Monday, September 16, 2019

Natalie Villacorta: the Right Amount of Real


“I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can’t abide the network news—the sound of human voices waking before they drown,” David Shields wrote in Reality Hunger. Though the book was published in 2010, that sentiment continues to resonate in our current moment, when CNN and Fox News tell such different versions of the same events. Shields’ argument that we were living in a time when, less and less exposed to “reality,” we hungered for it, continues to hold up today. If anything, with our president continually claiming inconvenient truths to be “fake news,” it seems our reality hunger has only increased.
     Shields observed that our reality hunger was reflected by a growing artistic movement across a “multitude of forms and media” that aimed to include “larger and larger chunks of reality.” This art was characterized by:
a deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. ...Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
Eight years later, this describes much of the art that’s popular today. Consider, for example, the convention of podcast hosts to “display an air of naiveté, and for audio to incorporate mundanities of the reporting process,” as Rebecca Mead recently wrote in the New Yorker. Or the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a series of novels which purport to reconstruct the author’s life, as well as the overall recent literary trend towards autofiction—novels in which the narrators often share biographical details—including names—with the authors, whose intention is to deliberately blur the line between fiction and nonfiction.
     But Knausgaard’s books have been criticized as “tedious” in their dutiful reproduction of his life events—no matter how trivial or inconsequential—and his faithfulness to reconstructing his reality over the laws of narrative structure and the needs of his readers. As critic Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out his recent review of the last installment of My Struggle in the Times, an account of teenaged Knausgaard trying to acquire booze for a New Year’s Eve celebration stretches over 70 pages (of the more than one thousand-page book).
     Mendelsohn’s criticism of Knausgaard raises a larger question for “reality art”: How unartful can art get before our audience rejects it? How raw? How unprocessed, how unfiltered, how uncensored, how unprofessional, how random? In brief, how messy can we, as artists, get?
     Perhaps part of the answer lies in a qualifier that Shields uses to describe reality art: it is “seemingly unprocessed” (my emphasis). Not unprocessed, but rather seemingly unprocessed. In other words, the rawness of the art may be a performance. And perhaps it must be. Even if it’s nonfiction. As Shields quotes in Reality Hunger, “good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I’m not bothered at all by this artifice.” Readers want what they’re reading to feel real and, as part of that, to feel “raw” or “unprocessed,” but they don’t actually want it raw and unprocessed, because then it would just be a mess, too difficult to make sense of, too specific to engage with.
     The first form that Shields lists in his long list of reality art is the lyric essay, and it is this form that I’d like to use to explore this question of how messy we can get because, while lyric essay is by no means a new form, it has increased in visibility and popularity since the term was coined in 1997, which seems representative of our “reality hunger.” “I want books to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir),” Shields writes; this is what lyric essays do—they embrace complexity, rather than smooth over it, and thus may be more reflective of real life.
     But this complexity also makes lyric essays difficult to define. Practitioners of the form, including myself, often struggle to explain what a lyric essay even is. If you’re reading this you likely have a solid grasp—or as solid of a grasp as is possible for this slippery form—but just in case, here’s how the form’s namers, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, describe it:
These "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems" give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
     Well, this is confusing. How can Shields claim that lyric essay belongs to this artistic movement defined by a deliberate unartiness, while D’Agata and Tall argue that lyric essays “give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information”? Indeed “shapeliness” and “distillation of ideas and musicality of language” sound quite artful, quite processed, quite filtered, quite censored, quite professional.
     And yet, D’Agata and Tall mention other characteristics of the lyric essay that seem consistent with the reality art Shields is talking about: lyric essays contain gaps, they meander, they are storyless, they set off on an uncharted course, they may arrive somewhere that might still leave questions, they leave pieces of experience undigested. And so, lyric essays are contradictory: both artful and unartful. This brings us back to the word seemingly. The unartfulness is part of the performance. We want our art to seem real, but we don’t want it to be too real.
     In The Essay Review, Amy Bonnaffons writes that the lyric essay “might resemble chaos and formlessness at first, but upon closer look, might accurately represent the bright mess of a particular mind, inside a particular body, inside the vivid confusions of our shared world.” Here the word “resemble” is as important as Shields’ “seemingly”—the essay ought to look like chaos, but when you look closer, you see that it is controlled chaos. But will readers look closer to see that the chaos only looks like chaos and is, in fact, crafted chaos? How messy should our lyric essays be?
     To explore these questions, I’d like to examine the work of Sei Shonagon, an 11th Century Japanese writer who served as a court lady to Empress Teishi. Her collection of observations from court was published during her life time under the title The Pillow Book, to popular acclaim. Shonagon was writing long before 1997, when the term “lyric essay” was coined, of course, and so she would not have called her work lyric essay, so it may seem odd to use Shonagon—to turn to the past, that is—to think about how lyric essays—and, more broadly, reality art—should work today. But I think The Pillow Book possesses many of the characteristics of lyric essay as described by D’Agata and Tall—as many other writers have pointed out, writers were combining essay and lyricism long before 1997; what D’Agata and Tall did was give something that writers were already doing a label and the label gave the form more visibility, and allowed writers to write into the form.
     Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is at once artful and unartful. And yet Shonagon claims that the work wasn’t written with an audience in mind. “It is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me,” she claims, at the end of the book. “Everything that I have seen and felt is included.” In other words, Shonagon is insisting that The Pillow Book is real: raw, unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, random. “I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material,” she writes. Do we actually buy what Shonagon is claiming?
     Shonagon’s words recall those of Michel de Montaigne, who is considered by many to be the father of the essay. He begins his 16th Century Essais with a letter “To the Reader,” in which he warns that he has set “no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory.” Instead, he insists, he has written it for his family and friends so that when he is gone they can “recover here some features of [his] habits and temperament.” His evidence for his lack of a public aim: “If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture.” Like Shonagon, Montaigne insists that his project is real; he presents himself in his “simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice.”
     Of course, these claims to unartfulness are part of the art. They encourage a reading of material that feels “real,” though when you look closer, there is much about both Shonagon and Montaigne’s writings that indicate plenty of artfulness. Here’s Montaigne, as quoted by Shields in Reality Hunger, admitting to this, contradicting his statement from “To the Reader”: “Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.”
     The goal, then, seems to be to clean up reality enough so that it’s clear for the reader, but not clean it up so much that it loses the feeling of realness. Shonagon, who Shields does not cite, is a master of finding this balance between artifice and authenticity. In other words, her writings feel “real,” but not too real. They strike a wonderful balance between honoring her own amusement and paying attention to the needs of a larger audience. The Pillow Book possesses many of the qualities of Shields’ reality art, including randomness/spontaneity and material that seems unfiltered/uncensored/unprocessed. And yet there are other characteristics that suggest Shonagon was shaping her writing for a larger audience, including its organization, her use of repetition, her use of the second person, and her mix of generalizations with particular details. As such, Shonagon seems to walk the line between too messy and not messy enough to feel real.
     There is a playful sense of spontaneity in Shonagon’s writings that do suggest an allegiance to the movement of her own mind rather than the needs of an outside reader. For example, her list “Depressing Things,” begins: “A dog howling in daytime. A wickerwork fish-net in spring. A red plum-blossom dress in the Third or Fourth Months. A lying-in room when the baby has died.” The list seems presented in the order in which the objects occurred to Shonagon. There is no connection between a dog and a fish-net and a dress to the nursery of a dead baby—other than the fact that Shonagon finds them all depressing—or, if there is a connection, Shonagon does not bother to explain. Perhaps, we might imagine, if Shonagon was writing for a reader, she would link the objects in her list or explain their connection. But if she did, then the writing would lose its quick pace, its sense of surprise, the delight the reader takes in seeing where Shonagon’s mind will go next, unable to predict its course.
     In another example of her spontaneity, Shonagon breaks the form she has established for herself. In “Hateful Things,” she catalogues all the things she finds hateful. But at the end of the essay, she breaks the form and moves away from the hateful things lovers do to the wonderful things that lovers do: “A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time,” she writes, going on to describe a scene in which a lover reluctantly takes leave of his beloved. This break suggests spontaneity; it doesn’t fit with the form, but she goes with it anyways, and for the reader, this movement is refreshing, a delightful surprise. Perhaps we are growing weary of all the hateful things Shonagon sees in the world, and find it pleasant to end on a positive note.
     But while Shonagon’s writing possesses an exciting sense of spontaneity, a willingness to chase a thought or an idea, it is not too random, it does not meander so far that the reader asks: how did I end up here? What does this have to do with the topic? She balances the spontaneity with thoughtful organization. Not only does she group her observations into lists (“Depressing Things,” “Splendid Things,” “Rare Things”), within those lists, observations are grouped based on theme. In “Hateful Things,” for example, she groups all the hateful things related to language, all those related to noises, and all those related to the annoying things lovers do. This grouping makes the observations easier to follow; we don’t feel constantly lurched from one subject to another. And yet it might also be faithful to the movement of her mind, the way memory works: one memory of a distasteful thing a lady-in-waiting said gives way to another memory of a distasteful thing a high-ranking official once said.
     Further suggesting attention to a reader, Shonagon’s writing has a considered pace, with short observations alternated by long ones. After a series of lengthier observations of hateful uses of language, for example, she breaks into a bunch of short observations: “A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him but who speaks in an affected tone. An inkstone with such a hard, smooth surface that the stick glides over it without leaving any despite of ink.” This mix of short and long seems to suggest an attention to a reader’s attention span. Perhaps the reader is growing weary of these long ruminations, and so she changes the pace with short observations. She also seems aware that during these long ruminations, a reader might forget the original idea of the essay, and so, she reminds her. Shonagon does this by repeating, with slight variation, the theme of the essay at the end of observations. For example, throughout “Hateful things,” she reminds us that’s what we’re reading about: “Hateful!” she concludes after an observation of children who take advantage of one’s kindness, showing up at one’s house without invitation and displacing one’s things. “Very hateful.” (when a maid wakes one with a look on her face that says, “What a sleepyhead!”) “—disgusting behavior!” (when someone interrupts a story you’re telling) “—most hateful” (when someone forces unsolicited advice upon you). These repetitions are like crumbs for the reader to follow through the forest of Shonagon’s mind.
     True to her end note, much of the material of The Pillow Book feels uncensored, or unfiltered, or unprocessed, which creates a sense of intimacy: we as readers are being let in on something secret and thus, something true. She discusses in detail personal subjects, such as rendezvous with lovers. She freely admits malicious feelings she has about people. She does not shy away from admitting petty things about herself. For example, in “Hateful Things,” she admits to detesting “anyone who sneezes, except the master of the house.” Similarly, she admits: “If I am travelling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but also the owner of the carriage.” Shonagon’s willingness to admit things that paint her in an unflattering light again suggests a “realness” to the writing.
     In addition to feeling uncensored or unfiltered, the material often feels unprocessed. That is, Shonagon thinks on the page. Sometimes she will pronounce a judgement on something and then, thinking about it more deeply, she will revise that thinking. In “Flowering Trees,” for example, she writes that “the pear blossom can be compared to the face of a plain woman; for its coloring lacks all charm.” But then she revises this thought: “Or so, at least, I used to think.” After recalling that the Chinese laud the pear blossom, which populates their poetry, she looks more closely and is “surprised to find that its petals were prettily edged with a pink tinge.” This pulling back of the curtain, the revealing of her thought-process, too creates a sense of “realness.” She’s not giving us the final, polished thought. She’s showing us the sometimes-messy process of arriving there.
     But while her material feels uncensored, unfiltered, and unprocessed, faithful to what she finds interesting, there is also evidence that she has considered what an outside reader might need to find the material interesting. For example, only rarely does Shonagon write in the first person. The rest of the time she frames her experiences in the second person: “One is just about to be told some interesting piece of news when a baby starts crying.” The second person makes Shonagon’s personal experience more universal; it enables readers to put themselves in the shoes of an 11th Century court lady and see the commonality of their experiences, the truth of her words. Shonagon also mixes the particular details of her life with more general observations, which suggests an attention to relatability. While few people, for example, might be able to relate to the story of a “hopeful candidate who fails to receive a post during the period of official appointments,” and understand why it’s depressing, most of us can agree it’s distasteful “to envy others and to complain about one’s lot: to speak badly about people; to be inquisitive about the most trivial matters…”
     Here, Shonagon is demonstrating another characteristic of essay: self-consciousness. She knows that it is distasteful to be inquisitive about trivial matters, as she is being in The Pillow Book and yet, she can’t help it, and neither can we—that’s why we’re reading The Pillow Book. We crave the trivial, the everyday, the real. In her end note, Shonagon expresses surprise that people wanted to read her “casual jottings.” “How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time?” she wrote. But it is the book’s very sense of casualness that attracts us. A casualness balanced by craft. Sei Shonagon: an early reality hunger artist.
     But since Shonagon’s time, perhaps art has gotten too real, too messy.
     While reading Durga Chew-Bose’s essay “Heart Museum,” published in her 2017 collection Too Much and Not the Mood, I kept thinking of Shonagon’s lists and making comparisons between the two writers’ work—despite the unfairness of the comparison due to the huge differential in time and culture, publishing industry, and more. In “Heart Museum,” Chew-Bose catalogues the circumstances that she is amazed to find her heart capable of beating through. A Shonagon-style title for this essay might be: “Things that inspire awe” or “Things full of wonder.” Chew-Bose uses many of the same techniques as Shonagon to walk the line between real/too real, including mixing randomness/spontaneity with experiences grouped based on theme (sports, movies, music) and mixing longer blocks of text with short, punchy sentences and fragments. She also reminds the reader when she heavily digresses that it’s the heart that unites all the things she’s writing about, lest they forget “Our heart never stops.” “My heart does not stop beating,” “my heart doesn’t stop.” Similarly, she uses anaphora—the repetition of sentence beginnings—to link her ideas, which is helpful.
     And yet Chew-Bose’s essay feels messier, less friendly to readers, than Shonagon’s. This is because of the essay’s wide breadth (and thus its length at 93 pages) and the particularity of its material. The frame of the essay is quite broad, including everything that she is amazed that her heart can keep beating through—both positive and negative experiences, a mix of cultural experiences (art, movies, music, books, etc.) and personal experiences (friends, family, lovers, strangers)—as well as multi-page digressions, such as one about her paternal grandfather, or another about her grandmother. At first, it is amazing to see how Chew-Bose’s imagination moves from one thought to the next, from euphoria to dread from one paragraph to the next—from the joy of meeting someone who loves the same movie as you do to “bills, deferred goals, and all the boring bits [of life]”—from poetry to her friend Jackie crying to Broadway plays to cake batter to music videos. And indeed, this movement is Chew-Bose’s goal: “Why not want a little mania? The thrill of change, of what’s weird….” she writes. But the essay feels like it contains more than a “little mania.” The reader can only endure so much movement before she grows nauseous. The essay exceeds my desire for spontaneity and surprise. I wonder if readers would have been better served if Chew-Bose had organized the material within the essay more by subject matter or narrowed the focus of the essay, broken the material up into separate essays. If Shonagon had been writing this essay, I think she would have divided these observations up into more specific lists. And, in fact, Shonagon did write her own versions of this essay. Some of her lists: “Occasions that induce half-heartedness”; “things that make your heart beat fast”; “things that make the heart lurch with anxiety.” All these things—and more—can be found in Chew-Bose’s 93-page essay. A few sub-lists I imagine being drawn out: “Movies that thrill” or “Things my father’s plaid shirt from the ’70s smells like” or “What ‘nook people’ are like.” But with its wide breadth, the essay feels like it something that could appear on Shonagon’s list “Things that make the heart lurch.”
     The breadth of the essay leads to its exhausting length. And while it’s a feat for Chew-Bose to sustain this series of associations (“Endurance is a talent that seldom worries about looking good… The intention shouldn’t only be to polish what we start but to acknowledge that beginning again and again can possess the acquisitive thrill of a countdown that never reaches zero,” she writes.) the essay feels like it begins too many times, and is not polished enough, in terms of choices made about what to include and exclude. I grew weary of the deluge, of pages and pages of dense (though often delightful and musical) text without any line breaks. While I was reading, I continually caught myself asking: how much longer will this go on?
     And though Chew-Bose, like Shonagon, mixes particular personal experiences with the general, the essay is heavy on particulars, so much so that I as a reader began to feel left out. I felt very connected, for example, when Chew-Bose talked about the pleasure of listening to a good album for the first time or the momentum gained from reading a great book, or the satisfaction of lacing up ice skates (“the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot”). But much of the essay consisted of cultural references to art that I hadn’t experienced. Often a writer can write about art I haven’t experienced in a way that makes me want to go experience that art—put down the book and go watch a movie or listen to a song—but the effect of Chew-Bose’s allusions was often just a feeling of exclusion. At first, I admired Chew-Bose for being so omnivorous—in fact, I envied her. And when she described a cultural artifact that I had experience with— a memorable one being her description of Leonardo DiCaprio ogling Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet—I felt like I was part of her cool club—a feeling similar to how I felt when the hip, black-clad, New York-bound girls in my college writing workshop complimented something I had written. But, as she continually described art that I hadn’t experienced—Cassavetes movies I hadn’t seen, Michael Jackson songs I hadn’t heard, Annie Dillard books I hadn’t read, Frank O’Hara poems I hadn’t read—I started to feel ignored, left out, unintellectual and uncultured even. The essay was so littered with cultural references to the extent that, in parts, it starts to seem like we’re being shown Chew-Bose’s “Viewing Activity” page on her Netflix account or her Goodreads “Read” list or her Spotify library. Take this series of artists to whom, Chew-Bose says, she has written out of admiration for their art:
I’ve written to Claire Denis, Maren Ade, to James Gray’s New York, to Mia Hansen-Love’s yearning boyish-girlish unease. To her films as photo albums. To her regard for a person’s things. I’ve written to Abbas Kiarostami’s ballads.” And then, a few sentences later, “I’ll send notes, again and again, to Wong Kar-wai. To Wim Wenders and his roads, and those questions that can only occur in cars. To Maya Deren! To Jane Campion! Andrea Arnold! Desplechin!
     I have no idea who any of these artists are, and she doesn’t tell me enough about them to understand what about them inspires her, and so it’s unclear to me the purpose of this riff, other than to illustrate her deep knowledge of non-mainstream cinema. I had a similar feeling when Chew-Bose describes, for seven pages, “nook people.” “I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close,” she writes; people who share with her this tendency are fellow nook people. The feeling I had reading this catalogue of the characteristics of nook people was that they were superior to what I’ll call us “Wide Open Spaces” people (that’s a Dixie Chicks reference, by the way, and listening to the song as a recent college graduate made me feel like the world was my oyster). In sum, while Shonagon insists that she has faithfully recorded only what interests her, Chew-Bose seems to have taken this too far, not regarding her reader enough. Indeed, Shonagon seems to have thought more about an outside reader than Chew-Bose, even though she supposedly wrote them for herself, while Chew-Bose clearly intended to publish her writing from the get go.
     But this lack of regard for the reader is intentional. Her book of essays is entitled Too Much and Not the Mood, which comes from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary in which she described how exhausted she was of laboring over her writing, the “cramming in and cutting out” to please other readers. Chew-Bose doesn’t want to change her writing to please readers, and I respect this. But I believe that it will cost her some readers. (Knausgaard, who I mentioned earlier, writes quickly, without much revising, and his books are read widely, but I wonder if he gets away with his prolixity because his books are so narrative, full of vividly detailed scene). And she is aware of this cost. We know she thinks of her audience and how they’re reacting, as she writes: “I digress intentionally…Testing the reach of my tangents. Likely failing.” In sum, I think that Chew-Bose’s essay is too real for some readers, who may feel that it is too much and not be in the mood for its digressions, its length, its attention to the particular.
     This is our challenge as “reality hunger” artists. To find the right amount of digression. The right amount of randomness. Material that’s unprocessed but not uncooked. Unfiltered/uncensored but not too much. And so, I’m not sure I agree with Shields that “We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out.” I do think we want work to be complex, but I don’t think we want it to be equal to the complexity of real life. Work ought to be real enough that our readers listen to us, trust us, relate to us, but not too real that they see a mess, chaos, and walk away. We want to start somewhere and end elsewhere, as Chew-Bose writes, but we don’t want to give our readers motion-sickness along the way, take too long to get that elsewhere, and end up too far away. We want our endings to be satisfying but not too neat. “Writing that clinches,” Chew-Bose writes, “lacks incandescence—the embers have cooled.”





Natalie Villacorta is a writer from McLean, Virginia. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hobart, DIAGRAM, The Offing, and Moss. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: (Dis)Ableing the Creative Writing Workshop

The first of an on-going series on improving the nonfiction workshop & essay pedagogy; find managing editor Will Slattery's information in the sidebar if you'd like to be a part of the series.

“Even though this essay is about mental illness, it would be nice if you could end on a positive note,” someone offers. The class nods in agreement. Mental illness, the workshop concludes, is important to talk about, but readers might find it depressing.

The student essay we are workshopping is about mental illness stemming from childhood abuse, and the writer is terrified that their parents will find out they have disclosed family secrets, terrified their classmates will judge them for their depression, terrified that the anxiety they feel over the workshop will lead to a panic attack. The writing leaves much to be discussed, but it is mental illness on which some of the students fixate.

This is not the first time my students have written about mental illness—according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults has a mental illness, young adults aged 18-25 with the highest rates. So far this semester, one student has written about medication-resistant depression before disappearing from the class, another has written about a suicide attempt, one has written about self-harm, one has written about discovering therapy after years of feeling “wrong,” and several have written about bullying and lifelong depression. During workshops writers slouch in their chairs, picking at scar and avoiding eye contact. They want, they say in our whole-class and one-on-one debriefs, to share their stories, but they are so, so afraid.

I understand. I am on tour for my book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, which shares my experiences with severe anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, alongside an interrogation of the history of mental illness treatments in the United States. In the months leading up to the publication of a story I’d kept secret most of my life, I felt balanced on the edge of a tremendous fall. I knew how lucky I was to have a book, to have a tour, but traveling around the country announcing my madness to strangers was terrifying.

“I agree,” adds a student. “Readers want to know you’re trying, that you’re going to be ok.”

The class is silent as they struggle with whether to let this judgment linger in the air, or to suggest a frightening alternate possibility—that perhaps mental illness is not an easily workshopped arc, but a life story of permanent negotiation.

***

On the last stop on my book tour for Quite Mad, a man approached me after my reading and gripped my arm.

“I used to work as correctional officer,” he warned. “I locked bonkers people like you away.”

He stared me down, his eyes menacing, his hand holding me motionless. I was unsure what to say. Was he going to purchase a book? Should I sign it, “All best, Bonkers?”

True, I’d read passages about the time I experienced dozens of panic attacks each day, the time I feared the clouds and even my cat were giving me warnings from the future. But his threat caught me off guard. As I flew home after several months of book tour travel, exhausted, elated, I could still feel his fingers boring into the bone.

Writing about ourselves is difficult enough as nonfiction writers, but disabled writers face the burden of contextualizing their lived experience for an audience that does not inhabit the same world—an audience that sometimes fears, hates, and polices disability. Though many writers experience the workshop’s desire for context, disabled writers have the added task of rewriting the very world their readers inhabit. The possibility of their page is perpetuated by abled audience expectations.

Just as many workshops erroneously assume a default experience of gender, race, and sexuality, so, too, do they often assume an abled experience, balking when writers challenge this. The truth contract inherent in creative nonfiction becomes intensified for disabled writers, whose symptoms and experiences seem “unreal” to those who have not shared them, or whose insights about the medical industry and health are not in line with what “healthy” individuals believe. Workshops can thus mirror the disability experience—where patients face doubt and suspicion by friends, family, physicians—becoming spaces for suspicion, for policing truth and tone. During my MFA and PhD workshops, I heard classmates debate what was “wrong” with authors, fixating on what they believed to be symptoms and armchair diagnosing. Workshops asked authors to describe painful symptoms in more visceral detail, or suggested there might be secret, underlying issues writers had not disclosed. They debated if writers’ symptoms warranted writers’ “complaining,” if writers’ descriptions of ailments were accurate, lived experience apparently up for debate along with scene and dialogue.

The traditional workshop method asks writers to observe silence, but this reflects the erasure disabled folks face daily by a world that does not provide accommodations and labels those who request them troublesome. While the traditional creative writing workshop brings together diverse readers, certain voices speak loudest, certain stories privileged, and while the job of a workshop is to help a writer find how best to tell their story, workshops often rewrite stories to suit those who most need to understand difference.

Advocating for the importance of one’s story in the world is the challenge of any nonfiction writer, but disabled writers have to advocate for their very right to exist. As a student, I heard classmates ask a writer whether they wished to live without Multiple Sclerosis. As a writer, I was approached by an editor interested in publishing an excerpt from Quite Mad about caring for my bipolar partner, but only if I addressed whether or not we planned to have children, because “Readers will want to know if you’re going to bring a child into the world with all your problems.” While on tour, I faced the question many disabled writers face: “How do you find the strength to go on living?” While the inclination of the workshop is to silence writers in order to prevent egotistical defenses of poor writing, it is shameful when it allows others to debate someone’s right to life.

***

“What’s wrong with being inspirational?”

Halfway through the semester, my disability studies students have begun to question their views on what it means to live with a disability and their previous beliefs that writing about disability should be cheery. They critique writing that uses illness as a metaphor. They see the ways the world often depicts disabled folks as childlike, lacking agency or intelligence. They understand that many of the stories surrounding disability do not feature disabled voices at all.

Today we have a class observation and the students are eager to show what they’ve learned. They discuss a classic short story, pointing out the tropes often associated with writing about disability, tropes by and for abled readers: the story is about disability but somehow not narrated by the disabled character; the disabled character is characterized as a burden; the disabled character is described as monstrous, grotesque, more animal than human; the disabled character is not referred to by name, but by disability; the disabled character is described as a powerless, unintelligent child. The moral of the story is that the disabled character teaches the abled narrator—and by extension, the reader—a lesson, making them better people in the process. And in order to teach others, the disabled character must die.

Many in the class are disabled. Some want to write their own stories about epilepsy, Crohn’s, fibromyalgia. They want to rewrite stories like these.

After class, the observer speaks with me. She learned a lot, she says, this class is important. “But the author wasn’t trying to be offensive,” she insists. “What’s wrong with being inspirational?”

This story was written sixty years ago, but little has changed. That narratives about disability should be hopeful suggests disability must be sanitized if the world is to acknowledge it, suggests disability is only of interest if it can somehow serve others. To suggest disabled stories exist to help others overcome prejudice or learn more about themselves frames disability as a clever teaching tool that—when combined with the humor and humility the world often requires from disabled folks—make it palatable. And the emphasis on inspiration often perpetuates a narrative where disabled writers must “overcome” their disabilities. To suggest disability is only of interest when it is eradicated implies a desired eradication of entire communities, implies that if we are to acknowledge their stories, disabled folks must prove their suffering and shame, their “failure” and desire to be “free.”

Early big five publishers were interested in my memoir, but only if I could revise the narrative in a way that offered redemption. While publishers were initially interested in the research—everything from the history of asylums and lobotomies to the chemical science behind contemporary psychopharmaceuticals—they worried this might overwhelm readers. “What readers want is hope,” an editor said of about my discussion of steadily increasing mental illness rates in the United States despite the increasing number of medications.

Recovery was what most publishers thought would sell, and while I agreed, it simply wasn’t possible to revise my life.

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At the same conference where a man grabbed my arm, I attended a panel about writing disability. The panel focused on the impositions on disabled writers to devote their work to educating and inspiring others. The panelists were impressive, a powerhouse collective who shared their experiences with literary and editorial ableism, as well as ways to subvert.

Questions began before panelists invited them, hands interrupting midsentence. Audience members refused to use the microphone, saying—despite the panelists’ insistence that the microphone was needed for accessibility purposes—“Oh, I don’t mind. My voice is loud.”

Many in the audience did not think inspirational stories were bad. They wanted hope. Many believed disabled writers had an obligation to educate. Many wanted more cheerful tones. Like my students, they thought disability could be depressing. Many were not disabled.

“Why shouldn’t nondisabled people write about disability?” one audience member questioned when panelists suggested that stories about disability be written by disabled writers. “I have a right.”

“My disabled son needs me to tell his story,” said another.

“I want to write about of the burden of caretaking,” said another. “My family member’s disability is my story too.”

Much like a workshop, panelists were silent as questions turned into comments. When they were at last able to voice their perspective, panelists were firm, stating that they would not appropriate someone else’s story.

One audience member, who wanted to write from the perspective of a disabled person, interrupted. “I don’t think you understand me.”

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In the months after the publication of my memoir, many people said they felt sorry for me. Some said they didn’t know how I could go on living. Some put their hands on my shoulders with sympathy. Suddenly I was no longer Dr. Montgomery—I was patient Montgomery.

As a writer about mental illness, I also encountered medical questions and complaints. People asked me what medications they should take. Parents asked if I would offer therapy to their children. Several teachers complained their mentally ill students were “retarded.” I wonder if this is what they call me.

I often read passages set in moments of madness because they establish conflict and narrative tension, but also because I hope my story will lessen the stigma against mental illness, one that insists that the mentally ill are weak, foolish, dangerous, and far from professional. As a writer and professor, I want to claim my identity as a mentally ill woman, want to argue that while it is difficult it is also ok, it is also normal, it also makes me a kinder, more thoughtful observer of the world.

But reading these moments openly invites judgement. In some ways it makes madness spectacle. Here are some of the questions I received:

“What’s the craziest you’ve even been? Like, the absolute craziest?”
“Do you think you’ll ever be strong or brave enough to go off of medication?”
“Did you write this book because it was cheaper than therapy?”
“Aren’t mentally ill people inherently violent?”
“Have you tried yoga, essential oils, prayer?”

When, I wanted to know, would someone ask about my research? When would someone say I wrote beautiful sentences?

***

According to the latest U.S. Census data, one in five Americans lives with a disability. Disability is likely to impact each of us at some point in our lifetimes, yet at the same time that Americans experience disability at increasing rates, access to health care is under attack and conversations center on ableism rather than accessibility, disabled voices silenced in favor of medical and political authorities. If we are to understand the lived experiences of disabled people, we must seek out disabled stories. More important, we must believe them.

This requires we (dis)able the creative writing workshop. To do so, we must read and assign disabled voices. And we must assign diverse disabled voices because the disability experience varies widely depending on gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status, and location. We must address disability tropes and illness metaphors not simply because they are cliché, but because they are deeply problematic. We must discuss flat characters that demean or demonize disability. We must be prepared to counter comments that ask disabled students to “be more positive,” as well as those that offer unsolicited medical advice, or claim authority because “I have a disabled friend.”

We must allow—and encourage—disabled writers to write diverse narratives. Once a writer discloses disability through a workshop text, a previous text, or their body, the workshop often filters each craft choice through this lens, tokenizing the writer in the process. I’ve seen workshops ask writers to make blindness the center of a narrative even though the essay never mentions this, or for an author to disclose their autism in a new essay about an unrelated topic because the workshop is unable to conceive of a writer’s opinions on anything other than disability. Recently, a student approached me to ask whether she could write narratives that did not address her disability. After a year of touring with Quite Mad, my answer to her—yes, of course!—was a reminder to myself.

We need to (dis)able more than the workshop. We must hire disabled faculty and recruit—and then actually support—disabled students. We must solicit disabled writers for publication, invite and accommodate disabled writers to campus and community events. We must interrogate whether our classrooms, conferences, or campuses are accessible. We should even consider the accessibility of the genre itself, for many of the nonfiction forms we praise—visual renderings like hermit crab essays, footnoted essays, lyric essays, graphic essays—are not.

“Readers want to know you’re trying, that you’re going to be ok.”

The class was silent as they struggled with whether to let this judgment linger in the air. They would not—they acknowledged their privilege and position, looking to the essay to guide them, looking to the author, believing the author. Then they turned their attention to craft.

Because the workshop made space for the author’s story, the author claimed space for their story at the Student Faculty Reading Series later that semester. They read the essay aloud, slowly, steadily. The essay was a stronger version of itself—it had not been rewritten by voices who most needed to understand difference.

And after the event, many approached the author to say they wrote beautiful sentences.

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Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press 2018), and three poetry chapbooks, including Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Brevity, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Split Lip Magazine, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Monday, September 2, 2019

What's in Dolls: a Conversation with Susan Neville

Nine years ago this week, Allie Leach, one of the then-new students at the MFA program where I had just taken a job, came up to me raving about Susan Neville. Did I know her work? I didn't, I had to admit, but such was the nature of Allie's enthusiasm (I think you'd really like it, she'd said: it's pretty weird)—which is also the nature of Allie Leach in general—that I ordered a copy of Neville's book Fabrications, a collection of essays about the nature of making things in the Midwest. I read it and enjoyed it a great deal, to the point where I scanned a couple essays from it as pdfs for archiving and teaching somewhere down the line. I've never taught these essays to grad students (though I think I will this fall), but I've taught them several times since then to undergraduate nonfiction students. I love how they translate to research assignments (go and physically figure out how something is made, for instance, and write about it), not that "how things get made" accurately gets at what's really good about these essays.

It's an undersung collection and one I've become more enthusiastic about as I've spent the better part of a decade with it, and you should really give it a look. In rereading and preparing to teach her essay, "The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls is Named Gretel Ehrlich Turner," last fall and trying to figure out how to explain exactly how it works, I found myself with questions about how exactly she got it to do what it does, since what it does is wonderful and seemingly effortless. Writing about it, I thought, well, why not ask her instead, which led to this conversation about the essay. Turns out that Neville's next book is The Town of Whispering Dolls, which won the Catherine Doctorow Prize from FC2 and will be published next spring. It's also a great, weird book, and one I'm really looking forward to. I imagine we'll continue this conversation about how the essaying spills over into the fiction, but for the moment I wanted to introduce you to her work. If you don't know it yet, you should. A good place to start would be Fabrications, particularly "The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls is Named Gretel Ehrlich Turner."

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Ander Monson: One of the things I admire most about this essay is its lightness—particularly for an essay that begins with a funeral and is in many ways about death and historical erasure. I think I mean light in the not-heavy way (though there’s lots of serious matter in it) as well as in a brightness/ lots-of-light kind of way. It treats its subjects delicately and even amusingly (it’s hard for me not to read the stabbing-the-baby head scene without laughing, for instance), and seems pleased to proceed by implication, redirection, and indirect arguments. Maybe this is a question more asking you to talk about how to handle an essay that begins at a funeral without making it funereal, or to deliver an argument (about erasure and women and dolls) without seeming to. Did you know you were going to begin the essay at a funeral, or did you arrive there later? How did you arrive at the tone of the essay?

Susan Neville: Good question. I just went back and re-read the essay because I couldn’t remember ever beginning something with a funeral and couldn’t imagine what funeral it was. And when I remember the experience, I remember the humor and the beauty. I think that the day we visited the doll factory was very joyful and that Grace’s mystic experience in the middle of her treatment for breast cancer was also joyful, and I contribute the essay’s tone to her experience and the way she transmitted it to me. We’ve both spent many hours being angry about erasure, and we could see it all around us that day obviously. It was often a topic of conversation with us. But ultimately all of the erasures were in a world made by men while there was also this other green world that wasn’t about competition at all, one where women made things and noticed each other. I don’t think I put Grace’s weaving in the essay, but she’s also a weaver and had spent a good deal of her recovery at the loom.

The funeral was actually Marguerite Young’s (the author of the novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling.) I thought the image of the life-sized dolls was both humorous (and so not funereal) and uncanny and kind of brave on her part, a real assertion of her quirkiness. Her books are filled with these kinds of strange juxtapositions. Also, and I didn’t mention this either, she’s also being erased. Anais Nin, in her book The Novel of the Future mentions Miss Macintosh as her prime example. When the book came out, Marguerite was on the cover of Look Magazine. Or maybe it was Life. I can’t remember. But she died fairly friendless in a nursing home in Indianapolis and, aside from the dolls, there were only eight people at her funeral. I was one of them.

I’m not sure that I’m really delivering an argument as much as meditating on erasure and the strength of a woman’s spirit. It was about that world outside the world of men. Everything connected with that day seemed to be about that, even things I didn’t mention. Everything just seemed magnetically pulled toward, again, Grace’s joy.

One of the first essays I really studied to see how it works was Orwell’s “A Hanging” and the lesson that he is making an argument against capital punishment without explicitly making the argument made a deep impression on me. Every single detail in that essay contributes to the argument, every word, and every paragraph adds another premise to the argument that ‘and therefore, capital punishment is wrong…’ There are even details that are included or not included (such as the man’s name or his crime) to anticipate objections and refute them. I wanted to learn from that essay.

So the idea of the doll essay, for me, is just there in what I see. The metaphor is blazingly obvious. At some point the idea becomes sticky and draws everything to it. The idea becomes sticky in the writing but also in the reality. Experiencing the day itself becomes part of the meditation and makes the day itself feel charged, meaningful.

AM: I love how the title seems to offer one answer to one of the big questions of the essay: how is the work of women erased, and how might it be made visible? It’s done without a lot of fanfare, since we don’t get a story about the erasure of Gretel Ehrlich Turner, or even about the erasure of the women who make the dolls. There are notably only two men we actually meet in the essay: the one who “takes an ice pick and stabs the back of the sweet pink babies’ heads to let out air” and the one who tells the story about buying a doll for his mother and getting pulled over because of its realism. I guess we sort of meet T. C. Steele, but he’s barely a presence here except, interestingly, as the one who almost accidentally seems to have collaborated with Selma. And we never even meet Gretel Ehrlich Turner in the essay. In fact you seem to go out of your way to hide her, grammatically, in this litany deep in the essay:
Women in the town make homemade dresses…there’s a woman who puts a copper mask over each doll’s face and paints the lips…there’s another woman who affixes the eyelashes and trims the lower ones, and a woman who dresses the dolls, and a woman who applies the wigs…a woman who stuffs the torsos and who ties the heads…and who puts the final stitch in the back of the torso and who numbers each doll’s neck with ink… Each doll is made from a handmade sculpture…There’s a woman whose job it is to brush each doll’s beautiful hair before placing it in a box and another woman whose job it is to prepare them for shipping, and they all take turns naming the dolls and coming up with their stories.
She’s not even listed as one of the “a woman who” phrases; she’s even erased from that list. We are told “Each doll is made from a handmade sculpture,” and then the title responds to this grammatical erasure. And that response echoes with your plan to unerase (fabricate?) your great-aunt who had her name removed from the bestselling zoology textbook. And by the fact of including that story in this essay, it also partly unerases your great-aunt. I love how the story of Selma Steele kind of responding to being erased from her marriage by creating all of the landscapes that her painter husband ends up painting, raising the question of why exactly we think about art (or authorship or a craft like dollmaking) as a singular process which has conveniently historically played to the benefit of men. Why do you think that is? Is this something you’re trying to counteract in this essay specifically (but also in the book in general)?

SN: Wow, thank you. This is exactly what I was trying to do. I was very conscious of being a woman walking through traditionally male spaces throughout the book. In this essay in particular the title came last. I realized that I had erased Gretel Ehrlich Turner in that earlier litany by not mentioning the name of the factory--Turner Dolls. I do that in many of the essays because of course I wanted to focus on the process of making and the metaphor that arose out of the process. But in this case, the factory itself was made by and named after a woman, who asserts herself in the name. So at the end I wanted to simply assert it as well, but again, not with rage this time. I wanted the reader to realize that the essay was about erasure.

I do love Selma Steele’s spunk. And I did, by the way, fabricate my great-aunt’s obituary. She’s now listed, at least in the Indianapolis Star, as the author of her book. And the rare books archivist at Butler brings out all the drafts when she gives library tours to talk about that particular erasure. My great aunt’s name, by the way, was May Kolmer Schaefer Iske.

AM: “The Woman” appears in your book Fabrication, which is themed around sites of making (canned tomatoes, insulin, caskets, dolls, etc). I realize only now that the other essay I teach most often from this book is “Byzantium,” about the trip to the casket factory, which makes for a compelling if accidental pairing. The idea of making—and the made thing—and even I think the word fabrication shows up many times in this essay. How intentional is that? I’m wondering a bit about this essay’s relationship to the collection, and whether on seeing that all these essays were related thematically, whether you began tightening the essays and reinforcing their echoes in revision, or whether the ideas this essay presents about fabrication (especially regarding the ways in which women play roles in fabricating) came before the book had found its center (or both)?

SN: Interesting question! I actually started the book with three things. One was the word ‘fabrication’ which seemed to be in the air at the time. It had something to do with post-structuralist theory. I loved the word. The other is that I had young children and was very Indiana-bound and so wanted to see things that were in some ways closed to me. They had to be close enough to get to and return home in one day. Hence, factories. I live in a manufacturing state and drove by factories all the time but never went inside. The cool thing about writing creative nonfiction is that you can make experiences for yourself and indulge your curiosity.

Anyway, I bought myself a hard hat and work boots and started making phone calls. It was also very clear then that factories were shutting down in the rust belt, and rapidly, so I wanted to capture a way of life that was on its way out. That was the third thing. I had to work fast, actually. I called the Easy Spirit Shoe Factory two weeks before it shut down. The same thing happened with the Barbie Corvette factory. Anyway, I knew with every essay that it was for a book called Fabrication. The subtitle was added by the publisher because they didn’t know how to explain what the book was.

AM: The essay sure feels collaborative, how it brings in (and brings back) your friend Grace, especially, and also brings in and brings back Selma Steele and your great-aunt, and all these women (and a few men) whose work has collectively led to these beautiful objects* sitting in the front row of the funeral for your friend where the essay begins. I don’t have a question in this, or maybe I do, in the asterisk: are dolls objects? Are they beings? Are they filled with us, as the two dolls you and Grace buy that somehow are transfigured into your daughters by the essay’s end? Are they us?

SN: I’ve always loved dolls. They were my favorite Christmas presents as a child and I would hurry home from school to take care of them. Rilke’s essay on dolls has always sort of bothered me, because they don’t strike me as uncanny.

I just finished a collection of stories that is really a companion book to Fabrication, and it was hard to come up with images for the cover. How to convey that the dolls in a book called The Town of Whispering Dolls shouldn’t be clown-like or creepy, that you should feel drawn to their innocence and their brokenness? I don’t think that dolls are beings, but I learned to love and care for beings through loving them as a child. It’s odd how we don’t see stuffed animals as creepy or frightening. I suppose you can explain it by their distance (another species!) from the uncanny valley. But a beautiful doll’s face is a feminine face usually, and I just never have seen the creepiness--only the beauty and sometimes the sadness. And so I’m not drawn to the images that emphasize strangeness.



AM: I think I mentioned before that I have a longtime fascination with doll parts, and in part in trying to answer my daughter’s question about why I have all these doll parts but no dolls (she asked me: “are you going to make a doll?”), I’ve been trying to work out what they mean to me. Really I think it’s about their emptiness more than anything else. Like a lot of things in my life that I get interested in, it started as a joke and evolved into something quite a bit more serious as I began to look at it more closely. My interests aren’t quite in the mostly-male horror-movie treatment of dolls, and they’re not in the mostly-female treatment that this essay so beautifully articulates.  You’d mentioned that you were working on a collection of stories about dolls, two of which I think I’ve published in DIAGRAM: [here] and [here].

At the end “The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls…” arrives at a position about what dolls mean to women (or, well, what dolls mean to you and Grace, since your “own fragile souls” are filling them in the backseat as you drive home). I’m wondering how this theory of dolls (if you want to call it that) resonates—or doesn’t—with the stories. Is it an idea you’re working out in the stories, or is the question of “how dolls work” or “how women relate to dolls” completely beside the point of what you’re interested in with the stories?

SN: The story collection is much less about a theory of dolls I guess, and not all the stories are directly about dolls. They are, I guess, still about what happens to a place when the source of money and meaning is erased, so it’s about the rust belt after the factories have left. So the first doll story I wrote was about the broken young women in a small town who turn to prostitution to support their opioid addictions. I read an article in the paper about the women and (unlike the dolls in the Turner essay) these are women who are being used and discarded, who have lost part of their spirit and humanity. So wow, I guess the spirit is in the potential of those baby dolls in the Turner essay, but it’s been lost in this book. Perhaps because they’ve been erased too long, because no one has looked at them lovingly for a long time.

In the stories, the dolls are usually plastic. They still have some agency (as in the Grotto story) and I did intend for the egg babies but mostly the Fisher Price plastic dolls to be beings that the children need to understand and in one case, care for. Many of the dolls are very subtle though, and there are robots and a woman’s body who is very rag-doll like but isn’t a doll. There’s a story early in the book where a young woman turns into something like a GI Jane, but probably I’m the only one who would guess that. This book is more about the place being invisible and people becoming broken than it is about the dolls. This is the place where the factories once were and the world has changed too quickly, leaving that emptiness you talk about. While not all the stories contain dolls, they speak to one another.

You know, when you asked earlier about whether dolls are filled with us, I wasn’t sure. But I guess they’re reflections of what we see when we look at a human face. If we look at that young face with love or hunger, that’s what we see. If we look at the face and don’t see anything at all, the doll becomes something not-quite-human, and so uncanny. If we look and see the emptiness, perhaps we feel compassion or sorrow. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s a reflection of something inside of us. 


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Susan Neville is the author of six other works of creative nonfiction in addition to Fabrication. Her story collections received the Flannery O'Connor Award, the Richard Sullivan Prize, and the Catherine Doctorow Prize. She lives in Indianapolis and teaches at Butler University. 
Ander Monson is the founding editor of Essay Daily.