Monday, February 19, 2018

“Awesomeness will step into the room”: An Essay Class Interviews Barry Maxwell

I discovered Barry Maxwell—as I do so many good writers—via Twitter, and after I read “The Good Tenant” in Split Lip Mag and “Celebration #50, 2010” in Tin House, I knew: This is a writer to watch.

When I learned Maxwell founded Street Lit in Austin, a writing workshop that meets every Saturday at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), I immediately e-mailed to ask if I might possibly lead one of the Saturday workshops.

(Photo credit: Roberto Roldan)
On July 15th, 2017, I met a very tall Barry Maxwell at the ARCH on the corner of Neches and 7th . He shook my hand, finishing a cigarette and apologizing for the sweat from his four block walk from the bus stop.  I liked him immediately, and after spending three hours at a table with him and about fifteen other writers, he walked me back out to the corner where I waited for a cab. As I left, I encouraged him to consider UNT for his PhD once he finishes his MFA at Montana.

This semester in my Intermediate Creative Nonfiction course, I have an Essayist Spotlight Unit featuring four writers: Jaquira Díaz, Barry Maxwell, William Bradley, and Meghan McClure.  For each writer, we read five of their essays so that students might consider the recurring themes, imagery, syntactical patterns, allusions, and forms to identify: what makes an essayist’s essaying unique?  In other words, what makes a Barry Maxwell essay a Barry Maxwell essay?

I included Barry in the Spotlight Unit because of the consistency of his persona (a homeless man in Austin) and his formal range. I wanted to show students how in “Testing the Limitless,” Maxwell creates a hybrid of poetry and prose, while another essay breaks paragraphs with mathematical equations, and how one offers a straightforward narrative, another a flash.  In all of the essays, the writing comes across urgent, honest, an engaged voice demanding that this self be seen. One other reason, and the most important, I think: I knew this was a point of view and a persona my students had most likely not encountered.

I scheduled Barry’s Spotlight for February 1 and asked students to submit questions to me via e-mail by 9:00 pm the night before class.  That night, I opened my e-mail to find their questions, some of them overlapping, so I culled seven and asked Barry to answer the ones he wished to before class began the next day. I was both pleased and not surprised when he answered all seven.

Last week in class, I projected Barry’s answers to the questions my students sent me onto the screen and read each one out loud (I have a blind student, and she’s teaching me so much about how to teach the essay in different ways). I read one answer after another, and after a while, the classroom transformed into what I can only describe as a concert—students eager in celebration and inspiration, raising their hands to voice how they were connecting to Barry Maxwell, to his work, and to his words.

At one point, we agreed: We can’t let this stay in the room.

It’s too good.  


How did you become homeless? And how did you come out of that?

The short answer is that I partied till I was homeless. That usually gets at least a nod or even a laugh of “Yeah, same here,” from someone who’s been there.

It may be more than you bargained for in asking, but looking at myself from early on, straight out of high school (from which I didn’t graduate, due to my consistent lack of showing up…), I set myself up for it. I played drums, and had that romantic image of making a healthy living at it, the whole die hard musician thing, dedicated to rock and roll, man, until you “made it.” Whatever that meant. I went from my mother’s home, to a house with band mates, then to another band that traveled so much I lived in motels and on the sax player’s couch.

It set a pattern in my expectations of the world. Rootlessness. Permissions. Irresponsibility. Over the years I had some perfectly normal times with wives and jobs and real-deal lifestyles, but somehow, I had the core belief that I’d be taken care of, that I could get away with drinking and drugging and there’d be no lasting consequences, and that I’d land on my feet no matter what, like a baby falling back into mamma’s arms. It’s nice to be optimistic and have faith in the universe, but the universe only puts up with so much bullshit.

Fast forward to a situation where I was living with a wonderful woman who loved meth and drinking as much as I did—we’re still in touch, have forgiven each other, and wonder how we didn’t freakin’ die—I worked as a solo house painter and maintenance guy who always had vodka in the tool box, and snorted meth in the bathroom while the homeowner admired my meticulous work. It was a system doomed to break down. We lost my girlfriend’s house, she developed health issues requiring spinal surgery—everything came to me to step up and provide. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how! We moved from rental to rental, and eventually things collapsed. She moved to her daughter’s place, and I rode out the eviction process until it was me and what I could fit in a Honda. I didn’t have any friends who would put up with me. No more options.

There’s a lot more to it, but it ended up with my only remaining (and annoyed with me) friend dropping me off in downtown Austin, where I connected with the homeless shelter. That’s when I made it official. Client #113119 in the database. That friend and master enabler was and is Steve, from “The Good Tenant.” I don’t think he’s read it…

The way out is wrapped up in “32 Feet (per second per second),” [published in Hothouse]. I looked at my choices, and it was either fucking die and get it over with, or end up one of those grizzled old drunks who reveled in the bum-under-the-bridge life. I gave up and went to rehab, instead. It caught, and I got a room for a year through a charity program, got a GED, a little scholarship, and started courses at Austin Community College, taking writing classes with the awesome Charlotte Gullick. I lucked and shoved my way into a sublet situation, leading to an actual lease on a “you don’t pay the rent, we throw you out” handshake. Nailed a full ride to UT, and now, rootless again (sort of) in Montana! Taken care of, if you call student loans “taken care of.” Unsure of anything beyond the next semester.

Everything hinged on stopping drinking. Other addictions were just opportunistic, but quitting alcohol was the key.

At what point in your writing journey did you decide to obtain an MFA, and what drew you to the MFA in particular?

Well, school is a cozy, if stressful, environment, so there’s that whole “Please take care of me forever” thing that I still have to acknowledge, but mainly it’s because I’m proving to myself that I can finish something. That’s in addition to the more obvious attraction of hanging with the smart kids, the (allegedly) deeper or higher levels of rigor in workshops and classes, etc.

My main aim here is simply to get as much practice writing as I can, with as much input and guidance as possible. The hope for getting better at this stuff is a never-ending thing.

I have no idea what I’m gonna do when I’m done. Jill planted the idea of a PhD in my head… I dream of taking Street Lit to nonprofit levels and spreading it around in the world. Some people look down on community college writing programs, but I like the idea of getting back to helping folks who might never have dreamed of writing. Like me, I guess.

After reading your bio on your website: How does your idea about these two versions of yourself, the versions before-and-after being homeless, affect your persona in essays? Are you constantly one or the other in a single essay, or do both versions inform your persona for each essay? I hope that question makes sense. I'm just really intrigued by your understanding of yourself as different people, in a way, and how maybe you can feel more objectively about past versions in an essay, or sympathize with yourself more.

This makes a LOT of sense. I’ll try to answer without getting too weird or esoteric, but it’s an issue I haven’t figured out for myself, and I think it may be one of the things I’m essaying about or fictioning over in almost everything I write.

The meat of it is that I went from what, to me, was a “normal” human, if not quite standard-issue, to being one of the people I had looked down on, ignored, and never imagined myself as being. The entire experience was one long “My god! What have I done?” moment, and while in it, and especially while drinking, it felt like an irrevocable state. I became IT, so to speak. My beliefs about who I was became wrong. My beliefs about the world and the people I knew and trusted were wrong. And it’s such a huge thing that no matter what I do now, there is no way to shake it off, or consider myself as just the old Barry who went through some shit, and came out of it more or less whole. I’m changed from the ground up, if only in knowing that I might be sitting here this second and be wrong about everything. It’s unsettling!

The point about looking more objectively at past “me,” and sympathizing more with myself is awesome and mind-blowing, too. There is a distance, now, from which I can look back and both see that guy as the unrepentant fuckup he was, but also see how lost a child he was, too. In writing about those times, I try to be hard on that guy, not cut him any slack by making excuses, while remembering that he (just like all of us) was making the best of it. Doing what he could with what he had, however stupidly or blindly. He loved people. People loved him. He can love himself now that he has some distance. (And what’s up with Barry suddenly writing about himself in 3rd person!?)

This is helping me in writing fiction, too. Just last night in workshop we talked about how the worst villains believe themselves the hero, and that even walk-on characters think they’re the center of the story. When writing either, get into their heads for a while, and figure out what you’d do or say if you were them, at the center of their universe.

Why do you write about being homeless? We’ve been talking in class about telling the story only we can tell.

Wow. It’s a twist-up between writing the story only I can tell, and sometimes it being the only story I can tell. Things may change, and I hope I can push myself toward that change, but it’s the biggest thing that has happened to me, and it’s a preoccupation to figure it out as much as I can. To come to terms with that whole mental earthquake I talked about and make peace with it. (I feel like all these sentences deserve a question mark.)

I’ve written and am writing about not-so-homeless stuff, and I’m getting used to it. I’m beginning to reconnect with the life prior to those events, and believe that yeah, I was a kid once. I was a stepdad, a regular person, a teenager, a rock and roll idiot, and so on. Fiction helps. Blurring the lines of genre helps.

And also, I have an agenda that I can’t deny. Though I hate clunky labels, the “person experiencing homelessness” is one that’s functional. I do have a tendency to want to beat civilians (as we bums used to call the normal people) over the head with the notion that we’re all humans walking around the same world. That we all feel pain and have the same needs. That we all have cracks in our foundations, and that under the latest coat of paint, we’ve got patches over the holes in our walls.

When you write, what do you worry about?

Oh my…

·                     Am I full of shit?
·                     Why is this no good?
·                     When will they all know I’m not really a writer?
·                     Am I telling the truth?
·                     Was that last good thing THE last good thing?
·                     Who do I think I’m kidding?
·                     Am I going to look stupid?
·                     AM I stupid?
·                     Is this thing even a thing, or am I just venting to myself?
·                     Why bother? I’ll never be as good as [fill in the blank].
·                     Semicolons, commas, parentheses, em dashes, periods, and …s.
·                     Am I gonna offend people with this? (Fuck that.)
·                     Are the smart people gonna laugh at this? At me? For thinking I have anything to say?

Other than the laundry list of insecurities, I try to worry, after drafts 1 through gazillion, about passive sentences. About rhythm. About flow from one thought to the next. About getting too writer-y and screwing up clarity for the sake of a big word or a fancy phrase. About overexplaining. About honesty, most of all, in essays. About truth, most of all, in fiction.

What writers do you admire and why?

I’m not sucking up to teacher when I say Jill is one of them. I look to her for lessons in form and freedom and sheer nerve. I see a lot of poetry in Jill’s work. It’s hard for me to pin down, but in a lot of her stuff I see such a firmly woven cloth of humanity, where there’s no hiding physicality behind psychology, nor separation of the emotional from the intellectual. The whole enchilada of personhood is there in every word. (I'm making that scrunchy-nosed “Does this make any sense at all?” face.)

I’m only recently discovering poetry. Or getting comfortable with it. (Isn’t that a strange prejudice in our culture!?) I’ve started paying attention, in part, because I’ve been doing fiction workshops with some poetry track folks, and their fiction is just insanely cool. I can’t declare anyone a fave yet, but I’ve committed myself to starting each morning with reading the Poem a Day from, and just following tweets to new poems has been a treat.

My go-to favorite author is Nick Flynn. Earlier, I mentioned Charlotte Gullick at ACC. When I first started trying to write about myself in the world, she gave me a copy of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and I felt like I’d met this guy and we’d compared notes. It gave me “permission” to write about my world and helped show me how.

When I was living at the shelter, I read constantly. It was like a drug. I read so much that I have no clue about my actual opinions of any particular book, and don’t know if I could name the ones I read! So, I can say I’m widely read, but only since school have I been hitting any reading with intent, or with an eye for learning from it. For instance, I read Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood during the Xmas break. Holy freaking Moley I loved it. All this time, I had no idea.

I’ve had to read more canonical stuff that I might have missed otherwise. I’ve fallen in love with Virginia Woolf, via To the Lighthouse, and can sit and live in her sentences, reading those long, mind-jumping passages over and over.

Another who has become a Holy of Holies even more than Nick Flynn is Denis Johnson. Jesus’ Son is within arm’s reach at all times. I get stuck while writing, read a random paragraph, and can move again. His poetry is frighteningly gut wrenching, too.

I workshopped a short story last night, and Johnson’s name came up. “There’s a Denis Johnson moment on page 5…” and other such comments. At first I worried I was too influenced, and had been derivative. Then I figured that at this stage of my game, derivative is fine. I’m learning from him.

I have to include Annie Dillard, Andres Dubus (the elder), Frederick Busch, George Saunders, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joan Didion—jeez, there are so many, and for so many reasons…

Along with the Poem-a-Day thing, I’ve been hitting a lot of flash fiction and nonfiction online. When I read something I like, I hop on Twitter and follow that author. So many marvelous things have landed in front of me from tweeted recommendations. (And so many new places to submit!)

We’re undergraduates, and you were at UT as a 50-something. What do you wish we knew about fellow students like you?

I had (and still have) a lot of weird presumptions that are most often mistaken. I walk in a room for the first time with a bunch of young strangers, and immediately believe them all to be calm, confident, self-possessed, and at ease. While I, on the other hand, am a nervous wreck, feeling waaaay out of place, and an imposter, at best. I’ve learned to bluff quite well and put a smile on the face of things, pretend I’m cool… Once I’ve made friends, though, it turns out they thought the same of me, and they were going nuts, too. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing any more than anybody else!

The funniest moments have been when I’ve been mistaken for a professor, or when it’s assumed I’m like, retired or something, and going to school for kicks, or that I’ve “come back to finish my degree.” Nope! People don’t know that I’m restarting a whole life from scratch.

The worst moments are when I’m dismissed as irrelevant. There is sometimes an arrogance to youth, I think, and ageism is real. (I know when I was a young punk, old folks were just a pain in my ass, writing paper checks in the express line at HEB.) I’ve got the feeling you could claim the same in reverse, just as validly.

I am also very cautious of being perceived as some sort of old creep on the predatory prowl—and I can totally understand that I look out of place among the campus crowd. I’ve had to present my student ID to prove I belonged in buildings at UT. A good thing, honestly. You never know. But that evil dude isn’t me.

Some of my most valued friends now are 30 years younger than me, and we’re all bumbling through as best we can. Years don’t mean wisdom, just wrinkles. In writing courses, I make the joke that I’m older than everyone by calendar years, but am a very young writer. Many of my classmates have been writing longer than me. And once folks get used to seeing the old fart in the room, I think they also realize that I respect them, and enjoy their company. It builds all of us up in both directions.

A quick PS: Everything you’ve read of mine was either written entirely, or was begun, while I was in community college or an undergrad at UT. Undergrads rock, y’all. Own it.

This from me, Jill: What’s next for Street Lit, and how might we start a Street Lit in Denton?

Whoa! How cool!

The Austin gang is still meeting, with a couple of guys running it who work at the ARCH and are fine writers and human beings. I trust them, and the attendee writers I’m still in touch with are happy with them, too. I think it’s good—to be honest, I was getting kinda fried… New blood=new life for the group = new words in new ways.

I’ve gone to the shelter here and met with the volunteer coordinator. Book donations are, of course, welcome, and I’m spreading the word among students and faculty. The woman also gave me a tentative green light on doing a workshop, but for some reason has not responded to calls or emails about hashing out pragmatics. I’m going to have to go grab her in person again to get it rolling.

What’s the homeless and poor folk situation like in Denton? I’ll hop on Google and see what’s up. And if there’s any advice I’d give myself-in-the-past regarding doing something like this, it’s “Show the fuck UP.” No matter what, no matter if nobody comes. No matter if everyone’s afraid to write. Show up, be there, and people will gravitate to you. The pens’ll get put to use, and words will come. Awesomeness will step into the room and take over.


Barry Maxwell is a 57-year-old native of Austin, Texas, newly transplanted to Missoula, Montana, for the UM MFA program. He is the proud founder of Street Lit and the Street Lit Authors Club, which provide books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s and now Missoula’s homeless communities, and is a fist-waving supporter of the arts in unexpected places, from unexpected sources.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012).  She teaches essaying at the University of North Texas.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

What Will Happen on June 21, 2018

What's in a day?

I want to alert you, our readers and our writers, our lurkers and our contributors, to a project we've been mulling here at Essay Daily for some time. We're going to make happen this summer, and we'd like to invite you to join us:

What Happened on June 21, 2018

As in, let's find out.

The idea originated in an essay by Nicholson Baker, "What Happened on April 29, 1994," that I've taught in my classes since I discovered it maybe 8 or so years ago. Dorian Rolston wrote about it as part of our Advent Calendar last year, so if you're a regular reader of the Daily, you've heard plenty about it. If not, however, I'll reproduce it—briefly—below (click for a readable size):

It's brief. It's conversational. It lacks the intense interest in esoterica that we find in a lot of his work. It's unclear how much it's been deliberately shaped.

It comes from a special issue of the French magazine Nouvel Observateur published to celebrate its 40th anniversary, in which they asked 240 writers (evidently including Baker) to simply write down what happened on that one day in 1994, and then published the results. I'm tracking down the original, but because all/most of it is in French, and my French is less than optimal, I'm unsure how useful that will be, though I may be writing about it more in this space later.

I love Baker's essay in part of how well it translates into a writing assignment appropriate for pretty much any CW course I teach. It adapts most easily to nonfiction courses, of course, in which documentary and its limitations are always on the table, and what we find when we all write about the same day is how our experiences of it differ (mostly) though they have some common elements. It's easy to get into conversations about how what we pay attention to in a day changes the experience of a day, or into Rashomon territory where events are witnessed in part by multiple people. In poetry I wander into projects like David Lehman's One Poem a Day project, or Juliana Spahr's day poems (which are less about the personal and more about the political). In fiction we might read, say, Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendys for its daily practice and how the very act of writing a thing a day (in his case, a note on a Wendy's comment card) can structure a book.

While listening to Lisa Robertson talk last year, she hipped me to a book (two, actually) by German novelist Christa Wolf called One Day a Year, in which she decided to track the significance of a single day over many years, Wolf began keeping a detailed diary of September 27th, a practice which she carried on for more than fifty years until her death in 2011. As you'd expect, you put a tool like this in the hands of a genius, and you get genius out.

What will we get out? I'm not sure. We've never tried this on the scale we're hoping to make happen here. What can all of us writing about a day tell us about ourselves or our days? Let's find out.

We invite you to join us to chronicle this day this June.

Simply: write down what happens on June 21, 2018. (Whatever that means to you.) Have a method or don't. Take notes or work from memory. Plan something crazy or don't. Whatever!

We will publish the results (or as much of them as we can) on Essay Daily in the summer. It's a kind of mass data trawl of subjectivity we're looking for: as many takes as we can get on one summer (for most of us) day.

If you'd like to play, it'd be helpful (though not necessary) if you'd check in with us on this Google form so that we know how many to expect (and this way we can send you a reminder the day before, etc). Send it around to anyone who might like to play.

You might ask: Why June 21? Well, it's the summer solstice, so of all the days in the year, it has the most day to it (in the Northern Hemisphere anyhow). So that's the one we've chosen. It's otherwise arbitrary. Is it a good day? Ask Ice Cube or Christa Wolf or Lisa Robertson or Nicholson Baker. We are asking you.

Rock on, collaborators.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Four Menus for Books by Kelly Cherry, Katherine McCord, and Sonya Huber

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, And Other Essays From A Nervous System, A Menu, by Sonya Huber; Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End, A Menu, by Kelly Cherry; Run Scream Unbury Save, A Menu, by Katherine McCord; Plath's work, A Menu, by Katherine McCord


As I write this, my new medication is shaking my hands: I just wrote "sheak" then "shek." Words, red, flash. Just a sec, I need more medication . . . stop psychological pain. So Plath's work, A Menu, I'm using to introduce us, seems apt. Kelly's and Sonya's books beautiful. Oh my god. Exit. Craft:


Ariel and Other Works, Sylvia Plath, by Katherine McCord, A Menu
  1. Drink some milk.
  2. I was lying: Some people eat horses.
  3. But you can eat grass.
  4. And capsules. But not all at once.
  5. They make you fly which is better than eating
  6. like with crop circles, which make wheat and corn lie down,
  7. mushrooms,
  8. honey, which is not easy, bees sting.


A Menu for a Book of Fictions, Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End, by Kelly Cherry
  1. The first course is nothingness. How does one eat nothingness, you may ask, but the answer is clear. Nothingness is what the squirrel eats while trying, unsuccessfully, to steal the birdseed from the birdfeeder. He does not move on to a more accessible meal; he cannot see anything more than his own determination. We call this deranged. To eat is to be not deranged.
  2. Today's meal is matter arriving with time. In the beginning, enjoy the beginning with fine wine and delicious mushrooms. You will be sated with happiness.
  3. Now we have the taking in of serial time, from early China to the colonial era, which, we admit, is a little hard to swallow. One wants to regurgitate all that whipping and hanging of slaves and mistreatment of women, black and white. But soon we are at
  4. which offers us a banquet of civilization, with its industrial and mining smoke (well, that's not so good) and also the development of the auto industry and opportunities for working women, although the working women earn pretty much nothing and get trapped in locked rooms where fire breaks out and everyone dies.
  5. I'm searching for more agreeable amuse-bouches. Indeed, on this day we see that women are permitted to work as scientists and even as philosophers (they had for very long been prohibited or laughed at for wanting to do philosophy) and those are tasty occupations. One female philosopher has gone so far as to re-envision the way the world came into being. That is a superb dish!
  6. After such a rich dish, we perhaps prefer to cleanse our palates with Sambuca or Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur. Simply hearing the name of the second liqueur will make you salivate but your first sip of either will make you think you are in heaven.
  7. The last item on our menu is most unusual. It is, in a way, a return to the Nothingness with which we began. The difference is that, between the two, Armageddon arrives. Armageddon is only for those with the most exquisite and educated understanding of smell and taste. In other words, it is for those who can eat chocolate-covered ants, Haggis, tripe, and tuna eyeballs. You must have a strong stomach to digest these edibles. A wasp cracker is another inviting choice.


The Menu for Pain Woman by Sonya Huber
  1. Turmeric tea, which is made with a can of coconut milk, turmeric, a dash of black pepper (supposed to help with absorption), honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This will help calm inflammation.
  2. Dark chocolate: as much as you want. Also, you may take any extreme recommendations to cut sugar from your diet and fire them from a cannon.
  3. Gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free English muffins that taste like sawdust. Grind them up, add water, and use to stucco a wall or ceiling or tomb.
  4. Gelatin capsules, used for supplements and vitamins. Take one outside, open it beneath a northern night sky far from the city in which aurora borealis is throbbing and spinning, and catch this magnetized hypnotized air. Take two capsules of northern lights each evening with dinner.
  5. A carrot cake made with cacao butter and various other expensive and exhausting ingredients. Decorate with new foam earplugs in a variety of colors in a celebration of all the ways you have discovered to make the world slightly less overwhelming when the surge of pain threatens.
  6. Fantastic lime-y margaritas with fantastic gritty salt around the rim. You cannot drink these because they clash with your meds, so instead you may either soak your fingertips in the liquid or swish and spit.
  7. Literally anything else within your limited anti-inflammation diet you feel like. Do you want an $11 smoothie? Buy it. You are starving for allowed indulgences. 


A Menu, by Katherine McCord, for RUN SCREAM UNBURY SAVE, by Katherine McCord, the courses that should be spread out over days, listed in order, People, they have to be eaten in. this. order. Thank you. 
  1. Bamboo, lots of bamboo. I'm told you have to harvest the small "shoots" in March and cook them almost immediately, so be prepared.
  2. Corn, lots of corn. Preferably corn flattened via Crop Circles. Unless you want to go with wheat, but that seems a little too hopeful, don't you think?, given you and I aren't into a lot of prep.
  3. Frosting from a can. Preferably in the middle of the night but more like just take the can and a spoon to bed and go on a bender after a long time of not being able to sleep, it being your last resort, your fucking last resort, after trying all the sane things (ocean sounds, rainforest sounds, baths, herbs, psychiatrists, sleeping pills, and exercise (but that was at the end when you were truly desperate. Okay, you like exercise but not when there's an agenda.))
  4. Shredded apples. Yes, that once shredded look like slaw. You want them shredded because they need to look damaged.
  5. Not pheasant.
  6. Jello, okay? Just Jello. With whipped cream. But you are going to have to go all out with this which means a regular grocery store. Preferably with that green and white linoleum and it has to be high summer so that when you walk through the door you feel a whoosh of air conditioning. Oh, also there are TONS of windows in the front with blue-sky light streaming in so that you are way out of your perpetual S.A.D. and feel hope, People, hope. So no Whole Foods for you. You are going back in time when you were a teenager and knew nothing about things like red dye (not that Jello had or has it, ever, but you know how people get). Remember the glasses from McDonald's that were painted with Hamburglars and stuff? Random, I know, but in a good way. Now, this is probably the most important thing you'll hear in your life (okay, in the next 30 seconds), so I'm going to help you with an excerpt from the book to illustrate: 
  7. The world is a serious place. Both horrible and wonderful in its seriousness. I get that. But I am just trying to have as much fun as possible. For example, for the Fourth of July in two days, I will be serving blueberries in cherry Jello with every kind of whipped cream: "Lite," "Regular" (Normal), "Sugar-Free," "French Vanilla" and "Chocolate." That is, whatever they have.


Kelly Cherry is the author of 27 books and 11 chapbooks. Her newest titled are Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End: Fictions, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem, and Beholder's Eye: Poems. She and her husband, and their little dog, Booker, live at the bottom of Virginia, also known as nowhere.

Katherine McCord's newest book, RUN SCREAM UNBURY SAVE, a literary memoir, chosen by Michael Martone for the Autumn House Open Book Award in Creative Nonfiction, was published in early 2017.

Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program. More at

Monday, January 22, 2018

How Can I Explain Personal Pain?: On Tatiana Ryckman’s I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)

1. Virginia Woolf, reviewing the work of George Moore, said, “The only criticism worth having at present is that which is spoken, not written—spoken over wineglasses and coffeecups late at night, flashed out on the spur of the moment by people passing who have not time to finish their sentences, let alone consider the dues of the editors or the feelings of friends.” Reviewing the work of E.M. Forster, she said, “There are many reasons which should prevent one from criticizing the work of contemporaries. Besides the obvious uneasiness—the fear of hurt feelings—there is too the difficulty of being just.”

2. Tatiana Ryckman is my friend, and she recently had her publisher send me her new novel I Don’t Think of You (Except When I Do), released September 7, 2017. Kevin Sampsell, head of her publisher Future Tense Books, scribbled a note at the top of the press release that accompanied it: “Hi John—I hope you enjoy Tatiana’s book and can help us spread the word.” I tightened up on reading his message, which seemed twofold: 1) Enjoy the book, but also 2) promote the book so we sell the copies we’ve made and Tatiana can continue to write books. In other words, don’t let this gift be in vain.

3. In his manifesto The Gift, Lewis Hyde expounds on what he calls the “gift economy,” a quasi-anti-capitalist notion of community dependent on the notion that some commodities—works of art, religious artifacts, or anything that is made and given not for profit but for the pleasure of giving—are intended not to be gathered to oneself but to be circulated, within oneself and in the larger culture. In differentiating between work and labor, he says, “When I speak of labor…I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.” I’ve done the work of reviewing plenty of books, and I’m reticent to subject my friend’s labor to it. In fact I’ve sat on her book for a month now, fearful of commingling the labor of reading with the work of reviewing.

4. Fuck that. This review is a labor of love and gratitude, and a hopefully honest reckoning of how Ryckman’s thin book changed me, and might change the world. Whether it’s a “good” book, worth a disinterested reader’s time, I’m not in a position to say. I can say that it’s an honest rendering of the self-abnegating love one gives to another person before one reconciles oneself with the pain and loss of dignity such love entails. I was going to also add that it’s a love given to an undeserving object, but Ryckman has let me know that it’s not about the person I thought it was about, and our mutual friend Caitlyn gently reminded me recently to treat the book as a work of fiction.

5. So, about that. It’s a work that can probably be called many things—epistolary novel, prose poetry—but I want to call it a collection of micro-essays (or perhaps microfictions in the Borgesian sense) simply because that is what I understand it to be. Almost no section is more than a page, some are under twenty words long, they’re arranged by number to the first decimal point from 0.0 to 10.0, and all are written to a now-former lover. I can’t claim to understand exactly why she goes with the decimaled numerology, except perhaps to trace some order into the drama and trauma of a late-twentysomething breakup, or perhaps to trace the narrator’s selves in their sequential versions. The project was inspired—if that’s the right word—by a rudimentary drawing which she includes on the last page of the book of two mice fucking and one of them saying, “This feels so right,” which feels to me like a very Tatiana Ryckman thing to do.

6. In fact, the choice of illustration is, for me at least, the most Tatiana Ryckman thing about the book. Reading it, I had a continual sense of not knowing a friend as well as I thought I did. We went to grad school together, and had many late-night conversations that people have in grad school. One time I told her I couldn’t remember if I got the scar on my right middle finger from getting it stuck on a merry-go-round ramp in the third grade or from my adoptive father trying to cut it off when I was ten. She responded by biting my nose. She wrote many pieces then, in her mid-twenties, that were pure fiction in an uncontrolled voice that made her the life of any reading or party. Even as someone who has never had that type of relationship with her, I can say that sex is a large part of her experience and her aesthetic. There’s plenty of sex in this book, to be sure. But it no longer seems, well, fun. Perhaps that’s why I’m so stunned at the voice from which she writes in this essayistic novel: needy, dependent, alone.

7. The cassette tape holds a special place in Ryckman’s personal mythology. I only bring this up because she quotes in section 7.1 a B-side from the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album that I listened to obsessively on cassette tape in the early Nineties. The song, “Gimme the Car,” is sung in the voice of perhaps the worst type of male, a sex-obsessed late adolescent begging his father to lend him the car so he can date rape a girl he’s obsessed with. The voice only works because, as in any good fiction, frontman Gordon Gano injects the boy with a pathos, both through the lyrics and an especially creepy repeating riff and bassline, so that the words “How can I explain personal pain?” are a sort of mantra, an ode even, he repeats for any lingering humanity that remains within him. Ryckman’s narrator in I Don’t Think of You is not even close to the depravity of Gano’s car boy, but they both speak from a position of humanity lost in the attempt to navigate a sexual relationship mostly devoid of pleasure.

8. She refers in a number of the book’s micros to an experiment our friend Caitlyn conducted while living in Guanajuato, Mexico with her husband. Despite (or perhaps due to) a complete lack of experience as a visual artist, she decided to learn to paint by painting the same gate outside their villa every day for one month. Miller wrote about the experiment for Hunger Mountain in 2016, and Ryckman mentions in 5.0, 5.9, and 7.3-4 trying a similar experiment by drawing the robe of a man who used to live at the house where she stayed for two summers while in the throes of her obsession. Alas, she finds herself incapable of the repeated recreation of an object without injecting it with her obsession, and like Miller she gives up. In casual conversation Miller advised her, “I mean, it’s an endeavor that was doomed to fail. No one is ever going to capture life as it was. We all decided to try something impossible.”

9. The one quirk of the essay as a form with which I struggle most is its presumed narcissism. The form almost requires its writers to talk to themselves for an audience. This becomes especially fraught when relating personal pain. I think of Sampsell’s own 2012 essay “‘I’m Jumping Off the Bridge’,” where he talks down a man who comes into the bookstore where Sampsell works and says he’s going to kill himself, then spends the ensuing months talking himself down from the same fate as his own life spirals downward. I could almost feel his spirit—or at least his editorial hand—in Ryckman’s voice. The poet Ralph Angel once told a woman he was advising at the graduate school Ryckman and I attended to “get naked on the page”; she responded by dipping her breasts in paint, pressing them against paper, and submitting them with a statement of intention. One can’t be sure, but I don’t think that was what he was requesting. To get naked on the page—to confront our pain and confusion and mold them into language—requires a blatant disregard of our impulse toward emotional self-preservation. If we press our most private parts onto the page, it’s not paint that records and preserves us. It’s blood.

10. This may be what I see as the closest thing to redemption Ryckman offers in a cycle that could fairly be judged as relentlessly disheartened: The acknowledgement of the narrator’s dependence on people besides the object of her affection is the first punctum of the narcissistic persona she hones throughout I Don’t Think of You. One of my favorite paragraphs late in the book relates an opening of perspective that feels like curtains being flung open on a warm April day: “And on the other side of town, when my grandfather said goodbye to a woman who could no longer remember herself, the last person left from his real life, I was surprised that I did not reassign their sadness to you or their separation to us. How lonely, I thought instead, to be the last thing left no one remembers.”

11. She’s been experimenting with voice for some time now. This shift was prompted, I think, less by moving from her twenties to her thirties than by her shift from writing primarily fiction to writing quite a few nonfiction pieces, something I find many of my primarily fiction-writing friends getting shoehorned into. In some ways, she represents to me the inverse of our societal understanding of fiction and nonfiction: her fictional voice is singular and instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read more than one or two of her fictions; her nonfiction voices, on the other hand, are myriad and sometimes contradictory. To give just the most recent example, her recent piece for The Tulsa Voice, wherein she recounts interviews with Oklahoma Republicans in search of a more broad understanding of the word “resistance,” is measured to such an extent that I can’t even see her in the piece (which is, suppose, the whole point of journalistic integrity), and I can see her, alone with the pixels, pouring every ounce of the self she withholds from The Tulsa Voice into this little book.

12. Virginia Woolf’s assessment of George Moore is that he would have made a better memoirist than a novelist—his skill at conversation, the singularity of his voice in a crowd, was his greatest strength. Perhaps antiquity has proven this assessment correct; perhaps I’m simply being egocentric because I’d never heard of Moore before reading Woolf’s review of his work. Or perhaps a third option is the most viable—that Moore was one of many, perhaps most, writers whose work missed its audience by at least one epoch. Today his novels might be read as Woolf seems to read them, as the rendering of one person’s conversational voice translated into written language. This is how I read I Don’t Think of You. Unlike Woolf, a reader doesn’t necessarily come to a book like this one needing to read it as either fiction or non-fiction. Not knowing whether a written experience was a lived experience for the author makes the work somehow both more expansive and more opaque to read.

13. I’m trying to choose my words judiciously in relating details of Ryckman’s personal life. She has, after all, read my early drafts, ones from which I’ve cut details that make narrative nonfiction compelling for the precise reason I decided to cut them: They’re secrets, and secrets are bonds. Perhaps the greatest lie writers get away with is pretending we’re making our audience proxy to our secrets rather than giving them carefully molded simulacra, wrought through many, many attempts to observe ourselves, a gate, a failed relationship, a lasting friendship, and make them into language. To be long-term friends with fellow writers, to me at least, is to make a conscious act of the continual transformations and self-renewals we all go through. Our selves—whether we choose to call them fictions or not—when written assume a perhaps-false sense of permanence through the simple act of recording them and the not-simple-at-all act of editing, revising, perfecting, and publishing them. The gift, then, is this discrete object representing that self in words and pixels and pages—a self existing outside of time, in conjunction with the simple, fluid little selves that live within friendships and sex and shared space.


John Proctor has written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for inmates at Rikers Island. You can find him online at