I’ve been sick twice in the last three weeks since coming back from AWP, and I’m still recovering, so I have not had the energy to produce my regular Sunday Spotlight column. But today I feel well enough to write a blog post and keep some semblance of momentum going.
I’ve been thinking these past few days about the risk of alienation and fallout with friends and loved ones to writers of memoir and personal essay. On Facebook, this week, I’ve seen several people post questions about this very topic. This was already on my mind because I have an essay brewing in my brain—but not yet put to paper (or more accurately, to screen)—that if written and published could quite possibly hurt and anger someone in my life to the point that our relationship would be irrevocably damaged. This relationship is already a precarious one, and whatever misgivings I may have will not prevent me from writing the essay. Once it is written, though, I will have to evaluate whether or not it makes its way into the world, which is an altogether other consideration than the writing of it.
This topic, about what is considered fair game and what is off limits to creative nonfiction writers, is one that gets brought up often, and nearly everyone has an opinion about it. Put simply, when you write about your own life, you will write about others. Life is relational. We are not monks living solitary existences in caves. Nearly every action of every day involves a relationship of some sort. Even Thoreau, living simply and alone in his cabin at Walden Pond, wrote of relationship, albeit that relationship was mostly with Nature, but it was still a relationship. And even then, Thoreau returned to society, giving up his solitary experiment after two years and once again interacting with others in his daily life. Relational.
So far I’ve been lucky as to not have experienced backlash to my personal writing. But the threat is always there I suppose. No matter how much care I take to be compassionate towards others in my writing, I have no control how any one person will react. This is another truth about living in the world. It is relational, and we have no control over anyone but ourselves.
This is one of the things that I love so much about personal essay and memoir: It, too, is relational. In the stories of others, we can see ourselves—even if our day to day experience is vastly different. Our hearts, our minds, our spirits share the fundamental core of experience.
A couple years ago at AWP in Seattle, I bought a copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. At that time, I also ordered Joy Castro’s Island of Bones: Essays to be shipped to me. When I received my package from the University of Nebraska Press, they had sent me a duplicate copy of Family Trouble instead of Island of Bones. Because I am lazy, I did not return the book for the one I had ordered. Instead I decided I would just give the book away to someone who needed it. That was two years ago. See? Lazy!
This week I am giving away this perfectly unused copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. This book will not necessarily give you a definitive answer on what you should do if you face a troublesome response to your writing from family or friends because each situation and those involved are unique, but the stories within may offer solace and support and even a few ideas moving forward if you’re feeling tentative. Here’s how the University of Nebraska Press describes the book:
Whenever a memoirist gives a reading, someone in the audience is sure to ask: How did your family react? Revisiting our pasts and exploring our experiences, we often reveal more of our nearest and dearest than they might prefer. This volume navigates the emotional and literary minefields that any writer of family stories or secrets must travel when depicting private lives for public consumption.
Writers included are Jill Christman, Rigoberto González, Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, Sue William Silverman, Paul Lisicky, and Allison Hedge Coke, among many others.
Leave a comment below to be entered into the drawing. Sorry, I can only ship within the U.S.. The winner will be chosen from a random, blind drawing and announced here on the blog on Saturday, April 30. You have until then to enter. Good luck!
Last week on The Sunday Spotlight, I featured the new issue of Hunger Mountain, No. 20 Edges and offered a free copy to be given away, chosen from those who left a comment on the post. As promised, I’m posting the winner today. But first I want to mention that only two people (!) entered the giveaway by commenting on that blog post, so it was a 50/50 chance of winning. Way better odds than playing the lottery! And I also want to note that both those people are friends of mine, so just to be clear that I did not play favorites and this was a bona fide blind giveaway, this is how it went:
I wrote the two names on pieces of paper, folded them, placed them behind my back and mixed them up. My husband chose which hand (my right), and the winner is… Susanna Donato!
I’ve got three more giveaways planned. The next one is up tomorrow for a free (new and unused) copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. Also planned for the near future are new copies of two books by Sue William Silverman, Love Sick and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life As a White Anglo Saxon Jew, and Jodi Paloni’s linked stories collection They Could Live with Themselves, newly released by Press 53. So keep an eye out to enter these giveaways.
The Sunday Spotlight has returned! I’m moving back into the column slowly, so rather than featuring one particular writer’s work with an interview, this week’s installment features the publication of Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts’ newest annual print issue No. 20 “Edges,” which is fresh off the press and made its debut at the AWP conference two weeks ago.
I’ve worked for Hunger Mountain going on six years now in a variety of roles, beginning my first semester at VCFA in January of 2011 as a creative nonfiction reader. I did a stint as an assistant editor of The Writing Life section and took over as assistant creative nonfiction editor in November of 2014.
This year’s journal is simply gorgeous. The cover art is provided by Cynthia Atwood, and it’s full of interesting, unique artwork within the pages by Nils Karsten. It has an appealing layout and design, and, of course, it is full of superb writing in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction! Even writing for children and young adults is represented with a fiction piece for both middle grade and young adults.
I’m so pleased with this issue! I have not yet had the chance to read pieces from genres other than creative nonfiction, but the issue includes fiction by Robin MacArthur and Xu Xi, two exceptional writers I admire, and I look forward to checking out their new work and experiencing some writers I am not familiar with.
Of the creative nonfiction, we have published five brilliant essays: “Star Struck (1982)” by Sheila Grace Stuewe, “Take Heart” by Eileen M. K. Bobek, “White Oak” by Brad Felver, “Spell Heaven” by Toni Mirosevich, and “The Secret of Water” by Jody Keisner. I love all these essays! Publishing such fine writing is the reward for all the hard work that goes into a literary journal throughout the year. I know it sounds corny and cliché, but the creation of a literary journal such as Hunger Mountain really is a labor of love; nearly the entire staff volunteer their time and efforts.
And here’s the bonus: I have one copy of Hunger Mountain No. 20 Edges to give away! To qualify for this giveaway, leave a comment below. (Sorry, I cannot ship outside of the U.S.) The winner will be randomly chosen from those entered in the giveaway, and I will announce the winner here on the blog on Saturday, April 23. You have one week to enter!
The Sunday Spotlight is on a brief hiatus! I meant to post last week to give everyone a heads up that I’m taking a break and that it will indeed return! Expect the next feature in 2-3 weeks.
I traveled to Los Angeles this last week for the AWP (Associated Writers & Writing Programs) conference, which just ended last night. It was a full three days and nights of connecting with writer friends, attending readings and panels, perusing the incredible book fair, and working the Vermont College of Fine Arts information table. I’m on my way home now to the quiet woods of Southern Oregon, where I’ll let the inspiration of the conference sink in and motivate me.
Look who I found in the book fair…
Montaigne sure is well preserved for his age. And he looks an awful lot like Pat Madden!
Today’s featured writer: Chelsea Biondolillo
The featured writing: “Lovesong” published at Diagram.
I met Chelsea a year ago when I took one of her generative creative nonfiction workshops online through Apiary Lit and then met her in person during lunch with a small group of badass women essayists during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Through this interaction, I found a kindred spirit. Chelsea grew up in Oregon and even spent time in my obscure rural town in southern Oregon when she was sent to Herb Pharm (a farm and herbal medicine company) for a training when she worked as a nutrition team leader at Whole Foods. We also share an enthusiasm for the wilderness and a fascination with birds. When I found a dead owl splayed upside down as in mid-flight caught by the barbs of a blackberry cane behind my chicken coop, the first (and possibly only) person I knew I could send the photos to who would appreciate them as much as I did was Chelsea. So when I experienced her multi-media essay “Lovesong” published on Diagram, there was no question I would feature it here on The Sunday Spotlight.
“Lovesong” is one of those essays that defies categorization. It is a blend of photography and text, even three links to YouTube music videos of the song “Lovesong” by The Cure and covers by Adele and 311 as an end note.
The essay juxtaposes pictures of dead birds—both found on the side of the road and part of a university vertebrate collection—with quotations from books on birds (such as National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America) and personal notes and poems from lovers. The effect of these juxtapositions is startling and savvy, composing an offbeat metaphoric compilation.
I love when artists and writers blend mediums and take risks, and Chelsea’s essay “Lovesong” does just that. For those of you who are interested in alternative forms of essay (and even those of you who aren’t), check it out!
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015). Her prose has appeared recently or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Diagram, Orion, Passages North, Sonora Review and others, while her journalism has appeared in Discover, Science, Nautilus and on public radio. Two of her essays were selected for the forthcoming Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 and Waveform: 21st Century Essays by Women. She has received the Carter Prize for the Essay from Shenandoah and an O’Connor fellowship from Colgate University. You can read her occasional #cnftweets and see pictures of her breakfasts on Twitter: @c_biondolillo and follow her travel and publishing news at Roaming Cowgirl. These days, she teaches, writes, and hikes in Arizona.
A few questions for Chelsea:
“Lovesong” is such a unique essay the way it blends the images of dead birds with epigraphs and personal poems and notes from lovers. I’m so curious how this piece came together. Can you share the process of how it manifested? What was your inspiration? And which came first, the images or the text?
I’d been trying to find a way to use the dead bird pictures for quite awhile. I wrote three microessays about skinning birds back in 2013, and they’d caused a bit of controversy with some publishers before finally being printed by The Fourth River as part of their Women and Nature issue in Spring 2014. Those micro essays were included with a chapbook submission that has so far been rejected by every reputable prose chapbook press at least once. When speaking with one of the press editors at AWP last year, she said, “Oh, I remember your dead birds!” Ever since, I really wanted to push the dead bird thing. I had been rearranging the pictures for a bit, trying to hear what they had to say and during that process, I was talking to another editor friend who loved the idea and solicited a piece that combined the photos with some text snippets–as soon as I heard “text snippets” I thought of old love letters. I had hoped I had enough material just from weird poems I’ve been given over the years, but then while digging through my box of correspondence, I found such great gems in old letters that I broadened my scope. The editor who solicited the piece was ultimately vetoed by her colleagues. Luckily Diagram was more open-minded.
Are you the photographer of all the images? If so, what kind of role does photography typically have in your work (if any), and if not, how did you gain access to the images?
I took all the photos. My undergraduate degree is in photography, from way back in the darkroom days of film and printing chemicals, and for as long as I can remember, taking photos has been a part of my creative process. Usually, the pictures are a form of note-taking (though a few of my longer essays have been published with accompanying photographs) rather than an end to themselves, but I’ve been experimenting more and more with images as essay components. In fact, this last fall, I worked with Creative Nonfiction magazine to launch their latest rolling microessay contest on Instagram. You can see the images and essays by searching for the hashtags #cnfgram and #tinytruth.
Nature and the environment—specifically birds, and even more specifically raptors—are influential in your writing. When did this influence begin and where did it come from?
I hate to be disappointing here, but that is the million dollar question that I’ve so far been unable to answer well. My grandmother was an amateur photographer and a pretty avid birder. She took me for long miserable car rides where we would stop on the side of the road and stare into otherwise empty fields for long minutes at a time, trying to identify warblers and grosbeaks. I don’t remember liking birds especially as a child, but they’ve stuck with me in a way that now feels like nostalgia. Sort of like how some of the worst hair metal from the ’80s now feels a bit beloved, maybe? Whenever I feel lost, I turn to birds. They are some kind of thread back to something–and once I figure out what, there might be a book in it.
Many of your essays play with form. Does the inclination to structure an essay alternatively come naturally to you? For you, what are the determining factors that dictate the form an essay will take?
I am a collector. I have a hanging file that always lives near my workspace that is (still) full of ripped out magazine pages and sheets of strange wrapping paper from my art school days (mid-’90s), not to mention the old love notes that appear in “Lovesong” and a host of new snippets, stones, shells, feathers, bones–these objects and images, and the ideas they represent, tend to roll around in my head until a format or outlet for them becomes clear. Sometimes, I think, “Don’t I have an old postcard of a skeleton? Maybe that’s what this needs.” Sometimes, I think, if I start writing down all the steps to skinning a bird, and all the things I remember about my father, what would that make? It is not a good process, because it can take years for some idea or image to tell me what it wants to be. I wish I had the discipline to sit down at a desk every day and write and make images, and then cull the best from a great and weighty stack. As it is, I just try to keep my eyes and mind open and wait for word from the files to bubble up.
Can you list three of your favorite books, and why? Additionally, can you list three writers who inspire you?
I don’t have three favorite books. I have a fluid list of dozens that I love. But here are three of the usual suspects:
- Bluets, by Maggie Nelson – the way she plays with form, and the melancholy and magical way the heartbreak bubbles up through the blue to the surface of the piece.
- The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie – it’s beautiful and smart and funny and complex and lush and surprising.
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard – I have a lot of favorite nonfiction and this is one of them. I love Dillard’s wry humor that bubbles up unexpectedly and her patient and wide eyed lens.
I am inspired by Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s ability to move from poetry to prose with grace and agility. I am inspired by Maira Kalman‘s mixed media book projects, and the way she uses all sorts of text, images, and assemblages to tell her stories. I am inspired by Kenneth Patchen’s optimism in the face of what (at the time for him, as now) was so much horrific human behavior. Here are a couple of his picture poems.
Will you share with us what you are currently working on in terms of your manuscript(s)?
I am not working on anything right now. It’s not a comfortable feeling and I beat myself up about it a few times a week. My workload has gone from “intermittent” to “crushing,” so writing will just have to wait until summer.
What other activities besides reading and writing do you enjoy?
I am an avid knitter, slow but consistent runner, occasional birder and as-often-as-possible hiker. When I can, I also love camping, backpacking, and road trips. All of these things are about process. They take time, and over time, they reveal wonderful things. That’s what I want my days to be like, and ultimately, the work I create.
Do you have any words of wisdom or writing advice to share?
Oh man. I feel like (especially right now) I only have terrible advice to give. How about this: be compassionate with yourself. I have a reminder set on my phone that goes off everyday at 7:45 am. Often, I miss it because of my schedule, but I know that (even if I don’t see) it tells me every day: “You are awesome. You work had and you do your best.” I need this reminder, because I can be my own worst cheerleader, and that’s about the most unhelpful kind of ally to have when you’re in this line of work.
Today’s featured writer: John Proctor
The featured writing: “Meditating Underwater” published at Atlas & Alice.
John Proctor—not that John Proctor, as he notably distinguishes himself (via his website address) from The Crucible‘s hard-on-his-luck character—is a fellow graduate of mine from Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA in creative nonfiction) and an editorial colleague at Hunger Mountain.
John is a writer of wry humor, wit, poignancy, and reflection. His work varies in scope from baseball to crabbing to fatherhood, often writing about his blue collar-family upbringing in Lawrence, Kansas, as he does in his excellent essay “The Question of Influence” (which I highly recommend) published at The Normal School and listed as “Notable” in the Best American Essays 2015.
What I love about John’s writing, besides his well-crafted prose, is his vulnerability and honesty. John lays himself bare as a character in his essays, not afraid to expose himself as an example of the complexities inherent in the human condition. This capability engenders not only trust in his narrative voice, but a certain kinship as well.
“Meditating Underwater” is a melancholy and moving essay about family—both the ones we are born into and the ones we choose—and how the very fact of birth into a family doesn’t necessarily cement a longstanding belonging even amidst deep love and caring. I’m a sucker for stories that tug at the heartstrings. The subject matter for much of my own writing is loss and death, so I’m partial to heart-wrenching narratives. While “Meditating Underwater” isn’t calamitous in nature, it does delve straight to the conflicts of the heart in both subtle and not so subtle ways.
Here is an excerpt:
My mother’s body, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. today, is undergoing a drastic and permanent sea change. Every major organ in her body is being removed and set on a table as a team of doctors inserts screws and cement into her spinal column in order to correct her rapidly advancing late-onset scoliosis. “The doctor sounds more like a mechanic than a surgeon,” my stepfather chuckles. From half a country away, at a beach house with a family most of whom my mother hasn’t met, I try to gather the strands together and make something meaningful, even beautiful, out of the destruction of her body. This is perhaps my greatest betrayal of my mother.
I have read “Meditating Underwater” several times now. It is one of those essays that I will go back to again and again. I encourage you to give it a read as well. It will leave you a little breathless, but in the best way.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. An active reader on the New York City open mic scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, and New York Cool and is forthcoming in an international anthology of microfiction. His essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts and Dad for All Seasons columnist for the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.
A few questions for John:
“Meditating Underwater” is such a deep and introspective look into a man’s relationship with family, both past and present. What were your goals and intentions in writing this piece, and do you feel you achieved them?
Roughly 75% of the piece actually comes from my journal during the ten hours of my mother’s back surgery, so I’d say the most pressing goal I had in writing the piece at the time was just to get through the helplessness, self-loathing, and fear I was feeling during those hours. I guess the next goal for the piece was to communicate these feelings to my wife by letting her read the journal that night.
Thinking about this now after having just reread my piece, perhaps the reason why I dug it up months later, tinkered with it for months, and finally started submitting it to journals was that I saw it as a sort of testament to my inner life – a life that, while fulfilling my many personae that you list in a question below, I sometimes feel the need to hide or neglect. I think it’s expected that men silence our inner selves to do our jobs, get things done, impose our wills, or whatever, and I’m kind of a pleaser, so I tend to try to give people what they expect of me, at least in person. I don’t necessarily want to change that part of myself—I like pleasing people!—but I’m starting to recognize that some of the writing I enjoy most is the stuff in which a person, fictional or otherwise, bares her or his inner self in a way that feels honest, artistic, and pathos-laden. So ironically I channel my need to please by giving myself free rein in my writing to do the type of things that please me when I read them from others, perhaps in the hope of pleasing readers like me.
The environment of your childhood in Kansas seems to heavily inform much of your writing. Do you find it difficult to recapture the scenes from your more rural past as a current urban dweller? And if so, do you have a process to help access those memories and feelings?
I don’t know that I have a process … Actually I do, but I think of it as more of a method of collection: I just try to have something ready to jot down memories and inspirations when they come to me. These initial jottings are rarely pithy, and sometimes barely intelligible. Many times I have no idea what I was thinking or doing when I wrote them, and I actually love when this happens. (I feel the need to state an obvious influence on this practice, Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.”) Come to think of it, let me pull out some recent jottings that I haven’t yet looked at, and try to make sense of them:
- Not so much seeing what’s there as imagining what’s not there [I had to think for a minute, but now I remember: This was something the instructor said at an urban gardening workshop I attended in February. He was talking about sitting in your garden space in winter and looking around, imagining what you want it to look like in full bloom. A great way of thinking about envisioning an essay too, perhaps?]
- “Writing is a series of performed focuses” – Maggie Nelson [She said this at the NonfictioNow conference late last year]
- The Phantom Tollbooth and The Cyberiad – these books are remarkably similar [For whatever reason I felt the need to underline this when I wrote it sometime last year. I’ve been thinking a lot about connections between the things I’m reading with my six-year-old daughter and the things I’ve read and enjoyed growing up.]
I could go on and on, and still not answer your initial question of my urban present vs. rural upbringing. Sorry, but I still haven’t found a suitable answer for that.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
My mom has a story she loves to tell ad nauseam from when I was maybe seven or eight years old, about deciding to make me spend an hour in my room reading after school before I could play outside, thus instilling in me a love of reading. Looking back on it now, it seems like such a strange decision considering she’s never been much of a reader herself, but she always says something like, “I wanted you to be smarter than I was” or some such. And she never dictated or even suggested what to read, just required that I spend that time reading. It’s hard to question her judgment now, all considered, and she obviously had to have some inkling of my proclivities; if she had stuck me in my room every day balancing ledgers, for example, I’m unconvinced that would have made me an accountant.
I also had an uncle who seemed to be living with us roughly nine months of most years when I was a child, and I routinely raided his book stash—mostly horror stuff like Stephen King, The Exorcist, and just a whole lot of that ilk. That, along with my grandfather’s love of Central States professional wrestling and my father’s obsession with slasher flicks, formed my early mythology and probably explain many of my character flaws. I’m hyper-cognizant of this right now, as my six-year-old daughter is just learning to read and has a thirst for narrative that both excites and terrifies me. I read to her quite a lot, and we’re currently on Book 10 of the 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events series, which as a parent makes me worry about carrying on a family tradition of non-age-appropriate reading but as a reader and dreamer provides a common palette for mutual dream-weaving.
What writers do you like to read? Who has influenced your own writing?
Wow, I love and fear this question. Instead of trying to pinpoint my overarching influences or resort to the dreaded “I like a wide variety of work,” maybe I’ll just write a bit about what I’ve been reading lately. First, I decided at the beginning of this year to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 6-volume My Struggle and Elena Ferrante’s 4-volume Neopolitan novel series slowly and concurrently over the course of the entire year. Both are engrossing, and really interesting to read together (I’ve just finished the first books of both). Knausgaard is loopy, Ferrante is sharp; My Struggle is overt memoir while the Neopolitan novels are fiction that feels completely lived-in. Both first-person narrators are fearlessly broken.
In terms of essays, I’ve been rotating between Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel (what a master of the list-as-story), Virginia Woolf’s two Common Readers (I’m convinced she couldn’t write a piece, however trifling, without at least five sentences that knock me to the floor), Borges’s Labyrinths, and Lydia Davis’s big long story collection (both Borges and Davis write the most essayistic stories). And last month I read Patrick Madden’s new collection, Sublime Physick, which is dense and mind-expanding and a quick read, three adjectives rarely used in conjunction about a single book.
Did I mention I’m also rereading Moby Dick?
Oh, god. I’m actually working on 3 unpublished book-length projects in various stages of development, all of which I survive as a writer by conceptualizing as a bunch of interlinked essays. The one I consider most finished (when is anything ever finished, really?) is a series of memoir-y essays I’ve been writing for the past seven years, which I link with a series of list-essays organized by decade; right now I’m calling that I Was Young When I Left Home.
I’m also finding myself writing some pieces on people who are known either for failure or for success in fields no one much cares about. This idea had its genesis last summer when I wrote a piece on Zack Hample, the guy who caught A-Rod’s 3,000th hit and who is actually kind of the A-Rod of catching baseballs in the stands of major-league games (yes, it’s a thing, called ballhawking). As I was writing that piece, I mapped out a book’s worth of proposals for essays looking at people I’ve known, either in person or through the media, who are similarly situated on the “success” spectrum.
The other project involves a shoebox full of letters my grandmother gave me in 1997, written by my great-uncle Ollie Chaney between the time he was drafted at 18 years old and his death on the shores of Normandy. I was in graduate school and had been telling my grandma I wanted to be a writer, so she asked me to transcribe them. Through reading and typing out those 200-some letters, I developed a relationship with my deceased uncle that I felt transcended time and class and somehow made Uncle Ollie some sort of apotheosis for the Twentieth Century, but I’m still trying to figure out how. This is a research-heavy project, and most of my research for it is a balance of long conversations with family and lots of reading and correspondence with fairly inefficient federal agencies. Funny enough – this is the project I’ve spent the most time on, but drafted the least of. It’s brought me closer to much of my extended family though; I think most of them think of me as a writer not because of my writing, but because I transcribed all of those letters from their deceased brother/uncle/cousin.
You wear a lot of hats: writer, professor, father, husband, editor. How do you balance them all, and how do the demands of family and work interact with your writing life?
Oh, don’t even get me going on my to-do list. Really though, I do find myself keeping track of what I’m doing, planning on doing, coordinating with my wife, promising to others, and asking of myself more than I ever have previously in my life. I try to take stock yearly and monthly of how I most want to use my time, then I actually break it up into hourly units and allocate those units on Excel for the month. (Yes, I do this—ask my wife! Her term for it is OCD.) Much like formal constraints in writing, I find breaking my time into these little units frees me up to be a better improviser as I go, gives me a sense of short-term achievement when I click these off, and also makes me generally more—not less—at ease in the knowledge of where any given moment sits in relation to other past, future, and possible moments.
I feel like I might have just let everyone know a bit too much about myself.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share or little gems of writing advice?
Oh, boy. I’m really bad with advice. I feel so unequipped with wisdom, and I have so many bad habits (one of the worst of which, my emotional connection to a college basketball team, makes this one of the most emotionally wrenching months of the year for me). I guess the best “advice” I have to give is to take stock occasionally of what’s most important to you, and make sure to give time and space for these things. I don’t necessarily mean making goals, but just giving your time and attention completely over to the people and things you love, in turn and individually. Be conscious of the limited time you have for these people and things, and love them in your way, preferably through action rather than thought.
Well, that’s abstract and fairly impractical. I told you I was bad with advice.
Today’s featured writer: Penny Guisinger
The featured writing: “Marriage” and “Marriage Two” published at Bluestem, excerpts from Penny’s new book Postcards from Here, a semi-finalist for the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award published by Vine Leaves Press (February, 2016), available in paperback and as an ebook.
When I received my copy of Postcards from Here in the mail, I was surprised at the slightness of it. The book is slim in volume, at sixty-five pages, and tiny in size, resembling a stack of postcards. Indeed, each page of the text is designed to look like a postcard. At first I thought, Really? That’s it? But it didn’t take long for me to realize this little volume is the epitome of that old saying “good things come in small packages.” Penny’s collection reminds me of River Teeth‘s weekly “Beautiful Things” column because each vignette in the book is singularly beautiful and stands on its own. The effect, however, in reading the entire collection, from one vignette to the next, is like sitting down to a gourmet meal of tapas—a succession of interesting and delicious small courses to feast upon, leaving you quite satisfied.
For me, I found a lot to relate to from the descriptions of gardening and putting food away for winter to glimpses of motherhood. But these vignettes go further, describing a place rich with community and alive with the details of the seasons and the natural environment, alongside family, relationship, and the internal space of the author’s keen observations.
Reading these vignettes left me in awe of Penny’s precise language and ability to capture moments so effectively it is like slowing down time and looking through a microscope. To get a feel for Penny’s writing and her book, you can read two of the vignettes online. Here is an excerpt from “Marriage“:
My wife catches porcupines with the trash can and the lid the way you or I catch spiders with a glass and a piece of paper. Porcupines are bad neighbors. They let themselves into the garden, and take one bite out of every tomato, every squash, every cucumber. They climb up our ornamental trees and rip off the branches, leaving ugly holes near the top. We can’t decide if they’re brazen or just stupid, the way they ransack the place in daylight, with us standing right there. They know enough to run, though, when Kara bounds toward them with the trash can.
And an excerpt from “Marriage Two“:
He was a super model. A presidential candidate. A porn star. He stood in the field in front of our house, basking in his own light. The spectacle stopped me, quite literally, in my tracks. I had not seen this before, and it took several seconds for my brain to understand the information coming in over the retinal wire. He was as grand as he could make himself — feathers puffed out, almost standing on end, and tail opened like a fan. Not only standing, but slowly turning himself in place, to show every angle, every facet. He looked like he had walked right off the front of a Thanksgiving card from Hallmark, so perfect was his tom turkeyness.
Reading these excerpts doesn’t do Penny’s work justice, and while you can read “Marriage” and “Marriage Two” at Bluestem, which is a delight in itself, it is not like reading the full collection of vignettes in Postcards from Here, so go on, order a copy!
Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
A few questions for Penny:
As an essayist, do you primarily work in the short form? How did you come to short prose? Was it a natural instinct of form or something you diligently practiced to accomplish?
My instinct is to write essays that are either 250 words or 8,000 words. I seem to have a harder time hitting that sweet spot of the 3,500 – 5,000 word range. (I call it the sweet spot, because that’s the length that’s easier to publish.) Once I started writing the pieces that became the book, there was certainly a diligence I had to adopt, primarily in the revision process. When an idea comes that’s clearly an idea for a “postcard,” it’s an idea that wants to be expressed in that form. The urge of each of those pieces is to capture something very small—even if it’s some small aspect of something much larger—and so the form is a response to the idea or topic at hand. For example, when I wrote “Death of a Neighbor,” which is about the night that our neighbor suddenly and unexpectedly died, I wasn’t trying to write about the magnitude of that loss. That piece is about this question I had about a particular emotional aspect of that night: he was a paramedic and his own crew was right there while he was dying, and so the piece grapples with the emotional complexity of that. It’s a small aspect of this gigantic event and it called (to me) for a small piece. So I am never trying to wrestle a huge story into a small form, but during revision I am most definitely working to hone it even closer to the core of the thing. That’s where the diligence comes in. However, I don’t think there’s any more of an imperative to be concise or crisp or use sensory words and images in short prose than there is in longer pieces. That’s always the mandate, right? To me, the length is determined by what idea or story the piece is trying to express.
Can you talk a little about the evolution of Postcards from Here? Did you know as you were writing the vignettes that they would all be collected into one collection?
There’s a story, actually. I started writing Postcards as a student at the Stonecoast MFA program, which has a low-residency format. My mentor that semester, Debra Marquart, and I were on the phone one day, talking about whatever work I had most recently sent her. My friend and fellow student, the writer Marco Wilkinson, had Deb as a mentor that semester as well, and I inquired about him in the call with her. She said, “Oh, Marco’s doing great. He’s travelling a lot this semester, so he’s writing postcards and sending them to me.” I didn’t know exactly what she meant, and I still don’t, but I had this flash of—something—and knew immediately that I was going to write a collection of short pieces called postcards. I’ll never forget it.
In part, I’m sure it’s because I had multiple longer pieces in the air at that time, and most of them were early drafts. I felt a little like I was drowning in longer pieces. Writing a long essay is a lengthy undertaking—mine all span time frames measurable in years. So these short pieces became another outlet. They were something I could actually finish in a few sittings, and then dive back into the ocean of the longer pieces which seem like they are never quite done.
Also, I was in my mid-forties when I started my MFA, and was very clear that I wanted to publish. I spent a lot of years writing for myself, and I was done with that and wanted to get work out into the world. So, yes, right out of the gate I knew that this would be a collection and that I would work to get it published as such. I think sometimes we’re not supposed to be so nakedly ambitious, but I am ambitious. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever make a living at this work, but I do want to be part of a working, publishing, writerly universe because it keeps me closer to this art form that I love so much. I am not content to watch anymore. I wanted a book, so that’s what I set out to write. I did not know that it would be my first book. I imagined that my first book would be another memoir-in-essays called Shift. Instead, Shift is still in progress and Postcards is out in the world. (And now there’s a third book in progress that may actually eclipse Shift and become the second book. I’ve stopped trying to control the order!)
Short prose seems to require an incredible attention to detail and, much like poetry, a disciplined hand at precise language for brevity. What kind of influence has poetry had on your short prose writing? Do you see the vignette as an offshoot of poetry or strictly as narrative?
Beautiful, concise prose is exquisite on its own merit, and does not aspire toward anything else. I can’t say how much of an influence poetry has on me, though I do read quite a lot of it. Good writing is good writing, no matter the form. I get bristly at the suggestion that poets have somehow cornered the market on precision and beauty. (You did not make that suggestion, but many other people do!) I do not see the pieces in Postcards as an offshoot of poetry, no.
I also don’t know what to make of distinctions we make between prose poems, vignettes, flash nonfiction, micro-essays. I sent one piece from the book to a lit mag with a cover letter that clearly identified it as an essay, and the editor wrote back saying he would love to publish my poem. And he did. It said “poem” at the top of the page. That’s fine with me! As the writer, I’m not thinking very much about what these things will be called when they’re published. I think the drive to identify pieces as a particular thing is pretty market-driven. (And I use this word “market” lightly since there’s not much actual money changing hands here.) Postcards is a collection of vignettes because that’s what Vine Leaves Press publishes: collections of vignettes. That other piece was a poem because that’s what that particular editor thought it should be. I’m an essayist, so I think of them as little tiny essays. But I don’t think it really matters what we call them as long as they do the thing they’re designed to do: tell the story of some moment or idea, and as a collection, capture something about my experience. The collection, remember, is a memoir. So it’s big-picture job is to tell some aspect of its narrator’s story and capture a particular experience in a particular time and place. There are multiple forms at work here. Hopefully, somehow, it’s all functioning.
You are the founder and conference director of Iota: Short Prose Conference, a new conference on an island off the coast of Maine. Can you share how you conceived the idea for Iota and tell us about the conference?
Iota is my favorite thing! It’s four days and three nights on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, which is just over the bridge from Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the U.S. We hold it at Roosevelt Campobello International Park, which includes the summer home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a very luxurious, magical location. Conference events take place on both sides of the border, which is appropriate, because Iota explores the perceived borders between short prose forms. Workshops are mixed genre, so poets are in with literary nonfiction writers and fiction writers, and every participant studies with both faculty members. This year, we’re very lucky to have Dinty Moore and Mark Doty as faculty. (When I say “we are lucky” what I mean is “I am on my knees with gratitude.” Just to be clear.)
I conceived of the conference when I was an MFA student. We all had to do a third semester project—something beyond our own writing. As I said, I was very driven and strategic as a student and wanted every decision I made to move me closer to a writerly life. So I wanted to do a project that would outlive my grad school experience. My MFA experience was so transformative to me—having that opportunity to immerse in all things writerly for multiple days at a time—I wanted to create that for other people. Those urges came together as this conference. Currently, Iota is partnering with Stonecoast MFA, and because of that we’re able to offer a full scholarship to one local, rural Maine writer. That’s also really important to me because I care very much about the community of writers where I live. I can’t offer the whole thing for free, but I have been able (with support) to maintain this one annual slot for someone who otherwise would never be able to afford it.
Who are your favorite writers of short form nonfiction?
Oh, this feels like such an impossible question! Can I hide under the furniture instead of answering this?
I read and edit for Brevity, and so I see many stellar examples of the form, but as soon as I start listing writers I feel like I can’t possibly list them all and I’m in danger of leaving out someone really important and amazing.
Can I list my influences instead? I’m going to list my influences instead, even though that’s also fraught because it changes by the hour. There are so many writers doing such amazing things that I feel like the works I’ve read show up in my brain as needed and push me this way or that, depending on what the moment calls for. But I’ll try!
Pat Conroy is on my mind today because he died last night [Friday, March 4, 2016]. He was not primarily a short form practitioner, but The Prince of Tides was one of the first books that reached out and shook me hard. I was a teenager when I read it, and I remember my mouth falling open in awe at his imagery and his capacity as a storyteller. Not very long ago, I read the memoir about all the fallout he experienced for writing about the people in his life, and I really needed to read that because that happens to all of us, but it had just started happening to me. I already miss knowing he’s in the world, and I’ll be grateful forever for that early influence. I know I am not alone in that sadness.
Pam Houston, with her collection of short stories, Cowboys are My Weakness was the first writer who made me understand that my voice could also be that honest and clear – it was like permission to be who I am on the page. Everything Mark Doty writes flattens me completely. Barbara Hurd (who mentored me as an MFA student)—her work is so brave and she finds meaning in every stone, every twig. Sven Birkerts’ The Other Walk is such a wonderful collection of little thought-nuggets. I love it so much. Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is one I keep close for its twisting, self-doubting narrative style. And speaking of sentences, Bill Roorbach has crept up on me as an influence, for his sentences! I love his sentences, and he’s also really adept at being sly and funny while also being incredibly serious. Cheryl Strayed’s essays—oh, her essays! The Love of My Life is so wonderful and so hard. When I read that, I went back and read it a few more times, just trying to understand how it worked. I like to lift the hood and see the engine, see what makes a good piece go.
That’s such an incomplete, inadequate list of influences. Everything I read influences me. Not very long ago, I read Sarah Einstein’s award-winning memoir, Mot, and was so struck by her bared-open compassion for self and people around her. It’s still with me when I sit down to work. I just read William Bradley’s collection, Fractals, and the pieces are these delightful workhorses—playful and concrete. They’re so grounded. That will influence me. I have Patrick Madden’s book, Sublime Physick, sitting next to my bed, ready to read, and I see that the first essay is about spit! That will gross me out, but totally influence me. I haven’t even read it yet, and I’m thinking about that. Oh, and I also have Mary Karr’s book about memoir writing ready to read, and she is (of course) a major influence.
The question is too hard! (Dives under couch.)
You live what seems like a fairly natural lifestyle, gardening and enjoying nature. What are some of your favorite non-literary activities?
I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. My family and I are very fortunate to live on the water and to have a nice piece of land. We love hiking and camping. My dad and I co-own a small sailboat, and even though I’m a very fair-weather sailor, I do love being on the water. We love to cook. I have kids, so we do a lot of whatever the kids are into, which means a lot of swim practice and Legos. We have dogs and find them endlessly entertaining. My wife and I also play a lot of music together, and we love to travel. We binge watch Netflix sometimes.
Do you have any advice for going through the process of publishing a first book?
Wouldn’t it be great if I did? (Thinks hard.) The book is so new that I feel like I’m still learning how to have a book out! My editor, Jessica Bell, made the process pretty painless, really. (For me. I can’t speak for her and how painless or painful I made it for her.) If pressed to offer advice, it would be this: keep the faith. Keep submitting. And trust your editor, when you find one.
That’s my advice about all publishing, actually: trust your editor. I’ve taken some very hard edits from people whose job it is to make the piece as good as it can be. I don’t always like it, but I try to get myself out of the way and let it happen. A good edit is like a ferocious massage: sometimes it hurts, but it’s good for you.
Some writers are very protective of their in-progress work and won’t talk about it with the public. Are you willing to share with us what your current project is?
I don’t mind at all! The two books I mentioned earlier are the current works-in-progress. Shift tells the story of my transition from being married to a man to being married to a woman. It all takes place in this very rural area and against the backdrop of Maine’s two referendums on same sex marriage. High drama! The other book doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s basically about my life with the PTSD that came as the result of a terrible car accident 19 years ago. It’s challenging to write for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the brain injury I suffered has wiped away all memories of what actually happened. But the research and explorations for the book have taken me to some fascinating places, including to the home of one of the volunteer firemen who extracted me from the car that night. Shift is a collection of essays. The other book is an even more fragmented narrative – it’s trying to mimic the effects of trauma. Plus, I don’t know any other way to write it.
Today’s featured Poet: Elizabeth J. Coleman
The featured poem: “One Way of Looking at Grace” published at Per Contra: An International Journal of the Arts, Literature, and Ideas.
While my focus here on The Sunday Spotlight is to feature new and emerging writers, and technically with two chapbooks, two full poetry collections, and a work of translation, Elizabeth has already “emerged,” I think when it comes to poets, much like essayists, they can use all the promotion they can get. So I introduce you to Elizabeth J. Coleman, who attended Vermont College of Fine Arts at the same time as me, graduating with her MFA in poetry in 2012.
I didn’t know Elizabeth well during grad school. What I believed of her was that she was gracious, intelligent, respectful, and forthright; what I knew was that she was a very snazzy dresser, a talented classical guitarist in addition to poet, and a Jewish attorney from New York City. This last summer, I had the opportunity to hang out closely with Elizabeth, drinking wine and sharing long conversations, when we both attended VCFA’s Postgraduate Writers Conference (I highly recommend this conference, btw). At the conference, the things I had believed about Elizabeth were confirmed, but I also discovered that Elizabeth is a sort of Renaissance woman, talented in and passionate about an array of formidable activities and causes.
I was excited to discover that Elizabeth shares a passion for teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction along with my husband, who is also trained in MBSR, an eight-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn that incorporates mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga practice and was designed to help people deal with physical pain and stress. Elizabeth has taught MBSR for a decade. As an attorney, she now works with law firms and judges to teach them to manage stress through mindfulness. She was trained to teach MBSR through the Center for Mindfulness.
I also learned that Elizabeth is an accomplished watercolor painter responsible for the covers of her two chapbooks Let My Ears Be Open (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and The Saint of Lost Things (Word Temple Press, 2009); a translation into French of poet Lee Slonimsky’s Pythagoras in Love (Folded Word Press, 2015); and her two poetry collections Proof (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), a finalist for the University of Wisconsin Press’ Brittingham and Pollak prizes, and The Fifth Generation, released on February 8, 2016, also by Spuyten Duyvil.
I have not yet gotten my hands on The Fifth Generation, but I have a copy of Proof, which is full of depth and beauty. Today’s featured poem “One Way of Looking at Grace” and the poem “How Poppies Grow” (also published at Per Contra) are from Elizabeth’s new collection The Fifth Generation, of which poet Kathleen Graber has this to say:
Here is an excerpt from “One Way of Looking at Grace”:
For 150 million years birds saw
their reflections only in the sea,
but now the last typewriter repair
shop in New York is going out
of business, and monk parrots
nest in Sheepshead bay. Still
that fire escape casts a lovely shadow,
the way the wheel of a slow-moving
bicycle seems to slow time
Elizabeth’s poetry has been published in numerous journals, and her poems appear in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and Poetry in Medicine Anthology (Persea Books 2014).
Elizabeth also plays the classical guitar, playing regularly for the patients and families at Memorial Sloane Cancer Center. She performs annually at a concert sponsored by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
The bulk of Elizabeth’s career was as an attorney for twenty-five years. Her areas of specialty were poverty law, consumer rights, and civil rights. She holds a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is a member of the New York, Georgia and DC Bars.
Elizabeth is married to civil rights lawyer, Robert Stroup, and has two children and three splendid grandchildren. She lives in New York City. Visit her at elizabethjcoleman.com.
A few questions for Elizabeth:
I’m so impressed with your accomplishments in a variety of genres in the arts: poetry, music, and painting, which is why I have dubbed you a Renaissance woman. Did you always have an aptitude for all three, or did these each manifest at different times? Is there one genre that you identify with more than the others? I mean, do you primarily consider yourself a poet? Or do you consider yourself a painter and musician equally amidst your literary life? Does one genre carry more weight in terms of your soul’s survival, so to speak?
Probably more than the other two, I consider myself a poet. Words were my tool as an attorney, and they are my tool now. Books were highly valued and prized in our house; my mother read me a lot of poetry at a young age, and I have always been a great reader. Though I did come to writing poetry itself late.
I feel the need to write and write every day. And I love the challenge of poetry, its off-the-wallness, its variety, that words are your palette, your medium, and that poetry is music too. I’m challenged by the fact that, as Archibald MacLeish says, a poem “should not mean, but be” and by what Emily Dickinson said about how a poem could make her feel physically as if the top of her head were “taken off.”
One reason I feel the most comfortable calling myself a poet is that it is the only one of the three where I have professional credentials, an MFA and several books to my name. If you had told me this would be the case 15 years ago, I would not have believed you. Nonetheless, I majored in French literature, and before going to law school taught French and English in junior high and high school.
I grew up in a house filled with music too. My mother and father played the piano, and I played the piano and cello. I love that you can communicate with someone else, of a different culture, or someone who is suffering, without having to use words. Sometimes when words divide us, music unites us.
Of the three, I feel the least comfortable calling myself a visual artist. This is where I have the least training, though I love the extraordinary freedom and sense of abandon I get working in watercolor. I’m also very interested in collage. But visual art is where I feel the most timid, and I have not yet been able to devote as much time as I have to poetry and guitar.
But the three stem from a common impulse: to express my awe at being here and my gratitude. All three are like a prayer, or, as the non-deist Buddhist philosopher Stephen Batchelor put it, “How extraordinary it is to be here at all.”
I find it fascinating that in addition to being a multi-talented artist, you are also an attorney. What comes to mind, when I think of the journey to becoming an attorney is lots of studying, memorization, and test taking, which seems counter to using the part of your brain that dominates creativity. What was your incentive to pursue a career in law? Did this more left brain type of path come naturally to you?
That’s such a great question, Laurie. Yes and no. As a child of the ’60s, who felt I must work within the system to effect social change, it seemed like my duty to go to law school. I also came from a business background, and my parents encouraged me to pursue the law, as they encouraged me—to their credit—to be a professional. It was not easy for me, not so much because I’m not a left-brain thinker—I think that side of my brain is pretty strong (and that’s sometimes a problem in poetry!)—but because I’m a highly emotional person. I could not distance myself from the subject matter, could not be objective, as the professors taught us to be in law school. In retrospect, I’m thrilled because the only work I could really do involved helping people, and that brought me great satisfaction. Law school transforms some people as they become more “reasonable.” I think, both in good ways and bad, that did not happen to me. Also I met my husband in law school, and he has been an extraordinary partner all these years.
I know there is a personal story behind how you came to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Would you be willing to share some of that with us?
Sure, I came to MBSR after a bout with endometrial cancer in 2001. I’m fine, but it really made an impression and changed the course of my life. The combination of the experience of cancer and taking MBSR are what led me to being a poet and to devoting myself more to music and art. Again, another great quote from Stephen Batchelor comes to mind: “If my death is certain, but the date of my death is not certain, what should I do?”
In addition to being Jewish, Buddhism—in relation to your mindfulness practice—seems to have an influence on your poetry. How do these two cultural heritages inform your writing?
Among the amazing teachers I encountered at VCFA was Rick Jackson. Rick always used to say to write about your obsessions, and I would say I’m obsessed with both Judaism and Buddhism and with questions of spirituality in general. I was raised in a secular home, and a complex set of experiences caused me to want to delve further into that part of my heritage. My interest in Buddhism stems from learning and teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which is really a kind of lay Buddhism.
The latter is an influence on process as well because Buddhism causes you to face your mortality, face reality, and is really quite existential. I think I feel the need to write, to play music, to create art now because I can’t put it off.
The combination of having had an experience of cancer and studying mindful meditation caused me to be interested in human spirituality and our relationship to our lives, compassion towards others, stewardship of our planet and mortality. I keep looking for angles on these essential subjects.
Who are your favorite poets? In addition to poetry, what do you like to read?
I have to admit that my favorite poet is generally the one I’m reading right now. For example, I’m reading a book by Grace Schulman at this moment, and I’m just blown away by the beauty. I keep coming upon new poets and loving their work. The other day I read Jessica Greenbaum’s, “A Poem for S,” and it moved me immeasurably. I love many, many poets from every century and every country and civilization. Each day I discover a new one who excites me. Here are a few I adore, though the list is far from complete: Guillaume Apollinaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yehudi Amichai, W.B. Yeats, Czeslaw Milosz, Nazim Hikmet, Cesare Pavese, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Gerald Stern…. I’ve given you these in no particular order. I’ve decided not to list the terrific poets I worked with at VCFA, but they were uniformly wonderful.
As to other reading, I try, as poet and teacher Natasha Saje always says, to “follow my nose.” Right now in addition to poetry, in fiction I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, and in nonfiction Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquahar. I tend to read what grabs me. One of my goals is to read more about philosophy, Judaism, and astronomy. I have read much fiction over the years and am a particular fan of the nineteenth century British novelists. Those are books I go back to over and over for comfort. I also read a fair amount of Buddhist philosophy, and Pema Chodron always inspires me.
Can you offer up a quote that has helped to guide your life for all the aspiring artists out there?
There are many great quotes, but here’s one I keep coming back to. In Stephen Sondheim’s play Sunday in the Park with George, there is a moment when Seurat’s grandson, also named George, is having a crisis about being a visual artist, feels he has no talent, and he sings to his grandmother, “There’s nothing that’s not been said,” and she answers, “But said by you, George?”
Today’s featured writer: Michele Filgate
The featured writing: “Possessed” published at Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.
I’m thrilled to feature Michele Filgate and her gorgeous essay “Possessed” today. This is a bit of a gamble because Michele’s essay is published in the print edition of the literary journal Gulf Coast out of the University of Houston’s English department. While Gulf Coast does publish online exclusives, the content in their biannual print journal (which features 250+ pages of writing from both emerging and established writers and full-page color artwork) is not normally posted online. But for a limited time, you can read selections from issue 28.1 Winter/Spring 2016 at their website. I don’t know how long or short this limited time will be—thus the gamble on my promoting Michele’s essay via an online link—so hurry and read it while you can; you don’t want to miss this essay. It is nothing short of stunning. But if you miss out on the online posting, you can purchase a print edition at Gulf Coast and enjoy the many quality writers they publish.
“Possessed” is a segmented lyric essay in seven parts about a woman who, with her partner, adopts a sensitive dog from a shelter, in what appears to be a stab at saving their troubled relationship, only she has to leave the dog once the relationship comes to an end. It’s also a meditation on possession. About the things we possess and how those things, accumulated throughout life, possess us. Like anxiety. Or depression. Or the way a dog can possess a person’s heart and how that can lead to gluttonous grief. It is also about a writer trying to make sense of her profound loss and seeking a way to process her experience. In the essay, Michele writes:
How many writers have sliced their hearts into confetti and thrown the pieces into the wind? Never sure of where the bits will fall. Hoping that by deconstructing, one can make some kind of sense out of it.
From interviewing Michele, I get a sense that the above quote reflects her process in the writing of “Possessed.” She sliced open her heart and made an attempt, deconstructing towards some sort of answer or resolution. Yet the final product does not reflect this at all; the essay comes together brilliantly, and rather, it reflects essaying at its very best. In addition, there are so many exquisite phrases and achingly beautiful sections of this essay, I had trouble choosing what to quote. Here is a passage to entice you:
Imagine, if you will, that what you possess, what you used to possess, what you will possess possesses you, and you need some kind of emotional exorcist to release you from the burden of carrying so many things around.
A dog is not a possession. It’s a living thing that snuggles up to you on cold winter nights, curled in a ball underneath the blanket, occasionally licking your shin. It’s a creature that looks at you in a way that says, I know you’re sad. I’m sad, too. Let’s be sad together.
Birdie possesses my heart.
Things that possess us weigh just as heavily as the possessions themselves. The absence of the thing that possesses us replaces the actual possession, and that absence grows and grows until it is lodged and stuck. It’s amazing that we’re not crippled by what we’ve had and lost.
Merely quoting from this essay is insufficient to relay the masterful rendering of the whole, and that’s why I implore you to go now, while you have a chance, and read this essay!
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, Slice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Salon, Interview Magazine, Buzzfeed, The Barnes & Noble Review, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe, Fine Books & Collections Magazine, DAME Magazine, Biographile, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Time Out New York, People, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Men’s Journal, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. For seven years she worked as an events coordinator at several different independent bookstores: first at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH; then at McNally Jackson in Manhattan; and finally at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. Michele was the producer of a segment for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric called “Assignment America” and has also produced literary segments for “Word of Mouth” on New Hampshire Public Radio. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Catapult.
A few questions for Michele:
Writing and publishing creative nonfiction that has to do with personal loss can have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, it can be healing, on the other, scary and difficult. The subject matter in “Possessed“—to leave a beloved animal friend behind—is heart wrenching. How difficult was it for you to write this piece? Can you speak about your process in writing this essay?
I’ve tried (and failed) to write about this subject many times before. I think this is the most difficult essay I’ve ever written, to be honest. I didn’t know what I wanted to say until I said it. And that required many revisions and lots of time writing and deleting and writing and deleting. Originally, my friend approached me about writing a piece for Gulf Coast that dealt with women and books. That ended up being part of the essay, but not the entire thing. It went in a completely different direction.
Besides your own essays and articles, you actively publish reviews, interviews, and author profiles, as well as teach, participate in readings, and serve as a contributing editor, among other things. How do you balance and integrate all these literary endeavors with your own writing? Do you find that one takes precedence over others?
Balance? What is that? Ha! I go to yoga twice a week and I run three times a week, and I guess part of the reason I do both is because I’m always seeking those moments of either reflection or the ability to turn my brain off. I am probably the worst person at balancing that I know. I take on tons of projects, am always stressed out, and don’t know how to relax. I watch TV when I should be writing. I chat with friends on Facebook when I should be writing. I clean the dishes when I should be writing. Anxiety and guilt loom large in my life, and I’m constantly fighting both by either blatantly ignoring my to-do list or saying “Fuck it” and sitting down and writing. Once I start, I feel so much better. If only I could bottle that productive feeling up and carry it with me during the other moments in my life.
Even though you make your living from your literary skills, your participation in so many endeavors denotes you are an exemplary literary citizen. Can you speak to the notion of literary citizenship? What does it mean to you? How important of a role does it play in your life?
Being a literary citizen means a different thing when you’re also a writer. I know some exemplary literary citizens who aren’t writers. They are generous, passionate readers who spend a lot of their time promoting the work of others. I think being a literary citizen and a writer means that you value other writers’ work just as much as you value your own. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. You can even give the book a bad review in a newspaper. But it means that you take the work seriously, you do what you can to tell the world about books you love and believe in, and you participate in the literary conversation. You attend author readings and write recommendation letters for friends who are applying for fellowships and do what you can to make the literary world inclusive.
Literary Hub recently announced you will be curating Red Ink, a series on women writers in Brooklyn, New York. Can you tell us more about Red Ink? What is your goal for the series, how did it come about, and will it reach beyond the local vicinity of Brooklyn?
I hope it reaches beyond Brooklyn! That’s why I’ve asked Lit Hub to co-sponsor it. They will publish edited transcripts of the events. I ran events at indie bookstores for seven years before leaving to focus on my writing career. But once an events coordinator, always a coordinator, I suppose. I created Red Ink because I love curating and moderating conversations between smart writers, and also because I wanted to focus on women writers, past and present. The reason I chose BookCourt is because it’s my local indie, and they host a ton of great events. The first one is on May 9th at 7pm: “Finding Solitude in a Noisy World” featuring Katherine Towler (The Penny Poet of Portsmouth), Angela Flournoy (The Turner House), Molly Crabapple (Drawing Blood), Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), and Valeria Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth).
Who are some of your favorite authors who have influenced your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
It’s impossible to list all of them, but some of my very favorite writers include Virginia Woolf, Lidia Yuknavitch, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, Clarice Lispector, Paul Harding, Fernando Pessoa, and George Eliot. I write because their words have helped shape me; they’ve made it possible for me to find my very own shape, if that makes sense.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t compare yourself to others. You’ll paralyze yourself if you do that. You can spend all of your time fretting and finding reasons not to write, or you can get your ass in a chair and open a blank Word document. You can type one word, and then another, and then maybe another. And eventually if you write enough words (and they can be very middling, bad, boring words) something beautiful will emerge in the middle of all of that muck.
Today’s featured writer: Suzanne Farrell Smith
The featured writing: “Listing to Love” published at Pank.
Okay, prepare yourselves. This is going to be a gush-fest. And I’m not sorry about it in the least. In honor of Valentine’s Day and this week’s featured essay “Listing to Love,” I’ve compiled a short list on what I believe about Love:
- Love makes the world go round. (Yes, that’s a cliché. And maybe love doesn’t actually make the world go round—that has something to do with science—but without love there’d be no reason for the world to exist, and likewise none of us, so you get where I’m going with this, right?)
- It’s important and necessary to tell the ones you love that you love them. Often. Shout it, whisper it, show it, act it.
- Love manifests in big and small ways.
- Love is free.
- Love leads to more love.
In this spirit, I intend to spread the love…
I met Suzanne Farrell Smith my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. We were in an all cnf workshop together facilitated by Sue William Silverman and Robert Vivian that was, surprisingly for a writing workshop, quite the lovefest in itself. This workshop was where I met some of my closest friends, brilliant writers all. Suzanne and I bonded, and even though I never see her, because she lives on the east coast and I in the west, I remain steadfastly in awe of this woman. She’s smart. She’s authentic. She’s kind and compassionate. She’s gorgeous. (Just look at the picture below!) And she’s a thoroughly gifted writer. (I told you this was going to be a gush-fest. But, hey, it’s all true.)
As the title suggests, “Listing to Love” is a list essay that chronicles the love of “little things.” Suzanne writes,
“I don’t mean little things like a rainbow or a baby’s smile. Who doesn’t love a rainbow or a baby’s smile? You’d have to be such a jerk. I mean really, really little things.”
There is so much I love about this essay:
- The form, written as an outline.
- The unique details and how they are perfectly wrought from keen observation.
- The way the essay keeps unfolding, going deeper and deeper with each list within the list.
- The way personality and character are revealed through what’s included in the list.
- The connections between details and the circular nature of the essay from the beginning, “I love little things,” to the end.
A Connecticut native, Suzanne Farrell Smith writes from her home on the Byram River border between Connecticut and New York. She spent a decade teaching elementary and middle school students, fascinated by how children both respond to stories and craft their own. With two master’s degrees, one in literature and criticism and the other in creative nonfiction writing, she now teaches undergraduate academic writing and methods of literacy instruction to graduate students. Suzanne is raising three sons, but she is missing a large portion of her own childhood memory; she writes a great deal about memory, trauma, health, parenting, and education. Recent work appears in Ascent, Crab Creek Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Literary Mama, Community Health Narratives, and the anthology Oh, Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. A new piece, written over seven days while her twins were in neonatal intensive care, is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree. Suzanne uses her blog to promote literary markets and publications she admires, explore facets of the writing life, and reflect on personal experiences, most recently in “8 Things I’ve Learned (So Far) as a Parent of a Child with Special Needs.” She lives online at suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com.
A few questions for Suzanne:
How did you come up with the concept for “Listing to Love“? Did you have a particular inspiration, goal, or intention when writing this piece?
I constantly list concepts, but very few of them grow into complete pieces, and most of my writing becomes conceptual only through drafting. This piece started as one list, and I didn’t predict it would bourgeon into an outline of embedded lists. But I liked the single list I created, so I wrote more. The act of listing, especially in outline form, is like writing an essay. You search underneath for the next bit of truth, and the next, and the next, until you’re at the basic elements, the level IA1a)(1)(a)(i). When you pull back again, you’ve found a big idea that you didn’t realize you were looking for. In this piece, once I’d listed from macro to micro, literally hitting the right margin of the page, I pulled out to see what I’d uncovered. Only then did I revise with intention.
You’ve got lists within this list essay, among them one sub-list is “Awkward moments with my in-laws.” You then list three of those awkward moments, which for me, as a reader, incites incredible curiosity. I’m left wondering what happened “That time in the garage” and “That time at the spa,” along with other tidbits listed in the essay such as the misunderstanding between you and your friend about the United Kingdom that “settled over the table.” Have you ever or would you consider writing a companion essay to “Listing to Love” where you would elaborate on some of these things?
A companion essay … hadn’t thought of that! As it happens, my father-in-law died less than a year after I published this essay. I almost told the story of one of those awkward moments (the garage), at his Memorial Service. Almost. My husband knows the stories all too well (and prefers not to relive them!). I suspect a little more time must pass before I share the details.
In the essay, you say “I stuck the paint swatch card that I use as a bookmark into the back of my book and noticed, in the few seconds before the train stopped, that the book’s inside cover was exactly the same color as one of the choices on the card.” What was the title of that book whose inside cover was the color of “First Snowfall”?
My brain is doing gymnastics over this one. I can’t remember! We moved six months ago, and much of our library is packed up and stored, so I can’t check the books (though I’m tempted to brave the labyrinth in our storage unit). I wrote that particular list right after graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts. My husband had coordinated an amazing graduation gift for me—friends and family members sent books for my bookshelf, with notes explaining why they chose those titles. So I likely was reading one of those gifted books. I can see it in my mind—hard cover, in the common 6×9 size, end papers a serene (rather than drab) gray. Benjamin Moore, on its website, says of “First Snowfall”: “Reminiscent of the first sleigh ride through freshly fallen snow, this soft, light blue-gray is as delicate as a snowflake.” Doesn’t that make you wonder about the writer behind descriptions of paint colors? That bookmark was recycled long ago. My current bookmark begins with Benjamin Moore’s “Breath of Fresh Air” and ends on a saturated “Blueberry Hill.”
Who are some of your favorite authors who have influenced your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
I’ve got lists for this one. I have no memory of childhood, so while teaching elementary school, I fell in love with children’s literature as if reading it for the first time. I even thought I might write for children. I still have a list of math-related titles I wanted to make into a series. But in graduate school, I studied dozens of authors who inspired me to become a writer of prose for adults: Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Zora Neale Hurston, Frank McCourt, Flannery O’Connor, Andrew Lam, David Sedaris, Jessica Mitford, Barbara Ehrenreich, and on and on. I’d copy their sentences and study the structure, listen to the music, wonder at the craft. Other authors taught me directly, so I learned from their work while learning from their feedback on mine—Sue William Silverman, Margo Jefferson, Laurie Alberts, Sascha Feinstein, Randy Fertel, Robert Vivian, Diane Lefer, and Rebecca McClanahan. I open their books when I feel stuck or need a boost, as if they’re still teaching me. I learn a lot about the writing process from writer friends in groups and workshops. And I follow emerging authors who are regularly published in my favorite journals. I still love children’s literature and am inspired by the picture books I read to my kids. Plus, they bring me to places and into situations—let’s crawl up this muddy hill just because!—that influence my writing in some way.
Would you share a bit about your current writing life? What topics or themes are you presently focused on? What forms do you find yourself working in?
I have three sons: a preschooler and twin toddlers. And I’ve just restarted teaching, editing, and publishing, after an extended leave during which I had the twins and my mother died. So time is a bit limited right now. When I have a few minutes to spend inside my writing life, I focus on my favorite form, the personal essay, though it’s always on my mind to develop my poetry and short stories. My first manuscript digs into memory, and I’m working on my second, which explores parenting in the world of genetic differences.