Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Malcontent Does Not Love Haruki Murakami's The T-Shirts I Love

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. 

Who would you want to take down? How about Didion? Montaigne? Let's take some shots at the pillars of the genre. Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? 

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.” 


1976. I finally got The T-Shirts I Love by Haruki Murakami after it was recommended to me three or four times, at least twice by the same person who knows my interest in both collections and t-shirts.

1977. I like Murakami.

1978. It took a while to even find the book on Amazon, perhaps because it’s not really a book in the way that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book, or perhaps because Amazon also sells a lot of t-shirts and even in 2022 its search algorithm hasn’t figured out well enough how to give people what they’re obviously searching for. 

a. That’s a comforting thought.

b. I obviously should have been buying this from my local independent bookstore but sometimes you just got to have something now.

1979. The T-Shirts I Love is a tour through Murakami’s t-shirt collection for no particular reason that I could discern except I guess people found an interview he gave a ways back talking exclusively about his t-shirts—he does seem to have a lot of them—and it was an easy enough book to sell from there: internationally famous author of strange fiction talks about his weird collection!

1980. The idea of listening to an interesting person talk about an idiosyncratic collection like t-shirts is very appealing.

1981. I mean, I bought the book, so it appealed to me.

1982. I like T-shirts. I like love. I like Murakami.

1983. I did not like The T-Shirts I Love at all.

1984. The problem with The T-Shirts I Love is how unexhaustive it is.

1985. The problem with The T-Shirts I Love is how flat the prose is

1986. The problem with The T-Shirts I Love is how little depth it illuminates in the narrator or the culture—or really anything at all.

1987. The biggest problem with The T-Shirts I Love is a lack of love.

a. At least as far as I could discern. 

i. Or perhaps the love is just a really boring and unexamined love.

1. Which is not love at all. 

1988. I should say that it is a real pleasure to read a book with so many photographs of t-shirts in his collection. 

a. It’s very nicely designed.

b. I did enjoy going through his closet.

c. It’s always fun to go through someone’s closet. Like paging through a list. 

i. But a secret list, the kind only accessible to intimates (family members, lovers) or semi-intimates (housesitters, partygoers who strayed into the bedroom for whatever reason, burglers)

ii. Except this is a curated list, so it doesn’t have that rush of pleasure that you get from totally seeing something you’re not meant to see.

1989. It’s particularly funny to see a whole lot of banal t-shirts. I mean these are really boring t-shirts. 

a. A plain green Jameson Irish whiskey t-shirt

b. A plain red t-shirt that reads Coors Light

c. A Tabasco t-shirt

d. A Coca-Cola t-shirt with an image of flip flops on it

e. A Wild Turkey bourbon t-shirt

f. A Curious George t-shirt

g. A Springsteen t-shirt

h. A Beach Boys t-shirt

i. A Volkswagen t-shirt with the New Beetle on it

j. A Volkswagen t-shirt explaining how to pronounce Touareg

k. Some running t-shirts

l. A Maui Surf Club t-shirt

m. A Superman t-shirt

n. A Lego t-shirt

o. A Smokey the Bear t-shirt

p. A Guinness t-shirt

q. A Heineken t-shirt

r. A Lone Star beer t-shirt

s. An REM Accelerate t-shirt


1990. That so many of The T-Shirts I Love are apparently unlovable t-shirts definitely does pique my interest. 

1991. Why these t-shirts? Why talk about these t-shirts?

1992. The book will not answer this question.

1993. There are a handful of pretty cool t-shirts in the book also, but most of them are not cool, nor notable, nor good-looking, nor is it clear what draws him to these shirts or what these shirts tell us about him or bring out of him.

1994. It is not clear how they feel on Murakami’s body or how they affect how he thinks about his body or how he is in the world.

1995. Most of these shirts have no particular provenance and he seems to have at most very mild feelings about them. 

1996. The title should probably be The T-Shirts I Think Are Kind of Cool and Have General Feelings About but I think his editor knew better.

1997. This is a problem!

1998. Most of the essays—at least Murakami calls them “essays”—don’t go as far as you’d want. 

a. As such it’s really hard to call them essays at all. Here are some example statements:

i. “I’m not particularly interested in collecting things.” (2)

ii. “I simply brought out some old T-shirts I’m fond of, we took photos of them, and I added some short essays. That’s all there is to it. I doubt this book will be that useful to anyone (much less being of any help in solving any of the myriad problems we face at present), yet, that said, it could turn out to be meaningful, as kind of reference on customs that later generations could read to get a picture of the simple clothes and fairly comfortable life one novelist enjoyed from the end of the twentieth century into the beginning of the twenty-first. But then again—maybe not. Either way works for me.”

iii. “That was a fun life I had back then!” (4)

iv. “I like the design of this T-shirt and wear it a lot.” (8)

v. “Do you like whiskey? Put me down as a fan. It’s not like I drink it every day, but if the situation arises, I have been known to raise a glass.” (10)

vi. “Just spending a few days [on the Isle of Jura] made it feel like life was worth living.” (24)

vii. “when the world’s topsy-turvy and unsettled, getting comfortable with a good book is a pretty nice way to go. I encourage you to give it a try.” (31)

viii. “I’d run across some amazing rare finds in thrift stores like Goodwill. At a dollar a pop. For instance, I found…This could take a while, so I’ll save that for another time.” (41)

1. Fucking tell us if you’re going to tell us. There’s no other reason to say this.

ix. “The REM shirt is something I just threw in, since I really like that album” (64)

x. There’s a whole section on bookstore shirts, but in spite of listing several of the greats (Powell’s, Elliott Bay) and a few of the gems (Friends of the Library of Hawaii), we get almost no information on what makes these bookstores great, good, okay, or distinct in any way. 

1. “It’s in a huge building, sort of like a warehouse, and you can easily spend a whole day there.”

2. “If you’re a book lover, it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven.” (87)

xi. “I’m not particularly fond of lizards, but the other day when I was straightening up the T-shirts in my drawers, for some reason a bunch of shirts with lizard designs slithered out, and I’ve lined them up here.”

xii. “I’m afraid I don’t know much when it comes to varieties of lizards” (100)

xiii. “Here we have T-shirts with the names of colleges on them.”

xiv. “the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. I was on the faculty of Princeton for about two years, and during that time they said, “Here you go, Mr. Murakami,” and handed me one of these.”

xv. “The next T-shirt commemorates the 2016 graduation ceremony at Yale University. I was invited to the graduation that year to be given an honorary doctorate. Pretty cool, huh?” 

1. “Pretty cool” does not count as a thought or a feeling or a reason to buy this or any book. 

a. Job number one of art, it seems to me, is to get past pretty anything. It is also to get past cool, but it must especially get past pretty cool.

b. At no point does he explore why he has any of these thoughts about the shirts. It reads like an early draft of what could, with some considerable expansion, turn into a strong student essay—if only the student could be convinced that their own thoughts about something as intimate as a thing they wear on their body—that they use to protect and project their self—can be intricate and explored in depth. 

1999. I found it incredibly frustrating that he’s unwilling or unable to follow any of these thoughts into the places where they might reveal something useful or interesting or fun.

2000. It’s like he’s not even trying.

2001. For example, I counted 24 ellipses in The T-Shirts I Love. 

a. This may not seem like a lot, but there’s only probably 70 pages of text in the whole book (I am excluding the interview at the end which comprises the last quarter of the book because that is spoken and transcribed), so that’s one time every three (short) pages that Murakami suggests trailing off or actually trails off instead of following a thought or completing a list. The pages are also small, maybe 4x6, and hold perhaps 150 words. So that’s around 10500 words.

b. Murakami uses ellipses approximately every 437 words. 

c. Ellipses are like popcorn kernels. 

i. If they didn’t potentially contain something tasty they wouldn’t even be there.

ii. But to eat the kernel you have to pop the corn.

d. Usually these moments proceed like this one does on page 87—

i. “I don’t know how this club started (I wonder about it sometimes…) or any details at all.” 

e. —in which he trails off in the middle of a thought about, in this case, the AHS Literary Club, which is the logo on the t-shirt. He clearly realizes that this might present an interesting story or mystery, but instead of following it, he taps out with the ellipsis. 

f. This happens a lot.

g. “We know that words and symbols change their meaning. For a long time, three dots in a row along the writing baseline designated something lost and unknown, then at some point also something unuttered and unutterable; no longer only something omitted or left out, but also something left open. Hence the three dots became a symbol that invites one to think the allusion to its conclusion, imagine that which is missing, a proxy for the inexpressible and the hushed-up, for the offensive and obscene, for the incriminating and speculative, for a particular version of the omitted: the truth” (Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses)

h. Really I’m opposed to most ellipses. Finish the thought! Pop the corn! 

i. I spent 2 minutes googling the AHS Literary Club and there are at least four possible AHS lit clubs, each of which might be interesting to explore or research or wonder about. 

j. Why throw these leads out if you’re not going to follow any of them, or in fact do anything at all?

k. He goes on to make a banal observation about the wolf on the AHS Literary Club t-shirt (“he is a wolf, so you’d better watch out”) and then off to the next shirt.

l. That is not a good observation. 

m. If you find yourself using any ellipsis, but especially 24 of them in an essay-length book, maybe think about popping those popcorn kernels instead of just leaving them there on the floor.

n. Popcorn kernels hurt a lot when you step on them, not even to get into what they do to your teeth. I do not know how long it takes to digest them if consumed unpopped, but certainly it takes a lot longer than digesting popped corn if in fact they can be digested at all.

i. I spent a little while popping this kernel of a question but didn’t find anything definitive. I am tempted to edit it out but am leaving it in because it’s an interesting question but not a side quest I necessarily want to commit hard to. 

1. If you figure it out before I do, let me know?

2002. In nonfiction it’s hard to make your narrator the kind of person who often populates Murakami novels, who has a thought but doesn’t feel committed to following it, or for whom an observation introduces a moment of tension which is then dismissed (typically in the novels these dismissed tensions add up under the surface; this is a cool effect in fiction). 

a. You can do that in nonfiction if the plot or subject you’re carried along on top of is sufficiently interesting or spectacular, but not if you’re the only thing on display in the book. 

b. Either you need to take that self with you as a sidekick on a quest to track something down or you need to crack it open and see what it has to reveal when it starts to really chew on something meaty.

2003. It turns out when you think about things you summon the self. If you don’t think about them that long or if you just, bro-like, dismiss it half into a thought, well, let’s talk about something else, then it remains latent. Hidden. Unsummoned. 

2004. The other problem—and this is a fiction problem, really—is that there is almost no tension in any of these shirts of Murakami. 

2005. A few probably have a story.

a. The first one, which is surely the best one, gave rise to a short story he wrote. But even his telling of the story behind the story doesn’t give us much. That’s probably the best t-shirt in the book, and the one with the most potential, but it doesn’t go anywhere. 

2006. The T-Shirts I Love also only features 108 t-shirts, which for a lot of people is a lot, but as he tells us, it’s clear this is only a fraction of the shirts, including many in storage.

2007. His feelings about these shirts are shallow, loose feelings. He likes to drink beer and likes beer t-shirts. He likes to drink whiskey and listen to jazz records on vinyl and has whiskey and record store t-shirts.

a. These are bro feelings which is to say they’re only barely feelings. 

b. Underneath bro feelings are real feelings. Those feelings are interesting and worthy of our attention.

i. Another book might have delved into these feelings, but this one does not.

c. Again, a better editor would have pushed him to go deeper on these subjects.

2008. When Murakami articulates why he would or would not wear one of the shirts, we start to watch his attention show us something new. Sometimes he draws a small amount of blood doing this. 

2009. The collective effect of these 108 t-shirts is that we wonder at how boring most of these shirts were. The boringness is the book’s most interesting subject, but it’s not a lead that gets investigated.

2010. I was talking about the book with my wife, and the more I talked about it the more it frustrated me. 

2011. It’s not the fact that I spent $25 on a hardcover, but the fact of the missed opportunity. 

2012. Clearly t-shirts mean something for me that they do not mean for Murakami.

2013. Actually that’s not true, and that’s the problem: you don’t collect hundreds of t-shirts without them meaning something intricate to you.

2014. So if you’re going to write a book about your t-shirt collection it’s the least you could do to really chew on those shirts.

2015. There was a time when I used to chew on my t-shirts, I remember. Like when I was a kid.

2016. I had some issues with dentistry then.

2017. One of my friends and former students, T Clutch Fleischmann, once gave Joe Wenderoth some weed when Joe Wenderoth came to visit and give a reading at the school I taught at then. Joe Wenderoth really appreciated the weed, or maybe just the fellowship or conversation, and promised to send Fleischmann some t-shirts later.

2018. That seems like something that would happen when smoking some weed and talking some shit and also probably while wearing t-shirts.

2019. It seems like the kind of promise that doesn’t get fulfilled.

2020. But a couple weeks later, a box arrived from Wenderoth with a bunch of t-shirts in it.

2021. Why did he send those shirts? Why did he promise to send the shirts in the first place? What kind of shirts were they? What even got the two of them talking about shirts in the first place.

2022. I don’t remember Clutch being the kind of person who wore t-shirts at all, but I may just not have been very observant. 

2023. Actually that may not be true. They definitely did wear a Magnetic Fields t-shirt at some point that I got real excited about. 

2024. At that time I put a lot of effort into my t-shirts, whether sincere or ironic. It kind of drove my wife nuts I think. 

2025. Like I’d wear this oversized Ross Perot campaign t-shirt to Meijer and I’d constantly get stopped by Republican guys to talk about it. I found this very funny. Megan was not amused. I stopped wearing that shirt out—mostly. But even in that one memory of wearing that shirt to Meijer, there’s actually a lot at stake about irony and humor and representation and how sometimes (often, really) I present as someone I really am trying to ironize. Sometimes I am not trying to ironize how I present. I’m not sure how I signal these two things properly or if I should at all. So that shirt, and the act of wearing it is complicated! I feel like I could write a whole book about this act.

2026. This is what I want out of someone writing about their extensive t-shirt collection! Not, well, I taught in the East Asian Studies dept at Yale and that’s why I have this Yale East Asian Studies t-shirt. 

2027. I mean I feel he really missed an opportunity to dig into some real personal or cultural stuff. 

2028. I was going to say “shit,” not stuff, but it felt a little too cool-guyish.

2029. This kind of deep dive into self and persona, however, is not what people usually go to Murakami to read. I’ve read maybe five of his books, only really being blown away by one of them, but my experience of Murakami is that of floating on top of a big and strange ocean. We don’t ever really go into the ocean in Murakami, do we?

2030. Maybe in nonfiction you should try going into the ocean.

2031. I emailed Clutch to ask about the t-shirts Joe Wenderoth had sent them. They were unlaundered was the most spectacular aspect of it and one had a bunch of stains on it. 

2032. I’m not sure if this was a joke or not, like a lot of Joe Wenderoth’s stuff. 

2033. That walking the line of “joke” and “not joke” is a big part of what animates my interest in his work. 

2034. It’s what makes Letters to Wendys work. 

2035. Letters to Wendys is a novel but the kind of novel that’s probably just letting the self—increasingly, as you write it, a persona outside of the self of the writer—go wild and get bigger and weirder as it goes. 

2036. I think of it as nonfiction, even if it presents otherwise.

2037. The other shirt Clutch remembered Joe Wenderoth sending them was a late-90s style very splashy anime-kind-of illustrated t-shirt “maybe with a dragon on it?”

2038. I realize in writing and editing this that I could also just ask Joe Wenderoth about it. Actually I’ll do that, even if he may not want to talk to me about it, which he may not. I’ll leave this as an intentional ellipsis, but know that I am pursuing the question privately.

a. I did send Joe an email asking about this question… 

2039. I guess this is book six of Murakami’s that I read, but I also think that calling The T-Shirts I Love a book or a book about a collection diminishes both “book” and “collection,” so I prefer not to think of it as a book at all.

2040. I’d love to forget it but clearly I can’t.

2041. It’s a glorified listicle with beautiful production values is what it is.

2042. I mean the cover is fantastic, unsurprisingly a Chip Kidd production. Really nailed it there. And the design is very good. It’s a beautiful object.

2043. It’s a beautiful, mostly empty object.

2044. Compare to something like Sophie Calle’s Hotel, which, while similarly slim and similarly lushly-designed and -presented, holds much more information than The T-Shirts I Love does. It also has substantially less text, but the text it has is denser.

a. Calle’s Hotel is a book where she worked as a chambermaid in a hotel in I think Zurich or something in the late 70s or early 80s and photographed and documented the contents of the guests’ rooms, including their laundry, trash, etc.

b. It’s quite a transgression, and a fascinating document of the time and the fashion and the d├ęcor and all. 

c. Though the narrator of that book (Calle) doesn’t tell us a lot about herself, we get a much clearer sense of her personality and sensibility than we do of Murakami’s

2045. The issue is: where is the love, and what are its qualities?

2046. We see the shirts. We don’t see enough of the love.

2047. We also don’t see enough of the shirts. 

a. “I still have a ton of shirts I could bring out, but if I did, this book would never end, so I’ll wrap up here,” Murakami tells us with shirt 70. This is the last section, on beer t-shirts. 

i. Come ON dude.

b. Yes, I’m aware that drinking Guinness in Ireland is different than drinking it out of the bottle in Tucson. I’ve seen the Guinness shirt. This section does nothing to bring me there, so my experience of reading it is mostly of annoyance. What does it taste like? Why do you love it? We do not find out.

2048. The things that make you mad reveal more about you than about the things that make you mad, I know.

a. That I’m so incensed by this book probably says more about me than about The T-Shirts I Love. 

b. For starters, I do love t-shirts, and I have a lot of them, though not as many as Murakami. 

c. I’m thinking about one now I wore when I was in seventh grade or so. It wasn’t a cool one but I thought it was BAD ASS then. 

i. It read SHARK ATTAX and had a big shred cutout in the right side like it’d been bitten by a shark. It was colored red like blood. 


ii. I was really into it. I bought it from Commercial Systems, a store in downtown Houghton that I was obsessed with as a kid. It sold, I guess, office supplies, but it also had stickers, most thrillingly the magic scratch-n-sniffs, and I collected stickers then. I liked sticking them on things. I liked how they smelled. I liked how they came in rolls or sheets. At Commercial Systems the really good stickers came on rolls and you had to snip or tear them off, and you bought them one at a time.  

iii. They also sold shirts. Kinda jokey shirts, like one I remember, I don’t know whether I bought it or not, that read I RAN THE BOSTON MARATHON in a really big font but in a tiny font read A LEMONADE STAND AT that was wedged in between I RAN and THE BOSTON MARATHON. Neither of these things was likely true, but one was a more difficult task than the other, obviously.

iv. I thought this was extremely funny at the time. I also loved that SHARK ATTAX t-shirt, which had the same energy but much less subtlety. 

v. I was about to get deep into the discography of Weird Al Yankovic, surprising no one.

vi. The SHARK ATTAX shirt was a weird shirt. 

1. I’d seen—a year or two before or a year or two after—the movie Piranha II. It was on TV in a hotel room where we were staying, and my dad wasn’t paying attention so my brother and I watched it. It’s a ludicrous movie, kind of a knockoff Jaws, in which piranhas had, for some reason, developed the ability to fly, and a lot of B-movie action proceeded from this. 

2. Piranha II is the first movie James Cameron directed. After that he’d go on to direct, in order, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar, cementing his name in the pantheon of the best action and Sci Fi directors of all time.

3. But first he directed Piranha II: The Spawning. It has a 3.7 (of 10) rating on IMDB.

4. The Internet tells me that it came out in 1981, so I would have seen it on TV at least a few years later. 

5. This is one of those memories I only have of watching the movie, not of any particular experience of it. I remember feeling like my brother and I were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to be doing. I remember sitting on the bed with him as flying piranhas fake-killed a bunch of sexy actors. 

vii. Later, when I was at golf camp, one of the things we did was have our swings videoed, and we’d watch them by way of analyzing how to improve our shitty games, and I was wearing my Shark Attax t-shirt, and it looked like I had ruptured an organ in slow motion as I badly hit my golf ball.

viii. I believe I was mocked for this.

ix. We watched it in slow motion a bunch of times while people laughed.

x. But, Jesus, let’s remind ourselves that this was golf camp, like one of the least cool places you could go.

xi. Not only that, I believe I went to golf camp twice. And to two different golf camps!

xii. I was pretty good at golf. Not very good, but I could play a decent game. I had a lot of time then. 

d. I wondered how accurate my memory was of this t-shirt—like especially was the shredded part on the right, like I told you, or on the left?—so I looked it up online and found it, or a listing for it that sold. 

e. Actually I found a couple different listings on various sites, having sold for $30-$50. 

f. It was on the right. 

i. I feel validated. 

ii. It feels phenomenal to have found the exact same shirt that I remembered, and that I remembered it exactly correctly. 

iii. It’s only sad that I can’t buy it now. 

1. Never mind! I found one. It’s $70, which is more than I want to pay for sure. 

2. This one, though, doesn’t have the artist’s attribution below the image. 

3. I guess it might have been the 90s. 

4. I’m kind of tempted to buy it but it’s probably a bad idea.

iv. There are a lot of Shark Attack shirts you can find online, but very few like this one. 

g. My point in recollecting this series of memories about this crappy t-shirt I had when I was I was 12 is that I have a lot of feelings bound up in shirts. 

h. This is just one shirt! But thinking about it gives me a shiver of pleasure, and brings back a lot.

i. I was also intensely uncomfortable in my body then, and had a lot of thoughts about which shirts showed most obviously that I was fat, or as we said then, shopped in the husky section of the JC Penney catalog.

j. So to see a writer with obvious gifts like Murakami just blast through more than a hundred shirts with nary an insight or a dive below the surface into a real memory, one with tension and some energy to it, really pisses me off. 

k. What a waste is what I think.

2049. I was meaning to say though that Murakami’s game isn’t generally deep psychic dives, so I didn’t expect that, but there’s something different from surfing along the surface of a novel that has a lot of stuff going on and gliding on the edge of the self, which is theoretically what this book is supposed to be doing, and not even dipping far into the water to peer under it. 

2050. If you don’t care about really opening up the self, why bother writing about your collection is what I’m asking. That’s what collections are for, and that’s why you write about them. 

2051. We put a lot of energy into collection and collections, and especially something as rich and personal as your clothes.

2052. Compare The T-Shirts I Love to Women in Clothes, a fantastic anthology of something like 650 women writing about their relationship with their clothes. 

2053. Every one of those pieces goes deeper and weirder and more personal and more cultural and more of everything—and often they go deeper in just a couple pages—than Murakami’s whole book does!

2054. I guess partly it kind of seems like a dude thing to do, which strikes me as another problem with The T-Shirts I Love. 

a. Okay, I’m going to write a whole book about a particular class of clothing that I clearly have a lot of, but at no point am I going to really go into what these things mean to me or tell me about my body and my self and my culture and my writing and my world and my doubts and my anxieties and how I imagine I’m seen and my way of being in these clothes and how they make me feel. 

b. This undersells men.

c. This undersells people.

d. This undersells clothes.

e. This undersells books.

2055. Almost all men have interesting and intricate relationships with our clothes, even if we don’t often articulate them. I guess that’s on us, but seriously, Murakami, this doesn’t help.

2056. I guess I also resent lazy books by good writers. Reading one I start to wonder what I liked about the writer at all. Was that just a mirage?

Monday, March 21, 2022

The #Midwessay: Lena Crown, The Colossus of St. Louis

The Colossus of St. Louis

Lena Crown


There were eyes on the walls as we danced. Each one round and black with an imploring fleck of light inside the pupil, bound by concentric circles of yellow and red, as if putting out a homing signal. Red brick peeked through the paint, and in the center of the room, cement columns stood apart like bodies.

I knew this gaze intimately. Eyes are nestled all over St. Louis like security cameras, the signature of a local graffiti artist. By the night of the party, I’d met a thousand eyes on the wall of my favorite brewery, tracing their tessellation in the wallpaper as the scent of hops pricked my nose like pepper. They glimmered from the wooden fence bordering the highway in the glare of my headlights, and they peeked up my skirt from the sewer grates when I jaywalked.

It was the thick of summer. As hours passed, the party picked up speed: upstairs, we flailed to electric funk in our own pillars of empty space; in the parking lot, we knit our fingers through the diamonds in the chain-link fence as we flirted with friends of friends of friends. The eyes on the wall seemed to wink in the headlight beams that melted over us and away like disappearing ink. One boy challenged another to a wrestling match, their shapes shadow puppets gobbling each other on the asphalt. A new DJ took the helm, a tall man with long red hair who twisted knobs back and forth with his eyes shut. The air clung in hot pearls to the peach fuzz at the napes of our necks as we closed the space between us.

That was three years ago. It was just a night, really. Nothing special. But that’s kind of the point—what I find myself craving from writing about the Midwest is indulgence, abundance, fun. It’s hardly fair for New York to hog all the nights that bleed into morning, the headlights, car horns, glitter, stranger sweat, apartments crumbling in a charismatic way. I want to read about unexpected destinations in cities like St. Louis, I want the names and faces that slip viscous and slick through your fingers when you take them in your hands. I think we deserve to be frivolous with our images, lavish with our gaze; we deserve to look and be looked at by a thousand eyes. We deserve excess. Yes, the land flings its arms wide and open; yes, there is space to fill. Watch as we fill it. 

We climbed my fire escape that night heavy with the satisfaction of a story in our bellies. We didn’t sleep for a while yet. Instead, we sat outside the back door to my apartment, next to the antique dresser a previous tenant had left on the landing. The top was stuck all over with melted candles, their white wax hardened into a tide pool topography. I lit every wick just to watch them work. Each flame glimmered at the heart of a dark wet halo. We made our own eyes and watched them dance.


Lena Crown's work has been published in Sonora Review, The Offing, the North American Review, and Porter House Review, among others. She is currently stationed outside Washington, D.C., pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at George Mason University. Find her on Twitter at @which_is_to_say.


 Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.

Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.

 —Michaella A. Thornton

* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.

Monday, March 14, 2022

A Concert of Curiosity: Amy Wright in conversation with Jenny Patton


Amy Wright is curious.

She wants to know everything about those who surround and inspire her, even an ambitious spider that, in a feat of engineering, spins a fifteen-foot web from a backyard tree branch to the eave of the roof above the window by her writing desk. What sets Wright apart is that she doesn’t just marvel about the spider’s accomplishment to herself for a moment; she stops what she’s doing, she goes outside, she investigates, she records, she remembers. And then she integrates what she learns into her identity. 

In her most recent book, Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round, published by Sarabande Books, readers get a front-row seat to Wright’s curiosity in action as she shares portions of over fifty conversations with artists, activists, scientists, philosophers, physicians, priests, and musicians. About the people she interviews, she says “Some are famous, some will be, some should be—but all of them refract the light of the unknowable mystery of the self.” Gathered over eleven years, these conversations stem from a question she has asked herself since childhood: What am I?

As the conductor of this Paper Concert, she showcases the gifts and insights of others, including writers Dorothy Allison, Dinty W. Moore, Sejal Shah, and Ira Sukrungruang; artists Marc Gaba and Raven Jackson, scientists David Haskell and Tim Flannery, and many more.

What underlies their insights is Wright’s desire to know and understand the world around her and, of course, herself. Along the journey, the reader receives an unexpected bonus.

Wright flips the script on the traditional Q-and-A interview format. In Paper Concert, the reader doesn’t immediately know who is being asked what. 

White space—like a curtain opening and closing—separates the questions from the names of the interviewee and their answers. The unpredictable pattern of interviewees gives the reader an opportunity to pause and consider the questions first for themselves.

What’s your favorite joke? How do metaphors contribute to your mode of thinking? How do you feel about ketchup? How does time enter art? What was your first job? Have you ever seen a ghost? Do you collect anything? Why were you attracted to your first boyfriend? How does a robot become more human than humans? What justifies your optimism? If you had to set fire to something, what would you burn?

The effect is that the reader becomes part of the concerto, adding their voice to the chorus.

Within this composition, solos rise and call attention to particular interviewees via questions about their specific work: It is not a given, you write, “that the heart is lonely and so must live forever.” What is a given?; How did your identity as a Native person shape your sense of self?; You lived in a papermaking village in Japan in the late seventies. How did living there shape your aesthetic? 

Questions like these encourage the reader to pause and reflect while simultaneously boosting curiosity about the response from the yet-to-be-revealed interviewee. We’re invited to take time to slowly unwrap each gift, savoring the moment of expectation. 

As what happens in conversations, not all questions appear as questions. Some take the form of statements that spark deep responses: You demonstrate the complexities of class anger through your characters and Your first writing teacher, Bertha Harris, told you, “Literature is not made by good girls.”

As readers gain insight from others about topics such as poverty, dance, queerness, neighborliness, cancer, and racism, they also learn about themselves—a gift Wright bestows on us.

Here’s the question she asks most often: When have you felt the freest?

Wright herself answers this question through her exquisite interludes between question-and-response sections. Many of them depict scenes from her childhood and young adulthood that showcase moments of both fear and freedom—fear stemming from uncertainty (of the dairy cows who watched her, of the Jackson boys who teased her, of her college roommate Manda who broke rules Wright had been taught) and freedom often grounded in nature through scenes of her younger self on her family’s farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Her curiosity about others boosts our curiosity about her, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Jenny Patton: According to writer Joseph Heller, “There was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to.” Do you feel a sense of freedom when interviewing others? What response in the book most surprised you? 

Amy Wright: I love this question, thank you! It is indeed freeing—and a great privilege—to wonder. But we might also think of marvel as an obligation toward the communities we want to participate in and create, given that Toni Morrison said, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” Our questions grow broader, more generous, and freer, when asked with that goal in mind.
     Surprise was one of the rewards in every conversation that became this book. Everyone I spoke with, at some point, shifted my expectations. My favorite moments came when they surprised me with a story—as when Dinty W. Moore described being a zookeeper to a female gorilla who developed a crush on him. I also loved those happy chances when stories opened windows into someone’s life, as when Ander Monson describes receiving a mysterious cassette that illustrates his friendship with Michael Martone. Since Martone is another of the book’s contributors that surprise felt like kismet.

You describe your younger self as a “reticent farm girl” and share that part of your desire to learn all you could derived from fear. Now that you’ve completed this “survivor manual,” what’s your relationship with fear? What else do you still want to learn?

Finding great answers emboldened me to keep asking hard questions. I have also grown unexpectedly fearless when others ask questions of me now, since I have a storehouse of responses at the ready. But the key insight of this book is how much more important than any manual or guide is an active witness to evolve our questions using the raw material of previous answers given across time. 
     I’m curious now how different questions—and new literary forms—can change the nature of our conversations, expand access, invite new voices, and deepen intimacies over the networks that technology has created globally. 

You asked Lia Purpura if she follows any advice columnists. In some ways, Paper Concert itself serves as an advice column—not only for artists but for us as humans trying to make meaning out of our time on earth. Why do you think people seek advice? How can we most benefit from the advice of others?

It’s paradoxical, but advice seeking trains us to listen to ourselves. When you listen to someone, you feel resonant or dissonant, right? Being open to advice lends training wheels to our intuition.  Plus, we evaluate others better than ourselves because we have more perspective. When questioning another, we can take a step back or away from ourselves, and sometimes that distance brings something into focus. 
     I do not mean to suggest that we need not listen deeply to each other as well. It’s a far more conscious and invested listening that must take place before one can sense an internal response to another’s statements. In that awareness, though, is something far more valuable than advice. Through it, we connect—with each other, yes—but also with our wisest selves.

Before your brother Jeremy died of cancer at age twenty, he promised to interact with you on earth from the afterlife. And on the morning he died, a rainbow filled the sky. In what other ways have you experienced “a line of communication” with him or others who have passed on?

I’ve experienced several such instances, some of which have shown up in my writing. My essay “Specimen” details an encounter I had with Jeremy when I was involved in a near-fatal car accident after he had been dead for nearly two years. Another, titled “Circle of Willis,” finds an unexpected affinity with the fiction writer Katherine Anne Porter, who also nearly died at age 28 in Denver—though not from a car accident but from the 1918 pandemic. 

Artist Kell Black told you, “When you start looking closely at something, you see how everything is connected.” What connections leaped out as you crafted this book? 

Kell makes brilliant connections between bodies, history, art, and objects. I would argue this idea if only to connect me to minds like his, but under repeated tests it holds up.
     My favorite proof in the book comes from Wendy S. Walters, another radiant artistic mind to draw near. In her writings, she scrutinizes and challenges language, including the narratives of slavery. Reading her work, I recalled the language of climate change, which similarly deflects and denies responsibility. As we discussed this commonality, she found other ways language shapes our thinking and the physical spaces we inhabit, including her home in an asthma zone in Harlem. Acknowledging the influences of language led us to recognize the power of our stories and voices to counter myths and reimagine our characters to offer new means and models. 

For me, your book served as a meditation, as it gave me the opportunity to pause and reflect on questions that took me away from the daily grind. How do you incorporate meditation into your daily life? 

Oh, that is gratifying to hear, thank you. The book had a similar effect on me, since it inspired a daily meditation practice. The introduction mentions my longtime yoga practice, but I find myself sitting more, and confronting more, even while in movement. The process of integrating varying and often contrary viewpoints is akin to meditation in the sense that we will never harmonize all our disparate voices, but that isn’t the point! Dissonance textures the concert, too, and silence gives it depth, by containing the conflict embedded in music and in us. 

As a child, you asked yourself What am I? How have you integrated into your identity some of what you learned from the folks who populate Paper Concert? In other words, how has “the light of the unknowable mystery of the self” become less unknowable for you?

What a profound question, give me a minute. 
     Okay, I’ll say the book made me aware of something I long suspected, which is that the self is not an individual but a collective. It’s not just that “No man is an island entire of itself,” as Donne said in the days before feminism, but that every island is an ecosystem dependent on countless seen and unseen relationships. Even our eyelashes are networks of interdependent connections! My starting quest for self is clearer now that I’ve gotten to interact directly with some of the voices that shaped me and go on shaping me. What remains engaging about its unknowable mystery is the clearer it becomes, the more you find remains to be explored.


Amy Wright is the author of Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round (Sarabande Books 2021) as well as three poetry books and six chapbooks. She has received two Peter Taylor Fellowships to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.

Jenny Patton has had essays cited as notable in the 2016 and 2021 editions of The Best American Essays. She has received the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, a Pushcart Prize nomination, a scholarship to the New York Summer Writers Institute, and a Peter Taylor Fellowship to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her essays have appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Brevity, Kaleidoscope, and elsewhere.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Haley Swanson, Against Writing

My editing style is of the cut-n-run variety. If a reader tells me a moment in my essay isn’t working, I double-check the sentence in question, and promptly put it out of its misery with a cruel highlight and press of “delete.” After seven years in book publishing, the act is second nature to me—especially when I remember the authors who pleaded I spare their words. Like it or not, those are often the ones that must go.
     But after reading—perhaps experiencing is a better word—Christian Wiman’s "The Limit," I was hard-pressed to think of anything the essay could live without. It seemed every scene was at once slowed down and sped up: the visceral horror of Dr. Miller's face, a “sentient piece of meat”; the quiet motion of Aunt Opal, “a sense of pure horizon,” stumbling across the bullet that will kill her; and, of course, the cooling bodies of pocketed doves. Put quite simply, I was fighting for air from beginning to end—a rare occurrence.
     Meghan Daum’s “Matricide” similarly affected me. Before the pandemic, I had the pleasure of workshopping with Meghan, and though I was of course acquainted with My Misspent Youth (who could forget the weekly bouquet of unaffordable flowers?), I hadn’t read The Unspeakable. Meghan seemed more interested in internet toxicity and the infamous rise of cancel culture that summer than her own life, and so, I was awed to read her poignantly withdrawn account of losing her complicated mother. Once again, I was unsure if even a comma could be sacrificed.
     It bears mentioning that these are published pieces. They underwent an editor’s scrutiny long before mine, not to mention the many drafts the writers themselves no doubt produced. However, after seeing more than one storied author try and fail to polish their books, I can’t in good conscience say these two essays were surely the exceptions to what I hold as law: editing yourself is excruciating, often to the point of fruitlessness.


I’ve come to think of my highlight-delete urge as sniffing out moments of Writing, by which I mean those moments I think of as speaking directly to the reader about a theme or idea instead of using prose as a tool to illustrate truth.
     Sadly, the example that immediately comes to mind is Stephanie Danler’s memoir Stray, which was highly anticipated by me and everyone else alike but didn’t quite reach Sweetbitter’s high bar. Around page 70, at the close of a harrowing sick mom chapter, Danler says: “I understood that to love is neither exhilaration nor safety, but instead this: painful, too tender, forcing a forgetting that’s close to forgiveness.” Ah, the ancient task of summing up Love; countless writers have fallen prey to this trap practically no one survives. Stray is sprinkled with declarative sentences just like this one, attempting to pack ineffable definitions, Truth and Meaning, into one line (though admittedly not always with the same grating alliteration found in “forgetting” and “forgiveness”). I sympathize with the impulse, truly I do, but the essential challenge of nonfiction, of memoir, is to redefine these universal concepts without cutting corners; compacting something huge and unwieldy like Love into a sentence—one that closes out a chapter no less—is nothing if not an unearned pathos.
     Next, before anything else, I’d like to say I greatly admired and enjoyed Nina Boutsikaris’ I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. However, pretty early on (page 31 in fact), we get the following: “There is risk in the self-naming, the looking back, the acting out: parody and spectacle just appear so much alike.” Isn’t this—the “self-naming”—Boutsikaris’ central aim in recounting her unquenchable thirst for recognition in the eyes of lovers and strangers alike? And isn’t this moment appearing before we’ve seen enough failed attempts to slake that need, so we finally understand that when she says “self-naming” it isn’t to imply such an act is doable but instead always out of reach—both parody and spectacle? Which is the whole point of the work?
     When writing is preceded by Writing, the former is unable to do its job and the latter quickly deflates.
     However, these summing up sentences aren’t always weak points, namely when they aren’t coming from a place of fear that your reader won’t “get it” unless you explain it to them (don’t worry, I won’t now launch into the tired argument of “show, don’t tell”). In short, moments of Writing—moments of directness about the pieces “so what?”—are bright lights instead of stumbling blocks only when they’re earned.
     For example, Wiman imparts the following insight after seemingly unending paragraphs of pain: “For those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called ‘normal unhappiness,’ wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not ‘closure,’ and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.” If this moment of Writing had come earlier in the essay, perhaps the second or third page, my finger would’ve itched for the “delete” button. Instead, it comes after such effort and toil that it successfully makes sense of the senseless—something Wiman, I’m sure, has spent most of his life trying to accomplish, and we, as readers, require after this brief, violent walk through his life.
     It’s a bit more difficult to identify a similar moment of Writing in Daum’s piece, which I think speaks not only to her long career as a journalist but also to her skill. Her closing scene of miscarriage and how it relates not just to her mother’s death but also her continuing grief is a perfect example. Only the miscarriage is relayed; the meaning of it, I gleaned on my own, which of course is influenced by my own life experience and not solely Daum’s (which perhaps it might have been if she told me what she wanted me to think of the ordeal). “I know only that I’ll probably never finish telling [the story] and it most certainly will never be whole,” she says. The close of the piece is strong because it’s anything but neat; instead, it’s up to the reader to order the mess they’ve just endured.
     Isn’t this nonfiction at its most powerful? When someone’s private mind becomes yours for a page or two? The best essays surrender an experience, a memory, so it can multiply within the context of other worldviews. The magic lives in this loss of writerly control.
     It’s then that the singular story somehow, impossibly, becomes as infinite as its readers. 


I don’t know if I can unlearn seven years of cut-n-run editing. Perhaps I’ll always struggle against those telling feelings of scrutiny where I just know something has to go, rarely reveling in sentences that read like earned relief, a purging of knowledge and meaning.
     Still, I wonder, can one discern with certainty between writing and Writing in their own work?
     Instead of definitively answering my question, I remind myself that just as there’s no one way to write or read an essay, there’s no one way to edit one—no matter how many times I labored with authors over words they found essential and I argued were expendable. There’s simply a sentence. Followed by the next, and then another, and another, which, if I’m brave enough, has the potential to become an unruly creature, just as beautiful unexplained as it is understood.  


Haley Swanson is a writer and editor based in New York. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Glamour, Electric Literature, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and elsewhere. With Eliza Smith, she's co-editor of the anthology Sex and the Single Woman: 24 Writers Update Helen Gurley Brown's Cult Classic for a New Era (Harper Perennial, 2022). She's currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.