A Whole Life: Essay Collection as Miscellany

January 6, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Steven Harvey

The beech tree rising in our bow window finds its own shape without any help from me. It is a gift from my friend, the artist and naturalist Dale Cochran, who walked the woods with me before I built my house spotting which trees to keep. “Definitely that one,” he said pointing to the healthy beech sapling with a split trunk, each one about as wide as my arm, that I have watched bulk up mightily over the years. He was right. In the summer it sprouts lovely, light-green leaves that turn coppery in the winter and rattle in the wind, and the bark is a smooth gray with scars that mark any blow it has taken. The word “book” can be traced back to beech tablets where the ancients carved sacred texts in runes, and in German and other modern European languages the word for book and beech are the same. As I wrote the essays that eventually filled the collection called The Beloved Republic, the tree inspired me.

The Beloved Republic began as separate essays that over a quarter century of writing became a book. While I worked on it, I raised four children and enjoyed five grandchildren with one more on the way, taught at one college, played in one musical group with whom I still perform, and lived with my wife in this house where I have spent nearly half of my life. The book had no predetermined focus. While I wrote it, I became who I am, and it tagged along, and in the shadow of the tree that looms overhead, I slowly discovered what it was about. The essay as a form began in this desultory way, as a loose collection on random subjects that Michel de Montaigne called essais, the French word for attempts. Some of the finest collections in the past likewise grew organically out of the author’s life finding their shape over time. Many, like mine, began as magazine pieces and later, almost as an afterthought, were collected in books. This kind of nonfiction miscellany has fallen out of fashion, I fear. Contemporary readers and publishers apparently prefer a focused book that drives home one idea, predetermined or discovered early by the writer. These focused collections take the shape that the author consciously gives them in advance. Thoreau’s Walden with its theme of living deliberately boldly announced in its first essay is an example.

What I admire about the miscellany is that it is held together not by a vision, discovered early and pursued single-mindedly, but by a whole life. As essayists put together such collections written over decades, they do not explore a concept or a set of related concepts; rather, they reveal who they are, and, perhaps, why they are here. Like the beech, they grow into themselves over time. It is not easy going for the reader who has to begin anew with each essay and in this the miscellany is much like a book of poems, meant to be read slowly, but as in poetry, the rewards can be great as reader joins writer on a quest to discover willy-nilly what one life is about. There is an intimacy in this method, a sense that the parts are cherished, glowing by their own light without ulterior motive.

But if the writer is lucky, the sum is greater than its parts, and a vision, as well as a life, can emerge, and that is what happened for me in my book. The glue, the ultimately unifying discovery of The Beloved Republic, is the old idea that creativity is valuable in itself, a view that goes in and out of favor. In an age when the planet and its people face unthinkable, unspeakable horrors, the need for social relevance is obvious, but as I wrote, I discovered that art generates meaning and offers beauty to a troubled planet, and in its very freshness, is profoundly spiritual and political. It generally brings out the best in us and helps us weather evil. Those who do this work form the “Beloved Republic,” a phrase E. M. Forster coined for the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. He described it as “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” They are “sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.” They form an invincible army of losers in the service of love. My book slowly opening in surprises over decades can be read as dispatches from this beleaguered land. It grew into the idea and, like the beech, took its own, sweet time.

Steven Harvey is the author The Beloved Republic which won The Wandering Aengus Press Award and will be published in early 2023. His books include a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a book-length essay, Folly Beach, and three collections of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove.  He is a founding faculty member at the Ashland University MFA, a Contributing Editor at River Teeth, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website. He lives in the north Georgia mountains with his wife, Barbara.

Mapping New Essay Terrain

November 28, 2022 § 4 Comments

An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

By Erin Vachon

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

I am considering relocation to another part of the country while reading Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s new essay collection Halfway From Home, a lyrical search for home across geographical landscapes. The serendipity astounds me and sets my pen curving red topographical lines around paragraphs on each page. “Everyone can be a cartographer,” she writes. “Roaming makes coming home richer, for when we explore places beyond our understanding and experience, we see connections between places we never imagined.” The essays in Halfway from Home roam across California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, deftly unpacking violence, grief, and nostalgia through their diverse habitats. In an interview wandering through the rich terrain of her writing, Montgomery and I explored the purpose of making your own map when uprooting your personal history.

Erin Vachon: On Dirt: In Halfway From Home, the ground unearths surprising truths through artifacts, graves, and time capsules. How has the passage of time changed the way you write about long buried events?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery I’ve always been interested in digging up what has been buried. As a child I dug for treasures — rocks, pennies, old trinkets. As an adult I dig for histories — familial, political, environmental. Lately I’ve become less interested in the artifacts and more interested in the acts of burial and unearthing, in the transformation of stories and selves over time. I’m interested in refocusing the work on this evolution, on the reasons we bury or uncover, on what happens to us through the act of concealing or revealing.

EV: On Sea: Overall, this collection examines unseen violence from family, partners, and strangers through lyricism. In particular, “Carve” is a tidal wave against bone-rigid gender violence: “How to hide in the sea with your bones on display, your hurt exposed and inviting. How to survive when your weapon is a wanting.” How does lyricism’s heightened beauty function when reclaiming violence?

SFM: We often ignore brutality because it is too painful, too pervasive. We recognize certain narrative structures and styles and stop reading in order to save ourselves from personal pain and collective responsibility. Lyricism is a way to command a reader’s interest and compel them to engage. This isn’t to say that I use lyricism to soften or distract from violence. Instead, beauty becomes a way to present violence more viscerally. I use lyricism when writing about brutality — domestic violence, social and political violence, gun violence, environmental violence —because it is the only way I know how to make a world inundated with grief take notice.

EV: On Grass: “To me, the Plains are neither cruel nor kind. They are indifferent.” You write lovingly about the unpredictable Midwest landscape, a place existing to “remind us of our impermanence.” How is writing about the character of a place different than writing about a person?

SFM: Both people and place invite intimacy, but we are often more accepting of place. When we accept the indifference of place, we also accept our unimportance. Place invites us to be insignificant, a process that encourages us to broaden our stories beyond ourselves. When we write about place, we decenter ourselves from the story, focusing instead of ecology, geology, natural history, community. It’s harder to do this when writing about people. When writing about the people in our lives we often become the center of the narrative and this can reopen old wounds, invite resentments and sorrows. Writing about place teaches me how to write about people. It invites me to set aside judgment in order to encourage compassion, empathy, in order to understand how a particular human stories fits within larger communities.

EV: On Forest: You write, “Trees hear one another because they listen.” Halfway From Home acknowledges the frustration of the ongoing pandemic as a single tree in a forest, emphasizing the need for community and resilience. Now that the collection is published, have these essays made the world feel larger or smaller by comparison?

SFM: Initially I hoped these essays would expand small portions of the world — the California grove of eucalyptus trees where most of the world’s monarchs spend each winter for warmth, a stretch of unbroken Nebraska prairie, the wetland woods that surround my Massachusetts home. I wrote much of this collection in the early days of the pandemic when my entire world was confined to my small home. By noticing the rich abundance of my small stretch of forest, I was able to expand my experience beyond the borders of my home. I learned trees, for example, are connected by a rich underground fungal network that allows them to share resources and take care of each other in order to ensure survival. During the pandemic this seemed — and seems still — a small lesson that we could invite in order to make a large difference. Now that the collection is published, it’s not so much that the world feels larger or smaller, but that we have rushed back to a “normal” where we don’t allow the small things — tide pools, prairie birds, moths — to be important, where we don’t learn what might be possible if we were to simply take notice.

EV: On Stone: In “Tumble,” you explore the relationship to your father alongside the meanings of crystals. What do you think Halfway From Home’s personal crystal might be?

SFM: I’ve long had a fascination with rocks. My father was a fence builder who taught me to dig in order to see what stories exist beneath the surface. At work sites, he pulled treasures out of the ground and taught me to use a rock polisher to make what was ordinary shine. If this collection were a rock, it would be obsidian, a stone associated with truth. Obsidian is formed when molten lava cools, when what erupted with violence cools to gloss. It is not actually a rock, instead glass, meaning the story is not what it first appears. Obsidian can be sharpened as a knife. It teaches us that what is beautiful can also wound. It is not showy like quartz or amethyst, does not boast colors like fluoride or citrine. It is dark and opaque, black like nothing. But look closely and you will notice how it reflects your own image.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Erin Vachon has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Brevity, and more. They are Hybrid Editor for Longleaf Review and an alum of the Tin House Summer workshop. You can find more of their writing at www.erinvachon.com or Twitter @erinjvachon.

A Review of Jody Keisner’s Under My Bed and Other Essays

September 2, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Jeannine Ouellette

When I was ten years old, my mother’s boyfriend, Spider took my sister and me to the Rialto Theater in downtown Casper, Wyoming. My mother had recently divorced for the second time, life was bleak and increasingly violent, and I was in it for the popcorn. I could never have known—and to be fair, neither could Spider have known—that John Carpenter’s Halloween would gain notoriety as the most boundary-breaking horror film of its time for, among other firsts, the fact that the killer Michael Myers never dies. I could also never have known that I would, for months and months to come, arm myself with a giant kitchen knife during the latch-key hours before and after school, during evenings alone when my mom was at class or out with Spider, and sometimes in the dark of night, when I found myself wakefully alone in a sleep-hushed house. During this era of my mom’s second divorce, I was gripped by terrors I couldn’t possibly name or understand, but Michael Myers gave them a grotesque and unmistakable masked face from which to run—or wield a knife against.

Jody Keisner understands both the power and danger of giving outlines and heft to our otherwise amorphous fears. In her luminous new collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, Keisner interrogates fear—personal and collective—from one sharp angle after the next, with a special acuity for the fears known best by women and mothers. As Keisner’s essays build through the book’s three parts—Origins, Under the Skin, and Risings—their themes reflect and refract elements of one another, creating a prismatic experience of how it feels and what it truly means to be afraid, as well as the impossible yet necessary quest for resolution.

Keisner shares my history of an arguably too-early introduction to horror—in her case, the “chest chomp” scene in the classic horror movie, The Thing—and she analyzes the horror genre itself as she traces her path forward toward the point, during young adulthood, when she develops an urgent and years-long compulsion to check under her bed each night. Both the protagonist and the narrator seek, through facts and figures, to simultaneously assuage and validate the persistently frightening reality of being female in the United States:

I understand statistics. The probability of a serial killer breaking into my home and murdering me is exceptionally low, currently 0.00039 percent…. Serial killers, though, are cagey. According to the algorithms produced by members of the Murder Accountability Project (map), the number of serial killers walking around the nation on any given day is likely in the thousands (if a serial killer is defined as someone who murders two or more people in ‘separate events’).

But Keisner does not limit her excavation of fear to intruders, attackers, monsters, or even the degradations of the human body, such as the chronic illness she eventually endures. Rather, she looks unflinchingly at her own roots—starting with the working-class Midwestern family into which she was adopted, with a loving but volatile and hot-tempered father: “After my eighteenth birthday, I moved away for college. I never lived full-time in my parents’ home again. If it wasn’t a holiday, I didn’t make any effort to see or speak to my father. I ran like hell.” Through both the storms and the silences, Keisner’s mother, caring but willfully passive, stands by.  

Keisner also attends to an array of more subtle yet profound fears, including the shadow of trauma from previous generations, the impact of words both spoken and withheld, and the worries that commonly emerge during the course of a long relationship, such as, do I still love this person the way I once did, and, if not, will I ever again? That’s essentially the question, in the inverse, that Keisner’s husband poses to her one day in her stunning essay, “The Neural Pathways to Love,” in which Keisner plumbs the depths of neuroscience to better understand the transformations in her decade-long relationship:

[W]hy, late at night, do I sometimes sink to my knees in the kitchen and put my face into my hands and weep silently so that Jon and Lily won’t hear? It has taken me a while to recognize these moments on the kitchen floor for what they are. Expressions of grief. Of loss. Of fear. Our relationship is changing. The ‘true love’ stage is over and I mourn it. I hope for something else in its place, but what? And when? How long should I wait? I don’t have answers to these questions.

When I first read “Neural Pathways” in 2019 in The Normal School, I was so wowed by its intelligence, honesty, and grace that I reached out to Keisner directly to tell her so. In Under My Bed, Keisner’s writing about motherhood is similarly dazzling—from the intense anxiety that plagued her after the birth of her first daughter to the resurfacing of her own unresolved adoption grief upon the adoption of her second daughter:

There is a deep, wide space inside of me where a birth mother’s love, reassurance, shelter, and genetic likeness should be—the in-between space where closed meets adoption. After this realization, I am determined to allow my child-self to grieve these feelings of loss, not just for what for I’ve lost, but for what Amelia has lost, too.

Ultimately, the most mesmerizing quality of this probing collection was the way in which the essays and passages, no matter their ostensible subjects, gathered luminously round the single dramatic question of Keisner’s love for and fear of her father, and the heartache spanning the divide between those poles. Like moths in the glow of a flickering porchlight, Keisner’s essays flutter stubbornly toward the origin of their own existence. In “Runaway Daughter,” the book’s penultimate chapter, Keisner and her family attend a railroad event with her now retired parents. She writes with wrenching precision about the reality of truces, of compromises, of imperfect forgiveness:

And I’m here with my husband, six- year-old daughter Lily, and infant daughter Amelia, standing next to my father in a rail yard that I don’t think is much to look at, because I’m trying. I’m trying in the way people do when a relationship is damaged, yet still meaningful, in the way that finding meaning isn’t always a straight path or pretty once you get there.

Later in the same essay, Keisner points to an old photograph of her family taken during her father’s railroad years:

In the picture, the railroad ties my father uses to prevent yard erosion are visible behind us, but only because I look for them. The coal tar creosote on the railroad ties melts, smelling of burnt rubber. Years later, I will read that the creosote is toxic, silently seeping into the soil and water, causing cancer in the bodies of railroaders who frequently handle the railroad ties. But on this day, bad news is not yet something I’ve grown accustomed to and we smile like people do in photos, like this is who we are.

Keisner no longer checks under her bed at night (and I no longer wield a kitchen knife), but her relationship with fear is not over. After all, life without fear is not only impossible, but ill-advised. Yet, her relationship to fear is undeniably transformed, in the way all relationships must transform to survive. In the way we ourselves must also transform to survive, in a continual process both delicate and harsh. As Keisner aptly observes, “It’s dangerous work to love another human being. But we love anyway, knowing that we will fear for our children, parents, loved ones, and for ourselves. Knowing that, as it is with all fears, this one too, burns.”


Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.  Her work appears widely in literary journals such as NarrativeMasters ReviewNorth American ReviewCalyx, and more, and in many anthologies such as Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men; Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives; and Feminist Parenting. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel.

Review of Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Voice Lessons

January 7, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Zoe Zolbrod

I bought Voice Lessons, the new book of personal essays by Karen Salyer McElmurray, out of writerly solidarity, but I didn’t necessarily plan to read it. Like so many others, my brain has been scrambled by the tenor of the news and the pitch of the country’s conflicts. Individual reflections had started to seem like a broken umbrella as the violent threats and acts rained down, and I turned toward full-length works of broader scope, novels, and history. I put Voice Lessons on the maybe someday pile.

But it tugged at me—that writerly solidarity, to the essay form as much as to this particular writer—and one night I picked it up, thinking I’d dip in for twenty minutes. I started at the beginning, the prologue, “Before I was Born.”

Before I was born. My father tells me there was a shootout in Floyd County involving the Baisden’s and the Gray’s, my mother’s kin. I do not know if this is true. A history of Floyd County says one of my ancestors was Belle Star.

Instantly, the tide of my interest turned. Those four short sentences mapped a path back to the place where the personal connects to the world. The placement of I do not know if this is true reverberated, reminded me:Even with apparently factual sources laid out before us, what do we really know about anything to do with humans if we haven’t turned over the stones of the contradictions, considered contexts and motivations, plumbed the emotional depths?

Being born. In photographs, my mother’s face is tired and angry. Her eyes squint at the sun. This was in Kansas, and she was far from Kentucky, her sisters, and the only place she’d known.

Another reminder: the way the language can land a truth. The alliteration of squint, sun, and sisters, of Kansas and Kentucky, conjuring the expanse between the pained, stubborn mother and contentment. The iambic beats of the last phrase emphasizing the weight of home.

The prologue continued, each short passage opening with a phase-of-life lead line. Being young. Being young. Being young. Young.

Less young. I wanted to be a hippy, and I was, after the fact, I ran away from home. I had a son. I heard him cry. Once. I surrendered him and never saw him again for a million years. I was married at sixteen. We strung up a quilt to divide the trailer in half where we lived.

No longer young. Less young. The three introductory pages played for me like an overture to an opera, suggesting a whole arc while luring me in with recurring themes. I read until 2 a.m., something I rarely do anymore, as my life is structured around duty and regularity. I woke up and finished the book, leaving the cats mewing to be fed.

What particular alchemy compelled me? The details of place were exotic but also familiar to me as someone who grew up Appalachia-adjacent and drawn to classic country music—names like Harlan County and East Van Lear, preacher’s voices and miner’s wives. They highlighted the way the rough-hewn past is distant from the striving present but also ever there, especially for those of us who have moved far physically or culturally from our origins.

McElmurray’s situation is specific. She was raised by a severely OCD mother from a clan of mountain people. The details she provides about being washed by her mother’s chapped hands, loved by a grandmother who saved “slag coal to burn,” took me deep inside someplace new. But I recognized myself in her desire, her need, to move outward—she goes to Crete, Nepal, graduate school—while simultaneously hearing the call to return, both in person and in writing. She illuminates how reading and writing itself are a kind of home, a place as definite as the long, narrow outbuilding in Johnson County, Kentucky, where she watched her grandfather work with wood.

In “Hand-Me-Down,” McElmurray describes taking her oral exams, talking to her professors about Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight and the character of Sasha.

I told them she is adrift, that she feels most connected to her past, despite the great pain it has brought her. I realized, after some minutes had passed that I had forgotten, really, whether I was talking about Sasha or about Jean Rhys or whether I had somehow ended up talking about myself.

The essays in Voice Lessons all stand alone. Many of them have been published before. I could have cracked the book open in the middle, read one or two pieces, and been satisfied. It’s a gift that I started with the prologue, heard the overture. Introduced in that way, the repetitions endemic in collected personal essays serve as refrain and variation. Even the pieces that are most associative and lyric contribute to a narrative. I experienced the structure of the book as true, the way images, moments of childhood consciousness, and tugs from the ancestors ebb, flow, and circle even as we move linearly through life’s stages: Being born. Being young. Less young. No longer young. Sick. Old. Watching a fearsome parent retreat into death.

The book broke a dam in me. Back into personal essays I poured, as both a reader and writer. Yet my consciousness seems permanently changed by the political upheaval in our country. I’m sadder. More distrustful. More afraid of people and for people. McElmurray herself is not immune to the cynicism of the current era. In the essay “Teaching Rapture,” there’s a section dated 2019.

I am older now. These days when the world is full of random acts of violence and political machinations, I can feel far less hopeful about the ability of language to transform our lives. I can feel completely empty of possibility.… Is rapture something we can try? Perhaps. Or is it a gift, an unexpected wonder that lies at the heart of the best of our words and, I hope, the best of what we have to teach.

Sometimes at a concert, during a perfect set, I fantasize about being a singer-songwriter. The distillation of story, the way a singing voice and chords can square the power of words, seems a feat of both craft and magic. I experienced Voice Lessons along these lines. It provided me with rapture and brought some light to these dark times.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. She has published essays in Salon, The Guardian, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. @zoezolbrod

What to Leave Out

August 19, 2021 § 25 Comments

By Laurie Easter

I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my forthcoming essay collection, All the Leavings, by author Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) for her YouTube interview series “The Memoir Café.” Being live interviewed was challenging because, like many people, I always think of a better answer after the fact.

The question Sonja asked that I later obsessed over was “How did you decide what to write about and what not to write about?” The first part of this question was fairly easy to answer, but the second part—how I decide what not to write about—was the part that bothered me for days. Perhaps this is because what we leave out of our writing is not something generally discussed.

Initially, I said that if something doesn’t serve the narrative, then it gets cut (or possibly it was never included in the first place). But I am an essayist who does not write in a strictly narrative form. Often, my essays are lyric—hermit crab, braided, mosaic—pieces that defy standard narrative form, so “it doesn’t serve the narrative,” while applicable some of the time, does not always apply. And in these lyric essay styles, gaps and spaces—what is left out—can be integral to the formation of connections made by the reader.

Sometimes the choice of what to leave out is about protecting someone’s privacy. Inevitably, when we write creative nonfiction, we cannot tell our own story without sharing parts of someone else’s. This can be tricky and requires careful consideration.

While copyediting my book, I ended up cutting two brief scenes that, in fact, did enrich the narrative. One of the scenes depicted a circle of people at the local alternative community school the day after a teenage boy had taken his life. The scene described the mother of the boy—her grief-stricken staccato movements within the circle—and shared details like the smudging of sage and a parent singing a Native American chant. To avoid any misconstruing of cultural appropriation (the singer is of Native American descent and many in the community are practicing members of the Native American Church) and to protect the mother of the boy, I cut this scene. My reasons: to protect privacy and to avoid a potential misunderstanding without including an awkward sentence about how the singer of the chant was indeed of Native descent.  

Eventually, I told Sonja that for me, the decision of what not to include is often intuitive. This answer might seem without real substance, but it is in fact a huge part of how I work as a writer. I trust my gut, go with my instincts.

After the interview, I realized I could have talked about how when my publisher sent my manuscript out for peer review, one reviewer said they wished to know more about my relationship with my husband and suggested I expand the manuscript to focus more on our marriage. In the peer review process for a university press, if the reviews come back positive, recommending publication, the author writes a response to the press, addressing the reviewers’ comments and detailing what changes will be made. This left me with a conundrum: do I heed this reviewer’s suggestions?

What I felt strong and clear, what my gut was telling me, was that the book was not about our marriage. Our relationship was threaded into the manuscript, but it was not the main theme, and I did not want to restructure the manuscript to focus on that. That was not my intention for the book.

If I could go back and revise my answer to Sonja, after having the time to obsess think about it, Intuition + Intention is how I decide what to leave out. Is it my intention to expose a grieving mother at her most vulnerable? Is it my intention for readers to potentially misconstrue a situation and perceive it as cultural appropriation? Is it my intention to write a memoir about my marriage or is this essay collection about the rugged terrain of the human heart, what it means to experience love and loss or the potential of losing? When I ask, what is my intention? and I listen to my intuition, that’s how I know what to leave out.


Laurie Easter’s debut essay collection, All the Leavings, is forthcoming from Oregon State University Press in October 2021 (and can be pre-ordered now). Her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others,and are forthcoming in Brevity and A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. She lives and writes from an off-grid cabin in the woods of southern Oregon. For more, visit laurieeaster.com.

A Creative Nonfiction Class Interviews Ryan Van Meter

January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Jill Talbot

The two required texts in the fall 2011 creative nonfiction writing course I taught at St. Lawrence University were the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (Touchstone, 2007) and Ryan Van Meter’s essay collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Sarabande Books, 2011). I contacted Ryan, asking if he’d be willing to participate in the class’s study of his work by answering students’ questions via e-mail, which he generously agreed to do.

Before students submitted their questions, they read two interviews with Ryan, one that appeared in Bookslut and one I conducted for Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, forthcoming 2012), so they could get a sense of the questions he had already addressed as well as how to approach writers in interviews.

I sent Ryan’s answers to the students to read before the next class, and when we came back together, I projected each answer onto a large screen so we might measure his ideas and approaches to writing against our own study of creative nonfiction, as well as our own writing.

Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is featured in New York Magazine’s The Year in Books and The Millions’ Year in Reading. His work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, The Normal School magazine, Ninth Letter and Fourth Genre, among others, and has been selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009. He holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Q: Why did you choose the essay “If You Knew Then What I Know Now” as the namesake title for your collection?

RV: Of all of the essays in the book, this one was the first I wrote; it was specifically inspired by a Julie Orringer short story (from her excellent collection How to Breathe Underwater) titled “Notes to a Sixth Grade Self.” Even months after the reunion, I couldn’t believe this guy had actually apologized to me. Couldn’t believe this guy apologized, but also couldn’t believe in the contrived perfection of the neatness of a bully apologizing to his nerd at a reunion. It’s basically a Lifetime movie. But it was with that apology in mind that I couldn’t stop thinking about the original terrible moment at Mark’s house, how in some ways it had been worth all its pain because of the apology.

So it became the title of the whole book because so much of the collection is about looking back to pivotal, transformative moments from the point of view of later understanding or revelation. In other words, all those awkward, embarrassing moments were also worth something – they were, in a strange way, gifts. In all of the essays, I strove to create a sense of generosity for all of the characters, even the antagonists, especially the bullies. That narrative sense of encompassing sympathy felt most succinctly encapsulated by this essay’s title.

Q: While you were writing these pieces, did you ever have the intention for your writing to make anyone confront you or help people you knew understand you better, or did you write with a broader audience in mind?

RV: I try not to think too much about audience when I’m writing. (Audience is a publishing concern; being good at writing and being good at publishing are entirely different skills.) I think no matter who is writing or what you’re writing, we all strive to reach as many good readers of our work as we can find. Or that our work can find. I tried to make these experiences as universal as possible – to simultaneously feel authentic or to “ring true” but also to be surprising, revealing, offering something new. I never thought of an essay as a mode of starting a conversation with a particular person from my past. When I imagine an essay trying to do that, I can’t see how it would appeal to any other reader besides that one person, so then, why not just send that person a message via Facebook?

Q: Regarding memory vs. truth in creative nonfiction: Where do you draw the line between pure documentation of truth and manipulating the truth for the benefit of your point in the story? When is it permissible to change details when telling a story? How difficult is it to remember the details and, more importantly, how you thought and viewed the world at different times in your life, especially when writing from the perspective of a very young child? Did you keep a journal?

RV: I don’t know anything about neuroscience, but my hypothesis is that the imagination and the memory reside in the same fold of our brains. It might even be the case that we use one to access the other – that in order to claim something from the filing cabinet of memory, we use the imagination to pull open the drawer. So I don’t get hung up on whether some detail I “remember” is the literal truth from when I was five years old. You have to trust yourself. And you have to recognize that getting uptight about the rigid truth of details during composing (the first impulse of writing) is a terrific way to put a big obstacle in your way or to stop the writing altogether.

But back to trusting yourself. If you’re writing about an experience from when you were five years old, of course you don’t remember entire conversations or what your mother was wearing on some Tuesday. But in the service of the reader, you create from your paltry memory a re-imagining of the experience. (Which is not the same thing as making up a jail sentence you didn’t serve as a way to make yourself seem like a badass.) You put yourself back in the moment. That’s your whole job. You might not remember exactly what your mother said on that one day, but you know how she talked. You don’t remember what she was wearing that day, but you know how she dressed. If you only remember one thing, say one object, then you use that one thing to put the rest of the scene together (or back together.) Picture it in your mind, in all its detail, then just look to the left of it and write down what’s there. Then look to the left of that, and on.

And sometimes, for the sake of the story, you have to change or alter certain truths. You have to ignore that there were other people present in an experience because they weren’t essential to the action and the reader doesn’t want to keep up with all the names. You have to conflate two very similar days for the pacing, because to the reader, there’s no consequence of collapsing that time. I don’t think we’re allowed to make up anything, or make any change that is a verifiable fact that could be looked up somewhere. But if you’re making decisions for the sake of the reader’s ease with the story, then I think it’s allowed.

I do have a pretty competent memory, and I have kept a journal at certain points in my life, but I didn’t refer to any of them in creating this collection, with the exception of “Things I Will Want to Tell You.” I hadn’t written in a journal in years, but at a therapist’s suggestion, I started writing about that experience, and in one weekend, I filled 40 pages, front and back.

Q: A question about endings: At the end of the essay “Cherry Bars,” when you and Angie are ducking down in her car to avoid being seen by Claire and Kevin, you conclude the essay with them nearing the car, without explaining what happens. Do Claire and Kevin discover the two of you, and if so what comes of it, or were you somehow able to go through with the cherry bar sabotage?

RV: Oh, yes, they discovered us, cherry-red handed, so to speak, and no, we never did get the chance to commit vandalism by way of dessert. Which is probably fortunate for all involved. But your question raises an interesting point about endings. Just as I prefer writing beginnings of essays with the action already in motion, I like creating endings that simultaneously satisfy the reader while opening (or leaving open) new possibilities. Some combination of “life goes on” and “this part is over.”

In my writing classes, we call the ending that tries too hard to wrap up and create closure the “All in all, it was a really weird summer” sentence. After a semester with me, my students can recite “All in all…” in unison on command. I try to encourage in them a phobia of that kind of ending. The ending of “Cherry Bars” ends the “story” of that particular afternoon, but hopefully also hints at trouble still to come, years ahead. The final sentence also contains the same gesture (turning off music) as the first sentence, which hopefully achieves another kind of closure.

Q. Could you offer tips on writing essays about your life and not allowing the narrative to wander?

RV: I actually think you need to allow yourself to wander when you’re writing. You have to bump into things, stumble over a forgotten memory or some aspect of the experience you didn’t even know was there. I’m a big fan and proponent of free-writing. I hardly ever know where I’m going when I start something; I just sit down with an empty notebook and start writing as fast as I can. After I’ve gathered a lot of pages, and have found an opening section, a first sentence that exemplifies the voice and introduces the “problem” of the essay, I start transcribing to the computer (and voila! your “first” draft is already your second!). When I’m working in a Word document, that’s when I start asking, “What is this essay about?” or “What is the focus here?” It’s only after you have the structure and the direction and the details that you start discovering the insight that will surprise you. If there’s nothing in your essay that surprises you, how could it ever surprise the reader?

Once you know what your essay is about, that’s when you go back and cross out anything that doesn’t belong, which makes it look focused. That’s the trick: Stumbling around until you get somewhere interesting and then covering your tracks so it looks as though you knew what you were doing the whole time.


Jill Talbot is the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, forthcoming spring 2012). She is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal, 2007) and the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press, 2008). Her work has appeared in Under the Sun, Cimarron Review, Notre Dame Review and Ecotone, among others. She teaches at St. Lawrence University, in northern New York.

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