Monday, September 21, 2020

These Are Them: Towards a Transparent Nonfiction Workshop After Theophrastus of Eressos’ “These Are Them” by Courtney Kersten


The following looks to Theophrastus of Eressos' essay "These Are Them" (circa 100 B.C.E). John D'Agata describes “These Are Them” in The Lost Origins of the Essay (Graywolf 2009) as a collection of "clipped and snarky portraits of flawed societal types." These descriptions include figures like "the Garrulous Man" who "sits down beside perfect strangers and begins to immediately rattle off his wife's good and bad points" and "the Absentminded Man" who "Sends get-well cards to men who've died." D'Agata notes in his introduction that these "short, distinctive, circumstantial vignettes . . . give us glimpses of life in fourth-century Athens" and show Eressos as a "grumpy, natty...prude." I would add that such portraits also show us Eressos’ capacity for humor. The following embraces the form and farcicality of Theophrastus' work.

This is the Privileged Person that Uses the Precarity of the "Writer's Life" or Graduate School to Appear as Though They Have Struggled

They read your essay that recounts your family scraping by during the 1950s—burlap sacks for clothing and dinners of summer's canned tomatoes for days—and talk about when they got their MFA in Iowa as similar to this kind of poverty. Before workshop, they describe the free bread they got at the co-op as such a lucky break—how else were they gonna use up that organic bruschetta topping? In the essay that mentions ketchup sandwiches and adding water to milk and the glee at two whole dollars to spend at the garage sale, they ask why the hell someone would eat a ketchup sandwich—didn't you have any pesto or turkey? The rest of us read their work. We read about that time in Brooklyn when they slid on the subway steps and their coffee flew into the air and landed on them as a turning point in their lives. We write in the margins, tell me more—what do you mean shame "felt so new" to you? Why? They drive away from the workshop in an Audi; their wedding announcement was in the New York Times; and when you read their comments on your piece, there are question marks around the phrase "We didn't have a maid."

This is the Jerk*

They poked a Bic pen through their t-shirt an hour before workshop to create three nonchalant-looking holes. They put the t-shirt on and gaze into the mirror. They are transcendent. They don't care about workshop. They care about it so little they're wearing this crappy curated shirt. They stomp into the room twenty minutes early, already disgusted by the occasion. They sip coffee or an energy drink because how else are they gonna get through this bullshit? Everyone who enters immediately leaves—someone has to pee, two people decide to get a drink, someone else forgot to print something. The Jerk sits alone, ruminating, and checks their reflection in the window. When it's time to talk, they curl up in their chair and scowl. They rub their eyebrows. They sigh. They talk about the possibilities of the work only in terms of how it failed. It could’ve been such a poignant coming-of-age story, but it seems as though this speaker got stuck somewhere around the sixth grade. The piece could’ve been so lyrical, so innovative—if only it wasn’t such a clear rip off of Pale Fire. They point out the grammatical issues; the rushed ending, the half-hearted attempt at introspection. During the break, when someone asks them what the hell happened to their shirt—why are there a bunch of pen marks? They tell them that they don't give a shit. It's just a shirt—too busy these days to care. They've been sending queries all day. Queries to agents. Two of the e-mails bounced, but four are already interested. They are the last to leave the workshop. No one sticks around to chat.

*The Jerk may also be the Person Who Has Already Read Everything

This is the Aesthete

They twirl their pencil and sketch their neighbor's jawline in the notebook. The essay they share is a sixteen-page litany in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" about, accordingly, their favorite things. Someone muses about the role of Nazis in The Sound of Music. They ask, "Does this essay have anything to do with that?” Someone else asks how Maria both mirrors and transgresses patriarchal expectations for women as caretakers. A third person interjects— "This essay is about rampant materialism. It's a goddamn capitalistic farce! A sixteen-page litany of 'My Favorite Things?!' It's brilliant." The Aesthete cries, "No! No—I want none of these things. None of these things are my favorite things." They perch their feet on the table, cross their arms, and moan, "Can't we just appreciate the alliteration/metaphor/[insert literary device] on page three without talking about all this other crap?!"

You write an essay about your cousin's struggle with leukemia and grief’s inexpressibility. They write in the margin, "So much gloomy-gloom. What about sonics?" with a sad face.

This is the Doula/Beekeeper/Stonemason

They work with blood, beeswax, and ashlar. They wear costumes of netting and gloves. They speak a language of breath and stone slapping. They are hearty and harmless. They derail conversations. They baffle. Your essay is about your former career as a social worker in Detroit. But you didn't realize that your essay is actually about the intricacies of the third trimester and Braxton Hicks contractions. The Doula stares at you from across the table, "Can you feel the contractions—the moments of pressure—throughout this piece? I want to see this verbalized, written on the page, the contractions that I'm feeling as a reader so that I can breathe with you . . ." You don't understand what this means. Your piece isn't about birth, but the way the Doula is talking about it, you wonder if your essay could be about it. Maybe you never realized that's what you've been circling this whole time? The Doula continues to talk, but you're no longer listening. You swear that they read what you wrote. They're so sincere—there's no possible way they're just bluffing their way through the workshop. Right?

Or, perhaps, your essay braids a story about an ex-lover together with that time you took a pottery workshop, but, oh—wait, your work is actually about the risk of autumn and spring when your beehive is at risk of bear visitation. We all learn about proper fencing and placement in proximity to the woods, but we hear nothing of what this person thinks about your essay. Do they speak in metaphor? They must be. You convince yourself it's up to you to decode their comments. The stonemason seems to talk about your piece, but only about its arrangement—how the fragments fit together, how they could fit better. They talk about hammers and cleavage of stone. Cement and mortar. In the days after your workshop, you begin to think of yourself as pebble flaked. You wonder if you were born en caul. You forget all about that thing you wrote.

This is the Person Who Has Already Read Everything*

Freud? Phhht. Hardt and Negri? Read that in high school. Deleuze and Guattari? They are all about the rhizome. If it's not theory, then they've read the entirety of Montaigne's work. They drop references en français. Maybe they're pseudo-scholars of the Japanese zuihitsu. They tell you your work—collage-like and fragmented—reminds you of it. You ask them what that means. Zuihitsu? Never heard of it. They don't explain. They talk about Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book and Yoshida Kenkō's Tsurezuregusa. Everyone nods along. You nod along too. You've heard of The Pillow Book, but you have no idea who Kenkō is. You make a note to look it up later but never do. They talk about Hazlitt and Lamb and Sir Thomas Browne as if they're neighbors that come over for tea. They drone on about the work of Baltasar Gracián. They talk about someone else's work in relationship to Giorgio Agamben's homo sacre. Then they say Fred Moten’s name. Just his name. Fred. Moten. Then they're talking about Lacan. No one knows what they're saying. Some people are nodding. Some might be doodling. Someone raises their hand and changes the subject.

*They may be oblivious and innocuous. They may also be a Jerk.

The Person Who Never Believes You

They're usually late. They've always got a gyro from the place down the street that they unwrap while someone else is speaking. They spill salt on the table. They tell you what they liked and didn't like. They loved the part about the border guards smoking weed, but they hated the part about reconciliation between friends. That never happens, they say. They tell you that they liked the part about the Pomeranian dog running through Peru's streets but that they just didn't get the part about skinny dipping. Who does that anymore? They don't believe that your grandfather was really a rogue cop or that your spouse cheated you out of your income tax or that you ever felt berated. "I mean, I know it's nonfiction," they say. "But really? That's not what I would've done…" They leave their garbage on the table. You see them later that night reading Isaac Asimov at the bar.

This is Me

In my first workshop, I was the occasional high-falutin' Jerk. I've also been the Doula/etc. who projects their expertise onto whatever they're reading (though, for me, it's astrology that I see in the most un-astrological texts). I'm never the Aesthete, and I'm never the Person Who Has Already Read Everything because I haven't read everything (or, really, most things). These days, I'm usually uncertain, my comments phrased as questions, my inflection rising at the end of my sentences as I search the room for nods to validate my commentary. I am often tentative—the possibilities of a text darting in often different directions that I hesitate to direct. I'm never late.

I did not grow up in a family of writers or artists. The family above that ate canned tomatoes for days are my ancestors. I grew up in a blue-collar, rural world where such artistic conversations were the stuff of folks far fancier than us. When I entered an MFA program, I knew that the workshop was an opportunity to have multiple people read and comment on one person's work. But I also felt I was entering an unknown space with mysterious performances of expertise and power. I felt there was a language I had to speak that I never learned. The goals and politics of workshop were never made evident. Perhaps, to others, it was transparent, but I was too removed from the academy to understand. I often felt like a caricature—the Country Bumpkin, the Kid from the Sticks Who Doesn't Know Shit.

Of course, such rural caricatures aren't fashionable in the workshop. In effect, I found other roles. I was a Jerk in an attempt to speak the language. I blathered about astrology because I didn't know what else to say. Without permission or confidence to speak authentically, I had to inhabit someone else.

This is the Transparent Workshop

Eressos' "These Are Them" is an essay of observation. Eressos does not concern himself with revolution or critique. The figures he describes are without commentary. Yet, when Eressos stepped away from his, to use D'Agata's phrase again, "clipped and snarky portraits," did they propel him to reflect on himself? Or cause him to delve into how such "flawed" individuals came to be? Did he want to reach out to his characters and say, tell me why you're poking holes in your shirt with a Bic pen?

Maybe in his diary or bedroom scribblings, he wrote about the intersections between self, society, and his portraits. Perhaps he mused on how they came to be. What would such musings have revealed? What if his descriptions had been taken one step further from cynicism into analysis and action? I ask because I am interested in something that lies beyond the Aesthete or the Jerk. I long for what I call the transparent workshop.

After years of sitting in workshops both within and beyond the academy and observing my peers and myself in these spaces, I have wondered how to focus a group of distinct individuals to serve both the writer whose work is on the table but everyone else in the room as well. I have also seen how the dynamics of our biases, traumas, and uncertainties influence the workshop space—regardless of the work being critiqued. While the locus of exposure may seem to be on the shoulders of the writer, there is also vulnerability inherent in critique. Our subjectivities influence the way we read and respond to work. Systems of power and domination replicate themselves in the workshop space. The workshop often existing within the academy's realm also presents overwhelming barriers to those without historical access. As I have reflected on these (albeit absurd) portraits, I have thought about making transparent what is often unsaid in the workshop and wondered how such transparency would impact our behavior.

By "transparent," I mean a space where the workshop's history as a place of marginalization, silencing, and performances of power is laid bare. I am interested in a space where we can strategize and grapple with how to move the workshop towards a space that embraces and protects the vulnerability inherent in sharing creative work. Questions tug at me as I write these words—how? What if? But what about—? Yet I fear I have chosen the wrong essayist as my muse to answer such questions. I have written the wrong essay. Perhaps what I have wanted all along are the characters that have yet to be conjured. Maybe I begin with what I know to move into what I do not know.

What I do know is this: the transparent workshop would be one where I could share an essay such as this—one that ends on the crux of where it wants to be—and know such incompleteness would be embraced rather than ridiculed. I know that the transparent workshop would be a space of collaboration, vulnerability, and support. It would be something that could not be caricatured so easily.


Courtney Kersten is the author of Daughter in Retrograde (University of Wisconsin Press 2018). She is a PhD Candidate in Literature at UC-Santa Cruz and is currently at work on a hybrid-biography about the late superstar astrologer of the 1970s Linda Goodman.

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