One Saturday night, nearly two-thirds through my time in the MFA and thinking always of my thesis—a collection of essays with a heavy emphasis on loss and grief—I open a new document and start to recall, image by image, my childhood with a chronically ill father. I’ve been attempting essay revisions, and I keep thinking about how my readers asked to see more of the child narrator, how she coped with her father dying. They found it charming that she brought her father’s lung x-rays to show and tell; more details like that, please.
So, I lay into my keyboard, transcribing these moments that live in my memory: begging my family to join me in the basement when the tornado sirens sounded off, fearing for their deaths; drawing a picture of my father being eaten by a T. rex, a recurring nightmare after watching Jurassic Park. I write about teaching my first-grade class how to sign a song to celebrate Earth Day (my father wanted me to learn ASL so we could still communicate when he could no longer speak). The time I twisted my ankle in the hospital waiting room. Holding his hand while a machine suctioned the mucus from his lungs—everyone else left, none of the adults could bear it, the way his body shook. Children are odd creatures. I write about how special I felt, to be the girl whose dad was dying. Special status. Grief girl.
I have always been Grief Girl.
The man who would be my husband was so in awe when I told him my life story, that I had lived through so much pain. And I loved this. I loved that I had a big story. I loved that I could retell it in a way that made people lean in. And I didn’t even have that big of a story yet. All I had was Dead Dad. Also Estranged Birth Father. Also My Parents Got Divorced Because I Caught My Dad Cheating and Told My Mom—that one was a crowd-pleaser, I held it back for special occasions. There was also Found My Granddad Dead When I was Five and Favorite Uncle Died of HIV/AIDS Ten Years Later. I didn’t even have the other stories yet, the stories my husband would give me: Miscarriage story, Married at Nineteen and Divorced by Twenty story.
What comes first: the wound or the essayist?
My writer friend and I like to refer to ourselves—ironically and enthusiastically—as “wound dwellers.” We picked up the phrase from Leslie Jamison, who writes about a boyfriend referring to her as such. In her final essay in The Empathy Exams, she examines the trope of wounded women, the attractiveness and danger of writing about pain: “What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by.”
They summon sympathy.
They bleed enough light to write by.
But then, the danger: “The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—perhaps its finest, frailest consummation.”
Does my insistence on wound-dwelling play into a patriarchal agenda? In recreating pain on the page and then lingering there, am I perpetuating a damaging stereotype—like calling to like?
Maybe so. But suppressing pain never got me far, either.
In a forms seminar on the lyric essay, I’m one of few essayists in a group of fiction writers and poets. Their particular hesitations with the form intrigue and amuse me. They are concerned with the possibilities of manipulation within white space, an unease triggered by a line from Eula Biss in Seneca Review: “I am suspicious of gaps, of silences, of contradictions because I know how easily they hide unfinished thinking and insufficient research.”
I care far more for the first part of that quote: “Holes in an essay, I tell my students, flaws in the logic, contradictions, unanswered questions, loose associations may all be necessary because of what they ultimately make possible.” I don’t try to talk my peers out of their anxieties about truth and veracity; I’ve learned these are boundaries we create on our own, over time.
The conversations that leave me spiraling are the ones about wounds. In her craft essay on found forms, a relative of the lyric essay, Chelsea Biondolillo recounts a student asking if “'these kinds of essays' have to be sad or traumatic,” to which she admits to the reader, “I wondered myself about the intrinsic sadness of the essays I’d found.”
But as she moves through her own essay, Biondolillo recognizes wound-holding as an allowance of the form, rather than a prerequisite: “The wound needs to be protected, these essays seem to imply, with something hard and calcareous. Something spiny, perhaps, or even pearled. Something you might want to pick up, even if it is chipped.”
In this case, the wound doesn’t manifest in an essay—the essay allows for the wound to exist.
The Trauma Olympics. It’s a phrase that moves through nonfiction circles, or perhaps specifically MFA nonfiction circles. Maybe we’re still new enough writers to feel self-conscious about our subject matter, or maybe that self-consciousness never goes away. In an act of self-deprecation and -preservation, we throw around this phrase and laugh. Death, chronic illness, sexual assault, mental health, inherited trauma, abandonment—we hand out invisible medals that mean you can write about this thing.
By my math, I score extra points for the miscarriage because I was eighteen when it happened, but it was also a decade ago, so the shininess is starting to wear off. Good timing, then, when my sixty-year-old mother starts experiencing symptoms of an unidentified dementia. Now I can entwine the loss of a would-be daughter with experiencing the loss of my mother as a daughter. It’s almost unfair, how many trauma points I get for this.
To be valued for one’s wounds means one must stay wounded, forever, to be valued.
My therapist asks why I refuse to let go of my grief and I say, “Maybe after I finish writing my book.”
In our seminar, we delight in how Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts communicates joy; it’s the first work we’ve read with a positive emotion as its driving force. That it’s taken us several weeks to get to joy makes sense: sources of sadness lend themselves to the essay, to all forms of narrative—the tension between failure and conquering, loss and gain, the arc of overcoming.
Of her partner, Nelson writes: “What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.”
When I read this line, I feel my body relax. I imagine Nelson suspended, if only temporarily, above hurt. Without question, she has and continues to experience grief, but this moment of joy exists forever, and I am grateful for it.
I try to think up conduits of joy that might be emphasized in my collection and scribble them at the top of my notes during our discussion: womanhood, matriarchy, family loyalty. They all feel like a stretch, too abstract to mean anything.
When my former professor visits campus for a weekend workshop, she asks what I’m thinking about, and I explain my fears that I’m writing a joyless book. Later, when we read over my essay draft—about my estranged birth father, and his sister who died at twenty-seven—my former professor shares a grief-laden scene she’s working on. “I don’t write many things that are happy,” she says. “But I can write beauty, and I hope that’s enough.”
For our seminar and an independent study, I read the following book-length, lyric narratives:
A Bestiary by Lily Hoang
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz
Micrograms by Nicole Walker
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
Ongoingness and The Guardians by Sarah Manguso
Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno
The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco
Afterglow by Eileen Myles
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
When the World Breaks Open by Seema Reza
The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman
How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman
As a class, we also read the following lyric essays:
“Too Many Spirits Who Begged to Be Let In” by Jenny Boully
“Autopsy Report” by Lia Purpura
“Shoulder” by Honor Moore
“Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results” by Tyrese Coleman
“The Professor of Longing” by Jill Talbot
“A Brief History of Her Pain” by Jen Soriano
“Self-Portrait with Parts Missing and/or Smeared” by Michael Wasson
“Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary” by Danielle Geller
“Pain Scale Treaties” by Laura Da’
“Part One: Redeeming the English Language (Acquisition) Series” by Tiffany Midge
We’re midway through the semester before I realize we’re reading lyric work nearly entirely by women. (John D’Agata, Ander Monson, and Dinty W. Moore are on the syllabus, but with craft essays.)
Compiling a list of lyric books by men takes more effort than I expect. When I ask devoted readers of nonfiction for recent titles, they think silently before finally offering one, maybe two. Eventually, we come up with the following:
The Face by Chris Abani
The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke
Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto
About a Mountain by John D’Agata
Feverland and Happy by Alex Lemon
Brilliant Imperfection by Eli Clare
Why is it so difficult to find men writing lyric books, lyric essays? Do they sense the wounds inherent in the form? Do they refuse to be wounded, publicly?
After my first reading among my peers, during which I read a lyric piece about my miscarriage and brief marriage, a friend asked if I planned to publish the essay.
“It was so, so good,” she said. “Or maybe it was just the public performance of vulnerability.”
I trust this friend, and her comment was genuine: it was a moment of deep vulnerability. For years, I kept that period of my life secreted away. I couldn’t write about it—at least not well—until I found the lyric essay. As Biss wrote, white space allows for gaps in logic and research, but sometimes those gaps are necessary to create narrative from experiences too painful to recount otherwise.
Still, my friend’s comment pressed on my persistent fear: that my work will be valued for the depth of its wounds, rather than the craft that conveys those wounds.
When I meet with a writer and she asks about my thesis, I find myself revealing more and more about my past with each follow-up question. (She writes fiction; when we talk about her manuscript, we don’t speak of her life.) Because she is kind—because I have divulged a litany of losses while sitting on her floor, playing with her baby—she expresses sympathy, and I feel compelled to refuse it. This isn’t the wound I’m talking about, I’d like to say. It’s the work.
Twice during my time in an MFA program, I’ve been audience to men speaking mockingly of writing about the self. (I should clarify that both were guests; one of the two had a significant platform.) These conversations are rote and uninspiring, inevitably leading to the insinuation that personal essays fall into the lowest category of writing: that which is therapeutic.
I would like to invite these men to witness the toll that writing about grief and trauma often takes on me. To sit in one’s pain for several hours a day over an extended period of time is no joyride; if it is therapeutic to come to the end of an essay or poem or story that involves the act of wound-dwelling, why would we ever begrudge the writer that temporary relief?
No one is making me write this collection. I often fantasize about the next project, which might mine less of my personal narrative—how much more work could I get done, I think, without those necessary, restorative days away?
Recently, though, I published a lyric essay about my young miscarriage and the ensuing fallout, and women reached out to me. Some offered similar stories; others simply acknowledged the wound. For once, I recognized the piece as both: a spiny and calcareous thing, craft and life, work and wound. Each of these women lifted me for a moment, holding me in a space that felt a lot like joy.
In her lyric book Tender Points, which recounts sexual trauma and the external disbelief of that trauma, Amy Berkowitz discusses the idea of “straight masculine prose.” She turns to the reader early on in the book and lets them know why she’s selected this stripped-down syntax: “That’s why I so firmly want prose here. Sentences. Periods. Male certainty. These are facts. No female vocal fry. No uptalk. No question about what I tell you.”
Berkowitz’s prose breaks down when she approaches the memory of the rape, her lines dismantling until they appear more like poetry. David Shields wrote in Reality Hunger that prose starts to naturally fragment when approaching difficult or traumatic topics, but how does that account for intentionality?
To say that prose “just fragments” when approaching trauma seems to insinuate that the writer couldn’t “maintain” the straight, masculine prose—that her feelings, and thus her lines, got away from her. The assertion echoes the idea of wound-dwelling as reflex, something that writers—women writers, wound-dwellers—have no authorial control over.
I want to say there’s another reason: that straight, masculine prose was the thing that couldn’t contain Berkowitz’s experience. So, she created her own form, that could.
When I write joy, it’s centered around my nieces. My mother had two daughters—my sister first, then me—but my sister moved away to live with her father when I was five. I felt, in many ways, like an only child.
Now my sister has two daughters, raised under the same roof. Full sisters, there’s no question of their connection. My sister sends photos of them entwined on the couch together, playing tag together, taking baths together, screaming together. They are teaching me about sisterhood; they are showing me what I’ll never have. (And yet—when I write of my nieces, I write of joy.)
Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors contains joy. As does, I think, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso. I love these books, but it troubles me that both are written by new mothers, both centered around children. Surely there are other things over which to express joy?
Or perhaps what I mean to say: surely there are other things over which I can express joy, in my own work.
Womanhood, matriarchy, family loyalty.
I’m still compiling a list.
Eliza Smith lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in The Offing, The Pinch, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.