Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Wading, Or the Importance of the Story in the Situation

While going through Prairie Schooner’s nonfiction slush—what editors call, perhaps unfairly, the lake of submissions they wade through to find the pieces that float—I encounter the essay daily, see writers grappling with the most extreme circumstances on the page or meditating on the most mundane. Some essays have the power of voice, the power to speak to a reader beyond the page, to compel and propel a reader to and through an essay. An essay begins: “I was nineteen the spring I broke my back and lay flat on the carpet next to my parents’ age-swollen grand piano. The ceiling hung low and the sky above it lower, and even my clothes draped heavy over me in those days.” When I encountered O’Connell’s Only X-rays Are Black and White, it was the lyricism and wisdom of her voice—the way she spoke about her experience as a dancer and the moment when her body broke and gave way, and her reflection on human pain and the body’s unreliability—that distinguished her piece from the thousands of submissions I’d read since beginning work as the genre’s Assistant Editor a few years prior.

Some essays have powerhouse images—the thin edge of a grasshopper’s leg, the dance of a heart monitor—that deliver a swift kick to the heart or throat, a roundhouse to the amygdala so soon the reader is swooning, moving through his or her own memories in response to the words. “In the pineapple is the fiber we’ve been looking for, the sweet yellow threadiness we’d never confuse for stitches, for wound,” Matthew Gavin Frank explains in The Beginning of the End of Hummingbird Cake, a lyric collage built on image and sound, readers understanding exactly what he means though they’ve never heard it described this way before.
Some essays have a rhythm that creates for readers, right there on the page, the feel of a Georgia rainstorm or the sound of railroad tracks as the author rattles across the country after the dissolution of a marriage. Some essays incorporate research and fact to illuminate the author’s experiences and insights. Some essays use form in interesting ways—white space indicates silence after the death of a child, fragmented syntax mirrors the disorientation of moving to a new country without a common language. Steven Church’s Fight, Bull intersperses quotes from Bernie Goetz with Church’s resistant meditation on violence and the culture that values it, and soon Goetz’s interruptions and a story from Church’s past bring the writer surprisingly close to rage.

The essays that sing out from the slush, those that make me pause over the page, read and reread, are those whose ideas linger long throughout the day and well into the evening, those that sit like sugar at the edge of my brain, where they glisten and crust over, crystals saved for later. In The Situation and the Story Vivian Gornick describes the best nonfiction by saying, “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it's that wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.”
The last time I spent a Sunday afternoon with the words of our submitters, I encountered essays about a childhood in Brooklyn, about a trip to India, about taking care of an ill husband, about baking bread, and about drinking tea. While some of the situations were extreme or amazing, often the stories were not. Sometimes situations that seemed mundane shared a powerful story and wisdom. Some essays with extreme forms said nothing, while some essays that were seemingly simplistic spoke volumes. Sometimes the inverse was true.

The essays that worked best were those that delivered a nugget on the human experience, that moved beyond the what to explore the how and the why on much larger levels. They were those that dwelled in complexity. They were those pieces that did not rely on the extremes of circumstance or emotion, those that resisted the easy narrative, the simple resolution. Often, essays that were memorable were those that swam in the gray area between being and feeling, remembering and knowing.

As Gornick explains, “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In his forthcoming essay, Place de Clichy, Jacob Newberry’s time abroad in Paris is not entirely original—many readers and writers share this experience—but his insight and haunting spirit are what permeate the page. When he writes, “Paris, for those of us from the South, is a cathedral in the sky, an unapproachable crossroads of the wars we’re taught about and the monuments to their honor that we’re certain we’ll never get to see,” he transcends experience and moves into the realm of wisdom.

While humans share many of the same situations—we receive many submissions about dying grandparents or the loss of a lover, finding solace in addictive behavior or the same meandering rivers—we each have different stories, different insights we find in these shared experiences, and here lies the heart of the genre. This is also where the many subgenres derive from—travel and food writing, the memoir and the more distant historical account, literary and immersion journalism, the linear biography and the delightful disorientation of the lyric essay—for while our same experiences can be told in the same ways, our wisdoms cannot.

Thus it is no great surprise the genre takes many forms. Memoir may be Mary Karr’s tender grit or the playfully-meta Dave Eggers. Essayists might explore place quietly like Annie Dillard or dive headfirst into a foreign experience like Ted Conover. Nonfiction claims the formidable elegance of Joan Didion, but also David Shields’s surprising use of collage. The ability of our situations to assume so many stories, to be told in so many forms is what attracts readers to the genre. And this mutability, this ability to morph and seemingly distort our common situations—like writers John D’Agata and Lauren Slater—is also what angers people about the genre.

The larger point is this: the genre should take many forms. Our stories impact the way we tell our situations. Form is determined by function; sensibility renders style. Each time I sit down to read through the work authors have sent to us with care, entrusted to us to read and respect, I am looking for those pieces that speak to the inquiring core in each of us, the essays that find the story in the situation and tell it in the unique way only the writer who has lived and felt and meditated can explain. While our responsibility as editors is to find and publish great work—no matter the subject or form, great work always shines—nonfiction editors also have a responsibility to showcase the diversity of the genre. Nonfiction is, after all, a way of putting consciousness onto the page and so the nonfiction contained in a journal’s pages should fully represent the vast scope of human consciousness.

The next time I sit to read the situations and stories writers have sent in the hopes of publication, I will no doubt find many that are the same—once I came across three essays about a father’s hands and four about foreclosure, all within the space of an hour—but because it is craft that captures the reader’s careful ear or their secret wanderlust or their melancholy heart, only a few will rise to the top of the slush, float along the surface of so many others and dance upon the page.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Assistant Editor-Nonfiction for several years. She is the author of the chapbook, The Astronaut Checks His Watch, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3 and others.

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