Jenna London on “The Nine Mile Wolves” by Rick Bass

The Nine Mile Wolves is an activism-driven work in which Rick Bass writes as an advocate for wolf reintroduction in the Nine Mile Valley of Montana. Bass intertwines scene, summary and reflection within the same passage or sentence, enabling the reader to gain the author’s perspective as well as to learn factual information regarding a controversial topic (which was near the height of its debate when the book was first published in 1992). Nature is represented as an entity that is both suppressed and empowered. Empowering aspects include the amount of time and resources dedicated to the survival of the wolf, and the amount of respect the narrator has for the animals. Wolves are a topic of great controversy. But attention—whether it is negative or positive—is an act of acknowledging the species, which is therefore an example of empowerment.

Bass’ book is clearly one of activism with an obvious agenda: the wolf is an important species and deserves to be saved. While Bass doesn’t search for ways in which the species is both suppressed and empowered, these examples are still evident. In at least one instance, Bass represents nature in both aspects in the same paragraph:

“We’re all following the wolf. To pretend anything else—to pretend that we are protecting the wolf for instance or managing him—is nonsense of the kind of immense proportions of which only our species is capable. We’re following the wolf. He’s returning to Montana after sixty years.” (4)

When Bass writes to pretend we are protecting the wolf, for instance, he is empowering the wolf. We’re all following the wolf: this phrase can be both empowering and suppressing—a group of people paying attention to one species is powerful. But again, Bass discusses following a species that wants to live away from humans, which is an act of suppression towards the environment. The above passage is also an example of honest and straightforward writing without the language being either overly sentimental or emotional.

This pack is of particular importance because it is the first to have a territory outside of protected land since the animals were almost extirpated in the early 1900s. Bass describes and analyzes the events, practices and mentalities that led to the near extinction of the American wolf. He writes:

This isn’t all the blind foul-up it appears to be. It’s just the way wolves and humans are, together. It’s like falling through a network of ropes, as if in a circus high-wire act—a slow tumble, bouncing from rope to rope, as if weaving, vertically, from top to bottom, with a lot of things being lost along the way, some wolves, some cows, some innocence… [30]

Nature’s suppression is equally recognizable. Wolf populations have been decimated to near extinction. The animals have been pushed out of their land, poisoned and shot. Even the efforts to re-stabilize wolf populations are an act of suppressing them: humans track, sedate, collar and observe these wild animals whose instincts drive them away from people.

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Wild animals are a rudimentary aspect of The Ninemile Wolves. However, domestic species—cows—are also represented. They are depicted as prey and as the reason humans shot and poisoned wolves. But it is wild nature that exists at the core of Bass’ book. From the first pages, the reader understands that the narrator is passionate about the topic:

“They say not to anthropomorphize—not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think—but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again….” (3)

Interestingly, Bass is not actually giving human characteristics to wolves in the quote above. Instead he is using colorful language to describe the brutal reality of wolves on the hunt. In this instance, nature is not romanticized but is instead brutally honest: one creature in nature dies so that the other may live. At other times, though, Bass does seem to anthropomorphize wolves, which can also be perceived as glamorizing or romanticizing nature: “A train’s faint moan reaches us from the next valley, and I wonder what the wolves think of that—if they ever call back to it. Is it outlandish to think maybe that’s one of the things that drew them to this valley—that they were lonely, and like its sound?” [100] Bass gives human qualities to the wolves when he assumes that the animals have the same level of cognitive thought as humans. Specifically, he assumes wolves feel loneliness at all or in the same way a human may experience it. Here, nature’s role is to take on human characteristics. The wolves become lonely and the mountain valley prompts that loneliness.

Assuming the wolves can feel desire, however, does give them human characteristics. Again, Bass seems to be doing so to illustrate the intensity and ruggedness of wolves, which empowers nature (via the wolves). The structure of the reflection—a choppy sentence followed by a fragment and then a long sentence—matches the tone of the passage. The author is frantically trying to understand and protect the wolves. In the background portions, Bass presents scientific information regarding wolf anatomy and pack behavior. Reflection tucked between science adds an element of awareness or validity to the passage.

More often, as in the quote below, Bass takes a spiritual perspective of wolves:

“I like to think that after death, the wolves’ souls keep running, faster than ever, that they rise just to the tops of the trees, where they can get a better view. They glance back down at the person who has killed their life-body but nothing can hold them back, they’re off and running again, still traveling, flowing, like the northern lights.” [108]

Again, these ideas lean more to the romantic aspect of wild animals. Nature’s role here is to be immortalized and for the narrator to again illustrate his infatuation with these animals.

Most often, though, Bass provides scientific information in an understandable manner. In the following passage, Bass again uses a comparison to explain wolves, but he does so in a way that keeps the animal wild and does not glorify the life of a wolf.

Biologists speak with complete conviction of wolves having

“search images, and I visualize a seek-and-destroy mind-set reminiscent of submarine pilots, of computer grid coordinates flashing before the wolves’ minds’ eyes as they cast and weave through the woods, having somehow decided that day to go for a moose rather than a deer or elk, bypassing young deer huddled beneath fir trees, running right over the backs of snowshoe hares—focused only on that one missing search image.” [27]

Bass dispels the idea that wolves are frantic to kill, that they are unable to control what they eat and when they eat it. Bass does not anthropomorphize wolves. Instead, he explains the animals’ innate tendencies in a way that a non-biologist can understand. Nature is represented as simply an element in a machine, bound to itself by instinct.

Bass often inserts a few words of musing within passages of background by starting sentences with phrases like “it’s curious how…” “Of course it’s sad…” and “Never mind that…” These sentences serve to offset the background information with the narrator’s perspective. Bass also includes musing as sidebars in the middle of sentences. This technique serves to provide the narrator’s perspective and to push the reader to be in support of the topic.

Bass uses musing to transition from scene to background, as shown in the following example:

“ …The fifth toe on the front foot, the dewclaw, never touches the ground. Almost never, that is. Sometimes.

It’s hard, almost impossible to say how many wolves we’re following, but my mind won’t shut off, my instinct won’t and even though my logic tells me it’s an impossible task, the other part is still trying to sort it out…

They [the wolves] split and join, split and join, splicing the woods with desire….” (113)

The musing appears to be prompted by the author’s need to educate the reader. In this instance, musing sandwiched between background leads to author discovery and adds depth to the reader’s understanding. When an author uses musing for self-discovery, the reader, too, gains the discovery of an alternate perspective or non-obvious element. Again, this quote is a clear representation of nature writing. The musing serves as a transition from scientific background to a scene.

Most of all, though, The Ninemile Wolves is peppered with phrases and passages that deliver Bass’ most persistent message: wolves are awe-inspiring creatures. He writes: “It wasn’t enough that the Ninemile wolves had beaten the odds and survived, and had shunned livestock. It wasn’t enough to startle; they had to amaze.” (87) Nature’s role in this passage is to demonstrate the resilience of wild nature (wolves) and of the ability of it to not depend on either domesticated animals or on humans themselves. This quote neither anthropomorphizes nor glamorizes wolves. It simply shows another perspective of the human-animal dynamic: wolves amaze the author.

Editor’s Note: For the next issue of “In the Classroom,” we complete our three-part series by Jenna London. The next piece is about Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, and it would be particularly well paired in the classroom with the analysis on Rick Bass here. You can read Jenna’s piece The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of England in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

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On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

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What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Writers to Read: Karen Babine on Paul Gruchow

paul-gruchowI have a friend whose driving ambition is to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. I replied that if that was the case, then mine was to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow.

My readerly and writerly relationship with Gruchow started in a Minnesota Writers class during my sophomore year of college, the first time I’d ever read any work by any writer who had come from the state I grew up in. As we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, which had just won the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, it was the first time I realized that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, people would read it, it could be published, and it could win awards. It was, I realized in hindsight, the most important moment in my life as a writer. My state, my home, was valuable—I didn’t have to write about other, more “important” places. (This, if you will allow me a moment of pride, was intensely important when my (first) book won the Minnesota Book Award this spring. I wish he was alive so I could thank him.)

On 22 February 2004, Gruchow died by suicide. Paul Gruchow was born in 1947 in Montevideo, Minnesota, raised on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and after many years of living with and writing through depression, he took his own life. In 2012, his posthumous memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published, a draft of which he had finished before he died. I have not yet finished the book. To read of his bipolar struggles in the kinds of sentences Gruchow could write—that is not something I can bear for more than ten pages at a time. This book is, quite simply, the most devastating book I have ever read.

Gruchow writes of the places where he finds himself, and he uses those places to illuminate his world—and his readers’. His work is characterized by the precision of his attention to details, both of the natural world around him and the words on his page. John Henricksson calls Gruchow a “literary naturalist,” a distinction I feel hardly captures the mastery of words that Gruchow possesses when writing about the various topographies of Minnesota, from the farming prairie of Chippewa County in Grass Roots to the wildness of the North Woods in Boundary Waters. Gruchow writes in his Boundary Waters, “We confront in wild places evidence of powers greater than our own; this evidence humbles us, and in humility is the beginning of spirituality. Wildness matters not because it alone is sacred but because it arouses in us the sense of sanctity that makes visible the sacredness of everything else in life” (BW 201). Such awareness of the natural world brings the reader to a higher level of reality, both on a physical and metaphysical plane.

If writers never read solely for pleasure, if we are always aware on some level of what we can learn, then there is no more brilliant teacher of language than Gruchow. His writing is complex in its construction, with serious attention paid to each word and its placement in the sentence. He has mastered the use of poetic language within the prose, intuitively aware of the way the words sound against each other. Grammatically, appositives and parentheticals serve to break up thoughts, to add color to his descriptions, to add interest to a narrative passage, to work the language just one more way. His marvelous use of questions to open Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (1995), as well as elsewhere, serves to make the reader accountable to his or her own conscience.

Gruchow’s writing is full of unusual attention, which gives freshness to his descriptions of things that might seem pedestrian under the lens of other writers. He avoids descriptions that are ambiguous in their commonness, for instance, his rendering of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior: “I wish to avoid certain adjectives in writing about Isle Royale, words like beautiful, primeval, pristine, natural, wild. There is already enough ambiguity about such places. Certainly Isle Royale appears to be all of these things” (“Spring” 167).

In the essay “The Meekness of Angels,” Gruchow writes of an encounter with a bear: “The bear’s voice was as enormous and commanding as its physique—grander, less guttural, and more eloquent than the roars of the one lion I have heard” (44). Gruchow could have easily slipped into generalities in the descriptions, yet he does not, not ignoring the way grander and guttural sound together. Following this line, the actual description of the mother bear in “The Meekness of Angels” avoids trite and overused language, language which is slow enough to give evidence to Gruchow’s awe over her:

She was enormous and blonde. The silver tips of her venerable hair glistened in the long angle of sunlight filtering through the trees. She did not make a sound as she moved with athletic grace toward her purpose, her massive shoulders as fluid as water. She was like a waterfall on legs. The hump of her back was so prominent and her size so great, that in another setting I might temporarily have mistaken her for a bison cow” (42).

The sentence level attention continues in Gruchow’s impeccable diction. His tone is nearly always soft-spoken and humble, sometimes self-deprecating, something that so clearly follows his speaking voice. No matter his tone, however, his diction gives the reader no doubt as to the writer’s intelligence.

The way words taste in the mouth and vibrate in the ear is not neglected in Grass Roots. In “Rosewood Township,” after the initial description of the cattail marsh at the end of the north-south eighty at the beginning of the essay, Gruchow returns to it: “For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end” (20). He goes on to describe the marsh: “Here was a piece of Rosewood Township as it had existed for thousands of years, a surviving testament to the tallgrass prairie, and the richest and most complex representative of it.” He goes on to describe the marsh: “As summer wore on and the wet days of May gave way to dust August, the ponds evaporated, exposing ovals of black mud, ringed by rank growths of cattails, rushes, and tall wetland flowers. These ovals baked and cracked, the rich alkaline deposits in them collecting as fine white powder (21). There’s alliteration here, assonance, true rhymes and slant rhymes–nothing is overlooked.

Slowing the moments down to where the reader can appreciate the language only works if the writer is equally intuitive about where not to linger in his descriptions. In “Rosewood Township,” as he is recalling accidentally burning down his family’s barn, where not one of the panicked animals which had fled into the barn for safety had escaped. The description of the entire ordeal is two paragraphs, at the end of which Gruchow gives the reader a quick glimpse of how he felt about it: “I was out of my mind with grief and fear. I imagined being sent to prison” —this would seem uncharacteristically pedestrian and unoriginal, if not for the next sentence, which gives startling clarity to the young boy’s fear: “I had, as young as I was, a faint sense of what my carelessness would mean to family already dangling by an economic thread.” His fear had less to do with punishment than the welfare of his family. He continues: “The smell of smoke and burned flesh nauseated me. I took to my loft and could not speak or eat for days. Ten years passed before I found the courage to talk about that afternoon” (12). By the brevity of this description, he makes the reader take responsibility for reading between the lines. There is obviously more to what Gruchow-as-child felt, but Gruchow-as-writer knows that his readers are going to have a good idea without expressly stating it.Gruchow’s philosophies and epiphanies operate under the principle that the language has all the answers—and this is some of the finest examples of high exposition on any page.

Gruchow is just beginning to think in his 1986 Journal of a Prairie Year. He has not yet begun to know all the places his mind may take him. For instance, a moment from JPY:

Our language does not distinguish green from green. It’s one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature. In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green. There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies. Even one green is not the same green. There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk. There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age. There is the green of new rain and of long drought. There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death. One could devote one’s life to the study of the distinctions in the color green and not have learned all there is to know. There is a language in it, a poetry, a music. We have not stopped long enough to hear it.

This moment of green is not as actualized as similar moments in later books, but Journal is, of course, the beginning. The movement towards high exposition, of a writer being able to hit the reader over the head in such a way that the whole world rings and echoes pleasantly inside the skull, is not a skill or gift that happens immediately. But the brilliance of Gruchow is that his writing has always offered the promise of a glimpse into a world that few are privileged to see.

As Gruchow becomes more confident of his language craft, we see that never does he let that language slide in the face of his epiphanies. For instance, from his 1989 The Necessity of Empty Places:

Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity. Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed. No amount of busyness will produce it. It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment. If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone to it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you. You must not wait ambitiously. You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort. The solitude is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.

This passage filled my ears like song when I sat on the boulders of Inishmore, in Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic. If anything, the rhythm of the words against each other illuminated whatever I may have been thinking as the waves pounded the boulders of Inishmore.

In Boundary Waters, everything Gruchow has worked towards comes to fruition: the sound and taste of the language, the rhythm, the etymology, the preciseness of his words in pursuit of that which will make the world make sense. One of my greatest pleasures in reading Gruchow has been in watching his craft develop from one book to the next. One of the best examples in Boundary Waters comes near the end of the final essay, “Spring: Wild Isle,” an essay which made the Notables list of Best American Essays in 1998. Gruchow writes:

There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed by never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.

(Those familiar with Assay will recognize this passage as our inspiration for the magazine’s name and its purpose.)

I’ll close with this thought: something amazing happens when the right writer meets the right place. I’m talking about the magic that happens when Bruce Chatwin is writing about Australia, when Tim Robinson is writing about the West of Ireland, when Bill Kittredge writes about Montana. Gretel Ehrlich speaks of this in The Future of Cold when she writes that “For years, Nietsche searched for what he called ‘true climate,’ for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the climate of the thinker.” Part of that is the irreplaceable quality of the writer. Part of it is the brilliance in their technique. But most of it is the harmony between the inner and outer world, the organic particularity of place, and how it finds expression in ink.

 


_mg_8267Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award and was a Finalist for the Midwest Book Award and Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

#cnfwc16 — Twelve Quotes Full of “Insight and Inspiration” from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

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  1. “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning. – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “With an outline you’re not going to write about what you don’t know you know.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “Save your seedlings.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. Try writing by hand, because “your fingers are connected to your arm, the veins to the heart.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. Instead of saying that the reader has to do some work, think of it this way: “The reader likes to participate.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “First draft writing is like no other kind of writing – you have to go into the woods and keep going. Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings, that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “The biggest thing an editor can do for you is get [you] out of your head” – Jason Bittle

 

  1. “Immersion is about waiting. It’s not about finding a story to fit inside your pre-constructed ideas, but letting a story unfold.” – Maggie Messitt

 

  1. “If you don’t have belief in your own gut, develop it.” –Adriana Ramierz

 

  1. “Burst upon the page.” – Lee Gutkind  

    CNFwc16 program

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

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Randon Billings Noble author photoRandon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

Don’t Say It: Meghan Daum Writes It in “Unspeakable” by Amanda Page

We may not talk about the topics Meghan Daum covers in her most recent essay collection, but reading about them is a pleasure and a practice I return to again and again.

It’s rare that I wait impatiently for a book to be released. During these times, I watch online bookstores for the release date only to then drive in frenzy to the local bookstore and pounce on the first available copy I can find. Once it’s in my hands, I don’t let go–not even to let the clerk scan it. I’ll have one hand on it at all times until it’s been read through to the end. Then, the obsession wanes, and I can relax back into my detached indifference to the onslaught of new titles delivered to the world daily.

It was in one of these frenzies that I got myself to the bookstore and purchased Meghan Daum’s essay collection, Unspeakable. I read her first collection, My Misspent Youth, when I was busy misspending my own youth. It was enough to make me a fan, but it wasn’t until I read Daum’s memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, that I thought, “She gets me.” The number of kindred authors in my life is a low one. I keep an eye on their upcoming work. When Unspeakable hit the shelves, I was happy to sit down with a familiar voice. Daum is a writer who works in subject matter relevant to my life: debt, house obsession, childlessness, and as she states in Unspeakable, being a member of Generation X, that “passing thought” of a generation, that “minor player” of a demographic.

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In the introduction, Daum confesses that all of the essays in the collection were written with the sole purpose of being essays in that specific collection. She states that writing about oneself is a specialty, albeit a lazy one. I nod my head in agreement and understanding. One thing I must emphatically state about my relationship to Daum’s work is this: I relate.

I relate to her take on her personal life, when she refers to engaging in online dating as “field work.” In “The Best Possible Experience,” she refers to her engagement in one particular romantic relationship as “anthropological curiosity.” Daum continues to date a man who sounds self-absorbed and even a little creepy, all because she’s interested to see what will happen. I think of this as a tenant of a writer’s life. We do an awful lot, and we extend ourselves and our comfort to stay in strange situations, just to see where the story takes us. This particular trait isn’t discussed enough, I think. But therein lies the point of Daum’s title (and entire collection.)

The book is called Unspeakable precisely because she is discussing topics that often do not make it into the dinner conversation. Or, for that matter, the conversation with best gals over brunch. The subject matter on the table is hard to talk about. Daum takes it on and makes it digestible for those of us willing to read it.

Daum’s collection begins with the death of her mother, includes an essay in which she explains how she will never be a mother, offers thoughts on her life as a dog owner/mother, and then ends with her own brush with death. Maybe it is the product of being composed for the sole purpose of existing in this collection, but the order seems deliberate, careful, and eases us into each new unspeakable theme.

The topics themselves are not unspeakable. We lose our mothers. We may not have children. We may prefer raising dogs to raising kids. It’s what is said in each of the essays that bring the theme – and the title – to life for the reader. In “Matricide,” Daum tells of the experience of packing up her mother’s apartment – while her mother is slowly dying in said apartment. She tells of the watchful, maybe judgmental eyes of the hospice workers. She tells us what she loved about her mother and what she didn’t. It may seem strange to offer words of resentment or frustration in an essay about your dying mother, but while reading it, the content doesn’t seem cruel. It seems honest.

In another essay from the collection, Daum claims to be an “honorary dyke.” She tells of spending a lot of time with lesbians when she was a young woman, even though she never questioned her heterosexuality. She dressed like a lesbian and preferred music by lesbian artists. She took on the most basic, stereotypical traits associated with lesbians, and therefore sought to call herself (or be called by lesbians) an honorary member of a tribe. This essay that seems young and naive – maybe better suited for her first collection, though I don’t think of any of the essays from My Misspent Youth as young or naive. It’s not the voice of “Honorary Dyke” that’s young, it’s the desire for the title that seems juvenile to me. But, maybe that’s the point. The desire for such a thing might come from an immature or unidentifiable place, but that doesn’t mean it should not be spoken.

I can’t tell if that’s the collection’s greatest strength, or a trick of the title. The essays get away with being confessional or revealing a naive or cruel thought of the author, but since we’re dealing with what is often unspeakable here, it’s all fair game. We’ve been warned–on the cover. The writer isn’t dealing in “appropriate” material here. And that’s the point.

Daum isn’t dealing with unspeakable acts, either. She hasn’t dealt out cruelty that she must confess or defend. I can’t think of a single defensive line in the entire text. She’s simply revealing some thoughts you may not feel comfortable with having, let alone admitting. For instance, in “The Dog Exception,” Daum writes about the connection some humans have with the canine kind. She describes the loss of her dog, Rex, and how in a lot of ways, that loss is harder than losing a human loved one. She states what only a few seem to understand or are willing to say, and those few often get demonized for it.

That’s why those few often don’t say it, and that’s why we need Daum to do it.

Daum had an edited collection of essays enter the world less than a year after Unspeakable was released. Though she doesn’t offer an essay of her own to the anthology, her essay from Unspeakable, titled “Difference Maker,” about how she is comfortable with being a child’s court appointed advocate and that’s as close to being a mother as she ever needs to get, is a handy precursor. The anthology is called Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. For a long time, the words “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed” have been used to describe willingly childless adults. Those words were not, somehow, unspeakable. I’m eager to see if the authors she selected were able to defend their decision with the same stoic sense of absurdity and honesty that Daum presents the unspeakable themes of her collection.Selfishcvr

I like an honest conversation. I also like to get to the deep stuff quickly. I’ve been told that I “get deep fast.” I don’t have a lot of patience or interest in small talk. Strip away the niceties and I can get to know you. This is what I like most about Daum’s collection: I get to know her, and in doing so, I get to know myself a little more, a little better. I relate.

She opens a door, and I make a mad dash through it, much like I make to the bookstore when an author I admire (or to whom I relate) offers up a new piece of work. While I’m waiting for the next one, Daum’s Unspeakable makes for an excellent re-read.

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AmandaPageAmanda Page is an assistant professor of writing and humanities. She lives in Ohio with her two dogs and various drafts of personal essays. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking. You can find her musing about the essayist life at amanda-page.com.

A Moveable Feast #PorteOuverte by Jen Palmares Meadows

When you hear of the Paris attacks, you read what you can from your computer, of the urgency to apprehend shooters, to save hostages, to care for victims. You have never known war, but know that in instances of despair, stories of hope and heroism will begin to emerge. You search for them amongst the carnage, and they come, without fail. A man pulling wounded from Bataclan Concert Hall. Taxicabs shepherding people home without fare. Parisians offering shelter to strangers, with the hashtag #PorteOuverte, meaning ‘open door.’

You don’t know anyone in Paris, nor have you ever been. In your mind, Paris is breathtakingly beautiful, but what you know of it is croissants and berets, and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Still, because you are a narcissist, you imagine yourself in Paris, imagine the absolute fear. As a writer, as a human, this is often the first step one takes towards empathy, towards understanding…

Her tweet would have read:

27 rue de fleurus. My salon is open. #porteouverte

Gertrude Stein would have opened her doors to you. Her voice would have carried in the darkness, her thick hand pulling you inside, leaving only a moment to slide locks into place. “Come away from the windows,” she might say, motioning you deeper into her salon, where others have sought shelter.

“Don’t let them in. They might be one of the terrorists,” a shadow calls from behind a hat stand.

“Are you mad?” Another voice. “We must let them in! We must!”

“Here,” Ms. Stein says, pointing to the wall farthest from the street, and you join those huddled on the floor. Ms. Stein hands you a coat, one she says was left by a patron. It is itchy and durable, smelling like oranges and the sea.

In the dim light, some read news updates on their phones, and text their mothers. Others use their phones to illuminate the pages of books they have taken from Ms. Stein’s shelves. You see her collection is massive, having grown over many decades. There are new works, you had not expected, but should have known would be there: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Eula Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land. And there is work from Svetlana Alexievich, Junot Diaz, Carole Maso, Sherman Alexie, Chinua Achebe. Books, so many books.

You pull from the shelf, A Moveable Feast. You first read Ernest Hemingway’s short memoir, of his years as a struggling, young, expatriate in the 1920s, when you were in graduate school, and you loved it then, loved wandering Paris with Hemingway and hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald.a-moveable-feast

In the safety of Ms. Stein’s salon, you read, and your heart is with Hemingway and Paris. You drink with him at La Closerie des Lilas and watch fishermen along the banks. Looking over the water, Hemingway tells you, “We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.” And you agree, because this Spring cannot be everlasting.

You chat with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, and borrow books from her lending library. You “ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” You attend horse races, drinking champagne, and calling obscenities from the stands. Hemingway displays much of his famed chauvinism, sharing odd conversations with Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. His overt sexism is obnoxious, particularly when he describes his falling out with Ms. Stein.

“There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.”

After that, you wonder why you are on this walk with him at all. Despite countless oysters, countless bottles, with Hemingway, your thirst and hunger is never assuaged. You and he wander Paris with a lasting dissatisfaction, an endless hunger, so common to the lost generation to which Hemingway belonged.

Shouting from the street frightens you. A look around Ms. Stein’s salon reveals that many others have begun to read A Moveable Feast as well. Now, they too ramble along with you and Hemingway, a veritable Parisian cafe crawl.

Of the crawl, there is much to enjoy, much to learn about writing. Hemingway shares his theory of omission, in which, “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” You see merit in his theory, see how it applies well to flash fiction and micro essays.

“What is that?”

“You would like it.”

“I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel,” he admitted. “It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

There is comfort in this.

And throughout, Paris is with you, its trees and its rivers, its landscape. When Hemingway describes a Paris spring threatened by rains, you become silent:

“Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat [Spring] back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life…But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.” (Here you begin to cry.)

“In those days, though,” he went on, “the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

Later, A Moveable Feast will make the French bestseller list, a half century after its publication. Adam Biles, the current manager at Shakespeare and Company, will call A Moveable Feast, “a symbol of optimism…a symbol of Paris as Paris should be. It’s a symbol of cafe culture. It’s a symbol of literary culture…It’s everything that, in many ways, was attacked.”

“This is a love letter to Paris,” the woman next to you says, clutching the book to her chest.

Still reading, you rub the wet from your face, and agree.

***JanPalmaresMeadows

 

Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Are Writers So Different? Should We Be?

Writers’ minds always seem to be turning.  We have experiences like everyone else, but are usually imagining ways to use that moment in practical writing– a tactile description of dad’s rough hands, the sound of a toddler’s giggle, the mixed feelings of attending a close friend’s wedding while you’re still single. Universal experiences, but told like we’re the first one naming it in some deeper, meaningful way.  But yet, we can’t be too different, too writerly to be unrelatable.
So what kind of person should writers be?

In “Kirk Wisland on the Essayist’s Conundrum: A 3-Sided Coin Flip,” he muses about if writers are obligated to be good people.  Yes.  No.  Or maybe.  This dilemma brings up the issue of writing honestly in memoir, like everyone you know is dead and their opinions don’t matter, or does that just make you a jerk to write so frankly?  Non-writers wouldn’t dare speak things some writers feel compelled to put on paper. Continue reading

A Book of Essays: Is This Really A Good Idea?

As I transition from college into the real world, much of my time is spent dreaming and planning for a future of my own making–and part of that is figuring out the writing aspect.  My eyes are wide with the dream of publishing a book of some sort, but if what I write isn’t worthy of being shared in some form, I get frustrated that I’m not being as productive as I should be.  Perhaps because of my age and place in life, I struggle with writing if the writing doesn’t have a set purpose. But I know that most writers struggle with simply getting time spent in the chair.

Now that I’ve written a few essays about my travels in Europe during my semester studying abroad in Liverpool, England, I naturally start to wonder what they could be for.  Is this potential for a book of essays?  My mind plays around with order, overall story, and purpose. Continue reading