Essay as Terrarium

October 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

imagesGretchen VanWormer discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Extinctions:”

My geology professor used to be a ballerina.  A ballerina.  So she had sympathy for us—we “non majors including non-scientists” taking her course to check off a distribution requirement.  She herself had only become entranced by strata after hanging up her pointe shoes.  “It will be fine,” she said, “if you’re not that into rocks.”

Her story was like a Greek myth.  Apparently you could wake up a ballerina and fall asleep a geologist.  Surprise!  “Bedding” means something far nerdier to you now.

My writing process is similar to this in that:

1.  I want to learn stuff, and

2.  I want to be surprised.

In the case of “Extinctions,” while the emotional origin of the essay is Theresa’s death, I really didn’t have anything until I’d read Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.  It was more of a recreational read:  a science-laden thought experiment about what would happen to the Earth if the entire human race decamped.  I was guessing she’d say, Phew.  I was mostly right, but it was more complex than that.

Chapter 5, “The Lost Menagerie,” covers a mass extinction, and that’s where I saw Theresa’s mother—a woman I hadn’t given much thought to as a child or an adult.  I asked my own mom what she remembered, and she said she’d never seen anything as sad in her life as Theresa’s mother crossing the street, carrying those stuffed animals.  So that turned into the first line, and the essay itself became a lot about mothers.

I sometimes picture an essay as a terrarium, and will sit there for a while, trying to figure out which species of words to plant together.  The World Without Us helped with that as well, because now I wanted the language of creatures and a bit of a hunting vibe.  Before reading the book, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to populate an essay about Theresa with those words.

Weisman’s acknowledgments end with the line:  “Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be.”  It seems obvious now that a book about mother Earth would spin me away from my own experience of Theresa’s death and point me toward her mom, but it surprised me, and I learned stuff.
__

Gretchen VanWormer’s chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans, is forthcoming from CutBank Books.  She teaches writing at American University.

It’s Never Just Me: Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”

October 2, 2014 § 10 Comments

An informative, fascinating inside look at Jill Talbot’s writing process:

JillTalbot-243x366According to my laptop, my first draft of this essay was saved on March 12, 2013, when I was teaching an Advanced course on the flash essay at St. Lawrence University.  On the first day of that class in January, I challenged my students to avoid the established themes, the easy-groove patterns, and the go-to predilections we had all come to know of each other’s in the beginning workshop. I even told them I’d do it, too, because I write what I ask my students to write (I’ve read Brenda Miller describe how one of her essays came from a writing exercise she did with her students.) So I told them I’d do it, too, and that meant one thing:  no Kenny. Their eyes widened.

I said, no, really, he won’t be in any essay.  When I said it, I felt as if I were standing out on some essayistic ledge.  Then I knew:  I could write about my twenties in Texas to find out who I was in the years before meeting him. What choices did that girl make that led her to love a man who would end up leaving?  So I started a series of flash essays about my dusty, self-destructive twenties in Texas. In fact, one of those essays, “Stranded,” appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Brevity.

All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven began with Hemingway.  I was flipping through The Garden of Eden and came across one of my underlines: “When you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”  And I thought, yes, it is, so I decided to try to write an essay about how I was doing that back then.  I included the Hemingway line as an epigraph and started the essay: “Because you’re Jill Talbot, it’s all empty beer cans and skinny dipping.”

That semester was one of experiments, so not only did I write with my students, I also signed up for a workshop date, and I submitted a draft of this essay titled “Self-Portrait.” One student said about the opening line: “We’re tossed out of the essay if we’re NOT Jill Talbot.”  That allowed me to see I was not using the 2nd person as direct address. I was writing to myself (and as essayists, we have to make connections with our readers).  When it came my time to speak in workshop, I mentioned what the bearded man said that night—about there being a “little Jill Talbot in all of us,” and they suggested I put that into the essay.  I’m glad they did.

The next draft was titled “Scattered,” and it was.  It wasn’t clear I was addressing a younger self or even writing about the past because the draft was in present tense. At one point, it was in the past tense, but that implies distance and reflection, and this girl of the essay had neither. I was trying to capture a phase of my life from a collection of moments—like photographs—and those are always in present tense. I did try a draft in the first person, but I decided “Jill Talbot” needed to be different from the name at the top of the essay, and I had to make clear that this was the twenty-seven year old version. I let the title do that.

The guitar player, the lover, the PhD student in geology, and the Texas/Mexico border were always there, though not as united in form.  Initially, the only parenthetical in the piece was “(this one a PhD student in Geology),” but when I was still revising the draft in early 2014 (when I had the privilege to be teaching with David Lazar and asking him at the Panera on the corner of State Street and Congress about his parentheticals), I realized I needed to be stylistically consistent, so I added one in each section.

One major change that didn’t come until an entire year of revisions?  The diction. The third section, the Geology section, always had “surveying her neck” and my favorite word in the essay that came from my then neighbor, Dr. John Huntley, a paleontologist in the Geology department at St. Lawrence—who is now rocking it (sorry) at the University of Missouri.  But back in New York in 2013, I called him one day and explained, “I want a geology-related word like erosion but something more sudden, destructive, aggressive.”  And that’s how I got “corrade empty streets.” Only after looking at the draft for a year did I realize each section needed such precision.  So I tuned the guitar section, let the bearded man “[play] the same chord” and “[strum]” the water; I added the bob and weave between me and my lover’s wife, the “sheets taut as a boxing canvas,” and the phone throwing rings like punches. And I slowed down the Texas border scene by pushing the lyricism—all those “s”s and “t”s—which in my mind whispers the beginning of a certain word. Because I still wish I could tell that twenty-seven year old woman standing on a rock to stop so she will no longer feel that “desert inside.”

[Side note on considerations when submitting to a particular journal: There was a line, a line I really loved:  “In the back bedroom, where you thought he would be fucking you by now, the phone throws its high-pitched rings like punches.”  But I hoped to place the essay in Brevity, and I couldn’t recall one “fuck” in the archives—beyond Lee Martin’s “Talk Big” and William Bradley’s “Julio at Large”—and neither Martin nor Bradley were using the word the way I was, so I took out that phrase after deciding Brevity wasn’t a “fucking” journal.]

As for Hemingway? I held on to him for dear life, worried the reader wouldn’t get “danger” unless I held it at the top of my essay like a flashlight guiding the way. But one afternoon, I tweeted: “To epigraph or not to epigraph this flash essay is my question.” And while a few of my followers suggested “Yes!” Ryan Van Meter replied, “My vote is no.”  And that’s all it took—I admire and envy his writing so much I immediately deleted the Hemingway. Only then did I understand that the epigraph wasn’t a flashlight, it was a weight, because it’s my job to show the reader the danger. I added “All or Nothing” to the title in a private nod to Hemingway (not to mention Sinatra) and to hint that with all the “Alls” I had going on back then, I had nothing.

In the end, the most problematic portions of the essay turned out to be those one-liners. In fact, the second major revision began: “It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.”  It didn’t take long for me to see I couldn’t begin with the abstract—I had to begin with “empty beer cans and skinny dipping.” After all, the essay is about emptiness and baring myself.

I’ll end here with the progression and revisions of what ended up being the final five lines. By the way, thanks to Steve Edwards who showed me that “82 west out of Lubbock” was the only way for the essay to end. With “Jill Talbot” trying to leave herself behind.

It was lightning storms in the distance. 

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

It was “Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

Letters you now wish you’d kept.

It was all Marlboro Lights in a soft pack.

Pay phones outside gas stations.

82 west out of Lubbock

***

It’s all notes in the margin. 

A tired story.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

“Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

82 west out of Lubbock.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

It’s the Hemingway professor. 

And it’s dangerous.

***

It’s all underlining words in used novels.

And hole-in-the-wall bars.

It’s letting the machine get it.

Pay phones near exits.

It’s all the hard mornings in the same black skirt.

America’s Greatest Hits.

82 west out of Lubbock.

Gold drinks from a silver bar.

It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do. 

It’s dangerous.

***

It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

A pay phone on the corner.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

82 west out of Lubbock.

 ___

Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.

 

More

July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Oliver TwistBraided essay, hybrid essay, mixed genre—all attempts to define a style of fluid nonfiction grounded in the writer’s experience but with…more. More what? How more?

Leslie Jamison, author of the remarkable new essay collection The Empathy Exams does more. Personal events—getting hit in the face, a failed heart surgery, watching reality television—are written as memoir but woven through with journalism and criticism.

In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better?

If you’re contemplating an essay that you want to be “more,” but unsure how to begin, or if that’s your favorite way to write and you’d like to take it further, Ms. Jamison’s How To Write A Personal Essay, at Publishers Weekly, is an excellent starting point.

Read the whole thing.

Tension, Juxtaposition, and the Origin of Apocalypse City

February 11, 2014 § 5 Comments

reinbold

Craig Reinbold

Craig Reinbold discusses the quandary of gun ownership and the origin of his recent Brevity essay Apocalypse City:

Some situations announce themselves pretty loudly as essays, or potential essays, or stories, or whatever. Think of all the anecdotes we carry around just waiting for a break in the conversation. But then an anecdote isn’t really an essay, and although I wrote down this party conversation as soon as I got home, it was another year before I had an idea of how to turn this scene into something more than yet another arbitrary example of Arizona crazy.

I’d been working on another essay, a massive collage of similar scenes and situations, but the thing refused to meld. One of those situations involved me creeping around the house in the middle of the night in my underwear—with a stick in my hand, because the dog had barked and I thought someone might have snuck in our back door—and ended with my wife and I walking along the dirt roads north of where were living at the time, and she was laughing at me, laughing at these irrational fears of mine. And I was laughing too. Eventually I stuck these two scenes together, and sure enough, in the juxtaposition, in the tension between those two situations—the tension between that crazy PhD going off about his guns, and this other situation in which I was terrified my family was under attack and all I had was a stick to defend us—the real story emerged. That juxtaposition added a greater ambivalence, and with that layer of doubt, that hesitation, that muddle, these anecdotes, finally, came to resemble an essay. So I like to think.

More months passed. Somehow the superfluous was chipped away, and by way of some lucky grace, boom, 732 words, there it is, Apocalypse City.

This here is more interesting though, I think, not so much how this essay came to be, but how the story is still changing: There’s often a long lag between writing something and seeing that something published. That friend’s birthday I wrote about was two years ago, and since then I’ve told the story of this AZ nutcase a lot, mostly to friends, but also family, colleagues, occasional strangers, and I’ve discovered my reason for telling it has somehow changed, in kind of a big way.

At first I told the story out sheer wonderment, akin to, whoa, did you know the universe is not only expanding, but that it’s actually expanding faster than ever!? Crazy. Then I was mostly just amused, having a good laugh at the poor gun-loving caricature of crazy. Then I started telling this story as possibly an actual sign of trouble ahead. Those on society’s fringes are sometimes calibrated to see what’s really happening even as the rest of us are obliviously checking our email. Maybe, I started thinking, this guy is some kind of Cassandra. Which is to say, my thinking about this simple story has gotten even more complicated.

In the weeks after Sandy Hook, I read a New York Times op-ed (which unfortunately I can’t re-find, c’est la vie) by a writer who had more or less discovered guns only when he set out to play with an array of them as research for a novel that apparently involved a lot of shooting. This was weird for him. He’d always been pro-gun control in the sort of unthinking way many of us are for or against so many things. But the experience got him thinking. Later, amidst some city-wide disaster, he realized he wouldn’t be able to evacuate his family, and they had to hole up where they were for a few days. He realized how volatile the world we live in is, really, how fragile civilization is when there’s no electricity, or water from the tap, and food is running low. He now keeps a handgun at home. This writer knows the statistics: this gun is more likely to kill one of his children than an intruder. But his was not a decision based on reason. It was a gut-check. The sum of so much testosterone + fear. Both of which I know well.

Don’t get me wrong. I have zero desire to go all Charlton Heston. Truthfully—though I’ve recently taken up hunting, and have developed an appreciation for a good rifle—firearms in general frighten me, or they don’t, but the fearmongers so proudly toting them do. I still think that AZ nut who’s been doing all kinds of weapons work at Raytheon for the last two years is crazy. But maybe the writer of that NY Times op-ed is on to something.

Writing this essay, I knew my wife was laughing at the absurdity of my being afraid of some hapless stranger who happened to be out for an evening walk—as we were—in the beautiful desert. She was laughing at how ridiculous this fear of mine is. Obviously.

But then, just as I was proofing this essay, here, online, in this altered context, I read that last scene differently. It suddenly occurred to me that she could have been laughing not at the fact that I was needlessly afraid and comically defensive, but rather at the absurdity that I thought I was going to protect anyone with a 2-inch blade cum pliers.

It’s like I just hit myself over the head: This is a drastically different interpretation of my own writing, an interpretation that had never occurred to me before. One way of reading this essay suggests I’d be a fool for giving into this absurd fear by carrying a gun. Another way of reading this essay suggests I’m a fool for not carrying a gun. Maybe the laughter I invite by reaching for my Leatherman as that unsavory character strolls by doesn’t come from the fact that my paranoia is absurd. Maybe the laughter comes from the fact that a Leatherman is a toothpick, and I should be carrying a Glock.

Writing, writing essays, can help us wade through an issue, a problem, a thought. The act of writing can help us figure something out. Sometimes it just mires us deeper in the mud.

I struggle. I want to live in a world that doesn’t turn on a constant threat of violence, but I don’t want to bury my head in the caliche either. I want to believe in nonviolence, but I also want my family to be safe. I dislike guns, but I’m proud to be a pretty good shot with a .30-.30. I am a contradiction. Am I a contradiction? What does crazy even mean? What’s right? I have no idea. Shit.

Writing “Valentine” by Alison Townsend

February 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

townsendAlison Townsend on the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Valentine”:

I am constantly intrigued by the way the past is alive in the present, weaving itself into a kind of tapestry that at times feels seamless.  The moments when I am able, in my writing, to capture that seamlessness, that sense of everything being connected to everything else are among my happiest.  This was my experience in writing “Valentine.”   As described in the opening of the essay, I was making dinner with my husband one Wisconsin night in the dead of winter.  When I broke open the Boston lettuce I was washing for salad, I suddenly remembered my mother’s words, uttered in my early childhood, about the heart being “the best part.” I never knew exactly what she meant by that, but because she died when I was nine, her words, tinted by loss, have always seemed to contain some deep and mythic truth.   I’ve held them to my own heart for decades.

Listening to the echo of her words in my head, the entire piece unfolded from there.  I’d wanted to write about the heart for years (and had attempted to do so in numerous failed pieces).  I’m not sure what confluence of events (or, perhaps, my simply being ready to write the piece) conspired to be present that winter night.  But I do know that the fact that I was engaged in a simple domestic task, while my thoughts flew free, had much to do with it.  The experience reminds me of something I seem to need to learn over and over in my work; namely, to attend to what’s happening on the seeming periphery.  For this is where, released into musing, the heart of things often really lies.  It’s really an exercise in alert receptivity, in mindfully attending to the stream of one’s own consciousness, noticing images and picking one to follow.  It’s the “thread” poet William Stafford describes pursuing.  One holds on to it, walking quietly behind it to a pause somewhere, and then dips a net into the stream of whatever one images one pulls up, gathered together in artful conjugation by the unconscious.  Trained as poet, my impulse in essays is always governed by the lyric.  So I followed the images and was led by sound. All the different kinds of hearts that exist in the world piled up in my head up, as they do in the second paragraph of the piece, in turn releasing other memories.

Adapting this experience for my students in creative nonfiction, I showed them the essay and then asked them keep an eye on their own peripheral images and involuntary memories, things that seemed to be happening at the edge of things, then picking either one image or word to follow or listing a series of them to pack associatively into a flash-length piece.  I suggested that they jump off from whatever they were doing in the present and encouraged them to remain open to seemingly unexpected juxtapositions and relationships, ones that, in the writing, might reveal themselves to be as intentional as those in Joseph Cornell’s boxes.

“Valentine” was also a lesson to me about how many times we must sometimes attempt to write a piece before all those attempts coalesce, powered by a muscle strong enough to push them free.  “Valentine” came in a whoosh for me, fluid as a fish swimming beneath the ice in the middle of winter.  It was one of those rare examples of completely pleasurable writing, where I followed what Anais Nin once described as “a thread of wonder.”  But I know, too, that all the failed pieces I had written were also what made it possible, what contributed to developing the muscle the piece became.  The title came last.  I didn’t realize it was a valentine to all the hearts, all the plenty, and all the losses in my life until some days after I had written the piece.

“My Work is to Explain My Heart” – A. Papatya Bucak on Her Brevity Essay

January 31, 2014 § 5 Comments

bucak

Photo by Jennifer Podis

A. Papatya Bucak on the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “An Address to My Fellow Faculty Who Have Asked Me to Speak About My Work.”

At the university where I teach, I am one of seven creative writing faculty.  This is a wealth.  Add to that the fact that many of my scholarly colleagues also write creatively, that my dean is a pianist, that I have other colleagues who are painters and sculptors and so on.  You’d think I’d never have to explain myself.  But I do.  I have been repeatedly turned down for college research grants; one of my colleagues, far far more accomplished than I am, has, in the past, been prevented from teaching graduate courses because she does not hold a terminal degree.  So last spring when I was asked to participate in what my college calls a Faculty Accomplishment Festival, in which various professors speak on their “research,” I decided I would do exactly that.  I took the time to write a sincere and honest explanation of what I do.  And nobody showed up.  The only people at this so-called festival were the other presenters and the various department chairs and deans and eventually the provost, though she came late.

So I read my sincere and honest explanation of what I do in a kind of fury, which I have not yet let go of.  People were nice about it.  One guy recently said, “That was intimidating.”  But again, soon after, I was turned down for another research grant (maybe I just don’t write a good application, who knows).

So what do I do?  Stop explaining?  I live in a state where the governor wants students to be charged more for taking humanities courses; I’m not sure I have the luxury.

I published this essay in  Brevity because I knew the magazine would provide a good home for it.  But honestly you all already know what I do.  You do it, too.  This essay has rung true for writers because they know it to be true before they read it.

My graduate fiction workshop recently had a conversation about representations of fiction writers in popular culture.  All you ever see is writer’s block, one of them said.  I think he’s right. The most common representation of writers is our inability to do our job.  Even within the short stories we looked at, writer-characters were caught saying things like, I hope I don’t ever have to get a real job.  I wonder: is this how we truly perceive ourselves?

I’m a big fan of the documentary “The Rough South of Larry Brown” because in it you see a writer who treats writing like work.  (I was pretty crushed when I read a biography of Brown and it said the only time he stopped writing was when he started teaching.)  I think sometimes we writers hold onto the romantic notion that writing is such hard work that we can’t actually do it, while simultaneously holding onto the practical notion that writing is not paying work so we should not spend quite so much time at it.  And so we don’t always treat our work like work, and so others don’t either.  I don’t really know what else to say other than, sometimes the best way to explain yourself is to stop talking and start doing.  Or rather to keep doing. So let’s.

Faulkner’s Vietnam: Kelly Morse on the “The Saigon Kiss”

January 29, 2014 § 2 Comments

morseKelly Morse discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “The Saigon Kiss“:

It took me almost two years to find the format and pacing for this piece. The original draft was a prose poem, containing only the story of the man in the wheelchair with the boy. At the end, some impulse pushed me to add the line about the Saigon kiss, a bitter joke among expats, even though I didn’t understand what it was doing in the piece. Quite frankly, I was uncertain about lots of aspects of my life. I’d just returned to the US after living in Vietnam for two years, and I floundered in my re-entry, angry and grieving because I’d experienced a culture so markedly different from my own that now there were jagged canyons in my heretofore smooth understanding of the world. I was mad at Vietnam for exposing my ignorance to myself while never letting me integrate into the culture, and mad at the comfortable incomprehension my contemporaries maintained (through no fault of their own) that made it difficult to talk about the new terrain in which I found myself. Over and over again, I ended up in conversations about either the war or the current popularity of Vietnamese cuisine. Burning babies or bánh mì sandwiches. Neither is an accurate depiction of contemporary Vietnamese life – two-thirds of the current population were born after the conflict ended, and a lunch snack does not a people make.

Strangely enough, the place where I found the most kinship with my Hanoi life was in a Faulkner class taught by scholar James T. Matthews. Like Gabriel García Márquez, who in an interview said that Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet “was the best South American novel ever written,” I too in those pages found myself recognizing situations, gestures, and relationships I’d witnessed on another continent. Faulkner’s descriptions of an agrarian South being forced to reckon with economic subordination to an urban, industrialized North especially mirrored life in Vietnam’s two metropolises. Vietnam was re-entering global capitalism through sweatshops and startups, even as a recent census noted that 80% of the population held jobs related to farming, and over 90% lived in rural areas. The new brutality of Hanoi’s main streets was in opposition to traditions of interdependence holding together the dense neighborhoods and rural villages. It was through Faulkner that I figured out how to write about Vietnam.

When we read The Wild Palms, Matthews related that, after completing the first storyline of the novel, Faulkner found it oddly flat. He realized that he “needed something to lift it, like counterpoint in music”, and so interspersed the original narrative with another that dealt with similar themes from different angles. This idea came back to me months later when I found my own piece was missing something. The story of the man in the wheelchair was interesting, but it alone didn’t explain why I found in the situation a reflection of myself that gnawed at me. It also only showed one side of a particular aspect of Vietnamese culture, and a negative one at that. I had to draw out the complexity of the situation somehow, even (and maybe especially) if it revealed how I manipulated the social hierarchy when it suited me.  At the same time, I wanted to show how this complicated idea of relationships could be wonderfully intimate and friendly.

In the end, I printed out the three experiences and cut each up into paragraphs, arranging and rearranging them on the table until together they formed a greater narrative. Only then, with all the pieces together, did I understand why I’d originally included that line about the Saigon Kiss.

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