Monday, April 29, 2019

On Anger, Experiments in Form, and The Shell Game: a Conversation with Kim Adrian

I'm teaching a graduate seminar on the art and work of the literary anthology this semester, in which we're reading anthologies across genre and in some cases talking with editors about the work that goes into assembling an anthology of others' works, and what that kind of work can mean, what sorts of space it can consolidate or create, and what conversations it can foment. You'll see some more of these conversations on Essay Daily over the course of the next couple months. I'm a bit of an anthology aficionado to begin with, and the class's conversations have only deepened my appreciation for an undersung form. It may be undersung and underappreciated, but it's crucial to the development of many writers. Almost all writers I know were inflected or affected or imprinted (in a positive way usually, though sometimes in challenging ways too) by anthologies at some point in their journeys. Whether it was discovering what the lyric essay was capable of in The Next American Essay or even encountering Lopate's great though very much of its time demographically The Art of the Personal Essay, or an infatuation with the Best American Short Stories anthologies of the late 80s and early 90s, these anthologies can be meaningful, and they have lives that go on long beyond the first encounter. Are they tied to a time and place? Yes. But they persist. And they mean. They can make a canon or break one. They give us permission, whether it's to write stories that you didn't know you were allowed to write or think, much less publish, or whether it's to mess around with form, in the case of Kim Adrian's The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). What are the connections between the writer's own work and the editorial/anthologizing work they do? What are the lives of anthologies and those who read and assemble and publish them like? How much work is it to put one together, or to find a publisher for one? What kinds of spaces are we creating or consolidating when we gather and publish an anthology? We'll be asking and answering some of these questions and more. 

After discussing some of the essays in The Shell Game, I posed a few questions that came up in our class discussion to Kim Adrian, and we present them here to you. We welcome your thoughts about anthologies, which ones mean or meant the most to you, and why? Which ones spurred you to do something different, not seeing what (or who) you wanted to see in an anthology? Let us know in the comments or on twitter. —Ander Monson


AM: Kim, thanks for doing this. So as I mentioned in an earlier email, I’m teaching a graduate seminar on the literary anthology—what they do / what space they make or collect for writers, readers, editors, publishers, teachers, students, and other communities. We talked about the great anthology you edited, The Shell Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), and we have more questions. Thanks for making this anthology and getting it out into the world. So: What draws you to nonfiction (others or your own) working in received forms? One needs to be a little bit obsessed with an idea, subject, question, or form to do all the work of assembling an anthology (which editors know is much more work than most people can imagine), and it’s clear from your other work (most obviously in your book, The Twenty-Seventh Letter) that form is both highly meaningful to you and, it would appear, generative. How’d you get so obsessed with form/s?

KA: I took a lot of fiction writing workshops in college and for a few years afterwards, when I had a part-time job at Harvard, where one of the benefits was free classes. Being young and having my heart set on becoming a writer, I took the advice I received in those workshops very seriously. What I didn’t understand was that the the limitations of the workshop setting itself (twelve students, one semester) often promote a prescriptive approach. One teacher even gave us a formula. ABCDE—Action, Background, Climax, Denouement, Ending—something like that. Trying to write stories that filled requirements like this was probably the worst thing I could have been doing at that time in terms of growing as a writer, but of course I didn’t realize that then.

During this same period, over the course of about a year, I checked out every volume of The Best American Short Stories from the library and charted the plot of each story. I was obsessed. It was a painful obsession because I, myself, couldn’t manage to write the kind of plot that’s based on so-called conflict. The kind where something has to “happen,” to “change,” the kind with a “rising action” that leads to increasing tension, a climax, and finally a letting down or denouement. My work has always tended toward the essayistic. I’m just more interested in lateral offshoots than in straight linear progression. But for a long time I resisted my own inclinations because I thought I needed to stick to the rules I was learning in the workshops. I suppose it’s natural to try to please your teachers, but that was a big part of the problem. Being a people pleaser can be a very dangerous proposition when it comes to writing.

At some point I realized that all the stories and novels and essays I loved best to read actually worked against the kind of prescripts I was trying so hard to master. Writers like Virginia Woolf or Kenzaburo Oe, with whom I was especially smitten at the time. So I started experimenting with form. The first story I wrote after this revelation did not go well in workshop. In fact, the teacher said in class that the narrator (clearly a version of myself) needed to be in a psychiatric hospital. Even at the time I remember thinking that comment was over the line. The narrator of that story was merely thoughtful and a little melancholy. That particular teacher had written a well-known book on conventional fiction writing techniques and, looking back on it now, I wonder if he took it personally, somehow, the fact that that story of mine—which was about young love—was as essayistic as it was narrative. Did he resent my coloring outside the lines he’d described so carefully in his craft book? Who knows. In any case, his comment made me angry. Especially because, by my reckoning, that story was the best thing I’d managed to get down on paper thus far. Oddly, that anger propped me up, and my experiments with form only got bolder.

AM: One question that came up in reading, say, Caitlin Horrocks’s “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivia Card” was to what extent the success of a hermit crab essay depends on how familiar the reader is with the form it’s inhabiting. That is, for one of my students who’s only a couple years younger than me, it immediately and powerfully brought her back to her own childhood studying those cards (her grandfather, she told us, was an obsessive Trivial Pursuit collector—!—and he had every edition, and she’d stay up late in bed as a kid reading and memorizing answers so as to get a competitive advantage against him (which is awesome in itself and tells you something about her…)). But if one were to teach that essay to an 18-year-old, I wonder what the form would even mean to them. Do kids still play Trivial Pursuit? Do they play it as a board game or as an app or something? If it wasn’t recognizable to them, how would they read it? That led me to a larger question which we talked about a bit in my class, but I thought I’d pose it to you: is any form used in a hermit crab essay a technology? (Are all forms technologies?) And then, does using a form tie an essay to a particular technological moment or era (I’m thinking here of, say, the Ok Cupid essay too)?

KA: I don’t think of forms as technologies so much as strategies. But yes, some forms will absolutely speak more clearly to certain readers than to others. As much as I love hermit crab essays, I suspect they are especially vulnerable to becoming cliché or passé rather quickly because of this recognition issue, at least in those essays that don’t exploit the form in a truly skillful way. Because in the final analysis form is always subservient to content, and in less skillful hermit crab essays that’s not always the case. But in a really good borrowed form essay, I don’t think you have to worry about the formal strategy getting outdated. A really fine piece of writing will carry its own. A good reader will have enough to go on to put it together, even if they’re not personally familiar with the form. Certainly there are examples that have aged very beautifully—Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, for instance. But that’s Primo Levi. He used the perfect form for his project. Not to dissuade anyone from playing around in this way, because I really do think it’s a worthwhile game. Hermit crab essays are a particularly accessible way to experiment with form that can lead to interesting discoveries and insights. For instance, I think they allow us to see very clearly how form and content are intimately related—how they’re essentially one and the same thing, but also not. Not quite.

AM: It’s a bit unusual for a writer to propose an anthology project to a press before publishing a book of their own. A lot of anthologies seem to trade in part on the reputation of the editor as a writer, and that’s a lot easier to do once that reputation’s built by the editor’s publishing career. As I remember it, the anthology proposal predated either of your books (though I imagine you had a contract for your Object Lessons book). I admire the boldness of your idea for this anthology but also wonder how the work involved in making it contributed to or amplified or overshadowed or slowed or otherwise affected your own work as a writer? Did it help you to surround yourself with discoveries of other writers using borrowed forms? 

KA: Yes, I already had the contract for Sock, and that lent me a bit credibility I think. I also had a fairly long history of publishing shorter works, including a couple of hermit crab essays, so that helped too. But honestly I was pretty surprised that I got the contract for the anthology. It almost seemed too easy. Though in a way the whole project felt like that. Not easy, exactly, just way more doable than I’d expected. That said, it was also a ton of work. I had to read over 500 submissions, for example. But I enjoyed almost the entire process—communicating with other writers, working with many of them to improve the essays, thinking about how best to order the pieces. The only thing I didn’t like was obtaining permissions. Working on the anthology did slow down my other work—my memoir in particular, which was eventually published by the same press. I just couldn’t concentrate on the few relatively minor revisions they had requested on that manuscript and also get the anthology out the door at the same time, so my memoir came out a year later than originally anticipated. Overall, the anthology felt like a juggling act and while it did take up a lot of time, now that I don’t have an editing gig in my life, I miss it. I found it to be a wonderful counterbalance to the isolation of writing. In terms of the last part of your question, I admire every essay in the anthology, but there were only two that inspired me in my own work. And yes, it was very enriching to work with those writers, and to examine their writing so closely, as an editor. It was fascinating.

AM: How did you end up at the University of Nebraska Press for both of your books (which are both lovely: they do good work)? 

KA: By the time I started thinking about the anthology I’d finished my memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, and was hunting around for an agent for it. The book is a bit of an odd duck, a borrowed form (a glossary) about my relationship to my mentally ill mother. Several agents had praised it but worried they wouldn’t be able to sell it because it didn’t have a strong enough narrative arc. (Lol, see above.) There was one agent in particular that I really liked. So even though he had said no to my memoir, I pitched him the idea for the anthology. He said he was interested, but that he’d need to see a real proposal and some sample essays before he committed. That’s what prompted me to reach out to a few essayists, write the introduction, and put together a formal proposal. When I sent these things to the agent, he said he still liked the idea but didn’t foresee a significant market for the book so he’d have to pass. I’d put in so much work by then, and had a pretty meaty proposal ready to go; it seemed only natural to send it out myself. I researched presses that publish this kind of thing—presses, I mean, that I could approach without an agent—and sent it to a couple of the most likely. University of Nebraska was at the top of the list because they are such terrific advocates of innovative nonfiction. They loved the idea and I had a contract in a couple of weeks. In terms of my memoir, I kept looking for an agent, or a larger publisher, on my own for a while but it was slow and frustrating. After a while I thought, why not send it to UNP? I was enjoying working with them on the anthology, and obviously had a good relationship with the acquiring editor there (Alicia Christensen), so I sent it to her and—happily—she took it. 

AM: In the proposal you sent me you’d sent me you included a possible mock-up of a cover idea, featuring art by Aki Inomata of hermit crabs in plexiglas artificial shell structures. That was a great cover image, I thought. I like them both, though the actual cover goes in a very different direction, one that really doubles down on the technology qualities I mentioned above. What happened between that idea:

and the one that you ended up with:


KA: Oh, that was a heart-breaker. Aki Inomata is a wonderful artist, and her acrylic architectural “shells” for real hermit crabs are perfect metaphors for hermit crab essays, which is why I took the liberty of using her work in a cover mock-up as part of the proposal. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak English, so communications about actually using one of her images on the real cover were difficult. She didn’t get what I was talking about—an anthology? of what kind of essay?? what’s an essay??? I wrote to her several times but it always ended the same way. At a certain point, she got an agent and I thought that might be a good development, but the agent didn’t speak English either. One of the contributors to the anthology, Joey Franklin, speaks some Japanese so he volunteered to write to the agent—but again that went nowhere. The image on the cover now is actually something I had to fight hard for too, because the first cover image the press sent was—let’s just say, not my cup of tea. Primary colors. 1950’s clip art of Dick-and-Jane-style Caucasian kids playing some weird game that looked like a bomb-building kit. It was a valiant attempt at a borrowed form—supposed to look like an oblong game box, with the title and image running sideways—but the overall effect was illegible and, I thought, pretty garish. The book at that point also had a confusing subtitle: “a collection of hermit crab essays.” Over the course of the editing process it had dawned on me that to anybody outside the tiny world of hardcore innovative nonfiction (basically, the readership of this blog) this string of words could only indicate a collection of essays about hermit crabs. So I’d been working, with little progress, to get it changed. For some reason the press was really adamant on keeping “hermit crab essays” in the subtitle. But after a number of frantic (persuasive?) emails and phone calls from me, they finally agreed to change both things. The image that’s on the cover now—of a computer form in the midst of being filled out—was my idea, much refined and elevated by UNP’s designer.


Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet ("aching, endless, unresolved, and extremely compelling" —Los Angeles Review of Books). Her first book, Sock, is part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons Series. Her award-winning essays and stories have been published in Tin House, AGNI, the Gettysburg Review, O Magazine, and many other places. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms is an anthology of lyric essays Kim edited, praised by The Millions for offering "a sense of hope about literature."

Monday, April 22, 2019

On Collecting: A Conversation with Rachel Z. Arndt

I am a collector: a collector of stones, of Czech-based kitsch. I love the competitiveness that comes with collecting: to have the best, the rarest, the most comprehensive. I’ve written pretty extensively on the subject, but since publishing my book, I’ve started thinking more pointedly about the art of collecting: how collected writing is able to hold a subject, construct narrative, establish theme. The hope for this semi-regular column is to explore the different way writers and artists express themselves through the collection, how these practices might help us in our own artistic pursuits.

I found myself pulled toward the work of Rachel Z Arndt. Her collection of essays, Beyond Measure, is focused not on the collection of objects, but the collection of data: of sleep quality, of weigh-ins at judo competitions, the ideal height for kitchen countertops. Rachel was kind enough to engage in an email conversation on the topic of collecting over the course of the past several months.


David LeGault: In Beyond Measure, it seems like this idea is most directly pursued in the idea of quantification: collecting data on sleep patterns, or exercise & weight, or relationships, or even tracking time itself. Although the essays of the collection focus on this idea of understanding through data, I'm curious how that same approach helps to shape your creative work. For example, are word counts useful as a prompt? does goal setting or structure help you to approach your subjects? Is it different for you when putting together one essay as opposed to the entire book?

Rachel Z. Arndt: Oddly, that approach doesn’t inform my creative work much. I say “oddly” because it seems even to me that it should—that I would benefit in my writing from the structured thinking of my emotional life. Sometimes I think it would be nice—or at least convenient—if I did take a more data-driven, data-collecting approach in my creative work rather than in my daily life. It would be nice to flip things, essentially: to be looser in my day-to-day thinking and more goal-oriented on the page. Wouldn’t I get more done that way? But there you can see the problem; you can see, that is, that I’m returning to this obsessive demand for productivity (which comes from step-trackers and Instagram likes and neoliberalism, among other forces) for everything to make sense and for the evidence to prove it does. So maybe it’s good—or downright miraculous—that I don’t rely on data collection when I write (not to say that I don’t rely on data and facts in writing, just that the act of writing isn’t dependent on measurement). Maybe it’s a relief that I write in search of a feeling rather than a quantifiable thought—though I’m almost loathe to come out in favor of qualitative, subjective, inexact feelings, to say that I write in search of some mushy sense of accomplishment, or really in search of the feeling that comes most often during sports, when I’m not thinking at all about what I’m doing and the sentences are just appearing. It’s become a habit for me to flip back through ink-saturated pages every twenty or thirty minutes when I’m writing, feeling them as if to make what I just did real, because I have no real memory of it. But to admit writing is potentially spiritual? That feels a bit too inexact.

Sometimes I momentarily deceive myself into thinking I can outline an essay before writing it. And I make the outline and I feel good about it—until I start writing, when it all goes out the window because I realize what I always realize: that I usually don’t know what I’m trying to say until I’m saying it.

Which doesn’t mean I’m opposed to structure, though, just that planning an essay—its thesis, its path forward—doesn’t usually work for me. Some structure is actually very helpful, but only when it’s formal structure and not a structure that has to do with narrative or content at all—the actual data that emerge in an essay. So a word count would be helpful on the sentence level but not on the level of the essay and especially not on the level of the book, when it might tempt—God forbid—outlining

Occasionally when I’m stuck, I’ll treat myself to the formal constraint of repetitive sentence structures (see especially my essay “Briefly”). When I do that, structure is actually freeing, helping my writing as strongly as it hinders my enjoyment of daily pursuits like seeing friends or eating.

DL: That is interesting. I like the idea that data collection/organization can function as a means of structuring life, but that having too much order can stifle creativity... almost as if you have to remove that part of your process in order to try and understand it's function: a way of stepping away from yourself.

On the same line of thought, I think it's one of the reasons I found your connection to judo to be so fascinating. From personal experience running track, cross country, and now marathons, I know the appeal of running has always been that quantifiable nature: that I can still tell you my fastest 5k speed and that it will always be a goal for me to chase. I suppose this also fits with a sport like competitive weightlifting where you're essentially competing against yourself. To me, Judo seems like the sort of thing you can train for, but that lacks that same objective level. This could be my ignorance of the sport though. Do you feel like Judo is another form of creative expression for you? That is to say, when there is so much appeal in quantifiable data, why are you equally drawn to things more abstract?

RZA: I will say that judo isn’t completely unquantifiable. There’s match time, scoring, seconds it takes to win by pinning your opponent, &c. There are throws that are as close to perfect that we might as well call them objectively perfect. There are points and national rankings and perhaps the most measured thing of all: weight. But I understand what you mean.

Still, judo by no means occupies the same part of my being that writing does. I have a hard time thinking of sports as creative. I know they can be for other people, but for me, creativity is thinking and sports are pointedly not-thinking. Sports are my body, not my mind.

That doesn’t mean I’m not drawn to the abstract, though—I am. I’m drawn to it because quantifying everything is exhausting. Just as measurements themselves are relative, so is the value of measuring—it is meaningful, that is, relative to what remains (or insists upon remaining) unmeasured. There’s a place and time (ha) for measuring. There’s even value in measuring what’s abstract—in rating restaurants, for instance. But there’s also value in abstracting what might usually be measured—in going “off the grid,” in “living in the moment,” and all those other wishy-washy wellness things that are so often marketing ploys but sometimes really are worthwhile ways of living. I take off my watch sometimes, I cook without recipes. I’m very exciting!

And just as there’s value in abstracting the measurable and measuring the abstract, there’s also value in simply not measuring, in not transforming one into the other. So there’s therefore value in knowing when to measure. I try not to measure my writing too much—or even to plan it out—because I know those measurements will hinder me. I’m drawn to the abstract—to writing in particular—in part because there’s not the pressure of metrics (at least not at first).

But then again, there’s the sometimes unbearable pressure of never knowing, exactly, how well you’ve performed and the unbearable impossibility of recreating the circumstances exactly of when you performed well.

Which is not to say there’s more value in what’s quantified. I just think, because we usually use numbers for value, the value of the quantified is more accessible and more obvious. And it therefore holds greater appeal. But the appeal of the abstract is the very fact that it can’t be quantified. Perhaps it holds meaning only relative to what’s measured, or perhaps there’s inherent meaning. Either way, it’s meaningful, at the very least because it gives us points of comparison. I don’t mean to valorize the off-the-grid ethos that seems mostly an excuse to post on Twitter about going off the grid, only to say that for me, there need to be points of relativity not only within measurement but also around it.

DL: I love this line of thought: that it is the balance between quantification and the abstract--perhaps the pull between these two extremes--that can give conflict to an essay, to the project as a whole.

And I think this gets me to a point where I'd like to shift gears a bit and talk about the collection as a whole: as I've mentioned, the idea behind this series of conversations is to think about this act of collecting, to understand our own work of curating. With that said, how did this project start? Was it a preconceived idea for a collection, or did it come organically (that is, did you write enough essays that you began to see a pattern)? Beyond that, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the arc of this collection: I was really pleased when reading to see the connections forming between so many seemingly disparate essays.

RZA: The project started in a moment and also over years. The idea wasn’t apparent to me at first. I have a good friend to thank for making it so: She noticed I’d been writing a lot about measurement, which made me realize that yes, yes I was. At the time, I’d been trying to write more narrowly about sleep, but I’d been flailing, struggling to turn something that’s boring to watch and unknown in the moment into something compelling.

Once I knew I was writing about measurement, the essays—or at least the ideas for them—felt like a relief. Suddenly I had a word for the thing that had concerned me for so long. My readers—friends, publishing folks, peers—helped me figure out which essays to write and why, and for that I’m deeply grateful; they pointed out holes and redundancies, which became increasingly important to know about as the collection cohered (or, rather, as I began to call the shape it was taking “coherence”).

Arranging the essays was tough. I still don’t know whether I’m happy with the order. I like to think the movement within each essay follows associative logic (versus, say, chronological structure) and that the collection as a whole does the same thing. It was important to me to frame each essay correctly, so the reader would know enough about the narrator (but not too much) at each point along the way. I looked at the beginnings and endings of essays, trying to tie them together thematically, linking them as if with ligatures in typography: One specific letter need not necessarily be next to another specific letter, but when they’re adjacent, their shapes shift slightly to form an appropriate—and satisfying—connection.

I also wanted a balance between literal and metaphorical measurement throughout. And I didn’t want too many fitness essays (who knew I’d written so many!) in a row.

Some books that helped in not only writing the individual essays but in putting the right ones next to each other: “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison; “Notes From No Man’s Land,” by Eula Biss; “A Woman of Property,” by Robyn Schiff; “The Folded Clock,” by Heidi Julavits.

Rachel Z. Arndt is a writer and editor. Her debut essay collection, Beyond Measure, came out from Sarabande in 2018. She received MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and a BA in creative writing and Spanish from Brown University. She now lives in Chicago.

David LeGault's book of essays, One Million Maniacs, is now available from Outpost19. Other recent works appear or are forthcoming in The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, and Thin Air, among others. Although he calls the Midwest home, he currently resides in Prague, Czech Republic.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Towards a Better Nonfiction Workshop

Of late I find myself struck by a number of on-going discussions involving the much lauded & much dreaded mechanism which serves as the linchpin of American writing programs: the workshop. Specifically, I want to draw the attention of our readers to Beth Nguyen’s recent article over at LitHub and to a supportive Twitter thread in response by Garth Greenwell. What I found particularly arresting—alarming, terrifying, infuriating—about this discussion was Greenwell’s confirmation that both an absence of pedagogical training for creative writing instructors and a professional disregard for K-12 teaching experience are common at the university level. The thought that high school teaching experience, i.e., teaching work more challenging and lower paying than that typically done by a tenure-track CW professor, would be seen as disqualifying briefly threw my mind into an apoplectic frenzy, and when I first started drafting this post I thought it would be a massive, brutal, excoriating, Juvenalian entry in our curmudgeonly Malcontent series, one which would tear down the workshop model and its attendant notions of institutional prestige (that draft included multiple denunciations of indifferent professors as traitors to art; lengthy compilations of workshop failures brought about by incompetence, malfeasance, and malice; an extended catalog of the countless intellectual & moral failures of David Foster Wallace; several uses of the phrase “faux New Critical detritus”; and an overlong conceit which re-imagined the aesthetic arbitrariness of workshop feedback as a sashimi conveyor belt in which some items are secretly made of feces).

But as I think more and more about the workshop (and the professors who teach it), I have realized that many people, including (perhaps especially including) the tenure-track professors expected to make use of it, don’t actually care that much for the workshop to begin with. Given this, I think it may be a better use of my time & space here to identify some specific problems which tend to emerge from the workshop, mention some possible solutions (some of them gleaned from my experience teaching high school students), and open up a call for thoughts and commentary on improving the workshop.

For this discussion, I’ll be assuming a relatively “traditional” workshop model, i.e., one in which students read a piece, write letters in response to it, and then offer a mixture of prescriptive and descriptive feedback in a loose, supposedly free-flowing seminar-style group discussion.

I absolutely do not mean to suggest that all of my proposals below are excellent, 100%-effective solutions for the major problems with the workshop. Rather, I hope that they may serve as a starting point or inspiration for discussions on things we can do to improve the workshop. I welcome feedback, suggestions, responses etc.

So then, on to the problems:

The Workshop is Not Culturally Responsive (to put it very, very mildly)

See Beth Nguyen’s above-linked article for examples of this. Or just talk to students of color, queer students, working-class students, or students of many other marginalized groups about their workshop experiences—examples of this are rife. I can recall one particular workshop, relatively early in my grad school experience, where discussion over a particularly gay essay of mine devolved into a fruitless and unhelpful debate about whether or not the piece’s somewhat, shall we say, direct references to relations between men might “alienate possible straight allies”. The essay was some overwrought fragmented faux-lyric thing which framed gay subversions of the arrow-pierced religious iconography of St. Sebastian & 19th Century notions of sexual inversion as metaphors for the contemporary psychological experience of the closet—which is to say, the essay was deeply unconcerned with anything even approaching the phrase “straight allies”.

Was spending a third to a half of that workshop discussing the possible alienation of “straight allies” remotely helpful? No. Did losing that much discussion time to the “straight allies” problem prevent me from getting other, potentially more helpful feedback? Probably. But the traditional workshop mode—group discussion and a silent author does not have a particularly good mechanism for reframing or re-guiding these types of discussions.

Possible solutions: as Nguyen’s essay mentions—un-silence the writer! This can take many forms, but even a modification as simple as allowing a writer to intervene and say “got your feedback, thanks, can we move on to a new topic” will go far to prevent fruitless or unhelpful discussion.

Additionally, workshop instructors should consider the possibility of explicitly re-directing discussion when they feel conversation may be drifting into an unhelpful, harmful, or offensive direction. Anybody who has done work with younger students (or anybody who has done any form of serious conflict resolution at all) knows that early intervention & re-direction, rather than being an impediment to honest discussion, often prevents serious toxicity from developing.

Also: require students to at least attempt a Google search on terms or phrases from other cultures, languages, religions, etc they may find unfamiliar BEFORE they bring it up in workshop discussion. Sort of silly that instructors may need to make this mandatory, but here we are.

The Workshop Offers Few Avenues for Direct Modelling

A good deal of human learning—especially learning occurring in formal settings like classrooms—is contingent upon modelling, i.e., upon an instructor or mentor figure showing students what an outcome should look like and then helping them break down and work through the steps to achieve it. This usually takes an instructional structure similar to I Do (i.e., the instructor directly models the skill); We Do (the instructor helps students walk through the process); You Do (students are given the chance to try the process on their own). If I Do; We Do; You Do sounds pedestrian, silly, childish, or beneath you, reader, think back to the last time you cooked a recipe you were unfamiliar with—you probably watched an instructional video or read an article on a cooking blog (I Do) and then prepared the recipe according to step by step instructions the first time (We Do) before modifying it according to your own preferences a second time (You Do). The process is commonplace and natural to people learning all manners of skills at all levels.

The traditional workshop, however, is absolutely terrible at offering opportunities for this sort of modelling. One of the primary goals of workshop is for writers to learn how to interpret and critique the work of others. But—unless the professor takes time to build their own apparatus for developing these skills into the course—the workshop offers little to no chance for students to actively improve these skills under guided instruction. Instead of assuming students already know how to write effective workshop letters and have effective workshop discussions, or instead of just hitting the ground running and assuming students will figure out their own workshop “style”, instructors may want to consider explicitly laying out some guidelines and suggestions for workshop letters and discussions and then (most importantly!) providing feedback on workshop letters throughout the course.

This need not be negative/punitive in focus—many students do have legitimately different styles when it comes to workshop feedback. Taking a little time every week or two to present to the class examples of different interpretive moves (ideally helpful, successful ones) students have made in discussion or in workshop letters will allow the class to see a variety of different models in action—much more helpful than just “figuring it out” on their own.

I have sometimes heard that students should already know how to do all this by the time they get to grad school, but this relies on assuming that every student has a thorough grounding in creative writing practice & pedagogy from their undergraduate years. This is, to put it politely, a very false assumption.

The Workshop Should Not Be a Summative Assessment

Although students should be expected to bring work with some degree of polish in to a workshop, a major problem with the workshop model is that it can reward “safe” or overtly “finished” work (if you turn in something which doesn’t take any huge risks or have any huge issues you can be sure people are much less likely to gossip about your work at the program’s happy hour watering hole). The social stakes of workshop often make it seem like what is, in teacher lingo, called a summative assessment—an ultimate, final test of your ability to produce work according to a certain benchmark (in this case, the benchmark being “does this workshop group think this is worthy of publication?”).

But this is a terrible way for workshop to function! It unnecessarily stresses the writer, creates potential tensions which can lead to bad vibes across the whole program (or school, or community, or etc), encourages unhelpful workshop gamesmanship and one-upping, discourages writers from trying new tactics in their writing, and ultimately fails to meet the writer and their work where they are at.

There are number of ways instructors can ameliorate this, but I believe that thinking of workshop as a formative assessment—something low stakes, designed to provide developmental feedback rather than an evaluation of whether a piece is “working or not”—is a good starting point. Encourage your students to focus on purely descriptive feedback—what was their experience of the text, rather than how this text should be changed. Or you may directly inquire with the author at the start of the workshop what type of feedback (structural? Line by line? Research related? In light of XYZ?) they would find most helpful and guide discussion along those lines.

The Workshop Format Makes Poor Use of Time and Breeds Inattention

Put simply: it is very hard for anybody to pay attention to anything for 3 hours, no matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise. Students are likely to lose focus during workshop discussion, especially if 1 or 2 loud voices are dominating the conversation. Additionally, when a piece comes in workshop may unduly influence the type of feedback it receives—people are often just getting warmed up during the first 30 minutes, and often bored & ready to go get a drink during the last 30 minutes.

Instructors may consider using some of this opening and closing time—when students are least focused—on a generative exercise or discussion topic not directly tied to a workshop piece. And instructors may want to seek out ways to divide the workshopping of a single essay into smaller component units. Changing gears/modes regularly allows for easy refocusing and makes it easier for students to avoid drifting off during workshop. A simple, easy to implement version might look something like this: instructor poses a relevant, individualized, descriptive question about the piece up for workshop (1 minute); students break into pairs or small groups to discuss this question (3-5 minutes); instructor solicits responses to this question & summarizes on whiteboard (3-5 minutes); instructor uses this content to segue to whatever mode of workshop the course uses (30+ minutes); writer asks any clarifying or additional questions they may have (5 minutes); students conclude by filling out index cards summarizing any new observations they have had about the piece (or by mentioning their favorite quotes from the piece, or re-iterating what they found most interesting—there are all kinds of closing activities you can use here) & presenting these to the writer (3 minutes).

This is, of course, not the only way to go about implementing something like this—it is just one suggestion to show how breaking the discussion up can make better use of time, provide a bigger variety of feedback, and minimize the natural human tendency to inattention.

The Workshop Can Be Uniquely Ill-Suited to CNF & Essay Students

CNF is a ludicrously over-broad genre term—it includes everything from the works of Anne Carson (the poets are probably screeching right now, but as they call anything pretty-sounding “a poem” so too have I come to call anything smart “an essay”) to longform gonzo journalism to science writing to etc etc etc. This means that a CNF workshop is likely to have a huge variety of backgrounds, styles, interests, etc present in it. The workshops I attended might feature me, a gayboy who writes about 16th Century demonology & Catholic art history & obscure JPRGs, responding to essays about saguaro cacti. Or a former border patrol agent responding to an essay about a cryogenic lab. We were often a vibrant, pleasingly chaotic mix. But without focus and structure the free-flowing group discussion model of workshop could easily turn into 20+ minutes of “I needed a little more context on subject ABC, which is unfamiliar to me”—helpful feedback, surely, but also something that could be an email, or an index card, or a post-it note instead of taking up class time. I don’t think the traditional model does an excellent job of leveraging the energy and force offered by the varied backgrounds and interests of CNF writers, although I will admit I don’t have a very clear set of ideas for improvement here.

A Brief Call: On Improving the Nonfiction Workshop

I would like to dedicate some space and time this summer (ideally in the month of June) to encouraging conversations on how the nonfiction workshop functions and how it can be improved. Are you interested in contributing an Essay Daily-style piece on how the nonfiction workshop might be made better? Drop us a line (managing editor Will’s email is in the column on the right). We’re open to creative reflections on the relevant pedagogy, plug-and-play strategies teachers can utilize in their classrooms, weird & hybrid (always one of our preferred modes) commentaries on the workshop, concrete suggestions for ways to vary and enrich workshop, etc. That being said, we prefer things which exist in the creative-critical liminal space to purely academic articles on pedagogy. Those formal articles are undoubtedly excellent, but likely better addressed to our scholarly friends over at Assay.

If you have some thoughts and feelings about the workshop but don’t feel up to writing a whole piece, drop me an email anyways—I’m happy to compile brief thoughts and notes from our contributors in a summary-style digest as well.

Thanks for your time and interest, and be in touch by June 1st if you can.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Monday, April 8, 2019

“To Get at the Real Thing”: Stephen Crane’s “War Memories”

When Stephen Crane went to Cuba in 1898 as a journalist covering the Spanish–American War, he was hoping to finally experience war firsthand; although he was the famous author of a war novel, he had never actually participated in or even witnessed a battle up close. The nearest he had come was the distant observation of some skirmishes in the Greco–Turkish War of 1897. In Cuba, he had his chance at last. He was present at all the major battles of the brief war, from Guantanamo to San Juan Hill. As a reporter embedded with the troops, Crane experienced firefights, witnessed death, and even participated in the American war effort by carrying messages to officers. From the frontlines, he wrote articles for Pulitzer’s World and took notes for a novel that he intended to write (but never did). After the war, he wrote short stories and essays based on his experiences in Cuba. These pieces appeared in the collection Wounds in the Rain.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual piece in the collection—and much the longest—is a (mostly) nonfiction narrative entitled “War Memories.” Today, this difficult-to-categorize piece would likely be called creative nonfiction or literary journalism, although it is not quite either. Crane’s text plays with genre (and facts) in a way reminiscent of postmodern war narratives such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (labeled fiction) and Michael Herr’s Dispatches (labeled nonfiction). Writing nearly a century before Herr and O’Brien ventured into the same territory, Crane used “War Memories” to explore the underlying ambiguity of “true stories” and the ultimate indeterminacy of Truth. From the narrative’s opening line—“But to get at the real thing . . . it seems impossible”—to its last (“You can depend on it that I have told you nothing at all”), Crane contemplates the inability of language to fully articulate experience: “An expression of life can always evade us,” he writes. “We can never tell life, one to another, although sometimes we think we can.”

Ultimately, “War Memories” tells a purportedly true story even as it questions whether “facts” can fully convey the truth.

* * *

In between its opening and closing comments on indeterminacy and the inadequacy of language, “War Memories” recounts a series of episodes or vignettes that detail the narrator’s experience of the Spanish–American War. But the focus of these vignettes is “off center.” The reading public, as Crane well knows, wants to hear about the war’s major events (such as the charge up San Juan Hill) and the presumed major players (such as Teddy Roosevelt), but the narration deflects this desire. Instead, Crane suggests that the big picture is too fuzzy to reveal the truth. Only by turning our attention to small, seemingly insignificant things—such as a bunch of bananas or a toothbrush—can we begin to approach “the real thing.” In “War Memories,” Crane is telling the truth about the war, but he is, to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, telling it slant.

Throughout the text, Crane plays with notions of veracity, starting with the question of who exactly is narrating the text. The opening lines of “War Memories,” refer in third person to someone named Vernall. This Vernall delivers what amounts to the thesis statement of the essay: “‘But to get at the real thing!’ cried Vernall the war correspondent. ‘It seems impossible! It is because war is neither magnificent nor squalid; it is simply life, and an expression of life can always evade us. We can never tell life, one to another, though sometimes we think we can.’”

Subsequently, the narrative shifts to the first person for the remainder of the text. Initially, it appears that Vernall is someone other than the narrator, someone who is simply quoted in the first paragraph before the first-person narration begins. We are apt to think that Vernall is not the narrator, but one of the other correspondents on the dispatch boat with the presumed narrator. Only later, when an officer addresses the narrator as Mr. Vernall do we realize that way back in the first paragraph the narrator has referred to himself in the third person and quoted himself. So while Crane the author is using his own actual experiences for the material of “War Memories,” the narration of those details has been displaced onto an invented or fabricated narrator. The narrative confusion is deliberate and telling: the reader cannot be certain who is speaking, and this uncertainty necessarily raises questions about the reliability of what is being said. It also foregrounds the evident (but usually unacknowledged) ambiguity at the core of war reportage.

Immediately following this opening comment on indeterminacy, the (now first-person) narrator relates a minor incident that occurs on board a dispatch boat carrying several correspondents out to sea where they intend to monitor the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the Cuban coast. But the narrator is not interested in discussing the political or military dimensions of the blockade; in fact, these “big picture” concerns are hardly mentioned, if at all. Instead, the narrator turns his attention to a “huge bunch of bananas” that one of the correspondents has “hung like a chandelier in the centre of the tiny cabin.” As the boat rolls with the waves, this bunch of bananas swings wildly around the cabin, knocking the correspondents down and forcing them helplessly to the corners of the cabin. It is presented as an amusing anecdote right up to the “punch line”: “You see? War! A bunch of bananas rampant because the ship rolled.”

With these words, Crane—or his stand-in Vernall—signals his narrative strategy: namely, to relate an anecdote focused on something seemingly insignificant and then allude to the incident’s possible—yet unrealized—emblematic significance. In this initial anecdote, the bunch of bananas becomes a metaphor for the war—or more exactly a metaphor for the attempt to report the war, to do the work of a war correspondent—which, on the surface anyway, is the work of determining the facts and explaining the events of a given war. But right away, as the four correspondents on the dispatch boat set off to do their duty, they are distracted, put off their guard, and even knocked down by something absurd and uncontrollable, something that literally cannot be grasped. A paragraph later the narrator repeats the trope: “the war . . . was a bunch of bananas swung in the middle of the cabin.”

Subsequently, the narrator relates another incident, this time involving action more typically associated with war: the bombardment of a coastline. In this scene, the narrator is doing the requisite work of a war correspondent: he is on board the flagship in the company of junior officers. He is “getting the story” for his newspaper. A call comes to “man the port battery.” The correspondent joins the officers in observing the bombardment, but before long they all return to the officers’ mess to drink coffee and listen to piano music. The narrator concludes the anecdote by noting an odd—even absurd—juxtaposition: “The piano’s clattering of the popular air was often interrupted by the boom of a four-inch gun.” This discordant image, and indeed the whole incongruous scene, recalls the trope established earlier. It is all “a bunch of bananas,” the narrator says.

But how so? To paraphrase Lewis Carroll: how is a war like a bunch of bananas? Seemingly there’s no obvious answer, and therein lies the rub: Crane is—I think—suggesting that there is a deep and unrecognized significance in what would otherwise seem insignificant. Any given event or moment of the war may (as the bunch of bananas in the cabin) absorb your attention, demand your attention, while simultaneously evading your ability to grasp it, to manage it, let alone to master it. You are supposed to “cover the war,” but how is it possible to “cover” something so elusive, so “rampant”?

* * *

I first read “War Memories” in preparation for a trip to Cuba. My purpose was to visit San Juan Hill and write a magazine article for the one hundredth anniversary of the Rough Riders’ famous charge in the Spanish–American War. What I wanted from Crane was a few choice quotes about the Rough Riders that I could work into the article. The words of a famous novelist—eyewitness to the battle—would obviously enhance the article, so I searched Crane’s lengthy essay looking for what is now sometimes called “the money quote.” To my surprise, I found nothing I could use—no detailed description of San Juan Hill or the battle, no account of the Rough Riders’ actions. Somewhat puzzled, I set Crane aside and turned to the accounts written by other famous journalists on the scene that day in 1898: Richard Harding Davis, Frank Norris, William Randolph Hearst. For the time being, I forgot about Crane and “War Memories.”

I forgot about it, that is, until I was actually in Cuba, standing at the base of San Juan Hill, staring up its (surprisingly) gentle slope to where a defunct Ferris wheel stood on the hilltop. At that moment, confronted with the odd, unexpected image of the Ferris wheel, along with the underwhelming puniness of the famous hill, I recalled the recurrent motif of “War Memories”: “a bunch of bananas”—the image that in Crane’s mind stood for all that he found strange, absurd, and inexplicable about the war and war correspondence. Throughout the essay, I remembered, Crane had repeatedly turned his attention to odd and seemingly insignificant things; in these images, he found the true representation—if not the precise meaning—of the war he was attempting to cover. Standing at the base of San Juan Hill, I realized that in my eagerness to find a money quote, I had too readily dismissed “War Memories.” I would need to revisit the essay.

* * *

“War Memories” consistently dwells on incidents that—in the narrator’s telling—are essentially indeterminate, moments when the truth cannot be fully or even adequately determined, moments when truth is in dispute. An example comes from the narrator’s account of an incident that occurs just after the skirmish at Las Guasimas, one of the first fights of the war and the debut action for the Rough Riders. In the midst of the intense firefight, the narrator happens upon another correspondent, his friend Edward Marshall. (Here, Crane uses Marshall’s real name, not a pseudonym as he does for other correspondents.) Marshall has been severely wounded and, according to the account in “War Memories,” asks the narrator to go to the coast a few miles away to “round up some assistance.” In his newspaper account for The World, written in situ a year before “War Memories” was written, Crane provided the usual journalistic details about the episode, details that do not appear in “War Memories.” In the later account, the encounter with Marshall is curtailed; instead, the narrator relates a subsequent conversation with another correspondent (nameless) to whom the narrator reports Marshall’s injury. The other correspondent responds: “Marshall? Marshall? Why, Marshall isn’t in Cuba at all. He left for New York just before the expedition sailed from Tampa.” An absurd back-and-forth dispute then ensues with the narrator insisting that Marshall has been shot and needs assistance while the nameless correspondent maintains that Marshall is back in New York. Exasperated, the narrator flees: “I couldn’t go on with him. He excelled me at all points. I have faced death by bullets, fire, water, and disease, but to die thus—to willfully batter myself against the ironclad opinion of this mummy—no, no, not that.” This encounter does not appear in any of Crane’s reportage. He added it to “War Memories” as yet another example of how easily truth can be disputed and distorted, yet another instance of an absurd minor incident supplanting the “main” action in the narration.

As with the banana incident and several other encounters that the narrator relates in “War Memories,” there are farcical overtones to this passage; but beneath the farce, key themes of the narrative are present: miscommunication and misunderstanding, disputed truth, entrenched opinions. Much of the narrative, indeed, involves refuting the “ironclad opinion” of those who have spoken and written with such certainty about the war.

To this end, Crane introduces a rhetorical device that heightens the narrative’s concerns with truth and indeterminacy. This is the device of an off-stage interlocutor. This person does not appear directly in the text; rather, the presence of this interlocutor is inferred from the narrator’s occasional pauses—breaks in the flow of the narrative when the narrator appears to be considering a question or a comment that has come from the unnamed, unseen, and unvoiced interlocutor. Initially, these interruptions are innocuous and hardly noticeable, as when the narrator, while describing a skirmish, pauses to consider a question of terminology: “In this valley there was a thicket—a big thicket—and this thicket seemed to be crowded with a mysterious class of persons who were evidently trying to kill us. Our enemies? Yes—perhaps—I suppose so.”

Here, the interlocutor has apparently interrupted to say—with certainty—that the “mysterious class of persons” was “the enemy.” The narrator, however, is less certain, and refrains from using such a definitive term. Typically, these interruptions are brief, and the narrator dismisses them with a curt comment before continuing with his account.

In some places, however, the interlocutor becomes more obtrusive and obstinate. For example, as the narrator relates an incident involving a misunderstanding that he had with two soldiers, he is forced to respond to repeated interruptions from his listener who apparently wants him to skip the incident with the soldiers and speak instead about major events and participants, especially Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. With each interruption, the narrator puts off the interlocutor, basically dismissing the undue fascination with celebrated events and celebrity participants. The narrator insists that the proper focus is not on the big picture, but on the small, seemingly insignificant moments of the war and especially on moments of miscommunication, confusion, and misunderstanding. These are the moments that demand consideration, he argues. Therein lies whatever meaning or significance is to be found in the war. To underscore his point, he ignores the request for stories about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and instead discusses at length the importance of toothbrushes to the soldiers and embedded correspondents who are deployed in the field.

The interlocutor can be seen as a stand-in for the general public, especially consumers of yellow journalism who clamored for accounts of media-fabricated heroes like Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. During the war, as a paid correspondent, Crane, ever desperate for money, was forced to write such accounts. He made no secret of his disgust at having to do the drudgework of journalism. A year later, in the more reflective piece that is “War Memories” (for which he was not paid), Crane seized the opportunity to speak his mind and decry the public’s misguided desire for the usual hackneyed accounts of courage, honor, and glory. It is also worth noting that the only mention of Roosevelt in “War Memories” comes in this dispute with the interlocutor—and the narrator mentions Roosevelt by name only in response to the interlocutor’s apparent request for a story about the man who emerged from the war as a celebrity, and subsequently rode his newfound fame to the presidency. The war’s presumed luminary is hardly present in Crane’s account.

Eventually, though, the narrator relents and promises to tell the interlocutor about the events of July 1, 1898—the single day of heavy fighting during the brief war, the day American troops charged up San Juan Hill. It was certainly the most documented and detailed day of the war, and remains so to this day.

But in talking about the “glorious day,” the narrator deliberately turns this well-documented and seemingly overly determined event into a scene of indeterminacy. He says almost nothing about the famous charge, only alluding to it in passing. Instead he dwells, as he has all along, on moments of ambiguous significance, moments that illustrate the thesis with which he began: the difficulty of getting at the real thing and truly communicating experience. For example, the narrator manages to only briefly and obliquely mention the charge up San Juan Hill and does so without mentioning Roosevelt or the Rough Riders at all. Instead his attention turns to the wounded returning from the front. His description emphasizes the difficulty of grasping such a scene:
The trail was already crowded with stretcher-bearers and with wounded men who could walk. One had to stem a tide of mute agony. But I don’t know that it was mute agony. I only know that it was mute. It was something in which the silence or, more likely, the reticence was an appalling and inexplicable fact. . . . When thinking of it now it seems strange beyond words. But at the time—I don’t know—it did not attract one’s wonder.
“Inexplicable.” “Beyond words.” These are the tropes that predominate Crane’s discourse about the war. What did not attract wonder initially seems in retrospect highly significant, albeit beyond articulation. The narrator continues to discuss the war in this vein through a series of incidents, episodes, and ambiguous scenes—too many to review in a brief overview. So I will fast forward to the end of the narrative, where the narrator, after nearly 20,000 words of “telling” coyly informs us that “you can depend on it that I have told you nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all.” And with this thrice-repeated phrase, he brings the narration to a close. After so much “telling,” Crane brings us back to the original thesis—that getting to “the real thing” seems impossible. Indeterminacy is upheld. The narrative is undercut by its own telling. Have we heard a true story? Ah, the narrator seems to say, does it matter?

* * *

After my return from Cuba, I revisited “War Memories” and immediately realized that it is a much more intriguing text than I had noticed when I had first perused it for a “money quote.” While there hadn’t been much in “War Memories” that would suit the exact purposes of my magazine article, there was a great deal that I—and any writer of narrative nonfiction—could learn from Crane. After rereading “War Memories,” I went on to read widely in Crane’s journalism and nonfiction. Like most people, I had known him only from high school readings of The Red Badge of Courage and “The Open Boat.” Now I found many hidden gems in his oeuvre—innovative and even experimental pieces that place Crane among the noteworthy precursors of what we today call literary journalism or narrative nonfiction.

In the early to mid-1890s, Stephen Crane—then an unknown cub reporter—was writing intriguing accounts of life on the streets of New York. His instinct was to focus on insignificant and offbeat moments and to probe those moments for the seemingly inconsequential details that would reveal something unexpected—the big truths hidden in ordinary scenes. So, for example, Crane found his stories in such unseemly places as Bowery flophouses and breadlines. He turned his attention to mundane incidents, such as a broken-down van blocking a street or a crowd gathered around an epileptic who has collapsed. One of Crane’s favorite techniques was to focus attention on anonymous people in crowds rather than on whatever spectacle had attracted the crowd; decades later the renowned street photographer Weegee would take the same approach, turning his camera on the crowds gawking at crime scenes.

So what is there to learn from Crane? Here’s a list of some key takeaways:
• Go to the margins to find your story.
• The story you originally intended to write is probably not the story you ought to write.
• Look hard at your subject, then look away: the story that needs telling is likely located on the periphery of your original subject.
• Look for the detail that doesn’t make sense and study it.
• The crux of a story is not found in action; the real story is found in the human psychology associated with the action.
• If you think you’ve discovered the truth, a wildly swinging bunch of bananas will soon knock you to the ground.
* * *

To get an inkling of just how radical Crane’s text was and still is, consider the 1964 volume of Crane’s war dispatches published by New York University Press. The volume was edited by R. W. Stallman, who was the first academic biographer of Crane and the preeminent Crane scholar of the time. Yet in Stallman’s estimation many passages of “War Memories” did not warrant inclusion in the volume. Curiously, Stallman edited out pretty much all the passages I have reviewed here: the bunch of bananas, the obtrusive interlocutor, the toothbrush reflections—these are all elided.

Today, it’s hard to understand this editorial decision, especially since the removed passages are those now most likely to interest us. They interest us because they seem so postmodern, because they correspond to our latter-day uncertainty about truth, and because these passages anticipate the work of contemporary writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien, whose accounts of Vietnam use similar devices in calling attention to the indeterminacy of war. But in 1964, before Vietnam literature, before Herr, and before O’Brien, Crane’s innovations must have simply seemed odd and impertinent, and so they were excised. I think Crane might have found this a particularly pointed irony—as if the obtrusive and bothersome interlocutor of “War Memories” had ended up his editor.


Along with two books of travel essays--Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)--Stephen Benz has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, New England Review, and other journals. Two of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003, 2015). Topographies, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Etruscan Press. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, Benz now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico. For more info, see

Monday, April 1, 2019

Loving the Fear: A Conversation with Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel & Clinton Crockett Peters

What tears your skin off in the dark? Speaking of selfs, I’m terrified of car crashes and cancer, which data supports. But there are other kinds of fright, those on a global scale, monsters big enough to encompass presidencies, charm behind candelabras, and power Death Stars. Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel earned her MFA with me, and I got the unordinary privilege of seeing much of her riotous collection Fear Icons take shape. It’s a delicious serving of Paranoia. An essay collection that examines those icons who rocketed to our cultural moon and then, like Bond villains, waged terrible war. It came out from Mad Creek Books late last year. I recommend you read it in the dark.


I love the subject of your book and the subjects of your book. On a global scale, how did the book come together? What were your cornerstone essays? Were there any fear icons that didn't make the cut?

Thank you for saying that, Clint! I love that you love the subject/s since love is so bound up with fear in these essays. How love and fear intensify each other is really a cornerstone concern of the book.

I suppose the book started to come together when my son was born. He came out of my body and left behind a body of fear that I nourished in loving him. It was overwhelming. So I wrote through it. Essays like “Darth Vader,” and “Dick, About Your Heart,” consider personal fears. Others like “Dolly,” and “Liberace and The Ash Tree” engage cultural ones.

When I thought about icons, I found I could try to be present with fear— and not just get over it. I could think about how our interpretations of icons impact our perceptions of fear—and each other. In other words, I could ask: who are we to each other when were afraid?

There are so many icons that didn’t make it into the collection. I wrote an essay on Georgia O’Keeffe who talked about the fear of loneliness being nothing compared to the fear of never being alone. It was an ekphrastic essay that couldn’t move out of the confines of description. Another essay was named for Tilda Swinton, but it mostly narrated the activities of a squirrel outside of my window. Others that got cut: an essay on Caliban, one on widow makers, St. Valentine. Even now I feel a touch of curiosity about all of these subjects, but for one reason or another, they didn’t work. They repeated thinking I had already done. Or they repeated approaches. Or the essays fell apart. Or I did.

I'm always keen on collections that vacillate in their tones, lengths, and ambitions. I liked your collage of shorter, intimate essays with longer pieces that have more research girth. Wondering how you thought about putting them all together. Was there an overall tone you were aiming for or a shape?

I wanted the overall shape of the collection to move from essays that are experiential and frenetic to essays that settle more into fear. The essay “Oil,” is meant to mark the shift. It’s an erasure of Genesis that aims to remake an established text. For me, that essay indicates that the book will also to try to remake its approach to fear. The essays that follow “Oil” try (and fail) to do that.

I also kept my kids’ ages in mind when organizing the book. The collection begins with the birth of my son who then ages and is older in his last appearance in “Darth Vader.” My daughter is born about halfway through the book. The kids come and go; I didn’t want this to be a book that was only about parental fears. But I do want the fears of parenthood to seep out into all the other essays and inform how all other fears are read.

Something I've been thinking about is profiling a heinous source of fascination. I'm finishing up an essay on George W. Bush, and have mixed feelings. On the one hand I find him, his life, his attitudes, fascinating... on the other hand Iraq War, reversing Climate Change position, etc. Sometimes I shut down because, seriously, does more ink need spilling about this dude? I LOVED your Dick Cheney essay. It feels perfect. Clearly, you don't admire him (I think I'm reading you right there ;-)). How did you push through revulsion? Or did you use it as a writing tool?

Revulsion was the prompt. And so my questions were for myself: could I move beyond my own revulsion? I don’t know that more ink should be spilled for folks who are revolting to us—unless it is that revulsion that becomes the subject, the thing the essay will contend with.

Your question has me thinking about John Berger’s book Portraits. While Berger writes about famous artists who painted portraits, he is really writing a series self-portraits. He reveals himself through what he describes. We see him through what he sees.

I love essays that offer a take on a subject that reveals the person who is speaking—making it clear that the writer is aware of their subjectivity and calls on that subjective self to answer for itself. Why did Dick make me feel so afraid? Could I get past that fear to think of him like the human that he also is? He is a pastiche of fears for me. But a person. Could I extend empathy toward him—a man who is suffering from a heart condition that has been treated as a metaphor and yet is very real? It turns out I couldn’t. And that failure made me more afraid than the fears he caused in me. Through him, I recognized my inability to do what I assume I can.

In your question you mention that sometimes you shut down. I do too. How do we keep writing about difficult things without destroying ourselves? For this book, I kept writing by force. But now? I’m interested in writing that does not cause me to suffer so much. Can we write about the hard stuff without multiplying suffering? In others? In ourselves? I don’t want to be a machine with a broken heart.

I recently heard Ben Marcus read, and he asked the audience: “When was the last time you read a happy short story? Where everyone was happy?” I had actually just read Garth Greenwell’s story, “The Frog King.” Greenwell set out to write a happy story. And it is, in many ways, a happy story; it’s about two people who love each other. They have their small disagreements, but the story primarily conveys the experience of being a beloved. And yet, the story must end. The happiness can’t last.

All of this made me wonder: when was the last time I read a happy essay? A joyful one? And then I read an essay from Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. He wrote one essay each day about something that gave him joy. Every day. In the essay I read, he finds delight in loitering — something that is not allowed — and so he locates joy through tension. And finds tension through joy. This seems like a very good writing prompt.

What's your essay-family tree?

I love this question! A tree grows. It’s a metaphor with change built in.

Right now I’m reading James Baldwin’s open letters and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Moominpappa’s Memoirs. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Svetlana Alexievich. Patrick Rosal’s “Letter to the Lady who Mistook Me for the Help at the National Book Awards—or Some Meditations on Style,” and Bhanu Kapil’s blog.

I'm a new parent, so maybe this is just on my mind, but your kids come up in your essays. How did parenting change your writing? For me, I find my mind ping-ponging less among different essays and ideas I'm composing and drilling down more steadily (if less passionately) on one as I write. That make sense?

That does make sense! I’ve heard other parent-writers talk about becoming more focused when they have less time to write — I really admire that!

My daughter is currently at a playdate on this Saturday morning and my son is with his dad so I can respond to your wonderful questions. This is my experience of writing as a parent. I have to separate myself from my kids in order to write. But they’re always on my mind.

I remember the first year my son went to daycare for 6 hours twice a week so I could try to finish the book. I was so thankful he was there. And I cried because he was there. I felt like split wood. I wanted to be with him AND wanted my own space to be with myself. It’s the AND that accompanies me through the process of being a parent and writer. I am trying to be both. It isn’t possible. But it must be. I must be able to write as a parent. Because I am both. How to be both? That too is part of what this book explored.

Now that my kids are in school and preschool all week, I'm also teaching all week. I still have so few hours for writing. The logistics are always a challenge. For a few years, I answered the limitations of time by writing late at night and in the early morning before anyone got up. That schedule wasn’t sustainable. My health started failing. It also wed my writing life to expectations of productivity.

At this point, I’m trying to liberate myself from those expectations so that I might hold the freedom that comes with writing. This means sitting down to write without expecting anything from the limited time I have to write. I’m not yet sure how to actually make this happen. But I do know that when I refuse notions of productivity, I actually write.

I'm lucky that I got to workshop, I think, four or five of these essays with you back at 'ol Iowa. I love seeing their final forms. As a teacher and a (like me, twice!) graduate student of writing, do you have any thoughts on how workshopping helped (or hindered!) your collection?

Workshop let me learn so much about what is possible in writing. It taught me how to speak the language of critique, gave me deadlines, and it let me connect with writers who would become lifelong readers.

But, I’m also interested in workshops that allow us to learn from the writing process. The most commonly used model of workshop doesn’t foreground that process, make it transparent, or allow for the writer to explicitly consider the concerns they have. Conventional workshops are actually contingent on silencing. (The writer sits silently while receiving “critiques” of their work.) And, frankly, any mode of being that works by silencing is a mode I’m interested in dismantling.

In 2018, Joy Castro, Matthew Salesses, and Bich Minh Nguyen held an amazing AWP panel in which they talked about workshops that do/not work for writers. After the panel I felt empowered to revise the workshop model as I’d wanted to do for some time. I read Jesse Ball’s book Notes on My Dunce Cap and paired his approach with Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Method. She’s a choreographer who (30 years ago) thought workshops were damaging to the creative process. In my model, writers ask questions of their readers and talk openly about what they hope to do. Responders offer statements of meaning and questions that the writer can answer or simply receive.

So far, this approach has been boss. My first year students are responding to each other’s work with such care and insight within the first five minutes. They speak to each other with such respect. They are also, perhaps most importantly, learning how to ask questions about their own work. And to share the difficulties openly. Their writing is really evolving. It isn’t stationary or reproducing the affinities most popular in class. The model has given us the space to see what the writing might become.

I'm a big fan of how you open up your Liberace essay: "In the children’s backyard, the ash tree is a celebrity. Its bark shines with sap, and its branches sign their dark autograph into the clouds..." I'm wondering how you found or landed on this image to start the essay, how you came to include the ash.

When these sentences came to me, I had been thinking for a long time about the ash tree outside my window. I had been stuck for a while on how to write about Liberace. The essay was feeling rather stifled by its biographical mode. I was looking out the window, letting myself get bored and started describing the ash tree. It was so pretty. I remembered its golden fall color and red berries that stuck around through the winter. I loved the tree. At the same moment I remembered being a kid and finding initials carved in a tree. I thought trees were the best of all creatures. I never carved my initials in them; I didn’t want to hurt them. But I loved to touch the initials in the bark. I felt connected to the person who was no longer there. Their initials only told me so much about them, but I could touch the place they touched. I felt connected to someone I knew almost nothing about. This kind of magic feels akin to the magic of fame for me — the way someone famous can feel so present in your life even though they are nowhere near it. The image of the initials become a metaphor that I could follow back to that idea of fame, and of what it means to be famous and to have your autograph—your very name—collected and claimed in such a way.

What are you working on now? What are you reading?

I’m working on writing — I’m reading everything — I’m learning how to begin again.


Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel is the author of the essay collection Fear Icons, winner of the inaugural Gournay Prize. Her essays have appeared in Conjunctions, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast and the anthology Marry a Monster. A graduate of the University of Montana's Environmental Studies Program and the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, she is an Assistant Professor at Whitman College.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of the essay collection Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Columbia Journal. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College.