It Only Takes a Few Words to Love a Book

January 31, 2020 § 31 Comments

baileyBy Marie A Bailey

The first time I saw Pam Houston was in 1991 or 1992. I was a graduate student in English at Florida State University. The university was hosting a creative writing conference and Houston was on one of the panels. I had not read her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in part because I didn’t like cowboys.

During the panel, one of my professors asked Houston whether she thought being a woman created roadblocks for her in the literary world. Houston’s response was brusque and silencing, along the lines of “I’ve never had a problem with that.” I felt that my professor had unwittingly hit a tender spot and Houston had nipped back at her.

Later I saw Houston walk across the floor, adjusting the elastic waistband of her flowing skirt, looking irritated. There was something about Houston that day that both intimidated and attracted me, both as a woman and a writer. Even though I’m several years older than her, I would have bowed that day to her seniority in life experience and writing.

I didn’t think about Houston again until early 2019 when she came to a local independent bookstore to give a reading from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I think I fell in love.

I’m a happily married cis woman but I am still attracted to strong women, of which Houston is one. I saw her from the back as she walked past me to the front of the room. She was wearing a light-colored lace dress with cowboy boots, her calves solid as rocks. Her smile was infectious and her ease with the audience (packed in like sardines) was downright joyful.

By the time Houston was done with the reading and Q&A, I had placed her way high on a pedestal, nose-bleed high. So even though I had purchased a copy of Deep Creek before the reading, I slipped out without asking her to sign it. I knew I couldn’t reach that high, and I didn’t want to ask her to bend down for me.

I read Deep Creek off and on for the next couple of months. That’s one of the things I love about collections: you don’t feel that you have to read the whole book in one sitting. There’s much about her life with her parents, her ranch, her dogs, her sheep, and the wildfire that almost took everything. But Deep Creek is more than a collection of essays. It is a thoughtful rendering of a woman’s life, her journey from someone “born to two humans who wanted me not at all” to “a child of the wilderness.”

Deep Creek is a love letter to Mother Earth, to Mother Nature: “When you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.” Her love for her ranch and the creatures great and small that abide there is the gift one gets from reading Deep Creek.

Deep Creek is the first book of Houston’s that I’ve read. I knew little of her personal life. I read in horror of her parent’s abuse and neglect of her, but I don’t know if the horror I felt was over their acts or Houston’s even, detached tone as she related the abuses. I felt no cathartic cry of anguish and anger, but a steady movement toward love and belonging.

Houston has survived numerous life-threatening events, some a result of her risk-taking behavior. At least that’s how some would see her behavior. For Houston, “it was hard not to believe the earth was somehow keeping my best interests in mind.” She has survived multiple abuses, car wrecks, and natural disasters, and she’s survived it all with her heart intact and open to love.

Through Deep Creek, I’ve learned to marvel at this young woman who has met every challenge that Life and Nature will throw her way only to come through with more love for the wild things, people included. When she got a “precancer diagnosis in the form of HPV 16,” she decided to make some changes. “… I’ve said for years if I ever had to make a choice between giving up coffee and dying, I would choose death. But as it turned out, all death had to do was wave at me from the window of a bus at a distant intersection for me to quit all caffeinated beverages cold turkey.”

I compare myself to her, like I compare myself to anyone who might be superior to me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and had to have a total abdominal hysterectomy salpingo-oophorectomy. I haven’t stopped drinking coffee or wine, and although my cancer is gone, I still sometimes behave with fatalistic abandon.

Yet, Houston nails my truth, and the truth of many of us women over fifty, when she writes:

“Two mostly wonderful things about life after fifty: I’m never sure what I am going to say until I hear myself saying it, and it’s hard to remember, with any real accuracy, feeling any way other than how I feel right now.”

I embrace these words. For them alone, I’m grateful to Houston.

Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

Writing-Adjacent Activities as Diversion Tactics

September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments

By Chelsey Drysdale

chelseydrysdalephoto-1Writing-adjacent activities that don’t involve opening a Word document to craft new sentences kept me in the literary loop this past year. They are both essential to the process and exceptional diversion tactics. I reread published essays and my unpublished memoir as a reminder I once produced. I scrolled “lit Twitter” and retweeted essays with which I connected. I made a list of possible essay topics I will never write, including “What I Learned from My Dead Grandma about How to Stay Single.” I “Kondo-ed” my bookshelves, ditching 62 books that don’t “spark joy.” I submitted a personal essay 37 times (so far) and then wondered if Submittable was broken when the last submission remained “in progress” for eight months (and counting). Mainly, I did my best to embrace the opportunities of the Pacific Northwest as a Californian living in Washington for 10 months without close friends and family.

I attended the Portland Book Festival, where I absorbed wisdom from Jamel Brinkley, who reminded us to “stay curious” and “focus on things off to the side” to craft a fuller world. On the same panel, Rob Spillman said Tin House received 20,000 submissions a year—before its final issue was announced. As an editor, he’s looking for material he “didn’t know was possible;” characters not “on [his] radar.” He’s “interested in day-to-day survival.”

Despite being inspired, I didn’t write.

I signed up for a one-night Mindful Writing workshop at the Hugo House, a beacon of light in a dark Seattle. There I tried to get unstuck. Anna Vodicka talked us through freewrites in a candle-lit room. She cited Writing Down the Bones when she reminded us to “feel free to write junk” and “always have tremendous kindness for yourself in this process.” She asked us to name our pesky inner critic and send her on vacation. I named mine after my toxic sixth grade teacher. As part of my newfound, theoretical contemplative practice, I thought, “I hear you, Miss Salter, and I’m not listening.”

To curb our interior chatter, we inhaled for four counts; held for six; exhaled for eight. We beat our chests like Tarzan and did “goddess squats” and yelled, “Ha!”

Anna asked, “What is a reasonable writing practice goal you could set?” and suggested channeling other writers: “Hey, Mark Twain, what should I do now?”

I left with a temporary willingness to “put [my] energy toward the next sentence and let go of end goals” because “failure is integral to practice.” Vodicka propped me up long enough to revise the one essay I’ve been trying to publish. I quit holding back and spilled it all. Then an imaginary Miss Salter whispered, “You’re not good enough,” and paralysis was restored.

I returned to the Hugo House for a Maria Semple lecture series, of which I made it through three of five classes before succumbing to the flu. With her guidance, I realized the short story I had been trying to conjure was, in fact, a novel. I cursed out loud.

“At least you know what you’ll be doing for the next five years,” my novelist friend said, offering condolences.

Semple said, “The story starts when we see coping mechanisms not working. How are fears externalized?” She detailed what she called “gap scenes”: the gap between what protagonists want to happen and what actually happens. “Characters are forged in the gap,” she said. “True character is revealed in choices a human makes under pressure.” A character’s choice at the end of a scene should be a “one-way gate.”

After jotting ideas for my nonexistent novel, I put them aside, afraid my first real leap into fiction would land with a thud.

Then I went to AWP. On the first day, Pam Houston made me cry when she read an essay about learning to love a man like she loves a mountain. Later, R. O. Kwon said her book sold after eight-and-a-­­­half years. “I was happy for 27 seconds” before reaching “a whole new level of anxiety. I have stayed in that state since that phone call.”

That will be me, I thought.

“The life of an artist is being told no,” Garth Greenwell added. “The one yes is what matters. Don’t let them lie to you. Don’t lose hope.”

Like Houston, Greenwell brought tears to my eyes.

At a nighttime reading in a shoulder-to-shoulder packed room, Greenwell read a stunning sex scene.

“I need to up my game,” I said too loudly afterward.

The woman next to me fell over laughing.

“I meant the writing, but that too,” I said.

The AWP book fair was a writer’s candy store. There I met a former editor in person who said my work in her journal was still one of her favorites. I chatted with another editor about my unpublished piece. He told me to “slice and dice” it and send it to him. That weekend, I cut 900 words to make it 2,000. He sent a form rejection.

Back at the Hugo House, I stepped onto a stage twice to read excerpts from my memoir to a large room filled with strangers. On the train three months after the first reading, a man approached me and said he was relieved my mom didn’t die in childbirth.

In spring I jumped at the chance to transcribe three episodes of my favorite literary podcast, which chewed up weeks of writing time but made me feel productive.

There are endless ways to avoid creating art while staying connected to the writing community; I’ve found them all.

I “finished” my memoir manuscript two years ago. Now it needs a fresh ending.

“Maybe you haven’t lived it yet,” a writer friend said.

Maybe. But I can’t let that become another excuse to sidestep blank pages.

Living out of state with ample time and a traveling roommate was a self-imposed writing retreat I squandered. But, back in California, writing about not writing is writing.

So, I’m back? I sure hope so.

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington PostThe Manifest-StationBustleBrevityRavishlyGreen Briar ReviewBlack Fox Literary MagazineLuna Luna MagazineReservoir JournalBook Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

On the Value of Women’s Memoir: A Response to Alexandra Fuller’s “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.”

February 27, 2019 § 26 Comments

By Zoë Bossiere

zamanEarlier this month in the New York Times Book Review section, writer Alexandra Fuller took three recent memoirs to task, including Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir, Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, and Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, in one brief but cutting review.

Fuller begins her article with the blithe suggestion that Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston should seek counseling, writing, “At their worst, there’s little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional.” She then goes on to enumerate the ways each of these writers’ books is “poorly conceived,” dubbing the works both “special-interest” and “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape.” At one point Fuller even uses the tired phrase “navel-gazing” in reference to Zaman’s memoir, a book about the devastating effects of silence on women’s safety and well being, which Fuller deems too narrow in scope to truly “inspire the reader.” According to Fuller, what distinguishes a “good” memoir from a “bad” one is the ability to “reach beyond itself,” though how this should be accomplished is limited to comparing these works unfavorably to Maya Angelou’s classic and perennial I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Fuller’s is an argument nonfiction writers have heard many times before—writing about the self has been subject to this kind of withering scrutiny since the days of Michel de Montaigne, who famously prefaced his work with a warning to the reader that it “would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject” as a book entirely about him. No, not even the great-grandfather of the nonfiction essay was immune to this variety of criticism, and not much has changed since the 16th century in that respect. There will always be readers to whom the memoir does not appeal, and that’s okay; no book can be all things to all people. Still, it’s always shocking when the condemnation of the genre comes from one of our own, especially from a memoirist as widely celebrated in the writing community as Alexandra Fuller.

shalmiyevAs a teacher of creative nonfiction workshops, I am constantly reminding students—and particularly the young women in my class—that their writing has intrinsic value. Many of the stories my students choose to share from their lives are intensely personal. They write about surviving sexual assault, losing family members, struggling with addiction, living in the United States as the child of immigrants, as a person of color. I encourage them to write toward the truth they’d most like to tell, toward the audience they’d most like to pick up their future book, without concerning themselves with what good writing is “supposed” to do.

Contrary to what Fuller says, nonfiction, and especially memoir, does not have to “be inspiring” or “reach beyond itself” to any great or meaningful extent. In fact, many wildly successful books don’t—think heavy hitters like David Sedaris and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the latter of whom has written not one but ten plodding autobiographical novels to warm commercial reception. Both of these writers tackle almost exclusively personal subjects, detailing the minutiae of their lives in a way that might be labeled “confessional” if they were women. The only real difference I can see between their books and the memoirs Fuller mentions is that Sedaris and Knausgaard are men.

Writer and feminist Adrienne Rich put it best when she wrote how “women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which values only male experience.” This sentiment is still demonstrably alive and well in the writing world today. Readers seem to have a great deal more patience for male writers, whose work is far more likely to be published than women’s, according to the latest VIDA Count, despite men being outnumbered by women in MFA programs across artistic disciplines. Male writers are also more likely to receive free publicity for their work in the form of book reviews, interviews, and other opportunities.

houstonI don’t claim to know how Fuller personally feels about writers like Sedaris or Knausgaard, but I can’t help but question her choice to negatively review Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s memoirs as “navel gazing” books with little substance—even if she personally didn’t care for the work. Because, in doing so, articles like Fuller’s quietly perpetuate the sexism already lurking in the writing world.

By this, I don’t mean to imply that a woman cannot be in any way critical of another woman’s work. As writers, critique is the air we breathe—a welcome and necessary component of the writing process. But to broadly lambaste the memoir genre using three recent examples by women—and from a position of privilege and power as a book reviewer for The New York Times—is difficult to justify under the umbrella of constructive criticism, especially when one considers the subtext of some of Fuller’s statements:

To write that a memoir is “poorly conceived” suggests that the writer should have written her book differently in order to better fit what “good” or “successful” writing is supposed to look like. To write that a published, otherwise well-received memoir is not a “successful” book is to imply it is not worth reading. To imply that a memoir is not worth reading is to dismiss the value of the story it tells. To dismiss the value of this story is to dismiss the woman telling it.

There are so many women writers who look up to Fuller and aspire to her level of craft, myself included. As an established memoirist and a woman, herself, Fuller should know her words have the power to silence those in earlier, less confident stages of their careers.

In The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that silence, once imposed, is a highly effective weapon. “A free person tells her own story,” Solnit writes. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.” In a political climate where women, people of color, and queer-identifying writers are in very real danger of losing basic rights and freedoms, we need to make places for these stories, perhaps now more than ever before.

Because when Fuller writes that these memoirs are “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape,” her words imply they do not have a place on our society’s figurative bookshelf. That they are neither casual enough for light leisure reading, nor analytical enough for its heavier, high-brow counterpart. But memoir does not exist solely within the binary of guilty pleasure and intellectual rigor. There is room within the genre for stories that exist between, even outside of this spectrum. Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s books each bear witness to the interiority of the human condition. Their voices are unique to their experiences, and contribute to our collective understanding of our world. That should be enough.

In one final strange twist of irony, Fuller quotes Maya Angelou in her review, writing: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It would seem Fuller has neglected to heed, as it were, her own advice. The memoir is not going anywhere, and the writing world is harsh enough as it is. As women, we have a responsibility to hold each other up throughout our careers, and not to pull the proverbial ladder of opportunity up behind us. We have a responsibility to value each other’s stories, even when others don’t. And this is what I most want my students to take with them as the writers of tomorrow.

**The essays quoted above include “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” by Adrienne Rich and “A Short History of Silence” from The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit.

Zoë Bossiere
is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She also serves as Brevity’s Managing Editor. Find more on her website at, and on twitter @zoebossiere

Crux: A New Nonfiction Book Series

April 1, 2015 § 1 Comment

Sharing some good news out of University of Georgia:

The University of Georgia Press is pleased to announce Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction. Edited by John Griswold, the series aims to publish two to four new titles annually.

Named for intersections, and for the heart of the matter, this series will publish literary nonfiction by diverse writers working in a variety of modes, including personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. Books are intended for general readers, including writers, teachers of writing, and students, and will be both intelligent and accessible. Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued. As the series develops, it will include non-American writers and experiences.

Griswold is an assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of A Democracy of Ghosts; Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City; and Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life: Collected Essays (Georgia, 2014). He has written extensively (as Oronte Churm) at Inside Higher Ed and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

The inaugural book in the series will be published in October 2015. My Unsentimental Education, a memoir by Debra Monroe (On the Outskirts of Normal), offers a smart and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when crossing class barriers in pursuit of the life of the mind.

Press director Lisa Bayer adds, “Creative nonfiction as a genre is experiencing an unprecedented period of growth and interest—a bit of a golden age. Georgia’s strong literary legacy, combined with the richness of the field, positions us perfectly to make a visible mark.”

The series advisory board includes Dan Gunn, Pam Houston, Phillip Lopate, [Brevity founding editor] Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Patricia Smith, and Ned Stuckey-French.For more information:

visit the Crux series page at the University of Georgia Press– online submissions manager and submission guidelines available here

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

Essay Daily’s Advent Adventure

December 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

adventIf you haven’t yet discovered the Advent calendar of essays over at Essay Daily, let us be the first to show you the way.  Smart thinkers who write well explore various facet of the form, each and every day of Advent.

Our favorites so far:

Pam Houston extolling the virtues of Rick Reilly’s Sports Illustrated profile of O.J. Simpson, suspected murderer and golf addict.

Michael Martone’s experimental look at the fictive essay, Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut.

And Ander Monson’s Short Lessons in Hybridity.

Well that’s three out of four, and the fourth, from Phillip Lopate himself, is pretty nifty as well.  Bookmark the site — they’ll be adding new gifts every day for a few more weeks.

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, 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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