Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Kristen Grayewski: The Essay, The Journal, The Why

Or: A blog post in which I link to Wayne’s World, quote C&C Music Factory, and shamelessly solicit you 

Firstly, let’s address our name. The Journal is a literary journal run by MFA students at The Ohio State University. Our search-engine challenged name pokes fun at the definite article in our university’s name, which some like to emphasize in either pride or arrogance, depending on your opinion of Buckeyes. (See also: The Best Damn Band In The Land.)

The Journal is also a publication—published four times a year, twice in print and twice online—that normally receives five times the amount of fiction or poetry submissions as it does works of nonfiction. Our publication is not alone in these proportions, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating.

As Nonfiction Editor, writing this post today, I therefore have a motive I’d like to make plain: I’d love for readers of Essay Daily (i.e. writers who are so concerned about improving their craft and pushing boundaries and discussing what exactly The Essay can be that they check-in here regularly to add to the dialog) to finish reading this post and consider submitting to The Journal. Now that I’ve stated the obvious, some things that are less so: the personal cartography of taste, or, why we choose to publish the pieces we do.

My favorite part of an essay is almost always a transition I didn’t see coming. A zoom out or zoom in or jump to a link that might seem initially unrelated until the author makes clear this is how my brain works, see? and the reader wants to follow because she lives in a world where so much is planned ahead, pre-prepared, vacuum sealed for later, that when a writer can take a story, any story—about, say, going to the grocery store or driving to see her mom—and unveil a much larger purpose, an “I didn’t know we were going THERE” moment, we can only cheer.

In my own writing about the things that fascinate me—the Pennsylvania Turnpike or coal mining or the New Kids on the Block—of course I’m never just writing about those things. Sometimes when we start, we don’t know what our obsessions, the things we’re led to turn over on the page, the images we return to again and again like choruses we can’t shake, are really about, but the readers expect that in the course of the essay we’ll do the work to try to find out why we're fascinated.

That’s not to say that the essay should be tidy: it is home to fear and worry, after all. To so many illogical impulses, most that we can’t explain or control. It need not feign an absolute answer to “why?”, but spend sufficient time chewing its questions and end closer to answers than when it started.

I’d like to cite two pieces we published in our Autumn 2013 online issue, 37.4, as examples of this one-two aboutness—which, sure, we can also call Telling it Slant, or Situation and Story, choose your preferred CNF lingo—that caught me by surprise in ways so wonderful we couldn’t not publish them.

Meg Thompson’s “Iceland’s Bride” begins on a bumpy plane ride home from Iceland with her new fiancé. In the first few lines, there is but a glimmer of what’s to come: “I am afraid of flying, in part, because I don’t understand it.” The essay then begins a pattern of gentle back-and-forth between Iceland and other “places defined by division” (South Korea, Berlin) where she and her fiancé traveled, and her problems enacting what’s expected of a bride-to-be and, hey, how can we ever really know each other fully but isn’t it worth it to try?.

Craig Reinbold’s “Fill the Bathtub” (disclosure: Craig helps manage the Essay Daily and is the one who asked me if I'd like to write this blog post, but he had no idea I was going to choose to write about how much I enjoyed this particular essay of his) begins, “The six of us—myself, my wife, our little Black Lab, a poet friend, and two friendly gearheads—are off to a late start as the packing of effects and food and water drags on and then it’s a puzzle of how to fit our backpacks into the hatchback.” A story follows of an afternoon rock climbing, details of his fear of climbing until he falls, and then there’s a conversation he had that morning with a friend about not having time to read poetry anymore because he’s been reading a lot of nonfiction—there’s the transition—and, hey, that nonfiction, that cultural criticism and doomsday environmental literature on what-the-hell-is-happening-to-us is actually weighing on him in ways that feel very heavy indeed. Pull up a chair, he’ll tell you why.

An essay about rock climbing becomes an essay on how we keep living in the face of THE inevitable fall.
An essay about Iceland is also about THE unknowability of those we love.
In short, we seek depth, but depth revealed through the concretes of experience, places, and, to quoth C&C Music Factory, the things that make us go “hmm,” the stuff that we dream of as we grind our teeth at night that only signal the much larger abstractions we are fretting.


Kristen Grayewski is a third year in the MFA program in creative writing at The Ohio State University and Nonfiction Editor at The Journal. She has written about pop and punk for various publications, and is currently working on her thesis, heaven help her. 

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