Monday, November 28, 2016

Mouth to Mouth: On the importance of constrained conversation, or the art of the interview

Conversation and Empathy

“For Paul, it started with a fishing trip. For Lenny, it was an addict whose knuckles were covered in sores. Dawn found pimples clustered around her swimming goggles. Kendra noticed ingrown hairs. Patricia was attacked by sand flies on a Gulf Coast beach…” —Leslie Jamison, “The Devil’s Bait”

I’ve assigned Jamison’s 2013 essay on Morgellons disease for several semesters in an introductory creative nonfiction workshop at the university where I teach. “The Devil’s Bait” has much to teach any writer about language, structure, and voice, but it also quietly highlights the importance of interviewing as a facet of essaying and writing long-form narrative nonfiction.

As the introductory paragraph quoted above demonstrates, Jamison’s reportage on the phenomena of Morgellons disease included not just research of documents (although that was part of it), but many conversations with people who attended a Morgellons conference Jamison uses as the spine of the essay’s narrative. What Jamison pulls off in this essay is much trickier than, say, a straight journalistic report or purely immersive essay on a Morgellons conference. As she writes toward the essay’s midpoint, the essay isn’t about whether or not the disease itself is real but, rather, “about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion” and whether or not it’s “wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of the suffering but not the source.”

The “characters” or people with whom Jamison introduces her piece are not just people she interviewed to gather quotes, nor are they people she interviewed in search of anecdotal stories. Her responses to their stories and what they have to say are no more important than the information the reader learns about Morgellons in the essay. Jamison’s collection on empathy requires other people in the equation—what is empathy without interaction? Although empathy is the unifying and intellectual subject of Jamison’s work, I would argue it’s also the unifying element of the interview practice itself. We learn about the world from our interactions with other people, from trying to listen and understand their lives.

Internal and External Resistance

I began teaching after more than 15 years as a journalist and newspaper editor. My students’ resistance to nonfiction seems rooted in antipathy born from the five-paragraph essay (understandable) along with aversion to the outside world (problematic). Delineations between art and fact repeatedly embedded in taxonomical discussions of the form’s genre and subgenres create false dichotomies regarding the interrogative internal and external maneuvers of the form. I say false because they do not resonate with my own experiences.

As a child, I wanted to be a detective. I blame Harriet the Spy, and possibly Charlie’s Angels, but mostly what appears to be a possibly cellular disposition toward nosiness about other people. To that end, I owned, by the time I was in grade school, a private eye kit, which included a magnifying glass and fingerprinting materials; a lie detector, which required assembling and never seemed to work to my satisfaction (I was nosy but not mechanically inclined); and business cards, courtesy of my father, which read: Julia R Goldberg, Private Eye. In grade school, I compiled dossiers on my classmates, stapling their class pictures to index cards that included information I considered pertinent. In college, I studied philosophy, pondering along with the Ancient Greeks the nature of love, friendship and truth.

While I have written stories for which interviewing was simply as a mechanism of anecdote and information, I have also come to see it as a key factor in creating both discourse (see Plato) and narrative.

Other People’s Lives
 “Bill Bradley is what college students nowadays call a superstar, and the thing that distinguishes him from other such paragons is not so much that he has happened into the Ivy League as that he is a superstar at all. For one thing, he has overcome the disadvantage of wealth.” —John McPhee, “A Sense of Where You Are”

I’m not generally that interested in basketball, or road kill, or Atlantic City, but I became interested in all of these topics, and many more, as a result of John McPhee’s essays. Although “A Sense of Where You Are” (The New Yorker, 1965) only quotes Bradley lightly (and mostly on the topic of basketball), the profile itself is filled with the narrative arc of Bradley’s life—a profile of a man McPhee describes as singularly disciplined—built on the information and stories McPhee garnered from his subject. Moreover, it is essayistic in its author’s insistence in understanding not just its subject but its subject’s subject: perseverance. Through his internal exploration, McPhee pushes basketball off the court of nonfiction into more metaphoric realms.

A master journalist and practitioner of creative nonfiction, McPhee noted, in an April 2010 interview with the Paris Review, that he is “interested in people who are expert at something, because they’re going to lead me into some field, teach it to me, and then in turn I’m going to tell others about it.” To a degree, both McPhee and Jamison’s work are a reminder to reconsider the old adage of “write what you know.” Writing what other people know means learning what they know and, thus, knowing it yourself—their stories then become a part of your own storytelling.

Writer Mike Sager has a theory “of reporting like old fashioned dating, where there’s a set of decorum and ways of dealing with people and looking at them and paying attention to them.” Sager says along the years he’s also added “a bit of ministering. I feel like when you listen to them and listen well and listen without judgment in the moment, in a way you’re providing sort of ministerial function.”

Sager’s approach isn’t based on its being the best way of “getting” a story or quote; he says it’s also “as close as I can come to finding something that we’re actually giving back to the people that we take our stories from.” Valuing his subjects is important, Sager says, “because without our subjects we don’t have a story, and I’m deeply cognizant of that at all times.”

Sager also points out that unlike information in document form, people “don’t have the obligation to tell you what’s inside of them. We have to go the extra mile to get it, because ultimately that’s what we want to know.”

Conversation as Container
In the classroom, students interview under false pretenses, as part of a classroom exercise that may or may not lead to actual writing. Just as a received form writing provides a constraint on the page, the interview process creates a container for conversation. I watch them engage, open up, listen to one another. I tell them to interview one another. I have them interview themselves.

In a classroom in Mexico City, I watch from across the room as two students begin to cry toward the end of one such exercise. I walk over and ask them what’s wrong. They tell me they have just learned, after years of friendship, information about one another they never knew. I restrain myself from asking them to repeat what they’ve learned.

Others in the room tell me they fear appearing, for lack of a better word, dumb. They think they should already know the answers to their questions. They don’t want to seem rude or intrusive. I speechify on the power of curiosity. I haul out my favorite stories about annoying the shit out of Margaret Atwood during an interview and sounding like a complete moron during a discussion with Noam Chomsky.

Finally, some students want me to tell them what they should ask one another, what they should ask themselves. The conversation turns quasi-Socratic.

Ask good questions, I tell them.
What is a good question? They want to know.
Wait, wait, I know this one.
A good question is any query for which the writer authentically is interested in the answer. They should be endless.


Adapted from Inside Story: Everyone’s Guide to Reportingand Writing Creative Nonfiction by Julia Goldberg, Leaf Storm Press, March 2017.

Julia Goldberg is a full-time faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. A professional journalist for more than 20 years, she is also a former daily radio talk-show host, as well as nonfiction editor for the literary website The Nervous Breakdown.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Nicole Walker Interrogates Mary Cappello's Mood

Breaking the Rules with Mary Cappello

Mary Cappello’s new book Life Breaks In (a mood almanack) will be released this November from University of Chicago Press. This book begins with the television show Mad Men, the singer Vic Damone, then it surfs across oceans of wonder cabinets and view finders, stops to check on a few seals, and then ends with a story about the narrator’s mother. I wanted to ask Mary how this book, so rule-breaky in its premise, made its way into the world.

1.     The conceit of this book seems to break the biggest rule of all: writing about an abstraction, maybe even an abstraction of an abstraction. In an age of books which center their gravities in objects and artifacts, you centered on ether.  Did you approach this book as rule-breaking?

Oh, you are so right on, Nicole! Yes, there is this sense that I’ve written a book about air—ether (and its relationship to the ethereal) though I do want to note there actually is a great book on ether out there, The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and his Sons of Genius, by Mike Hay (Yale UP 2009).

Writing a book about an abstraction was, at first, like trying to skewer an olive with a fork, so, yes, I definitely approached the book as rule-breaking, or one that was in need of its own new set of parameters. At a certain juncture in the writing I mused that, if we can’t chase mood, we might have to smoke it. To roll up the book’s pages or neatly lick each end page into something you can inhale.

The thing about mood is that it thwarts our need to know and asks us to dream with it—I mean, it really resists explication. Could a book or an essay, working in concert with it, be shaped like a dream?

Late in the book’s pages, I begin to consider whether mood hovers in the space between words and the things to which words point. Or if moods are made of the stuff left over from childhood that left their trace without finding their way into representation (the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas tempts me down this particular path). For any reader willing to remain inside the book’s strange precincts, there’s a kind of lift-off from language altogether that eventually occurs. The book is always operating on that threshold between the representational and the non-.

Since you’ve asked me this question, I was giving an illustrated reading at the Guilford Public Library in Connecticut on this forgotten American impressionist, Charles Daniel Hubbard, and what I call his “mood rooms”—his utterly singular habitat dioramas in the LC Bates museum in Hinckley, Maine. Your question reminded me that Charles Hubbard was painting air, like a number of what are called “background painters” in the history of Natural History displays. Like me, he was attempting to find a form for the imperceptible.

Rather than create a visual illusion of air as space, though, like traditionalists did, he created enclosures whose effect was to enable the person who stood before them—which is also to say, inside of them—to breathe. It was nice to have him as a companion!

Anyway, in Life Breaks In, I’m writing against the info-mercials of our age—and with it, an increasing literalism—which called me to keep mood alive as a mystery under threat.

The revolution will not be Google-able, and the same can be said for mood.

2.     Since you’d already broken a kind of rule about content, did that give you permission to break rules about form? Or consistency of form. In Life Breaks In we find mood modulations that move like poems, aphorisms, short lyric essays, and long researched essays.

Yes. I wanted to court the mystery of this airy something that ever accompanies us, that some thinkers consider the very ground of our being, but which we barely have a language for, and I invented something I came to call “cloud-writing” to do this. The prose forms that constitute the book are meant to invite a reader to hover and drift, to immerse and release, even occasionally, to sleep. I’m not sure I succeeded at this, but I was hopeful to play with form in such a way to approximate the vaporous density, the present absence, the ethereal materiality of mood.

3.     Do the images behave like poems inside a long article in a New Yorker -like magazine or do they operate as balloons tied to mood descriptions? Is captioning the photos like defining a mood? Are they strings tied to a bubble of text?

Wow! Thanks for asking this, and for noticing. The creative captioning was an entire compositional enterprise proposed to me by the experimental fiction writer, Dawn Raffel, who read an early draft of the book. I love your read of this—I’m tempted to accept all of your beautiful interpretations here—balloons tied to mood descriptions, captioning photos like defining a mood, indeed, but I like that you aren’t sure, and that there is movement possible between these modes.

The words themselves are culled from various parts of the book—and not always the one in which the image is referenced, so a kind of cross-referential recurrence is allowed, like hints of a mood realm appearing, disappearing, and re-appearing. I went through the book looking for key phrases, and it felt like the (visual) images were allowing me to create one new, long caption-poem out of words that might otherwise lay inert in the prose.

Balloons (and bubbles) figure centrally in the book, from John Constable’s description of clouds as “non-captive balloons”; to the experience of my own inner voice during a Gong Bath in which it comes to seem like the cab of a hot air balloon that I would need to climb up into to enter should I ever feel the need to return to it; to Margaret Wise Brown’s wonderful image, that I come to yoke to mood—mood as “the sound of a balloon about to pop,” or “the sound of a person about to think.” So, your balloon association feels very companionate to me: the images and their captions as mercurially inlaid clouds that float through the book.

4.     Although you did break the big abstraction rule, this book is full of concrete artifacts—viewfinders and catacombs, picture books and Hubbard’s birds. Do artifacts reify mood? Or do they do the opposite, act as springboards to propel us to mood?

Artifacts are carriers of mood in the sense of Benjaminian aura, I suppose. And it might interest you to know that my original plan was to work with materials—metal, glass, cloth—as mood conductors, but those particular emphases fell out of view at a certain point in the many years-long process, and I’m not really sure why.

Recently, I’ve been returning to the fact of my ancestors having been artisans—they were Italian American and Sicilian American shoemakers, metal-smiths, weavers, and gardeners. I was recently showing some sheet metal workers the ladles and cheese graters and spatulas my grandfather crafted from metal by hand, and they were in awe. Those familial artisanal forms linger for me always at the level of scent—the smell of leather, of flowers and herbs, the food the metal implements awoke into aroma. Mood trace as scent. And handiwork. I always think of what I’m doing when I write as a form of manual labor (and I still compose “by hand”). Which I guess is a way of saying that ultimately the “stuff” of the book-as-mood-conductor is to be found in the language itself rather than in the things the words touch down on—those artifacts you mention.

If there is a thing-ness to mood in the book, or a relationship forged between moods and things, it’s in the idea of moods as rooms or architectures, moods as ontological containers, rather than vice versa. Though, ok, yes, getting back to Benjamin, I think all objects can, if properly rubbed, invoke a mood.

5.     Is mood a place?

Yes. But a place that is often enough un-locatable, un-map-able. That throws off both compass and clock.

The earliest form of the word in Anglo-Saxon suggests mood as a place—in the head or breast/chest. Nowadays, we affiliate it with a more broadly indicative “zone” that troubles distinctions between inner and outer states.

6.     One of my favorite chapters is “Sonophoto: Boy, Screaming.” It has a little bit of everything: friendships, pictures of a child, the actual child, family, and an abstract/concrete mixture of mood and bubbles. This quotation from page 84 is cool: “bubbles are not safe zones; moods are easily broken by the cries of adults. Life breaks in to terminate the mood, leaving me to wonder whether moods have their own temporality, their own terminus based in their own end point. I mean, how long would my hair-cutting activity have gone on inside my bubble if I hadn’t been stopped? When do you decide you are finished? When the body calls you back with hunger, a bowel movement, the need to sleep?”  How concrete did you need to make mood to understand it?

Somewhere Gertrude Stein had written—“What do you do to stop? What do you do to go on?” I love the juxtaposition of those questions for the way they speak both to a philosophy of composition and of life; habits; our inhabitance of time; and, our ability to change anything about ourselves.

The more I dwelled with mood, the more I came to feel that moods exist on a different temporal plane than the one we’re used to recognizing.

I don’t claim to understand mood. My premise is that, to quote the final line of Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, “There is nothing to grasp.” Rather than try to understand mood, I accompanied it. It happened, or the writing happened, “nearby.” I hung around with it and waited for it to reveal itself, and it did, in odd and wondrous ways.

But maybe the real rule breaker is how mood takes us out of the abstract/concrete binary altogether. It neither materializes nor remains wholly airy but morphs according to the language we are willing to grant it, the extent to which we are willing to let it act upon our imaginations. Thus, I could not tell until the end of this book that what I might have to offer was an alternative to the age old taxonomy of emotion that accompanies mood, considering it instead in terms of architecture and air, as envelope and sphere, as niche, sound, skin and reverberation; as gravity, wave, voice and hue; as temperature and tempo; as making and creating.

7.     I love the picture book section as well. The Noisy Books, the series of books written by Margaret Wise Brown—who wrote Goodnight Moon—and her difficult relationship with the woman Michael Strange. On page 248 you describe the uncanny. How much of mood is like trying to describe the uncanny—or—how important is the uncanny to writing nonfiction?

I hope you don’t mind if I refer to an interview I carried out around my previous book, Swallow, in which I discuss the importance of the uncanny to my work and to nonfiction generally:

I think the uncanny is at the heart of literary nonfiction. The places where the real slip-slides with something unrecognizable, where the familiar and the strange switch places. Cognitive dissonance. Home not home. The pleasure and necessity of altered states.

At the risk of sounding psycho, I’d like to use the occasion of your question to try to put into words an “episode” I experienced in these days following the 2016 presidential election for the way it speaks to the alteration of the “real” as some of us know it. What Freud says about the uncanny is that, when we’re in its midst, there’s a combination admission and refusal of a shock of recognition whereby what I once believed, but later was required to deny, is now confirmed. I think we are all currently experiencing aspects of this dynamic in different combinations and intensities, and I think it is extremely important that we not give in to delusional forms of acceptance that would underplay the threat to fundamental human rights by this new regime.

My “episode” unfolded as follows: Autumn in New England this year has been particularly splendid, but of course it feels quite out of sync with the darkness that the new presidency augurs. At some point this week, it was warm enough to bicycle to an appointment, and I remember noticing a sudden, beautiful and forceful swoop and swirl of leaves, the feeling of my bike intersecting that movement, one vector in a complex and jubilant physics, a pure moment of being, my riding just then and there.

En route to the university where I teach, a day or two later, by car, the cloud cover was phenomenal, and autumnal colors on the back roads I travel were silver-tinted and surreal. I had been trying to continue to value what I consider the heart of my own aesthetic—which is something like a desire to devote myself to life’s minute particulars with all the love I can muster. An abiding interest in beauty, especially of the strange or disruptive variety.

Just as I was trying to attach to this thought, it was as though a slide had been slipped into the scene that I was viewing, altering the experience entirely, and with it, my charge as a writer. For an instant the entire landscape, I could say, the entire light-scape was suspended, and an irreal mode took over that I could only liken to “the fascist sublime.” In other words, it was as though, for a split second, the “beauty” I’d perceived just prior was now suspect to me: I wondered if it mightn’t be a scene manufactured by the same forces that elected Trump into the presidency.

Fascism, as we know, has its own aesthetic: characterized by austerity and flatness, unreflective surfaces, “towering” heights. I don’t think what I am describing is paranoia.

I began to wonder if there was a difference worth contemplating between the sensibility I believe I have cultivated for at least two decades, and a new filter or lens by which I might be required to perceive the world. I’m wondering how my aesthetic will have to shift—what our charge as writers will be—when the places we usually find beauty are usurped. But then, was the landscape ever mine to behold? Of course not—I mean, unlike the guy who is being charged with leading the country, I admit to the fact of the existence of global warming.

Does this make sense? It wasn’t that my cognition had changed, but that the “scene” had—and I felt I must be more vigilant around seductive surfaces, or careful not to confuse beauty (with a capital B) with the charade that we are being asked to entertain, accept, and watch. It’s a moment that demands our utmost considered pause. Of course I also believe that contemplation can be a form of activism (which doesn’t mean I’m not taking to the streets!).

8.     In “The Tic Tac of a Dime Hitting the Floor” segment, you talk about the intensity of sensory experience. In losing your hearing, your other senses become more attuned to the world: “I may not have heard the dime hit the floor but I was ultra-aware of the scent of clam chowder and the softness of Jean’s overcoat to say nothing of the intimacy of an experimental mode that forever sparks the mood of our relationship.” So much of the book is about sound and mood, when sound disappears, do other senses compensate not to replace sound but to create mood? (p.s. may we all live in an experimental mode that forever sparks the mood of our relationship[s]).

Here’s to experimental modes, and the mood of the chance of this conversation with you!

Sound never entirely disappears because we can still hopefully feel its vibrational register. Which brings me back to being in love—that mood of moods—and Barthes’ wonderful note in A Lover’s Discourse on the pang that requires that we halt all occupation, when any word uttered by the beloved takes up residence in the lover’s body and rings there unstoppably. He calls that “reverberation.”

Sound is a very close conceptual companion to mood, and I wanted to tune in to voice, sound, and touch as powerful metrics on mood’s tuning fork.

Venturing is key, and one of the dedicatees of my book was a woman named Caren McCourtney who died before the book came to press, an untimely death to ovarian cancer. Caren demonstrated to me that the best mood work happens neither in captivity and obscurity nor in a mood cocoon, but in a world rife with interest, surprise, and the
weird creations of other people. She sought out adventure, for and with me, and sent me things to “spur me on.” She also is the person who introduced me to Good Will Hinckley and its off-the-beaten path museum, an unanticipated centerpiece to the project entire.

9.     Maria Abromović suggests that we sit quietly for three hours a day without our phones or sit and count lentils and rice, in part as an attempt, I think, to get us to a mood—some place/space other than ordinary. Are there good ways to propel us to mood?

*An afternoon spent at David Wilson’s singular Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA will do the trick. Or screening any one of the magnificent films of The Brothers Quay.

*DIY cyanometers might help. This 18th century device was introduced to me by the great historian of science, Lorraine Daston. You hold the color wheel up to the sky and discover that our surround is never reducible to solid blue, or gray, or white. A cloud diary can help.

*Creating mood rooms with others. That’s an essay unto itself. Not as insulation booths but in order to incite the feeling required to see and to act.

*Deciding not to look into a device for at least one hour when afforded the opportunity of a train window; leaving your cellphone home when required to be in situations that call for waiting—as in train stations or airports: waiting is such a fertile ground for propelling moods into being.

*Making all walks in public into sound walks.

*to paraphrase Thoreau: attempting to affect the quality of the day each day. “Marking the day” as such via a 30 minute freewrite (I used to do this daily with the daughter of a friend whom I homeschooled during a sabbatical, and the results that the girl produced were remarkable in granting each day its multi-form mood toward altering it).

*the inspiration of 27 year old, Nidaa Badwin’s project, carried out in the small room she has not left for over a year, situated in the Gaza Strip, 100 Days of Solitude,
a room of color and self-portraiture that she says “ made new windows for her” in unbearable geo-political times

10.  Is there a word that sounds less like what it means than crepuscular? What kind of mood is that word supposed to put us in?

Of course your poet’s ear would alight on that word! And would you believe it appears not once but twice in this book? I think the word actually sounds a lot like what it means—it refers to creatures who come out just before nightfall, which puts me in mind of things that creep, and are soft as crepe. That are vascular and corpuscular. And that move in half-light. I love this word. Almost as much as a Jamesian “crenellation.” Originally I had intended to compose an entire section on crepuscular moods—as well as on middle of the night moods, moods that come to bear, or do their most interesting work, when the world is sleeping. I’m interested, too, in the highly idiosyncratic ways in which each body and being “hears” words, so relative is this to our particular mood repertoires and openness to same.

11.  On page 73, speaking of words, words seem to be hatched from the eggs of other words, “When they add that the speed of water is dependent on night or day, temperature, weather, locale, I begin I feel I’m in he realm of sound with mood. So too when they describe a dolphin’s ‘kerplunk’ as a slap of a tail on water to keep an aggressor at bay; when they note a whale’s ‘moans, groans, tones, and pulses,’ and a seal’s underwater ‘clicks, trills, warbles, whistles, and bells,’ I being to glimpse a mood, part sea.” If words are sound and meaning, hello semiotics, and mood is part sound, part sea, can words get us to mood or only approximate it?

In spite of that colloquialism—“to capture a mood”—moods are uncontainable: they exceed, and possibly predate, our language-making capacity. But they also hide out in the first traces of our vocalizations and are inseparable, I think, from the voices that gave us our first sense of ourselves as embodied (see Didier Anzieu’s concept of “the sonorous envelope,” which is in many ways at the heart of the book). Insofar as words inch us towards mood, they do so on levels that are corporeal, unconscious, and elemental. At one point in the book, I suggest that how (the sounds of ) words affect us might depend on the quality of the air through which words move.

12.  Finally, plot. You begin by noting it is not the plot of Mad Men that you remember from the show but the mood of the show brought to you by the magical music of Vic Damone, you end with a story about your mother. On page 319, you write, “My mother is recounting to me the time together with her father and referring to the title of a little performed aria. She pauses where she sings a verse from it to ask, ‘Do you know the melody?’  I want to laugh. ‘How the heck would I know the melody, Mom, I’m not where you were when you were listening, am I? In that circle of sound. I hadn’t yet been conceived when you sat by the console with your father of a blooming afternoon. Did you sing it to me in utero? Should I know the melody because you sang it, but I failed to listen long after I was born.’” How much did you write away from narrative? How much did narrative pull you toward it? Is mood compatible with story?

Several readers have asked me a very similar question about Life Breaks In. (See my conversation with Barrie Jean Borich for the Los Angeles Review of Books where she asks me if mood is essentially anti-narrative).

I’m trying to answer the question differently each time I am asked it. In an upcoming conversation with Julija Šukys, I’ll respond in terms of the work of breaks and interruption in the book, and in life (does life interrupt mood or does mood interrupt life?)

This time I will say that mood wants the essay and the essay wants mood (I’m not the first person to suggest this—Hans Gumbrecht makes a similar argument in his book, Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung by way of Georges Lukács.) To the extent that essays are workshops for making, breaking and reinventing order, mood resists and incites narrative, never in equal measure, but ever in variegated ways.

13.  One more quick question: What is your favorite writing rule? And which one do you like to break the most? I like to use too many dashes and hyphenate words I’m not supposed to. Neither of those things are my favorites but, man, I do like to be writerly bad. Thanks for being bad with me. 

I’m big on hyphenation and dashes too. Do you think this might be an E. Dickinson influence? Rule-breaking radical par excellence?

I remember once hearing poet, Louise Glück, explain that for each new book she was writing, she identified a habit in a previous book, and consciously worked to break it in the new book. I think it’s a wonderful incitement to give oneself, and one that we could all afford to follow.

In terms of your question, I think I’m more interested in breaking the ruler than in breaking the rules, and this has origins for me in a Freudian “a child is being beaten” sort of way. I was reared by nuns for the first eight years of my life in school, and these women regularly broke rulers, yardsticks and other measuring devices over their students’ wrists, backs, ankles, and desks. It wasn’t a pretty picture and not one I would ever wish to emulate. Let’s call this a gross mis-use of rulers, or a transmutation of rulers into weapons. Or, we could say, the mis-use of power by The Ruler. I think I want both to re-value rulers for their beauty as calibrating devices, but also snap them in two without harming anyone in the process.

Did your elementary school teachers ever use a long stick with a rubber tip called “a pointer”? I loved this thing—finding it kind of sensual at the place where the rubber tip met the black slate board intermingling with the dust of the chalk, sometimes smearing it. But, again, the instrument was laced with ambivalence since our teachers also used this as a weapon, and, like protractors (remember those funny half-moons?), compasses, and dissecting kits, I never quite understood their proper use. They seemed beyond the purview of my girl-mind or girl-body—not meant for me. I’ve built a career on an aesthetic that runs antithetical to techniques of pointing.

Breaking the ruler, for me, in this book, especially, entails taking risks at the level of scale. Trusting minimalism where it is called for; or, in other places, allowing certain sections to become infinitely layered and protracted. Audacity of form is key. And one that women writers especially need to be enjoined more fully to indulge, engage, and trust.

Have you noticed that literary nonfiction is getting more and more wisp-like these days? I’m happy for an alternative robustness. The license for a work to morph, to exceed its placement, forgetful of itself, for a spell, even if, in the end, words insist on returning to the airy nothing from whence they spring.

For more information about Mary Cappello and Life Breaks In, check out these links. 

The author website:

*A Mood Playlist Essay for Large-Hearted Boy "Book Notes": 

*"Of Clouds and Moods," first serial excerpt from Life Breaks In for Berfrois

*Starred Review, Kirkus

*author photo and short bio are obtainable here:

*longer bio here and here:

Monday, November 14, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Rúnar Vignisson on the Icelandic art of writing obituaries

The Mourning Paper

Over the years Icelanders have started their day reading obituaries in the morning paper, selecting a few of the dozens offered and sitting tearful over them. For instead of making a good coffin for a loved one, as does Cash for his mother in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, we pay our respects by constructing a narrative that will help preserve the memory of the deceased.

“Kindred die . . . but the good name never dies of one who has done well,“ to cite the ancient Icelandic poem Sayings of the High One.

The obituary I am referring to is not a simple notice of a death, written by a journalist about a well known individual, although we have that kind, too. It’s a personal piece, typically written by a relative, a friend or a colleague, recounting his or her personal memories of the deceased. A big part of the Icelandic population will try their hand at writing obituaries in their lifetime and nearly every Icelander can expect to be the subject of such a piece. Not in their lifetime of course, but a week or so after they pass. It’s their very last sigh.


In the beginning, obituaries were only written about well-known individuals by people who weren’t all that close to them, allowing the writer to be composed and detached. Nowadays, obituaries are more often emotional, especially if written by a close relative – brother, sister, even mother, father or spouse – after an untimely death. In some cases the piece is a combination of eulogy and wailing: It’s hard to accept that you are gone, you who were so vibrant and... followed by the kind of praise that the deceased might not have heard in his or her lifetime. It will typically recount some honorable deeds of the deceased, how bravely he or she accepted death or battled a fatal illness, then a favored memory shared by both, accompanied by some emotional outpouring over the unbearable loss, and will end with condolences to the closest relatives. Writing an actual letter to the deceased has become more and more common, sometimes addressing the person by her nickname: Finally you get a letter from me, dear Sigga. There has also been a shift in emphasis from subject to author in that the obituary writer often expresses private thoughts and emotions in relation to the deceased – which even involves a hint of opportunistic showing off at times.

Should the deceased have made enemies in his or her lifetime, this is not a forum to get even. Furthermore, you are writing in a grief stricken state, maybe two or three days after the death of a beloved relative or friend, which makes you more sentimental, more wont to say something you wouldn’t say under other circumstances. You are not only pressed for time, for the obituaries generally appear on the day of the funeral and the deadline is two days earlier, but also have to be careful not to offend the closest relatives, whom you will in most cases meet at the funeral. You want to comfort them at a moment of great vulnerability. For that matter, you might be convinced your task is to comfort a big part of the nation, if you are paying tribute to a well-known individual. The fact that you knew the individual is a way to place yourself in a social context. You don’t want to soil the memory of someone who has recently passed away, that would only reflect badly on yourself.

Over the years, these obituaries have mainly appeared in one daily newspaper, called Morgunblaðið or The Morning Paper, although other national and local papers used to carry the odd obituary, especially if the deceased wasn't in agreement with the political leanings of Morgunblaðið, which was often the case during the Cold War. The paper is over a century old and has for most of its history published obituaries. The obituaries may even have kept the paper alive in recent years, helped it hold on to its subscribers, some of whom are said to buy the paper mainly for the obituaries. Obituaries now comprise up to a quarter of the paper, prompting wags to call it The Mourning Paper. Facebook is now becoming a medium for obituaries as well and often people post their obituaries from Morgunblaðið there while others write more informal remembrances exclusively on their Facebook walls.


Icelanders were only 86,000 in 1913, the year Morgunblaðið was founded. Now we are around 330,000. Still, the percentage of deceased persons who can expect to be honored with an obituary in Morgunblaðið has grown manifold. Nowadays 80–90% of dead Icelanders can expect an obituary on its pages and in tandem with newfound gender equality and increased longevity more women are now written about than men. Each person can also expect many more individual obituaries than earlier. The average number of obituaries per person is around 6, which means that some get only one or two while others can get as many as 20 or 30. This put a strain on a newspaper that had been suffering in an online environment and didn’t charge for running these obituaries, eventually forcing the editors to implement a limit on the length of each piece (it is now 3 kilobytes per tribute or about 500 words). They also decided that the closest relatives had to send in a brief bio of the deceased to be printed along with all the obituaries, as a kind of introduction to avoid repetitions of facts and allow the writers to focus on personal memories instead.

What can you say about a whole life in 500 words? Or, maybe I should rephrase the question, what are you “allowed” to say about a deceased person, for in that respect the obituaries reflect the times. You are not supposed to reveal much about the way the person died, although you can hint at it; you can say that the deceased battled bravely with an incurable disease, but if he or she committed suicide you can only hint at it vaguely, e.g. by saying something about her hard life and his sudden death. If the deceased was a victim of drug abuse, you wouldn’t in most cases state that directly either, although you may find the odd foolhardy obituary writer who goes against the grain. Bringing up sensitive issues such as alchoholism, homosexuality and criminal behavior is risky. But you are allowed to say that so and so was willful and headstrong, for these are traits that have been valued in Iceland for centuries as can been seen in the Icelandic Sagas, the data base of Icelandic culture.

There may be something weird or even creepy in writing about a recently deceased person, but there is also a lot of beauty in it. This I know from experience for I have written eleven obituaries. One I wrote about my father-in-law can be found here, and here in English. 


Writing and reading these obituaries has evolved into an important stage in our grieving process. It's a way to sum up a life and it's a way to say goodbye, to get in touch with one's feelings of loss, to be human, compassionate; all that. Whether these obituaries draw up a truthful picture of life in Iceland is doubtful for lives tend to be embellished, even when politicians are the subject matter! However, it is safe to say that reading them regularly gives you a sense of historical continuity. You can for instance still find obituaries about people who grew up in turf houses.

The custom fosters social cohesion. 

It may also be a means of discriminating between people.

This strange fascination with death may, however, simply be a small nation’s way of keeping track of who is still around and who is not. Most of us are after all related or tied together in one way or another. As a result, we are very curious about others, and a good obituary, or even a bad one for that matter, is a great way to satisfy that curiosity (maybe this effect is comparable to what Facebook does for us although that medium specializes in living people). Once in a while a writer will reach such heights that the obituary becomes literature.


Since obituaries have become such an ingrained custom in our culture, one may wonder whether the anticipation of an obituary affects in some subconscious way how we live. Are we trying to lead lives that will earn us at least a few obituaries? If you get none, it's like you didn't make a mark, hardly existed at all. What, an unpopular person? A loser? An outcast? And yet, when you read a dozen or more obituaries about the same individual you see relatively simple patterns emerge. Most obituary writers boil the life of the deceased down to the same things – she was so helpful, he was so reliable. And then you may ask yourself: A lifetime of activities and the essence of your life only amounts to this; is life really so short and simple when seen from the outside? And with trepidation you look at your own life and ask penetrating questions: What have I achieved or stood for in life? Is it worth an obituary or two? 

I don't think this little essay will earn me an obituary, but it might contribute to it in a small way. Anyway, how many would I like? One? Two? A whole page in the paper or even a special segment like the ones reserved for the most popular? 

Then again The Mourning Paper might have found a new home when my turn comes.

Rúnar Vignisson is an Icelandic author and translator. He has won several honors for his writing, among them The Icelandic Translation Award for J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood. Vignisson has translated books by many acclaimed American, English and Australian authors, such as Philip Roth, Amy Tan, William Faulkner, Ian McEwan and Elizabeth Jolley. He is the author of four novels and three collections of short stories and for his fiction he has been shortlisted for the Icelandic Literature Award and won the DV Cultural Prize for Literature. His short stories have been translated into Spanish, German, Polish, Chinese and English. Vignisson is currently director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Iceland. 

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily