October 3, 2014 § 9 Comments
A guest post from our friend Nina Gaby:
At a recent writer’s workshop on short form essay writing I scuffled to the edge of my chair, the proverbial ADHD kid, as if I knew all about the idea that had only made a half sentence out of the workshop leader’s mouth. The ever patient Barbara Hurd, the workshop leader, was recapping a craft article from September’s Writer’s Chronicle by Sean Ironman where he describes the z-axis in essay writing. This is an article that I had not read much less heard of, but I had already figured out the moment she began to talk. “Pick me! Pick me!” I waved from my seat. Just the mere suggestion of an axis that spanned a third dimension was too much for me to quietly bear alone.
Ironman describes the process of artist Joe Rivera. The award winning cartoonist Rivera often talks of moving his paintbrush not only up and over along the obvious x and y axes of the page, but also up and away from the page– the z axis. “The z-axis is the artist’s distance from the page,” I would later read. “When the brush is kept close, the mark is thick and dark. The farther away the brush is from the page, the thinner the mark. Altering the thickness and darkness of a line gives the image perspective, depth.”  So the axis must continue, I extrapolate. Not just past and present but through. Piercing the heart of the page. I totally know this, I think, I’ve just not heard it put quite this way. It’s just like what I do as a therapist, like what I did as an art student. Like what I’m trying to do as an editor.
Hurd used this as a means to explore the craft of the short essay, reminding us that the obvious story was very different from the real story, depending on the writer’s distance from the page. Yeah, yeah, I read Gornick, I am impatient. I know the difference between the situation and the story. But then she told a workshop participant whose words were just shared that she still hadn’t exposed the real story. I got uncomfortable at that, stopped waving my hand. How many times have I let the real story slip by? “Keep going,” said Hurd. Deeper.
I move the mental brush back and forth, up and down, as I generalize this to the process of editing, which I had just spent two months doing. I am a somewhat neophyte essayist, putting together my own anthology, and by virtue of that, becoming a neophyte editor.
But I am not a neophyte psychotherapist. Nor am I a neophyte artist. I know about the pressure on a line, the quality of a shadow, when the z-axis may be too close to the bone, when to draw back. Too much. Too little. It’s all about the contract we have with the subject – be it image or patient or essay contributor. Splice, slice, dice. With permission, of course. Find the connective tissue. Respect the data and the discomfort. I found myself doing the same thing with the 24 essays handed to me by the contributors of my anthology. At first I’m not even sure I know what I’m doing. Then I realize – it’s the same thing I always do.
My first day back from the writer’s conference I entered my workplace, my “real job,” to find a handwritten letter left for me by a patient who had been discharged while I was gone. “Thank you for helping me save my life.” Note I didn’t save the patient’s life, as if I were an EMT in the field shoring up blood or a surgeon in the operating room splicing pieces together. My contract intact – I just helped.This, the very same day that I prepared my anthology’s final manuscript, gathering together all that data for the publisher.
And the contract is the same, the parallels obvious as I wave excitedly from my imaginary seat. “Here,” says the patient, the writer, “I offer you my words, I offer you my narrative, I offer you my history.” The patient’s own thoughts, like the writer’s own words, may just need some help searing a path through the extraneous tissue, a flashlight along the z axis, getting to the vital energy at the heart of their matter. Sean Ironman, Writing the Z-Axis: Reflection in the Nonfiction Workshop, The Writer’s Chronicle,September 2014
Nina Gaby is a past contributor to the Brevity blog. By day she is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and the rest of the time a writer, visual artist, serial television addict and sometimes blogger at www.ninagaby.com. Her anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women,which includes two flash essays, is being published in early 2015 by She Writes Press.