Monday, September 29, 2014

J. C. Hallman: Journalism in Winter

Journalism in Winter

J.C. Hallman



Not long ago, I became quite agitated by a paragraph in New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff’s book, Mad as Hell, about Paddy Chayefsky and the making of the film Network, which I had picked up with the hope of reading something in the same league as Geoff Dyer’s Zona and Salman Rushdie’s “The Wizard of Oz.” In the offending section, Itzkoff is describing the casting of William Holden as grizzled newsman Max Schumacher:
But as Holden was often reminded and frequently to his face, he was not in his heyday anymore. A journalist taking stock of the actor in the 1970s commended him for possessing a jawline every bit as strong as it had been four decades prior, but added that “the hairline is receding, the skin has leathered, and basset-hound bags droop under mellow eyes.” Another appraisal from this period described Holden as speaking in “commanding tones and well-enunciated repose, a whisky baritone buried by a coffee table carton of Carleton cigarettes,” while still another called him “world-weary” and said, as casually as if it were reporting the weather, that his “face started to deteriorate” some years ago and was now “old” and “shopworn.”
     What irks me here is the quotations, the “taking stock” and “appraisal.” Mad as Hell has other problems with quotations—not least among them the fact that its very first quote is from another book about Network from 1994 that was also titled Mad as Hell (and this earlier Mad as Hell goes on to be quoted at least fifteen more times in Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell, a maddening experience for its author, I’m sure)—but what this paragraph unwittingly does is illustrate something important about the difference between journalism and literary journalism, which over the years I’ve thought about quite a bit.
     It seems to me that the quotations in Itzkoff’s paragraph—quotes that characterize Holden’s middle-aged mien—are similar to the quotations you find in really hard news stories, quotes of people who have witnessed a tragedy or have had some kind of rarefied experience of a newsworthy event. Reporters quote them because those witnesses stood close to the news, and to get close to them is to get as close to the news as is possible, which is the goal. This kind of quotation is distinct from quotations of experts or politicians, say, persons who get quoted not because they have had a newsworthy experience, but because they have authority. They know something about a newsworthy event, or they have some kind of specialized knowledge, so quoting them offers an informed perspective even if they didn’t experience anything newsworthy themselves. There are surely many other kinds of journalistic quotation as well, but these two suffice for what I’m trying to home in on here.
     Now it might seem at first that Itzkoff’s paragraph is full of that second kind of quotation, that he consulted experts, and that Holden is the sort of subject that requires a level of authority that a reporter can’t be expected to acquire just for the sake of his or her story. But that’s wrong. The first clue is in the notes section of Mad as Hell, where we discover that the experts that Itzkoff consulted were not experts at all, but simply other reporters: the “taking stock” comes from Arthur Bell in the Village Voice; the “appraisal” is Jan Hodenfield in the New York Post; and the paragraph’s last set of quotes, too short for inclusion in the notes section, is attributed to only the paragraph’s impersonal “it” (which is sort of the problem in a nutshell – more on this later).
     So if we instead allow that Itzkoff’s paragraph is full of the hard news type of quotation, that is, that these sources are being quoted not because they have authority but because they somehow got close to Holden and could therefore offer appraisals of him, then I think you can begin to see why I started to get riled up. How is William Holden a newsworthy event? How did the reporters get close to him? The short answers: he’s not, and they didn’t. What those old reporters are taking stock of is not William Holden himself—there’s no indication that Bell or Hodenfield actually encountered him—but, rather, the version of him that had been appearing on screen of late, and which was immediately available to them, and, importantly, to Itzkoff as well. Having noted this, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder why Itzkoff, if what he’s trying to do is take stock of Holden in the seventies, didn’t just watch a bunch of Holden films himself and take some stock of his own rather than rely on others’. In other words, Itzkoff, a reporter, in making the move from writing news stories to writing a kind of hybrid biography/history/criticism of Chayefsky and Network, made no significant change in his methodology. And that’s weird. Mad as Hell is actually full of all kinds of interesting facts, but having read it I actually can’t tell you anything at all about why Itzkoff wrote it. It may just be my temperament as a reader of books—as opposed to a reader of news—but the author’s perspective, even if it remains a vague and amorphous (but undeniable) presence (rather than an overt proclaimer of motives and conclusions), is pretty much the only reason I read. And Itzkoff’s paragraph is the sort of moment when my kind of reader expects a writer to become his own witness, and to bear that witness. To provide something quotable rather than quote. Itzkoff just couldn’t do it. To be sure, there are certain kinds of subjects that call for ongoing journalistic distance and stoicism, but I think it’s safe to say that Network, a theatrical satire about journalism, is not one of them. In short, then, what Itzkoff did not do—or could not bring himself to do—was make the leap from journalism to literary journalism.


Now one could argue that Network itself is an apocalyptic vision of what might happen if subjective expressions of belief were permitted to run amok. Sure, the film depicts the power of dispassionate journalism to inject so much anxiety into the world that a great suicidal purge of emotion becomes inevitable, but is the alternative—the commodification of ranting sermons and the first hints of the mediocrity celebrated by reality television—any better? That’s not clear, and this is why some people are made uneasy by the phrase “literary journalism” or “reported essay,” or any other term that gets used to describe the process of combining media that some think shouldn’t be combined at all.
     When I think about journalism and literature and how the two can influence, contradict, and complement each other, I always think of two essays: Cynthia Ozick’s “Drugstore in Winter” and Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Loitering.”
     Ozick’s has one of the more memorable first lines in the history of essay-writing:
This is about reading; a drugstore in winter; the gold leaf on the dome of the Boston State House; also loss, panic, and dread.
     There’s a good deal that’s peculiar here, given the fact that “Drugstore in Winter” (which first appeared in The New York Times Book Review and was reprinted in Ozick’s Art & Ardor and The Best American Essays of the Century) goes on to be a fairly straightforward account of Ozick’s literary coming of age. What stands out of course is the way the sentence defies the show-don’t-tell mantra of creative writing. It is an act of telling, and a preemptive one at that. Ozick tells us what her essay will be about before it begins. “Drugstore in Winter” will not be driven by the cheap drama of withheld information—that is, plot. And before you, the reader, start to have any ideas as to what her story might add up to, here’s Ozick telling you not to bother because it’s about loss, panic, and dread. At first glance, “Drugstore in Winter” would seem to leave little for the reader to do, and isn’t literature more or less defined by an active reader’s imagination co-creating the story along with the author? Isn’t Ozick spilling the beans?
     Not really. But our tendency to think that is exactly why “Drugstore in Winter,” before it returns to Ozick’s literary womb, her father’s pharmacy near the corner of Continental Avenue and Westchester Avenue in the Bronx (how exciting: on a recent jaunt to Pelham Bay Park at the end of the 6, I walked unknowingly past just this corner, though of course Park View Pharmacy no longer exists…), tells the story of Ozick’s brief career in journalism. This amounts to two “articles,” one published, one not.
     The first is the gold leaf dome of her opening. Ozick reports, so to speak, that she had gone to the library—“not out of curiosity,” she specifies—to discover how the Boston State House got its gold dome. Paul Revere is the obvious answer, and an obvious article nets a tidy fifteen dollars. “Ah, joy of Homer, joy of Milton! Grub Street bliss!”
     The next week she stumbles across something even better: a department store storeroom full of naked manikins. This article, however, is frowned upon, and never gets published. “Thus ended my life in journalism.”
     A great deal would seem to hinge on the difference between these two stories.
     The first, as I’ve already suggested, has the appeal of obvious newsworthiness—a prominent public edifice, a historical figure, etc. The storeroom is the opposite of this—it’s hidden, and there’s no one there. So why did Ozick think “Paul Revere’s gold dome paled beside this gold mine!”? In short, because it fired her imagination, triggered the same “curiosity” that the dome failed to engage. “It was a dumbstruck nudist colony up there,” “Drugstore in Winter” remembers, “a mob of naked frozen enigmatic manikins, tall enameled ladies with bald breasts and skulls, and legs and wrists and necks that horribly unscrewed.” This isn’t a description only of the storeroom—it also describes Ozick’s enthusiasm, the way the image has grabbed hold of her consciousness and shaken out of her a protracted stream of details and elaborations. The Boston State House is never described with this level of intimacy. We see it only from afar, whereas the manikins draw Ozick, and us, closer and closer in. The real subject of her article, then, and of “Drugstore in Winter,” for that matter, is herself. Put another way, the Boston State House story is journalism, and the unpublished manikin story is literary journalism, in which the perspective of a reporter is as much the subject of an article as whatever the ostensible subject of the article happens to be. From there, “Drugstore in Winter” returns to some of Ozick’s earliest memories as a reader, and reveals how she was fated for this literary life, even though it offers few rewards—not even fifteen dollars for a gold mine of a story—and requires one to suffer, among other things, “the spite of the private haters of the poetry side of life.”
     Emphasis on the perspective of the self in literary journalism is even more pronounced in D’Ambrosio’s “Loitering” (“Loitering” first appeared as “The Crime That Never Was” in Seattle’s The Stranger and in D’Ambrosio’s practically secret essay collection, Orphans, but will soon reappear as the title essay of a new and selected collection of D’Ambrosio’s nonfiction from Tin House Books, Loitering), in which the author, having recently returned from an Alaskan fishing trip with a nasty full-body skin problem that gets described at length but is decried as “unnecessarily preambular,” spends a number of hours lurking on the edges of an ongoing hostage crisis in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. The police have responded to a domestic violence call, and a gaggle of local journalists have responded to several blocks of the city being cordoned off with yellow tape, and even before D’Ambrosio shows up on the scene it has all deteriorated to an “unholy intersection of anomie and big-time news.” Armed with three-by five cards and a tape recorder, D’Ambrosio is something of a reporter himself, but by his own account he’s no match for the tech-wonky talking heads of television news. And though an attentive reader suspects it from the very beginning, D’Ambrosio’s tendency to associate himself with the hostage-taker (“in the hierarchy of things I suspect I’m just as clueless as the Bad Guy”), and to meditate at length on the contrast between his ailing skin and that of the news reporters (“the way I look…I might just be a piece of news myself”), makes it clear that “Loitering” is about the difference between journalism and literary journalism, even its title suggesting that if what regular journalists do is cultivate a habit of aggressive intrusiveness, not to say rudeness (though that’s exactly what it seems like when you see it in action), then what literary journalists do is just kind of hang around to get at what Orwell once called “the moral atmosphere of a particular moment in time.”
     The difference between Ozick’s manikin room and D’Ambrosio’s hostage crisis is of course the fact that the latter really is a piece of news. Ozick shows us what’s news and what’s not, and emphasizes that literary sensibilities are excited and aroused by images and ideas that perhaps no one else regards as newsworthy or interesting (D’Ambrosio: “My main problem vis-à-vis journalism is I just don’t have an instinct for what’s important”), and that’s largely what Pound was trying to get at, I think, when he famously said, “Literature is news that STAYS news.” By way of contrast, D’ambrosio shows us that even an actual piece of news can become arousing in that peculiar literary manner, and what this establishes is that a newsworthy event can be looked at in the way that John Berger looks at art, or Annie Dillard looks at nature. Another “way of seeing” can train its gaze on anything at all.
     Late in “Loitering,” after the hostage crisis has wrapped up, D’Ambrosio admits to considering calling on the “love angle” to figure out how to wrap up his own tangential narrative. He’s looking for a big theme to tie the story together, and he finds “love,” which is surely big enough, but it’s the “angle” that interests me here, that scrap of language shared between creative writing and journalism. It would almost seem to go without saying that journalism and creative writing each are forms of storytelling in which a writer seeks out a particular perch so as to get the best possible shot on a target of some kind. There’s an obvious metaphor here—the writer as sniper, or perhaps the writer as his or her own sort of hostage taker, the characters who will be released only when they’ve served the writer’s purposes—but I don’t really want to go that far with it. It’s enough to suggest that at least part of a writer’s job is to find that spot from which a dynamic, multi-dimensional event may rendered in a way that reveals something essential and representative about it. Hence, “angle,” and the real metaphor lurking there is probably the eye of the painter peering past his thumb at some pretty lady or landscape.
     But that doesn’t reveal whatever the difference between journalism and literary journalism might be. The hints of that come much earlier in D’Ambrosio’s essay, before he even heads for the crime scene:
Before leaving the apartment I put a pen in my pocket, along with a stack of three-by-five cards and a tape recorder, thinking that if this thing got real hairy, if there was some actual shooting, then I might jot a few notes and make of an otherwise blank night a bona fide journalistic story, full of who, what, where, when. Like a lot of my aspirations, this one, too, was internally doomed and hopeless long before I realized it.
     The answer lies in this passage’s silent omission. If you hum the notes of a scale to yourself—do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti…—you feel in your bones the way that ti pulls up to what should be the second do, the octave that completes the scale, without which the whole thing feels incomplete and unsatisfying. The same disappointment attends D’Ambrosio’s list of the requirements of the traditional journalistic lede: the who, what, where, and when, all pulling toward a why that never comes. Journalism, by its nature, avoids overt expressions of why, though the angle a journalist chooses on a story may suggest one. By contrast, literary journalism makes why an overt driving force, and the essays that result offer up plaintive answers to the unanswerable. You ask not what happened, but what it meant that whatever happened happened. You become a critic of your own experience. Why did a hostage crisis ensue on a particular night in Belltown? Love. Why does a roomful of manikins on the top floor of Filene’s capture the eye? Panic and dread. Why did Dave Itzkoff feel compelled to write a whole book about Network? I have no idea.  
     I realize now that the anger I felt at Itzkoff’s paragraph was a version of Howard Beale’s mad-as-hell rage in the film. If it’s safe to say that in order to write a book you have to get a little ginned up yourself, then shouldn’t one, in order to write a book about Network, maybe feel a bit inspired by Beale’s revelation, as though you too just can’t take it anymore? But where is that in Itzkoff’s book? Where’s his rage? When he reduces a fellow reporter to an impersonal “it”—to avoid, I assume, some grammatical awkwardness created by the problem of citation—he participates in the culture-wide tendency toward dehumanization that leaves Beale screaming, “I’m a human being, god-damnit! My life has value!”
     What’s that value? I don’t know exactly. But I do know that it’s the human value of the writer that distinguishes literary journalism from journalism, grants it its essential component, and invests it with a heft and life and passion without which our world would be maddening indeed.


J. C. Hallman is the author of a number of books, including In Utopia and Wm & H'ry. In February, he will publish B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal with Simon & Schuster. He lives in New York City.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Roar, the Crash: Sofi Thanhauser on Thomas Mann, fashion, “Bourgeois competence”, and fascism

There are many writers to whom clothing is dear. Sappho’s poetry, or rather the fragments that remain of it, nearly always center on some article of clothing. Oscar Wilde was a notorious clotheshorse. Virginia Woolf maintained a kind of negative fixation. Edith Wharton, asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up, replied, “the best dressed woman in Manhattan.”  However for pure, melodious ravishment upon clothing itself Thomas Mann is by far my favorite writer. If it weren’t for a phrase in the short story “The Blood of the Walsungs” about a “Florentine cinquecento frock of claret coloured velvet” I would never have fallen under his beneficent spell at all.

Or consider this ensemble, worn by Madame Chauchat to a picnic in the Swiss Alps in The Magic Mountain. Madame Chauchat arrived, Mann writes, in “a belted coat of some warm, fuzzy, large-checked fabric, and had even thrown a little fur over her shoulders. The brim of her felt hat was pulled down on one side by an olive colored veil she had tied under her chin, in an effect so charming that it was almost painful for all present.”  Almost painful.

Could a more perfect ensemble than M. Chauchat’s be conceived of? Chauchat is one of these virtuosos who are still born among us, who are evident from earliest childhood. There are perfect rakes even now in America although they are most commonly four years or five years old and have not yet had their style neutered. Mann was one of these virtuosos himself. See him at eight years old in a striped sailor suit, forearm on a book and one thumb nestling in the opening above the second shirt button, coal black eyes already indicative of the earnest-ironic fusion he is destined to transform laboriously into art. Unlike most children’s sailor suits this ensemble does not simply mark him as the child puppet of a bourgeois family. The young Mann delights in his ensemble. See him again in the 1940s posing for a photo in Vogue: his white patent leather shoes, pale grey suit, bow tie, panama hat. 

In the essay On the Greatness of Richard Wagner, Mann explains that Wagner was incapable of working without “palpable expressions of an extravagance of taste” which included, “wadded silk dressing-gowns” and “lace-trimmed satin bed-covers embroidered with garlands of roses.” Buttressed by these things, Mann writes, Wagner “sits down mornings to the grueling job, by dint of them he achieves the ‘atmosphere of luxury and art’ necessary to the creation of primitive Nordic heroes and exalted natural symbolism.”  Is this a tacit admission on Mann’s part that the artist cannot create until first he is properly dressed?

Mann described the clothing of his fictional characters so impeccably not out of empty volupté, but because he knew the world he described was going extinct. His craftsmanship is an homage to another kind of craftsmanship. The disappearance of handmade clothes and furniture as a result of mass manufacture, and the erosion of the material culture of old Europe had in William Morris its utopian denialist, in Thomas Carlyle its Jeremiah, and in Mann its quiet, bourgeois eulogist.

Mann was willing to fight for discernment in clothing, food, manners, and furniture, all of which he grouped together in the phrase bourgeois competence in a June 1926 speech given on the occasion of the 700 year anniversary of his home city, Lübeck. “Bourgeois competence” as Mann deploys it signals a sort of spacious capacity for the leisurely, deliberate prosecution of one’s affairs in a world where appreciation for the arts is central. Bourgeois is not offered to us in the way it appears in Marxist doctrinal disputes of the period (as the vilest type of insult) nor to imply cupidity, avarice, and mediocrity, as Godard used it after his conversion to Maoism (“I started making films because I wanted to escape my bourgeois family but then I discovered that the film industry was just another, bigger bourgeois family.”) It is presented as a positive spiritual value (the speech itself is entitled "Lübeck as a spiritual way of life.")

If this spiritualization seems overburdened or elitist we might consider that the analogous (supply-side) vector to loss of bourgeois competence is proletarianization. Erosion of style among the bourgeois is concomitant with the destruction of a way of life for the artisan. An artisan class denuded of traditional organizations and skills (that is to say, a proletariat) cannot possibly produce objects that will please the possessor of bourgeois competence. It is thus a tacitly anti-industrial stance albeit one based less on fairness than on beauty. (Beauty is, in any case, an ideal place to begin the fight for an ideal society. William Morris tread a direct path from disgust for the British middle class interior design tastes to socialism.) “Bourgeois competence” has more in common with the earliest iterations of German labor theory than it does with either socialism or the late 19th or early 20th century German liberalism that might seem to be the natural political home for such a “bourgeois.” This early German labor movement, writes historian Stefan Berger, “differed from its late nineteenth century variant in that it was rooted not in a future utopia of classless harmony but in attempts to fend off perceived threats to traditional lifestyles.”  Mann’s argument was for stolidity and balance against blind rapacity on the one hand and utopian fiction on the other. It was also an argument for a system of labor relations that, though it did not create perfect economic or political parity, extended opportunities for artistic expression to a far wider range of citizens.

Clothing historian Carl Kohler notes that when one compares the costumes and suits of Ludwig 1 of Bavaria with those of his grandson Ludwig II, preserved alongside one another in the National Museum, “One cannot fail to be struck by the baneful effect produced by the sewing machine as compared to skilled hand-sewing. By the year 1859 the sewing machine had gradually replaced sewing by hand, and one grieves to have to say that men’s clothes of this period make a sorry show when compared to the carefully made garments of earlier times.” 

In 1864, when Ludwig II ascended to the Bavarian throne, only two garments were being mass-produced in any true sense: the corset and the uniform of the American Union soldier. As early avatars of ready-to-wear, however, both of these garments displayed what was to be its primary characteristic: indifference to the individual body. The uniform’s function is, after all, to submerge each body in a sea of like bodies, and the corset does not accommodate the shape of its wearer at all, but rather assists her in accommodating her body to the shape of clothing.

Mann’s bourgeois characters, by contrast, exist in amazing specificity, each in a unique ensemble, each participating in the twilight of a world in which individual people matter. Take the picnic scene in The Magic Mountain for an example, the scene for which Madame Chauchat is dressed so ravishingly in fuzzy, large checked fabric. Herr Settembrini (the book’s humanist pedagogue character) is hoping the picnic will offer the opportunity for a “democratic chat” between the guests. No such luck. Instead, the party is steered by its host, the dominating Mynheer Peepercorn, to a spot at the very base of a waterfall, where the “deafening, insane, extravagant roar…frightened and confused them, baffled their ears.” At this peculiar location Peeperkorn rises to gives a speech to the assembled company that of course, no one can hear. When the picnic is over and the guests retreat, they can hear, “from behind, from above, from every side-menacing, threatening trumpet calls and brutal male voices.” The scene serves as a mythic signaling of the end of discourse. Goodbye to the old world, goodbye picnics. Goodbye to olive colored veils, hello fascism.

In both Germany and in America, the political and aesthetic consequences of mass production began to become conspicuous in the celluloid forms of the 1930s. In Leni Riefenstahl’s elaborately choreographed crowd scenes of 1934, the visual effect is nearly identical to that produced in the four back-to-back blockbuster musicals choreographed by Busby Berkely in America during the same year. Berkely, like Riefenstahl, used the individual body as a minute pixel in an enormous geometric diagram.

In the 1850’s, the British intellectual John Ruskin had noted the trend towards diminishing opportunities for creative expression on the part of the worker as a result of mass manufacture. As an art critic he extolled the medieval European Cathedral, in whose asymmetries and idiosyncrasies he claimed that it was possible to read a generous sharing of creative control among many artisans. In the perfect symmetries of a classical Greek temple, by contrast, Ruskin saw proof of a system of slave labor perfectly executing the design of a single architect. The mass produced clothing emerging in Ruskin’s time, establishing themselves in Mann’s, and ascendant in ours are like the Greek temple of the Ruskin dichotomy not only because they are the work of one intellectual laborer (a designer) and a fleet of manual workers without artistic choice, but also because of the inconsistency of medium with message.  Just as the Greek temple is intended to epitomize the democratic ideal but reveals in its mode of production a system of authoritarianism, postwar western clothing is marketed as a system of objects that provide an opportunity for expression, while in its actual mode of production we can read a vast diminution in the opportunities for expression on the part of the worker. One thing that can be said for Triumph of the Will is that at least it was the intended effect that we read in its sea of uniform bodies a monopoly on human action of unparalleled intensity.


Sofi Thanhauser studied history at Columbia University and got her MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY, where she now lives. She is currently working on a book about clothing. You can listen to her weird music at

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

W. Scott Olsen: The Essay at ASCENT

Here is a secret, though it’s not very important. I read the essays last.

Every month, on the first, I click a button on the Ascent website and open the submissions manager. A short while later—sometimes a few days, sometimes as much as two weeks—the manuscript counter reaches 200 and I click that button again to turn the submissions off. There is no magic to the number 200 other than my own time and reading speed. When I was in graduate school, I sent a story to a good literary quarterly and they accepted it—a year after I submitted it. It then took them two years to print it. I was elated. And I was angry.

Because I am a writer, and because I am old enough to remember the fear and desire and anticipation and loathing hovering every day around my empty US Postal Service mailbox, I make sure the writers who send to Ascent get word, some word, within one month. So I begin with the poetry.  Poetry brings me back each month to reading like an editor, questioning with every new submission my response to language, to concision, to form and to depth. Reading the poetry first is a way to open the heart and the head to the blood-jet. Poetry is also the least forgiving of faults. Return or short-list is often an easy first choice.

I read the fiction next. I suspect I wince every time I read a new story that begins with some down on his luck somebody, who happens to be in a run-down bar, half drunk, gazing at some impossibly good-looking hope, but otherwise the stories that come to Ascent are good. They have size and weight and they are complicated not like detective novels but in the way of showing how love and confusion are necessary companions. Again when I was in graduate school, the writing world was filled with the imitators of Donald Barthelme and Ray Carver—both ends of the scale. Pyrotechnics and urgent whispers. These days, we seem to have learned the techniques, and the best writers use them all, sparingly or not, to tell a real story, a deep story, a fiction that’s true.

And then I read the essays. Essays are what I write. I expect the most from them, too. For me, the rewards of the essay are larger, deeper and more profound than any poem or fiction. They carry the weight of humanity just as fully as poetry and fiction, and they carry the weight of news as well. The essay is intellectual and moral and personal journalism. 

The world is not a simple place. The essays I most love are those that take the act of explanation, the act of articulating wonder or hope or anger or just curiosity and hunger, as their reason for being. I am sent a thousand essays that tell me a story—the time the author broke an arm, got fired, fell in love, wrecked a car, went hiking/rafting/climbing/spelunking, got a disease, remembered something from childhood—and every one of them will go back to the author if the essay does not also wonder what it all means. 

Here is a phrase I often use with students: The Essay is the Witnessed Development of an Idea. In other words, here is an idea, developed with examples and details and with deep care for the craft, given as a gift to some reader. The gift is not the sharing of the event. The gift is the sharing of an idea the event provokes. And the quality of the gift is in the exactness and precision of the words. Yes, I am aware this quality should describe the best in every genre. But it seems to me the stakes are higher for the essay. A poem and a story achieve metaphor. The poem and the story are True. The essay achieves metaphor, and does so without disbelief. The essay is both True and true. 

Here is another way to think about it. I have no real interest in the history of the torque-wrench. But even if it’s 3:00 a.m. and I am for some reason awake and channel surfing, if I come across Modern Marvels and they are talking about the history of the torque-wrench, I know my next half hour will be happily learning about wrenches. There is a patience to the developing context. There is a connection made from the wrench in my garage to some paleo-wrench I did not know existed. When the show is over, my wrench is a lot more complicated and a lot more exact. When the best essays are over, my own life—my history and community and family and sense of ethics—is a lot more complicated and a lot more exact. Life is larger. The universe is more filled with wonder.

There are no rules at Ascent. Because we are an online journal now, there is no need to fill or limit pages. And we publish just as soon as we accept, so there are no publishing deadlines. An issue is never early or late. If we publish five essays tomorrow and then not another one for six months, it makes no difference at all. 

I would love to say we have an editorial preference. Reviewing the last few essays on the site, you could think we have a particular interest in homes. Turn back just a bit farther, though, and there are no homes at all. There is a bit of dentistry. There is a war-zone. There is a trip in Appalachia. There is the Peace Corps. There is a dog. There is an office wrestling match. There is a bit of food. There is an execution and there is a birthday. There are a couple hikes in the mountains. There is a piece about language.

I should admit to one bias. More often than not, when a cover letter says “attached is a lyric essay” I do not smile. Too often, “lyric” has come to mean slight. The author is sending a scene, an anecdote, a memory or experience without context or development. Too often “lyric” has become code for “here’s something interesting and I don’t know what it’s about and I’ve not really done the work to figure it out, but the words are pretty.” In truth, I love the lyric essay. I love the micro-essay and the novella-length memoir. What I cannot stand is anecdote without context, without idea, without wonder how it all fits together.

As a reader, I do not think in categories. Ascent will read anything at any time. All I want is to be in the presence of a written voice that is on a journey, to be a member of the corps of discovery, to be so fully captivated by the unfolding connections that I’m late for something else.

We read a love poem, or a love story, and if it’s any good we say: yes, exactly—even though we never thought of love that way, in those words, before. We say, I didn’t know I knew that. We say, me too. 

When I read an essay, a really good essay, it’s like a long broad curve on a highway. We’re moving fast, the scenery is thrilling, the road in front of us promises a destination, though it’s around the corner and we are not quite there yet. As long as the tires are good, I’ll be damned if I’m going to slow down.

W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and the editor of the literary magazine Ascent.  His most recent book is Prairie Sky: Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rigoberto González: Observations about Writing Memoir in My 20s, 30s, 40s

Attending a graduate writing program in California in the early 1990s, there were only two specializations to choose from: fiction or poetry. The third, nonfiction, was looked upon with suspicion. A heated debate was taking place in influential journals like Poets & Writers Magazine about what this burgeoning field really was--journalism? reportage? essay writing? and what its proximity to truth should be: only verifiable facts? the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Memory, it seemed, was considered such an unreliable resource because it was flawed and subjective. Despite this, the genre did flourish and expanded to include the personal or exploratory essay, autobiography and memoir--what linked the word “creative” to “nonfiction,” giving writers permission to access the self as a source--certainly there were many reasons to write about one’s past: to recover, to remember, to examine anew, to understand, to revisit, to reconnect. And by sharing those discoveries, the hope was not simply to highlight one’s personal journey but to tell a good story, and one that would resonate with the reader because of the immediate intimacy in the storytelling when the writer announces from the get-go: This is what happened to me. But in creative nonfiction, the act of reading also triggers the act of empathy, and possibly the act of identification, so that no matter how individual the experience, something is shared and learned about human emotion, human curiosity, human folly and human growth.  What a noble purpose this third genre! However, another prejudice was taking root: who had the right to do this mining of the memory banks to construct a narrative for others to read and consider?
     In 1992, I was a 22 years old. I was specializing in poetry-writing at the time and my autobiographical material was in service to my verse. That year my family decided to return to Mexico, a decision that was announced as temporary but which eventually became permanent. That I chose not to return with them because I was enrolled in graduate school was a difficult choice. And though it was they who were leaving me, and the U.S., it felt as if it was I who was abandoning them, and Mexico. The guilt began to settle, but also the reality of my other losses: the unexpected phone calls, the occasional care package in the mail, the visits home for the holidays, the home-cooked meals, the music, the voices, the crowded little rooms with the big TVs. All of it was irretrievably gone. If I had turned to poetry to write a love letter to my Mexican heritage and homeland, I wanted to turn to prose to write a love letter to my family--one that would capture the multiple dimensions of the stories, the conflicts, and the scars, because that’s how I understood them.
     In our cohort at the writing program there was a young woman, just a few years older than me who was writing memoir. Her name was Margaret. She was bubbly and kind, and was writing about her misadventures with a traveling theater group as an undergraduate. I remember how unkind many of the other students were, offering unsolicited criticisms that I would hear echoed for many years to come about anyone who dared write memoir at such a young age: how presumptuous, how self-aggrandizing, how vain. Memoir, or autobiography, was considered the territory of the seasoned, the experienced, the industrious, the accomplished: certainly, a graduate student didn’t fall into any of these categories.
     There were no classes being offered in creative nonfiction and I would never take one even though, many years later, I would end up teaching that genre (and giving lectures about it!). So I became a closeted creative nonfiction writer. When I sought out models for learning how to write the personal narrative, the fact that I came across so many veteran writers only confirmed that this was a genre in which the very green writer was not welcomed. I didn’t reveal to anyone that I was writing memoir, that I was reconstructing my various journeys: coming to America, coming out, and coming to education. I believed at one time I justified this clandestine writing activity by saying to myself that it was quite possible I might get killed walking across the street one day, so I had to leave a record behind that told people who I was.
     By 1997, I had attended another creative writing program in Arizona, this time specializing in fiction. I had written a thesis in prose--a novel about the grape pickers of Southern California titled Crossing Vines. Though I had used my first-hand knowledge of the labor, all of the characters were mostly made up. The book might have turned out differently had I not been secretly writing about my family already. Somehow I didn’t want these narratives to overlap, not because I ever intended to publish my memoirs, but because the nonfiction was too strange and at times too heavy-handed to pass for fiction. Therefore, I was very public about this novel I had completed, and very private about the 10 or so personal essays I had written. But also by 1997, I began to notice that the creative writing bulletin boards that announced fiction and poetry contests and calls for submissions had become aggressive in seeking out nonfiction memoir. This gave me the courage to come out to one of my most trusted older friends. I told her I was writing memoir, a revelation I soon regretted.
     Her response: “Memoir? What does a 27-year-old have to say about the world? You’ve hardly even lived!”
     I might have become paralyzed had I not understood what I had written, and why I knew I was on the right track. I acknowledged that mine was not an unusual experience, but to have someone like me have the capacity and skill to write it down was unusual. I understood that my life journey was important enough to commit to print and that even if my reader wasn’t a gay Mexican kid from a farmworking community he would at the very least learn that such a person existed. And I also knew that writing about my experience as a young man was not prematurely announcing that it was the most important stage in my life, but certainly the most formative--wasn’t that why the young protagonist was such an important one in literature at large? Weren’t we always turning to the adolescent years, not our birth years, to locate our beginnings? I trusted my impulse to keep writing, a choice that was validated by another, better friend who said to me after I had confessed to him how hurt I was by the negative response to my coming out as a memoirist: “Well thank God no one told Anne Frank that. She was only 14.”


In the new millennium, creative nonfiction as a third genre was solidly taking its place between poetry and fiction. Personal essay anthologies and book-length memoirs were becoming increasingly popular, and the field had expanded to include the lyrical essay and micro-prose or flash nonfiction. University presses were taking notice, establishing series that specialized in creative nonfiction, like Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography at the University of Wisconsin Press, which is where I thought my book would eventually find a home. It turns out that the press was on the verge of starting a whole new series, Writing in Latinidad: Autobiographical Voices of U.S. Latinas/os, and the editors wanted mine to be part of that new venture, but they wanted a book-length narrative, not a collection of personal essays.
     I wasn’t surprised by this criteria because that’s what I had been pulling from the bookshelves all this time so I set out to weave those 10 essays into a single book. When I accessed memoirs at this time, I realized that linearity was not a mandate in terms of structuring a book. Linearity seemed to be reserved for biography--a from-the-womb-to-the-tomb timeline. Memoir was a journey, a stage in the life of the writer. To give myself parameters, I decided that the book would end just after I became a sophomore in college. I chose that moment because it was a year of reckoning for me--it was the year I was involved in an abusive same-sex relationship, the year I tried to patch things up with my father as a way to seek guidance and solace, the year I realized I would have to continue on my path by myself, making stupid mistakes but, somehow, transcending them. It was also important that there was a decade sitting between the writer I was at the age of 30 and the child I was at the age of 19. But most importantly, I wanted the book to be about my relationship to my father.
     This last consideration surprised me. Since I had lost my mother when I was 12, I thought that my memoir was going to be about her--my way of keeping her memory alive. And although she is a key figure in Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, the person whom I was still trying to come to terms with was my father. Though my mother was dead, my father was the ghost--it was his absence that still haunted me. This conflict helped me rescue the essays from the sentimentality of nostalgia, from the low-emotion in anecdote, and from the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling. I completed the book in 2005, at the age of 35, and as I traveled across the country in 2006 to promote the book, one of the questions that members of the audience kept asking was: Are you going to write a sequel?
     I was of two minds about writing another memoir: firstly, in my 20s I spent most of the time in college, sitting down at the desk and reading on the couch. Not exactly the stuff of drama. But the more I read from my own book, the more I realized how much I had left out because it didn’t fit the main threads, because I hadn’t remembered those episodes when I was writing the first book, or because I simply hadn’t digested the memory enough to identify its significance. But what really got me thinking I had to write Red-Inked Retablos, an antidote to Butterfly Boy, was the death of my father, five days before Butterfly Boy was released.
     A shocking realization: as a writer, thinking about someone who is still alive is a strikingly different experience than thinking about that same person who is now deceased. I was not a writer when my mother was living, so I didn’t know that shift in perspective. But now that my father was gone, my artist temperament was coloring memory with another palette altogether. Was it a tinge of guilt, sympathy, grief, regret, emptiness? All of those.
     A man once said to me that he knew I had lost one of my parents because there was a light that had gone out in my eyes. I wondered what my eyes betrayed about my double loss, my double sorrow now? Was my stare complete darkness?
     Not only did I see my father differently, I saw myself differently, and therefore I wrote about myself differently also, even if I visited that same era I wrote about in Butterfly Boy.  


The thing about loss is that you carry it with you for the rest of your life. It’s a strange contradictory image--an emptiness that bears weight. So loss was the theme in Red-Inked Retablos, my second book of nonfiction. I not only wrote about my birth parents, I wrote about my literary parents--Truman Capote, the poet Ai, Gloria Anzaldúa and Michael Nava--writers I had invited to step in as guides when I left home. And surprisingly, I positioned myself as a kind of parent, or rather a mentor, when I encouraged younger writers to take up the cause of autobiographical writing, and when I wrote about two young writers who had passed away before their prime, celebrating their work, keeping its memory sacred.
     At about this time, nearing my 40s, two interesting developments were taking place. The first was my awareness of long-term memory. I couldn’t remember what the devil I was doing the week before, but suddenly I recalled with astonishing clarity the smallest of details about meals, conversations, encounters that took place when I was a child. One of the challenges about being a writer of nonfiction is the reader’s suspicion of embellishment, the distrust in the writer being able to accurately recollect dialogue and to recount events located in the specific hours of the day or night--how do we remember the choreography of bodies and gestures, reconfigure the architecture of a neighborhood so long ago, in a different country even?
     The nonfiction writer will answer these doubts with the nonfiction motto: What I write is not how it happened, it’s how I remember it. And misremembering is another way of remembering. In any case, the floodgates opened and it all came back to me, including the traumatic part of my childhood that I had deliberately left unexamined because I was not ready to confront it: experiencing hunger, eating disorders, unfulfilled desire.
     The beauty of aging is that I was now able to come face to face with that single demon I could not confront before. Was I stronger? Yes. Was I more confident? Yes. But these traits could not have been fortified without the psychic distance of time. Two decades separated and connected the hungry me and the well-fed me. This allowed me not to forget, even if I had been suppressing the memory, and it allowed the trauma not to consume me because, look, its famished stomachs were so far away from me now.
     This didn’t make the process of writing about hunger any less painful. I was surprised at how many times the tears and heartache caught me off-guard and forced me to stop. I tried to read some excerpts on the phone to friends and I would break down. But I kept at it, knowing that soon I’d be able to unearth the entirety of the experience without feeling as if I had been purging emotionally. After all, I had gone through this before when I had written about grief and loss.
     One of my pet peeves is when memoirists are accused of confusing writing with therapy. I believe that poets are much more sympathetic to this indictment, particularly those whose speaker in the poem is the first-person “I”. But so too I’d like to plead with memoirists not to deny that there is a level of healing taking place in the shaping of narrative--it is not the only purpose of writing but it is most definitely one of the outcomes. Writing about trauma does’t solve, doesn’t answer and sometimes doesn’t close--it sifts through the rubble and tries to communicate what happened there. Whatever is put back together is, ideally, outside of the body and the soul, but inside the imagination. It is a map of a place we no longer inhabit, but which still inhabits us.
     As a way of confronting my experience with hunger, I expanded the narrative to include other types of hunger--some literal, some metaphorical. I made that narrative reach back to my childhood but I also asked it to reach forward to my adult years. And most strategically, I contained the episodes in small, bite-sized pieces that were no longer than 300 words. This limitation was actually freeing because no matter how deeply painful and emotionally-draining the writing, I knew there was a finish line to the stumble down memory lane. I called this book Autobiography of My Hungers.


This summer I turned 44 years old and I’m already thinking about the next book of nonfiction, another memoir in which my father is again a central figure. I wrote my first book to argue with him, I wrote the second to honor him, I wrote the third to reveal my most private moments to him, and I believe the next is to forgive--myself. No, I don’t think I can say that I forgive him because there’s nothing to forgive. My father made mistakes and bad choices, and it took me a lifetime of doing the same to understand that this wasn’t deliberate or malicious but human. Yes, this disposition is called maturity. Forgiving myself means revisiting those exchanges and seeing my father, a grown man, through the eyes of a grown man. This ability, however, would not have been possible had I not written about my father through the eyes of a younger, less seasoned, more uncertain, man.
     I am also, in my 40s, seized by an insatiable nostalgia. It’s been 30 years since I left Mexico, my family’s homeland, though all this time I have been going back through the writing. Doing so at this time of my life is also a way of making peace with the reality that when I decide to return I will find a very different country there. My memories are my Mexico. And though I have returned to visit over the years, I have explored parts of the country I did not know growing up. What I long for are those places that hold memory for me--the broken sidewalks, the stone fences, the chicken coop in the back where my job was to collect the eggs each morning. I want to go back because these are the places I am most distant from, and yet, thanks to long-term memory, I recall with most clarity. Perhaps this is the homecoming I’ve always heard the old people in my family talk about when they sat in the garden and didn’t know I was sitting within earshot. How they collected things when they spoke, how they invoked people and places--a catalogue of dates, names, events--all the incredible evidence of a life lived and remembered. How small my world seemed then, and yet how promising that the best was yet to come. Well, now I’m not sitting outside the circle anymore but have earned my place inside of it--not because of my age, but because, sadly, everyone older than me has died. At the ripe age of 44, I find myself in the uneasy role of an elder, a storyteller--not of the I, but of the us. The task of keeping family, life, and love is now mine.  And it’s exactly the paradise I imagined:


The name of the town at the northeast shore of Lake Pátzcuaro is pure onomatopoeia. Say it--Tzin-tzun-tzán--and hear the hummingbird zip by with each syllable. These elusive little birds are so fast they’re invisible and can never be caged. In fact, the only way the people of Tzintzuntzán can attempt to capture a hummingbird is to carve one out of wood, or to sculpt one in iron. The only way for visitors to own one is to buy it. I brought two of them with me that hang from the kitchen doorway of my NYC apartment. As soon as I put them up I realized how ridiculous this illusion was since the wings are frozen mid-flight and the bodies dangle from fishing lines because what I “caught” was nothing less than decorated dead weight. These are memorials to the fleeting hummingbird, a wondrous feathered creature whose population has been dwindling over the years. I saw hundreds of memorials in Tzintzuntzán, but not a single living example of what all that artistry honors. Still, it is difficult to challenge the town’s name--it is the place of the hummingbirds. They are everywhere: on furniture, on pottery, and stitched near the hems of pretty little dresses. And each time I say the town’s name--Tzintzuntzán--the hummingbird becomes audible--a ghost sound emanating from the colorful depictions.
     Purépecha territory is the land that inspires stubborn memory. “Ya no es como antes,” is the phrase that pops out of old and young alike. It’s not like before. And so people try to reconstruct that before in order to pin their good memories there. I often heard my grandparents mourn for the before when they sat in the living room of our California home and reminisced about that state of Michoacán in general, about the towns of Zacapu or Nahuatzen in particular. What they didn’t want to admit was that the land had an after without them, that they held on to the before because they now saw those beloved places from afar, like exiles. And when they visited the after, they did so as strangers to the streets they no longer recognized and to the people who no longer remembered them.


Do you remember...? my father liked to ask, quite unexpectedly, usually breaking the silence in the room or in the car. Do you remember your mother? Do you remember Zacapu? Do you remember that time we went to Disneyland? These were not meant to start a conversation; they were more like musings. Lost in the geographies of his daydream, he would suddenly realize I was nearby, and so I became his temporary anchor to the waking world. I would answer with a simple Yes and then he’d drift into thought again. Except that on this second journey he would take me with him because indeed I did remember and so I followed him through the now-lighted corridors of memory.


Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kate Schmitt: STATIC SIGNALS: Alternative Structures in Nonfiction

Lately I’ve been concocting a theory about the relatively dramatic shifts within the creative nonfiction genre. Not that these types of changes are new; from the personal reportage that began as a way for journalists to convey more adequately the horrors of the Civil War (as opposed to simply recounting battle outcomes and numbers of the dead) to the New Yorker writers of the 1940s who wrote themselves into their pieces and felt it perfectly justified to create composite characters (Joseph Mitchell’s essay “Up In the Old Hotel” is a good example), the agreed-upon rules of nonfiction have changed over time—and continue to be controversial. But my thought is this: perhaps the shifts and development of the nonfiction genre can be seen as a way to address the need to create, in the words of essayist Susan Griffin, “another knowledge”—so that writers change the way material is read and subjects understood by transforming the mode of presentation.

Information theorists use the term “noise” to describe any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quality or quantity of information. Borrowing this idea may be useful, since a variety of contemporary nonfiction structures seem to strategically incorporate “noise.” The lyric essay is a prime example, making use as it often does of short sections separated by white space. As Brenda Miller writes in “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” the lyric essay “has been called disjunctive, paratactic, segmented, sectioned.”  At the beginning of a lyric essay, readers are set afloat on a sea of seemingly unconnected statements. It is only as they continue reading that the pieces begin to accrue meaning—meaning which is deepened by the white space that allows, and even requires, a certain element of participation from the reader.

A good example is Eula Biss’s essay “The Pain Scale,” one of the first I remember encountering. The essay is a meditation on pain, inspired in part by a physician’s request that she rate her chronic back pain on a scale from one to ten (one being no pain and ten being the “worst pain imaginable”). The impossibility of rating one’s pain will be obvious to anyone who’s been in this situation, but in the essay the difficulty is expressed in such compelling and expansive ways that the very conception of pain must be reconsidered. Biss uses the scale itself as part of the structure, moving from one through ten, so the small segments of text are further contextualized. But in keeping with Miller’s description, the essay often relies on gaps that the reader may enter in order to not only consider the gradations of pain, but also the crucial missing elements of the scale and the inherent political connotations of rating one’s pain. For example, having already introduced Dante in the first section—“The deepest circle of Dante’s inferno does not burn. It is frozen. In his last glimpse of hell, Dante looks back and sees Satan upside down through the ice” (Biss 29)—Biss then moves on to point out the problem of the pain scale being limited by one-dimensionality and its inability to take into account the length of time one has been in pain. Once again, she invokes hell:

The pain scale measures only the intensity of pain, not the duration. This may be its greatest flaw. A measure of pain, I believe, requires at least two dimensions. The suffering of Hell is terrifying not because of any specific torture, but because it is eternal.

So at first encounter, and during the first page or so of reading, a lyric essay makes use of disjunction, a form of “noise,” and incorporates disparate strands of narrative, information, and reflection. In this way, the form becomes participatory, allowing writers access to a wider variety of discursive modes and subject matter, and requiring the reader’s involvement in the analytic process.

However, with each subsequent encounter with a particular form, readers find similarities and adapt by constructing systems of interpretation; so as new structures become familiar and interpretive strategies become routine, writers must once again imagine new architectures. (I would add here that I see this as parallel to the development of poetry—from Walt Whitman’s free verse and T.S. Eliot’s fragmented lines combined with conventional forms (notably the sonnet) to e.e. cummings’ poems that break not only lines but also words and Susan Howe’s poems in That This, which are so fractured they are partially unreadable and rely on the book’s introduction to make sense.)

At this point in time, chronicling the variety of forms could go on for some time. Jenny Boully’s The Body is an essay completely constructed from footnotes. It can be an unsettling narrative to read, since one must imaginatively create the primary text by reading the secondary information a writer would deem worthy of a footnote. For example, the eighth footnote reads: “The confessions denoted here are lies, as it would be senseless to list my true regrets. The true regrets are indexed under the subject heading ‘BUT EVERYONE DIES LIKE THIS,’ found at the end of the text” (4). We understand from this (and the previous footnotes) that the primary text is likely a personal narrative that explores a relationship with a poet, as well as perhaps others. Boully does occasionally give the reader small hints for how to read her essay in her footnotes. In footnote nine, she writes, “Given this information, the definition of ‘footnote’ is of particular interest to the overall understanding of ‘bedlam.’ Consider, for instance, this denotation: n.2. Something related to but of lesser importance than a larger work or occurrence” (4). While directly addressing the form she uses, this footnote—nor, I think, the accrual of footnotes—does not provide a routine strategy for interpretation. The Body, then, might simply be a consistent and varying continuation of noise.

There are too many other examples to mention—Ann Carson’s “The Glass Essay” comes to mind, since it looks like a poem but “thinks” like an essay, turning over an idea and coming at it from many angles, careful with language but privileging the conceptual. Similarly, Eliot Weinberger’s “The Dream of India” is not a typical lyric essay, but does rely on short segments to come together to create the whole “dream” of the place. Perhaps it is our dreams that are the best model for this noise I’ve been describing, complicating our vision and insisting on constantly creating new architectures. Insisting, too, that we find new models of interpretation every time our internal noise is altered. 

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:

Biss, Eula. “The Pain Scale.” The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Michael Martone and Lex Williford. New York: Touchstone, 2007. 28–42. Print.

Boully, Jenny. The Body. Athens: Essay Press, 2007.

Griffin, Susan. “Red Shoes.” The Next American Essay. Ed. John D’Agata. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2003. 303–316. Print

Miller, Brenda. “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay.” Tell It Slant. Ed. Brenda Miller and Susan Paola. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. 233–234. Print. 

~ ~ ~

Kate Schmitt earned her M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Houston. She is a visual artist as well as a writer, and her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poets, for which she won an Editor’s Choice Prize. She has also published her visual and written work in literary journals, including Third Coast, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Literature. She grew up in New Hampshire and Hong Kong and now lives in Florida, where she teaches creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Steven Church: An Incomplete Taxonomy of “Normal” Essays, Past and Present

In preparing to write this post for Essay Daily I decided it might be a good idea to actually look again at The Normal School’s “Mission” statement and our “Submissions” page, all of which were written seven or so years ago, before we’d even printed an issue:
We dig quirky, boundary-challenging, energetic prose and poetry with innovations in content, form, and focus, which isn’t actually as high-falutin’ as it sounds. We’re just sort of the lit mag equivalent of the kid who always has bottle caps, cat’s eye marbles, dead animal skulls, little blue men and other treasures in his pockets.
We describe our tastes in nonfiction as follows:
We are particularly interested in essays that challenge established norms for the genre or that don’t seem to fit in easy categories of classification. We also like some more traditional sorts of essays and reportage. 
Mostly this still seems right to me. The Normal School publishes approximately 10-12 essays in every issue, or 20-25 every year, and we get hundreds of submissions. We are regularly described as “eclectic,” “quirky,” or “experimental,” and some of this is undoubtedly due to the above description of our general tastes, and some of it because we have done some “quirky” things in the past by publishing pieces like the transcript of an E-Bay auction, or a Google map essay, or an essay made up entirely of quotes from dead wrestlers; and one result of this is that people sometimes send us their cat’s eye marbles and dead animal skulls, or a sculpture made out of marbles and skulls and green plastic army men. In other words, we get quite a bit of “boundary challenging,” “eclectic” and “experimental” prose that is difficult to classify.

That being said, I thought I’d try, for the sake of this post, to classify some (not all) of the nonfiction that we’ve accepted for the magazine, both past and present. This taxonomy is not meant in any way as an exhaustive list of the kinds of essays we publish; it doesn’t really even come close to representing the diversity of voices, styles, forms, and subjects we’re looking for, but it’s at least an attempt, an essay of sorts on some of the things we tend to like in essays. Or it’s just a love letter to our contributors.

After each “category,” I’ve listed two or three (or more) essays from recent and past issues that could fit the classification. This, not surprisingly, was the hardest part since many (most) of these essays could be cross-listed in a couple of categories. I’ve also included the issue number where you can find the essays.

The NPR Driveway Moment Essay: This is the essay that grabs me from the first sentence, usually because of something unique about the voice and a palpable tension, a heat that radiates off the page, and it leaves me breathless. I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean I literally find myself holding my breath and have to pause to breathe, but I don’t stop reading until I’ve finished the whole thing (though there are often several moments during the rush of reading when I have to stop myself from emailing the author immediately and accepting the essay). But the experience is also tinged with the fear that the author is going to screw it up before I get to the end, or that the ending will turn in a wholly unsatisfying way. It’s like one of those stories you hear on NPR that keeps you captive in your car, sitting in your driveway or garage or parking space, waiting for the story to end but hoping it never does. And the car analogy here works two ways since these essays always have an internal engine that is constantly pegging the tachometer needle into the red; they rumble with energy. Sometimes the suspension in time—the driveway moment I’m talking--is a function of narrative skill, sustained tension, suspense and momentum; but more often it is a function of idea development and complication, the unfolding of the writer’s consciousness on the page in surprisingly satisfying ways. 

          Rachel Yoder’s “The Mindfuck” from the forthcoming TNS 13
          Andrew Cohen’s “In Search of Benny Paret” from TNS8, reprinted here on
          Todd Kaneko’s “The Manly Arts” from TNS10
          Margot Singer’s “Call it Rape” from TNS 9, reprinted here on
The Virus Essay: This is the essay that maybe takes me a little longer to read, in fits and starts, but something keeps pulling me back. It’s the essay that, initially, might be a bit outside my “wheelhouse” (what is a wheelhouse, anyway?) in terms of subject or form or style, one I have to read a couple of times before it begins to settle into my marrow and grey matter. I might not even “get” it at first, but it has what Sven Birkets called a “suggestive fog;” it’s an essay that lingers, lurking around in my subconscious and rising up again and again. For whatever reasons, it’s an essay that I can’t forget, and it won’t leave me alone, that infects my thoughts with its imagery and ideas. It’s an essay that makes me uncomfortable in the way that truly great art does. Sometimes it’s an essay that, at first, I think needs editing or revision and so I’ll start talking with other editors/readers about suggestions, try tinkering with it a bit, and then I realize that I’m just ruining what made the essay special. These are the essays that fit the “spider web” analogy, where the underlying structure is subtle and often invisible, but you can’t pluck one strand without the whole thing vibrating.

          Karen Hays’ “The Clockwise Detorsion of Snails” from TNS5
          Natalie Vestin’s “Unnatural Acts: a Primer” from the forthcoming TNS13
          Kim Dana Kupperman’s “An Occurrence at Avignon” TNS11
          Ander Monson’s “The Exhibit Will So Be Marked” from TNS9

The Messay: This is the essay that perhaps seems, at first, like a hot mess, maybe like three or four essays folded into one, or a puzzle the author hasn’t quite completed—but it would be also one of the most well written and interesting essays of the stack. This is the essay where you can see the author reaching, stretching, and the whole thing is in danger of spinning out of control, where what holds it together is its momentum, like the funnel of a tornado. Often the “messy” quality has to do with the different voices and sources the author is bringing to the subject at hand. Often it’s because the essay moves elliptically, even chaotically, or via echolocation, association and juxtaposition, risking the leap between seemingly disparate subjects or ideas, but always transporting me as a reader. These are often my favorite essays to read and publish, and I find myself regularly encouraging my students to write “messays,” because they’re just fun and slightly dangerous.

          Dickson Lam’s “The Key to the Combination” from the forthcoming TNS 13
          Ben Miller’s “In Search of Hickey’s Havana” from TNS 3
          Eric Freeze’s “Bolt” from TNS 6
The Substitute Teacher Essay: This is the essay that shows up unexpected at my desk and teaches me something new about the world or about myself, the essay that surprises me with interesting or unusual facts, artfully deployed. This is the essay that suddenly makes me an expert on toast additives, the Rebel Yell, mollusks, or Rodeo Queens and gives me great stories to tell at parties; but its also an essay that takes facts and research and uses them in service of exploring larger ideas and emotional space. Every one of Joe Bonomo’s music columns teaches me something about music and surprises me, not just with the odd fact but also with the way he combines these facts with personal revelation and reflection or argument, all of it filtered through Bonomo’s unique voice. His columns are about music and memory, nostalgia and coincidence, history and our present predicament, and to even call Bonomo’s pieces “columns” doesn’t really capture the essayistic quality of his writing about music or his ability to both teach and surprise you as a reader—because it is this element of surprise that keeps a “teaching” moment on the page from feeling didactic and preachy.

          Joe Bonomo’s “Don’t You Know That It’s True?” from the forthcoming TNS13
          RB Moreno’s “The Hair in Your Texas Toast” from TNS4, forthcoming this Fall on
          Elena Passarello’s “How to Spell the Rebel Yell” from TNS4, forthcoming this Fall on
          Bethany Nitz-Maile’s “Anything Will Be Easy After This” from the forthcoming TNS13


Steven Church is a founding editor of The Normal School and also serves as one of their Nonfiction Editors. His newest book, a collection of essays titled, Ultrasonic, will be released in December 2015 by Lavender Ink. He can be found online at

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Erik Shonstrom: In Memoriam: Killing the Academic Essay

Anyone can write an essay.

At least, that’s the implicit assumption in high school and college classrooms. It’s the default assignment, possibly because the essay is so conducive as a vehicle for expression—its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. The personal essay—even with its black-tie guise as the formal ‘academic essay’—is the most readily available form of writing as its genesis is simply the individual expressing ideas. It’s the form that most closely resembles the voice in our heads. Yet it’s also the most difficult type of writing to do well, since writing an essay that speaks urgently from the page—that forces or compels us to reckon with its existence—is akin to passing a driving test with eyes closed: we have to draw on everything we know and remember and also have faith and luck. The essay has become the common currency in school because we’ve developed a cultural belief—either mistakenly or not—that anyone who reads and writes can sit down and pound out a few paragraphs in the first person that interestingly or meaningfully deal with some topic or theme or idea.

I teach writing at a small New England college. I often find myself in bemused, harumphing conversation with other professors; we sit around lamenting the poor quality of student writing, sagely shaking our shaggy, pedantic heads and bemoaning the lack of insight and poise and depth—that word gets thrown around more than Frisbees on the quad—in student writing. It’s not our fault, of course; it’s just that student essays are so thin; dashed off with syntax that’s desperately in need of repair. We can’t even begin to edit developmentally—critically guiding them in constructing arguments—because we’re hung up on fixing grammar, spelling, and tense.

It’s not our fault they can’t write—is it?

Montaigne—who gave equal literary calibration to essays dealing with the political mores of 16th century France and his own farts, thereby codifying that the essay, when properly handled, can approach any subject—was 38 when he started writing. He pioneered an approach that has been replicated with success in myriad forms for almost 500 years: braiding self-reflection, personal experience, literary snippets, and historical context to get at some larger idea or question. It’s a tried and true technique, and one that can be taught. But that’s not really what we want from our essays or our students—didactic follow-through. The thing we want—if we’re honest with ourselves—is that essay that comes at us with a piercing, alley-cat caterwaul that wakes us at night; whispers seductively so we can’t help but acquiesce; nags at us for weeks after we’ve read it, insisting upon contemplation. What we don’t want from the essay is obedience.

Montaigne had lived his whole life—in terms of 16th century life expectancies—before he began writing. E.B. White’s famous essay ‘Once More to the Lake’ was written after White had been both a son and a father and visited the lake in Maine as both—it was the result of multiple incarnations of a life lived.

The essay is the most geologic of genres—it takes time, pressure, and the landscape scouring passage of epochs. I don’t think it’s coincidence that John McPhee wrote his epic study of United States geological history, Annals of the Former World, as a series of linked essays. All writing takes time, but the essay seems particularly well-suited to the sort of historical condensing and finely tuned insight built from sedimentary layers as time passes.

This is not to say that essays can’t be written in bursts—they can—only that taking time to wander around thinking about the world within the words is helpful, as is the passage of time that contributes perspective to both thought and event. For some of us, it’s a necessary function in writing essays.

I ask my students to write essays—due next week!—and either consciously or unconsciously judge them according to my own running list of what I consider to be exemplars of the form; Wallace’s ‘Consider the Lobster,’ Smith’s ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ Birkerts’ ‘The Other Walk.’ I’ve asked for an essay, but not provided the necessary ingredients—time; the vital compression of memory that leads to heat. I shouldn’t be surprised when they hand in dreck.

It’s not necessarily that our students are worse writers than previous generations. It’s a consistent myth that the current college generation is a bunch of texting, Tumblr obsessed non-writers. What is true—at least anecdotally—is that writing as a means of expression has changed structurally for the twenty-something set. Not all of them—there are students where I teach who hole up with novels and essay collections and work on setting down words one at a time to wrestle life into meaning. There are also those that have never read a book in their lives, but most populate the middle of that spectrum; Harry Potter and Hunger Games aficionados who begrudgingly churn out thousand word essays and resignedly read PDFs of Virginia Woolf and Geoff Dyer and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But based on my own admittedly provincial sample, students have moved away from the continuum those of us over the age of thirty are used to. As Ander Monson has noted, the essay is now game, hack, fragment—it is everything and anything that ventures forth. The medium has changed—now we all live our lives as writers online to a certain extent—and we know what McLuhan said. As a result, the essay has changed too—there are new hybrids and mutations that challenge our notion of what an essay is. Which is as it should be.

The role of a writing teacher is both proactive—we need to get our students to see essays and poems and stories the way we see them in order to give them a springboard for their own take on things—but it’s also reactive. We should respond to the way writing is changing by examining the way we teach—and the world within which we do.

Reading and writing essays will always be a boutique experience. It’s hard to find someone in daily life who cares enough to argue about the legitimacy of John D’Agata’s narrative hijinks in About a Mountain. But essays will always be valid because they are—ultimately—reflective both of our internal terrain and the world around us. Regardless of how the world we live in changes and becomes inundated by binary codes and screens, essays can morph right along with it—they are reflective at their core. Essays absorb change. They’re limber.

If we want better writers—and more voracious and demanding readers—then we have to recognize that the dreaded five paragraph academic essay can’t compete with the digital written landscape our students inhabit. But other adventurous forms can.

When we don’t think about what we mean when we say ‘essay,’ we set our students up for failure when we ask them to write them. Better to look at ‘dispatches’ from The Common Online, or pieces that appear in Brevity. These staccato bursts of prose—essayistic snapshots—are more in tune with the fractured idea-world inhabited by our students and ourselves (see here: Twitter, Snapchat, Imgur, Reddit, Instagram, texting). What is essential as a starting point for young writers is not form or formality but a conscious lack thereof. The essay serves as a means of exploration, and whether it’s a rough-hewn dugout canoe or a speedboat, all we need to do is get our students and ourselves navigating upriver to the source of our collective experience.


Erik Shonstrom has an MFA in nonfiction from Bennington College, and teaches writing and rhetoric at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. He has been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Circumference, and elsewhere. He can be reached at