Monday, September 30, 2013
David Lazar in Conversation with Robert Burton, author of Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), vox es, praeterea nihil
Friday, September 27, 2013
When I teach nonfiction writing, I tell my students that an essay needs to have something that it’s about; that it’s better if takes the form of a story; and that a good first question to ask oneself is: What makes me a good teller of this tale? A lot of what I believe as an editor comes out in these classes, and a couple of years ago a student of mine, an experienced journalist and a wonderful writer who had taken the class in order to experiment with form, did me a tremendous service. He made notes of all my observations—my exhortations, my admonishments—and at the end of the class he printed them all out and gave them back to me.
It was a remarkable gift. I have almost never tried to codify my views on writing. After more than twenty years of editing and a dozen teaching, I just trust in my reactions to the work. But, of course, there is a philosophy behind what I tell my students, and it is essentially the same as the philosophy that animates my editorial decisions at Harvard Review.I believe, for example, that nothing should terrify a writer more than the prospect of being boring; that writers should aim for something bigger than an essay about themselves; that obscurity is not a virtue; that simplicity is; that emotional honesty is important but that confession is distasteful; that the single most important thing about a piece of writing is the quality of the prose.
This last point is worth emphasizing because not every editor feels this way. Many years ago, I had an exchange on this subject that I’ve never forgotten. At the time I was the editor of another literary magazine and I was having a conversation with a professor who was a member of the board. We were talking about the kinds of work that we considered worth publishing and he said that it didn’t so much matter to him how a thing was written, what mattered was what it said. “That’s funny,” I told him. “Because that’s exactly the opposite of how I feel. I don’t care what a piece is about. To me, what really matters is the prose.”
Of course, it’s not really true that I don’t care about content. But what I meant was that I don’t judge work based on its subject matter. I am not looking for pieces that make certain points or take certain positions or express certain views. I am not, essentially, interested in the political angle. What I am interested in is artistry, that is, an author’s demonstration of mastery of his craft.
I like writing, for example, that shows evidence of control. I like to feel that an author has made conscious decisions, has considered the weight and heft of his own writing, has toyed with his sentences and read them aloud. I like writing that’s witty and playful. I have a soft spot for erudition but not for self-regard. I often like writing that’s unpretentious: it doesn’t always have to sing, sometimes clean and clear is exactly what’s called for. On the other hand, it’s always exciting to come across something that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard.
It’s actually impossible to define good writing in the abstract since it comes in so many different forms—which is why, when editors are asked what they are looking for, they throw their hands up in despair. The best tactic is always to give examples. So, here are a couple of opening paragraphs from essays published in Harvard Review that illustrate some of the qualities I look for.
The first, from an essay called “Manatees” by Patricia Vigderman, appeared in HR 26 in 2004. What I particularly admire about this lovely, unhurried opening is the way it perfectly mimics the action of the gently bubbling water and the slow-moving creatures.
By late January the manatees have swum up the St. John’s River to a warm spring in central Florida. A ring of such springs comes up from the vast Florida aquifer, rising at the edges of an uneven circle around the limestone under the land between Daytona and Gainesville. The place where the water comes up is called “the boil,” as if the heat and rumble of the earth’s core had forced it up against gravity. In fact, it’s a very gentle motion, a quiet flowing movement, transparent water spreading out into a strong current, so clear that the algae living beneath it turn the whole stream a brilliant, glowing green, and the submerged manatees become great, quiet green blimps until they rise slowly to the surface. Then their gray, leathery skins make apparent the patterning of sunlight on the water’s surface, a wide net constantly in motion. The unruffled beast ruffles the surface briefly with its rudimentary snout, breathing and then sinking down into green again.
A deft and graceful stylist, Vigderman exemplifies for me the idea of a writer with a perfect ear. But there are many kinds of wonderful. For a completely different effect, consider the opening of an essay called “Unprepared” by Jerald Walker, which appeared in 2010 in HR 39 (and was reprinted in Best American Essays 2011), and which contains a line so unexpected that it made me laugh out loud in the line at Starbucks where I happened to be standing when I read it for the first time.
We drove cautiously through the downpour, making the kind of small talk one would expect of strangers, when my companion slid a jacket from his lap, exposing his penis. It rose up high through his zipper, like a single meerkat surveying the land for trouble. To be sure, there was trouble to be had because, despite being a skinny seventeen-year-old, I never left home without my razor.
Walker’s essay is about cultural attitudes toward mass murder and also, to some extent, about race. It is not only wonderfully well written—direct, funny, confident, and slightly understated where it could so easily have gone over the top—it also does something at a structural level that I greatly admire, which is to move fluidly back and forth between narrative and exposition.
What I really like—what I’m always looking for—is writers who know what they’re doing. This is not necessarily the same as those who have been writing a long time, though, to be sure, practice helps. The real difference, I think, is between those who see writing simply as a means of communicating something they feel needs to be said, and those who see writing as an art form. While there is certainly a place in the world for the former, it is not Harvard Review. Harvard Review is for people who are trying to create something and who see words as the medium in which they work. This notion, which would be completely self-evident to any poet, holds just as true for writers of essays. In fact, I am increasingly inclined to see the essay as a kind of poem—just one with an explicit argument composed in unbroken lines.
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of the memoir Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Monday, September 23, 2013
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It’s not an easy feat.
As a writer and reader in my own right, I understand—or at least, have some small sense—of the complexities and impediments in crafting a successful, evocative essay. There is, for example, the essay’s story and its equally unique storyteller—a fact that's often overlook by outsiders to our genre or those just dipping their feet into the proverbial genre pool—and it can be difficult to discern whether the narrative voice selected best services the subject—and essay—that follows. As the editor of Defunct, an online-only journal that publishes flash nonfiction on all things—you guessed it—antiquated, that mode of voice is most important: it's what sets apart, in my mind, the good essays from the lackluster. In Allison Green’s forthcoming “Séance,” out on October 15th as part of Defunct's sixth issue, a handful of 1970s tween girls sit in a basement, attempting to resurrect the spirit of John F. Kennedy. Their sleeping bags are “spread across mattresses on the floor,” the girls are “perched on the edges of [their] mattresses in flannel pajamas,” and their “stockinged feet [are] on a frayed square of green carpet.” The reader is instantly transported into the unique point-of-view of a young girl’s Friday evening, a simultaneous nightmare of peer pressure and preteen yearning. Green writes, “Who among us brought the séance lore? Not me. But we all went along, closing our eyes and holding the sweaty fingers of our neighbors.” The essay—both its experience and how the way it is expressed is fun, pleasurable, and entertaining. Later, when the girls cry out at their own futility, an older and unmistakably wiser Green reflects, “I was crying for more than my young self; I had absorbed my parents’ feelings. My tears were vicarious tears; I wanted to feel a pain as deep as theirs.”
There’s also, of course, form, and this is something I’m increasingly interested in as an editor, especially considering the founding nature of Defunct: to salvage the dead, resurrect the past, and quell the existential unease of nostalgia. Founded by Robin Hemley—our beloved former editor-in-chief who's recently assumed the role of Publisher as he embarks on an exciting new job in Singapore—Defunct asks of essayists that their work reflect the way the world used to be, or perhaps what we wish it would become, and while the subject of defunctness is in itself plentiful—teen crushes and fads and objects, antiquated social norms and civilizations—it’s easy for essayists to fall into the tired trap of wistfulness and nostalgia. The work must move beyond the reminiscent voice and melancholic yearning to the clearing Gornick asserts: the place where something meaningful is imparted upon a reader. As editor, I want to feel the pain of Pluto’s abrupt demotion, see the child angry at the inaccuracy of outdated textbooks, experience the heartache as Britney Spears takes a razor to her soft, blond head—the metaphorical shedding of her once sane self. And how better to do that but through experimentation with form?
It’s what fascinated me most in my edification of the essay as a graduate student at the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program: the many shapes the essay can take. A site such as this doesn’t need a reminder that the essay is, after all—and has been since its inception—an attempt, a trial, an experiment, but as an editor and avid reader, I’m moved most by essays that uphold that artful process—essays in which the act of essaying itself has not been lost in a quest for elegance of language or loftiness of prose. It was one of the most meaningful lessons imparted on me as a student of The Essay Prize, a course run simultaneously by Ander Monson at the University of Arizona and John D'Agata at Iowa; the course was designed around a foundation by the same name that seeks to annually celebrate essays that best exemplify the “activity of a text” rather than its “status as a dispensary of information.”
We’re into that, as well. As a writer, I know firsthand the relative ease with which one can fall into the trap of predictability over complication, and what moves me most as an editor are essays that question that narrative path and deviate from the expected. Take, for example, Ander Monson’s 2012 Defunct essay, “Questions for Megatherium,” structured as an open letter to a long-defunct ancestral reptile whose appendages resemble human hands reaching out, grasping, clutching. While it’d be easy for Monson to reflect stoically and from afar, he instead essays through a series of queries both practical and poetic. “If you knew,” he writes, “you would be modeled by a company called Paleocraft in resin 10,000 years after your death, at 1/35 scale, what would you think?” And, later, “Was your world filled with sadness or with hope, if you know what those things are? Is happiness knowing you will be remembered as a monster? What do you know of happiness, of fatness, of the poetry of pain?” Monson doesn’t lose sight of the physical act of essaying; his work is both heartfelt and endearing, entertaining and amusing, and the vessel he utilizes—an open letter form—is surprisingly effective.
It’s something I hope we’ll see more of in future issues: sharp works that employ form as a compliment to content. We’re always hungry for experiments in voice and style, in language and chronology, and in fact recently established a separate call specifically for multimedia works—essays that employ illustrations, audio, and film to further encapsulate a defunct experience. We release our sixth issue next month, and in one of the essays I’m most excited about—our first-ever animated work, "Papel Picasdo," by Los Angeles-based artist Javier Barboza—readers will witness a sense of romantic disenchantment through a series of hand-drawn illustrations. Each, Barboza explains in his accompanying artist’s statement, were torn by hand and serve to articulate the nightmare that is the loss of a couple's future.
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it couldn’t be done without the terrific contributions of our authors and the steadfast diligence of our editorial staff. We’re a small group, and we exist because we care. Because we love and wish to promote the essay's continued emergence and its ongoing evolution. In our five-year tenure, we’ve had the unique privilege of publishing work by many admirable contemporary essayists—among them, Lia Purpura, David Shields, Ryan Van Meter, Roxane Gay, Joe Wenderoth, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Dinty W. Moore, Joe Bonomo, Chris Offutt, Marion Winik and the aforementioned Ander Monson—and we’ve garnered the attention of both The Atlantic and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We've held readings, conference panels and book fair booths in Iowa City, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago and Melbourne, Australia, but what I’m most proud of is the ways in which our contributors have responded to our call with unparalleled enthusiasm: reflecting whimsically on the art of raking and cursive writing, the Jart and the Jheri curl, their childhood backyard, country, culture or even continent. It's what makes our work rewording as editors and readers, and what sustains us as practitioners as we seek careers in this inspired genre.
This fall, we’ll debut twelve evocative and heartbreaking essays on pay phones and cooking trends, distorted perceptions and carnivals, cities composed of tents and the call-to-arms nature of the word “Hark!,” and of course, we hope you’ll join us. And, if the subject suits you, submit to our spring issue.
Monday, September 16, 2013
Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter"
1) This is an essay that never gets old. If you read it seventeen years ago, in 1996 when “The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker, or later when it was reprinted at the center of Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth (Little, Brown, & Co, 1998), read it again. Then proceed to step two and don’t blame me for any spoilers.
2) The beginning: In graduate school I had the privilege of studying narrative structure with the novelist John Keeble who argued that the first page of anything should contain the concerns of the entire work. Tapping the board with a piece of chalk, Keeble explained that a writer working hard at her job would tighten that first page so a reader could touch it anywhere and the meaning would resonate across the fiction like sound across the taut skin of a drum. “Look at the first scene in ‘The Fourth State of Matter,’” I instruct my students. “All the way to the break. Knowing what you know now, how can you see that this opening scene contains the concerns of the whole essay?” From the first word, the essayist has the opportunity to teach us how to read the essay she has placed in our hands: how does Beard make the most of that opportunity?
“The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up.” As readers, we are prodded into motion in at least three ways:there’s the difficult rowing through the “complicated dream,” and the call to action—“Wake up”—from the insistent dog, as well as the invitation to wade into metaphor. Here we go.
As first-time readers, we can’t fully know from these three leading sentences that we’ve entered an essayistic world bound by one unifying, central metaphor (plasma, the fourth state of matter) and five meticulously threaded concerns—a dying collie with a Maserati muzzle, an attic of marauding squirrels, a wayward husband, an editorial gig with a best friend in a physics lab, and a horrific mass shooting—but even in those first thirty-three words, we’re touching the ancient dog, difficult dreams from which we might not wake, the idea of a shoreline and the hard to reach space beyond it, and the love between a woman and her dog. Even in these preliminary gestures, we have the sense of all there is to lose as we travel into the essay with our just-waking narrator.
Likewise, moving sentence-by-sentence to the first scene break, we discover that it’s all here somewhere in three opening paragraphs disguised as a simple scene in which the narrator takes her geriatric, weak-bladdered dog out into the yard for a nighttime pee—the betraying husband who used to love the collie (and the narrator); the sense of direction and mapping (echoed later in the scrupulous recreation of the shooting); the restless squirrels and the expanding universe; the Milky Way’s smearing light and the erased chalkboard we’ll encounter later in the physics lab with her friend, Chris; the not yet fully comprehended news that the lives of her space-physicist companions are already ticking down; and the time-posted routine of woman and dog, bonded and bound, in the dying game. It’s all there, and it’s a great lesson in beginnings.
3) The middle: As a writer of nonfiction, I try to heed Nabokov’s charge to make meaning of this crazy world through the identification of patterns and connections. In Speak, Memory Nabokov sidesteps time and chooses to "follow the thematic design, of pattern and order, through [his] life”: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” Here, Beard weaves five seemingly disparate, but finally inextricable concerns—and we do not trip. We walk with her.
Here is an exercise I do with my students: breaking them into five groups, I assign each group one of the concerns above—dog, squirrels, husband, friend in physics, or shooting—and charge each group with the task of a) tracing their element through the essay (in large and small ways), b) connecting their element to the binding metaphor of plasma, and c) arguing why their thread is the most vital and urgent strand in thinking about what the essay is really about. (Hint: the shooting will not always win. Every group has a chance here.)
What the students discover is that Beard refuses to privilege one species of trauma or loss over another, and in this refusal invites us into a space of deep grief where we consider our own losses and plasmatic stillness; in other words, through the conscious patterning of images, concerns, and closely observed scenes, Beard opens up a place for the reader to have an experience. Obviously, the 1991 University of Iowa physics lab shooting—which older readers will remember—is the biggest event in this essay, and yet, Beard doesn't let it take over. The collie matters. The squirrels matter. The wandering husband and her friendships matter. Love and loss matter.
4) The beginning, middle, and end—in that order. What really interests me in “The Fourth State of Matter” are not the subjects of Beard’s narrative, but the way her mind works: the way she sees and the way she filters what she sees through her interesting brain. Life doesn’t come with plot, nor do we get credit for our lives, and I propose that much of this essay’s success lies in the way Beard controls time and pacing as she transforms life into art.
I get that as real people we cannot reasonably (and sanely) partition our daily lives into clean strips—e.g., today you're helping a terminally ill friend, so you don't have to feed the dog or finish that article or call your mother—and although our narrated selves often require just that kind of thematic division, the remarkable thing to me here is that I feel as if I’ve entered the folds of Beard's brain, working with her as she tries to locate patterns in the chaos, to find a place to rest between marriage and divorce, liquid and solid, love and loss, life and death. Whether she's a grieving woman prone on her couch, stretching out her “dog arm” to nudge the collie out for a pee, or the dispassionate reporter piecing together the grim details of the shooting, Beard’s journey with the animals and the people she loves always, always feels urgent and necessary. In this way, “The Fourth State of Matter” does what Virginia Woolf says a good essay must: “draw its curtain round us. . .”—“a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”
5) The end: "In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we're in a pocket of silence. We're in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the Earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of silence, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.” Chris is gone, the husband is gone, the squirrels are gone, and the collie—her "peer," her "colleague"—will be leaving soon. Jo Ann is hanging motionless in all this, and as a reader, I hold my breath (I really do, every time) and listen.
Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction in 2001 and was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in Fall 2011. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Harpur Palate, Iron Horse Literary Review, Literary Mama, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
One of the great things about Seneca Review, we feel, is the blurring of the boundaries between and among genres. We tend to order the magazine’s content for this purpose. Starting with our last issue, we decided to stop making a genre distinction between the “poetry” and the “lyric essays.” Eventually, it became too difficult and probably too unnecessary for us to do so.