Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Wading, Or the Importance of the Story in the Situation

While going through Prairie Schooner’s nonfiction slush—what editors call, perhaps unfairly, the lake of submissions they wade through to find the pieces that float—I encounter the essay daily, see writers grappling with the most extreme circumstances on the page or meditating on the most mundane. Some essays have the power of voice, the power to speak to a reader beyond the page, to compel and propel a reader to and through an essay. An essay begins: “I was nineteen the spring I broke my back and lay flat on the carpet next to my parents’ age-swollen grand piano. The ceiling hung low and the sky above it lower, and even my clothes draped heavy over me in those days.” When I encountered O’Connell’s Only X-rays Are Black and White, it was the lyricism and wisdom of her voice—the way she spoke about her experience as a dancer and the moment when her body broke and gave way, and her reflection on human pain and the body’s unreliability—that distinguished her piece from the thousands of submissions I’d read since beginning work as the genre’s Assistant Editor a few years prior.

Some essays have powerhouse images—the thin edge of a grasshopper’s leg, the dance of a heart monitor—that deliver a swift kick to the heart or throat, a roundhouse to the amygdala so soon the reader is swooning, moving through his or her own memories in response to the words. “In the pineapple is the fiber we’ve been looking for, the sweet yellow threadiness we’d never confuse for stitches, for wound,” Matthew Gavin Frank explains in The Beginning of the End of Hummingbird Cake, a lyric collage built on image and sound, readers understanding exactly what he means though they’ve never heard it described this way before.
Some essays have a rhythm that creates for readers, right there on the page, the feel of a Georgia rainstorm or the sound of railroad tracks as the author rattles across the country after the dissolution of a marriage. Some essays incorporate research and fact to illuminate the author’s experiences and insights. Some essays use form in interesting ways—white space indicates silence after the death of a child, fragmented syntax mirrors the disorientation of moving to a new country without a common language. Steven Church’s Fight, Bull intersperses quotes from Bernie Goetz with Church’s resistant meditation on violence and the culture that values it, and soon Goetz’s interruptions and a story from Church’s past bring the writer surprisingly close to rage.

The essays that sing out from the slush, those that make me pause over the page, read and reread, are those whose ideas linger long throughout the day and well into the evening, those that sit like sugar at the edge of my brain, where they glisten and crust over, crystals saved for later. In The Situation and the Story Vivian Gornick describes the best nonfiction by saying, “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it's that wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.”
The last time I spent a Sunday afternoon with the words of our submitters, I encountered essays about a childhood in Brooklyn, about a trip to India, about taking care of an ill husband, about baking bread, and about drinking tea. While some of the situations were extreme or amazing, often the stories were not. Sometimes situations that seemed mundane shared a powerful story and wisdom. Some essays with extreme forms said nothing, while some essays that were seemingly simplistic spoke volumes. Sometimes the inverse was true.

The essays that worked best were those that delivered a nugget on the human experience, that moved beyond the what to explore the how and the why on much larger levels. They were those that dwelled in complexity. They were those pieces that did not rely on the extremes of circumstance or emotion, those that resisted the easy narrative, the simple resolution. Often, essays that were memorable were those that swam in the gray area between being and feeling, remembering and knowing.

As Gornick explains, “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In his forthcoming essay, Place de Clichy, Jacob Newberry’s time abroad in Paris is not entirely original—many readers and writers share this experience—but his insight and haunting spirit are what permeate the page. When he writes, “Paris, for those of us from the South, is a cathedral in the sky, an unapproachable crossroads of the wars we’re taught about and the monuments to their honor that we’re certain we’ll never get to see,” he transcends experience and moves into the realm of wisdom.

While humans share many of the same situations—we receive many submissions about dying grandparents or the loss of a lover, finding solace in addictive behavior or the same meandering rivers—we each have different stories, different insights we find in these shared experiences, and here lies the heart of the genre. This is also where the many subgenres derive from—travel and food writing, the memoir and the more distant historical account, literary and immersion journalism, the linear biography and the delightful disorientation of the lyric essay—for while our same experiences can be told in the same ways, our wisdoms cannot.

Thus it is no great surprise the genre takes many forms. Memoir may be Mary Karr’s tender grit or the playfully-meta Dave Eggers. Essayists might explore place quietly like Annie Dillard or dive headfirst into a foreign experience like Ted Conover. Nonfiction claims the formidable elegance of Joan Didion, but also David Shields’s surprising use of collage. The ability of our situations to assume so many stories, to be told in so many forms is what attracts readers to the genre. And this mutability, this ability to morph and seemingly distort our common situations—like writers John D’Agata and Lauren Slater—is also what angers people about the genre.

The larger point is this: the genre should take many forms. Our stories impact the way we tell our situations. Form is determined by function; sensibility renders style. Each time I sit down to read through the work authors have sent to us with care, entrusted to us to read and respect, I am looking for those pieces that speak to the inquiring core in each of us, the essays that find the story in the situation and tell it in the unique way only the writer who has lived and felt and meditated can explain. While our responsibility as editors is to find and publish great work—no matter the subject or form, great work always shines—nonfiction editors also have a responsibility to showcase the diversity of the genre. Nonfiction is, after all, a way of putting consciousness onto the page and so the nonfiction contained in a journal’s pages should fully represent the vast scope of human consciousness.

The next time I sit to read the situations and stories writers have sent in the hopes of publication, I will no doubt find many that are the same—once I came across three essays about a father’s hands and four about foreclosure, all within the space of an hour—but because it is craft that captures the reader’s careful ear or their secret wanderlust or their melancholy heart, only a few will rise to the top of the slush, float along the surface of so many others and dance upon the page.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Assistant Editor-Nonfiction for several years. She is the author of the chapbook, The Astronaut Checks His Watch, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3 and others.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tommy Mira y Lopez on Charles Baxter's "What Happens in Hell"

Reading Charles Baxter’s “What Happens in Hell,” I find myself continually impressed by each sentence’s ability to do two things at once. This is no surprise given Baxter’s body of work and capabilities as a writer—it’s a given that the writing’s working in more ways than one—yet what stands out to me is that Baxter’s sentences work in both ways I notice and ways I do not. I imagine it’s like when I turn on the hot water for a shower in my house and my roommate’s shower in the casita out back turns cold: I know I do the one thing, but I don’t instinctively recognize that the one thing leads to the other.

Needless to say, as a fiction writer and an essayist, Baxter does another two things at once. What happens when we read a fiction writer in the guise of an essayist for the first time and vice versa? What differentiates the narrative of a particular writer’s essay from the narrative of a particular writer’s short story? If I had been reading the red cover of this year’s Best American series instead of the green cover, would I have questioned whether I was reading a story or not? The overall movement of Baxter’s essay is towards the artfully staggered narrative I find so often in his fiction: we begin with Baxter the narrator and his town car driver, a Pakistani American named Niazi, conversing over what happens in hell while driving through Palo Alto (Baxter is on his way to Stanford to teach a class as a visiting writer); this incident triggers a bout of schadenfreude and the revelation of the deeper sadness present in Baxter’s life (his loneliness, his recent separation from his wife); armed with this, we return several weeks later to another car ride with Baxter and Niazi, a ride that leads to an nearly fatal crash, the narrative’s dramatic climax and the moment when the conversation about what happens in hell merges with something closer to reality; from here, the drama lessens and we move towards conclusion and Baxter’s attempt to forgive Niazi.

Given the decisive turn it takes in its middle, Baxter’s essay deserves the sort of praise we reserve for the type of workshop friendly short stories and essays (JoAnn Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter” comes most readily to mind) that tell us everything we need to know in their first page without giving away the plot or element of surprise. Baxter’s sentences apply to both the present moment and the moment to come; they are tinged with a humor that both masks and welcomes. When Niazi tells Baxter that “there is no forgiveness over there. There is forgiveness over here but not there,” we take it as evidence of a slightly loony if not fundamentalist character without expressly realizing that this sentiment will play out to be true, that Baxter himself will be unable to forgive Niazi after he falls asleep at the wheel and drives into a hellish car wreck. When after one of Niazi’s pronouncements, Baxter decides “to drink some more of his bottled water,” we’re aware of the irony and complicity of this action—water amidst a discussion of fire and Hell, privilege swigged in the face of the unprivileged—but cannot recognize its full poignancy until the car is flipping over on its way down the hill and, as Niazi screams, Baxter watches the bottle of water floating in front of him.

The ability to wrangle this much out of a sentence isn’t so much a product of the genre Baxter’s working in as it is a result of careful, considered writing. The qualities of the above examples—the telling detail, the foreshadowing line of dialogue, the true subject masked by the triggering subject—are as likely to occur in a Charles Baxter short story as a Charles Baxter essay. They’re a staple. Yet what of the sentences that provide something specifically because they are present in something termed an essay and not a short story? Do such sentences exist? What of those moments that find traction here because Baxter is ostensibly essaying (or aware that he’s essaying and thus allowed whatever artificial constructs and constraints we allow the essayist) and not short-storying? Is this at all a valid distinction to make, much less to try and elucidate? I’m not so much speaking about Baxter’s liberty to pull quotes or include anecdotes from Alice Munro or Nietzsche (what we might think of as privileged to the essayist), but his ability to close or widen the gap he inhabits as an author, to near or pull away from the subject and moment at hand—in other words, to turn on the heat in one place to create cold in another.

I’m reluctant to use these terms essaying and short-storying. How do I really know what these mean? I tell myself that Baxter’s allowed to do one thing because I’ve flipped open this year’s Best American Essays but not another because I’ve flipped open Best American Short Stories (I guess, along with Alice Munro, he’s going for something of an EGOT here). I think back to TaraShea Nesbit’s post from the previous week and what smart sense she makes when she writes “I don’t mind calling essays stories, or calling stories essays. There is a reason why we make this slip: essays have an arc, stories have embedded questions.” Presumably, Baxter should just be allowed to do Baxter. Yet still I look for ways that a Baxter essay differentiates itself from a Baxter short story, still I think how clever it would be of an essay to disguise itself as a short story until it comes time to reveal its intent.

Consider, for example, how Baxter narrates two car crashes. One is from the short story “Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan,” collected in Through The Safety Net and the other is from “What Happens in Hell.” In “Saul and Patsy…”, the crash comes at the story’s end. Saul and Patsy are driving back from a party, drunk and late at night, their car alone on State Highway 14 in rural Michigan. The narration begins within Saul’s dreams and then shoots out: “He did not even realize he was shutting his eyes. He was dreaming of Patsy, sleeping within arms’ reach. Patsy, whom he loved all the way down to the root. Then he was dreaming of Mrs. O’Neill, carrying a gigantic plate of chocolate chip cookies. And Bart Connell and the barber, asleep on their feet. The two red taillights of the car went around a corner that wasn’t there; then one of them moved up directly above the other. Then it came down again hard, on the wrong side, and began blinking.”

This moment comes down upon us as a dual surprise: the car has crashed, leaving the fates of Saul and Patsy up in the air, yet the narrative distance has also zoomed out. We end with the stark and gentle image of the two out-of-place taillights, an acknowledgment of devastation yet a refusal to rubberneck. The drama in this scene comes from both its events—the hinted at yet unexpected car crash, the unknown consequences—and its shift in detail, its ability to separate itself from its subject and leave its reader with an image—those blinking taillights—impossible to shake from one’s mind.

Compare this to Baxter’s narration of his own crash in “What Happens in Hell”: “California drivers aren’t used to precipitation, so when the car began to lose control, Niazi woke up and slammed on the brakes, throwing the Lincoln into a sideways skid…From the moment the car began to lose control until it came to rest, Niazi was screaming. All during the time we turned over down that hill, he continued to scream. Reader, this essay is about that scream. Please do your best to imagine it.”

Please do your best to imagine it! If “Saul and Patsy’s” narration refocuses distance, here the narration refocuses address, if not the essay’s intended meaning. Tone subverts content and environment. We are in a constrained, intimate space—our narrator is literally inside the overturning car, we have reached our utmost physical proximity—yet the event is not only narrated with lucidity and detachment, but with the essayist’s love of relaying knowledge (“California drivers aren’t used to precipitation…”) and penchant for conversational address, an address that runs throughout the essay but is never as overt as it is here with its “Dear Reader.” The drama and surprise in this scene don’t have to do so much with the severity of the car accident (while that’s certainly there, the narrative tension is lessened since we at least know our protagonist’s well enough to be writing about it), as they do with the responsibility that Baxter places into his reader’s hands. He asks us not just to recreate a moment outside the realm of personal experience (i.e. a moment we’d have to imagine and/or fictionalize), but a moment upon which the essay’s characterizations and the ideas presented by those characters hinge. The moment where what the characters do to one another (Niazi asks Baxter to imagine what happens in hell, that is to imagine the unimaginable) becomes what the essayist does to the reader. That, I would argue is the true drama of this essay—a sentence’s ability to turn an essay’s direction, to step back and demand speculation, to take us out of one situation and insert us in another, a new reality we must confront in order to make our way through, as if it really had been us in the car all along. And there, I guess, is the rub. I write the above to applaud the power a sentence contains, a power I’ve decided as unique to the essay, but I don’t realize I’ve done two things at once (I am no Baxter), that the sentiment described—this new reality we must confront to take us out of one situation and insert us into another—reads on second glance like a power of fiction.


Tommy Mira y Lopez is pursuing his MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. His work appears or will appear in PANK, Green Briar Review, Seneca Review, and CutBank. He's the nonfiction editor of Sonora Review and an assistant editor at Fairy Tale Review

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lucas Mann: On Writing Young

If you’ve ever taught or learned in a creative nonfiction workshop, you’ve probably read the introduction to Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.  Since the essay club is the only one I belong to, it’s hard for me to find an apt comparison, but I imagine it’s like getting a white belt on the first day of karate class or a money clip when you join the mafia.  You’re initiated, welcomed into a new language, and there’s preliminary documentation to prove it.

Lopate’s is an amazing introduction.  It’s comprehensive and didactic in just the right way.  He sets his parameters and tells us how he wants us to read; no ambiguity, no show.  But in every classroom I’ve ever been in, the conversation has quickly breezed past most of the essay’s thorough thirty pages, and has centered around one page, one line even: “While young people excel at lyrical poetry and mathematics, it is hard to think of anyone who made a mark on the personal essay form in his or her youth.”  Invariably, someone reads this out loud.  Usually the two or three oldest students in the class sneak glances at each other; some are even bold enough to smile.  Then everyone else gets really pissed off.   They feel the righteous anger of being young, in a classroom with mostly young peers, fresh off a White Album reading, giddy to start in a genre that in turn says, Come back in a couple of decades.

Lopate makes an argument that many others echo: an essay, at its core, is about reflection and learning.  “It is difficult to write analytically from the middle of confusion,” he advises us.  So the essayist needs to have lived (read: earned) a memory worth analyzing, and must have had the time to sit back, change, and inspect the event with as much attempted objectivity as possible.  It’s about trust, I think.  We want a reliable nonfiction narrator and reliability is developed through remove.  This basic belief results in a sort of reverse ageism that seems to only afflict the essay genre.  After all, precociousness is advertised in fiction writers.  We like to quantify it exactly.  How many “____ Under _____” lists are there for novelists and story writers?  A young narrator — immature, impatient, imperfect — excites us in fiction.  But when that narrator bares its author’s name, the expectations shift. 

I freely admit that I’m oversensitive to the issue. I’m twenty-seven and I write essays and that sense of illegitimacy, of narratorial un-ripeness, is a tension that I’ve never not felt.  As a student, in workshops, I remember realizing that all of our critiques started to sound like nervous retreads of the same basic questions — I mean, not to devalue their experience or anything, but has the author lived enough to have a life to write about?  Could the author, maybe, perhaps, no disrespect intended, benefit from a little distance from their feelings?  

These are, of course, valid questions, but in their onslaught they can become unproductive.  They start to push us away from investigation and into poseurism.  How many of us spent (or are spending) much of our twenties writing with a narrative voice that is tired and beaten down and aged beyond anything we’ve ever experienced?  We attach our names to a two-packs-a-day truck-stop troubadors who have already lived and died and lived again, as though if we imply a weight of experience, imply a greater distance between our character and our current narrator, we become unassailable.  Instead of writing into the discomfort of a narrator mid-struggle, confused, we create false safety.  That’s how last year becomes a weary “once.”  How grad school, becomes “my years in a run-down apartment at the edge of a small Midwestern town where whiskey was cheap and nights were long.”

The implication by omission here is that a self-involved, artsy twenty-something isn’t the person we want bringing us an essay, even if that’s who the writer is.  What I want to argue, though, is that many of the essay narrators that grip us in the fiercest ways are ones that do so from a place of hubristic confusion, an uneasy balance of both reflection and discovery that typifies a twenty-something psyche.  Often, we find that perspective in works that are not exactly personal essays, but instead blend reportage and memoir.  It’s a semi-genre that grows out of a young writer’s unabashed fear that maybe his or her own experiences aren’t yet enough.  So part of the personal reflection becomes that quest for information, experience, inspiration. Curiosity begins to coax out memories that are still forming as they’re being written down.  We’ve all seen and celebrated this type of narrator, using phrases like genre-defying and groundbreaking.  But I think it’s simpler than that.  I think we secretly love an essayist who writes young.

Let’s look at John Jeremiah Sullivan’s much-lauded collection, Pulphead.  The essays in the collection move through his writing life, ending with his musings from a big house, wife and kids by his side.  But the book’s best essay is the opener, “Upon This Rock,” written when Sullivan was twenty-nine years old and carrying the full emotive jumble of that perspective.  In it, he sets off to write about a Christian music festival, then lets his own not-too-distant memories push through the story.  He is a reporter un-detached, transporting us back and forth between his subjects enraptured by their belief and his own experiences as a born-again high schooler.  It’s great stuff, funny yet somehow not utterly disrespectful.  I think its true power, what makes it transcend to become greater than the sum of its one-liners, is that Sullivan is still not sure how to understand his own belief.  His high school memories very consciously don’t feel ancient.  They feel a part of a conversation still happening within him.  He describes leaving evangelism like this:
                                 My problem is not that that I dream I’m in hell or that Mole is at the window.  It isn’t that I feel psychologically harmed.  It isn’t even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all.  It’s that I love Jesus Christ.
                                  “The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.”
                                  He was the most beautiful dude.

Sullivan is analyzing here, yes, but he is also living with some of the same psyche that he’s trying to understand in his former self.  And while his narrator is the educated ex-believer, he’s also goofy and sincere and maybe a bit stoned.  It’s a sensibility that allows him to mingle with his young subjects in a role somewhere between observer and participant, skeptic and co-conspirator.  He begins to follow around a bunch of rough-and-tumble West Virginian believers.  They take him in, he appreciates it, and just that easy proximity signals to the reader that, as much as there’s reportage happening here, a personal essay is also being written in the moment, memories that will mix with and talk to his high school self are being created as he writes them down.  It’s a frantic process that leads us to a gorgeous ending, more deeply, personally felt than any reader could have imagined when beginning the essay.  Sullivan is among the believers on the last night of the festival, unsure of what to feel.  He writes:

                  The clouds had moved off — the bright stars were out again.  There were fireflies in the trees all over and spread before me, far below, was a carpet of burning candles, tiny flames, many ten thousands.  I was suspended in a black sphere full of flickering light.
                  Sure I thought about Nuremberg.  But mostly I thought of Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter, and Pee Wee, whom I doubted I’d ever see again, whom I’d come to love, and who loved God — for it’s true, I would have said it even if Darius hadn’t asked me to, it may be the truest thing I will have written here: they were crazy, and they loved God — and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I was never capable of.  Knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were.

Here, Sullivan is caught between reflection, speculation, reality.  He is analyzing from the midst of turmoil that may never end.  And the excitement that I feel when I read and reread his final paragraphs comes from that particularly twenty-something sense of unknowing.  No, that’s not quite it.  Sullivan knows enough, remembers enough, to support his investment, but also feels no safe remove from the material, complicates it with each new moment, wondering what will, what can, what has to come next.  Even when he’s looking back, every wound is still raw.

Wound provides a nice transition to Sullivan’s heir apparent, Leslie Jamison, and her beautiful collection, The Empathy Exams.  Like Sullivan, Jamison is both chronicler and subject, a personal essayist who looks for stories to bounce her own experiences off or a reporter who can’t keep her own memories out of the research, depending on how you look at it.  Every essay in the collection is about hurt: hers, others’, the personal kind, the global kind.  The final essay, and maybe the best, is called, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.”   It’s a hugely ambitious piece, a study of the long, flawed history of how we present and interpret female suffering, yet through all the cultural context we’re still left with what is fundamentally a piece of memoir.  Jamison is trying to understand her own relationship to pain — what she has felt, what she feels, what she will feel, and what all that feeling means.  Early on in the piece she establishes her narrator:

I was once called a wound-dweller.  It was a boyfriend who called me that.  I didn’t like that.  It was a few years ago and I’m still not over it.  (It was a wound; I dwell).  I wrote to a friend:
I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments — jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot, etc., etc., etc.  On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me?  And on the other hand, I’m like, Why the fuck am I talking about this so much?

Jamison is by no means naive.  In fact, she’s brilliant.  She’s well read and unafraid to be so.  She careens through references both highbrow and lowbrow, from Carrie and Girls to Plath and Sontag and Carson.  She takes on the critic’s “we” and examines our whole society’s gendered relationship with pain. But all of that intellect is framed within a perspective that is often confused, sometimes downright maudlin, ashamed of itself and then simultaneously not.

Like Sullivan, Jamison has memories to plumb, but she still feels them as though she’s experiencing them over again, and instead of steady reflection we get a writer dancing on the verge of a great unknown.  Jamison is not the wise, calm examiner of the female psyche or, rather, she’s not only that.  She’s also the subject who shares with us that, not long ago, she wrote a letter that included the phrase, “Why does this shit happen to me?” She is writing about pain in the middle of pain.  This perspective leads us to an ending that feels much more like a beginning, or at least a continuation.  “Sometimes, I feel like I’m beating a dead wound,” she writes.  “But I say: keep bleeding…I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open.  I just wrote that.  I want our hearts to be open.  I mean it.”

I don’t mean to use the power of Jamison’s writing to suggest that true essayistic greatness only happens somewhere between twenty-three and thirty (though my fingers are resolutely crossed).  Nor do I mean to suggest that one can only write about memory like these writers do if they don’t wait too long.  I’m not after a reverse Lopate dictum here.  But I do think that immaturity, or at least the process of maturing, is a potentially riveting, truly essayistic place to write from.  After all, what is young adulthood but a hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations?  The very same can be said about the essay form.   When we embrace that tension, instead fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done.  We get writers not only analyzing what has ended, but also sorting out how to begin.

Lucas Mann is the author of the book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.  A graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, he now teaches at the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, RI.  He and Kristen Radtke are at work on an anthology of essays from the twenty-something perspective.  This piece grew out of their gchat conversations.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Chelsea Biondolillo : On Long Winters, Short Essays, and a Sky that Stretches Forever

We suffer from snow blindness, selecting what we see and feel while our pain whites itself out. But where there is suffocation and self-imposed ignorance, there is also refreshment—snow on flushed cheeks and a pristine kind of thinking. All winter we skate the small ponds—places that in summer are water holes for cattle and sheep—and here a reflection of mind appears, sharp, vigilant, precise. —Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

As I write this, April is in sight and the long Wyoming winter is only now showing signs of breaking. I spent the last few months far from any town center, surrounded by cows and mule deer and only a small handful of neighbors, thinking incorrectly that the isolation would be conducive to writing. It was something else entirely: in the great expanse that surrounded me, I found myself longing for smallness. In a harsh winter climate, one way to survive the elements, if you find yourself at their mercy, is to carve out a space in the snow and ice, just big enough for yourself. This is how you stay warm.

Gretel Ehrlich, in her novella-length collection of essays on Wyoming, The Solace of Open Spaces, writes, “Winter is smooth-skulled, and all our skids on black ice are cerebral.” She’s right; this stuck of mine is all in my mind. I like to say it’s something about the snow, the shut-in-ness, the screaming wind, that has inhibited rather than encouraged my writing, but I’ve been the one fighting myself, not the fields that stretch forever or the boundless ice-blue sky.

Mark Spragg’s “In Wyoming” from Wind, asserts,
This place is violent, and it is raw. Wyoming is not a land that lends itself to nakedness, or leniency. There is an edge here, living is accomplished on that edge. Most birds migrate. Hibernation is viewed as necessary, not stolid. The crippled, old, the inattentive perish.
When I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’m afraid of that edge. All winter I’ve been hanging back, playing it too safe to get any real work done. I’ve been lenient with myself—staying warm instead of sharp—afraid of the despair that I sense out there in my own cerebral snow fields.


Judith Kitchen in Short Takes defines an essay as “the building of a process of thought through a singular contemplative voice—to show how we see the same world differently.”

If that’s an essay, then my Facebook feed has been an essay about winter ever since November. All over the country, everyone has spoken in a singular, if choir-like, voice of Instagram filters and screenshots. Sometimes the voice is awed, “It’s actually sunny today!” And sometimes the voice can’t believe it is snowing again. Today, in Ucross, Wyoming, it’s over 50° but another snowstorm is predicted to hit this weekend. Winter has been too long over me, an endless avalanche of words: cold, snow, ice, more, still.


Ehrlich’s book is not long. Weighing in between feather- and lightweight, she has nonetheless crafted as notable a “Wyoming” book as heavyweights, McPhee’s Rising from the Plains and Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Even in a compressed collection though, “The Smooth Skull of Winter” stands out as the shortest essay in the book. In my paperback edition, it’s just over three pages long.

Buried in the exact middle of six months of winter, I was angry the first time I read it. Or tripped across it, as I may have described it at the time. Would anyone write a book about California, or Florida, and give only three and a half pages to the ocean? This is not a book for residents (at less than half a million people in the state, that would be a very targeted and limiting demographic)—so how can anyone else understand the gravity of this thing I’m in, I thought, if it can be shrunk down into the same space as a preface?

But Ehrlich, in three pages, gets the better of winter. She turns the January wind into an opportunity. Ehrlich is not trapped by her three small pages, but distilled to clear purpose. She carves her shape into winter, not to hide, but to be carried forward, like a standard. This is easier to see in winter’s wake.

I was recently on a panel discussing some finer points of short form nonfiction. One of the panel members, the managing editor of a respected journal, said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Please, no more funerals and hospital rooms.”

She said between 10-15% of the submissions she receives take place in either a hospital room, or at someone’s funeral. I began to wonder what it is about the form that lends itself so well to pain, loss, and melancholy.

Bret Lott, seems to speak to this drive in “Writing in Place” from the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, when he says “every time I put a word down … I am inside a moment in which I had better be attempting to wrestle with a matter of life and death.”

Too often, the editor in the above example might say, the problem is that submitters confuse a matter of life and death with the moment between them. The real loss might come later, trying to match all the saucers to the teacups for the estate sale, or worrying about what hieroglyphic notations in an old field guide meant, the intrepid explorer, now gone.

In Larry Woiwode’s “Winter,” an essay collected in Kitchen’s Short Takes, he recounts his struggle to re-fire an outdoor furnace that has gone out on a night when the temperature, including wind chill, is -85°. He fights the snow and wind to the furnace and then struggles with a blowtorch to melt thick ice that is preventing the damper from opening. As he starts to fade from clear thinking into hypothermia, he lists loved ones, and thinks to them,
…it may be by a row of words you remember me, or maybe not. Or images, once my body is gone. You’ll have to resolve the distinctions between the two for yourselves, if I can’t keep the torch on target, get us heat, undo the miscues that brought us to this, so you’ll know it wasn’t my interior and its revolving search for words that held me here, but you.
It’s a startling moment, and comes one sentence before the dénouement (this is nonfiction, so I don’t think I’m spoiling it when I reveal that he lives). He manages, by keeping the moment singular (torch, heat, the day’s miscues) and the language neutral (body, distinctions, interior), to avoid what could have been an easy slip into over-sentimentality. He literally stops short of the happy ending, and lets the reader float in the interstitial white space at the end of the essay, assuming the best or worst of his narrator/self’s struggle back to the house from the re-started furnace.

Woiwode takes us to the exact minute when he thought his life might end, but the feeling that resonates is not sadness—it helps that he lives, I’ll grant—it’s something warm, even in all that snow. In less-skilled hands, this essay may have read like a Chicken Soup for the Soul: all lesson, no learning. Instead the reader is on the same edge as the narrator, all along, until this last moment of exhale, out of nowhere comes this idea—we are the sum of our love.

In a short essay (unlike a long winter), there is no time to get maudlin. The form itself asserts a shape of stolidity in the form of brevity. There won’t be room for gnashing teeth, rending garments, Fourth of July fried chicken and all of grandma’s teacups—something will have to go. The craftsperson can see beyond the glissando of the stalling EKG—to the moment when her deeply personal sorrow breaks away from the “self-imposed ignorance” of the solo voice to join a whole choir of humanity.


In Wyoming, the sky is very big (at least as big as Montana’s, but not on record as such). This can create a sense of freedom—and Ehrlich, along with many a cowboy poet, found her song in its open spaces.

But it can be a discomfort, too, all this unbound landscape.

I remember lying in summer grass at the Brooklyn botanical garden, listening in disbelief as a friend tried to explain her childhood fear of stars. It was after she learned in science class that the universe was endless, she said, that the night sky became terrifying. Vastness is like ecstasy in this way (the state of consciousness, not the drug).

Smallness, then—as distillate rather than cage—can be its own solace: a way to refine some of the more difficult feelings for the writer, while opening the ideas up for the reader.

I suspect this is why some stories seem ripe for condensation: any more than 500 words and they might swallow you whole. But it isn’t the word count or formal considerations of an essay that protect (the reader, the writer); it’s what the constraint requires you to discard.

It is fair to say that what I am still stuck in is the moment of winter—and I may not grasp the matter of it for some time.

Ehrlich and Spragg’s Wyoming has laid down lenient cowboys, lazy ranchers, and lesser writers. It’s the edge they are talking about, not the space stretching away from it. And it is their focus on that icy line, their characterization of the line as a threat and a comfort, that allow them to reach past state boundaries, past definitions of rancher or pioneer to the place where the elements bend a person. There, you are changed or you are broken.


Mary Cappello, in her essay “Propositions; Provocations: Inventions,” in Bending Genre, attempts to define creative nonfiction:
The operative distinctions are “transform” rather than “transcribe,” and “apposite” rather than “opposite.” Creative nonfiction remakes rather than reports. Like poetry, it relies on novel appositions that make exquisite demands: opposition cancels, apposition makes apparent… Why not call it poetry then? Because of the way it enjoins and calls upon a witness, but also an interloper, and eavesdropper: placing oneself where one is not supposed to be.
Spragg knows too well the transformative power of a Wyoming winter. If you grow upright, the wind will cant you; if you sprawl like a rangeland, the weight of the snow will press into you, until you remember it all year: a thawed and muddy water hole after years of winters becomes a summer pond.

Ehrlich, too, is concerned, in “Smooth Skull” not with winter’s length—though it is acknowledged—but in its oppositions. A snow wall threatens, but also protects. “The deep ache of this audacious Arctic air is also the ache in our lives made physical.” But this ache makes personal connections all the more urgent, as friends and lovers check in, help out, warm one another up with words or food or a fire.

The right short essay offers a view of where-we-shouldn’t-be as a single day, one storm, or a small lake we can skate. The beauty of concision is that all you need is the hint of the grinding squeal that signals cracking ice and the reader will fill in the dark, cold water, the struggling for purchase and air, for long moments after you, the writer, have left the page.


A recent study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego found that social media posts about crummy weather in one part of the country were more likely to put people in other parts of the country in bad moods.

And yet, a 2008 neurological study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to prove that sad music tends to make listeners happy.

I recently asked my own social media circle for recommendations of good “divorce songs” to inspire an essay I’m writing—and within a couple of hours, I had over 100 suggestions. Did thinking about divorce make my friends sad, or did listening to their favorite sad songs cheer them up?

If I had to read 130 pages about the torture that half the year inflicts upon the landscape between the Big Horn and Snowy Mountains—if I had to write each moment as it had happened, status update by status update—would I pack right up for some proverbial summer beach, instead of learning anything from these last few months?


Yet, if I were to try and write 500 words about the life and death matters that this winter has asked me to consider, I might still fail before I even begin, because I could not make the sky smaller, or the staggering weight of the snow on the fields lighter. It is useful as an exercise to begin with the fence in sight, but not as a practice.

Instead, I must write and write and write until I have wrung all the ache of this damn unending winter from me. Only then can I start to prune—and in pruning, learn the shape of the thing. One makes a mistake in thinking that the antidote for fear of edges is a fence. The antidote is to learn the exact shape and degree of the edge. You can only do that right up next to it.

Spragg says that in Wyoming, “There is the wind.” Because here, the wind is a constant. It is vast and it demands attention. The wind is huge. But he also says, “The winds wail a hymn of transience.” Because even this, the wind, the cold, even winter, passes.

When talking about the value of writing in place, Lott says first to find a sacred place, “in which the world seems to present itself in its mystery and beauty, its sorrow and grief, its vast breadth and its ultimate intimacy.” It’s here, he argues, that you are most yourself. Where else “are you more you—are you more a partaker in the whole of man’s estate—than in that place where you are alone, and you are simply and complexly and utterly you?”

This is the place—this middle of nowhere—and the season—the sharpest, longest—where we can get past the moment to the matter. This is where to fire up the blow torch, where to carve a figure-8 in the ice.


Chelsea Biondolillo (@devakali) received a dual MFA in creative nonfiction and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming, where she reported on local flora and fauna for Wyoming Public Radio, and prepared bird skins for the vertebrate museum. Her nonfiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Passages North, River Teeth, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Fourth River, and others. She blogs intermittently at

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

TaraShea Nesbit: The True and the Vulnerable

I don’t mind calling essays stories, or calling stories essays. There is a reason why we make this slip: essays have an arc, stories have embedded questions. Writer Maggie Stiefvater: "[A novel is] a paper where your thesis is that these people are real, and you have to prove it." The same can be said for nonfiction, where the proof of character can be replaced with a proof of emotion or primary circulating consciousness or question. While nonfiction is often defined by fidelity to fact and logical cohesion, the genre has a companion history of texts that use the fragmentary, suggestive, and inconclusive. There are texts that destabilize unwavering narration, logical progression, and rhetorical coherence; this is an exciting time for contemporary nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction, though not exactly a new genre, is an elastic one. If we agree with John D’Agata, it begins with the Sumerian king Ziusudra, and leads into the form zuihitsu (“to follow the brush”) from the Heian period, made known to many by Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. Creative nonfiction, to me, is marked now by multimodal collaborations like Claudia Rankine’s “Provenance of Beauty” performance and poet Matthea Harvey’s audio walking tour of Staten Island.

THE PROVENANCE OF BEAUTY. from Sunder Ganglani on Vimeo.

As the nonfiction editor at Better, I look to shelter nonfiction from whatever troubled past an author may have come from: the poet turned essayist, the journalist pushing form to length, the fictive addict looking to a fact or two for a new thrill. When I open a submission, I’m on a first date. I read looking to fall in love. I consider what politics the essay supports. If there is a point on this date, during ice cream, maybe, and rarely after PBRs, where I ask myself, “Is it me or the essay?” I know this probably isn’t going to work out. But occasionally it does. Reading is subjective, we all know, but it is also sometimes mean-spirited. It is also context-driven. My kid died so I’m more open to your grief essay, for example—or I’m bored and I want something light. 

What holds a person’s attention in a first sentence and why? Reader-response theory has something to say about this, and affect theory, and my therapist, probably, and what I know is I’m a subjective, temperamental reader who tries to be empathic, and is thankful she has other editors to talk with. I love what I love and yet I watch this loving, too, from a distance. What plagues me as an editor is that I’m just one reader. I ask myself, “Am I not liking this because I haven’t napped? Because I have a preference for language? Because it is raining? Because I hate the smell in the coffee shop’s cleaning products?” When I first heard Joanna Stoberick’s audio essay, I was in the shared experience of listening with my mother-in-law—we put it on and my living room filled with corn mazes and the prison system and a daughter who was losing weight and trying to find work and the landscape of eastern Washington. It was an essay that became loved by two women separated by two generations and I knew I had to publish it.

Not all the readers on staff have preferences like mine, thankfully, so where I have a long leash for language, others may prefer more narrative structure. We discuss. We all are looking to push against things, I’d say, and that is partly why we loved Joy Katz’s essay in Issue 4, how she explores racism via one interaction with a home security salesmen, in an essay that complicates the idea of knowing and of conclusiveness. And it is why I love how an essay can rove and wander, complicating the false idea of truth, such as in Shena McAuliffe’s “This Human Skin” in Issue 4.

Better came about because a group of us, led by Sean Bishop, had a desire to use online media in more versatile ways than we saw happening in the world of literary journals. We have a real weakness for audio essays, video essays, essays using images in complicated ways, like Sebald’s photographs that defy meaning rather than support it, and wilder forms that conceive essays as experiences you take on with your whole body. The essay that comes to me in printed words feels very different than the essay that comes to me through the voice of the author, or the video of the author reading and singing and performing their work: watch Elena Passarello’s performance in Issue 1. There is an intimacy that can be formed, or a distance, really, with these audio essays, these digital essays, these centaurian essays. Better is inclusive, Better is post-page.

Bonine Nadzam asks in “A Simple, Declarative Sentence”: “What is the one thing in there you cannot, or dare not, say?” What does it say that, if I were the author, I might do or think but dare not utter? I want that essay in Better

And Better got it with the humorous confession of David S. MacLean in “That You Ever Saw” from Issue 2:
One morning I was walking the dog, yakking on the phone with a girlfriend with whom my relationship was flailing, and I saw this gorgeous couple canoodling on a bench. I sat down on the bench opposite from them, continued yakking on my cell phone and because I thought it would be funny, I held my middle finger up at them for a good three minutes. In my brain, I thought it’d be seen as a sort of ridiculous act of obscenity and taken as absurd. The woman’s face, though, immediately went into a kind of twisted up surprise look, which gradually unraveled to one of offense, finally unspooling completely into one of disgust. I kept my finger up through all her expressions. To this day, she still looks past me at parties. Part of me says, ‘fuck her, fuck everyone who can’t take a damn joke’ and the other part of me knows that she knew I kind of meant it.
Sometimes it can be shocking, but it could also be mundane. Consider Perec’s infraordinary:
What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist.
Perec argues for the ordinary, for lists of what you ate for a whole year’s time, for a catalog of what you see while sitting at a park. The essay that does this is vulnerable because it might be extremely boring, and it knows it. I want that essay in Better, too.  Not truth, exactly, but pursuing truth. This can imply confession, but I think what it has to do with is vulnerability. What makes us vulnerable? And when looking at essays I do often ask, How is this text vulnerable? How am “I”?

TaraShea Nesbit is the nonfiction at Better: Culture & Lit. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, Quarterly West, The Los Angeles Review of Books, on NPR, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Wives of Los Alamos, was an Indies Next Pick and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist. She lives in Colorado and teaches at the University of Denver.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Lynn Kilpatrick: Your Body is an Essay

Write yourself. Your body must be heard.
            Helene Cixous “Laugh of the Medusa”

What is an essay? I ask myself this when I begin to write one. Also, why? Why essay?

I understand the essay in a few ways, all of which have to do with the fact that I am:  A Feminist. A Brain. A Traveller.

I was thinking about this essay and about embodiment when I went to AWP and my friend Nicole Walker said during the panel “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay,” “Put your body in a place.” This is an imperative she uses with her students and it might be the most succinct statement of my aesthetic that has been spoken aloud.

I like Nicole and I like her body. I can say that without it being weird because I am a woman and she is a woman and we are both involved with other people and we each have children. Also I can kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her and no one gets jealous or thinks we are going to run off together, though if we did it would be so that we could write without having to make anyone a sandwich for just five minutes.

Put your body in a place.

Our bodies are already in places, we just have to conceive of them as such. To feel our embodiment, to embody our thoughts.

First: The way I understand the essay is the way I understand feminism which is the way I understand the world: through my body. I remember reading Helene Cixous for the first time. Her book is titled Sorties, which is translated into English as Ways Out. Ways Out? Escape Routes? Theoretical mechanisms which allow the socially constructed  “body” to circumvent designated behaviors via language; ways the intellect can supercede the physical. These “ways out” seemed so linguistic. How are we to get out of this dilemma, the singular language, the multiple body? Only with more language, I thought. Language is the “way out.”

Until after graduate school.

I went to France with a friend and when we got off the train I looked around for an exit and when I saw one it said “Sorties/Ways Out.”

I suddenly got it. Ways Out were not just mental contortions to think our way out of the straightjacket of language. Ways Out were literal. Exits. Stairways that would bring our bodies out of subterranean confinement and up into the sunlight of Paris.

A Way to get Out of the train station and into the street. We get out of this dilemma with language by getting our body out into the street. Letting it rain on our body and walking until our legs ache and then all we can do is lay on the hotel bed and close our eyes and watch Michelle Pfieffer enact gender atop a piano (yes, this actually is what I watched on my hotel TV in Paris).

So language is a body and the essay is a map. A way not only out but in. Around. A try. Let’s walk around and see what we see, feel what we feel.

Second: How do I understand what I feel? Because when I walk around, blood flows to my brain. My point is that writers have bodies, though we like to forget this in our rush to use words like dialectic and hermeneutics. I like to use long words and I like to walk down the streets of Seattle with my friends, walking so much that my legs hurt and the idea of a bed is like a distant dream someone once told me about using words. And I like to walk around at night in a city with bars looking for that one just right bar in which to have a whiskey or a bourbon or a scotch, even though, despite his best efforts, my husband has been unable to make me understand the difference. I like to sit with other writers who make me laugh until my stomach hurts which reminds me I have a body in which my brain, which may or may not be my mind, resides.

All this walking and eating and laughing puts my body in a place. I am in Seattle walking around in the dark and there are white lights wrapped around tree trunks and there are friends who are closer to or further away from me in proximity but all of whom I love with fierce loyalty, which seems very much to be embedded in a part of my body, say my chest, which is the same part of me that aches when I think about the way my son screamed that one time I had to say goodbye to him at the Detroit airport.

But who cares, asks Nicole, back in that panel several hours earlier.  She doesn’t just want to walk around the city with me (though she does, who wouldn’t?), she wants there to be an organizing principle. A body in a place is the aesthetic but the tell me why I care is the reason for existence. It’s the soul. You need a body and you need a soul. But who am I kidding? I mean I. I need a soul. The laughter is the soul, the joke you wouldn’t understand if I inserted it here, but you would, because the body gets a joke before the mind. The body laughs and then the mind says, oh yes.

This is the relationship between the body and the essay, between the brain and the exit sign. Put your body in a place. Get into the street. Walk around. Drink some whiskey. Laugh.

It’s the laughter, perhaps, that provides the rationale for the body. Also: the ridiculous food, and the whiskey, and the pleasure of liquids and language on the tongue.

Why are we walking around the city? I want to see the bar where part of the ceiling is the old underground sidewalk, squares of glass surrounded by cement. I want to have the whiskey, where the idea of having the whiskey is sometimes superior to the drink itself. It is a way of being in my husband’s presence when he is absent. I want to extend the time I spend in the presence of my friends who understand who I am without language. I want to be a body that understands language in the presence of silence.

This, then, is the way we get our bodies out into the street.

Third: I don’t want to remain in one place. Take me somewhere. Isn’t this the promise of great language? It is also the promise of the body. The body is just a mechanism for moving my brain around. The body is the essay, with its demands and desires. With its polymorphous perversions. Cixous says that the female writer is multiple, but I haven’t met a writer I respect, male, female, neither/both, who isn’t multiple. We are multiple in our tongues, that want to speak and eat and drink and describe.

Put your body in a place. This place.

Lynn Kilpatrick’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Ninth Letter and Brevity. Her short story collection, In the House, was published by FC2. She earned a PhD from the University of Utah, and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and son.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wonders interviews Mazza: On hybrid nonfiction, feminism, and independent presses.

Indie-lit author Cris Mazza’s seventeenth book, Something Wrong with Her (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), is a memoir of anorgasmia, but it’s also a book about writing a life rather than living it.  Mazza refuses the constraints of chronologic narration, juxtaposing diary fragments, email excerpts, and samples of her award-winning fiction to create a pastiche that mimics the rhythms and structures of jazz.  Exposing a deep-seated fear in all of us, Something Wrong with Her explores what it means to consider oneself worthy of love.

Mazza’s previous work includes Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, and a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, most recently Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and will be a guest-lecturer in the fall of 2014 at The Johns Hopkins University.

Brooke Wonders: There are many ways in which your latest book replicates the form of jazz. One of the ways is in its repetition: for instance, there’s a section in the beginning that exactly matches three paragraphs that appear toward the end of the book.  How did you approach the challenge of invoking an auditory form on the page?

Cris Mazza: Partially this happened instinctively.  In jazz, the initial melody of a tune is called the head.  Then when the musicians improvise on the chord changes, it is within the style or mood of that original head, although they experiment with other emotions or even other related themes.  When the tune is getting ready to end, the musicians return to the head.  The listeners then know that the musicians have brought the tune full circle, have developed the changes and said what they have to say.  How could that form not be attractive for a memoirist who is not just telling a story she already knows but investigating a story she’s not sure she does remember all of (or remember correctly, or understand), and thus must invent or improvise or re-tell from another perspective, all while keeping that original storyline (melody) in mind.  Then it was so fitting that Mark -- who started as a character and ended up being a book contributor -- was the one talking about jazz, how it works; he was the one thinking like a musician while he read portions of the book and reacted to them -- similar to how one musician listens to the other improvise, then responds when it’s his turn to play.  So I was soaking in Mark’s way of developing a thought in music, while I was also researching the jazz terms and how they all seemed to be double entendres to ideas I was writing about.   Once I felt it working, it was easy to compose in that mode, just as a jazz musician knows how to jam as long as s/he knows the chords and feels the rhythm.

BW: You write that “you hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel,” and I feel badly for the novel and want to defend it.  What’s wrong with the novel?  And what does jazz offer you, a novelist many times over, that the novel can’t or doesn't or doesn’t anymore? 

CM:  No, nothing is wrong with the novel.  I also said a novel is like classical music.  I don’t mean “classical” in the sense of the classical period, but instrumental music that is written out completely -- scored for orchestra or quartet or chamber group or soloist -- and the musician or ensemble plays all the notes that are written (and rarely adds extra notes), doesn’t change the rhythm, etc.  I realize there are some interactive novels being written today, which would require interplay between reader and writer, so that the experience is vastly different each time it is “read.”  I was talking about the novel as I’ve known it, whether traditional or experimental, the author wrote all the words I read, and I read them (usually) in the order he or she wrote them (I know of at least one book that wasn’t bound, the pages came in a box, so they could be shuffled).  There are always exceptions, so I was making a generalization, and referring to my own novels being more like classical music in that I had no collaborator; the form, once written, was always read in the way I formed it.  Just like with symphonic music, readers (and conductors) can (are invited to) interpret differently, but there’s a bit more inherent control for the author (composer).  Jazz offered me the opportunity, as a memoirist, to not have that kind of control.  The book can never really be like a jazz performance since it has been published, the pages are in a particular order, the words don’t change, etc.  But the writing of it felt more like improvisation than when I write novels.  I don’t mean I outline novels or stick to a formula, but the repetitions, the stopping to cogitate, the speeches made to characters, the lulls in action and digressions … it would take a novel specifically designed to be about those things to tolerate as many of them as this book allowed.

BW: In a Rumpus interview about your previous book, Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, you said the following: “The narrator is completely conscious that she is producing a narrative; so conscious, in fact, that she anticipates how others will quarrel with or dismiss her, frequently questions her own memory and sometimes narrates in questions, wonders if what she’s remembering has been distorted by experiences she’d had or realizations she made since a particular event, digresses in flash-forwards to layer what she knows now over what she knew then. Most importantly, and something I didn’t plan but which might have come out of my own first person motto -- the fact that a character in the story is telling the story has to be part of what the story is about -- a significant catharsis for the narrator occurs as she is writing the culminating scenes -- scenes that, obviously, have already happened, several years before she is narrating. But it is the act of narrating, of wrestling with those questions about memory and compulsion distorting ‘truth,’ that causes her to grasp a new glimmer of insight about herself.”  This is also an accurate description of Something Wrong with Her, save that the character in question is explicitly you.  Could you talk about how you approach these writerly preoccupations differently in fiction versus nonfiction -- or why you don’t? 

CM: Yes, writerly preoccupations, exactly what it (partially) is: I wanted to write a highly self-conscious first-person novel because I was seeing so many first-person books that didn’t seem to understand the layers and complexities of a character-narrator.  But once into a novel, the novel’s thematic intent takes over for writerly preoccupations, and it became the book it needed to be for me at the time -- i.e. other personal preoccupations came to the front to chemically react, if you will, with the social themes having to do with human trafficking and the sexualization of culture.  But, of course, that latter theme (and the personal preoccupations, namely sexual dysfunction) are also all over Something Wrong with Her.
    I said above that “it would take a novel specifically designed to be about those things to tolerate as many of them as this [memoir] allowed.”  Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls was, I suppose, such a book.  It couldn’t tolerate as much cogitation and repetition as the memoir, but the self-conscious narrator and how the act of writing is what leads to her revelation about herself is an analogous process to what happened in the memoir.
    I knew, as soon as I began the memoir, that Something would be a companion book to Various Men, so the interview quote you’ve offered is highly relevant in their relationship to each other.  I had wanted to subtitle Various Men “A 1/3 true novel,” without indicating which part is “true.”  (Without having to account for how much of every novel is, similarly, “true.”)  But the story of the supervisor of my practice-teaching taking me to XXX video booths and showing me certain magazines, encouraging a flirtation that was abruptly ended -- not by me -- was the “inciter,” if you will, of both books, even though it did not stay the central significant event of the memoir. 

BW: Something Wrong with Her incorporates text from nearly all of your previous books.  In this way, it acts like an introduction to the prevailing themes of the Mazza corpus (take note, future biographers).  Imagining a reader who hasn’t encountered your work before, should they start with Something Wrong with Her?  What was at stake for you in cannibalizing so much of your previous work?

CM:  Mostly, at stake for me, was discovering in my cache of work a layer of understanding about myself I hadn’t accessed before.  This is a kind of understanding I wouldn’t expect a reader of any particular novel to be aware of, or even care about.  The novels should have their own relevance regardless of a reader’s awareness of the author’s personal life.  I wasn’t investigating them as a literary critic but as an archeologist with a set of artifacts.  (My lesser reasons for using scenes from books were times I felt it was pretentious to re-dramatize the same scene after I’d already done so in a book.)  I was thinking about why I made certain changes, used certain images, when thirty years later I can see new significance in them.  I guess I was investigating my original act in writing the story, not the stories or novel themselves, as they stand on their own for any reader.  However, it’s possible the memoir would also incite readers of my fiction to have other ideas about those works -- ideas even I have missed, and I always welcome those.  I’m not sure whether Something would be a good introduction to my fiction, but it’s difficult for me to say because I can’t have the experience of reading Something in the context of being ignorant about my fiction.  I would be interested to hear a reader tell me about what kind of introduction it is.

BW:  You also use multiple epigraphs from authors ranging from Grace Paley to Erica Jong.  The hybrid memoir is a popular form right now, with practitioners including Anna Joy Springer and Janice Lee.  This is a two-part-er: how do you see this work in relation to 1) the tradition of the hybrid memoir, and 2) the work of the authors whom you’ve chosen as epigraphs?

CM:  I was completely unaware of the “tradition” of the hybrid memoir when I was writing this book.  For all I know Lee, Springer and I (all ending up with the same publisher) were working on our books at the same time.  This book was essentially finished in 2011 and enjoyed (?) a long production period.  I had been more familiar with Ander Monson’s essays, but I don’t feel I am working in his unique realm.   The format and image-content of Something come from my packrat nature -- the keeping and preserving of symbolic artifacts, not just general hoarding.   I had all those journals, I had all those letters, cartoons, poems, photos, notes, etc.  I had kept them because of who I am/was, so that’s also why the book is constructed of them, not because I’d presupposed thirty years ago that I would join a hybrid memoir movement.
    I don’t think I have an Erica Jong epigraph, but she’s definitely quoted in here.  Fear of Flying changed the type of writer I would become, and also treated sexuality and sexualization so differently than my own experience, that it represents both a door-opening (as far as my creative work) and door-closing (as far as my personal sexual life) for me.  Something deals with both sides.
    The other quotes are not so much because I want to believe my work resides in the same sphere as theirs, but because something they said has seemed particularly apt to my relationship with my work, not to theirs.  Grace Paley was one of the judges when my first novel won a national award for fiction still in-manuscript (How to Leave a Country).  Having her as one of the judges was an incredible honor, and pretty much guaranteed that the prize-winning book would not be taken by a commercial publisher, and so in a way Paley help set the course for my career trajectory.

BW: Reviewers have referred to your earlier work as postfeminist; a recent interview noted that you coined the term chick-lit, but with a “postfeminist sneer.”  In Something Wrong with Her, you lay blame at the feet of feminism -- not for your anorgasmia, precisely, but certainly for some of your feelings of shame about it.  The narrator-you in the book appears to have gotten her ideas about sex and relationships from the ideals held by 1970s era feminists.  This seems odd to me, someone who came of age decades later and after the backlash -- I only wish I’d gotten my ideals about sex from feminism, instead of pop culture at large.  To state the obvious, you seem to feel like feminism has not been a helpful framework for understanding your own life experiences.  And yet, memoir as a genre has attracted a fair amount of feminist scholarship, as has the subject of anorgasmia. Could you talk a bit about how you understand your current relationship to feminism?  In this book, what new offensive are you launching?

CM:  Wow, I hope I’m not trying to start a war where there aren’t even two sides in conflict.  Postfeminism, as I saw it, did have some issues with second-wave feminism: that is, the “blame” could not wholly be piled on men anymore.  By the 90s we had some control (admittedly only some) over how we react to a society that values us most for our sexiness.  When I was recently advised to use an author photo where I’m smiling instead of serious, it was not a man who advised this.  In my view, women should not be taking up these kinds of sexist double-standards. 
    In Something, I didn’t think I was blaming feminism, per se, for my attitudes and perspectives about sex.  Certainly feminism had nothing to do with my unnatural fear of the whole deal.  On the contrary, feminist novels showed me women who were quite comfortable with their sexuality, pursued sexual contact for the sakes of their own needs, and seemed more accepting of their erogenous zones.  All these things were the opposite of my experience, and I couldn’t (then or now) figure out why.  Yes, in that way, it incited some of my shame.  But 1970s and 80s feminism tried to help us -- me included, if I’d known where to look.  If, for example, I’d gone to Our Bodies Ourselves instead of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)
    I see why you’re suggesting I blame contemporary feminism for my “shame” about anorgasmia, but it wasn’t feminism I was thinking about, but culture in general’s continued amping up of the sexualization of everything, and that (many) women do buy into it as a way to gain whatever status or attention they’re not gaining with their work.  So, yes, if there’s an offensive, it’s toward the way girls and young women have been inundated with ideas about sex from pop culture instead of messages about identity from feminism.  A more healthy way to learn about sexuality was available to me, through feminism, I just didn’t access it, or was already so screwed up with fear I chose not to.

BW: You teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- what are we calling that mix of graduate and undergraduate students these days?  Young writers?  Early-career writers?  Anyway.  What advice would you offer would-be writers hoping to construct their own experimental memoirs?

CM:  It is indeed an unusual mix at UIC.  While the undergrads would still be in the “inexperienced writer” camp, our  PhD program brings us writers who are already beginning to be accomplished.  This week I’ve been reading admissions writing-samples for our PhD program.  These are samples from post MFA students, sometimes many years post MFA, some with books already published.  We would have to think of these as early career writers, which has not always been the case with our graduate students.  This is a change that’s been rolling in for the past 5 years or so. 
    I haven’t had more than a handful of students working on nontraditional memoirs.  Many of them say they have a particular experience suited to a memoir, but after that they want to write fiction.  I came to memoir the other way, believing until the ‘90s (after nine books of fiction) that I had no experiences worthy of a nonfiction treatment.  So it’s challenging for me as well to work with students who are not necessarily struggling with the me-now, me-then self divided by a time-expanse of a decade or more.  But I’m interested in ways of accessing the personal through impersonal observations and observed events, through discussions of nature or place or pets or relatives or even politics, through flash pieces that might be used as a Facebook post (and surely are wasted as comments tossed into the blizzard of social media).  I start my undergrads with flash pieces, and have thought that a few of them could do a whole book with pieces no longer than a page each, yet have it add up to something that could be called a memoir.  I’m figuring this out as I go, with each new batch of students bringing me something I didn’t have before.

BW: The book is coming out on independent press, Jaded Ibis, and your previous works have been published by many of the best independent presses, from FC2 to Soft Skull.  Jaded Ibis in particular has an innovative publishing model featuring fine-art versions of books and printing on demand.  What’s your take on the evolution of independent presses?  Any predictions you’d care to make about the future of publishing, independent or otherwise? 

CM:  Certain aspects of publishing, even indie publishing, are being dragged kicking and screaming into the new era of digital-everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like hard-copy books, although the last time I moved I wondered why.  But I’ve been having to learn that the old model of having a physical bound galley six months before pub date -- the old model of even having a set pub-date -- is being replaced by a more fluid and digital system. We may have seen this coming, but never the extent of what the additional dimension of social media has done to reading-in-general.  Forget the old surfing-the-web, just scrolling through social media a person might feel he or she has read all s/he needs about a book or play or concert, no need to get the book or hear the concert.  Surveys keep telling us there are fewer readers, and yet there always seem to be more and new independent publishers … who then disappear in an average of five years.  Print-on-demand is no longer considered an inferior way to publish, just as digital magazines are no longer considered so.  Everything is moving in that direction, some for the better, and some not, or we’re still waiting to see.  Everyone -- writers, publishers, publicists, editors -- has to be flexible, able to adapt.  If independent presses (lighter on their feet) can continue to adjust, to offer more reading experiences -- like Jaded Ibis and the original music “soundtracks” for the books, the art versions, the interactive books, etc -- it might be the way that literature survives.

Brooke Wonders is from the snowy part of Arizona.  She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is at work on an experimental memoir about suicide.  Her prose can be found at or is forthcoming from Brevity, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM, among other places, and she blogs at