Essays Are For Lovers

February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

ValentineWe’re here because we love essays, memoir, creative nonfiction. They’re not always easy to find on the shelf, and the Amazon browsing process can be…flawed. (Inspired by your shopping trends, this print of Iron Man. Yep, got it in one.)

Over at Essay Daily, notable nonfictioneers including Ander Monson, Maya Kapoor, Brian Doyle and Jill Talbot have listed some of their favorite essay collections, including our own Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mr. Essay Writer Guy and Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang, and also mentions of individual essays, including several at Brevity.

The booklist is itself a catalog essay of sorts, with the editorial comments from the recommenders as charming as tracking down the essays they adore. From Aurvi Sharma:

Eliot Weinberger’s ‘An Elemental Thing’
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, ‘Read this!’ Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don’t know but Sei Shonagon’s late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that’s a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book.

Go check out the list…and choose a book for your Valentine.

Leaning Out: Interview with Jill Talbot

January 12, 2016 § 3 Comments

Part one of an interview with frequent Brevity contributor Jill Talbot, conducted by Emily Pifer:

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

Emily Pifer: I stumbled upon “Lines Like Loss, Like Leaving,” your collaborative essay with Justin Lawrence Daugherty, while picking around on The Rumpus one day, but after reading, I fell completely. I followed the trail of your work together to “On Writing, Like Lust” in Pithead Chapel, and then “On Going, Like Going Back” on Hobart Pulp. The lines between you and Daugherty feel incredibly present and urgent, and the longing on both sides feels raw and open. There’s an energy moving back and forth. How did your collaboration with Daugherty begin, and how does the collaborative process typically unfold between you two?

Jill Talbot: I discovered Justin on Twitter when I began following Sundog Lit, the journal he founded and edits. I was drawn to the journal’s mission, “literature that scorches the earth.” Such urgency there. Then I started following Justin and reading the stories he was publishing (the first thing of his I ever read was “All This Roadmap of Hurt,” in Hobart.) Eventually, we had brief exchanges on Twitter and were reading each other’s work.  We got the idea to collaborate on an essay about the ways in which writers do this on social media—follow, click, read, share, and admire—but ultimately, the connection is fleeting because we don’t know that writer beyond the page (or screen).  That was the initial idea.

Justin and I have never met. We’ve never seen each other step into a room. We’ve never heard each other’s voices or seen what it looks like when the other laughs. So the foundation of our process is the ways in which we imagine one another through our words. I think that’s the most significant aspect of our collaborating—we do not know each other beyond the page. And that’s how we began with that first collaboration, “On Writing, Like Lust,” (Pithead Chapel) exploring the ways writers are drawn to other writers because of their style, voice, individual lines, or some other ineffable element (I call them “literary crushes”).  But once we began writing, we recognized something else entirely—the longing we share, the distance we carry within ourselves, and we knew we had something, so we kept writing, and we’re still writing together.

Emily Pifer

Emily Pifer

Collaborative work seems to bring attention to contradictions within the act of writing: solitude and sharing. What drew you to collaborative work, and what about the process and “finished” product of collaboration interests you? Perhaps collaborating has revealed something new to you about writing, or has opened up something in your writing that was previously closed?

I think the surprise and the suspense of it—the idea of working within a piece of writing that someone else has started or supplied.  It would probably help if I explain our process.  One of us suggests a concept—that comes first. Then one of us begins. Say I begin. When I get it where I want it, I send it to Justin. Then he takes it in another direction, and I’m always surprised and stunned and inspired by what he sends back.  I think that’s where part of the “present and urgent” feel comes from—that we’re exchanging this energy across the distance while writing inside of it, never knowing where we’ll end up and allowing the piece to go where it wants.

Writing with Justin has kept me grounded in my writing, and maybe there’s something there about being accountable to another writer on a piece of writing (which goes against that solitary act you mention).  When I’m stuck, working with Justin ignites the writing I’m doing on my own.  So much so, in fact, that when I feel stuck in my writing, I’ll ask Justin if we can start a new piece.  It’s as if the space I inhabit when involved in one of our collaboration opens up the spaces I need to find for my own work.  I don’t know, it feels so ethereal, the impact our writing together has on my writing—it’s difficult to explain.

I’m curious whether you often feel your work leaning—or desiring to lean—outside of what is commonly considered nonfiction. Of course, The Way We Weren’t is grounded in what you describe as “the fictions of our past.” What were some of the moments in your writing and thinking that brought you to this idea? And how do you balance the tension in memoir between the stories we tell ourselves, and what may have actually happened?

Oh, I’m leaning—I’m leaning out as far as I can over the ledge.  “Creative nonfiction” is a term discussed and argued and defended in regards to fact versus fiction, truth, and accountability.  That emphasis has too many restrictions and limitations for what I want to do in my work, whereas the term I prefer, “essay,” has infinite possibilities and emphasizes the interrogatory rather than the declarative.

My attention to “the fiction of history,” derived, directly, from E. L. Doctorow’s “Notes on the History of Fiction,” which appeared in The Atlantic’s 2006 Fiction Issue. In it, he explains, “That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be.”  That’s when I wrote “The Man in the Photograph,” the essay that has that phrase you mention in the lines, “How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?” because when I found that photograph of me and Kenny, I recognized that he was not the man I had been writing, nor was I the woman in the photograph.  I knew I had written a fiction.  Years later, I found out he had, too, when I read the letter he had written to the court in 2009 (which serves as the memoir’s prologue) detailing our relationship and its end.  He had written a fiction, cast me as a character in a narrative I hadn’t known existed, and that’s when I began questioning my own memory, my own story about our ending, wondering, after all those years, who left whom?

Truth seems an essential consideration to writing memoir, but what role does fiction play in any sort of truth-telling?

What I just said, for me, deconstructs any possibilities of “truth” in my memoir.  Also, so much of my writing addresses the space between memory and imagination, and memory runs free from truth, darts and dashes as if on a playground, climbing and swinging.  And so much of memory slides toward imagination, fiction.  And what of the blank spaces?  Because I admit that there’s so much I don’t remember because of drinking or blocking moments out.  It’s those moments, those blank spaces, when I turn to invention. Because I’m remembering alone (because he’s “not around to tell her that no, it was not that way at all” or because my daughter was too young to remember what happened), I’m telling a story about what happened, and Kenny, as the reader learns in the prologue, tells his own story, a competing version. I think of that line, “We share a history, but we have competing versions of it.” I’m admitting, to the reader and to myself, that when we tell stories about our lives, they may as well be fiction.

Part Two can be read here.
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Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. Two of the essays included in The Way We Weren’t were named Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015 respectively, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as BrevityDIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, and The Pinch. This year, she will be one of five writers featured at University of San Francisco’s 2016 Emerging Writers Festival.

Emily Pifer is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming, where she’s working on a collection of pop-culturally aware essays.

 

On the Road Again (with Sundog Lit)

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

66Sundog Lit has a road-thumping, tire-biting, asphalt-meltingly wonderful new issue — (Letters from) the Road edited by Brevity contributor Jill Talbot.  We especially love the digital work by Eric LeMay (full disclosure, he’s on the Brevity Board of Directors) and the video essay by William Hoffacker, as well as work by Pam Houston, Marcia Aldrich, Lee Martin, Nicole Walker, William Bradley, B.J. Hollars … oh, cripes almighty, it would probably just be best to list the entire table of contents.  As for the theme, Here’s an excerpt from Jill’s marvelous intro, followed by a link to the issue itself:

A gas station in Beatty, Nevada in 1973. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. Who knows what’s really going on here? The blue sky looks so brilliant against the yellow sunflowers in a South Dakotan summer. A flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The night train from Venice. Around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard. The road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges. A road after a flash flood in San Angelo, Texas. The stacked stones of a roadside liquor sign in Ohio. We are half-way there. Speeding the curves of a road braced by the blue light of snow….  It is staggering to be here.

Read (Letters from) the Road

Not Dead Yet

August 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

800px-FuneralNew Pages has announced the death of Brevity Poetry Review and we’ve received a few questions as a result.  No, this is not us, and no, we are in no way affiliated, and yes, we are alive and strong as ever.  See you in September with a new issue, featuring:

Ira Sukrungruang, Cris Mazza, Jill Talbot, Scott Russell Morris, Mary Jones, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Lisa Knopp, Amy Wright, Kathryn Miller, Kent Shaw, Sally Ashton, Sejal Shah, Tami Mohamed Brown, Paul Crenshaw, and Karen Salyer McElmurray

Here is the New Pages announcement:

Brevity Poetry Review Goes Under

Brevity Poetry Review has announced via email that they are closing the magazine permanently. Unfortunately, it appears as if the website and the archives no longer exist. “I offer my sincerest apologies and thank you for your understanding,” writes the editor

A Call for Lost Paragraphs

November 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

An interesting new project from Jill Talbot:

I am currently seeking your “darlings,” those paragraphs that have been excised from published or forthcoming works (specifically essays, stories, memoirs, or novels) for a book-length project addressing fragmentation and omission via editing in writing.

Please send your abandoned, deleted, saved-in-another-document paragraphs to the e-mail listed on my contact page.  In addition, please provide a sentence (or two) explaining why the paragraph was eliminated.  I look forward to reading your lost paragraphs.

Deadline:  February 1, 2013

EX:

to:  talbot dot jill

from:  green dot light

Subject:  Lost Paragraph

Original Source:  ”Babylon Revisited,” Saturday Evening Post, February 21, 1931

Paragraph:  Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain.  It was late afternoon and the streets were in movement; the bistros gleamed.  At the corner of the Boulevard des Capucines he took a taxi. The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty; they crossed the logical Seine, and Charlie felt the sudden provincial quality of the Left Bank.

Reason for omission:  I had written almost the same description of Dick Diver in Tender is the Night and wished to avoid the oversight.

What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth

April 20, 2012 § 27 Comments

 Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to Jill Talbot’s blog essay, Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact.

I admire Jill Talbot for moving the debate on truth in nonfiction away from generalized and sometimes vague pronouncements. By providing actual examples of what she has done with her work and what she sees as suitable, we can finally discuss specifics.  (Yes, the writer and the fact-checker in our latest scandal discuss specifics, but the hyperbole and play-acting creates little more than a cloud of disingenuous smoke.)

So thank you, Jill Talbot.  But on many of your specifics, I thoroughly disagree.

Jill is right that the border between truth and fiction is merely a line somewhere, and unlike those national borders that are well-defined by river or mountain range, the line between Fiction-Land and Nonfiction-Land better resembles the border between two desert nations.  Somewhere out there on that sand dune is the line, and there may come a point where one has trouble discerning clearly whether he is on one side, or the other side, or straddling the line itself. The sand itself can shift right under you.

To pick and choose which scenes to include is a fiction, a necessary fiction, because it didn’t really happen that way. It happened with all of that boring stuff included, but to shape a narrative I’ve pulled the boring bits out.  The same applies to dialogue.  To include every word spoken–let’s pretend you had a tape recorder running during a family argument–would overwhelm a reader and make for a less interesting, less understandable scene. So we edit. The very act of writing a memoir, to say “this is my life,” is a fiction of sorts as well, since it is not your life, it is just some chosen moments, translated into words and subjective description.

But there is to me a difference between the necessary picking and choosing, editing, highlighting, arranging, and subjectively describing that goes into the “creation” of creative nonfiction and knowingly inventing. To knowingly invent, in my view, is to cross that line entirely, and suddenly you are standing in Fiction-Land, even if only a few feet in.

Jill’s first major example–attributing a comment overheard in rehab to a student rather than to herself–is a problematic one. I sympathize with her wanting privacy and feeling a need to withhold her own rehab experience in the context of an anthology introduction. And I suppose it doesn’t matter who overheard the comment on James Frey; the impact of the comment is not changed. But while I easily endorse the need for a writer to occasionally protect the privacy of a friend or family member, I feel uncomfortable with an author protecting herself. That’s a slippery slope for sure.

Jill’s other examples are more clear-cut for me. There is a key difference between the impact of boyfriend saying “Your family needs to drink,” and the wife of a cousin saying it. As Jill herself acknowledges, the gravity of the remark changes.  So it is not accurate to so neatly change the source.  It is not necessary either, but that’s another story.

Jill then gives an example where she changes red wine to chardonnay.  Not exactly water into wine, but harmless enough I think.  Still, why?  And she changes the titles of the library books she is returning.  Granted, Linda Hutcheons’ “Incredulity toward Metanarrative: Negotiating Postmodernism and Feminisms” is a mouthful, and changing to Joyce Carol Oates is harmless enough, but why the change to “checking on a missing copy” of the book?  I’m baffled by the easy step across borders in that alteration. What does the fact that a book is missing suggest, and what does it mean that this “disappearance” is invented?

My concern that these minor changes lead to a Nonfiction-Land where a writer feels comfortable making slightly larger, more significant changes is borne out in the next example.

Jill quotes from her own essay:

I told her I remember my mother taking me once to a lake outside her home town in East Texas when I was about her age and that once, I dated a guy in college who tried, impatiently, to teach me to cast, fly-fishing style.

And then explains:

Actually, that guy was during my graduate school years, but a college self, in my mind, connotes a younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements. And the guy was very, very patient. I was the impatient one.

Well yes, a college self does denote a “younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements,” but it also changes the essence of the scene, as does the detail of who was impatient, and the scene becomes a fiction, something invented to illustrate a truth, not a truth in and of itself.

I am not Chief Guardian of the Border, but if I were, Jill Talbot’s passport would be confiscated until we sorted out exactly why she crosses the border so frequently, without clearly notifying the proper authorities (which, in this metaphor, would be the readers.)

Jill Talbot ends with a lyric, lovely paragraph in which she explores an evening where the shadows of trees on the snow unsettled her, and explores why she had written earlier that it was the tree branches themselves.  And then she quotes Mark Slouka:

There is no map–read as you may, write what you will.

The difference here? For me, there is a map.  The map can’t be drawn, but it can be expressed in words:

You work with what is given to you. You arrange the puzzle pieces taken from the nonfiction box without reaching over into the fiction box, as tempting as it may be. You do your best to pull up honest memory. Though we know memory’s weakness, at least don’t lie about what you think you remember.  When you are not sure, you tell the reader. When you want to change something, explore why you want to change it. Fiction approaches a certain sort of truth, and thank goodness we have fiction, but it is not the same truth that nonfiction attempts. Know the difference. As a nonfiction writer, you will surely make mistakes, get things wrong, remember poorly, but to do it knowingly, that’s crossing the line.

 Thanks for listening, Jill.  Let us all discuss.

Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact

April 18, 2012 § 12 Comments

A guest post from Jill Talbot, author of Loaded: Women and Addiction and the brand new Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, and St. Lawrence University faculty member.  Talbot argues in this response to the truth-in-nonfiction debate that we all “slip across the border at times,” and we are pleased to offer her detailed and honest account here.  Later this week, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will discuss where he disagrees with Talbot, and — we hope — an excellent and honest dialogue will ensue.

===

By Jill Talbot

Four years ago, Charles Blackstone and I published The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008). In my introduction to that genre-defying anthology, I wrote this:

A couple of years ago, I sent a piece that I had written as an essay, then later revised into a story, to a journal. The editors’ response: “This appears to be creative nonfiction rather than short fiction though we do welcome nonfiction submissions.” Clearly, I hadn’t fooled anyone. A year later, when I had a creative nonfiction piece that I thought worked quite well for the journal, I sent it to the nonfiction editor. Response: “Thank you for your fiction submission. We felt the characters weren’t really developed and thought you might move the part of the husband leaving to the opening of the story.”

A few months ago, someone I follow on Twitter RTd a submission call from Matter. And in perusing their submission guidelines, I came across this:

From Matter Press: Please be sure to submit in the correct category; we’ve been receiving several fiction submissions in the creative nonfiction category.

I copy/pasted this border-patrol warning and sent it to Charles to get his reaction, as we remain invested in what we now simply call “friction.” Within minutes, Charles wrote back: “It’s sad that editors are still forcing writers to submit, literally, to genre. If the publication claims to want all forms of prose, why even sift them like that?”

Another excerpt from my introduction to Friction:

Recently, I received an e-mail rejection from a nonfiction journal. Reason: “Your piece reads like fiction, and our readers would read it as such. We do not accept unsolicited fiction.” I thought I had submitted to a creative nonfiction journal. And while the piece was indeed a personal essay, I had employed the third person “She” in order to examine my own actions from a few years back. Experimental, sure, but (1) I wanted to evoke some kind of distancing, my persona’s refusal to claim her own actions’ effect, and (2) I wasn’t anticipating any discrimination for what the editors assumed was subversive genre swapping. These editors proclaimed what they represented as a protection of their readership. As if to say, we can’t have our readers out there reading a piece in our journal as if it’s fiction. Even if we tell them it’s CNF, they’ll read it as fiction. Thanks for submitting.

After receiving Charles’s reply, I began looking up submission guidelines, noting that most, yes, have separate submission categories for fiction and nonfiction.

Yet Hotel Amerika, edited by David Lazar, limits its submission guidelines to the following:

           We welcome submissions in all genres of creative writing, generously defined.

In 2009, HA published a Transgenre Issue (7.2), noting a “focus on work that explodes traditional boundaries of generic convention.”

Another publication, DIAGRAM, includes the usual suspects on its submissions manager: poetry, fiction, essay, image, and–wait for it–indeterminate. I like the freedom here, that a writer can write a piece without knowing what it is or is trying to be, it just is. A nice nod from the DIAGRAM staff–a get out of genre free card, which is helpful if you’re caught crossing the border without a passport (and what is that in our current literary climate?  A disclaimer in the preface?   The words, “a novel,” somewhere on the front cover?)

At the end of every creative nonfiction course I teach, I require students to submit an essay to a journal of their choice.  I point them to Essay Daily, Ander Monson’s blog that has a blog list titled:  Homes for the Essay.  I tell my students to begin by perusing these journals, such as River Teeth, Quarterly West, Witness, ones that definitely accept nonfiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one line from that Friction introduction: “If I make anything up, it’s still true.”

That line is followed by the following section:

A student of mine had come back from Christmas break after a stint in rehab. When James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces was shot down by thesmokinggun.com, my student came to my office after a discussion in my nonfiction class of the ramifications of the media maelstrom. “I actually read Frey’s book while I was in rehab,” he told me, something I’m sure he didn’t want to share in class, which was unfortunate, though fair. After all, wouldn’t an addict in a rehabilitation facility be an expert on the truth of Frey’s foray into the addict mind? My student told me that the book had been kind of a passed-around contraband in rehab, because Frey so vehemently disparages the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the foundation of most rehabilitation facilities. My student told how he’d borrowed the book from a fellow drunk, read it in two days, and passed it on—and so on it went. He said, “My counselor said that all the AA old-timers say Frey’s gonna go back to drinking. He’s gonna crash.” To me, well to all of us the student told, this was the debate about Frey’s book. “I mean here we all were locked up for twenty-eight days, and Frey essentially says that you have a choice: drink or don’t. And he hasn’t. At least that’s what he claims in the book. But none of that matters to me. What I took from it was I had a choice, too.”

Actually, it was me who read that in rehab, and I attributed my experiences and what my counselor told me to a student. At the time, I wasn’t ready to admit rehab, and I didn’t think it would serve the anthology well to have an introduction written by someone who had lost her way in such a way.

Last semester, a student wrote a nature essay in which she admitted to fictionalizing in an essay about the lurking of elk as a metaphor for unrequited love.  A beautiful line, “Like an elk hiding a few feet away under the cover of dense trees, we can hide how closely we think we are to those we love.” The other day I e-mailed her in hopes of getting her perspective on two of her workshops, one in which I encouraged her to fictionalize (shape?) and one in which I did not allow her to (invent?).  My subject line:  Remind Me.

There was a lot in the elk piece that I tried to fictionalize, including how many people were there.  The girl that Ben started dating didn’t actually spend the night at the cabin with us, but I claimed she did.  I said that I “watched her catch his eye” which was true when we were home, but I continue to say, “lighting up his face as she unexpectedly burst into the dark sky.”  Even though she wasn’t there, you told me this worked well with the piece because he had the same reaction of excitement and awe at the fireworks as he did when he was with her.

During her next essay workshop, one about a night when she was fourteen and her father stopped at a bar, the Wig Wam, while taking her back to her mother’s house, she fictionalized the name of a bartender and the name of a man at a bar, and neither rang true. Those names she had assigned glaring like neon signs in a bar window—too bright and shaky.  At fourteen, I told her, you’re scared and in a strange place—you’re more likely to remember how the girl bartender looked, how the man at the bar seemed to you.  “You can’t just make stuff up,” I told her and the class, “It’s false, and it reads so.”  She looked at me in fierce frustration, squinted her eyes even.  In that same e-mail, she recalled the workshop:

 Right, originally I tried naming the girl bartender and I had also made up the man’s name, because, being the subject of the piece, I figured that the readers would want a way to hold on to him somehow.  But you told me not to fictionalize the name (leave it as “the man from the bar”) because it added to the part about being okay to not remember his name.

The respective lines in the now-published essay read:

“When he tells you you’ll only be there for ten minutes, he swears. Walk  inside and choose a seat near the pretty bartender who is the only other girl  in the place.”

 “When you don’t answer, he’ll look down into his foggy glass filled with something brownish, and when he tells you his name, know that it’s okay to forget.”

Those are true.  On both levels:  experientially and artistically.

Last semester, during a weekly meeting of The Laurentian, the St. Lawrence University student literary magazine, the senior editors for the genres (art, poetry, fiction, nonfiction) gave their submission/acceptance reports, I noted that the students kept using the phrase “nonfiction story.” After the meeting, I approached the Editor, asking her to please clarify with the staff the distinction between story and essay.

“Oh, she said. I’ve never thought about that. Is that the official word for nonfiction?”

I suddenly felt like a guard, standing watch to ensure that no one came into the wrong country, as if by insisting on certain signifiers such as “story” and “essay,” we won’t need that 2,000 mile genre fence. I kept it simple and said, “Yes.” Then she said, “I always use the term ‘pieces’ when referring to any prose genre.” I concurred, told her that I use that term anytime I teach a “slippery” work. Pam Houston’s pieces come to mind.

Not long ago, I had dinner with Mark Slouka, our Viebranz Visiting Writer and 2011 recipient of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the art of the essay for Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (Graywolf Press). We’re swapping student stories (rather the stories we tell about their attempts at storytelling), and he tells of a young woman who visited his office struggling with her short story assignment. She wanted to write a story based upon a house fire during her childhood. The details were fascinating and Slouka suggested she write it in a “personal essay voice.” I spoke up: “Why not suggest she write an essay?” Slouka: “Right. I mean, what’s the difference. We all fictionalize.”

Here are some more examples from my memoir manuscript in progress:

My family treats alcohol as if it doesn’t exist, which reminds me of a boyfriend who told me, “Your family needs to drink.”

Actually, it was my cousin’s wife, but I didn’t like the clunkiness of that description in the sentence. And I thought the narrative of the boyfriend saying it would resonate an outsider making an observation.

Finally, I had his voice in my head on nights I’d sit on the back porch, drinking glass after glass of chardonnay and listening to his accusation on the phone that it was I, not him, who wanders, who moves from place to place and can never settle down long enough to establish consistency.

Actually, I was drinking red wine during those months, mostly Big House Red, though my writing self has become loyal to one-grape, and that grape is chardonnay.

The other day, Indie and I were at the university library circulation desk, where I was checking on a missing copy of a Joyce Carol Oates book.

Actually, I was checking out a faculty laptop and returning two Linda Hutcheon books on metanarratives and postmodern theory, but while I was writing this essay, Charles was reading Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her husband’s death, so the author was in my mind.

I told her I remember my mother taking me once to a lake outside her home town in East Texas when I was about her age and that once, I dated a guy in college who tried, impatiently, to teach me to cast, fly-fishing style.

Actually, that guy was during my graduate school years, but a college self, in my mind, connotes a younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements. And the guy was very, very patient. I was the impatient one.

I was always staring out windows in school, wondering what might be going on beyond where I was and what I knew. I’d watch scenes play out in secret, the lone girl clutching a folder to her chest as she hurried to class, the stone house across the street, the choir teacher’s husband bringing her lunch.

Actually, the choir teacher’s husband came to eat with her in the school cafeteria, and my friends and I would laugh at his bright green pants, naming him “Mr. Green Jeans.” It’s a memory that stands out to me, but I needed to place him where I could view him through a window, not across a junior high cafeteria in green pants, where he will always remain in my mind.

Charles has been telling me for years that what I write is fiction.

One more, you’ll note the “Actually,” is part of the writing here:

Maybe it’s because I’ve never written about the moment I knew he was gone. I’ve written an entire book around it, eschewing that indelible scene of one morning and instead focusing the lens on its prologue: the patterns and the choices that preceded, might have precipitated, or the epilogue of emptiness ushered in after it, that one line in chapter sixteen, describing the tree in my front yard in winter, its “branches spread across the snow” that reminded me of “reaching for nothing.” Actually, that night, sitting on the front porch with wine and my despair hours into Indie’s sleep, it was the shadows of those empty branches splayed across the blank canvas of the snow that unsettled me. That moment’s stillness was a suspension, a precarious scene with the weight of all my wine shivering against such a delicate portrait.

Jack Kerouac wrote in a letter: “the details are the life of any story.” And since I’m writing my own life, I control the details, and I’ve fictionalized my personal history. Who hasn’t (in writing and at cocktail parties)? But where does personal history become fictional story?

One final anecdote, I promise, and this from a cocktail party (where I’m sure I fictionalized myself in more than one way during the course of the evening). When a colleague, from The Czech Republic, found out what I teach at St. Lawrence, he laughed, “I always think it’s amusing that the English word, nonfiction, is a definition in the negative. It’s NOT fiction, that’s it. So what does that mean?” Well, I asked, what is it in Czech? “The literature of fact.”

I’m not addressing here Alex Heard’s screed against David Sedaris’s “exaggerations.”  Nor John D’Agata’s “facts.”  Nor the ways in which writers have been excoriated for falsified events, personas.  What I am addressing, perhaps, is:  Don’t we all, fiction and nonfiction writers alike, sneak across the border now and then?

Are we required to declare at the crossing?   Or are we all, a little bit country, a little bit that other country?

There are many countries here when you consider all the boundaries that are drawn and redrawn, shaped and shifted.

I’m reminded of a line from Slouka’s “Eclogue”:

There is no map–read as you may, write what you will.

Where Am I?

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