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.

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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.]

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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.

 

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

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

“These Little Returns” by Desirae Matherly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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)

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

“Me, Again” by Hope Edelman

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

More please, the publishing world said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What Remains Unvoiced” by Richard Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

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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)

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“New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” by Michael Steinberg

 

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me be more specific.

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

Here’s a sampling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

That question, Renée maintains, triggered the following:

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

5

So, here’s what I think now.

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

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

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

***

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

 

 

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

sputnik2withtext
On “Brief Encounters”
Sonja Livingston
Dreamlike. Wistful. Bittersweet. That’s how students described Steven Harvey’s “Sputnik 2,” in my undergraduate Creative Nonfiction class at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Every week, students take turns selecting a piece from Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney’s wonderful anthology, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and lead the class in a discussion of craft and content.
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Valerie Dinavo with “Brief Encounters”

In this case, student Valerie Dinavo selected Harvey’s essay, in which the writer imagines the night he’d stood with his parents looking up into the sky to see Sputnik 2. Harvey doesn’t remember that long-gone night, but knows he was there to see the satellite with his parents based on a letter he’d read, and uses the bulk of his micro-essay to imagine how the scene unfolded. Our class used the essay to discuss the role of imagination in nonfiction, and the line between essayistic imagination and fiction. We lingered over the language, and the reverberation of image and sound—the way the glow from his father’s match echoed the light in the sky, and his parents’ faces were illuminated “for a moment like two crescent moons”. We read the last paragraph a second time and wondered over the haunting image of  “nails driven into the tread overhead, that coffin-lid of stars,” and of the ending, of the boy and his parents who “stood in a darkened field together and looked into the heavens.”
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Madeline Barber

That’s when I looked to the young woman beside me and noticed her notebook brimming with stars! Madeline Barber had sketched a boy standing in a meadow looking up into the sky. She’d taken some liberties, adding a cow and spaceship to the scene, but had labeled her drawing “Sputnik 2” and had clearly sketched out what we’d been discussing. One of the perks of teaching in a school known for its fine arts program (VCU has the #1 visual arts program in a public university in the country) is that my writing classes include a good share of visual artists who doodle on feedback and incorporate visual elements into their essays and, and sometimes, sketch their contemplation of class discussions!

madelinesketching

 

On “Sputnik 2”

Steven Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

sputniksketch

Madeline Barber’s Sketch

*****

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

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

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part II: Celebration and Humiliation

“This is a very friendly conference.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote Speaker NonfictioNOW 2017

“Life is now.”—Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, President of Iceland

Part2-#1-Harpa_Concert_Hall

Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Before NonfictioNOW 2017, I’d met only one of its four hundred delegates face to face: my mentor and childhood friend, Dzvinia Orlowsky; and emailed with just two others: Wayne Koestenbaum, about our interview; and Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, the Conference Project Manager, to help convert her schedule to PDF. Every day, I consulted my own copy of the timetable (its color-coding rendered useless by a monochrome laser printer) to choose which events I’d attend and, later—due to fatigue and overstimulation—to decide which ones I’d skip.

After registration, during the drinks reception at the University of Iceland, I was still as fresh as Icelandic bottled water—the melted glacier ice, filtered through inert layers of lava rock, which I’d been drinking since my arrival two days earlier. Quaffing white wine now, I scanned the room for nonfiction heavyweights. Recognizing a trim figure in a bold shirt and heavy-rimmed glasses, I plowed through the crowd, and assailed Wayne Koestenbaum. He greeted me with warmth, grace, and a firm handshake. I’d already bumped into a friend of a friend, Bradley Wester and, through Orlowsky, met Kathleen Aguero, Richard Hoffman, Michael and Carole Steinberg, and Mimi Schwarz. I now introduced these new acquaintances to Koestenbaum, buoyant in a sea of writers from twenty different countries, in an atmosphere of friendliness and effortless communication that would prove typical for the entire conference.

Next day, I strode down a curved walkway in the Háskólatorg building to Room 102, where a panel, “My Roland Barthes,” with Wayne Koestenbaum, Rachel May, and Xenia Hanusiak was scheduled. Nervous about the impending interview with Koestenbaum, my handwriting was worse than usual, and my jottings about the session made little sense afterward. Yet, the images conveyed by the panelists lingered. May’s portrayal of quilts as stories, “textile as text,” were vivid, as were the elements Koestenbaum connected to “his” Barthes: precision in language, the mode of “recitative not aria,” kinship between words, mystification, glaze and patina, and the chestnut he’d found on Gertrude Stein’s headstone in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. There was much to process. In the end, I forgot to ask Hanusiak about her career as an opera singer and, with my brain in buffering mode, retreated to the cafeteria to stare through floor-to-ceiling windows at fast-moving Icelandic clouds.

* * *

After my videotaped exchange with Wayne Koestenbaum, I felt elated, inspired, and entirely incapable of absorbing anything but food and beer. Optimistically, I assured Koestenbaum I’d see him later in the Nordic House, and he divulged his plans for the Authors’ Evening:

“I think I’m going to read one of the notebooks from my recent book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, which is a series of diary poems, all taken from notebooks I kept in various states of trance … states somewhere between automatic writing and dreaming.”

I missed that reading, and those by Ariel Gore, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Tim Tomlinson, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, and Gerður Kristný; also Heather Taylor Johnson, Fiona Wright, and Quinn Eades’ book launches; because, after dinner, while the sun didn’t set, I crawled beneath a large feather comforter and went out like a light.

The following morning, Hoffman, Steinberg, Schwartz, Hope Edelman, and Desirae Matherly participated in a panel, “When Writers Repeat,” while I stayed in bed with sinuses that demanded rest, and aspirin washed down with glacier water. By afternoon, I’d recovered sufficiently to attend “Memoir Time,” a panel with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, and where I discovered Donna Talarico live-tweeting behind me. She’d arrived on Icelandair’s inaugural flight from Philadelphia to Reykjavík, with mayors of both cities on board (including the “hot” one), which had been diverted to Boston and delayed because of a “bad smell.” After the discussion, I forced a hug on her, threw myself at all five panelists, took photos with Lisicky and Sukrungruang, declared, “I’m a huge fan!” and “I want to submit to Sweet!” and, powered by adrenalin, ran upstairs to catch a ride to Ragnar Kjartansson’s vernissage. The affair was concurrent with Karl Ove Knausgård’s keynote address, and—shoot me—I chose Ragnar over Karl, art over memoir, and music over literature.

On the last day of NonfictioNOW 2017, after a wind-chilled walk along Reykjavík’s harbor, I arrived at Harpa Concert and Conference Center just after Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s keynote address. People were milling about in the foyer, drinking coffee from lidded cups, and it was clear from their comments that I’d missed a memorable speech. I chatted for a while with Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, who was as bright and communicative as on the first day of the conference, and, entering the auditorium, was greeted by an equally cheerful and relaxed Koestenbaum.

I took a seat in the front row just as a small delegation entered and, in a moment of reciprocal recognition, both President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and I uttered, “Oh, hello!” He beamed winningly, as he’d done at Kjartansson’s opening. His spouse, Eliza Reid, wearing an all-over-print of white tulips or, perhaps, magnolias, filled the chair next to me. As co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, she’d held the opening address at the other Authors’ Evening I’d not attended. Enthusiastically, I introduced myself as a fellow Canadian, but she seemed unimpressed by this riveting fact, and showed absolutely no interest in my amusing story of how I’d met her husband.

Onstage, Elena Passarello began her introduction: she connected Harpa, or harpa, to “harp,” “harp” to Harpo, and continued with a tribute to Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, crediting the book for her motivation to return to literature after a decade in drama.

Wayne Koestenbaum took the podium and began with a tribute to Aisha Sabatini Sloan. He compared the essence of her keynote to what philosopher and conceptual artist, Adrian Piper, has communicated through her performances:

“Articulate the unspoken frame to politely, or impolitely, refuse the frame and step outside it.”

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Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote, NonfictioNOW 2017

Koestenbaum then enticed the audience to follow him beyond the frame, into four dazzling parables or allegories, the short essays he wrote for Reykjavík, which disregard borders and classification. The first, “Annette Funicello,” contains this seductive sentence:

“There is no logical connection between Annette Funicello, a beach rose, an inquisitive bee, a beach’s cubicles, and the men who long ago stripped, under my inquisitive gaze, in the vicinity of weakly sputtering public showers.”

The second piece, “Allegories for Iceland,” describes enigmatic encounters with a leather-bracelet-wearing foreigner and a densely bearded stranger, spiraling into implied states of desire and uncertainty, which Koestenbaum guides into an anticipated present:

“A full century after Cubism, why am I trying to reproduce this afternoon’s reality in faithful sentences rather than present to you an askew distillation of the events, filtered through a presiding consciousness? Why is the consciousness overseeing the narration of this fable so lacking in discernment and discrimination? Why is this episode not announcing its relation to the professional gathering during which the tale will be recited?”

Before reading his third parable, Koestenbaum cautioned, provocatively:

“And now, we fall into the abyss. We leave the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.”

Koestenbaum’s “Gaufrage and the Erotic Limitations of Capability Klein” is a collage of contrary components: Japanese woodblock prints, dildos, a mattress store, Lyme disease, a character who calls his sexual limitations “talking points,” and this captivating image of carmine clouds and skunks:

“Last night, in Cap’s backyard, we could see, wandering across the grass, three skunks, each accompanied by a carmine cloud. Carmine is not usually fluorescent. These clouds disobeyed the laws of carmine, and acquired an unnatural day-glow brilliance that wounded the eye lucky enough to gaze at their felicities.”

Before reading the last allegory, “The Sexual Translator,” Koestenbaum explained he’d “issued a call to myself, before sleep, for a dream that would respond to the emergency call of this conference. The dream arrived.” This piece features a figure named Abel Mars, a translator whose labors “sometimes took the form of naps,” and includes a riff on the word “frack” that is as enchanting as it is hardcore:

“‘Frack, frack, frack,’ went the translator’s pathetic litany, as he pushed his hard and then not-hard cock into mine, or onto mine, our two cocks overlapping and competing, never melding. I hypothesized that, by repeating this death-cry or love-cry of ‘frack, frack, frack,’ Abel was trying to intervene in the city’s ecological affairs; perhaps he wished to undo fracking, or to prevent fracking? Perhaps he had developed a speech impediment that turned the word ‘fuck’ into ‘frack’? Perhaps ‘frack’ was a fragment of Victorian slang, an argot I couldn’t understand?”

After a brief question and answer session, Rúnar Helgi Vignisson, NonfictioNOW co-chair (with Robin Hemley, its founder), introduced President Jóhannesson, who read his witty and poignant speech directly from an iPhone, sometimes going off script, yet always following a red thread. A writer and historian, his thoughts were highly relatable not only to the genre of nonfiction, but also to the conference:

“We cannot only rely on sources that remain from the past, or what we can find in the present. We need to add our own interpretations, our own descriptions, and we must allow ourselves to imagine what might have been, when the sources do not exist or are hard to find. Those who control the sources, they will also control history as well, and that cannot be.”

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President Jóhannesson

He quoted from David Lodge’s novel, Small World: An Academic Romance, to emphasize that the real goal of literary conferences is not academic discourse, but human interaction:

“It’s this kind of informal contact, of course, that’s the real raison d’être of a conference.”

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson’s speech flowed into my still-fresh memory of Wayne Koestenbaum’s address, and infiltrated a specific sentence in his answer to a question from the audience:

“I always tell my students that if you wake up in the middle of the night feeling horrified about what you’ve written, it’s a very good sign.”

After the conference, my sentiments needed time to merge and emulsify, and only when this process was complete, did the following paragraph write itself:

I leaned toward Eliza Reid, not gesticulating, as I usually do, and complimented her on her husband’s speech: “That was very moving.” There was no verbal response, only fabric flapping, sleeves waving, two palms striking. I clapped too, but in a different rhythm.

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Blue Lagoon

NonfictioNOW 2017 ended, and Karl Ove Knausgård and Lidia Yuknavitch remained as elusive as Björk. Farewells looming, Dzvinia Orlowsky and I unwound at the Blue Lagoon, afloat in geothermal bliss, extending time beneath silica mud masks. After two more white nights, I flew home, with a single regret: that I hadn’t interacted with even more amiable writers.

I’d met Amy Gigi Alexander, but sailed past Quinn Eades and Sam van Zweden; didn’t see or didn’t recognize: Bob Cowser, Joanna Eleftheriou, Ariel Gore, Leslie Hsu Oh, Anna Leahy, Patrick Madden, Desirae Matherly, Lance Olsen, Laurie Stone, Julija Šukys, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright, Arianne Zwartjes—and a few others with whom I’d already bonded on social media, or would do so later. We now foster our virtual friendships, and wait for another conference to bring us together and, until then, connect through a book, or a page, or a few well-chosen words.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum

 

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part I: Celebrity and Humility

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Genia Blum and Wayne Koestenbaum

Three weeks before the start of the NonfictionNOW 2017 conference in Reykjavík, I emailed the keynote speaker, Wayne Koestenbaum—poet, writer, painter, musician, author of several celebrity-based books and a literary celebrity in his own right—with a request for an interview:

“As a former ballerina writing a memoir, I’ve lived and worked in Europe for almost forty years, danced in ballets, musicals and operas, including three seasons at the infamous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Besides themes of writing and memoir, I would love to talk art and theater with you.”

Five days later, Koestenbaum emailed back:

“Apologies for my slowness in responding to your gratifying email! Yes, I’d love to participate in an interview/conversation with you. Thanks for the invitation. I look forward to our meeting in Iceland, and to our chance to speak about affinities.”

Affinities! Wayne Koestenbaum! My first interview!

It was also my first conference.

***

In the Seventies, pursuing a European dance career, I left North America on Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines (“We are the slowest, but the lowest”), and took advantage of a bargain-price stopover in Reykjavík that included tours of thermal springs, mud formations, lava fields, waterfalls, and geysers. I lost and regained my balance near a volcanic crevasse, came close to being scalded by escaping steam and, overwhelmed by a fish-heavy dinner buffet, mistook a chunk of whale blubber for cheddar. It’s a wonder I didn’t confuse the entire country with cheese—Iceland’s otherworldly landscape was as alien to me as the far side of the moon.

Retired from ballet, I returned in June 2017 as a writer and a first-time NonfictioNOW delegate. Iceland appeared far more familiar now: tourism had boomed, English was spoken everywhere, and Reykjavík had its own Dunkin’ Donuts. It was my new persona and the opportunity to meet other writers that seemed exotic, more so than a volcanic island and its midnight sun. I’d never even worn a nametag before. After “Memoir Time,” a panel session with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, I approached Lisicky, proffered my identification, and was thrilled when he recognized my name—though it wasn’t through any familiarity with my extremely slim body of published work, but because I was the fan who’d retweeted and “liked” so many of his posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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NonfictioNOW 2017 Opening Reception

Even off-conference, my nametag was the flying wedge with which I connected with everyone and anyone. At the opening of Ragnar Kjartansson’s first museum show in his homeland, God I Feel So Bad, I searched two crowded floors of Reykjavík Art Museum for the artist I admire. When I finally spotted Kjartansson, he was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of well-wishers. Nearby, a tall, handsome man in a black suit radiated charm—in my direction, I thought. Pulling its black neck lanyard taut, I extended my NonfictioNOW ID, almost grazing his nose when he bowed unexpectedly.

“Hello!”

“Hello, I’m Canadian.”

He beamed, “My wife is Canadian.”

“Oh! You must be the President of Iceland!”

Regrettably, Eliza Reid, the First Lady, wasn’t in attendance, but the star of the evening was still in my line of sight. I pushed the small talk toward an entreaty:

Please, introduce me to Ragnar Kjartansson!”

With an authoritative wave and a loud whoop of “Ragnar!” Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson summoned Kjartansson and his entourage. I swooned and stuttered. Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, the Mayor of Reykjavík (a title journalists often prefix with modifiers like “hot” or “sexy”), also joined us, as did his conspicuously attractive wife—and our group turned into an Icelandic VIP gathering. Only Björk was missing.

The day before, Wayne Koestenbaum, NonfictioNOW 2017 keynote speaker, had spoken to me of the inspiration he receives from minor fame:

“In my writing, even in my lounge act songs, I need to take a word or a phrase which creates an emotional situation for me. It’s often a star’s name, particularly a minor star’s name, a cultural particular.”

We’d met for an informal exchange in the Háskólatorg building of the University of Iceland, in the large foyer which houses the student cafeteria and bookstore, above the lecture rooms where the conference panels were held, in front of a curved white wall we both agreed was reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. I’d confided in Richard Hoffman that I was anxious about my first interview, and he’d calmed me with an anecdote about one of his own “firsts.” Now, Hoffman winked encouragement from across the room, while next to him, Michael Steinberg, no longer discomfited by my telling him he was a legend, smiled benevolently. Sitting vis-à-vis from Koestenbaum, with my multicolored shawl in serendipitous correspondence with his brightly pattered shirt, I was starstruck.

For his NonfictioNOW keynote address, Wayne Koestenbaum had composed four parables, or allegories and, for one of these, he’d taken a minor 1950s and 1960s TV and movie icon as a starting point:

“The words ‘Annette Funicello’ arrived half an hour before I started writing. I repeat ‘Funicello’ again and again in every sentence, like a chant, ‘Funicello, Funicello, becoming Funicello …’ I was very aware, when I wrote my four allegories, that the first one was nonfiction. I felt it had a kind of ornateness and roundaboutness that pushed against the straightforward narration of a couple of incidental encounters I’d had. I was aware, with the next two, that they crossed the line into fiction. Not because I wanted to flee nonfiction, but because of the humiliation issue. The thing I want to write about at this moment, I cannot just start talking about in public. I need to disguise to some extent, and universalize. I don’t have the distance or the wish to confess on that kind of level. It’s just too self-sabotaging. I was aware I had recourse to something like fiction, and I felt this certain amount of guilt, because of course it’s a nonfiction conference. But I try to think about that in the pieces.”

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At a panel discussion earlier that day, Koestenbaum’s virtuosity in weaving together seemingly disparate anecdotes and ideas had mesmerized me, yet the simplicity of one statement stood out:

“Write what turns you on.”

Wayne Koestenbaum “turns me on.” His books are vibrant compositions, segmented into complementary and juxtaposed sectors, a style also common to his artwork. Humiliation offers variations on its title in fugues that reflect on embarrassment and regret—themes that resonate with the sense of degradation and insufficiency that imbued my classical ballet training. Another book, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, examines opera and queerness, and is dense with reflections on the art form, summoning up recollections of my own intense fascination for the music and its history when I first began performing together with opera singers and musicians. I asked him about Verdi’s Aida, which he describes in The Queen’s Throat as the first opera he saw as a child, mentioning that my mother had made her stage debut in Aida before World War II, as a young ballet apprentice at the Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet.

“My father is from Berlin, but I think his father’s family came from Lvov—Lviv. I remember Aida, but I don’t remember my response to the singing. I have a visual memory, and I remember the color of the blue sky above the Nile in the third act, and I remember the height of the stage and the blueness. I had a couple of opera records, and was obsessed by the bilingual thing. I remember looking at the opera librettos. With Aida, I remember looking at the column of Italian words, and I’d never seen Italian. In particular, I remember the plural definite article and thinking it was so strange, gli, g-l-i … It was a cluster of opacities that fascinated me, with a wish to untangle them and kind of carve my way into a feeling relationship. There was deep mystery, and I remember vividly the sense of opera as an unknown, and that the unknown was desirable. When I paint, I respond very intuitively to color, relationships of color, ‘feeling toward’ the color.”

The subject turned to Switzerland, where I live. Koestenbaum mentioned Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage and its Swiss-themed suite, as well as a book about Robert Walser, Walks with Walser, by Carl Seelig. My very superficial familiarity with Liszt’s piano oeuvre, and Swiss literature and geography—Vallé d’Obermann is neither in Germany nor is it the origin of the name of a popular dog breed—threatened to embarrass us both. Navigating past the awkwardness, we remained in Switzerland, but returned to art. I mentioned the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, which displays works by Klee, Picasso, and other modern masters. Koestenbaum continued:

“Are Picasso’s paintings fiction, or nonfiction? Obviously, for me, that’s a term that comes from a literary genre and not painting, but you could say that … Picasso’s paintings represent an emotional and optical truth, a cognitive truth. The transmission of energy from much of Picasso’s work is unmistakable, and it has a certain violence and aggression. I talk about Picasso in one of my allegories, actually, and I talk about his body and my body.”

More and more people drifted into the foyer. A baby started to cry, with the pitch and intensity, perfected through evolution, that ensures no infant’s distress can be ignored.

Lying on a table in front of us, a small video camera had recorded our conversation. An iPhone, meant to function as a second microphone, was on my chair, where it pressed into my left buttock, the slight discomfort balanced by my willingness to abase myself for a literary luminary.

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I joked about the wailing baby, “Better here, than on the plane going home!”

Koestenbaum’s response was both touching and generous:

“But it’s cute! It’s very affirming, to know that there’s a baby here at the conference, and maybe the baby is the child of writers, who will teach it to love literature and language. May the children grow up to be happy readers and writers!”

The baby fell silent, and forty-five fluid minutes of insightful conversation also came to an end. Koestenbaum and I would meet again in two days, at his keynote presentation in Reykjavík’s futuristic concert hall, Harpa.

I leaned forward and tipped sideways, removed the iPhone, and switched it off.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

* * *

My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

* * *

[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

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BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.