Karen Babine on Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song

71o4jdlrsilJoan Didion writes in her 7 October 1979 New York Times review of The Executioner’s Song that “No one but Mailer could have dared this book.” Crafting real life as a novel was certainly a form seeing different forms during this time, especially in the crime genre, but I find myself less interested in the subject matter–or even the emerging world of the nonfiction novel–but I’m interested in Mailer’s sentencing, because I as a writer I am always drawn to sentences, to the point where that person can write a sentence! is the highest compliment I can give. It’s worth mentioning that I am not a fan of Mailer, but I’ll get to that later.

The short, declarative sentences are the most obvious on a first read. The crafting of the very first paragraph sets a very straightforward, almost bored, tone with the subject-verb construction, landing like punches every time a period breaks the flow: “Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared” (17). The effect of starting the book with these sentence constructions and the tone it evokes is a trust in the writer not to editorialize, that the writer will simply tell things as they were. I’ve spent some time with my students this semester talking through Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style, which considers punctuation from the standpoint of a writer and the effect on readers that certain uses of periods, etc. have. For all that I despise Mailer as a failed human being, the man is a god of sentences. With these short sentences that almost have a staccato sound to them, I’m remembering that what struck me most about Armies of the Night was his extraordinarily long sentences—so that the sentences here are rather short is a point of comparison that merits further scrutiny. At another time. (On a separate note that is not sentence-related, the white space between paragraphs also serves to create this disjointed, fragmented, start-stop effect on the reader.)

The way the sentences are constructed vary from character to character: where Gary, Vern, Ida, Brenda, or McGrath might have very short sentences (for instance: “That got to Spencer. Gilmore had never told a soul. Such pride was the makings of decent stuff. McGrath made sure he had a ride home that night” (71)), when Mailer is in the voice and head of someone like Noall Wootten, the sentences lengthen, as if to denote more thought, more education: “He had made up his mind to go for Death after looking at Gilmore’s record. It showed violence in prison, a history of escape, and unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation. Wootten could only conclude that, one: Gilmore would be looking to escape; two: he would be a hazard to other inmates and guards; and, three: rehabilitation would be hopeless” (304). Nothing Mailer does, on the sentence-level is accidental, so that he included a list that includes colons, as well as commas, signals a definite shift that echoes the voice of Wootten’s character not visible any other way. I have met people who speak in colons (the mystery writer William Kent Krueger, for one) and I wonder if Wootten is also one of those. Cahoon’s voice in the Utah jail was constructed by eliminating many of the subjects from the sentences: “Cahoon noticed that soon as he shut the bars, they started a conversation in jail talk. It was that gibberish talk. Use a word like figger to say nigger. Show the other fellow how many years you put in by carrying on a whole conversation” (352).

Another example of this varied sentencing: after Gary’s execution, Larry Schiller views the execution site: “His description of the events had been accurate in every way but one. He had gotten the colors wrong. The black cloth of the blind was not black but blue, the line on the floor was not yellow but white, and the chair was not black, but dark green. He realized that during the execution something had altered in his perception of color” (963). What’s interesting here is that all of the post-execution description happens in terms of the five senses. After the shots are fired, the reader only hears the drip of blood. And then with Schiller’s descriptions—and wrong descriptions—the reader understands the way the colors were viewed. The effect is both content-rich and craft-specific, because how else are the readers going to be able to understand the realities of an execution they did not witness?

Voice and tone is constructed in other ways beyond the actual sentencing and crafting that Mailer did. The addition of Gary’s letters, the transcripts of various court moments, the inclusion of news articles—these all complete the conversation that swirled around and through these series of events. It’s not enough simply to interview the people who knew Gary and lived through this time, because given the way this case unfolded and how many people paid attention to it as it was happening, those voices also add to the cacophony that made this case even more incredible. The level of detail that Mailer was able to corral and use—and not have the narrative be overwhelmed by the voices. In some places they served the purpose of breathing space for the reader, before we jumped back into the arc of the narrative. The reader knows this is coming, that people will be murdered, and that Gary will be executed—but what the reader does not know, what the reader cannot know, is how that will unfold and how this book is about the people involved and how it fits into the Western mythology of this place. It is a good reminder that what drives good nonfiction cannot be plot. In that sense, this book is not about Gary and the execution at all.

I hope I’m able to communicate to my students how it’s possible to dislike a book and be very glad you read it. Cormac McCarthy is one of those for me. Mailer is growing on me, just because I’ve learned more about how sentences function than I have from few other writers. We read Annie Dillard’s “Write Until You Drop.” She writes, “A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’” I adore sentences. Worship at their wordy little altars. Rave and rage at what we’re reading in my classes, what my students write, and teach them to pay attention to what could be their greatest weapon. And greatest joy. Oh, Norman Mailer. I still don’t like you. But I don’t need to like you to want to know how you do what you do.


KarenBabine

Karen Babine is Assay‘s editor.

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.

51sRIBwn0RL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

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

lazar3

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.

images

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.

images

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.

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

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

 

Oakland Arts Review | Oakland University, Michigan

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

 

Collision Literary Magazine | University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Collision

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

 

Allegheny Review | Allegheny College, Pennsylvania

Allegheny Review

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

****

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

Paige Bryson Bio Picture

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

Rachael Speck Bio Picture

 

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

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

“These Little Returns” by Desirae Matherly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Desi

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

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

“Me, Again” by Hope Edelman

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

More please, the publishing world said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

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

“What Remains Unvoiced” by Richard Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

883803623

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

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

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

TO THOSE WHOM THE GODS LOVE LESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

RichardHoffman

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

 

 

 

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 1.34.45 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

“New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” by Michael Steinberg

 

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me be more specific.

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

Here’s a sampling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

That question, Renée maintains, triggered the following:

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

5

So, here’s what I think now.

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

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

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

***

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