“Essays have endings, but I wish they
didn’t, or I wish they didn’t have to have them. Because if an essay is an
attempt to understand an experience or idea, if it is a recording of the
activity of a mind as it thinks over an experience or idea, can that actually
end? Could it ever really be finished?”
Maybe this is why Ryan Van Meter endings
are never really endings. They are
suspensions: moments in motion or within
the grip of someone about to let go.
now, the only thing I can watch are my dad’s hands wrapped around my ankle
because I can’t believe so much sting is already fading under just the heat of
his squeeze.” –“Practice”
I say, hurrying to the bedroom as the hem of the dress whispers against the
carpet.” – “Discovery”
your shoulder his hand feels a little like the warmth of comfort, a little like
the squeeze of danger.” –“If You Knew Then What I Know Now”
stare at the ceiling of my car, wait for him to go somewhere—anywhere—and trust
again that a held breath is enough to keep me safe.”—“Tightrope”
all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road—the parents see what
is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we’ve just left
But it’s not the
endings that give Van Meter's essays urgency, it’s their beginnings.
I’m standing at the board, nervously
watching the four students who have their backs to me. This is my undergraduate nonfiction workshop,
where we’re in the middle of playing a version of The Voice (in the
reality show, contestants sing to the backs of judges’ chairs and judges swivel
around to face the stage only when they hear a voice intriguing enough). Earlier, I divided students into small
groups and asked them to read each other’s drafts and choose the one from their
group that drew them into the essay the quickest, the one that established a
sense of urgency or invitation in its earliest sentences. (This exercise works best with the flash
essay, by the way.) When we came back together, one person from each group (not
the representative essayist) volunteered to be a judge. It was at this point I explained we were
going to play an essayistic-version of The
Voice. One student agreed to be the
timer (smartphones abounded), and now each essayist is taking turns reading to
the backs of heads.
of The Voice is accompanied by the
discussion of a reading assignment, and it’s a Ryan Van Meter essay, because
Van Meter has a voice that makes readers turn around. The essay is “First.”
“I like reading work that tips me
into a world already in motion and enjoy creating that effect in my own work.
But in essays, I think that as important as it is for the action to start in
the middle of something already unfolding, it's just as important for the
thinking of the essay to also be in
medias res.”—Ryan Van Meter, Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction
In Medias Res
In the fall of 2011, my Introduction
to Creative Nonfiction class at St. Lawrence University interviewed Van Meter
after reading his debut collection, If You Knew Then What I
Know Now. He
described the discovery of that “first sentence that exemplifies the voice and
introduces the ‘problem’ of the essay.”
For Van Meter, that first sentence, more often than not, tips us into a
world already in motion:
and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon.”
brother Garrett owns three cell phones, and he’s talking on two of them as he
speeds down a rural highway in the middle of winter.” ––“The Men From
sleeping against the van window when they all start gasping at the sight of the
Rockies and wake me up.” —“Youth Group”
have to hear that one again.” —“Cherry Bars”
is his deal: if I play baseball one more
season, my dad will buy me a color TV for my bedroom.” —“Practice”
your sixth grade social studies class, fourth hour, when Mrs. Perry assigns the
group project on European world capitals, don't look at Mark. Don't look at
Jared.” —“If You Knew Then What I Know Now”
discussions of any writer’s essay, I ask students to flip to the first sentence
so that we can discuss how the entirety of the essay is encapsulated in its
opening line. Van Meter never lets us down.
I discovered Ryan Van Meter’s writing
when I read “First” in The
Best American Essays 2009.
That moment was for me a meteor shower,
and I knew I’d never forget it. I’d tell anyone who would listen, years later,
what I had seen, the way all of my longings came back from the light-years and
fell in streaks across the sky of my memory.
When I finished
reading, I wrote at the bottom of the page:
“What else are we asked to let go of?”
Every time I teach “First,” I ask students to answer that question.
When discussing essays, I have
students use the writer’s first name when referring to the persona (Eula,
Bernard, Jo Ann, Ryan) and the last name when referring to the writing (Biss,
Cooper, Beard, Van Meter). For
example: Ryan struggles through daily
baseball drills with his dad in the backyard.
Ryan overhears his brother’s beautiful language from across the
room. Ryan stands in a doorway with a
box of Hostess cupcakes. And Ryan shares
an apartment and a goldfish with a roommate.
But it’s Van Meter who turns that goldfish into a metaphor.
To return to his endings, most of
his final lines are metaphors as he lands on an object mentioned earlier in the
essay in order to infuse it with significance (a technique reminiscent of
In “Specimen,” Ryan’s mother stays
up nights playing his Game Boy. Van Meter mentions it twice in the essay, but
in the final line, it earns its power and extends to the game of hiding that
Ryan has learned to play so well: “On
the screen in front of her, I imagined the bricks falling faster and faster,
and how at some point, she wouldn’t be able to keep up. Which was the tough secret of that kind of
game—the better you got at it, the harder it was.”
Yet “First” has a larger, more
present, controlling metaphor. In class,
I drag two chairs to the middle of the circle and set them side by side. Then I pull two more chairs and set those up
behind them. Finally, I grab two more chairs and place them behind the first
two rows. Then (grand gesture here) I turn those chairs to face the opposite
the front seat, the back seat, and the “very back” of the station wagon are in
place, I ask for two men to sit in the front, two women to sit in the next row,
and two students of the same sex to sit in the back row. [Ben’s
dad is driving, and my dad sits next to him, with our mothers in the backseat;
I have recently observed that when mothers and fathers are in the car together,
the dad always drives.] We
discuss the prescriptive seating chart and how it’s a metaphor for gendered
expectations and social constructions of placement. The students stare for a few moments at our
makeshift car and its passengers. (I
always appreciate how, in one way or another, we diversify Van Meter’s car ride
with an interracial couple or a pair of girls instead of boys).
metaphorical line in that essay trumps even the car, and it comes after Ryan
tells Ben that he loves him: “We are idling, waiting for a red light to be
green.” I always pretend I can’t find
the line—mention it’s something about a red light—so that students will find it
and read it again. When they do, they realize the metaphor—that these young
boys (not to mention many same-sex couples in certain states around this
country) are idling, waiting for a red light to turn green.
essays from If You Knew Then build
from metaphors—a bridge, a tightrope, alien abduction, the hem of a dress, a
houseboat—to express Ryan’s shifting identity, his aching vulnerability, and
his burgeoning sexuality.
After a few rounds of The Voice, I’ve noticed that one of the
four judges turns around only when another does. Another sits on his feet. Still, another is the holdout, turning around
much later than the other judges, or not at all. This, I think, is what it’s like to put your
writing out there.
I recently taught a graduate seminar
at Columbia College Chicago—Form and Theory: Segmentation—in which we
immersed ourselves in collage, play, white space, fragmentation, sections, and
gaps, not to mention invented as well as found forms. We read essays
invested in pushing the limits of genre, of blurring the boundaries of
nonfiction, and students wrote essays that bent the form until it shook with
the weight of their daring (much like the merry-go-round on the schoolyard
playground when it reaches warp speed). Along the way, we discussed the
David Foster Wallace footnote, the Ander Monson outline, Jenny Boully’s
exclusions, the abecedaries of Dinty W. Moore and Marcia Aldrich, Maggie
Nelson’s enumerated ruminations and research, and David Shields’s fragments.
And then, we came to the final reading of the semester, Ryan Van Meter’s
“Monster.” How, one student asked, is this segmented?
All essays are segmented (even if just in paragraphs, and
even if it’s a one-paragraph flash, which is a segment of a fleeting moment),
and we all use varying degrees of segmentation—from subtle to
surfeit. After a semester spent exploring the ways in which segmentation allows us to
omit, to trust the white space, to demand that readers fill in the gaps, we
closed with a chronological narrative that uses transitions (“a few
years later,” “the next,” “the following”). But, I argued, it’s still
segmented. In an essay era of fragmentation and
metawriting and sectioned-essays and genre-defiance and lists, Van Meter writes
straightforward narrative nonfiction, and it’s not any less artful or
engaging. Sometimes the best way
to tell a story is to tell it, not play with it (says the writer obsessed with
On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 10:30 AM, Jill Talbot <e-mail.he
By the way, just finished
teaching IYKTWIKN to my Introduction
to Readings in Nonfiction class at Columbia. We also watched you read
"Hanging Out at the Airport" on Vimeo and discussed how it's
VanMeteresque. "Goldfish History" and "Tightrope" were the
On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 12:34 PM,
Ryan Van Meter <e-mail@add>wrote:
I had no idea I had an adjectival form.
essayists, we look back. Consider the ways in which we integrate
introductory phrases such as “A few years ago,” “Back then,” “When
I was five,” “That spring.” Now consider how Ryan Van Meter
catapults readers, and his persona, forward, though it’s not a “Then” versus “Now”
self so endemic to the essay as writers juxtapose a present-tense self against
a remembered one. No, Van Meter’s proleptical moments create a
“Then” versus “Later" relationship, offering a point of view removed not
just from a moment but also from its clarification, as if he’s telling
us: I didn’t know it then. I knew it later, and yet I’m writing from
an even later moment so that I can understand the unknowing with what came to
the first brown-eyed boy I will fall for but will not be the last.” —“First”
is February, so cold that in two days, on the morning we all huddle at the gravesite,
a record will be set for low temperatures.” —“The Men From Town”
they had each other, and I had to make my own companions from newspaper and old
clothes, would not occur to me until later.” — “Monster”
via E-mail While Writing This Essay
On Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 3:40 PM, Jill Talbot <e-mail.he
know you do this? And if you do, where do you think the impulse comes
from? Or what do you see it adding to the essay? (Any response to this
proleptical move you often make—I just want to bring in the idea of
authorial intent here.) Thanks once again, Ryan.
On Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 5:14 PM,
Ryan Van Meter <e-mail@add>wrote:
think it's really important to choose a particular moment from which to tell
the essay, in whatever tense the essay happens to be written in, and stick to
that moment without allowing yourself to borrow from what you learned later on.
I like that an essay can be about figuring something out and can create for the
reader the experience of figuring that something out while also still
preserving the gaps in knowledge that inspired writing the essay in the first
Recently here at
Essay Daily, Marya Hornbacher considered, “Essaying . . . might be the
gathering of parts & trying to find an order, according to one or another
organizing principle: whether a principle one thinks may inhere in the pieces,
a mathematics one cannot see but senses might be there; or a principle one
decides upon and imposes whether it’s the right one or not.”
here is not to reduce the complex equation of Van Meter’s narrative
nonfiction to a set of known variables, but rather to showcase a writer who
allows himself to wander until he “[has] the structure and the direction and
the details [to discover] the insight that will surprise.” Even with all of his
essays’ VanMeteresqueness, each one surprises. As he puts it: “If there’s
nothing in your essay that surprises you, how could it ever surprise the
a sheet of notebook paper and place it horizontally in front of you (this
reminds me of the book covers we were issued in elementary school). If the edges of the paper are the beginnings
and endings of essays and those two ends echo each other via an object or an
idea, it’s called bracketing (Or framing. Or orienting. Brenda Miller has referred to it as "rhyme.")
Meter achieves this technique in his essay, “Cherry Bars.” As he explains: “The final sentence . . .
contains the same gesture (turning off music) as the first sentence.” But this first-to-final framing is not the
kind Van Meter typically uses in his work.
take that paper and fold one edge of it in about an inch or two. Then take the other end and do the same. And here you have a model of Van Meter’s
approach to bracketing—what I call inverted bracketing. I’ll turn to “The Men From Town” and “Monster” as examples.
“The Men From Town,” Van Meter folds in one edge of the paper to end the first
paragraph: “Reaching across the cab, I
tuck the peeking tag of his sweatshirt back under his collar.” Yet he leaves the other end unfolded. Here’s the essay’s final line: “He grinned
and stared at himself in the mirror while I stood behind one of his big
shoulders, only the top of my head visible, and fixed his collar.” This demi-fold offers an effective
alternative to the first-to-final-sentence bracketing.
in “Monster,” Van Meter folds both ends.
In the middle of the second paragraph, he refers to a stash of plastic
game pieces he stole from board games and how he rarely played those games with
classmates but rather stayed at his desk drawing with big markers. A few paragraphs before the essay’s end, Van
Meter picks up those pieces: “One
Saturday afternoon when I was around nine years old, the same year I was
stockpiling those game pieces in my school desk like candy to be savored later,
I came in from outside and went straight to my bedroom.” The pieces echo, and so does the idea of a
young boy set apart.
This past semester in my
Introduction to Readings in Nonfiction midterm, I asked the question
below. What follows is a part of a student’s
4. One of the emphases of this class is diversity. Address the ways in which the readings
promote diversity via race, culture, region, sexuality, gender, or form.
I am an African
American male who has lived in Chicago his whole life. As a result, Van Meter’s
work is a perfect way for me to learn about a white male who is living in
America and coping with his sexuality. In Van Meter’s piece I also learned how
the word “faggot" for a homosexual male can have the same fire as the word
“nigger” for an African American. Van Meter writes, “There’s a difference
between how a word is defined and what it really means” (145). For me, it helps
blur the line so that I can see how others are oppressed because of their
sexuality like others are by race.
Technically, it’s the VanMeteresque
elements that give Ryan Van Meter’s essays their shape, but it’s something more
powerful that makes us turn around, a voice that invites us to look at who we
were then and who we would, years later, become.
On the makeshift
stage in my classroom, the essayist with the best time is announced to applause,
and we begin to discuss what drew us into her essay so quickly. I remind them
that as writers, we only have a sentence or two to get a reader to “turn
around.” And then I hear it, the
shuffling of pages as students pick up their drafts and lean in to look more
closely at their beginnings.
Jill Talbot is the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Brevity, DIAGRAM, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus. She is the 2013-2015 Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.