On Shifting the Narrative by Taylor Brorby (Writers to Read: Brian Doyle)

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You and I know this story, it’s the story of Sandy Hook Elementary. We know the outline, we know what happened. But what Brian Doyle does in “Dawn and Mary” is not only dazzling, it is deeply moving—he shifts the narrative focus. For many of us, Sandy Hook is a day of terror, and Doyle helps reveal, sentence by sentence something deeply human: courage, too, existed that day.

The piece begins in simple description, “Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway.” As readers, we’re there. We know this place—we’ve all been to school—and immediately we, because of our own imaginations, start filling in the details of what it looks like—though Doyle employs a type of powerful minimalism of detail to allow us to create our own imagery.

We’re told that most people dive under the table, which later we’re told is what we’re all trained to do. But Doyle narrows the focus of the piece: “But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets.” We know that these two people are important and, little by little we learn about them. Dawn is the principal; her husband proposed to her five times before she said Yes, “she liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.” We then learn about Mary, the school psychologist; she has two daughters—like Dawn—she loves to go to the theater, and she’s due to retire in a year.

But somehow—because we know how this story ends—we know that won’t happen.

In the first six paragraphs we are given simple description about the school, about Dawn and Mary, about their personal details. But the sixth paragraph marks the end of one section and begins Doyle’s focused work on helping shift the narrative. After the sixth paragraph, he brings the reader into the piece:

You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.

He doesn’t tell us what the hallway looks like, but he doesn’t need to. We’re already there—we can see the linoleum, we know the lowered sinks in the bathroom, the little tables and desks. We have been there, and we are there again with Doyle.

Our breath quickens and Doyle writes,

Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies—bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger—must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day.

The entire weight of human history is brought into focus in this section—there is nothing other than this moment. We are in Sandy Hook Elementary with Dawn and Mary.

And then Doyle, is a display of pure humanity, brings the piece to an end. Instead of focusing on the shooter, whom Doyle calls “the boy with a rifle,” we learn that in the particulars of this horrific day, courage lived alongside evil:

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings. They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?

“Dawn and Mary” is a piece to read over and over. In ten paragraphs, Doyle does more to shift the narrative focus of this tragic event than any piece of news or journalism. By the end, not only does the reader weep, but knows deeper that a piece of humanity has been restored. We know what’s possible, we know what happened, we know that the story of courage is messy and complicated and a necessary tonic to help us go forward with the rest of our days.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMTaylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and a poet. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, Taylor’s work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Orion, High Country NewsThe Huffington PostTerrain.org, and has received numerous recognitions through grants and artist residencies. Taylor travels around the country regularly to speak about hydraulic fracking, is a co-editor of the country’s first anthology of creative writing about fracking,Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and is Reviews Editor at Orion Magazine. His poetry collection, Crude: Poems, is due out this summer, and an essay project, Coming Alive, is due out in February.

Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Donald Quist’s “Harbors”

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During contentious presidential elections such as the one that just ended, some voters tend to offer up the notion of leaving the United States should candidate X win. The threat gets tossed about too glibly, especially when for years citizens have left this country after experiencing real—not anticipated—trials and hardships. Donald Quist, a black American writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand, is one such expatriate and he examines his life and the urge to seek a new one abroad in a powerful essay collection, Harbors (Awst Press).

This book comes at a time when the volume of our social discourse is tuned to deafening levels and the back and forth spews at a head-spinning rate. Into the cacophony steps Quist with the fierce voice and loving, but critical eye of a 21st century James Baldwin. And since a whisper draws more attention than a shout, by the time in one of his essays Quist states calmly, clearly, succinctly, “I am angry,” he has us all by the ears and the words resonate to a depth of earth-shaking proportions.

He wasn’t/isn’t always so quiet. As a child growing up with kids from the wrong side of the tracks or, in his case, school bus route, in Maryland, Quist hit a boy and made him bleed for taking his action figure. At 16, frustrated over having to drive one of his grandmother’s drunken friends home, he snatched away her foam-plated Meals on Wheels lunch and demanded she account for her seemingly rude behavior and burdening of his granduncle. However these outbursts only made clear to him what he didn’t understand, an awareness we could use more of today. He learns all is not as obvious as it seems. He learns the truth of what his grandmother, an ardent fan of Jerry Springer’s raucous talk show, often told him, “Boy, pay no attention to what a person says. Watch what they do.”

Quist writes, “I’m reminded that people have complexity and duality, not unlike an exploitative tabloid talk show allowing individuals largely unrepresented in mainstream media to share their experiences.”

He finds himself cloaked in this complexity and duality in “The Animals We Invent,” when he goes to work for the mayor’s office in the town of Hartsville, South Carolina, and finds himself suffering the sting of two worlds when an arson incident leads to a rash of racial profiling encoutners as police seek the perpetrators whom the victim claimed were black males—they weren’t. He fields calls from enraged citizens. “Aren’t you angry?” one asks. Though Quist himself has been stopped by officers he answers with a pragmatic, “What do you want me to say, sir?”

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But the question he’d like to answer in an interview, the reporter doesn’t ask. How can he still speak for the mayor’s office? “If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I wasn’t to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones.”

Quist weathers the storm but the squalls large and small keep coming, one upon the other, until he punches a hole in the door of the restaurant he owns with his Thai wife. He questions why they continue to live in the racial equivalent of a tornado alley. The essay “In Other Words” relates the discussion he has with his wife about leaving the country. He writes at times, in an interesting twist, from her point of view. “… when customers do stuff like the patron who tried to avoid paying the bill earlier, it is hard not to feel like it’s a part of something else, something systemic, a lineage of oppression that frames so many of his daily interactions.”

I call attention to this particular essay because of the deeply personal nature of his considerations. Quist blames no one—not candidates, not police officers, not the nature of their small South Carolina town. He is simply looking for a way to walk through the world without a centuries-old burden upon his shoulders. He writes, “I yearned to go abroad to find myself beyond the classification of my race and nationality. I wanted an opportunity to live in a place where I might move beyond the limits of myself.” And though in Thailand he might, as his wife warns him, only experience different debts and new prejudices, Quist also recognizes the possibility to experience new freedom.

With this concept alone, this idea of a new freedom, he challenges our notions of America as land of the free, home of the brave, by showing us in his beautiful, unflinching prose that no matter how bravely a person might live in this country, he or she isn’t necessarily free. The vulnerability Quist brings to the page is palpable especially as he relates feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment (often in himself) in addition to his anger. He cannot ignore, for example, that his father left Ghana for the U.S. to escape a kind of living that now benefits Quist in Thailand.

He writes in “Junior”: “I wanted to tell you about how leaving makes me feel like a traitor, and about how it feels whenever I read news about black suffering in America. I meant to ask you if the advantages of living in a place ever make it easier to forgive its crimes. I wished to voice to you the conflict I experience daily while enjoying the benefits I have in Thailand and the knowledge that so many are silenced and detained by the same governing force that has made it easier for me to hail a cab. I wanted to discuss military dictatorships promising democracy, decency, values, and standards while violating civil liberties, and talk about how every day I witness others bear the type of suppression that led you to emigrate from Ghana.”

So many writers can rage—so few can show or even connect to what lies beneath it. Harbors is an important human document because the author doesn’t invoke self-pity or even sympathy. Instead he, much as Baldwin did, presents his life as testimony and makes you stand with him equally at a vantage point where all can view the situation and say with utter certainty, Things should not be this way. Quist doesn’t pretend to seek clear answers—he knows there are none. But like any good essayist, he knows it is important to ask the questions and try on many answers. “Once I’ve crossed over this deep expanse,” he writes, “I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.” With Harbors, Quist has already, to a great extent, done this for all of us.

Editor’s note: Read Sophfronia Scott’s “Writers to Read” about Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country here.

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her forthcoming novel, The Light Lives Here, will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September 2017. She also has on the way an essay collection, Love’s Long Line Alone, from Ohio State University Press. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

A Truly Gigantic Journey: Uncovering Leah Lax by Stacey Engels

Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a simple collage I made over a quarter century ago, after getting my heart broken. The message it transmits is no longer one I want to reiterate to myself, but I have left this little creation out, within view, because I still love Kafka. And because, as a writer trying to fathom the mystery of my own existence, I have to look back to that young artist whose fears and desires shaped the life I have now.

Affixed to a square piece of poster board is a smaller square of yellowed paper; a quadrant showing the pointillist face of Kafka in four phases of dissolution. In the upper left corner is a complete image: wavy, parted hair, elfin ears, thick brows, otherworldly stare. In the lower right corner, the all-seeing eyes are rimmed with darkness. The right side of the face is all but gone and the left side is shadowed. There is a cluster of letters above the thick, black brows: L I T E R A L I T E R L I. As the tubercular-looking man fades, his legacy – the words he has left behind – grows.

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Glued below this four-part portrait is a neat strip of paper on which I typed, in all caps:

THE JOURNEY IS SO LONG THAT I MUST STARVE TO DEATH IF I RECEIVE NOTHING ON THE WAY. NO PROVISION CAN SAVE ME. FOR HAPPILY IT IS A TRULY GIGANTIC JOURNEY.

This was my solution, at twenty-four: Just Write. That last, miraculous eight-word sentence – the headspinning unexpectedness of it, the discordant notes adding up to an indissoluble alloy of terror and joy – made me feel that writing was a religion to which I could happily sacrifice life.

Fifteen years after making that collage, I met Leah Lax at Yaddo. While some of us handled the free-time-bonanza that was a few weeks in an artists’ colony like addicts on a bender, disappearing into studios and interacting as little as possible with others, Leah was like an open water swimmer: at the end of the day, she stepped gracefully out of her creative flow, and you could tell she had covered distance. She was grateful to be among people, breaking bread, and she was grateful to return to her solitary work.

One afternoon, we went for a walk around the lake. We talked some about our lives and more about our projects: mine was a play based on the life and art of a Canadian painter, and Leah’s was a memoir about leaving her Hasidic community and beginning life as a secular lesbian. She had converted in her teens and her attraction to orthodox life had come, in part, from her desire to study holy written teachings, though of course her study was restricted because she was a woman.

Hearing her speak about the pull of the words themselves, about the world of light that opened out beyond the forest of little black symbols on the page, was to hear my own silent feelings given voice, even though my interest had only ever been in literature.

When, years later, we became friends on Facebook, I felt I could see Leah’s life story flowing by, a stream of photos and articles and videos and notes. In 2015, after ten years together and three months before gay marriage was legalized nationwide, Leah and her partner traveled from Texas to D.C. to tie the knot. Within months of this, her memoir was out in the world, and suddenly, Leah was uncovered: she and her book seemed to be everywhere.

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Part of the beauty of Uncovered is in how Leah conveys the love she felt for the rituals and language and the community in which she lived, while revealing her slow but neverending struggle to reconcile with her religion’s negation of the female. Throughout the book, she describes different experiences of mikvah, a ritual bath for purification after menstruation, communicating not just the details of an ancient and gynophobic ceremonial practice, but the solace and silence of women-only rituals.

From an early age, Leah’s secular life was infused with a love of art and music – her mother was a painter and Leah was a cellist. (She still plays.) We learn that disorder and mental illness in the home spawned her craving for a rigidly ordered life and witness the breaking away from her Law-governed life as complicated, frightening and often painful. Yet the recurring motif of ritual immersion crosses over seamlessly from her religious life to her artist’s life when she collaborates with photographer Janice Rubin on the groundbreaking Mikvah Project. In other ways, too, we see that art and the sacred have always been intertwined in Leah’s life.

A few pages into Uncovered, I found a line that reminded me how Leah and I had slid into such easy, heartfelt connection: “I would remain obsessed with grasping strange language for wordless things.” And toward the end, a description of her new belief system, which may explain the innumerable FB pictures of Leah smiling – at readings around the country, with Susan, with dog, with Dvorak piano quintet, with other writers: “Such a good, quiet joy rises in me, a profound sense of simple being, of presence… We are simply here. Now.”

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StaceyEngelsStacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.

Read Stacey’s “In the Classroom” piece on Vivian Gornick’s book The Odd Woman and the City here.

 

Writers to Read: Karen Babine on Paul Gruchow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Sam van Zweden on “Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger,” by Fiona Wright

Writing the body is tough. As a thing with defined borders (like skin), and further borders within those borders (those we’re socialised to obey) that we dare not trespass against, it’s particularly tough to write the body in an open, curious, and freeing way. In attempting to write my own body, I constantly bump up against roadblocks – attitudes I dare not bend, taboos I fear to breach, assumptions I need to acknowledge before I can move past them and into something meaningful. It’s confronting territory, and possibly the highest stakes thing we can write about – that vehicle that allows us to be.

Compound the difficulty of writing the body by adding the controlling behaviours typically seen alongside eating disorders. The stakes become dangerously high. It’s no small feat, but Australian writer Fiona Wright manages to recreate this tension between control and chaos in her essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Echoing the open and closed written modes of Wright’s identity as both a poet and a critic, this work manages to strike a balance.

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These essays take a variety of stances on hunger, as experienced through Wright’s own anorexia. Essays about travel explore the way encounters with the broader world have informed the author’s guilt and ambiguity towards eating, while other essays consider the ways that eating disorders are portrayed in the work of well-known and much loved Australian authors such as Carmel Bird, Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Wright’s pathology is reflecting in the writing as some of the obsessive detail-oriented thinking that is part and parcel of Wright’s experiences of hunger.

What makes this collection so exciting is Wright’s ability to effortlessly engage with theory, dipping in and out of ideas that might otherwise come across as quite heavy. While the subject matter is hefty, and rightly so (I’m not suggesting anyone approach eating disorders jovially), there’s an element of playfulness about the work. Curiosity is the driver.

There’s no doubt that writing eating disorders is fraught. Wright herself acknowledges this in her essay, ‘In Hindsight’, describing how her fellow patients refer to books like Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness and Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as ‘how-to manuals’ and ‘triggering as fuck’ (respectively). As a woman writing on the topic of eating disorders and hunger more generally, Wright must have been aware of the generic specificity of her subject matter. Eating disorder memoir = misery memoir, is the expectation. Cataloguing pathologies and redemptive recovery narratives seem to be the norm for other books on the topic. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t the kind of book Wright wants to write. She calls in theory from a number of sources – literary, scientific, historical – and at this point it would be easy to wield these things as weapons in the battle to beat down any possibility of her work being ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick lit’ – but, with a huge amount of grace, this isn’t what Small Acts of Disappearance does. Instead, Wright holds the theory she employs lightly. That’s not to say that she doesn’t take it seriously, because at times the book feels like a metaphysical and psychological puzzle. Rather, Wright experiments with various sources of possible explanations for the unexplainable, and she does so with curiosity, in a written mode that is distinctly female, and fiercely strong for it. Wright’s uncertainty about that experience is a weapon in its own right.

Small Acts… approaches the body and hunger with the openness of a poet, with the rigour and insight of a critic. It breaks open borders at the same time as it wrangles something unspeakable into a sensible shape.

It would be too easy for a voice like Wright’s to slip between the cracks in the Australian reading climate. Broadly, ours is not a readership (or reviewing culture, or publication culture, or award culture…) that deals well with hybrid forms. We prefer neat boxes. Our nonfiction comes overwhelmingly from older white men and tells our colonial history. Wright is part of a new generation and sensibility among nonfiction writers: the self matters. The small, mundane self matters. Hybrid and experimental styles offer something that ‘historical’ accounts and comfortable generic boundaries cannot. Small Acts is making its mark in the Australian nonfiction landscape, too – shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the work is object of plenty of discussion not only in literary circles but in mainstream publications, too. The dynamic is shifting: It’s okay to write things that tell humble (but deeply important) stories. It’s okay to write things that don’t fit cleanly into genre boundaries. It’s okay to write about yourself. Wright’s work is one of those leading this shift.

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SAMVANZWEDENSam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. She has written for The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Killings, The Wheeler Centre and others. In 2015, she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. Her work-in-progress, Eating with my Mouth Open, was shortlisted for the 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Writers to Read by Jois Child: Wide-eyed, a Little Breathless, and Falling Slowly Earthward

That’s how I felt the first time I jumped out of an airplane. And that’s how I feel reading James Agee’s sentences.

It is July, 1936. Young Jim Agee and Walker Evans are on assignment from Fortune magazine to document the lives of white tenant farmers (sharecroppers) in Alabama. They hardly know how they will do this, these northern, urban strangers. Evans will take the photographs, but Agee struggles with the words that will eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.

But he can’t give us those things, so he writes hundreds of pages that read like a symphony and unfold like scenes from a motion picture.

LetUsNowPraiseFamousMen

 

One of the first incidents Agee describes is being taken by white landowners to a tenant farmer’s house. In the telling of it, Agee’s lyricism interweaves the particular moment, the social history, and the dilemma of the outside observer:

A quarter of a mile back in a flat field of short cotton a grove of oaks spumed up and a house stood in their shade. . . . We drew up in the oak shade as the doors of this house filled. They were Negroes. . . . Here at the foreman’s home we had caused an interruption that filled me with regret: relatives were here from a distance, middle-aged and sober people in their Sunday clothes, and three or four visiting children, and I realized that they had been quietly enjoying themselves, the men out at the far side of the house, the women getting dinner, as now, by our arrival, they no longer could [emphasis mine].

The sparse, layered details of the scene (Sunday clothes, the far side of the house, getting dinner) are interwoven with the words of the strangers’ interruptions at crucial junctures, so that the word “realized” occurs between the introduction of the visitors and the description of their interrupted activities, and the word “arrival” appears where it will interrupt the getting of dinner as well as the general enjoyment of the afternoon.

The general feeling “regret,” becomes the realization of the situation – the Sunday ease, free from white outsiders – and then the final powerlessness to undo any of the harm: “now… they no longer could.” This single sentence structure carries not only the immediate and particular situation, but calls out and illustrates the overwhelming social codes in which Agee finds himself confined.

But the body of the book is about the lives of three white sharecropper families, told in such complex detail, so finely nuanced, that the sentences grow and grow in parenthetical and semi-coloned clauses, as here in a list of the particular qualities of several of these people at work:

the infants of three families, staggering happily, their hats held full of freshly picked cotton; the Ricketts children like delirious fawns and panthers; and secret Pearl with her wicked skin; Louise, lifting herself to rest her back, the heavy sack trailing, her eyes on you; Junior, jealous and lazy, malingering, his fingers sore; . . . Annie Mae at twenty-seven, in her angular sweeping, every motion a wonder to watch; . . . Mrs. Ricketts, in that time of morning when from the corn she reels into the green roaring gloom of her home, falls into a chair with gaspings which are almost sobs, and dries in her lifted skirt her delicate and reeking head; Miss Molly chopping wood as if in each blow of the axe she held captured in focus the vengeance of all time….

Reading such comprehensive sentences is a little like falling slowly earthward. One cannot read them fast. They require slowing down, breathing evenly, letting the colors and the weariness, the heat and the never-ending-ness fill the wholeness of life in this place and time.

***

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Jois Child writes and reads manuscripts from a tiny patch of forest in North Idaho. Her work has appeared in The Sierra Sun, High Desert Journal, and Women Owning Woodlands.

Favorite Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Mystery My Country”

14 SophfroniaI’m going to tell you to read a book that’s not here yet. But it’s coming. In fact it’s quite close. At first I only sensed it was out there somewhere, its wake pushing waves across an ocean and causing seawater to lap at my toes where I once stood on dry land. Now I see this book, a gorgeous ship at full sail, on the horizon. It’s so beautiful I feel impelled to cry out, “Look, it’s here!”

The vessel we await is called Mystery My Country, and it contains a collection of dervish essays written by Robert Vivian, the author of four novels and two collections of meditative essays. It arrives in 2016, published by Anchor & Plume. A dervish essay is a prose poem that takes on the spinning energy of its namesake. But it goes beyond the realm of poem and stakes itself in nonfiction because Vivian molds the form to make it so. Using precious little punctuation he feels his way through, much as a straight essayist would, a notion, an observation, a question, all in service to better understand and appreciate what connects life to himself and his world. The whirling dervish energy might send Vivian through the tight spaces of grace in small acts, as in “My Neighbor St. Therese”:

“…but I know your mouth is my mouth and your voice my voice as together we take care of what we can however brokenly and imperfectly, cleaning a kitchen floor on our hands and knees using our tears for water, the smallest cry in the mouth of the smallest thing, offering even the little we are because there’s nothing left of us to give, not even a flower.”

Or it might push him to accept the present moment of health while at the same time coming to terms with old age as in this excerpt from “Come Earthward”:

“…but we are still quick and lively, and there are grooves in people, actual unplowed furrows deep as the night and it is glorious to move, glorious to walk and turn around, and before the planet of arthritis and old age we were all swallows and leaping fawns—we were the world when it was young, and there is stardust in us yet, so move while you still can…”

There is vital work happening here, and risk, especially in terms of Vivian’s ability to totally give himself over to the piece. He said in an interview, “I know when I’ve finished writing a dervish essay when the last line surprises me, when I sense the whirlwind is about to expire. Yes, it’s visceral, and yes, it’s spiritual. I less end them than they take me to a brink and I fall over into silence.”

I first encountered a dervish essay when Vivian presented one at a faculty reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The massive energy of the piece rang through the air and flooded the room. It was so beautiful, filled with his simple, emotional truths such as a touching, one-sentence description of the way his wife laughed. He layered these truths, one upon the other, until suddenly he’d made this complex creation reminding me of something so easy to forget in everyday life—that the little loves do matter; the way we notice a laugh or a butterfly on a sprig of lilac is what make us who we are as artists and differentiate what we have to bring to the page.

For the next two years no matter what literary journal I read whether in print (Booth, The Tishman Review, Stoneboat Literary Journal) or online (Barnstorm Literary Journal, Posit, Gravel) I would find Vivian’s dervish essays, large messages in small bottles, washing in with the tide and meeting me wherever I happened to be as I walk these writing shores. Soon it was obvious a book wouldn’t be far behind and I felt thrilled by the prospect of having these precious gifts assembled all in one place.

This ship will arrive, its bright sails glowing in the sun, and we’ll marvel at how, in the rough seas of creative writing where tightly held expectations about genre and form threaten to sink an artist at every turn, Vivian has managed to stay true to his course. We’ll all be glad he did since he, like a modern day Rumi, generously offers the lessons that will teach us as writers to dance with this whirlwind energy, and as human beings to split our hearts open with wonder of the world.

Here are links to ten Vivian dervish essays, so you can get your feet wet and prepare for this marvelous passage. What a ride we have in store.

“Looking, Then Listening”–Barnstorm Literary Journal (includes a recording of Vivian reading)

http://barnstormjournal.org/nonfiction/robert-vivian/

“Come Earthward”–Wraparound South

http://wraparoundsouth.org/winter-2015/essays/come-earthward-by-robert-vivian/

“My Neighbor St. Terese” and “When the Stones Abandoned the World”–Posit Journal

http://positjournal.com/2015/05/08/robert-vivian/

“Who is the Spirit”–Gravel Magazine

http://www.gravelmag.com/robert-vivian.html

“Moon, River, Snow”–Bohemian Pupil Press

http://bohemianpupil.com/2014/02/25/moon-river-snow-a-dervish-essay-micro-essay/

“Crow Ceremony” and “Stumble”–Numero Cinq

http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2013/09/01/crow-ceremony-stumble-dervish-essays-robert-vivian/

“Lead Me”–Iron Gall Press

http://irongallpress.com/2014/01/09/lead-me-robert-vivian/#more-74

“Open Letter to Late Night Traffic”–Sundog Lit

http://sundoglit.com/robert-vivian/

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. She recently completed her second novel and is finishing an essay collection. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Writers to Read: On Layers — by Taylor Brorby

Taylor BrorbySerendipity sneaks in sideways when we least expect it. I came to writing—after undergraduate, stumbling into a graduate program, in my early 20s I started to consider writing. I didn’t start reading books seriously until high school, then following the more traditional academic route of writing, and finally, in graduate school, by happenstance a teacher introduced me to a seminal essay I return to regularly to dust off the cobwebs of my brain and pay attention, Annie Dillard’s “Write Till You Drop.”

For me, the Essay tradition typically employs three literary devices: idea, image, and anecdote. Here, years later, I cannot tell where Dillard’s essay falls. Layers of anecdotes about Giacommeti, Melville, and tribesmen; practices of Hemingway, Singer, and Thoreau; stories about the smell of paint, young poets, and Frank Conroy. All of this in 1,851 words.

Too, the reader receives various directives throughout the essay:

“We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show,” “Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris,” and “It makes more sense to write one big book – a novel or nonfiction narrative – than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses. Much of those years’ reading will feed the work.”

Like a peach in August, Dillard’s essay is filled with juice, sweetness, and beauty. While describing a young poet’s reaction to the question of whose poetry he likes best (“nobody’s”), Dillard highlights many young writers’ problem: they have yet to learn that poets love poetry; essayists love essays. She then presses the issue deeper, highlighting

“Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Bohr and Gauguin, possessed powerful hearts, not powerful wills…The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure.”

Perhaps I continue to scratch my head years later because Dillard’s tight, compact, cascading essay is rife with so much material. You need not agree with her, but chances are, like a buffet, she has something you will enjoy. Perhaps it is her urge for attentiveness, her extensive list of artistic approaches, her encouragement to not waste time, or her reflections, that draw me in. “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

And so it might be that you need encouragement, need your brain cracked open to a new way of thinking, or a gentle urge to find a model and probe it deeply. Read this essay, shake a gourd, and—somehow—you will find your hand scrawling across the page, your essay beginning.

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Contributing Editor Taylor Brorby is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, he is currently working on a poetry collection related to the Bakken oil boom, as well as an essay collection and editing an anthology of creative writing on fracking, “Fracture,” for Ice Cube Press, due out this winter. Taylor is a regular contributor to Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, and he is the book review editor at Orion Magazine.

Writers to Read: In Praise of Odder Women — by Stacey Engels

StaceyEngelsOne warm evening after work, I landed up at KGB Bar in the East Village for a reading by Vivian Gornick. Having been in New York City for twenty years, I often search out nature rather than art, or see things my friends are in, or have made, or are reading. Or I just see friends, because that is an event in itself. Organizing dinner or a drink or a walk is usually a production preceded by weeks of near misses, last minute cancellations, reschedulings.

On the far side of this small, venerated literary bar, dug in as though they have been here for a while, are two people who have lived more than a century between them. It so happens that one of them is a friend of mine from Yaddo, and Facebook. Between us is an ocean of professional-looking young people who look as though they approach their art consumption, and perhaps their art-making, professionally. My friend is leaning over the small table to hear her friend.

I order a glass of wine, and, as I wait, and wait, and wait for it, feel some strange swelling of gratitude for the elderly, un-speedy bartender. Is it hip to have a bartender remaindered from the seventies, I wonder? What is the story here? When I get my wine and swivel in the direction of my friend and her friend, they are gone.

The minutes roll away, and away. Then there is a shuffling and mic check at the end of the bar, where the lectern is set up, at an angle precisely out of my eyeline. Vivian Gornick is introduced. Vivian Gornick begins to speak.

I will not see Vivian Gornick at all this evening, but I will hear her voice, which is why I am here. I will be filled with her voice, and I will think, as I often do, how different my life would have been if I had heard voices like this when I was young. When teachers and writers had so much power over the formation of my ideas about literature and reality, and so misused that power: by stating there were no women writers on the syllabus because there were no women writers who were up to par with the men on the list. By making it clear that the raw material of my inner life could not, without vast manipulation, be shaped into something worth reading.

Gornick’s new book, The Odd Woman and the City, is a chronicle of inner life as it intersects with being in the world, whatever that may mean: conversations with doormen, the rising and falling of romance, helping a stranger on an icy street, moving through the city with the words and thoughts of other writers coloring what you see and how you think about them.

As I sit, head lowered, listening, a world rolls out under my eyelids: eternal, immortal New York intertwined with vanished and vanishing New York. A portrait of the artist as an odd woman waking up in a world in which it is okay to be alone, unmarried, without children, okay to be a woman in love with a city and with books. It is revolutionary, I think, to let yourself begin again in the now.

[My mother and I] leave the diner and walk to the bus stop. “Let’s stand here,” she says, pointing to a spot a few feet beyond the sign. “It used to throw me into a rage,” she explains, “that the driver would always pass the sign and stop here. I never understood why. But now I realize that it is actually easier for him to lower the step here for people like me than it is at the sign.” She laughs and says, “I’ve noticed lately that when I don’t get angry I have more thoughts than when I do. It makes life interesting.”

The book begins (and ends) with Gornick reaching out to her friend Leonard, who sometimes depresses and irritates her, whom she sometimes irritates and depresses. All of The Odd Woman and the City is suffused with this prickly, loving dissatisfaction. It captures something essential in New York life; how loneliness, obstacles, insanity and inconvenience crush in on one from all sides. How every day there are stark reminders of the dreamed-of life, and of the life you are really living. And every day, the archaeological layering of voices that make up New York – voices from hundred year-old books, voices from windows in Hell’s Kitchen or Broadway revivals or a seventy-nine year old woman in an East Village bar – make you grateful for the life you are really living.

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Stacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series is Back!

cropped-cropped-img_6123.jpg“In the Classroom” is Assay’s ongoing series about writing & teaching creative nonfiction. Our intention is to provide posts that nurture you as writers, readers, and teachers — and to continue building the creative nonfiction community. This ongoing series supports Assay’s journal, which we publish in the fall and spring.

From last year, we’re pleased to bring back Assay’s weekly posts on “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This academic year, we’ll alternate weeks with this series. Our first “Favorite Essay to Teach” was provided by Jessica Handler, eloquently writing about teaching Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.” If you missed that post, you can read it here.

We welcome submissions to this series. We’re pleased to continue supporting the work of students, and your students may be particularly interested in submitting to “Writers to Read.” Here is a link to “In the Classroom” submission guidelines.

This year we’ll also include posts from Lauren Wilson, who serves as Assay’s Editorial Assistant. Lauren will be contributing pieces about being a writer-in-progress abroad. We’ll also be featuring guest bloggers from conferences: we’ve put a call out for guest bloggers from NonfictioNow. If you’ll be in Flagstaff for the NFN conference, please consider contributing to make NFN available to those unable to attend (or to be at two panels at once!). Next spring, we’ll put a call out for guest bloggers from AWP#2016/Los Angeles. In the past, Brevity blog has done fantastic work highlighting conference panels, and we’re happy to continue this tradition, making conference panels, talks, and happenings accessible to all.

Over the winter academic break, look for a new feature on craft. Our first one will focus on a panel presented at AWP#2015/Minneapolis, which was led by Jo Scott-Coe.

Welcome. And thank you for being part of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.