Monday, September 1, 2014

Erik Shonstrom: In Memoriam: Killing the Academic Essay

Anyone can write an essay.

At least, that’s the implicit assumption in high school and college classrooms. It’s the default assignment, possibly because the essay is so conducive as a vehicle for expression—its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. The personal essay—even with its black-tie guise as the formal ‘academic essay’—is the most readily available form of writing as its genesis is simply the individual expressing ideas. It’s the form that most closely resembles the voice in our heads. Yet it’s also the most difficult type of writing to do well, since writing an essay that speaks urgently from the page—that forces or compels us to reckon with its existence—is akin to passing a driving test with eyes closed: we have to draw on everything we know and remember and also have faith and luck. The essay has become the common currency in school because we’ve developed a cultural belief—either mistakenly or not—that anyone who reads and writes can sit down and pound out a few paragraphs in the first person that interestingly or meaningfully deal with some topic or theme or idea.

I teach writing at a small New England college. I often find myself in bemused, harumphing conversation with other professors; we sit around lamenting the poor quality of student writing, sagely shaking our shaggy, pedantic heads and bemoaning the lack of insight and poise and depth—that word gets thrown around more than Frisbees on the quad—in student writing. It’s not our fault, of course; it’s just that student essays are so thin; dashed off with syntax that’s desperately in need of repair. We can’t even begin to edit developmentally—critically guiding them in constructing arguments—because we’re hung up on fixing grammar, spelling, and tense.

It’s not our fault they can’t write—is it?

Montaigne—who gave equal literary calibration to essays dealing with the political mores of 16th century France and his own farts, thereby codifying that the essay, when properly handled, can approach any subject—was 38 when he started writing. He pioneered an approach that has been replicated with success in myriad forms for almost 500 years: braiding self-reflection, personal experience, literary snippets, and historical context to get at some larger idea or question. It’s a tried and true technique, and one that can be taught. But that’s not really what we want from our essays or our students—didactic follow-through. The thing we want—if we’re honest with ourselves—is that essay that comes at us with a piercing, alley-cat caterwaul that wakes us at night; whispers seductively so we can’t help but acquiesce; nags at us for weeks after we’ve read it, insisting upon contemplation. What we don’t want from the essay is obedience.

Montaigne had lived his whole life—in terms of 16th century life expectancies—before he began writing. E.B. White’s famous essay ‘Once More to the Lake’ was written after White had been both a son and a father and visited the lake in Maine as both—it was the result of multiple incarnations of a life lived.

The essay is the most geologic of genres—it takes time, pressure, and the landscape scouring passage of epochs. I don’t think it’s coincidence that John McPhee wrote his epic study of United States geological history, Annals of the Former World, as a series of linked essays. All writing takes time, but the essay seems particularly well-suited to the sort of historical condensing and finely tuned insight built from sedimentary layers as time passes.

This is not to say that essays can’t be written in bursts—they can—only that taking time to wander around thinking about the world within the words is helpful, as is the passage of time that contributes perspective to both thought and event. For some of us, it’s a necessary function in writing essays.

I ask my students to write essays—due next week!—and either consciously or unconsciously judge them according to my own running list of what I consider to be exemplars of the form; Wallace’s ‘Consider the Lobster,’ Smith’s ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ Birkerts’ ‘The Other Walk.’ I’ve asked for an essay, but not provided the necessary ingredients—time; the vital compression of memory that leads to heat. I shouldn’t be surprised when they hand in dreck.

It’s not necessarily that our students are worse writers than previous generations. It’s a consistent myth that the current college generation is a bunch of texting, Tumblr obsessed non-writers. What is true—at least anecdotally—is that writing as a means of expression has changed structurally for the twenty-something set. Not all of them—there are students where I teach who hole up with novels and essay collections and work on setting down words one at a time to wrestle life into meaning. There are also those that have never read a book in their lives, but most populate the middle of that spectrum; Harry Potter and Hunger Games aficionados who begrudgingly churn out thousand word essays and resignedly read PDFs of Virginia Woolf and Geoff Dyer and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But based on my own admittedly provincial sample, students have moved away from the continuum those of us over the age of thirty are used to. As Ander Monson has noted, the essay is now game, hack, fragment—it is everything and anything that ventures forth. The medium has changed—now we all live our lives as writers online to a certain extent—and we know what McLuhan said. As a result, the essay has changed too—there are new hybrids and mutations that challenge our notion of what an essay is. Which is as it should be.

The role of a writing teacher is both proactive—we need to get our students to see essays and poems and stories the way we see them in order to give them a springboard for their own take on things—but it’s also reactive. We should respond to the way writing is changing by examining the way we teach—and the world within which we do.

Reading and writing essays will always be a boutique experience. It’s hard to find someone in daily life who cares enough to argue about the legitimacy of John D’Agata’s narrative hijinks in About a Mountain. But essays will always be valid because they are—ultimately—reflective both of our internal terrain and the world around us. Regardless of how the world we live in changes and becomes inundated by binary codes and screens, essays can morph right along with it—they are reflective at their core. Essays absorb change. They’re limber.

If we want better writers—and more voracious and demanding readers—then we have to recognize that the dreaded five paragraph academic essay can’t compete with the digital written landscape our students inhabit. But other adventurous forms can.

When we don’t think about what we mean when we say ‘essay,’ we set our students up for failure when we ask them to write them. Better to look at ‘dispatches’ from The Common Online, or pieces that appear in Brevity. These staccato bursts of prose—essayistic snapshots—are more in tune with the fractured idea-world inhabited by our students and ourselves (see here: Twitter, Snapchat, Imgur, Reddit, Instagram, texting). What is essential as a starting point for young writers is not form or formality but a conscious lack thereof. The essay serves as a means of exploration, and whether it’s a rough-hewn dugout canoe or a speedboat, all we need to do is get our students and ourselves navigating upriver to the source of our collective experience.


*

Erik Shonstrom has an MFA in nonfiction from Bennington College, and teaches writing and rhetoric at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. He has been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Circumference, and elsewhere. He can be reached at eshonstrom@champlain.edu

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sarah Minor on Visual Essayists: Installation Four with Julie Chen


           “My personal definition of the book is quite broad, with boundaries that are in constant flux. At the core of my interpretation is the act of reading, and the element of time that is essential to this act.”
–Julie Chen


Glimpse, Julie Chen and Barbara Tetenbaum, 2011


S: You’re a sort of master builder when it comes to book forms. My favorites are your books that involve moving parts. These seem at once game-like (Cat's Cradle, The Guide to Higher Learning, Personal Paradigms) and machine-like (Full-Circle, True to Life). When I consider the mechanics behind multimedia work, Glimpse seems a great example of how a structure moves to physically describe the process of what some call essay or memoir writing--how real life events become narrative visual form. I wonder if the machine-like qualities of your work are intended to draw attention to the process of combination, especially by placing it in the hands of the viewer. Why do you think your books so often, and in so many ways, ask viewers to handle and actively experience them?

J: What I am trying to do in my work is give the reader a physical experience of reading/viewing. The activity of reading a typical (non-artist's book) book is basically a visual one for most people: You take in the content with your eye. This is especially true with e-books, but is also somewhat true even with paper books. The object itself is perceived mainly as a carrier for content (This is of course not the case for people in the book arts and graphic design who tend to be much more aware of how the type, images, paper and binding are all affecting the reading experience). My interest in approaching the book as a medium for art is to get people to interact with the physicality of the book, and to experience the activity of reading haptically. The book form can be so much more than a carrier for content: The book as object can be a significant contributor of the content along with text and image. I have never really considered the "machine" aspect of my work, but it's an interesting idea that I will give more thought to.

S: Cool. I like thinking of the "book as object" as a sort of third element in the experience as well. In regards to games, chance seems a force considered in both the text and forms of your work. I wonder sometimes at the presence of chance in work that combines two media--when and how do pairings happen? Can you talk a bit about how, or if chance plays a role in your own process, and if pairings of text and image seem to happen on their own or "by chance" for you. 




A Guide to Higher Learning, Julie Chen, 2009



J: Funny you should ask this question as chance is something that I have not considered with much in my work, until now. My latest book, Family Tree, consists for 16 wooden cubes with text and image on all 6 sides. One of the reasons I chose this form was to take maximum advantage of the idea of random access of content. There are actually 2.8 trillion permutations possible with 16 cubes. I haven't, of course, tried even a fraction of that number, although I designed the piece to allow for a very wide range of possible meaningful permutations to occur. It all depends on what any individual reader chooses to focus on. People will always search for meaning, so I have a feeling that even though chance can play a significant role in the reading/viewing process, people will tend to gravitate towards combinations of content that they find meaningful. 
The other piece of mine that utilizes chance as a significant factor in the reading/viewing process is Personal Paradigms. Because this piece was designed as a game, chance allows the reader/ participant to enter into a content-making space with some of the decisions pre-made for them. This shortens the process, and also allows the participant to (hopefully) feel freer to make meaningful combinations of ideas that were selected randomly since they do not have to own all the decisions, but instead have to make the best of what they randomly selected. Some limitations in the process of art making are almost always beneficial as being told you can make absolutely anything would paralyze most people, at least temporarily. In general, though, I orchestrate how text and image interact in my work very carefully. In order to give the reader a specific experience of content, I feel I have to control how content is revealed/delivered, except in instances such as with those examples described above, where chance is an intentional contributor to the reading process.

S: Content-making space. Yes. Which medium do you begin with to get to this point with a reader? Is text always present from the beginning? Or do visuals ever come first?

J: The way in which a project begins varies a lot from piece to piece. Once I choose a subject, it can just as easily be structure or image that is the starting point rather than text, although I do have to say that the development of text usually starts fairly early in the process. Once I start working seriously on a piece, everything develops together. I might spend a few days working on the text, but then put that aside to work on image or structure. For me, the book usually develops in an integrated fashion. It's almost never a question of the piece being built around a single sacrosanct element such as the text. Rather, every element is up for adjustment in order to make the piece work.
In some instances, a breakthrough about book structure has caused both the written and visual content of a project to be radically adjusted. This was the case with Panorama, which started out to be a much smaller format book. It wasn't until the voice of the structure fully emerged that it turned out that the piece needed to be very large in order for it to really speak. This involved a lot of adjustments to both text and image after the printing had already begun.




 Panorama, Julie Chen, 2008



S: “The voice of the structure fully emerging” is a really wonderful description of this process. Can you talk a bit more about that moment? I’m curious about instances of emergence like this in which one or both media adjusts so the two can work better together. Does happen for you often at the end of a big project? What do you think brings emerging about?

J: Often when I begin a piece, I only have a vague or very simplistic idea of I where I'm going, but I've learned to trust the process. While moments of emergence sometimes seem to happen suddenly, like a seemingly random flash of inspiration, they really only happen as the result of allowing myself to think about a project over a period of time. I try not to place too much emphasis on the early stages of working on a piece with the goal of finding an answer or solving a problem, but rather of exploring whatever it is that is pushing me in the initial direction that I'm going in. I try to hold things as loosely as I can for as long as possible, and am still often surprised at the unexpected directions that projects sometimes go in. It's always less stressful if these moments happen on the front end of a project, but I've definitely had big changes in my thinking happen midway or even later in a project. There is usually a moment though, after which big changes are totally unfeasible, and once that point arrives, a lot of soul searching happens about whether or not the new thing is really vital to the project. 

S: At the heart of this interview series is a search on my part for a language of craft that describes when and how art+text functions. Do you have terms for the ways words partner with visuals successfully in the book arts? I can see how some might describe this quality simply by naming the binding type or book form, but there seems something more to be said about how ideas are conveyed via a codex vs. a tunnel book, and that this is about more than the echoing of content and form.

J: I definitely think the way in which text and structure works together is more than just one echoing the other. I don't have any specific language to describe how text and structure work together but do think that it has something to do with the way we perceive objects. If the object in question is a traditional codex book, even the most informed of book art audiences is going to automatically go into "codex mode", meaning they have subconsciously prepared to read in ways in which a typical codex is usually read. When the book in question turns out to not follow known or expect rules, people will quickly adjust their expectations and respond to what is actually happening in the book vis a vis the text. But that initial assumption about the object is something that book artists who use the codex form simply have to be aware of and figure out how to subvert. With non-traditional book forms, the expectations are much less ingrained, although with informed book art audiences, there will certainly be some kind of preconceived expectation with known forms such as the tunnel book or flag book. But even so, our cultural expectations about what a codex "is" is so much more ingrained in our thinking that people are much more willing and able to have open minds when it comes to reading text in non-codex formats.



How Books Work, Julie Chen and Clifton Meador, 2011



S: There’s something really curious going on here in the way audiences learn to perceive and experience objects containing text that has to do with the lens of “book as object.” I once heard your work described as "sculptural vessels for the written word," which I liked, but I’ve been treading lightly lately in labeling which media carries the other when combination is involved, especially from calling forms "containers" because I like to think that the components carry equal weight, not one another. Do you ever think of your material/physical work as a vessel for its language? Do you have another means to describe the relationship?

J: I definitely do not consider the physical part of the work to be a container for the content part of the work. The physical object, including the structure, materials, and media is a full partner with text and image to create the meaning of the piece. They are separable on a technical level, of course, but take any one element away, and the whole thing loses its identity. I don't really have a single word to describe the relationship of text and image to the physical object, but this question makes me realize that I should come up with an articulate way to explain this.




Cat's Cradle, Julie Chen, 2013



S: I like the term “partner” here because of its nod to dance, and because it suggests something like a marriage (which seems an overused term in multimedia circles) that is based more on the work at hand rather than a pre-arranged agreement, but maybe it's my idea of marriage that's the problem there.
Among the makers I'm interviewing for this series, your work might push the idea of "text" the furthest. Many of your pieces reside in museums, as well as libraries, but are produced in often very limited editions. Where, in an ideal world, would an audience encounter your work? How much does the issue of audience come up for you? What about the argument about how few people encounter an artist's book in their lives? Are the book arts not a form dedicated to the masses?

J: I have been asked this question many times before, and I would like to answer with a question: Why is a limited edition perceived as being inaccessible when there are a number of copies available for viewing (as opposed to other types of art such as painting and sculpture where there is only one)? In the case of many of my editions, such as Panorama, there are 100 copies in the world, many of which reside in libraries. All it takes is for someone to go one of those libraries (in some cases, there is a need to make an appointment) and the book will be placed in their hands. Unlike unique works of art that are only accessible when they are displayed in exhibitions, the limited edition artist's book actually is quite accessible. Interested parties in most regions of the US could see one of my books without too much difficulty by going to the special collections section of the nearest university library. Even if a person happened to know that an institution owned a painting, sculpture, or even a print, it is very unlikely that they would be able to access those works when the pieces were not on display.
            In regard to the second part of your question about books being a form dedicated to the masses, I agree with the premise, but make the distinction between books and artists' books. I think book artists are like other type of artists: we make work for an audience and want our work to be viewed and/or experienced. Do most artists make work that is dedicated to be experienced by the masses? I think the answer is no. Should books in their general form (as opposed to their artistic form) be available to the masses? Of course. Do some book artists have the intention of creating artists' books with the intention of disseminating them to the masses? Certainly. Is that my intention as an artist? Not really. While I do want my work to be experienced by as many people as possible, it is intended to be an intimate experience between the reader and the book. The technical complexity of what I am doing, and my belief that the materials, media and structure of the piece all contribute significantly to the experience of the reader, along with the content, means that my production is generally necessarily limited to relatively small editions. But I do feel that they are very accessible by art standards.




View, Julie Chen, 2007



S: That’s well said, and raises some important distinctions. Your first question addresses how the book arts span two mainstream medias that place perhaps incompatible expectations on the form. This makes me think: Is this because the process of making an artist's book is more book-like, and the reproducing and accessing is more art-like? Or is it still somewhere between—that a piece of book art is more accessible than a painting but less than a novel and access will always be imperfect? Or perhaps the publication process for book arts is fitting after all, because it mimics the doubled-nature of book art even after the physical work is complete. 
You situate yourself and your intentions more in in the camp of visual artists, and your work is certainly accessible by those standards. But as multimedia image+text work morphs further to include more text-heavy works, do you think the right place for the artist's book will always be in a special collection—somewhere between a museum gallery and the stacks of a library?—or might the ways we reproduce and access these works evolve with their mediums?

J: While I understand the impulse to want to move artists' books from the library to the gallery, I have conflicting feelings about this. While I do consider what I do to be visual art, I also firmly believe that my books have to be handled in order to be experienced fully. This makes the library model much more in keeping with the type of interaction that I am wanting my audience to be able to have with my books. There is a gallery in the Bay Area, Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, that has an annual artist's book exhibition every Spring. Donna Seager, one of the owners of the gallery, has maintained a hands-on approach to these exhibitions, allowing viewers to handle the books with white gloves, creating a type of hybrid experience between a library and gallery such as you mention in your question. Unfortunately, the gallery has had to scale back on this approach due to wear and tear issues on the work in past exhibitions, although Donna will be happy to show anyone a book page by page if asked. The idea of a hybrid space in which artists' books are treated as art, but which also allows viewer/readers to interact with the works as in a library, is something to strive for.

S: True that. It seems our spaces of display are behind in the ways they prompt or dissuade interaction with the things displayed. Thanks, Julie.







Julie Chen is an internationally renowned book artist and educator known for her work that combines text with three-dimensional, movable book structures, and fine letterpress printing. She has been producing limited-edition book works under the Flying Fish Press imprint for the past 25 years. Chen’s artists’ books can be found in many collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She teaches in the book art program at Mills College in Oakland, California, as well teaching workshops at institutions around the country. She lives and works in Berkeley, California. See more of Chen’s work here. All images courtesy of Flying Fish Press. 


Sarah Minor is from the great state of Iowa. She is a PhD student in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. Her visual essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Word Riot, Conjunctions, Seneca Review, Black Warrior Review, South Loop Review, and PANK. More here, soon.  





Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kati Standefer and Rafael de Grenade on Bad Journals, Poor Decision-Making, and the Hazards of Writing Our Younger Selves

Not long ago, I was interviewing writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade for the High Country News about her arid lands research and recently-released memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback (Milkweed Editions 2014), when we stumbled into irrelevant terrain. Irrelevant, that is, to the task at hand—but not irrelevant to my own work as a writer. Rafael was reflecting on the challenges she faced in her new writing project, The Zephyr, a memoir about the time she spent working on a fishing boat on the coast of Alaska when she was in her early twenties. She was finding it daunting, she said, to step back into her younger voice, particularly when her writing had grown past that voice in many ways. I found myself hungry for such reflections, since my own current book project—which traces the supply chain of my internal cardiac defibrillator—requires blending present-moment reflections with the experiences of my twenty-four-year-old (and quite freaked out) self, who had just been diagnosed with a potentially-fatal arrhythmia.

Rafael and I met one afternoon last week at the edge of the University of Arizona campus, where she drank a gingerade and I sipped an espresso as we explored what it means to confront and nurture our younger selves on the page. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for readability.



K: In Stilwater, as well as your work-in-progress, The Zephyr, you’ve had to write from the perspective of your younger self. I want to talk about the act of having to go back to journals. You mentioned in some of our past conversations that when you hear the voice of your younger self you’re grateful for the information, but you also have to make difficult choices about what you do with that information.

R: I feel this question raises tension, and the tension exists within the self. As you get older, experiences accumulate, and your world view becomes more complex. And so the voice on the page is one of increasing wisdom through time. We all want to be infinitely wise. And we want to be funny. Part of that being funny comes from seeing the ironies, from juxtaposing what you see with what you’ve seen before and putting it into context. However, we also, if we’re not careful, can become cynical. We can become hardened and somewhat dull. As these experiences layer over time, you lose the freshness of what it is to be nascent in this world.

Youth offers a skin that hasn’t been hardened. It’s new. Experiences intersect you in a way more raw and more immediate. We tend to be more present when we’re young. When we’re older, it’s easier not to live in the moment, to get caught up in what we think are important things--you have to pay the bills, you have to have a job, you have to make money; we’ve got families and our careers to think about, and all these layers tend to deaden the senses. As a young woman first encountering the world, I felt a sense of awe—I was in the middle of an unknown place, nowhere I’d ever thought I would be, and I had no predetermined idea of the outcome.

The idea of using the combined strengths of the young and wise voices is something infinitely beautiful—with remarkable possibility. I appreciate the depth that comes with added years, because life in some ways gets easier. I had a hard time growing up. It was challenging to be myself as a young woman in a very masculine world. The stresses and the tensions… I don’t want to go back to who I was then. And I’m grateful that I wrote while I was having those experiences. Though it’s so much harder now to put myself again in the skin of who I was, and take that experience to the next level in the writing. You don’t want too much youth and you don’t want too much wisdom, it almost needs to be this perfect balance, and to hit that tone is challenging.

K: I’m really interested in how you decided whether to narrate from that present, as the person you were then, versus narrating from this present.

R: I didn’t really make that choice. When I first wrote Stilwater, it was right after I’d had the experience, and that was the version that was accepted by the press. It was hard then to weave in the depth, because each sentence had to be taken apart and the words changed subtly one way or another to convey that it was indeed a more complex picture. I worked on the story intermittently for a period of about eight years. And the more recent pieces were the hardest because I was farthest away. The thought process I have now is not the thought process I had then. I had to make that process feel seamless; I had to rethink as a young woman, rethink as a maturing woman, but not necessarily be the woman I am now. It was a displacement of character.

K: Do you feel like there are things in that book that someone could bring up, say, at a reading, that you feel differently about now? They could quote you, and you could say, that’s not necessarily true for me anymore?

R: Yes, yes, I do. Youth comes with idealism. Because we want the world to be special. We want it to be beautiful, we want things to be fairy tales.

K: To have so much meaning.

R: Yes! It’s easy to get passionate, and there’s a high that comes with that passion. We think we’re right and we know we’re right. As we mature, our experiences complicate that idealism. Things aren’t so clear.

K: And so in a sense by choosing stories like Stilwater or The Zephyr, where you’re young and it’s this very particular time in your life, you get to return to that juicy youthfulness.

R: Yes. Although it’s difficult. Because you can’t enter the body anymore. It doesn’t fit. The skin has grown too small, and the voice loses credibility. So it’s easy then to write as an older person and not sound like the young woman, and of course I don’t want to be her anymore, I’ve outgrown her. There’s a retraction that must happen to put yourself back in that place, and yet she, as the character, needs to be big enough that other people want to pick up the story and read it. Not everyone wants to be forced into a youthful view unless there are openings for new wisdom. So it needs to be a character that still has insights and still can show you more about the world than you know, even though she’s young and her vision hasn’t gone through a metamorphosis yet.

K: Initially I thought we’d talk about the book project I’m working on now. But in this conversation I keep thinking about the essay I haven’t been able to write. Maybe I think about it with you because it was the summer that I worked at a fish cannery in Kenai. I was twenty, and I’d just done a summer study abroad class in Italy, so I needed to earn my whole summer’s money in a month. I had this cognitive dissonance of flying home from Europe and 42 hours later setting up my tent behind a factory on the other side of the world. No one knew I had just come from studying Dante in Europe, and I was one of maybe three women when I started.

Back then I was primarily a fiction writer, and I always knew something was there, in that story. I spent a lot of time trying to craft narratives around the factory in the two years directly afterward, trying to tap into whatever that was. But I think the perspective wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t really see what the story was.

Now I look at it, and I don’t know how to paint myself, because the journals are so… They’re focused on strange things. I wrote so much about who was cute, about these interactions that I thought were very intense, that, looking back, were not such a big deal. The things I’m interested in now are completely different. I feel tugged between these two sets of interests; one is narrative and would really explore the bodily experience of that person. What it felt like to work nineteen hours a day packing frozen fish. What it felt like when the trailers full of immigrant guys out back wanted me to come over to their fire, to drink their cheap beer, when I knew I’d be the only woman. How I held out and tried to create a space where I would be safe, and men would come sit by my fire and tell me crazy things about their lives. And how I’d wander around this peninsula accidentally stumbling upon the ocean, on our rare days off. There was a lot of magic.

R: It sounds amazing.

K: But then the intellectual side of me wants to talk about the sociological aspects of the fish cannery. To talk about labor and factories and the strange Alaska job market.

R: It sounds to me like the more interesting story would be the first one you just told. If you could tell that well. If you could not be the young woman but the lens looking at the young woman, be hovering around the young woman, I think you could tell a great story. Maybe that’s because I’ve been immersed in science and I just don’t find it that interesting anymore.

K: You’re hungry for story.

R: I’m hungry for story! And who isn’t hungry for story? Although… I think many of us crave knowledge also. We don’t just want entertainment. We want to learn while we are reading, but in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re just processing information.

Still, the problem with a story is that something has to happen. Even if it is an internal transformation.

K: Which brings us back to the initial problem. Because how do you craft the internal landscape of someone who is rather mystifying to you now? When I look at those journals… wow.

The summer before I went to Alaska, I was nineteen and working at this wilderness school in Wyoming, and I fell in love with my co-instructor. We never even kissed, but we would sleep next to each other in this tent every night with the campers nearby. So it was this very fraught, passionate, unconsummated thing that went sour by the end of the summer, as happens. I spent the whole next year torturing myself about it, especially on the trip to Italy, where I’d been studying Dante’s relationship with Beatrice. Everything was very dramatic and romantic.

So I landed in this fish cannery, and here’s the kind of thing I was noticing in the experience: The boxes said, “Keep Frozen: Perishable.” We were loading fish that had been frozen to -30 degrees. They were already dead. So perishable? What did that even mean? It seemed stupid to me. And the leap I made at as a twenty-year-old was, “It’s just like my heart.”

R: Yes!

K: Like, “If I’m not loving again it’s like I’m already dead, so why am I trying to protect myself so much?” It was this very emotionally fraught, endless sort of metaphorical thinking—about fish processing. Which: A) is not really the way I think anymore, but also, B) I think it would look silly on the page. I can’t figure out how you honor that person. Earlier, you were talking about the gentleness we can afford our younger selves—saying in a sense, “How wonderful that you were so in love with things, and so plugged into this search for metaphor! But also? You’re kind of silly.” How do I write that and not mock her? Or do I write that experience and just ignore all the metaphorical frozen fish stuff, everything she thought was so important?

R: I wouldn’t ignore it. But I wouldn’t necessarily write it. Just telling you as a spontaneous reaction. I can’t even read my early journals. When I was twenty. It’s so full of love and lust and love lost.

K: Ugh, yes! Reasons they should not publish our journals.

R: But that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a really sensitive young woman there. And perhaps there are other elements of the story that can be brought to the forefront and heightened. But don’t dwell on the obvious, or don’t dwell on what this woman was dwelling on, spice it in there. What if you were to not reveal that side of that person but gently do it, or do it subtly, like don’t say what she’s thinking but describe the boxes of fish when you’re talking about her being brokenhearted. Mention the broken heart. Maybe it needs to be done with just a pinch of salt. Go there. I don’t think it should be avoided, but you don’t need to dwell on it. I think anyone would prefer the rest of the story.

K: Earlier, you were talking about not appreciating some of your younger self’s decision-making, and at what point one is strong enough to write those threads rather than cutting them out.

R: [laughing] Never!

K: In this book that I’m working on now, there are two selves we see. There’s a present-time self who’s on a journey to understand the global supply chain impacts of her internal cardiac defibrillator. Then there’s a younger self who pitches face-first into a gravel lot one day. She learns she has a potentially-fatal arrhythmia, doesn’t have insurance, and spends many months thinking she’s going to die, trying to figure out how to access that expensive technology... while sort of loathing it. Both selves are wary about technology.

That young person—I cannot ignore her part in the narrative. Medically, it’s so important. That extended period of waiting, having trouble accessing the device, and being afraid of it, but being more afraid of not having it—this encompasses a lot of what the defibrillator has meant to me, and that’s really the goal of the book, to unpack what a defibrillator is from several different angles. Still, I have felt a lot of shame around the way she acted. She was immature and in a lot of pain. And what I notice as a researcher when I look at my journals from that period is that I was really, really good at writing down every terrible thing my boyfriend at the time did—he was my caretaker through the whole process, and we broke up right after my last hospitalization. It would be really easy in that story to demonize him, because I’ve got that dialogue. It’s really juicy nonfictional material, but I don’t have all these other things written down, all the ways I was lashing out. And my memories are somewhat blank. And so I’ve been hesitant to write it, not trusting that person on the journal pages.

I’m hoping I’m a mature enough individual to be able to write my younger self’s actions without infusing the story with that kind of shame—because nobody wants to read a manuscript full of self-castigation. I think that’s really destructive. I want to write the actions without any infusion of self-malice or judgment. Let the reader do the judging. And on the other hand, I’ll need to not protect myself in some regards—to not hide what’s ugly. So this been a really scary thing. And some of the essays I write and I’m like, whoa. Talk about writing as personal transformation. Writing can be a form of calling yourself out on your shit, because once you see those thoughts on the page, they stand out starkly. You know immediately—oh, that’s not the book that I want to write.

R: It makes me think about my own life right now, and recognize that I am still that way. I don’t call myself out on some things, and I don’t take responsibility maybe where I should. And so I think this is an ongoing process. And I would say, you are a novelist.

K: [laughing] You would say that I am a novelist?

R: Exercise your fiction writing in this instance. Make a character, based on the real character. That might allow you to explore who she also was. Give her three or four different hats, and you will subconsciously be drawing from yourself. Have you worked with archetypes at all in story writing?

K: No, I haven’t.

R: It’s really beautiful. It transformed the way I view characters. It makes them much more multi-faceted. You should read Carol Myss, read Carl Jung. The idea is that we are not one. We are multiple. And these multiple facets of the self respond and relate and embody and transform age-old patterns. So the king and the queen, the teacher, the servant, the artist and the writer, the child, the teenager, the young woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and goes out into the world, the joker--each of these beings are archetypal frameworks that we plug into as human beings. And we work with them subconsciously—sometimes consciously—but they guide us subconsciously until we actually have the strength to be conscious and transform our actions.

If you tap into archetypes while you’re writing—who are the archetypes guiding this young woman? Was she the spoiled princess? Or was she the whore? She wasn’t just one, she was many. And that might allow you the freedom to explore the complexity of her character but not bind yourself to a supposed truth of the past. Because the way that you’re seeing her as one facet—which is largely from your journals--is not the truth. She was complex. As we are now. The way to get into that story might be to break it.

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Rafael de Grenade is the author of Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback (Milkweed Editions, 2014). She is currently working on “transboundary water security in the arid Americas” as a postdoctoral research associate at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona.

Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where she teaches composition and creative writing. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Colorado Review, TheAtlantic.com, Fugue, the High Country News, Edible Baja Arizona, Camas, and Terrain.org. She spends most of her time in downtown Tucson, drinking Americanos and watching the monsoons blow in.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lyzette Wanzer on the Sudden Essay Fitness Center


           
While I am historically a fiction writer, I’m always going to have an interest in writing the sudden essay. It’s good for me, as the one issue that plagues me in longer works is stamina. I tend towards the shortwinded, and suffer compositional stitches in the side during extended work. Will I ever be a cross-country novelist? Not likely. But here’s an interesting find: writing within the constraints of the sudden or “flash” form primes my work in longer forms.

How does a new marathoner prepare for race day? Not by running the entire 26 miles every week, but by tackling a series of shorter distances, then perhaps a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon. Sudden forms teach us to cut the unnecessary, regardless of how enamored we might be of a superfluous phrase, sentence, or image. Flash pieces—both fiction and essay--tune our ears, sharpen our observational powers, teach us economic construction, and hone our editing skills. We learn to pack the singular, vital, splendid clue into an eye blink of space, and not jump the gun. Pretty discursive romps? Out!

Are flash essays meant for readers with short attention spans? If you’re asking me, I’ll say no. Flash essays are like Tibetan tantric poems: not very long, but one can scarcely tear through them in two minutes, flip the page, and move on to the next. You don’t do that with a brief poem, do you? Readers ought to be willing to read a poem more than once to obtain the full sense. There’s a time for strolling, and a time for sprinting. And a sprint, though swift, is scarcely a plain matter. Popular culture, with its penchant for the large, the continuous, and the grandiose, takes the fall for the erroneous presumption that short equals simple.

The sudden essay is a balancing act, wherein an author walks the beam between poetry and prose. I mentioned earlier that I tend to be shortwinded. Hobbled by this handicap, I need to take special care to abridge, rather than attenuate. In a sudden essay—or, for that matter, sudden fiction—readers should “hear” something coming, even if they can’t immediately identify what’s hurtling towards them.

Abridge, not attenuate. A tricky exploit, requiring some derring-do. How may we use subtle reference and indirect implication to make the most of a limited space? Condensation is key, but we’ve got to take care not to leave gaps that the reader can’t leap with us.

Charles Simic, known for his succinct, imagistic poetry, happens to be an exceptional essayist—and an inspiring one. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, in his 2008 Writers Chronicle article “Writing a Shadowbox: Joseph Cornell & the Lyric Essayists,” refers to Simic as an example of a master lyric (and compact!) essayist at work. (You may know that Cornell was a collector and self-taught modern artist best known for his shadow boxes; hence Fletcher’s article title.) Fletcher’s article is about lyric essays, not sudden essays, but his notion of being able to write a shadowbox comes very close to what I consider as writing the sudden essay. Simic himself—wholly apart from this article—had this to say about Cornell, images, and that necessary but nebulous quality that I referred to earlier as “hearing something coming”:

There really are three kinds of images. First there are those seen with the eyes wide open in the manner of realists in art and literature. Then there are the images that are seen with the eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes, however, are a third kind. They partake in both reality and dream, something that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s work, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither is sufficient. It’s the mingling of the two that make up the third image.
           
When I write a sudden essay, I glance—often—at the quote above to keep me in the right mindset.

Following, then, are what I consider the main takeaways from my sudden essay laps:
           
Marvelous, moving narrative supported with specific, concise descriptions is essential. Each sentence—perhaps every word in each sentence?—endeavors to advance the story. 

Diction, phraseology, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, syllabic continuity or discontinuity, all carry heightened import in flash essays.  

Endings need not be tied with neat bows. Endings, while not necessarily resolved or absolute, do need to be earned.       

A beginning may well start in media res. The floor and ceiling of the work take shape during the telling. Which telling should be the fruit of a compelling delivery wound within a reduced, definable, space.

Remember Romanticist Robert Southey’s (1774-1843) wisdom: “It is with words as with sunbeams. 
The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Joseph Cornell, visit http://www.josephcornellbox.com. It’s a neat site. And, if you’d like to try your own hand at writing a shadowbox, dig up the March/April 2008 Writer’s Chronicle. Fletcher’s article begins on page 44.

There you go. Feeling stronger?



Lyzette Wanzer (@INTJs_rock) received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Read one of her sudden essays in the Winter 2011 issue of Callaloo, or see an excerpt here: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/callaloo/v034/34.1.wanzer.pdf A flash form connoisseur, Lyzette’s work has appeared in Tampa Review, The MacGuffin, Ampersand, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Fringe Magazine, International Journal on Literature and Theory, Pleiades, and others. She is a contributor to The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2012) and 642 Tiny Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2015). She’s currently at work on an essay collection entitled Gelatin Prints. Visit her at www.linkedin.com/in/ lyzettewanzer.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Melanie Bishop: a Q&A with Kelly Sundberg

Following Melanie Bishop's post yesterday, Essay Daily presents her Q&A with Kelly Sundberg.


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On the day I was finalizing my review of Kelly Sundberg's essay, "It Will Look Like a Sunset," I searched for her on LinkedIn and Facebook, found her both places, and sent her private messages. I identified myself as a fan, told her I was reviewing her essay, and asked if she'd be willing to answer a few questions. She was wonderfully gracious, taking time to answer my questions that same day, from Idaho, at her summer job in  the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Our email conversation follows. 

Q: You say on your blog that the publication of "It Will Look Like a Sunset" led to over 20,000 views of your blog. My guess is by now that number is much higher. The essay is worthy of readers due to its literary value, but also as an essay that pioneers the outing of abusers, encouraging other women who may be stuck in similar relationships to see them for what they are. Your honesty with yourself, as portrayed in the essay, helps other women take off their blinders and SEE. So the essay has societal and cultural application and relevance, not to mention relevance to psychology, women's studies, men's studies and gender studies. How would you describe this phase of your career, from when the essay first appeared in Guernica to the immediate reception of it, to the traffic that led to your blog, to the weeks and months following, up to right now. You wrote a potent and groundbreaking and brave essay, one that couldn't have been easy to write. It was very well-received. You became, almost overnight, someone any abused woman could go to for understanding and support. How has this been, on your end? Is the hype still happening? Was it brief? Where has it led you? Update me on you and your writing since this essay launched a kind of seismic shift for you as a writer.

A: The attention this essay has received has changed the way I see myself as a writer. In the past, I wrote quiet, literary essays that were published in literary journals and read by an extremely select audience. I had never written anything that had such a large readership, although I had written pieces that were very personal. In response to this essay, I've received hundreds of letters and emails from survivors of domestic violence. Those letters are mostly from women who have survived to see the other side, so it has been extremely validating and rewarding, rather than discouraging. I see all of these beautiful, strong, and successful women who I never would have suspected had survived abuse, and it tells me that I'm not alone in my experience. Abuse is so isolating. As a victim of abuse, I needed to know that I wasn't alone. I looked for stories like mine, and I wasn't finding them, so I decided to write mine. I made myself completely naked on the pages of that essay. In order to do that, I had to remove an idea of audience from my mind while I was writing the essay, so now, knowing that the essay has had such a large audience has created a kind of disconnect. I've become more aware of my writer persona. I am, of course, the woman who wrote that essay, but I'm also a silly person who likes to laugh a lot and dance-walk while I'm on my evening walks. No essay could fully encapsulate the whole experience of who I am, so sometimes, when I'm talking to someone new, someone who hasn't read my writing (and who doesn't know my story) I'm relieved just to be able to relax and be what, I'm ashamed to admit, I think of as "normal." Maybe that's what it comes down to. It's still hard for me to think of myself as normal, and I know that many people don't think of abuse survivors as normal, so with my essay, I'm hoping to show that we are normal.

I had never sent an essay to Guernica, I didn't think my work was political enough, but on an impulse, I decided to send this one to them. The essay was personal, but also political. I knew I had a story to tell that could make a difference if I could get the readers. The initial response was overwhelming, and then, months later, it became even more so because Cheryl Strayed and NPR mentioned the essay, so the popularity and the hype have continued now for a number of months. I'm fortunate that, in the summer, I work a non-writing related job. The folks I encounter know nothing about me or my writing, and it's good for keeping me grounded, for not letting me escape into a world where I'm so trapped in the life of my writing mind that I'm not enjoying my day-to-day life. I'm not sure if I'm articulating that well, but it's very easy to get swept up into the hype of an essay that gets a lot of attention. It can become kind of euphoric and crushing in a way, and it's important to me to remain grounded because, in my day-to-day life, I am still working very hard to recover from the effects of abuse. I have to remind myself sometimes that the abuse is still very fresh, that I am not fully on the other side, and I need to be mindful and active about how I live my life. I don't want to live on any more roller-coasters, and that includes writing-related roller-coasters.

Q: You mention in your interview on Brevity, that your next book is about surviving abuse. Is this, like Demolition, a collection of essays, or is it a memoir? Where are you with this project? Do you have an agent? A potential publisher? Time off to actually write the thing?

A: The book I'm working on is another book of linked essays. In addition to "It Will Look Like a Sunset," I've also published an essay, "The Sharp Point in the Middle" at Pank that looks at the abuse from a different angle, and I have an essay coming out shortly about dealing with the grief of divorce. I also have other pieces I'm working on that look at different elements of my life and experience. The essays I've written recently have been evolving naturally into a collection, and I think they will make a very strong book. I don't have an agent yet, but I have been contacted by an editor at a major publisher who is interested in the book, and we're gearing up to have an agent discussion. I'm hopeful that the book will be published.

Logistically, it is hard for me to find writing time. I'm getting my PhD, I have to work during the summers, and I raise my child by myself, so I don't have the luxury of writing time. I've been looking at some grants that offer funding to writers who have children, and I'm trying to figure out some different ways that I can take some time off during the summer to finish the book. I'd love to get a grant that allowed me to take next summer off from working and dedicate myself fully to my writing for a few months, but if that doesn't happen, I'll keep fitting my writing in when I can. That's the reality of being a single parent and a writer, but I look at all of these challenges and tell myself that I can do it. I feel incredibly empowered right now. A few years ago, I was in a relationship where my partner had me convinced that I could do nothing on my own. He even drove me to work in the morning and picked me up in the evenings. Now, when I look at what I've accomplished, I feel so capable. I know that I can raise my child, get my PhD, and write a book, and do all of those things well.

Q: In your July 14th post on your blog, Apology Not Accepted, you say that one reason you've not been blogging so much is you are happy. You say that when you started the blog, you were "so angry." Clearly that anger was not only warranted and healthy, it was productive for you as a writer, urging you to write about your abuse, your dissolved marriage, single parenthood, and that letter of apology you received, court-mandated and ridiculously inadequate, in which your ex acted like his arrest was the hardest thing on everyone involved. (Hello narcissism.) Given all that, and given that you've made such admirable progress, not just as person, woman, survivor, but as a writer and articulator of the human experience, how do you move from being the person/writer who wrote this career-changing essay to being the person/writer you are becoming? How does the label "abuse survivor" help or hinder you as you take the next steps? When you move on to focus on other topics, will you still be willing to be an ear for women and men who are more in the trenches of exiting abusive relationships? And will Apology Not Accepted always exist as a place for those people to find community and strength in numbers?

A: This is such an interesting question because, in response to that post, a friend wrote me and told me she was concerned that I was letting my past define me. She knew I had so many other stories to tell. Her message upset me a bit, even though I knew it came from a place of love, because I think she was buying into an all-too familiar narrative of healing, which is that, once we're healed, we no longer feel the need to talk about what happened. I am working towards a place of healing. I have no doubt about that, and because of that, I'm able to write about it. Sometimes I want to tell people, "Don't worry about me because I'm telling my story. Worry about all of the women who aren't telling their story." I do, however, worry about the label abuse survivor because, of course, there is so much more to me than that. My friend was right on that point. I do have many other stories, and I want to tell those stories too. I don't want my only story to be that I was abused, and I worry that will become the way people perceive me, the narrative that defines me. As I continue forward in my writing though, and as I move on to other topics, I'm not going to lose sight of the past that helped shape me, so I can't imagine the abuse will ever truly be absent from my writing, and I don't think it needs to be. I think that writing about my suffering has made me a better person, a more understanding person, and a more empathetic listener. Abuse isn't the only type of suffering. We have other losses as well, and I've found that the blog doesn't only appeal to people who have been abused. Many people who have been hurt in other ways have read the blog and found something meaningful within it. I started that blog out of anger, and it has been the most rewarding writing project I have ever undertaken, so I want to keep it as a resource for others, and that might mean finding more guest bloggers or writing about different topics. The blog is completely organic to me. I don't approach it like I approach my other writing. There is no planning involved. I just sit down and write what needs to be written, and I think that writing has ended up being some of my strongest.