Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Carson Vaughan: On Balance

I can still see his words scribbled in red ink across the margins, the chicken-scratch hieroglyphics of my favorite professor. Stop editorializing, he wrote. We’d spent the past six months researching and reporting on the traditional roles of women in Native American culture, and now, for the first time, our professor—a Pulitzer finalist in journalism—was delivering his verdict on our work. As he talked, I quickly scanned the room, pleased to see my draft wasn’t the only one bleeding, but still unable to quell the waves of dry heat pounding my temples and washing down my neck. In journalism school, that word—editorializing—coupled nicely with words like murder and treason.

I knew my professor was right. I worked hard to expunge any shred of editorial voice from later drafts, and the result was a story much more fitting for our objective: not to rebuke the evils perpetrated against Native peoples or to publicize my own beliefs, but to objectively report on the issues facing contemporary Native women. I graduated college believing in the power of a good story objectively told, a story crafted around its subjects, not its writer. I still do.

But at the same time, I craved the voices I read in my favorite novels, the manic energy of the evangelist on campus, a diversity of language and especially of structure that I hadn’t found even in my favorite feature articles. So I applied to MFA programs in creative nonfiction, and later, after enrolling at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, joined the staff of Ecotone, our award-winning literary magazine.

As nonfiction editor, I search for work that adroitly balances objective reporting and subjective discovery, essays and stories that show an equal respect for the internal and the external. I look for writers who aren’t afraid to probe the world around them while simultaneously mining the world within; who are eager to physically hunt for the story, but also know when to bring it home, to employ their own reasoning and their own bias and their own interiority to connect on a more human level.

In describing their purpose, most literary journals tend to eschew language that might be perceived as exclusionary; ultimately, most of us are looking to publish the best work, regardless of form or genre. Ecotone is no different. Our primary goal is to publish quality work, the type of work that makes us—as readers and writers—reevaluate the way we interpret and interact with our surroundings.

But Ecotone is distinct in that David Gessner, author most recently of The Tarball Chronicles and My Green Manifesto, founded the magazine with a focus on place and our relationship to it. Indeed, Ecotone’s motto is “Reimagining Place,” and inherent to that idea – and the definition of “ecotone” as “a transition zone between two communities” – is an emphasis on the world beyond the self. That emphasis has carried through the magazine’s eight years of publication and through two changes in editorship. As Ander Monson wrote in his Ecotone essay, “Facing The Monolith,” “I sees world through eye. And what we see and say about the world says a lot about ourselves.”

I often find that writers who submit to Ecotone forget this. In my two years as nonfiction editor, I’ve read hundreds of stories and essays that fall squarely on one side of this embrace. Because the magazine’s title implies an environmental theme, the majority of the submissions we receive deal in some way with the natural world, but too many forget that describing nature alone is not enough; topic does not negate the need for a deeper theme. A story about the Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) must connect to something greater than the Chinese elm. Similarly, those who write of the internal landscape often forget to look up, to find the universal theme in their personal story.

One essay that exemplifies this balance is Jill Sisson Quinn’s most recent Ecotone story, “The Myth of Home,” from issue 15 of the magazine. Here, Sisson Quinn uses Lake Michigan as a bridge to dismantle our ecological bias, and in turn what it means to be at home in any one setting. In describing her surroundings—the ring-billed gulls, the hint of salt and decay in the air, the “sun-bleached cladophora, algae woven by waves into one giant page,” and of course the sheer size of the lake and the fact that one cannot scan it shore to shore—she soon recognizes her inability to meet the lake on its own terms:

I wish to be indigenous to every place I visit, to see it as earth entire. How nice it would be to shed the compulsion to compare one landscape to another, to analyze, evaluate. To simply hear what the land says. To no longer have to choose, or love or hate, to let down my guard and feel the power of the sea in this Great Lake.

Sisson Quinn’s focus on the external organically ushers in a focus on the internal, and in the process she avoids both navel-gazing and the didacticism of pure fact.

Paul Crenshaw’s essay, “Girl On The Third Floor,” from Ecotone’s Abnormal issue (14), strikes a much different note, but like “The Myth of Home,” it balances the I with the eye (to appropriate Monson’s words) and also with the imagination. As a child, Crenshaw lived with his family in a rented house on the grounds of a tuberculosis sanatorium. Returning to the facility twenty years later, Crenshaw grows fascinated with the story of a young girl said to haunt the upper floors of the hospital. In vivid prose, the author blends the history of the sanatorium with his return to the estate. Using the details he’s uncovered, he imagines the solitary life of the young girl:

It would have started with a cough, a dry rattle that shook her shoulders and made her parents exchange worried looks, until the day she began to cough blood. They lived on a dusty road in the middle of soy fields in the middle of the state in the middle of the country and one day a long black car pulled up in front of the house amid a cloud of dust that settled on the long rows of crops. A nurse got out.

Crenshaw delivers a fascinating meditation on history and childhood, “the notion that we are all trapped by … random forces beyond our control, forever looking back with the sad silly sense that if we could just understand the tragic world we survived as children we could somehow be better adults.”

To me, these two essays represent the range of Ecotone nonfiction, and the quality of work the magazine aims to publish. When I turn on the lamp in my study and dive into a stack of fresh submissions, I still hear the voice of that professor, still feel his words staring back at me. I ask myself if the author has let the subject breathe, if he or she has written the piece with an editorial hand, and if so, whether the story justifies it. I ask myself if the author’s presence informs and complements the subject, and I ask myself if that subject reaches beyond itself.

When the answer is yes, I read it again.


Carson Vaughan is a third-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he teaches and serves as nonfiction editor of Ecotone. His work appears or is forthcoming in SalonVarietyThe Hollywood ReporterOrionTruthout, Bluestem, and other publications.

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