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

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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