Monday, November 30, 2015

BAE 2014 read by Christy Wampole: November Thirteenth

I had nearly finished a piece inspired by The Best American Essays of 2014 on the topic of essays as containers. Then Paris happened. Since the attacks on November 13, public discourse has hovered around uncontainability. The containers essay suddenly felt irrelevant. Luckily, some of the essays in the 2014 collection could allow me to write about (to process, to manage – whatever metaphor you prefer) the attacks. Specifically, Mary Gordon’s “On Enmity” and Dave Eggers’ “The Man at the River” give language to some of the abstractions that have clustered around the death cult called Daesh.

Some background: I am an assistant professor of French literature, I have lived in Paris, and spent my life trying to understand and explain French culture to others. In order to rationalize the attacks, a phlegmatic person who understands the historical landscape might point toward France’s colonial landgrabs, the brutalities of the Algerian war, the marginalization of immigrants to the banlieue in cities like Paris, or the country’s progressive Americanization. But I am not phlegmatic, nor sanguine, nor choleric. I’m a melancholic, whose moods are governed by black bile and spleen. Unlike the cholerics who hunger for vengeance or the sanguines who champion a quick return to restaurant terraces and dance clubs as a sign of defiance, my saturnine self looks toward the attacks with weariness and despondency. Last night at my university, during the candlelight vigil that honored the victims of the Paris slaughter as well as those of recent attacks in Kenya, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, I kept thinking, “Humanity’s will is to self-extinguish. There is no other explanation. Everything in the world is set up for us to live right, and yet we persistently choose to live wrong.” The November breeze made my candle flicker each time I had the thought. The wax ran down the candle but congealed before reaching my fingers, fixed in time by the breeze. 

That was last night. And just now on campus, I sat near a stage and watched the Peruvian Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa in conversation with Philippe Lançon, a French journalist whose face was partially pulverized by bullets from the Kouachi brothers’ guns in the Charlie Hebdo office in January. This conversation had been planned for months. No one could have anticipated that the room would be filled with people trying to understand a newer, bloodier slaughter in the same city. They showed us Charlie Hebdo cartoons as they spoke about freedom of speech, fanaticism, barbarism, and recovery. The darkness of French humor has always aligned well with the darkness in my own soul. A world without space for this kind of humor would be bankrupt. Philippe looked small there on stage, a frail silhouette before the looming cartoon of Mohammed or of the Frenchman riddled with terrorist bullet holes whose just-drunk champagne spouts out of his body like a fountain. Philippe looks over his shoulder at the cartoons and smiles at them, even though a quarter of his jaw has been shredded. He’d played dead as the brothers walked from body to body after the room had fallen silent, shouting “Allahu akbar” and delivering one bullet per corpse, systematically. 

In her essay “On Enmity,” Mary Gordon keeps a notebook of free associations on the figure of the enemy. There is no system to her system; she just freestyles her way through the word “enemy,” improvising a definition here and tossing out an anecdote or distraught memory there. She works through several problems: Is an adversary the same as an enemy? Is it wrong to delight in the death of an enemy? How do animals choose which members of their own species are enemies or allies? What caught me in her piece was a short anecdote about Georges Bernanos, the right-wing French Catholic writer and Simone Weil, the left-wing French factory worker and Christian mystic. Gordon writes:

Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos both, or each, traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, Bernanos for the right-wing press, Weil for the left. Each wrote: This war is hopeless, it is impossible to tell good from evil, there is such evil, such cruelty, such barbarity on both sides. Simone Weil wrote to Bernanos, “I thought you were my enemy, but you are my brother.”

Does anything about this anecdote apply to our terror war? The body of the civilian has become the prime site of cruelty in this shapeless war. Civilian bodies are torn to ribbons by drones, by AK47s, by homemade bombs, anytime and anywhere: at home, a place coded in theory as sound and safe; at the university, a haven for the humanities and humanity; at the peace rally, whose symbolism is too disturbing for proponents of terror; in the airplane, the thread that tethers one place to another; at holy sites, where God’s untouchables are touched; at weddings, where the matrimony of souls is witnessed; at the hotel, the locus of leisure. The primary targets aren’t just bodies but also abstractions like comfort, safety, and peace of mind. I wonder how many pacifists are left who have thus far resisted the pull of enmity. The ugliness of these acts lures even the most indulgent hearts toward hatred. 

Dave Eggers’ “The Man at the River” somehow gets us closer to understanding our encounter with those who differ from us. His innocuous tale is jam-packed with truth. An American man visiting South Sudan has a dilemma. His Sudanese friend wants him to cross a river with him, but the American, who has a small wound on his leg, doesn’t want to risk contracting “some parasite or exotic microbe” in the river. He tells his friend he’d prefer not to cross. His inept American politeness knots up the exchange between them until it cannot be untangled. The cultural misunderstanding continues, with another friend arriving and trying to persuade the American man that according to their customs, the Sudanese are required to accommodate him and that he, in return, is required to accept their hospitality. They recruit a passing fisherman to shuttle the hapless American across the river, against his will. The Sudanese are irritated, “forming, or confirming, an idea of this American and all Westerners: that they will not walk across a shallow river, that they insist on commandeering canoes from busy fishermen and being pulled across while they squat inside. That they are afraid to get wet.” The American man fails to convey his inner monologue to them, a monologue that would have explained everything, perhaps: 

But the American did not want to go across the river at all. He did not ask for this. He did not ask for any of this. All he wants is to be a man sitting by a riverbed. He doesn’t want to be a guest, or a white man, or a stranger or a strange man, or someone who needs to cross the river to see anything at all.

We did not ask for any of this. We are not our governments. We never conquered anyone. We did not personally launch empires. If anyone is complicit in anything, it is that by fact of birth, we are woven into a system in such a way that even going off the grid is not enough to extract ourselves fully from history and politics. The grid is everywhere anyway. The roots of all of this were festering before we were even born. We are fighting the battles of our forebears. Like Eggers’ American, we want to push a reset button that doesn’t exist. We want to unravel the stereotypes of ourselves, to emphasize our singularity in a system that tries to uniformize us. We want to exist away from demands to accommodate or be accommodated. We just want to be. We are jarred that global politics – about which we know almost nothing – might loot us of life and limb. 

This is our great dilemma in the moment of encounter with the world. It is easy to schematize the actions of another and to project some preconception on this schema. One only sees those features in the other that best confirm what one already believes. I sympathize with Eggers’ American, having lived similar hopeless moments in which I failed to get across what I really meant through all my cultural fumbling. “I’m not one of them,” you try to convey, referring to the caricatural Americans on the television. The American is much more complex than global and domestic media allows. This is true of every population on the planet. Reductive portraits are in part the cause of bloodshed. 

In terms of cultural (un)translatability, the example that has stayed lodged in my mind since the attacks last Friday is the band Eagles of Death Metal, whose members are now undoubtedly traumatized for life. How to explain to a religious fanatic the subtleties, ironies, richnesses of such a name, of such music? How to explain to them that metal is a bloodless outlet for people across the globe? That the tough exterior of metal dudes can only be matched by the tenderness of their insides? My brother is a metal drummer whose various band names have always referred to mortality or evil or violence. From the outside, it is easy to read all of these signs as the devil’s work. But read more closely and spend your life with metal dudes as I have, and you’ll discover that the vast majority of these gentle giants use their music as armor against the oppressive aspects of capitalism and corrupt power, against conformity and the surrender to injustice. Surely every young man of our time, across the globe, is faced with the forked road, making one of several choices: destruction of self, destruction of others, or an attempt at reconciliation with the pitiless planet. It seems unlikely that solid body six-strings will replace Kalashnikovs any time in the near future, but I can’t help but hope that some young man, somewhere, will understand that raging against the machine can take form as fertility or impotence. Destruction is ultimately the choice for impotence. 

I take comfort in the fact that in this battle against the impotent abstraction called “terror,” we have on our side the fertile impulses of music, art, literature, (mostly) free speech, sex, experimentation, science, philosophy, and other forms of creation. For this reason, we’ve already won.

Christy Wampole is an essayist and assistant professor of French literature at Princeton University. Her first book, titledThe Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation, was published in 2015 and analyzes various aspects of American culture, including awkwardness, distraction, self-infantilization, irony, and consumerism. Her upcoming book, titled Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, will appear in spring of 2016 and explores the overlap of politics and ecology, genealogy and identity, as they relate to the tendency of imagining ourselves as rooted beings. Why do we literalize the metaphor, believing ourselves to be rooted to a specific set of coordinates or a specific cultural heritage?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

BAE 1986 read by Sven Birkerts: A Ramble Around BAE 1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick

Dear Essay Daily Readers,

Welcome to our yearly Advent Calendar. Though your store-bought Advent Calendars may well start with the first of December, ours begins today, since Advent begins today. For me, Advent—and its calendar—isn't a religious occurrence inasmuch as it is a form, a way of focusing some thinking in an unfocused, distracted age.

We started the site a few years ago largely to facilitate this kind of focused thinking and conversation about essays, essayists, and The Essay, present and past. We are told, after all, that we live in the Age of the Essay. David Shields calls Facebook a personal essay machine. For me, I'm not sure if we're in the Age of the Essay or not, but there sure do seem to be a lot of them. And it's no surprise that the Age of the Internet, the most rhizomatic information technology since the book (and possibly ever), corresponds to the age of the essay, the most obviously rhizomatic of our literary forms.

There are a lot of essays out there. This is just one of a thousand (a million?) published today. That's largely why we're here: to draw attention to the good ones, the most interesting ones, whether present or past. This year we'd like to direct our attention to the Best American Essays series, founded in 1986 and edited ever since by Robert Atwan in collaboration with a yearly guest editor. The series just released its thirtieth edition—! That makes BAE the longest-running and highest-profile filter for essays that aspire to art in the last century, and, whether you agree with the guest editor's rationale or selections, or—more usually—not, you being an essayist probably, and thus by nature cranky, BAE always feels essential to talk about. So this year we're writing about and to and after the Best American Essays.

As you know, if you've visited us before, each year during Advent we present to you an essay a day from some of our favorite writers and thinkers and people. This year we are honoring the Best American Essays series with essays each framed around one of the yearly BAE anthologies.

Though we won't be going consecutively, I do think the place to start is with Sven Birkerts, who chose the BAE's very first edition, in 1986. Allow me, then, to get out of his way. Check back each morning during Advent for another essay on another year of the BAE as read by another of our favorite writers. —Ander Monson


A Ramble Around Best American Essays 1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick

Sven Birkerts


I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel it like a stab when I open an old paperback and the binding comes apart with that sound of cracking glue. What had been whole has suddenly been rent and of course I extrapolate in all directions. It’s clear as can be that the world is going to hell.
     It happened just recently. I’d been asked if I would pick a volume of the Best American Essays series and use it as a prompt to reflect on the series and how it is with the essay these days. So I made my dutiful way up to the attic, to the shelves where my more orderly younger self had decades ago started arranging the annuals, and where they now make a fairly decent display of spines. When I extracted the very first volume—1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick—I found myself doing a little inner head-shake. The cover typography and colors were so familiar—it all came rushing back to me. I had carried the book around in my bag for years when I was teaching composition. I had assigned essays from it to my students, and had mined it for examples for the HOW TO part of my instruction. It was when I then opened—cracked--the cover that I felt the whole thing break loose in my hand.
     An insult, an injury—it was as if a part of the past itself had just calved away from the mother berg. But the mind on assignment is uncannily opportunistic. I had not even set the book aside before I was starting to sketch a notion in my head. The breakage, I thought, was a sign. That I should choose this very volume, of course.  But that I should also use the literal break as some kind of metaphor. Something about this being a rupture with the past, a big signifier…But my better sense was already countering: that was too easy a gambit, too obvious. Also, I knew before I had even looked at the Table of Contents that it would be wrong to pitch this first volume as a last link to some lost golden age, as in “they broke the mold…”
     They didn’t. The mol is fine. I’ve been reading this series for years, and can attest that the 28 successor volumes of BEA published so far represent an amazing range and diversity. The contents, reflecting the colorations of the respective editors’ sensibilities, confirm that the form is alive across the whole spectrum of races, genders, and ages (go read Roger Angell’s reflection on life in his 90s in the 2015 collection!). I bet I could name fifty current brilliant practitioners of the form without pausing for breath.
     Having staked myself on writing about Robert Atwan’s debut volume—edited by Elizabeth Hardwick--I asked myself what there was to say? Decades have passed, Ms. Hardwick has passed away, my copy of the book has all but fallen apart in my hands…Yet—here’s my lead: when I now see it here on the table next to me, I feel an old and familiar stirring of interest and possibility. The word “essay” still gets to me. But there’s also some stirring memory of what’s inside the covers, and knowing how I’ll feel when I start reading the pieces again. This is what we know about the best writing—reading does not use it up; it keeps its power. This not by virtue of the reader’s forgetfulness, but through its own intrinsic merit. The right words in the right order are that way because they can be encountered again and again. Real work does not melt away when the eye registers it.
     A high-sounding assertion, I know, but it’s also one that can be tested. And I’ve decided to do that here. Not exhaustively, but suggestively--by sampling, by opening the book at random as the ancients did with Virgil’s Aeneid—though not so much for divination as for a kind of quality control. It is not the future I’m looking toward so much as the not-so-distant past. Nearly 30 years have passed since publication of the collection--can I find through this exercise some confirmation of the lasting value—the artistic merit—of the writing inside?
     Making my first random pass, I land on Gerald Early’s essay “The Passing of Jazz’s Old Guard,” (page 107) and after reading around for  context settle on this bit of reflection on the career of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk:
I suspect that Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) knew that Monk would cease to be vital once he gained wide acceptance, and so Baraka wrote the essay called “Recent Monk” which appeared in Downbeat in 1963, an essay which said in one breath that success wouldn’t spoil T.S. Monk, while saying in another breath, ‘say that it ain’t so, Thelonious, that you sold out to the moguls on the hill.’
To my ear, and my very amateur apprehension of all things jazz, this seems critical-reflective prose of a very high order. It situates us in a historical moment, balancing off necessary accuracies of description with an emotional plea that is attributed to Amiri Baraka but also orchestrated within the sentence so that we feel the pressure of the author’s own feeling. Though it’s not within my scope to discuss it here, the essay goes on to become an impassioned exploration of the trials facing the black artist—and man—in a music industry (culture) controlled by white money and white artistic criteria. It would not be beside the point, either, to remark the jazzy syncopation of the sentence itself, the Monkish wobble of that “’say it ain’t so, Thelonious…’”
     My next stab plants me inside Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing”  (17), where I find:
If the writer is taken to be the work’s way of getting itself written, a sort of lightning rod for an accumulation of atmospheric disturbances, a St. Sebastian absorbing in his tattered breast the arrows of the Zeitgeist, this changes not very much the traditional view of the artist.
Barthelme’s essay, written back in the heyday of literary theory, offering itself as a  smart lay reading of that whole vast academic agitation (it’s hard to bring it all back now), hits an intellectually bemused tone, an ironic knowingness that has fallen largely from favor. Still, we can applaud the cleverness of the conceit, Barthelme’s turning Richard Dawkins idea of the “selfish gene”—that our point as humans is mainly to pass genetic contents along—to artistic ends; we can also wrinkle our foreheads over whether or not his view really is the traditional view. Barthelme is, as he was never not, clever and provocative. For the ages? This is harder to say, as we are apparently not here to judge, but only to serve as vessels for the necessary work to come into being.
     Open yet again, this time to find William Gass’s  “China Still Lifes” on page 155. The observant nit-picker following along at home will have noticed by now that I am only looking to odd-numbered right-facing pages. I do so because I can hold these pages flat while supporting the left side of the book between index and fore-finger, thereby not aggravating the problem of the glue-shattered spine any further.
The big cities now have vast blank squares like Tian Anmen in Beijing—they are people pastures, really—fit mainly for mass meetings, hysteria and hypnotism, while the new wide and always wounding central arteries are suitable for totalitarian parades and military reviews; although it was no different in the old days, since some of the courtyards in the Imperial Palace can hold a hundred thousand heads together in a state of nodding dunder. 
     I once referred to Gass as our greatest living “champion of the sentence,” and this nugget does not make me change my view. The passage, from the writer’s travelogue of a visit to China, intrigues in its construction and thinking, but also for the eerie hindsight reminder that three years later that same square, widely known  as Tianamen, would be the site of an explosive and violent mass demonstration. Gass’s sentence-making—and this one can be taken as completely representative—has always been sui generis, propelled by his love of sound-play (“nodding dunder”), his unexpected twists of diction (“fit mainly for mass meetings, hysteria and hypnotism,” “always wounding central arteries”…), and proclivity for outspoken assertions like the one ventured here. Gass has, I believe, appeared in a number of the BEA volumes since this first inclusion.
     Finally, I open to Cynthia Ozick’s  “First Day of School: Washington Square, 1946 on page 219. A woman! And I did not rig it that way, either. It’s true, Ozick is one of only three women essayists included, along with Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Hollander—but the gender representation has improved significantly in recent years. Her selection, like a number of others in the book, is a memoir essay. Here are the first two sentences:
I first came down to Washington Square on a colorless February morning in 1946. I was seventeen and a half years old and was carrying my lunch in a brown paper bag, just as I had carried it to high school only a month before. 
Though Ozick can do fresh lyric compression with the best of them, here she opts for the straight clean strokes. Two adjectives, “colorless” and “brown,” and just the basic establishing facts. I might be guilty of projecting my sense of Ozick’s great and proven gifts onto what I read, finding in these simple sentences the confidence of tone that is the surest indication that a writer fully owns her material? But no, reading the full essay confirms me. Ozick here has the prose equivalent of a steady camera hand. She also has the shrewd instinct that identifies the resonant detail and knows how to position it as she builds a beautifully paced and proportioned remembrance of her literary coming-of-age.
     I stop after four. I am of course well aware that one could do what I have just done with any volume from Atwan’s series and that in choosing as I have I have argued nothing. I have maybe, at best, extracted a tissue sample from the debut gathering. But truly, what can I say about this grouping that could not be said of many that have followed, and that happily keep coming? Do I see any evidence of the essay somehow changing in this past quarter century, or would it be more honest to propose, again, that any perceived differences in style and subject have mainly to do with the sensibility of that year’s editor? Are we less staid now, more lyrical, freer with various kinds of open structure? I consider Joseph Brodsky’s relentless observational iterations in “Flight From Byzantium,” or Barthelme’s careening intellectual improvisation, and I say ‘no.’ I look back at Joyce Carol Oates’ sui generis take on boxing, which somehow gets Rocky Marciano and William Butler Yeats into the same paragraph, and Julian Barnes’s fascinating flanerie on a theme of Flaubert—and I say it again: no. These essays are as assertive and edge-testing as any being written today. There is, true, less evidence of the collagist’s fracture-and-rejoin aesthetic, or the kind of two- and three-ply lyric weave that we see so much of these days. But at the root, in the place of imagining and daring to speak truth, things don’t feel different at all. The essays of 1986 are on a direct continuum with work by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Charles D’Ambrosio…
     What the collection does affirm for me—it did so all those years ago, and does so now, as well—is that the form remains a species as adaptable as the cockroach, and that it flourishes exactly to the extent that thinking and invention flourish in any given time. A gathering like this not only legitimizes and disseminates our flights of imagining and reportage, but it also heartens and inspires. “A writer,” said Saul Bellow famously, “is a reader moved to emulation.” My experience with the BAE series—reading it and teaching from it—confirms this.  I have only to only to see the individual volumes standing at attention all in a row and my typing fingers start to twitch. The writer’s version of air-guitar, slightly embarrassing.


Sven Birkerts' most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). He currently directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the journal AGNI at Boston University.

Monday, November 23, 2015

S. L. Wisenberg: Thou Shalt Not be Political

Thou Shall Not Be Political 


And lo there is a great fear among you
among ye gathered here
for it is said 
that practitioners 
of the art 
of creative nonfiction 
shall observe, they shall observe closely,
they shall note 
the dialogue of others
and the actions of others
that they may observe or
recollect such things
and they shall manufacture the braid
the collage the mosaic the lyric and the 
the hermit crab
the spiral going up
the spiral coming down 
the spiral spiraling out of control
and back
and the spirulina—
the spiritual
the essay and the memoir—the rant
the travelogue the commentary the parody
the satire the confession the diary entry 
the monologue the nature piece
the juxtaposition and the scene, 
yes, the scene,
most holy of holies: 
and the sketch
the review, the review-essay
the essay-review
the stunt, being one year of this, or another 
of that
the stunt double
the profile
the portrait
the double portrait
the notes 
the notations
the meditation the consolation
the column the feuilleton (how European)
the experiment, the aphorism
the list the letter 
the lyric and the flash
the mini and the maxi
the micro and the macro
the hoax the mystery
the dreamy mythic and the new mythic and
the proto-new-wave mythic
the personal reportage
the fanciful and the frothy
the sportive, the investigation—
if it’s literary,
and journalism—if it’s literary
the interview—if it’s literary
the puzzle—if it’s literary
the biography, the history, the 
if they’re literary. 


the polemical the diatribe-al
the argument-ical
the political, the contextual and theoretical
the Marxist or the
feminist, neither Third Wave nor Second.

the analysis of power
the radical
the partisan-ical
the fundamental
the conserva-cal
the liberal
the neo-revolutionary
the post-revolutionary, the pre-revolutionary
the nationalist or the universalist
the regionalist or
the anti-nationalistthe public
the intellectually public
the publicly intellectual

The ‘60s are over
and to be political is to be
too political.
To be political is to be
politically correct
politically incorrect.
To be political is to be
polemical. To be polemical
is too much 
to be.
In short,
to be political is to be


Your Muse is Not Neutral.

White is not the default race.

You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

If you’re not part of the solution
you’re part of the problem.

If you do not criticize the status quo
you are supporting it. 

You don’t live in a vacuum.

We all live inside of history 
whether we acknowledge it
not. It comes before 
and after us and we follow
its stream. 


Why we can’t write politically:

I’m not a political person.
I’m too white to be multicultural.
I don’t think that way.
Everything isn’t political.
I’m just writing about myself.
Politics will make my work
will corrupt
my finely honed
will turn it robotic
and besides
I’m middle class
or upper middle class
or lower upper class
or lower middle upper class
or middle upper upper class
or one percent of the 1 percent.
I have no right
to be political.


Every ten years or so
I hear the same thing
from this former student
from a beginning journalism class,
back when first years were called
Every ten years or so 
he thanks me
because I said, 
If you state the race
of someone in your story,
you should state the race
of EVERYONE in your story.
If you identify the blacks
the Hispanics the Chinese
the Asians the African-Americans
the Chicanos the Native Americans
the East Asian Indians &
so on.
if you identify them by their color
their background their background color
if you identify them
and not the people who are
then you are saying,
White is the default race.
White is the normal race.
White is the standard race.
White is Us and everyone else
is Other.
You are saying all that
without saying
a thing.


I want to talk about
Marxism and feminism,
about how you can use
a Marxist or a feminist
to evaluate your work.
To see it in new light. To identify the power
relations—to note who has power and who
does not, to identify class, not necessarily class
struggle, but class and the status quo—
to call attention to patriarchy—
but I will ease into
by talking about


My friend the writer Natalia Rachel Singer
uses this exercise:
Write a first sentence about the year you
were born and link it with something
cultural/historical/political. Or link a 
personal event with a public event.

Her examples:
“In the year 1908, Pierre Bonnard painted
‘The Bathroom’ and my mother was born.”
—Mary Gordon, “Still Life”

“When the stock market reached its peak, my
mother came to town to buy me a bra.”
—Natalia (herself)

This is from a book I am writing
about the American South: “I used to place myself 
like this: I was born 10 years after
the end of the war (for me, The War is World 
War II). Only recently have I 
considered: I was born in a 
segregated hospital in Houston, Texas, five months
after Emmett Till’s tortured
body was pulled out of the
Tallahatchie River in 
Mississippi, twelve days
after Rosa Parks refused to 
give up her seat on a 
Montgomery, Alabama, bus.”

In this way
I am changing identities—moving
from an almost-victim
of genocide—if my grandparents
had not immigrated
to the US. In this way
I am moving from a blameless
role to that of—potential
oppressor: a Southern white
in the age
Jim Crow. A Southern white
woman led to the lynching
of Emmett Till—he either looked her
in the eye or
whistled at her
or else whistled as a way
to keep
from stuttering. The Chicago
kid did not know
his place. And the
white man 
had to teach him a


I read a fine
about a small
animal. The essay expanded
to embrace the notion of 
boundaries and ambiguity
and the nature of time.
The writer said, The habitat
of this small creature
is disappearing.
If the writer had used
a Marxist
or was informed by
the writer might have
Why is the habitat
from the munching and
gulping of the place
that this animal—this frog
or turtle or bird this
otter or salamander
or fish—
Where is the
unseen POWER?


This is Rebecca Solnit on the 
California Gold Rush museums. 
“When you tour the museums of the 
Gold Country, as the Sierra Nevada
foothills are still called, you see
children dressing up in historical
costumes and playing at panning for gold—“
is pure description, eye witness. But
the rest of the sentence
which I’ll read in a second,
is Opinion,
is Political
conveys Attitude
it enlarges the topic
and more rings
is the rest of the sentence:
“but it might be more educational for
them to play at testing for clean water,
imitating mercury-poisoning madness,
reading a corporate prospectus, or 
conducting a wildlife survey. More
educational, but less fun….” 
[“The Price of Gold, the Value of
Water,” in Storming the Gates of 
Paradise: Landscapes for Politics]


Solnit considers:
WHO has the power and
who is making the decisions and
who benefits? questions that can
overwhelm. You don’t have to answer
everything yourself. In The Adventures of
Cancer Bitch
I quoted a blog
I blame the 
patriarchy. I
quoted a book
that criticized pink-
ribbon culture. In my notes
in back—I love my notes
in back—I gave proof of
disparities in the death rates of
black women
and white women
with cancer. In the notes
I gave proof
for my claims about
the link between cancer
and the degradation of
the environment.


In my book I wrote
about gender. My aim
was to begin with the
personal and expand
to the political. I wrote:
“Once in high school a
girl looked at my fingers
and exclaimed: ‘You have men’s
hands’ because I had hair growing
on them. Hair that I must have
bleached at least once
when I was bleaching the
on my entire
arms. “We bleached
and shaved—‘a way of lying
about our bodies,’
Adrienne Rich was 
writing and thinking
at that time, though
in my teens I’d never heard of
her. It was female to shave our legs
and underarms, but still
shaving was something we did
so we wouldn’t look
manly.” In my notes
in back I quote
Rich: “We have been expected
to lie with our bodies: to bleach,
redden, unkink or curl our
hair, pluck eyebrows, shave
armpits, wear padding
in various places or lace
ourselves, take little
clothes that emphasized our


Because you have choice. Because there is a
crossroads. Because you can describe what is
right there in front of you. Or
you can Expose with Exposition
you can Expand
with Expansion
from a tiny circle
to rings and rings
of concentric circles
from it.
Then you can go
and deep
and deeper.
As deep
as you


S.L. Wisenberg performed this piece at the NonfictioNow 2015 session, "What Does Theory Have to Do with It?" Her most recent book is The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (U of Iowa Press) and she's working on an essay collection about the U.S. South. She is an editor and coach for writers near and far.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Jill Talbot in conversation with Sarah Einstein, winner of the 2014 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction

In her award-winning book, Mot: A Memoir, Sarah Einstein begins each chapter with an epigraph. For the closing chapter, she turns to Rumi:

All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where
did I come from, and what am I supposed to be 
doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, 
I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.

Isn’t this what essayists do, think about where we come from and what we’re supposed to do or be, feeling as if we’re far away from ourselves? “My limitations are more obvious to me,” Einstein declares in the final chapter, “and I now know that wanting to do a thing isn’t the same as being able to do it.” 

Einstein’s Mot is a moving account of her friendship with a homeless man who “[struggles] with the idea of home, mourning the ones he hasn’t had and coming to terms with the idea of settling for this one, at least for now.” Yet Mot doesn’t struggle alone, as Einstein also reveals the troubles within her own settings and settlings. I, too, know this conflict well-the desire to be elsewhere when nowhere feels like my current address. 

I didn’t know anything about Mot when I began reading, but I did know one thing about Sarah Einstein, who I met for the first time in the summer of 2014. After our initial meeting, we kept in touch with brief e-mail exchanges, a FB message here and there, but we didn’t really know each other beyond each other’s work in the essay world. During one of those exchanges, I mentioned a difficulty in my life, and without hesitation, Sarah Einstein offered to help. 

It’s this quality of character that is central to Mot, a woman who helps without hesitation, but she’s also a woman “[trying] to save herself.” A woman who wonders, as we all do now and again (and again), what it is she is supposed to be doing. 

We conducted our conversation via e-mail. 


You mention in your Acknowledgments that Mot knew you were writing about him. When in the friendship did you begin writing about him and why? 

Well, now I have to make a confession, which is that I wrote about Mot specifically to be able to make my visits to him seem reasonable to other people. If you tell your friends, your family, “Oh, I’m going to drive to Texas to visit a friend who is living there behind an old abandoned industrial building,” they will shake their heads and try to dissuade you. But if you add “because I’m going to write a book about him and the brilliant ways he finds to survive a very difficult life,” suddenly most of them will agree that this is a fabulous idea and a few of them will even offer you camping gear to help you on your journey. Mot and I both recognized the improbability of our friendship, and acknowledged the very reasonable concerns of my very reasonable friends, and concocted the idea of the book together. I can’t remember if it was his idea or mine, initially. I think he may have jokingly said, “You should write a book about all the bleep-ups over here” or something similar, and that we slowly came to see the idea not as a joke, but instead as a shared project that could give us a reason to keep the friendship alive. 

But here is the thing. The book started out as just that: a ruse to make the visits seem less ridiculous to other people. At the time, I never thought I would actually finish it, much less publish it. I certainly didn’t have that kind of confidence in myself, or in my ability to effectively write about our friendship in a way that would matter to anyone but the two of us. It was, instead, like Mot’s plans to build a front-and-back pack, or an all-wooden, solar paneled trailer for his car: something fun to plan but which we both believed could not actually be done. It was kind of a surprise to me, then, when I found that I actually did have the makings of a book in the copious notes I’d taken.

What’s the oddest thing you jotted a note down on—can you recall? Do you still have it? Or were your notes more structured, methodical?

I think I still have my written notes, in a box in our room of we-are-always-moving boxes, but if you asked me to put my hands on them, I couldn’t just now. But the oddest thing in my notes isn’t written at all, but rather collected, and I could go and find this collection because I always know where it is. It’s a small shoebox stuffed with plastic baggies full of the smells of my time with Mot—dry alfalfa, a rag soaked in the Dollar Tree laundry detergent he used, another in WD40, some loose leaf lapsang souchong for the smell of wood smoke, a few dried grapefruit rinds—that I used to trigger memory while working. I believe that smell is a powerful tool for the memoirist, that it allows us to access memory in a way the other senses don’t. Other writers often laugh at me when I tell them about this box of collected smells, but it was an invaluable tool. 

[Thirty minutes later, Sarah sent me another e-mail.]

It occurs to me that maybe I've been obtuse, and that there is something in what you were getting toward earlier, which is that when I took notes—as I did always—Mot would sometimes look over the notes themselves (never the drafts) and correct things, usually in the transcribed conversations. Sometimes, this made them unusable, as he would "correct' them in a way that made them false, not because he was lying but because of how delusion overwrote his memories, but that only happened rarely. More often, he simply remembered the actual words a little more accurately than I did. Because of his idiosyncratic way of speaking, and because of the importance of getting his voice right on the page, this was key to making the memoir work, both textually and ethically. 

I’m fascinated by the collection of artifacts and the trigger of smell for you as a writer. I’m that way with songsif I want to remember what it felt like to be in a certain room or sitting at a bar or driving down the highway, I’ll put the song that was playing on repeat. It feels as if I’m sitting inside the song and the memory, and I stay there as long as I need until I feel I’ve put the reader back there, too. 

I want to ask you about the experience of winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, a coveted award that places you in company with incredibly talented essayists such as Marcia Aldrich, Sonja Livingston, Jill Christman, Michael Martone, Lia Purpura, and Scott Russell Sanders, to name a few. Mot: A Memoir is a memoir-in-essays, is it not? Each piece stands alone, and a couple of the essays double-back in time so that we’re not always moving forward but going back to reconsider a lingering moment or an individual (the essay about Wilbur my favorite—I nearly wept reading it). I think Essay Daily readers would love to hear your thoughts about your choice to approach and structure Mot in this way. 

That’s interesting, because I thought I was writing traditional chapters, although obviously the one involving Wilbur—which did appear, in slightly different form, as a stand-alone essay in The Sun—is an exception. If the book reads as a series of stand-alone essays, I imagine it’s because I’m so much more comfortable writing in the short form that my chapters each have their own narrative arcs. 

One of the real challenges of writing this book was that I felt I had to leave most of my writerly tricks off the page. I love to work with form—the collage essay, the hermit crab essay, the lyric—but I felt this story had to be straight narrative. Mot himself brings so much that is lyric to the page, and I knew that the way he uses language and tracking his interior life was already going to be a challenge for the reader. So this, more than anything else I’ve written, and probably more than anything I will write, is a straight up narrative recounting. It was strange, and not completely pleasant, to have to make my own prose so plain and the structure of the book as linear as it is, but I think the story demanded that simplicity. 

You could look at these as traditional chapters, as each first sentence carries over from some previous chapter, but you could also read each one as beginning in media res, because they do work on their own (I did feel that narrative arc in each one). As for your “straight up narrative recounting,” I always tell my students that there is material we need to let alone, to allow the content to stand on its own because any commentary or complexity becomes an intrusion. The material is enough.

The other night I was talking to my students about writing portraits. One of the aspects of writing other people is that we have to find a relationship between our selves and the person we’re writing aboutwhether that person is a contrast, a mirror, or a fear of what we worry we might become. Do you think in writing Mot you were writing some aspect of yourself? What was it about him that initially inspired you?

There was, indeed, a lot of commonality between Mot and me: we were both socially awkward people, we were both trying to survive a community of people who frightened us, and we were both people who believed things that might not be true and who needed to question those beliefs in a regular basis. For Mot, those beliefs were his delusions. For me, it was coming to terms with things I’d believed about myself—that I would be a good wife, that I would be a good advocate for the homeless, that I was strong enough to face the small violences of working in that community—which were turning out not to be true. 

What fascinated me about Mot was how much better he was than I have ever been at navigating this need to constantly examine what he believed to be true, and how ingenious he was at finding solutions to the difficult problems that result from living on shifting sands. I felt a kinship with, but even more an admiration for, him. But even as I say that, I also know that I need to say this is not a book about learning life lessons from the exoticized other. There was a point in the writing where an agent was interested in the manuscript, but wanted me to make it more Tuesdays with Morrie meets The Blind Side. I actually wasted some time writing toward that goal, until I realized that what I was writing was horrible: it objectified Mot, and it suggested that a good way for white, middle-class, middle-aged women to get a better understanding of their own difficulties was to tourist in the difficulties of others. It’s not, and this isn’t that sort of book. This is, instead, a book about two people who had a common affection for one another trying—and ultimately failing—to have a friendship in spite of some significant challenges. Any lessons learned along the way were incidental, though of course there were some, because if you are living your life you should also always be learning from it. 

You write that to Mot, the value of your friendship wasn’t “that [you] might change his life but that [you] could accept it as it was.” I think the narratives the agent wanted belies that truth—because in those Hollywood/Oprah narratives, it’s all about how a life was changed. You’re writing about accepting a life for how someone chooses to live it. Beautiful. 

Let’s talk about your work with the homeless. In the epilogue, you write “I’m done with being on the front lines of the battle against homelessness. I go to graduate school instead, studying writing instead of social work.” In the final pages, you include alarming statistics as well as suggestions for ways in which readers can be involved and better informed about policy issues while also highlighting people like Mot who “simply can’t live in traditional housing.” You insist, “We need to find a way to create communities that can be inclusive of them.” I was moved and inspired by the epilogueurged, even. Do you see this book as a return to the front lines of the battle, and do you hope that it has an impact on instilling empathy and action for the homeless in its readers? 

The front lines of the battle against the violence of poverty are a long way from the comfortable homes and university-subsidized grad programs in which I wrote this book, so no, I don’t think of it as a return to the front lines. It’s work I cherished when I was younger, but one of the lessons of the time in my life this book describes is that it’s not work I have the energy to do well any longer, and I think doing this work badly would be a much greater sin than leaving it to those who are able to do it well. 

But not everything happens on the front lines. There are important battles to be fought in changing the ways we understand both the causes of poverty and the ways to ameliorate the hardships it causes. My hope for this book was that it would open the reader up to a more compassionate understanding of the people who live on the margins of our communities, and that it would trouble what we think we know about them from the media and our own, often very shallow, encounters. 

I think you achieve this because you elucidate the ways in which Mot is like all of us. He wants to live the way he wants to live, even if it’s not understood and accepted by others. Another thing, and this may be my reading, but he wants to keep some parts of himself to himself, as if “he’s afraid of leaving a part of himself behind, though he can’t or won’t say why.” And as for that compassionate understanding? You’re so incredibly conscientious, empathetic, and careful around himas we all should be with other people, those we know well and those we only know in passing.

I want to ask you about a fellow memoirist’s thoughts on the state of the memoir. In a recent article, Debra Monroe, author of My Unsentimental Education, regrets the focus in current memoir on trauma and addiciton (the recovery memoir) and instead longs for the memoir of discovery. She argues, “Memoir means ‘based in memory,’ but in the hive-mind it means ‘memory of trauma.’ I want memoir to mean based in any memory that includes curiosity, analysis, and dissent.” 

She also notes, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek. On every page, a smart narrator ponders human desires, freedoms, fears, impasses. And these books manifest in shapes so variable the idea of a storytelling arc seems renewable too—as motley and startling as a dream.” 

I’m hoping you might respond to Monroe’s thoughts. In particular, I wonder how you think of Mot within the context of memoir, either traditional, contemporary, or current. 

I loved that article by Monroe, and the points she makes about the way we—at this moment, I think not before and hopefully not for long—think of memoir as necessarily the story of trauma and recovery. I think this limits not only the books that make it into the hands of readers, but also colors the way in which readers encounter memoir. I’ve heard from readers who, because they expected Mot to be centered around trauma, read it in such a way as to actually invent a central trauma when there genuinely isn’t one. Rather, there are two people—one of whom has a difficult life and certainly more than his share of traumatic events in it—trying to discover whether or not a friendship can survive their differences. 

I, like Monroe, want more memoirs of discovery. I also want memoirs of joy, memoirs of accomplishment, memoirs of quiet lives lived well, memoirs of adventure. Memoirs about nothing at all except what it means to be human, and memoirs about very big things, indeed. The only thing that constrains the genre is the need to tell the truth of lived experience, and I want the fullness of that experience, not only its difficulties. 

Can you talk a bit more about that idea that “the need to tell the truth of lived experiences” constrains the genre, because as we’re here on this Essay Daily stage, I’m sure that readers would also like to hear how that relates to the essay. 

I’m one of those people who believes that memoir needs to be nonfictional, and that because they are the stories of our lived experience, they need to adhere to the truth of those experiences. (I know, I’m such a killjoy.) Let me say that I don’t think this applies to all essays; for instance, I love BJ Hollars’ Dispatches from the Drownings, which neither recounts his own lived experience nor pretends to be wholly nonfictional. But for the essay or longform work that is also memoiristic, I believe that we are obligated to do our best to tell the truth, to constrain ourselves to what actually happened rather than what would have made a more compelling story or a cleaner ending.

This got a little bit troublesome during the time when I was trying to sell Mot through more conventional means. At one time, I was working with a potential publisher who wanted me to end the story earlier than I do, to leave the reader believing that Mot and I had succeeded in creating for him a less difficult life. She wanted the book to, in her words, give the reader a happy ending. Well, that’s not how the things actually happened, and to pretend that it was—not, I acknowledge, by making things up, but by leaving out the truth of the matter—struck me as a kind of dishonesty that my understanding of the value of memoir doesn’t allow. 

I read memoir to expand my understanding of what it means to be human, and the best memoir does just that for me. It gives me insight into how other people do and don’t function through the complexities of life, which gives me insight into my own ways of (not) getting by in the world and, I like to believe, makes me kinder toward others. If I obscure the way things turned out, if I smooth out the difficulties, claim false heroics, make my struggles seem bigger than they genuinely were, or tell whatever untruth I’m tempted to tell, then I think I’m breaking the agreement between the memoirist and the reader in a way that is both genuinely meaningful and harmful. 

But, oh, it’s tempting. As I was writing, I wanted to grant my past self a little more grace than she had, paint a gentler picture of my marriage to Scotti, gloss over the complicated truths about Friendship Room to paint a nobler picture of the people who frequented it. And there were early drafts where a lot of that desire to write a better version of the past leaked into the text. I’m mostly talking about how I struggle—and I assume many other writers struggle—against the impulse to put a better version of myself on the page, to write loved ones as more noble than they are, to see my own troubles as bigger than perhaps they really were, when I go back to visit my past in order to write about it. It’s hard to confront our past selves without wanting to gentle them a little bit, give them some of the wisdom we’ve gained since we lived in those moments, and—maybe just for me?—the writing is also always a little bit about calling myself on my own bullshit.

By its nature, the essay doesn’t have a happy endinghell, it doesn’t even have an ending, really. Or not one we would hope formaybe that’s why we essay? To question those endings, to write and rewrite in an attempt to unwrite them.

Maybe a way to end our conversation is to ask you a question about questions. One of your mentors, Dinty W. Moore, has this to say about questions and endings: “My teaching over the years has migrated from a ‘what is this essay saying?’ to a ‘what is this essay asking?’ approach, because it is the journey of interrogation, the search for meaning, that is essential, not necessarily any answer or conclusion.” 

What is Mot asking?

I hope that Mot’s asking a couple of questions. The most obvious, and so maybe the least interesting, is whether or not friendship can be enough to make the difference between a livable difficult life and an unlivable one. And, although I think it would be easy to read the book and think that the answer to that question is no¸ I’d like to point out that my ex-husband’s devotion did indeed make exactly that difference in the life of Rita, his client-turned-friend, and that it was that friendship that began as the model for my friendship with Mot. So I don’t think the book provides any easy, or obvious, conclusions on that.

But I also hope it’s asking a deeper, more interesting question about how we could make room in our lives, our communities, and our public policy for people who can’t, or don’t want to, live the way most of us do. When we talk about homelessness, we assume that the fix is to provide the homeless with places to live, because we’ve reduced a complex set of issues to a word that implies a single, simple, easily fixable problem. But, of course, sometimes a home is not the answer. 

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. She is also the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Two of the essays included in The Way We Weren't were named Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015, and her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus.

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.