Monday, February 18, 2019

Matthew Dube on James Agee



Harold Bloom describes the confrontation with the masterwork as “a psychic battlefield upon which authentic voices struggle for… the divinating triumph over oblivion” (Poetry and Repression 2). In other words, when writers encounter a masterwork, they rebel, fearing that if they can’t write better than the masterwork, they will cease to exist. Thankfully for me, I approached Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not as a writer in competition with its author James Agee, but just a reader. Even so, there was a curious sense of dissolving reading this book-length collage, of forms breaking apart, as if through his Olympian effort, Agee stepped outside the limits of genre or the need to create a discrete, unified, unitary text.

In 1936, James Agee went south with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment from Fortune magazine to create, in Agee’s words, “a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers” (IX). Agee’s ambitions ballooned from there, until he imagined a trilogy to be called Three Tenant Families. Fortune magazine passed on printing the prose and photographs Agee and Evans returned with. Agee himself only ever wrote the first volume in his planned trilogy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the material in this book can be found in a variety of formats, with and without the photographs, and under a couple different titles.

But as varied as the publishing formats of this material, the prose styles Agee uses are even more various. The differences between narrative sections, like “At the Forks” where Agee and Walker Evans encounter some local farmers, or the more poetic listing of “Clothing,” or the straight-up self-analysis cum artist’s statement of the three “On The Porch” sections, but especially section 2, unsettle our experience of what “non-fiction” looks like. In this long strophe, Agee is at his most revealing about his project, telling us about the real circumstances of his writing (“We lay on the front porch to the left of the hall as you enter” (197) and also his spiritual progress toward joy (“It is our consciousness alone, in the end, that we have to thank for joy" (199)), notes on his artistic aims (“the hearing and seeing of complex music in every effect and in causes of every effect” (204)), and interrogations of those aims (“Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one” (206)), as well  as playing with language and its formal concerns ("George Gudger is a human being, a man” (205) becomes “George Gudger is a man, et cetera” (211)). The mercurial flash of styles and ideas in the book as a whole are all present in “On the Porch 2,” and vice versa.

One needn’t wait till halfway through the book to witness the variety and Agee’s play with forms. Rather, it is already on display in Agee’s “Design of the Book,” this book’s table of contents, which mixes sections titled “Verses” or “Preamble,” which suggest a written document, with sections like “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” which imply an ongoing, real-time performance, and other sections with titles like “Money,” “Work” and the aforementioned “Clothing,” which suggest an inventory of sorts, whether commercial or philanthropic or sociological. In other words, Agee’s book takes place between different modes and styles, and you see this long before you realize that the “Notes and Appendices,” traditionally the last section of a report, precedes the book’s final significant strophe.


What about Agee’s own confrontation with Bloom’s “strong poet”? In other words, who is Agee writing through and against? In “Notes and Appendices” (395), he namechecks Faulkner for the first time. And a reader, in 1941 when the book was first published or now, when s/he hears that this book documents an encounter with sharecroppers in the deepest parts of the Deep South, is likely to think of Faulkner and the shadow he must cast. Let me tell you, Agee’s writing overlaps with Faulkner’s as little as possible. There’s an internal boundary you find in Faulkner’s monologues, the sense that for Benjy or Quentin or whoever is talking, they soon meet the limit of what they can say, and that for that reason the articulation is always incomplete. Agee’s ear is tuned more to external forces, to what has been said over the course of human history, through our literature. At one point, he even admits his discomfort at writing in dialect. If his voice is rooted in anything, it is in his own cosmopolitan, hyper-literate self, which has already shown itself to be kaleidoscopic.

Agee credits other writers in his work, including William Blake, Jesus Christ, and Sigmund Freud in the “People and Places” family tree he gives us near the start of his book, and he interpolates a review of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s book You Have Seen Their Faces in his own book, a similar volume to the one Agee has produced, if maybe more indebted to journalism than whatever literary trip Agee is off on. And Caldwell’s name does crop up a couple times in this book, though when it does it is usually in counterpoint to what Agee thinks he is doing.

Instead, the writer Agee never mentions but who feels most influential is Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden. In fact, I think the best test to determine if you’d enjoy Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is to ask how you feel about Walden, how you maintain your readerly equilibrium in the shifts between “Economy,” where Thoreau outlines the exact costs for his plan to live by the lake and the more visionary/ philosophical/ lyric section “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” In fact, Agee’s book owes a lot to Walden, even though Walden really has only the two registers and Agee’s book has both of Thoreau’s and four or five all his own. Thoreau, if we strip him from his rooted historical consciousness, makes observing itself an act of praise, and this stripped-down listing is one of Agee’s rhetorical strategies. But like Thoreau, Agee can lift off from this quotidian listing into something empyrean at a moment’s notice, without troubling about that leap. But where Thoreau has those two primary modes, Agee has five or six to speak through.


Given that he introduces Freud as a “People and Place” early in the book, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Freud, or at least a Freudian mindset comes back at the book’s emotional (?) climax, or at least at that moment where, structurally, something like a climax can be expected.  I’m referring here to the “Inductions” section, which is placed at the crucial two-thirds point but which narrates one of the earliest moments in the book, a breakthrough with the Gudger family. Agee’s style in this section echoes high modernist narrative, something from Malco[l—?]m Lowry or Djuna Barnes, and features a very Freudian flashback, to eleven year old Agee masturbating while at his grandfather’s, years before (“I, this eleven-year-old, male, half-shaped child, pressing between the sharp hip bone and the floor my erection… striking over and over again the heel of my bruised hand against the sooty floor and the sweating and shaking my head in a sexual and murderous anger and despair” (335)), this as the prelude to a psychic break in the narrative’s present, when, driven by his erotic reverie to find a prostitute, Agee comments “That would do Via some bad damage, just as continuing to live with her is bound to” (339), Via being Olivia Saunders, Agee’s wife at that time, who has, until this point in Agee’s book, never been mentioned and who will never be mentioned again. It’s as if this eruption of his private life into the public text of the book is some return of the repressed. Looking for a sex worker, Agee gets caught in a torrential downpour, drives his car into a ditch, and he finds himself on the Gudgers’ porch (it’s worth mentioning that previously, he and Evans both have remarked on how attractive Gudger’s young wife is), and then, in a further Freudian turn, Agee is mothered-and-fathered by Gudger and wife and put to bed in the children’s bed. So, Freud, sure. He’s in there.


Every writer, but more so writers of non-fiction, must fear what the people they write about will think of how they are represented.  There are uncomfortable moments here, beyond lusting after his host’s wife. Those passages in “Clothing,” for example, where Agee describes what Margaret, age twenty, wears (“It is an elaboration of the sort of dress a ‘well-preserved,’ dark-haired, elegantly well-to-do, middle-aged woman might at some uncertain time during the last twenty years have worn formally” (250) and Paralee’s favorite dress (“exactly of the kind middle class girls of her age wear to town…. [except] in the wish for brilliance and emphasis and propriety, everything is overstepped” (ibid). So, if you’re a Dolly Parton fan, there are moments here that’ll make you cry.
But back to the point: what about Agee’s subjects? What will they think of his bathetic portraits of them?

They are illiterate, and were they able to read, their extreme poverty and distance from cultural capitals means they won’t ever see his book. This gives Agee license to be heartless in his portraits of them, to capture as much of our hearts as he wishes. When, in the 1989 book And Their Children After Them writer Dale Maharidge talks to Emma Woods, she said Agee got it wrong, that he misrepresented her experience so her character could bear the weight of Agee’s fantasy. It’s obviously problematic to say Agee’s fantasy is truer than Woods’ experience, especially in the era of #MeToo, but it’s not a lie to say that his book is pointed at a different goal than merely representing (though that’s surely in there, too).


What of the portraits? This is, after all, a book made from photographs of three families and their living spaces, and as Agee himself worries over repeatedly, his writing cannot quite capture the truth the way a camera can. Talking only about the writing like I’ve been doing here ignores the largest gap between styles, the photographic and the textual. It’s easy to note the disconnect between Evans posed photographs, where people are carefully arranged and often literally framed by their surroundings, doorways and window and the like, and Agee’s discursive, even impromptu prose, that admits no boundary to his interest or language.

And more than that, Evans’ photos in the book lack titles or any identifying information. When the photos are later cataloged in the Library of Congress American Memory Project, Evans identifies his subjects with names that don’t align with the names in Agee’s book. The photos stand in opposition to the text, which seems so particular about who is who and what is what. But maybe the tension here is overstated; maybe the goals of the two media are different. The photos document, while Agee illustrates. Unless I’ve got that backwards.

Matt Dube reads and writes for pay and pleasure in mid-Missouri. He is at work on the Lovecraft-adjacent, haunting-in-a-small-town novel that will either put this region on the map or wipe it out. It changes, day to day.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Lorraine Berry: Scorched Moths

Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees. 
(Repression of War Experience, Siegfried Sassoon)


Robert Raymond, my maternal grandfather, died of his wounds on October 18, 1917. He was killed by a mortar blast at Nieuport, part of the front during the Third Battle of Ypres, which has come to be known as Passchendaele. (His death made a widow of Edith, and left his ten-month old daughter, Hilda, fatherless.)


I sit down and attempt to write about my great-grandfather for the (lost count) time. I ask myself why I feel compelled to set his story down on paper, to give his death, just one of the ten million military personnel [1] who died during World War I, some kind of meaning.


Robert was twenty-five years old when he died. He had served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, 1/7 Battalion beginning in November of 1914.

If Robert was deployed immediately after training, it means he would have been sent overseas to Egypt in defense of the Suez Canal. In 1915, he was shipped to Turkey, to fight against the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Gallipoli.


The records show that his battalion sent 410 men to storm the cliffs. Only 137 men escaped unscathed. The eleven-month battle killed 100,000 troops from Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. In addition to the dead, there were 300,000 casualties. One historian includes this detail taken from first-hand accounts written by officers.

“It took days for those dead to be buried, and as the thousands of corpses lay in the sun with their guts and their shattered limbs and their stove-in heads disgustingly exposed, the stench of death sickened the living for miles around.” [2]


After Gallipoli, Robert must have been granted a brief home leave. The reading I have done indicates that leaves lasted approximately two weeks. I have no records to prove that he had leave at this time, but my grandmother’s life serves as evidence. She was born in late November of 1916, which means that sometime in February, Robert came home to his wife, Edith Lavinia, whom he had married on May 25, 1912. They lived on Sherbourne Street, in tightly packed terraced houses built by the Britannia Mill to house its workers. The mill stood across the road from the houses. 


One of the most common shared experiences for soldiers home on leave, regardless of which nation they were willing to die for, was the utter disconnect each soldier felt in their brief forays to the home front. After months of living in execrable conditions, they came back to homes where life had continued without them. 


In his memoir of his service, The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován recounts a conversation he had with his uncle about the war’s potential outcome. 

His uncle said, “I accept that my position is not based on personal experience. For that very reason, I maintain that I am able to judge the facts more objectively. For you, everything is overshadowed by the traumatic experience that almost ended your life. The deductions you draw can’t be objective.” [3]

Those at home, of course, were not being told the “facts” in the newspaper accounts of battles. Journalists were not allowed on the front lines, and they were dependent upon the sanitized versions produced by each country’s war office. 


Even if the information had been accurate, soldiers on leave found that civilians refused to believe that their governments would sacrifice so many men for poorly defined, or even non-existent, reasons. 

In Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm’s fictionalized account of the war he joined “in order to meet girls,” he quotes the man who blames Schlump for not being able to “contextualize” his own experiences. 

“[O]ne must differentiate between the longer and shorter point of view. From the shorter point of view all the war brings is sorrow, suffering and unbelievable torment. But seen from the longer perspective, one comes to a different conclusion … The individual is nothing, he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people.” [4]


A good portion of my undergraduate studies, a subject I pursued through the first part of graduate school, was reading about and researching how the working class organized itself against exploitation in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Many historians have argued that the First World War interrupted a nascent movement among workers to see themselves as linked to other workers, regardless of national boundaries. [5]

The First World War exposed how all of that solidarity with other workers shattered as each country’s workers declared their allegiance to their kings and countries and picked up arms against other workers. Whether this was a complete failure on the part of the period’s intellectuals to understand what workers wanted, or whether this new solidarity was too weak to bear up under the pressure of war, the longed-for international workers’ movement was disrupted by the hostilities. 

My family’s own history as evidenced by genealogical research is of generation after generation of workers, many of them in the textile trades in the Manchester area. In an earlier version of this article, I wondered why a worker like Robert Raymond, whose descendants were involved in twentieth century workers’ politics, should have taken up arms on behalf of his country. 

The editor who had commissioned me to write about my thoughts and reactions to Robert’s death as the centenary of the Armistice approached, returned my initial draft, stating that my questions indicated “intellectual unsophistication” that he found uninteresting, and that he was killing the article.


Despite finding more evidence of the movement the editor had informed me “didn’t exist,” I decided that intellectual wrestling with Robert’s death was not likely to produce a satisfying rapprochement with the past. [6]


Instead, reading the memoirs and novels written by those who had served during World War I provided me with emotional resonance. In the words of individual writers, I could imagine myself in Robert’s head. 


Bodies that fell on the continent were not repatriated to Britain after war’s end. It’s why each English town and village erected a cenotaph where they could memorialize their local dead.
In a town in Normandy when I was twenty-two, I had encountered such a cenotaph. It bore the names of 624 men in a town whose 1910 population was just over 16,000. In Accrington Stanley, a small town not too far from Manchester, a battalion comprising local men went into battle at Serre, on the Western Front, on June 30, 1916. By July 1, the British troops had been defeated, but not before 584 of the 720 from the Accrington PALS Unit were killed, wounded or missing


I have a confession. Part of what sent me on this journey to write about Robert was based on what I found on his gravestone. His tombstone, which lies in the Zudycoote Military Cemetery in northern France, reads: 
280692 Private
Lancashire Fusiliers
18th October 1917 Age 25

Discovering the epitaph was a kick in the teeth. Why would his widow have paid extra for an epitaph that reduced her husband to yet another fleshed chunk of cannon fodder? It felt inconceivable to me that a young woman left with a babe in arms would declare such a thing. Didn’t she know what he had endured? 

But reading the novels of the war has answered part of that question: I doubt that she had any idea of what Robert had experienced during those months away from her. 

All letters sent to and from soldiers were read by censors who removed any material considered to be “sensitive.” Instead, soldiers were given the option of sending home pre-printed postcards—for free—that offered a sentence for the correspondent to indicate. These cards listed sentences that the soldier could mark with an X. [7] “I am quite well” or “I am being sent down to the base,” were two of the options. British soldiers were warned “If anything else is added to the postcard it will be destroyed.” 

When the men returned home on leave, many of them found it impossible to convey to their wives, girlfriends, and families the horrors they had witnessed. 


Some of the women whom they did try to tell refused to listen. In several of the novels, women on the home front—regardless of age—were represented as harridans who shamed the men who were not serving by presenting them with white feathers to indicate cowardice. Other women acted as bellicose tub-thumpers, dismissing the war’s doubters as traitors or caitiff soldiers whose “wetness” imperiled the brave. 

Gabriel Chevallier writes of one such encounter as Madame Bergniol argues with a returning soldier: 

“No son of mine will be brought up to think like you.” 

“I know that, mademoiselle. You could bear flaming torches as well as babies, but you’ll only give your son the guttering candle you were given; its wax is dripping and burning your fingers. It is candles like that which have set the world ablaze instead of illuminating it. Blind men’s candles, and you can be sure that tomorrow they’ll relight the braziers that will consume the sons of your loins. And their pain will be nothing but ash, and at the moment their sacrifice is consummated, they will know this and will curse you. With your principles, if the occasion presents itself, then you in turn will be inhuman mothers.” [8]


The men and women on the home front, who soldiers felt honor-bound to protect from their hideous memories, didn’t want to speak of what they had seen, nor did they wish to frighten those who would be able to do nothing but worry when the men returned to battle. Instead, in the news accounts, civilians were fed a steady diet of courageous Everyman heroes and glorious victories on the battle plains. It was only after the war that the novelists, memoirists, and poets were published. Even the poems of someone like Wilfred Owen whose “Dulce et Decorum Est” defined the war for many, was unknown during his lifetime. His battlefield death one week prior to the Armistice meant that his audience was only found after the war was over and his friends had collected his poems and published them in a volume. 

The accounts of a loss of life feel impossible to apprehend. Consider, for example, this number from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Prior to the war, the population was 51 million. The seven million casualties it suffered breaks down like this. “An average of more than 4,500 Austro-Hungarian men in uniform were killed, wounded, or captured every single day of the war.” [9]


When I try to comprehend what Robert saw, heard, smelled, and thought about during the war, I hear the incessant booms of the mortars that were fired several times a minute for hours on end. For men trapped in foxholes with shells raining down on them, it is not surprising to learn that many returned with a condition labeled “shell shock.” 

But, in addition to the noise, it’s imagining the trenches divided by a patch of “No Man’s Land,” that I cannot shake. This passage from Chevallier is a tough read. The replacement soldiers have just arrived at the trench where they are due to relieve the men who have been there for several days. What they find is something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch:
Corpses contorted into every possible position, corpses which had suffered every possible mutilation, every gaping wound, every agony. There were complete corpses, serene and perfectly composed like stone saints in a chapel; undamaged corpses without any evident injuries; foul, blood-soaked corpses like the prey of unclean beasts; calm, resigned, insignificant corpses; the terrifying corpses of men who had refused to die, raging, upright, bulging, haggard, cursing and crying out for justice. All with their twisted mouths, their glassy eyes, and their skin like that of drowned men. And then there were the pieces of corpses, the shreds of bodies and clothes, organs, severed members, red and purple human flesh, like rotten meat in a butcher’s, limp, flabby, yellow fat, bones extruding marrow, unravelled entrails, like vile worms that we crushed with a shudder. The body of a dead man is an object of utter disgust for those who are alive, and this disgust is itself the mark of utter prostration. To escape such horror, I looked out at the plain. A new and greater horror: the plain was blue. [French uniforms were blue.] The plain was covered with our comrades, cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men, alas! [10]
Chevallier’s description continues on for pages. While the battle is never specified, he is providing a sense of what hell was encountered at Artois where the French suffered 102,000 casualties in six days. 


My great-grandfather’s death is a stone I keep in my pocket, my fingers rubbing against it, worrying it in an attempt to make something meaningful of it. How can I capture the impact that one single death had upon his family when he was but one of millions? Does it make a difference if I tell you that Hilda, my grandmother, became an orphan a few years later when Edith died of kidney disease? 

Perhaps I try to make Robert’s death mean something because I know that ultimately his little girl would grow up without parents, raised by the older step-sister who came into her life when Edith remarried shortly before her own death. 

No photographs of Hilda as a child exist. No one thought to take her photograph. She doesn’t exist before pictures that show her as a married woman. Is it wrong that when I think of Robert’s death, the story of what became of the tiny invisible baby he left comes with it? 


On the day that Robert died, his commanding officer noted that the battalion had suffered seven casualties that day. Even on October 18th, Robert’s death was not special in any way. His commanding officer made no special mention of the man who had served with his battalion for thirty-five months. 
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
     Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
     And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
(The Dead, Rupert Brooke)

[1] The total number of World War I dead is disputed. The number of dead when civilians are counted, and the 1.5 million Armenians who died during the Genocide in 1915, and those who died of disease and starvation during the course of the war brings the number to nearly 40 million
[2] Hell’s Foundations by Geoffrey Moorhouse (2008: Faber & Faber) 
[3] The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 113 
[4] Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 241 
[5] At the University of Washington, where I did most of this work, the exploration of labor and World War I was a topic of interest to professors. See, for example, in Germany, Marxists identified themselves with anti-militarism long before the war broke out
[6] I mention this because I think the idea that “working-class” folks capable of recognizing common interests, of acting rationally on their own behalf has been lost in recent years. Recent votes—Brexit in Great Britain, the election of Donald Trump in the United States—exposed the divide between workers and the journalists who covered them. Journalists settled on an explanation that working-class folks had been hoodwinked by politicians into voting against their own class interests and the working class had been exposed as a hotbed of racism and regressive thinking. But as I argued in a number of articles, and journalists such as Sarah Smarsh, Elizabeth Catte, Steven Stoll, and Ted Genoways, among an increasing number, have argued against these reductive arguments about working-class culture. 
[7] This service was offered especially for those soldiers or their correspondents who found writing difficult. In the BBC TV series, “The Village,” these postcards became a plot point. When a soldier on the front works out a code using the postcard to let his younger brother know he was being sent to the front, his subterfuge is discovered by army censors. 
[8] Fear, Gabriel Chevallier, (2011: New York Review Books) 
[9] Zombory-Moldován, pg. xiii 
[10] Chevallier, pg. 62

Lorraine Berry writes for a number of publications including the Guardian (U.K.), the Washington Post, Catapult, and Read It Forward. She has recently been diagnosed with abibliophobia. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW where she tweets about her passion for Manchester City Football Club. 

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Monday, February 4, 2019

Reflections on Writing the Short Essay: Hesitations and Possibilities

Vanessa Calderon, Casey Dawson, Grant Dufrene, Diarra English, Waverly Evans, Dana Gainey, Carissa Harlow, Ryan Mayer, Anahi Molina, Sarah Neal, Margaret O’Connell, Sophia Rataj, Brian Recile, Christopher Schaberg, Rayana Windom, & Dari Zeltser
This semester at Loyola University New Orleans we took a new class together, a workshop called Writing the Short Essay. We read some samples at the beginning, including a piece at the Rumpus by Chelsey Johnson, a recent essay by Alison Kinney in the New York Times, and even a Twitter thread by Jami Attenberg. Our goal was to wrap our minds around this wide-ranging and slippery subgenre, and then to try our hands at writing (then workshopping, pitching, and ideally submitting) our own short essays. But as we discussed and workshopped, we found ourselves asking questions about what this form requires of writers, and of readers. For many of us this was our first experience writing something in between academic and creative—if that binary can be used, at least tentatively. As a final project, we reflected on writing the short essay: our experiences, the conundrums we encountered, and more.

SR: On the first day of class, our professor tells us we can write about anything. But we must write. Shit. Not only have I never written a short essay, but it is notoriously harder to write when your subject matter can be anything. I rack my brain. I get four sentences in, hate it, delete everything. I try again, searching through my mind for a thought worth sharing with some unseen audience, but to no avail. It’s not until the night before the piece is due that I realize I just have to write. Who cares if it’s terrible? That’s why we’re workshopping it. I now realize how freeing it is to word-vomit onto a page and dig through the mess until I find a small seed of truth. And maybe there’s a tree metaphor that can be pulled from that last sentence, but I’m not gonna go there.

CH: The short essay is intimate; it’s about obsessions—the things that grip you endlessly; the things that people often tell you you think too hard about. It’s about body image, gender identification, religious scrutiny, ice cream, soap, sex, love, cemeteries, alcohol, aging, dolls, crickets, etc. While these topics seem to be meant for late night conversations with your best friend, or coffee shop talk with your table neighbor who desperately wants to drink their soy latte in peace, the short essay expands the topic just enough that it pops into something different. Like a bubble, stretching into a new space before disappearing back into thin air.

CD: The short essay can get a bad rap. Misunderstandings about this form can lead to bitter conversations about clickbait headlines, a growing public disdain for expertise, and our collective, crumbling attention span—all discussed with a sigh/eye roll combo that my thirteen-year-old self would be proud of. To quickly capture a thought, idea, experience, or response to a cultural moment without expertise, but not without care, can make this an unruly form of writing. It can quickly magnify the insecurities experienced by aspiring writers of all stripes. (Hello, impostor syndrome.) But if our thoughts and ideas are only accessible to those with enough student loan debt to prove their qualifications, then maybe we are failing as writers. The short essay format covers all the opposites of what we have been trained to write—but it might be forcing us to do better work.

VC: My initial fear with writing the short essay was that I had not read enough of them. I wasn’t even sure what one looked like. Maybe I needed a New Yorker subscription (or at least the tote bag). But I soon realized that I’ve read innumerable short essays in my life—whether in the form of a nuanced twitter thread or a shitty Buzzfeed listicle. The short essay is everywhere. I guess it’s the season, as it seems to be the perfect form to write “on the pulse” pieces. Without realizing it, I’ve also written a few by accident: a Google Doc of short paragraphs divulging my favorite celebrity sex stories, an extended Facebook post about getting a parasite in Mexico, and an iPhone notes review of public restrooms in New Orleans. The short essay could be a diary entry, personal reflection, or niche commentary… Those count right? Either way, they’re entertaining.

RW: If the academic essay is the strict, authoritative parent, then the short essay is the fun, spontaneous aunt. The short essay can be a creative outlet, political standpoint, or practically anything the author desires. Go on vacation and write about navigating the crazy rides at Disney or the new Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. Even better, describe the cherry blossoms and culture of Japan, and how the over fifteen-hour plane ride and screaming babies were worth it in the end. I would read that; but the author had better be real with me. Educate me on the difficulties of traveling and learning the native language. Share your emotions on witnessing outright racism for the first time. A short essay takes readers along for the ride, exposes relatable and peculiar experiences in short bursts that keep our attention and end right before you would have lost it. You’ll find me long past bedtime, snuggled up, and laughing as I walk with someone along The Great Wall of China.

SN: I can’t write right now because I’m too stressed about another assignment for work. It’s not the right time of day. I can’t write right now because I’ve looked at a screen too much today. My writing needs to be inspired. Hold on. I can’t write right now because the sunlight looks good through my window, and I gotta look at that. Plus, I got this Amazon package that I have to make an event out of opening. I have to wait until the water for my tea is boiling. I can’t write because I haven’t done my research for the piece yet. I can’t write right now because I have to feed my guinea pigs their hay. I have to wait for my tea to be cool enough to drink. I have to check my email just one more time. Has my tea fully steeped? I can’t write right now. Let me jot something down in my phone real quick.

CS: I wonder what the short essay is for, these days. It’s the form I feel most inclined to write, and it seems like the form with the best chance of being read. But I also worry that my writing is getting pulled into the mill of digital media, where short attention spans reign. On the other hand, even a short essay seems like a small act of resistance! Asking readers to linger with me for five or ten or even maybe fifteen minutes, to play out a scenario, consider an unappreciated object, or reflect on a counterintuitive phenomenon. To try out an uncomfortable or strange idea, to tarry with a half-formed thought, a hunch or an eerie premonition. I write short essays as a matter of coping with the craziness of our times—even, though it may sound hyperbolic, as a matter of survival. It’s a way to organize and sort through the vectors and variables of our days, and to put something in the world that feels like a small outcropping, a breakwall amid the crashing surf that are our oceanic, immersive digital media shorelines.

MO: Recently, Time magazine published a short essay stating that humans now have eight-second attention spans, shorter than that of a goldfish. This particular article—itself cleverly brief—took me 39 seconds to read, which amounts to the attention span of 4.33 goldfish or 4.88 humans. The author of the Time piece asserts that the cause of the shift in the average human attention span is most likely a result of our “increasingly digitalized lifestyle[s].” So it makes sense that our media should adapt accordingly: in recent years, the short essay has gained and continues to gain popularity and literary credibility. Short essays force the author to put seemingly unrelated ideas into conversation without extended transitions. The form requires more interpretation while still being intended for a wider audience of casual readers. Like a poem, you get what you give from the short essay, and I find that reciprocal exchange both thrilling and apt for the current times of the goldfish.

RM: The short essay functions similarly to a seasonal Halloween store: its genius lies in its resplendent evanescence. The short essay seeks to agitate the reader, momentarily plunging them into its subject matter like a baby into baptismal water, and they emerge from the text with an altered perspective. The subject of a short essay can linger in the reader’s mind longer than those of more protracted literary forms because concision correlates with impact. In the essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe notes that “if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.” If a short essay cannot be read in one sitting, it sacrifices its potency. The short essay’s pithy length allows it to hold the reader’s attention: to descend, maintain for a moment, and then drop, like a spider from its silk.

GD: I’m still not sold on this whole “short essay” thing. As a still (barely) recovering internet addict, the short essay doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s because my newfound quasi-Luddite aspirations seem at odds with the format. Short essays never stick with me the same way that other forms of writing do. Though, maybe they aren’t meant to stick with you in the same way. I can never remember the author or the details so I tend to lose track of whether these ideas came from a late-night drunk phone conversation, from a stranger who asked to borrow a pen in a bank, or from a short essay I read when I was supposed to be doing research for a term paper. That could be the point I’ve been missing: ideas should flow freely without worrying about their origins. The concept should take precedence over the arbitrary details. Still, the short essay feels like the fast-food-alternative to other forms of writing: as though it was meant to be quickly consumed, discarded, and forgotten as soon as you close out of the tab. Packaged in polystyrene.

DE: Each day, we move through a series of interactions or events that we dismiss as insignificant, and later, there are some we can’t stop thinking about. We replay how we said “hi,” if how we opened a door was too aggressive, and whether or not that afterschool program our parents forced us into helped us or scarred us for life. The short essay writer goes one step further and plucks these endlessly fractal moments that we all fixate on and pours them onto a blank document until they can make some (some) sense out of what it all means. At the end, there is (sometimes) an essay with a concept that someone on the other side of the world or in your own neighborhood may relate to. The short essay, when done well, eases the reader with the feeling that they’re not the only one.

DZ: How do I know when an idea is done? Is an idea ever done? (I’m about to graduate, so maybe I am scared of tying myself to anything particular for fear I’ll back myself into a corner.)  If I can make an argument, does that make it true? (No.) Does that mean I should make it? (I think about what thoughts I want to put out in the world, and the difference between useful ideas and harmful ones.) What should I write? What I believe? What I can get published? Who am I asking to listen to me? (What if I want the privacy that I’m not used to and that advertisers don’t want me to have.) Should a short essay take a short time to write? How do I decide what to say? Do I ever know? Do I pretend to know? How do I know when I know what I know? Is publishing just immortalizing a time that I pretended to know? Should I wait until I have it fully thought out? What is “fully thought out?” Does it matter? (Maybe I’m taking this too seriously.) What are we trying to do here?

BR: When I write a short essay it’s usually sparked from a spontaneous idea or emotion. If I want my essay to be 100 words, I am allowed exactly that freedom. This restrictive freedom allows writers to put their thoughts down without getting into bullshit territory. (Or is some material in short essays precisely bullshit, and that’s okay too?) The short essay allows for exploration of off-the-wall ideas. That’s because you don’t have any long term commitment to the concept. All you have to do is get the idea off your chest, onto the internet, and let it breathe for itself.

WE: The short essay helps me order my thoughts one step at a time. Thinking about the world and all of its problems can be overwhelming, so why not try to attend to little issues that might illuminate a larger problem? As a dancer, dance always helps me take a break from my wandering mind. I can focus on contorting my body to achieve bizarre angles and stark shadows—similar to the short essay. But I don’t have to engage in the physical activity that fatigues my body. Instead, the short essay tires my brain, squeezes each drop of question onto a page, and spreads it into a wonderful mess. Maybe someone will accidentally stumble upon an article online while crying over their recent breakup and discover that he did her dirty through a particular article on sexual harassment or cheating spouses. That’s all I can hope for in my essays: that someone will get stuck on my little burr of confusion and carry it along on the hem of their pant leg for a while.

DG: My drawing teacher tells her students that “just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s necessary.” In a drawing, this translates to not needlessly overcomplicating a piece and screwing with the composition because you see something else in the initial image. The criticisms I got on my first short essays were along the lines of “it seems like there’s a lot here” and “try having a central focus.” My classmates were talking about the same concept as my art teacher—that I need to focus on simplifying the composition rather than emphasizing content. What I like about the reductive quality of the short essay is that reading a successful piece is often akin to feeling and thinking in a way that mimics someone else’s reality. It’s easy to write off fiction as constructed and therefore not realistically applicable, but the short essay demands empathy and focus on something that’s true and worth considering, even if for only ten minutes.

AM: I used to think the short essay was my best friend, but I realize now that the short essay is just myself, cut down and copy-pasted into a Google Doc. In that sense, I kind of hate the short essay, since I kind of hate myself. But I also love it and am obsessed with it since I am obsessed with myself. I’ve got a Gut Feeling.

The authors are students of writing at Loyola University New Orleans.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Kat Moore, Hysteric: In Defense of Creative Nonfiction

To me, art is that most profound form of expression because it integrates the body, experience, intellect, and the senses. –Lidia Yuknavich

*I want to confess*
Four words, a short sentence, that signifies an admission of guilt or trespass. Confess a crime. Confess a sin. Some sort of mortal wound that only an act of God can reprieve. I want to confess, I’m in love with the act of confession. The bearing of my insides onto the page. My lived experience shooting out from my fingertips as signifiers appear on the screen guided by the flashing cursor. The genre of creative nonfiction is known for confession, but the more confessional an essay, the less it is valued. When a man confesses, like Fitzgerald in “The Crack Up,” other men, like Hemingway, call them a woman. Confession is feminine, and feminine is bad.

We, women,  are trapped in a linguistic system. The words I type are from this phallocentric system. The system of signifiers and signified. Saussure’s tree and arbor. Iriguray claims that women are trapped in this system with no way of expressing themselves. “Woman has no signifier” she says. All the signifiers/signified come from men, as do the myths or symbols it produces. Iriguray says, “The sexes are now defined only as they are determined in and through language. Whose laws it must not be forgotten, have been prescribed by male subjects for centuries” (87)  Anger is anger is anger is a red faced man with thick veins coming out of his neck. Or maybe, it’s  hysteria, or it’s Eve eating the apple because she needed to know things beyond him, beyond what Adam had named. Like confession, the notions of this go back to Genesis with Adam cataloging the whole universe, and Eve having only desire.

*Episode 1*
2013, I am in the doctor’s office. I have recently finished a clinical trial for the Hepatitis C medicine that will come to be known as Harvoni. I had taken the Harvoni plus ribavirin for eight weeks. In that time, my legs were rendered useless except to bring me pain and sink me into the bed. Side effects like a prickling of fire ants on my scalp, a shattering of glass inside my hips, and the slipping of my mind into a grey fog that settled thickly all around me. Now, the medicine is over, and I cannot return to my former self, no matter how much I try. I have gained weight. My body looks different, the way it bulges, the way my face swells. I can’t run anymore. I try, but nausea hits and all my energy drains like I am falling into a coma.
I sit in this office under the fluorescent lights. I’m in a chair and not even on the table with the crinkling paper because the doctor isn’t going to do an exam. He is annoyed with me. I have trouble explaining my symptoms. I only know that I feel off. My body feels off. I am emotional. I am gaining weight. Exercise is impossible. He stands in front of the closed door. His fully covered belly pokes over his belt and out through his white coat. He holds a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. He says I’m gaining weight because I’m not watching what I eat. When I cry and plead with him to listen to me, he writes me a prescription for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds. I yell at him. I am thirty-seven years old and have never needed those type of drugs. I beg him to try harder. I know something is wrong. He tells me that the mind is powerful, and that if I continue to believe something is wrong, then it will be. I don’t have the right signifiers to tell him what is wrong with me. Or maybe I do have the signifiers, but he can’t understand the symbols.
After six months of refusing anti-depressants, he finally draws blood. My thyroid level is 12. It should be between .5 and 2.5. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include exercise intolerance, weight gain, and excessive emotions.

“There is no prediscursive reality. Every reality is based upon and designed by a discourse,” quotes Iriguray of Lacan (88). Every reality. As in a woman’s reality too. All designed by a discourse which was constructed by language which was constructed by men. Women were designed by men. Women are signified as “not-men.” A lack. Lack of penis. Lack of language. Lack of discourse. Lack of authority. So then, if women have no discourse, then are they prediscursive? And how does man explain woman? By sexualizing her of course. Lacan says we are talking about fucking, and that language agitates woman (88).
Irguray responds, “Female sexualization is thus the effect of a logical requirement, of the existence of language that is transcendent with respect of bodies, which would necessitate, in order—nevertheless—to become incarnate…taking women one by one” (89). Language sexualizes women. Meaning in order to acknowledge women, language sexualizes them by describing them based on the presence of male sexual organs or a lack thereof. Iriguray continues, “Take that to mean that woman does not exist, but that language exists. That woman does not exist owing to the fact that language—a language—rules as master, and that she threatens—as a sort of “prediscursive reality”?—to disrupt its order” (89). Woman, of course, exists. But this is restating woman as lack, as not. So language sexualizes a woman to try and explain her. However, language isn’t mastering her. It is trying to figure her out. She is outside of discourse and language, and therefore when she uses language, by her very being, she disrupts the system of language and all its discourses. So what then happens when she uses this language, which is all about her not-body, to write through her body and put her consciousness (internal life) and her experiential self on the page?

*L'Ecriture Feminine*
Helene Cixous exclaims:
She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history (943).
Personal writing/confessional writing for women is liberation.  Cixous believes that a woman writing her history, the ruptures/pain, and the transformations/changes of her position will lead to liberation. Liberation from what?
Cixous answers:
By writing herself, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display—the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and locations of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time (943).
Liberation of the body. A return of the body out of captivity. But what held the body hostage? Is it Rubin’s notion of woman as gift and that within capitalism woman will never be free? Or is it Iriguray’s hysteria from being outside of language and Freud’s belief that a woman is all body and no mind? Where are our bodies and who has them?
Cixous continues, “Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the resources of the unconscious spring forth”  (943).  A woman claims sovereignty over her internal life and her body when she writes her story. Sovereignty. Absolute control. While we cannot get outside of the phallocentric language, it’s even in our minds, but, what happens when we put our mind and our experiences on the page? Our internal thoughts on the page reveal a female consciousness. Our experiences on the page are our bodies. All our senses are experienced through the body. Even the brain is a part of the body. Confessional writing by women reveals women through their own words. Yet, how many times have I heard, “This only looks inward. This needs to be more universal.” Or  when I worked at a literary journal, “this is straight memoir.” The essay in question was a well written essay about a woman coming out to her parents as a lesbian, and their rejection of her, and how they “adopted” the pregnant and single waitress at their favorited restaurant to be their replacement daughter. Yet, it was too “memoir.” Too “personal.” The personal is feminine and feminine is “bad.” The essay was extraordinary and should have been published, but my “superiors” wouldn’t allow it. They said it was too inward, not universal, and all I could think was “not male.” 

*On Confession*
Felski states that autobiographical writing of women has been segmented and episodic, “focuses upon the domestic and personal life…fragmented, episodic…lacking the unifying structure imposed upon a life by a pursuit of a public career” (86).  Essays in the genre of creative nonfiction are often fragmented or segmented or braided, and are often personal. The non-linear quality of women’s personal writing is due, according to Felski, to their lack of pursuit of a public career. Women’s lives are often disrupted (or ruptured, Cixous) by their domestic duties or men, and this causes their writing to be like episodes and not a long chronological tracing of their lives for some deeper meaner (87).
I agree that women’s personal writing is often segmented, and this continues through today. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets consists of numbered vignettes. Jill Talbot’s essay collection The Way We Weren’t is filled with fragmented or segmented essays. Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston is short episodes that only last a page or two. My own essays, including this one, are fragmented, or presented in segments. Even Joan Didion writes in episodes, take her essay, “The White Album.” However, I don’t believe it is because of a lack of a pursuit of a public career. Nelson, Talbot, and Livingston are successful writers. Nelson won an NEA grant, and a McArthur Genius Grant. Didion is prolific and needs no explanation, and the rest, including Nelson, are all tenured or tenured track professors at major universities. Women should not be defined by their lack, and neither should their writing.
So why then the segments? A man’s form is linear. It follows the rules of the system. A woman writes in a way true to herself. It isn’t that she is disrupted, it is that she disrupts. The use of segments and fragments subverts the linear system by forcing the reader or critic to learn a new way of reading and thinking. A woman’s writing narrates her internal life and her lived life. A lot of confessional writing is about ruptures. Even Fitzgerald wrote of his own alcoholism. Lacy M. Johnson wrote of her rape. Maggie Nelson wrote about a failed love affair, and the murder of her Aunt. Jill Talbot wrote of alcoholism, love lost, and single motherhood. Sonja Livingston wrote about growing up in poverty. I write about rape, prostitution, heroin addiction, illness, and loss. These disruptions occur, and going back to Cixous, we transcend them by writing them. But it isn’t just solipsistic writing or navel gazing. We are designing discourse, and contributing to a process that affects all within the network. We are using the language system to tell our stories which makes us more than lack, more than not man. These stories shape a discourse about women, controlled by women. We may still be confined to the signifiers/signified, but we control the symbols.
When Maggie Nelson, in Bluets, says “fucking may no way interfere with the actual use of language,”  (8) it doesn’t conjure up Lacan discussing fucking and that language sexualizes woman. Instead, it conjures up the blue tarp outside the window on the roof next to the Chelsea Hotel. It shows that her fucking in no way alters language. It does not change the system, but it does change the symbol produced. Of course, she is writing her way through a break up, and is using the fucking as something that didn’t salvage her relationship. When she writes in the opening of The Argonauts of being fucked in the ass, it isn’t objectification, or wreckage, or a failure, it is love. She has moved out of disruption and into discourse. She is changing her own symbols where the same language she once used to show pain, now shows pleasure and love.

*Episode 2*
My bedroom, the summer of 2013. My body is disrupted. The hepatitis C medicine takes over my body, takes it away from me. My body had been taken before by addiction with its incessant longings for more, which led to the constant poking of flesh and scabs all over the arms, which led to the disease of Hepatitis C. But I also have sold my body for drugs, for crack, which seems so strange. As in, for crack, and not my primary drug of heroin. But heroin gave me a semblance of control, or rather an illusion, or better yet, a delusional belief of control. Crack took me over in a violent way and wouldn’t let me loose until I was depleted.
Back to the room. I am bedridden and alone. My legs are covered in welts like a belt has flogged me over and over, but there was no belt or beating. My hips are a tenuous ache. My scalp itches and burns. I call my mother crying, asking her to come and help me wash my hair, even though it is not dirty. My mind is inside a fog. My viral load had been 9 million. Two weeks in, it dropped to 200,000. Four weeks in, and the virus was gone, but I had to stay the course of treatment to lower the risk of recurrence. It is in this state that I realize that I have lost my body and the self.  I become conscious of the disruption, of the captivity of my body to the medicine and its side effects.
My best friend brings me a copy of Bluets. I read it, only able to take in a percentage of it due to the impairment from the meds. Next I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine. After that is In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler about the women raped in the Congo, about her own body falling apart from chemo. At the end of August, I’m supposed to start an MFA program for fiction, but I have no desire to write fiction. I want to write the body. I need to write the body, my body. My unconscious knows that I am disrupted, and I need a way to transcend this rupture. Perhaps, this is when I experienced Iriguray’s hysteria, the way I felt disrupted, and chained. So I write my first essay, a collage about rape and prostitution during my addicted years. The next one I write is about the medical treatment. All this is true, except for this being my first experience with “hysteria.”

In The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski discusses the interrogative suspicion that is attached to critique. She states, “All too often, we see critics tying themselves into knots in order to prove that a text harbors signs of dissonance and dissent—as if there were no other ways to justifying its merits” (27). She claims that the practice of theory has become like a detective that must interrogate texts to see what it is that the text is concealing, and that what it is concealing is what gives it merit. She mentions the different approaches, such as Marx and Foucault’s picking apart of power structures but offers no solution. How if one uses this approach, then they are working to “demystify” or “defamiliarize” a false consciousness, and this means that texts hold a false consciousness that conceals its true nature and must be deconstructed. Felski argues that there needs to be another way to approach critique that isn’t suspicious or interrogating, but also isn’t surface or based purely on aesthetics.
Felski presents Actor Network Theory as a map for how to approach critique. She explains that texts are nonhuman actors and can only have meaning within relational interpretations. She continues that history is transtemporal and doesn’t exist in its own box, but still affects different time periods and the present. She states:
Let us concede, first of all, that a stress on the transtemporal movement of texts and their lively agency is not entirely alien to the history of interpretation. If actor-network theory is a philosophy of relation, so, in its more modest way, is hermeneutics, which casts texts and readers as cocreators of meaning. (173)
Texts and theories are dependent on their historical correlations, but also on the writers and readers of both. Felski calls readers and the texts cocreators. The reader’s interpretation of the text gives the text meaning, but yet, the text, by itself, also has meaning. She says this is vital to literary studies, and using the analogy of ANT, she claims it will “spawn new networks,” or in this case, discourses.
Earlier in the text, she mentions briefly that with the feminists’ critique of language, that theories were changed and new ones developed. She states that “Feminists were among the first critics to emphasize an affective dimension of interpretation, to talk about reading as embodied practice, to conceive of literature as a means of creative self-fashioning” (29). Feminists looked at language and how language affected women, who were both readers and writers. I want to push this further. This holds true for any of the identities that are labeled as not the default, and all the intersections of other not the default that exist within a person. To be clear, I am speaking of race, class, sex, gender, and even displaced or disenfranchised persons, and how these identities are also left out of the language system, and then described, often through subjugation and violence, by the white male language, and also when speaking and writing, they have to use this same phallocentric linguistic system. When people of these identities, with or without intersections with other identities, write their stories, it is disruptive (remember, disruption is good) as well, and creates discourse by controlling the narrative around these identities. However, I am primarily looking at women because I am a woman, and I do not think it is right of me to describe or prescribe the written stories of other identities. I do not mean to reduce a person down to an identity contingent on the previously mentioned categories, I instead mean that the system does this, and this system is disrupted when a person of color, or a person of non-binary sex, or non-binary gender, or gay, or an immigrant or refugee, speaks or writes their story. While I am focusing on women, and I am a white woman, I do believe that intersectional voices are extremely important and deserve more space than my own.
So what specifically do I mean by adding to a discourse? When a woman speaks or writes her story, she adds to the discourse on women, and does it in a non-Lacanian way. Meaning she isn’t being objectified by the signfiers/signified object she produces. She is defining her own subjectivity by writing her story. She is still using the same signifiers/signified, but the meaning produced is no longer dependent on a phallocentric perspective.
As mentioned, Talbot’s memoir The Way We Weren’t is a collection of personal essays that deal with the absence of her daughter’s father, the writer’s struggle with alcohol, and being a single mother. A quarter of the way through is the essay, “Running Away from Running Away,” which reveals the time that Talbot left academia, and left her daughter with family, and then moved to a small town in Montana. She plans on finding a job, and bringing her daughter with her eventually. She lives at the Traveler’s Inn, and drinks at the Iron Horse Pub. She has two months of this until she runs out of money.  She writes, “I have come to this city to find an apartment and a job so Indie and I can move here. I cannot know this now, but years later, I’ll see this decision to leave academia as some attempt to replay those best days with Kenny when I did this very thing…” (60). This starts with a normal narration of events in the real time of Jill the character/narrator in this essay. She is looking for a job, and once she has it, she will move her daughter there with her. But Jill does not merely confess.  Confession for this essay would be defined as “to tell personal and intimate details of one’s life” and not perform a religious admission of sin. Talbot actually examines and reflects on the intimate moments of her life. This is called meta-memoir. Talbot explains it as:
Simply put, meta-writing is writing that is self-conscious, self-reflective, and aware of itself as an artifice. The writer is aware she’s writing, and she’s aware there’s a reader, which goes all the way back to Montaigne’s often-used address “dear reader,” or his brief introduction to Essais: “To the Reader.” (Talbot, Guernica)
This technique puts the reflection of the writer on the page instead of the writer merely giving a play-by-play of what happened. The reader becomes aware of the writer on the page because the writer allows their presence to enter into the text. This also creates moments where the reader interacts with the text. Talbot’s presence as the writer manifests on the page when she writes that she didn’t know her reasons back then, when the actual event was happening, but she does know them as she is writing the event. She includes her reasons and makes the reader aware of Talbot as the writer, and not just a character. She disrupts the narrative to add insight so that the reader isn’t left with their own assumptions. She incorporates meta moves throughout the essay and through the entire collection.
Aside from the meta move, she allows us into the conscious mind of Jill the character, “With the hooded and shawled and shrouded around me, I know that I could go as far into disappearance as it will take me, as I am close to having nothing, and I, too, am without a home. Here I am not a mother, just a woman driving an Escape” (66). This is while Jill, the character, is sitting on a corner with transient people, drinking beer, and smoking a cigarette. She reveals that she is trying to disappear. While she is not in the same dire circumstances as the people sitting with her, as she can always go back to academia (and she does), she recognizes that they have disappeared. While they are literally wrapped up in sweaters and coats, she describes them as “shrouded” to show that they are not seen, they have also disappeared. She has a desire to be one of them, and in this moment, she is. In that moment, she isn’t a mother. She still has a daughter, but in that moment, her identity as a mother is “shrouded.” She is, like the make of the car she drives, attempting to escape from her identity.
Talbot has already added to Cixous’s l’ecriture feminine by not just writing her story, but also by putting her consciousness on the page. She has disrupted the text with her internal reflections. But she also is not just writing about being a woman, she is also a mother, and in academia, and a writer. She has many intersections and she is adding to the discourse of all these identities. She is definitely disrupting the sexist notions that certain psychoanalysts have about mothers. The whole collection reveals more about Talbot and her daughter, including a scene where Talbot choking from carbon dioxide poisoning drags her semiconscious daughter through the house, and out into the yard away from the walls that are holding in the carbon dioxide silently spewing from a furnace. A whole discourse on mothers could be born out of this collection. How mothers are humans, and have pain, and longing, but are also heroic. Talbot does not mention theory like Nelson does in The Argonauts, which challenges discourse on motherhood too, and also includes intersections of queerness and non-binary sexes. However, Talbot’s method is just as relevant, effective, and emotionally moving. What better way than to create discourse on certain identities than using the actual minds and thoughts and language of the people inhabiting those identities?
            But I don’t wish to stop there. What about Felski and her ideas of ANT? I believe that deconstruction is great, but that it doesn’t end there. If I had only deconstructed Talbot’s essay, then I would have used existing discourse to reveal Lacanian ideas of the mother/child, or maybe even the Freudian cathecting mother/object to reveal that Talbot was Winnicott’s imperfect mother, or that her struggles reveal a Marxist classism and woman as object. But instead, I discussed how she adds to a discourse, how she, like the feminists mentioned by Felski, embodies a discourse and not something that needs to be psychoanalyzed and judged, and is not trying to conceal a false consciousness created by capitalism. While, that could be fun, what purpose would it serve? I am not saying that those types of approaches are not useful. Of course, they are. It is great to deconstruct systems and reveal injustices, and to reveal how the patriarchy has basically defined everything including the delineations of race, class, gender, and sex. So instead, I looked for what the text what telling me about these identities who are prediscursive (remember Lacan and Iriguray, from earlier). Talbot defined for herself what a mother is. What a woman is. What a writer is. As well as how it all intersects. She embodies all of this, and then presents it on the page. But so what? Now what? This isn’t where it ends.
            This is where ANT comes in. Do you see the meta-moves I am making?

*Episode 3*
When I was sixteen, I was angry. I was sad. I was a bubbling froth of emotions that overflowed everywhere and left holes in my bedroom walls. My oldest brother had died two years earlier from AIDS. My father was drunk. Not like sometimes, but all the time. My mother worked two jobs to pay our bills. Enter Bikini Kill. Enter Riot Grrrl zines. I didn’t know anything about third wave feminism, but when Kathleen Hanna screamed “your world, not ours, your world, not mine[1],” I knew what she meant. When she shouted, “Revolution grrrl style now[2],” I clenched my fist. I could not articulate all of my emotions. I could not articulate the oppressive systems of Reagan and homophobia that helped put my brother in an early grave, or explain anything about capitalism, or the phallocentric sexist language system, but I was really pissed off. I was hurt. I was ruptured. I screamed along with Bikini Kill. I read riot grrrl zines. I did not feel alone. I was connected to something larger. I was no longer this one girl in pain. I was part of a network of other girls. This saved my teen life, saved me from completely falling in on myself.
Then that summer of sickness. After the addiction. After the recovery. After rape/trauma/prostitution. I was in bed in pain from pink and blue pills that would free my blood of disease, and my best friend handed me Bluets. From there, I paused on reading fiction, and consumed creative nonfiction. Memoirs and essay collections. From Sarah Manguso to Samantha Irby to Anais Nin to Claudia Rankine to Margo Jefferson to Jenny Boully to Eve Ensler to Chelsea Hodson. All women. I pretty much stopped reading anything by white men. I needed a break. I needed these discourses. I read Kiese Laymon. I read Ta’Nehisi Coates. I read Michelle Tea. I needed to read their identities and how they exist in the world. How they use language to disrupt the way the system has defined them, and even how added theory or speculation or line breaks blur the genre and disrupts the line between fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction, and all of its confessions, saved my life, much like Bikini Kill and the riot grrrls. I was suddenly connected and in relationship with these writers and their stories. They added to my life, to my internal thoughts and feelings. Telling my stories helps me to transcend whatever it is that needs transcending, but connecting with these other stories, these lived stories, these texts that embodied women, men of color, and queerness transformed my life. When I met Maggie Nelson at AWP 2014 in Minneapolis, she asked, “How do I know you?” and I responded, “We’ve never met, but, yes, you know me,” even though it was I who had read her book.

Actor Network Theory is all about how we are all connected. Latour states of ANT, “It does not wish to add social networks to social theory, but to rebuild networks out of social theory” (1459).  My need for connection, for relationships, was there before I ever stepped into a “network” of Riot Grrrls or women writers. Our subjectivity relies on the way we are all connected. The way we see ourselves positioned in society is arbitrary and based on societal constructs, much like how the signs in language work, and how our arbitrary positioning gives us meaning, or status, a signification. However, Latour is stating that these social positions are not the point, and does not drive ANT. Instead, from social theory we need to rebuild these networks. That rebuilding happens when we find that we are all part of the system, influenced by the system, and are interconnected within it. We are all subjects and our identities are interdependent upon each other. So why not focus on our connectedness, and build relationships. Latour states:
…semiotic actors turning them into new ontological hybrids, world making entities; by doing such a counter-copernican revolution it builds a completely empty frame for describing how any entity builds its world; finally, it retains from the descriptive project only very few terms—its infralanguage—which are just enough to sail in between frames of reference, and grants back to actors themselves the ability to build precise accounts of one another by the very way they behave; the goal of building an overarching explanation— that is for ANT, a centre of calculation that would hold or replace or punctuate all the others—is displaced by the search for explications, that is for the deployment of as many elements as possible accounted through as many metalanguages as possible. (1467) 
Language creates stories that tell us about humans, and the way they exist in the world. But yet, we intersect into these different frameworks to see how other humans exist in the world. Crossing into different frameworks connects the frames, a process of connection, a movement inside a larger network and creates an infralanguage, meaning an ability to see within these frames and understand what is being built and how it all it connects. However, I do not wish to do away with all explanations, but like Felski said, not everything has to be an interrogation, and instead we look to understand each other’s metalanguage. This harkens back to meta-memoir and the way that these meta-moves allow us to breach the barrier between page and writer, and glimpse into how the writer is building their experience and revealing who they are, and how they exist, and think and feel in the world. This is what is important, breaching the barriers that societal systems have constructed for us, the false consciousnesses, the hierarchy of identities. Felski says this is how we could approach literary criticism. Look at what the text is revealing to us, and how it connects to us as humans, as intersubjects, and how we all exist in our own ways within the constructed system. She asks, “Why downplay the role of art works in ensuring their own survival? Why overlook the way sin which they weasel into our hearts and minds, their dexterity in generating attachments?” (163) Why do we devalue the way a text affects us, moves us, changes us, and connects us? We elevate fictions that reveal truths, so why not texts that embody a real person, and their own stories. We need to stop devaluing our experiences and relationships. After all, it is the system, its constructed positions, its oppression and language, its economy, that critics love to critique, that gave us this idea that autobiographical writing is feminine and that feminine is self-serving/nazel gazing/gratuitous/hysterical/bad. We need to see our connections and interdependence. And what better genre to do that than one that is autobiographical, and confessional, and meta? I am not trying to create a hierarchy of genres. Poetry and fiction are equally important. I am merely asserting that creative nonfiction is just as valid and important because of what it brings to discourse by revealing these personal frameworks, as well as the way the genre has connected people through the lived experience and internal lives captured on the page. It is its own infralanguage.
I have used the personal to reveal these connections, but perhaps my experience isn’t enough, yet, according to ANT, it should be. I am revealing my framework, my subjectivity using texts, theory, and meta-moves which goes beyond me disrupting the writer/text barrier, because I am also attempting to embody a text by using language, confession, literary criticism, and theory. However, the human race has a long history of the transformations of lives and the building of relationships through stories. My need for connection, led me to Maggie Nelson, which led me to Jill Talbot, which lead me to others, which lead me to writing, which lead to publication, and to others reading my writing. In an interview I did with Profane Journal, I told the editor Jacob Little about Bluets changing my life, and my course in life. And he, a man, responded, “Me too. I had a similar experience” (Little). Because of a text, we became aware of our shared experience which transcended the constructed social structures. After a reading, in which I read about being thirteen and lost, and in love with Sylvia Plath, and in the guidance counselor’s office trying to conceal all my pain, and the fact that I had been changing the grades on my report card, a young black girl, around fourteen, approached me with tears in her eyes. She said that I had told her story. We connected, a white woman and a young black girl. When I was in rehab, a black man was my counselor, and we told each other our stories, and we connected. We had lived through the same addiction. I am not a Pollyanna. I am not asserting that we should all just tell our stories and that racism and all the social constructs of capitalism will fall away. We absolutely need to critique these systems and bring about change. But we do need to change the way we define ourselves as subjects, and how we allow our positioning within these systems to define us. When we hear each other’s stories, see our faces in the other, we connect. Telling our true stories, our ruptures, the way we exist in the world, especially if we are voices that have been deemed outside of language, and identified by our lack, our not white cis-maleness, it is transformative, and creates a network which ripples with transformation.

Before I ever read Talbot, or met Talbot, I had written:
I want to let go and leave it all behind and sleep on the grass with a forty and not have to worry where my next fix is from. Not have to worry about withdrawals or cars in impound lots and mothers who will get cars out of impounds lots, mothers whose hearts get broken every day, mothers who kick you out at times and you worry where you’ll sleep and if it’ll be safe. I once heard a man say that the first time he slept in an abandoned building that he was scared but then eventually he got used to it, he adapted. I want to be there. All the way there where I don’t have to worry anymore about being me because by that point surely the me I am now will be gone. (Moore)
I too had wanted to disappear. I too wanted to not be who I was. I thought it would lead to freedom. I couldn’t obliterate the system or my position in it, so I thought an obliteration of self would lead me outside of what I was trying to escape, which was myself. Years later, when I read Talbot’s essay about wanting to disappear, I felt like she understood me. She and I had this connection. Creative Nonfiction connects readers and writers more obviously than other genres just by its very act of meta-confession. May we stay hysterical. May we keep disrupting. May we find each other in ourselves.
Kat Moore was the winner of Profane's 2016 Nonfiction Prize. Another essay was a finalist in the Best of Net 2017. She has essays in Hippocampus, Blunderbuss, Whiskey Island, Yemassee, Salt Hill, New South, Pithead Chapel, and forthcoming in Split Lip, The Rumpus, and the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine. Her poems can be found in Permafrost, Maudlin House, Souvenir, decomP, and forthcoming in the Infinite Eros: Deleuze, Guattari and Feminist Couplings.

Works Cited
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie  
 Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 3rd edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 940-954.
Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Iriguray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985.
Latour, Bruno. “On Actor Network Theory.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie  
Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 3rd edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 1458-1470
Little, Jacob. “Kat Moore Interview.” Profane Journal, Accessed 9 December 2018.
Moore, Kat. “Where Do You Go From Alston Street?” Hippocampus Magazine, April, 2016.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Graywolf Press, 2015.
Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009.
Talbot, Jill. “Lucas Mann and Jill Talbot: In the Fictions of Our Past.” Guernica, September, 
Talbot, Jill. “Running Away from Running Away.” The Way We Weren’t.  Soft Skull Press,

[1] From the album Yeah, Yeah, Yeah on the Kill Rockstars Label, 1992
[2] From their demo album, 1992