Steven Harvey & Sonja Livingston–On “Brief Encounters” and “Sputnik 2”

sputnik2withtext
On “Brief Encounters”
Sonja Livingston
Dreamlike. Wistful. Bittersweet. That’s how students described Steven Harvey’s “Sputnik 2,” in my undergraduate Creative Nonfiction class at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Every week, students take turns selecting a piece from Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney’s wonderful anthology, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and lead the class in a discussion of craft and content.
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Valerie Dinavo with “Brief Encounters”
In this case, student Valerie Dinavo selected Harvey’s essay, in which the writer imagines the night he’d stood with his parents looking up into the sky to see Sputnik 2. Harvey doesn’t remember that long-gone night, but knows he was there to see the satellite with his parents based on a letter he’d read, and uses the bulk of his micro-essay to imagine how the scene unfolded. Our class used the essay to discuss the role of imagination in nonfiction, and the line between essayistic imagination and fiction. We lingered over the language, and the reverberation of image and sound—the way the glow from his father’s match echoed the light in the sky, and his parents’ faces were illuminated “for a moment like two crescent moons”. We read the last paragraph a second time and wondered over the haunting image of  “nails driven into the tread overhead, that coffin-lid of stars,” and of the ending, of the boy and his parents who “stood in a darkened field together and looked into the heavens.”
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Madeline Barber
That’s when I looked to the young woman beside me and noticed her notebook brimming with stars! Madeline Barber had sketched a boy standing in a meadow looking up into the sky. She’d taken some liberties, adding a cow and spaceship to the scene, but had labeled her drawing “Sputnik 2” and had clearly sketched out what we’d been discussing. One of the perks of teaching in a school known for its fine arts program (VCU has the #1 visual arts program in a public university in the country) is that my writing classes include a good share of visual artists who doodle on feedback and incorporate visual elements into their essays and, and sometimes, sketch their contemplation of class discussions!

madelinesketching

 

On “Sputnik 2”

Steven Harvey

Why does a cow float through the night sky of my nonfiction? It is curious. The essay, “Sputnik 2,” was chosen from the anthology Brief Encounters by Valerie Dinavo for Sonja Livingston’s creative writing class at VCU, and while listening to a passage being read aloud, student Madeline Barber doodled a picture of a boy standing in his pajamas in a field of flowers looking into a night sky filled with stars, and off in the corner is a tiny cow that is nowhere in the text. The boy has a wondrous expression on his face, as he stands calm and relaxed, and all of that seems to fit a piece about a child gazing into a late-night sky. Even the space ship off to the side makes sense since I am writing about the time that my family and I observed Sputnik 2 flip-flopping through the stars. But the cow being beamed up into the space craft—where did that come from?

1824685114What Madeline cannot know from the brief selection she heard is that the passage is the ending of my memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, which Judith Kitchen, who co-edited the anthology, chose to publish with Ovenbird Books. It is the story of the suicide of my mother when I was eleven which I reconstructed from over 400 letters that my grandmother gave me. It was a hard book to write. Most of the events before her death I had forgotten, and the knowledge I learned while researching what happened as I was growing up, though invaluable to writing the book, often brought sadness. I rarely get emotional at the writing desk—writing is my job—but several times in the course of composing this memoir I held a letter in one hand, touched the discovery in words on the screen in front of me with the other, and lowered my head.

In the end, though, reading my mother’s letters some fifty years after her death offered solace as well, comfort mixed in with the sadness. “When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really—know her and miss her,” I wrote near the end of the book. “Miss her, not some made up idea of her.” The letters and my book do not bring her back—I know the loss is permanent and irrevocable—but while I wrote about her every morning for five years, the pain, that had been nothing more than a dull throb, changed in character, becoming softer, more diffuse, and ardent, like heartache. To me it was miraculous, and writing the book ultimately filled me with wonder.

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is extensively researched. The facts, though often upsetting, mattered to me and were my teacher. In addition to the letters, I relied on photographs, family documents, interviews, and stories my grandmother told my wife. I viewed TV shows from the past, listened to the songs of my childhood, visited my old hometown, and rode Google Earth to the very motel parking lot where I viewed Sputnik 2. There is even a crucial doodle on an envelope that my dad drew of my mother before I was born that upon careful examination revealed the tension brewing in our young family.

But the truth of this story goes beyond the facts and requires a leap into speculation which happens throughout the memoir, including the passage that Madeline heard. “In my imagination,” I begin, recreating the images as best I can of a reunited family: the glowing faces of my parents as they light cigarettes in the cold, and the sweep of the red ash when my dad points to the satellite casing crossing the sky. I admit that I cannot imagine this moment without thinking about the night that my mother, abandoned by my father, sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee forlornly to the record player, or the day my mother died when I hid under the stairs and looked at the “nails driven into the treads overhead, that coffin-lid of stars that still haunts me.”

But those thoughts do not erase the fact that my mother and I collaborated to write our story, her words mixing with mine. “I took my mother’s words into my mouth like milk,” I wrote, “and fed our story.” It is a gift which we share—a marvel, really—and one which almost did not happen. Yes, I wrote milk. I don’t know where Madeline’s cow among the stars came from, this gift of the creative mind in the presence of words spoken aloud which in itself is a mysterious process, but I hope it was born out of that feeling of wonder which is the bedrock of my book.

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Madeline Barber’s Sketch

*****

Steven Harvey is the author of a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder and three books of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. A selection from his memoir was chosen by Cheryl Stayed for The Best American Essays 2013. He is a Senior Editor of River Teeth, a founding faculty member in the Ashland University MFA, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website (the-humble-essayist.com).

Sonja Livingston is the author of two lyric essay collections, Queen of the Fall, and Ladies Night at the Dreamland. Her first book, Ghostbread, a memoir of childhood poverty, won the AWP Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has been honored with a New York State Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, an Arts & Letters Essay Prize, a VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja’s work is widely anthologized, including, most recently, in Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. She teaches creative nonfiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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