Monday, July 18, 2016

Chelsea Biondolillo: On Shells


My grandmother taught me the word beachcombing. She taught me how it was done, too. My grandparents would take me with them, “down the coast,” on long summer weekends, and we would stay in cheap, sagging motels just off Hwy 101, and in the mornings, my grandmother would get up very early and go out to walk along the beach. If I woke up on time, I could go with her. The threat was there, that if I didn’t, I couldn’t, but I’m not sure it was ever exacted.

We would walk or drive to an access point, and then down to the wet sand line, which was easier to walk, and I would look for shells while she looked for birds or interesting pieces of driftwood. If she found either, she would take pictures with her heavy Canon. Later, in art school, it would be my Canon, but I didn’t imagine that at the time. I was busy stuffing broken shells in my pockets. Broken, because—my grandmother would tell me—the beachcombers had gotten there first and had gotten all the good ones.

She would tell me that I’d slept in too long or I didn’t like early enough mornings, and so I’d have to be fine with broken shells. I was fine with them. I still don’t like mornings.

I learned about borrowing forms for nonfiction long before I ever heard Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s term “hermit crab essay.” I was in a graduate workshop with an entomologist turned ethics philosopher, and he thought it would be interesting and crazy to use found forms to write a bunch of short form essays. When I first heard him explain what we would be doing (birth certificate as essay, check register as essay, tax form as essay), I had my doubts.

I’d had a plan for graduate school: I wanted to learn to be an environmental writer. I wanted to learn how to write narrative journalism. I did not want to waste a semester writing throw away work.

I complained, even. For which now, I am sorry, because those borrowed short forms were two of my own earliest publications and they remain my favorite thing to teach. I am so thankful I don’t have to deal with undergrads as hung up on formality as I was, as worried about the prize at the end of the page.

Beachcombers need three things to succeed: discipline, perseverance, and acuity.

Discipline to get up first, to chase the seawater back out under almost dark gray skies, to read the charts and tables that predict the lowest tides, the greatest exposures, and to learn, by repetition, where the land curves just so, where the deepest waves throw themselves upon the softest sand.

Perseverance to walk miles of beach, and scan billions and billions of grains of sand until their eyes swim with specks, and find nothing. And to go back out the next day as though failure were impossible.

Acuity to see the unbroken curve of aperture against all of the chips and shards the sea has thrown up, to see the unblemished whorl, the striations in deep relief among the smooth nubs of wood, the distracting pebbles of glass, the wet strings and sheets of seaweed, already rotting in the first light of morning.

When I tried to explain hermit crab essays to my own first nonfiction workshop, I saw doubt in their eyes. They were mostly freshmen, so they were more interested in doing what I asked than they were in questioning my authority. But their doubt was there in tented eyebrows and thumbs pressed into pen tops until the skin whitened. They seemed to ask: How will I do this correctly?

So I showed them a few of my favorites. Lauren Trembath-Neuberger’s  Drug Facts, Elizabeth Wade’s Variant Table, Nancy McCabe’s Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved: A Quiz, Brian Oliu’s Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connection #23.

Since that first class, I’ve added Carmella Guiol’s Hair, and Tamiko Nimura’s The Retelling, sometimes a discussion of Jill Talbot’s The Professor of Longing, but that one’s hard for freshmen. They haven’t read all the books and few can yet understand the longing of which the essay speaks.

A collector of shells is called a “conchologist” and on the Conchologists of America website, while describing the nature of gastropods and mollusks shells, Lyn Scheu writes that “Just as important as protection and rigidity, is the assistance a shell renders its maker in pursuit of the necessities of its life.”

Crustaceans in the superfamily Paguroidea, commonly known as hermit crabs, do not make but borrow the work of others, in their pursuits. They search carefully for the perfect fit, often trying and discarding several shells before deciding on just the right one.

It came up in that first class, after the readings had been assigned and during our discussions of them, and it has every time I’ve taught found forms—or hermit crabs, or fraudulent artifacts (as David Shield calls them)—a student asked if all of “these kinds of essays” have to be sad or traumatic. On that day, I rushed to say something to overcompensate for what I thought had been a misstep on my part as an educator. I thought I’d failed to present the material in a way that opened the form, that I’d prescribed through poor curation.

The next time a student asked me a version of the same question, I said something like, “I don’t know. Let’s talk about how the form works and see if that helps.” In part, because I felt more confident in my skills as a teacher, and in part because I wondered myself about the intrinsic sadness of the essays I’d found.

In Astoria and Seaside and Newport and Lincoln City, my grandparents and I would go to aquariums and small diners and even more rarely, five and dimes. Everywhere we went, there were beautiful shells for sale and I would often whine for them. Giant cowries, radish murex, pink conches. My grandfather would not even dignify my requests with a response. My grandmother always said no.

First, because they weren’t even shells from our coast. “What kind of ninny wants Australian shells at the Oregon coast?” she’d lament.

And second, because if I wanted nice shells I knew very well what it took to get them, and I was just too lazy to do it.

This is not always true, but often: an essay that borrows a form attempts to mask its true nature—not in service to mislead, but as a way of softening some blow. When Trembath-Neuberger lets a pill bottle’s warning label minister to the wounds of the narrator from sex work, it is to give the author some space from that conversation. Talbot lets the informal voice of a college syllabus speak to her students of her sadness and unfulfilled aspirations, lest she be required to herself. Hidden within the mechanisms of Wade’s variant table is a family tragedy, that the reader can only imagine is still too difficult for the narrator to speak of directly.

The wound needs to be protected, these essays seem to imply, with something hard and calcareous. Something spiny, perhaps, or even pearled. Something you might want to pick up, even if it is chipped. The insinuation is then, that when you see a borrowed form, it is hiding a hurt.

One of my students turned in a long, detailed geologic “mud lab” report that carefully talked around a prior suicide attempt. I’ve read essays about miscarriages, parental and partner rejections, assault. Said one young woman during workshop, “Nobody needs to act like they are anything but happy, when they’re happy.”

She took almost every one of the pictures of my childhood that exist. Several research studies have shown that photos can influence memories. They can overwrite the lived moment and replace it with the framed shot. I don’t remember the childhood days I spent at my own house nearly as well as the times spent with my grandparents. I took my first picture on her camera; it was a close crop of her face, smiling at me. Not a good picture, but I remember her telling me about what framing a shot meant. I still have a copy of a copy of that photograph, and in that moment, I’m told, I fell in love with taking pictures.

When I look at her photos of birds, I remember being there. I become her eye looking through the lens, her finger pushing down the shutter release.

“Are we allowed to be funny?” asked a student once.

“Always.” But this won’t guarantee a funny essay, exactly. See also Pete Reynolds, Jody Mace, Leigh Stein.

I’ve wondered whether or not these found forms are a useful exercise, or just a way to win my students over with something that seems “fun” or “easy” to them because it doesn’t require easily assessed components, like dialogue, character development, setting details. It’s true that if they at least try, I give them an A. There should always be at least one task for which effort is good enough.

My grandmother was not an easy person to love. She was quick to criticize and appearances meant everything to her. She could be silent for long stretches. Whole weekends at their home in Estacada, Oregon, might pass with few words exchanged. She’d make me spaghetti-Os or hot dogs for dinner and then drift away again, to her room. It never seemed strange because I had nothing to compare it to. I loved her despite and because of these things.

Other weekends, we’d drive all over the countryside looking for barns or grosbeaks she wanted to photograph, or going to rock & gem shows, or the tallest bridge in the state. We’d climb the Astoria column or make piles of clothespin dolls. She’d try to teach me to tap dance or show me how to eat steamed crab legs with fresh strawberries from the u-pick farm.

I am just like this—passionate and engaged one day and a hopeless mess the next, withdrawn and easily overwhelmed.

Where I really struggle in teaching hermit crab essays—in teaching any kind of essays, really—but especially these so contrived—is not in grading performance, but in knowing how to teach students to write something that isn’t just an exercise. Discipline, perseverance, acuity—but what lecture do I give to teach that? I gather up all the examples I can. We talk through published work and work they’ve just written. We use words like earned and earnest and obvious. We say that something is beating the reader over the head with the message, and that’s what needs to be fixed. We praise subtlety and judiciousness. We marvel at some attempts and discard others.

Am I teaching them a skill that will assist in their pursuit of the necessities of their [writer] life by teaching them that shells can be built around their most tender thoughts?

I rarely worry about being first on the beach, now. I figure that what’s left has been waiting for me and what’s gone was meant for someone else. When I find a whole shell, it is never a rare specimen, but that doesn’t diminish its value to me. I will walk for hours if I can, looking at the sand and the progressively paler high-water lines. The pleasure is in the action: I try to look to the water and the coastline to determine why there are more pieces of seaweed and stone and shell on one part of the beach than the other. I know nothing about the forces of waves against the shore and how riptides really work, but I like trying to reverse-engineer the workings of them from the evidence.

Why teach a form that might already be overdone – or for which success is so rare? Would any other Drug Facts or essay as multiple choice test ever be anything other than derivative?

I can justify the exercise of writing found form essays—as a way to explore different narrative voices, to examine one’s personal dialect in a small, unyielding space, to see where it reaches over the boundaries, and where it shrinks from them.

I worry that they worry that these are skills that can’t readily be transferred. I’m a more confident teacher, but I still have doubts.

We say my grandmother could be difficult. That’s how my family talks about her, if we do. We say she was often lost in her thoughts, or that she was a terrible housekeeper. I wonder if there was more to it than that, but I never dared to ask her, when I could’ve. She lived for too many years in the depths of Alzheimer’s-triggered dementia. At the end, she was almost always difficult, almost always lost.

She took pictures when she could and looked for birds. She left the country whenever she was able and she filled her house with evidence of her rare adventures from home. Maybe the distance between home and away was the root of her melancholy. Maybe it was nothing more than melancholy. Some things resist discovery, and the work will only ever be in the wondering.

Here is what I would tell my next class, whenever we meet:

Practice is inefficient by design. Collect as many tools and forms and voices and structures as you can, so that you are as well-equipped as possible when you sit down to work. Write a first-person memoir, investigate something and report on it, write a lyric, a braided, a fragmented essay. Write a Montaigne. Write a Sedaris. Write a fraudulent artifact—the official form you’d fill out if you could, the letter to someone you let walk away without confronting, the headlines you’d like to see. Write a multiple choice test, a want ad, a drug facts label. And then, if you can bear it, write a short story, a poem, a play. If the words are good or if they are terrible, celebrate your hard work. Practice discipline and perseverance now, and the acuity will come. Watch the lines move across the page until the forces that move them become visible. Reverse-engineer your work from the evidence it leaves behind.


Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of the prose chapbooks Ologies and the forthcoming #Lovesong. Her essays are collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2016 and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women and have appeared recently in New Ohio ReviewDiagramSonora ReviewNew Mexico Review, and Passages North. She has an MFA in nonfiction and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and currently lives in Arizona.

1 comment:

  1. Ha! A borrowed form—an essay about shells—that's about borrowed forms. And teaching. Love it—and thanks for the links.