Monday, January 6, 2014

Jill Talbot on The VanMeteresque

The End
“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?” 
–Ryan Van Meter, Essay Daily

     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.  

“Right 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”

“Okay, I say, hurrying to the bedroom as the hem of the dress whispers against the carpet.” – “Discovery”

“On 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”

“I 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”

“We 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 behind.”—“First”

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.
Today’s playing 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:
“Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon.” —“First”
“My 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 Town”
“I’m sleeping against the van window when they all start gasping at the sight of the Rockies and wake me up.” —“Youth Group”

“We have to hear that one again.” —“Cherry Bars”

“This is his deal:  if I play baseball one more season, my dad will buy me a color TV for my bedroom.” —“Practice”

“In 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”

During class 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 Bernard Cooper). 
            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 direction. 
            Once 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). 
One 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. 
Other 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.

Segmented versus Straightforward

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 form play.)

An E-mail

On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 10:30 AM, Jill Talbot <e-mail.he > wrote:
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 class favorites. 
On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 12:34 PM, Ryan Van Meter <e-mail@add>wrote:

VanMeteresque! I had no idea I had an adjectival form.


As 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 be known.    
“Ben is the first brown-eyed boy I will fall for but will not be the last.” —“First”
“This 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”

“That 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”

“Later, most of us will decide to be other things, but tonight is many years before we turn into ourselves.” — “Hanging Out at the Airport”

A Mini-Interview via E-mail While Writing This Essay

On Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 3:40 PM, Jill Talbot <e-mail.he > wrote:
Question:  Do you 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:

I 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 place.


Recently here at Essay DailyMarya 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.”

My intention 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 reader?”

Inverted Bracketing
Take 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.")
Van 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. 
So 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.
In “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. 
However, 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 answer: 

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, DIAGRAMThe 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.



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