Sunday, December 1, 2019

Advent 2019 / What will happen on December 21st, 2019

Dear readers: you may notice that this year, we've chosen to forgo our advent calendar. Instead, we'll be doing our usual weekly posts and focusing our attention on the run-up to What Happened on December 21st, 2019, an exercise in attention. 

Remember 2018's What Happened On June 21st project? That day that 250 or so of us decided to write about "what happened" on that day? Well, we're doing it again, this time on the winter solstice, December 21, 2019, and we'd like to invite you to join us to write about what happens this December 21st.

To participate, all you have to do is write about what happens on that day.

Anyone can play. You, your ten-year-old kid, the whole family, your grade school class, your chess team: whoever. If you'd like to receive three reminders (day before and day of and day after), put your name in on the I'm Interested form.

If you wrote for us last time, we'll send you one email about this to invite you to participate again, should you want to. If not, ignore it or send it to someone who might.

December 21st is our friend Paul Hurh's birthday, so there's that. It's also a Saturday, so there's that. It's the shortest day of the year, as you probably know. It's ten days before the end of the year. So there's that. Four days before Christmas, if you celebrate it. Four days left in the advent calendar (if you use one).

What will happen? What will you notice happening? What will happen to you? To those you love? To those you don't know?

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What Happened on June 21st, 2018? Click through to read all of those posts archived in the previously linked page. Or you could also read the curated digital version of 25 of them that we released last summer (also available at that link as a free download). You might consider tuning into our podcast Talkaday, in which Dorian Rolston interviews some of those writers about the nature of attention and day-writing and the day as a literary unit. You might also want to cruise through to Brian Blanchfield's writing about Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day. Her fantastic book is one of the major achievements of day-writing, and we'd recommend giving it a read (maybe on that day, maybe before).

We'll be back in touch here with more info, but in the meantime, spread the word. Sign up on the I'm Interested form and we'll remind you. And prepare to pay attention. Maybe hatch a plan for how you want to pay attention. Start your training montage now.

You're interested? What's the url to let us know? It's here, one more time.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Kathleen Melin: TEACHING IN THE TIME OF TR**P

When the creative non-fiction class I’d be teaching in our rural community filled to overflowing, I hopped to the copy shop and printed another run of short pieces we’d use as examples.
     A few years ago, I’d excerpted a six-week portion from the semester-long university class I taught on personal essay: individual stories with universal significance. Every two or three years, I taught the sequence to older adults with biographies layered by time in an evening class. I’d had six or eight participants in past sessions. This class brimmed with twenty-one rural adults in Northwestern Wisconsin, which this time felt like high stakes.
     What might have passed as acceptable a few years ago, would not now. I tended to progressive, that is, left-leaning politics, and as the center has moved harsh right, it is easier to feel like an outlier in my home community. I hoped I could behave.     
     Back home, dashing from the fresh cold air of outdoors to the closed-up scent of a house in winter, I noticed an odor coming from the bathroom. Poor toilet bowl! So much had been deposited over the years. Mere swishing was insufficient to the build-up of rust and calcification. It needed a thorough scrubbing.
     I put down my coat, stacked the copies in the precarious pile on my desk, and checked my email. The roster had arrived.
     I read the names, all twenty-one.     
     My stomach rumbled. My bladder shrank. At the moment, our small community bristled with yet another divisive issue: a public and private collaboration on a historic auditorium used as a space for the arts. People from both ends of the controversy would be in the room, and I’d heard personal attacks from both sides.
     I flummoxed around as I made final preparations for the class. How could this work? How could those who saw themselves as fiscally conservative in the face of a fluffy rural arts project co-exist with those who considered the arts an economic driver and essential to the human experience? Friends, families, neighbors had been living like nerve-endings since the last election, and now a bristling local issue was deposited on top. 
     I pondered and added a note to my usual orientation: bathrooms, syllabus, break-time, format.  That evening, after those preliminaries, I continued: “In this seminar, we are writing personal stories with universal meaning. Our values and beliefs will be apparent. This is not argumentative writing; rather, it is writing about how we have overcome an obstacle, learned, or changed as a result of a personal experience. Please refrain from politicizing.”
I would keep the focus on the inner power of the personal essay!
     We went around the room introducing ourselves. One of the participants who had lived in Venezuela brought up the frightening politics there.
     “You could use Venezuela as the setting for your writing, but the personal essay depends on seeing the writer change as a result of an experience,” I reminded.
     Another mentioned golf. I let it pass—the politics of it—the classism, the use of water, and the environmental degradation for the purpose of hitting tightly wound little balls.
     For our first example, I’d selected “Leaf-Peepers” by Stephen King in part for the name recognition, but also the surprise of a warm and low-drama piece from a writer known for high-stakes horror. For the second example, I offered “Hidden Behind Mao” by Wang Ping, an intricate piece about risking everything to read forbidden books—Grimm’s Fairytales, The Tempest, Huckleberry Finn—during China’s Cultural Revolution. She’d immigrated to the United States and now taught at Hamline University a mere hour away.
     The session went well. People began generating ideas. I was relieved.

On the day of the next class, I took on the toilet bowl, the bi-annual scouring of the crusty rusty build-up: empty the water from the bowl, pour in vinegar, soak some toilet paper in the vinegar, and line the bowl with the paper. Leave it on for eight hours.
     While on my knees over the toilet bowl, slapping vinegar-soaked toilet paper under the rim, I listened to a radio broadcast on the history of gun violence in the United States. The program explored the constitutional place of gun ownership: “originalism” in which the constitution is static or the “living constitution” where the concepts are upheld but not the exact details that surrounded them in 1787.
     I looked forward to the creative non-fiction class that night. I’d selected a nature piece by Wisconsin writer Aldo Leopold called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a perfect match, I thought, for this group of rural Wisconsin people.
     That night, we went around the room reading Leopold’s essay aloud. I’d read it many times before, and used it as a teaching tool on occasion, but this time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. The obvious item: a gun.
     Ten years ago, I taught at a northwestern Wisconsin 2-year college that was a feeder to the University system. The students were 100% rural.  They often wrote essays involving guns: shooting rats in a chicken coop, target practice on the back forty, deer hunting. One student wrote about his first kill—a goose—how the blood ran onto its breast, how sorrowful he felt, how he recognized the unnecessary waste of it. During that teaching stint, several students lost friends in a bizarre shoot-out during hunting season following the confrontation between a hostile rural hunting party and one hunter, a recent Hmong immigrant.
     Now, as these rural adults on a quest for enrichment read paragraph after paragraph of Leopold’s essay, I started some mental squirming.
     In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold describes the moment early in his career as a trigger happy young naturalist when he killed wolves for a living. At the time, Leopold believed fewer wolves meant more deer. What he came to understand is that more deer mean a denuded habitat. For a mountain, the catastrophic degradation of the landscape takes years, if ever, to overcome.
     The moment after Leopold shoots the wolf and sees “the green fire” go out in its eyes is not the point of the piece. The point is that he realizes an intricate balance exists beyond what he and most of early twentieth-century culture understood.  The landscape needed wolves.
     This in itself is divisive in our rural area where wolf hunting comes and goes with political change, but I was too deep in other muck at the moment to notice that controversy.
     Before reading, I’d described Leopold’s bio for those who didn’t know him. He’s one of Wisconsin’s treasures for his work and best-known book, A Sand County Almanac. He comes from the tradition of other Wisconsin nature writers: white males like naturalist John Muir, novelist August Derleth, and scientist William Ritter. I restrained myself from pointing the scarcity of women nature writers of the time and the prolonged suppressed absence of nature writing by any person of color. Remember, no politics!
     “Leopold is one of the early conservationists,” I said.
     I told how he’d been a professor at UW-Madison and bought a shack on a rundown piece of land in the sand barrens where he and his family went on weekends, a large family of five children.
     No politics! No comment on overpopulation, on the resulting exhaustion of resources, and absolutely no soap-boxing on the consumerism of our time!
     The Leopold shack is the setting for much of his writing. He died there in 1948 while helping put out a fire on his neighbor’s property. They listened. Neighbors and neighborliness held meaning.
     But then I slipped.
     “A ‘green fire’ has been adopted as an identifier by some environmentalist groups,” I said.
     The room chilled.
     Oh, my.
     I’d said it—the egregiously blatant temper-flaring dirty word: environmentalist.
     How could I! My squirming moved into its next phase: backpedaling.
     “As a result of his work, there’s been a decade’s long experiment on Isle Royale.”
     A soothing sigh of recognition breathed through the room. Isle Royale! Nature, hiking, camping, rocks, water, and that stunning ferry ride from the mainland. We rural people know camping! Leave the opulent resorts of the world for those poor suckers who scrimp all year to lie around a concrete pool and get inebriated while inhaling the fumes of tiki lanterns.
     But after this slight recovery, I carelessly unconsciously said it again.
     “His environmentalism contributed to our understanding of interconnectedness.”
     I did say “environmentalism,” but I’d nicely refrained from inserting the words “white dominant cultural.” The original stewards of this land we call the United States had maintained the balance of nature. No talk of Native Americans and the persistent ongoing willful law-breaking of treaty rights.
     Nevertheless I‘d said it again. Environmentalism.
     In that moment, I would have been more comfortable reciting George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words.”
     I fumbled through the rest of the session, brushed my papers together, and drove home.
     When I walked in the door of my home, I smelled vinegar: acid, sharp, and cleansing. I put down my briefcase. In the bathroom, I got down on my knees, again, pushed the vinegar-soaked toilet paper aside, and scoured the toilet bowl. Even for an earthy person, the odor of toilet bowl scum is a powerful experience. It stank. It stank of old urine, biologically-slimed iron, and inattention. Even the scent of full-strength white vinegar with 6% acidity could not camouflage it. I scoured. I scrubbed. I thought about next week’s model for dialogue—“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway—abortion—and quickly flushed it.

Over the next weeks, people developed their essays. They had the grace to follow the guidelines of the seminar even though I hadn’t.  I was moved by the stories of their quiet lives: a father grieves the passage of time as he moves the swing set out of the yard as his children grow beyond it; a scientist describes her enchantment with nature in childhood and how it soothes and supports her at a turning point in adulthood; a woman grows in compassion as she tells the story of her mother’s one piece of finery, a fancy hat; the daughter of a Cuban immigrant finds a travel poster for Cuba in her mother’s dresser after her death; a group of architects goes skiing together one last time; a mother questions her decision to live in rural Venezuela when her eight-month-old daughter is stung by a scorpion.
     As people honed their stories, they shared them in small groups and read excerpts to the full group, too.
     Although I am a champion crier, I was not the first to cry. Nor was I the last. The stories touched us and blurred our schisms and lines. We had all grieved the passing of time. We all recognized the balm of nature. We all had parents and varying degrees of compassion for them. We’d all experienced the loss of friendship. We’d all made choices that impacted others.
     Political elements lived in every single personal story: sexism, classism, racism, immigration, environmentalism, more. Yes, it’s edgy now. We live individual lives impacted by larger political movements. That’s a given. But the personal essay gives us a glimpse of each other when we write from the heart.
     Oh, the toilet bowl looks better.



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Kathleen Melin is the author of progressive education and parenting memoir By Heart (Clover Valley Press 2008). Her creative and journalistic work has appeared in Feminist Parenting, Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, and random regional, national, and even a couple international publications. She is astounded that her MFA entitles her to teach, which she does irregularly, but mainly, she writes and cares for her farm in northwestern Wisconsin.    

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Malcontent: Keep Essays Weird



Dear Readers,

If you've been with us a while, you know that one of our recurring features is The Malcontent, in which we invite writers to put on the black hat, be a villain, embrace their dark sides, and pseudonymously say whatever they want to say about whatever. When you wear the hat, you wear a persona. Well, one always wears a persona when we essay (the essay I being a subset or a superset of the writer I). When we put on the black hat and play The Malcontent, we're just more explicit about this role-playing.

Sometimes the world of creative nonfiction is just a little too nice, since so many of us are both readers and writers of essays, and since in nonfiction we operate (apparently) without the safety net of plausible deniability with regard to our Is.

That's mostly great, and it feels good to be part of a network of mostly supportive writers and editors and reviewers and publishers. BUT: we also understand that anger or irritation can be a tool. Sometimes writing under a pseudonym can unlock our ability to say some things about subjects that the rest of the world sometimes believes are sacrosanct. Or sometimes we aren't in a position personally or professionally to want to take the chance in expressing an unpopular opinion or speaking back to power—or whatever.

Thus the black hat awaits. Put it on and be a little sharper, darker self for a little while. When you wear the hat, people only see the hat, not the face underneath it.

As such, Malcontent pieces are published pseudonymously as The Malcontent or, if the author prefers, under the author's name ("Jonathan Franzen writing as The Malcontent"). It's up to the writer. (We will never reveal who is writing as the Malcontent unless she chooses to reveal herself.)

If you want to try on the hat, you know where to find us. So, without further ado, here's our latest Malcontent.


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I'm writing this in a fit of anger in the middle of the night. A friend just wrote me asking my advice. Their ridiculously good first book will be published by a University Press that I will refrain from naming here. They have run into a "sticky point" with the editors there regarding the layout of one of their essays (which uses footnotes).

Here's what my friend wrote:
They're telling me formatting footnotes is too complicated and they don't "do it" as a press. They've suggested either stacking all the notes in the back of the book, stacking them at the end of each chapter, or inserting them beneath each corresponding paragraph [in the essay]. 
Since you've recently read the book, I wonder if you have thoughts. Should I cut them and incorporate them into the text as much as possible? Is the flipping back not as obstructionist as I think? Are there other formatting possibilities you can think of that I might recommend?  
Here is my response, edited a bit to redact some identifying information (I don't want to get in my friend's way here—this is a first book and I'm not writing this with their permission—but I do want to talk about some shit for our readers, who are often enough writers, and who may in fact run into similar issues in advocating for the formal decisions in their own essays as they move from manuscript to publishing, and also fuck this press and fuck this editor):

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So what the fuck? A university press can’t fucking lay out footnotes? It’s not that complicated. I mean, it’s more complicated than endnotes or not doing them all, but that was part of the form of the piece when they accepted the book. I mean, you know I’m not always a big fan of footnotes if they can be done another way without losing meaning, but I don’t see how that essay wouldn’t be harmed by changing it to endnotes or incorporating them into the text. I mean, fucking do some book design, you assholes! It’s just one essay! It's just fucking footnotes! A university press ought to be able to accommodate a common academic convention.

Plus, I mean, [University Press] has published [multiple significant experimental essay anthologies] that were filled with weird formatting stuff. This is way easier. In fact, in [recent experimental essay anthology], they published two essays, both with footnotes.

What I’m saying is that you should 100% push back on this bullshit, which I think you already know from your email. If you think the footnotes have to stay footnotes, they have to stay footnotes. I talk about the difference in workshop all the time: there's a big difference between readerly interaction with footnotes (that readers see on every page and can choose to read or not, and they flip back and forth only between text blocks on one spread) and endnotes (which require the reader to find the end of the essay and flip back and forth across pages. Endnotes are way easier to ignore (which is not what you want here, I don't think). You can explain to them (more gently than this, probably, but be direct) that the design of the essay is part of the meaning of the essay, and you can’t change the design for convenience without fucking up the meaning of the essay, and they need to figure it the fuck out. They agreed to publish this essay; you shouldn't be obliged to change its meaning for them to publish it.

It may well be that if you explain it to them gently that they need to figure it the fuck out, they’ll figure it the fuck out. It’s not that hard. It’s not as easy as some of the book design they might be asked to do, but this is not an outlandish request. You’re not asking for only green M&Ms. You’re not being a diva here: you’re protecting your turf as a writer, which is the making and control of meaning, and that sometimes meaning includes making design choices.

They knew what this essay looked like when they accepted it for publication. They looked at it and said, hey, this is cool. We believe in this and want to publish this. If they didn't "do" footnotes, why the fuck did they accept it? I mean to say that it is not optional to strip it of its formatting and assume that doesn't change anything. An editorial suggestion would be one thing, but it's not okay to just flat-out say that this isn't something they "do" (and it's even more egregious when they've done it—and much wackier shit—before). That's coercive and it's stupid.

I’ll email their asses if I need to, but this is a pile of crap. You may need to escalate this to someone more senior at the press (and I can help with that if you want; if they won't listen to you, maybe they'll listen to me, one benefit of having an established career). As you can tell this is something I feel pretty strongly about, because it’s something I’ve run into a lot of times in my own work in various ways, being told by someone in production who doesn't understand that sometimes the tools of production are the writer's tools—design is writing—and they can't just treat an essay as "content" that can be done whatever with however is most convenient for their workflow. It's not hard. It's just slightly more complicated, and it speaks to how a lot of presses are used to treating writing (as content, not as art), and it really pisses me off.

To be fair, I guess, a lot of writers also don't treat their writing as art and don't stand up for the aesthetic choices they make, but sometimes that's also because they don't feel like they can. And it really pisses me off that an editor would do this to a younger writer with a first book. You may not feel like you have agency here but you do. And I know from our conversations about this essay and this book that you know exactly what you're doing with this essay and its formatting decisions. I also know that you're not someone who's going to just give that up, and so I want to underline for you—and for whoever reads this—that you totally should not. I mean, you don't need to be an asshole about it (yet). (But clearly I feel like I do, because I've been taken advantage of in the past by editors who figured I wouldn't stand up for some of my aesthetic or design decisions, and in some cases I didn't, and in some of those cases they were right, but in some of those cases I was wrong not to assert myself. And, you know what, if I could take that back, I would, and that's partly why I'm writing this here.)

For their part, it's not just an obnoxious use of their (perceived) power. It's also just flat-out wrong (they literally do do footnotes: see the [redacted example]) and, what's more, it's lazy. I know it's not simple to format text in a way that goes against their house style, and I'm sure it’d be easier for them if you changed the whole way the essay works to get along, but you know what, that’s fucking on them to figure it out. They have typographers. They have a production department. They may be just a university press, but formatting an essay with footnotes is an achievable goal. And it's a fucking academic style, a common one, and what's more, it's the style of the art you've made and fought for in the past.

Best case scenario: you just need to push back here and I think if they understand you feel strongly about this they’ll figure it out.

But honestly, I feel strongly enough that if it comes down to it and they just can’t figure out how to do it (like seriously, wtf), have them send me the blank pages with all the typography choices (font, leading, text block size, etc) in an indesign file and I can lay it out in 45 minutes for you and send them back the properly typeset pages, and they can go on with their bullshit limited workflow.

It takes a little bit of care to do it right, sure, but I don’t think they can treat this as optional. I’m serious: I’m happy to do it if they won’t. They just need to layout the rest of the book and send me the indesign file and fonts and text and it’s not a big deal to do the footnotes. I can do it in an afternoon.

But it's also the larger point that's bullshit: they must have someone on their staff (or, fuck it, hire a freelancer for $200) who can figure this the fuck out. If not, what are they doing publishing academic or artistic work in the first place? And what are they doing offering to publish your work knowing how it looked.

I mean, I understand that production costs money, and a more complicated production might cost a little more money, but a publisher should be prepared to publish the work they accepted. Or if not, that should be part of the editorial conversation before anyone is asked to sign any contracts. That didn't happen here, so they don't get to just not "do" it.

I have often needed to just design my own pages very often in the past. That's worth it to me (plus that way at least I know it's done right), but letting the writer mess with a file once it's in design is something that many (most?) presses really hate doing.

They don't like to let the writer have access to the design. That's not what the writer is supposed to do, I was made to understand. The writer just writes the text. Their people design the text. (Implicit in this is that the text is just the words, and nothing else is the text, not the formatting or the design or the spacing or the leading or the whitespace, or whatever other cool imaginative shit the writer may be employing.)

I was told, with my first book, when I complained about something as small as the font (one of the very few points of agency I felt like I had), that "our designer has been typesetting books longer than you've been alive." Which may have been true, but, you know what, their typesetting sucked. The font obscured meaning. It did not amplify meaning.

Good typography should amplify meaning or at least get the fuck out of the way of meaning. That's the same case with design. If it doesn't serve the writing, what the fuck does it serve?

But I didn't feel then that I had the agency to say what I'm saying now, which is probably why I'm saying it now, and fucking loud: I knew better. I know better. You know better. That would have been a great OK Boomer moment. Maybe it still can be one for you.

The issue you're having with [University Press] is specific to you, but it's also not. It's a power dynamic that I see all the time (and as someone who runs a small press and also does most or all of the book design and layout, I'm also aware of the limitations on the production end, but in no world would I ever consider just telling an author that we can't do a simple formatting thing because it's not something we "do." That conversation ought to be, at the very least, a conversation, which goes two ways. When we have a weird formatting thing that the author does, I try to figure out how to make what we do accommodate what they do, and that's what University Press ought to fucking do. I mean, they have people they pay to do design. They have a paid staff.

It's also just stupid not to "do" footnotes. I mean, I know footnotes aren't always the best design choice for an essay (it's hard to get out of that DFW shadow, most obviously, in the literary essay) but that's not what they're saying.

And what you should say back to them, or at least what I'm trying to say back to them is a resounding FUCK YOU.

Maybe you should say something gentler, like hey, I totally understand where you're coming from and I understand that this isn't a common thing to have to deal with in production, but in this essay footnotes are the way I make meaning. I can explain why they are the most efficient and effective choice if necessary, but, tl;dr, they're part of the art, they can't be shifted to endnotes without...and fucking FUCK YOU this shouldn't be hard for a University Press to figure out how to do this. This decision is just not negotiable.

Or just direct them to this essay and maybe it'll make the point for you, and you can be the good cop if you want to be the good cop. I'm fine with being the bad cop. I haven't been the bad cop often enough. I like wearing aviators: I look good in them.

What I really want to say, though, is to you, and to everyone else who wants to try out the tools of design in their essays: design means, and design decisions mean, and as the writer you can take control of that. Or not. You don't have to! You can just leave it alone and write regular text! It's fine to leave it alone! Writing regular prose isn't easy either! But it's also fine to play with whatever tools you find, and you see them on the screen in your word processor so why shouldn't you fucking play with them, and especially when you get them to do something cool, something that maybe can't be done any other way, well, you do you. And you should stand up for that you. And an ethical publisher should publish your work well. Some publishers will, even if these assholes won't.

As you can tell, if it comes to it, I'd be totally happy either to solve this problem with an hour of design or blow them the fuck up if you want me to. I'm happy to name names if I need to. This is important.

Besides, [University Press], you don’t get to be a press that’s publishing formally innovative nonfiction without being willing to fucking publish formally innovative nonfiction. Which is a way of saying that if you want to publish art, then you have to publish art and not strip the art out of it.

That may mean being a little bit more flexible with your process or understanding that production may take a little longer or be a little more expensive.

Production shouldn't be the throttle of imagination. That just leads to boring books and bad art. And that's not what publishing or writing (which can include designing/typesetting) ought to be about. I hope you make the right decision here, [University Press editors].


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At this point, the Malcontent took the black hat off, took a couple breaths and calmed down. Their usual midwestern reserve returned, kind of, for now.




The Malcontent is an Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on the black hat, be a villain, embrace their dark sides, and pseudonymously say whatever they want to say about whatever. (Our only guideline is that we try to avoid punching down.) If you want to try on the hat, you know where to find us. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Greg Gerke: Davenport as Exemplar

The essays of Guy Davenport collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves a Form, and The Hunter Gracchus are more than guilty pleasures for me. They discuss dense things but are easy on the eyes, in harmony with part of Davenport’s forward in the latter, “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Davenport never clogged his sentences with any unnecessary sesquipedalian words or high academic torque, though he taught for over thirty-five years. People used to say about film director John Ford that he made one picture for the studio, then one for him. But Davenport kept his tone throughout—a lecture at Yale held the same locutions as a review of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark in the NewYork Times (uncollected, but on-line). It’s a very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones, as in the Outer Dark review: “Appalachian America has kept in the archaic courtesy of its speech and in the still uncompromised meanness of its ethnic jealousies an inviolable identity unmatched anywhere else in the United States. It is our Balkans.”
     I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own noteriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.” Davenport and the other poet-critics—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and, to an extent, Lionel Trilling—taught me turn and counter-turn in this arena. Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry—traits handed down by a trifecta of writers who probably formed him most: William Blake (who he almost did his dissertation on), John Ruskin (the writer who, with Thoreau, he most resembles), and Ezra Pound (subject of his dissertation—he visited him a number of times); three people he defined, in that dissertation Cities on Hills, as able “to combine an intense awareness and love of beauty with what seems like a fanatic interest in economics...[and] to combine an interest in the details of practical statecraft with what seem like visionary ideas so impractical that all three men are listed in reference books as insane.” Whether beauty is truth or the other way around, given his essay “What are Revolutions?,” it is clear Davenport had a justifiable antipathy to government, “We are now taxed for every movement we make, every exchange of nickel from citizen to citizen.” In manner, he is most like Ozick, knowing the power of one word, well-applied, transforms mere information into artistry, as in this simple sentence from a review of a Gerard Manley Hopkins biography review: “He was still young when the filthy drinking water of Dublin did him in: typhoid.” Many would have bypassed the use of the adjective “filthy,” but that coloration heightens the fact of decay now in our heads.
     I never consciously set out to copy, but the cues slurried through my metabolism while it repeatedly digested Davenport for the last decade. In his non-fiction, Guy Davenport, the person, is sometimes there, but subservient to Guy Davenport, the thinker. His own life filters in at certain points, with a catchy anecdote here or there (in a prescient uncollected piece on the Confederate flag, he writes, “When I see motorcycle gangs wearing Nazi regalia, I know that I’m looking at ignorance and stupidity”), but, like Gass, it is a rare instance to have pure memoir—“Finding” and “On Reading” are the two most notable exceptions. It may be counterintuitive, but I believe Davenport and the others, when writing of Shakespeare or other cultural curiosities, are really dwelling on their own sleepless nights or love’s work or a piss-poor colleague or friend; they can be said to be pressurizing the work in the manner of how Charles Williams, a 20th Century poetry critic, counsels, “Poetry is beginning to write more about things, and less about what the poet felt about things”—meaning the life services the art, which is not at all about itself, but about a person’s experience of it. In “II Timothy” a piece originally in an anthology, Davenport squeezes in his upbringing, “...I was actually raised by my parents to believe that a moral life, polished manners, and an ambition to be moderately well off were the essence of acceptable behavior. Both my parents tacitly agreed with Trollope that a strong interest in religion was a prelude to insanity.” Davenport goes on like this, explicating, with memoir being attendant, yet he doesn’t strain to squelch the primary force of the piece, taking advice he once quoted., when he referenced Menander in “The Geography of the Imagination”: “Talking about oneself...is a feast that starves the guest.”
     We live in uber-egoic times, and even such a upright scribbler not to be found on social media, Joshua Cohen, litters his essays with the detritus of Tweet-like pronouncements, though with a nifty campy chrome finish: “So here I am at midnight, sitting in a Barcalounger, reading the Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish while idly masturbating.” There is a tenderfooted line to the insertion of the superficial self into a review of art, a being whom Proust described thus, “What one bestows on private life—in conversation... or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print—is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” The discriminating reader, wondering about the book, film, or exhibition in question, usually will forgive the standard operating procedure of the first-person infused beginning and end, but if too much of the text’s body is that aforementioned paltry feast, it is a very easy and unforgiving click into a new tab that ices the tiresome monologue. But, of course, we don’t think we are inserting that maudlin ego—we are simply using ourselves as a device for more mass appeal and, usually as the bemused (how often writers observe another’s follies) or the victim itself.
     In casting a cold eye on my forthcoming essay book, See What I See, I did notice many of these maneuvers, how I often detailed the circumstances of reading or seeing the art, betting on how the revelations may abet interest, but might only be little jibes which entertain me because it is my life dimly on display. What does the reader really want? Information or intimacy? Probably both, but as in most friendships there is a dance around the indices framing what we want, what we expect, and what we’ll put up with. However many times I hear or read someone say, “I don’t write with the audience in mind,” I know people don’t really have that kind of control over what they write—and anyway, they are speaking in that fusty superficial self voice. But there is the rub—how does that drawing-room self get cloaked enough to come off as half-way genuine, something squaring with Gertrude Stein’s “I write for myself and strangers”? The MFA prescriptivists would say, that is when someone finds their “voice,” when one river flows into another and there is an almost undetectable confluence of form working on the matter at hand. Maybe one can’t countenance that moment—it’s like trying to pinpoint the hour you first began to love someone. You go on a blind date with every reader and some will know in the first syllables if they want to be in your company or not; others will know as soon as they see your name.
     Here is the first sentence of Davenport’s “Dictionary”: “Some years ago, on a particularly distraught evening, the drift of things into chaos was precipitated by my consulting Webster’s Third International for the word Mauser.” So much is going on here and it’s not all ornate or all plain but a synthesis of the two. It certainly is hypnotic. It could be the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it quickly becomes Kafka, with “the drift of things into chaos”—something so beautiful, you think Keats wrote it and you want more of that beauty, that voice. Then the humor of the ending and ending on that particular pregnant word. Yet there is also the time frame—you find out things drifted into chaos before you know the source of said chaos. In Davenport, one gets sentences that have it all. This is what I strive to create.


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Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, are both available this autumn from Splice.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Jay Ponteri on Sarah Vap’s WINTER: DEVOTIONS AND EFFULGENCES




“Drones are probably killing someone right now.”

This independent clause appears in small type at the top and bottom of every page of Sarah Vap’s Winter: Devotions and Effulgences.

Each time this sentence appears I read it. I do not skim over it. As I move further into the book, I begin to speak the words aloud—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—and it came to feel like an incantation, a secret you tell yourself about your secret selves. It came to feel like a ghost if you define a ghost as something emergent, as something both invisible and present, beyond one’s perceptual field but felt in our loins and our elbows , the tips of our ears. All the things headed our way.  

Here are more words along with blank space within and around the words  from this beautiful book by Vap:

Drones are probably killing someone right now.
Across the years since we bought the cabin I have arranged and rearranged this book into many formats—sometimes this has been a book of lyric poetry. Sometimes this book has been a list of questions, sometimes a collection of deeply-disrupted aphorisms. Sometimes lyric essays. Sometimes it joined with other research and writing while I completed coursework and two dissertations for my PhD. Sometimes I deleted everything and started over with lists and bullet points, then pasted everything back in again so that I could slam my head against it for a few more years.
Sometimes the materials gathered for this book have been a thousand pages long—the scattered writings of all those mornings, gathered together.
And once I deleted and deleted until the words barely gasped themselves out onto each page, a pool of white around them. Pieces of this book have been pulled out of emails, then deleted from the book again. I’ve used portions of letters, journals, and checked my memory against the news sites on the internet.
As the world changes, the book has to change. As my children have been born and have changed, the book has to change. As my brains have dissolved into the brains of the family-animal, into the whale, into the forest, into the fungal mat—the book has to change. 
Sometimes I try to write down these morning desperations, these morning weather reports—from inside our deepest-tendernesses. 
I want to write from within our deepest-kindness, we.
I am writing forth from the entrails of our family-animal—
I want to extend our tentacles toward whatever are the origins of the naval and industrial pinging—deep in those waters all around us—in order to destroy them.
I am amazed when the babies speak words I’ve never heard before,
but long to understand.
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (52)
Vap’s book is about living and loving in the face of so much violence, so much death, and possible death, originating from our own destructive, selfish behaviors. Vap’s book is about living with death, dying a little every day, as the book’s epigraph states: 
Death takes place in my very being—how can I explain to you? 
—Clarice Lispector



Vap’s book is also about transformation from young woman to woman who procreates (miscarries) and raises a family, from feelings of burgeoning and gain to feelings of disorientation, frustration, and grief over the loss of the quiet, capacious selves, all the possibility, the expansion of multiple selves within and beyond youth, all of it disintegrates. You raise a family into being—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—and something else emerges, a kind of “second body,” a phrase the writer Daisy Hilyard, in her book Second Body, uses to describe the various empathetic selves in touch with the world beyond one’s perceptual field. 

Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Glut, I.
The noise in this cabin—my brains exploding from noise—the slams.
Screeching, laughing, crying. Rain on the roof. Sonar pinging at each moment into our brains—
Into the brains of whales—and all the other sea creatures—this animal asleep in my arms— 
love made a body—for a complete mind. I
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (8)
The narrator leaps from the children’s noise to rain pelting the roof to sonar pings in the brains of whales, in our brains. This porosity gives way to spiritual action—fleeting, poignant. In this way writing makes space for stretchy moments hyper-presence invites: 
Drones are probably killing someone right now.
Weeks have passed since I’ve tried to write about winter. The birth of Mateo turned, and is still turning me, inside-out.
Tonight sitting in front of the fire, things flowing into and out of my shot-through brains, breastfeeding this beautiful new baby in my arms—my torso—my brains—my vagina and anus and bowels and bladder—they’re wobbling or falling, and. 
I am newly eviscerated, newly cracked-open. 
The firelight flickers through this tiny baby’s eyelashes, creating shadows across his face so that his face looks cracked open.
Cracked open at the sternum, and cracked open at the brains,—I.
Something of soul has increased, as my porousness has increased.
Something of me has diminished. 
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (38)
The experience of childbirth, of raising children, of being part of a plural organism, transforms the body. Being cracked open materializes into heightened sensitivity to the pinball-flow of creation and destruction transmitting both singular and collective ways of being in the world. What’s around us, what’s coming at us, what’s swimming near us, moves inside us or near us. A man cleans the cafe’s high windows out of which I stare. As I watch him work the squeegee, I send him love and praise. My son leaves dirty, fetid socks on the couch and I imagine draping them over my ears, wearing them as dangly earrings. So many things within and beyond our control have been set into motion and all we can do is behold what is emergent, what emerges. You understand—my son wants the skin of his feet to feel the touch of air. 

Emergence

The narrator writes. She writes over the course of 12 winters spread across three distinct regions (the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) and filled interruptions. Hunger, poopy diapers, questions about the world and about their bodies, ordinary and extraordinary needs connected to attachment, nourishment, and emotional development. Amidst her own needs and the needs of her family, the narrator writes. “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” Snowfall, flooding rains, days at Venice Beach. She writes. She writes in order to come into contact with selves that mark with more clarity where her body ends and other bodies begin. She writes to record the ordinary and extraordinary familial motions: 

When I try to write the poem about winter, I am trying to hold, tenderly, onto something of the childhoods of my children—my children are flowing right past me, and into the world. (54)
Emergence. Something that has been there gradually and abruptly becomes apparent. Light in the dark sky. Sunshine through tree boughs. Semen. Mature eggs. The child’s inquiring voice behind the shut door. A submarine’s sonar pings and the “drones are probably killing someone right now.” Loose syntax expands through layering modification. An overgrown, jagged toenail soon to be ingrown snags multiple threads of those new blue socks. An imbalance of care—everything there and nothing here. The very end of a sentence reveals a numinous, ambiguous stance. The cold air spills from the cave’s mouth and the man’s mouth opens reflexively as he brings a spoonful of porridge to his child’s opening mouth, like a wish, small, deeply consequential. We eat to stay alive and being alive means being in motion so when we pay attention to the world we’re paying attention to motion, that which we can apprehend and that which lies beyond. I’m talking about soul-level stuff here. Do you hear the knocking on the door? Who’s on the other side? The boy child is. He needs your attention. Or is that the wind blowing the tip of a tree branch against the door?
I haven’t written this book. I’ve gathered fragments across a few thousand mornings during which my body and brains felt susceptible.
During which my body and brains succumbed to. Years of astonishing porousness, during which i have wondered: do i have a soul.
Do I have a mind. Is this love that is dissolving me. And is my soul the bomb that landed
at the center of my torso, exploding—the sternum of this book.
This book that has sputtered out of holes, across many years, during which I was interrupted every few seconds, I. 
Good morning love. Come here.
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (21)
In the company of her boy children Vap describes her face or their faces as “soulface.” She’s searching for the soul touch of others, the deepening of her own:

I cannot know what the salmon just accomplished, across time.
I have always associated the human soul with dwindling. 
I have always associated the human soul with a fire burning in a small cabin in the middle of the woods—snow piled up all around. An ocean not too far away.
I have always associated the human soul with a woman sitting in that cabin at her computer, trying to write a poem about winter. A baby nursing on her lap while she types with one hand. Another tiny boy plays with something behind her, and he is talking to her. (115-116)
A dwindling, a fire burning, snow piling, an ocean not too far away. I think of soulfulness as hyper-presence in which you attend to multiple motions at once, what’s before you and behind you and around you and far away, across space-time. Things recede, push forward, pile up, melt. Forever gone. “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” It’s not one drone—it’s many. What emerges has already existed before it’s entered our perceptual field. “And some kind of animal, the whole time—it was moaning all around me” (37). We may have set something in motion without understanding exactly what it is, or even if we do understand, we can’t exactly grasp the quality of its motion, its speed, its pathways, its trajectory.

Emergence signifies a kind of connective motion, from invisible to visible, from beyond reach to within reach. I look behind the couch cushions and notice three more balled-up socks that smell like Limburger cheese, which is mainly produced in Germany. There is so much happening we cannot see that eventually makes its way. A knotty contradiction, an insight around origins and impacts, an inevitable, mysterious act—“Oh my fucking god we are sitting on the floor in the sunshine coming through the window and the glare of the snow is blinding us and I am scratching his itchy stinky little foot and we are smiling so hard” (111)—a shift in tone or sound (or even just much more of what has been building, amplification of what’s there already, a language moment expressing irrevocability, there’s no going back—“Why do we want to look inside of each other. / What does it mean to be, or to remain, intact—. / When my sons were inside of me—they were entirely inside of me. / When my sons were inside of me—they did open their eyes” (163)—we readers ride through the velvet folds of language, words, the blank-space horizon, everybody’s and nobody’s, and there’s Grandma and those napkin holders she kept in the bottom drawer, wooden rings engraved with skeletal fern fronds. An emergence flickers on like a ghost, expands and deepens, tree roots spreading in every direction, closer to the core. Reticent and ignitable, connected to the body’s incessant motion, even beyond living, into death, to becoming something. 



The writing makes Vap something, takes Vap someplace else, many other places:
Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Christmas Disassociation 
The baby burrows himself back into my body like when I was little, and I buried myself in the snow. 
The baby pinches and holds onto skin of my arm like when I was little, and her brother grabbed at. 
When I was little, and he wiggled his fingers and his tongue at her each day when he drove them to and from school, and her other brother just. 
When I was little, and her oldest brother sniffed the air each time they passed a particular house as he drove the three of them to and from school. 
He said I smell pussy and he sniffed. He sniffed the air and said pussy every day when they passed the house, because a high school girl lived in that house. 
When I was little, and her brother turned to look at her in the back seat while he was still driving the car, and he sniffed the air to see what her reaction would be. 
Or turned toward her in the back seat to stick out his tongue and wiggle it at her slowly and he was still driving the car, but he wasn’t looking at the road he was looking at her.  
When I was little and he wasn’t looking at the road, instead he was looking at her in the back seat and. 
He was looking at her to scare her.  
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (96)
Nesting inside the narrator’s perception of her baby pressing into her back is a memory of her older brother’s violent speech, his hurtful behavior. As her baby touches her skin, the narrator splits or dissociates, becomes “she,” recalls this memory that emerges over the course of seven prose paragraphs bit by bit. Imagine the drones flying, a swarming or whooshing sound. Imagine robotic claws like earwig pincers. Imagine a young man not much older than my 15-year-old son focused on a screen inside a dark room, his hand on a joystick, the drone’s pincers opening to release an explosive device and then imagine a family sitting around the kitchen table eating a meal, lentils and greens, a child reaching for the butter and knife, the explosive device shaped like a rod dropping through the sky at a slant, the way a child often just learning how spreads the butter unevenly across the bread. 

The emergent emerges, commingles with what has already emerged, what is visible, consciously or unconsciously engaged, thickening or dissipating. I pay close attention to my surroundings, what is entering my perceptual field, what may enter the moment after the next, what is far beyond but headed towards us all. Winter. Winter’s coming our way. This imaginative and empathetic mindfulness gets replicated on the page, shows its winding, shifting, divergent motions.

Close to the book’s end, the most blistering section, the narrator instructs our President and the ExxonMobil Corporation how to examine their vaginas. The narrator patches together the language of genital self-examination and of violence expressed in the nomenclature, Donald Trump and ExxonMobil:
Donald Trump if you’re comfortable doing so, slowly put a finger or two inside your vagina. Those are your vaginal walls. If it hurts or if you have trouble, take a deep breath and relax. You may be pushing at an awkward angle, your vagina may be dry, or you may be unconsciously tensing the muscles owing to a fear or discomfort. Try shifting positions and using a lubricant such as olive or almond oil (don’t use a perfumed oil or lotion that could cause irritation).  
Vulva modeled upon the exchanging of property. 
Vulva of the prison industrial system vulva of water boarding vulva according to the logics of global capitalism vulva of disposable populations I.  
Vulva fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, also on your reviled point, vulva. 
Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Donald Trump notice how your vaginal walls, which are touching each other, spread around and hug your fingers.  
Feel the soft folds of mucous membrane. These folds allow the vagina to stretch and to mold itself around whatever is inside, including fingers, a tampon, a penis, a dildo, or your baby during childbirth. 
ExxonMobil with my vaginal walls I. (197-198)
The “I” often emerges only to be halted by the sentence’s end out into blank space so the abrupt, emerging period makes your body feel the violent severance, the many selves cut off—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—that happens within the porous body, the body open and woven into many other bodies, the body paying close attention to what exists, what is emergent, what has passed through us long ago. The writing shows the kind of deep listening that leads you to the next step or move while making you aware something is coming at you. An effulgence is a brightness taken to an extreme. The brightness fades, always. Death takes place in my very being. I want to witness every incremental step of this fading. My son suddenly 15 years old, asks me to drop him off at high school, a dance. Four years of his childhood remain. His fast walk, the way he now hunches over slightly, especially when he’s wearing his hooded sweatshirt. Tonight I shall cook his favorite meal. I shall measure out each ingredient. 



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Jay Ponteri directs the Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing at Pacific Northwest College of Art. His book Wedlocked won the Oregon Book Award. LOBE is forthcoming in Spring 2020, from Widow+Orphan House.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Susannah Q. Pratt: How Zadie Smith Saved My Book

Packing to leave for a week of uninterrupted writing and reading, I found myself in my office evaluating the books on my shelves. I was headed to the former summer estate of a once-famous architect, now turned artists’ retreat, and contemplating what to bring to what seemed like a latter-day house party in the country. I had already packed long pants and a sun hat for traipsing through the fifty acres of prairie adjacent to the property, one linen dress for who knows what, my laptop and some yoga pants. Still, something was missing.
     I felt sure the visual artists would arrive at the retreat with materials—blocks of clay and sculpting tools, or sketch pads and dusty tin cups filled with charcoal pencils. Certainly, I thought, writers must have their own tools of the trade? Items necessary to the production of their craft? The answer came to me after some thought. These tools were, of course, the works of other writers; namely, books.
     So it came to pass that I was standing in front of my bookshelves, considering books both read and unread, deciding which to bring with me. To some degree, it was a question of who I wanted to spend time with; at the same time it was also a matter of both reference and resource. Rebecca Solnit came, as did Thorstein Veblen, if that gives you any indication.
     In the Solnit vein, I selected a few essayists whose voices were not only enjoyable but would also, I was hopeful, serve to strengthen my own. Using this criteria, I pulled Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, off my shelf and placed it in the cardboard box of books headed for the trunk of my car. It didn’t hurt that I had not read all the essays in the collection either. To borrow a wonderful, obfuscating phrase from the writers I would spend the week with, I had “read around in it”, but there was definitely untouched work waiting for me to discover.
     Once at the retreat, I got down to work of my own. I didn’t just work—I read and wrote like a person starved for unencumbered time. At home, almost all of my daily written output took the form of email, text or the occasional work memo. As such, my style had devolved to something functional and terse; I was a master at orchestrating a carpool in five texts or less, summarizing a complex meeting in a single short paragraph. On the retreat, I felt another voice start to return. Freed from the drudgery and sheer quantity of my daily written communication, my written voice relaxed. I reinstated a habit of journal writing. I revised a collection of essays that I had been trying, slowly, to move toward publication. In this, I made some quantum leaps forward. I wrote a funny little piece about my boys. These were the energizing parts of the week. 
     Less energizing were the revision sessions that left me writing in circles, often ending up back where I started, or—on the more frustrating days—somewhere back behind the starting line. Equally discouraging were the communal dinners with the other artists—particularly the writers. I am not a writer by trade, only by hope. I don’t have an MFA. I am not in the academy. So during the dinners I sat quietly and listened to those I perceived to be living the “writing life”. Eavesdropping on the poets and professors who live squarely within the boundaries of the literary world, I heard tales of the shuttering of small presses. Of the dwindling of honoraria for readings. Of teachers who stole and plagiarized student work. Of optioned books that disappeared into the oblivion of half-hearted promises. Of the increasing fees to submit work. At night I would return to my bedroom strangely thankful for my workaday reality, glad for the way writing had been marginalized in my life.
     Even as I began to question this thing I had understood as the writing life, I remained in love with writing. I woke up every morning grateful for the unstructured hours ahead of me. I wrote into them with joy. I began, in the deep recesses of my own brain, to understand what I was working on as an actual book. I started to see my essays as more than a series of related pieces and to see them instead as something that was adding up to more than the sum of its parts. 
     On the fourth morning of the week, I decided to set up shop in the public library in town. I had hardly exhausted the pastoral beauty or all the little nooks and crannies of the estate, but the piece I was working on that morning was about the importance of libraries, and I felt the work might benefit from some time spent in an actual library. So I packed up my laptop and water bottle and walked the mile into town to the little brick library building at its center.
     The day was humid; the temperature registered ninety-one degrees on my weather app. When I arrived at the library, sticky with sweat, I greeted the chill of the air-conditioned reading room with open arms. I settled in, opened my laptop, scrolled to the correct spot in the text, and began to edit. 
     The library essay on which I was working was from my collection (slowly becoming book) on the topic of consuming. And the interesting observation I was making about libraries, or so I thought, was that they are spaces free of consumerism. My essay arrived at this point by comparing my intermittent pattern of library use to my intermittent pattern of churchgoing, noting, finally, that in neither institution is there active buying or selling. These two places, I argued, are among the last public spaces where this is the case.
     (Despite how I may be coming across thus far in this essay, I am not totally naive. I am aware of a vast amount of writing on libraries by everyone from Andrew Carnegie to Neil Gaiman. Several months earlier I had devoured Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. Reading not “around in” but rather through that entire volume, I held my breath, waiting for Orlean to arrive at my exact point. But while she came close, she never landed precisely in this space. And she never compared libraries to church.)
     After several productive hours revising the library essay, I stood up to stretch. I could feel myself approaching that threshold of having nothing more insightful to say, and I felt a break was in order. Rather than return to my computer, I decided to head upstairs to read book jacket flaps in the essay section of the little library. The previous night’s dinner conversation had left me with the impression that it might be good to familiarize myself with flap copy as it seemed I would eventually need something similar in order to find an agent, or an editor, or to sell a book, or whatever would happen when I got brave enough to push my writing toward the door.
     So I stood in front of the short row of essay collections, randomly selecting books, skimming the insides of their jackets and becoming disheartened. The library’s limited shelf space was devoted mostly to collections by already famous authors. These book flaps were full of accolades for the writer, a list of his or her previous “beloved novels” or “regular contributions to…” As I was yet unpublished, these examples were of little help. If this is how flap copy reads, I thought, I am going to have to make stuff up. This thought was problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that I write nonfiction.
     Eventually, on one of the lower shelves I noticed three thick-spined colorful copies of Zadie Smith’s most recent collection, Feel Free. And while I was certain her jacket flap would contain more of the same over-the-top biographical prose, I was curious to find out what this newer collection was all about. Taking down one of the volumes and opening to the jacket, I buzzed through the first paragraph reminding everyone how she “burst spectacularly” onto the literary scene with White Teeth. 
     I moved on to the next paragraph. And there, the gut punch:
Arranged into five sections…this new collection poses questions we immediately recognize…Why do we love libraries? "…what a good library offers cannot easily be found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything to stay." [emphasis mine]
I snapped the book shut, picked up my purse, and hurried downstairs. I closed my laptop, shoved it in its case, and dashed up to the front desk to ask how I could borrow the book. Then, successful in that endeavor, I rushed outside into the steaming heat and plopped down on a concrete bench next to the front door that had been baking all morning in the sun. The backs of my legs burned as I opened the book in my lap and began scanning the table of contents looking for Smith’s library essay. The glare of the noontime sun made the white pages almost impossible to read, but I couldn’t be bothered to dig around in my purse for my sunglasses. I needed to find that essay.
     In retrospect, I am not entirely sure why I was in such a hurry. I think, perhaps, in a very short amount of time I had convinced myself that if Zadie Smith had already written exactly what I had literally just written about libraries, I had been outed as an imposter—a pretender-writer incapable of original thought. This failure of originality would be proof that my instinct was right: I was a phony who had no business being on that retreat. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of standing adjacent to the literary life, peeking over into the lives of “real” writers, but in those few minutes since coming across her essay, I had somehow endowed Smith and her book with prophetic powers. I was rushing through the book to discover whether I was going to join them. Whether I would be a writer or not, if I would ever have a book of my own. A bead of sweat trickled down my right temple.
     Anyone acquainted with the collection can tell you that there is no essay with “library” in the title. I flipped to the index. The book, with its clear cellophane library cover, began to slide foreward off my sweaty thighs. I caught it and returned to searching. There it was. “Libraries” on pages 3, 4, 6, 7-8, 9-13... Oh, so many pages on libraries!
     The rest will be familiar to many of you. Not only did Smith make my exact point about the absence of consumerism in libraries, but she was ahead of me on the church thing and funny about it too, “In the modern state there are very few sites where this [not buying] is possible. The only others that come readily to mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership.” Later, “[the library is] the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want your soul or your wallet.” To avoid spoilers all around, I will simply say that Smith takes her essay to the same end toward which I had been heading in mine—an extended reflection on the importance of libraries, made with “pathos”—a fundamentally emotional argument for their existence.
     I shut Smith’s book and tucked it under my arm along with my laptop. I stood up, slung my purse over my other shoulder, and began the long walk back to the estate in the ninety-one degree heat, trying to remind myself with every step that I had the fortune of other, interesting work. That I liked to write just for the joy of writing. That I missed my husband and kids and would see them in three days. That sort of thing. When I got back to the main house and pushed opened the heavy wooden door, I heard talking - a rare sound in the cloister-like atmosphere of the retreat. I squinted down the dark hallway and saw three fiction writers sitting in the mansion’s sunroom, exchanging papers and laughing. I had forgotten that they were holding a workshop for themselves that afternoon. I went upstairs and got into bed.
     I am not proud to admit that my first, irrational response, as I lay there considering the situation, was to be mad at Zadie Smith. Like, really mad at her. Resting listlessly on my pillow, I turned my head slowly toward the books I had brought from home. There, standing upright on my desk, next to a volume of Szymborska poetry, was the other Smith collection, her name on the spine in large scrolling blue font. How could you, I thought. You were one of the authors I brought to inspire, to keep me company.
     But I knew, rather than pouting, I had to face facts. Simply put, I’d been scooped. Smith had beaten me to the analysis and stated it better than I ever could. Plus, with her fame and excellent writing and all, she’d had the jump on me from the start. I was clearly not going to be writing my way into some literary life. In the quiet heat of the afternoon I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
    An hour later I woke up groggy and half-aware that I had fallen asleep in a very bad mood. I sat up as the entire episode came rushing back to me. Ah right, I reminded myself, time to give up on this writing business.
     I am nothing if not a realist, and I am actually pretty resilient too. So believe me when I tell you this wasn’t a moment of total despair. In retrospect, I think was taking the whole thing as more of a corrective. I wasn’t meant for real writing. I’d take my way with words and write up some classic family stories to pass on to my sons. I’d keep submitting cute tales of my kids to parenting blogs. My emails would rock. But never again, I was sure, would I pack up for a week and leave my family behind to pursue my writing dreams.
     As complicated for me as my writer identity, actually, was the question of my now book. No longer a manuscript, or “collection in development”, over the course of the retreat my essays had grown into a book. They were in conversation with one another, and they collectively had something to say. I was less sure of what to do about that, but my instinct was—for at least the rest of the week—to leave well enough alone. I figured I could decide later whether to let the manuscript languish, or whether to dissect it and send off a few pieces to friends and family. Just for kicks.
     Sitting there on my bed, the late afternoon sun streaming in through my windows, I decided I the very least I could do (and it wasn’t much of a hardship) would be to read my way through the remaining two days. And I had to laugh, if a bit ruefully, as the first book my eyes fell on was the library book I had borrowed that morning: Feel Free. I bent down to pick it up. I stood up, refilled my water bottle, and opened the door to the little screened in porch adjacent to my room. The heat enveloped me as I settled into the small wicker rocker on my porch.
     Well, Zadie, I thought as I opened the book, let’s see what else you have to say. And turning to the book’s foreword, I began to read.
     Looking back now, I think it is fortunate more time had not passed between my discovery of Smith’s library essay and my reading of her foreword. Had I picked up the book weeks, or even days, later I may not have continued to vest it with special, prophetic powers. As it was, however, Smith and her words still held particular sway over me. So you can imagine the slight lift I felt in my stomach when I came across Smith offering the following reflection on herself as writer:
     “It’s true that for years I’ve been thinking aloud—and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another.”
     Go on.
     “I think the anxiety comes from knowing that I have no real qualifications to write as I do.”
     Um, say more.
     “Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist.”
     (Did I mention there was a trained journalist at my retreat?)
     “I’m employed in an MFA program, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you? Essays,” said Smith, looking right at me, “about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on.”
     Not a single leg.
     “All they have is their freedom.”
     And with that sentence, Zadie Smith set me free. Free to write about what I know of libraries, and, for that matter, what I know of church and community and pathos. She liberated me from the tyranny of MFAs and PhDs and publishers and submissions and agents and queries and readings. She released me from my insecurities and doubts, or at least gave me the freedom to make friends with them. Knocking down the border wall I had constructed between my life and the lives of other writers, Smith reminded me that I was most free when I was writing.
     I stood up, put the book on floor next to the rocker, and went back into my room. I sat down at my desk and looked out the window for a solid five minutes, thinking. Then I opened my laptop and began to write.
     The final two days of the retreat flew by in a flurry of reading and writing from which I emerged at the communal dinners dazed and happy. I spoke more. I asked questions. I allowed myself to believe I belonged at the retreat. It was, perhaps, in response to this change in me that, during our final meal together, a fellow writer turned to me to inquire whether it had been a productive week. Oh yes, I assured him as I reached for the wine, I had gotten a lot done. I had written a short piece on my children. I’d had some frustrating bouts but had also made huge strides forward on the essays for my book. 
     I did that. I said, out loud to another writer, the words “my book”.
     Hey, he responded, perhaps we could exchange writing some time? He had some essays he was working on and would love feedback. Might he email me to make arrangements to share?
     Oh yes, I replied, feel free.


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Susannah Q. Pratt is a Chicago-based writer, mother and consultant. Her work can be found in various online and print publications including Under the Gum Tree, Motherwell, Role Reboot, LiteraryMama, and The Mindful Word. She is also a regular contributor to the blog at Ruminate MagazineFind her at http://www.susannahqpratt.com.