Saturday, December 10, 2016

12/10: Steven Church, The Enemy of Nuance (or Why I Took a FaceBreak)

Almost a year ago I posted one of those annoying Facebook status updates announcing that I was taking a break from Facebook—a Facebreak--which is sort of like yelling on your neighborhood street-corner that you plan to quit yelling on your neighborhood street-corner. I’m not sure I’d truly considered the implications of this decision, but I’d been stewing over it for a while, openly discussing the possibility with my partner; and it just seemed the time to make a change. As we now approach the Holiday Season again, the advent on January 21 of a new national nightmare, and the often unbearable march of “news,” I find myself returning to some of these impulses to retreat from the social media stage.

Ultimately my decision at the time was somewhat impulsive, but it didn’t come easily, without conflict. I’ve regularly professed my love for Facebook, which as my teenage son tells me, “is for old people.” But I’ve made great friends through the social media platform, and I’ve expanded my awareness of many issues, movements, books, essays and ideas. I’ve been outraged and enlightened. I’ve made invaluable professional connections and forged strong relationships with people whom I consider colleagues, often individuals I’ve never met in person.

I confess that don’t really like Twitter because it feels too fast for me or too brief or too meme-dominated; and again I understand that it’s mostly because I just don’t know how to use it well or don’t understand the codes and secret language of tweets as well as I should. But if Facebook is like shouting on a street-corner in your own insular neighborhood, Twitter feels to me like shouting through a megaphone in the Mall of America, hoping a couple of people will walk by and give you a thumbs up or make a heart-shape with their hands.

That being said, I’ve also openly mocked colleagues, friends, or family who claim, “I don’t do social media,” as if you can just opt out of this huge part of our contemporary culture. But maybe you can. Maybe quitting really is that easy. Maybe all you have to do is delete the app on your phone and the tab in your internet browser. And maybe nobody really cares if you’re there or not, and the whole engine just cranks on inevitably and eternally like one of those perpetual motion machines where the balls just clack against each other forever until someone stops the noise.

I realized I’d become both too dependent on Facebook and too troubled by what I encountered there. It wasn’t just that I was wasting time. That seems inevitable. I felt like I was wasting away as an individual human being. I had trouble remembering things that didn’t happen on Facebook; and I found myself reading, writing, and thinking in terms of what I could post on Facebook. I have trouble sleeping through the night, anyway, but when I’d wake at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom, I’d hunker there in the dark checking Facebook status updates. I needed a break. So I quit. My page was still there, still active. I just didn’t look at it for a while, maybe a little over a month or so.

It sounds a little crazy, but I felt changed after I quit. Lighter somehow. On the simplest level, there was something very liberating about taking a picture of my daughter and not having to think about where I was going to share it, tag it, label it, or how I might caption it with a clever quip. I could just be with my kids without having to document that I’d been with them. I could vacation without proving it with selfies and action shots of my kids at play.

I also just had more time on my hands. . . like a LOT more time—so much so that I began to understand how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the other forms of social media kill time through the “death by a thousand paper cuts” method; and it is this sort of death for which the writer is unusually susceptible, lonely as they are in the practice of craft and craving as they often are for outside affirmation. The demise of free time through social media, though, is a seductive and slow death, not altogether unpleasant, kind of like a heroin overdose. It’s the quiet deadening of one’s senses, a kind of compression of thinking that, in the end, leaves you a diminished but still sexy and popular husk of your former self.

It’s hard to explain. But after stepping back from the social media stage, I felt more engaged with the wider world, more able to just LIVE, and less concerned with how I was going to broadcast discrete chunks of that living to a social group that I rarely saw or talked to in person. I realized that I’d grown exhausted with all the effort required to maintain a social media persona, an avatar of myself that was not myself but was instead a performance of Steven Church.

That Steven Church is a filtered, exaggerated, and necessarily limited version of who I am as a person, a writer, a father, an editor, and a professor. On Facebook, Steven Church is the kind, intelligent and liberal Dad. Steven Church is a beer-loving nonfiction nerd who appreciates literature and books almost as much as he appreciates every single thing his precocious, genius, art-making children do or say. That Steven Church is a dog lover, a music lover, and a sports lover who also happens to teach the most amazing, hardworking, and talented students on the planet. All of these things are true. But it’s also true that I can be a short-tempered, preoccupied asshole who just wants some peace and quiet from his annoying children, his noisy dogs, and his overly demanding students. I just don’t broadcast this version of Steven Church. Thus my social media persona, like any persona we adopt in life or on the page, is a lie of omission and exaggeration. And I regularly adopt personas on the page in the service of essaying some kind of idea. But I guess I’d grown tired of my simple social media persona, even if that lie, that Steven Church persona, was in many ways, a “better” version of the real Steven Church; because to live that lie is to live a life of constant existential dissonance and alienation. In real life I’ll never be as good as that Steven Church, the one in the Facebook profile, a guy who isn’t terribly interested in nuance or conflict.

I also realized how dependent I’d become on online affirmation of the most basic thought, quip, quote, shared video, essay or picture of my kids, even my most ridiculous and inane status update or post; and, further, how rather easy this affirmation is to come by if you craft your online persona and perform in a way that doesn’t invite serious thought, criticism, or critique (something I’m still not convinced can actually occur in a comment feed). I guess what it came down to, as well, was a belief that there was something fundamentally un-essayistic about social media, and I’m mostly interested in the essay as an art form. Even if you court an online image of the Socratic gadfly, and you intentionally post provocative or controversial things, or especially if you’re a “troll,” who lives to antagonize with impunity, then you’re never really forced to confront yourself in a truly critical way. You can always find a group online where your opinion feels like the majority one, or where your counter-opinion has the power to elicit impassioned and polarizing responses that mostly serve to edify your original belief or opinion while your “friends” and followers denounce any counter argument and shout down any detractors. And while this affirmation and edification is, of course, empowering; the true essayist isn’t perhaps as interested in edification and affirmation as he is in nuanced thinking of complicated questions.

Thus, I’ve increasingly come to believe that social media is the enemy of nuance and fundamentally anti-essayistic, such that the sensational and simplistic click-bait version of reality dominates over a more quiet, patient, and careful consideration of an issue or an idea. I realize, of course, that for every point I’m arguing, one could pull up, in an instant, a thousand-and-one examples to the contrary; and part of me hopes that any response to this argument will serve also to confront my own current beliefs about the anti-essayistic nature of social media, which are, admittedly, half-formed ideas at this point and shaped as much or more by the liberating rush of walking away as they are by serious thinking or research into the effects of social media on human thought and interaction (no, I haven’t read that book, The Shallows, but it’s on my shelf). I realize that I sound like a curmudgeon. But as I get older and grow more hair in my ears, I’m increasingly willing to wear that cardigan sweater and play the role of the grump, perhaps because that persona is closer and closer to the real me these days.

In the end, though, I fell off the wagon. Big surprise. It’s hard to quit for good. Social media is too easy, too seductive, and has a way of convincing you that you need it to survive. I’m also a writer with a book out this Fall and, as any publisher, editor, or publicist will tell you, having a social media “platform” is extremely important for a writer. You have to put yourself out there, or at least a version of yourself that seems attractive, intelligent, and interesting. They know that many people buy books based on the author’s social media presence and persona. They buy books because they like the public performance of you as author.

So as I now stare down another Holiday Season and clear memory space on my I-phone for pictures of my precocious children, I know there will be a moment or two where I consider walking away again and taking another Facebreak. But then, later that day, as we’re celebrating my daughter’s birthday, I’ll post a photo or a selfie of me and her to Instagram, and a bunch of people will like it, physically distant friends and family who might never be able to otherwise share in this moment, and I’ll feel warm and fuzzy, edified and affirmed all over again.


*

Steven Church is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State, where he is the Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing.

Friday, December 9, 2016

12/9, Thomas Mira y Lopez: The Biography as Seer Stone

Let’s start with some disclaimers. I’m interested in writing about Fawn M. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, the celebrated and controversial 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. I, however, know very little about Mormonism—you might say I am as unlettered in the subject as Brodie says Smith was when he translated the Book of Mormon at the age of 23—and am aware the position of an outsider brings certain limitations. To boot, I am currently flying over the Artic Circle in a China Southern aircraft about to enter Siberian airspace. We hope to land in Guangzhou in the morning. Things look dark outside the plane. My computer tells me it’s 9:30 am, though I have no idea what time it really is.

What interests me about Brodie is the difficulty and enormity of her task. No Man is a celebrated and controversial book because Joseph Smith is a celebrated and controversial figure. The word mercurial seems to put it lightly. In his lifetime, Joseph Smith was a prophet, visionary, farmer, treasure hunter, populist, Lieutenant General, presidential candidate, charlatan, polygamist, mayor, and founder of the greatest popular religious movement in the United States.

That a woman has written the definitive biography of Smith should not be taken lightly, given the historical restrictions Mormonism has placed on female members. Brodie, a Mormon herself and the niece of David O. McKay, the ninth president of the church, managed to gain access to confidential LDS church archives. She submitted the manuscript to a prize held by Knopf and won. After the book’s release, the church ex-communicated her on charges of apostasy. Often afterwards, I read, she was referred to as “that awful woman.”

Joseph Smith is, if this is indeed a category, one of America’s best secret keepers, particularly surrounding the foundation of Mormonism—the story, of course, being that Smith found the Book of Mormon buried in the earth and inscribed in an ancient language on a set of golden plates—and some of its early practices, in particular, polygamy.

How then do you write about this guy? How can a biographer maintain both objectivity and interiority, especially given the fact that a powerful organization has spent much effort and time to ensure that certain records are interpreted a certain way? Consciousness without conjecture seems impossible. It’s as if whenever Brodie closes in on a certain conclusion about Smith, a little explosive is triggered and scatters his motivations in a number of different directions. Brodie must then run down, cross-reference, and categorize each piece before arranging them together again in the most plausible explanation.

The result is a book that does not state who Smith was, but explores who he might have wanted to be. It’s a definitive biography without being definitive. While Brodie certainly presents damning evidence about Smith, she doesn’t simply undermine or expose him. She treats him as neither myth nor man, but instead as a man growing aware of his own myth, whose “memories,” like all of ours, “are always distorted by the wishes, thoughts, and, above all, the obligations of the moment.”

Specifically, Brodie contends Smith concocted the story of the golden plates as means of self-gain—i.e. that he never took the religious part seriously—but that with his growing following and power, he became convinced of his own status as a prophet. As for the actual construction of the Book of Mormon, Brodie supposes it neither divine revelation nor forgery. She accords Smith perhaps the larger honor: he was someone with the capacity to narrate and author his own book, a testament to the energy and nerve of its creator and an “absolutely American…compound of folklore, moral platitude, mysticism, and millennialism.”

This seems crucial. While Brodie pans the book as lacking “subtlety, wit, and style” and providing “three thousand years of history” in which “not a single harlot was made to speak,” she also acknowledges its power and rhetoric. She takes it seriously. In this year of post-truth, her analysis seems eerily prescient:
The Book of Mormon was a mutation in the evolution of American literature, a curious sport, at once sterile and potent. Although it bred no imitators outside Mormonism and was ignored by literary critics, it brought several hundred thousand immigrants to America in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century sees the distribution of 35,000 copies a year…It is easy enough to deride its style and painstaking research can uncover the sources of all its ideas. But nothing can detract from the fact that many people have found it convincing history.
It’s hard not to see Brodie’s accounting of Joseph Smith’s audacity and boastfulness as a parallel to this country’s current situation. The improbability of his rise and the sheer ridiculousness of it in some regard—that people believed he found golden plates containing the word of God which only he could “translate” with a set of two stones, while concealed behind a cloth—I cannot help but compare to another man who claims the roles of prophet and savior. Ditto for Smith’s venality, his command of oratory, the cabal of acolytes and connivers who curried favor with him, and the abuse of authority to offer divine revelations that suited his own personal interests. One should also remember the persecution and violence early Mormon communities faced in Missouri and Illinois when perceived as strange and other. It’s especially hard not to see the parallel—hopeful or not—in that what finally did Joseph Smith in was his destruction of a printing press that revealed the corruption and profiteering of his own business interests.

Maybe this is just how autocracy works. Or maybe, as Brodie points out, this is a peculiarly American story, now on repeat. The past informs the present, sure; one might argue the social prerogative of a biographer is to change that present by changing the past.

Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s the right move to search for these parallels. To do so may be a bit of the same convenience Smith used himself in reinterpreting events in the Book of Mormon to fit his own current interests: a reading just short of comprehension if it looks only for evidence to bear itself out. We are always being asked to buy a past as a selling point to fit the interests of a present. Either way, Fawn M. Brodie resists that convenience. She’s called the book “No Man Knows My History,” after all. And she knows the man well enough to know that Smith said that about himself.

*

Thomas Mira y Lopez lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Ohio. He’s an editor of Territory, an online literary project about maps.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

12/8, Lela Scott MacNeil: Let's Face It, We're Undone By Each Other

As 2016 draws to a close, with its Pulse massacre, its Brexit, its bombing of Syrian children’s hospitals, and its election of Donald Trump, I have been thinking about grief, about my dead dad, about vulnerability and anger, about why we write.

My dad died of lung cancer during my senior year of college. I remember the day I learned he was dying, that the hoarseness in his voice was not bronchitis but rather a tumor that had wrapped itself around his vocal cords and crushed them. I remember how that day they were repaving the streets outside my East village apartment window. How the smell of tar filled me. How every movement stuck. I walked outside to see Avenue A stripped of its skin. “I know how you feel,” I said. I said it aloud, because no one in New York ever looks at you like you are crazy, even when you are. Or maybe everyone in New York knows that sometimes things happen, and talking to the asphalt is the only rational response.

Social scientist Brené Brown tells us that “grief is perhaps the emotion we fear the most...as a society we have pathologized it and turned it into something to cure or get over.” After my father died, my doctor, who was also my father’s doctor, recommended I be put on antidepressants, unprompted by any complaint of symptoms.

Recently, I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life, which she wrote in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and whose relevance has continued to echo in the years since. In the book, Butler writes that grief is not a thing to be feared, not a private emotion to be suffered in silence and gotten over alone. Grief, says Butler, is a political feeling, one that has the power to transform, to awaken us to the ropes that tie us to each other. Grief, says Butler, illuminates “the thrall in which our relations hold us...in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.” In grief we find ourselves beside ourselves, undone in a way essential to who we are. Grief lays bare, “the ways in which we are, from the start, and by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own.” Grief forces us to ask, what is left of me now that you’re gone? “Let’s face it,” says Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

In grief, we can no longer imagine ourselves impenetrable, although this does not stop us from trying. After September 11th, 2001, William Safire, quoting Milton, wrote in the New York Times that we must “banish melancholy.” On September 21, 2001, president George W. Bush said that, “we have finished grieving and that now is the time for resolute action to take the place of grief.” In the aftermath of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, President-Elect Trump tweeted: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”

Butler tells us that “when grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly.” By attempting to resolve it quickly, we attempt to maintain what Butler calls our “fantasy of mastery.” By fearing grief, we are asserting we must remain impenetrable at all costs.

I understand the impulse. In life and in writing, the only emotions I have ever felt comfortable expressing are enthusiasm and anger. Those two emotions allow people like me and Trump to maintain our fantasies of mastery, our fantasies of impenetrability. This is a trick we learned from our fathers, and from many other fathers.

My father was hit by a truck when I was five months old. The doctors told him he had six months to live. He survived for twenty-one years as a paraplegic. He spent those years in and out of hospitals, trying to pretend nothing had happened, teaching, writing, traveling the world, trying to pretend he was not in constant pain, getting angry with my mother because her steady caregiving reminded him of his dependence.

Growing up my takeaway was: be impenetrable. Needing other people is to be avoided, or at the very least, not acknowledged.

This, of course, is the fantasy of mastery. A fantasy, because, as Butler says, “at the most intimate levels we are social; we are comported toward a ‘you’; we are outside ourselves.” Which is to say that we are vulnerable. We can and will be penetrated. By a white truck running a red light, by bullets, by cancer, by unjust laws, by our desire and grief for one another. As Brown says, “We’re hardwired for connection. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” To assert invulnerability is to deny our inborn need for connection, the ways in which we are made up of, in Butler’s words, “the enigmatic traces of others.”

In Trump’s rise to power, we see the seduction of the fantasy of mastery. In spite of all the political missteps, including being caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault, Trump managed to seduce enough votes in the right states to upset every pollster’s prediction and win the election. Why?

When we in the West come under attack, as we were on September 11th, as we were in Orlando, as we are when we lose our manufacturing jobs to the forces of capitalist globalization, we feel the loss of what Butler calls our “First Worldism,” our sense of entitlement to be the transgressor of borders but never to have our borders transgressed. What we feel at these times is vulnerable, which we have been taught to understand as weakness. Our response to this perceived weakness has been, as Butler said about our response to 9/11, “a shoring up of borders against what is perceived as alien.” Our response is to assert over and over that we are impenetrable.

Another possible response is suggested by Brown’s definition of vulnerability as “the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome.” Yes, she says, vulnerability is “at the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, but it’s also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation and creativity.” If we let it, our deep, vulnerable, grief could illuminate our interdependence, compelling us, as Butler writes to “consider the place of violence.” By giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable, we can “develop a point of identification with suffering itself.” This can then push us to “critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more vulnerable than others, and thus certain human lives are more grievable than others.” This shift in perspective, it is easy to imagine, would have a profound effect on our political landscape.

It is in this way I believe writing can be politically transformative. As writers, as art makers, as content creators, we have a tremendous power (and a tremendous responsibility) to shape the global narrative. If, as Butler says, obituaries are “the means by which a life becomes, or fails to become, a publicly grievable life,” then we must acknowledge “the obituary as an act of nation building.” If this is true of the obituary, then why not the essay, the novel, the poem, the screenplay? As my screenwriting professor at NYU once said, “We didn’t vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger, we voted for the Terminator.”

To write in a way that is politically transformative, that expands the definition of a grievable life, or even, I would argue, to write something good and worth reading, we must avoid the impulse to close ourselves off from our inborn vulnerability. This is the most humbling and rewarding lesson I have learned as a writer.

After my father died, I responded like Trump. I got even angrier at the world and its many threats. I vowed even more vehemently never to need anyone, so as never again to be thrust into grief’s cold grip. I wrote about angry people who hated each other and never needed anyone. When I showed my writing to friends and members of my MFA cohort, they said, you have some beautiful lines here and there but it’s so dark. Does it have to be so dark? This made me and my writing even angrier.

Then, one day, the writer Willy Vlautin came to read at the University of Arizona, where I was getting my MFA. His book The Free had knocked me over in the way we hope to be knocked over by every book we read. It’s a dark book, but I haven’t heard anyone say “why does it have to be so dark?” It’s the sort of book that transforms you, expands your definition of a grievable life. While he was here, I asked him “When people tell you your writing is too dark, how do you know when they’re right and when you should tell them to fuck off?” He looked at me and asked how old I was. I said I was thirty. He said, “Oh, okay, I was going to say maybe you’ll get less dark as you get older, but no, you’re thirty, you are who you’re going to be.” Then he said when I look at you, you don’t look like someone who hides out in her apartment all day with the lights off listening to heavy metal and never showering. You clearly have some lightness to you too. You just need to figure out how to add some of that to your writing, so people have a way in.” I think we were all a little bit in love with him by the end of that lunch.

But what he said stuck with me long after our collective crush faded into memory. When Willy Vlautin talked about my “lightness,” he was talking about my vulnerability. He was telling me to let go of my fantasy of mastery.

I started writing about people who were angry sometimes but also sad and frightened sometimes. I started writing about people who needed each other. I started writing about people who face the ways we’re undone by each other. Suddenly, instead of making readers say, “does this have to be so dark?” my writing was making people cry. This felt like an improvement.

So as 2016 draws to a close, I’m letting myself grieve. When close friends ask me how I’m doing, I’ve been making a point of not defaulting to “fine.” I’m letting myself drink too much and spend too much time watching Netflix, but I’m also just sitting quietly, learning what pain feels like. The slow collapsing weight in my chest. The churning, slightly sick feeling in my stomach. I’m letting it show me the ways we are implicated in lives that are not our own.

*
Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, same as the atomic bomb.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

12/7: Sarah Sheesley, Exhibition of Marvels: On Eliot Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds

Adam and Eve attempt suicide. An owl is stung to death by invasive bees. A 6th century wife dreams her hands are hot as fire. George W. Bush visits the Great Wall of China. These are just a sampling of the historical fragments strung together by Eliot Weinberger in The Ghosts of Birds. His new essay collection (New Directions, 2016) brings together a continuation of the lyric, near-mystical, fact-laden “serial essay” begun in An Elemental Thing (2007) with other, slightly more conventional essays that veer away from the archeological record and more towards contemporary, political and literary musings—always with sharp, subtle wit hinged on juxtaposition of past and present. Its idiosyncratic structure and array of material beg the question of how this can be categorized—what is a serial essay, then how does a reader make sense of such a smorgasbord—what does it all mean, and can we get more?

An essay collection, it seems, can be almost anything including a mix of songs, lists, letters and poems. A book of stories can be autobiographical. A poetry collection can be written in prose. Legends retold as a historical artifact can be called nonfiction. The question of how a serial essay functions, its taxonomy, how its individual essays and overall form are organized to construct meaning may be moot and labyrinthine, but worth asking in an attempt to build conversation, if only to end up puzzling over a writer’s game.

The most direct interpretation of a serial essay is obvious—a sequence of discrete essays that follow a particular logic and succession. But in reading The Ghosts of Birds, it’s difficult to find that logical structure—troublesome until it the clean prose and mesmerizing facts erase concern for structure, letting themes and questions rise to the surface. Alternative definitions of a series feel more appropriate, like the geological use of the word, “a range of strata corresponding to an epoch in time; the rocks deposited during a specified epoch,” or the series as related to electronics, “a number of conductors connected end to end…so that the same current flows through each.” (OED) The series offered by Weinberger is one of sediment and electricity.

There are commonalities in form between the essays—fragments, highly specific details, poetic line breaks, a multiplicity and breakdown of storytelling over time. In an interview with the Quarterly Conversation after An Elemental Thing, Weinberger explains his approach as applying the form of the open-ended serial poem to the essay, “that is, it’s open-ended (doesn’t end); the subject matter keeps changing from section to section, but many images and phrases even repeat.” For example the opening piece in The Ghosts of Birds compiles various renditions of the fall of Adam and Eve, setting the stage for repeated questioning of beginnings and ends, and poses the question of not what is the real story, but how are stories made, and how does that change the way we understand them—and ourselves.

Weinberger manages all this while largely avoiding the authorial “I,” leaving most conclusions up to associative and cumulative effect rather than an explanatory narrator, reminding the reader of his presence by manipulating tone. For instance, he describes the fate of the serpent who tempted Eve as being blown away by God until landing “on the seashore in India,” where seashore rather than coast or sand adds a subtle comic note. Or describing Adam and Eve as, “like characters in an existentialist novel, they attempt suicide, flinging themselves off a cliff.” This lightheartedness does a lot for his readability.

The second part of the book shifts in tone and project, but keeps Weinberger’s distinct voice. These essays move from the “elemental” into a survey of cities, walls and structure—physical and cultural. This shift towards political history and cultural criticism is no surprise if you’re familiar with Weinberger’s career as a political commentator (largely outside the US), and slightly jarring if you’re used to the more trance-like experience of An Elemental Thing and Part I of this collection.

Despite requiring more concentration, both sections are equally fascinating. “Bush the Postmodernist,” a review of George W. Bush’s autobiography is as funny and painful as it sounds. “Khubilai Khan at the Met” overlays an exhibition at the Met with an in depth account of the facts about Khan and his domain, both critiquing the story told by the exhibit’s curator and celebrating obscure historical objects. Layered onto that is the fact that The Ghosts of Birds is it’s own kind of curatorial project, creating, clarifying, warping our sense of the world we inhabit. While it’s tempting to categorize these essays as collage or a kind of literary remix from an unknown archive á la David Shields’ Reality Hunger, it differs considerably, as Weinberger has explained his method as meticulous re-writing of every sentence, a process more reminiscent of translation.

Some of these later essays maintain the fragmentation introduced in the serial Part I whereas others learn towards the erudite exposition. “The Wall” collects various records of events at the Berlin Wall, with girls pulling up their shirts and soldiers being commended for their successes (excellent motorcycle maintenance and “class-appropriate manner”) and reprimanded for their failings (drawing shapes in the snow and lacking in “ideological clarity”). The concluding essays were originally published as book introductions and require a well-read and dedicated audience. For this reader at least, they were more challenging, but Weinberger still scored bonus points for his appreciation of ichthyology and a mention of the befuddling and beautiful Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, which everyone should read.

Comparisons can and have been made to W.G. Sebald, whose books like The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn are often called long essays, and have a mysterious open-ended lyric quality, telling historical narratives of unknown origin and reliability. Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t comes to mind, who like Weinberger, is a translator and writer of crisp genre bending prose and mix of stories, lists, letters and translations.

Other contemporary experimental-poetic-political-philosophical essay collections could be literary cousins, such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or her more lyric Bluets, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and some of Anne Carson’s prose. These heavy hitters are not the only ones by any means, but may be responsible for what seems like boost in popularity for the genre (if you want to bother calling it that) of experimental creative nonfiction. Others are popping up at small presses—timely and resonant, and after bubbling at the intersection of poetry and prose for ages.

Weinberger’s quirky and careful construction of stories, fragments and argument is refreshing in world where online news (and “news”) is heavy on opinion, short-sightedness and redundancy. As the proliferation of information seems infinite, in a culture where experts and scientists are no longer trusted, and the real story is always elusive, there is an opening for playful and poetic approaches to sense-making—using facts as building blocks to assemble with poetic logic to draw us more gently, more magically towards an understanding of our world and it’s mix of inexplicable beauty, loss and comedy. The Ghosts of Birds, redirects us from the present moment, casts enough of a spell to create focus—however briefly, and asks us to place ourselves the larger scope of history.

*
Sarah Sheesley is Detroit based writer. She holds an MFA from the University of New Mexico in creative writing where she also served as managing editor and nonfiction editor for Blue Mesa Review. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles ReviewThe Rumpus, and Edible Santa Fe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

12/6: Lia Purpura, Walk with Escaped Convicts Nearby

Walk with Escaped Convicts Nearby 

Grass that won’t spring back into upright. Sky that won’t keep its dark tacked down. Dogs won’t quiet. Dogs changing this story, hour to hour. Mid-morning. Every twig-snap scattering birds. Where’s water. Where’s cover. The end of it all very close and then not. Consequences recede then grow too large to see.  Prayers from childhood come -- for the basics, water, a hunter’s shack and no hunter, then the bargain-and-promise kind, then the prayer-questions: why was I given these two good legs? All the eluding, all the close-calling, the ropes, knives, and dusk-travel.
     It’s been weeks of this running.
     One doesn’t think it will end. One doesn’t imagine it will continue either.
     And there, in that space between those two thoughts – there’s the plan. Not enough material for a future but still, here comes the next move.
     It makes no sense at all, I know. I’ve known those very simple days, the small and highly detailed, practical irrationalities that fill them.

*

Lia Purpura is the author of eight collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently a collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin). Her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as four Pushcart Prizes. On Looking (essays) was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD and is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This essay originally appeared in Ocean State Review. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

12/5: On The Protest Essay

In the turn of a night, we arrive at a new age. A new reality where our country not only turns its back on its values but on logic and reason. Knowledge and fact take a backseat alongside decency, compassion, and basic human rights. In their place are boorish manners that legitimize a racial supremacy, embracing sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, ignorance and its uglier kin, intellectual antipathy and ambivalence. Dictated mainly by an America that historically advocates religious morality and socioeconomic rectitude at the exclusion of large swaths of people whom for decades have struggled for a voice. None of these elements are exactly new, but felt more so because of the sudden force in which we were made to face an America that openly threats to strip citizens of their freedoms. In such an environment that so starkly qualifies individuals like me to second-class citizenry, the morning after appeared dismal and somber. Looking out my window, the sun refused to show, in its place was incessant rain that marshaled me back to my thoughts. Marilynne Robinson believes that “we have good grounds for exulting human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.” And yet to me, it feels as if our country is dissolving from within. This impasse in our American narrative is so severe that I admit to losing confidence in its spirit and future. So glum, I know.

The remedy to this gloom lies in art. Iris Murdoch, says that “art and morals are… one. Their essence is the same.” Therefore, it is the essayists moral duty to address the current lines of social division, dissent, and oppression as a form of protest. As a protest essayist, a writer must fully accept the role of authority as a public intellectual and be fueled with a passion for justice. In this role, they demand hope amid despair and insist on the recognition and preservation of our inalienable rights. A protest essay incorporates the form of personal essay to examine those conflicts and disaffection in society and culture. By sifting through personal experience, the protest essay takes two roads, discovering the universal or making analysis of the particular. Both require two major tenets of the literary essay: the intimate presence of the writer and the engagement between the self and the world.

A protest essay exists when society claims unity and equality and then turns a blind eye to division, bigotry, and inequality. The protest essayist is born out of this necessity. African American and Mexican American as well as other marginalized forms of literature essentially confront such injustices. In literary nonfiction, the writer not only embarks on what Phillip Lopate refers to as an “engagement with the writing process” that leads to “a voyage of discovery,” but in doing so, touches on the protest essayist’s role in understanding their own identity within a systemic, institutional oppression.

An essayist is drawn to write a protest essay when they sense what Gloria Anzladúa refers to as la facultad. Anzaldúa defines la facultad as having an “instant sensing” with a “capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.” Those who possess this sensitivity—women, homosexuals of all races, the dark-skinned, the outcasts, the persecuted and marginalized, the foreign—are all “excruciatingly alive to the world.” This instant sensing is a defense mechanism developed when “you’re up against the wall.” Such feeling was never more evident than the morning after the presidential election. And now in the weeks afterward, I’ve discovered that acknowledging and channeling this “survival tactic,” honing it into art is a vital call to action.

            This instant sensing seems embedded in the personal essay. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the most revered essayists, many of whom fall under the influence of la facultad, have written personal experiences that speak on behalf of others with such awareness and urgency. James Baldwin’s “Notes of A Native Son,” reflects on the death of his father as a catalyst in order to purge the resentment and rage built up over the years of living in a segregated United States. The experience—while cathartic—also informs the larger social problem. Take for example, Baldwin aligning his familial rage with the racial tension that many African Americans felt in the 1950s, calling both a “disease” that no “Negro alive… does not have this rage in his blood—one has a choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” It’s not difficult to replace the word Negro and insert Latinx, gay, Muslim, transgender, or woman, and still understand Baldwin’s point when talking about the oppression caused through exclusion. Recently, an undergraduate student admitted to me that he was Baldwin. “His story,” he said to me with a smile of recognition and pain, “is my story.”

            As Baldwin’s essay is a reaction to the racial segregation in the shape of memoir, other writers react by approaching the protest essay as an analytical meditation. Writers like Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa embraced this style as a means to explore identity politics and feminism. Specifically, Rich’s “Split at The Root” and Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” rail against a sexist patriarchal structure by first understanding and identifying the parameters before redefining their existence outside of it. In their hands, the protest essay is an examination that arrives at a personal truth—Adrienne Rich sees herself “split” at the foundation of what defines her, an inauthentic half-Jew and a protestant gentile; while Anzladúa imagines the surreal, her “wild” tongue, unruly and feral like her dispute between her American and Mexican selves. As an intellectual argument, their protest essays establish for an audience a stronger comprehension of an oppressed individual and the universal self, declaring to readers: we exist.

            George Orwell believed that no work of art was free of political bias. He rejected the notion that “art should have nothing to do with politics,” an act that he asserted was itself a political stance. Moreover, all writers are forced into becoming “some sort of pamphleteer” when faced with seeing injustices. Orwell cites Burma, Hitler, and the Spanish Civil War as the major forces in his life which turned him to write against “totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” In writing against these forces, Orwell aimed to make “political writing into art.” The writer already inherently aspires to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter the other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” Thus, making the personal essay that already aspires to art as the best vehicle to voice objection and lay an ideological groundwork for a movement.

            For Orwell, the structure of a protest essay is less picturesque and more exact. He suggests that the more political an essay is, the less aesthetic its language. Orwell is mostly right about this, although the best protest essays border the aesthetic and the bare-boned prose style. Let us note that an essay’s “exactness” by no means being less artful. There is importance in drawing this distinction because it helps in establishing the protest essay’s main structural characteristic: lean and direct, placing the author’s intimate voice (her anger, his rage) front and center for readers. Let us take note of something else: writing personal essays is hard, threading political layers to one’s personal experience poses challenges for an essayist.

            Early in Adrienne Rich’s “Split at The Root,” she confesses her fear in the confessional aspect of the personal essay process, describing it as a “dangerous act” where something must be claimed and something exposed in the facing of forces at play. I like this idea of claiming and exposing as a mechanism to fight back. In this new world we find ourselves in, we must claim, we must expose. Again, Orwell: “I write [protest essays] because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention…” Orwell’s starting point is feeling a sense of injustice, his biggest concern lies in getting heard. Even then, Rich calling the act of writing an essay as dangerous takes a whole new context many decades later given the recent backlash against multiculturalism and globalism. With all the hate crimes and ugly rhetoric spewing from darker sections of social media, a writer must understand not just what their getting into, but be aware of their proper role in a post-fact world.

            Inevitably, the post-fact world is lived on the internet. Acknowledging how technology and social media disseminates ideas and narratives guides us to the forms that carry the power and essence of the protest essay. The most popular form is the think piece, an immediate meditation that is part op-ed, part article, part blog post. In the days after the election, my Twitter feed flooded with thought pieces, most notable were Roxane Gay’s “The Audacity of Hopelessness” in the New York Times and Garrison Keillor’s “Trump voters—it’s not me, it’s you” in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, The New Yorker dedicated their “Dispatches” section to thoughtful pieces by authors such as Atul Gawande, Mary Karr, and Toni Morrison. Reading all these pieces, I got the sense that social media’s continuous churn of information and our current manner in which we process it with an insatiable yet short lived memory, threatens to defuse the power and influence of the think piece. The argument against this, one might say, is that people read what our great thinkers have to say in perilous times, and yet, I’m convinced this occurs only in your Internet’s safe spaces and echo chambers. So how does the personal essay go beyond its own parameters to assert its existence, the way, let’s say, Ta’ Nehisi Coates or Claudia Rankine capture the public consciousness?

            The success of the protest essay lies in the simple fact that it must be read. It must survive outside of academia while still asserting an intellectual authority. And right here is the problem: the protest essay must figure out a way to both thrive among the rapid obsolescence of social media and in a world, resistant and skeptical towards thought. I’d argue that the think piece as a form is too present minded, but then does this mean the success of the protest essay—and the personal essay form itself—is contingent only from its inherent characteristic of reflection? Would Baldwin or Anzaldúa’s essays carry the same emotional and cultural impact (not to mention withstanding the test of time) had they been written with the same immediacy as the think piece? In turn, would the think piece function the same and gain legitimacy by waiting? Truth is we can’t afford to wait. The time is now for essayists to understand their role and help guide this generations’ return to human brilliance.

César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. You can read the rest of his contributions to Essay Daily hereherehere, and here. Also, sometimes he has things to say on Twitter. 


Sunday, December 4, 2016

12/4: Marcia Aldrich et al, “Let’s do an Anthology”: Writers Shaping the Literary Creative Nonfiction Landscape

When I began editing Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, I gained a new appreciation for writers who were simultaneously editors. As the chief editor of Fourth Genre I depended on writers willing to review books, interview, and read manuscripts for which they would not be paid. Most literary journals depend upon the good will of writers to donate their time and expertise. Working with the writer-editors at Fourth Genre changed the way I looked at the literary world. I began to see the world of creative nonfiction as a community whose growth and vitality was built by a network of writers who were also editors.

In the last several years I’ve been fortunate to have essays included in anthologies edited by writers: After Montaigne, University of Georgia Press, edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden, Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, University of Nebraska Press, edited by B.J. Hollars, Creating Nonfiction, SUNY Press, edited by Erin Murphy and Jen Hirt. These three anthologies are just a small sample of the anthology offerings that have come into being in response to the growing interest in creative nonfiction, with special emphasis on the essay. I’ve joined their ranks. On December 15, Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women will be released by the University of Georgia Press. Writers turned activists are increasingly shaping the creative nonfiction landscape through editing collections. The editors of these anthologies are busy, productive writers. And yet, instead of just keeping their heads down, so to speak, and focusing on their own writing, they have chosen to undertake editing an anthology. Why would an experienced writer choose to edit a collection of essays? This is the question I’ve asked and here are their answers.

We are all busy writers and educators, and yet we have each undertaken editing a collection of essays. What motivated you?

David Lazar: I have edited three anthologies and two collections of interviews, and in each case the motivation was slightly different, but there were some commonalities. Among these were: I had to proceed with the convenient fiction that the anthology wouldn’t be too arduous a project, wouldn’t take too much energy away from my own creative work. Without this fiction, which I’ve somehow managed to repeat—the power of denial! —I’m not sure I could have done the editing work. I also need to be bothered. Bothered by wanting something to be out there that isn’t and feeling that I need to address this tiny crack in my imaginative vision of the literary universe. Another self-delusion, though one that I hope will provide some level of entertainment or food for thought for a few people. But mostly, I have an idea that interests me and I like to have more than one project going at a time, and so I think, a la Micky and Judy, “let’s do an anthology!”

B.J. Hollars: I suppose what motivated me is what always motivates me: a deep, insatiable curiosity, and a desperation to find an avenue to try to sate it. When I began my proposal for Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, I was hardly an expert on the subject. I was relatively new to nonfiction, and particularly naïve to unique structures within the genre. But I was hell-bent on learning everything I could, and the more I read, the more I wished there was a single anthology that might offer me a range of boundary-blurring essays, as well as some insight from the writers themselves. I searched the shelves and found nothing. And so, summoning my inner “fake-it-till-you-make-it” mentality, I wrote the proposal, tried to sound a lot more confident than I was, and then began the process of creating the book I knew I wanted.

Jen Hirt: There are two major elements that motivated me to undertake the co-editing of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers. The big motivators were collegiality and my interest in interviews. Let’s start with the interviews: I have a little bit of a journalism background through which I’ve had a chance to practice the art of questioning. How do you ask the right question to elicit the most insightful response? I love that challenge. I’ve learned a lot about writing through Q&A sessions, so the chance to craft so many questions and then edit the answers into an anthology seemed like the right project to be doing as a professor, writer, and program coordinator within my department. The collegiality motivator has to do with the fact that Erin Murphy approached me with the idea for the book. She’s at Penn State Altoona (I’m at Penn State Harrisburg), and I knew she brought a lot of experience to the table, since she edited the first book in the series, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. I see collegiality as not just small talk at the copy machine, but also mentorship. I knew Erin would be a great mentor (she was and is and will be!), and I’d always wondered how to edit anthologies. Signing on as a co-editor was like taking a continuing education independent study with a seasoned editor. Who would turn that down?

Patrick Madden: I feel a great debt to Montaigne, and I love to read and teach his essays, but I feared that his work was not being taught widely enough in college creative writing classes. Also, I’d learned a great deal in David Lazar’s classes by imitating great essays from the past, and I’d often given my students the assignment to “cover” one of Montaigne’s essays. From there, it was a short step to wanting an anthology that would form a bridge between our time and Montaigne’s, and would inspire writers to seek out Montaigne’s masterful work. Plus, I was excited about what essays some of my favorite writers might write if given the assignment of covering Montaigne. I was not disappointed.

Marcia Aldrich: I undertook the making of Waveform because I wanted to play a role in the conversation about the essay in my time beyond being a practitioner. I was emboldened by my experience editing Fourth Genre where one of the most satisfying parts of the job was curating issues. During my editorship, I created two new features—the first asked the writer of one of the accepted essays, notable for its innovation in form, to write an accompanying essay discussing the process of composition. The second feature was called Writer as Reader drawing on a dual sense of the personal: the use of creative form in telling a story about the writer’s relationship with an essay. I was creating a historical document of how we were writing nonfiction during this period, with a special emphasis on formal innovation. My longstanding interest in formal innovation and its importance to literary history is what motivated me to undertake Waveform, a collection of essays by women that points to and celebrates the formal accomplishments of women essayists.

How do you understand the expansion of creative nonfiction? Or to put it a little differently, what interests you in the expansion of creative nonfiction?

David Lazar: Oh, that term still hurts my ears a bit. I’ve talked about this elsewhere so I’ll give my most economical answer: There was a gradual movement in the culture towards material in all media that was experiential, less mediated by the traditional aesthetic filters of poetry and fiction and drama, and at least to American readers, the essay and memoir had been lurking somewhat unnoticed as forms that dovetailed with what the rest of the culture was interested in. Even though these forms had their own aesthetic histories and complications. Nonfiction also has represented a growth area for academic creative writing programs saturated with the traditional genres. What interests me? To be honest, I’m not sure I am all that interested in such things. Or very modestly, at best. My interest in forms tends to be chaotic and archaic.

B.J. Hollars: The day I lost faith in writing was the day I learned that a movie had been produced entitled The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars. To be fair, I have no quarrel with its predecessor (The Brave Little Toaster—a classic…sort of…), though after a finger-splitting day at the computer keys, there was nothing more soul-crushing than to learn that writers were now profiting wildly by sending kitchen appliances into space. How can I compete with that? I wondered. Clearly, it’s all been done. It was around that time that I began to think about how we might write our stories and essays differently. How we might expand the limits of form, push beyond the conventional boundaries, and find new ways to hit the human heart. In the world of nonfiction (or at least memoir), our greatest tool to ensure originality is our voice. After all, our voice is our own—no one else has it—and our personal experiences are our own, too. But I continue to think that experimenting with form is another incredibly powerful tool. If it’s all been done (i.e. if we’ve resorted to toasters expressing their bravery via interstellar travel) then perhaps it’s up to our voice and our form to tell our stories differently. I suppose this is the long way of saying that what interests me most in the expansion of creative nonfiction is our interest in innovation, our willingness to take a step back from our stories and ask, “How can I tell it differently? In a way it’s never been told before?” These days, the answers to these questions are becoming harder and harder, but there are still plenty of answers to choose from.

Jen Hirt: This question lines up perfectly with my other anthology, Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction, forthcoming in June 2017 from Michigan State University Press. In this fascinating project with co-editor Tina Mitchell (founder of The Turnip Truck(s) and instructor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette), we’ve included only essays that contain a secret, a lie, or a half-truth. Most are reprints, so to make it new, we also interviewed each contributor about the challenges of writing within this gray area of creative nonfiction. How do you reveal a secret that isn’t yours? How do you reveal a secret that might anger family and friends? How do you justify the troublesome half-truths in a genre built on truth? And what is the difference between a secret and a lie, and how do different writers handle it? This is where CNF is expanding – a clever or controversial theme coupled with craft talk. I’m not the first to spot that horizon. The Far Edges of Nonfiction and Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction did essential work in this area too. In my Advanced Nonfiction class this semester, we’ve done nothing but experiment how we can expand creative nonfiction and justifying our decisions to take these new trails (that’s the tricky part – justifying a risk). The undergraduates in that class have had smart insights that almost come to them naturally. They live in a post-fact culture; their interactions are simulated and surveilled, and they know it (and hate it and love it). Creative nonfiction is expanding to hold their cynicism and their passion for change in a postmodern (and post human?) culture.

Patrick Madden: If by expansion we mean that more people are writing creative nonfiction and publishing it and reading it, then I’m self-interestedly excited about the possibilities for writers (me), of course. Specifically, I believe I’ve seen a general change in attitude toward the term essay. When I was in graduate school, just fifteen years back, I heard again and again that I would have to hide my essays, give them other labels, especially once I had a book’s worth of them, because “nobody wants to publish essays.” Some publishers did publish essays, of course, but not many. When I lucked out and landed an essay collection with Nebraska, I asked that the word “Essays” be displayed prominently on the front cover. I was told, “No, we can’t do that.” But maybe they had a change of heart, or maybe editorial didn’t communicate with design, because when the cover mockup came, it had the word “Essays” prominently displayed. I was overjoyed, and I never reminded the press about what they’d said. And now I see the word “Essays” frequently, right on book covers, even bestselling and award-winning books. I believe this is not simply an “observer expectancy effect” or “frequency illusion,” but that readers are hip to what essays are and can be. They’re no longer thinking of “essays” in terms of the punishments their high school language arts teachers assigned them.

Marcia Aldrich: What interests me most in the expansion of creative nonfiction is its diversity. “A genre, whether literary or not, is nothing other than a codification of discursive properties.” So said Tzetan Todorov. There is no such thing as the one size fits all essay: it is not a fixed genre. It is as varied as its practitioners. As someone with a scholarly background in modern poetry and a writer who thrives in experimentation, I am most interested in innovations upon form.

What gaps or need did you perceive in the field that you wanted to address?

David Lazar: For the Montaigne anthology, Pat Madden and I wanted to connect Montaigne to familiar contemporary writers to a generation of readers who, perhaps, didn’t much read him. In my Truth in Nonfiction anthology, I wanted to have a bunch of writers speak from all different angles about a subject that never quite seems to die off, no matter how much we sometimes tire of talking about it. For the Essaying the Essay anthology, I wanted to connect what seemed inevitable to me: that the essay continually talks about itself.

B.J. Hollars: Mostly, I was hoping to curate a “one-stop shop” for readers to explore essays that utilized innovative forms and structure. Moreover, I wanted a book with behind-the-scenes mini-essays that provided insights from the writers themselves. Finally, I wanted writing exercises, too—something that might compel the reader to try a few experiments herself. I wanted the book’s organization to emulate the pedagogy I enjoy: one that provides examples, conversations related to the examples, and the chance for the reader to give it a try. I hadn’t found a book that fulfilled these varied roles, and I suppose that was the gap I was trying to fill.

Jen Hirt: As far as needs go, I would love to see more celebration of essays that start with the idea that imagination is creative nonfiction, that if you imagine something, you can argue that that imaginary scenario is not fiction, but nonfiction. Of course, the writing must be phrased properly, but that should not be a hindrance. For example, “I imagine that the apple is speaking to me, and this is what it would say if it could speak….” I know writers who will draw the line right there and say, “Nope, that’s fiction. It didn’t happen, it’s fiction.” But imagination happens. It’s a real thing, a powerful place your mind goes. Write it as real, and read it as real.

The gap question is a little harder to answer, because creative nonfiction as a genre seems like it was made to fill the gaps. However, I do have this observation. This semester, I’ve noticed that my female students of color in a beginning creative writing course dove right in to their creative nonfiction assignments with an eye and ear for amped-up imagination, experimentation, and wordplay. And no topics were off limits. They created some of the strongest workshop submissions (and workshop discussions) all semester. Other than the few essays I assigned in class, they had never read any creative nonfiction at all, and did not know it was a genre. That means they came to the class with a solid skillset for telling stories in vibrant, evocative language. Where did that skillset come from? To answer that, I started thinking of my white male students this semester, who almost uniformly turned in what I think of as the “safe and quiet” essay, in neat paragraphs, with a tidy conclusion and nothing startling in content or language. During workshop, one black female student said to the author of such as essay, “I wish you had offended me more.” We all laughed, and I tried to re-contextualize her comment a little bit while still respecting it – I said something like, “Are you encouraging this writer to use words and phrases creatively so you are surprised and you react?” Yes, she said, yes yes yes. She wanted to feel and to admire, not just read. How do you learn that? How do you try to teach it in a 3-4-week unit? I’m not sure, so I guess I would like to see more craft essays on that aspect. Writers who just knew how to write lovely crazy nonfiction, not from reading it but from living it – how did you make it work on the page?

Patrick Madden: As I mentioned, I thought that MFA students weren’t reading enough Montaigne. I based my assumption on a relatively small sampling of fellow students, some of whom didn’t even know who Montaigne was, yet were studying creative nonfiction. And even I wasn’t reading enough Montaigne as a student, until I began my PhD program at Ohio University and studied with David Lazar. Once I did read him, though the effect was gradual, I fell in love and decided that if you want to write essays, you must first love Montaigne. I hope this anthology becomes a bridge for people to find Montaigne again. If students (especially) see cool contemporary authors engaging with the master, then maybe they, too, will want to read and get those first exemplary essays. Secondarily, I have perceived a reluctance to intentionally borrow from or imitate past masters. Some writers believe a naïve myth about ex nihilo originality, and I want us all to embrace our influences, as the writers in After Montaigne have done.

Marcia Aldrich: The publishing world has been catching up to the interest in all forms of creative nonfiction. There are a growing number of anthologies that highlight the diverse range of the essay. It’s as if the place of the essay has been secured and now we can focus on more specialized points of entry, hybridization, our debt to Montaigne, writing process and so on. What has been missing is an anthology focusing on the contemporary essay written by women. Despite the growing accomplishments in the field by women, I didn’t think they received the kind of recognition they deserved. Hence, the birth of Waveform. But I wanted to buck the trend of anthologies of women writers organized around theme. I wanted an anthology that emphasized the innovations in writing I was seeing in the field, that didn’t monolithically tilt towards the more traditional branch, and I wanted to deliver on the promise of diversity for today’s classroom. These were the needs I felt Waveform should address.

Can you talk about your experience editing a collection? For example, what were the pros and cons of recruiting new material versus reprints? If you had a co-editor, could you discuss that or alternatively working alone.

David Lazar: Well, with new material you must work with these sticky living writers, which can be appallingly time consuming. On the other hand, I’m terribly fond of some of them, and it’s lovely to get rare new work. That’s the joy of editing, isn’t it? Reprints can rejuvenate lost work, which is quite satisfying, and other than permissions, are easy to do. As for solo vs. co-, I’ve enjoyed co-editing with Pat Madden more than solo, I think. Despite his unruly temperament and tendency to sing all submitted work out loud to the tune of “Maria,” Pat has been the most congenial co-editor I could imagine. He and I have a rhythm with working, who does what when, that I think is sympathetic and intuitive, and we agree a lot, if not inevitably, which makes life easier. When we don’t, it’s not earth shattering.

B.J. Hollars: A friend with a bit more experience in the anthology editing department once jokingly warned me that working with writers is a “bit like herding cats.” That may be true, even if we’re the coolest cats around. But in truth, the writers I worked with were all a dream. Very little herding was needed. From the start, most every writer I approached seemed gung ho to take part in the experiment.

As for new material versus reprints, for me, I think it’s important to get a bit of both. I’ve found that publishers’ marketing department loves to use the line, “including original work by [insert awesome author’s name here].” Indeed, that can be a great selling point. Who doesn’t want to read original work by a beloved writer? But the reprint, too, is essential. There are some essays that are simply too canonical to ignore. The problem, of course, is that oftentimes the reprint rights are beyond one’s budget. More than a few dream essays were lost because of budgetary constraints.

I didn’t have a co-editor for this one, though I imagine that partnership might have come in handy. It’s hard to rely solely on one’s aesthetic. I don’t think for an instant that B.J. Hollars’s personal aesthetic is sufficient when it comes to which essays “should” be read in the classroom or beyond. Rather than simply selecting my “favorite” essays, I tried to provide a wide-range of work, all of which covered different subjects and tackled new experiments. Throughout the selection process, I always imagined I was making a mix tape for friends: chances are, your friends won’t love every song you choose, but hopefully a couple will stay with them.

Jen Hirt: You would think that new material would be ideal – no copyright hurdles, and readers will be drawn to the book to see a new piece by a favorite writer. But in the case of both anthologies, my co-editors and I ran into the perennial (and endemic) problem of time. Possible contributors who didn’t have a new piece to offer bowed out due to lack of time to revise and polish. It’s understandable; we are all pulled in ten different directions and then some. I was once asked to contribute a brand-new piece on a theme (to the award-winning anthology From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines), and it did in fact take more time than I realized. (Glad I did it, however!) But another problem we ran in to was writers reluctant to “give” the piece to an anthology first – they wanted it to appear in their own books first, then get anthologized later. One contributor in this category dropped out because of an impasse with the publisher; others stayed in, but there had to be an additional level of reassurance regarding copyright and ownership. If you think about it, it’s a bizarre level of negotiating for books that make so little money. I’m from the generation that embraced “copyleft,” the idea that getting the word out is more important than owning the word, so I tend to not worry about copyright issues with my own work (when I have the option of not worrying, that is). To be honest though, I’ve noticed that writers from older generations are much more savvy about copyright, which is both good and bad for anthologies.

Reprints for Creating Nonfiction were easy, because from the beginning, Erin and I made it clear that we would accept only pieces to which the author had the copyright. Since there was no theme, writers would submit just about any good piece. Reprints for Kept Secret were difficult, because Tina and I were after specific essays on a theme; often, they were essays or chapters long in print by major publishers. We encountered pricey permissions fees and unrealistic format requests (for example, one permissions agreement allowed for reprint in print, but not in the e-book version). We had to make the tough decision to drop those contributors. We also encountered months-long Byzantine permissions processes where our requests got passed from one mid-level assistant to another to another. A few times, we had to beg the authors to beg their agents to make a direct call to whoever had the final say on permissions as we came down to hours before a deadline. It was stressful. I’m grateful for my co-editors in both these projects – the ability to “tag-team” a difficult situation was essential, as was the second set of eyes and cooperative problem-solving. I think doing an anthology alone would sort of break my soul and crush all my hopes for humanity.

Patrick Madden: Essentially all the essays in After Montaigne are new, written on assignment specifically for the anthology. The only exceptions are a pair of pieces that the writers had written recently and which suited our purposes ideally. In our case, we were very lucky that all our contributors were enthusiastic about the project and happy to be a part of it. Everybody was on time and amenable to the few edits we suggested. Also, we had no hassles with permissions for copyright.

As for co-editing, I suppose that others’ experiences would be different from ours, but since David and I have a long and abiding friendship, we had a lovely time working together. The work was divided very evenly, though not by assigning certain tasks discreetly to one or the other of us. Instead, we each did all the categories of work, about fifty percent of the time. When we had to make decisions, we discussed them diplomatically, with nary a shred of dispute or contention. From start to finish, the anthology was a shared labor of love.

Marcia Aldrich: The idea for Waveform grew out of conversations with Jill Talbot. Everywhere we looked articles were popping up celebrating the “Golden Age for Women Essayists” and we believed the time was right to put forward an anthology featuring contemporary women essayists. We wanted to invite new, never-before-published essays in the main. Unfortunately, because of time demands Jill had to drop out of the project and I went forward on my own. Now I better understand why so many anthologies are co-edited. There’s a lot of work that goes into bringing an anthology to publication and it helps to have someone to share the load, whose strengths and resources might be different but complimentary. It is useful to talk matters out with someone else while coming to decisions. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t published such a book realizes the kind of housekeeping that goes on behind the scenes—the endless emails, getting permissions, the signing of contracts, proofing of pages, publicity. It can be daunting to undertake by yourself. In the end Waveform includes new material and reprints, half and half, which struck me as a good balance for many of the reasons my fellow-editors mention.

What have you learned about publishing and marketing collections? Did your original conception undergo any changes in the process of seeing it into print?

David Lazar: I think I’ve learned to be, in the most gentlemanly way possible, stubborn. Or shall we say, insistent. At a certain point, I know what I want to do when I commit to a project, since I only commit to a very few, and I’ve thought about it for a long time before I do. And then I want to see it through. Editing and writing are sister arts, and one wants to, in editing, as in writing, stay with the vision you had of what you wanted to do. That isn’t to say one should be immune to a proper course correction if it comes along, or suggestions. Editing is the essence of a collaborative avocation. In the Montaigne book, we added epilogues and epigraphs as necessary components to each essay after we got started, and our style sheet for how the book was going to look evolved. That kind of thing.

Jen Hirt: For Creating Nonfiction, Erin and I originally planned to have the contributors interview each other. But as we strategized how to do the initial sample for SUNY (before getting the contingent contract), we realized that the coordination needed for that idea would be extreme. So, we decided to do most of the interviews ourselves. Another marketing issue was the title. There are other books with the “Creating Nonfiction” title (or a title close to that), and we had to think carefully about the pros and cons of that.

For Kept Secret, Tina and I are attempting to establish a pre-publishing base of secret-minded fans and scholars through a Facebook page. We’re posting news, articles, and insights about secrets; some posts have more of a creative bent, while others are just fascinating or relevant to the day. For example, when Dylan won the Noble Prize in literature, we posted the video for “Like a Rolling Stone” and the lyric “You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal.” As the book nears publication, we’re going to post teasers for the essays and interviews. After publication, we’re hoping that readers will post other essays about secrets, lies, and half-truths so that the site becomes a repository and teaching resource.

Patrick Madden: Initially we had an agent who tried to publish the anthology with a big New York publishing house. Though we got many kindly worded rejections (noting the editor’s personal enthusiasm for the project), none of the publishers we tried thought they could sell the book. So perhaps, despite my optimism about the bright future of creative nonfiction and essay collections specifically, mainstream publishing is still not ready for the kind of work we Essay Daily readers love. But that’s why university and independent presses are so vital. The University of Georgia Press seemed to love our concept from the beginning, and they’ve given great support to the book while leaving the editorial vision to us. Their next step is to bring out After Montaigne in paperback, in time for AWP 2017, and market it for course adoption, which is where we hope the book will remain a staple for a long time.

Marcia Aldrich: Like Patrick and David, I initially queried some agents and editors who worked in commercial publishing. When I began the project, I thought it might be commercially viable because of the roster of writers and the recent attention to the rise of women essayists. It struck me as a timely project. The responses I received, while phrased slightly differently, all were concerned about marketability. The lack of a thematic hook made the book not “readily marketable.” It didn’t have a “take” on being a woman other than being essays by women essayists. Treating the women writers as writers and focusing on the diversity of narrative approaches was viewed as a hindrance to selling rather than a strength. The vision I had for Waveform as a book that treated women writers primarily as writers working with artistry in the essay form was what motivated me. To compromise that vision wasn’t an option. Editing the book was always a labor of love with intangible rewards. I am grateful for The University of Georgia Press. They have understood, supported, and been genuinely excited about my approach. So, the answer is that Waveform reflects my original conception.

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Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-CenturyEssays by Women, published by University of Georgia Press.

Jen Hirt is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. She has co-edited two anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (with Erin Murphy) and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction (with Tina Mitchell, forthcoming 2017). She was a contributor to the award-winning anthology From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines. Her essays have won a Pushcart Prize and have received three "Notable Essay" mentions in Best American Essays. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg, where she is also the English program coordinator.

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. Next February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Forthcoming from Nebraska are I'll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms and Characters. Seven of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. He created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, and series co-editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.

Patrick Madden is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates www.quotidiana.org and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. A Fulbright and Howard Foundation fellow, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.