Of Books, Podcasts, and Leaving Home

March 14, 2017 § 5 Comments

Emily and Chris at Savoy v3.jpg

The Book Cougars

By Shuly Cawood

I’ve been listening lately to a new podcast, Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read. I don’t know how in the world the hosts read the number of books they do, but they each read about ten books at the pace I read a measly one. This podcast is where I have learned about free audiobook resources. It’s the podcast where I learned about Roxane Gay pulling her book from Simon & Schuster. It’s the podcast where I can get someone else’s take on the book versus the movie. The two hosts are Chris and Emily, and they take listeners on a tour of their latest reads and biblio adventures, discuss cultural and political issues that come up in the books, provide information about resources at libraries, and share laughter when they find something funny.

It’s the laughter part I love—though don’t get me wrong, I like hearing about authors and new and old books, and just plain learning since I am an author myself. But it’s the laughter that gets me the most. There’s a reason for that, beyond just plain liking to hear joy in people’s voices.

But to explain, I have to tell you a story—well, actually two: one from my life, and one from someone else’s.

When I was in my 20s, I lived for almost two years in a quaint, picturesque college town. The emphasis is on “almost two years,” not picturesque or quaint. I was struggling with love and life and working too hard at a job at which—I heard through the office grapevine—the boss didn’t think I was putting in enough hours, though I was averaging 50-60 a week. To say I was unhappy is putting it lightly. I cried way too much, and I had to push myself to get through the day.

My unhappiness was not the fault of the town or my boss or my job or the apartment I lived in that felt lonely or any one thing but mostly everything all piled together—which means mostly me. At a little over the one-year mark, I wanted to get up and go, but I did not. I was afraid leaving my job would be failing. I realize now I stayed longer than I should have. Even when I had been sad before in my life, I had always been able to find beauty in the landscape—in a sunrise tinged with pink or the swaying of trees—but I remember one day feeling like I couldn’t see beauty anymore. It was winter, and even with the glitter of snow, beauty had vanished for me when I looked out at the world.

Finally, at just over the one-and-a-half-year mark, I got up the courage to give notice—six weeks, so that I would not leave my employer in a lurch. All these years later, I still remember the final day, when I drove with the last of my things on the two-lane then the highways and away from that cute little town that should have been perfect for me but instead, even now, is washed in sadness in my memories of it. They say you can’t escape by leaving. They say that sadness follows you, but mine didn’t. I remember thinking on that drive that the world looked beautiful again, and I had that same feeling the day after, and the next. What I’m trying to say is I know what it means to have to leave a place in order to survive.

I grew up with a friend who was always yearning to leave our hometown. And leave she did—she went to another state for college and then moved to the East Coast where she had her two kids. Then she came back. Not because she missed our hometown but because she knew it was a great place to raise her children. And it was. But, as her kids got older, she kept saying as soon as the youngest was out of high school, she was heading to the East Coast. Meanwhile, she was making friends, running her own business, parenting her (wonderful) children. The years went on. Her first kid graduated from high school, and three years later, her last one did. Still, she stayed put. I knew she was itching for a change, but those roots were deep. It isn’t easy to just drive away when you have a mortgage and a business and long-running friendships and a history. At the same time, my friend knew she had to go, that she just couldn’t live in our hometown anymore. Two years ago, she got rid of most of her belongings, rented out her house until it sold, and got in her car and drove away, landing on the East Coast.

Leaving took guts. If you meet this friend, what you’ll meet is loyalty, endurance, integrity, and strength. She has always been those things. But now she is also happiness—I hear it in her voice, and I can see it in her whole being. This friend loves books—has always loved books. And when she talked about starting a podcast about books with one of her friends, I heard joy in the telling. Yes, she is the Emily of the Book Cougars. So when I listen to the podcast, I hear great conversation, interesting book news, banter about the latest reads, but best of all, laughter.

Hearing her laugh is my favorite part.

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Book Cougars can be found via the website, www.bookcougars.com, or on Facebook, iTunes, and Twitter.
 
Shuly Cawood’s memoir, The Going and Goodbye, is forthcoming from Platypus Press in August 2017. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared in The Rumpus, Zone 3, Label Me Latina/o, Full Grown People, and Fiction Southeast, among others. She has an MFA in creative writing from Queens University.

A Review of Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir

March 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz leve_By Jennifer Ochstein

When my brother and I acted out as children, my mother threatened us with exile. If we fought, she said she’d drop us on our father’s doorstep. And if we were really bad, say, if we refused to eat our cheeseburger-flavored Hamburger Helper, she’d leave us with our maternal grandmother, Barb. She said she loved us, but if we couldn’t shape up she’d be left with no alternative. If we refused to be civil with each other or woke her up before noon on a Saturday morning or were disgusted by congealed fake cheese and greasy meat, clearly we didn’t love her or want to live with her. At least this is how I, as a seven-year-old, translated her adult-speak.

In my mind, being left with my father was equivalent to being left with someone who clearly didn’t want us since, my mother said, he refused to pay child support. I didn’t think I was assuming too much. After all, we never saw him. Who knows where we’d end up if left in his care? On the other hand, being left with Barb was far worse. She’d knock our heads together. We didn’t know how good we had it, my mother warned. Barb had beaten her so badly she couldn’t lie down on her back for a week. Rather than beat us herself, she’d leave it to her mother.

It turned out I had good reason to believe my mother would leave us. Once, when I was eight, she left us for six months with my best friend’s family. From there, we lived with my father for four months. I thought my brother and I had finally gone too far; we’d finally chased our mother away for good. I didn’t find out until later that we were suddenly homeless, and my mother couldn’t bear the thought of my brother and I sleeping in a freezing car with her that night. She’d had no other choice.

What becomes of children with unstable parents? This might be the central question of Ariel Leve’s 2016 memoir, An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir. In a conversation between forty-five-year-old Leve and her father, Leve’s father asks, “‘Why can’t you just beat those demons and destroy them?’” Leve responds, “‘You mean why can’t I just get over it.’”

Leve writes, “It’s illogical to him that I would be a thinking person who can’t control my thoughts.”

Her father goes on to say, “‘Or if you can’t get over it, then deal with it in a rational, sensible mature way. Which you’re capable of doing with other kinds of decisions.’”

The “why-can’t-you-get-over-it” question dogs some people. For others, like a novelist that Leve interviews, the experience of childhood abuse and instability is an exercise in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, which Leve suggests, is “intolerant of any alternative.” Leve takes the opposite view with the novelist: “‘There are certain people who have been front-loaded with trauma that shapes who they are. They are disabled. Psychologically. And this does not make them victims. It makes them soldiers.’”

Leve seems to become a kind of soldier in her memoir. She recounts brief snapshots, memories with her mother. These memories are like individual bullets that whiz over her head: the time when her mother told her that when she was dead, Leve would be all alone because her father wouldn’t want her; playing a game called “Being Born,” in which Leve’s mother literally re-enacts young Ariel’s birth; the times when her mother told her that if Leve didn’t behave she’d have a nervous breakdown and end up in Bellevue or that she’d commit suicide. Leve ducks to avoid getting her head blown off, but she lives with invisible post-traumatic stress.

One therapist reveals that Leve likely has brain damage. “‘There are parts of your brain that did not develop the way they should have. And the way you function is a consequence,’” the therapist tells her. Leve writes that she’s incredulous, but she wonders, “how does a child build a foundation on quicksand?”

Ultimately, Leve discovers, in part, that children learn adaptive coping mechanisms that don’t often translate well into adulthood. For example, Leve discovers that because she’s protected herself “from feeling the horrible things,” she’s often numb to the good.

She has to learn to live differently with her damaged brain. Leve watches and learns from the young daughters of the man with whom she is in a relationship. In order to help them grow emotionally mature, she is careful when she speaks to them, allowing them to feel and express their full range of emotions so that they can learn how to control those emotions in productive ways. In juxtaposing her experience with those little girls, Leve’s memoir itself becomes a redemptive act of emotional freedom that allows her to remember the instability and trauma of her childhood as she gives herself the permission to simply feel. She writes, “We tell our stories to be heard. Sometimes those stories free us. Sometimes they free others. When they are not told, they free no one.”
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Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.

New Ohio Review Seeks Lopatian Essays for Annual Contest, While Wondering What That Means . . .

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

mr lopate

Sir Lopate

A guest post from New Ohio Review editor David Wanczyk:

Last year, I wrote a post for Brevity about what I seek in Creative Nonfiction as the editor of New Ohio Review. It was 605 words, but it could have been three: Intensity, Ambivalence, Nostalgia.

Essentially, is there a conflict in the essay/memoir? Is there hard thinking and debate with oneself? And are there detail-rich descriptions that enliven a scene (potentially from 1986)?

I thought I’d been somewhat clever, laying out a writing schema that was not quite as general as a daily horoscope or as specific as an Ikea manual.

But it turns out that these three key concepts were only the product of cleverness inasmuch as they were basically cribbed from Phillip Lopate, one of my favorite writers, and New Ohio Review‘s 2017 Nonfiction Contest judge.

On intensity/conflict, he writes, “I was always waiting for life to become tragic, so that I would merely have to record it to become a powerful, universal writer,” and in that recognition of a desire for dramatic struggle, which he plays as partially naive, he reveals that it isn’t necessarily conflict that makes a good piece of nonfiction.

On ambivalence, he writes, “Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves,” and there he teaches me that self-debate helps us communicate; but at the same time, Lopate writes with absolute directness, refusing to dwell in any muddle. He’s not speaking from a place of ambivalence for the sake of it; the thing he’s chewing on is what’s important, not necessarily the mode of chewing.

On nostalgia, he writes, “One has to guard against the tendency to think of one’s youth as a time when the conversations were brighter, the friends truer, and the movies better.” With this, he would seem to pooh-pooh my suggestion that essayists should infuse their work with a sense of wonder about the past, and yet he consistently writes, in a lovely way, as though he were a documentary filmmaker of his own memory, even admitting that he occasionally felt like a cameraman when he was young: “I wanted life to have the economy and double meaning of art,” he admits. “But more often I simply felt torn by a harsh, banal pain that had no cinematic equivalent.”

Lopate’s work—searching, funny, and sometimes uncomfortable—stays in that space between artistry and banality, and because of that, we feel like we’re with a friend on his smartest day, a friend who, like us, doesn’t quite fit in.

“I believe in the aesthetically impure as an accurate reflection of reality,” he wrote in his book Getting Personal, and, as I look back at Lopate’s work I’m happy to go along with that idea, too. For this year.

Intensity, Ambivalence, and Nostalgia? Eh, maybe.

But for all you Scorpios and Tauri out there in the Brevity community, maybe we should shoot for an impure reflection of something true, first and foremost?

If this sounds intriguing, please send New Ohio Review and Phillip Lopate your brightest impurities, your canniest reflections, your things-that-don’t-fit.

Deadline: April 15th

Prize: $1000 and publication in NOR 22.

All submissions will be considered even if they don’t win, and the entry fee—$20—gets you a one-year subscription to the magazine. We’ve also got fiction and poetry contests, and we’re at https://newohioreview.submittable.com/submit

Avoidance and Writing: The Roberta Mickel Method

March 3, 2017 § 21 Comments

zz-040By 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.

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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.

Ursula K. Le Guin Talks Nonfiction

March 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

imagenursula16rs05b15dDavid Naimon, host of “Between the Covers” on Portland, Oregon’s KBOO 90.7 FM, spoke recently with Ursula K. Le Guin about her collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016.

“It is quite rare,” Naimon explains, “that Le Guin talks about her approach to writing nonfiction (essays, literary criticism, book reviews).  We also talk about the risks and rewards of writing across difference (writing as a different race, gender, species), about the four strategies used to keep women writers out of the canon or diminished in the literary conversation, about America’s fear of the imagination, and of science, as well as talking about the work of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Chang-rae Lee, and Jose Saramago.”

You can listen here:

Mapping as Metaphor: Part Two

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]:

zz-riverinePAIGE: 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 waitwhat 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.

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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 DartsPost 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

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping as Metaphor: Angela Palm’s Riverine

February 28, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz riverine.jpgBrevity assistant editor Alexis Paige discusses the art of writing place and grief with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize:

PAIGE: First, I have to say that I admire this book so much—for its technical and emotional acumen. Kafka famously said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I favor such grievous reading. I want to be moved, I want blunt-force trauma to the head and heart. Riverine accomplishes both; it made me puzzle over and admire technical and formal maneuvers and also made me swoon at its beauty and keen pathos. Did you set out to reach the reader on both fronts concertedly? Were you conscious about achieving certain effects with readers, and if so, how did you conceive of those effects?

PALM: Alexis, thank you! That’s the highest compliment. It was part instinct on the front end and part crafty planning on the back end—lurching into the magic that’s generated while writing, then trying to make editorial sense of what I was drafting. Early in these chapters, I wanted to bring together my tendency to think peripatetically, my curiosity and loneliness which have followed me everywhere, my sense of longing and loss, and my love of language. Topically I wanted to investigate the way places shapes us, the marks we leave on each other through both love and violence. I wanted to show the way I think—amused at the way that physics and biology and nature play out in everyday life. I needed a way to tell what is, aside from the event of the crime and my relationship with the boy who committed it, an otherwise ordinary tale. And so the way that I wrote about the ordinary became very important. Nothing around us is ordinary, I found, looking closer. Everywhere, the land is not ours. Everywhere, the past has a dark underbelly. Everywhere, what appears to be one thing is something else. What I lack in narrative impulse—sometimes sidestepping intense, revealing scenes in favor of the quiet image or the extended metaphor, I try to make up in intellectual inquiry. Writing this way began to take on a swirling quality, and I wanted the reader to feel that with me. This vortex of thinking through experience. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just a love letter to the world that says, is anyone out there who experiences life the way I do?

PAIGE: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?

PALM: Avoidance was its origin, then a gradual acceptance of my own truth. I wrote around the heart of the narrative—around the crime, around the boy. The earliest essays are located in the middle of the book. I couldn’t untangle my life in this river home, so I broke it down into smaller “maps” I could tackle, as if cutting cross-sections from experience and flattening them in order to see them. I mapped the bar I grew up, I wrote an essay that toured the different churches and religions I tried, another that takes apart the cornfields I worked in and looks at them politically, socioeconomically, and so forth. When I read what became the epigraph—“Every map is a fiction” by D.J. Waldie—the rest clicked into place. The mapping became an organizing principle, as well as a method of thinking about experience. A gigantic metaphor for life. A map, after all, never stays the same and contains a hundred misrepresentations, summaries, erasures in every iteration. Maps are a kind of precise lie.

PAIGE: Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here is rich with place identity, from your hardscrabble Indiana hometown to the menacing pastoral of Vermont. (Thank you for resisting the romantic portrait here, by the way.) The book’s central river, the Kankakee, figures as a literal, metaphorical, and even stylistic force. How did place identity, and the rendering of micro- and macro- portraits of place, shape the book’s structure?

z AngelaPalmAuthorPhoto.jpgPALM: I began writing with flashes of scenes—writing those important moments that define a life. In those scenes I discovered the personal set of symbols that visually represent the same stories, the places I’ve inhabited. So in the book, place—the window, the mapped cell, the river, all appear as images, which become story, which become metaphor, and unfold again as images in a different location. The mapping recurs, the window watching recurs, the jails, fishing, abandoned structures recur. Vacancies recur in the forced vacation of the Potawatomi, in Corey’s absence, in the loss of life inflicted by his crimes, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in the one square inch of silence, in my thinking of the children never born to the sterilized Abenaki of Vermont. The river works the same way, even stylistically as you say—story meandering, then forced by my own hand to run elsewhere, then spilling over itself to where it naturally wants to be, flooding a map, rendering it false. All the while leaving stories in its wake. All of this is to say out loud what I most feel about place: something happened here. It changed people. It changed you. Don’t forget. Notice the linkage across time. Notice everything still alive in a single moment, a single vista.

PAIGE: In addition to the book’s focus on maps and mapping, the narrator/ writer seems driven to map not only places but also individual subjects and how they fit together. You deliciously and obsessively catalogue and map subjects ranging from sex offender registries to entropy to cultural violence to desire to eminent domain. So many ranging curiosities and events come together, as if the narrator understands the larger world through the act of putting it together fragment by fragment. The book’s identity too seems to emerge out of the narrator’s impulse to suture fragments and to impose order upon them, beautifully, I would add. Can you describe your process of managing such a range of subjects with depth, and with such a varied approach formally–from cinematic scenes to philosophical musings to research-driven expositions to lush, lyrical passages? There’s so much to talk about regarding the relationship of form and content in this book. How did you navigate all of it?

PALM: I realized about halfway through compiling the narrative stories that I didn’t want to write a straightforward narrative. It pained me and bored me to be in just my own past for as long as it would take to finish a book. I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger and John D’Agata’s edited anthology The Next American Essay and Wendy Walters’s Multiply/Divide and Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost. These books excited me formally and gave me permission, somehow, to pursue this more Frankenstein-like narrative that stitched together and wove together the narrative with my ideas about the world and with the external world itself—other books, films, history, physics, notes from a congressional committee’s findings, and so forth. There was little order, almost not at all until the last edit when I arranged the pieces into a chronology and stitched through them a connected narrative. Writing this way was like Pac-Man. Consuming all of those things outside of my own story and digesting them. The book is a little wild, it’s not as restrained or held together as you might expect of a memoir. I took some satisfaction in preserving this wildness and letting the accumulation do work I couldn’t plan for—I wholeheartedly believe in Judith Kitchen’s admonishment to writers to follow digressions to see where they lead—both in writing and in life. To do it again, I might exercise a bit more control. But I don’t know—it’s a record of my intellectual excitement, a record of what I felt after reading those works that moved me to try what felt natural to me—this piling on of seemingly unrelated things until every last one became inextricable from the rest. It was a risk and there was definitely some push to be slightly more focused, or clearer about how certain things connected, but I think we found a compromise that everyone was happy with. Sometimes you read a memoir full of characters and situations that entertain but still come away not knowing its author. I didn’t want that. I think the form and content of this book reflect exactly who I am, in all of its human messiness.

PAIGE: You won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for this book. What was it like when you heard the news, and what has the larger experience been like? Any advice for aspiring contest entrants?

PALM: I already was in talks with Graywolf about a book deal when I received the call from Fiona that Brigid Hughes had selected Riverine as the prize winner. Because I wasn’t expecting a phone call from the press, I immediately thought they were calling to drop me. Silly—and certainly evidence of my feeling like an imposter. But it was good news! I was shocked, I cried. It was way better than what I imagined winning the Publishers Clearing House scam that I bought into as a kid would feel like. I remember telling Fiona that this would change my life. The book has a narrative hook to be sure—my relationship with a man convicted of murder and my thoughts about class in white, rural Indiana and its attendant issues. But the formally peculiar approach to telling that story was another part of why it was chosen. That meant everything to me because when I was experimenting with that Frankenstein-like approach I was discouraged from it by my writing peers—those same peers who admired the unexpected styles and forms we see in Maggie Nelson or Eula Biss or Leslie Jamison. But I pressed on privately, certain I was on to something, even if I wasn’t executing it very well yet. To other writers I would say don’t let everyone else tell you how to write. Trust your ideas, follow your own digressions, read work that informs your work in some way, and assume you will get to where you want to go. Assume you are able to endure rejection and various other roadblocks. You are. I never assumed failure. I assumed if I kept working hard, looked at each step as an opportunity to learn, kept reading and writing with my whole heart and head, I would succeed. The prize has opened doors for other opportunities but as yet, I haven’t had the time or mind to sit and write something worthwhile. So what I take away from the prize, in addition to the great honor of being published with an extraordinary press, is an endorsement from people I admire and respect that enables me to keep trying my ideas—some people will like them. Try your story in an unexpected form, try it in a dozen different structures and see what happens. Maybe nothing, but maybe something.

Read Part Two of the Interview Here.

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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 DartsPost 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


 

 

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