Monday, October 23, 2017

Sung Yim interview with T Clutch Fleischmann

Below is the next installment in a series on writing, gender, and genre, this time with Sung Yim. Sung’s first book, the memoir What about the Rest of Your Life, is forthcoming from Perfect Day Publishing (order a copy here), and their essays and poetry have appeared in The James Franco Review, Contrary, Kweli, Crab Fat Magazine, and in a chapbook from Ghost City Press.

What about the Rest of Your Life is an inventive, surprising, and deeply meaningful encounter with the writer’s life and thinking. Below, we talk of the book and of the landscape of nonfiction writing today.

Also, check out some recent interviews in the series with Cameron Awkward-Rich and Trish Salah.


T Clutch Fleischmann: To start off, could you tell me a little about your relation to genre? Your book is categorized as memoir by the back copy, and is clearly working in and influenced by some traditions of nonfiction writing. How important was genre to the writing of this text? When you set to write something new, how much does genre figure into your thinking and your process?

Sung Yim: I really don’t think about genre in the writing process. When I was just starting out as an undergrad, I hopped from fiction to poetry to nonfiction as I tried to find my niche. Studying fiction writing taught me how to build scenes and characters, poetry taught me the elasticity of language and form, nonfiction taught me to be accountable to my persona on the page and seek broader truths with whatever I create. I think we can and should try to imbue everything we write with poetry. It would be wasting a great gift not to.

I’m not a poet or essayist and my poetry probably sucks. I’m just a writer. I want to create meaningful work that enriches people. The biggest way that genre figured into the crafting of What About the Rest of Your Life was making decisions like whether to change dates and names, whether or not to revise found material, and whether or not things were truthful according to my ethics, which were informed by studying memoir. I was driven by subconscious instinct, which, granted, is informed by influences such as Joan Didion and Kiese Laymon, whose work reflects many quintessential traditions of memoir writing.

Somewhat related, how important are other sorts of categories, and in particular identity categories, to your work? Do you think of the book as existing in broader contexts of, for instance, trans writing, Korean American writing, writing of PTSD, or other conversations? 

I consider those categories only for their pragmatic application. How they can serve my writing, and how my writing can serve them. If being received as “Korean-American writing” helps nurture a canon that I feel is under-served, that’s great. If being received as “trans writing” broadens the idea of what kind of lives trans writers lead, great. We all embody many “categories” of identity, and to fracture ourselves in favor of one or the other is damaging. I’m just being myself in a publicly available way. What the world does with what I offer, I have no control over.

One thing I really appreciate about your book is that it writes outside of a lot of the assumptions often associated with memoirs, especially the idea that writing memoir should have some sort of inseparable link with healing. You write about finishing this book, for instance: “I am embarrassed that I still have problems. That I’ve written a memoir without even getting over these problems.” I like the possibilities that open up from that, the potential of what else writing can do if we allow ourselves to be writers who are (still) in pain, (still) figuring things out. We get this especially in the Letters to the Publisher that recur in the book, where you make explicit some of these questions-- “It’s just i’ve been real fucked up since revisiting this manuscript and it’s probably why the book is still unfinished,” you say in one. 

Could you talk about your relation to this process? Of writing and revisiting the past not from a place of cohesive and total stability, but allowing instead that “the writing itself is fine, it’s just my brain is scrambled and i can’t get my story or feelings straight right now.”

Writing this book was painful and perhaps even detrimental to my well-being because, contrary to popular belief, writing isn’t necessarily therapy. Just because you’re processing trauma doesn’t mean you are healing from it. But if I had waited to write “from a place of cohesive and total stability,” I would never have survived, let alone the writing. I would have destroyed myself. This is how I coped with turmoil, by compartmentalizing it as an art object—I couldn’t fix my problems, but I could keep making the writing sharper, more effective. I lacked stable access to treatment and had no other recourse. The book exists because it had to. I just happen to be lucky enough that people wanted to witness it.

I can’t help resenting what feels like a superhuman expectation often placed on writers. It’s unfair to that expect writers be sage and perfectly knowing, to shut up and put up until you look like a success story. The fact is that I’m a sick person. There is no cure for bipolar disorder. My reality may never look like the glossy after picture, and there should be space for that in art. I might not have “healed” or “recovered” through the process of writing, but I do know I grew immensely on the page. My hope is that people reading my work will find comfort in seeing what that growth looks like—painful, humiliating, paradoxically cyclical, and achingly normal.

Maybe related to that, you have a few moments throughout the memoir where you mention your academic experience, and the reactions of peers/teachers to your work. Now that you’re out of the academy for a bit, could you tell us how this book formed in relation to writing workshops? How does your memoir, for instance, depart from the ideas you encountered in the writing classroom?

One thing I was taught by various instructors was to write seamlessly—if I can’t remember some detail within a memory, invent it to serve the scene. Treat the writing of scenes from my life like an exercise in world-building as you might with fiction. It would be lying to say I eschew this method entirely, but I wanted to depart somewhat from that in my memoir. Trauma, psychotropic medications, drug abuse, all these things have addled my memory. There are big chunks of my life missing. I also think erasure is a significant part of the diaspora experience—there are so many stories I cannot access because my entire extended family is an ocean away. There are things about my parents’ childhoods I’ll never know because they’re too painful to talk about. That lack of information isn’t something I wanted to hide, but rather consciously unpack.

My writing style has radically changed outside the academy. We mostly studied and worked on long-form essays in classes, which produced a good bulk of this book. But writing in solitude forced me to get inventive and weird, which produced some of my favorite pieces. My process is wilder now, more whimsical. I’m driven by instinct and obsession. I’ve embraced the miraculous potential of the fragment. I couldn’t have grown in this direction in an academic setting. Not to knock workshop. It just can’t be the only place where you’re developing as an artist. Workshops taught me a lot about writing, but the most valuable lesson I learned from them was how to say no. How to resist. How to push back and handle outside pressure. Relying on critique won’t help your voice flourish. It’s your voice and you have to learn to protect and listen to it.

The way that you frame the book, as a text that shows growth as “painful, humiliating, paradoxically cyclical, and achingly normal,” is one of the things I most appreciate about it. That achingly normal, especially—when I read, I’m not reading with the expectation that the writer will provide some sort of magical solution, but rather that we’ll have the opportunity to join together and to grow together, which is a messy and real process. It’s all a much more exciting way to meet a book, and much more valuable, I think.

Could you tell me some about the writers (or artists, activists, etc.) that you turn to for this experience? If you were going to chart some influences for this book, who would jump to mind?

Probably my biggest hero is Toni Morrison. Her book Beloved taught me everything I needed to understand about the inner workings of trauma, how it functions within a person and their family, how it fractures and binds us at once. It taught me what forgiveness means and where it slips between the cracks. It gave me an emotional rubric to work with.

In the later stages of writing my book, as those previously mentioned “letters to the publisher” suggest, I hit a dry spell where I wasn’t sending new pages for weeks. So I started reading to get out of my own head.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking became a great source of inspiration to me. Didion has a way of tracking the ephemera of her grief-struck everyday, with such a sense of immediacy. She doesn’t write solutions, she writes equations. She doesn’t construct meaning, she conjures it. She is living on the page after the loss of a life, capturing what that looks like in real time. It’s a book whose prose reveals a deep reverence for a moment, a story, a life. And in that reverence I found an enviable sense of trust in the process of writing.

I also picked up a copy of Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, which is such a strange and entrancing book. Kapil writes about many things I also touch on with my work—power and its intrusions on the body, the body as an immigrant’s, the body as a citizen’s, the body as a target for violence. But the approach is radically different from anything I’ve encountered before. Kapil’s formal experimentation is so intense and dazzling, there was this sense that the book was a living, breathing thing, that one had to give oneself over to it, and in that sense it embodied exactly the sentiment of growing together with a work. Becoming not a reader versus the work but a third and separate entity as a result of the work. I was deeply shaken by this book.

Experiencing these texts made me feel freer. I could allow my process to guide the work, and meaning would blossom of its own accord. There were no rules. No order. I was encouraged to trust my own instincts, which meant harnessing chaos rather than struggling against it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dylan Cooley on the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction

This week’s news that the U.S. has withdrawn from UNESCO has created a lot of uncertainty in Iowa City, IA. As North America’s only UNESCO City of Literature and home to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, the Nonfiction Writing Program, and the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City has a storied history of contribution to the literary world. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Iowa City’s UNSECO team insisted the nation’s withdrawal from the UN’s cultural program won’t affect this town’s City of Literature status, but an air of anxiety remains. Political maneuvers like the US’s withdrawal itself are largely symbolic, as is, as some might argue, a city’s UNESCO credentials.

Whether or not that’s true, one hardly needs to point out that symbolism matters to a town with five writers for every traffic light.

Regardless, the announcement’s timing adds a little gravitas —the Iowa City Book Festival, an annual UNESCO City of Literature event, started October 8. Although residents, writers, publishers, and readers wonder what political repercussions loom, they have also seen and participated in palpable reminders that the city will maintain its devotion to the arts. Not only is the Book Festival underway, but on the far edge of the University’s campus, at the Kuhl House — a small stone building that is among the oldest in the state — the UI Press is welcoming the start of a new round of its newest book contest. In total, the UI Press offers four such prizes, each of which have garnered critical acclaim and strengthened its role as one of the few university presses devoted to creative work.

The University of Iowa Press was founded in 1969, and in conjunction with the Workshop they launched the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the John Simmons Short Fiction Award shortly thereafter. Given the success of both endeavors, the Press eventually founded the Iowa Poetry Prize in 1987, and just last year, in 2016, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction – a contest for book-length manuscripts whose third annual screening period began October 15th and runs until December 10, 2017.

The Prize is a collaborative pedagogical and artistic effort shared by the UI Press and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. “The Nonfiction Writing Program has a long tradition of trying to embrace as broad an understanding of nonfiction as possible, while also holding firmly to its deepest historical roots,” says John D’Agata, NWP Director, and editor of Graywolf’s acclaimed History of the Essay anthology series. “The Press and I thought it was time for a contest like this that was open to all interpretation of nonfiction, screened by some of the genre's smartest and most voracious readers, and judged by some of the country's best nonfiction writers.” The NWP’s Bedell Distinguished Visiting Professor, a position that’s been filled previously by esteemed writers including Geoff Dyer, Vivian Gornick, and Terry Tempest Williams, leads students through the contest’s screening process in a graduate seminar and also serves as the contest’s judge. While screening manuscript submissions for the contest, the NWP’s MFA students attempt to define what makes for “good” nonfiction, or what can count as nonfiction at all — a daunting task in a genre for which slipperiness of definition isn’t so much a bug as it is a feature. "Literary nonfiction,” says UI Press director Jim McCoy, “no matter how you try to define it, is one of the most exciting genres. It pushes new boundaries." And so, the NWP grad students and the contest judge ultimately offer up a single manuscript for the prize: publication by the UI Press, and a place on their bookshelves alongside Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Tom Lutz, Anne Carson, Eliot Weinberger, and other boundary-defying titans of contemporary American literature.

The winner of the 2017 Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction, judged by Meghan Daum, will no doubt find itself at home there. For Single Mothers Working As Train Conductors, by Laura Esther Wolfson, is an exciting example of the hybrid capacity of nonfiction in general, and of the essay in particular. As Daum writes in her praise for Wolfson’s manuscript, For Single Mothers is a book that explores “the subtle, perennial tensions between the lives we think we want and the lives we actually make” in a way that is “poignant, sophisticated, and as soulful as it is brainy.” Wolfson, a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish into English, has written a book-length essay about that love of language — and the ways that language barriers can in turn create barriers to love. Wolfson navigates a marriage, a divorce, chronic lung disease, and life at work as a literary translator with the grace and nimble-mindedness of one accustomed to traversing rocky artistic and intellectual borders. And yet, we never forget that such movement has not been easy: “It’s easy now to see what bothered Aleksandr: garbage is musor is garbage, all of it vile and evil-smelling. I shamed him, inadvertently, foolishly, blindly, in a way that transcended language.” To read For Single Mothers is to watch that grace develop as Wolfson watches the Soviet Union dissolve around her and narrowly misses out on translating Nobel-winning literature.

Given the shifting landscape of creative nonfiction, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction is sure to yield a wide range of books with approaches to research, language, and truth that are as singular as the voices of each year’s judge: While Meghan Daum was pulled to Wolfson’s memoiristic exploration of fact and feeling, the Prize’s inaugural judge, Richard Preston, best-selling author of The Hot Zone and writer for The New Yorker, selected Barret Baumgart’s China Lake, whose narrative leads readers into the apocalyptic near future of a world in the grips of pseudoscience and climate catastrophe.

The 2018 Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction will be judged by Kiese Laymon, the prolific novelist and essayist and author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division. Laymon’s writing on race, gender, and America’s myriad institutions of violence has already established him as one of the most compelling stylists and moral voices of twenty-first century American literature. In his role as contest judge, Laymon’s potential to develop our notion not only of what is possible, but what is necessary in nonfiction, is as thrilling as the elastic potential of the genre itself.

The Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction is accepting submissions now. Manuscripts must be postmarked between October 15 and December 10, 2017, and should be accompanied by a $10 administrative fee. Further submission and eligibility guidelines are available at the UI Press’s website.


Dylan Cooley lives in Iowa City. He's currently writing a memoir about long-distance running and his strained relationship with Iowa. Follow him on Twitter: @TheGrandCooley

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Will Slattery: Impressions and Preliminary Maxims Gleaned from Teaching High School Creative Writing

1. Of late I find myself entrusted with the responsibility of educating Arizonan high schoolers in the discipline of "creative writing." The basic structure of this responsibility is not hugely different from the adjunct-professoriate responsibilities many members of the Essay Daily family know so intimately, though this high school work feels somewhat more honest than its collegiate counterpart, and also it actually comes with benefits.

2. Almost no one under the age of 18 seems to know what us CNF weirdos mean when we say essay—on hearing the word, their eyes darken under the memory of 5-paragraph drudgery—but even so many of them are what we might call essayistic in their disposition and artistic approach.

2a. Absolutely no one under the age of 18 cares about the Montaignean lineage of "essay as essai, by which we mean an attempt."

2b. About 63% of AWP panels every year include the essay/essai/attempt shtick, so maybe we should all knock it off anyways.

3. There is a certain amount of terror hard-coded into the teaching process. Or maybe not terror, but moral anxiety: the fear that, through some slight incompetence, your instruction might serve as a treacherous wreck-collecting shoal rather than as a conduit for exploration.

4. Almost no one under the age of 18 cares very much about the theoretical lines demarcating fiction and poetry.

4a. To write an essay or a story which moves between paragraphed prose and lineated verse is an easy, natural thing for most of the high schoolers I teach. Likewise for stories, essays, or poems which dovetail into illustrations, sketches, maps, diagrams, calligraphy, or collage. They feel no need to explain or justify this sort of move within the text, even though an undergrad or graduate level workshop would undoubtedly spend at least 10 minutes asking if these moves were really working, if the formal innovations were worth the price of the ticket.

4b. So then: what changes? What ideological or institutional mechanism operates on the adolescent mind such that a high school workshop bounces off the walls with formal innovation but a college workshop often tortures itself over something as simple as a deliberately chosen comma splice? I have absolutely no idea.

5. No one under the age of 18 understands or cares about the distinction between an MA, MFA, and a PhD. This is a very extremely excellently Good Thing.

6. If you force young people to listen to Nico Muhly’s music during their daily free-writing exercise, they will be extremely displeased with you.

7. High school writers generally like Ander Monson’s fiction; they are much less certain of his nonfiction.

8. Young writers are often adversely possessed of the notion that great writers simple Are or Are Not, that top-tier literary talent is a thing one simply Has or Has Not. Likewise, inspiration either comes to you, or it does not. The inculcation of this notion is a form of cultural violence, one for which we may thank the revolting and vulgar dregs of Romanticism.

8a. I am loathe to mark myself as the sort of white boy who might mention Aristotle as an authority, but he wasn’t half wrong when he emphasized the role of habit and practice in the formation of moral character. The same is true of aesthetic character, I suspect.

8b. But then habit and practice are so much less intoxicating than genius and afflatus, aren’t they?

9. Almost as loathsome as the notion of fixed genius is the notion of an interesting life, the idea that nonfiction has an experiential barrier to entry—that one must have done certain things, or had certain things done to them in order to even qualify as a participant in the genre. Every day that I teach, I find myself increasingly convinced that the occasionally-talked-about-but-rarely-studied enrollment gap (and the implied interest gap) between fiction/poetry and CNF can be traced back to this omnipresent, noxious phrase.

9a. I have to come to hope that what Patricia Hampl calls the "dark art of description"—the essayitic unfolding by which we refine & elevate the seemingly mundane or unimportant—might serve as a tonic for all this:
Because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He also teaches high school, in case that was unclear. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Liz Prato: On Didion's Trail at the Royal Hawaiian

Joan Didion covered many topics in her canon of essays—Charles Manson, California’s agriculture belt, the Black Panthers, hippies in Haight-Ashbury, the Getty Museum and complicated grief, to name a few—but the topic that most of her disciples wish to experience for themselves is staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikīkī Beach. Many writers have told me “I’m obsessed with Didion staying there!” and many writers have blogged about their attempts to capture the essence of Didion’s experiences at The Royal.
     It’s not a coincidence that Didion’s experience which authors most wish to emulate is staying in an elegant hotel in a tropical paradise. These same writers aren’t nearly as eager to visit a political prisoner, or hang out with semi-homeless drug addicts who have eschewed conventional hygiene. These writers want to sit in an elegant room with translucent curtains billowing in the trade winds, at a hotel where the private part of the beach is neatly raked every morning and roped off from the public riffraff. They want to lie by the pristine pool and know that, when they are within the hotel’s bounds, they are protected and included within a rarified societal set. Who can blame them? It’s a succulent fantasy, one that Hawai’i has been banking on for a over a century. So it doesn’t surprise me that writers wish to relive this aspect of Didion’s sojourn to the Islands. What surprises me is that they stop there. They cease following in her O’ahu footsteps and remain blind to everything else Hawai’i was, and is. The very reason Didion’s descriptions of the Royal Hawaiian are profound is because she set them against the unrelenting backdrop of violence and war and death.
     Didion penned three major essays about her time in Honolulu, the longest of which is “In the Islands” from 1979’s The White Album. It’s written in three parts, marked by the dates 1969, 1970, and 1977 (one long paragraph attributed to 1975 also appears, seeming to act as more of a bumper in time/space than a stand-alone motif). Three distinct themes exist: Didion’s fragile mental state, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and war—although the word “distinct” implies these three themes have nothing to do with one another, which, I suspect, is the mistake many Hawai’i-going Didion fans make.
     In their Royal Hawaiian essays, Didion fans render sentences that meander on for 66 words, or 71 words, or 81 words. They’re chock full of busy verbs and adjectives that appear both razor-sharp and flowery, and slightly archaic, as if plucked from a mid-twentieth century thesaurus. It’s an effort—unconscious or not—to imitate Didion’s style. Didion’s sentences, however, are not just long and full of Big Words. They have a push, a rhythm, and then a twist that lands someplace completely different from where the sentence started. They are no-nonsense poems.
     In the sentences drawn by her well-meaning imitators, nothing really happens. At the end of one line, I knew no more than when I started it and, in some weird equation of physics, ended up feeling as if I actually knew less. That emptiness of these passages becomes the sum total of an entire essay or blog post describing an author’s re-creation of Didion’s stays at the Royal Hawaiian: nothing happened to the author. She was no different—aside from being slightly more relaxed—after undertaking her pilgrimage.
     The majority of space in Didion’s “In the Islands” is consumed by war: prose concerned with the bodies of young men buried at Punchbowl Cemetery, the eternal pall of the Pearl Harbor attack hanging over Honolulu, the “they-just-keep-coming” casualties from Korea and Vietnam. By “space,” I don’t just mean the most words, the most paragraphs, the most pages, but—for me, at least—war also consumes the most psycho-emotional space. It fills me with a profound understanding of how completely and inescapably death permeates Honolulu.
     Life at the Royal Hawaiian takes up the second most space on Didion’s page. She writes of the exclusivity—tacit and otherwise—shared by the Royal’s guests: honeymooners and gray-haired ladies and mothers and daughters and industrialists and socialites. Afternoon tea is served on rattan tables, fresh papaya is eaten on the terrace, ukuleles are strummed on the lanai. Updates from the outside world arrive at newsstands two days after events occur, after the rest of the US has absorbed the initial shockwaves, further reinforcing the bubble protecting the hotel’s denizens.
     The least amount of physical space (words, sentences, paragraphs) is given to Didion’s fractured emotional state. She admits to having lost faith in people’s ability and motivation to choose the path that will make their lives, and the world, better. More often than not, the news informs her, people select the path of violence.
     We all know—as readers, as writers, as consumers of language in any form—that certain words carry more weight than others. I wondered whether the relative weight of the words in each section, on each theme, were bigger and more galvanizing than its actual length. So, I conducted an experiment: First, I combed each section for the words that jumped out at me. In this way, the data is entirely subjective. These same words may not stick to another reader. But I like to think as a writer, if nothing else, I understand what seizes the attention of our heads and our hearts. Next, I dumped the words from each theme into a computer program that randomly generated three word clouds (one for each section). To maintain aesthetic continuity, I used the same font and shape for each word cloud, and I didn’t alter whatever image was first created. This is what each looked like:

Now, if you were going to immerse yourself in any of these word clouds, which would you choose? The one containing cemetery and oligarchy and Hiroshima and stigmata? Or the one comprised of weeping, insane, murder, and psychotic, with BAD big and bold and in the middle (I swear, this is exactly how it was randomly generated)? Or do you want to hang out in the cloud with sugar and paradise and fortunes and beach? Sure, asp and cataclysm and assassination also appear in that cloud, but certainly such negativities can be overcome by sweet and luaus and silk.
     This seems to be the impression that certain readers take away from “In the Islands”—that while this other ugliness, this war business, lingers out there, it can all be forgotten on the pink terrace of the Royal Hawaiian. The writers who wish to walk in Didion’s footsteps approach the hotel in paradisiacal isolation, not as part of the whole, and not how Didion intended it: as a statement to however much we desire it for a week or two, we cannot escape the ravages and violences of our culture, or the violences of our souls. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel may be Eden, but an asp always curls around the rope that separates its private beach from the public.


Liz Prato is the author of Baby’s on Fire: Stories (Press 53). Her essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Baltimore Review, Hawai'i Pacific Review, and Subtropics. She teaches nuts & bolts craft classes in Portland, and elsewhere. Liz is currently working on a linked essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai'i through the prism of white imperialism. Despite these essays mentioning Joan Didion, George Clooney, Ben Stiller and Pierce Brosnan, she really isn’t celebrity obsessed. I swear.