Monday, June 30, 2014

Andy Sturdevant: On Donald Barthelme's "Guilty Pleasures"

Finding things that don’t seem to belong where they are is one of the little pleasures in life when you’re younger and are supposed to be figuring out how the world is ordered in the way that it is. It’s in this spirit that I was always pleased to find one of my favorite books of that time, Donald Barthelme’s 1974 collection Guilty Pleasures, in the nonfiction section of the downtown branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. There it was, an original hardback copy with the requisite 1970s design flourishes (swoopy serif typefaces, faded mustard accents) on a paper dust jacket enclosed in library plastic, resting alongside Erma Bombeck, Hal Borland, and Edmund Burke, among other nonfiction writers with "B" names. Barthelme’s other work, which had been introduced to me via some bizarre oversight in my high school’s English curriculum, all typically sat in the fiction section. Guilty Pleasures, with its Victorian picture collages, woolly satire, and (wholly reasonable, given the ultimate outcome) fixation with Nixon, didn’t seem much different than his similar works of fiction. But Melvil Dewey had passed a judgement of "nonfiction" on this one.

I certainly didn’t give much thought about how written works were formally classified, though I think understanding the pieces in Guilty Pleasures as nonfiction made the world seem like a more exciting and lively place than it might have seemed presented the same way in a novel or, you know, experimental fiction. In the book’s introduction, Barthelme refers to a few of the pieces as “bastard reportage,” and others as “simple expressions of stunned wonder at the fullness and mysteriousness of our political life.” Those two descriptions strike me now, reading them for the first time in years in my own copy of Guilty Pleasures, as a useful way of thinking about the sort of nonfiction and essay-based work I’ve enjoyed reading and attempted myself. 

Though Barthelme’s nonfiction was whimsical and, if we’re being honest, a bit dated, it did share with legitimate reportage a sense of engagement with the world, and some hard-to-define skill at reflecting back that engagement in weird and pleasing ways. There was, throughout all of his work, a sort of alternately bemused and irritated cataloguing of life as it was lived in the East Village in the 1970s. As a teenager totally bored with the cultural, political and economic life of the suburban American South in the 1990s, this worldview was incredibly exciting.  Not to mention useful, eventually: even a half-clever teenager eventually figures out this sort of cataloguing works well for reflecting the world around him or her, no matter how boring the writer might find it (or how terrible the resulting writing is).

You passively follow your youthful favorites for the rest of your life, in the same way I suppose you follow the beloved ballplayers or bands of your youth. You take special note when they merit a quick mention in a newspaper story or online piece – maybe they opened a used car dealership, or had their debut album reissued with expanded liner notes (indie bands of the 1990s very rarely open used car dealerships). Although there was a full-length biography of him a few years ago, Barthelme has generally fallen out of favor in most literary or cultural circles. Or at least the local bookstores don’t hide The Teachings of Don B behind the counter to prevent impassioned kids from stealing it, like they do with the Bukowskis. But I always perk up when I hear Barthelme’s work invoked.

The only time I’ve really heard it invoked recently was a short piece by novelist Thomas Mallon in the New York Times earlier this year, on “negative influences.” This was a roundup of writers commenting on writers whose work “inspired them to take an opposing approach in their own writing.” Mallon mentions Brautigan and Barth and other Watergate-era collegiate favorites before singling out Barthelme specifically as a writer whose approach he found too zany and untethered to be of much use. “A writer freed from the need to calibrate with reality, or even be internally consistent,” he notes, “could put a washing machine into the sky along with a rainbow. So why not put a rhinoceros up there too? Where my contemporaries reacted with an ‘Oh, wow,’ I shrugged with something more like ‘Whatever.’”  

His critique is a fair one – I can imagine being a smart, historically minded undergrad in the late ’60s and dismissing the wacky countercultural dudeliness of the time with a “whatever” – but it seemed to me to miss the thing that I liked most about Barthelme’s approach, then and now. The inventiveness of the language and the whoa-far-out qualities of the scenarios he’d dream up in some of the short stories were maybe interesting as formal experiments, but the essays of Barthelme always seemed to me to be the work of a man whose approach was very calibrated with the reality of the time and place. Most of the pieces that might qualify as bastard reportage in Guilty Pleasures – the cheese parable “Swallowing,” the self-explanatory “And Now Let’s Hear it for the Ed Sullivan Show!”, the breathless, on-the-scene reporting of “Two Hours to Curtain,” the dystopian picture-story “A Nation of Wheels,” the countercultural university catalog recitation “Heliotrope” – resonate not because they’re simply bizarre fantasias held aloft by their own whimsy. 

Instead, it was the work of a person who was very aware of the political and cultural landscape, and engaged in regular investigations into how it sounded, what it meant, and what written and verbal forms it took. His Ed Sullivan piece is a excitable recitation of the onscreen action – Don Rickles, Helen Hayes, Mary Hopkin, Russian dancers – which acts as a time capsule, a wry commentary on the mass culture of the day, a semi-satire of Tom Wolfe-style New Journalism, and a direct ancestor of the contemporary online TV recap. It’s all stripped bare of the sort of thoughtful, studied reflection that typically marks the essay format. But what else would you call it, really? It's too tethered to reality to be anything else.

The “stunned wonder at the fullness and mysteriousness of our political life” that Barthelme mentions in his introduction is more of an ironic deflection than a statement of purpose, a tip of the hat to the fashionable “torpor” of the era to which he alludes in other essays in the book. But there was no doubt to me, twenty years later, that he was paying close attention to that fullness and mysteriousness.

“I listen to people talk, and I read,” Barthelme said in a 1980 interview, when asked how he was able to affect such a wide variety of tones, voices, styles and types of lingo in his work. “I doubt there has ever been more jargon and professional cant – cant of various professions and semi-professions – than there is today.” Reading and listening to people talk is of course good advice for a writer in any era. The secret sauce is the ability to take what you find in the fullness and mysteriousness of cultural life and engineer in such a way that it still finds its way into the nonfiction section of the library.

Andy Sturdevant is the author of the collection Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, published by Coffee House Press in 2013. He lives in Minneapolis.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Amy Monticello: In Defense of the Confessional - Parenting, Inclusivity, and J.D. Schraffenberger’s “Dropping Babies”

When my now five-month-old daughter was born in January, I spent our first snowbound weeks together doing mostly one thing: nursing. My baby had lost almost 15% of her birth weight, and needed round-the-clock nourishment for her blood sugars to stabilize. Her appetite was voraciously up to the task, but her mouth was miniscule, and so breastfeeding took most of the day and a good portion of the night. In the upper Midwest, a polar vortex coincided with my newborn vortex. Each day crept along timelessly inside my nursing station: Boppy pillow on lap, water and phone on coffee table, and laptop computer balanced on knees. I mastered one-handed typing—lots of congratulatory emails to respond to—and spent hours mindlessly clicking, reading aloud to my daughter whatever I found to read.

Though the hours together were long, my attention span was short. The combination of exhaustion and adrenaline made it difficult to concentrate on anything longer than a page or two. In addition to the circuit of parenting sites I visited daily (the rabbit hole of BabyCenter must be circled cautiously), I began reading my daughter back issues of Brevity, with its maximum 750-word essays. This is how, somewhere in my second or third week of parenting, I worked my way back to Issue 39, and J.D. Shraffenberger’s "Dropping Babies".

The title alone almost made me skip it. My postpartum hormones had already sworn off Animal Planet (polar bear cubs starving in the Arctic, cheetahs picking off baby impala in the East African plains), Children’s Hospital commercials, and Jezebel, which, for some feminist reason, seems to report on every grisly infant death in America. Fears that something would happen to my daughter (or to me, or my husband, leaving her without a mother or father) were already keeping me up at night, my two selves—parent and writer, one horrified to imagine, the other compelled to imagine—locked in battle for my thoughts.

But I was too intrigued, and so began to read aloud Schraffenberger’s braided meditation on babies dropped or dangled from the heights. Yes, literal heights.

The opening section of the essay recalls the now-disproven belief that babies don’t feel pain. Schraffenberger describes how they were once subjected to surgery without anesthesia, their bodies “open to the light of medical wisdom, a revelation of human anatomy in miniature.” That babies reveal what it means to be human is further explored by subsequent sections, where two dominant strands emerge: an examination of a five-hundred-year-old tradition in a west Indian village where babies are dropped from the temple’s fifty-foot tower and caught, unharmed, on a bed sheet, and a confession about the night Schraffenberger, frustrated with his own baby’s inconsolable crying, dropped her onto her crib mattress.

“I want to say it was only a few inches,” Schraffenberger writes. “I want to say I wasn’t myself, but babies, especially your own, have a way of showing you exactly who you are, or at least what you’re capable of in the middle of the night.”

What we’re capable of is often found at the heart of confession in creative nonfiction. Among the most common criticisms of the genre, nothing seems to fan the flames of controversy like the confessional. While I agree with practitioners like Vivian Gornick and Michael Steinberg that successful personal narrative must push past anecdote, as Schraffenberger’s does, I also believe the confessional is still important, and not because it’s brave or courageous to show our uglier selves to the world, not because those uglier selves require absolution. The term “confession” suggests something invalid about the action or urge confessed, but in cases like Schraffenberger’s, where the narrator’s actions are meant to be representative, confession becomes inclusive, offering a way out of isolation. It presents us with a mandate to sanction human experience.

Let’s face it: on the judgment front, parents have it rough out there. Those who admit to formula feeding, or sleep training, or, as Kim Brooks recently did on Salon, leaving their toddler unattended in a vehicle for a few minutes in moderate weather, are likely to find themselves crucified in the comments, called negligent, abusive, unfit. There is no room for error in an age when your parenting may be recorded on someone’s cell phone and submitted as evidence to police.

Which makes Schraffenberger’s confession indeed brave. The comments on Brevity were refreshingly non-judgy—most praised the stark honesty and quality of the writing (and curiously, some assumed Schraffenberger was a woman—that’s another conversation we should have). But Brevity’s audience is mainly literary. When I imagine Shraffenberger’s piece appearing in a more general interest venue, I shudder to think of the comment thread.

It’s hard to isolate mixed feelings about confession in nonfiction from the cultural response to confession online. Last week, The Atlantic reported that people who “overshare” on Facebook often find themselves ostracized from the very people whose approval and attention they seek. Culturally speaking, it seems we’re put off by those who bare-all in public, whether on social media or in literature.

The study reminded me of a Facebook conversation I read while pregnant with my daughter. A friend posted a confession she’d heard from a woman who was so dissatisfied with parenthood that she once considered putting her child up for adoption. My friend didn’t name names (presumably, the other woman was not on Facebook), and maintained a strictly nonjudgmental stance, showing remarkable empathy for the woman’s feelings. But she openly wondered about the woman’s predicament. When it comes to the intense commitment and emotional gravity of parenthood, how can you “fake the feelings you’re supposed to have?” she wrote.

Over 150 comments followed. Many commenters similarly empathized with the woman in question, and thought it healthy that she articulated her feelings. But others were shaken by the woman’s confession. Even in confidence, these commenters said, she was doing harm to her child by verbalizing her real feelings. One commenter made the interesting claim that the woman’s admission may have come from “the psychology of the rise of narcissism in an evolving American (and at times other) culture built of audience, confession and self absorption.”

My friend’s friend was not, of course, composing an essay about her dissatisfaction with motherhood. But the idea of her confession as narcissistic echoes the most common criticism lobbed at memoirists and personal essayists. In his post over at Bending Genre, “Uncertain Certainties”, Mike Scalise compiles responses to the question, “What is your least favorite thing about the nonfiction reading experience (besides writers who lie)?” Some of the answers he received largely underscored the narcissism complaint, but one response surprised him. A friend Scalise calls Annie said it was “the performance of certainty around massively complicated life stuff.” In other words, nonfictionists too often try to make the meaning of their narratives concrete, rather than leaving meaning to more abstract implications.

Scalise wonders if the “digestible” forms of nonfiction pervasive on the Internet may be to blame:

But there’s a brand of creative nonfiction that has seemed to thrive more than any other: a kind of blunt confessor’s tale, a one-thousandish-word personal story of often high, earnest stakes and utter danger, where a writer unveils a painful scenario they’ve either survived or endured or been implicated in. You’ve seen these pieces. They’ve shown up in your feeds with accompanying comments like “thank you for writing this,” or “beautiful” or “so brave” or just simply “this.” They’re very often pegged to a news item or pop culture strain but just as often stick to the deeply, deeply, personal, offering a firm, closing insight or a revelation. Its almost a genre, formed in close response to its medium—what to call these pieces? Micro-memoirs? Candids? Unburdenings?—and there are many reasons for their success.

I recognize the kind of click-bait pieces to which Scalise is referring, the ones that are heavy on “honesty” and light on inquisition. And I agree with Annie and others that meaning in nonfiction should generally serve to complicate our most deeply-held convictions. But that’s why I find the confessional so integral—it asks for acceptance, but not approval. The best we can often feel about someone else’s confession is ambivalence, and ambivalence can be the gateway for empathy.

I’ve always been leery of an art for art’s sake approach to writing of any kind, but perhaps especially in nonfiction, I see the work as representative, and therefore discursive. If we think of the confessional as an act of inclusivity—a statement of “this is human, too”—then we challenge the shame that surrounds the act of confessing. Rendering visible what was shameful helps to remove the sanctity that supports the kind of black-and-white certitude that makes for both bad politics and bad writing. In this way, confession becomes political discourse, directly interrogating cliché. (Of all the parenting blogs out there, two that do this particularly well are Emily Rapp’s Little Seal and Heather Kirn Lanier’s Star in Her Eye.)

Back to that Facebook thread. One of the participants was Lidia Yuknavitch, whose memoir, The Chronology of Water, opens with the harrowing, yet gorgeously-written scene of Yuknavitch delivering her stillborn daughter, and goes on to explore the ramifications of growing up with an abusive father and alcoholic mother. She chimed in with this:

Um, you do all realize the definitions of "motherhood" are variable, multiple, mutable, made from a variety of discourses (cultural, biological, psychological, sociological, etc...) that sometimes reinforce each other but sometimes contradict or interrupt each other, right? And that they vary widely from culture to culture and person to person? And that some stories of "motherhood" get demonized or repressed while others are sanctioned and legitimized? Anyone? All our motherstories are worth a look at… I think they all count and illuminate the human condition for us. Even the darker harder ones. I've learned much from reading about drunk mothers, abandoning mothers, absent mothers, depressed mothers, tortured mothers, prison mothers, rich mothers, poor mothers, addicted mothers, and happy and loving mothers. We are all of them. There's no us and them.

One of the moves I most admire in “Dropping Babies” is Schraffenberger’s willingness to leave open the question of why the villagers in Solapur drop their babies from the temple’s tower. “I want to say the villagers are culturally backward,” he writes in the penultimate section. “I want to say they’re barbarous and superstitious. I want to say this ritual is another example of the stupid things a belief in god or gods compels otherwise reasonable people to do. But I know the truth is something else.” What that “something else” may be is only hinted at in the final section, when Schraffenberger returns again to the night he dropped his daughter into her crib. The brief fall “shut her up for a second…but the surprise hovering in her eyes, like a sudden illumination of this dark new world, stripped all the hush of its silence.” There is no sanctity here, and no certainty. Only ambivalence and human frailty. Only a world where the most common and most sanctified love is also the most primal, and therefore, the most revealing.

Amy Monticello’s work has appeared in many places, including Salon, Brevity, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Redivider, and was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013. She is an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dave Griffith: Pictures of the Floating World: On the Occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the
 Bombing of Hiroshima, in Three Parts

Excuse me for having no burden like yours. --Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto

--For John Hersey on the 100th anniversary of his birth.


WHEN I WAS IN THE FIFTH GRADE I began going to the library
 with my dad every Sunday. I remember one particular Sunday 
browsing the young adult section in a funky little corner near the 
LP record listening stations where homeless men shared headphones
and listened to jazz, surrounded by their shopping bags full of
 clothing. Browsing a spinner rack jammed with books I came upon 
a worn-out paperback with the word HIROSHIMA in bold letters 
across the cover and a photograph of a gigantic mushroom cloud.
 I doubt that I knew the term “mushroom cloud” then, but I recognized 
the towering grey cloud from somewhere—TV? A comic
book? But to be sure, the word and the image together held no associations for me. The austerity of the cover made it seem important, as though this
one explosion was different from all others. I was about eleven years old and I liked the idea of being able to read young adult books. So 
I sat down there near the homeless men bopping their heads to Parker and Monk—music for the atomic age—and began reading.

Hersey’s prose was direct, focusing on the banal particulars of a morning in Hiroshima, Japan. He writes with an almost holy reverence for the events of that morning, careful to chronicle the last incredulous moments before the bomb detonated in a flash of molten-hot light. I thought,Where have I been? This event seemed much too important for me to not have known about it. Never before had I read a book that described the ravages of war so explicitly. The skin of people’s hands sloughed off in glove-like pieces, a woman’s naked torso was emblazoned with the flowered pattern of the kimono she was wearing when the intense heat and light irradiated her. It was not the complete flattening of the city that unhinged me but the way the survivors’ bodies—the elderly, young mothers and young children—all bore the burns of invisible radiation and tremendous heat.

Never had I read a book shot through with so much guilt. “Excuse me for having no burden like yours,” the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto says to the dazed and bleeding people while hurrying through the smoke and dust-darkened streets, knowing that he can do nothing to save them. I couldn’t get my mind around the idea of feeling such deep guilt simply for having lived. Not long after reading the book I watched a documentary on 
PBS about the bombing. By this time I had grown obsessed with
the event, and I recall even being excited as I sat there on the couch waiting for it to begin. My dad watched it with me, making it seem like a manly thing we were doing, cultivating a deep and thorough knowledge of world events and history.We were probably munching popcorn, something we always do when watching TV.

 Hersey’s book, the documentary focused on brutal and heartbreaking eyewitness accounts. The narrator told of a woman and infant
 lying on the ground near the Hiroshima River. After some time the mother died, but the infant continued to nurse at her breast. An illustration accompanied the narration of this devastating story. Watching the infant crawl up on its mother’s limp body, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I felt a deep twinge of horror. An old wrinkled woman, just a teenager when the bomb dropped, told of how her mother had been completely vaporized by the 
bomb blast as she sat on the steps of the Hiroshima bank waiting
 for it to open. She held up a photo to the camera: a dark spot on
 the steps where her mother’s body had left a shadow.


 the sixtieth anniversary of the blast, the news coverage I witnessed on the major networks consisted of little more than brief footage 
of memorial ceremonies in Japan. On NBC there was no mention
of the number of Japanese deaths; instead, an interview with a crew member of the Enola Gay, who expressed no regret after over half 
a century. It felt like a good time to reread Hersey’s book, but my copy was missing. I drove to the library, but their copies were either checked out or missing, so I went looking for the original issue of the New Yorker, where the entire book had first been published on August 31, 1946.

I went down into the basement where the periodical holdings are squeezed into movable shelves. I cranked back several shelves and walked between the futuristic units, better suited for brushed aluminum cylinders containing double helixes than the faded bindings of magazines like Canadian Nurse. I found the correct volume, seven-inches thick, lugged it out of the stacks and sat down at a
table. Inside the front cover, written in tight cursive with pencil was
 a note: "Missing volume 22, issue 29." I flipped through the huge fan
of brittle musty pages, past ads for hair tonic and phonographs, knowing the missing issue was exactly the one I was looking for. 
But then there it was: August 31, 1946, a year and twenty-five days after “Little Boy” detonated 580 meters above the center of Hiroshima, killing one hundred and forty thousand people, some vaporized instantaneously.

The cover wasn’t what I’d expected: a colorful painting, an aerial view of hundreds of people basking on blankets in the summer sun of Central Park. Inside I was 
surprised and relieved to see the familiar heading, GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN, in 
the same font you’ll find in a New Yorker now. I love reading through the movie listings and art openings, but my favorite is the jazz column. I always check to see who’s playing at the Village Vanguard—
it’s a dream of mine to see a show at the Vanguard before I die.
Now Playing! The Big Sleep...with gun-fire and tough talk, Notorious and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  On Stage: HarveyWith Music: Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun; Carousel; Mr. R and Mr. H’s Oklahoma!; Buddy Ebsen in Show Boat;  At the Spotlite: Coleman Hawkins’s and Roy Eldridge’s bands; Billie Holiday at Downbeat (a place, the writer cautions, resembling a subway car in size).  
And surrounding the tiny printed entertainment listings there were ads: Rise and Shine in Randoms by Stetson; The Beau Catcher; thrumming Ford V-
8 engines; dresses with glistening satin stripes, pale pink or blue on rustling black rayon taffeta.

I forgot for a moment what I’d come looking for. I fantasized about what I would give to have seen Billie Holiday in that tiny, smoky club. Finally I turned the page, eager to set eyes on the original article,
 as it would have been seen by readers sixty years ago, but what I saw was the cover of the next issue—September 7, 1946. Someone had razored out the entire rest of the issue. All sixty-eight pages of what has been called the greatest magazine article of all time, gone. The reference librarians were sorry: it wasn’t available on microfiche. Special Collections didn’t have a copy. So I drove over to the small women’s college a mile away. There in the basement of the library,
 I found it:
 The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic 
bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.—The Editors
I took a deep breath and read it through, all sixty-eight pages, looking for any differences between it and the book published soon after. The first seven pages are column after column—three to a page—of text. And then the ads start:
"Snooperscope”—sees at night with invisible light! (below there is an inset picture of a soldier aiming a rifle with a telescopic sight affixed)
The ad continues:
Here our infrared telescope is mounted on a carbine. The combination was aptly called “sniperscope,” for it enabled a soldier in total darkness to hit a target the size of a man at seventy five yards. Thirty percent of the Japanese casualties during the first three weeks of the Okinawa campaign were attributed by the Army to this amazing sniperscope.
Then, in the margins, to the right of the ivory columns of text:

Aqua Velva (men in plaid jackets and derbys at the race track); Vat 69 Scotch Whiskey; 
Perma-lift: "The Lift that Never Lets You Down." 

I finished reading and drove home. As I drove, I found myself thinking more about the ads for Aqua Velva and scotch and how much I would have liked to see Billie Holiday sing in that little jazz club than the fate of the citizens of Hiroshima. I imagined an entire scenario: reeking of Aqua Velva, drinking a scotch, smoking a Camel, I listened to Billie sing her signature tune, “Strange Fruit”:
Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ Pastoral scene of the gallant south/ 
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh/ Here is fruit for the crows to pluck/ For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck/ For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop/ Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The fantasy blotted Hiroshima from my mind, if only briefly, as I soon remembered the landscape that Miss Sasaki took in almost a month after the blast. It was her first glimpse of the destruction, since she had spent the previous days in a hospital with an infected leg. In Hersey’s words:
Even though the wreckage had been described to her, and though
 she was still in pain, the sight horrified and amazed her, and there was something she noticed about it that particularly gave her the creeps. Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb has not left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them.

Ukiyo-e paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago with my friend Brandon, we talk about writing.We read a placard on the wall that explains Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world,” although
it is alternately translated “sorrowful world.”

Simple images of snowy mountain passes and young women in scarlet kimonos passing over bridges remind Brandon of William Carlos Williams’s mantra: No ideas but in things. Brandon is a poet and he wants to write poetry that is as arresting as these small paintings. The more particulars, the more lived-in a world feels, I tell him, pointing to a tree heavy with snow. The more it seems real, he says. The more possibilities, I say—one image, or perhaps a cluster, causes us to see that the world is vast and mysterious. I remind him of the previous morning, the red-and-blue box
 kite we saw stuck way up in a tree on the farm where we, together with my wife, Jessica, cut down a Christmas tree. That is the kind of particular that can make a story, I say. Not by itself, he says. No, not by itself. But the more images like those you have. . . 

On our way back to the city from the Christmas tree farm we stopped to gawk at butchered hogs that had been split open and hung like crucifixions on the lawn of a farmhouse. Four hog heads sat in a row in the foreground, staring dumbly at us. Jessica rolled down the window and snapped a picture. For some reason I was nervous, as though this was insensitive, as though the person who did the butchering was going to come out and be upset with us. But when we looked and saw these butchered hogs, the four heads, so perfect in their composition, we saw a picture. Could this be real? 
A picture was needed for proof, but also because it was strangely beautiful. So that’s what a butchered hog looks like—something we knew happened, somewhere, but we gaped at the tableaux like the three naïve city-dwellers we were. The butchered hogs seemed like the still center of the world. As we drove home, the top of the Christmas tree poking into the front seat by the gear shift, I thought of the day’s images: the picture I took of my pregnant wife in front of our first Christmas tree 
before we cut it down, the kite in the tree, the slaughtered hogs.

The images built one on the next, the previous giving way to the most recent. So that what I will remember most about this day— our first Christmas as a married couple—is that picture of the butchered hogs and the nervousness I felt sitting there waiting for Jess to snap the picture. This is not so much irony as it is the beauty of living, each new particular stuns us with its newness, irrevocably changing the complexion of the day, which, I realize, is easy for me to say, living here in Indiana, far from any war zone. 

Yoshito Matsushige, a cameraman who took some of the first photos of the aftermath of the Hiroshima blast said upon revisiting the spot where he first encountered injured civilians:
The children had all suffered burns. Skin was hanging from them like rags. It was cruel to photograph them, and [long pause] at first I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think the first shot took me 30 minutes. The skin was hanging from the children. [I thought,] this is not clothing it’s skin.
Such a realization is devastating. Realizing the factuality of the moment: This is real; this is happening right in front of me. Such moments—an infant nursing at a dead mother’s breast, four hog heads in a neat row on the side of a country road, children with their skin hanging from their bodies—have the power to obliterate all other circumstances of the day, and those leading up to it.

Dave Griffith is the author of the book of essays A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, from which this piece is excerpted.  Dave directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Justin Evans: Adorno's Essay as Form, Still

The story goes: serious thinkers, serious writers, agree that our world is broken. All previous societies have had a unifying myth or metaphysic; in the rush to modernity, we have jettisoned ours, and replaced them with nothing. Science gives us an image of the individual human being, alone in the universe, struggling through a life that is pointless and cracked.

Granted that you're worried about this, where would you turn? The arts seem the obvious place, but you might be disappointed. Art is split in half: on the one side are stories, songs and contemporary art that seems to exist only to turn a profit. They'll offer you entertainment, and little more. On the other side are experimental literature, post-serial composition and performance art. These works might offer something to insiders, but, in general, they seem to be part of a closed conversation between poets, composers or art-school students. Art is either an accessible commodity, no better or worse than artisanal cheddar, or it's rebarbative.

Failing the arts, you could look to humanities scholars. You'll probably find a small number of men and women willing to explain that the Stoics are very useful for entrepreneurs; or, alternatively, an equally small number of far less well-paid men and women, who write about how people writing about people writing about people writing about people writing about the Stoics got it all wrong. The humanities are just as split as the arts, only here the divide is between people who work to make the past confirm popular ideas (Washington was a Christian/Deist, depending on the your own beliefs, and that's why he's so great), and people who (are forced to) make a career in the academy. By these latter, of course, the language of the corporate academy is perhaps elocuted with the consequent knock on effect that going forward they will be rarely understood by hoi polloi.

Where to turn next? This experience of not quite finding what you want elsewhere shows that Adorno's 'The Essay as Form' is still relevant.

Major twentieth century thinkers often wrote in off-beat genres, but Adorno, uniquely, wrote an off-beat genre piece that's both a key to his own work and a defense of a literary form. He praises the essay for its free-form speculation on specific, cultural objects; the essayist, on Adorno's model, browses, but browses one thing, and considers her reactions to it as much as the thing itself, reflecting on “what is loved and hated.” And she does all this with as much attention to style as substance.

So the essay falls between the arts and scholarship: it's concerned with style, but it works with concepts where art works with media; it works with concepts, but unlike scholarship, it makes no claims to objective understanding. It simply follows the author's mind, wherever it list.

This ambiguity can be infuriating. The essayist rejects the responsibility for truth and accuracy that you find in good scholarship, but also claims an intellectual standing that would never be given to an artist. If you're not aware of this, you're likely to produce a bland commodity, like the scholars or artists I described above: “bad essays are just as conformist as bad dissertations.”

But you can look at it from the other side (with Adorno, there's always a “but... the other side”): a good essay falls between scholarship and art, and in doing so shows us that the distinction between them, and the divisions within them, aren't natural. The split between high art or scholarship on the one hand, and commodities on the other, is just a symptom of the way our world works. Almost everything is turned into a product for sale, so we hold on ever more grimly to a few things that, supposedly, exist apart from the market: family, religion, high art, disinterested knowledge. At the same time, we police the boundaries between scholarship and art. This is a sign that we've given up searching for “the whole truth.”

A good essay will point us towards this, and force us to ask why we've introduced all these distinctions into our writing and thought. Always falling between this and that, the essay is ideal for questioning the modern world and the distinctions that make it up. The most important of these distinctions is that between an idea and a fact. We've learned, for instance, that there are great ideas, great theories of socialism, but that, in fact, it doesn't work; we've learned the same thing about democracy. Political science, you'll be shocked to learn, is split between those who work on theories, and those who work on facts—but an essayist is free to move between one and the other. She gets to show that actually existing democracy is nothing like our theory of it, she can question why it isn't, and then raise the possibility that we'd rather live in an ideal democracy than whatever it is we've got now. The essay can also play around with the distinction between truth and history—pure philosophy seeks eternal truths, while historians document our changing world; but, the essay asks, what if the relation between history and truth is more complicated than that? Will we only get to truth at the end of history? Is history in some truthful whole? Or is truth within history?

So the essay “thinks in fragments, just as reality is fragmentary.” But whereas our serious writers and thinkers would simply praise this—the essay speaks to our cracked lives, because it is cracked too!—Adorno is quick to stress that the essay is a parody of fragmented reality. An essayist chooses to write fragments; we do not choose to live fragmented lives. But by making the choice, the essayist can show that the cracked lives of modern human beings aren't natural. Like the essay, the way we live is historical, cultural, and mutable. It hints that lives do not have to be cracked. In this small way, it turns out, the essay is utopian.

And so we return to Adorno's own often misunderstood negative dialectics. In his work, concepts (e.g., 'socialism') are judged against their objects (e.g., 'USSR'), and the objects are also judged against the concepts, until we come to see something previously hidden (here, fairly obviously, that the USSR was not socialist, but shows the dangers of socialism). Or, we can investigate a phenomenon—for instance, art and discover how the distinctions within it point us towards something missing: commodified art just reproduces the world's illnesses, while difficult high art is too often a status symbol for the privileged. Once we understand that, perhaps we can come up with a form of art that addresses all, without pretending that life is beautiful. And if we can do that, we'll have an art form that points towards something new: “the creation of humankind.”

The essay, free of the limitations of art or scholarship, is the perfect form for this kind of thought—provided it always keeps in mind its own limitations. I fear that this particular piece doesn't quite live up to the ideal, but, fortunately for us all, this is not The Essay. It's just an essay. And there'll be another one tomorrow.


Justin Evans is a writer; he lives in Los Angeles. He's written essays and fiction for The Point Magazine and Bird's Thumb, and is working on his first novel, 'Jerusalem/September.' You can email him at

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jon Baskin: Finding the Point

We were motivated to start The Point in part by our sense that the essay—historically a rich format for philosophical reflection—was being ghettoized on the one hand into ineffectual personal memoirs, and on the other into jargon-heavy, impersonal academic journals. In the first case, the raw experience was everything—and often shock, trauma or the communication of extreme emotion became substitutes for thought. In the second, the argument was the only thing—to evaluate whether it was successful was simply a matter of traveling smoothly from premises to conclusions. There remained a space, we suspected, for thought unspooled in the midst of experience, where the writer could in describing her own path compel the reader to re-examine her own.

Our best essays therefore combine argument and narrative in something like the manner that we believe life combines them. We act out of convictions we barely knew we had, and then sometimes we criticize ourselves, reaching for other people’s words to justify or to condemn ourselves. To us, this goes to the heart of what an “essay” ideally is—that is, an attempt (as the French has it) to understand something that has affected you in your life. Often our essays are long (my mom says they are all too long), but this is less because the essayist wants to say something complicated or even original as it is because whatever she has seen is inseparable from the narrative she wants to tell about how she came to see it.

In the characteristic Point essay, a person is challenged by some problem—what to eat, who to love, how to parent—which requires her both to reflect on her own understanding of the problem, and also to think about how that problem has been treated by other thinkers, both living and dead. So the intellectual or philosophical elements of the essay grow up out of, and also return to, the personal ones. An example of this progression can be found in S. G. Belknap’s “Love in the Age of the Pickup Artist,” from issue 2, in which the author thinks about Stendhal and Neil Strauss’s The Game in tandem as he considers what went wrong in a past romantic relationship. Or in Charles Comey’s “A Plea for Human Food,” in issue 6, where the author, formerly a vegetarian, is compelled by a debilitating disease to re-consider the basis of our Western notions about food.

The writers of these essays do not strive for an impersonal tone—indeed they introduce themselves early on as human beings, whose intellectual investigations are motivated by concrete personal failings or maladies (“I first turned to the pickup artists after losing in love”; “I was getting really good at walking when something went wrong with my legs”; “We should begin with a confession: by most metrics, I’m a New Age nut”). Nor do they claim to be experts on their topics: rather they acknowledge that they are undertaking a limited and partial foray into a given sphere of human life and an exploration of the ideals that govern it. Where the memoirist often refuses to trespass the boundaries of her experience, and the academic philosopher neglects even to credit hers, the essayists we admire begin with a phenomenon that has come up in their own lives, and work their way out from there.

In our most recent issue, Moira Weigel travels to Shanghai expecting that this “city of the future” will change and inspire her; instead she is met by “a series of almost continual frustrations and delays.” Reading back over the notes left by previous intellectuals who had also expected the city to show them the path to utopia, she can acknowledge that, as so often when we travel, our expectations tell us more about ourselves than about the places we actually visit. In another piece from issue 8, my co-editor Jonny Thakkar travels to an E.U. sponsored conference on education in Estonia. Jonny announces in the opening paragraph that he is working on a dissertation on the relation between parts and wholes in Plato, and the seemingly disorganized conference appears initially to him as just the thing to confirm his theory about the “non-functionality” of contemporary institutions. Yet as he gets to know the people running the conference, he arrives at an appreciation for their strategic creativity and for the complexity of actual politics: perhaps, he considers, there are more things on heaven and earth than he had dreamt of in his philosophy.

Paraphrased, these pieces may sound dry or didactic; their success depends, of course, on whether the authors can motivate the reader to follow them. Which means not just that the reader “understand” the essay, but that they are able to recognize themselves in and be convinced by it. For us, this form of self-reflection is not an ancillary benefit of an essay; it is its whole ambition. Stanley Cavell has written of thinkers who wish to “prevent understanding which is unaccompanied by inner change.”  The best essayists refuse us the satisfaction of having “gotten” their arguments; the measure of their success is rather that we are challenged and possibly changed by them. Montaigne, Emerson, Orwell, David Foster Wallace: these are some of the “philosophical essayists” we have been converted by.

In fact the name of the magazine came in part from our desire for our publication to always keep in mind that the “point” of intellectual—or philosophical—discourse, was to discover how to live. This gives our articles as much of an affinity with self-help as with philosophy, but this affinity is, we think, appropriate to the form. “Where do we find ourselves?” begins Emerson’s great “Experience”—asking a question we take to be at the heart of every truly philosophical essay. The question prompts the reader to consider where she finds herself at the present moment (that is, where the essayist is finding her), where she might ideally find her self (say her best self), and then finally whether she will find herself (that is, recognize herself) in the essay she is about to read. Of course it also assumes something else about her: that she is lost.

And this too seems right. Perhaps we should say that the essay begins in (what David Foster Wallace has called) lostness. At the very least, it compels an acknowledgment of confusion, which becomes the first step in our ascent toward some kind of clarity, or light. Yet the philosophical essay, unlike (some) self-help, does not believe in any final, once-and-for-all solution. It rather begins and ends with us still in the middle—on a stairway with stairs below us we do not remember climbing, and stairs above that ascend “upward and out of sight,” as Emerson memorably puts it.  Maybe its distinctive contribution is to acknowledge this purgatorial condition without being overwhelmed by it, as if to encourage in us the realization that we can (that we will have to, if we want to shape our experience and not just be shaped by it) find ourselves over and over again.

Jon Baskin is a founding editor of The Point magazine and a graduate student in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought. You can reach him at

Monday, June 9, 2014

David LeGault: Gaming as Essay

I find myself in need of distraction, of brief escape. With 40+ hours of my retail job each week, not to mention a one-year-old daughter and a constant stream of job applications and house hunting and (rarely) actual creative work, I find myself looking for ways to zone out during my much coveted free time. For me, this has traditionally meant video games: I'm thinking of hundreds of hours logged into an online Team Fortress Classic league during my high school years (including, regrettably, a team jersey made out of iron-on decals), countless fights with roommates via Super Smash Brothers: Melee, and—even now, as I write —spending hours at a time with Super Metroid or Half Life speed runs streaming on Youtube in the background as I do my daily work. Though these play-throughs reduce the game—remove story, transform them into pure muscle memory—there's still something to finally seeing the endings, the resolution to games I could never beat at a younger age, could never commit the time and energy to beat them now.

Most of my essays focus on an obsession, an attempt to justify. I am looking for a deeper meaning to prove that my favorite pasttimes are not a waste of time or creative energy. I suppose that's what is happening here, as well.

In terms of audience, I believe one of the biggest challenges facing the essay is that of premise, occasion. Oftentimes, the genre itself works against us: what risk is there to a story of disaster if the writer has survived to write, reflect? Why would a casual reader decide to engage with writing like Montaigne's  "Of Thumbs" or "Of the Resemblance of Children to their Fathers:" what interest is there in these idle thoughts?

That isn't to say that that stakes come entirely from premise, nor should they. I find that most of my own favorite essays take on the small, the seemingly inconsequential, and through language or juxtaposition or imagery, give value to what we otherwise find valueless.

Perhaps I'm more interested in the way in which the opposite is also true: how we as writers and readers will sometimes dismiss larger, broader subjects based on subject matter. I attempt to steer my students away from writing about the state finals for football/basketball/track/quiz-bowl, and they in turn challenge me when I make them read essays describing the aesthetic value of dust. Which one of us is right? Are we all misguided?

I write this because I worry I am becoming too narrow minded, that I am missing out on a lot of great work due to my biases against entire subjects, genres, mediums. And from conversations I've had with other writers, I fear a lot of us are missing out on challenging, surprising, and deeply intimate work.

Back to videogames. The value of the medium is that of control: it involves "you," the player, forcing you to make choices and actions of consequence. You are given control of a fictional world, can control the arc in ways you cannot in a movie or novel, and as games become more involved (games like Skyrim give you the option of robbing a shop or murdering a clerk instead of paying for merchandise, facing the consequences of your actions if you are caught), these choices and decisions become increasingly complicated. There are games that either reinforce your own set of morals, or allow/force you to compromise them depending on in-game or personal decisions.

I am thinking of games like Bioshock that make you decide if it's worth it to sacrifice others if it gives your player increased strength; I am thinking of A Dark Room—a text adventure game available for the Iphone—that forces you to murder and enslave in the hopes of creating a better civilization. I am thinking that most games now go beyond the simple "Reach the castle, save the princess" storyline and actually make you think about the consequences of your actions.

Of course the literature on games and gaming has already turned into it's own sub-genre of the essay. There's a certain uncertainty to this writing, an awareness of the typical response to video games as art, that gives this writing a unique sense of urgency as it attempts to validate itself. Tom Bissel's collection Extra Lives gives its subjects a critical as well as personal weight that shows how form and content can be mimetic (a point that seems equally valid to the essay in all its different shapes). Sundog Lit recently put out a games issue that highlights writing on the genre (the issue was guest-edited by Brian Oliu, whose own lyric essay collection on boss battles, Level End, is a must-read) This is not to mention Kill Screen Magazine or Cartridge Lit or countless other publications/websites/journals that I am certainly missing, the whole genre exploding with so much work that I cannot begin to keep track.

Though I have often looked to these games as a way of tuning out the world, I find that the really great ones tend to do the opposite, and Boss Fight Books, a new press specializing in books written about individual games (and admittedly, the inspiration for this post to begin with), is expanding the world of the game through interviews with game creators, history as it relates to the in-game story lines, as well as personal (and character) narrative. Narratives within the games become intertwined with personal histories, and the games are merely simulations for the ways our lives play out. Earthbound, a game that was marketed with scratch-and-sniff stickers, has a final enemy that is defeated through prayer—not in the game, mind you, but asks for you in your living room to offer that up. Chrono Trigger, a game playing with the consequences of time travel, kills off its main character who you can decide to save, or not. ZZT, a game represented by ASCII art, lets users create new worlds that can help explain our own. Each of these games plays off their writers—in the case of life-threatening surgery, or discussing the challenges of game-language translation put up against a job teaching English in Japan, against successful television careers and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. These books are fragmented, complicated, and showing the meaning that comes out of a hobby that my parents always told me was a waste of time.

I think the power of the essay comes from the examination of choices and consequences, how we cannot control our world, yet have a choice in our response to it. I think the gaming world fits so well within the essay because it is a world that we can control, that we help to shape. Unlike any other medium, it allows us to interact with a fictional story in a way that makes it true.

David LeGault's recent work appears in The Seneca Review, Wake, and Pithead Chapel.   He lives and writes from Minneapolis, where he is currently competing in Revolver Magazine's Write Fight: a single elimination tournament involving typewriters, physical distractions, and exactly one hour to create new work. He can be reached at

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Kirk Wisland on the Essayist's Conundrum: A 3-Sided Coin Flip...

Are we obligated to be good people? Is good writing tethered to good intention?

NO, I would have argued vehemently in the certainty of my youth, in my black-clad art-major days, splattered with plaster or acrylic, welding steel to steel. The beauty of the work, its power—these the only guiding factors. We’re artists, we’re writers. Was Bukowski a “good” person? Hemingway, that rampant slayer of lions? Does William S. Burroughs shooting his wife negate his brilliant work on the page? How about my first writer-idol, Hunter S. Thompson—an exemplar of how to be in the world?

Surely the artist is libertarian. Or libertine? Given liberties to live a little outside the lines in pursuit of the muse. The madness of genius, creative chaos, everybody knows that writers drink too much. Choose your catchphrase. The artist owes us nothing beyond devotion to the form, the writer unbound except by diligence to the word, the line, the paragraph. Art for art’s sake—the “purist” argument.
Write like everyone you know is dead! This blast of bravado was my perpetual refrain of advice discharged in the early stages of my life as aspiring writer. Lay it all out there, get it written RAW, worry about the rest later.

I cringe slightly thinking of that easy, unearned certainty of the up-and-coming striver. How easy to make such declarations from the safe anonymity of pre-publication. I cringe even more thinking about one of those pieces I wrote in the last fading ebb of that certainty, and the full-body nausea that swept over me when I realized my parents—who are very much alive, and who I very much did not tell about this particular publication—stumbled across it online. Damn you Google! (note to self—trademark that phrase).

In my initial forays into writing nonfiction I made the most obvious beginner’s error—I mistook exposure for bravery. In Rawness We Trust. I continue my cringe-fest thinking of those early slices of memoir—the passion on those pages! How I reveled in the tales of previous debaucheries—the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll of my early adulthood! And my certainty that I was just the Gonzo-stylist to bring these epic blasts to the page.
Except I wasn’t saying anything. I was just narrating, dictating my greatest hits collection. I bored into the past like a termite, getting the details just right. I polished sentences, flipped words, edited and re-edited and re-edited until each page was pristine perfection of prose—diamond-sharp, glossy, slick. But I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, the “it” of the essay. I was just telling a story, these little slices of memoir repackaged as showy big-budget productions starring flat, two-dimensional characters—and a star narrator incapable of introspection.
This lingered on even into my MFA, where I had for the most part (hopefully) stopped gratuitousness for its own sake. But still I was afraid of full immersion into the “it.” More often than not I was leaving these interior monologues off the page, the “meaning” hinted at in the blank spaces just past the punctuation.

It was easy to get a laugh, or a wince, at my own expense—the Word-formatted humiliations on the page not that different from my oratory performance of these tales at parties and late-night campfires. But it isn’t enough—no matter how well-constructed the prose—to just regurgitate events. Capturing the weird moments for a child growing up with a gay father in the 1980s isn’t worthy of space on the page until I force myself to answer the question of what that meant, how it changed me, how those moments relate to a bigger historical narrative, something beyond the particulars of detailed scene. Writing about my early-adulthood penchant for infidelity isn’t interesting without self-dissection, without a willingness to confront my lifelong fear of rejection and consider how the anti-monogamy of my twenties was really just a preemptive defense. No, I bomb YOU first…

Wait—do I have to answer the question? Okay…

YES. Let’s say yes we, as essayists, are obligated to be good people. If the essay is the writer’s mind on the page, then it would follow that the lives we lead are the basis of those mental gymnastics. As writers, as people who have a penchant for the word, aren’t we obligated to use that talent to some higher calling? The journalist, the documentarian, the Bono—aren’t we all, particularly we noble Nonfictioneers (essayists, memoirists, et al)—obligated to apply our art to something more than entertainment?

Ah, but here my fears, my superstitions, gets the best of me. I worry about being pedantic or preachy, that my essay will inevitably morph into didactic Internet screed, just another weary word-warrior in the virtual army—read this and click the link to tell your senator to stop being a douche-bag! I worry that a need to write “to the point,” to focus my literary goal—much like the dreaded “argumentative essay” of our freshman composition drudgery—will kill my art. Because I still harbor a silly superstition that the words coming from this pen at this very moment are somehow magical, that I am merely channeling some ethereal energy, riding a wave that is not mine to control. This of course might be the true problem—maybe I’m letting myself off the hook, avoiding the hard work by imagining my pen as planchette on the Ouija board.
Part of this reticence is standard intellectual insecurity—a fear of stepping into a ring I’m not yet ready for, of getting caught trying to punch above my weight. When reading some fantastic essay by a current or past master of the genre, I can’t stop myself from raising my gloves and assuming a defensive crouch: not only can you not touch that—but don’t embarrass yourself trying.

I also worry that my desire to write “bigger” can lead to a kind of trauma wish-fulfillment—the subconscious desire to have some meaty topic to stew on. The war correspondent’s disdain for peace. When a close friend of mine drank himself to death a couple years back, I found myself composing that story almost immediately. Even in the midst of near-debilitating grief, the writer in me was paying attention, taking notes. Talking to the paramedics, the landlady, calling the dead man’s parents across two time zones, packing my things, driving from California to Texas, visiting friends in my old desert MFA town—at nearly every moment of those first few days, a small portion of my mental capacity was held in reserve, silently ruminating. Even while chatting amiably poolside, that part of me was composing my private monsoon on the horizon, a far-off rumble of dark clouds and encroaching lightning, anticipating being lashed by that storm.

Because a part of me was relieved. That part of me that had been struggling for meaning in my writing, that was struggling to pick up the pen, questioning whether I wanted to keep putting myself forward for further literary and academic rejections—that part of me was silently thankful for the inspiration. For feeling like I had a reason to write again—a story worth telling.

When I first heard that the recent shooting in California had been perpetrated by a former student of Santa Barbara City College—where I myself toiled two years back—I had a perverse desire to have a connection to the gunman, to recognize his face, to be able to say that I sat next to him or maybe even tutored him, that I was lucky, as a writer, to have been in touch with evil. Just another war correspondent looking for a story.

Flip again.

Maybe. Maybe part of it is that I don’t have children—something I’ve thought about a lot more in the last couple years observing the baby-boom among my friends and colleagues. Sans children, it is easy to feel un-tethered from the future. What would I write if I thought my children might read it in fifty years? What would I write about, if I thought I might have descendants living is this world I’m going to leave them?

Or to turn again to the other end of the life spectrum, maybe I’m stuck on this question because I’ve been writing so much about death. Other people’s deaths—the friend, and then in 2013 a young man to whom I’d been a temporary step-dad some fifteen years back. (And now, weirdly enough, I have just this month moved into the immediate wake of another young man’s suicide—the balcony of my carriage house apartment the theater-box from which I watch the subtle fluctuations of family grief play out in the carport below, all the while feeling guilty for being unable to turn off my instinctual observation).

How do we write the dead? Maybe that is the true crux of where I’m at, the reason that my interrogators of goodness and intent have been banging around like inner-cranial woodpeckers. Write like everyone you know the one you are writing about is dead. I used to worry about writing the living—how would the costars of this theater react to my interpretation of them? At least the living have the opportunity for interaction—commentary, collaboration, correction. The dead—barring their reemergence as chain-laden Jacob Marleys to confront us—have no say, their existence at the mercy of the writer’s discretion. Maybe even as I type this up I am subconsciously hoping for backlash, to be admonished, to be told that yes, in writing about these dead men I’ve known, I am committing an act of betrayal, hovering like opportunistic voyeur-vulture. Maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to not push through to the difficult finish line of these literary slogs. A pass to go back to writing about junior high traumas. Did I tell you the one about my alcoholic band teacher? How about the martial fury of the choir director? The Break Dancers vs. Punks lunchroom brawl of 1986..?
Maybe it’s the maybe. The questioning. Maybe by constantly interrogating our motives, engaging in self-dissection, keeping the rock-tumbler in perpetual motion, we polish some integral component. Maybe in the act of living as a writer, of being an essayist, we reorient and redefine ourselves.
And maybe, in one final slap to the face of all my previous certainties, I will break my longstanding ban on epigraphs and end-quotes to finish here with the words of Montaigne, who first elucidated the idea—and far better than I might—of how we craft ourselves in our essais: “I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape…I have no more made my book than my book has made me.”

Kirk Wisland's wordsmith-ery can be found in other places, helpfully compiled here. He currently writes and teaches in the Creative Writing PhD program at Ohio University, in lovely (at least this time of year) Athens, Ohio.