Was the personal essay about the bar and restaurant I’d spent time in from age eight to twenty-one best presented in a collage of chronological memories that would suggest to the reader that I had grown up there? Or, would arranging paragraphs about various exchanges I’d had with intoxicated men over the years in non-chronological order better circle the truth of that experience? I could also organize the essay around the women I’d met there—the waitresses and bartenders who smoked and bickered and flirted and fucked both on the clock and off it. Complicating things further was the wood duck painting I’d done in high school while I was working there. It had earned me some scholarship money that would effectively, through a college education, enable me to leave the kind of town where I might have otherwise ended up a waitress or bartender. It belonged in the essay. As did the fact that wood ducks’ migratory patterns are programmed in their DNA—some fly south for the winter, but some stay where they are. You can’t tell the difference by their exterior, just as you can’t tell a person’s future—whether they’ll stick around or grow wings and fly away—by theirs. Whether they “belong” or not.
Each telling of the story, as well as the tangential elements that were relevant to my experience, seemed essential—connecting the important ways in which I spent time in this run down bar before I was even old enough to legally do so, eventually leaving it altogether. Each organization would reveal a different version of truth. One telling would read as sentimental, another would feel dangerous, and a third would seem sad. I could also abstract the experience by adding information about the establishment, the river that ran just outside, and the conservative political climate. These were all important. But I couldn’t exactly decide which telling was more important, which tone was more true, which aspects of the experience deserved page space. And yet, telling the whole story, person by person, day by day, from start to finish, seemed empty of meaning entirely. To troubleshoot the situation, I printed out the working draft and cut apart the paragraphs featuring the experiences that stood out most to me over the years, regardless of who was involved or what year it was. I spread them out, separating the blocks of text on the floor. I formed a grid of paragraphs, moved sentences up and down, looking for holes, stopping to read and insert new associations that cropped up, then rearranged them again. I did this until I felt the narrative, when read from “beginning” to “end” rang most true to the experience of working there—where I was shocked, made to wait, made a woman, made a mess.
The older man found me like this, surrounded by clippings in the common area of the office building where I rent a studio. He asked me what I was doing, and I tried to explain that I’d reached a point where reading onscreen wouldn’t accommodate the kind of structural tweaks I thought I needed to try to get the essay where it seemed to want to go. A straightforward narrative just wasn’t working, and there were parts that didn’t seem to fit anywhere, but were nonetheless crucial. The painting, for instance.
“Are you doing cut ups?” he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about, but said that, yeah, sure, I was cutting stuff up. “Just like the Rolling Stones,” he said. The Stones had used the cut up method, he explained, to solve the problem they were having with the lyrical arrangement of “Casino Boogie.” Fans have struggled to figure out the meaning of those lyrics, to which Mick Jagger explains in an interview with Uncut Magazine that the line “‘Million Dollar Sad’ doesn’t mean anything. We did it in LA in the studio. We just wrote phrases on bits of paper and cut them up. The Burroughs style. And then you throw them into a hat, pick them out and assemble them into verses. We did it for one number, but it worked. We probably did it ‘cos we couldn’t think of anything to write.”
But million dollar sad does mean something, wouldn’t you say?
Are you five-dollar sad?
No, I’m million-dollar sad.
Brion Gysin developed the cut ups style after accidentally cutting through layers of newspaper that, when positioned next to unintended text, created interesting combinations of text and image. He then intentionally cut up various texts and arranged them at random. He and Sinclair Beiles used this method to create the book Minutes to Go, which featured unedited cut ups mashed together as prose. I haven’t come across any research that terms this work a kind of essay, but I think, at its heart, it was. Gysin taught William S. Burroughs the method and together they developed it further at The Beat Hotel in Paris. The two created both written works and films that utilized the technique, and subsequently published essays on the form in a collection called The Third Mind. “All writing is in fact cut-ups,” Burroughs says. “A collage of words read heard overheard. What else? Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation.”
A cut up excerpt from Minutes to Go’s “Open Letter to Life Magazine” reads, “Pitiful personal lives of suspension, flapping frantic, come to stare.” That’s pretty much what comes to mind when I think of back issues of Life Magazine. It also brings to mind People magazine, TMZ, Facebook, and Tinder. It could also describe the self-loathing I feel when I’ve spent too much time writing about myself in a personal essay. It’s the point at which I digress, the point at which white space says to the reader, “Don’t look at this pitiful life a second longer; come with me over here instead and we’ll look at something interesting for a moment.”
Like a painting of a wood duck.
Cutting and mixing up newspapers and previously completed texts to create new meaning was really a literary revival of what dada artists had already introduced in the visual arts. German artist Hannah Höch, remembered today as the punk artist of Berlin’s dada scene for being on the fringe of the fringe, composed mishmash artworks of image, fiber, artifact, painting, and text. Her work was typically political and pro-feminist in nature, ascribing progressive and sometimes radical messages for the time. Here’s Höch’s composite of images from Life Magazine:
Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936.
Photograph: Collection of IFA, Stuttgart Collection of IFA, Stuttgart
I would call it blond girl smiling on the hood of a car. I would call it me in 1999, in the parking lot of the bar/restaurant where I worked. I would call it after the shift ends. I would call it flirt. Or innocent. Or loss. Or are you old enough to hang out here? Your body says yes, but your smile says no.
Burroughs and Gysin thought their approach helped “decode the material’s implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text.” Burroughs thought the form might divine meaning through what he called “folding in,” or inserting text from the same story in places where it would fall out of time with the narrative, creating a chaotic kind of flashback or flashforward. He said of this method, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.” The description of how he used this approach in fiction is not unlike what creative nonfiction writers and lyric essayists today term “segmentation” or “collage,” where digressions both related and seemingly unrelated to the essay’s main subject are interspersed without regard for the strict constraint of the linear narrative. These digressions begin to make sense both in the context of the surrounding white space and juxtaposition against other segments, as well as in the essay’s future paragraphs, its central concerns, its end.
Two years ago, the older man cut into my present. Here’s a cut out of a longer personal essay concerning our friendship:
We had been meeting, all that time, to tell each other stories. There was never any agenda, which I found surprising for a man whose life was filled with agendas. He asked me to come, and I came. He asked to see what was in my head, and I opened it for him. The stories accumulated like snow on pines. He accumulated. With that much white, you dare not shake the trees lest the magic go, lest winter last forever inside you.
A feature of the essay, I’ve always thought, is its ability to invite the wider world to the individual’s dinner table, via this kind of association and digression. There is still one host—the writer—but the table is long and there is plenty of room for guests. For instance, Jenny Boully, in “A Short Essay on Being,” sits down with pot Thai (“pad” Thai, as most Americans call it) for the duration of a 5,000-word essay. She begins by considering the word pad in the context of modern American culture, inviting its many associations to the table of the essay:
A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start. When I grew older, a pad was someone’s house. My college roommate and I had, according to many persons who traipsed in and out of our campus apartment during our senior year, a cool pad, a “budget” pad. You could also pad something, as in stuff it with cotton, or you could have a bra with built-in or removable pads: a padded bra. Pad is all of these, but seven years ago, I learned that it is a type of Thai noodle dish: pad Thai, it’s called.
Throughout the rest of the essay, she cuts in—folds in, abandoning chronology—the many social experiences from childhood through adulthood that contributed to her understanding of: her American identity in the context of her Thai roots; the traditional pot Thai dish versus its syrupy, too-sweet American representation, “pad” Thai; her personal identity versus the perceptions and misconceptions of the people around her. She begins with a simple noun, with which we can all associate half a dozen things, then slowly transforms “pad” Thai from an American shopping mall food court ethnic knockoff into a lens through which the reader bears witness to the writer’s self, injuriously reduced by cultural white-washing. As we read, we learn that “pad” Thai is just one among many egregious missteps made by the lot of us “white” Americans. In this way, Boully invites the reader to participate in the discovery, and, I think, offers offenders an opportunity to realign their own behaviors and assumptions. What begins as a reflexive apology for knowing too much about her own heritage becomes a covert act of revenge, shifting toward becoming unapologetic through a series of digressions and associations:
In the end, it was pad Thai that I made: something that repulsed me but that others ate up […] I never told him that, although I didn’t cook the pad Thai with fish sauce, I had added some to his bowl. The next day, he would complain of blue balls; however, he never once complained of a tummy ache.
In her brief essay, “The Art of Digression,” Judith Kitchen writes, “Like conversation, the essay is likely to veer away from its main point, to wander off, so to speak, into speculative territory.” This moving away from the subject, she says, isn’t a changing of the subject per se, but instead a “natural outflow of association.” In nonfiction, she says, we (as readers) move “rapidly from the text to our own experience and back again, testing what is said against what we know, what is recounted against what we have experienced…”
It’s like this: we’d sit in my writing office or in the older man’s conference room and talk for hours about film, art, writing, and philosophy, taking notes on one another’s thoughts and recommendations. I could wallpaper the room in our notes. I have notebooks filled with him. A stack of correspondence. He’d draw me pictures of the things he said as he said them because that is the kind of person he is. I’d take pictures of the pictures with my phone when he used the bathroom and stared at them later, late at night, because that is the kind of person I am. The conversation would digress rapidly, sometimes never getting back on course. Once, we riffed on gun stories for an entire afternoon, and he drew revolving revolvers as we spoke. Once, we talked about the phenomenon of the color blue for an hour. Mauve, for ten minutes, which led to a memory of the dresses his mother wore when he was a child. His mother. He told me things about her. Intimate things about her mental illness. Her dresses. The way she stayed up late with him to watch films in the late 1960s, before there were ways to record movies that aired at two in the morning. He told me about the way she was gone. The way his father was getting there, too. Once, we talked about seeing deeply into another person without making eye contact at all. Once, we arranged squares of colors in different ways to see what we would feel about their different ways.
My husband and I see colors differently. It matters to him that his blue is true blue. That his green is the greenest green. I’ve never understood this argument. I like the elusiveness of color, how it is slightly different for everyone. He doesn’t understand why I embrace the uncertainty of blue or why I think pondering colors flies see that humans can’t see is worthwhile. When I told him I read somewhere that we remember in black and white, he stopped talking. “Imagine a color you’ve never seen before,” I said.
The man I married has never attended one of my readings. The older man has sat in the front row twice. But I digress.
Digressions—spliced in histories, meditations on objects, films, art, other stories, an askance look at a nearby landmark, pad Thai—find the essayist in unexpected ways. They arrive like deus ex machinas from the literary heavens, making strange and sudden sense in the context of whatever essayistic crisis is underway at the moment. The ordinary becomes extraordinary and serendipitous; the original intention transforms. “Court digression,” Judith Kitchen advises. “Let your conversation get away from you. Let a new story take over…Something may happen along the way, something to alert you to its relevance.” The writer, she says, must trust herself to identify the connective tissue within the digression.
Boully identifies this occurrence directly in “A Short Essay on Being.” She writes, “I can’t figure out why authenticity has been linked to snobbery any more than I can figure out why, in an essay that set out to explore my being in terms of being Thai, I first launched into a tangent about Thai food and then digressed into preferring food that is authentic and true.” This discovery takes on great importance as Boully unearths the question of authenticity as it relates to what the average American “needs” to know about her origins. Of this she writes, “And because it’s never obvious to anyone just what ‘race’ I am…I am inevitably asked ‘where I’m from,’ which I have come to learn means ‘Just what are you?’” The average American apparently doesn’t apply the same need-to-know attitude about the “ethnic” foods they enjoy.
As essays are presented in the anthology The Next American Essay, John D’Agata prefaces them with brief musings on what the essay “is” through the ages. In the section 1978: “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed in the midst of another genre.” In the section 1982: “Maybe every essay is in some way experimental…an unmapped question that has sprung from the word question.”
During one of my dialogues with the older man, I shared with him an association writing exercise that I had used in a memoir writing class. I was hoping to give the students a tool that allowed them to move beyond the self, invite the world in, so to speak. “Humans can and will associate themselves with anything,” I told him.
“How so?” he asked.
“If I picked five random words and asked you to arrange them in a way that made ‘sense,’ or in other words, said something meaningful, you could do it.”
“Yeah, probably,” he agreed.
Tender. Insignificant. Complex. Breathlessness. Innuendo.
Me, on him: Tender, insignificant innuendo. Complex breathlessness.
Him, on me: Complex innuendo. Tender breathlessness, insignificant.
“Your brain will find some connection. Or, if not your brain, then your heart. There may be an emotional connection that defies logic,” Kitchen says of following the digression to wherever it may lead.
At the beginning of class I’d placed random items I’d gathered up from my home on the classroom table: a bottle of Elmer’s glue, dominoes, a vintage apron, camp soap, an iron-on NASA space camp patch, a matchbook, a Buddha figurine, a radio direction finder, and an infant receiving blanket. I passed out five index cards to each student and asked them to select an item they recognized. They didn’t have to know much about it, only what the item was. The directions were as follows:
Card 1: Write down a few sentences that describe what you know about this item. What’s it called? What do you know about it?
Card 2: Do you have any personal experience with the object? Write down a few lines about a particular experience with this object.
Card 3: Make a cognitive leap. What else comes to mind when you think about this object, your experience with it? Take a step away from the immediate knowledge of the object, look to the right or left. What’s there?
Card 4: What’s the most significant thing that happened to you in the past few weeks? Describe it in a few sentences.
Card 5: Return to the object. Does thinking about Card 4 in the context of this object provide a resolution of some kind? Write a few lines about it.
I then asked them to read over their cards and arrange them in different orders, looking for the strongest narrative arc the five cards could offer. Once they’d decided, they read the cards aloud. The insta-essay that struck me most was by the woman who’d selected the radio direction finder—it belonged to my husband; he is an airline pilot and our house contains all sorts of airplane odds and ends. I’d always (incorrectly) called it “the altimeter,” because it was the only airplane part name that I knew.
The radio direction finder, the student wrote, helps the pilot find her direction. It’s used for radio navigation, taking two measurements from two different radio signals to determine another approximate location. She’d been taking flying lessons, and had just learned to use one. On Card 3, she made a cognitive leap that transformed the object into a metaphor for her failed marriage—he had cheated on her; two signals, two locations. She had taken the wrong reading on this one, this man. The woman had just sold her house, and was moving into a smaller place now with her four kids. On Card 5, she returned to the object. Two paragraphs earlier, it was a metaphor for failure; now it was one for hope. After all, she could fly now.
Once, on a flight, I found a folded up piece of paper, left by a previous passenger, as I dug for my seatbelt. It was a list of pros and cons, weighing the qualities of one relationship against another. One woman against another.
Pro: has a steady job.
Con: not much interested in sex (with me).
Pro: likes reverse cowboy position.
Con: has a lot of debt.
Pro: likes my family.
Con: doesn’t think I’m funny (anymore).
Pro: is young.
Con: is very young.
The competitors: the mistress and the wife.
Love seemed a complicated emotional action for William S. Burroughs. In the documentary about his life, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, speculation and first-hand accounts of his romantic relationships cut into the story almost at random. He had a kind of sweet nesting relationship with a female friend, trading recipes with her for years. Patti Smith sang him lullabies. For a time, he slept with professional sex workers almost exclusively. Intellectual stimulation came from Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other beat poets. Despite being gay, he married Joan Vollmer and with her had two children. He seemed to have had a lifelong romance with guns, while heroin occupied the role of the abusive boyfriend that he kept going back to. I think that perhaps Burroughs’s entire life was a series of digressions. His chosen life path generated conflict in the white space surrounding each dip away from the central concern of living.
In “A Short Essay on Being,” Boully summarizes a five-month relationship in a two-sentence digression:
I was leaving for Thailand when we broke up, and he told me to enjoy myself in the land where so many plastic hamburger-chain toys were made…all that time, he thought I was Taiwanese and not Thai.
A cut up of me and the older man, courtesy of the Language Is a Virus Cut Up Machine:
was accumulated that the man pines. any I see a inside With it me He lest last had was He all stories. He to any last I forever magic tell in agenda, to for came. was him. you. snow to asked you. white, my the in came. other accumulated There and man stories He agendas. I dare the trees asked not filled was a been surprising inside head, with meeting, asked for forever surprising for the the the see dare agendas.
At first glance, the cut up makes no sense. “Cut-ups often come through as code messages with special meaning for the cutter…You cannot will spontaneity,” Burroughs says. “But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.”
digression, a cut up poem folded into an essay
was accumulatedthat theman pines. anyI see ainside With itme He lest last had wasHe all stories. He toany last I forevermagic tell in agenda, to for came.was him. you. snow to asked you.white, mythe in came.other accumulated There and man stories He agendas. I dare the trees asked not filled wasa been surprising inside head, withmeeting, asked forforever surprising forthe the the see dareagendas.
The most frequent criticism my work receives in workshops is that it wants to achieve too much; it is overambitious. “The essay should interrogate one subject,” one woman told me. “Your essays are like an octopus with too many legs. Cut some of the legs off,” she recommended.
But I never saw it that way. I agreed that the essay should interrogate, but did it have to interrogate a single subject? Did collage in essay have to read like an iteration of that Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” from my sophomore year writing class? Did it have to ask just one question in its thirteen ways? Though lovely and brilliant as a structure that translates well in the lyric essay, to my mind it was a constricted form that didn’t feel organic to my thought process or to my worldview. Humans are more connected to the world than that, absorbing a number of ideas at once, relating them to one another and running them through six lenses at once. Reducing the scope of the essay in that way felt, to me, missing a dimension or two. Or seven. I like my essays like Burroughs lived, like I like my own relationships—with digressions, meanderings that connect us to other people and things or lead us to the truth about ourselves. I like to pause for ducks. I like enrichments folded in, mined outside the form. I like friendships that are deep and intense, that cut the future into the present. I like authenticity. I like what renders the past irrelevant. I dare the trees a meeting, forever surprising the agendas.
Angela Palm is the author of the essay collection, Riverine, winner the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize (pub date, spring 2016). She is the editor of an anthology of literature by Vermont writers called Please Do Not Remove, published by Wind Ridge Books (2014). Her work also appears in or is forthcoming in Brevity, apt, Hippocampus, Paper Darts, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Little Fiction/Big Truths, and elsewhere. Angela's work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Press’ Best of the Net awards. She owns Ink + Lead Literary Services and is an adjunct professor at Champlain College in Vermont.
Yony Leyser, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, 2010.
Antony Balch, William S. Burroughs, and Brion Gison, The Cut Ups, 1966.
Language Is a Virus Cut Up Machine, http://www.languageisavirus.com/cutupmachine.html#.VV_klE_BzGc.
Brian Dillon, “Hannah Hoch: Art’s Original Punk,” The Guardian. January 9, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/09/hannah-hoch-art-punk-whitechapel.
Judith Kitchen, “The Art of Digression.” A Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, ed. Dinty W. Moore (Massachusetts: Rose Metal Press, 2012), 118–120.
Jenny Boully, “A Short Essay on Being.” TriQuarterly, Issue 138, 2010, http://www.triquarterly.org/issues/issue-138/short-essay-being.
John D’Agata, The Next American Essay (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2003) 41, 95.
David Cavanagh, “Exile!” Uncut, Issue No. 155, April 2010.