Assay Interviews Mimi Schwartz

9781496206305-Perfect.inddMimi Schwartz’s latest book, When History Is Personal, makes its debut this March (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). Other books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village (2008); Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed (2002); and the ever-popular Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, co-authored with Sondra Perl (2006). Her short work has appeared in Agni, Creative Nonfiction, ASSAY, The Writer’s Chronicle, Calyx, Prairie Schooner, TikkunThe New York Times and The Missouri Review, among others—and ten have been Notables in the Best American Essays Series. She is Professor Emerita in writing at Richard Stockton University and gives readings, talks, and workshops nationwide and abroad.


Assay is pleased to interview Mimi Schwartz to celebrate the release of her most recent book. To order When History Is Personal from the University of Nebraska Press, please click here.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust):

Mimi, your new book is wonderful—congratulations on its publication! To provide a framework for readers, I’d like to share the description:

When History Is Personal contains the stories of twenty-five moments in Mimi Schwartz’s life, each heightened by its connection to historical, political, and social issues. These essays look both inward and outward so that these individualized tales tell a larger story—of assimilation, the women’s movement, racism, anti-Semitism, end-of-life issues, ethics in writing, digital and corporate challenges, and courtroom justice. In adding her personal story to the larger narrative of history, culture, and politics, Schwartz invites readers to consider her personal take alongside “official” histories and offers readers fresh assessments of our collective past.

In the Preface of When History is Personal, you write that you “count on my experiences clashing with what the world is saying.” Rather than perceiving that clash as a limitation of perspective, you welcome that clash as a necessary, narrative tension. Personal moments connect to historical currents. I’m touching on the idea that the personal is political, but I’m also touching on the idea that individual stories matter. I feel this astute approach to nonfiction is what you’ve developed over the course of your previous books and writing life. Is it something you knew intuitively years ago or something you needed to learn? In writing workshops, we often talk about the courage needed to write our own stories. Is there courage in the clash?


I think being open to clashes—even looking for them—is essential, especially when writing about family and friends we think we know. Childhood memories, in particular, tend to begin with a cast of heroes and villains—the mean father, the jerky sister, the amazing grandmother—who have shaped our miserable or idyllic childhood. Fact checking, interviewing, and research help us challenge our initial assumptions, forcing us to rethink and re-experience remembered stories we are used to telling ourselves. We dig deeper, come in from another angle, hear a counter voice saying It didn’t happen that way! Whatever the clash, memories gains complexity and nuance—and our stories become more insightful.

In When History Is Personal, I benefited from many clashes. There is the one in “The Coronation of Bobby,” when one small fact about King George’s coronation (it happened before I was born) overturned a lovely memory I had of crowning my dog King Bobby, just like King George. And the one in “Love in a Handbag” when a photograph of my sister Ruth and me, high in an oak tree, brings back the good memories I’d forgotten, while writing about our battles half a century later. And the one in “A Trunk of Surprise,” when a speech by an African-American friend makes me realize how much I didn’t know about the racism he had faced before moving into his house in Glen Acres, a wonderfully special community where we met in 1966.

My colleague Jack Connor, in his Argument and Persuasion courses, insists his students include OPV (Opposing Points of View) on every paper. I now urge the same in my writing workshops: by adding dialogue, or telling someone’s counter narrative, or adding one small, annoying fact that overturns a memory. Let the chips of certainty fall wherever. The writing, I’ve found, is truer when the courage for that is there.


It is fascinating to me that after escaping Germany and saving his family from the Holocaust, your father took you back to visit Germany, and the small village he had left (and escaped), a mere eight years after World War II ended. Your father has such amazing wisdom, and you write beautifully about your resistance to it and recognition of it. Your writing evokes a profound sense of connection to the world: to place, to village, to family. In the first essay in When History Is Personal, “My Father Always Said,” you write:

Do you want to put down stones?” my father asked, placing small ones on his father’s grave, his lips moving as in prayer, and then on his mother’s grave, and on the others. He had found the stones under the wet leaves, and my mother, wobbling in high heels, was searching for more, enough for both of us.

Throughout this essay and the book, your writing is clear and defined, and it is also very beautiful. Was it hard to find that line of beauty for such profound topics?


If I consciously look for beautiful language, I never find it. The words must come naturally out of the experience I’m describing, or else they tend to sound pretentious and stilted. That said, I try to listen for the rhythms in my head and encourage a rush of words to surface without pre-editing. A good deal gets cut in subsequent drafts, but what remains are the words I most need. James Dickey calls it “finding the nuggets in fifty tons of dirt.” I also like Dorothy Allison’s metaphor of an accordion: “To write-write-write-expand-expand-expand-expand, and then when it is so expanded that it is bloated, cut it down….”


As you know I’m a huge fan of dogs in literature. (Right now, I’m working on a survey review of creative nonfiction books about dogs.) Here’s an excerpt from your story of “The Coronation of Bobby”:

Best of all, Omi and Opi had Bobby with his black-and-white tail that wagged like mad whenever we arrived. Unlike the German shepherd next door who bit me, Bobby was a dog for the unafraid, for those who kept trust with the world and chose welcome over anger, optimism over loss and betrayal—and Hitler be damned. My grandparents’ lack of bitterness in choosing Bobby’s good nature was a gift I absorbed without understanding. All that concerned me back then was Bobby’s name. Real Americans, I announced with authority as the first American-born in the family, would call him Spot. Or Sundae, because of his chocolate spots on vanilla fur. Or Silky, for the softest, long ears I ever put my cheek on.

I love that “Bobby was a dog for the unafraid, for those who kept trust with the world and chose welcome over anger, optimism over loss and betrayal.” I know that kind of dog. I recognize the human who befriends this optimistic dog. Also, the photograph of you and Bobby together is adorable. (Further, I also love the mention of your collie Karma in another essay.)

I’m curious if you think there is a different way we need to write about pets from how we write about humans. What do you think is the most frequently missed opportunity as writers when we write about our pets?


I’m so glad you chose the line about Bobby being a dog for the unafraid, because, for me, writing it was revelatory. Before that, I’d been writing a simple romance of how I fell in love with Bobby, and our farm adventures, and how he saved me from the black snake, and how I took him to my house. All true, but nothing I didn’t know; there was no complexity until I realized the other story of my grandparents restarting their previously urban lives on a chicken farm in America—and how memories shaped their lives here. The more I looked underneath and around my simple dog story, the more I found hiding there.

It is easy to idealize the people we love in childhood, and that impulse is probably even greater with pets—especially dogs that offer us so much unconditional love. Writing that one line of surprise led me to reexamine those halcyon farm memories with Bobby when I was five, six, and seven—and made for a more nuanced essay. So my recommendation to others writing about a dog they love? Write at least one line of surprise on your first draft and explore it.


I think we’ve both taken part in panel discussions about how to create a book out of a series of essays. Many of the essays included here were published as stand-alone pieces in literary journals (writers should note that your acknowledgement list is an excellent resource of journals to read). I’m completely engaged with When History is Personal, as a cohesive collection. In the preface, you write:

The twenty-five essays in When History Is Personal are meant to talk to each other over time and place. Though the organization is loosely chronological, the echoes and refrains matter more, informing and sometimes undermining a world I think I know. History, I keep finding out, has more than one version even when I am the only narrator!

Was the goal of creating a cohesive book in your mind as you wrote these separate essays? Additionally, how did you come up with a four-part structure for the book? It works so well. Again in the “Preface,” you write, “In four sections, I write to bear witness to the history I’ve inherited.”


In When History Is Personal, the structure came late in the process, after I’d written a dozen of the twenty-five essays in the book. I started by having this image of burying a time capsule of objects when I was eight—and thinking how these essays were like those objects: to preserve the world in my little box of history. I wrote a draft of a preface that began with this image—and then variations of my title came: When History Is Personal. Both preface and title became guidelines for the other stories I told: that each one should combine memoir and history, so that I was always writing about “I” in the world “I” lived in. In other words, I wanted to look inward, as memoir does, and outward at the world that shaped my personal experiences.

My favorite memoirs all did that. Growing Up by Russell Baker, for example, is about “a lazy boy and his mother,” as Baker put it; but also about life as a single mom in the Depression. Baker let me enter that world in a way that I never did reading straight history books. The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway is another favorite because of the way she combines her family story with the world of British settlers trying to make a go of it on the Australian outback.

Finding a structural order for the book only came at the end. My first great idea—to pair a personal essay and a craft essay—flopped. The essays didn’t speak to each other no matter how much I wished otherwise. As my friend, Lynn Powell, pointed out: “In your personal essays, you are discovering. In your craft essays, you have answers. The two voices don’t work well with each other.”


I took away ten craft essays and began looking at poetry collections and other essay collections for new ideas. Somehow were organized by time, but I was drawn to Anne Padgett’s Story of a Marriage, which is loosely chronological but not wed to it. Theme matters more, and with that in mind, I spread the essays out on the floor, and they began talking to each other over time and place. Four groupings appeared—Family Haunts, In and Out My Front Door, Storyscapes, and Border Crossings. I then ordered those groupings, considering tone (the need to mix sad and funny) and length ( the need to vary long and short as in music). Finally, I wanted one essay to lead into the next like links in a chain. I didn’t think it essential that people read sequentially (I often don’t), but if they did, I wanted the dots to connect.


In “What’s a Rally to Do?” you implicate yourself in “diplomatic silence,” and you connect the anti-Semitism your parents experienced in Germany with anti-Semitic flyers posted on the New Jersey university where you had taught, at that point, for twenty years or more. You write, “So this is why my dad left Germany! I thought, hurrying off, my heels echoing on the red floor tile. People like her, angry and unpredictable. People like me, diplomatically silent.”

In this essay, you recognize the difficulty of speaking up and speaking with colleagues. The essay shows personal and professional tensions, and it feels almost unbearably current during this political time of division and vulgarity in the United States. Again in the essay, one friend implies that because of your parents’ exodus from Germany you are overly sensitive to the distribution of hate flyers on campus; however, I read it that you are particularly attuned to what those hate flyers mean for the past, present, and future. In this essay, you write, “I always wondered what German professors told themselves in order not to act.” Further, you write:

Platitudes such as “We must treat each other with respect” keep people civil—and connected, like saying, “I love you” on days when you feel the opposite. By themselves these words do little, except to ward off permanent damage; but without them, there is no chance to lay a foundation that might turn self-righteousness into something worth working on.

In what ways can writers further use essays to “turn self-righteousness into something worth working on”? Sometimes I feel personal essays matter because they frame human experience. But other times I admit to feeling rather overwhelmed by the world, to feeling that individual expression, no matter how necessary, is inept. Would you share more about your thoughts about the process of essay writing as it relates to our current political moment?

Mimi Answers:

imagesOne lesson, quickly learned when writing about my marriage (one I wanted to stay in) in Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, was to give the opposing voices a chance to make the best argument they can. That translated into: Whenever I called my husband Stu an idiot, he got to call me a moron. It worked. He liked the book, saying You got us right!

In this new book, I kept that lesson in mind in “At the Johnson Hair Salon,” about liberal versus small town conversation about the opioid epidemic. And about how Israelis and Palestinians see their entwined history in “In the Land of Double Narrative.” And about the issue of death with dignity that my husband and I faced suddenly in “Lesson from a Last Day.” And about my clash with a good friend over what I saw as anti-Semitic incident in “What’s a Rally to Do?” I showed her my drafts; she disagreed vehemently with my version of what happened, and I added that to my story, feeling I gained credibility and a more nuanced truth than I would have otherwise had.

I want people who don’t agree with me to keep on reading. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is to present their side. Which brings me back to Jack Connor’s OPV and how when we add opposing points of view to our personal stories, we have opportunities for understanding and empathy that are lost when we stand alone on a soapbox of self-righteousness.

I just read an interview with the Lebanese filmmaker, Zaid Doueiri, whose films gain their power from presenting both sides, be it between Israelis and Palestinians (The Attack) or Christian Lebanese and Palestinians (The Insult, his latest). When asked why, he said, “As an artist, it is your moral duty to understand the other side.” That includes all of us who write our lives.


You are a long-time professor of creative nonfiction, and you’ve also been a guest teacher at many writing workshops nationally and internationally (including in my adopted country Switzerland at the Geneva Writers Workshop). My colleague (at North Idaho College where I teach online) Jon Frey and I were talking about your craft text with co-author Sondra Perl, Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction.


Jon Frey mentioned how much he loves your chapter on voice and writes: “Voice is something that I struggle with in my own nonfiction, and it feels so ephemeral that I almost hesitate to bring it up with undergrad writers for fear of sending them into spiraling self-doubt and crippling angst. So, I would love to ask Mimi Schwartz two things:”

1. How do you talk to students about techniques that feel mysterious to you without making writing feel precious and inaccessible?

2. What role do exercises and forced experimentation play in helping students find their own voices?


When I think of voice, I think of authenticity—and which of our many selves is the best “I” to tell a particular story. Revision, for me, is often about finding the right voice of that narrator. In my opening essay “My Father Always Said,” for example, I started in the voice of my thirteen-year-old self and was going strong until page six. Then I got stuck, until many drafts later I realized this bratty teenager could not narrate her father’s response, near his ancestral graves, to the echoes of the Holocaust. Only when the adult me arrived, or as Sue Silverman it, “the voice of experience” replacing “the voice of innocence,” was I able to reflect on the experience and finish the essay. I say, “when the adult me arrived” because it came out of experimentation. I told myself Let me try switching tenses (I went from present to past) and “try” was key. I read the new voice on the page and knew this was the right one for this story. But I had to coax it, not command it.

With my students, I rely on prompts, written and shared in class, to coax out their authentic voices. They just appear, and everyone in the room hears them and welcomes them—so they stick around for whatever story they might tell next.


Thank you for your time and, again, congratulations on your beautiful book—and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.

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


Renee DAoustRenée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. Seven essays have been named “Notable” by Best American Essays and “Gratitude is my Terrain,” published by Sweet: A Literary Confection, was named one of “2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays” by Sundress Publications. She was an NEH Summer Scholar at the “City, Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute, and she has twice served as a Writer to Writer mentor for AWP. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College. Please visit and follow her @idahobuzzy.



Tree Books for the Classroom

In 2008, I was involved in setting up an Idaho Master Forest Stewards program in northern Idaho through the University of Idaho Extension Forestry program under professor Chris Schnepf. Since 2009, I’ve served as a volunteer in the program, primarily writing articles and occasionally serving on panels about our family’s stewardship forest in northern Idaho. I’ve also been involved in the Women Owning Woodlands program, which serves to support women in all aspects of forestry. If you are familiar with a master gardener program, the master forestry program is similar. It’s based on peers educating peers through a wide range of volunteer activities from visiting forests, connecting landowners to forestry professionals, and education. I’ve used my readings and training about forestry and peer-to-peer education models–plus my continuing education requirements–extensively in the classroom.

Because people know that I love trees, they often ask me to recommend books about trees. What follows are a couple of recommendations, several of which I have used in Creative Writing and English Composition classrooms.

Byl, Christine. Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press).

Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding—more real—than she ever imagined.

Gill, Charlotte. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Greystone Books). The first chapter is available, here.

Eating Dirt is an extended postcard from the cut blocks—a vivid portrayal of one woman’s life planting trees. This literary journey follows tree planters through a year on the job, through bugs and bears, remote camps and logging towns. It offers a glimpse into the unique subculture of those who work at one of the dirtiest jobs left on earth among the world’s last giant trees. The story also traces the seasons of the forest and the remarkable life cycles of trees.

Haskell, David George. The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (Viking). Haskell is one of the best people writing on trees. I highly recommend his work. Through The Songs of Trees, we travel the globe, listening. To listen, we must learn. Haskell includes contemplative practice in his teaching and writing, and he teaches us how to pay attention. For example, in the chapter on “Sabal Palm,” on “a barrier island off the U.S. coast in Georgia,” we hear sand:

The sand on the seaward edge of the dune banked at a sharp angle, running to the beach in one sweep from just below the dune’s peak. Sitting close, I heard this face whisper, a sibilant hesitation, only audible when the seethe of distant wavelets quieted for a few moments. The sounds came from liquefied sand, patches of the slope that suddenly lost their grip and turned, in an instant, to fluid from granular solid. The sand hissed as it raced down the slope in narrow chutes.

The Songs of Trees take us to the Amazon, to the East Coast of the United States, to Japan, to Scotland, and elsewhere. Haskell is an astonishing literary nature writer, and The Songs of Trees is poetic and lyrical, engaging our need for images and story while grounding us with facts and science.


Merwin, W.S. Unchopping a Tree. Illustrations by Liz Ward. (Trinity University Press.) This is a gorgeous poetic essay that answers Merwin’s question: “How do you put back together a tree that’s been felled?” It’s a mediation on “unchopping” trees as well as creative itself. How do you write what has been undone? Merwin teaches us how.


MacIvor-Andersen, Josh, Editor. Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction (Outpost 19).

In this collection, we meet a boy who ate a tree to gain access to the Guiness Book of World Records, a tree-tethered sniper at a pot farm in California, a man who was killed by a fallen limb in Central Park, and lots of writers, both established and emerging, whose intimate connections to trees (and their losses) have found a collective home in the pulped pages of recycled forest.

I assigned this anthology as one of my texts for an English Composition 101 course and was thrilled at the student response to it. Full disclosure: I didn’t specifically assign my essay, “The Line of No Trees,” which is included in the anthology, but I did use it as an example of writing for publication. Bill McKibben’s introduction is excellent. Contributors include many writer-teachers with whom readers of Assay will be familiar: Karen Hugg, Lia Purpura, Wendy Call, Matthew Gavin Frank, M. J. Gette, Jacklyn Janeksela, Renée E. D’Aoust, Angela Pelster, Brian Doyle, Jacqueline Doyle, Andrea Scarpino, T. Hugh Crawford, Thomas Mira y Lopez, Steven Church, Mercedes Webb-Pullman, Fred Bahnson, Stefan Olson, Diane Payne, Zoë Ruiz, Amaris Feland Ketcham, Kayann Short, Diana Hume George, Annie Bellerose, Paul Lisicky, Toti O’Brien, Lori Brack, Mackenzie Myers, Courtney Amber Kilian, John Roscoe and Theresa Kishkan.


Nisbet, Jack. Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest (Sasquatch Books). For readers interested in tree history, Jack Nisbet’s books about naturalist David Douglass are must reads. Sources of the River brought Hudson’s Bay Company explorer David Thompson epic travels, which predates Lewis & Clark, into a contemporary focus. fAncient Places: People and the Landscape in the Emerging Northwest has a wider range of subjects with fascinating essays on the Inland Northwest. Nisbet helps us trace natural history in our current time suggesting, “We are all travelers, really.”

Pelster, Angela. Limber (Sarabande Books). This is a startling collection of often lyric essays would be an excellent text addition for an advanced creative nonfiction workshop. (Consider adopting it along with Byl’s Dirt Work and Gill’s Eating Dirt.) When I reviewed Limber for Rain Taxi, I wrote this:

In Pelster’s essay collection Limber, she expresses an almost religious reverence for the ways that trees root and grow, inhabiting her conscious and subconscious, and revealing deeper meanings rewarded to those willing to sit and be—with trees. Here trees grow in wombs and hearts, frogs sit in their branches, and trees also wound young boys.


Renee DAoustRenée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. Seven essays have been named “Notable” by Best American Essays and “Gratitude is my Terrain,” published by Sweet: A Literary Confection, was named one of “2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays” by Sundress Publications. She was an NEH Summer Scholar at the “City, Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute run by the University of Washington. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College. Please visit and follow her @idahobuzzy.

Christine Cusick–Reflections on Teaching

In 2017, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Parker J. Palmer’s provocative book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life in which he eloquently reminds us that teaching is a mutually transformative act, one that requires self reflection and courage. Teaching is an act of hope, an act that demands courage because no matter how we might try to distance ourselves from its formulas, it is inevitably a surrendering to the embrace of the imagination and the heart.


Cythnia Ozick offers us a similar insight when reflecting on the act of putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, as one might. She writes that “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” I think often about these lines, sometimes printing them at the top of my syllabi, sometimes whispering them to myself when I face my own blank page and simply cannot muster the coherence I long for. Even after more than a decade in the writing classroom, most often encountering first year students who bring a bit of trepidation to the world of academic writing, I sometimes feel that I am only beginning to effectively enter into this confluence of courage that is the writing classroom. And it has, as most authentic learning experiences do, invited me into an embrace of my own vulnerabilities and uncertainties.

Nancy Sommers’s essay, “I Stand Here Writing” was originally published in an academic journal, College Writing, and yet it is a compelling example of how genres are never authentic vacuums, that the notion that we can sever our personal selves from the act of putting words down, and I would add, entering the space of a classroom, is indeed grounded on false pretense. What is brilliant about this essay is that it enacts the very argument that it articulates. It eloquently curates the author’s family history against her own educational history, invoking canonical giants like Emerson while making just as strong a case for the textual power of a daughter’s refrigerator hieroglyphics and a mother’s four-leaf clovers in a greeting card. For a first year student who is often negotiating how and why she will have a place in the mysterious world of the academic essay, Nancy Sommers’s essay reminds her that she has always had a voice, has been sustained by multiple forms of texts, and that a writing life happens well beyond the page.

The essay begins by anchoring the reader to her senses: “I stand in my kitchen, wiping the cardamom, coriander, and cayenne off my fingers. My head is abuzz with words, with bits and pieces of conversation.” I open a class discussion with this line, asking students what they know of these spices, how it could be that the work of writing happens above a steaming pot heated by the fire of a kitchen stove. One student tells me she immediately connected to this because the scent of cardamom reminds her of her father’s morning mug of chai, aromas of his home. Another student pauses and asks if this is sort of like figuring out a paper idea on the cross-country trail? And we are off to work through a philosophically astute engagement with questions of language, cultural history, and human imperfection. But it is also an essay about the cost of a writing life, about the risks of the unknown. In the same opening lines that create an image of fingers stained not with ink but with the vibrant colors of fiery spices, the author is grappling with her memory of a line about the radical loss of certainty, a theme that ripples as an undercurrent throughout the essay.

I bring this essay to students because it reminds them that there is context to how they relate to words, to learning, to themselves, that even an academic such as Sommers, brings a process to uncovering what she has to say and how she will say it. Our relationship with ideas has a history that ebbs and flows with time and that sometimes in looking for answers we might be missing the point. In so doing, the essay invites students into research as an unpredictable act of curiosity: “I know that I can walk into text after text, source after source, and they will give me insight, but not answers. I have learned too that my sources can surprise me.” Each time I teach this essay, it strikes me that Sommers’s description of research could as easily have been of the pedagogical impulse, one steeped in past lives and open to surprises.

At its core, this essay is about how writing and research happen, though it doesn’t try to lull students into the delusions that there is some mysterious formula that will yield the same result for each of us. What it offers students is a sense of agency as writers, as researchers. Sommers writes:

“If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to seem themselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced—the dictionaries of their lives—circulating through them.”

In these lines she grants students the permission for ambiguity, and in fact argues for the necessity of their uncertainty in moving toward the creation of meaning, of bringing the “dictionaries of their lives” to an audience. By bringing this essay, one likely created for an academic audience of writing scholars, to an undergraduate classroom, I can begin a conversation with them about how their stories matter, about how sometimes we have to navigate the personal to create meaning from the academic. Sommers writes: “Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretations to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays.” This can be a liberating piece of knowledge for an undergraduate writing student, to think that there is a place for their voice in the conversation of ideas and that in grappling with what this will mean for themselves they are a part of a larger human experience of listening for their words.

If I am honest, I love teaching this essay because of what it reveals for my students, but also because of how it sustains me.

“With writing and with teaching, as well as with love, we don’t know how the sentence will begin and, rarely ever, how it will end. Having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt, we can walk into all of those fields of writing, knowing that we will find volumes upon volumes bidding us enter.”

I return to Sommers’s eloquent lines on days when I pause at the classroom door, unsure if I have anything to offer my students, when I close my eyes to the sight of a blank screen, when I am in need of an invitation, of a voice to remind me that it is in entering into the ambiguous dance of teaching/writing that we find one another: teacher, student, writer, human.

Works Cited

Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (20th Edition), 2017.

Sommers, Nance. “I Stand Here Writing” College English, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Apr., 1993), pp. 420-428. [Find Sommers’s essay online, here.]


IMG_1984Christine Cusick lives in the foothills of the Laurel Highland mountains of western Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the intersections of ecology, story, and memory. She has published numerous ecocritical studies of contemporary literature and has been nationally recognized for creative nonfiction. Her most recent book is a coedited essay collection, Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment. She is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Seton Hill University.


One Must Follow One’s Bliss: Interviewing the Essay with David Lazar


Born in Brooklyn, David Lazar eventually went on to study poetry and the essay in Syracuse and Houston, working with the likes of Hayden Carruth, Phillip Booth, Raymond Carver, and Phillip Lopate. He’s also responsible for the creation of the Nonfiction Writing programs at Ohio University and Columbia College Chicago, where David and I first met.

In addition to having written numerous collections of essays and poetry (including, but not limited to I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, Occasional Desire: Essays, and Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy? An Essay on Love) he has edited the anthologies After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover The Essays (co-edited with Patrick Madden), Essaying the Essay, and Truth in Nonfiction.

David and I spoke here about the intricacies of & in essays. Whether these intricacies have been generalized in the context of essays, have appeared in David’s own essays, or have searched for a home in the essays of David’s students, he has remained ever-attentive to the ways in which the essay twists and turns, reveals and conceals, and dances, intimately, both for and with its readers.


In I’ll Be Your Mirror, you write that “The personae we create (at least partly) and the personae we think we’ve created don’t always match up.” What kind of personae would you say you’ve crafted throughout I’ll Be Your Mirror? Is it any different from the personae in your work before this book?

Writing autobiographically—and let’s say specifically in the essay, since that’s what I write—you’re constantly in the position(s) of both Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster, simultaneously the creator and the created, the product of yourself that isn’t fully controllable, or even understandable. I’m a bit loathe to comment too much (or shall I say in a certain way) about my persona in this interview, because I’d rather have the reader make their determinations of what kind of thing this is without my telling them. Of course I do tell them, in many ways, in the essays themselves. I could tell you obvious things about the persona: he’s funny, he’s neurotic, he’s trying to undermine his defenses, and not have that emerge as just another form of defense, etc. But as to what gives a persona its distinct verve, I wouldn’t dream of offering an opinion. I do believe that my persona is different in these essays than it has been before. For one thing, it, he, is older. (Is a persona a thing, or a person? It’s a voice, of course, but is it an entity?) That means, in this case, that the voice of the essays is darker in some ways, more joyous in others.

With an awareness of this sometimes-darker, sometimes more joyous persona, how do you try to maintain the performativity of the persona, or keep it in check?

Those personae are frequently out together, dancing cheek to cheek. In terms of performance: the essay is always performed, even if its tendrils run deep into life. Checking the performance is just calibration for the most part: what’s building the voice, pushing the tension in whatever the essay is trying to unfold through the self’s written method acting. But there are those times, in fact, when I uncheck the performance for performance sake, thinking it helps the essay in some way (or perhaps even in occasionally blissful disregard), and let myself go into a performative swoon of some sort. These are moments of excess, and they sometimes please and amuse me. Perhaps the reader, too. But who knows? One must follow one’s bliss after all, even occasionally, along with the demands of the art.

In terms of the relationship between obsession and epiphany in the essay, which do you think is more exigent in your own writing?

desire-300x463Obsession, no doubt, since I’m fundamentally suspicious of epiphany. If I had been a Magi, I would have been one dubious Magi. Or, I would have accepted the revelation with a grain of salt. The root of epiphany is in the Greek for manifestation or sudden appearance, things I’m naturally suspicious of. Now, as an overthinking, anxious individual, I find obsession, by which I mean not a clinical form of ideation, but a persistence based on a desire that can’t be shaken, a desire whose existence is an image of where your mind needs to go—a saving grace.

As an essayist, what are you obsessed with these days? 

I’m not sure I obsess as an essayist until I’m in the middle of an essay, at which point my obsessions may be somewhat technical—about transitions and grammatical quirks, leaps of essayistic faith that may be or feel too contrived, not essential to the beating heart of what I’m desiring to get closer to. Most of my obsessions are like the return of the repressed: they’re personal and longstanding. Oh, I could say, “Fred Astaire,” or “John Clare,” or I could talk to you about the bridge between self-possession and weeping—what happens in those moments that move us towards release is such important music. But our real obsessions, if we’re fortunate enough to be on familiar terms with them, or have glimpsed them in shop windows, shouldn’t be brought out to sing at parties. Think Hitchcock.

You mention both “leaps of essayistic faith” and self-doubt: But if there’s so much doubt going on in essays, then what’s there to leap faithfully toward?

Who knows? Sometimes just the idea of the leap itself? But, as always when speaking in these terms, Kierkegaard is useful. I’m a great believer in the essay’s use of the mind’s dialectical momentum, the ability to challenge ourselves to find what we call truths, or meaning, through rational processes of thought. But every artist knows that there comes a point when our depth of need to surpass what we know rationally haunts us, and prods us to find other ways of trying to know the world, ourselves, the questions that haunt us, and it is during those times the metaphorical leap of faith asks us to leave or put aside the rational, the dialectical, and try other ways of knowing. You can tear a word in half, or erase it. Abandon, if only temporarily, your logical exposition, and give way to fantasy, the deep meditation of image. Whatever you need as a writing artist to get to a place that logic may not be sufficient to carry you to.

I say this as someone who deeply invests in the formal processes of classic essayistic exploration. The hinges have come off the doors in our time. And there has to be work that echoes that. So, I think essays that push out the boundaries of the form are wonderful things. My former student Kristen Radtke, for example, in her new book, Imagine Wanting Only This. Lina Ferreira in Don’t Come Back. Anne Boyer in Garments Against Women. Anne Carson. These are all voices that are finding ways of leaping in the essay. Simone Weil writes (in Gravity and Grace), “Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.” We leap even in doubt. Or always in doubt. Of course, as writers, our job is to make that leap compelling: a swan dive.

In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that, when teaching the essay, you’ve “always encouraged hybridity, telling [your] students that the essence of the essay is, as [Georg] Lukács and [Theodor] Adorno have remarked, its formal openness . . .” As an essayist, how would you categorize your own deployment of hybridity?

I probably wouldn’t, except to say that I learn by going where I have to go. That I’ve never felt limited by what I might formally do in an essay (break out into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” deal from the bottom of the deck), nor have I have felt compelled to cleverly search for a form—because a series of paragraphs on a page, with one thought following another, couldn’t serve themselves and the essay perfectly well.

You also write in “Hydra” about Elizabeth Smart, saying she’s “among the few writers I know who appears to risk everything, to be emotionally raw, formally wild and self-aware, yet lucid, lucid.” Although you were focused on Smart, how might you also attach these descriptions to the essay’s relationship to genre more generally?

These are all qualities the essay might have in its different forms, the last two of which I would argue are almost always necessary: lucidity and self-awareness. It’s very difficult to perform the essay without being aware of your performance; the meta-essay is the essay. And I cling to the notion that essays usually exist in some relationship to ideas, to the processing of information, whether it’s about the self, or herrings, or rock formations, or the number of times Schiller uses the letter “b.” So, lucidity. Lucidity.

If you cling to the essay form’s “relationship to ideas, to the processing of information,” then how do you take note of a “processing order”? How do you prioritize?

That’s an excellent question. I’m not sure I’m clinging, though. I’m not a clinging type. This is what I ask for in essays, though I think if you look both at what I’ve published over the years, as well as the variety of what I’ve written, you’d see a catholicity of types of processes. Some do come in series of ordered images and scattered commentaries. Some as more expository forays into expression, direct or indirect. How information is processed, the order of its relative importance, is both intuitive and, one hopes, knowable through seeing through the blinds of associations that create new understanding, insight, or even let one know that nothing new can be known, which is often a very valuable insight to blunder to. My priority is always to reach the sentence that seems so newly minted that it shivers in response to oxygen. Do I ever get there? I desire to, and desire is a holy word; self-judgments are best rendered either quietly, or in the rich atmosphere of essays. 

The essay “Five Autobiographical Fragments, or She May Have Been a Witch” expresses the notion that you hadn’t “reached the age of self-fascination.” You were talking about adolescence, but what about your self-fascination as a (personal) essayist? How would you describe that process of discovery?

Well, let’s be blunt: if you’re going to write autobiographical essays, or familiar essays, you better have a sense that you’re a pretty interesting person. Modesty would be absurd, a mere topos. If you didn’t have a sense that an audience is going to delight (in the largest sense) in listening to you, then you wouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t do it. Which isn’t to say we don’t all have our moments of self-doubt.

Now, discovery and self-fascination or self-knowledge, for that matter, aren’t quite the same thing. You could find yourself fascinating, charming, the life of your party of one . . . all of which means you think your inner life is teeming with exotic fish. You like looking at them. But knowing anything about them, about yourself—about, for example, how your charm may be related to your neuroses, or how your repressed emotions have caused compensations that have saved you or failed you, how your expressive side may be a screen, a façade, a door, a floodgate. This is the work we do (whether we’re the actual subjects of our own work, or are undressing the self as part of a parallel sequence of exploring some idea, some film, some phenomenon, some fish) as we move through the deeper channels of our essays, of essaying. An essayist who doesn’t find herself interesting enough to want to know, “Who are you, really?” and “Why do you do what you do, say what you say?” probably hasn’t probed the self very deeply. I’d say it’s hard to imagine an essayist who hasn’t really done some significant psychological work on the self. I think the stakes are too high, the language of the self too complicated and supple to not. The processes of discovery are what an essay is. We use language to structure ideas and create experience in order to reveal what we hadn’t known.


You also write a bit about friendliness: In terms of friendliness and the essay, how would you say the two do—or don’t—go hand-in-hand, especially in terms of delivering an essay’s “personal” aspect to the reader?

In life, in my work, I never want to be accused of being excessively friendly. Certainly, there’s an intimacy between writer and reader inscribed in the essay: even when Montaigne tells you not to waste your time reading him, he’s acting as though you’re a familiar. To whom else would one say such a thing? It creates a (false) sense of relationship. I don’t really think about the or a reader very much at all when I’m writing. I’m mostly figuring out if I’m doing something that makes sense to me, that excites me a bit, and most importantly, that doesn’t bore me. The “Dear Reader” moves are very important signals, though, or they can be if they aren’t too cute: they show that you want to involve the reader in the process of the work (which the work itself should be encouraging). It’s a device, after all, a formality. But it does, if used well, create a frisson of recognition—a person experienced this and is speaking to me, even if we both know it’s a gambit. This is nonfiction.

In “Voluptuously, Expansively, Historically, Contradictorily,” you tell Mary Cappello that she and you “both seem to be perennially taken by, and swept up a bit by, intensities of coincidence.” Which coincidences, if any, would you say led you toward I’ll Be Your Mirror?

Without getting into too much detail, I had an accident that scared me mortally a couple of years ago, and it led to one of the most productive writing periods of my life. Part of the accident was akin to slipping on a banana peel, and part of it was much more psychologically legible. And for several months after that, I felt I was writing to preserve myself, to protect myself from some combination of daemons that I didn’t understand. I’ve always prided myself (before a fall on a banana peel?) on wanting to know as much as I could about myself and my motivations. But for those months I was writing deeply, but not directly, about what had happened, as though digging some kind of parallel tunnel, hoping to either get to the surface, or the right depth, depending, of course, on which way you’re going. So, there’s that.

Then there’s the coincidence of Heather Frise and I having gone to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and emerged to see Martin Creed’s large neon MOTHERS sign. We agreed immediately that we needed to collaborate on a project involving mothers because of that accidental intersection.

Coincidences are like charms dangled in front of us. They’re about attention, about what we notice, though we frequently assuage the volition. A given day gifts us with stockings full of coincidences, small and large. But many, we’re too distracted to see or register interestingly enough. Mary Cappello is my coincidence-sister. She spots the meaning in strange convergences, and when we happen to share them, it’s a great delight to me: a way of creating order, of finding patterns in a world that seems to me sometimes one blink away from chaos.

One more question about teaching: You’ve taught in and developed programs in nonfiction over many years, but in I’ll Be Your Mirror you note your unease about how not only is nonfiction pedagogy “completely under-theorized,” but that teachers of nonfiction need more focus on what you call “the psychodynamism of the workshop.” What are you—and what can we—be doing to get nonfiction pedagogy where you think it needs to be? Where do you think it needs to be? 

Well, happily, there are forums on nonfiction pedagogy on Facebook now, which is a good thing. And places like Assay have come along and are publishing good work on the essay and related forms of nonfiction. I just saw a special issue of a magazine called TEXT out of Australia, “Essay Now,” that had a few interesting pieces in it—very indebted to US work on the essay. The Essay Review at Iowa has published some very good work—I’ve been happy to be included there. So: more. And, I’d like to see more attention given to essayists of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. My students seem to find reading the essayists’ frequently wonderful sentences so arduous—at first!—that the more of us who do it, the less torturous this would seem.

As for the psychodynamism of the workshop, it’s just always worried me a bit that we’re handling so much trauma. I’ve been in therapy all of my life. I consult with therapists about workshop issues. But I wonder if we shouldn’t be teaching our teachers more formally, setting up structures that are more specific to the tenderness and intensity of what our students are so frequently writing about. Some of my friends are hardcore about focusing on the art, the structure, etc. I couldn’t be less like that. The shape of the work comes from the shape of the experience, and how it is processed, in an autobiographical essay. (Of course, there are an infinite number of kinds of essays, but autobiographical essays dominate our teaching.) And so, we dive in, and the psychodynamism of the group, the class, the meeting becomes central. And I care very deeply about the hearts as well as the minds and careers of my students, so my own sense of pedagogical decorum must always engage with what I think is demanded of the work. Considering what we talk about in workshop, the subjects we’re asked to mediate, would it be unreasonable to expect that we, and the students we’re training to teach other young autobiographical writers, have some background in the psychoanalytic literature(s)? Had read some Winnicott or Melanie Klein or Lacan? That’s a discussion I’ve always thought nonfiction was light on: our relationship to the traumas brought to us and how we contextualize it within an art-making program. It’s a sometimes-tense interplay. But that’s the role, that’s my vocation as I choose to understand it. And I hope it’s served the art of the essays my students have brought to me, as well as the life of the essayists themselves. But, really, who knows? Another large leap of faith.


bwimg_7833Micah McCrary is the author of Island in the City (forthcoming, University of Nebraska) and a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays, reviews, and translations have also appeared in Essay Daily, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and a contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. A doctoral candidate in English at Ohio University, he holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.

An Interview with Sophfronia Scott


Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collection, Love’s Long Line, from Ohio State University Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, here.

Introduction and interview by Elizabeth Cohen

In the amphitheater of American horror stories, the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting of 20 school children and six adult staffers may be the saddest of all. The writer Sophfronia Scott, in her two new creative nonfiction books, This Child of Faith and Love’s Long Line, explores various facets of the tragedy and other topics with the vise of witness and her writer’s deep and empathic eye. Her son Tain attended the school and he survived that day. Not so his dear friend Ben, and many others from their community. Her two books, one written as a co-author with Tain, now 13, parse the enormity of that loss, along with the largest subjects of them all: faith, origins, life’s fragility, and motherhood with a capital M.

In time, the Sandy Hook shooting would come to stamp a certain part of central Connecticut with the broadest imaginable girth of tragedy, and most certainly those families most affected by that day, with a sort of scarlet letter L, for insurmountable loss. But for me, Sophfronia has another identity altogether.

When I moved to New Fairfield, Connecticut in 2007, not knowing a soul, a mutual friend told me, “You have to call my friend, the writer Sophfronia Scott.” That suggestion led to an early morning meet-up at a Starbucks just off the highway near her home. Her many dreadlocks were pulled into a haphazard swirled top notch and as she walked my way, I saw she had a New York Times in one hand and a large chai latte in the other. Her face was a canvas of warmth with the most delightful spill of freckles that made me think at once of a child I once knew who told me her mother told her that her freckles were “angel’s kisses.” I confess I can’t recall much specifically about our conversation that day, but I do recall the feeling of it. If empathy and maternal solidarity could be made woman, this was that woman. She had brought me her novel and I had brought her a memoir I wrote. We were there because of writing itself, and that eternal quest among writers for the fellowship of our kind, but we quickly discovered the bonds of motherhood, love of music and nature and books, books, books. A friendship followed that involved visits to cafes to hear her singer-songwriter husband Darryl Gregory perform, and eventually to her home, set on a wooded lane, where she often hosts groups of her writer friends. By the morning that the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, I had long since moved away, but my bond with Sophfronia was so very real. I immediately thought of several families I knew who might be affected. And then one word came flying into my brain: “Tain.”

Reading her new books this winter was to travel back to that time and further, to her childhood, to the horrific experience of miscarriage, to her joyful days as a mother, seeing Tain in the rearview mirror of her car and knowing “all is right with the world because he is there.” Traveling, in short, on the magic carpet of her narratives, in which she weaves snatches of memories, both sharp and incandescent, philosophical ponderings and marvelous literary experimentations like an essay that follows the “Holy Week” between Palm Sunday and Easter, and one which contemplates words themselves stemming from her son’s daily vocabulary school homework. Beneath all of these is that same humming presence of intelligence, empathy and something I will just call grace. That thing I first witnessed all those years back, couched in the angel-kissed face of the woman who came out to meet another writer at a Starbucks, to invite her into her community, with fellowship and light.


Q #1: Both of your creative nonfiction books, This Child of Faith (yours and Tain’s) and Love’s Long Line, at first glance, could be easily described as books forged in tragedy, but upon reading the essays it quickly becomes clear that they could also be seen as invitations to grace and faith. When you describe them, what overarching concepts do you feel connects or defines them best?

Sophfronia: Grace and faith are certainly the overarching concepts, both present in almost all of the work whether I’m writing about them directly or not. I’m also big on forgiveness and love. But the connection in both books is in my seeking of how these concepts show up in the reality and everydayness of life. The title of the essay collection was inspired by Annie Dillard’s observation in her book Holy the Firm that we all “reel out love’s long line alone…like a like wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.” I like to think my essays show that yes, there is loneliness, longing, and grief exacted by a fearless engagement with the everyday world. But if you hold onto the line, there’s an abundance of joy and forgiveness to be had as well.

Q #2: In the first essay of This Child of Faith you tell the reader that there was a time in your life when you came to the realization that your father was illiterate. This made me wonder about the powerful experience for parents – and especially writer parents – of seeing their own children learn to read. Was this especially meaningful to you, knowing that you come from a parent who could not?

Sophfronia: Actually, the more meaningful experience for me was realizing Tain could recognize beauty in writing. He was in fourth grade, I think, when he first said “Mama, you’ve got to read this!” I thought he wanted to show me something he thought was funny but it was a gorgeous paragraph of metaphor comparing boys to puppies in the way they gathered and then learned to run and race each other. I still remember how he excitedly said, “And you know the boys are not really puppies, right?” I said I knew, and told him this was a wonderful example of metaphor. He repeated the word, slowly, as though I’d just taught him a magic spell. “Metaphor.” Since then he’s said, “Mama, you’ve got to read this” many times, and I always listen. He recognizes the most amazing writing—Home of the Brave, a novel in verse by Katherine Applegate, was one of his recommendations when he was in fifth grade. That’s so exciting to me, and gratifying because I’m not sure if you can teach how to feel the wonder of words. But he has it and so abundantly.

Q#3: What has it been like passing along the torch of writing to Tain, in the act of co-writing a book with him? Was it fun writing this together?

Sophfronia: There were days when Tain would not have called it fun! The way our book is set up, I write the main narrative but each chapter contains a section called “Tain’s Take” where he writes his version of the story. We recently spoke to the writing classes at his school, Newtown Middle School, and one of the things Tain told his fellow students was how frustrating it was because of the many times I would send his writing back to him because he hadn’t told a story fully or included enough details.

As we started to work, I found it interesting how the questions Tain asked about the process and the issues I guided him through were the same ones I work on with my adult creative nonfiction students. Tain was concerned that he couldn’t remember exactly some of the events because he was younger, really another person, then. I taught him how he could research his own life, how there were clues to help him. He interviewed our minister and the Sunday school director at our church. We tracked down entries he’d written for the “Jesus Doll” binder the director keeps. He learned that he could write from these materials. It was hard work, especially as the deadline pressed upon us. But I’ll never forget the day when the finished book arrived and I put it on the passenger seat of my minivan for when I picked him up from school. When he saw it he said, “We did it!” and high-fived me. I loved that moment.

Q#4: Much of the book This Child of Faith is about the source of faith and the actual definition or coming to an understanding of the nature of God. Tain writes, “I asked my mom who God is and what Sunday School is.”

I wondered if you can explain a little further how motherhood seems to have invited you to explore the nature of God deeper for yourself, and if you can discuss a bit how this deeper experience of spirituality has informed you as a writer, given that it is a recurring theme for you in these books.

Sophfronia: That invitation is really the heart of This Child of Faith because I didn’t know my own faith would be so deeply affected by guiding Tain in developing his. And honestly, I didn’t expect it to find its way into my writing. When I started writing about faith it was more in conversation with close friends and for myself. But it became clear by the way those near me responded to my words that I’m somehow able to write about this huge abstract concept in a very down to earth way. I see that as a gift, a very important one, so I continue with it. And I believe one feeds the other. Faith opens my eyes to the wonder of the world and that shows up in my writing. Writing about faith grounds me in my feeling for it, affirms it for me in a way. It’s hard to describe concretely, but that’s the way it is, like a river flowing through me.

Q#5: Building on that question, two more queries arise for me on the nature of God which you parse in these essays in both books. Firstly, you have written here in your essay “The Hairbrush Song”: “I feel the essence of faith is written in our cells” and that God is “definitely imprinted in our DNA.” This led me to wonder how you reconcile the generally accepted idea that God is a being outside the self, do you feel God exists bout outside and inside us, and also made me wonder how God can love us and be in us. To say “God loves you” would seem to imply God is “other.”

Secondly, here, I found myself wondering what you think of the concept of the “God gene” proposed by the geneticist Dean Hamer, a hypothesis that human spirituality is influenced by heredity and that a specific gene, may be controlling this. Do you feel God is written upon us in this biological way, as he asserts? What does this mean for those who do not possess this gene? And what are your thoughts about this?

Sophfronia: I think many see God as “other” and “out there” but I believe our connection to God is no different than our connection to our own parents. Each of our parents is within us—we are made up of their cells. And yet they are separate people walking around outside of us. Likewise, God is in our cells within us and God is all around us. God really is that close—that may be hard and even scary to contemplate—but I believe it’s true and comforting. It’s true for everyone. We are all children of God whether we realize it or not. I don’t know anything about the God gene concept so I can’t speak to that. But I’ve noticed that it does seem to be easier for some more than others to believe and make that connection. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that’s why it’s important for me to write what I do—in case there’s a chance that I can provide an assist from someone trying to get there.

Q #6: The theme of the power of names and naming seems to crop up repeatedly in these books. Most notably, in your essay about your own name, “Calling Me by My Name” in Love’s Long Line, you write that in bestowing on you at your birth a rare name and, by accident, an unusual spelling, your father “poured into my tiny vessel of possibility the essence of what I would become.” In This Child of Faith, you describe teaching a Sunday School class at your church in which you ask a little girl what her favorite part of Communion is, to which she replies, “I like it when Pastor Kathie says my name.” Clearly names hold a certain power for you, a framing and recognizing of individual being and belonging. Can you discuss this theme in your writing and talk a little about Tain’s name as well, and what it means to you?


Sophfronia: Yes, I believe a name can be a powerful stamp of who we are and I think many beliefs and individuals act on this as well: notice how when someone wants to signal a big change in their life they often change their name. In many faiths when you reach certain stages you are given a different name. I think a name is powerful whether it is common or not, but I’m more attentive to this because of my unusual name. As I said earlier, I tend to write about the grace and love in everyday life but I do it in a personal way hoping readers can see similar aspects in their own lives. And you recognize your life by your name, your own name. How we show up in the world can be a way of demonstrating how we own our names. How do I show up in the world as Sophfronia? How do you show up in the world as Elizabeth? How do people connect with us in this very basic aspect of ourselves?

Of course feeling this way about names, I knew I wanted my child to have a name he could hold and feel very much as his own. I write about this in the book, but when I was pregnant and learned I was having a boy I knew I wanted him to have an Irish name to represent my family’s Scotch-Irish ancestry. I am black and both of my parents are black, but on my father’s side of the family red hair and freckles run rampant. One of my sisters, preparing for a reunion, started researching our family background and this was her discovery. Who would have thought it was possible to be both black and Irish? I didn’t! So I wanted the baby to grow up knowing this aspect about himself. One day Darryl came home and told me he’d been listening to a jazz drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and said Tain was a cool name. I agreed. It was simple yet different and elegant. We started considering the name, and I mentioned this to a dear friend who happens to be well-versed in Irish lore.

“Tain is an Irish name!” he said, and told me of an ancient Irish epic called The Tain. It’s the story of a legendary cattle raid, and it has the same standing in Irish culture that Homer’s The Iliad has in classical Greek literature. Tain means cattle or bull.

Obviously, I thought, this was supposed to be his name. He is Tain. And to this day that’s how I respond when people compliment him or marvel over something he’s done: “He is Tain.” It is fact and explanation. His middle name is Elijah, a reminder for him that he is close to the voice of God.

Q#7: You write about sharing a hometown in Lorain, Ohio, with the author Toni Morrison and how at a certain point you felt it was important to acknowledge your shared roots with this American literary legend. In your shortest essay “Toni Morrison and Me” you seem to make peace with the fact that you are so very different from her, yet share a love of stories and storytelling, plain and simple. I wondered if you could have an opportunity to interview Ms. Morrison, what the one question you would ask her would be.

Sophfronia: Toni Morrison and I have a similar background in that, though she’s older than I am, our fathers both worked in Lorain’s steel mill and we had a bit of that hardscrabble upbringing. I still think of that and how much of it is still within me and I wonder if it’s the same for her. If I were to articulate that in a question it would be:

“Do you ever recall the smell of the steel mill’s sulfur that filled the air at times, and the reddish orange tint of the sky from the smoke billowing from its smokestacks? I do.”

Q#8: Lastly, in many of these essays you are self-reflexive, discussing the act of writing the essay itself in these essays. So much so that I began to see this as a stylistic feature of your writing, this writing about the writing inside the writing. Do you see this as so? And what fuels you to include in essays material about their genesis or development or purposes?

Sophfronia: Wow, I guess I do do that. I didn’t notice that before. I suppose I do it for two sort of similar reasons. First, it’s my way of thinking out loud. I’m often describing in my work a very specific thought process and I want to make sure I have the reader with me, that I don’t lose him or her as we walk through foggy places. Second, as a creative nonfiction writer and specifically an essayist honoring the definition of essay, which is “to try,” it’s important to me to signal to the reader that I’m making an exploration, an attempt at something. I don’t know how it will turn out and the results may be imperfect, but here we go. Let’s see what happens.


ElizabethCohenphotoElizabeth Cohen is associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh and editor of the Saranac Review. She is the author of a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road; a book of stories, The Hypothetical Girl, and five books of poems, most recently, Bird Light, published by Saint Julian press.  She lives with her daughter, three cats, and brand new puppy, in Plattsburgh, NY.


Charles Green on Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers”

The public secret of the alphabet is that it’s arbitrary. The vowels are kept separate from one another; similar sounds, like the plosives p, b, t, d, g, and k, appear at random. Yet the alphabet seems as authoritative as any knowledge we have. It’s one of the first scholastic things we learn, reinforced on laminated borders in countless classrooms. In song, it’s joined by the unarbitrary 1, 2, 3 (filed under: “easy as”). Encyclopedias, our repositories of knowledge for a couple-thousand years, follow the alphabet’s easy authority.

But if the alphabet is arbitrary, what about our knowledge? If I’m any model of how people think (unlikely), then few of us, if any, walk around with a clear, coherent catalog of what we know. Song lyrics hibernate with moth-eaten and re-stitched memories of the time we stole the Mary-and-Jesus statue from someone’s front porch, and the first time we sat in a sauna, with multiplication tables and the knowledge of how to change a tire somewhere in there.

Enter Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers.” Organized encyclopedically, the essay caroms off images of television fathers (especially those of the 1950s), animal fathers (emperor penguins, carp, bees), Moore’s desire for a father other than the alcoholic who caused “the family’s embarrassment,” and Moore’s own hesitancy to become a father and pass on the worst characteristics of his patrimony. The headings for the first several sections suggest the disjunctive structure of the essay: Allen, Tim; Bees; Carp; Divorce.

Disjunction startles many of my students. They love the conversational, winding structure of so many personal essays, yet less conventionally structured essays startle them at first. The challenge of an essay in an alternative form, so radically disjunctive, is the need for some signal of coherence. The encyclopedic form of Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans” and the arbitrary certainty of the alphabet provides one signal. Early in the essay, Moore bolsters those links—Tim Allen appears in both the first and second sections; the bees, inessential as fathers, give way to another animal, the carp of the third section, a fiercely protective father. As the essay continues, the explicit links from one section to the next fall away by and large, but successive sections echo previous ones.

MV5BMTI3OTM0MzY3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY3NzQyMw@@._V1._CR28,1,298,465_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The other signal of coherence is suggested by the title: television. Moore confesses that, to cope with his father’s alcoholism, he stayed “glued to the television.” I know Leave it to Beaver from Nick-at-Nite, which I associate with the dusty smell of my grandmother’s brown sofa, the one that left the tiny squares of its gridded upholstery in the backs of my legs. So the words “Aw, shucks, Beav” accompany that smell. It’s not Proust’s Madeleine, but it’s something.

But how do students who don’t know Mr. Green Jeans, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, or even the more recent Home Improvement, connect to an essay that relies on basic knowledge of those shows? How can they understand the empathic connection between a child-turned-adult who sees himself as raised by those shows?

indexBefore they read the essay, I show them clips from the shows—the syrupy Father Knows Best, the aw-shucks chucklefest of Leave It to Beaver (according to actor Tony Dow, who played Wally, the show’s producers only wanted the jokes to evoke chuckles and would cut lines that generated big laughs), and the down-home sweetness of Mr. Green Jeans. But clips can’t replicate familiarity.

So the form draws them in. Most of the sections are short, no more than a paragraph, but one, “Inheritance,” anchors the essay, depicting Moore’s father and showing how television fathers became idealized surrogates. In turn, later in the essay, the distance between the real and idealized fathers becomes his own terror of becoming a father, a terror he happily overcomes.

I teach the essay in the last section of my introductory personal-essay course, when students read hermit-crab essays and other essays in alternative forms, then write their own essays in an alternative form. They can adapt forms of their choice, including those from essays we have read. Their forms vary widely, wildly, and wonderfully, but the form that gets borrowed the most is Moore’s encyclopedia. They adapt it to tell stories about gender expectations and women’s shoes; the stories of typefaces and their (sometimes destructive) creators; and their own whimsical interests in animals. Their essays mix complex self-reflection and their arrays of knowledge, allowing their understandings of the world to grow from the alphabet’s arbitrariness into a new authority.


head shot 2016Charles Green lives in Central New York and teaches writing at Cornell University. His writing has appeared in The Southeast Review, Salt Hill, and Fiction International, among other venues.

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 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 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)

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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.



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 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)

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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)

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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.”


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:


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

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.



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.