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

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

“These Little Returns” by Desirae Matherly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Desirae Matherly teaches at Tusculum College, and is the nonfiction editor for The Tusculum Review. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and Fourth Genre, and in August 2017 she was the featured writer on 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. 

My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Blindness” — by Gwendolyn Edward

GwendolynEdwardMy introductory to creative writing students have preconceived notions about what non-fiction is or should be. The essay as a form of non-fiction is not well known to them; the genre has been established in their minds as one devoted to the long-form narrative: shocking tales of harrowing experiences or bestselling celebrity memoir. They are worried about being tasked to write non-fiction because they do not think their lives have been interesting enough; they worry they will be reduced to writing about cliché subject matters like death of grandparents, breaking up with a significant other, the first time they saw or did something incredibly shocking. They also seem preoccupied by the idea that non-fiction is simply storytelling.

But non-fiction is not relegated to the telling it straight storytelling and it does not have to be book length. It finds a home in different types of essay as well, and essay—in the introductory class—is our non-fiction focus. I begin our unit with a quote from Philip Lopate:

The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions….This freedom can be daunting, not only for the novice essayist confronting such latitude but for the critic attempting to pin down its formal properties.

When Lopate says the essay is flexible, I tell my students that I believe he’s speaking to two different qualities: the types of established essay and the way essay influences the genres of poetry and fiction.

We begin by talking about the traditional narrative essay: using narrative and the personal experience as an investigative tool. The braided essay: narrative threads and themes that work together to create a certain impact on the reader. The lyric essay: one concerned with representation of time and use of language. The researched essay: one that relies upon response to other writers and events and relays required and investigated material to the reader. The meditative essay: a dwelling of thought on a subject matter that trumps narrative. We also talk about ideas central to the essay, confession and revelation, and how they’re different.

We look at “purer” forms of all these types of essays, but my favorite part of our unit on non-fiction—the last essay we read—throws a curve ball to the students. Now that they’ve seen the essay is in fact rather approachable, now that they’ve been assured that they all have something to write about and that sometimes, the fun, sometimes, in non-fiction, is working with story or form to find meaning, they encounter an essay that achieves the same goal but does not fit the boundaries we’ve established. It breaks the rules we’ve put in place. It is Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Blindness.” In the essay, Borges recounts the loss of his eye sight and how terrifying it was—initially—for an author who relied upon viewing the written word to compose and revise. But he also learns that this loss is not one that overwhelms; it is loss as recovery and discovery.

What Borges offers them in “Blindness” is all types of essay in one. The narrative aspect is present across the essay—the story of Borges deteriorating eyesight and his journey from writer of prose to writer of poetry. The braided essay is present too in the way Borges moves between central themes. The lyric essay is embodied in moments of poetic description. The researched essay is there too in all the authors’ lives and works that he discusses. The meditative essay is present throughout: Borges, on multiple occasions, anticipates needing to contextualize his content and so he gives us thoughts as opposed to action. Confession is present in his fears, and the over-arching glue to the essay is revelation: that blindness is not a not such a bad thing after all, when it has in turn given him so much.

“What do we call an essay like this?” I ask my class. “How do we define it? More importantly maybe, why would we need to define it?”

My students are smart. I don’t mind bragging about this. They suggest all sorts of reasons: we need rules and terms so that we learn how to manipulate them in productive ways; we label it because it helps us locate types of essays we want to read and write. But there’s always a student too who catches onto my game and says something along the lines of “maybe we don’t need to define it. Most essays aren’t really just one kind at all but use elements of different kinds anyway.”

This, in part, is why I assign Borges last. We’ve established what we can do and are capable of in non-fiction, and now that we’ve looked Borges we understand too that we have permission to play with form and content. Non-fiction is not an either/or type of writing; elements of different types of essay can be present all at once. But more than this, Borges also makes us think about how non-fiction writing speaks to all writing and what is most important to the writer: language.

Borges has used the essay as a teaching tool about other genres. Education is central to all literature and creative writing, I tell my students. Non-fiction, poetry, and fiction all teach us something about the human experience, just in different ways. In non-fiction we have the tool of knowing that this thing—this story, experience, trial, the thoughts, epiphanies—belong to a person who we are invited to view and respond to. There might be something more approachable about non-fiction. We might be willing to learn more readily when we know what we’re hearing is true. What better tool for education do we have than honesty about experience?

The goal in reading “Blindness” is twofold: students become more aware of the styles of essay and how—like Lopate says—they’re flexible, but students who are not sure how to “read” poetry become aware of one method of approaching it.

Students often struggle with poetry—not only the labyrinth of interpretation, but the idea of poetry itself. It seems students fall into one of two categories: familiar with canonical poetry and receptive to discussion about more contemporary texts, or distrustful of poetry and viewing it as cryptic or inaccessible.

I often teach the unit on non-fiction before poetry for the express purpose of using Borges’ “Blindness” as a way to begin thinking about poems and how to read them. Early in the essay Borges says,

“One of the colors that the blind—or at least this blind man—do not see is black…. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind.”

My class tends to agree with Borges: the non-blind think of blindness as blackness or a dark nothingness. Borges’ experience is instructive because it teaches us something about our perceptions of limitations or obstacles: they can be wrong, and sometimes, surprisingly so.

Borges, I tell my students, is teaching us a way of seeing. His essay, more than anything else, is giving us ways to approach writing across genres: he shows us how to see with language, and seeing with language is one form of understanding, uncovering, discovering. When we discuss the essay and how Borges begins his foray into poetry, we talk about how we process language. Most of students’ reading is done silently, but reading any piece of literature—be it prose or poem—can be transformative when read aloud.

“Why don’t we just look at one of his poems,” I suggest, though this is planned ahead of time. We look at Borges’ “On His Blindness.” I project it onto the screen at the front of the room and then we read it silently to ourselves. On a second read, I ask students to sub-vocalize, to play with how to stress words, where they find pauses both directed and natural. Then we take turns reading it aloud. Inevitably the students read it aloud in different ways. In the first line some students read “like it or not” as factual; others give inflection which suggests a wry humor. And in the third line some students will read “single thing”, stressing the words, giving them more weight. As the poem continues, some students pick up speed. Some students slow down. By the time we’ve made it through our volunteers, we’ve had at least ten different interpretations of how the poem sounds, resulting in at least ten different interpretations of what is most important to the poet and each reader.

Borges, in “Blindness,” is delighted at the discovery of sound that is given to him when he loses is eyesight. Sound is applicable to all writing, and in reading “Blindness,” I hope students continue to think about how non-fiction writing and reading can inform their approaches to other genres.

“Imagine what Borges must have felt like—that amazing discovery of what sound can do. Borges says in ‘Blindness’—of learning other languages—‘that each word was a kind of talisman unearthed.’ He continues to say, ‘I had replaced the visible world with the aural world….’ What if we learned to do that too? To think not only of what we write but what that writing sounds like and how it guides our readers?”

By the time we begin our unit on poetry, students seem more at ease. They may still be uncertain as to whether their readings are “right,” but they can talk about content and meaning and how sound affects these. I hope that they begin to see more truth in what Borges says about blindness: “Blindness has not been for me total misfortune; it should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living,” just as thoughtful use of language is a style of writing. I hope they begin to see the lens of Borges’ truth in their own experiences. I hope that the boundary between essay and reader collapses and that they find one of the greatest joys of non-fiction: when we find ourselves becoming the text of an essay, when the experience of one person becomes the experience shared among many.

Borges says of James Joyce, “Part of his vast work was executed in darkness: polishing the sentences in his memory, working at times a whole day on a single phrase, and then writing and correcting it.” What if all of our work was this tight? This thoughtful? What if we all could learn to compose with some form of blindness—that as much as it limited us—also freed us?

Blindness is a concept we keep working with; Borges’ essay trails us throughout the semester. One of the prompts I give students in response to this essay is think about a time you were blind to something and what you learned when you eventually realized you weren’t seeing. As we begin our unit on revision students read sentences from each other’s work that they like and they explain why the language attracts them. Many times, the students whose work is being read delight at this when the discover the intricacies of language are actually engaging their readers—just as much, sometimes, as their stories do. At the end of the semester, Borges finds us again. Students must revise a piece for class—a poem, essay, or short story of their own invention—and they must read an excerpt, demonstrating that they’ve thought about how sound affects meaning in reception. My favorite time in the semester is this: the end. Not because my work—for the time being—is done, but because when we hear each other’s work we also hear the labor and heart that went into the revising. The pieces we read in workshop evolve into work more nuanced. We learn to see our own work a bit differently, and we learn to see each other’s work differently too.


Gwendolyn Edward is a Pushcart nominated writer of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She retains a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant non-fiction and fiction editor and also teaches Creative Writing.