Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Kristen Grayewski: The Essay, The Journal, The Why

Or: A blog post in which I link to Wayne’s World, quote C&C Music Factory, and shamelessly solicit you 

Firstly, let’s address our name. The Journal is a literary journal run by MFA students at The Ohio State University. Our search-engine challenged name pokes fun at the definite article in our university’s name, which some like to emphasize in either pride or arrogance, depending on your opinion of Buckeyes. (See also: The Best Damn Band In The Land.)

The Journal is also a publication—published four times a year, twice in print and twice online—that normally receives five times the amount of fiction or poetry submissions as it does works of nonfiction. Our publication is not alone in these proportions, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating.

As Nonfiction Editor, writing this post today, I therefore have a motive I’d like to make plain: I’d love for readers of Essay Daily (i.e. writers who are so concerned about improving their craft and pushing boundaries and discussing what exactly The Essay can be that they check-in here regularly to add to the dialog) to finish reading this post and consider submitting to The Journal. Now that I’ve stated the obvious, some things that are less so: the personal cartography of taste, or, why we choose to publish the pieces we do.

My favorite part of an essay is almost always a transition I didn’t see coming. A zoom out or zoom in or jump to a link that might seem initially unrelated until the author makes clear this is how my brain works, see? and the reader wants to follow because she lives in a world where so much is planned ahead, pre-prepared, vacuum sealed for later, that when a writer can take a story, any story—about, say, going to the grocery store or driving to see her mom—and unveil a much larger purpose, an “I didn’t know we were going THERE” moment, we can only cheer.

In my own writing about the things that fascinate me—the Pennsylvania Turnpike or coal mining or the New Kids on the Block—of course I’m never just writing about those things. Sometimes when we start, we don’t know what our obsessions, the things we’re led to turn over on the page, the images we return to again and again like choruses we can’t shake, are really about, but the readers expect that in the course of the essay we’ll do the work to try to find out why we're fascinated.

That’s not to say that the essay should be tidy: it is home to fear and worry, after all. To so many illogical impulses, most that we can’t explain or control. It need not feign an absolute answer to “why?”, but spend sufficient time chewing its questions and end closer to answers than when it started.

I’d like to cite two pieces we published in our Autumn 2013 online issue, 37.4, as examples of this one-two aboutness—which, sure, we can also call Telling it Slant, or Situation and Story, choose your preferred CNF lingo—that caught me by surprise in ways so wonderful we couldn’t not publish them.

Meg Thompson’s “Iceland’s Bride” begins on a bumpy plane ride home from Iceland with her new fiancé. In the first few lines, there is but a glimmer of what’s to come: “I am afraid of flying, in part, because I don’t understand it.” The essay then begins a pattern of gentle back-and-forth between Iceland and other “places defined by division” (South Korea, Berlin) where she and her fiancé traveled, and her problems enacting what’s expected of a bride-to-be and, hey, how can we ever really know each other fully but isn’t it worth it to try?.

Craig Reinbold’s “Fill the Bathtub” (disclosure: Craig helps manage the Essay Daily and is the one who asked me if I'd like to write this blog post, but he had no idea I was going to choose to write about how much I enjoyed this particular essay of his) begins, “The six of us—myself, my wife, our little Black Lab, a poet friend, and two friendly gearheads—are off to a late start as the packing of effects and food and water drags on and then it’s a puzzle of how to fit our backpacks into the hatchback.” A story follows of an afternoon rock climbing, details of his fear of climbing until he falls, and then there’s a conversation he had that morning with a friend about not having time to read poetry anymore because he’s been reading a lot of nonfiction—there’s the transition—and, hey, that nonfiction, that cultural criticism and doomsday environmental literature on what-the-hell-is-happening-to-us is actually weighing on him in ways that feel very heavy indeed. Pull up a chair, he’ll tell you why.

An essay about rock climbing becomes an essay on how we keep living in the face of THE inevitable fall.
An essay about Iceland is also about THE unknowability of those we love.
In short, we seek depth, but depth revealed through the concretes of experience, places, and, to quoth C&C Music Factory, the things that make us go “hmm,” the stuff that we dream of as we grind our teeth at night that only signal the much larger abstractions we are fretting.


Kristen Grayewski is a third year in the MFA program in creative writing at The Ohio State University and Nonfiction Editor at The Journal. She has written about pop and punk for various publications, and is currently working on her thesis, heaven help her. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ira Sukrungruang: Digging Beyond the Bellybutton

We live in a new America, I tell my students. A diverse America, a multicultural America, and our stories matter more now than in any part of our history. I tell them we are no longer under the thumb, but rather we are the thumb, and we are here to make an imprint on this country. I am melodramatic when I say all of this. I talk with wild hands, sermonizing in the classroom, using idioms like an idiot. Still, my speech has purpose. What I want to ingrain in my students—whether they will become writers or not, whether they will go on to write a memoir or not—is that they and their stories matter, that their tellings of their stories matter, that how they tell their stories matters most.

The truth is our stories mattered before, too—the before of the sixties and seventies, the before of women’s and civil rights, the before of religious persecution and slavery. At no time in America’s short history have the stories of the people not mattered. This is the reason for the founding of the country, a collected story of freedom and peace, a search, a journey to find happiness in place and mind. Our stories mattered, even when we told them only to each other, even when we whispered them, even when we feared what would happen if we put our thoughts on to the page.

Why then are such terms as “narcissistic” and “self-absorption” being thrown around as the umbrella elements of all memoir? Such criticisms subscribe to the keep-it-in-the-closet mentality, tell us we do not matter, let alone our stories. Such disparagements become an attack on the person and not the work. But we, creative nonfiction writers, know this. This is the risk we take. When Phillip Lopate digs into his bellybutton in his essay “Portrait of My Body” and tells us the smell of his findings—“…a very ripe, underground smell…a combination of old gym socks and stuffed derma,” Lopate finds himself in the center of the Coliseum with an audience of cringing faces, much like my students every time I teach the essay. When Ann Hodgman decides to eat dog food and describe her experiences in her essay, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch,” Hodgman expects the chorus of ewwwwws that will rain down on her, as it always does in my classes. Or one of my experiences during a reading at a university in the Bible Belt, when a student raised his hand and asked why I had written such a dirty book. In nonfiction, there is no surrogate narrator, and no matter how much we try, as Annie Dillard says, to “fashion the text,” the main character of nonfiction and the writer are one. 

Yes, there are bad memoirs, as there are bad novels and poems, as there are bad music and movies. The memoir as an art form is not about the subject but about the telling of a subject. The memoir as an art form is less about plot but more about the understanding of the plot. Phillip Lopate writes that “’plot’ to the skilled writer is how far one can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty,” and here I would like to add deeper levels of humanity. What is Angela’s Ashes about, if not perseverance through poverty, if not the light in such darkness? "You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”

I used to draw Buddhas wherever I went. I was obsessed. When I was 9 or 10, I had Buddha on the mind. Not because I was the best Buddhist in the world. Far from it. I had Buddha on my mind because of his absence in my world, because I was living in a country, in a city, Chicago, surrounded by Jesus and God. As an immigrant son I wanted to locate myself. This, in many ways, is what most immigrant sons and daughters do. We spend our time locating ourselves. We watch the world and act accordingly.  My days in my Thai home were dictated by Buddha’s doctrine. But outside, Buddha seemed to evaporate, seemed to be only the comical and jolly man one saw at Chinese restaurants. Friends asked if I rubbed Buddha’s belly for good luck, and when I was younger, I didn’t have the heart to say that my Buddha was not fat; my Buddha was skinny and did not like belly rubs.

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions when I started writing my memoir Talk Thai. The truth: my memoir began when I first put pencil to paper, and it was not a word I wrote, but a hand I drew. Buddha’s hand. And then it was his lips. And his eyes. His wise and long earlobes. And the top of his head, which to me looked like an upside down ice cream cone. I drew other Buddhas. At my parents’ friend’s house, at temple, at Thai restaurants, at the Chicago Chinatown shops. Buddha looked different. In some poses, he would be standing. In some poses, reclining on his side. Buddha, my art model, never looked the same. Each time I drew, I was drawing something different. I was seeing something different. I was not a skilled artist. Not by any means. In some portraits Buddha’s eyes looked like aliens, large and uneven. In one portrait, he appeared to have an African shrunken head. Perfection was not the goal. Discovering was. Somewhere in my nine-year-old mind, I believed this act of drawing would lead me to something. And that something was big. Big and vague. And that something started with the self and became larger and larger and larger, like an inverted Chinese box. You open the smallest box, only to find a larger one.

This is what I want my students to understand. I tell my students their memoirs won’t shock me. I tell them that what happens is secondary. That behind a story is another story and another one behind that. How hard are they willing to dig? How many layers are they willing to excavate? Because in the end, the easiest part of memoir is drawing Buddha’s hand. The hardest part is finding out what’s underneath it.  

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and In Thailand It Is Night. He teaches creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University Hong Kong.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Steve Donoghue: Happily Reading Along

At Open Letters, we're (as beloved Boston book-dealer George Goodspeed used to say) in books. It's true that we'll happily consider pieces on the whole gamut of artistic expression - one of our most popular contributors discusses nothing but video games, for instance, and in Locke Peterseim we're lucky to have the single most talented movie reviewer working today - but from the beginning, our most passionate love and main focus has been on in-depth book criticism of the type we've all so much enjoyed in periodicals like The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books.

Not for us, then, the daunting task of running short stories - and just as well, since the editorial gauntlet we'd represent would range from the fundamental ("Why isn't this nonfiction?") to the lowbrow ("Why isn't this Edgar Rice Burroughs?") to daunting ("Why isn't this George Eliot?") to the challenging ("Why isn't this Anthony Burgess?") to the terrifying ("Why isn't this perfect?"). And likewise we usually steer clear of the explicitly personal essay, although we'll make exceptions if the contender is both excellent and, predictably, book-related (Scott Esposito's "On Packing Two Bags for Mexico" comes to mind, and there've been a few choice others).

Instead, we tend to concentrate on essays about books: reviews, appreciations, reconsiderations. And although that still presents us with a staggering variety of submitted work (so much so that we hand off entire genres to their own separate spheres - Maureen Thorson taking poetry, for instance, and our indomitable columnist Irma Heldman holding the line with mysteries), it admits of a certain focus which we do our best to sharpen. Luckily, we bring separate strengths to the job. Greg Waldmann is a first-rate scrutinizer of the nuts and bolts of prose; if a writer starts waxing about charmed magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn, that writer had better be prepared for Greg to ask "So how do these casements work? Do they actually hang over these perilous seas, or what?" Rohan Maitzen and John Cotter are our two published authors; to any essay about some writer's work, they bring not only the spiked truncheon of the editor but, crucially, the first aid kit of those who've been on the receiving end of reviews. Sam Sacks, as all the book-world knows, writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and can therefore be trusted to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to assessing the work of other critics. And there are persistent rumors that I went to school with James Russell Lowell.

In putting together an issue of Open Letters Monthly and dealing with the onrush of submissions, our gallant band is also helped by something my fellow Massachusetts resident (and fellow devotee of Boston's mighty Brattle Bookshop!) Sven Birkerts gently alluded to earlier in this series, in "Screening the Essay": if the writer of a submitted freelance piece is going to waste your time, he'll make that fact obvious fairly early on. Is the opening of the piece off-puttingly arrogant ("Like I used to say to Bucky Fuller...")? Is it maddeningly timid ("Bulgakov might be great - but really, how would *I* know?")? Is it choked with jargon ("The meta-structuralism of Angus McGonagle is only asymptotically eidolic")? Is it, right out of the starting gate, boring? ("I believe," Christina Thompson wrote in "Prose Matters," which also appeared earlier in this series, "that nothing should terrify a writer more than the prospect of being boring" - and she's absolutely right.)

Admittedly, good writing about books and authors is an extremely tricky balancing act. Those who haven't tried it can hardly imagine how exacting it can be, for instance, to make the requisite amount of exposition flow smoothly in the narrative of the piece, as opposed to the dreaded "info-dump." In “Second Glance: The Privy Mark of Irony,” look at how carefully Colleen Shea manages to keep her readers informed about Francis Beaumont's play (which she immediately, engagingly calls a "hilarious post-Modern, meta-theatrical romp”) The Knight of the Burning Pestle while simultaneously analyzing it; she can safely guess that 99 percent of her audience will know nothing about the work, so she must educate, examine, and exult all more or less simultaneously - and it's masterfully done.

Or consider the equally delicate task of conveying passion without pathos. Paradoxically, the central, animating joy common to all readers - the squeal of "that was great!" about a choice work by Gertrude Stein or George Meredith or Gerald of Wales - has no place in serious book criticism. Not in its raw form, anyway: the good critic must find a way to channel that bright burst of enthusiasm into prose that sends the reader irresistibly in search of the author being discussed. One of the best ways to do this is to humanize that author, as Stephen Akey does so fluidly in “Tom and Em,” writing about Thomas Hardy’s love-poetry to his late wife Emma. The opening of his piece is as starkly assured as something out of Hardy's own prose: "After taking to her bed with an indisposition on November 26, 1912, Emma Lavinia Hardy, Thomas Hardy's wife of thirty-eight years, died the following day. It was then that he fell in love with her." What do you do, Akey is smart enough to ask, "when the love of your life unexpectedly dies, leaving you no chance to explain, apologize, or redeem your mistakes?" No matter what the reader might previously have thought about Hardy's poetry, they're going to want the answers to that question.

Questions like that - pieces like these - keep us reading at Open Letters even when the hour is late and demands of our "real" jobs are piling up. In fact, one of the highest compliments we can pay to an author (unbeknownst to them, since they never see it) is to append "no edits here - just happily reading along" while working up a piece for publication. That comment invariably comes when a writer has forgotten pretension and evasion and sensation and is just passionately telling the story of some reading they love. That kind of craft is tough to achieve and even tougher to maintain, but when it happens (and we can be pretty helpful at getting it to happen!), those are the moments when we're all mighty glad to be in books.


Steve Donoghue is a Boston-based book critic whose work has appeared in The National, The Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He's the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its book-blogs, Stevereads.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kati Standefer Has An Edward Abbey Problem

I have an Edward Abbey problem.
Which is to say: Ed makes people I like angry. Ed makes my students angry. Ed sometimes makes me angry. But I like him. I own everything he’s ever written, with the exception of Jonathan Troy.

Over the years, I’ve gotten good at shrugging: When my spitfire environmental justice professor said, “What a misogynist. I got snowed in with that guy in a cabin one Christmas and it was hell.” (Well.) When my activist friends say, “He’s a little extreme.” (Well yes but.) When I read, “In everything but brains and brawn, women are vastly superior to men.” (Um. Ed!)

I admit I slept with a man on the first date after he wiggled his beautiful arm out of a flannel shirt to show me the monkey wrench tattooed on his shoulder. (My tribe!) And I’ve danced with Doug Peacock, Abbey’s real-life model for George Hayduke, which may be as close to Ed as a girl can get these days.

What is it about the guy? I can’t give him up.

“If there’s anyone still present whom I’ve failed to insult, I apologize.” (One Life At A Time, Please)

When I teach Ed, some of my students whip into a frenzy. “Um…Okay,” one student wrote this fall. “This guy hasn’t the slightest clue about how the world works and now he just sounds ridiculous. If people thought like him, we’d still be wearing loin cloths (sic). It isn’t the fault of the rich that this guy’s contribution to society isn’t valuable enough to warrant a high income.” (Ouch.)

Another: “What I do hate is environmentalists who act righteous, like their opinions are the best things since sliced bread but are just as selfish and self-oriented as the people they aim to destroy.” (emphasis student’s)

During these class periods, I stand before my students with a funny half-smile screwed to my face, redirecting the conversation back, again and again, to his craft. “Why do you think he chose to use language like this to make his point?” I ask. “What about the structure? How else could he have written this essay?” Students get angry, sure. But craft is a trump card. If they can ignore Ed’s ire over paved roads and transmission towers long enough (if he’d seen their iPhones!), they wind up admitting—somewhat bitterly—that he is a very good writer. In “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” they feel tricked by his humor (“These hard-working fellows whom I wish to praise are trying to get drunk on three-point-two! They rise somewhat heavily from their chairs and barstools and tramp, with frequency and a squelchy, sodden noise, toward the pissoirs at the back of the room, more waterlogged than intoxicated”). They want to have hated him the whole time, and not just when he suggests we stop heavily accommodating the elderly within National Parks (“…after all, they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled”).

A few students, of course, raise their hands shyly. He got it, they say. He captured something; he said something that felt true, and they’re still thinking about it. They’ll be reading Abbey again, tracking down more of him. I ride my bike home smiling. (My tribe!)

“Belief? What do I believe in? I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses…” (Vox Clamantis En Deserto)

The first time I heard Ed’s name, I was crouching over a Whisperlite stove in the scraggly Wyoming Range, not far from the banks of Lake Alice. “Monkey Wrench, definitely,” the instructor of my month-long Leadership Course said, carefully running his pocketknife across a block of melted-and-re-melted cheese.

Our leader-in-training shook his head. “Desert Solitaire!” he said, journal in his lap. “Think of how many more people his nonfiction reaches. It’s sharper.”

This was 2002. Ed had been dead thirteen years. I was seventeen and depressed about living in suburban Illinois eleven months out of the year. Though I didn’t have an opinion as to which was the more important book, I wanted to. For the last three years, I’d spent winters saving money—babysitting and mowing lawns, selling outdoor gear, swabbing desks and emptying the trash in a cigarette-smelling office building on Sundays—in order to spend July in Wyoming or Alaska, sleeping on frosted ground under bone-shard stars. This Abbey guy: he sounded like he was for me. I scrawled Abbey’s name in my journal (alongside Aldo Leopold’s), and when I arrived home at the end of July I began to track down the books. Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang were easy. Later, I leaned over the Special Orders desk at the Borders Bookstore not far from my high school, waiting to hear what they could get me. The Brave Cowboy. The Journey Home. Good News. Whenever I traveled, I ducked inside bookstores and went straight to the As: not only did they have Abbey, but which ones? I needed more Edward Abbey, all the time.

“For the first time in nearly two days and nights he felt himself to be a whole and living creature, a man again and not a derelict stumbling through a mechanical world he could not understand.” (The Brave Cowboy)

I loved Ed because I hurt for place. This is to say, Chicagoland in the eighties and nineties was rocking swiftly toward carrying capacity. In the middle years of my childhood, the last marshes were bought up and paved, tangled woods turned into McMansions. Old barns were stranded inside long lines of cheaply-made tract homes. My own subdivision, built on farmland in the ‘60s, became flanked by strip malls and parking lots, every inch of landscape managed and controlled, trimmed, weeded, brightened, cut to ninety-degree angles. Nothing wild, it seemed, could live. On the rare occasions I was reminded what this ecosystem would have been, seams of grief opened inside me.

In the damp Midwestern dark, the interminable winter, a loud voice seemed necessary. Hostility—or anger, even, if it might wake someone up. Yes: I was angry. I remember standing in my parents’ kitchen at fifteen, staring at the sink. A long-necked faucet. A square stainless-steel basin. A tiny label marking the brand: Kohler. “What did they do to the river?” I remember crying aloud in the kitchen. “What was wrong with the river?”

In Ed’s work, I felt all of my own desperation, my urgency. Abbey’s books burned in my hands, but in a good way, like leaning too close to the fire on a cold night, allaying my sense that I spoke into a vacuum. I appeared like a ghost, five days a week, in the hallways of high school, where no one was bemoaning faucets. At best, friends could embrace my weirdnesses, but I found no one for whom ecological dissociation was so acutely painful. My senior year, I’d lace on my hiking boots on winter nights and walk to the end of the street, where bulldozers were turning a pumpkin farm into an Aldi parking lot. I’d grip the chainlink in my hands and spit Ed’s words: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.” No one around there needed another grocery store. I’d wish I had more of a spine: to scale the fence, to wreck the ‘dozer, to be, like my Abbey-penned heroes, an eco-warrior. To introduce even the slightest kink into the growth machine.

“In the cabin at midnight, by the soft light of the lantern, he writes the letters that he should have written years before. Burns them. The fire mutters in the stove, the wind pours through the forest outside, moaning in the pine trees, shaking the dry dead yellow leaves of the aspens. The sound of many rivers. The sound of falls. The sound of human voices. Under the old moon deer pass like phantoms through the clearing. Dead limbs of a pine grate against one another, the noise like a groan of pain, and the deer pause for a moment to listen.”
(Black Sun)

Later, when I began working in conservation, I sometimes flinched at Ed’s tone, at his off-color barbs. I began to suspect that black and white statements were rarely helpful; I found his comments on cattle grazing and immigration in need of some updating. And yet when I slide his books off my shelf these days to read a passage or two, I’m more likely to hit a description of the gleam of rain on slickrock than an angry tirade. Perhaps one reason Abbey has so endured is simply the quality of his prose: clean, fierce sentences, laid out easily. His sentences contain the economy of the places he loved best, never cluttered and always rich.

I live in Tucson now, and I’ve never stopped thinking of it as Abbey’s country, from here all the way up to where the Wasatch sprouts in Utah, every devilishly-hot canyon, every slickrock spread, every patch of ugly, open dirt. His anger was right for me, and so, later, was his love. Creosote. Juniper. The touch of a man. Misogynist or not, the guy wrote the hell out of sex, and wrote the hell out of open country—the two things I like best. The kind of human I try to be.

So I keep him.


Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Arizona, where she teaches creative writing and composition. She lives in a little orange house with saltillo tile floors and a yard full of birds. A recent UA Foundation Award recipient, she is working on a book-length work on the body, consent, and medical technology.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Katherine Dykstra: An Essay Like Mousetrap

The Editor-in-Chief of Guernica likes to say that there are “Katie” pieces and “Jina” pieces. Jina [Moore], Guernica’s other senior nonfiction editor, leans toward pieces that are heavily reported, that take place in far-flung locales, that expose current injustice. I gravitate toward pieces that are experiential, interior, timeless as opposed to timely.

The Grease Devil Is Not Real," about a Sri Lankan urban legend and its relationship to that country’s civil war, is a Jina piece. “It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time,” on David Foster Wallace and the futility of writing, is one of mine. As is “Un-bearing,” about the decision to end a pregnancy after discovering a severe fetal anomaly. But so is an essay about the trial of Liberia’s president for war crimes, and one about the Turkish government’s actions in the wake of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Just as an essay on the meaning of a writer’s own name is one of Jina’s. I like to think that, despite our overt tastes, the pieces each of us chooses to publish come as surprises, sometimes even to ourselves.

This variability I believe has less to do with what we’re reading than when. Occasionally when rereading a book, I’ll find a passage underlined and highlighted, exclamation points in the margins. The handwriting is mine, but try as I might, I won’t be able to figure out what so moved me. The moment of clarity lost. Which is only to point out how subjective the whole process is. A sort of alchemy between what is happening at that precise moment in my own life and a piece of writing. A matter of timing, like so much else.

I’m of the Vivian Gornick school of essay, in that I believe a successful essay doesn’t just convey experience — be it day-to-day, reported or of the mind — but works to make sense of that experience. This sense is in no way absolute. In life there are no answers, only suppositions, guesses and stabs. But it’s this attempt that makes the essay worth reading in the first place, there being a possibility that the reader will discover new light under which to look at some experience of his own.

At its best this meaning-making puts into perspective the enormity of existence. That’s not to say the events need be enormous. Perspective can come just as easily in the form of a postcard from a dead icon, from the aging of one’s parents, from watching one’s child navigate the world, and has (see below).

Generally I tend toward pieces that act as conversation starters, that give voice to undercurrents, that grapple with tough, often awkward, questions. Such as Debra Monroe’s essay about what she, a white woman, learned about race in America after adopting a black baby.

The most difficult moments occur when I wonder but don’t know for sure if race is the reason a situation plays out poorly. If I think [my daughter] didn’t get to go to a party because the parents are uneasy with interracial friendships, am I suspicious, obsessed? But if I don’t consider this and monitor her friendship with that child, am I one of those people who sees the glass forever half-full as a way of avoiding unpleasant realities? There’s no easy answer, no readymade politesse, no etiquette for talking about race or—given the fact that perceptions about how American institutions serve us are so segregated—talking across race.

I like essays that use action laced with deft exposition in order to convey emotion. Like in this scene from John Fischer’s “The Last Place You Ever Live,” an essay about his shopping for retirement homes with his aging parents:

We struggle with the stirrups. I’ve never helped my father—or anyone else—into a wheelchair. The series of hinges proves more complicated than it looks. Finally the sales associate intervenes, lifting his bad foot onto the platform with startling efficiency.
“Let’s please not get used to this,” I say.
My father smiles a half-smile I’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s one of sadness or sympathy. I can’t tell. With his velcro New Balance shoes and an oversized Baltimore Inner Harbor cap to keep the sun off his head, his smile has become that of an old man, grateful for the kindness of others. At which point I realize the stupid, obvious thing I should’ve seen the moment our trip started: The purpose of these places with their beautiful vistas and their endless amenities is not to make my parents young again. It’s to make them comfortable being old.
My mother agrees to start the tour with a visit to the woodshop. I ask the sales associate for directions. Then I instruct my father to keep his hands inside the ride and begin running.
I push the black rubber handles as hard as I possibly can, committing the full force of my legs to forward motion. Past a certain speed the wheelchair takes on a violent shimmy. When we round a turn, I make cartoon race car noises. Collington’s perplexed residents stare as we rush by in a blur of father and man-child.

I like essays whose inner workings are on full display, essays that don’t skip steps or make assumptions, essays that are logical, which is different from predictable. I am all for ideas that tangent and spiral but I want to be walked through these wrong turns, realizations and back steps.

The piece has to be like a game of Mousetrap, or like a Rube Goldberg machine. One sentence leading inevitably into the next. Each sentence completely dependent on the one before it. Every word clear, precise, considered.

In Frank Cassese’s piece about writing and David Foster Wallace, he goes from disappointment and disillusionment at a correspondence he received from the great writer, to a slow parsing and heartened understanding of DFW’s message. Near the end of the piece, having backtracked completely, he finds himself here:

The world has never been the best judge. It has never equitably distributed recognition to all those deserving. It sometimes gets it right, as I think it did with Wallace, but more often than not it fails us. So what he was telling me was not that publishing is not a good thing, but that it isn’t everything. It does not bestow value or worth on one’s work or on one’s self. It does not make a published book better or worse than an unpublished one. And while the failure to achieve it may be no cause for despair, its attainment is certainly no cure. He was telling me what I already knew but had forgotten during my struggle for acceptance and societal validation, that creation is its own reward, that the project of writing is its own gift, provides its own consolation. Half a century before in The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claimed that despite the absurdly futile and hopeless task with which the condemned king was punished by the gods, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

As an essayist myself, I am aware how difficult this all is, how thrilling when it works. Which is one reason I’m willing to go far for some pieces. All of the nonfiction published in Guernica, which comes out biweekly, goes through an edit process. But occasionally when I find an essay that’s broken yet beautiful, that has something that glitters, an idea, a style, I will, if the writer is up for it, work with him or her on an extensive edit to get the essay to a publishable place. These are the pieces I enjoy working on the most.


Katherine Dykstra is a senior editor at Guernica. Her essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Poets and Writers and the anthology 20-Something Essays by 20-Something Writers. She won first place in the 2012 Waterman Fund Essay Contest and third place in the 2013 Real Simple Essay Contest. A section from her memoir-in-progress is forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review where it was one of three finalists for this year’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. She teaches narrative nonfiction at NYU/SCPS and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Jill Talbot on The VanMeteresque

The End
“Essays have endings, but I wish they didn’t, or I wish they didn’t have to have them. Because if an essay is an attempt to understand an experience or idea, if it is a recording of the activity of a mind as it thinks over an experience or idea, can that actually end? Could it ever really be finished?” 
–Ryan Van Meter, Essay Daily

     Maybe this is why Ryan Van Meter endings are never really endings.  They are suspensions:  moments in motion or within the grip of someone about to let go.  

“Right now, the only thing I can watch are my dad’s hands wrapped around my ankle because I can’t believe so much sting is already fading under just the heat of his squeeze.” –“Practice”

“Okay, I say, hurrying to the bedroom as the hem of the dress whispers against the carpet.” – “Discovery”

“On your shoulder his hand feels a little like the warmth of comfort, a little like the squeeze of danger.” –“If You Knew Then What I Know Now”

“I stare at the ceiling of my car, wait for him to go somewhere—anywhere—and trust again that a held breath is enough to keep me safe.”—“Tightrope”

“We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road—the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we’ve just left behind.”—“First”

But it’s not the endings that give Van Meter's essays urgency, it’s their beginnings.


I’m standing at the board, nervously watching the four students who have their backs to me.  This is my undergraduate nonfiction workshop, where we’re in the middle of playing a version of The Voice (in the reality show, contestants sing to the backs of judges’ chairs and judges swivel around to face the stage only when they hear a voice intriguing enough).    Earlier, I divided students into small groups and asked them to read each other’s drafts and choose the one from their group that drew them into the essay the quickest, the one that established a sense of urgency or invitation in its earliest sentences.  (This exercise works best with the flash essay, by the way.) When we came back together, one person from each group (not the representative essayist) volunteered to be a judge.  It was at this point I explained we were going to play an essayistic-version of The Voice.  One student agreed to be the timer (smartphones abounded), and now each essayist is taking turns reading to the backs of heads.
Today’s playing of The Voice is accompanied by the discussion of a reading assignment, and it’s a Ryan Van Meter essay, because Van Meter has a voice that makes readers turn around. The essay is “First.”


“I like reading work that tips me into a world already in motion and enjoy creating that effect in my own work. But in essays, I think that as important as it is for the action to start in the middle of something already unfolding, it's just as important for the thinking of the essay to also be in medias res.”—Ryan Van Meter, Metawritings:  Toward a Theory of Nonfiction

In Medias Res

In the fall of 2011, my Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class at St. Lawrence University interviewed Van Meter after reading his debut collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now.  He described the discovery of that “first sentence that exemplifies the voice and introduces the ‘problem’ of the essay.”   For Van Meter, that first sentence, more often than not, tips us into a world already in motion:
“Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon.” —“First”
“My brother Garrett owns three cell phones, and he’s talking on two of them as he speeds down a rural highway in the middle of winter.” ––“The Men From Town”
“I’m sleeping against the van window when they all start gasping at the sight of the Rockies and wake me up.” —“Youth Group”

“We have to hear that one again.” —“Cherry Bars”

“This is his deal:  if I play baseball one more season, my dad will buy me a color TV for my bedroom.” —“Practice”

“In your sixth grade social studies class, fourth hour, when Mrs. Perry assigns the group project on European world capitals, don't look at Mark. Don't look at Jared.” —“If You Knew Then What I Know Now”

During class discussions of any writer’s essay, I ask students to flip to the first sentence so that we can discuss how the entirety of the essay is encapsulated in its opening line. Van Meter never lets us down. 
I discovered Ryan Van Meter’s writing when I read “First” in The Best American Essays 2009.  That moment was for me a meteor shower, and I knew I’d never forget it. I’d tell anyone who would listen, years later, what I had seen, the way all of my longings came back from the light-years and fell in streaks across the sky of my memory.  

When I finished reading, I wrote at the bottom of the page:  “What else are we asked to let go of?”  Every time I teach “First,” I ask students to answer that question.


When discussing essays, I have students use the writer’s first name when referring to the persona (Eula, Bernard, Jo Ann, Ryan) and the last name when referring to the writing (Biss, Cooper, Beard, Van Meter).  For example:  Ryan struggles through daily baseball drills with his dad in the backyard.  Ryan overhears his brother’s beautiful language from across the room.  Ryan stands in a doorway with a box of Hostess cupcakes.  And Ryan shares an apartment and a goldfish with a roommate.  But it’s Van Meter who turns that goldfish into a metaphor.  
            To return to his endings, most of his final lines are metaphors as he lands on an object mentioned earlier in the essay in order to infuse it with significance (a technique reminiscent of Bernard Cooper). 
            In “Specimen,” Ryan’s mother stays up nights playing his Game Boy. Van Meter mentions it twice in the essay, but in the final line, it earns its power and extends to the game of hiding that Ryan has learned to play so well:  “On the screen in front of her, I imagined the bricks falling faster and faster, and how at some point, she wouldn’t be able to keep up.  Which was the tough secret of that kind of game—the better you got at it, the harder it was.” 
            Yet “First” has a larger, more present, controlling metaphor.  In class, I drag two chairs to the middle of the circle and set them side by side.  Then I pull two more chairs and set those up behind them. Finally, I grab two more chairs and place them behind the first two rows. Then (grand gesture here) I turn those chairs to face the opposite direction. 
            Once the front seat, the back seat, and the “very back” of the station wagon are in place, I ask for two men to sit in the front, two women to sit in the next row, and two students of the same sex to sit in the back row.  [Ben’s dad is driving, and my dad sits next to him, with our mothers in the backseat; I have recently observed that when mothers and fathers are in the car together, the dad always drives.] We discuss the prescriptive seating chart and how it’s a metaphor for gendered expectations and social constructions of placement.  The students stare for a few moments at our makeshift car and its passengers.  (I always appreciate how, in one way or another, we diversify Van Meter’s car ride with an interracial couple or a pair of girls instead of boys). 
One metaphorical line in that essay trumps even the car, and it comes after Ryan tells Ben that he loves him: “We are idling, waiting for a red light to be green.”  I always pretend I can’t find the line—mention it’s something about a red light—so that students will find it and read it again. When they do, they realize the metaphor—that these young boys (not to mention many same-sex couples in certain states around this country) are idling, waiting for a red light to turn green. 
Other essays from If You Knew Then build from metaphors—a bridge, a tightrope, alien abduction, the hem of a dress, a houseboat—to express Ryan’s shifting identity, his aching vulnerability, and his burgeoning sexuality.
After a few rounds of The Voice, I’ve noticed that one of the four judges turns around only when another does.  Another sits on his feet.  Still, another is the holdout, turning around much later than the other judges, or not at all.  This, I think, is what it’s like to put your writing out there.

Segmented versus Straightforward

I recently taught a graduate seminar at Columbia College Chicago—Form and Theory:  Segmentation—in which we immersed ourselves in collage, play, white space, fragmentation, sections, and gaps, not to mention invented as well as found forms.  We read essays invested in pushing the limits of genre, of blurring the boundaries of nonfiction, and students wrote essays that bent the form until it shook with the weight of their daring (much like the merry-go-round on the schoolyard playground when it reaches warp speed).  Along the way, we discussed the David Foster Wallace footnote, the Ander Monson outline,  Jenny Boully’s exclusions, the abecedaries of Dinty W. Moore and Marcia Aldrich, Maggie Nelson’s enumerated ruminations and research, and David Shields’s fragments.  And then, we came to the final reading of the semester, Ryan Van Meter’s “Monster.”   How, one student asked, is this segmented?        
            All essays are segmented (even if just in paragraphs, and even if it’s a one-paragraph flash, which is a segment of a fleeting moment), and we all use varying degrees of segmentation—from subtle to surfeit.  After a semester spent exploring the ways in which segmentation allows us to omit, to trust the white space, to demand that readers fill in the gaps, we closed with a chronological narrative that uses transitions (“a few years later,” “the next,” “the following”).  But, I argued, it’s still segmented. In an essay era of fragmentation and metawriting and sectioned-essays and genre-defiance and lists, Van Meter writes straightforward narrative nonfiction, and it’s not any less artful or engaging.   Sometimes the best way to tell a story is to tell it, not play with it (says the writer obsessed with form play.)

An E-mail

On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 10:30 AM, Jill Talbot <e-mail.he > wrote:
By the way, just finished teaching IYKTWIKN to my Introduction to Readings in Nonfiction class at Columbia. We also watched you read "Hanging Out at the Airport" on Vimeo and discussed how it's VanMeteresque. "Goldfish History" and "Tightrope" were the class favorites. 
On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 12:34 PM, Ryan Van Meter <e-mail@add>wrote:

VanMeteresque! I had no idea I had an adjectival form.


As essayists, we look back.  Consider the ways in which we integrate introductory phrases such as “A few years ago,”  “Back then,”  “When I was five,”  “That spring.”  Now consider how Ryan Van Meter catapults readers, and his persona, forward, though it’s not a “Then” versus “Now” self so endemic to the essay as writers juxtapose a present-tense self against a remembered one.  No, Van Meter’s proleptical moments create a “Then” versus “Later" relationship, offering a point of view removed not just from a moment but also from its clarification, as if he’s telling us:  I didn’t know it then. I knew it later, and yet I’m writing from an even later moment so that I can understand the unknowing with what came to be known.    
“Ben is the first brown-eyed boy I will fall for but will not be the last.” —“First”
“This is February, so cold that in two days, on the morning we all huddle at the gravesite, a record will be set for low temperatures.” —“The Men From Town”

“That they had each other, and I had to make my own companions from newspaper and old clothes, would not occur to me until later.” — “Monster”

“Later, most of us will decide to be other things, but tonight is many years before we turn into ourselves.” — “Hanging Out at the Airport”

A Mini-Interview via E-mail While Writing This Essay

On Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 3:40 PM, Jill Talbot <e-mail.he > wrote:
Question:  Do you know you do this?  And if you do, where do you think the impulse comes from?  Or what do you see it adding to the essay? (Any response to this proleptical move you often make—I just want to bring in the idea of authorial intent here.)  Thanks once again, Ryan.

On Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 5:14 PM, Ryan Van Meter <e-mail@add>wrote:

I think it's really important to choose a particular moment from which to tell the essay, in whatever tense the essay happens to be written in, and stick to that moment without allowing yourself to borrow from what you learned later on. I like that an essay can be about figuring something out and can create for the reader the experience of figuring that something out while also still preserving the gaps in knowledge that inspired writing the essay in the first place.


Recently here at Essay DailyMarya Hornbacher considered, “Essaying . . . might be the gathering of parts & trying to find an order, according to one or another organizing principle: whether a principle one thinks may inhere in the pieces, a mathematics one cannot see but senses might be there; or a principle one decides upon and imposes whether it’s the right one or not.”

My intention here is not to reduce the complex equation of Van Meter’s narrative nonfiction to a set of known variables, but rather to showcase a writer who allows himself to wander until he “[has] the structure and the direction and the details [to discover] the insight that will surprise.” Even with all of his essays’ VanMeteresqueness, each one surprises. As he puts it: “If there’s nothing in your essay that surprises you, how could it ever surprise the reader?”

Inverted Bracketing
Take a sheet of notebook paper and place it horizontally in front of you (this reminds me of the book covers we were issued in elementary school).  If the edges of the paper are the beginnings and endings of essays and those two ends echo each other via an object or an idea, it’s called bracketing (Or framing. Or orienting.  Brenda Miller has referred to it as "rhyme.")
Van Meter achieves this technique in his essay, “Cherry Bars.”  As he explains: “The final sentence . . . contains the same gesture (turning off music) as the first sentence.”  But this first-to-final framing is not the kind Van Meter typically uses in his work. 
So take that paper and fold one edge of it in about an inch or two.  Then take the other end and do the same.  And here you have a model of Van Meter’s approach to bracketing—what I call inverted bracketing.   I’ll turn to “The Men From Town” and “Monster” as examples.
In “The Men From Town,” Van Meter folds in one edge of the paper to end the first paragraph:  “Reaching across the cab, I tuck the peeking tag of his sweatshirt back under his collar.”  Yet he leaves the other end unfolded.  Here’s the essay’s final line: “He grinned and stared at himself in the mirror while I stood behind one of his big shoulders, only the top of my head visible, and fixed his collar.”  This demi-fold offers an effective alternative to the first-to-final-sentence bracketing. 
However, in “Monster,” Van Meter folds both ends.  In the middle of the second paragraph, he refers to a stash of plastic game pieces he stole from board games and how he rarely played those games with classmates but rather stayed at his desk drawing with big markers.  A few paragraphs before the essay’s end, Van Meter picks up those pieces:  “One Saturday afternoon when I was around nine years old, the same year I was stockpiling those game pieces in my school desk like candy to be savored later, I came in from outside and went straight to my bedroom.”  The pieces echo, and so does the idea of a young boy set apart. 

This past semester in my Introduction to Readings in Nonfiction midterm, I asked the question below.  What follows is a part of a student’s answer: 

4.  One of the emphases of this class is diversity.  Address the ways in which the readings promote diversity via race, culture, region, sexuality, gender, or form. 

I am an African American male who has lived in Chicago his whole life. As a result, Van Meter’s work is a perfect way for me to learn about a white male who is living in America and coping with his sexuality. In Van Meter’s piece I also learned how the word “faggot" for a homosexual male can have the same fire as the word “nigger” for an African American. Van Meter writes, “There’s a difference between how a word is defined and what it really means” (145). For me, it helps blur the line so that I can see how others are oppressed because of their sexuality like others are by race.
Technically, it’s the VanMeteresque elements that give Ryan Van Meter’s essays their shape, but it’s something more powerful that makes us turn around, a voice that invites us to look at who we were then and who we would, years later, become.  


On the makeshift stage in my classroom, the essayist with the best time is announced to applause, and we begin to discuss what drew us into her essay so quickly. I remind them that as writers, we only have a sentence or two to get a reader to “turn around.”  And then I hear it, the shuffling of pages as students pick up their drafts and lean in to look more closely at their beginnings.

Jill Talbot is the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012).  Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Brevity, DIAGRAMThe Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus.  She is the 2013-2015 Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.