Paige Bryson & Rachael Speck: Navigating Undergraduate Publications

Navigating the world of undergraduate publication can be difficult. There are so many undergraduate journals, and every journal has different submission guidelines. Trying to find the journal that is most suitable to submit work to can be tiring. After searching through New Pages and getting recommendations from faculty members, we have compiled a short list of some literary journals which publish undergraduate work. All of these journals accept work from undergraduates across the nation, do not have a submission fee, and accept simultaneous submissions, making it even easier for students to get their work out into the world.

Green Blotter | Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania

Green Blotter

Green Blotter is a print literary journal published by Green Blotter Literary Society – a group of undergraduate students at Lebanon Valley College – which accepts fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art from undergraduate students around the world. Accepted visual art submissions are featured in the journal and are considered for the cover. Founded in 1933 by Dr. Struble, former chair of the English department, Green Blotter Literary Society has been talking about literature and art for over 80 years. Originally a campus-only publication, Green Blotter has expanded to accept work from around the world; their most recent issue featured work by a student from Nigeria. Green Blotter publishes one issue each spring, but submissions are accepted year-round; submissions for the 2018 issue close on February 15th, 2018. Published students receive two contributor’s copies. To find out information about the Green Blotter staff, past issues, submission guidelines, and more, visit their website.

 

Duende | Goddard College, Vermont

Duende Logo

Duende is an online literary journal accepting a wide range of prose, poetry, hybrid styles, translations, stage plays, screenplays, and visual art. They are specifically interested in collaborations between two or more writers or artists and writers. Duende accepts visual art submissions year-round and accepts all other genres until November 30th for the upcoming issue. Check them out here.

 

Watershed Review | California State University, California

Watershed Review

Watershed Review looks for creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and art. Submissions for their Spring issue open on January 1st. The Quoin Collective, a group of people dedicated to letterpress printing, choose one prose or poetry piece from every issue to be made into a broadside print. Find out more about them here.

 

Polaris | Ohio Northern University, Ohio

Polaris

Polaris aims to exhibit the best voices in the undergraduate world, publishing nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and visual art. They award first and second place cash prizes in each genre. Submissions are currently open for the 2017-2018 issue! More information can be found here.

 

Oakland Arts Review | Oakland University, Michigan

Oakland Arts ReviewOakland Arts Review (OAR) looks for literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, screenwriting, and visual art from undergraduates across the globe. OAR also accepts poetry and nonfiction submissions addressing the life of a Muslim in America for the Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh Prize. While their submissions for this year’s issue closed on November 15th, check back next year for your chance to be published in this up-and-coming literary journal. Find their past issues and more information here.

 

Collision Literary Magazine | University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Collision

Collision Literary Magazine accepts poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art from undergraduate students. This journal especially focuses on pieces that experiment with form. Collision considers every submission for special recognition, awarding a cash prize to the top three pieces chosen by their staff. Collision is accepting submissions for their 2018 issue until March 9th, 2018. Find out more here.

 

Allegheny Review | Allegheny College, Pennsylvania

Allegheny Review

Allegheny Review will publish its 32nd issue of undergraduate work in 2018. The submission deadline for this journal has already passed, but check back next year to submit your prose, poetry, or creative nonfiction pieces. Allegheny Review also offers entry into their prose and poetry awards for a $5 fee. Read more about them here.

****

Paige Bryson is a sophomore at Lebanon Valley College studying English and Business Administration. She is the managing editor for Green Blotter. Paige hopes to work for a publishing company when she graduates in 2020.

Paige Bryson Bio Picture

Rachael Speck is a sophomore English major at Lebanon Valley College. She is an assistant poetry editor for Green Blotter.

Rachael Speck Bio Picture

 

“These Little Returns” by Desirae Matherly (NFNOW17 Panel: Talk 5 of 5)

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”

“These Little Returns” by Desirae Matherly

The subject of repetition has long been a concern of mine, ever since my very first nonfiction workshop in 1999. In that class I would read Philip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay for the first time, and I would read his introduction again many more times, using it in my own workshops, sometimes able to recite passages from it as if it were holy scripture. In the section titled “The Contractions and Expansions of the Self,” Lopate describes one critical difference between memoirists and essayists:

A memoirist is entitled to move in a linear direction, accruing extra points of psychological or social shading from initial set-ups, like a novelist, the deeper he or she moves in the narrative. There is no need to keep explaining who the narrator or the narrator’s father or mother are at the beginning of each chapter. The personal essayist, though, cannot assume that the reader will ever have read anything by him or her before, and so must reestablish a persona each time and embed it in a context by providing sufficient autobiographical background. This usually means having to repeat basic circumstances of his life materials over and over–a wildly wasteful procedure, from the standpoint of narrative economy. Far better, you would think, for the essayist to get it over with once and for all and simply write his life story in a linear fashion. But for one thing, he may, in a fit of modesty, feel that his life story is not worth telling in toto, even if a portion of it seems to be.

27432I write only from the perspective of an essayist from this point on. I will likely never have the stamina to begin a story at the beginning and stay a true course through chapters into memoir. I find Lopate’s thoughts on repetition to be accurate in terms of my own experience. As a fledgling essayist, there was always a specific point along the timeline of my personal history that seemed relevant to whatever essay I was working on. In some place or another I felt compelled to bring up the subject of my father’s death.

My first personal essay written for my first graduate workshop was about guns, because my father had died from a gunshot wound when I was five years old. I had always enjoyed shooting rifles and felt that the subject of that essay was more about being a Native Appalachian and a tomboy surrounded by boy cousins than about the death of my father. Another essay I eventually published was about mental illness and the weather, and while telling the story of how my father took pleasure in watching storms, I also impatiently glossed over his death, which was never determined to be suicide or accident, but in the context of that essay seemed more likely to be the end result of his depression and divorce. I no longer believed the myth that he had tripped over his gun. A surprisingly dark essay I never published about snipers, revenge, and infidelity at the end of my marriage also revealed new information, that it had been a high powered rifle and not a shotgun that had killed my father. Yet another unpublished essay was entirely about the mystery of his death, and the story I’d heard that he had been playing a game with friends, they had been drinking, and his best friend had shot him accidentally when he leaned out from a tree. I am not sure how many of my other essays mention my father’s death, but for the first few years of my essaying life I found it to be the kernel of everything I wrote.

To be fair, a familiar or personal essay is utterly dependent on the rapport that the writer builds with the reader, and we come to know essayists through what is constant to their experiences and identities, in the same way we expect our friends to maintain some consistent version of themselves over time. Repetition is familiar, comforting, and natural. It is routine, the opposite of chaos. Of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, Heinrich Heine wrote that: “Getting up, drinking coffee, writing, giving lectures, eating, taking a walk, everything had its set time, and the neighbors knew precisely that the time was 3:30 P.M. when Kant stepped outside his door with his gray coat and the Spanish stick in his hand.” I think we can all find some things that people repeatedly do to be a function of personality, and therefore we would expect the same characterizing, repetitive gestures in the writers we enjoy most. This is the continuity of style, of human nature to preserve the equilibrium of the self, which Kant termed “a certain uniformity.”

In my most recent writing project my father’s death is mentioned in four essays, and one of those essays, the first in the entire work, is an essay about repetition. This particular essay is called “Blueprint” and it explores the anxiety of repetitive error, especially with regard to love, and being afraid of making the same mistakes repeatedly. It is about falling in love with the same kinds of people who can repeat for me the pain of losing my father over and over again. indexThe essay is also about American Blues songs, Bach’s Art of Fugue, and musical structures in counterpoint, but it is at heart about feeling trapped in a cycle that is inescapable, a future that has been written out in advance. What if a central trauma in your life is the solitary track that you play over and over again in variation? A single theme that is repeated with only the voices shifting place, with regard to who carries the melody and when?

The anxieties that writers have over repetition may go far beyond this personal one that I mention here. There is the fear of not being original, of repeating a story of one’s personal experience that mirrors that of someone else, or of not finding new ways to tell one’s one experience to others without recycling phrases that have begun to seem like mantras. We can sometimes over-identify with the stories we tell others about ourselves to the point that we cannot see any other perspective. I can easily lock myself into the cage of that essayist who only writes about love or music or <fill in the blank here> of whatever it is that I return to again and again.

Repeating one’s self can take many forms, from being drawn to writing about the same subjects to reiterating personal details from one essay to the next. For others, repetition is like a mirror, perhaps even a lyric suggestion leading to productive digression which spirals out, advancing the breadth of the questions. Poets know the power of a repeated line, or a rhyming sound, the strength and beauty of repetition in a form such as the villanelle. Rhetoricians and orators know the energy embedded in the anaphora or the epistrophe, the repeated words or phrases at the beginning or at the end of clauses. Musicians could perhaps carry the ritornello (Italian for “little return”) forward to posit the origins of opera, and later concerto. Ritornellos are described as “guideposts” to the tonal structure of the music.

The vast Internet tells me that “A rhyme is a tool utilizing repeating patterns that brings rhythm or musicality in poems which differentiate them from prose which is plain.” As a prose writer who resists the notion that prose is not musical, I say that we see evidence in prose of repeated syntax or phrasing, and in the case of essayists, repeated themes and patterns of thought and mind which create the landscape of a written work. What we know of landscape is that distances seem shorter when the path is familiar. What we know of people is that they seem closer when they are familiar. What we know of prose is that lines and phrases become musical when they are repeated, that we like the number three or four in our repetitions, and this structure is familiar. It is a fact of orality and of rhetoric that the speaker will hold and develop the listener’s attention through repetition and that this is . . . familiar. It takes sitting through only one Baptist sermon to see how the power of repetition can move an audience to attention.

I return to Lopate’s passage from before and read that:

The essay form allows the writer to circle around one particular autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it, while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking. It may even be that the personal essayist is more temperamentally suited to this circling procedure, diving into the volcano of the self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape, either because of laziness or because of an aesthetic impulse to control a smaller frame.

The charge of laziness is fair I think, given that many times I have not felt ready to face everything about a particular instance in my life at once. I would rather deal with one moment at a time, and I do as a result crave that smaller frame. Laziness is perhaps the right word given that the work is sometimes too hard, and that it is only five years, ten years, twenty years later that some things make sense. Returning to material over and over again for an essayist is akin to taking the long view, of playing the long game with the stories of our lives. We do not know how this moment will feel three years out. We sometimes repeat our approach to the difficult matter, in order to find new ways to tell the story. I wonder if there is any story that is not a repeated thought in recombination.

Lists and patterns can carve a reality from nothing. And here we are far away from seeing writers repeating themselves as a failure or a decline; repeating ourselves can be instead the very core of who we are to people who have never met us, the persona and the artifice that we work to cultivate for the entertainment and enjoyment of others. The chaos, the things that we do not repeat, the parts of ourselves that do not fit any pattern—these are perhaps what constitutes life as it is lived, the life we consider private and painful and raw. It is the realm of accident and surprise, and peace comes in recovering the order and the patterns that root us and ground us, and we do not complain then about repetition, but crave it.

***

Desi

Desirae Matherly teaches at Tusculum College, and is the nonfiction editor for The Tusculum Review. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and Fourth Genre, and in August 2017 she was the featured writer on ninthletter.com. Her essays have been anthologized in After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays, Red Holler: An Anthology of Contemporary Appalachian Literature, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 2. Desirae earned a Ph.D. in nonfiction from Ohio University and is a former Harper Fellow at The University of Chicago. 

“Me, Again” by Hope Edelman (NFNOW17 Panel: Talk 4 of 5)

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”

“Me, Again” by Hope Edelman

Once, I was twenty eight: Single, abundant with energy, living in New York. I’d found a hidden tribe of women who were just like me, women who’d been children and teenagers when their mothers died. Time felt expansive. During the day, I typed my first book in a garret apartment in a brownstone on Washington Square. Nights, I spent in warm, dimly lit West Village cafes. On the weekends I played shortstop for the Writer’s Union team. We were just as bad as you might imagine. We didn’t care. We were grateful just to be outside during sunlight.

Once, I was forty one. A wife and mother of two, living on the westernmost edge of the country. During the days I carpooled and shopped for groceries and taught MFA students the difference between narration and reflection. At night I fell into bed exhausted from trying to mother and wife and drive and cook and teach and write. I lived in fear of getting breast cancer at forty two, of leaving my children too young, as my own mother had done. Or that something would happen to my daughters. The days were long and the weeks were short. How did anyone survive the years?

Once, I was forty nine. My first book twenty years in the past, five more on the shelf. I was aggressively healthy. I hadn’t known to plan for that. Also, children were much more durable than I’d imagined, and grew up faster than I ‘d been prepared for. Who knew? There was little fear of breast cancer. It was all about paying for college. The days and weeks were both short, and not all of my friends were getting to see them. That was the hard part now.

*

Motherless Daughters, the book I typed on an IBM PC with two floppy drives was published in 1994, when I was just two years out of graduate school. Since then, in one manner or another, I’ve been writing about the same subject for twenty three years. Twenty three years! That’s a lot of time for a writer to be in relationship with a single topic, and surely ample time to have branched into others. And I have, to some degree, having written about parenting and marriage and sex and travel and Bruce Springsteen, about writing and teaching writing and Mayan healing, and about the making of a Hollywood film. I’ve written research- and interview-driven books and personal essays and memoir, flash nonfiction, and spoken word. But whatever genre or topic I explore, a single subject matter – early mother loss – follows me like a persistent background buzz, working its way into all my stories.

That first book, Motherless Daughters, was a blend of research, interviews, and memoir. I was seventeen when my mother died after a fierce, year-long engagement with breast cancer. When it was published I was twenty nine – so, twelve years after the event itself. Like many adults who lost a parent during childhood or adolescence, that single event still felt like the defining event of my life. Even after twelve years.

The publicity and attention surrounding the book launched my professional career. It also established me as an author who writes about bereavement. Particularly childhood bereavement. Specifically, early mother loss.

More please, the publishing world said.

51bMfl-f6SLTwo more books followed – Letters from Motherless Daughters, and Motherless Mothers. Other books and essays and anthologized short works of memoir came and went, but these books, and this subject matter, remain what I’m best known for and for which the media comes calling every year for Mother’s Day. It’s led me to speaking engagements; television interviews; a coaching practice that specializes in the long-term effects of early loss; and three-day retreats for motherless daughters that I lead with another author several times a year. A relative once referred to my first book as “the gift that keeps on giving” and I’m not sure she meant it as a compliment. It’s something I’ve wondered myself: Is there not something fundamentally off about a 52-year-old woman still writing about the death of her mother when she was seventeen? Should I not have found other topics that compel me just as much, other inkwells in which to dip my pen?

Maybe. Maybe not. Honestly, I never felt the impulse. To me, it’s never the same topic twice. What I mean is, when I return to the subject at different intervals, the story looks different each time.

Imagine a room in the aftermath of an event. We enter the room through one door, take a look around, and choose a different exit. Five years later we re-enter through the same first door but this time we exit through a third. Ten years later we walk in through a fourth door and exit through a fifth that we’ve only just discovered but, we now realize, had been there all along.

There are countless ways to tell the same story. For the past year I’ve been studying Narrative Therapy, which was developed in the 1980s by an Australian social worker named Michael White. Narrative therapy helps clients deconstruct the stories they’ve crafted about their lives, and consider how they might rewrite them as alternate, although equally true, version. A narrative therapy session has probably never been confused with a memoir workshop, but it comes close. The first draft of a personal narrative, especially of student work, typically tilts toward the episodic in an earnest attempt to lay down the plot points of a story. Our job as instructors is to help students extract deeper resonance and meaning or, in the language of the workshop, to “unpack” certain moments and create “takeaways” for readers. The goal being to bring a reflective consciousness to the surface to explain what’s going on behind the scenes.

What narrative therapy calls the thin narrative — the surface details that everyone can agree on – is the story’s static, upper crust. For example, in 1981, when I was seventeen, my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 42. Our family lived in suburban New York, where an ob/gyn told her the lump in her left breast was a cyst of no concern. Her cancer had already progressed to Stage 4 when it was diagnosed in March of 1980. She did chemotherapy for fifteen months until she died the following July.

These are verifiable, documented facts. But the meaning extracted from these facts – the rich narrative – varies from person to person. My younger sister has a different takeaway from those sixteen months than I do. Our younger brother, who was only nine, remember fewer details and interprets them differently. And so forth.

41+bjxxd4qL._SX365_BO1,204,203,200_This thin/rich narrative is the same distinction that Vivian Gornick makes between “The Situation and The Story,” what memoirist Sue William Silverman describes as the tension between the Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience, and what Sven Birkerts, author of The Art of Time in Memoir, has described as “the balance between then and now, between event and understanding.” Philip Lopate wrote a whole book about its importance, To Show and To Tell, which is as much a primer on the craft of nonfiction writing as it is about storytelling in ordinary life.

Our own rich narrative is a constantly evolving organism. Exposure to new ideas and experiences, if we’re lucky and stay woke, modifies and enriches our world view, which can alter our interpretation of past events. Years pass. Perspective changes. The binary thinking of childhood, hopefully, matures into a more complex understanding of human motivation and behavior. At seventeen, the story I told of my mother’s late diagnosis was one fueled by anger and blame – why did she wait so long to get a biopsy? Could her life have been saved if her ob/gyn had insisted on it? Were her children not important enough to live for? But at 42, the age she was when she died, my story of her diagnosis, the only story I could see at that point, was one in which she was young and afraid, and trying to prolong having to know what she may have already known. I could not understand this at seventeen. I could hardly bear to take it in at forty two.

*

In 2005, I had the opportunity to revise the first edition of Motherless Daughters for re-release. The original was eleven years old by then and missing some key events that had taken place in the interim: the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 attacks, findings from the landmark Harvard Childhood Bereavement Study. The absence of that last one made the book seem particularly outdated. An update was necessary.51vfB0RN6AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

I’d written the first edition at twenty eight. As I began the second, I was forty one. I had two young daughters. I was one year away from turning my mother’s age at time of death. My father had died a year earlier. So it seemed like a good idea to also rewrite the memoir sections and fold in those new details.

When I read the book straight through I could see how the prior factual details – the thin narrative of the book – were all still true. But the passages of analysis from my 28-year-old point of view and the sense I’d made of my own story, those parts were startling to revisit. Reading the words of that younger self was the closest thing to time travel I’ve ever experienced. Where had this 28-year-old consciousness, so familiar yet so different from the one reading these pages in 2005, gone? All that detail and energy she’d once put into wondering if she’d marry or have children: I wanted to be able to tell her to calm down, that before long both would arrive – though unexpectedly –suddenly and with ease.

Eight years later, when the opportunity to release a third edition arose, reading the revised portions I’d added at forty one was a sweetly poignant task. The distance between forty one and forty nine was not nearly at the gulf between twenty nine and forty one, for me. I was still living in California, same husband, same house, same kids. But by forty nine, I’d passed most of the major milestones I’d once feared. My daughters were in their teens, the oldest preparing to leave for college. I’d been so busy being a mother for sixteen years, and managed so much of my life without parents by then, that my story of mother loss felt less urgent. I wasn’t trying to make peace with it any more. I’d already found it.

But there on the page, my 41-year-old self was in the thick of it still. She was longing for a mother’s help raising her children. She was freaked out about getting her annual mammogram at forty two. That 41-year-old was still searching for a clear path through all of this uncertainty, hoping to find some answers.

Readers didn’t want to hear from someone who’d made it to the other side. I knew that from the emails I’d received over the years. They wanted to hear from someone still immersed in the struggle, someone who they could identify with now. At forty nine, I didn’t share their sense of immediacy any more. I’d finally outgrown my material.

My 41-year-old self, it was clear, was the one who should keep narrating the book. So 49-nine-year-old me inserted the most recent research into the third edition, added new quotes from experts, and attached an afterword explaining my choice. The rest of the book I left in the very capable hands of my 41-year-old self. The most compelling and accessible version of our story, I discovered, belonged to her.

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as repetition in memoir, unless we’re plagiarizing ourselves, pilfering or mechanically recycling our own words from the past. Because to write an essay or memoir is to drop a pin in the consciousness of a moment. Ideally, we capture a fleeting flash of self-understanding as fully and authentically as we can before it turns into something else. That’s the best we can hope for.

Will the way we tell our story today be the same way we would tell it in the future? Hopefully not. As I tell my students, what you make of your story right now might not be what you make of it in ten years. But write it anyway. Toss a Frisbee to that future self and let her catch it in ten years. And then, write the story again.

***
35p.jpgHope Edelman is the author of seven nonfiction books, including the bestsellers Motherless Daughters, Motherless Mothers, and The Possibility of Everything. She has been teaching nonfiction writing for more than 20 years, most recently in the Antioch University-LA MFA program and at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters, and is working on her eighth book.

“What Remains Unvoiced” by Richard Hoffman (NFNOW17 Panel: Talk 3 of 5)

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”

“What Remains Unvoiced” by Richard Hoffman

I side with the slow, the introspective, the steady gaze, vs. the hurried, the hyperactive, the what’s-next. I believe Camus was right when he wrote: “A writer’s work is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” And so, I repeat myself, deliberately: I repeat myself in taking up the same themes, some of the same experiences, even the same events and characters.

898384I wrote a memoir, Half the House, that examined my post WWII boyhood in a family staggering under the burden of the chronic and terminal Muscular Dystrophy afflicting two of my brothers’, and my own suffering as a child raped at the age of ten by a coach. Nineteen years and five books later, I wrote a second memoir occasioned by my father’s illness and death, Love & Fury, that in delving into my own parenting and into my childrens’ lives, and into a revaluation of my father’s bequest to me, required me to revisit many of those scenes. It is impossible, if you are a memoirist not to do so. The question is how to do this gracefully and even turn it to your advantage. That being the case, I began both of those books in the same kind of moment, one mirroring the other, in one of those places where my heart first opened, at the kitchen table in my parent’s house. Here’s the opening paragraph of Half the House:

“It all depends how deep your brothers are buried,” my father said. We were sitting at the kitchen table and he was taking papers from a gray steel box, removing fat red rubber bands, sorting things into piles. “Somewhere I have a deed. The Sacred Heart allows double burial, at least that’s what old Mary Becker told me years ago. But you have to go down seven feet with the first one. Where’s my glasses? Here. No, that’s not it. We’ll have to see how deep your brothers Mike and Bob are buried.”

And here’s the opening of Love & Fury, at that same table a quarter century later:

“We’re sitting in the kitchen, at the scarred Formica table, my father and my brother Joe and I, having just finished the kind of meal we have had innumerable times in the twenty three years since my mother died: take-out hotdogs from “Yocco, the Hot Dog King” with a side of deep-fried pierogies, or maybe it was microwaved Lloyd’s Roast Beef Barbecue from a plastic container in the fridge, or strip steaks on the George Foreman Grill, with a side of microwaved instant mashed potatoes. I can’t recall for certain what we ate that night, maybe because my father has asked us to meet with him after supper to go over his will, and the two steel boxes have been there on the table next to the tall plastic bottle of orange soda throughout the meal, keeping their secrets to themselves. I know what’s in at least one of them, though: birth certificates, death certificates, account numbers, records, directions, the deeds to graves. It’s two weeks since he’s been diagnosed with MDS, Myelodysplasic Syndrome, a condition that, at his age, 81, almost always becomes leukemia. He has everything in order, he says. It’s all right here in the boxes.”

883803623

The third memoir, in- (slow)-progress titled The House Itself, begins with a scene of my younger brother Joe and I, the two survivors of a family of six, sitting at that same table.

There is a magic there that is hard to explain (although that Camus quote comes close) — that rickety kitchen table is a sacred site in memory, at once a foothold and a launch pad.

I find myself returning to other memories that seem to have that charge on them, that aura about them, and I suspect that means that I have not exhausted their capacity to reveal things to me. I want to cite a poem, here, by the British/American poet Denise Levertov. You’ll see its application from its opening lines:

TO THOSE WHOM THE GODS LOVE LESS

When you discover
your new work travels ground you had traversed
decades ago, you wonder, panicked,
‘Have I outlived my vocation? Said already
all that was mine to say?’
There’s a remedy—
only one – for the paralysis seizing your throat to mute you,
numbing your hands: Remember the great ones, remember Cezanne
doggedly sur
le motif, his mountain a tireless noonday angel he grappled like         Jacob,
demanding reluctant blessing. Remember James rehearsing
over and over his theme, the loss
of innocence and the attainment (note by separate note sounding its tone
until by accretion a chord resounds) of somber
understanding. Each life in art
goes forth to meet dragons that rise from their bloody scales
in cyclic rhythm: Know and forget, know and forget.
It’s not only the passion for getting it right (though it’s that, too)
it’s the way radiant epiphanies recur, recur,
consuming, pristine, unrecognized –
until remembrance dismays you. And then, look,
some inflection of light, some wing of shadow
is other, unvoiced. You can, you must
proceed.

I love the emphasis here: some wing of shadow/ is other, unvoiced. That’s clearly a shift away from emphasis on the writer, a reframing of the question: not ‘Have I outlived my vocation? Said already/all that was mine to say?’ but instead what remains unvoiced? The poem seems to suggest that it is in fact this shift from the writer as one caught in the egoistic fear of repeating herself to the writer as a willing vehicle for that which needs — even, and perhaps especially, in a familiar situation — to be given a voice.

In other words, it is not a question of taking up a topic again, it’s more about the further elaboration of your understandings, or a modification of those understandings in light of new knowledge either about the people and events in your life, or — and here’s where the truthfulness of memoir is really put to the test — a new understanding of the person who is making the inquiry and curating the reader’s experience of that search. Or at least who that person is at this point in time. It has to do with this somewhat postmodern sense of our experience — that there’s always a “meta” dimension. For example, if I wrote about something one way and then I find myself writing about it another way or viewing it differently than when I wrote about it first time, then the question of what accounts for that difference is really my most important subject. We should never forget that we are making something from our experience, with words as our medium much the way a painter uses paint or a sculptor clay. Now this may be the result of my training and practice as a poet, but I think it liberates the personal essay and memoir — not from truthfulness or honesty, but from journalism, from primarily documentary narrative.

Truly re-envisioning things you’ve written about earlier might begin with deciding where you make the cuts that define the clip. ANY story is after all a clip, any story exists between parentheses, between a beginning and an ending that are equally imaginary. Moving those parentheses to include your previous “clip”s’ antecedents and/or consequences is one way of revitalizing the material, along with a deliberate embrace of the vantage from which you are writing: my first memoir was written as a son, my second as a grandfather — or more precisely, as a grandfather who was also, by then, a father, a husband, a teacher, a writer, and a son.

I’ve come to think that one of the worst things a memoir can do is fetishize the momentarily alive, as if we are not creatures of history inheriting the consequences of the past and wondering at what has yet to unfold as consequence after we’re gone. Such memoirs reinforce the defeatist notion that life really is bounded by those two dates on a headstone (the ultimate “clip.”)

I think that the way you are pulled back into certain themes, discussions, questions, the feel of that tug as you are working, gives you a sense that your life has a shape, a coherence, a kind of integrity that is not volitional or imposed. Of course this may well be an illusion, but tracing out that webwork, that deliciously inscrutable map, trying to body forth in words the intuition that there is, or at least was, some kind of pattern to it all, is, it seems to me, the quest at the heart of the lively genre we call memoir.

***

RichardHoffman

Richard Hoffman is author of the memoirs Love & Fury and Half the House, along with the poetry collections Without Paradise; Gold Star Road; Emblem; and Noon until Night; as well as the short story collection Interference and Other Stories. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. http://richardhoffman.org/

 

 

 

Why of All the Stories I Can Tell…? By Mimi Schwartz (NFNOW17 Panel: Talk 2 of 5)

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”

“Why of All the Stories I Can Tell…?” by Mimi Schwartz

Whenever I write about something I’ve written about before, I ask myself, “Why, of all the stories I can tell, am I mentioning this one again?” Will it lead to a discovery, maybe an epiphany or two? Or is the repetition just a crutch of convenience that will make readers who know my work say, “What, again?” The challenge is deciding which stories are worth reentering and which I need to let go.

Many retellings disappear by draft two; but two stories, both from childhood, keep slipping into my new work, uninvited—and stay put. They seem to be touchstones for defining myself, and keep leading to unexpected discoveries. One story, mentioned briefly in a 1993 essay, became the catalyst for a published book fifteen years later. The second, first told in a short story in 1981, reappears twice in my forthcoming essay collection, When History Is Personal[i], before landing in this essay—again with surprises.515Wy7tfZnL

In Story One, I am a small child, walking with my father on Sunday mornings in Forest Hills, New York, and in the 1993 essay, “Front Door on the Driveway,” I write:

Every weekend my dad, who needed to walk because of his heart, would go up and down the sidewalks of Forest Hills with me, telling me how the family had left Germany….[ii]

My father is referring to his village in the Schwarzwald, where Christians and Jews (half the village in his day) lived in harmony for generations before the Nazis took over.

On those sidewalks in Queens, my father introduced themes that I can’t let go: of migration, assimilation, and escape. And their corollaries: How to be an American? How to know when to leave? At the time, I didn’t realize how my father’s sidewalk stories seeped into me. My main concern, back then, was that my father couldn’t say “th. ” Mother and father came out ‘moder’ and ‘fader’, no matter how often I corrected him. That, along with serving “sproodle” and liverwurst to my friends, embarrassed me greatly as the first American in the family, born four years after they escaped Hitler’s Germany.

The liverwurst and the English lesson, like the story of our Sunday walks, reappeared six years later along with my father’s voice on those walks, insisting: “In my village, we all got along—before Hitler! ” That led to a new essay, “My Father Always Said,[iii]” which led to decade-long quest to find out if his words were really true. The result was my book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, about reentering my father’s boyhood world to learn how once-good neighbors remembered Nazi times, and lived with those memories sixty years later.513Dy0mc37L._SY346_

In Story Two, I am in summer camp, specifically at Split Rock Gorge, where once every summer, we kids would stand on the ledge and jump twenty feet into the river below. At age nine, ten, and eleven, I did it without aforethought. At age twelve, I looked down at the sharp rocks, realized I might hit them—and never jumped again. That story landed in the opening paragraph of a recent essay about memory:

We all have different versions of ourselves, depending on the story. There is one of me at camp, crying in the bunk bathroom at night so my bunkmates wouldn’t see me…. And there is the brave me who jumped off Split Rock Gorge four years straight, until at age twelve, the cowardly me stared too long at the rocks twenty feet below. [iv]

And again, a year later, in an essay about hiking in Croatia nine months after my husband Stu died. As I stood on giant boulders with crevices deep enough to disappear in

My legs refuse another step and I freeze, as I did at Split Rock Gorge, watching the water swirl over the rocks below. I had jumped so easily for four years, the bravest little camper, until at twelve, I saw the consequence of a misstep—and backed away, avoiding the edges of things ever since. And now they surround me….[v]

Months after the trip, back at home, I wrote: “I’ve been avoiding the edges of things ever since.” Words I had never said, never wrote, never realized until they appeared on the page, informing me as I kept writing that, “Gone are my sharp rocks of consequence,” as I moved forward into redefinitions of myself.

I was done with Split Rock Gorge, I thought, until, here it is again in this essay, side by side with my father’s tales on Sunday walks. And suddenly his bravery connects to my fear of jumping off the high ledge: that I was not brave enough to survive as he did, a worry I carried for half a century–until I crossed the Croatian crevices, boulder to boulder. Not that I jumped across; rather I crawled; then stooped; then cautiously stood, stepping painfully, again and again, towards confidence.

The poet Stephen Dunn says that it took him eleven years to complete his poem, “The Routine Things Around the House,” which is about the day he asked to see his mother’s breasts and she showed him. Two years later he published the poem in a journal—and to great acclaim; but for years he never included it in a book because, as he told me:

It didn’t feel truthful enough. In the first published version, I thought my mother’s legacy to me was that she made me feel comfortable with women. But something wasn’t right—until I realized her legacy was showing limits.

“Routine Things around the House” appears in Dunn’s new book of essays on poetry, Degrees of Fidelity. In fact, Dunn says it is the book’s centerpiece. So his waiting, combined with periodic efforts to retell the story until the words were right, paid off with the self-discovery and revisions that had eluded him.

I identify with Dunn’s experience—especially on emotionally loaded subjects. One, for me, is the day my husband Stu died. For five years I kept revisiting the unpublished versions of that day, feeling, as in Croatia, the fear of crevices into which I could disappear. Yet I had to keep trying, not just to jump over them, but to jump in.

When I wrote “jump in,” I made another discovery: how those crevices were my stages of grief—denial, anger, depression, acceptance—that I had to cross before finishing “Lessons from a Last Day.”[vi] My first drafts which began with sorrow and rants veered toward fiction (I told myself I was writing a short story, not an essay), and I began:

He walked into the room in his white coat, announced his name quickly. Dr. something with a K, and headed towards a white board above my chair. “Where’s the magic marker?” he asked, looking down at me as if I knew, paused, and then disappeared out the door. There was no handshake or “How are you doing, Buddy?” to my lover, lying in the bed with arm outstretched so the nurse could find his vein.

Until I veered again into creative nonfiction and the need to tell what really happened to our end-of-life illusions on that last day. I wanted others to know what we did not—and began again:

Stu’s living will is in his backpack when he checks into the little New England hospital near the lake house where we stay every summer. Not that we are worried. He’s had mild pneumonia twice before….

All those retellings, probably fifty drafts over the years, finally led to a truth I trusted for more than a passing day or month. In retrospect, the struggle feels worth it—especially now that end-of-life groups use the essay for discussion. But I’m very glad I kept writing new work while waiting for the discovery that felt right. Just in case….

End Notes

[i] When History Is Personal. University of Nebraska Press – March 2018.

[ii] “Front Door on the Driveway.” Puerto del Sol – Summer 1993

[iii] “My Father Always Said.” Fourth Genre – Spring 1999.

[iv] “The Coronation of Bobby.” Creative Nonfiction – March 2016.

[v] “How the Light Gets In.” When History Is Personal – March 2018.

[vi] “Lessons from a Last Day.” Pangyrus – Spring 2018 (online); Fall 2018 (print edition).

****

Mimi_hs4Mimi Schwartz is the author of seven books, mostly recently, When History Is Personal, which includes many of the essays discussed here. Other books include the award-winning, Good Neighbors, Bad Times- Echoes of My Father’s German Village; Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and the widely acclaimed Writing True: the Art of Creative Nonfiction.

To pre-order When History Is Personal from the University of Nebraska Press, click here.

“When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” by Michael Steinberg (NFNOW17 Panel: Talk 1 of 5)

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PMPanel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”

“New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” by Michael Steinberg

 

“Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves–that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences so great and so moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anybody else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and humbled in just that way ever before…and we tell our two or three stories each time in a new disguise–maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”—Albert Einstein

1

A few years ago, I realized that I was becoming more and more troubled by the realization that I seemed to be repeating myself in my writing. It started when a voice in the back of my head began to nag at me, scolding me, really, for writing too much about one subject: baseball.

It’s true; in one form or another I’ve included baseball in a good number of stand-alone personal narratives and book-length memoirs. And so, I began to feel, at first, a little defensive, then, apologetic–and, finally, more self-conscious when colleagues, friends–and especially, former and current students–asked me what I was working on.

Until then, my deepest fears were a version of the following: “I have nothing original or new to say,” or; “who’s gonna’ give a damn about the stuff I write?” You know, the usual suspects; the kinds of things I tell my students not to worry about.

But these more recent uncertainties–about repeating myself–felt different. At a point, my self-consciousness turned into a creeping anxiety–a fear that perhaps I was destined to become a one-note writer, like those typecast Hollywood actors who’ve played the same kinds of character roles over and over again. My other anxiety was that I’d literally written myself out.

Soon I found myself comparing my work to other, more versatile, authors– writers, who, to my mind, never seemed to repeat the same subjects or concerns in subsequent works.

Singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt admits something similar when she talks about an upcoming studio recording session.

“It’s been more difficult to come up with original stuff that you haven’t already sung about, or grooves that you’ve already played to be original and fresh,” Raitt said. To which she added, “I have to be very careful not to listen to Randy Newman or Jackson Browne because then I’ll be so intimidated that I won’t write anything.”

2

At the time, what could have turned into a debilitating writing block, instead evolved into a personal inquiry (and thankfully) on/about the reasons why some writers, like myself, tend to work with persistent, recurring ideas and preoccupations–obsessions, really–while others seem more inclined to pursue multiple, sometimes even contradictory, ideas and subjects. In addition, there are still other writers that can tackle multiple forms and genres without seeming to repeat themselves.

25363385My inquiry began in earnest in an email exchange with my colleague Pat Madden. I was kvetching, complaining to him that, when I was writing about baseball, I felt like I was repeating the same thing over and over again. (Einstein’s definition of crazy, right?).

Pat told me that, according to novelist Jonathan Franzen, the versatile writer David Foster Wallace, sometimes despaired that he too was simply repeating himself.

It’s funny, isn’t it; that, when an idea begins to dominate your thoughts, your subconscious starts to zone in on it. Because shortly after that email exchange, I happened to read a Paris Review interview in which novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard said,

“When you write you have maybe two or three or four things that really interest you, that you want to write about. At least that’s how it is for me. Even after writing thirty-six hundred pages, I’m still interested in the same kind of issues.”

A few weeks later, another colleague sent me an excerpt from a Q and A during which novelist Ann Patchett said,

What I’ve realized is that all of my books have been the same book… that is, about a group of people who are pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar, and then I see how communities are formed. Probably it has to do with my childhood… my parents got divorced when I was young and my mother married someone who had four children and we moved to the other side of the country… and I think that being thrown together, being pulled out of a family and put into a family has always been very interesting to me.

Back then I remember convincing myself that these are hopeful signs. If writers that high on the food chain have doubts that are similar to mine, than maybe, just maybe, I’m in a lot better company than I’d thought.

Let me be more specific.

For the past few years, I’ve found myself reading a good deal of novelist P.F. Kluge’s work. And in a few interviews and essays, Kluge has talked openly about a singular fascination/attraction that he revisits in his novels.

Here’s a sampling:

About his novel, The Edge of Paradise, Kluge says, “The Peace Corps sent me to the Pacific Islands–Micronesia. The islands stayed with me and I’ve kept returning, checking on places and people I care about.”

25182506Kluge also says about another novel that “…. my continuing interest in the love/hate relationship between America and the Philippines…. underlies [MacArthur’s Ghost], which spans the years from World War II to the Marcos era.”

And he describes The Day I Die, as a “ thriller set in the same Pacific islands that I saw as a Peace Corps volunteer.”

About the novel The Master Blaster, Kluge says, it’s “set on Saipan. I was there in the 1960’s with the Peace Corps, and I’ve returned many times since. Saipan is one of my islands, part of my life-long fascination with bounded, yet also boundless, places.”

To which I’ll add, that Season For War, and Biggest Elvis two other novels, are set in the Philippines as well.

At first, I was surprised to learn that three of his other books–Gone Tomorrow, Final Exam, and Alma Mater–two novels and a personal narrative–were not set in the Pacific islands but at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, where Kluge teaches.

But when he was asked about it, Kluge replied, “I love islands….. Micronesia –Saipan, Palau, Pohnpei– is full of them. Gambier, Ohio is another kind of island, a small, surrounded place where I live and teach. My alma mater, my current employer.”

He then adds, “If you live in a place, you write about it.”

What I take away from Kluge’s disclosures is that his fascination with specific locations and geographies become a means through which his narrators (fiction and nonfiction) are able to explore their most insistent yearnings. And by pursuing those deeply rooted curiosities, these narrators are better able to make sense of the questions and confusions that preoccupy and/or animate them.

3

11936809A few years ago, I was discussing this matter Renée E. D’ Aoust, a memoirist, and Mick Cochrane, a fiction writer. The conversation with Renée came about when I was, once again, kvetching about not being able to pull myself away from writing about baseball.

“I wonder if we have a similar issue,” Renée said. “I’ve tried to quit writing about dance. Years ago, I mentioned this in a college classroom, and a student asked, ‘but if you love it, and do it so well, why would you quit writing about the subject?’ “

That question, Renée maintains, triggered the following:

“How,” she asks, “do we stay with the same subject, but not repeat ourselves? Or; is it okay to repeat ourselves? After all, isn’t writing a way of working things out?”

3960904Right around that same time I happened to ask Mick Cochrane why he writes so much about sports; in his case, it’s also baseball. Mick’s answer was:

“I felt permission to write about sports, because Thoreau writes about beans. Melville writes about whales. Poe writes about a bird. So why not me and baseball?” He went on to say that “…. all writers seek dense, complex material over which they have some authority. And that “writers would probably be wise to engage their obsessive loves, whatever they might be.”

In some ways, Renée and Mick are both referring to the same things: permission and obsession. And so, I’ve since come around to thinking that one of the reasons why some of us repeat ourselves is that the things we write about are governed more by matters of sensibility (and disposition) than they are by design. In my case, it means that, knowingly or subconsciously, I’ve somehow been able to give myself permission to follow my obsessions. And what better (or safer) place to pursue an obsession than in one’s writing?

4

A few years ago, I told myself that I was all done with writing about baseball. But as I was writing a stand-alone memoir about aging, an incident presented itself that compelled me, still again, to include baseball in the piece. And that’s when I began to think, that maybe, just maybe, baseball wasn’t quite yet done with me.

Ever since I was a kid, baseball and writing have been twin passions; obsessions, which, for generations, had run parallel to one another. In my mid-fifties, when I started to take myself more seriously as a writer, the two began to merge. And for better or for worse, I now believe that a good deal of my strongest work has incorporated at least some aspect of my experience as an adolescent ball player/baseball aficionado.

In some instances–mostly works of journalism–I’ve consciously chosen to use baseball as a subject. But in others–personal essays and memoirs–it’s become a lens that my narrator(s) look through to help them better understand and articulate certain conflicts and confusions–things that they couldn’t have comprehended or resolved in any other way. And in still others, baseball has become raw material for shaping a given work, a process that Annie Dillard describes as “fashioning a text.”

5

So, here’s what I think now.

Since I’m primarily a personal essayist/memoirist; most of my writerly concerns are with matters of identity and self. And as I get older, the predominant, recurrent, question in my work seems to be this: how did that kid who grew up in New York city, that young boy who was an obsessive lover of baseball and books–how did he evolve into the adult teacher-writer he is today? We all know of course that in reality it’s an unanswerable question. But it doesn’t stop me from interrogating it in my writing.

So then, whether we repeat subjects like dance or baseball; or re-use island-like settings, we writers, I believe, are compelled by nature and disposition to search for ways that allow us to make better sense out of the chaos and confusions that comprise our individual and collective lives.

And isn’t this search—for shape and meaning–what drives all of us–novelists, poets, essayists, and memoirists alike–to explore more deeply in our writing?

***

mjsMichael Steinberg is founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre. He’s written and co-authored six books. Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year Another, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction is in its sixth edition. He’s the creative nonfiction writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor MFA program. http://mjsteinberg.net/blog.htm

 

 

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.
valeriebook

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.”
madelinebarber

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.

sputniksketch

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.

Assay Interviews Anthony Bart Chaney

BartChaneyCvrImage

“The double bind, stated briefly, was an inescapable paradox in which a message was refuted by its context. ‘Don’t be so obedient’ was one such message. The context was an imperative; the message ordered the listener to ignore that context. One could neither comply nor escape complying.”—Anthony Chaney. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320 pages.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Congratulations on the publication of your beautifully written and fascinating book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness (University of North Carolina Press).

By way of providing background to our readers, and giving thanks, I want to note that we met at the 2017 “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute hosted by the University of Washington, The Simpson Center for the Humanities, & supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Institute was created and run by Thaïsa Way, Rich Watts, Ken Yocom, with support from Allison Ong.

I particularly want to say how wonderful it was to meet you at the “City/Nature” Summer Institute, and as a fellow writer, to thank you for our deep conversation about all aspects of writing—and of teaching writing, including Composition. Prior to this interview, our initial conversation took place on a hill in Gasworks Park on the north side Seattle’s Lake Union during the Fourth of July celebrations.

Anthony Chaney: Yes, that was an unforgettable day at a fabulous location. What a gift to have the time to talk at length about a book project while sitting on a hillside amid thousands of people on the fourth of July in Seattle.

Assay (D’Aoust): Let’s start with how your book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness engages with some of the important conversations and questions from the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute. Two of those questions involved how scholars speak to each other across disciplines and how scholars reach out to larger communities. Bateson is a figure who worked inside and outside the academy, had an astounding grasp of different fields, and impacted many of those fields. In what ways does your book Runaway speak to specific disciplines, across disciplines, and reach out to communities?

Chaney: Crossing disciplines was a theme in Gregory Bateson’s life. He was raised in the tradition of British natural science. He was trained at Cambridge in anthropology. Later, he was took part in the post-WWII Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. Because Bateson’s approach to scientific inquiry was not in any way careerist, he felt little obligation to carve out turf in any particular field. Rather, he followed his research questions wherever they led. They took him from field work with tribal peoples in Papua New Guinea, to reworking psychiatric theories in California, to studying dolphin communication in Hawaii, and to eventually becoming a public intellectual speaking out on social crisis from an ecological perspective.

All this discipline-hopping was in service to one effort: to reorient the life sciences around the concept of information and away from the old Newtonian concept of force. That shift in orientation was part of a much broader transition in the way we organize perception and account for the world around us, a transition toward an “ecological imaginary,” as they say in the environmental humanities.

Because this effort represents such a big shift in the way we see the world, Bateson was ahead of his time. Yes, he crossed disciplines, but there were so few doing what he was doing, it was hard to find others who could appreciate his work. One effect of the insulation of disciplines is that people inside become closed off to ideas from outside. For Bateson, the result was that he often found a more receptive audience, say, when he spoke to mathematicians about biology than he did when he spoke to biologists about biology.

In regard to reaching out to communities, your question speaks to the basic narrative concerning Bateson’s life that I tell in the book. In the 1960s, Bateson is reaching out, trying to find people to share his ideas with, to bounce them off of, like all idea people need to do. He finds a receptive audience in the insurgent youth nation of the 1960s. These folks are very much in the midst of enacting, consciously and semi-consciously, the transition I’m talking about. As I tell it, Bateson and his audience find each other.

Assay (D’Aoust): Your introduction is titled, “Gregory Bateson and the Spirit of 1967,” and your book sets the stage of a “London moment,” using Allen Ginsberg’s attendance at a conference in London, where Ginsberg heard Gregory Bateson speak, to introduce Bateson himself. You have such an astute ability to reference literature in the book, which provides context. If I might add, I was born in 1967. During that time, my mother was working for Carl Rogers, arguably another one of the influential thinkers of that era, and my father was finishing a Ph.D. in biology from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I grew up knowing Gregory Bateson’s name, but many people, as you suggest in the book’s “Introduction,” don’t know Bateson. By way of introduction, you write:

By shifting attention from social crisis to environmental crisis, [Gregory] Bateson gave his audience a kind of keyhole through which to glimpse this new ‘postmodern’ science of complexity and interrelatedness and, in turn, a new accounting of reality. That new accounting suggested not greater autonomy but greater responsibility. It emphasized not emancipation but dependence.

Among many other threads, throughout the book your scholarship conveys the intersection of ideas and references our contemporary moment of climate chaos in profound ways. All this is possible, I think, because of your fantastic skill as a writer. Runaway is crafted; all the research is there, and it is a story and contains stories. Might you talk about the craft of writing this book, particularly with your background as a scholar, writer, teacher, and a musician?

Chaney: How nice to be able to speak about craft, particularly because my training as a writer is from the fine arts side. I always thought about writing the way I thought about music or visual art. An artist’s job is to create an aesthetic experience. Artists strive to charm their audiences, to touch their audiences emotionally, to press their buttons, to break through and engage them.

images2I started out reading novels, mostly, and considered novels the preeminent literary form. But I remember the first real history of ideas that I read. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just picked it up at a take-one-leave-one shelf at the apartment complex of a friend. The title intrigued me: The Culture of Narcissism. (It had been a big book in the late seventies, I later learned, in some ways influential on Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech.) In any case, that book knocked me out. It hit a lot of the same buttons that novels hit. Again, this had something to do with interdisciplinarity. Scholarly books I’d read in college were all safely within their own particular disciplines. But the writer of this book, Christopher Lasch, mixed history, philosophy, literature, film, social science, and politics. This umbrella approach opened me up to thinking about events and ideas contextually.

But again, I came at writing the book not primarily to document some body of knowledge, as a scholar might. I aimed to create a compelling reading experience around a set of events, people, texts, and ideas. I shaped it with a couple of big narrative arcs. One I already mentioned, about Bateson finding his audience. The other is about the double bind itself, its career, so to speak, as a cultural concept. It starts out in the mid-1950s as a way to think about schizophrenia as a pathology not inside some individual’s body but in their relational environment. Bateson refines the concept, develops it; it resonates with and echoes numerous other contemporary ideas. By the summer of 1967, Bateson invokes some version of it in talking about “the greenhouse effect” to a group of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London. This may be the first time the prospect of climate change is put before a lay audience. And here the double bind is used as it is often used today in the discourse of ecological crisis—the wicked dilemmas and feedback loops that mock our most common sense efforts.

Those are the two big stories, and I’m glad you noticed the smaller ones, too. Every section of every chapter was crafted narratively to keep a reader interested and turning pages. Few if any characters or ideas are introduced that don’t show up again later to make another contribution to the plot or to have their moment of resolution.

Assay (D’Aoust): You use “Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the [Sixties] decade.” Specifically with reference to the challenges we face with global climate chaos and disruption, and how to bring those facts into the classroom, what impact does Bateson, and by extension your book, have for our understanding of “ecological consciousness”?

Chaney: Everyone knows about climate change. Everyone grasps ecological crisis; we’ve known that for at least fifty years. Yet it still packs the punch that it did the first time, maybe even more so, since we’re now experiencing the consequences of climate change not only in our weather but in our politics. Many of today’s refugees are climate change refugees, are fossil fuel industry refugees. We look around to the old industrialized countries of the West. Many are adopting what one commentator has called “armed lifeboat” policies. Our current president advocates such policies. His presidency is, to a large degree, a manifestation of the politics of climate change.

What example are those of us who have been around a while setting for our students and our children? What are they learning from us other than to avoid looking at or talking about the most important problem we face?

My claim is that the topic is so painful and so disruptive to our most foundational ideas that it can’t bear a prolonged gaze. It seems to me that paralyzing despair and outright denial are both part of the emotional force field that won’t let us give our predicament the sustained contemplation that it requires. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that anything can be borne if you can tell a story about it. The story I tell happens in the past; we see historical figures confronting and recoiling from these issues for the first time. We can think about the meaning of climate change at a remove. If we can do this, maybe we can dismantle the force field and not be so afraid.

Assay (D’Aoust): You write about multiple threads at once and you juggle the interconnectedness of things. You write:

Bateson’s belief was that the new science of complexity and interrelatedness allowed people to think and talk about things such as their relationship with their ecology, war, psychological pain, and right and wrong with scientific rigor, without resorting to mysticism or moral preachments. Bateson insisted that depictions of reality were self-reflective and reinforcing, and so if people accounted for the reality beyond themselves as material, amoral, and mindless, then they would account for themselves as amoral mindless machines. But if people attributed to the reality beyond themselves the complexities of mind, they would not strip out from their analysis issues of right and wrong, and an account of themselves as moral beings would follow suit.

Would you share how you found your subject?

Chaney: After reading the Christopher Lasch book, I read another one that took up the topic of Gregory Bateson and discussed his ideas in a critical way. I enjoyed reading Lasch–that didn’t mean I believed everything he said. I decided to look into Bateson myself.

imagesBateson’s book Mind and Nature gave me my first glimpse of the science of complexity and interrelatedness—or, as Jeremy Lent has recently called it, “the systems view of life.” This is not Bateson’s science alone–far from it. The ideas of the transition I mentioned earlier are much bigger than any one thinker or scientist. Bateson’s contribution was partly that he was a terrific writer and could communicate with non-experts like me.

There’s that famous line by Henry Adams about how he was a Darwinist “before the letter.” I think many people who read Bateson are Batesonians before the letter. He articulates a perspective that we already know because by now the ecological imaginary reaches far into mainstream thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can put it into words. That doesn’t mean we can grasp the corrosion that occurs between this new way of thinking and the old ways that are still very much a part of us—and especially of our political and economic institutions.

Assay (D’Aoust): To finish, since our readers are teachers and writers and scholars, I’m wondering if you have suggestions about the balance between academic research, writing, and teaching. How does your creative training in writing and music intersect with and support your scholarship? There is an awesome picture toward the end of the book of Bateson with what looks like the sculptural art of an enormous ear, but it’s actually “his underwater listening device.” To me that photograph sums up the emphasis you place on listening in Runaway. You and Bateson seem like very good listeners.

Chaney: Thank you, Renee, I hope that’s true. I enjoy teaching and I try to be good at it, but creative work–which must of course include input–is what it’s all about for me. I’ve always made a place for it and done what I had to do to support it. I spent eight years on this book, and I could have written it in less than half the time if I hadn’t also had to make a living. I’m sure your readers can relate. So my only advice is the same advice I’ll pass on to my teenage children. “Keep a low overhead.” I think Buddhism and stoicism both arrived at a similar conclusion.

Assay (D’Aoust): Thank you so much for your time—and for Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness!

****

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnthony Bart Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas and blogs mostly on environmental issues for the Society for US Intellectual History. He plays bass and write songs for the long-time Dallas band, Lucky Pierres. He’s published personal essays in a number of literary journals, in paper and online, including The New Orleans Review, Reed Magazine, and Chautaqua Review. Here is a link to his blog: https://anthonychaney.com/

 

 

Editor’s Notes:

Visit the National Endowment for the Humanities here.

Visit the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute here.

Gail Hosking–A Conversation on Leaving the University: Getting to a New Shore With One Old Paddle and One New One I Haven’t Found Yet

“You must take up your oar and go on a journey.”

Tiresias to Odysseus

The quiet, but fidgety Chinese-American student who sits next to the classroom wall sneaking a peak at his cell phone now and then, chooses the subject of Donald Trump for his final research paper in the freshman writing course I’m teaching. His first draft is full of name-calling, like an eager bombast. “Tony,” I say with my instructional smile. “Tony, you can’t do this. This is a rant, not a conversation.” He freezes his eyes on me like he’s expecting an unwanted lecture on the one hand, and desiring direction on the other hand. “An academic paper,” I continue, “is above all else a dialogue, not a tirade. It’s a journey in which you explore the subject and move it forward. He listens and smiles his 18-year-old smile as I keep talking. “Get away from yes-no natter.”

“Ok,” he agrees as he collects his backpack to leave. “I’ll try.”

After several drafts, peer workshops and feedback from me, after they have all handed in a final paper, each student gives a short talk about his or her research exploration. The rest of the class asks questions afterward.

When queried by a peer why Donald Trump was his selected topic, Tony turns to the class and points to himself. “Look at me,” he begins as he jabs his finger into his chest with each phrase. “I’m Chinese, I’m an immigrant, and I’m gay.”

He has our attention.

“I’m like those Mexicans Trump’s trying to keep out with his wall,” Tony continues. As the students ask further questions, an inquisitive interest fills the room.

This moment of honesty and investigation is what I’m going for five days a week at a technical university where I teach writing. It’s an enormous leap from “yeah, I’ll do a research paper, whatever,” to some personal connection that leaves students amazed with a desire to understand more. The change of purpose demands their participation in a conversation the world needs.

When asked what I do at the university, I often answer: “I’m a missionary.” I say it jokingly but it’s the truth of sorts, though I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. My goal is not to turn technology majors into liberal arts majors, or engineers into artists. I am trying, rather, to pull students both inward and then outward toward the world. I’m trying to marry technology to the questions of humanity. At the same time what I’m really trying to do is broaden their understanding and comfort with complexities—to get away from a bi-polar understanding of the world—it’s this or that, black or white—and in doing so hopefully, expand their acceptance of self and other. I’m trying to get them to see that as educated people, they must be a part of these larger, complicated conversations.

imageI love to teach. I love all its details, all its results. I knew early on that teaching would be my life’s work. As a child I often played school, with me always the teacher insisting my students learn. On the army bases where I grew up, our teachers were civilians, and I thought they were gods. I wanted to be like them. I have been teaching since I left college. But little did I know that I would also fall in love with writing some day, and that part of me would grow and blossom. I did not yet understand my strong yearning to shape experiences into coherent thought, nor did I take into account my artistic nature.

Emerson wrote that God comes to us without a bell. And lately without a sound, a growing desire for this other half of my sky—the writer in me—has emerged with a force and feels in conflict with the time needed to do a good job at the university. In the fifteen years I’ve been in academia, the demands have increased with closer assessments, bigger teaching loads and more administrative demands. It’s a kind of grit in my shoe. The tension of such a schedule eats away at me. I consider leaving.

I watch the ink on this paper leave its mark across the page, and for a moment it all feels like magic: the pen, these words, the tide I’m watching come in and slowly return to shore. I ponder what I ask my students to do, which is to keep the emphasis on the grand experiment we call life. Right now I ask myself, as I ask them when they begin to write, to imagine a journey without knowing the outcome.

As friends and family die, time has become more and more precious. Just this morning I found out that the author of Dispatches, Michael Herr—an author I greatly admired—has died at the age of 76. Once, I spoke to him on the phone about his powerful book on Viet Nam, and he told me that after many accolades for his publications and movie scripts, he left that behind for work and study at a Buddhist temple. In his coarse New York accent, he explained as best he could about walking away from one world and into another. “I got off my high horse,” he simply said. By which I thought he meant he stopped clinging to his ego.

I think about this as I consider giving up the recognition and security I receive at the university. With anguish about leaving academia sooner than I had planned, a battle rages inside my head with shame for letting people down, and terror of the unknown. It is easier to stay with the familiar task of semesters than to make a leap of faith. Easier to cling to the shore for security rather than risk letting the river carry me down stream to unknown destinations. Some days as I contemplate my decision, my chest feels like a fist resides in my sternum.

How many times have I asked my students to be curious about what’s next? “Make room for what you do not yet understand,” I’ve said with tender concern for their wellbeing. When they begin their research papers, I tell them, they will have little idea where it might lead and that they must give up insisting they know ahead of time. It takes an entire semester for this to happen. Just as importantly, it takes time for them to believe again that they have permission to ask questions and to change midstream. I show them that the writing exploration is not just a utilitarian skill, but offers tools for critical reflection. As the poet Richard Hugo once wrote, “Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

As I consider leaving, I feel like a stranger entering the once-forbidden land of self on the myriad of army bases where I grew up. There the mission came first, and as a soldier’s daughter I was not to have my own desires. Now, I find a sticky attachment to this story of safety within the fortress, be it an army base or a university campus. When I press against these invisible forces of my past, I feel an enormous resistance. What comes up in its own somatic silent way feels like a kind of control from an establishment pushing against my artistic imaginings. In this liminal space between the past and the future, I am in need of trust and confidence.

IMG_9964In a coffee shop on the last day before I must sign my academic contract for the upcoming school year, or not, I feel the urge to hold on to a familiar place. The narrative arc of semesters holds me there as my pen pauses and my body fills with run-away anxiety. I do my best to pat the nervous concerns like I might a swaddled infant. Around me other writers type at their computers while people talk across tables as if trying to solve the world’s problems. I pause and look up, then back to this paper, then out the window into the distance. Am I refusing the promises of the next season? I wonder.

Later as I am talking with a friend about my intense fretful apprehensions, the acronym AWOL (absent without leave) comes to mind. And when I say it out loud, I burst into tears. “I have abandoned the mission,” I say with a force that surprises us both. A seam has burst and goes straight to the heart of the continued struggle to leave the university or not. The past spills out in front of me. I can hear my long-gone soldier-father telling me to never abandon the mission. Powerful words for a young girl learning to please.

My friend asks me if soldiers ever get missions that end, only to begin new ones. As I let that concept enter my consciousness, my body begins to relax. The sensations around my heart loosen for the first time in months. It is only with this exchange that I realize my new purpose. I want to write with the same cogency I brought to the university. I want to go on teaching in new ways, to pay a different kind of attention to the world now. This is the journey I send my students on: to discover what is not yet known. “Sometimes, “ I tell them, “you don’t know why you have chosen a particular subject. Time and patience will help you unearth those answers.” They stare at me with uncertainty.

The truth is that I gave my all to the university. I went every day with as much grace as I could find even when it was difficult. I found creative ways to understand and teach as I led my students on new paths. Now, inside life’s ambiguities, I am rowing through a stream of new questions without knowing what I’ll find as I turn the bend. I am connecting with what doesn’t die before I die.

By evening I will have written the resignation letter and said what I was once sure would be impossible to say: I’m not coming back. The letter will only hint at the powerful undercurrents in this emotional, personal decision. As I said to Tony about his work, in the end each inquiry is a journey. My conversation here has turned into a meditation on change and desire, nothing I planned in advance.

cropped-img_6123.jpg

When I look back to what I was asking Tony to do, I see that I wanted him to trust his own intellect and then to let his questions guide him through what he found in his complex research. I was asking him to reach beyond what he thought he knew—a difficult, sometimes impossible, human leap—and above all else, to keep his mind open.

Eventually when I return to my office to box up a big stack of books and folders, and to go through the remnants of a daily teaching life, I will stand next to my desk weeping. It will look like I’ve made the wrong decision. And maybe I have, but maybe not. That is the ongoing question my life must speak in its own way. I know already that I won’t miss meetings, agendas and merit reviews. I won’t miss the early morning hours sacrificed for others, the late afternoons at my desk. I won’t miss surrendering my own writing, coming home exhausted. But September will be difficult with muscle memory that feels compelled to prepare syllabi, to memorize new names, to ask questions and to wait for answers. When I hear the news on the radio or read something new, I will, out of habit, be framing an assignment.

When my friends bring their enthusiasm for the word “retirement,” I wince at the term. I find myself shooing this casual term away like an unwanted mosquito. I explain that no, it’s not an actual retirement in the language of Human Resources. I’m simply leaving this particular job. My friends can see the visible existential dread on my face, and are not sure what to say next other than to repeat, “Oh, you will love retirement.”

This morning at my computer, I am alone and feeling it. I sit and stare out the window through a purple orchid on the windowsill. I hear in the distance the traffic going down the street, and when that calms, I hear birds in their early morning feedings on the giant oak along the fence. I feel a warm breeze come through the open window and then gently down from the ceiling fan. I am thinking back to Tony when I asked him what it was he wanted to explore. “What bewilders you?”

I hope he heard me say, “This is your moment. Go for it.”

****

Image 2Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter (University of Iowa Press) and poetry chapbook The Tug (Finishing Line Press). Her essays and poetry have been widely published and anthologized. She is a teacher and editor living in upstate New York. She taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for 15 years and holds an MFA from Bennington College.

Colin Hosten on My Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipaul

I often use the second semester of the first-year writing program where I teach as an opportunity to explore rhetoric through different forms of storytelling, including poetry. In particular, I include a short unit of creative nonfiction, primarily as a way to interrogate our expectations of and obligations to truth (whatever that means) in storytelling. I encourage my students to notice how a writer’s “voice” might change from fiction to creative nonfiction—or, more remarkably, how it might not change. V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage provides perfect fodder for our discussion.

13140544

The book is a seminal example of modern travel writing, but I focus on the first two essays in which Naipaul, now living in London, makes the return voyage by sea to the West Indies—the middle passage—and arrives at his birthplace of Trinidad. The island is the backdrop for most of Naipaul’s fiction, including the linked stories of Miguel Street, told in first person by an unnamed narrator who treats the motley crew of characters on his titular street with unassuming respect and appreciation: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.” But in returning to Port-of-Spain in The Middle Passage, Naipaul himself might have been one of those people dismissing it as mere slum, describing the country as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” He portrays the people as “unsure of themselves, having no taste or style of their own.”

Both of these versions of Trinidad seem so real when we read them. Which one is closer to the truth?

This line of questioning allows us to consider the role of storytelling in creative nonfiction, identifying the narrator as a device completely distinct from the writer. What we think of Naipaul the writer should not necessarily color how we read him as a writer. Usually, this idea seems obvious to my students, who are all sophisticated critical thinkers able to separate their emotional reactions from their intellectual work. At this point, I share some more background about Naipaul the writer. In addition to his often scathing, hyper-critical remarks about the West Indies, he has (in)famously said that women are prevented from being the literary equals of men because of their “sentimentality, their narrow view of the world.” Most of my students—and, I’d imagine, most rational people—disagree with this sentiment to the point of disgust.

At this point we read the essay again.

What’s different? How have our impressions changed or not changed? Here, I encourage my students to pay attention to the ways in which language is tied up in identities, how rhetoric can be used to project iterations of our selves onto the page and into the world. It’s a nuance of which I need to constantly remind myself. Naipaul has a complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature. But Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth. Reading Naipaul often leaves me feeling disconnected. I don’t understand how someone who writes so beautifully on the page could say such ugly things about the place where he was born.

7242d1cdd9af96269b3433ffcc865e8a

Yet I, too, left the island, and have not returned.

One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” In grad school, I wrote an essay that charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up a fossil fuel industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

And that’s why I love teaching Naipaul’s essay. It reminds me and my students that reading can be complicated and conflicted. It helps me demonstrate the importance of critical reading that acknowledges and embraces the responsibility of the reader to be conscious of her own biases. Every time I read from The Middle Passage I learn something new, about writing, and about myself—which is ultimately what I want for my students.

****

HostenColin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, Spry Literary, and the Brevity blog. He is a freelance children’s book writer and editor, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.