes where there was a strong critical component and was frustrated and impatient with ones where everyone liked everything. I wrote and rewrote daily. But, when I wasn’t writing I didn’t really miss it until I got a new idea.
This realization that I am not a writer has just struck me. In my current class our teacher often asks us, “What are you reading?”
Some people claim not to be reading anything because they are so busy writing. Because I am retired, I have lots of time to read. In a week, I will have read at least 2 books and listened to a third. I read memoirs by the dozen to see what it takes to write a good one. I think there are more people in my classes like me. Some admit that they need a class to get them writing. So, are they not really writers?
Writing is hard work. Sometimes it is fun and sometimes disheartening. When I started Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov I thought to myself why am I even trying? I could never possibly come close to writing so poetically. My words compared to his are pedestrian and banal. I soon got over that because the writing was so lyrical that I got bored and had trouble finishing the book.
On the other hand, it is nice to tell people that you are writing something. Of course, you always skip over the not writing part, the creating the book proposal, building a platform, finding an agent most of the ones available being in their 20’s and not interested in a book about retiring.
So (after spending the last 18 months creating my oeuvre) it has become clear to me, that really, I am not a writer. Still, once I get recharged enough, I will sit down and try again. Right now, I think I will go for a walk.
Sheila Siegel is a clinical psychologist. When not traveling the world as a volunteer for Free the Slaves, she is working at a drop-in center for homeless youth located near her home in Venice, California where she lives with her husband and their two dogs. The rest of the time she spends looking for an agent for her memoir, The Badass Grandma’s Guide to Tackling Retirement and Global Slavery. She uses her down time to write.
April 12, 2017 § 36 Comments
By Shawna Kenney
First thought, best thought; revise, revise, revise. Write first thing in the morning when the mind is alert; write at night and never while sober. Do it alone, in an office with the door closed, surrounded by books; write in coffee shops, surrounded by stimulating characters and conversation. Use traditional quotation marks and capitalization Unless You Are a ‘Genius.’ Journal in longhand; always type fast. Sentences longer than three or four lines are unacceptable and tedious, unless you are William Faulkner, William Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, David Foster Wallace or one of those other people who can get away with it. Short is good.
Write with an ideal reader in mind; fuck the audience. Never show anyone an early draft; find a workshop for feedback. Write to please everyone; quit workshop and hire an editor. Take classes to improve; don’t go to college—you’ll lose your voice. Don’t send work out until it’s ready; submit early and often—it’ll never be perfect. Find a guru. Trust yourself. Kill your darlings. Study the masters and steal their attributes, but never plagiarize—even from yourself.
Don’t write a memoir until you’re ninety; write a memoir while you’re young and events are still fresh; write many memoirs. Write about what’s eating you; eat while you write, or write on an empty stomach. When writing nonfiction, recreate scenes you don’t fully remember; only use facts and information that is verifiable. Show your family your work; never share what you’ve written with those you’ve written about—you are the ultimate authority on your life.
Get a big desk. Keep a notebook in your pocket. Write for two consecutive hours each day. Sneak writing in on 15-minute breaks. Take long naps. Get up early and write before everyone else is awake; stay up late and write when everyone is in bed. Write on napkins, grocery receipts, scrap paper, on your phone or computer, or only in a Moleskin. Write in pen. Always write in pencil first. Special writing software makes you more organized and gets you published faster. Write to get paid. Never expect money for your writing. Value your skills and charge what you’re worth. People who write for money are hacks. People who make money writing are lucky. Say this writing mantra every day: I am my own mantra. Never call yourself a writer until someone else does. Feel free to call yourself a writer, as long as you are writing. Fiction is thinly-veiled memoir. Memoir is mostly fiction. Poetry is useless. Poets are crazy blessed saints. Deep down, we all want to be poets.
Make an outline, then tear up the map and feel your way through. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there. All art is a process of discovery. Write what you know. Write to figure out what you don’t know. Write for your dead mother, your sweet pup, your unborn baby, or the ancestors you never knew. Write for yourself. Don’t write unless you can write the right way. Just write.
Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers and co-author of the forthcoming Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
April 11, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Maddie Lock
Every day that I don’t write is a wasted one. There’s writing and there’s everything else. This creates a spiritual conflict.
Let me explain. I am a student of Buddhism now for four years. I call myself a student because I have yet to step over any definitive line that allows me to call myself anything other than one who is still learning. A practitioner, yes, but one who struggles with the pithy and practical advice that the Buddha gave to our world.
Buddhism teaches us not to get attached to anything because everything is impermanent, in a state of constant flux. It is our perception of how we are doing that determines how we feel as we go through our day. Time hands us events in that linear way time has, our feelings follow behind like faithful dogs. I know this, yet I have the deepest sense of frustration if I can’t get to my computer and write something amazing daily. That’s right, something (that I think is) amazing, whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph or the word that fits perfectly. I’m looking for that writing “high.”
As a business owner, wife and mother, I have responsibilities. As a friend, a work-out enthusiast, and shelter dog walker I have events that provide fulfillment. I have a life. We all do, us writers, but as any one of us may confess, I write for that euphoric wash of feeling when I’m in the flow and pleased with my work.
Alas, I don’t reach the heights of ecstasy daily. Far from it. My single-mindedness stymies me. I hover over words, over ideas. My satisfaction one day turns into despair the next: It’s crap, it’s all crap! Wasted time, when I have not enough to begin with. The euphoria becomes a dark pit designed for mental flagellation.
Nothing about my attitude here would be espoused by the Buddha. After sitting under the Bodhi tree for days, he “awoke” with the wisdom that we’re all wasting our time scurrying around importantly while we worry about everything that is transitory and not worth worrying about. The Buddha didn’t feel the need to write down any of his newfound wisdom. He spoke to those who would listen and trusted them to pass on the good news in a way that worked for them. The Buddha didn’t worry about finesse; he concerned himself with the truth in the meaning. The form in which his teachings were delivered differed from place to place, person to person. He would not be impressed with my obsession for critical perfection.
Or my quest for the writing “high.”
Yet, there it is. It’s there for me to learn and remember that this feeling of limitless promise—not to be taken for granted but to be cherished for the gossamer sweetness that it is—comes and goes as it will. It cannot be harnessed and it’s never intrinsic. It is, after all, perception.
Perhaps, one day, what I write on this day, in this time, I can give to the world and the world will say: well done, for now. I’ll take that “high” for as long as it lasts and however far it will take me.
I can almost hear the Buddha sigh.
Maddie Lock is a semi-retired business partner, animal lover and Buddhist enthusiast. She has published two children’s books about dogs, writes essays about important life issues and is ardently working on a memoir about her newly-discovered German family.
April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Kate Parrish
“The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity and art itself.” Pat Conroy wrote these words in 2010, and today, when the arts are under attack—when not even Bert and Ernie are safe—they read more like an omen than a salvation. Without access to the arts, will we lose access to our humanity? How long can we survive without each other’s stories? For us at Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the answers are unknown but our response plan remains the same: create more opportunity for creation. It’s why we’re offering four new two-week residency fellowships this year.
Let us tell you a little of our story. Maybe you’ll find its one in which you’d like to help write.
Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the first writers’ residency in Tennessee, opened its doors to storytellers of all genres in 2013. But, of course, that isn’t exactly where the story begins. Located in Sewanee, Tenn., Rivendell sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, a region forged out of layers of sandstone and shale lifted 2,000 feet above sea level nearly 300 million years ago. Hundreds of caves dot the landscape concealing some of the area’s oldest stories: finger-traced mud glyphs left behind 2,000 thousand years ago by individuals with something to say. Individuals who would have ducked into low chambers, squeezed through impossible passes, and crawled on their bellies deep into the earth to write down their stories. Taproot is right.
Sewanee is something of a literary hamlet, a bastion of the written word. It is home to the University of the South, which is home to the Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, and the prestigious Tennessee Williams estate-funded Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Literary juggernauts like Fugitive poet Allen Tate, Agrarian poet Andrew Lytle, novelists William Alexander Percy and his cousin Walker Percy have all lived in Sewanee. In more recent years, John Jeremiah Sullivan, popular essayist and southern editor of The Paris Review, and Kevin Wilson, author of the book-turned-movie The Family Fang, have called Sewanee home. A little more than a decade ago, the university started the School of Letters, a summers-only MFA and MA program, the only one of its kind in the country. For a town with only two blinking red lights, it has a larger literary footprint than many major cities. But what it didn’t have—what it needed—was a writers’ residency.
Built between 1905-1910, the nearly 7,000-square-foot house, referred to simply as “the Manor,” is positioned on the edge of a bluff overlooking Lost Cove. Many mornings the home, the expansive yard dotted with oak and white pine, and the entirety of the bluff are blanketed in a dense fog. Families of deer, fox and skunks move under its protective cover. Lost Cove disappears completely. It is the Manor’s position on the bluff and the frequent presence of fog that inspired one of the property’s former owners to name the space Rivendell after the elven realm in The Lord of the Rings.
Rivendell, which adjoins the historic Brinkwood property, former home of William Alexander Percy, and later, Walker Percy, changed hands for the last time in 1990. Mary Elizabeth Nelson, a Nashville resident with a deep fondness for Sewanee, purchased the property and set to work meticulously renovating it. Today it features two full kitchens, two dining rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a wood-burning fireplace, a third-story writers’ loft, and a wrap-around porch with a panoramic view of the cove. Rivendell was the first renovation project in Tennessee to earn LEED silver certification.
But Ms. Nelson didn’t set out to create a writers’ residency or a nonprofit. Rivendell Writers’ Colony was born out of one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of conversations that only a long lunch on a back porch in the middle of summer could create. Sewanee friends and colleagues spit balling and dreaming over iced tea and local greens. What if Rivendell became something else? Could it grow into something more? It was the literary piece Sewanee still lacked. Ms. Nelson, a literature lover but not a “Writer” by trade, was listening. And as stories go, the rest is history.
Rivendell, which has now expanded to four residences across two adjoining properties, serves all those who embrace the life of the book. In its brief history as a writers’ residency, it seems to now be fulfilling its intended destiny, as if it had been inching towards this outcome for the last century all along. Over the last four years, hundreds of writers have been able to call Rivendell home for a weekend, two weeks, or a month, joining in Sewanee’s rich literary history in their own way.
We support writers of all genres and writers at varying stages of their literary journeys. Both seasoned and aspiring writers are encouraged to apply. The surroundings, intended to quiet outside distractions (Wi-Fi is limited and there are no TVs), encourage imagination and contemplation. But the accommodations and amenities are anything but austere. Warm and inviting, thoughtful with close attention to detail, this place is meant to feel like home.
In March, we were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, an organization committed to supporting artists who are also raising families. With this award, we are able to offer four, two-week residencies to writers with a child or children age twelve or younger. If making time and space for writing with no children is challenging, writing while parenting young children can feel almost impossible. Applications for the Sustainable Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Parents are being accepted April 1-May 31 for residencies September-December.
In addition to the SAF fellowship, Rivendell also offers five other fellowships, each made possible by the generous contributions of private donors and our past writers-in-residence. All new applicants are considered for one of these awards.
While it appears there are tough days ahead for those of us in the arts, awards like these stand as evidence of our steadfast commitment to providing writers with the time and space to imagine, create, and examine. We are honored to be a protector of the art of storytelling. We look forward to hearing your stories.
Kate Parrish is a writer, MFA candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters, and doer of whatever needs doing around Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She can be found at kateparrish.com or @parrishdontperish on Instagram.
March 27, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
I recently published an essay, “A Stranger At the Door,” on the Op/Ed page of the Chicago Tribune. And after reading it in its printed form, already irrevocably out there in the world – literally in black and white – I wanted to revise it. I really, really wanted to revise it. In fact, I wanted to rewrite the whole damn thing. But it was too late. The Chicago Tribune editorial policy (as I’m sure is the editorial policy of any traditional publication) is that authors are not allowed to change or comment on their own work once it is published.
As my editor replied to me in an email, “We don’t run letters by authors critiquing their own work.” Of course they don’t! Just think of all the confusion that might take place if this were allowed to happen.
“Oh, wait a minute, I just thought of something else I wanted to add in the third paragraph…” Or, “I really don’t think I hit the right tone, and I’d like to hand in this revised version.” The nature of an editor’s job, after all, is to move forward with the current, not drown in the undertow.
When you think about it, if we were allowed to revise our work after it was already published, then it might be in a constant state of revision. Might never really be done. Which sounds like another circle of hell.
Nevertheless. I still had this urge. In thirty years of writing commentary pieces and “slice-of-life” essays, and newspaper columns I have never had this response to one of my own pieces of writing. I always say what I have to say and move on.
Oddly, with this essay, as soon as I hit the “Send” tab I felt I might have done better. Might have gone deeper. The gist of my essay was that I had opened my front door to a stranger one night when I was alone, and how that small experience of doing so had made me question my mixed feelings about that small act. About whether I had been stupid to open my door, and whether I thought I might ever do so again. (Comments by readers let me know in no uncertain terms that opening a door to a stranger was about the dumbest thing in the world one could do.)
And it wasn’t that I wanted to write a response to these readers who were commenting on my essay. I actually wanted to rewrite my essay, because suddenly it seemed to me that I had taken a topic that was quite weighty and serious, and made it sound “lite” and quite smugly Pollyana-ish. What a great person I am to let a stranger into my home – twice no less!
What had made me uncomfortable was that, after reading my own words in print, I saw how easy it had been to blithely expound on how great I was to open my door to a stranger, from the comfort of my quiet, safe suburban home. Where the crime rate is low, and where our residents, as altruistic as most are – are able to do so in relative safety.
In this time of building walls, and not letting strangers in our metaphorical doors, I felt I did this topic a serious disservice. What was a feel-good moment for me personally did not warrant my own essayistic pat on the back. So, when I say I wanted a do-over, I guess I wanted to chance to frame the story in a new way.
Of course, 99.99% of the reading public is never going to read my essay. So I’m not even sure why it matters to me that I should have done better. Maybe one reason is that, even now, after decades of writing and publishing essays, I realized that I am still learning my craft. And that, always, words do matter.
Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications. She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.
March 3, 2017 § 21 Comments
By Judith Sornberger
You would not believe how many things I’ve done today to avoid beginning this essay. (Except, if you’re a writer, you probably would.) I say writing means more to me than just about anything, but I would do almost anything some days to postpone putting pen to paper (including going shopping for a new, magic pen), especially when it comes to breaking the ice on a new writing project. This morning, for instance, I called a friend to commiserate on how little we’ve been writing. Then I scrubbed a pan that had soaked overnight in the sink, grocery shopped, stopped in at my local bookstore to check on a book I’d ordered (knowing full well it couldn’t have arrived yet) and, of course, had to browse. Then I went through my closet, wondering if it might be time to donate everything below size sixteen, my current size, which caused me to go for a power walk.
Usually, I procrastinate until the need to write becomes stronger than my fear and consequent resistance, which can take days or even weeks. But today I suddenly remembered the Roberta Mickel Method, named—by my sister and me—after our mother, its first practitioner.
Mom worked half-time as a bookkeeper, a job she loved. One reason she enjoyed it was that working outside the home two-and-a half days made the other two-and-a-half weekdays at home especially precious. Nevertheless, on those at-home days, there were plenty of at-home tasks she didn’t particularly enjoy. That was where her genius came in. After making her to-do list, she would choose the least appealing task, let’s say cleaning bathrooms, and tell herself she only had to work on it for half an hour. Then she could do whatever she pleased for half—or sometimes even a whole—hour. In summer that might mean sitting on the patio with a cigarette and a Diet Pepsi, tilting her head back so the sun bathed her face. In winter it might be tucking her feet beneath her as she read on her gold velvet couch.
Before retirement, I delighted in almost every aspect of college teaching—dreaming up exciting new courses, choosing textbooks, planning class sessions, and especially interacting with students in the classroom. But I constantly bemoaned my lack of writing time. And I hated grading papers, putting off starting to read a batch until the students began timidly asking when I might return them. I usually claimed to be reading them very closely, when the truth was that I hadn’t been able to bear removing them from my briefcase.
Wish I could say that I was writing instead of grading. But mostly I was puttering around the house, cruising Facebook, or deciding tonight was the perfect time to try that new and complicated recipe for paella, necessitating a two-hour round trip to a store that carried fresh mussels. At least I later wrote a poem about making that paella.
Then I would agonize on the phone to my sister who would remind me of the Roberta Mickel Method. By that time, I’d have collected so many papers that thirty minutes of grading wouldn’t have made a dent. So I’d set a timer for an hour, grade like a madwoman, and, when it buzzed, I’d go for a walk, read, or maybe even begin a poem. Since writing wasn’t my most loathsome chore, it rose to the category of reward.
Yet it feels wrong that I would use the same method to get going on a piece of writing that I’ve used for grading, especially since, once I get started, I love to write (some days more than others). Mom’s method provides a doorway into the place where writing can become absolute bliss. I tell myself all I have to do is buckle myself into my writing chair and work for half an hour, and, most days, I’m still spreading ink across the page an hour or two later. For to begin, whether you’re cleaning bathrooms or writing, is always the hardest part. As Goethe (second only to my mother in the wisdom department) famously wrote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
Take now, for instance. I began scribbling away on this essay at 1pm, telling myself I’d work for half an hour. Now it’s 2:30, and I’ve written, relatively painlessly, and somewhat joyously, an hour longer than planned. If Roberta Mickel were still alive, I think she might be cheering.
Judith Sornberger’s newest poetry book, Practicing the World without You is forthcoming from Cavan Kerry Press in 2018. She’s the author of one full-length poetry collection Open Heart (Calyx Books) and five chapbooks, most recently Wal-Mart Orchid, winner of the 2012 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize. Her memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany was published by Shanti Arts Publications in 2015.
March 1, 2017 § 3 Comments
Part two of Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige’s consideration of place, grief, and the river as metaphor, talking with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. [Part One can be found here]:
PAIGE: There’s a powerful depiction of sexual assault in the book. The scene struck me most for its brevity and omissions, for what did and didn’t make the page. Can you talk about how you approached writing the scene and why? Can you describe your decisions about what to include and what not to include, and how you came to approach the moment tonally?
PALM: I didn’t want the narrative to become about that particular violence, but instead wanted the incident to appear in the book as one link in a chain of violence, wherein accumulation would be more powerful than individual acts. Because that was my experience: a slow boil of not-quite-right exposures to violence in a culture where such experiences were not questioned, had no language with which to be questioned. The sexual assault didn’t fit my then understanding of what rape was. It didn’t fit anywhere and so I tucked it away along with everything else, but my body remembered, the way a body remembers what’s been done to it at unexpected times. My mind remembered it more spatially, in flashes. Emotionally, I was numb. So I wanted to write it the same way—emotionless, just the quick flash of bodies in space. That window I looked out of, what a body too big to move feels like. A sensation that said wait—what just happened? is what I wanted to convey to the reader because that was how it felt. The scene focuses on how the experience connects to where it happened, too—the window’s symbolic meaning transforming from excitement and promise to pain and escape. That inextricable linking of place and experience at the book’s heart.
PAIGE: Here, I want to present a few sections of text to show how you seed certain ideas and to show the spectacular weaving you do so deftly and deeply—different modes of writing, others’ writing both scholarly and literary, various epistemological primers, and of course, your own musings and felt experiences.
On the first page, in the first chapter called “Map of Home,” you write, “Where did one town start and the other end? Was there an unnamed part between the two that was up for grabs? I wanted to conquer that yellow land and write myself all over it: this part, this swath of land right here, belongs to a girl.”
Later, after having left Indiana for Vermont, and regarding efforts for you and your husband Mike to claim your own place/ identity, you write about the “One Square Inch” project and about your own search for silence, the silence you find in the mountains:
I believe I fear actual silence—the far edge of quietude. In Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Total Eclipse,’ she describes leaving the site of an eclipse viewing before it is over because the experience is too all-consuming. She plunges into a meditation on existence, barely emerging before the eclipse’s shadow sweeps her under and away for good: ‘It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold had risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the Strata again.’ Silence strikes me as a kind of total eclipse, and this lawn of Frost’s may be just as risky. It could overtake me if I let it. Pure silence, pure freedom, would somehow reveal me to myself too starkly, too soon. The lighting would be wrong, the picture unsettling, distorted further than I expected in every direction. I want only to see a little bit more at a time, to mine very carefully through the layers of sediment below my feet. To lose water by drops and not by gushes. To fly and return. I want some sense of clarity about the buried alluvial beds, to hold as precious goods the names of its materials, to walk across them and experience the malleability of the middle, before it’s pressed so hard from above and below that it metalizes. (197-198)
Both of these passages illustrate not only of the artistry of the book, but also, its larger themes—especially the searching the narrator undertakes and the friction she seems to crave between safety and risk, between self-determination and self-immolation, between a desire for something-ness and nothingness. The narrator is drawn to risk—to the “far edges” in many instances, most notably in her relationship with Corey, which is both completely natural and somehow also taboo; he is just a boy and she just a girl, but he is also a convict, and she a writer, a mom, a wife. There are so many triumphs of this book, but one I especially admire is your navigation of larger cultural tropes, the way you push into and through, and ultimately beyond, the ready-made clichés of bad boy and good girl, for example. The twin portraits that anchor the book– both you and Corey—are utterly human and empathetic and raw and whole. What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with Corey—and perhaps your relationships with danger and desire while writing this? What did you learn, ultimately, about the thorny business of being a girl, then woman, in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America?
PALM: My relationship with Corey allowed me to do that rare thing—openly consider the alternate routes my life might have taken. It taught me a great deal about compassion and forgiveness and the confounding paradoxes of being human. It also taught me that I can’t predict where I’ll find support, or a friend, or something true about the world or myself. Being a girl, then woman, in the rural Midwest in my particular family very much asked me to do and be what was expected of me, which had a pretty narrow definition. All the attendant clichés. Be smart, but cross your legs at the ankle. Have opinions, but only if they’re like ours. Go to college, but marry the nice guy with the good job. Mind your manners, don’t speak up. A kind of half-assed, half-informed feminism that rendered much of what felt natural to me—those edges toward the fringe, that desire to engage with the questions or longings in the back of my head fraught with tension and discord. Just being me became an act of rebellion. In some ways, decisions about what to do with my life, my body, my mind, were hardly decisions at all but a fulfilling of other people’s expectations, I now realize. The truest thing about being female–in the life I’ve had–is everyone has a different idea about what that ought to look like and you’re constantly preserving or negotiating yourself in situations in which your being female is a factor in how you’re treated or thought of. And worst of all, sometimes that can get uncomfortable and even unsafe. What I say to myself now, as a mantra, is I’m not at your disposal. Not my kindness, not my smile, not my compliance, not my time, not my body. I decide when to offer these things now. And I no longer value other people’s ideas of how I should act or who I should love or what kind of mother I should be and so forth. As for edges, Dillard’s scene in “Total Eclipse”—getting out of dodge before the total darkness overtakes her—is how I feel when I look at pictures of Earth, or think of the galaxy, or even in fleeting moments of human freedom that I happen to find on the fringe. There’s a danger in that darkness, in the shucking away of every manmade thing, but a thrilling pureness too.
PAIGE: Vivan Gornick’s landmark craft book, The Situation and The Story, distinguishes the situation, the events of the narrative, from the story, “the thing one has come to say.” I don’t quite want to ask what you think your story is (though you’re welcome to answer!) for fear of sounding like an agent who has trapped you in an elevator, but I do wonder if there’s one place in the book that you would identify as especially emblematic of your story—that thing you came to say? If you had to star or circle just one section—perhaps a scene or a series of paragraphs or one metaphor or thread that runs through the book—what would that moment be?
PALM: There’s a paragraph early in the book, page 20, that begins, “Like rivers, people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” That paragraph anchors the river as metaphor and holds every truth about this book. It contains the meanings behind the different narrative events selected to tell the story: the pull of the past on the present, the bittersweet experience of leaving and returning home, the power of nature’s natural course nurture’s fight against it, the tug of our public selves on our private selves, the impact a single person or event can have on the course of a life. It holds all of that, as the banks of a river might hold water, and more.
PAIGE: : In the process of revision or editing, can you describe a particular challenge—whether in terms of craft or in terms of steeling yourself emotionally for the task? And what did you learn from dealing with the challenge?
PALM: Right away we decided to restructure the book chronologically and add focus to my relationship with Corey, which was originally a more minor thread. A cohesive narrative arc was stitched across what were originally self-contained essays, and then the book shifted into memoir territory. So, adding anecdotes and memories to essays where they weren’t already organically occurring was a challenge. There was, for me, risk in implying that my whole life could be defined by this person. Which of course isn’t true. Yes, I thought of him and considered reaching out over the years, but the book could easily suggest, by virtue of its balance of inclusion and exclusion of experiences, that I was perhaps obsessed with him or dwelling constantly on the past. I am an obsessive thinker, but I didn’t want to be boxed in by that. I came to terms with this risk by reframing my idea of how modern memoir handles time and subject matter: it’s not one’s whole life, told blow by blow. There are a hundred ways to tell the stories of a single life. This isn’t the only version I get to tell. It’s one version. It’s my thoughts about a certain series of events.
PAIGE: Here’s an obligatory memoir question: what has the response been from those people who are subjects in the book and/ or from your hometown? Has any of the response surprised you? And how and in what ways did you consider your subjects and how they might react as you were writing?
PALM: I thought my family would be less accepting, but they’ve been wonderful, supportive champions. I suppose that was the biggest surprise. Corey has been gracious, and is proud of me. For him, it matters that someone remembered him as having good qualities, not just as a monster. It’s encouraged him to do good works from prison, in the small ways that he can. Most other folks have been enthusiastic and some have told me they’re glad someone else saw life in this small town the way they did. Only a few have complained vocally about how certain people or aspects of the area are portrayed. A few people were put off by my depiction of rural Indiana—they feel it doesn’t represent their experience—the 4H clubs, the fairs, the values of their rural Midwest while others said it is spot on. Many folks have had a privileged experienced of Indiana. And I think it’s a mistake to privilege that experience over another. I didn’t set out to write what is already known. I intended to portray the fringe—those are my people. And let me tell you—there are far more troubling scenes in Indiana than all this. I wanted to bring as much humanity to my portrayal of place and of the people in this book as I could while still preserving its difficult truths. The earlier drafts were tinged with attitude. As I drafted, the attitude fell away and the nuggets of human complexity remained. I suppose my biggest worry about its reception was that no one would understand my compassion for a person who is rather indefensible. Not a single person has failed to see that. It gives me great hope for this world.
PAIGE: What are you working on now, and how does it draw from and/ or depart from the work you did in Riverine?
PALM: I’m working on two new manuscripts—an essay collection and a novel. The essay collection springs from the final chapter of Riverine in that it looks more closely at how I continue to shape my idea of family, and contemplate the utility of the nuclear family in our modern era—its shifting purposes, its commercialization, and so forth. It’s not as narratively focused on my personal life as Riverine, though, and instead draws on political and social and historical and environmental contexts here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The novel deals with that core human truth of our not ever being able to really know another person, but it looks at it through the lens of how our internet habits distort our relationships and our legacies of self. I confess that I’ve found it very difficult to write since the election, since the ongoing trauma occurring in Aleppo. It’s hard to find a reason to prioritize one’s own stories or thoughts with so much else that requires our attention and our energy and our care. Still, art is necessary. Still, the smaller wrinkles in the vast cloth of human experience are worth ironing out.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com