March 31, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Maggie Pahos
My mom died when I was twenty-two, and four months later, I boarded a plane for Ghana—to try to find solid ground, to be touched by something other than my own life, to remember what was still beautiful in the world. For eleven months, I traveled with my boyfriend, Will, onto South Africa, and then to Europe. When we landed back in the States, I applied for MFA programs, and the following year, I started as a nonfiction student at Chatham University, where I began the manuscript for She Made You That Way—the story of my mom’s life and death and those eleven months Will and I traveled.
My mom had died two-and-a-half years after a re-diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a slow process, and painful and beautiful and bewildering and harrowing and surreal and a mess, in the way slow deaths can be. I’d just graduated college, and my mom was becoming my best friend, so her death completely devoured me, that age-old description of grief as a wave, a tidal force so powerful and consuming all you can do is hold your breath and hope you live long enough to again, one day, find air.
When I started writing the manuscript, my instinct was to write in present tense. I love reading and writing present tense narratives. There’s an urgency I find compelling and alert in the present, a language not tamped down by distance and time. But as part of my courses at Chatham, I was starting to study memoir in earnest and noticed most memoirs are written in past tense. For good reason. Much of the joy and beauty of memoir is its ability to shed light, offer insight, and infuse wisdom based on the unique human ability to make meaning out of trauma and chaos and heartbreak. By creating vantage points at various places in time from which to perch and convey these insights, a writer can create complexity and differing perspectives for the reader. Present tense, so scene-based and immediate, can make it harder, though, of course, not impossible, to do this.
But that kind of reflection and wisdom offering memoir can provide wasn’t my goal. I knew I had no wisdom to give. I wasn’t capable of reflecting. Each time I tried to write in past tense, I grew a feeling under my skin, a physical sensation—a man following behind me at night, a bad phone call about to come in, a foreign sound on the dark porch—telling me something was wrong. I abandoned the past tense as quickly as I tried it each time.
There was that lurking sense of unease but also a crush of dishonesty. It felt instantly like I was writing fiction instead of my own life, writing about a stranger named Maggie who went through something I didn’t know. My mom’s death still completely calibrated my life, so present it defined my every move. To act as though I could look back on it as something of the past, something separate from me, was like shoplifting or cheating on a test, a violation and probably not worth it. The alarm bells of inauthenticity screamed in my ears. My skin felt like someone else’s, and it disgusted me. And it seemed a disservice to her. I was going to make a packaged artifact of her life in the form of a book? An inert, unfeeling thing in past tense, deadly finite?
So, in present tense, alive and breathing and full of moving possibilities—full of her—I stayed.
Every so often, I would change a couple sentences in the manuscript to past tense, just to see how they read, and each time, that feeling. Then one day, a few years into writing, I tried it, and nothing happened. I converted a few more sentences, waiting to feel ill, and still no ick, no urge to jump ship. I did this for a whole paragraph, read it back to myself, and for the first time, it sounded true. I could suddenly see all the doors it would lead me to on top of its truth, the lateral movements and jumps in time. Maybe I would even find a way to reflect.
Eventually, I changed the entire manuscript to past tense, and that’s how it will stay. But I know why the present tense felt like the only true way for so long. Part of me thought I could keep her alive if I wrote about her as if she actually still were. She is sleeping, she walks to her closet, she tells me, “I love you so.” No “ate” or “snored” or “laughed.” No. Those verbs were for dead people. I could keep her with me if she was active in the present. I could make it so she wasn’t fully gone. She could still breathe beside me. I could still stand with her in a room.
I won’t go so far as to say I offer any kind of wisdom in my manuscript, past tense as it now may be. But I do feel like I’ve finally done justice to her, to my family, to Will, to myself because I’m able to explore us all through the many dimensions we contain, to show development, change, and regression across time and space. While past tense isn’t the best way to tell every story, not by a long shot, it seems to be working now for this one.
I’ve been able to track my grief through how I’ve been able to write about it, and it’s been a humbling and gratifying experience, one that’s held my hand and kept me on some kind of path through the dark woods. Even in the past tense, I get to sit down with my mom each day at my computer, to hear her words, and see her smile. “I love you,” she said. She says. She pulls me to her. “You’ll always be my baby.”
Maggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hippocampus Magazine, Bark, the Rumpus, Flyway, Nowhere, Hobart, and elsewhere. In the summers, she leads trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions. You can find more of her writing at www.maggiepahos.com.
March 29, 2021 § 20 Comments
In my transition from Doctor to Writer, I thought the hardest lesson would be moving from emotionless, “objective” medical writing to the feelings and scenes and stories of creative nonfiction. But there are harder, more painful lessons.
When my essay “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” was anthologized in Tales From Six Feet Apart, my family was scandalized that I’d described being quarantined with my mother-in-law and her memory loss. Our relationship had been rocky, and I wrote about the difficulty of living with someone in the recurring loops of forgetfulness, as well as recalling some Not-Nice events of the past. I thought I described the understanding we came to, and our learning to care for each other, resolving past hurts in our relationship now.
My mother-in-law unfortunately died (not related to the pandemic) just before publication. The timing was unfortunate, although I’m not sure the family would have approved of my telling about her at any time. I told them I was writing my truth.
My sister-in-law said my story “May be your truth, but it’s not the whole truth. It says more bad things than good.”
My daughter said, “We tell each other half-truths all the time to be polite, why do you have to write your truth when it offends others?”
I tell stories to make sense of the world, and want to reach others, hoping to help them make sense of their world too. I hope my writing can create a truth broader than its specifics. Comments on my story told me it rang true.
My daughter started me thinking, though. Is it ethical to tell a story when it hurts others?
My mother-in-law didn’t like me very much at first. Her firstborn son was one year out of her home when I stole him from her. I was three years older. Her son had become someone with long hair and ripped jeans and suddenly radical notions about the Viet Nam war and racism and over-packaging. It must be my bad influence.
I also had radical ideas for 1972: that women could work, and after my first daughter, that women with children could get higher education.
She was embarrassed. Her conservative neighborhood would not approve.
My grandparents died young. I missed that connection with my history, something I wanted my children to have. So I kept returning, to the relationship and my mother-in-law. We both kept up the dance of niceness through the years. But the decades of sitting around a family table sharing food from recipes we gave each other; telling favorite stories about my children/her grandchildren; me making a meal to serve her family, or she making one to serve us, created fondness under the niceness.
Toward the end I participated in her care, the same as her children. I was a part, though always apart. The events of the past were never discussed, nor ever to be discussed. That wouldn’t be nice.
Acknowledging those events now is “an expression of repressed anger,” according to the family. They seem minor: my mother-in-law giving my baby a bath when I asked her not to, making my child cry as soon as I left the room; her saying she was done with kids and didn’t want to babysit ours; the “helpful” articles handed to me on how to raise children and the damaging effects of a working mother; the calls to tell me what baby food was appropriate. I wrote that I felt she was judging me from under lidded eyes. “Makes her look like a snake,” per my sister-in-law.
They don’t want their friends to see me mention my published piece on Facebook, because that’s where tributes are posted, the memories of her goodness. Which is not negated by me telling the other truth: that she was human.
I didn’t tell the story to let out repressed anger, but to set free a truth: that not-nice things happen, and yet can be overcome. It was not written with malice or an intent to malign. I am tempted to paraphrase Anne Lamott: If they wanted me to say nice things about her, they should have asked her to treat me better.
And yet, I keep returning to the question of ethics.
Is it ethical to present their mother in a bad light if it offends them?
The ethics of silence are just as tricky. Is it ethical to keep the stories hidden? If I am to be silenced in the name of niceness, are we not also suppressing the whole truth? Half-truths linger silently, a monument to missed opportunities, a quietness of suppression.
Reading stories lets us say “Yes, that also speaks for me.” If we don’t tell stories that allow us to speak to and for our common humanity, what is lost? As Suzanne Roberts says, “The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice.” Perhaps what’s being silenced is the voice of common experience: I hear you and understand.
Why write my truth if it alienates the family? Because, although it may not be the whole truth, whatever is? As has been said so often, we each have our own truth. To be honest and ethical, it needs to be told.
Sandra Hager Eliason is a retired Family Practice physician, now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine writing contest in 2016, and her work has appeared in the Brevity Blog and Bluestem Magazine She is finishing a memoir, and lives with her husband and a spoiled cat in St. Anthony Park, Minnesota. Find her on Twitter at @SandraHEliason1 or reach her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
March 26, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Lisa J. Wise, M.Ed.
Dear Rejection Letters,
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my submissions. Writing has recently become my deepest passion as I pour my heart and soul into every word count. When you are a polite yet brief six-word “no” – screaming auto-reply form letter – it hurts. When you are a charming, personable, upbeat “no thanks!”, you offer hope. But when you are complimentary, speaking admiringly of my voice, inviting me to submit again, taking the time to personalize your message, you lift up my soul. The subtle encouragement of your gracious “thank you, no” makes me believe in my publishing dreams coming to fruition and validates the promise of good things to come to those who wait patiently by their inboxes (maybe). That is enough to keep me writing and submitting.
I have been cautioned by the writing elders not to take any of your rejections personally. They preach that a spoonful of thick skin, strong ego and a dash of narcissism helps the dismissal go down. Acceptances are merely a matter of timing, personal taste, hitting the right tone and errant wizardry. But mining my most heartfelt memories for clutch material and using them as my creative tools makes it tough to shake off an editor’s hard pass (or seven). That does not stop me from persevering because writing for an audience is addictive. Once you have drunk from the fountain of publication and public praise, nothing can keep you from desperately returning for more. Seeing your words in print next to your own name is intoxicating.
So please be kind, dear Rejection Letters, as you pile up with greater frequency. We will be seeing more of each other as I bravely put my voice out there. My goal in 2021 is to collect 100 of you as a testament that I have taken risks, put my words in the hands of others, trusted the process, and tried my best to get published. Accumulating as many ‘no thanks’ as I can handle is my celebration of that risk. Rejection paves the only path to that one treasured, golden ‘Yes please!’ While you collect in my inbox, I humbly offer my Writer’s Invocation over your stack:
May you not diminish the fun of writing one iota.
May you never make me question my passionate dream.
May your glints of encouragement fuel my drive as I speak my truth.
May your mounting tower act as a powerful reminder of how badly I want my voice heard.
Thanks for reaching out. We noticed that you have been quite busy sending a slew of submissions and we appreciate your efforts. Sorry if our rejections are getting you down. It must be tough to keep hearing ‘no’. Your note sounds like you might be getting a tad dejected (some of us thought bitter). Kindly consider asking yourself these three questions before submitting any further:
1. Who are you writing for, really?
If it is because you need to write in the same way that you need to breathe, eat and sleep, then bravo and stick with it! If it is because you long for only that cloying ego stroke of external validation through publication, find another career. The ‘yeses’ are few, the hours are long, the pay is pitiful. Do this because your heart must be heard and your soul can do nothing else but speak. Fame is a sham.
2. What do you want to say, really?
Are you holding back? Perhaps submitting what you think we want to hear in the style you think we like to see? Are you changing your truest voice in an attempt to grab our attention? Stop doing that. Stay authentic and speak genuinely. Be clear about your own truths. Don’t alter your tone to suit anyone else’s view but your own. Trust your voice more and us a little less.
3, Why the rush, really?
You love writing. It brings you sheer joy every day. Why not bask in that and let the rest follow? Don’t chase what is not yet yours. Instead, enjoy the soothing company of your weathered journal, your favorite purple pen, your steaming mug warming that peaceful time of stillness. We see you perched contentedly at your cozy desk, scribbling away in the early morning light. Let that be enough for today. Who knows who will knock on the door at tea-time tomorrow? Leave out your grandmother’s best china cup and saucer alongside the sugar bowl and a hint of hope. Good things are coming your way (maybe). But either way, be sure to write today.
Your Rejection Letters
Lisa J. Wise lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her husband of 30 years. The proud mom of 23-year-old fraternal twin sons, one of whom carries the diagnoses of Crouzon Syndrome and Hydrocephalous, their family has learned how to manage life with multiple complex chronic conditions. Born into a cancer-cluster family, Lisa navigated the palliative care journey with three of her immediate family members. Her experiences with illness guide her work of 22 years as a family and patient-centered healthcare specialist and as IWMF Vice Chair of Support coordinating global cancer support groups. She has a Bachelor of Education from McGill University and a Master’s in Education from Harvard University. She has been recently published in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and New York Daily News. Find more of her work at lisajwise.com.
March 25, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twenty years ago, when I worked at a small newspaper in northwest Pennsylvania, the local Audubon chapter asked if I would interview naturalist Scott Weidensaul to publicize his upcoming lecture. They gave me a copy of his book, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds (North Point Press, 1999), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Although impressed by the Pulitzer nod, I was skeptical about the topic. I liked birds and all, but four hundred pages of them?
I decided I would skim a few chapters so I could ask a few reasonably informed questions. But from the first paragraph, I was drawn into a world I’d never really seen, although it was all around me.
Sitting in the Pennsylvania sun…a redstart sings. I open my eyes and he’s right in front of me, in a low willow thicket that was half-flattened by the winter ice floes. He is no bigger than my thumb, all black except for the colorful patches on his wings, flanks and tail – the same pink-orange color, it occurs to me, as the meat of the native brook trout that still live in the small headwater streams hereabouts, the same color as a monarch butterfly’s wings, and the wild turk’s-cap lilies that bloom here in summer. That symmetry feels proper, somehow, almost pre-ordained.
Scott and I spoke again recently about his writing and about how, and why, it reflects his compassion for nature and passion for conservation.
Growing up in the shadow of Ashland Mountain in central Pennsylvania, his mother each year noted in a journal when the juncos, white-throated sparrows, and geese returned to their yard. It was there, on the Kittatinny Ridge, where he first witnessed raptor migration. It was also where he witnessed the destruction of their habitat.
“I was all over that ridge as a kid,” he said. “A powerline crossed the top of the mountain, and I could look south into the valley where we lived, a quiet, Pennsylvania Dutch farming valley, or north toward the town of Girardville, where the anthracite seams were close enough to the surface to deep mine and strip mine — to my eye, a hellscape wasteland of stripping pits and culm banks and dead streams. The impact was profound, and I remember making a very clear decision: I don’t want a world that looks like that.”
The heart of Weidensaul’s writing is inspired by authors such as American naturalist John Burroughs, environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and J.A. Baker, Henry Beston and Carl Sofina. He strives to bridge the world between science and lay knowledge, and takes us with him to places we might never go and invites us to consider questions we might never have asked.
“I’ve often chosen topics about which I knew a little, but wanted to know much more,” he said. “And while publishers require a fairly detailed sense of what the book will say and the narrative framework in which I’ll say it, there’s definitely a great deal of let’s-see-where-this-leads, and simple serendipity.”
Weidensaul’s new book, A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds (W.W. Norton, 2021), expands on his research from Living on the Wind, and while the poetics are similar, his writing is more personal. Whether he’s comparing the diets and physiology of godwits to humans, describing the plight of spoon-billed sandpipers along the Yellow Sea coastline or his encounter with a grizzly bear while banding thrushes in Denali National Park, his descriptions are breathtaking and at times urgent, in the vein of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
When he began working on A World on the Wing, Weidensaul thought his job would be to document the destruction of migratory bird populations. In the prologue, upon spying a grey-cheeked thrush in his own backyard, he writes:
It was an utterly ordinary, extraordinary bird – as is every migrant that makes the leap into the void, guided by instinct, shaped by millions of generations of toil and savage selection, crossing the vaults of space through dangers we cannot comprehend, by lucky chance and near-calamity and great endurance, on the strength of its own muscle and wings. For eons uncounted, that has always been enough. But no longer. Now their future, for good or ill, lies in our hands.
Further along in the book, his storytelling pivots a bit and reflects a cautious hope that, while there is widespread loss of habitat in many places around the world, conservation efforts are succeeding in others. He keeps readers close to his side and asks – without lecturing – for us, like him, to view this other world through the lens of appreciation, awe, and reverence, and to own our culpability and responsibility for the world we inhabit.
Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. Her book, Common Ground: Writings on Family, Change, Loss & Resilience, is a collection of more than twenty years of her columns and blogs. She writes at ZenBagLady.com.
March 24, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Marcia Aldrich
In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”
After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.
Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.
Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take. A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans.
Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions. After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book.
I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.
Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.
It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.
Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
March 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
I started writing for a building and construction magazine recently. My first assignment was to interview a painting and drywall contracting company. I can feel you yawning right now! It’s okay, I yawned too. I also rolled my eyes—a lot—and considered backing out. But I had been wanting to turn many years of ghostwriting and publishing articles for architects who couldn’t write into publishing articles with my own byline. I had to start somewhere.
I took the job…and ultimately fell in love with the assignment. Not just because I had the privilege of getting to know a small, personable firm full of people who love what they do and have held on through many ups and downs in order to continue doing it (something writers know a lot about) but because it taught me two valuable lessons that I could use for my other byline aspiration: writing and publishing creative nonfiction. I will share these lessons with you now, and if you’re reading them here on the Brevity Blog, I guess they worked!
Lesson One: Find the nugget.
Lately, everything in my own life that I had been excited to write about—things that had truly seemed like fun and interesting stories—had started to sound boring and trite. How many more stories about cancer or a kooky aunt or the death of a relative could the world handle? Hadn’t we heard it all before? And yet, there those stories were every time I picked up a literary journal. Why? Because the writer found the nugget—the small speck of gold that instead made the cancer story about a mild-mannered person finding gumption after being diagnosed, or the aunt’s kooky habits as a way to avoid her deep fear of sadness. Because in the end, the cancer or the kookiness were just the catalysts for much more interesting stories.
Likewise, no one would have wanted to read my article about the painting and drywall company if I had written about painting and drywall. As I prepped to interview them, wise words from past CNF workshops fluttered around my brain like helpful fairies.
Why would anyone care about this story?
What is this story about?
What’s interesting about the characters?
I jotted down some questions to ask the owners at the interview, but more importantly I armed myself with the best tool of all: my ears. We all have ears and they’re free. Even if, as writers, we sometimes only have our own voices to listen to, the same rules apply.
Lesson Two: Listen. Listening is how you find the nugget in the first place.
I do actually have a kooky aunt, kooky in a good way and one of the funniest people I know. What I love most about her is her knack for brilliant storytelling. She can come home from the grocery store or the doctor’s office or my grandmother’s house with a story that will bring you to your knees laughing. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if she wanted to, she could have had her own version of Prairie Home Companion or given David Sedaris a run for his money. She is able to do this because she listens. Intently. To everything around her. Then she latches onto the tiniest but most interesting detail and that becomes her story.
I took that lesson to the interview, and a common thread emerged about this tiny company’s ability to survive for the past 18 years. By remaining nimble and flexible, they’d kept the company afloat in changing times. I gathered up their best anecdotes and most interesting quotes and wrote “Small but Mighty.” The company was thrilled with the article and the editors were too. I quickly received three more assignments before the magazine finished out the season: a story about a road safety and traffic signage business, one about a construction company, and finally, one about an awning manufacturer that I titled, “The Creative, Colorful World of Awnings”—because when the owner told me his story, beaming with enthusiasm for the work he did, I discovered it truly was such a world.
We all have creative colorful stories to tell, despite the ruts we sometimes encounter. So, the next time you’re thinking that you’ve got nothing interesting to say, stop yawning and remember lessons one and two. When you listen, you find the nugget—and even painting, drywall and the awning guy become fascinating stories to tell.
Julie Flattery is a playwright, filmmaker, and author of creative nonfiction essays. Her story, “Mighty Mouse” was recently accepted for publication in Meat for Tea and six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM Theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design.
March 22, 2021 § 3 Comments
In her latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, Nicole Walker continues her deep essayistic dive into sustainability, climate change, global food issues, and her own eating obsessions, layering in the overlapping impact of our unsettling pandemic year. Her insights remain refreshingly honest and are, at times, spiced with unexpected humor. Brevity founder and fellow pancetta-enthusiast Dinty W. Moore interviews Walker on her book, on digression in the essay, and on the possibility of hope in desperate times:
Dinty W. Moore: First, a confession. More than a decade ago I was visiting the Arizona city where you live and you invited me to join you for dinner. “How about charcuterie?” you said, pronouncing it as if you knew exactly what you were proposing, and I instinctively blurted, “Yes, I’d really love that,” because I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated. Back then, I had no idea what “charcuterie” really meant, though I do still remember the enticing selection of meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables, and spreads that ensued. So maybe I’m not the best person to speak with you about Processed Meats, or maybe I am the perfect person. In any case, it is too late – we have agreed. So, here’s my question: Do you remember that dinner and I did I fool you at all?
Nicole Walker: This question is the most on-point question you could ask. I just wrote an essay for the NYT and the only real edit was, can you make it clear how you know what charcuterie is and how much privilege comes with making sure your kid eats 9 colors of fruits and vegetables a day? An obsession with food isn’t becoming. Making your guests feel out of place is definitely against the Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. Your graciousness at that dinner covered for you, if not me. I remember us sitting on the deck, eating cheese and prosciutto, and then maybe also having tacos? Max and Zoe adored you. You talked to them like they were the adults they thought they were, even though they were two and six at the time.
This story is making me want to hang out with you. If I could spend the energy to build a teleport machine instead of curing strange meats, I should. But maybe charcuterie is its own kind of teleport machine. I know books are. The main reason to publish books is to be invited to places to read or to be invited to talk with you. It’s a kind of teleport machine. The book came out earlier this month. I made pancetta for the book release, which took four weeks to cure. With book and pancetta, I am bringing myself to book readers and charcuterie eaters, which is all I ever really wanted to do.
DWM: Speaking of charcuterie as its own kind of teleportation device, what I love about your book is how processed meat, your ostensible subject, becomes a vehicle to explore so many deeper themes: pregnancy, plastic waste, parenthood, pandemic, owlets, and anti-bodies. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first expounded the theory of “everything-in-everything,” which is the basis for poetic (and essayistic) metaphor. Look closely at any one thing and all things will be revealed. Did you imagine at the outset of Processed Meats that salami, capicola, bologna, and prime rib would lead you in all these directions, open all these portals into culture and human existence?
NW: I was talking with a friend who is working on this big book project about her father’s time in a concentration camp in the Ukraine and she was trying to figure out a structure to the book because otherwise she just chases after details and the book sprawls. I said to her, well, you can just be like me and see where the words take you, but I get that such an approach is an unconventional one. Maybe even a vilified one. Cohesion. Topic sentences. Stay on target, Luke is told when he’s gunning for the Death Star’s weak spot. Max says of nachos that the triangle ones are better for chasing the cheese. It is nice to have a target and maybe even an angular and pointed kind of targeting device. Circles have a hard time getting the cheese.
But in writing, the target is always moving. Derrida said so in “Structure, Sign, and Play,” obviously riffing off Anaxagoras—you’re more likely to get at the thing if you approximate the thing itself. If you get closer to it. Sidle up. Don’t spook it! And metaphors are the best approximators. I take my cue from poetry so I can leap and play but I also know it can seem unserious—that I’m not making a point and completing an argument in my essays.
But my larger, forever-point is that we can understand things better from supremely local positions. Bologna and prime rib, shrimp and capicola we can know. Meat in particular is a weird way to approximate the center. Our bodies are subject to so many strange manipulations—not so many as the cow’s, of course, but still—from sitting unmovingly in church to forcing it on 100-mile runs, to suffering real hunger to letting the doctor’s take a big chunk out for biopsy, we know through our bodies and our mouths abstractions that are hard to understand otherwise. If I can mete out the steps from mouth to body to soil to tree to big global catastrophe, maybe the everything-in-everything theory that Anaxagoras offers us not only makes sense in a cognitive way but in a visceral one as well. (Puns apologized for, but not regretted. Well, a little regretted.)
DWM: All this talk of Anaxagoras and Derrida may mislead potential readers, overlooking what I find equally compelling about your book: the humor, the silly asides, the basic optimism. Processed Meats doesn’t fail to acknowledge our difficult times—not just our pandemic nightmare but our toxic consumerism and the climate crisis that we’ve been avoiding for too long—but I found the book itself to be a bit of a lift, a buoyant and invigorating read.
So, tell me Nicole. Do you still have hope? Despite it all?
NW: What is wrong with me? Why do I read about the fires and the melting and the storms and the dislocation and still find hope? I am, as flawed as it is to be, an American. I’m full of optimism just as I am full of cheese. Optimism is dangerous. It’s often plain wrong. But when I look at the twenty-year old kid who invented a boat to pull plastic from the ocean and the water protectors from the Hopi and Navajo nations bringing attention to the rapidly declining aquifer and the local farmers and community-supported agriculture, all I can see is promise. It’s brighter than the bad news—not because it’s bigger. In fact, maybe because it’s smaller. I can relate to the person who grows heritage pigs and feeds them acorns from his hand and still manages to slaughter them and sell that pig to his local pork product purveyors because he spent so much time and energy with them. They had a good and industrious life. The acorns did too. The soil researchers who worry that at a certain temperature the forest becomes a bigger producer of carbon than a carbon sink look at layers of sand and at the nearly invisible microorganisms chowing down on the decaying leaves and I think, those microbes, if not those scientists, will figure something out. I’m Generation X. We aren’t supposed to believe in anything or have a lot of hope, but I think underlying all that biting realism, there’s a layer of “fine. We’ll get it done.” I believe we’ll get it together. And by we, again, I might mean the microorganisms more than the people, but still. Getting it together will be got.
Nicole Walker is the author of Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School and other places. She curated, with Rebecca Campbell, “7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone” for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is noted in multiple editions of Best American Essays. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity and author of To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno.