Monday, March 31, 2014

Lynn Kilpatrick: Your Body is an Essay

Write yourself. Your body must be heard.
            Helene Cixous “Laugh of the Medusa”

What is an essay? I ask myself this when I begin to write one. Also, why? Why essay?

I understand the essay in a few ways, all of which have to do with the fact that I am:  A Feminist. A Brain. A Traveller.

I was thinking about this essay and about embodiment when I went to AWP and my friend Nicole Walker said during the panel “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay,” “Put your body in a place.” This is an imperative she uses with her students and it might be the most succinct statement of my aesthetic that has been spoken aloud.

I like Nicole and I like her body. I can say that without it being weird because I am a woman and she is a woman and we are both involved with other people and we each have children. Also I can kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her and no one gets jealous or thinks we are going to run off together, though if we did it would be so that we could write without having to make anyone a sandwich for just five minutes.

Put your body in a place.

Our bodies are already in places, we just have to conceive of them as such. To feel our embodiment, to embody our thoughts.

First: The way I understand the essay is the way I understand feminism which is the way I understand the world: through my body. I remember reading Helene Cixous for the first time. Her book is titled Sorties, which is translated into English as Ways Out. Ways Out? Escape Routes? Theoretical mechanisms which allow the socially constructed  “body” to circumvent designated behaviors via language; ways the intellect can supercede the physical. These “ways out” seemed so linguistic. How are we to get out of this dilemma, the singular language, the multiple body? Only with more language, I thought. Language is the “way out.”

Until after graduate school.

I went to France with a friend and when we got off the train I looked around for an exit and when I saw one it said “Sorties/Ways Out.”

I suddenly got it. Ways Out were not just mental contortions to think our way out of the straightjacket of language. Ways Out were literal. Exits. Stairways that would bring our bodies out of subterranean confinement and up into the sunlight of Paris.

A Way to get Out of the train station and into the street. We get out of this dilemma with language by getting our body out into the street. Letting it rain on our body and walking until our legs ache and then all we can do is lay on the hotel bed and close our eyes and watch Michelle Pfieffer enact gender atop a piano (yes, this actually is what I watched on my hotel TV in Paris).

So language is a body and the essay is a map. A way not only out but in. Around. A try. Let’s walk around and see what we see, feel what we feel.

Second: How do I understand what I feel? Because when I walk around, blood flows to my brain. My point is that writers have bodies, though we like to forget this in our rush to use words like dialectic and hermeneutics. I like to use long words and I like to walk down the streets of Seattle with my friends, walking so much that my legs hurt and the idea of a bed is like a distant dream someone once told me about using words. And I like to walk around at night in a city with bars looking for that one just right bar in which to have a whiskey or a bourbon or a scotch, even though, despite his best efforts, my husband has been unable to make me understand the difference. I like to sit with other writers who make me laugh until my stomach hurts which reminds me I have a body in which my brain, which may or may not be my mind, resides.

All this walking and eating and laughing puts my body in a place. I am in Seattle walking around in the dark and there are white lights wrapped around tree trunks and there are friends who are closer to or further away from me in proximity but all of whom I love with fierce loyalty, which seems very much to be embedded in a part of my body, say my chest, which is the same part of me that aches when I think about the way my son screamed that one time I had to say goodbye to him at the Detroit airport.

But who cares, asks Nicole, back in that panel several hours earlier.  She doesn’t just want to walk around the city with me (though she does, who wouldn’t?), she wants there to be an organizing principle. A body in a place is the aesthetic but the tell me why I care is the reason for existence. It’s the soul. You need a body and you need a soul. But who am I kidding? I mean I. I need a soul. The laughter is the soul, the joke you wouldn’t understand if I inserted it here, but you would, because the body gets a joke before the mind. The body laughs and then the mind says, oh yes.

This is the relationship between the body and the essay, between the brain and the exit sign. Put your body in a place. Get into the street. Walk around. Drink some whiskey. Laugh.

It’s the laughter, perhaps, that provides the rationale for the body. Also: the ridiculous food, and the whiskey, and the pleasure of liquids and language on the tongue.

Why are we walking around the city? I want to see the bar where part of the ceiling is the old underground sidewalk, squares of glass surrounded by cement. I want to have the whiskey, where the idea of having the whiskey is sometimes superior to the drink itself. It is a way of being in my husband’s presence when he is absent. I want to extend the time I spend in the presence of my friends who understand who I am without language. I want to be a body that understands language in the presence of silence.

This, then, is the way we get our bodies out into the street.

Third: I don’t want to remain in one place. Take me somewhere. Isn’t this the promise of great language? It is also the promise of the body. The body is just a mechanism for moving my brain around. The body is the essay, with its demands and desires. With its polymorphous perversions. Cixous says that the female writer is multiple, but I haven’t met a writer I respect, male, female, neither/both, who isn’t multiple. We are multiple in our tongues, that want to speak and eat and drink and describe.

Put your body in a place. This place.

Lynn Kilpatrick’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Ninth Letter and Brevity. Her short story collection, In the House, was published by FC2. She earned a PhD from the University of Utah, and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and son.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wonders interviews Mazza: On hybrid nonfiction, feminism, and independent presses.

Indie-lit author Cris Mazza’s seventeenth book, Something Wrong with Her (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), is a memoir of anorgasmia, but it’s also a book about writing a life rather than living it.  Mazza refuses the constraints of chronologic narration, juxtaposing diary fragments, email excerpts, and samples of her award-winning fiction to create a pastiche that mimics the rhythms and structures of jazz.  Exposing a deep-seated fear in all of us, Something Wrong with Her explores what it means to consider oneself worthy of love.

Mazza’s previous work includes Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, and a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, most recently Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and will be a guest-lecturer in the fall of 2014 at The Johns Hopkins University.

Brooke Wonders: There are many ways in which your latest book replicates the form of jazz. One of the ways is in its repetition: for instance, there’s a section in the beginning that exactly matches three paragraphs that appear toward the end of the book.  How did you approach the challenge of invoking an auditory form on the page?

Cris Mazza: Partially this happened instinctively.  In jazz, the initial melody of a tune is called the head.  Then when the musicians improvise on the chord changes, it is within the style or mood of that original head, although they experiment with other emotions or even other related themes.  When the tune is getting ready to end, the musicians return to the head.  The listeners then know that the musicians have brought the tune full circle, have developed the changes and said what they have to say.  How could that form not be attractive for a memoirist who is not just telling a story she already knows but investigating a story she’s not sure she does remember all of (or remember correctly, or understand), and thus must invent or improvise or re-tell from another perspective, all while keeping that original storyline (melody) in mind.  Then it was so fitting that Mark -- who started as a character and ended up being a book contributor -- was the one talking about jazz, how it works; he was the one thinking like a musician while he read portions of the book and reacted to them -- similar to how one musician listens to the other improvise, then responds when it’s his turn to play.  So I was soaking in Mark’s way of developing a thought in music, while I was also researching the jazz terms and how they all seemed to be double entendres to ideas I was writing about.   Once I felt it working, it was easy to compose in that mode, just as a jazz musician knows how to jam as long as s/he knows the chords and feels the rhythm.

BW: You write that “you hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel,” and I feel badly for the novel and want to defend it.  What’s wrong with the novel?  And what does jazz offer you, a novelist many times over, that the novel can’t or doesn't or doesn’t anymore? 

CM:  No, nothing is wrong with the novel.  I also said a novel is like classical music.  I don’t mean “classical” in the sense of the classical period, but instrumental music that is written out completely -- scored for orchestra or quartet or chamber group or soloist -- and the musician or ensemble plays all the notes that are written (and rarely adds extra notes), doesn’t change the rhythm, etc.  I realize there are some interactive novels being written today, which would require interplay between reader and writer, so that the experience is vastly different each time it is “read.”  I was talking about the novel as I’ve known it, whether traditional or experimental, the author wrote all the words I read, and I read them (usually) in the order he or she wrote them (I know of at least one book that wasn’t bound, the pages came in a box, so they could be shuffled).  There are always exceptions, so I was making a generalization, and referring to my own novels being more like classical music in that I had no collaborator; the form, once written, was always read in the way I formed it.  Just like with symphonic music, readers (and conductors) can (are invited to) interpret differently, but there’s a bit more inherent control for the author (composer).  Jazz offered me the opportunity, as a memoirist, to not have that kind of control.  The book can never really be like a jazz performance since it has been published, the pages are in a particular order, the words don’t change, etc.  But the writing of it felt more like improvisation than when I write novels.  I don’t mean I outline novels or stick to a formula, but the repetitions, the stopping to cogitate, the speeches made to characters, the lulls in action and digressions … it would take a novel specifically designed to be about those things to tolerate as many of them as this book allowed.

BW: In a Rumpus interview about your previous book, Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, you said the following: “The narrator is completely conscious that she is producing a narrative; so conscious, in fact, that she anticipates how others will quarrel with or dismiss her, frequently questions her own memory and sometimes narrates in questions, wonders if what she’s remembering has been distorted by experiences she’d had or realizations she made since a particular event, digresses in flash-forwards to layer what she knows now over what she knew then. Most importantly, and something I didn’t plan but which might have come out of my own first person motto -- the fact that a character in the story is telling the story has to be part of what the story is about -- a significant catharsis for the narrator occurs as she is writing the culminating scenes -- scenes that, obviously, have already happened, several years before she is narrating. But it is the act of narrating, of wrestling with those questions about memory and compulsion distorting ‘truth,’ that causes her to grasp a new glimmer of insight about herself.”  This is also an accurate description of Something Wrong with Her, save that the character in question is explicitly you.  Could you talk about how you approach these writerly preoccupations differently in fiction versus nonfiction -- or why you don’t? 

CM: Yes, writerly preoccupations, exactly what it (partially) is: I wanted to write a highly self-conscious first-person novel because I was seeing so many first-person books that didn’t seem to understand the layers and complexities of a character-narrator.  But once into a novel, the novel’s thematic intent takes over for writerly preoccupations, and it became the book it needed to be for me at the time -- i.e. other personal preoccupations came to the front to chemically react, if you will, with the social themes having to do with human trafficking and the sexualization of culture.  But, of course, that latter theme (and the personal preoccupations, namely sexual dysfunction) are also all over Something Wrong with Her.
    I said above that “it would take a novel specifically designed to be about those things to tolerate as many of them as this [memoir] allowed.”  Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls was, I suppose, such a book.  It couldn’t tolerate as much cogitation and repetition as the memoir, but the self-conscious narrator and how the act of writing is what leads to her revelation about herself is an analogous process to what happened in the memoir.
    I knew, as soon as I began the memoir, that Something would be a companion book to Various Men, so the interview quote you’ve offered is highly relevant in their relationship to each other.  I had wanted to subtitle Various Men “A 1/3 true novel,” without indicating which part is “true.”  (Without having to account for how much of every novel is, similarly, “true.”)  But the story of the supervisor of my practice-teaching taking me to XXX video booths and showing me certain magazines, encouraging a flirtation that was abruptly ended -- not by me -- was the “inciter,” if you will, of both books, even though it did not stay the central significant event of the memoir. 

BW: Something Wrong with Her incorporates text from nearly all of your previous books.  In this way, it acts like an introduction to the prevailing themes of the Mazza corpus (take note, future biographers).  Imagining a reader who hasn’t encountered your work before, should they start with Something Wrong with Her?  What was at stake for you in cannibalizing so much of your previous work?

CM:  Mostly, at stake for me, was discovering in my cache of work a layer of understanding about myself I hadn’t accessed before.  This is a kind of understanding I wouldn’t expect a reader of any particular novel to be aware of, or even care about.  The novels should have their own relevance regardless of a reader’s awareness of the author’s personal life.  I wasn’t investigating them as a literary critic but as an archeologist with a set of artifacts.  (My lesser reasons for using scenes from books were times I felt it was pretentious to re-dramatize the same scene after I’d already done so in a book.)  I was thinking about why I made certain changes, used certain images, when thirty years later I can see new significance in them.  I guess I was investigating my original act in writing the story, not the stories or novel themselves, as they stand on their own for any reader.  However, it’s possible the memoir would also incite readers of my fiction to have other ideas about those works -- ideas even I have missed, and I always welcome those.  I’m not sure whether Something would be a good introduction to my fiction, but it’s difficult for me to say because I can’t have the experience of reading Something in the context of being ignorant about my fiction.  I would be interested to hear a reader tell me about what kind of introduction it is.

BW:  You also use multiple epigraphs from authors ranging from Grace Paley to Erica Jong.  The hybrid memoir is a popular form right now, with practitioners including Anna Joy Springer and Janice Lee.  This is a two-part-er: how do you see this work in relation to 1) the tradition of the hybrid memoir, and 2) the work of the authors whom you’ve chosen as epigraphs?

CM:  I was completely unaware of the “tradition” of the hybrid memoir when I was writing this book.  For all I know Lee, Springer and I (all ending up with the same publisher) were working on our books at the same time.  This book was essentially finished in 2011 and enjoyed (?) a long production period.  I had been more familiar with Ander Monson’s essays, but I don’t feel I am working in his unique realm.   The format and image-content of Something come from my packrat nature -- the keeping and preserving of symbolic artifacts, not just general hoarding.   I had all those journals, I had all those letters, cartoons, poems, photos, notes, etc.  I had kept them because of who I am/was, so that’s also why the book is constructed of them, not because I’d presupposed thirty years ago that I would join a hybrid memoir movement.
    I don’t think I have an Erica Jong epigraph, but she’s definitely quoted in here.  Fear of Flying changed the type of writer I would become, and also treated sexuality and sexualization so differently than my own experience, that it represents both a door-opening (as far as my creative work) and door-closing (as far as my personal sexual life) for me.  Something deals with both sides.
    The other quotes are not so much because I want to believe my work resides in the same sphere as theirs, but because something they said has seemed particularly apt to my relationship with my work, not to theirs.  Grace Paley was one of the judges when my first novel won a national award for fiction still in-manuscript (How to Leave a Country).  Having her as one of the judges was an incredible honor, and pretty much guaranteed that the prize-winning book would not be taken by a commercial publisher, and so in a way Paley help set the course for my career trajectory.

BW: Reviewers have referred to your earlier work as postfeminist; a recent interview noted that you coined the term chick-lit, but with a “postfeminist sneer.”  In Something Wrong with Her, you lay blame at the feet of feminism -- not for your anorgasmia, precisely, but certainly for some of your feelings of shame about it.  The narrator-you in the book appears to have gotten her ideas about sex and relationships from the ideals held by 1970s era feminists.  This seems odd to me, someone who came of age decades later and after the backlash -- I only wish I’d gotten my ideals about sex from feminism, instead of pop culture at large.  To state the obvious, you seem to feel like feminism has not been a helpful framework for understanding your own life experiences.  And yet, memoir as a genre has attracted a fair amount of feminist scholarship, as has the subject of anorgasmia. Could you talk a bit about how you understand your current relationship to feminism?  In this book, what new offensive are you launching?

CM:  Wow, I hope I’m not trying to start a war where there aren’t even two sides in conflict.  Postfeminism, as I saw it, did have some issues with second-wave feminism: that is, the “blame” could not wholly be piled on men anymore.  By the 90s we had some control (admittedly only some) over how we react to a society that values us most for our sexiness.  When I was recently advised to use an author photo where I’m smiling instead of serious, it was not a man who advised this.  In my view, women should not be taking up these kinds of sexist double-standards. 
    In Something, I didn’t think I was blaming feminism, per se, for my attitudes and perspectives about sex.  Certainly feminism had nothing to do with my unnatural fear of the whole deal.  On the contrary, feminist novels showed me women who were quite comfortable with their sexuality, pursued sexual contact for the sakes of their own needs, and seemed more accepting of their erogenous zones.  All these things were the opposite of my experience, and I couldn’t (then or now) figure out why.  Yes, in that way, it incited some of my shame.  But 1970s and 80s feminism tried to help us -- me included, if I’d known where to look.  If, for example, I’d gone to Our Bodies Ourselves instead of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)
    I see why you’re suggesting I blame contemporary feminism for my “shame” about anorgasmia, but it wasn’t feminism I was thinking about, but culture in general’s continued amping up of the sexualization of everything, and that (many) women do buy into it as a way to gain whatever status or attention they’re not gaining with their work.  So, yes, if there’s an offensive, it’s toward the way girls and young women have been inundated with ideas about sex from pop culture instead of messages about identity from feminism.  A more healthy way to learn about sexuality was available to me, through feminism, I just didn’t access it, or was already so screwed up with fear I chose not to.

BW: You teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- what are we calling that mix of graduate and undergraduate students these days?  Young writers?  Early-career writers?  Anyway.  What advice would you offer would-be writers hoping to construct their own experimental memoirs?

CM:  It is indeed an unusual mix at UIC.  While the undergrads would still be in the “inexperienced writer” camp, our  PhD program brings us writers who are already beginning to be accomplished.  This week I’ve been reading admissions writing-samples for our PhD program.  These are samples from post MFA students, sometimes many years post MFA, some with books already published.  We would have to think of these as early career writers, which has not always been the case with our graduate students.  This is a change that’s been rolling in for the past 5 years or so. 
    I haven’t had more than a handful of students working on nontraditional memoirs.  Many of them say they have a particular experience suited to a memoir, but after that they want to write fiction.  I came to memoir the other way, believing until the ‘90s (after nine books of fiction) that I had no experiences worthy of a nonfiction treatment.  So it’s challenging for me as well to work with students who are not necessarily struggling with the me-now, me-then self divided by a time-expanse of a decade or more.  But I’m interested in ways of accessing the personal through impersonal observations and observed events, through discussions of nature or place or pets or relatives or even politics, through flash pieces that might be used as a Facebook post (and surely are wasted as comments tossed into the blizzard of social media).  I start my undergrads with flash pieces, and have thought that a few of them could do a whole book with pieces no longer than a page each, yet have it add up to something that could be called a memoir.  I’m figuring this out as I go, with each new batch of students bringing me something I didn’t have before.

BW: The book is coming out on independent press, Jaded Ibis, and your previous works have been published by many of the best independent presses, from FC2 to Soft Skull.  Jaded Ibis in particular has an innovative publishing model featuring fine-art versions of books and printing on demand.  What’s your take on the evolution of independent presses?  Any predictions you’d care to make about the future of publishing, independent or otherwise? 

CM:  Certain aspects of publishing, even indie publishing, are being dragged kicking and screaming into the new era of digital-everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like hard-copy books, although the last time I moved I wondered why.  But I’ve been having to learn that the old model of having a physical bound galley six months before pub date -- the old model of even having a set pub-date -- is being replaced by a more fluid and digital system. We may have seen this coming, but never the extent of what the additional dimension of social media has done to reading-in-general.  Forget the old surfing-the-web, just scrolling through social media a person might feel he or she has read all s/he needs about a book or play or concert, no need to get the book or hear the concert.  Surveys keep telling us there are fewer readers, and yet there always seem to be more and new independent publishers … who then disappear in an average of five years.  Print-on-demand is no longer considered an inferior way to publish, just as digital magazines are no longer considered so.  Everything is moving in that direction, some for the better, and some not, or we’re still waiting to see.  Everyone -- writers, publishers, publicists, editors -- has to be flexible, able to adapt.  If independent presses (lighter on their feet) can continue to adjust, to offer more reading experiences -- like Jaded Ibis and the original music “soundtracks” for the books, the art versions, the interactive books, etc -- it might be the way that literature survives.

Brooke Wonders is from the snowy part of Arizona.  She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is at work on an experimental memoir about suicide.  Her prose can be found at or is forthcoming from Brevity, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM, among other places, and she blogs at

Monday, March 24, 2014

Brooke Wonders on Cris Mazza's "Something Wrong with Her" and Women Writing Sex

    Recently, a fellow teacher and academic — a man, of course — joked to me that there are too many twenty-something white women writing about sex.  He perhaps has a point:  Lorraine Berry, in “Dear Female Students: Stop Writing about Men,” argues that her female students only want to write about their relationships, to the point that Berry “…want(s) to tell these students that there is more to life than guys. That I wasted too much of my time thinking about men, and it was only the creation of a life that was my own…that made it possible for me to let go of the obsessive thinking.”  This obsessive thinking brings essayist Anna Davies to the point of calling it quits; her essay, “I’m done writing about my sex life,” puts a period at the end of the run-on sentence that has been her sex-writing life to date.  The performativity gets in the way of reality, she claims; she wants to live her sex life without the pressure to use its luridness to feed her career.
    Yet years after Davies’ and Berry’s polemics, Claire Dederer, in a recent piece for The Atlantic, discusses how it remains difficult for women to write about sex. She reviews a crop of recent memoirs, noting that the challenge for these writers is “to get at what feels true, which is that the endless internal oscillation that happens during sex needn’t sabotage our sexual experience, much less our autonomy. If questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.”  This is a more nuanced argument than the usual handwringing over the confessional and the limits of female sexual self-expression, whether the essayist is arguing that there’s too much sex or not enough.
    A confession: I went on the academic job market this year, for creative nonfiction.  Many of you probably know this, having done it yourselves, but this involves sending dozens of strangers a small sampling of your work.  As I read through the essays comprising my dissertation, I reached the conclusion that I am in fact a handwringing thirty-something white woman who writes too much about sex.  My strongest pieces throbbed, bulged, and panted; they were passionately alive, yes, but also decidedly risky work to present to stodgy academic committees.
    At least I’m in good company: Obsessive thinking isn’t an inaccurate way to describe the genre of essay writing.  Which brings me to Cris Mazza, whose work I’ve followed for years, and who was (full disclosure) my mentor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Mine is not the first review to point out that Mazza’s most recent book, Something Wrong with Her, is “all in her head,” “cerebral,” obsessively of the mind rather than the body.  This makes sense: it’s a memoir in anaorgasmia.  Which would seem to be a limit case for women writing about sex: women writing about how they don’t, or can’t, have any.
    Something Wrong with Her is a memoir told in linked essays, with each chapter a kind of formal experiment.  Essay titles include “I Write as a Charlatan,” “Interlude: Subtone: I Say Scared, You Say Scary,” and “Riffing: Girls with Long Dark Hair”; these titles point both to a jazz term (interludes, subtones, riffing) and the overarching theme of writing one’s sexual history. These experiments attempt to replicate the feeling and form of jazz via language. Too, each essay-chapter is comprised of literal traces of previous selves: fiction taken from Mazza's other published works, emails, fragments from her diary, photos and marginalia. 
    Jazz is a cerebral form, yes, but it’s also an embodied one — aficionados discuss its coolness, its soulfulness, its heart.  What powers this hybrid, fragmented text is the existential tension between mind and body.  Mazza struggles to wrap her head around what seems to come so intuitively to others: how to live sensually in a body.  Her language resists the sensory, a neat trick when done in the mode of creative nonfiction.  Contemporary essays and memoirs both are often saturated with details of body and place.  Consider the rough-hewn descriptions of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: the backpack that digs into shoulders and hips, sloughing off flesh; the narrator pausing on her trek to have sizzling sex with a stranger.  Mazza’s form resembles jazz, yes, in its precision and improvisation on a theme.  But it also resembles the mental control executed by the jazz musician as she riffs on but never loses her melody: every word chosen points back to its maker’s struggle to access the world by way of the body.
    This cerebral focus is the book’s great strength.  Mazza’s intellect is incisive — at times bordering on cruelty toward her former self — as she burrows deep into her psyche to uncover what in other memoirs might be referred to as the originary trauma: a failed sexual encounter with the man she retroactively anoints the love of her life.  Mazza refuses to read this moment as being a site of origin, or of being irrevocably traumatic, however.  She seeks out this man years later, then rewrites the lost years they might have shared as an obsessive wrestling with their relationship’s dissolution.  Something Wrong with Her leaves unconfessed whether Mazza ultimately reuinites with her former lover, or if the string of heartfelt emails they exchange is all there is or ever will be.  Its subtitle, a memoir in real time, necessitates this final opacity — a happy ending would resolve on a major chord, and this book, rightly, ends on a minor seventh.  In this choice, I hear Dederer’s plaint, that “if questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.”  Mazza’s work, via form and content, occupies a space of existential doubt: how do we write through both the mind and the body?  How does the act of writing and compiling our past selves influence who we get to be in the present?  And how does women’s writing about sex especially foreground these difficulties?

Brooke Wonders is from the snowy part of Arizona.  She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is at work on an experimental memoir about suicide.  Her prose can be found at or is forthcoming from Brevity, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM, among other places, and she blogs at

Monday, March 17, 2014

From Essay to Book: On “Mirrorings”

In the early nineties, a twenty-nine year old poet named Lucy Grealy published her first piece of nonfiction in Harper’s magazine. That slim essay, “Mirrorings” – just over 5500 words in all – went on to win a National Magazine Award and would serve as the blueprint for the best-selling book that followed a year and a half later. 

For most writers, expanding an essay into a book involves a series of uncomfortable compromises. In his post, “The Barking Cat: Converting an Essay Collection to Memoir,” David McGlynn writes of all the hazards that come with “breaking apart a finished essay and scattering the pieces across a larger canvas.” Chief among them are the memoir’s insistence on narrative unity and its frequent adherence to a linear (and often moralistic) arc. 

McGlynn’s initial reluctance to move from the digressive world of essayistic observations to a more unified narrative form will be familiar to most nonfiction writers. As Cynthia Ozick writes in her classic essay on the essay, “No one is freer than the essayist – free to leap out in any direction, to hop from thought to thought, to begin with the finish and finish with the middle, or to eschew beginning and end and keep only a middle.” In contrast, book-length essays and memoirs too often seem to smooth out the edges and fill in the elisions that give short essays so much power.

If the most vivid essays manufacture meaning out of unexpected digressions and juxtapositions, then the most tedious book-length memoirs adhere to an overly linear arc that leaves little for the reader to discover on her own. But fortunately, expanding an essay into a book doesn’t always have to mean sacrificing the energy that’s native to the essay. As we can see through a study of “Mirrorings,” sometimes the book-length form opens up a whole range of possibilities for essaying. 


Twenty years after its publication, Lucy Grealy’s bestselling memoir Autobiography of a Face has become a staple of composition and literature classrooms. The plot of the essay and the book will be familiar to most readers. Diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of nine, Lucy Grealy had a third of her jaw removed in a surgeon’s attempt to keep the cancer from spreading. In the years that followed, Grealy endured over a dozen operations, each of which failed to correct the damage done to her jawline.

In the first paragraph of “Mirrorings,” Grealy sets up the central conceit of the essay: the narrator’s inability to face herself in the mirror and the multitude of “tricks and wiles” she uses to avoid her reflected image. In the second paragraph, we find the narrator alone in Scotland, living on welfare while undergoing a painful procedure designed to “fix” her appearance once and for all. 

At that point, beginning with the third paragraph, and stretching for nearly four thousand words (more than three-quarters of the essay), Grealy gives us a hurried history of her face. As she moves through her story, we see glimpses of the powerful, evocative images that will later make up whole chapters of Autobiography – Grealy’s father “going to get the car” so he doesn’t have to witness her injections, the much-loathed wigs that Hasidic women press on Grealy’s mother, and the way Halloween becomes a blessed annual respite from Grealy’s daily efforts to hide her face from the rest of the world. 

Grealy’s stunning capacity for language and the raw power of her story make “Mirrorings” a powerful reflection on the difficulty of being able to truly know oneself after a lifetime of pain and shame over one’s appearance. And yet Grealy breezes through much of the most powerful material in “Mirrorings,” sketching her past with broad brushstrokes, as an artist might do when capturing a quick study that exists largely to serve as the template for a more expansive work. It’s only when she returns to the subject matter in book-length form that we see Grealy’s prose take off. 

In the case of “Mirrorings,” it was the essay, rather than the memoir, that took on a narrower and more linear quality. Whereas “Mirrorings” revolves around one singular theme, Autobiography of a Face dips and pivots in efforts to build a fully realized narrative world. For example, in “Mirrorings,” Grealy breezes past her childhood love for horses, writing, “I also became interested in horses and got a job at a run-down local stable. Having those horses to go to each day after school saved my life; I spent all of my time either with them or thinking about them.”

But in writing Autobiography, Grealy takes full advantage of her time at Diamond D Stables, choosing to begin the book with the line, “My friend Stephen and I used to do pony parties together.” From there, Grealy goes on to capture the look and feel of the suburban landscape, “dotted with oversize Tudors,” each house containing carbon-copy patriarchs reclining in chairs and wives in coordinated outfits chatting on the phone. Grealy muses about the dogs that chase the horse trailer, the bliss of being lost with her friend Stephen, Diamond D's evolution into a “surreal, muddy, and orphaned state of anarchy,” and even the digestive habits of the ponies themselves. It’s only then, in the midst of the pony party, that Grealy reveals why she dreads the day’s events. “As soon as [the children] got over the thrill of being near the ponies, they’d notice me. Half of my jaw was missing, which gave my face a strange triangular shape, accentuated by the fact that I was unable to keep my mouth completely closed.” 

Embedded in that brief ten-page prologue are all the themes that make Autobiography of a Face so powerful, even after twenty years of countless summary and response papers by college freshmen – Grealy’s heightened sense of shame over her appearance, her feeling of being an outsider, and her continual struggle to recognize herself. But unlike the essay, which led with Grealy’s disfigurement, the book builds a far more realized narrative world. 

In the Harper’s essay, Grealy breezes by the origin of her lifelong battle, writing, “Twenty years ago, when I was nine and living in America, I came home from school one day with a toothache.” Those twenty-six words end up taking the entire first chapter of Autobiography, beginning with the lines, “Ker-pow! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.” In the chapter, the reader not only confronts that supposed toothache in all of its deep, sonic pain, but also sees the lively tomboy that will later be struck down by chemotherapy. Along the way Grealy builds a world of lying dentists, uneasy parents, and mysterious operations, a world in which a random collision between the heads of two children serves as the haunting prelude to a lifetime of pain. 

For all the strengths in that original essay, Grealy fell just short of creating a true “cosmogony” in “Mirrorings.” Her story is just too long and full of ellipses and tangents to be compressed in such a short frame, and with the exception of her final passage, the scenes contained in that original essay are more thresholds than fully rendered worlds. But when given a larger canvas, Grealy has the room to do the work that essaying requires. She can eschew transitions between chapters and allow herself all kinds of digressions, none of which made an appearance in the original essay. Without the pressure caused from the need to “get to the point” in the short form, Grealy is free to adopt an innovative structure that allows her to tell her story in pieces through a set of interlocking essays. 


It’s fitting that Autobiography of a Face ends with a short chapter entitled “Mirrors,” an alternate version of the original Harper’s essay. It turned out that all the material so hurriedly summarized in the middle section of “Mirrorings” was the story – and Grealy succeeded in unpacking that material in the first eleven chapters of the book. In the last chapter, she’s free to focus at last on the experience of being alone in Scotland, where she’s forced to “live and move about in the outside world with a giant balloon” inside the tissue of her face. The book ends with the same devastating four-hundred word scene that closes the original Harper’s essay, in which Grealy sits with an attractive man in a café and finds herself wondering what he is seeing. 

In the end, it was the book-length memoir that gave Grealy the freedom to tell a far fuller and more discursive story, and yet her original blueprint served her well. “Mirrorings” turned out to contain within its slim form the entire arc of her book, chapter by chapter, as well its ending, which Grealy pasted from the original essay virtually unchanged. By the time we encounter that material, we’ve been looking through Grealy’s eyes for two hundred and fifty pages. Since we firmly believe in the cosmogony she’s created for her readers, the final scene becomes all the more powerful as a meditation on Grealy’s lifelong efforts to come to terms with the image she presented to the world – and her tentative willingness to try to see herself for the woman she had become. 

Jessica Wilbanks (@creativenonfic) received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Houston, where she served as nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ruminate and Ninth Letter, and she’s currently at work on her first book, a memoir entitled Bigger than Any Single One. Visit her online at

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Steve Davenport: What's cutting edge about good writing?

It’s 4:44 in the morning. My head’s hammered with allergies and I have a deadline. I need to write this essay about the nine semesters I spent editing Nonfiction for Ninth Letter, or maybe I should be making a point about something specific via one of the essays I edited (which one? pick me, pick me), except that I didn’t edit so much as, with the help of a new assistant editor each issue, I co-managed revolving bodies of MFA students who, because human, had different tastes, interests, personalities, affiliations, and exhibited varying degrees of preparedness and investment in the genre. In short, we were a team, except that we were a different team each time, except when we weren’t. And what we produced as an editorial body of many minds was not predictable. Maybe the best example of that came in the last issue.

In “When My Muse was Young,” Nicholas Delbanco delivers a long, rich lecture that runs from W. B. Yeats and Franz Liszt through Georgia O’Keeffe. Here’s a snippet, the last two sentences, to give you an idea:

She was still at work in her nineties, but the years did take their toll, and the blind lame visionary who scrawled her signature on codicils leaving more and more to Hamilton was no longer self-sufficient. Black Rock with Blue Sky and White Clouds, painted in 1972 before she lost her eyesight, is one of the last completed oils and rife with the old mystery--yet what it portends is unclear.

On the opposing, similarly and wildly colored page (wild for publishing anyway) sits the opening of Brian Oliu’s captivating and enigmatic “siren(1).exe”:

C:\run thelxiope.exe

This program cannot be run until SCOPULI.EXE is installed. Install now? (Y/N) N



C:\run molpe.exe

This program cannot be run until SCOPULI.EXE is installed. Install now? (Y/N) Y


Initializing SCOPULI.EXE...



Say what? Will the real Ninth Letter please stand up? (Psst. There is no real Ninth Letter.) I served as Nonfiction Editor for Volumes 2-5 (or Issues 3-10) and stepped off the editing platform with 6.1 (or Issue 11), co-edited with Audrey Petty, in the bag. I’m now back at it for what will become Issue 22 (or 11.2, AKA Fall/Winter 2014). I’m not here, though, to yak about what will be (who knows?) in this next issue or the ten issues (6.2-11.1) I had nothing to do with. I’m here to say the sun’s doing its dawn thing out on the Atlantic and my face is right here in central Illinois clenching like a fist against allergies as I’m doing well to remember most of the sixty or so essays we must have published during my first shift. And it was, for me, a great run. While I missed the birthing and bottle-feeding of Ninth Letter in that first volume year as well as the planning that preceded and produced it, I got to be there for its formative years. I sat in the meetings that brought together in one room professors from Creative Writing and Art & Design, who insured its investment in interdisciplinarity. I remember a meeting or two in which we were anxious parents who didn’t agree. And in the editorial meetings that featured the Delbanco and Oliu pieces, we didn’t agree.

But that’s the way, or should be, that things get done. No one needs to feel passionately in favor of every piece, but every piece should enjoy passionate support. That said, I heard in a meeting yesterday that people still walk up to the Ninth Letter table at AWP and explain their reluctance to submit as a reaction to our interest in, or preoccupation with, cutting-edge texts. I imagine what they’re responding to is not text but design. And what does cutting-edge mean anyway? Consistent deliverance of new technique? Fresh content areas served on shape-shifting plates visible only under special lamps or old content made fresh by hiply bringing its naughtiness or unspeakability into the light? Shit so new it will reinvent stink? I find the cutting-edge remark bothersome because I don’t believe it’s true. I believe that while we published on my shift an occasional nonfiction piece that pushed one or both of the envelopes, content and form, to the far edge of the table, there were four or five Delbancos for every Oliu or Elena Passarello (see “Kareninas” in 4.1), by which I mean essays like Nicole Walker’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (available just after the Passarello in 4.1) that gradually and often gorgeously reveal their meaning in fairly traditional ways. I believe we published the best essays, by which I mean the ones that managed to make their way through slush and into the many minds that filled the editing room, found sufficient passion and admiration, even if no one of us would have selected the final line-ups. I believe that’s as good a way as any, by which I mean a sure-fire way to publish pieces that will resonate and find a home with the right readers.

By which I mean, as the sun starts to hit the window and coffee is distracting me from my allergies, I don’t see what’s cutting-edge about that.

Steve Davenport is the author of two poetry collections: Overpass (2012) and Uncontainable Noise (2006). His poems, stories, and essays have been anthologized, reprinted, and published in scores of literary magazines both on-line and in print. A story in The Southern Review received a 2011 Pushcart Prize Special Mention. His Murder on Gasoline Lake, published in Black Warrior Review and later as a chapbook, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His day job is Associate Director of Creative Writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and he is temporarily back in his old job as Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ninth Letter. He keeps a website/blog at

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nicole Walker & Ander Monson on Rebecca Solnit's THE FARAWAY NEARBY


I have an idea for Essay Daily--as indicated by the subject line of this message.

Do you want to do a Q&A with me about Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby? I'm almost done with it and have some thoughts but also I want to know what you think. That's semi-novel, right? Interviewing each other about someone else's book?



I'm sitting in on a class observation at the moment for one of our MFA's nonfiction workshops at the moment, where the class is discussing your essay "Superfluidity". That’s kind of like a seam in itself, isn’t it? You on one side of this asynchronous communication channel and your work being discussed in absentia on the other, with, I suppose, my attention being the thing that elides the two.

I like the idea of doing some kind of mutual interview about the book. Another one of our MFA students, Kati Standefer, did a lovely reverse engineering of the structure of the book in my collections class (which is what we were doing in there: looking at the structure of collections), and I've been trying to write something about The Faraway Nearby and Phillip Lopate's newest book (Portrait Inside My Head) for a little while that has to do something with distance, how each book controls and elides distance. I seem to be using “elides” a lot these days. I really do love that word. We could do this over the next whatever, and then actually schedule it to run as part of our advent calendar, maybe? [Note: we obviously did not get around to this. —Eds]



How did the reverse engineering go on the Solnit book? That's one place I want to start. I guess I'll start with my first thought. I think we can just run an email thread and then shiny it up if we need to. I like the advent idea.

My first thought is this--You and I both just finished projects that collected very short essays. In your case, the library card catalog was the organizing principle. In mine, it was the word "micro." In Solnit's Faraway Nearby the structure of the book is pretty seamless. The chapters are roughly 20 pages long--normal "I-am-a-cohesive-narrative" chapter length. She doesn't use white space to predict a turn. The book is presented as a unified treatise but although she dips a few times into some of the themes, the book, if you pull it apart into its constituent segments, would be a book more fragmented that either of ours. Essays about apricots, Frankenstein, Iceland, Buddhism, snow, the color white, her friend's cancer, her friend's baby, her mother's distance, the body, sex accumulate--but do they accrete?

2nd part of question: Is the ticker tape that runs along the bottom, although disjointed from the main text, the more cohesive of the two parts?



I've been thinking a lot about very short essays, as you know, both in terms of your project and my own (I'd qualify this by saying, though, that library catalog cards really aren't what I'm going for with that--the cards I'm writing are 6x9s and I put them in books; though maybe I should have been thinking catalog cards more often), and shortness in general. There's that Patricia Vigderman essay collection I wrote about here on Essay Daily (though they're not all shorties). Aurelie Sheehan has a new short-short fiction collection that just dropped. Lucy Corin's new book consists of about 70% short shorts. So it's on my mind. Alison Deming has a new one of pretty short essays too forthcoming next fall I think. I'm not sure what's up with that all, actually.

I'm interested in talking about the ticker tape first, perhaps, since it's a more obvious formal intervention than the other stuff going on in the book (the mirroring, if you want to call it that, or the nesting, the pairing anyhow of sets of essays, made particularly obvious in the ToC). It also asks more of us as readers, because it's so obvious. We can't look at a page or a spread without being aware there's this thing going on that we can read, sort of, dipping into, but that's basically unreadable as part of our main text experience, right? That is, if we want to really read it, we need to just read that the whole way through, blowing through the book. At least I found it unreadable as part of the main text (though the eye does pick up some language), and ended up having to read it as a kind of coda to the book.

I have a couple questions about that: 1> does that feature pay off in enough pleasure/interest to make it worth the disruption of our reading experience as we read the main text? 2> is its addition to the other innovations (the pairings/ echoes/ mirrors) too much for the text to bear?

Here I'm betraying the way I think about formal innovation, in terms of frustration versus pleasure, or how much a feature makes us work (or what work it asks a reader to do), versus how it rewards that work. And I'm also suggesting a principle of formal experimentation that I think about a lot: combining formal experiments raises the difficulty (if also the ambition) of the text exponentially--not linearly. That is, reading a book with one weird/fun formal thing (like Adam Thirlwell's Kapow!) requires us to learn how to do this one sort of work, and it does it a lot and in different ways. But doing that AND asking us to also figure out this other formal component increases the difficulty (and requisite payoff) at least 4x, not 2x.

Okay, I have another question about that ticker tape feature (I'm not sure it's accurate to call it ticker tape, actually, but that's what came to mind to me first too. That or the news crawl at the bottom of cable channels.), which is, how does it ask us to think about the book as an object? And is that thinking related to what goes on in that essay?

Maybe we can come back to the first question--of its seamlessness (which I also perceived: it's certainly one of her best tricks) a bit later?



The ticker tape, which is what I also call the crawl on the bottom of the news, in this case seems to be one of co-engineering. The content of the tape is mostly absorbed with the symbiotic and sometimes parasitic relationships. Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. The yucca plant pollinated by moths. Those moths whose larva feeds on the Yucca. There are moths that live underground feeding on the roots of wallaby grass. Happiness, sorrow. Mothers daughters. Each feeding on each other or each feeding each other. They are like stories. In the ticker tape, she references Apuleius's Golden Ass, stories tucked inside other stories, a kind of Arabian Nights. At the end of the 'big text," she tells a story about a modern-day Scheherazade. You can't read them simultaneously but you can read the bottom as little cilia on the ocean floor, taking nutrients from the big washing above them. And the oceanic text, trolling the cilia for little bites of story to grow big upon. In the ticker tape, she writes, "Moths drink the tears. The word for teardrinkers is lachryphagous, and for the eater of human flesh it is anthropophagous, and the rest of us feed on sorrow all the time." There are at least three stories in there. She unpacks them, metaphorically at least, in the big text. I wonder more at the write-ability rather than the readability. To keep track, to keep going, she uses the scrolling underground as a kind of food. The one text, like the yucca and the moth, couldn't survive without the other.

In Jenny Boully's not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them deploys a similar two-text strategy. The over-ground, where one version of the Peter Pan story goes, another underground, where the more rooty, fluid-ridden, desperate story goes. Boully's book does not seem co-generative in the way that Solnit's is. Boully's book seems interested in disrupting--disrupting the narrative, the myth, the fairytale, the innocent non-sexual reading of the book, so you can read them concurrently. The narrative isn't particularly seamless in either the top or the bottom text, so it's easy to stop and read the bottom or the top. Solnit's big text reads seamlessly. To read the underlying text is to go back to the beginning to see the seeds of this book. How it got made.



I like where you're thinking about the idea of food--what feeds the essay/ist, what keeps it going? That's an important question, and in terms of Solnit, I can certainly see how the ticker tape text works as a food source for the other essays. I'd be very curious as to whether it was used that way in its composition. I suppose it's probably secondary how it worked for the writer (though maybe primary on Essay Daily, where we're hosting this conversation, since it's really a resource for essayists more than anything else) to what work it does for the reader.

For a paired set of texts I feel you with Jenny's book (she's coming here next week to read so I'll hope to ask her some questions about how she dealt with the two texts at once, and how they were generative or not (I don't remember reading any interviews where she talked about it, and I've read a lot of her interviews recently). I'm thinking instead of Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory, which I don't know if you've read or not. It consists of two separate texts cohabiting, one running verso and one running recto continuously throughout the book. One's a kind of trashy novel featuring celebrities in hotels, and the other's a series of meditations/essays on hotels, hotels being the space where the two interact (and a space for separate, somewhat anonymized, unrelated, compartmentalized interactions in general, that being the appeal of hotels). It's been a while since I reread that book, but I remember the two not having too many moments of correspondence. I don't know if those moments of correspondence or resonance that I noticed were intentional (a la I want to ensure we see an image occur on both sides of the spread) or if they were coincidental (though perhaps seeded by revising and composing both texts at the same time and having some similar considerations in mind seeding both—and this is a real big aside here, but I'd also be interested in having a conversation about how writers working on two (or more) big projects at once (perhaps in different genres, probably in different genres) manage the cross-echoes and cross-pollination that happens with that kind of double thinking/double composition. That's kind of like how one book can seed another or how an essay can seed another, even if done sequentially, since it's not like we use up all our material for a given book when we write that book.

There's something here I feel we're getting at about how component parts work in a text, whether or not they shows their seams in the final version. Certainly Solnit shows her seams in the ToC with the structure she sets up both in the pairings, or maybe we want to call them nestings. How we think about them seems important, because a split doll metaphor leads us to something more like Cloud Atlas and the pairings (or maybe mirrorings, since two of the chapters/essays are themselves called "Mirrors") get us somewhere else, don't they? The visual presentation of the ToC itself makes an argument, since each essay/chapter is tabbed in from the previous one until it reaches 7. Knot and then tabs back out, so it's more like an arc—maybe more like a journey, a metaphor that's maybe too obvious to talk about since the book consists substantially of a series of journeys (but then what book doesn't?). I confess that I still am not sure what to make of the visual presentation in the table of contents. The pairing's already obvious with the title pairs.

My experience of the book itself is one of an evident seamlessness, as it often is with her work. Often the prose feels so thought-through, so lived in, and so polished that I feel at a great distance from her sentences. It's a very pleasurable effect, reading them, and not dissimilar to ASMR (do you know about this? the autonomous sensory meridian response, which I am susceptible to—I've been thinking about this a lot lately, but again, maybe too tangential for this space? but then this is freaking Essay Daily and what are we up for if not tangents?). I was working on an essay talking about both The Faraway Nearby and Phillip Lopate's Portrait Inside My Head, two essay collections that I enjoyed very much that also feel very far apart to me, thinking specifically about seams: how Solnit's work to me feels seamless, and Lopate's all about showing the seams (his argument that the thing holding the essay collection is the I in all its variousness). I mean here the seams in the I, maybe not the seams between the paragraphs.

I've also had Boully on the brain, since so much of her work seems to me to be about the seam (whether The Body, footnotes to an absent text, The Book of Beginnings and Endings with its emphasis on seam, or not merely). All of them disrupt, I think, our reading processes, and gather a lot of their energy from that disruption. Thinking here of her essay on being I don't think that Solnit is interested (at least in her pairings or seedings) in disrupting, though I found the ticker tape text to be disruptive, whether or not that was her intention. Even in "A Short Essay on Being" she's disruptive, or later asserting a disruption (even as she wouldn't have done so—in the Thai way, she'd tell us—in the moment). [See also my little riff on Boully’s work as an introduction to the Hybrid Series she read as part of here at Arizona recently. —Ander, after the fact of this co-interview.]



I thought at first that the table of contents made an image of a flock of geese, a group of birds in formation making in-roads in the shape of a V. But then, as I typed the first sentences of each of Solnit’s paragraphs in the first “Breath” chapter, I realized better what the image suggests: that of an icebreaker, cutting through the white landscape of the page.

Solnit’s landscapes are the vast, blank expanses, the big subjects (loss, grief, preservation, art, death) into which Solnit plows with her sharp paragraphs. Those paragraphs do not hang together. They veer, turn, cut. In that one chapter, called “Breath,” she moves from Marquis de Sade, story theory, bodies, decay, cooking machines, canning, back to apricots, paintings, The Netherlands, museums, the painter Abraham van Beyeren, a seventeenth century Protestant preacher, another painter named David Bailly, a contemporary of the apricot painter Jacob van Hulsdonck, bubbles, vanitas, biopsies, cancer, apricot as metaphor, “The real story of your life is always all the way from birth to death,” and they only come to you in the shape of images, returning to vanitas. “All of the images they make of you are vanitas images.”

Death is like a story or death is like an apple or mother’s are like apricots, always in decay. If each chapter, each section, even each paragraph is a veer, a “v” cutting into the great unknown white, then there’s going to be some friction. As the stories rub against each other, they begin to create heat. Solnit rubs Frankenstein against Buddhism, Marquis de Sade against breast cancer. Perhaps then, the scroll at the bottom is more of a rope, something less to hang onto for explanation than to slide down, burning your hands. Apparent seamlessness made by making you climb the seams.



So the variousness in subject, and the quick shifts from idea to idea in The Faraway Nearby, create heat. I definitely feel that. That heat’s the action of the essayist mind working, placing tectonic plate by tectonic plate, and we feel something coming up in the seams between, in their adjacency (on the paragraph to paragraph, line of argument to line of argument level, and not just between the separate essays, or between the main text and the crawling text). Maybe that’s why I love a thoughtful collection more than the apparent seamlessness of the book-length essay, for the opportunities to create or let through these types of heat.

There’s a quote from Lopate’s “In Defense of the Miscellaneous Essay Collection” which opens his most recent miscellaneous essay collection: “the personal essay is uniquely suited to expose this continuous bumping up against limits, against the borders of the self—which is one good reason I cling to it.” This essay is itself a revision of an essay originally published in River Teeth in 2010, then called “In Defense of the Essay Collection,” and I'm a little curious about the addition of "miscellaneous," which seems implied to Lopate in "essay collection," but maybe his editor preferred it? It’s a nice move to use it to front-end Portrait Inside My Head, since it offers its own theory of mind and essay and then the book goes on to perform it. That bumping that we see and feel and experience in Lopate is different than the bumping we get in Solnit, I think. Solnit’s bumping is filtered through what I read as a relatively continuous and constant voice and sensibility, even as it moves from subject to subject, timeframe to timeframe. Lopate’s bumping is much more overt: “I persist in putting forth a collection that will include my musings on movies, literature, friendship, sex, urban history, city form, and the nail parings of daily life, so that the reader can enjoy the fluent play of a single consciousness, a sensibility flowing through disparate subject matters.” And Portrait offers us exactly this, except that the sensibility seems to me to vary pretty significantly from essay to essay, and this is something that Lopate makes a feature, not a flaw. It may be the same brain we see throughout the book, but Lopate leaves the edges in between one mood and another, one state of mind and another, and it feels quite craggy moving from essay to essay, and within an individual essay (there are 28 of them) it’s more continuous. So it’s like we’re stepping from big tectonic plate to big tectonic plate, but the plates are stable on their own. In Solnit, there are only thirteen, and all but one are paired with another, and it seems to me that the sensibility in each essay is pretty much continuous with the others (and feels to me more distant than in Lopate), but within the essays she’s jumping constantly between plates. I’m not so sure I’m committed to my plate tectonics metaphor here, particularly since both books feel fluid (and explicitly invoke fluidity as a way of thinking about what they do—and also use “fluid” multiple times in the text itself; Lopate: 5, Solnit: 4, if you’re keeping track; thanks, Amazon Search Inside the Book; thanks, future!).

I guess what I’m interested in here is not just the obvious form and the way it manifests itself on the page (the visual look of Solnit), but the way in which the method of movement in the text (a kind of form, right?) is related to the mind at work, and, to quote Lopate again, “the shagginess of the essay, its discontinuous forms of consciousness.”



What you say about distance intrigues me. Perhaps that is one way to appear seamless--if you hold your mother-story (and "mother" story) at arms length, you hold your Frankenstein story there, your moth story, your breast cancer story, your Buddhist story, your San Francisco story, then the transitions don't seem so much like jump cuts as links in a chain. I spend so much time with my students on the reason to zoom in, create a scene, and the reason to zoom out, have a point, claim a meaning, that I haven't fully investigated the advantages of never zooming. Perhaps Solnit's a purely literary model, shaped not at all by film or internet. We have so many multimedia skills in our writing capacity that one we may disregard too quickly is the textual strategy of maintaining objectivity. When Solnit looks at her relationship to her mother, she does it with the same critical skill she looks at Frankenstein.

The micro book I'm working on makes the opposite claim: we are all internets now. We all make movies. We might as well jump cut from one long text to a short one and back again, threatening text's signature linearity. Maybe that's what Solnit's ticker tape finally argues--that texts run forward through time. Time doesn't stop, why should the words?


ANDER MONSON is the author of a number of paraphernalia including a website, a decoder wheel, several chapbooks, as well as six books, including the forthcoming Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf Press, 2015). He lives in Tucson where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona and edits the journal DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press.

NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and associate professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.