Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Craig Reinbold in conversation with Lucas Mann's "On Writing Young"

I’ve been thinking about Lucas Mann’s post On Writing Young a lot since it popped up here at the Essay Daily, mostly from a half-heartedly (I’m still being defensive, apparently) defensive posture. Like Lucas, “I freely admit that I’m oversensitive to the issue.” We’re all a little oversensitive. Him, because he’s young. Me, because I am not quite as young as he is. You see, I am 32, outside the range of potential essayistic greatness suggested here; the ship has sailed. I am not on it. Of course that’s not really what Lucas says in this post. Even if that is what he’s actually saying that’s not what he’s actually saying. Right.  

As best I can tell, writing young = writing from a place of uncertainty, immaturity, from inside the process of maturing; with an abundance of sincerity; writing from inside experience rather than distanced from it; with so much exuberant inquisitiveness; writing totally afraid that you’ll never succeed yet somehow unafraid to fail—with that kind of fuck-the-world swagger; openness; generosity; heart; writing with humility; writing with hubris; embracing so many contradictions.

Lucas writes, “I do think that immaturity, or at least the process of maturing, is a potentially riveting, truly essayistic place to write from. After all, what is young adulthood but a hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations? The very same can be said about the essay form. When we embrace that tension, instead of fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done. We get writers not only analyzing what has ended, but also sorting out how to begin.” 

This does seem to be the place so many great essays come from. But what really does this have to do with one’s age? Certainly not everything.

“Young adulthood” as described here may as well be one’s teens or late 20s, early 30s, middle age, 45-64, retirement, the nursing home years… Seems like six one way, half a dozen the other. That sense of uncertainty described above, that tension between success and failure, the tension of impending endings and “sorting out how to begin”—we may as well call this life. Or at least it resembles my life. Possibly I’m behind the curve. More likely I am one of the multitudes smack in the middle of it, which is to say: This is probably the case for most of us.

When we embrace that tension, instead of fleeing from it… Maybe writing young has less to do with one’s age, and more to do with one’s ability to maintain that tensional essayistic tenor. Of course here I wonder if maybe the quantitatively young are somehow better at maintaining that tension, the tension that great essaying depends on. I suspect it has to do with one’s place in life, which is certainly related to, though obviously not dependent on how old one is. Writing young, I think, has less to do with years, and more to do with simply being free

It’s possible our pace slows a little as we round thirty. Maybe that hungry striving drive just isn’t as hungry. Maybe we don’t push our ideas as hard, or ourselves—because we know how much work shit takes and have failed enough to second-guess the effort. Maybe we start to think we might actually be as smart as our (thoroughly revised and revised) essays make us out to be, and maybe there’s a pressure to not seem so…naïve, i.e young. Maybe one’s reputation suddenly depends on credibility, on having figured shit out. Maybe it’s not as easy to immerse oneself in a project because suddenly all kinds of people (bosses, spouses, kids) are depending on you to keep the world turning, to pay the bills, entertain a client, get to the dentist, iron your work shirts, clean the bathroom, to be more available, and you can write essays, fine, but only after everything else. With no time to waste, there is no room for failure here. So write essays, fine, but be practical. Keep your head down. Play it safe. Play it safe, though safe is almost always boring.

—free to take risks. To open oneself completely. To fully commit to a project. To go all in. And maybe this does become more difficult as we get older. Or not so much as we get older, but as our roles in the world change, which usually comes with getting older. If nothing else, being young seems to lend itself to being, simply, productive.

Maybe this is why there are so many great young essayists. And only a handful of older ones, and the older ones are so often cushioned by academia, with ample salary and time and resources. Montaigne (still) may as well be the model for the modern essaysist. (See also this recent correspondence from Bonnie J. Rough.) What kind of fortune do we have to draw from while we work? What kind of tower shields us from worldly responsibilities? To whom are we beholden outside ourselves? Maybe this idea of writing young really does expire at some age. Not because we outgrow our youthfulness, per se, but because we grow into so many more pressing responsibilities. A more rigid hierarchy of priorities.

Say I have three ideas a day for projects/essays. Each is weighed against: time spent away from the job that pays the insane gas bill; time away from my wife; time away from my son. Is seeing a great idea to fruition worth, say, ten hours away from him, just now as he’s starting to pull himself up and walk around? It almost never is. It never is, unless I convince myself it might lead to something bigger (publication, award, fellowship, $$$ = more time to write), which it never does, not really. And writing with some lame goal in mind (publication, award, fellowship, $$$ = more time to write) will sap the life out of any project. You’ve got to go all in, write an essay for its own sake—or why bother?

I tend to be an all-in or all-out kind of guy. If I can’t invest everything, I don’t want to give anything. If I can’t give 100%, well, I’ll give my 100% to something else. If I can’t research and write and revise an essay a week, well, fuck, fuck essays. Seriously, I don’t want to half-ass this business. If I can’t go all in, then I’m done. Why bother writing at all? Fuck writing. I’ll do something else. I’ll take up welding.

Deep, deep, dramatic SIGH.

Why bother at all?

I am 32, with a wife and son, and I spend my days in a cubicle. I may never essay again. Not in any grand (read: meaningful) kind of way. Not the way I essayed when I was 29.

This is obviously an unhelpful line of thinking, but I can’t help myself. I seem to be experiencing a moment of despair. All I did was try to get down some thoughts about writing young. Tried to be sincere, inquisitive, honest, open. And somehow this is where we’ve landed. That’s the genre for you. Fucking essays.

I’m off to take a pout break. Get some coffee. See you in a minute.  

Okay, I’m back. (Another effect of age: I’ve had to stop with the caffeine, so I’m drinking decaf. It’s been 6 weeks. The first two days I took a righteous pounding, and I miss that intensity my sixth cup of the good stuff used to give me, and it’s more difficult to focus without it, but whatever, doctor’s orders. I take my decaf with a quarter-inch of Hazelnut-flavored creamer, one of my life’s newest pleasures, this coffee candy; it’s important to adapt.)

Truth is, this live free or die! mindset is itself a holdover from my youth, from those teenage years of pushing against anything that might push back. Truth is, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to recognize a more manageable way of doing things.

When I was seventeen I started doing pushups before school. Three sets of 25. Then some crunches. Gradually I added reps, added exercises. Two years later I was doing ten sets of 30 and 25 minutes of abs. Everyday. Every day I would push myself as hard as I could, and as I got stronger and fitter the problem I faced was that continuing to push myself so hard involved constantly upping reps, doing more, investing more time and energy. It finally got to be too much. I couldn’t keep it up. Had to stop. So I quit cold turkey, and this led to all kinds of problems. Bouncing from one extreme to another never works very well.  

Eventually I realized: life is long. It just keeps going, long after (like John Mellencamp says) you turn twenty, after twenty-five, after thirty. Ideally it keeps going for a really, really long time. And when it comes to doing pushups, unless you’re training for some event, you’re training for life. Workouts should be tailored accordingly. None of this burning out in two years. You’ve got to pace yourself for the long haul, for decades. The trick is not to do something uber-intensely every day, but rather, simply, to do something every day. Consistently. Sustainably. Three sets of 25 pushups isn’t a lot, but 75 everyday for the rest of my life—that shit adds up. This is a metaphor. This is wisdom, maybe. In any case, it has taken getting older to get me here.

My 28-year-old self wants to write 100 essays this year or none at all! But I am 32 now, and I know 100 isn’t in the cards. Three would be a dream. Even two might be too many. But writing one essay this year probably won’t kill me. Writing one essay a year—like, seventeen words a day, tossed out between work emails—is doable. Anyway, this is a good place to begin. Rather, this is a place to begin again, as we all begin again over and over. After all, what is this but one more “hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations”? And “when we embrace that tension, instead of fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done.”

Craig Reinbold's recent work appears in Brevity and The Rumpus. He helps curate the Essay Daily.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Caitlin Horrocks: Magnetism without Magnets

The RadioLab episode “23 Weeks 6 Days” tells the true story of a baby girl born too soon, at the very edge of viability. Her terrified parents spend months at her side, uncertain how to parent a child so fragile she can barely be touched, eyes still fused shut and with no apparent way of responding to the outside world. Her father begins reading the Harry Potter series aloud to her. He notices that her blood oxygen saturation levels rise sharply when he begins, only to plunge precipitously when he does a rough voice for Hagrid. He stops the scary voices, but clings to this sign of awareness: “She didn’t know what a chapter was, but she was, in her own way, very eagerly awaiting the next one. I don’t know a better way to describe wanting to be alive, than you want to find out what happens next.”
     I’ve been thinking a lot about this definition of life. That a hunger for narrative is wired deep in our lizard brain rings true for me, as a human but also as a writer. I began reading to answer that question, “what happens next,” and I began writing because I wanted to tell stories. Now I write and read and teach other forms too, and one of the great pleasures and mysteries of the essay for me has been examining what happens when story is discarded.
     Of course, nonfiction often incorporates story, is even built around it, as is the harrowing “23 Weeks 6 Days”—what keeps the listener listening is not questions about the nature of infant consciousness, or about the limitations and hubris of medical technology, but “Will the baby live?” The interludes of reflection or research in the episode are driven and occasioned by that question, left unanswered until nearly the end.
     But what happens without any baby at all? John Edgar Wideman’s essay “Looking at Emmett Till” chronicles the horrific murder of fourteen-year-old African-American Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Till is of course dead before the essay begins, his white killers acquitted. While there are gripping passages narrating the events leading up to Till’s murder, the central thread of the essay is the fact of Wideman’s obsession, his inability to look away from Till’s ruined face, the fact and manner and meaning of his death. Tim Bascom’s useful “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” provides visual representations of various essay structures: good old Freytag’s Pyramid, but also waves, whorls, flat lines with dips like a road studded with potholes. Essays like Wideman’s loop and circle back on themselves—they do not climb resolutely upward. But in all of Bascom’s drawings, the lines end in pointed arrows, the kind I was taught to make in math class, indicating that the lines continue indefinitely, or at least on to the next page. Those arrowed ends are an act of optimism; not every essay creates that feeling of forward movement. Sometimes a flat line feels like a flat line, a pothole like a pothole.
     I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum—the pull a powerful piece of writing in any genre exerts on its reader, in which the text does not just hand us a series of bread crumbs, however delicious, but compels us to move ever more urgently down the path to collect more. I could say a good essay asks the reader to “lean in,” but because there’s already a business advice book with that title, I won’t. In fiction we might talk about pacing, and if we’re talking about an exciting denouement, we might mean when the action literally quickens, when the sentences get clipped and blunt, encouraging the reader to physically read faster. In an essay, there is likely not such an obvious accelerando, but there might still be (hopefully is) a kind of crescendo. Or, to throw one more turn of phrase at the phenomenon I’m trying to describe, Alberto Ríos writes in the poem “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science”:
When something explodes, for example,
Nobody is confused about what to do—you look toward it.
Loud is a magnet. But the laws of magnetism are more complex.
There are plenty of reliable magnets in both fiction and nonfiction (ex. “will the baby live?”), but a writer of essays must also begin to master a subtler set of laws governing magnetism.
     I have not mastered these laws, but I take some comfort in the fact that no one else seems to have, either. Phillip Lopate writes, “Even a “pure” meditation, the track of one’s thoughts, has to be shaped, given a kind of plot or urgency, if it is to communicate.” But what kind? And how is it created? Lopate also writes, “There is no guarantee that the personal essay will attain a shapeliness or a sense of aesthetic inevitability. The well-made short story has a recognizable arc that seems built into the genre, whereas even an essay that is “well made” seems to follow a more intuitive, groping path.” The lizard-brain question “What happens next?” becomes “what will she think of next?” or “what will he choose to discuss next?” which requires a very dynamic “she” or “he” indeed to exert equal pull. Segmented or collaged essays seem purposely to fight momentum. They break ideas apart and lay the pieces side by side. Cynthia Ozick writes, “Like a poem, a genuine essay is made of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance.” Chance? Sure, but while that may be comforting for the creative geniuses among us, it is slightly disheartening for any fiction-writers-turned-essayists groping for craft lessons.
    Again Lopate: “the personal essayist… dive[s] into the volcano of self and extract[s] a single hot coal to consider and shape…” A hot coal would certainly create magnetism, but only if the essayist can translate its heat, its annihilative potential. Even the most imperiled baby can go cold on the page, while another author’s personal preoccupation sears. Wideman’s “Looking at Emmett Till” contains and transcends both—the imperiled child and the authorial obsession. “A nightmare of being chased has plagued my sleep since I was a boy,” the essay begins. The last sentence of the first section reads, “The chilling dream resides in a space years can’t measure, the boundless sea of Great Time, nonlinear, ever abiding, enfolding past, present and future.” And a sentence that appears between the other two: “I’ve come to believe the face in the dream I can’t bear to look upon is Emmett Till’s.” It’s a truism in both fiction and nonfiction that a beginning creates a contract with the reader, and this one sets up an essay that promises both the unreality of nightmare, and the authenticity of history; a face unseen and incessantly seen; the way this face haunts past, present and future; the way it haunts both Wideman as an individual and the society he exists in—the society we all exist in.
     The essay, as it continues, dips effortlessly in and out of subjects from the author’s childhood to imagined scenes of Emmett, his great-uncle, his murderers, to paragraphs that tackle racism and the legacy of slavery head-on. “Effortlessly” is almost certainly the wrong word, because as artfully as the essay leaps from section to section, there is anguish audible on every page. Wideman can’t look anymore, doesn’t want to look anymore, at Till’s mutilation and the threat it conveys. And yet because of that threat he has to. He has to make the reader look too, and keep looking. The essay is able to describe a woman “whose presence is sometimes as strange and unaccountable to me as mine must be to her, as snow falling softly through the bedroom ceiling would be, accumulating in white drifts on the down comforter” alongside sentences like, “Any serious attempt to achieve economic, social, and political equal opportunity in this country must begin not simply with opening doors to selected minorities.”
     There is constant conflict in the essay, not just in terms of its depiction of intractable racial conflict, but between styles and dictions, personal and public, fact and imagination, Wideman and himself. He can’t go on; he goes on. The reader goes with him, more and more urgently hoping perhaps for Wideman to find some peace, and then magnanimously bestow it on us, too. Maybe we want the author to tell us what to do. Maybe we want him to keep being haunted, if it means more essays this good.
     And when I think of magnetism in that way, I arrive at the idea of “conflict,” fiction’s natural fuel, whether that’s the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort, or Harry vs. his own impulsiveness. Maybe “conflict” in that latter sense is what creates momentum in nonfiction, too—the author vs. a nightmare face too terrifying to look at straight on, the author vs. his own need to look, the author’s need to write about what he sees vs. the impossibility of ever properly describing it. The inability of the reader’s lizard-brain to reconcile all of this vs. our desire to try. We read towards resolution, even when we know that that isn’t the natural (or maybe possible) destination of the essayist. We want to see how it all comes out. We scoop up hurried, greedy handfuls of dirt along with the bread crumbs. We lean forward. We listen, wanting to find out what happens next.


Caitlin Horrocks is the author of This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books) and the fiction editor of the Kenyon Review. She teaches at Grand Valley State University.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sarah Minor on Visual Essayists: Installation Two with Kristen Radtke

As a continuation of the conversation I'm having with essayists about visual essays and the way their multimedia thinking functions (or doesn't), I present to you a conversation with Kristen Radtke

S: What do you think motivates you to include graphics in your writing? At what point in your process does a text begin to involve other media? Or is it the reverse?

K: Its different with every project. Im generally most satisfied with the results when I work back and forth between text and image, composing them in conjunction with one another rather than creating a prose script and crafting images to follow. Ive definitely made work that way, especially when Im doing animation and video. But on paper, I have the most fun when I move back and forth between mediums. It helps me utilize them both as fully as I can.

S: In writing workshops, we commonly describe successful visual essays as those that teach their reader how the form and content will work early on, and abide by these rules of play for the duration of the piece (except for an important slight shift). Do you think your work functions in this way?

K: I hope so. I think this is something every piece of art needs to do, whether its prose, visual, or a combination of the two. It needs to teach its audience how to pay attention without overpowering the audiences ability to interact and interpret on their own. Im not utilizing an unfamiliar formI use panels, word bubbles, and captions that anyone who has ever read a comic book, or even a comic strip in their Sunday paper, should know how to read. The struggle comes in, I think, with my subject matter, which is often more about place than people, and more ruminative than narrative. Comics generally count on events and characters to bring readers through a story. My graphic essays sometime go five or six pages without a single human figure. But its the same issue that we tackle when writing prose that might be digressive, associative, and non-narrative. The challenges are similar.

S: Do you have a word, or a way to describe what is going on between the images and the narrative voice in Sans Soleil as well as in your graphic essay about Markers movie? If not yet, might you invent a new term? For me, the work of your images seems about visually recreating an idea or experience. You address this directly on ED, but Im wondering what you think the exact work of juxtaposition is here? Is it drawing attention to the hand behind the pairing language and image texts as much as movies?

K: I certainly try to make my drawings explorations of ideas and experiences. Some of them are definitely representational, and I use the images rather than the prose to convey narrative back-story and context. Images have their own voices just as prose does, and maybe the space between the two when theyre put together is where art can happen. I suppose you could call it braiding, but Im not exactly sure if thats what youre driving at. Sometimes an image serves a narrative function while the prose its coupled with conveys some essential bit of exposition that lays the groundwork for whats to come. Sometimes image sets a mood while the prose explores a narrative. I like to approach each panel on its own terms to see how I can get the elements to work together.

S: I like thatimage as vessel of mood, or narrative, or voice. I sometimes worry that it takes the art-gesture out of the process to dissect and explain these things but I wonder if you can talk more about or name the various roles of images when paired with text? Youve suggested that in visual/graphic essays the function of images is often the same as that of a sentence or paragraph, and I agree, but images also obviously do the work that language cannot, or maybe just do it better in certain instances. I like thinking that the use of both image and text is as much about what each medium can convey to a reader (description, scene, idea, tone) as how successful that medium is at conveying the thing. Or maybe multimedia work just expands the range of tools we have to communicate with. Orsomething

K: I think we can convey almost anything through almost any form or medium. In this case, I dont see either prose or image as superior to the other. The power of images, perhaps, rests in immediacy. A scene that takes paragraphs to describe can be digested by a reader in seconds when rendered visually. A few years ago I was riding the subway in Tokyo and sat across from this kid reading a graphic novel, turning a page every three or four seconds. I had this sudden rush of dread. As Zadie Smith said of Chris Wares work, it takes him ten years to draw these things and then I read them in a day.There are advantages and disadvantages to every form. 

I hear your concern about dissecting and explaining art, but especially when it comes to the essay, a form all too often misunderstood, I think its essential that we try to contextualize what it is were doing. Historical and contemporary discourse of painting or sculpture hasnt done anything to diminish the artfulness of those mediums. That said, it seems to me that the contemporary essay/nonfiction community has been in a rush to assign names to what it is were doing, perhaps in an effort to clarify a very crowded genre. Have terms like personal essay, creative nonfiction, or lyric essay really done that much to shed light on what these kinds of literature can or should do?

S: So why nonfiction? Do you think that the draw to include visual material within an essay has something to do with the truth-making gestures of CNF?

K: Ive identified as an essayist since college. I took nonfiction classes, I worked as a journalist, and I compulsively read books of essays and thought-driven nonfiction. I like the idea that graphic forms lend themselves particularly well to nonfiction, but the vast majority of the graphic market is and always has been fiction, from comic books to graphic novels. I dont know that genre dictates how and why drawings and images are incorporated, but I try not to think of any of it as an inclusionof visuals. In good graphic novels, essays, memoirs, comics, etc., text and image have to work together. Both have to be so indispensable that one cant function completely without the other.

S: Indispensable seems very right. Its really my bad for using verbs like "include" and "incorporate" to describe these processes in the first place (and probably, too, for claiming visual truths. I was thinking-ish about the document). These words make it seem like the text is this primary body that visual media become additional to or are buttressed by. The impetus behind this project began as a search for the language to describe and understand the craft of mixed media textsbut maybe thats the issue, that Im trying to explain these interactions using language that gets more specific and less flowery than marriageand symbiosis.I think braiding is a term that comes up often because it describes a kind of alternation that allows each medium the stage momentarily. Maybe, as you say, the success of combination is really happening in the brain of the writer and then the reader in the moments between and after image and text. Maybe this is what art means always, but Im still looking for a way to talk about craft that gets us to that place of art-happening, or pushes us away...

K: I think we're all a little nervous about saying the wrong thing. Graphic essay? Graphic nonfiction? Graphic novel? Mixed media essay? Illustrated prose? Comics? Maybe naming just gets in the way. Illuminated manuscripts have been around since 400 AD. There is nothing new about literature that is both graphic and prose, but for whatever reason, it's taken us a while to treat this kind of work seriously. I think literary criticism in America is just a little more conservative than we all care to admit. It can be frustrating, but it needn't be troubling. I do see a lot o f progress and a lot of hope for graphic work--in 2011, Lauren Redniss's extraordinary graphic nonfiction book Radioactive was a finalist for the National Book Award. There's a lot of exceedingly good graphic work out there, and there's a place for it, and that place is growing. It's exciting to work in a genre that still has something to prove. 

S: This is heartening. Do you yourself feel inspired or informed by other makers of visual essays? Are there writers who you feel are doing similar work?

K: Most of books that have been influential to me are prose titles, perhaps because there is just so much more going on in literary nonfiction than in graphic nonfiction. I didnt grow up reading comic books and I dont read fantasy graphic novels, although I have profound admiration for artists in those fields. The graphic writers Ive looked to most are heavy hitters like Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco, and Lauren Redniss. Theyve all made remarkable contributions to graphic nonfiction over the past decade or so. The Undertaking of Lily Chen, a graphic novel by the immensely talented Danica Novgorodoff, came out at the end of March, and I hope everyone pays attention. Paul Madonnas All Over Coffee is truly beautiful. Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine never cease to make me giddy when they undertake new projects. Itd be lovely to hear that my work is somehow in conversation with any of these artists, but Im totally unqualified to make a claim like that. Ill just say I feel lucky that theyre all producing such wonderful work. It no doubt makes the world a richer place.

S: Thanks, Kristen.

Kristen Radtke is a writer and illustrator living in New York. She is the Marketing and Publicity Director for Sarabande Books, has an MFA from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, and is currently working on a graphic memoir about abandoned places and an anthology of essays from twenty-something perspectives with Lucas Mann. Her graphic work has appeared at Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, and many others. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.

Sarah Minor is from the great state of Iowa. She has an MFA from the University of Arizona's Nonfiction Program, and will soon begin pursuit of a PhD at Ohio University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming at Word Riot, in Conjunctions:61, Seneca Review, South Loop Review, and Black Warrior Review. Her Interviews appear here and at She lives in Tucson, where she works at the Poetry Center and picks at a collection of visual essays about liminal spaces. 

 All images by Kristen Radtke. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Andrew Bomback: POC vs. WAF

Six days after the Donald Sterling tape leaked, I read Junot Diaz’s essay, “MFA vs. POC”, which details the difficulties he and other writers of color have experienced in generally all-white MFA programs. Because the only “news” I follow is sports news, even though Junot Diaz certainly wrote this essay well before Donald Sterling’s taped racist harangues went public, I nonetheless read “MFA vs. POC” as a response to what was happening in basketball.

I sneak in pleasure reading at work, usually when I’m walking from one building of the medical center to another. I printed out the Diaz essay in my office and read it during the walk to the building where I’d soon be teaching twenty medical students the fundamentals of acid-base balance. Like most aspiring writers (I assume), good reading leads me to think about trying to write something that approaches what I’ve just read. And so, because I’d just been absorbed in Junot Diaz’s world for ten minutes, including his summation of MFA programs as “that shit was too white,” I thought upon entering my classroom: “I am white as fuck.”

I tossed around that self-assessment throughout the rest of the day and eventually expanded the analysis: “I am married to a Mexican-American, but I am still white as fuck.”

And then, by the time I was ready to go to sleep that night: “I am married to a Mexican-American, but I am still white as fuck, yet my daughter is not going to be white as fuck.” Her Puerto Rican daycare teacher adores her because she is bilingual. They speak Spanish together throughout the day, a secret language that distinguishes them from the rest of the class. One afternoon, when I picked up my daughter and was amused by how much she’d eaten that day, her teacher said: “That’s just how I was when I was her age, with that little panza. My aunts and uncles still call me gordita.” On the weekends, when we take her to the playground in our town, when she is surrounded by gringitas and gringitos, my daughter refuses to speak Spanish with me or her mom. Is she trying to be white as fuck? Or is this conscious decision to hide her Spanish a distinctly non-white as fuck move?

I don’t think I’m entitled to be annoyed, but I am certainly aware of and amused by how the NBA writers on Grantland (all white or Asian) try to sound young and hip, which in turn often has them emulating the language of black NBA players. They refer to Damian Lillard, the star point guard for Portland, as Dame. They seem to have made a pact to (a) love Demarcus Cousins and (b) consistently call him Boogie, decisions that would be forbidden in mainstream (=white) journalism. They frequently use rap lyrics for their headlines. They call veterans who no longer seem interested in the game, whose skills have eroded and are barely making a professional roster, as “Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks Guys.”

Teju Cole, on the afternoon the NBA handed down a lifetime suspension for Donald Sterling, tweeted: “Nicely played, moderate whites.” He may have been addressing the sports media as much as the NBA hierarchy. He might as well have been addressing sports fans, too. In four words, he trumped the countless hours of television and radio and the tens of thousands of words ESPN launched at the Donald Sterling issue.

That same day, David Shields tweeted out a link to a transcript from NPR’s “Morning Edition” that quoted him on “the nitty gritty of how racism really operates.” The reporter mentioned Shields’s book, Black Planet, and said the book is “about race and the NBA.” I am a gigantic fan of David Shields. He has said that each of his books is about something (e.g. Remote is about celebrity culture), and following that lead, I think of Black Planet as his book about living in Seattle (the “narrative” of the book is his following the Supersonics during one of their most tempestuous season). NPR and, I suppose, Shields (if he really wanted to self-promote) should have steered listeners and Twitter followers, respectively, towards Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. That title is the David Shields book about race and sports. His essay on tattooed NBA players is burned into my mind. I remember where I was when I read it (waiting outside the Costco auto shop having the tires replaced on my Toyota Prius, white as fuck), and I think about the essay when I watch NBA games, when the camera zooms in on a player shooting free throws. The tattoos all over his arms and neck, to paraphrase Shields in that essay, is the player’s way of saying: “I own my body, not you.”

Coincidentally, I finished Teju Cole’s Open City the same night I was tossing around the idea that I was white as fuck but my daughter wasn’t. There’s a scene, towards the end of the book, where Cole’s narrator, Julius, is mugged just outside Morningside Park. The scene of the crime is just a few blocks from Columbia University, where if all goes well (i.e. if I stay in my current position and my daughter’s preternatural ability to memorize song lyrics is a harbinger of future academic feats) my daughter will be a student someday. The mugging chapter begins with Julius (a half white, half black man) making eye contact with his future muggers (black teenagers) accompanied by a nod with which he presumes a subliminal communication: We are brothers, we are both part of outsider culture. Later in the chapter, the muggers walk past Julius and don’t make eye contact; then, almost immediately, they attack him. In retrospect, what Julius had earlier interpreted as a moment of solidarity was, in fact, two criminals merely sizing up their eventual target. I’ve walked in this exact spot enough times – though not at night, not like Julius – to wonder if I would have been mugged. I might have had my guard up more than Julius if two black teenagers were walking determinedly in my direction. I hope someday my daughter will be just as guarded. The chapter, which I read less than twelve hours after reading “MFA vs POC,” probably wouldn’t have struck me as a chapter about race on another day, at another time.

I’ve never written about race. When I was younger, I desperately wanted to be a short story writer and churned out fifty or so pieces, of which a small number were eventually published. Only one of these stories had a non-white protagonist: an Asian-American who’d just graduated from Harvard, played baseball, and was dating a white girl. The first short story I ever tried to write was in high school and was about a group of privileged white teens who were so obsessed with hood movies (e.g. Menace to Society and Juice) that they referred to each other as “nigga” and, eventually, felt that they had to commit some act of violence to match their cinematic heroes. I am so relieved that I never finished the story and did not keep a copy of the draft.

Hannibal Buress and Tracy Morgan recently held a public conversation at the 92nd Street Y, which is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side (arguably the most white as fuck neighborhood in Manhattan). When discussing whether white people can use the N-word at karaoke, Buress said: “You can’t pick a song that’s nigga heavy. Like, Kanye’s ‘All of the Lights’ is OK, but YG’s ‘My Nigga’ you should avoid.” Morgan followed up: “When you drinking at the karaoke spot, know how many niggas are in the song.” I don’t karaoke in public but do so in my house, with my daughter. We both love Drake and Kanye. I replace the N-word with her name, which conveniently has two syllables.

“MFA vs. POC” has a happy ending. Junot Diaz reports that, after finding some success with his own writing, he helped found the Voices of Our Nation Workshop for writers of color. In fact, the “MFA vs. POC” essay, which I read on the New Yorker’s website, is drawn from the introduction to a new anthology of writing from this workshop.

Like most parents, I want my daughter to succeed in areas I’ve failed, to accomplish feats I never was able to do, to be the better version of me I always dream about. So, of course, I dream about her becoming a writer. A good writer. A successful and productive writer. In that dream, though, I’ve never considered her a writer of color. After reading “MFA vs. POC,” I realized that my version of her future was, arguably, my most white as fuck move of all. I stare at this offspring of a white as fuck father and a Mexican-American mother and hope that she will someday participate in the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. She will cast a critical eye at her father, at the books he read and the writing he tried to do, and say: “That shit was too white.”

Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York. His work has recently appeared in Hobart and Westchester Review.

Monday, May 12, 2014

T Clutch Fleischmann on Is, Being, About

There are a lot of words at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. There’s a Susan Howe poem that cuts and pastes language, then letterprints it into a progression of legible/illegible rhythms, and it’s beautiful. There’s a display of Semiotext(e) pamphlets, including Jackie Wang’s brilliant Against Innocence. And, excitingly, there’s the object-oriented writing of Travis Jeppesen.

Jeppesen’s piece, 16 Sculptures, is a series of black chairs, black sunglasses, black headphones, and black records on the wall. You sit in a chair and put on a blindfold and listen to headphones, blocking out everything else, a divide made more poignant by the installation’s placement within a room filled with one of the most hyper-colored and frenetically sprawling overloads of visual and audio information at the Biennial. Each headphone plays a reading in digitized voice of Jeppesen’s object-oriented experiment with a familiar sculpture. The Venus of Willendorf declares her worth, “My ass has a sort of mouth and a lot to say” and “My hole-iness is raw gorgeosity—fat fuck holey for the masses.” Cady Noland’s Misc. Spill announces “The electric guitar spilled all over my tits got sent there for sure cos like a real motherfucker barks like a dog as he wolfs on down the raw egofuck.” And Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is a narrative of natural time, the Spiral and “everything that gets in its way,” with adroitly weird grammar.

16 Sculptures exists as a book as well. In its preface, Jeppesen describes his experimentation with object-oriented writing (an echo of object-oriented ontology) as “a writing that positions itself within the work of art, while simultaneously including all the contradictions and impossibilities that come embedded within such an approach.” He further delineates this type of writing— “unlike criticism, which is always necessarily about an object, and unlike poetry, which is inspired by, object-oriented writing takes on the task of being.” For Jeppesen, this is a mode that allows for contradictions, truths that become untrue or maybe true in different ways, lingering possibilities, and the preclusion of conclusions.

The task of “being” instead of the task of “being about.” There is an important ethical distinction in there that resonates through the essay as genre. We cannot, as object-oriented writing acknowledges, successfully represent another thing. Our aboutness is unique to us as individuals and writers and so never purely about our topic, regardless of whether we write about music, about the live of strangers, about our own days, about the moods of weather or the history of cats. To write about something is to lay claim to a fact (emotional, physical, historical)—to write as a form of being is to lay claim to the failure of aboutness, situating the writer within the paradox that the writing can never be the sculpture, the body, the voice, the movement, and yet to write anyway.

Where can the essay take us, as readers and writers? I have never been entirely comfortable representing anything in my writing. I know that I am forever providing false ideas about boyfriends, or this land, or notions of time, or what a word means. Writing that clearly declares itself as fiction allows, as part of its project, for the writer to write herself into experiences that are not her own. It is a project with its own ethics and complications and possibilities. I do not have the skill to work in this mode. When I attempt to write outside of my experience, I stumble and fret over questions of politics and identity (questions rooted in logics with which I do not even agree). The essay has always felt more comfortable as a way to own my self-ness and to hopefully interrogate it. It says from the start that there is no one here but me while allowing me to fill it with citations and quotes from those who formed this “me,” undermining the idea that a self could ever exist alone anyway. And while the essay, on its surface, sometimes seems more restrained than other genres in this way, I also know it has the potential to reach as far and to take us to as many places as any other writing. It can even go inside a sculpture, which is impossible to do (and so it fails).

Object-oriented writing is concerned with the distance between the writer and the object, a distance it tries to disavow. Venus again: “Deep inside my rocky cove, I harbor waves,” which works because Jeppesen the individualized writer is uniquely being in rather than coolly about the sculpture. I believe my consciousness warps and garbles anything it relates itself too, but I also believe in the importance of relating, of language’s endless potential to expand what I know of the world, to bring me into new thought. Writing as being rather than being about does not solve this problem of relation, but instead embraces and works within the problem. It reminds us that the attempt of the essay is not to discover something, but to release some meanings that only we (individuals with other individuals) can find in the not-discovering.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is writing that is while resisting being about. In drawing from the writer’s life and the life of her mother and the life of Joan of Arc and the life of Yu Guan Soon and so much else, the text creates a constancy of relation, both implicit and explicit. This is the relation of fragmentation, not the relation of cohesion. As it reads, “The present form face to face reveals the missing, the absent. Would-be-said remnant, memory. But the remnant is the whole.” When the writer’s own life is at the center of a text, as it is here, it is a topic over which she can claim the greatest authority. But in Dictee, the text is instead disrupted, fragmented, as to be inside of it is to understand it through the lives of others. By being in the life, the writing is in the blank spaces and disruptions of identity and history. I wonder if the idea of object-oriented writing can be stretched to apply here, too, to relate to a lived experience. Does even writing about our own lives also imply a false distance that could never be there, gladhanding and making insincere promises to the reader? And then, how do we move into the is, as Cha does, so beautifully that the reader is changed?

Everything exists, is whole and potent, regardless of how or if we might relate to it. Yet through relating, through writing or speaking with or handling or ignoring, we change that everything (the world). This is, again, why Jeppesen’s writing, even as it tries to inhabit a physical object and to not be “about” that object, is still Jeppesen’s writing, still wholly of him, as what else could we be of but us? Object-oriented writing and its attendant concerns, then, highlight why the essay is both impossible and exciting, both a problem and a necessary attempt. It refuses to make the individual supreme by rejecting the aboutness, and in turn both features the individuality of the writer and the unique individuality of the subject/object. It’s a way to write into the Venus and declare that “It was dykes who invented porn.”

I’m constantly wanting to celebrate the essay and then talking about its failures. Maybe this is one of the reasons Jeppesen’s budding experiment appeals to me so strongly. In a post “The Object” on his blog Disorientations, he writes “Always a failure then, every instance of writing, yet how to overcome,” which I find thrilling, the same sentence making both the “failure” and the “how” an “always.” Whatever else it is up to, I want the essay to make sure it fails. I want us to write about politics and make offensive mistakes, not to perfect a politicized language of politeness and solid understandings. I want us to lie to each other because we lied to ourselves. I want us to try to use our essays to actually go inside of an object and write its being because that is fucking impossible to do. I’m bored by the lie of about, in pretending we are not failing. I want to get inside of something and be so that I can fail.

T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty from Sarabande Books and a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM. They write about books and art at a number of places, including queer literature for the Brooklyn Rail, and can be reached at