Essays to Pry Open Doors:
Ashley C. Ford, Alysia Sawchyn, & Brittany Means
Ashley C. Ford, Alysia Sawchyn, & Brittany Means
I come from a family of artists, bohemian types, and while this means I heard, saw, and endured things as a young child I likely should not yet have heard, seen, or endured, I also emerged from people who believe in making things. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do something or say something or make something. This singular freedom—plus crazy love—was the greatest gift of growing up in my decidedly weird family.
I use this gift. I write essays and memoir and teach writing right smack in the middle of this big country in a state where the map is spilled with red. Over the past twenty years, behind classroom doors that now number in the hundreds, between conversations about form and image and syntax, the most urgent question two decades of students have asked, boils down to this: Can I say this? Really? Can I?
This semester, I taught an extraordinary group of young writers in an introduction to nonfiction class, and early on, they seemed nervous. I told them a little about my own experience telling true stories and then I asked: How many of you come from a family of artists? No hands went up. Not one. Okay, I said. Okay. This will be different for you. And then I added, because I couldn’t help myself: I’ve never met a secret that did anyone any good.
So much of telling our stories is finding the permission we need to begin, to say the first word, and then the next, and to keep opening doors—like the eager kid with the Lego advent calendar who just can’t wait—until we get to the door we need to either peek behind or bust the hell out of. We’ve seen the power of permission, the courage in numbers, in this fall’s #metoo movement, and as I’ve listened to these voices, story after story, I’ve thought: Okay. Yes. You’ve got this. Here we go. And I’ve also thought: This is what we writers get to practice every day. Essays and memoirs have been cracking open closed doors for a long, long time. We have a responsibility here.
I come from a family of sculptors, painters, and photographers; art collectors, collage artists, and graphic designers. My mother can make anything out of fabric and thread. Seriously, anything. She could sew you an advent calendar with a tiny, plush surprise behind every buttoned door. My children wear flannel nighties with secret messages embroidered inside their collars. If I were to distill my most cherished childhood memories of Christmas to three, they would be: waking up to a Christmas tree shaking with the waving claws of live lobsters (that year, my mother’s boyfriend was a fisherman); touching the donkey’s wondrously long, soft ears in the steam of his warm donkey breath on our annual excursion to the live nativity scene; and forgetting to pack our stockings—a problem my grandmother solved by splitting a pair of pantyhose at the crotch. In the morning, the feet dragged the floor, the hose stuffed with everything imaginable, plus boards, nails, and glue. My grandmother’s eyes sparkled when she asked: “What are you going to make?”
I am plotting a cheat. I was asked to write about one neglected essay, one essay we don’t talk enough about in our classrooms and on our blogs, but I want to tell you about three because I like things that come in threes, because I couldn’t choose between them, and because, well: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I want to offer three gifts.
What can I say? It’s a greedy season.
I talk about time a lot in my nonfiction classes. I ask my students to consider where their narrators stand to ask vital questions of memories and events that came before in order that they might move forward (I stole that last part from Patricia Hampl). There’s a lot I don’t love about getting older, but as an essayist, the extra years have been a boon. So much time to fold, so many layers, so many points along the timeline where I can dig in my narrative heels, pivot in whatever direction I choose.
One semester a couple of years ago, I was teaching all my favorites—Joan Didion and James Baldwin, Jo Ann Beard and E.B. White, Jamaica Kincaid and Kathryn Winograd. . . and my students loved these essays, they were learning, but they had a good question: What about young writers, Jill? What about writers like us?
What I heard: What about writers who have less time behind them for folding and more time ahead for living? What about writers who are just now saying the first thing they need to say? What’s at stake for these writers? Now, every semester I add more essays written by writers in their twenties to our reading lists; online publishing has made this easy. We talk about the stories we need most to tell, the stories that rise up in our throats when we first open our mouths to speak.
Each of these essays was written by a brilliant woman while she was in her early to mid-twenties. I am proud to say I knew them when, and I promise you’ll know their names someday if you don’t already. All attended Ball State and wrote nonfiction while they were here with us. In addition to essays, they all make other things, too. Here in Muncie, these women made blogs celebrating and featuring women writing nonfiction; they cross-stitched quotations from “The Fourth State of Matter” and dog portraits; they baked cookies, cakes, and pies.
They are, all three—Ashley, Alysia, and Brittany—great givers of gifts and tellers of truths:
- Ashley C. Ford’s “What Burns in the Pit” (published April 16th, 2012 in The Rumpus) takes on snakes, a baby brother born grey and still, a father gone off to prison, and a mother too deep in her own grief to care for her living children. Five-year-old Ashley is sent off to live with her grandmother on a farm in Missouri. In this short, powerful essay, you’ll find blood and venom, beating and biting, loss upon loss, but there is more that Ashley remembers from this early wild life: “I had a dog, a goat, and a great-grandfather who threw hammers at wild pigs in the back yard then paid me two dollars to collect the tools and bring them back to the house.” Her grandmother alternates between two texts in teaching Ashley to read, the Bible and supermarket celebrity tabloids, and young Ashley tells herself and anyone who will listen: “I’m not dead.” I’m not dead.
- Alysia Sawchyn’s “Rice Grain Girl” (published November 2016 in LUMINA Online) is set in the body. Here, there is food, plenty of food—salad and meat and starch on fine plates—but a teenaged Alysia won’t let herself eat the chewy bread dipped in rich sauce. Instead, she wants to starve herself into sharp nothingness, craving the bone edges, as she listens to her Chinese mother’s condemnation of her Dutch boyfriend’s parents: “They let their children make mistakes.” The girl hears stories from her mother’s homeland: every rice grain she leaves behind in the bowl will be a blemish on her future husband’s face. Later, the girl becomes a python, swallowing clementines whole. She navigates through men with pocked skin, writhing fish on her board, and the flesh padding her own body to arrive at a meal alone on a couch, feet up—steamed fish, ginger, scallions, and rice. She eats every bite.
- Brittany Means’s “Driving with Mom” (published September 1, 2017 in Hippocampus Magazine) takes to the road where the young narrator scrounges around in the floorboard grit to find coins for a phone call and gas station food. In the dark parking lot, waiting for her grandmother to come through on the Western Union payment, Brittany crouches, wanting to charm a flying bat. In the stories she tells herself, she is always turning to creatures for comfort. The road is not without its pleasures, talking in Pig Latin and singing along with Mom to the radio, but usually she is hungry, often she is scared in the cold dark. Her grandma explains away her brown skin, calls her “a rape baby,” and then takes them to a church where the preacher speaks in tongues. On and off, Brittany and her mom live out of their car, nothing can be counted on, and her bed is garbage bags full of clothes. Years later, on her own now, so much still to navigate, she hears her mother’s voice: “On the drive to work, I’ll hold my ribs and I’ll remember, ‘Brittany, don’t ever let a fucking man tell you what to do.’”
Outside, the sky is still dark, but in here with my feet on a pillow quilted by my mother, reading again the stories these extraordinary women chose to tell first, needed to tell first, my heart is warm.
The light is coming.
Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks), and essays in magazines such as Brain, Child, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Oprah Magazine, River Teeth, & True Story. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Find her @jill_christman.