Monday, August 31, 2015

Dissociation Versus Distance--Nicole Walker

Sometimes, I read student essays that remind me of sitting on the bus, next to a very chatty person, who tells me about her relationship to the chair she’s sitting on (she once sat on a seat similar to this when she was visiting her friend Jane who had cancer but now she doesn’t) or  her belief about stop signs (why so many? Do we have to stop? What about those cars just running through?) the time she stopped at the store we’re passing (7-11, 99 cents for three hot dogs) or the hat of the guy sitting in front of us (is it beige? Or gray? Or beige gray?).
            I care about her story because I like my students and I care because people are generally interesting, but “thoughts while riding the bus” is not an essay yet. Until she can see me as audience, she can’t make me care about the bus situation. And, until she sees herself as a character on a bus, explaining to me why she’s talking to me, she won’t be able to see me at all.

            Writers live in their heads but that’s the problem. No one wants to be in anyone’s head for very long. Or in their hearts. They are sad. I understand. I am sad too. They are in love. So am I. They are not sure if this choice was the right one, if their parents were good or bad, if their writing reaches anyone at all. Neither am I. We are sad. We are in love. We are not sure.  But that’s not quite enough to make an essay. We want to feel it like you feel it and this means that you can’t be you, writey one, any more. You have to put yourself in a character on the page if you’re going to affect the reader in the way that you have been affected. For this to happen, you need distance between yourself narrator and yourself character on the page. It’s ironic that to get the reader closer to you, character, the narrator ‘you’  has to step away.

            I tell my students, put your body in a place. The idea that they separate the subject (themselves) from the direct object (themselves) begins the process of separation. That moving the body around like it’s a mannequin on display is the first step in getting the reader to see the narrator as a human. For some reason, telling someone you are sad does not make you seem human or make you seem sad. It makes you seem boring. Who isn’t sad? Get over it. I am sooooo sad, I can hear the junior high school boys mocking.
            You cannot feel sorry for yourself. Maybe the best thing is to lie to yourself on the page. Maybe sadness begins there, with the language.
            “I was so happy. You could tell by the way my eyes flipped up toward the ceiling. On the ceiling was the happiness, writ large, like a cupcake. All things good are ceilinged and cupcaked. You cannot tell me differently. I walked to the edge of the kitchen. There is no sadness in corners.”

            You turn yourself into two people. The straightforward talking narrator and the action-filled character.  You make space between the narrator “I” who says, “We all had so much fun making cookies” and the way you move your character “I” across the floor, “I still like to think of myself as the one everyone picked on, even though it was I, who, at four, walked over to where my two year old brother was sitting on the floor and hit him over the head with the rolling pin. Not the plastic one.”
            The reader, with the narrator, believes people want to be good. But that same reader, reading the scene, second guesses the narrator. She wants to put her hand between the narrator’s rolling pin and the brother’s head while, at the same time, remembers bonking her own little brother on the head for being too cute too. She empathizes with the narrator. She also feels sorry for the brother. She sees the narrator’s point of view. People want to be good. Sometimes, they are not. The reader, in the space between character, narrator, and brother, sees her point.  

            The site, as well as the sight, of the body is a catalyst for empathy. What reader doesn’t have a body? Make them feel that rolling pin in their hand, that bonk upon the head.  By putting distance in between the narrator and the character brings the reader in closer.

            But sometimes the writer, in order to get to the narrator, even before she can get to the character, must employ more drastic artifice. There are difficult things to talk about, like brothers and rolling pins, and then there are impossible things to talk about like rape and torture and murder. And for the essay, because the narrator is part of the scene, how they treat the matter is not only an aesthetic problem but an ethical one. How do you put your story on the page so that it is visible while still making sure there’s room for the reader to breathe, respond, to understand that you, writer, created this art, this artifice, gave this an affect, while still experiencing the actual pain. The reader needs space to turn around. It can’t all be aestheticized or it will read as artifice because then the lyricism is only a non-reactive spackle on the drywall of the reader—no longer active for the narrator/character/writer. And if lyricism is only catharsis for the writer, then it’s not writing, it’s therapy.
            My friend and colleague, Laura Gray-Rosendale’s book, College Girl, came out last year. The book is divided in half. The first half recounts her rape experientially, in scene. The second half situates the rape in terms of how to write about rape and what strategies she used to both convey the actual violence and the difficulty of writing about it. More than using distance, she dissociates, even on the page. The narrator/character is both in her dorm room and outside of it. She writes about the narrator/character in the third person, “The college girl gags.” She, the narrator, zooms out while the narrator/character also zooms away. How will she survive this rape? The same way she will survive writing this scene. At the end of the scene, she dissociates, nearly disappears. “The college girl’s breathings harder now. She tries to jostle her sock from her mouth. Tears are caterpillaring down the college girl’s cheeks. She sucks at the air from her mouth corners. She extends her neck toward the streetlight. Delicate spidery rainbows shimmer before her, jump rope along her lashes. And she’s sure. There’s never been anything more magnificent, more full of glorious-dazzling, fairy light magic—never been a more heavenly beautiful. Am I dead? The college girl wonders (25).
            The narrator and the writer are both up in the streetlight looking down at the body of the woman being raped. They all had to get away from her to see it. They all had to get away from her to experience it. To remember it. And to write about it. She ends the chapter writing in merely fragments: “i. am. over.” Three periods between three words. No capital letters. The narrator, character, and writer are simultaneously completely absent and completely present. Perhaps you can only get a whole experience through self-annihilating effects.
            In part two of her book, Laura, having spent years writing and revising the book, having become a professor of rhetoric, having written scholarly articles on the rhetoric of trauma, says of the experience writing the book that she had to write the rape scene 20 times before getting it right. She wrote it with standard narrative distance but that seemed stilted and over-tidy. An arm’s length narrative aestheticized the scene, thereby anesthetizing the reader. She also wrote it entirely in fragmented sentences, no capital letters, but that seemed too affected, too lyrical to actually put the body on the page.
            Finally, after 19 revisions, in her twentieth she came across combination of scene-setting, reader-orienting distance and lyrical, affected, literal, even psychotropic dissociation that made it possible for the writing to be effective, having made a place for the reader to both see and experience.

In working on this essay, I realized I have three separate essays called Dissociation. One is about owls and sex and my daughter and how weird it is that you can roll around naked on the bed with your kid and have not even a sexual thought but if you think about not having thoughts, let yourself think that it’s weird that you’re thinking about how weird it is, that you immediately have to get up from the bed and put clothes on. The minute you see yourself seeing yourself, you can begin to extrapolate some meaning. Here’s a bit from the essay:
I lie on the bed with Zoë who is asleep and smell her hair and think, it’s because I’m her mom that I can do this. I can stroke her arm. I can kiss her neck. There is a reason I can do this, I justify. I’m her mom. But that thought makes me dissociate. I hover above and see myself kissing her and it looks weird: too intimate.  I scoot over, move away. Was this moving away the beginning of the gap? Is it my own nervousness this is where there would be space enough for someone else to move in and make her body familiar? Her familiar body was mine, cultivated by me. But someone else will find it wild and want to make it theirs. I would have done anything if she would stay three years old and under the crook of my arm forever but my arm would cramp and her head would itch and we’d both start talking about our favorite foods and get hungry and have to get up. Our bodies usually win these arguments.

            In another essay, called Dissociation about how we can eat meat even after we’ve looked the cow in the eye. I write how we have to dissociate one experience from another so we can live with ourselves and eat our meat. Hypocritically, dissociatively, we can do it all. Here’s a little excerpt from that essay.
Hamburger is muscle turned to vegetable. You don’t want to think muscle. You want to chew very little. You want to swallow before you can think about the sad doe eyes. In the face of the accusing animal, you can solidly deny you knew what you were doing.
But what’s worse.?Finding joy in licking the rib clean? Of polishing the bone? Or letting the process happen behind closed doors for you by a grinder, a man in a once-white apron, by knives and forks not your own. You brought only your mouth to the table but it masticates to the same beat as mine.

And the third essay is about suicide and dissociation—how too much dissociation can lead you to see yourself as completely separate from the world and from yourself and that artists, especially one’s writing their self-portraits, have to remind themselves to stitch themselves back into the whole scene once in a while. From the essay:

             In 1948, Sir Fred Hoyle said, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” The first astronaut to get above the earth, to look back upon it to say, that is we. We are they. The whole of humanity in his lens. He tried to hold all the humanity, to hold it perfect and steadily with his Nikon. But the earth is more fragile than that. The pictures of the earth taken in 1969 will not be the same as the pictures taken in 2014. You can see the Kennecott Copper Mine’s swath cut into space. You can see brown where the once green Amazon rain forest used to be. Where once were sheets of ice, now blues of sea.
            That ability to dissociate—to look from above. You think it would make us save ourselves but like the art of the suicides, maybe the picture postcard was just that. A postcard. A memory trapped by a stamp.

Dissociation happens at interludes, after moments of too intense, close-up emotional work. Distance comes from tone—a kind of tone that is flat throughout the piece. Dissociation can become distance if it’s practiced throughout the whole of the piece. In Brenda Miller’s short essay Swerve, she is distant at first, telling us a narrative with normal-length sentences from a detached point of view. But once the second paragraph begins and the sentences get crazy long and intense, the narrator is no longer just distant, she has changed from distant to dissociated. We read by the end of the essay how: she gained distance through repetition and over time, effected by long sentences, and now the last line of the essay takes us back to the title and first line to re-read, to re-see how the narrator had to leave, get away, re-see herself to write the first paragraph that got her to her second. She had to dissociate to see herself in between the first and second paragraph.. If she had been merely distant, she would have remained the same across the essay. Because she dissociated, she not only could see the change, she could effect the change.

            Back on the bus, we need to see that change. The chatty talker seeing herself, and then, maybe even seeing herself see herself, a meta moment where she asks, what am I doing on the bus? Why is Nicole here with me? Then there will be some distance, an expectation that I, reader, know why it matters. Until the dissociation happens, until the writer actually comes on to the page and does some writerly work, like put the character in a streetlight or put the mom naked on the bed or swirl the sentences like toilet water, the reader is not sure where we’re going. In Laura Gray-Rosendale’s book, the point of the book is dissociation. She separated from the world. She could see herself. The act of writing herself helped stitch herself back into the world. In Brenda Miller’s Swerve, the writer comes in and messes up the light bulbs and the light from the window and the light from the brakes on the car until her piled up images let her see herself.  The narrator-character is transformed because the writer broke completely, at least for a moment, from the narrator-character. Now, as she returns to the end of the essay, she’s returned herself to herself. Now, thanks to distance, less extreme than dissociation, we know how she is changed. 

            On the bus, the bus rider sees the things she passes but she doesn’t see herself sitting there talking to me. If she saw herself talking to me, she’d tell me why she’s telling me about the hot dogs. They remind her of the time when she was ten and she ate fourteen in a row. This would be distance which is the first step toward perspective. If then, she started comparing the rigors of bus-riding, all that people talking, store watching, intersection crossing with the difficulty of talking to another person on the bus while remembering the difficulty of swallowing that last hot dog and how, if you really think about it, we are all on the bus all the time, all swallowing our words and our hot dogs, waiting to get off so we can get back on and tell that story of the last bus ride to a new bus rider then the bus rider would be dissociating, and thus, be writing an essay.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Writing Your Own Truth

In this first installment of Writing The Ellipsis writer César Díaz explores a memoirist’s struggle between having a unique artistic vision while adhering to factual truth. Should one have to? And what is the reader’s role in all of this?

“Write your truth and the reader gotta figure it out.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates

Since memoir is itself a narrative art, one that relies on the shaping of the memoirists’ vantage point to show a distinct experience, then the challenge the memoirist faces is to figure out a way to have a reader’s overall trust. The construction of narrative out of one’s past, the creation of characters out of people one knows, their placement in a reimagined world, is as Michael Ondaatje refers to as an “improvisation” that contains elements of “history, fantasy, [and] fact” and thus an unreliable form. The argument that often comes up when discussing memoir and memory, its allegiance to the facts and truth, shouldn’t be about what’s factual (true) and fictionalized (untrue), but an argument about the readers’ suspension of disbelief. That’s the fiction writer’s largest task, to craft a story out of nothing and demand that readers give in. But this is our task too! Yet, the memoirist grapples with having an artistic vision and a presumed obligation to truth. Like the literary essay, the memoir not only attempts self-inquiry but also seeks a deeper meaning within a lived experience. This meaning remains selective no matter how much fact is used, therefore rendering it nearly impossible to adhere to a singular truth. This is why the memoirist must craft their own truth with an authentic honest voice and trust that readers give in to the journey.

By “crafting,” I mean that the memoirist actively manipulates past experiences, displaying them for a reader in ways that shows the author has willingly sought a deeper significance. Most readers are willing to accept an author’s intent as long as they don’t feel slighted or duped. Readers of memoirs come to them for a great story, but also seek to understand the author’s sensibility by tracking how they arrived at their truth. But as an aspiring memoirist, how does one balance honoring truth while incorporating one’s inventive narrative and still engaging a readers’ belief?

When I first began to write the very first iteration of my family’s story in graduate school, my workshop mates likened what I wrote to a sort of “myth-making,” where my life as a migrant farm-working child was elevated as a method for detaching myself from an overall reality. Since I lived inside books and in my head, my childhood perspective that told the story wasn’t actual but an imagined reality assumed in order to impart a way of life rarely shared in literature. My workshop readers never questioned my truth or its basis in an authentic reality. This shocked me because I felt what I had written was almost entirely out of improvisation that felt like fiction to me. In the writing of the narrative, I never bothered to check details with my family or check that it held to some verifiable truth. What I understood as I wrote was that my story existed within me. The memories were how I remembered them, yet I felt ashamed and confused. They were my stories and my truth after all and for me that was enough. But once it became public, despite that it was only shared within the confines of a writing workshop, I was struck with dread. I felt so indebted to upholding the truth that I felt like a hack. This anxiety struck me to the point that I stopped writing in fear that the nonfiction police were out to get me.

Years later, as I returned to complete my memoir, I felt the duty to build a narrative out of my childhood experiences that was cemented on solid fact. I sat my parents down one summer afternoon and drilled them with questions, many of which were meant to help gain a larger perspective on the situations and circumstances that I remembered as a child. What I discovered was that everything I was brought up in understanding about myself and my brothers, my mother and father, and how we elected to follow the migrant circuit across United States for the first twelve years of my life—all of it was wrong. Then when I approached my brothers, both who were far older than me at the time, with my findings, their take on what they recalled led me to more confusion. All of a sudden that life story I had been telling myself since I was a kid, that made me who I am now, was somehow now fractured and flawed.

I found myself at another impasse, but this time I embraced Ondaatje’s idea of a constructed self, one that told a narrative through improvisation, relying on the things that struck with me throughout my childhood: my imagination, the migrant fields, and books. If my memoir embraces its unreliable form, then the way I get closer to charting my personal history of how it felt for me at the time was to write it as imperfectly authentic as I could. Even if it means that my singular truth is one that recedes and melts away. Not a lie, but an alternate take. But are readers willing to accept this imagined reality?

One of the first things I wrote addressed this very impasse:
“I wonder is imagination not apt for memoir? Can [memoirists] use imagination as a way to chart experience? I did so as a child and find now doing so again. Was the alternate reality I had in my mind not valid, even when I lived and understood the world through it? Then, these pages, my words, story and life is my attempt at fusing those selves: imagination boy, the migrant boy, and later on in childhood, the scholarship boy.”
 Recently, Vivian Gornick discussed the legitimacy of the memoir as an artful form that “must be composed” to deliver on narrative drive rather than factuality. Gornick sees the memoirist as having full responsibility of shaping their experience in any way as long as the author’s intent remains genuine and everything isn’t made up. She calls on us to acknowledge the memoir as containing this crucial element. She further suggests that this genre is in need of an “educated readership,” one that understands that the author is the narrator while excitedly and willingly giving in to the world and perspective the way readers of novels do. The key is for memoirists to free themselves from that obligation to a singular truth and embrace the genre as the form that is dependent on the author’s artistic vision to arrive at a personal truth.

Thus far, changing this mindset in myself has set me free, to speculate within my imagined spaces, to find meaning within my three selves, to explore that fractured life experience, arriving somewhere between personal history, imagination, and fact. Unreliable, yes, but as the poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez once said, “[Truth in memory] has become more real—no, it is not truth, it is experience—human, imperfect, and beautiful.”

César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. His essays and other think pieces have been published in Guernica and Essay Daily, where he is now a featured columnist. He is also writing a memoir about his experiences as migrant farm worker in the 1980s.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On New England Review's nonfiction and taking the long view

New England Review’s approach to nonfiction is a little unusual. When you turn to the table of contents you see headings for Fiction and Poetry, but there’s also a whole assortment of other categories, among them Provocations, Reflections, Rediscoveries, Testimonies, and Investigations. Also: Film, Art, Music. (We’ve recently added the word Nonfiction, like an umbrella above them, so readers can more quickly take in the landscape.) The reason for so many headings is that there are so many different kinds of nonfiction, with different purposes and priorities, and many of those appear in NER.

As editor of this journal for the past 1.5 years (and prior to that managing editor for 10), I’ve embraced this longstanding, rangy approach to nonfiction, while no doubt interpreting it according to my own sensibilities and in response to changes in the art of nonfiction itself. Like Stephen Donadio before me, I aim to have what we call “meaty, third-person” essays as well as “lyric,” first-person, or interpretive essays in every issue. We—that is, nonfiction editor J. M. Tyree, a small group of astute readers, and I—are always on the lookout for essays to which our immediate response is yes, we must have this!, but also for essays that have at their core something arresting, something we’ve never heard before, though it might still need to be teased out through revision and editing. When we encounter an essay whose subject matter intrigues us, whose ideas are bright and moving, we are willing to edit. We do edit. We love working with authors to fine-tune their vision for a great work of nonfiction.

What we get in nonfiction submissions (which are far fewer in number than in the other genres) tends toward the personal essay or memoir, and to balance it out we often go beyond that field, ears to the ground, to find essays on other subjects, from other worlds of expertise. In addition, we encourage writing that looks outward through our NER Digital series “Confluences,” which presents writers’ responses to other works of art (with “art” loosely interpreted) in brief essays online. Basically the guidelines say, Put yourself in the picture, but put something else in there too.

When I first considered working at New England Review, what most thrilled me about the prospect was the sense that I’d always be learning new things, and not just about the art of fiction and poetry, which are absolutely central to the magazine and to my own passions, but also about, say, Neil Young’s guitar solos, Hannah Arendt’s deep and complicated friendships, and the 19th-century practice of “bundling.” Without being an expert or an academic in the areas of philosophy, history, and music, I could still access those areas of inquiry and apply their ideas to my own growing and always-changing understanding of life on earth. And so I want reading New England Review always to give the reader a sense of discovery—who knew that certain salamanders hold an annual nuptial dance known as “Big Night,” and that our most famous Flemish painters were once considered crude? An opportunity for inquiry—how is the chambered nautilus related to the art of collage, and is age a function of time or is age what gives time a measure of reality? And possibilities for self-interpretation—what do I lose if I gain my sense of hearing, and what have I really learned from reading the “great books”? We’re not looking for a catalogue of intriguing facts that we could just as well find in a quick Google search; we’re looking for a human mind at work with those facts, deciphering patterns, probing its own responses, going out into the world and bringing back treasure.

Given the variety and abundance of material available to writers of nonfiction, and given the shifty nature of memory and reality itself, there’s still an awful lot of room for imagination in nonfiction writing. Even language that appears utterly transparent has something up its sleeve. The degree to which imagination is involved varies greatly in nonfiction, of course: very little imagination is permitted in, say, an instruction booklet; very much goes into figuring out, for example, how to best tell the story of one’s own past in relation to racial segregation or why a certain passage from Proust continues to haunt and provoke us.

Because nonfiction slides back and forth on a continuum with “just the facts” at one end and imagination at the other, and because writing itself is both a tool at the disposal of every literate person and a medium for creating art, it’s hard to draw a line at what is “literary” nonfiction vs. what is not. What distinguishes the kind of nonfiction you find in NER from reportage, from op-ed? In an attempt to define literary nonfiction for our magazine, I’d say that it must be interesting to non-specialists and beyond our current moment. Nonfiction in NER might have something to say about a specific event—current or otherwise—or about esoteric subject matter, but if it succeeds it will still be of interest to readers in 15 or 150 years, as more than just an artifact of a moment in time, and to people who haven’t given much thought to that subject before. We are all specialists in our current moment, after all, and good writing can take its readers beyond its field of specialty even as it engages it. There are plenty of outlets for news, facts, and opinion writing, which is very important writing indeed; but writing in NER takes a longer view.

While not every issue contains every category of nonfiction—we only have so much room, and a great “Letter from American Places” only comes along once a year or so—every issue does contain a ranging variety of nonfiction, sliding back and forth on that fact/imagination continuum and covering a lot of territory in terms of subject matter.

Take our current issue, just as an example.

• Marianne Boruch talks about poetry, Sherlock Holmes, a cadaver lab, and how poetry is a kind of diagnosis for what ails us.
• Camille T. Dungy visits a small town in Maine with her baby and, being the only black person for miles around, is treated with utmost civility, to the point that it takes twice as long to go from point A to point B; at the same time she examines Maine’s anti-slavery history and eats a whoopie pie.
• William Ralph Inge (who is no longer with us, as this is a “Redisovery” from the 19th century) looks at Rome under the Caesars, which is eerily like China today, or is it more like the United States?
• James Naremore hurries right past the iconic Citizen Kane to bring us news of Orson Welles’s other passions: teaching, documentaries, and Shakespeare for kids.
• Jeff Staiger, who has read and absorbed and clearly loves David Foster Wallace, tries to figure out how the late, unfinished The Pale King was to have trumped the magnum opus, Infinite Jest.
• Chinese author Wei An, by way of translation by Thomas Moran, observes the minutia of his surroundings, the bees, the sparrows, the sunrise, having absorbed Thoreau in Chinese translation and lived through an era of great environmental change.
• Wendy Willis goes to Alcatraz to check out Ai Weiwei’s show about surveillance and human rights, and in the bright blocks of Lego and the spectacle of it all recognizes the limitations of art at this scale and how it relates to the limitations of democracy.
• And finally, Eric Wilson recalls his time, years ago, as an interpreter/escort for Faeroese poet, a guest of the United States, with whom he shared no language, and who did not speak academese as expected, and who made himself far too familiar with the hotel mini-bar.

And that’s just one issue: up next, we’ve got Anglophone Indian author Mukund Belliappa on tiger-hunting in the colonial period; German-American novelist Ursula Hegi on finding the fiction in the facts; and French historian and scholar Paula Schwartz on her friendship with Fanny Dutet, a Jewish Communist activist in the French Resistance.

All of us literary magazine editors get excited about good writing that grabs us with an unusual voice or irresistible subject matter, but we also recognize that a slow burn can have just as much payoff, and often more. An article on Buzzfeed about, say, ten ways to be happy, might have an enticing immediacy and even a compelling first sentence, but it will likely have been written by an exec in search of clicks and will leave you empty-handed. In NER, we want to give our readers more than just bright and shiny objects with which to fritter away their time. We want to give them something to take away, a reading experience that rewards their attention and effort and offers an opportunity for absorption. When reading submissions, we might not immediately recognize what’s happening in a given piece, but we’ll read on to find out what the author is up to. If it fails to deliver we’ll turn it down. If it builds, we’ll shape it into the pages of NER, and if you find it there we promise it’ll be worth your time.

Carolyn Kuebler is the editor of New England Review. Before coming to NER as managing editor in 2004, she was an associate book reviews editor at Library Journal and founding editor of Rain Taxi. She has published fiction and criticism in various magazines, including the Common, Copper Nickel, and Conduit.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Richard Gilbert: Teaching Memoir 3.0

Teaching memoir 3.0

Structuring a memoir-writing class by focusing on essay structures.


I blogged last year about teaching memoir by emphasizing the essentials of persona, scene, and structure. Except now I list and teach scene first because students get voice faster—essentially persona, the writer now, talking to us about the past—but many need help understanding how and why to dramatize, to make scenes. So SPS: scene, persona, structure. From the start, this gives us a shared vocabulary. To understand scene, for instance, you must understand summary—and often students who have written vivid summary think they’ve written scene.

That’s the thing about teaching writing: you must teach so much at once. You hope that by providing good models for students, they will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college-level junior and senior students in “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” said they wished that I’d emphasized structures earlier.

So, this time, I have. Structure, the shaped mode of presentation, excites students. They see how it can help them crack open their material, cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I have shown students: braiding (Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always astonishes everyone), framing (a favorite new essay is Kelly Sundberg’s “The Sharp Point in the Middle”); collage (“Documents” by Charles D'Ambrosio); and Hermit Crabs, among them Pir Rothenberg’s funny “Woman Told,” made from women’s OkCupid dating profiles, which also shows the closeness of nonfiction and poetry. Next we’re looking at segmentation, probably reading Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Lee Martin’s “All Those Fathers That Night,” and Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” the latter a Hermit Crab as well, taking as it does an alphabetical list for its structure.

My shift in approach has caused me to realize that I can structure my next class by following writing structures. After the first month’s focus on the Big Three of scene, persona, and structure, we can take a structure a week, before turning, say, to a theme such as “The Pains and Joys of Others.” For that, we can read the greatest American essay, James Baldwin’s immortal “Notes of a Native Son,” which revisits the framed structure; and Brian Doyle’s powerful flash essay “Leap,” about 9/11; and Ryan Van Meter’s “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” also a great example of second-person address. We could finish the semester with “You in Real Time,” which might include Moore’s witty “Mick on the Make,” Jill Christman’s deft “Family Portrait,” which as a bonus is in third person, and Elizabeth Kavitsky’s “Winter Just Melted.” I could have them read Brenda Miller’s flash essay “Swerve” as well. (I must figure out where or if to consider separately flash essays, which intrigue students almost as much as structure does.)

You can drive yourself crazy trying to match stated weekly themes with example essays. But what seals the deal for me is how the stated theme plus examples can support my weekly writing prompt. Under “The Pains and Joys of Others,” I could give them a standby, a prompt to write about an odd person they’ve known; under “You in Real Time” I could ask them to write about “Me, Now,” as in Kavitsky’s post-college self-portrait, or have them write an apology to someone, whether sincere or, as in “Swerve,” facetious and dripping with scorn. (99 percent of undergraduates take the latter option, which is fun—but makes the heartfelt exception doubly affecting.)

To appreciate my breakthrough, it might help to know that my “Writing Life Stories” class meets in person once a week and that the syllabus lists a different theme for each week. For instance, Week 11 is themed “Dramatic tension, foreshadowing cont.,” and Week 12 is listed as “Language, Tone, Style, Humor.” At the time I slapped such headings on the syllabus I suppose I thought that so saying meant so doing. But, in practice, those categories are at once too weighty and too vague for me. Or maybe it’s just that they don’t work as organizing principles, to me too recipe-ish—“stir in some foreshadowing and add a pinch of humor”—when I tend to underscore the overall container for a story, its structure, and then turn to elements of its content.

As in writing, there’s what you think you might do and what you find yourself doing. Maybe it boils down simply to this: I can’t wait to share certain essays with students. By categorizing them according to structure, probably starting with the chronological, I space my favorites throughout the semester.

This plan will, in some sense, fail. But it will help the course, and me as a teacher, evolve.


Richard Gilbert ( is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, fatherhood, and farming. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Orion, River Teeth, and Utne Reader. He teaches writing at Otterbein University.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Franklin Strong on Wendell Berry & reclaiming Nature

At the start of the summer of 2010, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I sent out an email to everyone I know: Hey, I need work. I’ll do anything. Got any ideas?

The boss of my sister-in-law responded: I have a ranch that’s overgrown and needs tending. The work is literally backbreaking, but if you’re interested meet me at the Wal-Mart on 71 tomorrow at 6 am and we’ll drive out there.

He needed someone to clear the land of cedar, agarita, and cactus, to make it better grazing for cattle and to help the grass and the oak trees thrive. So that’s what I’ve done for basically the entire course of my PhD program, at every summer and winter break, and odd weekends in the fall and spring. Though I’ve done some of the work with a chainsaw, the majority has been done with stone-age tools: shovel, ax, and pick. I chop the cedar trees, hack the agarita from under its roots, and dig out the cactus with a shovel. Then I throw it all into the back of the twenty-five-year-old Chevy I borrow from my boss and drive it to piles to be burned later. Sometimes I get to burn those piles; sometimes, for a “break,” I get to do odd jobs around the 150-year-old ranch house, like paint the trim or fix the doors on the toolsheds when they’ve warped.

In a real sense, my writing grew up around my work out there. When I first started working at the ranch, same-sex marriage and contraception were hot topics, and my conservative Catholic friends on Facebook were debating and pointing me to blogs and articles, and I was getting into long combox debates about the subject. At home in Austin I’d print out the blog posts and articles from journals like First Things and The Public Discourse, and I’d check out the books they’d recommend, and I’d take them along with me to the ranch to read during my water-breaks. Then I’d scribble my responses in a notebook I kept with me in the truck. Sometimes, if I was feeling hot enough about what I had to say, I would drive into town (30 minutes away) during my midday break, head to Fredericksburg Coffee & Tea (which has free wi-fi), order an iced tea, and post it right away. Usually, though, I would wait until I got back to Austin.

In 2012, I got tired of writing the same things over and over again, and so I starting blogging, thinking I could post my arguments once and then just point people to them when, for example, they’d bring up the incest argument or the food/sex analogy. But my composition process stayed the same: I did most of my thinking while I worked, and most of my reading and writing from the ranch pickup truck or the kitchen table in the ranch house. And I posted most of my arguments having just come from the ranch, often with ranch dirt and cedar needles still ground into my jeans.

What that means is that a lot of the arguments I’ve come up with have literally been composed to the rhythm of tree-chopping, or while dragging brush across a field. Which I think matters because, often, the underlying subject in these debates is nature. What is natural? Is homosexuality natural? Can same-sex marriage be natural? What does nature have to say about these things?

And, often, I’ve been flabbergasted at the distance between the “nature” described by the First Things/Public Discourse crowd and what I actually see before me, around me, under my feet, and above my head at the ranch. What I see in their writing is a universe whose order is easily apprehended: in which everything is as it seems, in which you never have to grapple with exceptions, in which you can be comfortable in your certainty and never worry about changing your mind. What I’ve seen at the ranch is the opposite.

That discrepancy makes me want to write, makes me want to argue, and makes me want to reclaim a word, nature, that matters to me and that I think these guys drain of all of its meaning and majesty.


Take this recent post by Anthony Esolen at Life Site News. Now, it’s Esolen, so a lot of the writing is good. Like this sentence:

I am persuaded that we could clear our heads of most of the unnatural evils we have come to accept if we would simply leave the Teaching Machine and the Entertainment Machine, and go out of doors, and stay there for a while, walking, listening, perhaps whistling, playing, working, thinking, or simply being.

Lovely, and true. But, as Esolen always does, he ruins it with a bitter note that’s both ugly and incorrect:

Or you are in the field, working, wiping on your sleeve the sweat from your brow and brushing away the gnats. The hay has to be made. The silly feminist who declares that fairy tales are evil – she has never had to make the hay. Most things that most people fret about, and most of the unnatural states they imagine themselves into, vanish into the vanity they are when you have a field, mown grass everywhere, and hay to make. Your very muscles will rouse you back into reality.

I mean, I don’t think fairy tales are evil or anything, but Esolen would still probably consider me a silly feminist. And yet I’ve wiped plenty of sweat off my brow in the fields.

Esolen tries to enlist nature to his side of the culture war by tying things he doesn’t like (same-sex marriage and feminism), to things that are clearly bad and unnatural: fluorescent lights, rushed lunches, consumerism, Justin Bieber. That’s bad enough, but I want to focus on his conclusion:

Our opponents claim the unnatural. Let them. Nature is on our side, and she does not change.

Nature doesn’t change? Sure. But so what? That’s the wrong lesson to take from her. We’re humans: we operate on a much smaller scale. So we need to be humble in reckoning our knowledge of her, careful before claiming certainty, and always ready to learn something new about her. We need to be prepared to accept that our understanding of nature can change.

To wit:

The summer of 2011 in Texas was the hottest any state has ever recorded in the US, with more than 100 days over 100 degrees.

I remember well what it was like to be in that moment. Rain was inconceivable, a rumor, something less than a memory. I watched the grass turn from brown to yellow and then to white, and even the cedars were losing their color. I was sure, that summer, that I was watching the Chihuahua desert swelling up from Mexico and swallowing the Edwards Plateau.

There’s an Elmer Kelton book with a title that captures that summer: The Time it Never Rained. I love that title: it gets at both the sense that what we understand now is what will always be, and the folly in believing that sense, in taking that momentary idea of the infinite as something actually infinite. Because the last time I was at the ranch, this past August, it was green. Unbelievably, there were flowers in the fields, that late in the year. Believe it or not, I woke one morning to a cool breeze.

This is what nature teaches you, over and over again: you are wrong. What you think will last will not last. What you think is certain is not certain. Arizona was once underwater; Scotland once had a tropical climate. Esolen is right: nature doesn’t change. But it always surprises, because, as a gifted poet puts it, “The trouble, obviously, is that we do not know much of the truth.”


I don’t want to give the impression that all I do in my free time at the ranch is blog and argue. I have lots of time to myself there, and that stuff only fills up a small part of it. I did most of my reading for comprehensive exams at the ranch, and I wrote big chunks of my dissertation there, too. And I always keep a book of poems and a book of essays in my bag for pleasure reading.

One writer whose books are often in my bag also happens to be a guy whose view of nature matches what I see when I’m out there: Wendell Berry.

When asked by interviewer Sarah Leonard about persistent themes in his writing, Berry responded:

‘Wonder’ is a word that applies. To live and work attentively in a diverse landscape such as this one—made up of native woodlands, pastures, croplands, ponds, and streams—is to live from one revelation to another, things unexpected, always of interest, often wonderful. After a while, you understand that there can be no end to this. The place is essentially interesting, inexhaustibly beautiful and wonderful.

That wonder often appears in Berry’s writing, especially his poetry, in moments of sudden revelation, where beliefs are upended, even reversed. A tree falls: the world is changed. Married for decades, a couple discovers they have continents worth of knowledge to discover in each other. A great example is the poem “Breaking,” from The Country of Marriage, in which the speaker compares his previous beliefs to water flowing over ice. The speaker concludes: “And now / that the rising water has broken / the ice, I see that what I thought / was the light is part of the dark.”

That sudden change, that sense of reversal, is exactly what one feels on reading his essay “Poetry and Marriage: the Use of Old Forms.” In that essay, Berry analogizes marriage to poetic form: he argues systematically that poetry, like marriage, is unimaginable outside of certain pre-defined limits. Then, we could almost say miraculously, he finds a way to accommodate a poet (Walt Whitman) who violates the central principle of that argument. And he does it not begrudgingly but cheerfully, as if making a discovery: Wow. The world is bigger than I imagined.

This sense of wonder might just be how Berry can come to support a phenomenon, same-sex marriage, that Esolen swears to us is impossible in nature. “Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air,“ Berry writes, "and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle.”


I’ll end with a story from the ranch, and one more connection to Berry. I don’t tell this story often, because it seems too small to be worth sharing. But it fits here, so here goes:

I was working one afternoon at the edge of the south field, clearing away brush and small cedars from a tangled, overgrown oak grove. Chopping away at a cedar, I noticed something moving behind me. When I turned, I saw a tiny green grass snake on the stump of the tree I had just cleared. He was just watching me. Not hiding, not tense, his head raised up, just looking. He kept watching as I finished with the tree and moved on to the next. He watched me for a solid ten minutes, and then he slithered off, finally bored I guess, and I moved on to another group of trees.

Understand, this snake was well within the reach of my ax. Everything I know about nature and about snakes told me he should be wary of me. But he wasn’t. And when I turned to him, he didn’t flinch or skitter off. He just kept watching. He just seemed curious.

Now, I’ve seen more exciting animals at the ranch, had more dramatic encounters with people and beasts. But that one has stuck with me for some reason, probably involving the way that it challenged my idea of the ways nature works.

I feel less silly telling it, though, because I recently read Berry’s essay “Getting Along with Nature” (1982), in which he tells a similar story:

At the end of July 1981, while I was using a team of horses to mow a small triangular hillside pasture that is bordered on two sides by trees, I was suddenly aware of wings close below me. It was a young red-tailed hawk, who flew up into a walnut tree. I mowed to the turn and stopped the team. The hawk then glided to the ground not twenty feet away. I got off the mower, stood and watched, even spoke, and the hawk showed no fear. I could see every feather distinctly, claw and beak and eye, the creamy down of the breast. Only when I took a step toward him, separating myself from the team and mower, did he fly. While I mowed three or four more rounds, he stayed near, perched in trees or standing erect and watchful on the ground.

Berry goes on to ask, “Why had he come? To catch mice? Had he seen me scare one out of the grass? Or was it curiosity?”

Like me, even Berry feels sheepish about sharing his story. “In some circles,” he writes, “I would certainly be asked if one can or should be serious about such an encounter, if it has any value.” But, he concludes, “I would unhesitatingly answer yes.” And he goes on: “Such encounters involve another margin—the one between domesticity and wildness—that attracts us irresistibly; they are among the best rewards of outdoor work and among the reasons for loving to farm.”

The behavior of Berry’s hawk, and my snake, reminds me of his exhortation, in “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” to “every day do something / that won’t compute.”

In telling his readers to do that, he’s not arguing that they should act against their nature—he’s telling them that’s what their nature is: a world full of surprises, surprises that might counter what we thought we knew.

The truly gorgeous thing about this is that it doesn’t require us to get rid of what we know. It’s a process of addition. I would be stupid to say, on the basis of my encounter on the ranch, that animals, or snakes, or tiny green grass snakes, have no instinct for self-preservation. But I also can’t deny that that instinct isn’t always the governing force for a snake’s behavior. To deny what I’ve seen, just because it challenges what I already knew, would be just as stupid.

Berry finds this process of addition fascinating, and so do I. I get to live in a world where, if I want to be truthful, I have to say a) snakes will do whatever they can to preserve their own lives AND b) sometimes a snake will risk his life to watch you chop down a tree. A world like this is truly a world of infinite possibility. “You cannot leave anything out of mystery,” Berry writes, “because by definition everything is always in it.” Recognizing this, I think, is truly a way of approaching the divine.

But this is precisely where Berry loses some of his biggest fans—and it’s where our conversations about nature tend to fall apart. You cannot leave anything out of mystery. That is a radical sentiment. And not everyone is willing to take it seriously.

Franklin Strong recently completed a PhD in Comparative Literature. His writing has appeared at The Millions, Pterodáctilo, and the E3W Review of Books, and he has an article forthcoming in the Latin American Literary Review. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter at @frankstrong.