Monday, April 28, 2014

Bethany Maile: We Sought But Couldn't Find - Coming Up Empty in David Shields' “Death is the Mother of Beauty”

When my father was five, his heart stopped beating. My grandmother had taken him to the doctor because he had sparked a high fever, something he’d experienced sporadically and inexplicably since birth. From nowhere, he’d break a heavy sweat, his skin would turn red, his eyes would roll back. Totally unresponsive, sometimes he’d convulse. That day, the fever didn’t come down and finally, with his heart stopped and stopped and stopped, the doctor pronounced him dead.


Eight months ago I gave birth to a healthy girl her father and I named Harriet. When she was about three months old, I set her down for a diaper change and a sharp wheeze escaped her throat and her chest stopped moving. And then it stayed stopped. Her body went stiff, and her eyes locked into mine. I went hot with panic. I scooped her up and she gulped an enormous breath of air and then screamed a terrific, terrified scream.

About 1% of babies will stop breathing for any number of reasons. Although it isn’t common, it isn’t always reason for enormous concern. But still. My baby was breathing and then she wasn’t and then she did but I was scared. I rushed her to the doctor who ordered a few tests but assured me it was most likely just reflux. We’d been treating the issue with bi-daily doses of Baby Zantac since she was born, but she grows quickly and it’s hard to keep the dosage growing with her.

“The acid will back up and close off the throat so that the airway is constricted,” the doctor told me. This explains why she breathed again when I lifted her. This explains why I struggle to let her out of my arms.

Now, months later, Harriet and I go about our day—nursing, reading, playing—but in the midst of all this ordinariness, I am never far from that moment: her eyes fixed on me, her chest raised and stuck. So I give her more solid foods, more meds, I keep her upright for thirty minutes after she eats. With Harriet full-bellied and swaying against my shoulder, my mind often lands on my father, fifty-odd years ago, how he laid in that hospital bed, a doctor sliding a stethoscope around, listening for a heartbeat and hearing nothing. How my grandmother watched idly—what could she do?—as the doctor declared a time of death. How I am sure that moment lasted and lasted and she felt like there would never be any other moment to occupy ever again until, from nowhere, he breathed a deep, full breath.

Like so many family narratives—especially the mysterious, hard ones—no one has told me the story of my father’s death top to bottom (for example, I am not actually sure how he came back to life: if he was resuscitated, if he spontaneously breathed again; if the details of this story inch toward myth; I don’t know.). It’s only told in bits and pieces. I can’t even remember the first time I heard it. But after I returned from the pediatrician, I phoned my family to assure them Harriet was okay and my grandmother told me she knows how scary it is. She remembers how his fevers would spike and she’d hold him in bed, soaking him with cool cloths, and he’d convulse until the whole bed shimmied against the floor. Once she was home alone and his fever boiled and then he went limp and turned blue and she bolted down the street calling for help until a neighbor gave him to mouth-to-mouth and there, in the middle of the street, his eyes shot open and he gasped.


As a new mom, I think of the life/death dichotomy a lot. I worry—like we all do, I’m sure—and these worries are always fixed squarely on my daughter. In the first trimester of my pregnancy, I worried about miscarrying. Closer to her due date, I worried about lungs pumping and her heart closing without holes. In labor, she was twisted in the umbilical cord, as many babies are, and at each contraction her heart stopped and after the contraction ended her heart stayed stopped, and stayed and stayed. A doctor did a small procedure that worked, but for the rest of the labor I thought of that flat line, a sluggish dash ticking across the screen, not rising or falling, just staying stopped. Now that she’s here I worry about food allergies. About fevers. About SIDs. About oncoming cars swerving into our lane. About tripping down the stairs with her in my arms. About icy sidewalks and fractured skulls. About reflux squeezing her airway shut. All this to say, I worry about death.

And so, maybe unsurprisingly, I’ve gravitated to David Shields’ The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead.

Like me, Shields looks at his daughter and realizes how peculiar it is that the act of giving life makes the reality of our death all the more pressing and inescapable.  Early in the book he relays a story about his father landing on the third rail in a New York subway and how, improbably, he lived. We are both obsessed with the girls who will outlast us and the fathers who have cheated death—a skill, we know, they haven’t passed down.

It’s a fine book, pastiching family stories with startling data on the body’s inevitable decline. But the lyric essay, “Death is the Mother of Beauty,” is the book’s heartbeat. Here is Shields’ showstopper. While much of the book seems to demand that we think about death (as though this reader isn’t already doing that all day every day, as though Didion’s line “Life changes in the instant…” doesn’t circle in my head each time I put my daughter in the car, feed her a new food, let her out of my arms), this little essay does something different, something quiet and powerful. It’s brief enough that I’ll reproduce it here:

Neither my father nor I could sleep. We finally figured out how to work the remote for his new TV—a present from my sister and me on his 95th birthday. At 2:00 AM:
On channel 2, a movie detective revisited a murder scene.
On channel 4, Retin-A entrapped tretinoin in Microsponge systems.
On channel 7, college girls on vacation in Cancun removed their T-shirts.
On channel 8, the Civil War was reenacted.
On channel 10, Bobby Abreu won the Home Run Derby.
On channel 11, Double D Dolls mud-wrestled.
On channel 12, a university lecturer explained gravity.
On channel 13, the Faith, Health & Prosperity bracelet glittered in the light.
On channel 17, a woman did leg raises.
On channel 20, taffy and ice cream production facilities were profiled.
On channel 22, fat-free desserts tasted as good as regular desserts.
On channel 24, 79 people died in a plane crash; an infant was the lone survivor.
On channel 29, Hercules tossed an enormous boulder.
On channel 30, Miss Teen USA was crowned.
On channel 33, you developed smart abs in just two minutes a day.
On channel 36, Dr. Ellen’s Light His Fire and Light Her Fire programs helped your marriage by increasing your energy.
On channel 38, a woman whose teenage daughter died in a car crash found solace in God’s love.
On channel 41, a murder victim’s body was autopsied.
On channel 42, the CrossBow system offered compound resistance.
On channel 47, Aquafresh toothpaste removed stains.
On channel 49, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America helped you harness your power to fight cancer and win.
On channel 55, two buxom blonde women explained to a thin, balding man why size matters.
On channel 59, the Slim in 6 fitness program helped you lose 20 pounds in 6 weeks.
On channel 63, the Ultimate Chopper was the ultimate time saver.
On channel 64, the Esteem by Naomi Judd System reduced wrinkles, lines, and blotchiness.
On channel 72, the Arthur Ashe Award was given to a terminally ill coach who advised the audience to never give up.
On channel 77, a woman was penetrated from behind by one man while she performed fellatio on another man.
On channel 80, the Youth Cocktail gave you sharper, clearer memory and more flexible joints.
On channel 84, two behemoths competed to pull an enormous ball-and-chain across the finish line.
On channel 85, a suicide bomber killed himself, two civilians, and two U.S. soldiers in Ramadi.
On channel 87, Hair Color for Men got the gray out.
On channel 89, with long life you will satisfy Him and show Him your salvation.
On channel 90, you could have the makeover of a lifetime.
On channel 95, Hollywood celebrities paid $24,000 for Mari Winsor’s body-sculpting program.
On channel 99, a horror movie ended with a white curtain blowing in the breeze against a black night.
On channels 2 through 99, we sought but couldn’t find a cure for the fact that one day we would die.  

The essay (which, as you see, stands alone just fine) is a real ass-kicker. First, it’s the only section of the book that has this kind of punchy, pop-culture vibe. And while much of the book is built of lists, those lists are nearly all strings of statistics about the body’s failings, or quotes from great thinkers about the body’s failings.  So “Death is the Mother of Beauty” is a content shift. It resists staring squarely at the subject of death (which after 172 pages of death-gazing is a nice switch-up). At first, I’m lulled by the fluffiness. I am in that room, my face reflecting the TV’s neon glow, bored and interested all at once. For a second, my mind wanders away from all those worries—the constricted airways and failing hearts; for a second I forget.

What’s more, this averted attention is particularly powerful because by the time we get to that last line, I’m not only reminded of our imminent death, I’m stunned by it. I’m stunned that I was so easy to distract—if only temporarily. And this temporary relief only underscores how insufficient the distraction was.

I’m stunned, too, by the final line’s candor. Instead of telling me to think about my own death (and hasn’t this been the charge of so much art for so long? From Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Shields; Picasso and Van Gogh; shoot, even Six Feet Under) which, as confessed above, isn’t something I need to be asked to do, this essay says something else. It says, “Well, shit. Try as we might to forget the fact that we’re all dust, nothing cuts it…not for long, anyways.” We couldn’t find a cure.  It acknowledges the downright stickiness of the issue. It calls it out for being the big, hairy mess that it is. It doesn’t offer a quick solution. I appreciate this.

This is a particularly stellar move because in the discussion of death, everyone (including Shields, sometimes) offers (faulty) solutions. Earlier in the book, he quotes Zola: “As I grow older, I feel everything departing, and I love everything with more passion.” It’s a familiar sentiment; understanding that life is short, death imminent, we appreciate everything more fiercely. I remember holding Harriet just after she’d arrived. The sun fell in long swaths into the hospital room and I watched her sleep. I remember telling myself that giving birth is totally pedestrian. Literally nothing is more common. Don’t think yourself too special. But still, this little person grew all the right pieces and was here now, healthy. It felt improbable. Impossible, even. And so I cherish each second with her because her existence is a wonder, and it (and I) won’t last forever. So yeah, Zola. I am loving passionately.
But I’m not 100% sated (or as Shields might say, cured), because loving passionately doesn’t save us from death. It doesn’t keep me from thinking about how much of Harriet’s life I will miss after I’m gone (best case scenario) or how fragile her life is (worst case scenario).

Shields offers other, equally inadequate solutions, too. Much of his writing suggests that immersion therapy is the ticket. If we just focus on death enough maybe we’ll become fast friends, thus the onslaught of death data in the earlier pages. But in “Death is the Mother of Beauty” he calls himself out. He knows the jig is up. Here he concedes that we can focus on death as much as we want; all that obsessing won’t fix a thing. Channels 2, 24, 41, 49, 72 and 85 prove this.

In the same vein: religion won’t cure us: channels 38 and 89. Resistance won’t cure us: channels 49, 59, 64, 80, and 87. Sex won’t cure us: channels 7, 11, 36, 55, and 77. If these are fixes, Shields, and I, aren’t buying ‘em.

So I’m spurred to look deeper. For all the piece’s candor—how it resists the quick-and-easy solutions—it doesn’t merely throw up its hands in dissatisfaction. Shields tells us he’s found no cure, but quietly, beneath the layers of all that TV chatter, he offers us something else.

“On channels 2 through 99, we sought but couldn’t find a cure for the fact that one day we would die.” Here, the heart of the essay that’s the heart of the book. Here, a distinct and audible beat; here, a gasp of air. For all the moments we can’t seem to escape—the second when our baby stops breathing, when the doctor’s stethoscope picks up nothing, when the chest stays stuck—here’s one moment Shields will always occupy, I hope.  Because here, faced with the sobering hard truth that the cure we so desperately long for doesn’t exist, he is not alone. We sought…we couldn’t…we would die. There’s power in that slim, two-letter word, power in its repetition.

I imagine the scene at 1:45 A.M. The whole house is silent. Shields turns in bed, readjusts his pillow, rolls onto his back. He stares at the ceiling. He woke from a dream, something about his daughter, and though the details are hazy, there’s a boulder in his stomach, some vague worry he can’t place. Or he woke because his back, which nettles him more and more each year, is tightening up. Or he woke because he heard his father fill a glass with water, heard him sink into his armchair, heard him futz with the remote control.

Realizing that sleep is hopeless, he kicks off his blanket and wanders to the living room. His father leans forward in his chair, jamming buttons on the clicker. Outside, moths flit around a patio light. They land on the screen door and flex their dust-colored wings. They lift and vanish. Shields holds out his hand and his father gives up the remote. He points it at the TV. Nothing. He shakes it. Points it lower, higher, re-inserts the batteries, points again and the TV flicks on. His father takes it back and turns up the volume.  He offers his son a swig of his water; the son accepts. They flip and flip. Then a highlight reel flashes on ESPN. A Yankee rounds third base, then home, and the scoreboard rolls over. Cut to a girl in the stands catching a pop fly. Cut to the Celtics and the Nets in double overtime. Cut to a game-winning three from way downtown. Cut to Boston’s bench flooding the floor. Cut to a commercial for Red Bull; it gives you wings. Cut to a parent and child finding solace if not a cure.    


Bethany Maile received an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of Arizona. Her essays have appeared in some places, including The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, and River Teeth. She lives in Alaska with her husband and baby and teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Amy Wright: I Intend to Talk to You Seriously

There is a New Yorker cartoon on my refrigerator by Charles Barsotti that depicts two middle-aged gentleman seated over espresso cups. The caption reads “I keep my life well ordered so I can be outrageous in my private thoughts.” Outrageous—from the Old French ultrage “to push beyond bounds”—is not how this mustachioed speaker’s friends would describe him. Far out he is not—ha ha! But I get him. The drawing puts his persevering malteses in touch with my rough likenesses.

Essays are outrageous like that. With one line they put in conversation Harry Mathews’ The Case of the Persevering Maltese—which puts in conversation St. Augustine and Marcel Duchamp—with Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness, which itself puts Madame Lulu, visiting from South Africa, in touch with Paul Celan.

They push past the bounds of the given, overthrow the assumptions we inherited, invent new norms, like those formative late night talks in college when friends and I spent whole afternoons voicing newfound beliefs, complicating each other’s questions, deepening empathy and stirring up saucier half shells for the world that was our oyster. But gradually those wide open windows of time narrowed into panes of hours. The back porch sofas were hauled to the dump, and clean well-lighted places became working lunches. The world, though, did not stop expanding after adolescence, nor did the need to process our past and future actions close like the Rising Sun Bakery. I still needed somewhere to set my mug and seek out meaningful exchange. The essay became that folding table, a portable cafe for heart-to-hearts and battles of wit.

My role as nonfiction editor of Zone 3 journal and Zone 3 Press is best understood in this way—to generate the energy of discourse in which what is at issue is in conversation across issues. Concerns and joys spread like the grapevine that carries the rumor that Ander Monson’s typing teacher once threw an electric typewriter from the fifth floor window of his high school, in “Keyboarding.” Or, the philosophical equation Marianne Janack uses to explain to her husband the relationship between a Ducati he wants to a vasectomy he does not. I take in such stories like memories. A literary journal serves our need to connect, the way an essay can.

“Connection” has a romantic vibe, but relationships raise bars we are likely to resist. We might better imagine these perspective-altering encounters as inevitable, like a family. I grew up going to family reunions so large I left certain I was two degrees of Aunt Diane away from half the town. It is easy to imagine the writers that stretch over the almost thirty years of Zone 3’s history as kin.

Literary community is similar to the family Rebecca McClanahan pictures in her multi-generational memoir, The Tribal Knot. Her relations challenge each other to re-examine their preconceptions about race, loss, love, place, and the desire to keep silent. No one is immune from this kind of influence—including McClanahan—who says in an interview with me after the book’s release that she had not planned to weave her story into that of her ancestors, but living and dead relatives seemed to insist: “Come on out, you coward. You’re part of this family too!”

When I joined Zone 3’s editorial board in 2007, the journal had been printing only poetry and fiction for over twenty years. Opening submissions to nonfiction, I anticipated, would redefine our aesthetic. Wanting this new venue to reflect the genre’s range, I sent out calls for lyric meditations, flash manifestos, cultural criticism intertwined with personal narratives. Did I use the word opera? Maybe. I held up Anne Carson’s Decreation as a model. The potential for expression was thrilling, considering we had invited the genre that begins where other forms leave off. Ned Stuckey-French and Carl Klaus’ anthology, Essayists on the Essay, had not yet been released, but I was looking for the kind of essays they say embody “a multistable impression of the the process of sharing thought with others.”

Conversation can extend ones reach, Walter Pater suggests later in the same anthology. According to him, the “really large and adventurous possibilities” of the essay arise from the dialectic method of question and answer, as in the Platonic Dialogues.

My interest in nonfiction is deeply intertwined with the collaborative assay that is the interview. Each issue of the journal, I try to contribute between one and four. My favorite explanation of the draw of the form came last fall when I asked Dan Beachy-Quick for his take on the dynamic, which he says "seems to offer, ideally, a profound kind of trespass, an overhearing, in which the actual importance of two people talking together exists not in the conversation itself, but rather in the intimacy only trespass allows, a glance, a glimpse, a listening in that feels worthy exactly because it doesn’t initially belong to you at all."

Such an interlocutor seems to say, “I intend to talk to you seriously,” as Harry Mathews begins his essay “For Prizewinners.” Such a considerate opening is inviting, but what makes me lean in for the next line is that “you” he is addressing, the multitudes of whom I am so curious to know.

So perhaps the grand contribution of the essay is its access—to people, to minutia, to experiences one has never had but sensations she might. Access is how I think of Nicole Walker’s gesture to wet her finger and taste her father’s cremated ashes in “Skin of the Earth.” A desire to take some measure of his death pushes against the bounds of her condition like a blue eye of beach glass.

Were Nicole sitting beside me like the men in Barsotti’s drawing, friendly and receptive as she is, I doubt I would ask, “Why did you finger your father’s velvet box of dust?” As it is, the question seeds a conversation within the text. I pick up on a crucial bit of information that around the time of her adolescence, the man who taught her to ride a bike came “to prefer drinks to kids,” and this exchange takes on a revelatory quality. I grasp how long her grief is against the impossibility of reclaiming him. Such is the authorial work I suspect one cannot teach, but only draw a fathom line to chart its depth, pull out a topo map to gain a sense of scale. Checked by no limitations but our own, the elements are clear, breaking down against the desert Walker and her sisters are crossing to scatter his ash.

Within every conversation inheres potential for conversion.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot describes “the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.” He is referring to a poet’s development of consciousness, but the illustration also speaks to us here, considering how exchange is catalytic.

Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, the author of four chapbooks, and the recipient of a Peter Taylor fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her nonfiction appears in Bellingham Review, Brevity, Passages North, Drunken Boat, Tupelo Quarterly, and is forthcoming in DIAGRAM and Kenyon Review

Monday, April 21, 2014

Erin Zwiener on the False Glint of Fool’s Gold and Cliché

On the False Glint of Fool’s Gold and Cliché


“Maybe romantic is going out to Wyoming and roping a wild bronco. But after you get out of the hospital, you have to feed the son of a bitch. He bites and kicks and doesn’t take kindly to the saddle, and after you get out of the hospital again, you neglect and abandon him, and the PETA people haul your ass into court—there is no romance in court, ever.” --Richard Schmitt, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”
Forty horses stretch in a line along the wide path, one wrangler (at minimum) for every seven dudes per our insurance policy. The wranglers, professional horsemen and women are easy to spot. We wear cowboy-cut jeans, palm leaf hats, boots, and fire-engine red or denim pearl snap shirts. Fringed chaps wrap around my thighs, and I enjoy correcting the guests about the pronunciation of the leather leggings. "Ch-ap is what happens to your ass when you don't wear sh-aps. It's short for chapparal, brush country." Some guests have gone shopping before arrival, trying to look the part of a Westerner. Little girls wear pink pointy-toed boots, women tie bandanas glinting with rhinestones around their necks, and men ride with one hand clutching their ill-fitting, ill-shaped straw hats.

It’s a routine we repeat every week. A new batch of dudes arrives on Sunday and fills the rickety bleachers. Lee Greenwoods belts out “God Bless the U.S.A” as the wranglers stream into the arena and perform a choreographed routine of loops and x’s. I ride a svelte bay gelding and carry a Colorado flag that flutters behind me as we gallop. At the end of the performance, the horses line up in the center of the area facing the audience. My gelding stands like a statue while I hold my hat over my heart for the National Anthem, and the guests applaud.

Then we heave the guests onto the pre-saddled horses waiting in the corral and take them on what we call a trail ride. But the “trail” travels through one pasture, behind a subdivision of summer homes, across the country road, and around a pond in a second pasture. Nothing remote or impressive if you’re used to Colorado, but our dudes come from Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta.

The first section of the path abuts another large field full of horses. One bay with an arched neck gallops the fence line, calling to the sedate, dude-bearing mounts. He tosses his head, shakes his black mane, and kicks his hind legs in the air.

"Can anyone ride that bronco?" one woman asks.

"That's the horse they put the bad guests on," her husband answers, shooting a look at his oldest son.

“That’s right,” I say. “Better do everything I tell you to, or we’ll put you on him tomorrow.”

The boy’s mother laughs but scrunches her face in a way that tells me I’ve worried her. My first job is to keep everyone alive and healthy. The ranch horses are used to beginners and tend to be slow-going, but animals are unpredictable and humans are always looking for new ways to find trouble. I give tips on sitting comfortably in the saddle and bark at children to not throw acorns at each other. I watch the dudes to determine who is coordinated (and obedient) enough to go on rides up into the mountains. My second job is entertainment, and I chatter about horses, backcountry, wildlife, and country western dancing.

When we return to the ranch, the bay gelding is still frolicking. After the guests are safely back on the ground, I ask “Do y’all want to see me break that crazy horse to ride?”

The woman tells me seriously, “No, we don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure I can handle him.” I answer.

I grab a soft cotton rope and duck through the wire into the pasture while the dudes gather near the fenceline. The bay gallops my direction, and I flail the rope towards his face when he nears. He pivots on his hind end, kicks his heels in the air, and gallops away. When he slows to an energetic trot, I move so that I’m perpendicular to his shoulder, and he starts to circle me, his delicate head lowering. When he slows to a walk, I drop my eyes to the ground and step backwards. He stops, and I back up further. The bay steps toward me warily.

I give him a moment to settle, and then pad up to his shoulder with quiet heel steps. He shudders when I pat him firmly on the neck but doesn’t move away. I ease the rope around his neck and leap onto his back while the crowd gathered on the other side of the fence gasps. The bay rears up, lifting his front feet and striking like the Lone Ranger’s Silver, and I dig my fingers into mane and press my chest into his neck. When he touches down, he shoots forward at a full run. I coo at him until he slows to a relaxed lope, and lay the rope against the right side of his neck. When the gelding curves his spine and turns to the left, I praise him loudly and direct him toward the watching guests.

I swing off directly in front of them, give the bay an approving rub, remove the rope, and turn to my onlookers. The bay tries to use my back as a scratching post, and I scold him.

“Not too bad for the first ride,” I say.

The guests are in awe of me, their own private Annie Oakley and fearless tamer of wild horses. None of them recognize the bay from our drill team event that morning, one of two horses on the ranch that can carry a flag without spooking, and they won’t recognize him when we run short of kids’ horses on Wednesday and pack an eight-year-old on him. A horse that I have owned since I was thirteen. A horse that I taught verbal commands such as “up” for rear and “let’s go” for gallop. I make the best tips of any wrangler on the ranch.

Even as I tell this story, I fall back into the shtick, give into the temptation to let the story run away with me. I was just starting to teach Razi, that bay gelding, to rear that summer, so his bronco display wouldn’t have been as dramatic. I used a halter with a lead rope instead of just the rope. We’ve never mastered riding with just a neck rope despite my best efforts. The girl who rode Razi when we ran out of children’s horses was eleven, not eight. Our guests came to Colorado for the fir and aspen-clad mountains, the blue lakes, the clear air, but they came to a dude ranch for the romance of the Wild West. So we gave it to them. Other wranglers told stories about competing in the National Children’s Rodeo (doesn’t exist), a beloved horse waiting for them at home (imaginary), the year they spent living in the wilderness (totally fictitious), a promising bull riding career given up because of injuries (one ill-advised leap onto a bull in a pasture), childhoods on a ranch in South Dakota (born there, but the family moved to Phoenix before the wrangler in question could walk.)

In Richard Schmitt’s essay “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”, he discusses the human penchant for clichéd drama, an appetite for tales that are plucked and clipped and primped until they fit into an elegant frame. He tells his own story of “running away to join the circus” as a teenager, except he was already a runaway, a minimum wage brick scrubber sharing an apartment with a junkie who rested his hopes on a white Ringling Bros. train. From Schmitt: “People say ‘run away to join the circus’ as if there is only one, and as if there is no doubt about joining it. As if the option resides solely with the runaway. One is fed up; the need to escape strikes; you find this entity called circus and presto, you are embraced.”

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” An ever tempting piece of barroom cowboy advice. Romanticizing our past and our selves is a trap for memoirists in particular but other nonfiction writers as well. What makes something romantic anyways? Unfamiliarity? Inaccessibility? Romance is a trope that we substitute in for reality, cowboys or circus performers with the manure wiped off their boots before they’re allowed in public.

Schmitt discovered that finding gainful employment under a big top was more complicated than he’d imagined. “One didn’t simply decide to join the circus and have them issue you a bandanna and a tambourine.” Instead of focusing on the glitzy culmination of his circus career as high-wire act, the essay follows the teenage Schmitt searching up and down the train for someone to hire him and observing the workers and his surroundings with a honed gaze. “The spit polish and flash of the first few cars gave way to peeled paint and sooty squalor. There were garbage bags. The windows weren’t washed . . . Stockcars, pervasive zoo odors, heavy wooden ramps soiled with various types of dried animal crap . . . a hunched troll-like figure crawling from the black belly of the train, dragging a fat rubber hose, the type used for pumping septic tanks. An old man covered in soot and rail cinders. His face resembled a tire tread in dried mud.” When he did find the right people, they had no work for him, at least not there in Providence. He could try Albuquerque. A romantic notion has a gleaming surface, but it lacks the depth and humanity of life.

But what harm in just a notion? It’s such an impulsive little word, with none of the vigor of opinion or the steadfastness of conviction. A notion will pass like the latest fad, so why not indulge it for a moment before moving on? From Schmitt: “Notions are fleeting; they go away. One minute you are making a tiger vanish; the next moment he is having you for dinner. Being eaten by tigers is not romantic.”

In sewing, notions are all the tiny items, the afterthoughts one grabs at Joann’s after they’ve selected a pattern, a fabric, and a trim. They’re the simple structural items that differentiate a professional looking garment from an amateur one. Cider-hued thread for traditional jean pocket stitching, midnight blue for an edgier, urban look. Goofy red buttons for clown costumes. Pearl snaps for a western shirt. Plastic stays to make a high-wire performer’s collar permanently stiff. Notions also include basic tools. Scissors to make a bolt of cloth match the pattern.  Pins that hold the fabric together for sewing. Bobbins that whirl out thread on the machine. Needles to prick and thimbles to protect. A seam ripper to correct mistakes and try again. Without notions there can be no stitching together of satin or scenes.

Notions are the connective tissue of essays, that singular vision that takes a jumble of parts and transforms it into a whole. Some notions may show in the finished project; others may be pulled out like pins when the piece is sewn together, but they are just as integral to an essay as narrative, voice, metaphor. Enter an essay with the wrong notion and the components won’t stick. Or perhaps they’ll stick but look as garish as a pair of leopard print capris. Schmitt’s steadfast gaze on the grimy details reminds us that despite the temptation of cliché, that the austere underbelly is more fascinating than polished façade, that we as essayists should look past the first glint and dig for a more ambiguous treasure.


Erin Zwiener is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Arizona and assistant editor for Fairy Tale Review. She’s the author of the children’s book Little Red Riding Boots, the first in a series of cowgirl fairy tale retellings. She lives on the slopes of the Tucson Mountains with a corral full of horses and mules. Visit her online at

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Wading, Or the Importance of the Story in the Situation

While going through Prairie Schooner’s nonfiction slush—what editors call, perhaps unfairly, the lake of submissions they wade through to find the pieces that float—I encounter the essay daily, see writers grappling with the most extreme circumstances on the page or meditating on the most mundane. Some essays have the power of voice, the power to speak to a reader beyond the page, to compel and propel a reader to and through an essay. An essay begins: “I was nineteen the spring I broke my back and lay flat on the carpet next to my parents’ age-swollen grand piano. The ceiling hung low and the sky above it lower, and even my clothes draped heavy over me in those days.” When I encountered O’Connell’s Only X-rays Are Black and White, it was the lyricism and wisdom of her voice—the way she spoke about her experience as a dancer and the moment when her body broke and gave way, and her reflection on human pain and the body’s unreliability—that distinguished her piece from the thousands of submissions I’d read since beginning work as the genre’s Assistant Editor a few years prior.

Some essays have powerhouse images—the thin edge of a grasshopper’s leg, the dance of a heart monitor—that deliver a swift kick to the heart or throat, a roundhouse to the amygdala so soon the reader is swooning, moving through his or her own memories in response to the words. “In the pineapple is the fiber we’ve been looking for, the sweet yellow threadiness we’d never confuse for stitches, for wound,” Matthew Gavin Frank explains in The Beginning of the End of Hummingbird Cake, a lyric collage built on image and sound, readers understanding exactly what he means though they’ve never heard it described this way before.
Some essays have a rhythm that creates for readers, right there on the page, the feel of a Georgia rainstorm or the sound of railroad tracks as the author rattles across the country after the dissolution of a marriage. Some essays incorporate research and fact to illuminate the author’s experiences and insights. Some essays use form in interesting ways—white space indicates silence after the death of a child, fragmented syntax mirrors the disorientation of moving to a new country without a common language. Steven Church’s Fight, Bull intersperses quotes from Bernie Goetz with Church’s resistant meditation on violence and the culture that values it, and soon Goetz’s interruptions and a story from Church’s past bring the writer surprisingly close to rage.

The essays that sing out from the slush, those that make me pause over the page, read and reread, are those whose ideas linger long throughout the day and well into the evening, those that sit like sugar at the edge of my brain, where they glisten and crust over, crystals saved for later. In The Situation and the Story Vivian Gornick describes the best nonfiction by saying, “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it's that wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.”
The last time I spent a Sunday afternoon with the words of our submitters, I encountered essays about a childhood in Brooklyn, about a trip to India, about taking care of an ill husband, about baking bread, and about drinking tea. While some of the situations were extreme or amazing, often the stories were not. Sometimes situations that seemed mundane shared a powerful story and wisdom. Some essays with extreme forms said nothing, while some essays that were seemingly simplistic spoke volumes. Sometimes the inverse was true.

The essays that worked best were those that delivered a nugget on the human experience, that moved beyond the what to explore the how and the why on much larger levels. They were those that dwelled in complexity. They were those pieces that did not rely on the extremes of circumstance or emotion, those that resisted the easy narrative, the simple resolution. Often, essays that were memorable were those that swam in the gray area between being and feeling, remembering and knowing.

As Gornick explains, “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In his forthcoming essay, Place de Clichy, Jacob Newberry’s time abroad in Paris is not entirely original—many readers and writers share this experience—but his insight and haunting spirit are what permeate the page. When he writes, “Paris, for those of us from the South, is a cathedral in the sky, an unapproachable crossroads of the wars we’re taught about and the monuments to their honor that we’re certain we’ll never get to see,” he transcends experience and moves into the realm of wisdom.

While humans share many of the same situations—we receive many submissions about dying grandparents or the loss of a lover, finding solace in addictive behavior or the same meandering rivers—we each have different stories, different insights we find in these shared experiences, and here lies the heart of the genre. This is also where the many subgenres derive from—travel and food writing, the memoir and the more distant historical account, literary and immersion journalism, the linear biography and the delightful disorientation of the lyric essay—for while our same experiences can be told in the same ways, our wisdoms cannot.

Thus it is no great surprise the genre takes many forms. Memoir may be Mary Karr’s tender grit or the playfully-meta Dave Eggers. Essayists might explore place quietly like Annie Dillard or dive headfirst into a foreign experience like Ted Conover. Nonfiction claims the formidable elegance of Joan Didion, but also David Shields’s surprising use of collage. The ability of our situations to assume so many stories, to be told in so many forms is what attracts readers to the genre. And this mutability, this ability to morph and seemingly distort our common situations—like writers John D’Agata and Lauren Slater—is also what angers people about the genre.

The larger point is this: the genre should take many forms. Our stories impact the way we tell our situations. Form is determined by function; sensibility renders style. Each time I sit down to read through the work authors have sent to us with care, entrusted to us to read and respect, I am looking for those pieces that speak to the inquiring core in each of us, the essays that find the story in the situation and tell it in the unique way only the writer who has lived and felt and meditated can explain. While our responsibility as editors is to find and publish great work—no matter the subject or form, great work always shines—nonfiction editors also have a responsibility to showcase the diversity of the genre. Nonfiction is, after all, a way of putting consciousness onto the page and so the nonfiction contained in a journal’s pages should fully represent the vast scope of human consciousness.

The next time I sit to read the situations and stories writers have sent in the hopes of publication, I will no doubt find many that are the same—once I came across three essays about a father’s hands and four about foreclosure, all within the space of an hour—but because it is craft that captures the reader’s careful ear or their secret wanderlust or their melancholy heart, only a few will rise to the top of the slush, float along the surface of so many others and dance upon the page.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Assistant Editor-Nonfiction for several years. She is the author of the chapbook, The Astronaut Checks His Watch, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3 and others.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tommy Mira y Lopez on Charles Baxter's "What Happens in Hell"

Reading Charles Baxter’s “What Happens in Hell,” I find myself continually impressed by each sentence’s ability to do two things at once. This is no surprise given Baxter’s body of work and capabilities as a writer—it’s a given that the writing’s working in more ways than one—yet what stands out to me is that Baxter’s sentences work in both ways I notice and ways I do not. I imagine it’s like when I turn on the hot water for a shower in my house and my roommate’s shower in the casita out back turns cold: I know I do the one thing, but I don’t instinctively recognize that the one thing leads to the other.

Needless to say, as a fiction writer and an essayist, Baxter does another two things at once. What happens when we read a fiction writer in the guise of an essayist for the first time and vice versa? What differentiates the narrative of a particular writer’s essay from the narrative of a particular writer’s short story? If I had been reading the red cover of this year’s Best American series instead of the green cover, would I have questioned whether I was reading a story or not? The overall movement of Baxter’s essay is towards the artfully staggered narrative I find so often in his fiction: we begin with Baxter the narrator and his town car driver, a Pakistani American named Niazi, conversing over what happens in hell while driving through Palo Alto (Baxter is on his way to Stanford to teach a class as a visiting writer); this incident triggers a bout of schadenfreude and the revelation of the deeper sadness present in Baxter’s life (his loneliness, his recent separation from his wife); armed with this, we return several weeks later to another car ride with Baxter and Niazi, a ride that leads to an nearly fatal crash, the narrative’s dramatic climax and the moment when the conversation about what happens in hell merges with something closer to reality; from here, the drama lessens and we move towards conclusion and Baxter’s attempt to forgive Niazi.

Given the decisive turn it takes in its middle, Baxter’s essay deserves the sort of praise we reserve for the type of workshop friendly short stories and essays (JoAnn Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter” comes most readily to mind) that tell us everything we need to know in their first page without giving away the plot or element of surprise. Baxter’s sentences apply to both the present moment and the moment to come; they are tinged with a humor that both masks and welcomes. When Niazi tells Baxter that “there is no forgiveness over there. There is forgiveness over here but not there,” we take it as evidence of a slightly loony if not fundamentalist character without expressly realizing that this sentiment will play out to be true, that Baxter himself will be unable to forgive Niazi after he falls asleep at the wheel and drives into a hellish car wreck. When after one of Niazi’s pronouncements, Baxter decides “to drink some more of his bottled water,” we’re aware of the irony and complicity of this action—water amidst a discussion of fire and Hell, privilege swigged in the face of the unprivileged—but cannot recognize its full poignancy until the car is flipping over on its way down the hill and, as Niazi screams, Baxter watches the bottle of water floating in front of him.

The ability to wrangle this much out of a sentence isn’t so much a product of the genre Baxter’s working in as it is a result of careful, considered writing. The qualities of the above examples—the telling detail, the foreshadowing line of dialogue, the true subject masked by the triggering subject—are as likely to occur in a Charles Baxter short story as a Charles Baxter essay. They’re a staple. Yet what of the sentences that provide something specifically because they are present in something termed an essay and not a short story? Do such sentences exist? What of those moments that find traction here because Baxter is ostensibly essaying (or aware that he’s essaying and thus allowed whatever artificial constructs and constraints we allow the essayist) and not short-storying? Is this at all a valid distinction to make, much less to try and elucidate? I’m not so much speaking about Baxter’s liberty to pull quotes or include anecdotes from Alice Munro or Nietzsche (what we might think of as privileged to the essayist), but his ability to close or widen the gap he inhabits as an author, to near or pull away from the subject and moment at hand—in other words, to turn on the heat in one place to create cold in another.

I’m reluctant to use these terms essaying and short-storying. How do I really know what these mean? I tell myself that Baxter’s allowed to do one thing because I’ve flipped open this year’s Best American Essays but not another because I’ve flipped open Best American Short Stories (I guess, along with Alice Munro, he’s going for something of an EGOT here). I think back to TaraShea Nesbit’s post from the previous week and what smart sense she makes when she writes “I don’t mind calling essays stories, or calling stories essays. There is a reason why we make this slip: essays have an arc, stories have embedded questions.” Presumably, Baxter should just be allowed to do Baxter. Yet still I look for ways that a Baxter essay differentiates itself from a Baxter short story, still I think how clever it would be of an essay to disguise itself as a short story until it comes time to reveal its intent.

Consider, for example, how Baxter narrates two car crashes. One is from the short story “Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan,” collected in Through The Safety Net and the other is from “What Happens in Hell.” In “Saul and Patsy…”, the crash comes at the story’s end. Saul and Patsy are driving back from a party, drunk and late at night, their car alone on State Highway 14 in rural Michigan. The narration begins within Saul’s dreams and then shoots out: “He did not even realize he was shutting his eyes. He was dreaming of Patsy, sleeping within arms’ reach. Patsy, whom he loved all the way down to the root. Then he was dreaming of Mrs. O’Neill, carrying a gigantic plate of chocolate chip cookies. And Bart Connell and the barber, asleep on their feet. The two red taillights of the car went around a corner that wasn’t there; then one of them moved up directly above the other. Then it came down again hard, on the wrong side, and began blinking.”

This moment comes down upon us as a dual surprise: the car has crashed, leaving the fates of Saul and Patsy up in the air, yet the narrative distance has also zoomed out. We end with the stark and gentle image of the two out-of-place taillights, an acknowledgment of devastation yet a refusal to rubberneck. The drama in this scene comes from both its events—the hinted at yet unexpected car crash, the unknown consequences—and its shift in detail, its ability to separate itself from its subject and leave its reader with an image—those blinking taillights—impossible to shake from one’s mind.

Compare this to Baxter’s narration of his own crash in “What Happens in Hell”: “California drivers aren’t used to precipitation, so when the car began to lose control, Niazi woke up and slammed on the brakes, throwing the Lincoln into a sideways skid…From the moment the car began to lose control until it came to rest, Niazi was screaming. All during the time we turned over down that hill, he continued to scream. Reader, this essay is about that scream. Please do your best to imagine it.”

Please do your best to imagine it! If “Saul and Patsy’s” narration refocuses distance, here the narration refocuses address, if not the essay’s intended meaning. Tone subverts content and environment. We are in a constrained, intimate space—our narrator is literally inside the overturning car, we have reached our utmost physical proximity—yet the event is not only narrated with lucidity and detachment, but with the essayist’s love of relaying knowledge (“California drivers aren’t used to precipitation…”) and penchant for conversational address, an address that runs throughout the essay but is never as overt as it is here with its “Dear Reader.” The drama and surprise in this scene don’t have to do so much with the severity of the car accident (while that’s certainly there, the narrative tension is lessened since we at least know our protagonist’s well enough to be writing about it), as they do with the responsibility that Baxter places into his reader’s hands. He asks us not just to recreate a moment outside the realm of personal experience (i.e. a moment we’d have to imagine and/or fictionalize), but a moment upon which the essay’s characterizations and the ideas presented by those characters hinge. The moment where what the characters do to one another (Niazi asks Baxter to imagine what happens in hell, that is to imagine the unimaginable) becomes what the essayist does to the reader. That, I would argue is the true drama of this essay—a sentence’s ability to turn an essay’s direction, to step back and demand speculation, to take us out of one situation and insert us in another, a new reality we must confront in order to make our way through, as if it really had been us in the car all along. And there, I guess, is the rub. I write the above to applaud the power a sentence contains, a power I’ve decided as unique to the essay, but I don’t realize I’ve done two things at once (I am no Baxter), that the sentiment described—this new reality we must confront to take us out of one situation and insert us into another—reads on second glance like a power of fiction.


Tommy Mira y Lopez is pursuing his MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. His work appears or will appear in PANK, Green Briar Review, Seneca Review, and CutBank. He's the nonfiction editor of Sonora Review and an assistant editor at Fairy Tale Review

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lucas Mann: On Writing Young

If you’ve ever taught or learned in a creative nonfiction workshop, you’ve probably read the introduction to Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.  Since the essay club is the only one I belong to, it’s hard for me to find an apt comparison, but I imagine it’s like getting a white belt on the first day of karate class or a money clip when you join the mafia.  You’re initiated, welcomed into a new language, and there’s preliminary documentation to prove it.

Lopate’s is an amazing introduction.  It’s comprehensive and didactic in just the right way.  He sets his parameters and tells us how he wants us to read; no ambiguity, no show.  But in every classroom I’ve ever been in, the conversation has quickly breezed past most of the essay’s thorough thirty pages, and has centered around one page, one line even: “While young people excel at lyrical poetry and mathematics, it is hard to think of anyone who made a mark on the personal essay form in his or her youth.”  Invariably, someone reads this out loud.  Usually the two or three oldest students in the class sneak glances at each other; some are even bold enough to smile.  Then everyone else gets really pissed off.   They feel the righteous anger of being young, in a classroom with mostly young peers, fresh off a White Album reading, giddy to start in a genre that in turn says, Come back in a couple of decades.

Lopate makes an argument that many others echo: an essay, at its core, is about reflection and learning.  “It is difficult to write analytically from the middle of confusion,” he advises us.  So the essayist needs to have lived (read: earned) a memory worth analyzing, and must have had the time to sit back, change, and inspect the event with as much attempted objectivity as possible.  It’s about trust, I think.  We want a reliable nonfiction narrator and reliability is developed through remove.  This basic belief results in a sort of reverse ageism that seems to only afflict the essay genre.  After all, precociousness is advertised in fiction writers.  We like to quantify it exactly.  How many “____ Under _____” lists are there for novelists and story writers?  A young narrator — immature, impatient, imperfect — excites us in fiction.  But when that narrator bares its author’s name, the expectations shift. 

I freely admit that I’m oversensitive to the issue. I’m twenty-seven and I write essays and that sense of illegitimacy, of narratorial un-ripeness, is a tension that I’ve never not felt.  As a student, in workshops, I remember realizing that all of our critiques started to sound like nervous retreads of the same basic questions — I mean, not to devalue their experience or anything, but has the author lived enough to have a life to write about?  Could the author, maybe, perhaps, no disrespect intended, benefit from a little distance from their feelings?  

These are, of course, valid questions, but in their onslaught they can become unproductive.  They start to push us away from investigation and into poseurism.  How many of us spent (or are spending) much of our twenties writing with a narrative voice that is tired and beaten down and aged beyond anything we’ve ever experienced?  We attach our names to a two-packs-a-day truck-stop troubadors who have already lived and died and lived again, as though if we imply a weight of experience, imply a greater distance between our character and our current narrator, we become unassailable.  Instead of writing into the discomfort of a narrator mid-struggle, confused, we create false safety.  That’s how last year becomes a weary “once.”  How grad school, becomes “my years in a run-down apartment at the edge of a small Midwestern town where whiskey was cheap and nights were long.”

The implication by omission here is that a self-involved, artsy twenty-something isn’t the person we want bringing us an essay, even if that’s who the writer is.  What I want to argue, though, is that many of the essay narrators that grip us in the fiercest ways are ones that do so from a place of hubristic confusion, an uneasy balance of both reflection and discovery that typifies a twenty-something psyche.  Often, we find that perspective in works that are not exactly personal essays, but instead blend reportage and memoir.  It’s a semi-genre that grows out of a young writer’s unabashed fear that maybe his or her own experiences aren’t yet enough.  So part of the personal reflection becomes that quest for information, experience, inspiration. Curiosity begins to coax out memories that are still forming as they’re being written down.  We’ve all seen and celebrated this type of narrator, using phrases like genre-defying and groundbreaking.  But I think it’s simpler than that.  I think we secretly love an essayist who writes young.

Let’s look at John Jeremiah Sullivan’s much-lauded collection, Pulphead.  The essays in the collection move through his writing life, ending with his musings from a big house, wife and kids by his side.  But the book’s best essay is the opener, “Upon This Rock,” written when Sullivan was twenty-nine years old and carrying the full emotive jumble of that perspective.  In it, he sets off to write about a Christian music festival, then lets his own not-too-distant memories push through the story.  He is a reporter un-detached, transporting us back and forth between his subjects enraptured by their belief and his own experiences as a born-again high schooler.  It’s great stuff, funny yet somehow not utterly disrespectful.  I think its true power, what makes it transcend to become greater than the sum of its one-liners, is that Sullivan is still not sure how to understand his own belief.  His high school memories very consciously don’t feel ancient.  They feel a part of a conversation still happening within him.  He describes leaving evangelism like this:
                                 My problem is not that that I dream I’m in hell or that Mole is at the window.  It isn’t that I feel psychologically harmed.  It isn’t even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all.  It’s that I love Jesus Christ.
                                  “The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.”
                                  He was the most beautiful dude.

Sullivan is analyzing here, yes, but he is also living with some of the same psyche that he’s trying to understand in his former self.  And while his narrator is the educated ex-believer, he’s also goofy and sincere and maybe a bit stoned.  It’s a sensibility that allows him to mingle with his young subjects in a role somewhere between observer and participant, skeptic and co-conspirator.  He begins to follow around a bunch of rough-and-tumble West Virginian believers.  They take him in, he appreciates it, and just that easy proximity signals to the reader that, as much as there’s reportage happening here, a personal essay is also being written in the moment, memories that will mix with and talk to his high school self are being created as he writes them down.  It’s a frantic process that leads us to a gorgeous ending, more deeply, personally felt than any reader could have imagined when beginning the essay.  Sullivan is among the believers on the last night of the festival, unsure of what to feel.  He writes:

                  The clouds had moved off — the bright stars were out again.  There were fireflies in the trees all over and spread before me, far below, was a carpet of burning candles, tiny flames, many ten thousands.  I was suspended in a black sphere full of flickering light.
                  Sure I thought about Nuremberg.  But mostly I thought of Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter, and Pee Wee, whom I doubted I’d ever see again, whom I’d come to love, and who loved God — for it’s true, I would have said it even if Darius hadn’t asked me to, it may be the truest thing I will have written here: they were crazy, and they loved God — and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I was never capable of.  Knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were.

Here, Sullivan is caught between reflection, speculation, reality.  He is analyzing from the midst of turmoil that may never end.  And the excitement that I feel when I read and reread his final paragraphs comes from that particularly twenty-something sense of unknowing.  No, that’s not quite it.  Sullivan knows enough, remembers enough, to support his investment, but also feels no safe remove from the material, complicates it with each new moment, wondering what will, what can, what has to come next.  Even when he’s looking back, every wound is still raw.

Wound provides a nice transition to Sullivan’s heir apparent, Leslie Jamison, and her beautiful collection, The Empathy Exams.  Like Sullivan, Jamison is both chronicler and subject, a personal essayist who looks for stories to bounce her own experiences off or a reporter who can’t keep her own memories out of the research, depending on how you look at it.  Every essay in the collection is about hurt: hers, others’, the personal kind, the global kind.  The final essay, and maybe the best, is called, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.”   It’s a hugely ambitious piece, a study of the long, flawed history of how we present and interpret female suffering, yet through all the cultural context we’re still left with what is fundamentally a piece of memoir.  Jamison is trying to understand her own relationship to pain — what she has felt, what she feels, what she will feel, and what all that feeling means.  Early on in the piece she establishes her narrator:

I was once called a wound-dweller.  It was a boyfriend who called me that.  I didn’t like that.  It was a few years ago and I’m still not over it.  (It was a wound; I dwell).  I wrote to a friend:
I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments — jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot, etc., etc., etc.  On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me?  And on the other hand, I’m like, Why the fuck am I talking about this so much?

Jamison is by no means naive.  In fact, she’s brilliant.  She’s well read and unafraid to be so.  She careens through references both highbrow and lowbrow, from Carrie and Girls to Plath and Sontag and Carson.  She takes on the critic’s “we” and examines our whole society’s gendered relationship with pain. But all of that intellect is framed within a perspective that is often confused, sometimes downright maudlin, ashamed of itself and then simultaneously not.

Like Sullivan, Jamison has memories to plumb, but she still feels them as though she’s experiencing them over again, and instead of steady reflection we get a writer dancing on the verge of a great unknown.  Jamison is not the wise, calm examiner of the female psyche or, rather, she’s not only that.  She’s also the subject who shares with us that, not long ago, she wrote a letter that included the phrase, “Why does this shit happen to me?” She is writing about pain in the middle of pain.  This perspective leads us to an ending that feels much more like a beginning, or at least a continuation.  “Sometimes, I feel like I’m beating a dead wound,” she writes.  “But I say: keep bleeding…I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open.  I just wrote that.  I want our hearts to be open.  I mean it.”

I don’t mean to use the power of Jamison’s writing to suggest that true essayistic greatness only happens somewhere between twenty-three and thirty (though my fingers are resolutely crossed).  Nor do I mean to suggest that one can only write about memory like these writers do if they don’t wait too long.  I’m not after a reverse Lopate dictum here.  But I do think that immaturity, or at least the process of maturing, is a potentially riveting, truly essayistic place to write from.  After all, what is young adulthood but a hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations?  The very same can be said about the essay form.   When we embrace that tension, instead fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done.  We get writers not only analyzing what has ended, but also sorting out how to begin.

Lucas Mann is the author of the book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.  A graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, he now teaches at the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, RI.  He and Kristen Radtke are at work on an anthology of essays from the twenty-something perspective.  This piece grew out of their gchat conversations.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Chelsea Biondolillo : On Long Winters, Short Essays, and a Sky that Stretches Forever

We suffer from snow blindness, selecting what we see and feel while our pain whites itself out. But where there is suffocation and self-imposed ignorance, there is also refreshment—snow on flushed cheeks and a pristine kind of thinking. All winter we skate the small ponds—places that in summer are water holes for cattle and sheep—and here a reflection of mind appears, sharp, vigilant, precise. —Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

As I write this, April is in sight and the long Wyoming winter is only now showing signs of breaking. I spent the last few months far from any town center, surrounded by cows and mule deer and only a small handful of neighbors, thinking incorrectly that the isolation would be conducive to writing. It was something else entirely: in the great expanse that surrounded me, I found myself longing for smallness. In a harsh winter climate, one way to survive the elements, if you find yourself at their mercy, is to carve out a space in the snow and ice, just big enough for yourself. This is how you stay warm.

Gretel Ehrlich, in her novella-length collection of essays on Wyoming, The Solace of Open Spaces, writes, “Winter is smooth-skulled, and all our skids on black ice are cerebral.” She’s right; this stuck of mine is all in my mind. I like to say it’s something about the snow, the shut-in-ness, the screaming wind, that has inhibited rather than encouraged my writing, but I’ve been the one fighting myself, not the fields that stretch forever or the boundless ice-blue sky.

Mark Spragg’s “In Wyoming” from Wind, asserts,
This place is violent, and it is raw. Wyoming is not a land that lends itself to nakedness, or leniency. There is an edge here, living is accomplished on that edge. Most birds migrate. Hibernation is viewed as necessary, not stolid. The crippled, old, the inattentive perish.
When I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’m afraid of that edge. All winter I’ve been hanging back, playing it too safe to get any real work done. I’ve been lenient with myself—staying warm instead of sharp—afraid of the despair that I sense out there in my own cerebral snow fields.


Judith Kitchen in Short Takes defines an essay as “the building of a process of thought through a singular contemplative voice—to show how we see the same world differently.”

If that’s an essay, then my Facebook feed has been an essay about winter ever since November. All over the country, everyone has spoken in a singular, if choir-like, voice of Instagram filters and screenshots. Sometimes the voice is awed, “It’s actually sunny today!” And sometimes the voice can’t believe it is snowing again. Today, in Ucross, Wyoming, it’s over 50° but another snowstorm is predicted to hit this weekend. Winter has been too long over me, an endless avalanche of words: cold, snow, ice, more, still.


Ehrlich’s book is not long. Weighing in between feather- and lightweight, she has nonetheless crafted as notable a “Wyoming” book as heavyweights, McPhee’s Rising from the Plains and Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Even in a compressed collection though, “The Smooth Skull of Winter” stands out as the shortest essay in the book. In my paperback edition, it’s just over three pages long.

Buried in the exact middle of six months of winter, I was angry the first time I read it. Or tripped across it, as I may have described it at the time. Would anyone write a book about California, or Florida, and give only three and a half pages to the ocean? This is not a book for residents (at less than half a million people in the state, that would be a very targeted and limiting demographic)—so how can anyone else understand the gravity of this thing I’m in, I thought, if it can be shrunk down into the same space as a preface?

But Ehrlich, in three pages, gets the better of winter. She turns the January wind into an opportunity. Ehrlich is not trapped by her three small pages, but distilled to clear purpose. She carves her shape into winter, not to hide, but to be carried forward, like a standard. This is easier to see in winter’s wake.

I was recently on a panel discussing some finer points of short form nonfiction. One of the panel members, the managing editor of a respected journal, said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Please, no more funerals and hospital rooms.”

She said between 10-15% of the submissions she receives take place in either a hospital room, or at someone’s funeral. I began to wonder what it is about the form that lends itself so well to pain, loss, and melancholy.

Bret Lott, seems to speak to this drive in “Writing in Place” from the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, when he says “every time I put a word down … I am inside a moment in which I had better be attempting to wrestle with a matter of life and death.”

Too often, the editor in the above example might say, the problem is that submitters confuse a matter of life and death with the moment between them. The real loss might come later, trying to match all the saucers to the teacups for the estate sale, or worrying about what hieroglyphic notations in an old field guide meant, the intrepid explorer, now gone.

In Larry Woiwode’s “Winter,” an essay collected in Kitchen’s Short Takes, he recounts his struggle to re-fire an outdoor furnace that has gone out on a night when the temperature, including wind chill, is -85°. He fights the snow and wind to the furnace and then struggles with a blowtorch to melt thick ice that is preventing the damper from opening. As he starts to fade from clear thinking into hypothermia, he lists loved ones, and thinks to them,
…it may be by a row of words you remember me, or maybe not. Or images, once my body is gone. You’ll have to resolve the distinctions between the two for yourselves, if I can’t keep the torch on target, get us heat, undo the miscues that brought us to this, so you’ll know it wasn’t my interior and its revolving search for words that held me here, but you.
It’s a startling moment, and comes one sentence before the dénouement (this is nonfiction, so I don’t think I’m spoiling it when I reveal that he lives). He manages, by keeping the moment singular (torch, heat, the day’s miscues) and the language neutral (body, distinctions, interior), to avoid what could have been an easy slip into over-sentimentality. He literally stops short of the happy ending, and lets the reader float in the interstitial white space at the end of the essay, assuming the best or worst of his narrator/self’s struggle back to the house from the re-started furnace.

Woiwode takes us to the exact minute when he thought his life might end, but the feeling that resonates is not sadness—it helps that he lives, I’ll grant—it’s something warm, even in all that snow. In less-skilled hands, this essay may have read like a Chicken Soup for the Soul: all lesson, no learning. Instead the reader is on the same edge as the narrator, all along, until this last moment of exhale, out of nowhere comes this idea—we are the sum of our love.

In a short essay (unlike a long winter), there is no time to get maudlin. The form itself asserts a shape of stolidity in the form of brevity. There won’t be room for gnashing teeth, rending garments, Fourth of July fried chicken and all of grandma’s teacups—something will have to go. The craftsperson can see beyond the glissando of the stalling EKG—to the moment when her deeply personal sorrow breaks away from the “self-imposed ignorance” of the solo voice to join a whole choir of humanity.


In Wyoming, the sky is very big (at least as big as Montana’s, but not on record as such). This can create a sense of freedom—and Ehrlich, along with many a cowboy poet, found her song in its open spaces.

But it can be a discomfort, too, all this unbound landscape.

I remember lying in summer grass at the Brooklyn botanical garden, listening in disbelief as a friend tried to explain her childhood fear of stars. It was after she learned in science class that the universe was endless, she said, that the night sky became terrifying. Vastness is like ecstasy in this way (the state of consciousness, not the drug).

Smallness, then—as distillate rather than cage—can be its own solace: a way to refine some of the more difficult feelings for the writer, while opening the ideas up for the reader.

I suspect this is why some stories seem ripe for condensation: any more than 500 words and they might swallow you whole. But it isn’t the word count or formal considerations of an essay that protect (the reader, the writer); it’s what the constraint requires you to discard.

It is fair to say that what I am still stuck in is the moment of winter—and I may not grasp the matter of it for some time.

Ehrlich and Spragg’s Wyoming has laid down lenient cowboys, lazy ranchers, and lesser writers. It’s the edge they are talking about, not the space stretching away from it. And it is their focus on that icy line, their characterization of the line as a threat and a comfort, that allow them to reach past state boundaries, past definitions of rancher or pioneer to the place where the elements bend a person. There, you are changed or you are broken.


Mary Cappello, in her essay “Propositions; Provocations: Inventions,” in Bending Genre, attempts to define creative nonfiction:
The operative distinctions are “transform” rather than “transcribe,” and “apposite” rather than “opposite.” Creative nonfiction remakes rather than reports. Like poetry, it relies on novel appositions that make exquisite demands: opposition cancels, apposition makes apparent… Why not call it poetry then? Because of the way it enjoins and calls upon a witness, but also an interloper, and eavesdropper: placing oneself where one is not supposed to be.
Spragg knows too well the transformative power of a Wyoming winter. If you grow upright, the wind will cant you; if you sprawl like a rangeland, the weight of the snow will press into you, until you remember it all year: a thawed and muddy water hole after years of winters becomes a summer pond.

Ehrlich, too, is concerned, in “Smooth Skull” not with winter’s length—though it is acknowledged—but in its oppositions. A snow wall threatens, but also protects. “The deep ache of this audacious Arctic air is also the ache in our lives made physical.” But this ache makes personal connections all the more urgent, as friends and lovers check in, help out, warm one another up with words or food or a fire.

The right short essay offers a view of where-we-shouldn’t-be as a single day, one storm, or a small lake we can skate. The beauty of concision is that all you need is the hint of the grinding squeal that signals cracking ice and the reader will fill in the dark, cold water, the struggling for purchase and air, for long moments after you, the writer, have left the page.


A recent study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego found that social media posts about crummy weather in one part of the country were more likely to put people in other parts of the country in bad moods.

And yet, a 2008 neurological study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to prove that sad music tends to make listeners happy.

I recently asked my own social media circle for recommendations of good “divorce songs” to inspire an essay I’m writing—and within a couple of hours, I had over 100 suggestions. Did thinking about divorce make my friends sad, or did listening to their favorite sad songs cheer them up?

If I had to read 130 pages about the torture that half the year inflicts upon the landscape between the Big Horn and Snowy Mountains—if I had to write each moment as it had happened, status update by status update—would I pack right up for some proverbial summer beach, instead of learning anything from these last few months?


Yet, if I were to try and write 500 words about the life and death matters that this winter has asked me to consider, I might still fail before I even begin, because I could not make the sky smaller, or the staggering weight of the snow on the fields lighter. It is useful as an exercise to begin with the fence in sight, but not as a practice.

Instead, I must write and write and write until I have wrung all the ache of this damn unending winter from me. Only then can I start to prune—and in pruning, learn the shape of the thing. One makes a mistake in thinking that the antidote for fear of edges is a fence. The antidote is to learn the exact shape and degree of the edge. You can only do that right up next to it.

Spragg says that in Wyoming, “There is the wind.” Because here, the wind is a constant. It is vast and it demands attention. The wind is huge. But he also says, “The winds wail a hymn of transience.” Because even this, the wind, the cold, even winter, passes.

When talking about the value of writing in place, Lott says first to find a sacred place, “in which the world seems to present itself in its mystery and beauty, its sorrow and grief, its vast breadth and its ultimate intimacy.” It’s here, he argues, that you are most yourself. Where else “are you more you—are you more a partaker in the whole of man’s estate—than in that place where you are alone, and you are simply and complexly and utterly you?”

This is the place—this middle of nowhere—and the season—the sharpest, longest—where we can get past the moment to the matter. This is where to fire up the blow torch, where to carve a figure-8 in the ice.


Chelsea Biondolillo (@devakali) received a dual MFA in creative nonfiction and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming, where she reported on local flora and fauna for Wyoming Public Radio, and prepared bird skins for the vertebrate museum. Her nonfiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Passages North, River Teeth, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Fourth River, and others. She blogs intermittently at