Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The #Midwessay: Claire Wahmanholm, Get In Loser, We're Going Corn-Pitting

  




Get In Loser, We're Going Corn-Pitting

Claire Wahmanholm


*


I want to tell you something about corn pits. And in so doing, tell you something about myself. And essays. And the Midwest. And maybe, even, life.
     If you are from the Midwest, you probably know what a corn pit is. Unless you’re like me, an urban Midwesterner whose parents had low tolerance for Americana in any of its forms, and for whom “fall festivals”—with their corn mazes, pumpkin cannons, “touch-a-tractor”s, grain trains, rubber duck derbies, giant jumping pillows—were verboten. We were not that kind of family. You know the kind. The kind you picture when someone says “Midwestern family.” 
     So I only learned about corn pits eight months ago, as a grown-ass adult. 
     The corn pit obviously owes something to the ball pit, but has none of its cultural, Millennial, cachet. Googling “the history of the corn pit” directs you to “corn maze.” No one seems to have thought corn pits worth much ink, digital or otherwise. 
     And eight months ago, I would have agreed. 

*

September: some friends of ours, who have recently moved to St. Paul from The East Coast, suggest we go to a farm. They are eager to have an Authentic Midwestern Fall Experience. I am eager to distance myself from any associations they might have with an Authentic Midwestern Fall Experience. I find myself saying, multiple times, that though I am Midwestern, I have never been to a fall festival. That it is just as foreign to me as it is to them. I hear myself, and I wish I could stop, but it’s too important for them to know that there are so many kinds of Midwestern! That I am not tacky! That I don’t even like the outdoors! (why is that coming out of my mouth all of a sudden?? Sure I do!) That I have never owned any pieces of scarecrow art! That I have a sense of humor! That I know how irony works! 
     Our friends are nodding politely now. They are looking at each other uncomfortably, but I am not done.
     I’m not Midwestern, I’m Minnesotan! We created the Honeycrisp apple! St. Paul has the best Wordle scores in the country, and the second best park system (after Washington D.C.)! Our drinking water is impeccable! We are politically progressive and heavily invested in even the smallest local elections! Our food scene is righteous! O captain my captain! 

*

Back in 2014, a group of Minnesotan artists, business leaders, and academics spearheaded a tongue-in-cheek (kind of!) initiative to extricate Minnesota from The Midwest. Instead, we should be known as “the North.” They wanted to attract young, innovative, cool people to the state, and the idea was that no one thinks the Midwest is any of those things. It was time for Minnesota to stop undercutting itself. We have a lot going for us! For example, proponents of the re-branding insisted that Minnesota is an “urban state” (a state with the vast majority of its population concentrated in urban centers, as opposed to a state with a more evenly distributed population); that we are more racially and ethnically diverse than our neighboring states; that we are also the most eco-diverse of any Midwestern state, with three distinct ecological regions (Great Plains, Eastern Temperate Forests, and Northern Forests); that our public transportation is better and our standard of living is higher etc., and so that we should start our own club for cool kids only, no hicks allowed. So long, losers!
     The project ultimately failed to go anywhere, but it did give us some neat hats and something to talk about in the middle of our six-month winter.
     Truth be told, I was all for the re-branding. I would have loved to say “I’m from the North.” It felt more accurate. It would have distanced me from the parts of the Midwest I wanted to be distanced from. 

*

I am mostly a poet who, lately, has been writing essays. Early on, I was interested in writing lyric essays. You know the ones, with their fragments, their intimations, their leaps. I would be delicate, wispy, graceful, poignant, devastating, breathtaking. It would be easy. It would be like writing a poem, which, by this point, I was pretty good at. I would remove the line breaks, and the essays would write themselves.  
     They did not. It was utterly grotesque. Outside of the form of a poem, my voice sounded precious. It was trying too hard. It was insecure. I would need to use a different voice. But I didn’t have another one! This was my writing voice! 
     So I tried emulating the voices of other essayists I admired. I would lean into quirkiness. I would lean into the surreal. I would be surprising! and a lil’ experimental! but also charming! (at the time, none of my favorite essayists were from the Midwest. I know.)
     It was embarrassing. This is all very embarrassing. 
     You can do lots of stuff in an essay. You can give advice. You can tell a story. You can work out a theory. You can make an argument. You can instruct. You can surprise. You can speculate wildly. But you cannot lie. This means that sometimes, you (I) have to look like an idiot. 

*

The night before the fall festival, I scroll through the farm’s website to see just how the rest of the country sees us. The farm is advertising something called a “corn pit” (“now BIGGER and BETTER than ever! Minnesotas [sic] largest Corn Pit! Make a corn angel or bury your friends and family. You will not find a corn box like this anywhere else”). 
     The fuck is a corn pit, I mutter. 
     The pictures aren’t of the highest quality, so it’s hard to see, but it looks like a sandbox filled with corn kernels. There is nothing more Midwestern than corn. I once took a quiz called “How Midwestern Are You?” and one of the questions was “how do you cook your corn”? (as if there were more than one way, which is to place it firmly in the compost bin.) You won’t catch me supporting the corn agenda. Neither as a food product, nor as an entertainment medium. I can’t believe I’ll be paying $12 for this hokey shit. 
     But we drive thirty-seven minutes out of the city, we pay our $12 apiece, we navigate our way past the 12’ Wooden Rocking Chair, the Skyhigh Slides (“Kids will be able to see all over our 160 acre farm from the top!”), and the Kritter Korral, and we are standing in front of the Corn Pit. The sky is blue, it is 78 degrees.
     The corn pit is not a sandbox. It is huge, maybe 30 x 50 feet, bordered on all sides by waist-high hay bales. It is canopied by a generous tent. 
     My daughter and I climb on top of the hay bales. 
     There are so many people in the pit—babies, children, parents. They are swimming in the kernels. They are burying themselves up to their ears. They are scrambling up the bales to jump, over and over again, into the pit. I have never seen anything more joyous.
     My daughter and I jump. 
     I am up to my thighs in corn kernels and I am aghast. I did not imagine it would be this deep—easily three feet. And it is—dare I say it?—even better than a ball pit. I am reminded of the scene early on in the movie Amélie, where the narrator takes us on a brief tour of Amélie’s small pleasures, among them “dipping her hand into sacks of grain,” which we then see her do at the market, slyly, all the way up to her top knuckles, her head turned away from the camera. And it does feel like a secret that I’ve been let in on. I swivel around in the corn pit and look from face to face. Does that child look as if she is tasting heaven for the first time? Does that woman? That grandpa? Or is it just a Saturday for them?
     Just to see what it feels like, I push my hands through the corn. I do the twist and wedge myself deeper into the kernels. The corn is a waist-deep meadow. I hear the ks ks ks as I wade through it on my way back to the hay bales, from which I will once more jump into the corn pit. 

*

The first successful essay I wrote was one that I sent to a friend for feedback. I still didn’t know what I was doing. The essay was sort of funny, sort of serious, sort of narrative. It was very honest. It did not make me look quirky, interesting, graceful. I was surprised by how easy it had been to write. 
     Amazing, she wrote back. I can totally hear your voice in my head when I read this! It sounds just like you.
     Of all the various voices I had tried out, I hadn’t thought it would be valid to use this one—the voice of my inner monologue, the voice I use to talk to my mom, the voice I use when I’m telling a story. It is not the voice I use for my poems. This one is, I think, a Midwestern voice. I don’t mean that the rhythms, the pacing, the diction can be categorized as x, y, or z. If I were to say that my voice is Midwestern, and my diction is colloquial and sharp, you could say nuh-unnnnnh, nuh-unnnnnh, lookit so-and-so, they’re Midwestern and their diction isn’t colloquial and sharp! And you’d be right. Everyone’s Midwestern voice is going to sound different, because the definition of the “Midwestern voice” is the one that sounds most authentically like you. 
     It’s not that I’m lying in my poems, or that I’m performing, per se. And I don’t think it’s necessary for every piece of writing to sound “just like you.” But writing that essay, and the ones that followed it, felt like plunging my arm, pit-deep, through thousands of kernels of corn. It felt like coming home. 

*

The rest of the fall festival is delightful. My children and I split a funnel cake. We watch a machine shoot a pumpkin more than 1/3 of a mile out across a field. The kids bounce forever on a jumbo jumping pillow. The sky gets gold, then pink. We fold ourselves back into the car, our legs still powdery from corn dust. 
     I am ready to make amends. I am ready to share The Good, Corny News as far and fast as I possibly can. It’s okay to be tacky! It’s okay to be stereotypically Midwestern! I will be a much-praised, much-beloved, ambassador. I will change lives. 
     When I get home, I do a Google Trends search for “corn pit” to decide where I need to focus my gospel.
     I knew corn pits were a Midwestern invention. But I did not know that, since 2004, the state with the highest interest in corn pits is Minnesota.
     Nor did I know that there is only one metro area in the entire nation with enough data to show up on the search. And that area is Minneapolis-St. Paul.
     What is this feeling? Satisfaction? Pride? Sure. But beneath that, embarrassment. I had been insisting so hard on the non-Midwestern-ness of my hometown, which has quietly been the corn pit capital of the nation all my adult life. I’ve been an outsider in my own state. Everyone has been having fun without me, and for years. It’s a good thing I know how irony works.  
     I am chastened. I have been full of shit. If there is anything worse than trying too hard to be cool, it is being seen for what you really are. It is being seen, correctly, as insecure. 
     Minnesota is averting its eyes. It’s going into the kitchen for some more coffee. It’s going to give me a minute. 

*

Essays are about trying—about trying to figure something out, about using the form to work through something, with the idea that you could always try again, that any one essay isn’t definitive, isn’t the final word. There are lots of ways to be a person. There are lots of ways to be a writer, a Midwesterner, a Midwestern writer. Here are some metaphors. The corn pit is an essay. The Midwest is an essay. The Midwest is a corn pit. It takes all kinds. There’s room for everyone in the corn pit. Get in.





Thursday, July 28, 2022

Blue Skies: a Conversation with Joshua Dewain Foster and Georgia Pearle Foster



*


Joshua Dewain Foster and I go way back, intersecting at Arizona’s MFA program, where I was hired to teach nonfiction in 2009 and he was just finishing up his MFA(s: he wrote both a fiction and nonfiction MFA theses in the program, though we never worked together formally). We’ve been friends since, and have collaborated quite a bit over the past 13 years, and I’ve watched his work and life with admiration from afar.

I published Josh in DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, and in March Xness, the yearly tournament of essays about songs where he represented Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper” in 2017’s March Fadness tournament with a great essay, losing in the first round but to the eventual winner, Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn." For 2020’s March Badness (a tournament about bad and so-called “bad” hits), he and his most important collaborator, Georgia Pearle Foster, cowrote an excellent essay on the excruciating (to me) Christopher Cross song “Sailing,” which went deep into that years tournament, losing in the Final Four—also to the eventual winner, which seems like it's becoming a trend. That essay even got me to grudgingly begin to maybe possibly even slightly, barely, almost unnoticeably admire (?!) the song.

The energy between the two of them on the page was awesome and extremely fun to read, as you’ll see if you check it out on the site or in The Crown Package, one of the first two books from Foster Literary.

I’m very committed to startup DIY literary projects, as you probably know if you’re a regular reader of Essay Daily. I love the energy that goes into them and what it does for the writers and the writing and the editing, but also how it ripples into the world around those writers and what they’re publishing and the communities that emerge. I particularly love how DIY project allow folks to chart their own paths outside of received and prescribed ideas about what publishing is and means, and its relationship to academia and the marketplace and prestige and gatekeeping.

So when I heard that Josh and Pearle were starting up their own new literary publishing-and-more enterprise, I was curious what this project was exactly, and how it related to books and to their lives. 


*

Ander Monson: So The Crown Package comes out shortly. It’s the first official production by Foster Literary, which is basically the two of you, right? I’d love to talk a little bit about the book, but also talk about the larger project of Foster Literary and The Loft 745, and how it all fits together. Could you talk me through what led you to start Foster Lit and how and why you found your way to DIY?

Josh: When I was teaching down in Houston in the community workshops, I would have these conversations with these community writers who would publish their own books and lead out with self-publishing and self-marketing. I just thought that there was a literary model there that someone could cultivate. As I talked about it in classes people got really excited about it, these Night Writers, the Weekend Writers. So, in part, when Pearle and I came to Idaho we did not want to leave the literary behind and so carving out a little piece of art for us was important. We're up here alone, too, and so it became this kind of back-and-forth for Pearle and I to keep the literary flame alive.

Pearle: I think originally, part of our conversation about starting Foster Literary was, do we try to stay ensconced in academia with all of the challenges to our personal and writing lives which that would require in the current marketplace? The high percentage of people adjunct teaching, the likelihood that we would have to move well outside any place we’d hoped to make our homes, high course loads and low pay, plus the challenge of a two body academic family. I had also gotten beyond exhausted at the presumption that I was less competent than my peers, or somehow less serious, less committed to my work, which I often faced as a mother in creative writing programs. So then it became this question of, you know, is the university model even going to work for us entirely? I think Josh was willing to let go of that idea of the Great Creative Writing Professorship long before I was. Once we started letting go of the tenure track idea, the question became, what would really stepping out look like? How can we continue teaching, which is something that I did not want to give up, and continue writing, which, of course, was something neither of us ever intended to give up, and hopefully build something that could sustain that literary life for us and hopefully others? How could we have a space where we could work with students, where we could still build a readership and not be dependent on the university model to do those things?

Once we decided to try, there was a lot of freedom in that, because if we're DIY-ing it and not necessarily trying to get tenure track jobs, then we can afford to publish however we want on our own timelines, and have a different kind of control. There’s that romantic association I have with, say, Virginia and Leonard Woolf starting Hogarth Press. I think there's also some inspiration coming from that 90s punk rock kid mentality. All the musicians I was listening to in my youth were all putting out their own albums, starting their own labels, not going with the big corporate record producers, and there was such an emphasis in that subculture on “not selling out,” on making sure that your voice stayed true instead of placating your audience, which part of knows is too simple a concept, but nonetheless I like the notion of controlling one’s own voice. 

One thing I had heard from so many advisors and mentors, who of course I loved and valued, was still, “you shouldn’t say that out loud.” Well, I want to say what I want to say, and if we’re doing this ourselves, I can take the consequences for being honest, and I know Josh will champion that alongside me.

Josh: If the art, if the content, if the product can matter, I think the marketplace is there. The other thing was, you know, we could have done this in Houston too, but there are lots of organizations in Houston doing this. The Loft 745 property where we live and work now has always had a big draw to local southeastern Idaho, but the whole valley has been pretty sparse as far as literary outposts go. It's a big privilege to have all of this come together miraculously, and to bring this Idaho landmark and the rural literary together. It wouldn’t have ever happened without my parents getting called on a Mormon mission to the middle of the Pacific Ocean—the Marshall Islands—and I offered to come back to Idaho to help work in the family farms, but only if we could find solid work for Pearle too. Which was going to be difficult. She was a newly minted, very decorated Doctor of Literature and Creative writing, and we have a community college that's two years old in Idaho Falls, and we have the Mormon college up the road in Rexburg, and a state college ninety miles away.

Pearle: When we moved out here, I knew there was no hope of my getting a job at any of those local colleges. Even as an adjunct, I’m sure I’d have gotten fired before I had two weeks in the classroom–some of my primary concerns as an academic have always been race, class, and gender, and Eastern Idaho has one of the most patriarchal and conservative populations I’ve ever encountered. And of course the Mormon college would never hire someone who’s not of the faith to begin with. So having the option to take over Loft 745, which is primarily a wedding venue and an old restaurant building that’s now converted to event space and classroom space, felt like this huge gift of flexibility and possibility.

Josh: But we also thought, Okay, we can go live in the basement of a wedding venue and we can be part of this population and community that doesn't get represented in literature at all, and we can have this insider look and, if we look at this as our own self-propelled fellowship, we could do something really cool up here. So we dropped in. The property and opportunity lined up, Pearle and I graduated, and us and the kids moved up in 2019, and it took a solid year to learn how to manage the wedding business.

Pearle: Definitely. I had to adjust to culture shock, launch one teenager off to college and get the other acclimated, get the wedding business figured out and streamlined, and adjust our schedules to the rhythm of the place. The yearly rhythm here is opposite the academic rhythm–we work our hardest through the summer. Things get quieter once the wedding season is over, harvest is put away, and the snow settles in. The winters are sublime for all that quietude and time to write. 

Ander: I want to pick up a thread that I heard you talking a little bit before that I think is really interesting. I feel a lot of connection to your DIY approach to things like, as you know, though I have an academic job maybe half of my energy goes to these totally unpaid DIY projects: DIAGRAM, New Michigan Press, Essay Daily, March Xness, the Assessment Matters Institute, etc.. I do these because I just like making things, which I picked up in grad school and have continued with for now more than 20 years. But also my academic job has become less rewarding in the last couple years, and I find the DIY stuff to be very rewarding—immediate and enjoyable and connective. It’s not at all lucrative, and my paying job doesn’t place much, if any, value on this work as far as I can tell, but I do like connecting to people, maybe especially so these last couple years of covid disconnection.

When I hear you talking about The Crown Package and where you’re from in Idaho, Josh, and where you’re from in Alabama, Pearle, part of what I sense this is about is representing groups that are not normally represented in literature. That ethos feels important, like reading and writing from and to the place that you are and the place that you are from, like Faulkner’s postage stamp of land. I feel that strongly in this book, and it’s an aspect that I really admire and connect to. And importantly it feels very unselfconscious. I don’t know if that's intentional or, if that is artifice, but the book hits this note very clearly for me.

Josh: I want to touch on this DIY mentality I was raised with. Idaho is completely a DIY place because you just don't have any other help, you have to be able to depend on yourself. I looked at my mom, my dad, my uncle, everybody on the farm solving their own problems, all the time, and I grew up learning that alongside them, working with them. So as a writer, I had this grandiose artistic burning. As far as I can recall, it’s always been there. Locally and at a young age, I knew many people who played the piano and organ, and I knew people who painted. Both of these expressions were tied directly to Mormon life in the West—playing accompaniment for church functions, and painting scripture scenes. Which, don’t get me wrong, I tried my hand. I was no natural at either form. Enough to know I had to keep searching out for more diverse inspirations. So any writing opportunity or challenge that I could drum up, for me it was just attempt, attempt, attempt—just like a farmer out there who has 40 acres of dirt. How do you get all the sagebrush off it? How do you make it grow corn? Potatoes? Well, you talk to the neighbors and local experts, think and study on it, then you get to work and try, try, try, try, try. All of these pieces in Crown for me were experimentation in some way, shape, or form. Attempt. Then I assembled them all for the book for some cohesion there too. Also attempt. Then I made the amalgamated Crown Package essay for the back copy. Another attempt. Maybe that's some of the unconscious feel to it. 

One of the draws, particularly for us DIYing these books is because, now that I hear myself again talking about it, my book is very hard to market. What is this book about? It's about Idaho, it's about this farm kid who takes on different forms and writes stories down. It doesn't have an overt political message; it doesn't have an angle. A lot of the pieces are my published work, so I had many great learning experiences there, and also going out into the writing programs, I had a lot of feedback, lots of editors, lots of conversation. All extremely helpful in development.

Ander: But TCP also doesn't exist within a genre either, right? I mean it's fiction and nonfiction, which is an unusual combination in terms of publishing, which tends to be suspicious of or outright hostile to these kinds of mixes. As a reader, thought, my experience was very much, knowing you and knowing or having read enough about your life, I read much of it as nonfiction. Then I kind of assume that a lot of the stuff that I don’t already know to be autobiographically true is fiction, though I’m not fully sure of that, and the book doesn’t go out of its way to label which is which. The experience is a really unstable read because, like you know you move from one piece, where I know that I is more or less equal to Josh, and then to another where I’m less sure about who that I maps to, so I assume that’s a story, but it’s a story usually about Idaho, inflected pretty obviously by the autobiographical I of the book, so I read those stories as coming out of that nonfictional I, even if the narrators of those stories are clear fictions.

Josh: I think that's definitely where I like it to land is this sticky residue, where the cover idea came from, this identity ripple, layers of self-takes, fact and tall-tale. My dad was a little worried as I told him about the book production. He feared it would be too autobiographical, I guess, too telling. I assured him that this book was as real as paint on a canvas, he had nothing to worry about. He seemed to get behind that. Then I showed him the cover and he was like, Well, how are they not going to think it’s all you now? 

That’s when I changed tack and just said it was all fake news, like everything nowadays. Accept truth as you need to accept it. 

But in reality, this back-and-forth of genre goes back to my experience at Arizona’s MFA, where I was able to enroll in both Fiction and Nonfiction tracks. I have always been a voracious reader, and in my mind as I self-selected books, I sorta just saw creative writing as two genres only, and these differentiated formally and by production design: prose and poetry. So at Arizona, as I started to really join a wider creative conversation and understand craft nuts-and-bolts of both genres, well, that experimentation is what produced a good sampling of the work featured in the book.

I think the other thing about this book is when I got to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, I really started to encounter questions of subjectivity and authority, who has the right to tell stories. So, for practice, when I embellished a character, I just always tried to put the stories back on me-ish, or start them from my life experience-ish because then at least I had some honesty in voicing them, albeit dysfunctionally. Does that make sense?

Ander: It does. I want to shift a little bit to the larger project. So how do you describe Foster Lit to people? Like what is Foster Lit when you have to give the elevator pitch? Is it a publishing operation? A literary umbrella organization? Is it a workshop? A residency? Some combination of all of these? 

Pearle: Maybe it’s a literary cooperative? And all of these things, as we can make them happen? Right now I think we want to get the indie press side of things figured out using our own books as the sacrificial attempt, so we can work out some of the challenges that might arise without risking other people’s work, and then hopefully we can launch into championing other writers’ work, likely via publishing their book-length manuscripts. We’ve also talked about publishing shorter pieces online, journal style. We worked together as editors for Gulf Coast when we were in the PhD program at Houston–I was their digital editor after being a genre editor in nonfiction, and then in poetry, and Josh was on my nonfiction team before moving on to editing on the fiction side of things. And then, we have this beautiful space out here in Eastern Idaho. We have classroom space, we have this gorgeous garden and venue space where we now host weddings and other parties, but it would be perfect for a writers’ retreat if we got the lodging worked out. We’re not that far from West Yellowstone, from Montana, from Salt Lake City. We have this valley in the mountains with wide skies all around–there’s so much room to build something and bring people in. 

Josh: There are so many good writers that are sitting on great books but are stalled because they feel like they have to publish through the industry. I mean the marketplaces exist, the Amazon marketplace is huge and we all use it. What if we could carve out just a little niche for homegrown literary books? Turning 40 this year I just thought, Do I want to put the book into another year of review with the same presses with new editors? All these stories have been hit and addressed by many good editors. I have Pearle here in-house. I know I can make some decent pages all by myself. Once Pearle saw a solid draft of Crown and could see the book was no joke, strange and different but an actual book, it gave us both the permission to depart from the traditional and just take control of the whole process. 

Pearle: The Crown Package spans fifteen years of Josh’s writing, and then another two years of putting it all together, editing, and designing. My debut collection of poems, Refinery, which we’re putting out in September, is something I started in earnest in 2007. It could have been a book, technically, in 2014 when I finished an iteration of it as my MFA thesis, and I had mentors tell me it was a good book, but I wasn’t satisfied. I threw out or reworked something like two thirds of it after that point, and kept remaking it. There was the pressure of performing for the marketplace so I could get a job, but more intense for me was the internal pressure to live up to vision and artistry. I knew I only had one chance to write this particular book, and I would regret it if I accepted the final product in a rushed state. So now there’s this relief–I don't want to have to worry about hitting a trend, or publishing the next book before my tenure-track timeline says I’m done, and now I don’t have to concern myself with that. I don't want to have to worry about whether the industry thinks that my content or style or form is relevant right now, or whether my work is going to hit the news cycle in the right place. In doing it ourselves, we can wait to publish until we know we’ve made our books exactly what we meant them to be in the world, and we can also afford for them not to get noticed until they get noticed. There’s no window for us where we have to give up on one of our books, decide it’s a flop, and then pulp it. The sails can simply stay out until there’s wind. 

Ander: I mean you do end up in a position with a lot of freedom having opted out of academia which has its own set of value systems and weighted levers of prestige. It also feels like a good time to be opting out of academia, since I sense we’re just passing peak-creative-writing in academia, like the discipline peaked in the academic context 5-10 years ago. I’d love to be wrong about this, but I've been having this feeling, not just at Arizona, but seeing what’s happening elsewhere. Opting out was obviously a hard decision for writers and editors as talented and experienced as you two are, but then that decision comes with a new sense of freedom, so if you don’t have to care about getting published by these officially approved prestigious presses, then you don't need to play that game. Plus you can move faster; you can be quicker; as writers you can also have a hand in your own design, and that design and publishing package can have an individual aesthetic to it. I mean, I love Graywolf, and they publish me, and I’m happy with our relationship, but it was refreshing to read this book and have it feel not at all like a Graywolf book. The Crown Package retains more of its idiosyncratic nature, which is to say more of the writer and the maker. I’ve dealt with publishers—though not Graywolf; they’re usually pretty game—that are like no way, writer: you don't get to do design. Your task is to give us the word doc and we lay it out; that's what we do. You do the writing. And i'm often feeling like, no, I mean, I want to do both. 

Josh: I love a quiet night paginating almost as much as I do making pages.

Pearle: Being able to design my own cover, and then have final say in every aspect of design, is the joy of going this route. One of my best friends won a great first book prize in poetry, and then she got the proof of the cover and was mortified. She told the publisher that the cover was culturally insensitive, that her grandmother might keel over, and their response was to give her a portfolio of the same artist’s other work, with no other options. The book turned out to be beautiful, of course, but I’m glad to circumnavigate all possibility of that sort of situation. 

The other thing with poetry manuscripts in particular is that, if you’re going the prize circuit route, you get typically $1000, maybe a little more, some copies for yourself, and one invited reading at a university. But by the time you’ve submitted your manuscript to enough prizes, with fees, to win one of them? You’ve paid for that prize pot how many times over? And you’ve been in a slush pile of how many hundreds of manuscripts, being read by overtired students, how many times? And once you do get published, most publishers are relying on writers to market themselves anyway. I see writer friends of mine hiring publicists and media managers on their own even when they have major publishing houses handling their books. 

When I was going through the MFA and even the PhD, I was single parenting and often without basic necessities–I had to take time off from my MFA because the kids and I were homeless–so for years I was frankly too broke to participate in much of the publishing side of writing. At one point, one of my mentors suggested that I might have hit the book publishing side of things better if I’d had more publications for the individual poems, but I couldn’t afford to send out to slush piles with the fervor that I saw in my colleagues, and I also couldn’t afford to try land a lot of the residency gigs and attend the conferences every year, so I simply didn’t have the same network. 

Ander: And it's not hitting exactly the right undergrad screener just right—yeah, I mean, once you’re to a certain point where you're writing good work, a lot of publishing can feel like a lottery, a weighted one where the work that gets published is for sure worthy, but beyond that, so much of it feels like chance. I spent a lot of money sending my first book to poetry contests, and I got lucky there, but in the most extreme version of that world  I had a friend who spent 12 grand on entering and he was a finalist in every competition I ever saw him enter. He was always a finalist. He was a good poet, but at a certain point I imagine he felt like the world's biggest loser. He was also a dick, so I don't mind kind of saying that, but he was a good poet, and you watch that happen and it’s hard not to say there but for the grace of god go I.

Pearle: That, definitely. I also I think both of us started thinking, how much more writing time do we have if we don't have to do that anymore? How much more energy do I have for the pages themselves if I don’t have to submit the poetry manuscript to more contests, and I don’t have to flog myself for not sending the book out to contests? And if I don’t have to learn how to query agents for my nonfiction projects, either?

Josh: I've spent whole years where all my creative time was sending work out. Now all of that time goes into more creation, tinkering, getting my work that much closer to a tangible artifact. Even if I can work 10 minutes on my book for a day it feels more positive to me than blasting out that canned submission email.

When I moved back from Arizona, I went into the gas station, and I saw this cashier that I had known in high school and she says, Where have you been? I said Oh, I went and got my MFA in fiction and nonfiction writing. She looked at me all screwed up and she said, Writing, like, penmanship? Like calligraphy? I told her yes, exactly, it was just easier. 

I think our readers don't care about prestige, they want good pages. Reading a book is hard, Pearle and I try to make readable pages worth people’s time. We’re not boring. Pearle has local readers in Alabama that would read her under any imprint, and I now know that I have a ton of local support that I did not realize. If you're hanging your hat on the prizes, the credentials, the industry alone, well, I think you're missing out on a lot of just local grassroots goodness too.

Pearle: I don't know, Josh is always so much more, what's the word? Optimistic. Infinitely more optimistic than I am, especially about home. Most days I don't think I have five people in Alabama who care about what I'm doing on the page. Of course I’m happy to have an audience back home if they want to pick up my book, but I also can’t worry about what Alabama thinks about my work. 

Ander: If you talk enough trash about people that they'll at least have to buy it to figure out what you said. This is my strategy.

Pearle: Ha! Well, Other People’s Parties, the tell-all that we’re co-writing about running the wedding venue, is coming later. I’m sure that strategy can work with that one.

Josh: I’ve plunged so many toilets, and plan to write the truth about them all.

I get excited hearing Pearle talk about Other People’s Parties. That is going to be a fun, experimental, two-hander. Like Sailing. It took two years of convincing Pearle to drop in on this with me and run our own work. Sailing helped, but she’d never commit to running her book. I think in 2020 I finally asked Pearle straight up: Are you booking with me? Or are you sending it out to the contests another year?

Pearle: And I wasn’t sure, because you know the choice to publish our own work precludes us from a lot of other accolades and prizes. There's nobody submitting us to the National Book Award, the publication doesn’t count for NEA fellowships or any of those other big validating measures that you can access through the traditional route.

Letting go of that for me was definitely a little scary and a little sad. I’d love to feel more at the forefront of the conversation, but I’m accepting that continuing to make the work honestly is more important to me than that. I do think that, until the pandemic, I really was still hopeful that maybe we could go back. I was still looking for jobs on the tenure-track. When we first moved to Idaho from Houston, the thought was that this was just a three year trial run, like a three year personal residency.

Ander: That would then be interrupted by a baby, yeah—

Pearle: So we decided to get married, have the baby, and start Foster Literary all at the same time. I think I even made the birth announcement in the same post as the Foster Literary announcement on my social media channels. All those decisions were part of the same decision, which was that whatever we were building, we were going to do it together, and we were all-in on all fronts.  

Josh: Yeah, once we were all in, I mean, hell, I was all for throwing in a kid, another dog, another cat. A full flower and vegetable garden. We can make anything work—but that means all we do is work. That’s why the creative work is so important. Living layered in work, personal, family, and art like this is all a daily mess, but it's also so rich in purpose. We feel like every day we're out here pioneering it and figuring it out together. We help in the community and on the farms. We serve weddings and big events. It’s not precious work. It’s humbling, and a grind. Everyone in Idaho works damn hard, all day long. So to have the kid, the creative co-op, the books, stable employment, but also to be artists again in our quiet moments, be something different that no one can see or really understand except for the two of us, that is what all of it is all about. 

Ander: Possibly my favorite piece in the book is the collaborative one about Christopher Cross’s “Sailing,” with both of you writing back and forth to each other. I mean I'm very fond of collaborative writing, and I’ve been reading more of this recently, like Julie Marie Wade and Brenda Miller’s Telephone that just came out from Cleveland State University Poetry Center press this year. It’s really good, and Wade has been doing a lot of collaborative work, publishing these multi vocal essays. But there's something great about the Sailing piece because that essay is a moment in the book where like you've achieved in writing what you're doing with Foster Lit, and it feels like it’s being lit up from within by a different kind of electrical dynamic. And you can feel the conflict and the sparks and the way you two work. There's definitely a full book of that kind of writing in that for you two—

Josh: That’s going to be a love book. We found a kind of energy writing back and forth, an imperfect one, and that's what I'm enjoying. We don't have to make perfect pieces, we just have to attempt, and complete, and be in it together. There's enough energy there to carry. We're not interested in making the finest, most perfect piece of writing. What we're interested in is being human on the page and inviting people into that experience.

Ander: In terms of Foster Lit’s publishing plans further down the road, do you imagine trying to publish books by writers that are part of your local communities? Or are you planning on pulling from the wider communities that you've been part of and are now still connected to even as you're back in Idaho?

Pearle: The challenge with being so rural is that there are fairly few people who are even reading literature, much less writing it. I see us publishing the wider literary community in the future, but perhaps not with the traditional publishing company model. 

Josh: I think if there was a literary model where we could possibly bring people in with their books and we could help develop them for their own market, that would be cool. But that all sounds like a lot of work for other work. We’re really driven to get our books out there, that’s the priority right now.

Ander: It has a bit of a feeling almost like a cooperative?

Josh: Okay, I was gonna say if we're opening up writers workshop you could do a book making class for that local writer that wanted to publish their family genealogy— 

Pearle: I mean, I would like to keep it in the realm of the literary, ideally. 

Ander: I mean one of the things that interest me about this is that, like it feels like it's very fueled by personal relationships that you've had with all the people that you know, I mean from each of your various lit excursions into the world. I mean that feels really important. It feels like a very social project, as well as a project that is really the two of you kind of at the heart of it, and that is an unusual model, but I think one that will ring true for Essay Daily readers.

There's this book I love, The Innocence of Objects, by Orhan Pamuk, about his Museum of Innocence, an actual museum he built for his Nobel-Prize-winning novel. It’s in Istanbul, and you can just go to the museum and it's like a museum he built for the fictional characters, collecting their artifacts, so here’s this dress this character wore when she met another character, etc. The Innocence of Objects is a catalog of the museum but also a manifesto for museums.

His whole argument, which I think is a really good one, is: what we don't need is more institutional museums run by states or corporations telling the stories of states or institutions or universities or whatever. What we need is: individual museums, run by individual people telling individual stories. This anthology, and your larger project here feels like the story of a person, and of a couple, and a relationship. There feels something really urgent to me about that and I respond to it in the same way. Like it feels it has that urgency to it and that intimacy potentially to it also.

Josh: Ander, do you remember when we went to Gilgal Gardens in SLC? That backyard archive of that Mormon bishop’s scripture-inspired statues? 

Pearle: Josh dragged me to Gilgal Gardens once, when we had to drive down to Utah for an IVF cycle, and I was still coming off anesthesia, dizzy and bloated and poked through the ovaries, and meanwhile he’s taking me piece by piece through these bizarre and fantastic sculptures, explaining the backstory. 

Josh: What a brilliant and strange artistic assemblage to his faith and family devotion, in red brick and lava rock. Idiosyncratic, memorable, geographic, weird; true art in the desert. I’d just rather make that book, or a book like that, than a book that wasn’t mine. 

Ander: That feels like a great mission statement and also maybe a good ending point for the time being—

Josh: Great because Pearle has a planning meeting with a wedding in 20 minutes … [Pearle leaves] … Ander, I will say you've been hugely inspirational in my artistic journey, because you were making your own stuff the whole way. I didn't see anyone else doing that in the industry until you got to Arizona. Admittedly, the literati can be pretty stifling, right?

Ander: Yeah, big time.

Josh: Their top button gets real tight...but you and New Michigan Press and Essay Daily and March Xness, those collaborations are central to my book. You've kept inviting me to write, so I keep writing, and it's an invitation that I hope to pass down the road as a writer. That’s the right energy. I think the world of you and your books and your projects, so thanks.

Ander: Totally. And thanks, and cheers! I think you're living up to that spirit, which is what I’m definitely responding to here, and I think our readers will too, and I hope more people decide to start up their own projects like this. I need to get up your way because I also do need to see some actual growing potatoes for this chip book project at some point, and I’ve never even been to Idaho, and obviously I want to meet the kiddo, so yeah, let’s do something!

Josh: These things are happening, I hope to see a lot of my old friends a little more. Now we have good reasons for us to get out with the books, and also good reasons to bring people in. It'd be great to have a reading series up here. I mean, I think there's just blue skies, there's nothing here, so we can build it, we can make it exactly whatever we want.


*


Find Foster Lit on Instagram, or on the web, or in Idaho at Loft 745. If you want to get in touch with them directly, drop them an email.

And while you're here, go ahead and buy Joshua Dewain Foster's The Crown Package now, and definitely also preorder Georgia Pearle Foster's Refinery directly from Foster Lit here. I recommend you do so promptly. —Ander

Monday, July 4, 2022

David LeGault writing as The Malcontent: Essay in French Means Try

 





The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. You know: puppies, nature, Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Seneca, even love itself. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.” 

Who would you want to take down? How about Didion? Montaigne? Let's take some shots at the pillars of the genre. Pitch us your own malcontent piece here.
 



Essay in French Means Try 


The French verb “essayer,” in English, means "to try." [1]

Your post reminded me that the French word essayer is the verb to try. So to write an essay is to write an attempt: at understanding, at giving meaning, at making a human connection. [2]

The word “essay" comes from a French word meaning “to try," and was first used by Montaigne to describe the short, simple, personal things he wrote to try to understand himself. [3]

The word “essay” comes from the French “essayer,” which means “to try” or “attempt.” [4

To essay stems from the French word, essai, which means, simply, “to try.” The essence of an essay is the trying. [5]

It dates back, according to some, to 16th century French writer Montaigne and to the French root of the word “essay,” which means to “attempt” or “try.” [6

The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt." In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing. [7

You might also know that essay can be a verb, with its most common meaning being "to try, attempt, or undertake": [8]

In French, the word essayer means “to try.” Essays, then, are attempts to make meaning out of real experience, and to situate that experience within larger cultural, historical, and philosophical frameworks. [9]

The word essay comes from the word assay, which means, to try. [10

Essay Writing: The word essay comes from the French word essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” [11]

This wonderful word derives, as anyone who writes on the subject is legally obligated to note, from the French essai, an attempt or experiment, Michel de Montaigne's metaphor for his testing of the question "Que sais-je?" [12]

That’s where the word “essay” comes from—the French verb, essayer, means to try. [13]

An essay remains true to its etymological springs—essai, essayer, assay (attempt, experiment, weigh up, test, investigate)—even though its waters have flowed far beyond them. [14]

The essay, derived from the French term essayer meaning "to try" or "to attempt," is not only a beloved sub-genre of creative nonfiction, but a form that yields many kinds of stories, thus many kinds of structures. [15]

The meaning of “Essay” is “To Try.” [16]

The Personal Essay. From the French verb essayer, which means “to try.” [17]

As you likely know, the word essay derives from the French word essayer, which means to try. [18]

At one time, assay and essay were synonyms, sharing the meaning "try" or "attempt." In the 17th century, an essay was an effort to test or prove something. [19]

I’d be remiss not to point out that the word “Essay” means “to try” in its French origins. [20]

French writer and minor noble Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) coined the term that has lasted so long, by naming his ramblings, roving, contradictory, prickly, warm, self-examining, doubting, and always smart prose inquiries “tries.” He was just trying to get what he thought down on paper, letting each “try,” or essay find its own shape. [21]

The term essay comes from a middle French word, essai, which means a test or trial or experiment—an attempt. Therefore, I think that since every essay is an attempt, it is also inevitably an apprenticeship to failure. [22]

Only the most restrained of writers has ever commented on the form without pointing out that the word for it comes from the French verb essayer, “to try.” [23


__________


[1] The thing about it is that, yeah, it did sound pretty cool and profound the first time I heard it.

[2] The thing about it is that it is always presented as new and exciting, despite the fact that everyone knows it.

[3] The literary equivalent of telling somebody that CPR compressions can be done to the Bee Gees song, “Staying Alive.”

[4] It took me less than an hour to make this list. It could undoubtedly have been much longer if I really wanted to essay (meaning try). 

[5] There’s a pretty good chance that if you’re the sort of person who reads a blog dedicated to the essay, you’ve already come across at least a couple of these. 

[6] It’s possible that I am quoting at least one or two of you directly.

[7] And you know better. 

[8] I think what bothers me is that everyone presents this fact as if they just discovered it, as if they haven’t already read it somewhere else at least a dozen times.

[9] Even in your intro to creative nonfiction syllabus, it is pretty condescending. 

[10] It’s even worse when you’re presenting this to an audience of your peers.

[11] And it’s not like we couldn’t do this for any number of words of French origin.

[12Baguette in French means stick, which is interesting, I guess, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of what a baguette is or even what it should be.

[13] The word for digging clay from the ground is winning. This does not change the way I think about this act.

[14] This last factoid comes from a failed essay about how much time I spent as a child digging in the creek running behind my parents’ home. I discovered it while committing the essayist’s sin of using dictionary definitions to try and dig up (winning!) some profound symbolic meaning based on etymology. Which is to say I’m not above this sort of laziness in my writing, though I hope it gets deleted somewhere between the first and final drafts.

[15] Because it’s not even true that we are publishing our attempts.

[16] Attempts are the essays that don’t go anywhere: the writing exercises, the killed darlings, the discarded drafts languishing in a desktop folder.

[17] Attempt implies that failure is as possible as success. I don’t believe I’ve seen enough failures in writing to really consider that an active part of what the essay is. With that said, I kind of wish it was.

[18] A former professor was asking about my work, and he said it seemed that what I was really writing about was failure. Given the actual subject of that book, this is probably more a comment about my personality than anything else.

[19] So maybe that’s the closest we’re going to get to a thesis: not only has this etymology passed the point of cliche and gone into the realm of hackery, it’s not even a good explanation of what we’re doing here. 

[20] Imagine how much longer this list could be if I wasn’t too lazy to open a book, if I did anything other than type this essay’s title into Google and hit copy/paste a bunch of times while watching Murder, She Wrote.

[21] Imagine how much better we could be if we just explored topics without trying to think of how our Literature fits into the tradition of a dead French philosopher.

[22] The thing I’ve always loved about the essay is that it defies categorization, that its very nature opens to experimentation in ways that other genres cannot. So I will never understand why everyone’s trying so hard to be the next Montaigne, navel gazing in a tower. What purpose does this serve except to close us off, to become only the thing that other essayists read? Can we please drop this etymology and find some other way of articulating that we are writing toward some unknown, trying to find meaning in all of this?

[23] With that said, I’m still way more likely to quote Montaigne than ever refer to writing as a hermit crab.  




 


David LeGault is the author of One Million Maniacs, a book on collecting. He's currently at work on a book of essays on and about games. Other work can be found at www.onemillionmaniacs.com

The Malcontent is a (usually) pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? Email resident Malcontent Kevin Mosby

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Breaking the Rules:

A conversation between Nicole Walker and Matthew Vollmer about Vollmer’s recently released winning nonfiction collection This World Is Not Your Home

 

 

Nicole Walker: What don’t all memoirs/creative nonfictions use ‘this distant third person’?

 

Matthew Vollmer: Great question. I feel like I first discovered or became aware of the possibility when reading J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life. I was so drawn to and mesmerized by the narrative distance it created. It seemed so natural but also so strange. I grew up in a cove at the base of a mountain between two streams and for a time during my youth was so obsessed by the National Football League that I couldn’t watch more than a few minutes of a game before I became so electrified with inspiration—surely I could twist and turn and leap and accelerate like the running backs I so admired—that I’d run down the mossy hill of our weird shadowy, clover-ridden lawn to impersonate what I’d seen, throwing the football high in the air, and leaping over shrubs and landing on fallen persimmons to catch it. While I did so, I always narrated my actions as if sportscasters were watching me. “Can you believe it? Another touchdown for Vollmer! He’s unstoppable! Is there anything this running back can’t do?” Turns out, there’s a connection between me pretending to be an NFL great and the religion of my youth: Seventh-day Adventists [As we edited the interview, MV clarified to me that “the hyphen because seventh modifies day, followed by the small “d,” the lack of capitalization there (which is official) I have no explanation for.”—NM]  believe each person on Earth has a “recording angel” in heaven who writes their each and every action (but maybe not thought, I don’t think?) in a Book of Life, which, once the main character has reached his end, is delivered to Jesus Christ, who has been poring over the recorded lives of humanity since October 22, 1844 (initially mistaken by William Miller to represent the day of the Second Coming and hereafter referred to by SDAs as “The Great Disappointment) so that He can read it, judge it, blot out the asked-for-forgiveness sins to be forgiven, and decide whether said human has met the requirements for admission to heaven. I mean, that might be a crudely oversimplified way of depicting actual Adventist theology, but it’s not exactly inaccurate nor would it be an interpretation that a half-paying-attention person like myself would come up with. In short, I’ve been thinking of myself as a character in a book my whole life, and I suspect other non-SDA folks have, too, and the quintessential perspective, I’d argue, especially if you grew up Christian and listened to the parables of Jesus Christ, which are always in third person, is the same.

 

NW: How much fun is it to write sentences like “spends his days staring into mouths: flesh-scapes of rotting bone, where incomprehensibly strong tongues, coated with mucousthick yellow plaque, lap involuntarily against his rubbergloved fingers, like quick blind slugs.”(17) ?

 

MV: I can attest that it’s very, very fun. I’ve talked with my dad—and interviewed him extensively—for various projects over the years, and I’ve stolen a lot of his language and metaphors without ever really giving him credit; for instance, he once described one of the saddest mouths he’s ever seen as having a set of worn-down teeth that resembled “little erasers.” He’s a good storyteller. I mean, he always talks about how he could never do what I do—i.e., write—but he’s spent his life telling stories and listening to them. His office is basically a Moth Hour Storytelling Theater in miniature. Every person who comes in is a character, whether they think they are or not—and it’s always entertaining to meet them. And I had the pleasure and privilege of watching him recently, hours after his 75th birthday party, which was held in his dental office waiting room, open birthday cards that his staff had asked his patients to write him. For every one that he opened, aside from the one person he referred to as “whoever that is,” he had stories about them. He knows them. He loves them. And he’s connected to them by story. What else would he be connected by? Charts? Bloody teeth? Cakes delivered to the office by patients? Well, actually, all of that, but no better than by stories.

 

NM: How does writing in the third person help the reader to see the narrator’s understanding of expectations and norms? To be, I hope, a little clearer: How then do you, dear author, undermine those expectations and norms? In the following sentences, it is clear that the man knows the difference between perfection envisioned and reality performed. Does the third person point of view help the author show the schism between expectation and reality? For example, “One might even say—as the man couldn’t help but think—that they were walking right through the middle of a quintessential summer evening, as if the night itself was pulling out all the stops to put on the performance of the season. The man and woman turned a corner. (8)”

 

MV: Narrative distance is everything in this particular situation. I had a story to tell and one that did not always depict me favorably. I am also, I think, an essentially comic writer—that is, I am always playing with perceptions and interrogating and satirizing myself and others. Third person makes it sometimes easier—and actually more amusing to me, especially when I get to emphasize my character-ness—to achieve these effects. Writing is representative, and characters in writing no matter what the POV are always structures, though third person seems to highlight this, especially if the person writing it is writing themselves in third. For some reason, I find it essentially comic to tell a story about oneself without using the first-person pronoun. It also heightens the narrative’s essential deception. Stories always deceive and when they lean into the deception it’s almost like they’re getting closer to reality. See what I’m doing? Don’t trust me. You shouldn’t. Even if I’m trying to tell the truth.

 

 

NW: So, if above I ask you to describe the power of the third person, here I ask, what is the power of the second person? If the third person is the comparative point of view of, what is the second? The directive? Or the inclusive? An example of what I’m talking about:

“Oh, and this is important: overanalyze everything. When you enter the cafeteria, and Eve, sliding her tray toward the juice machine, doesn’t immediately see you and smile, panic. Is she ignoring you on purpose? Or is she only pretending to ignore you so that you won’t think she’s too into you? Is this a pride thing. (63)”

 

MV: I love second person. Probably more than I should. But for this specific story, it makes a particular kind of sense. If you grew up in a relatively strict religious environment, like I did, you were always negotiating what was permitted and what wasn’t. We used to have these cassettes we listened to on long car rides. “Your Story Hour,” it was called (even the title was in second person, I’m realizing). It was narrated by Aunt Sue and Uncle Dan. Familial figures. It had actors and sound effects and digressions where Aunt Sue and Uncle Dan would supply additional transitional narration (Uncle Dan was always the voice of the Lord, as I remember). But I remember that the stories often depicted situations where young people were tempted to engage in wrongful behavior. A boy, I remember, had been sweeping a bank vault as an afterschool job and a kind of nasally, ribald, gangster voice tempted him to, “Go ahead, take a little dough,” while another voice, a resonant baritone, instructed him to, “Don’t do it” and reminded him that “you know it’s not right to take money that isn’t yours.” So anyway, what I’m trying to get across is that if you’re introduced to the idea that voices exist in your head and some are good and others are bad, you’re going to listen for them, to fear their existence, and to actually hear or imagine you hear them. Even if you don’t grow up religious you inherit a shit ton of voices: your mother’s, your father’s, your teachers’. And they’re always with you, repeating shit, haunting you with their authoritative instructions despite the fact that the truth is that, at some point, they don’t know more than you do. Growing up in a religious boarding school amplifies this. You go to church three times a day basically. And there are always “messages.” You’re always being told what to do (be on time to church, don’t wear disheveled clothing, don’t endorse rock and roll bands by wearing their T shirts)—and what not to (don’t give piggyback rides to girls, don’t drink caffeine, don’t swear, don’t give in to self-pleasure, etc.). So what happens if you narrate the thoughts that go through your head as if they were the inevitable instructions for how to be yourself? Not the idealized self the school wants you to be but the self you actually were, despite trying not to be? Seems like maybe you end up ennobling that second-person point of view—or, in this case, imperative mode—with the ability to get closer to truth, or at least giving it the appearance of being able to do so.

 

NW: It takes the narrator a while to break the rules of his Seventh-day Adventist religion. Sexual desire eventually leads him to bend, then break rules of celibacy until marriage. Why do people break narrative rules—does some kind of desire lead them astray?

 

MV: One of the actual narrative threads of my existence—one that had been written by my mother in a diary she kept of her observations of her first born (this was apparently a thing mothers did in the seventies)—involved my predilection to disobey. Apparently, I liked the toilet. I mean what kid wouldn’t? It’s a throne with water that, if certain levers are activated, create a freaking waterfall. There’s experience—what you think is truth—and then there’s everything else: what others try to convince you is true. And it may be or not. But I think that people break narrative rules for the reasons they break the rules in real life. They’re mischievous. They’re fun-loving. They’re seductive. They’re convention-defying. Suspicious of the norms. Secretly wondering whether everything they’ve been told is bullshit. Have an inherent sense that everything about our world is a construct. To mess with form is to play. And I love everything that word suggest: lyricism, music, improvisation, pretending, making up, and becoming.

 

NW: To tell the truth is to admit complicity in everything you mention in this essay in the book—complicit in admiring beauty, in reverence, in friendship, in concentration camps. Is this a rule you hold for your writing—to admit complicity? And do you ever break it? What would it mean to reject complicity? This is a selfish question. As someone who writes about the west, I feel like I have to mention the land stolen by white settlers but as I point it out, I feel shame for just writing, not doing, anything about it. As you mention at the end, “I didn’t say a word.” Maybe words are enough. The quotation below made me think of this:

“A friend?” I said. I was incredulous. I said no way could he be friends with a man he merely humored, that true friends weren’t afraid to say what they thought, which was that the Nazi was (at best) misguided and (at worst) a lunatic; that he had constructed, unbeknownst to all the people living in trailers and cabins along this road, a private shrine to the Third Reich; that he apparently thought Heinrich Himmler was a character worthy of admiration; that he obviously thought

the Holocaust hadn’t existed—at least not in the way most understood it; and that unless my father had come out and said what he truly believed, he was silently endorsing the Nazi’s viewpoints. (94)”

 

MV: This is a difficult question. It’s true that white settlers stole western land—but what part of “America” didn’t they steal? But also, what can you—or me or any other person—actually do about it? What should you do? I often think about ignorance and its bliss and omg Ukraine and human trafficking and the man I know who lives five or so blocks from me who has committed heinous crimes and who I’ve fantasized about bludgeoning with a baseball bat so that I might to restore some kind of justice—but where does it end? When—and how—would my sense for justice and so-called order be satiated? I’m not arguing for complacency or non-action or sticking one’s head in the proverbial sand. But I am advocating for caution and self-awareness, because I don’t know everything. In fact, I know almost nothing. I’ve heard things and I’ve been told a lot—in fact, I’ve probably heard 100,000 times more stories than my ancestors ever did. But what does that translate into for me? I’m not sure I know. What I was thinking at the Nazi’s house: I don’t “know” as much as this guy. The Nazi had a kind of self-contained, airtight narrative he’d been constructing for years about a certain group of people and I suspected he would’ve disintegrated whatever anecdotes I could’ve supplied with laser-like precision. And to think I could’ve “changed his mind” down there in that vault? Please. But still, I knew he was wrong, and I let him think I might be on his side. That, to me, was the true crime. And one that will continue to haunt me.

 

NW: From “Never Forget”: “One of the few things we do know for sure is that no trace of these settlers’ cabins remains. When I say we, it’s not even clear what I mean. The massacre, which I’ve rarely, if ever, heard anyone talk about, has been largely forgotten. The majority of Blacksburg’s current residents seem largely unaware of the event. (99)”

This troubled ‘we” is lovely. In a book whose craft forwards point of view choices, this seems like a necessary explication. If you could make a rule about using “we” in nonfiction, what would it be?

 

MV: Avoid it, whenever possible! Lol. But honestly, that probably is a good rule. I had a friend read a manuscript of mine semi-recently who pointed out a couple times when I used “we” that made him uncomfortable—in fact, I think using “we” in place of  “all humans” is probably, in most cases, problematic. Who can speak for all of humanity? Who can even speak for a town? I think the “When I say we, it’s not even clear what I mean” phrase stemmed from the guilt of deploying first person plural. It always feels at least somewhat false to use “we” because who the hell do I think I am? I am barely able to speak for myself, much less an entire collective, none of whom have been actually polled or signed off on what I’ve said. And yet, in this particular case, the “we” amplifies certainty, which is always an elusive thing to come by. All that remains of Draper’s Meadow Massacre is story. Hearsay. The use of “we” then is irrefutable. There are no physical remains of the settlement. And therefore, I suppose, the “we”—which also suggests “nobody” as in “nobody can find any remains”—is justified.

 

NW: How much is “not being alarmed” part of a writer’s rules? The postmodern idea of making the extraordinary ordinary, the abnormal normal. This postmodern flatness imbues our daily perspective to not be alarmed. The narrator latently judges himself with dramatic irony of knowing now what he couldn’t know then but with a tone of accusation that reads “you should have known.” “A couple of ambulances speed past. I am not alarmed. I don’t think, Those are for the dead and dying. Three girls, wearing coats and pajama bottoms, emerge from the dorm next door. They light cigarettes. They yell something incomprehensible and defiant. They laugh. (102)”

Or, later in the essay, is the cool flatness a prophylactic, as you write “spraying my brains against Hokie stone. But nobody does. For me, violence is an imaginary reconstruction, a sick fantasy I replay over and over, if only to prepare myself for the moment when it happens for real, and I can say, with some detachment, This is exactly how I imagined it. (123)” When should we be alarmed and how would we write it?

 

MV: Writing anything at all presupposes a kind of calmness—a “cool flatness” as you said, a description I like. I want to say that to depict an alarming situation with any semblance of fulness requires composure. I think of: “Be still and know that I am God.”  Or Wordsworth’s insistence that poetry “takes its origin from emotion lines composed in tranquility.” Makes sense to me. To depict any emotion or state of mind—including “being alarmed”—necessitates a certain concentration and attentiveness. So to answer your question, I suppose we should be alarmed whenever we face danger but depicting it, at least for me, requires distance and serenity.

 

 

NW: The concern about pronouns and inclusivity of the ‘we’ comes back here:. “We will prevail—a phrase that’s already been transformed into signage, emblazoned upon the back windows of Blazers and Explorers and Range Rovers like so many talismans. I worry about the we. I worry it’s not true. Would we all prevail (119)?”  I think this might be the core of this book—the question of who is ‘we’? How do you track the many “we’s”?

 

MV: This feels true: the core of the book could be asking “who are we”? What is useful to say about all of humanity? The entirety of a particular denomination? A family? Is the use of “we,” ultimately, a fiction? What could anyone possibly get right when invoking first person plural? What can I even get right about my own experience of the external world when literally everything I sense about it happens inside my body? As the scientist Karl Popper liked to say, the only thing anyone can say with any certainty—and the most profound thing one can utter—is this: “I know nothing.”

 

NW: Is an essay collection breaking the rules of book publishing?

 

MV: Man, it feels like it.

 

NW: Imagining the narrator’s wife’s death—fully rule breaking! Terrible and great?

 

MV: Terrible and great, yes. It goes back, I suppose, to the part in “NeVer FogeT” when I imagine my own brains being blown out—a kind of safeguard against the surprise of getting killed or simply dying. It’s a kind of magical thinking: if I can imagine something happening—especially if I can imagine something tragic—then it won’t hurt as much. But anyone who’s actually experienced the loss of someone they love will tell you: no matter how much imagining you do, you’ll never know what it feels like until it happens.

 

NW: If the first half of the book is geared toward point of view, in particular, the POV of a kid growing up in a Seventh-day Adventist household, what do you think describes the second half of the book, which has objects more at its center. Did I just answer my own question?

 

MV: I never thought of it like that but that’s interesting—and yes I think you did!

 

NW: Isn’t this the breaking the movie-version rule to space where silence is the only sound?

“Fifty years later, I talked by phone to Dr. Gurnett, who explained that—other than the sounds made by humans and animals—there aren’t all that many “natural” sounds to hear on earth. Wind blowing through trees. Thunder. Waves on the beach. Rain. Falling ice. But that’s about it. However, it turns out that plasma (that is, ionized gas) has various modes of propagation and thus creates a wide array of soundwaves. (170) ”

 

MV: Yes.

 

NW: Does the third person read like fiction? Can such a fiction still be an essay?

 

MV: I struggled with this exact question when attempting to categorize the collection. Hence the tagline to the title: “essays, stories, & reports.” An essay, for me, isn’t truly an essay unless it’s struggling to understand something. An essay is self-aware. It’s mobile. Capable of digressions. Of wanderings. And wonderings. A good essay is speculative, meditative, improvisational. Capable of self-reflection, self-critique. A story can obviously have all of those things—think Clarice Lispector’s narration in her novel The Story of an Hour where the narrator often confesses that he’s forgotten things or wonders aloud, “Am I a monster? Or is it this what it feels to be a person?”—but the ways in which both “Supermoon” and “Over the River and through the Woods” unfold (third person and more or less sequentially) feel more traditionally “story-like” to me. And this, I think, amplifies the fictional qualities of the narrative. Of course, all nonfiction is fiction—language itself being metaphorical and never capable of fully representing or capturing the radiant fulness of human consciousness—but some nonfictional forms feel more like traditional fiction. If I were to deploy “once upon a time,” and then begin talking about “a man” and “a woman,” readers would likely and immediately pick up these cues as signaling that we’re in Storyland. Which we are every time we speak or read. Only sometimes it’s easier than others to forget.

 

NW: I do have one more quick question about the title This World Is Not Your Home. Is the title meant to alert the reader to the shifting points of view? Is this world any pronoun's home (you don't have to answer the last part?

 

MV: The title is meant to underlie the position of the church I grew up in. There was a hymn I remember where a line was “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through, my treasures are laid up beyond the blue”

 

 

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction, Gateway to Paradise (Persea Books, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (published by MacAdam Cage and Salt Modern Fiction, 2010), as well as two collections of essays,  inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012) and Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2018). With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), which collects a number of stories that masquerade as other forms of writing (for examples of work that exhibit these traits, visit the Vollmer-curated literaryartifacts.tumblr.com). Vollmer is also the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, a volume of everyday invocations from over 60 writers, each of whom were charged with writing–regardless of their religious inclinations–a prayer. His fifth book, This World Is Not Your Home, was recently published by EastOver Press in March 2022. Hub City will publish a book-length essay in 2023: All of Us Together in the End.

 

 

 

NICOLE WALKER is the author of eight books, most recently Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster (2021), Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the collaborative collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. Her work has been most recently published in the New York Times, Longreads, The Georgia Review and The Southern Review, among other places. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ and serves as the Crux Series Editor for University of Georgia Press, and, after a hiatus, curates the Breaking the Rules” column for Essay Daily.