Thursday, March 5, 2015

Naomi Washer: Not the Map but the Winding

The first poet I ever personally knew died a week before the launch of Ghost Proposal’s first issue. I am still trying to find the sense in that. It is an answer I may never find; the essay I will continue to attempt. When he died, I returned to his poems. In them, I rediscovered qualities I have sought out in writing ever since—doubt, risk, and the grounding of place amidst timelessness.

From the Ghost Proposal mission:

Proposal: an offering; a possibility; a conjecture; a guess; a hypothesis; a thing-to-be-explored.

Ghost: a shadow on the sleeve of your sweater; a rhythm returning from lifetimes before; the meandering suggestion of a river on an ancient, yellowed map.

We want to publish your strange objects. The whispers sitting in between your shoulder blades.


As a writer and reader, it is not answers that comfort and sustain me, but questions. I write and read not in an effort to conclude but to attempt to stretch out across boundaries in hopes of forming ties between my own questions and the questions of others.

It is this kind of essay that we seek to include in Ghost Proposal. The essays we publish move beyond particular circumstances of place and situation to that space of timeless wondering which is open to all who risk accessing it.

And I do believe that space is real; is physical. We know that essays begin with a question but I believe it is equally necessary for them to end on one. The best essays traverse un-articulated landscapes, but I do not think that they leave every corner of those landscapes discovered and named. As editor of Ghost Proposal, I look for essays that pull back their seams so inner contours may be glimpsed, then end on the invitation for the reader to step inside—to take over, to take the exploration some place new.

Take the final lines of Ryan Spooner’s “Syskrin” in Issue 3:

How the eye darts. How it wishes to lead the body to wear it lands. On the edge of a scene—there, over there, away.

Spooner uses the description of encountering an object to teach readers how to enter a space he will end by inviting them into. He begins by enacting his very writing process: “Peeling out the cantilevered drawers and hinged trays of my great-grandmother’s syskrin…” He goes on to describe what is inside, then: “I’m peeling out the memory of it, too…” He asks, “Getting back to it, remembering it, what do I get back?” Then reaches for it, “I would arrive always at a squat pot of dark India ink…” Then focuses: “Where else have I known that ink’s luster?” And then this ending that cinematically zooms beyond the box, beyond the spot at the end of the couch in the myriad homes in which it took up residence, to a summer long gone, “the whole sky sweating, heaving…” Who among us has not known that sky?


Ghost Proposal is still young—we’ve just published our fifth issue—and Issue 4 marked our transition into un-labeled writing—uncharted territory, as it were. We no longer label the work by genre, which allows readers to discuss what a piece is doing, where it’s going. I am most excited when I see an essay enact the whole aesthetic of Ghost Proposal, such as the middle of Jill Talbot’s “On Trouble, Like Dust” in Issue 3, from a section subtitled Detour:

I have empty streets inside me. Streets that have built cities, maps of trouble. With the slightest turn of direction, I can be back on any one of them. Their coordinates fixed and sure, a grid of who I once was, who I thought myself to be, who I tried to outrun.

The essays in Ghost Proposal are so often my own troubled maps that I have to believe other readers will recognize them too. Because essaying is larger than any one of us. Ghost Proposal was founded through correspondence, between myself and another poet, and our mission corresponds with Spicer’s poetics in After Lorca—letters to a phantom. The confluence of correspondence (one object in relation to another), correspondence (letter-writing) and translation (re-placing a piece of writing in another time, context and language) is what we believe a ghost proposal is.

Imagine my pleasure, then, in publishing Dave Snyder’s “An Open Letter to Everything” in Issue 1. Letters, originally designated to the private sphere, now reside in a public space surrounding genre: “…nothing and no one that reads this is not you. In this I feel safe to tell you, dearly, what I must here in the privacy of the crowd.” Snyder’s letter-essay simultaneously serves as microcosm (on paper) and macrocosm (in concept) of the aesthetic we’ve developed as each new issue evolves.

Because what have I done here, if not placed our contributors together on an India-ink map, traced the correspondence between them? Objects arranged on a dark cloth, surrounded by darkness, take on a heightened color and focus—such is the nature of the essays collected in Ghost Proposal:

Spooner’s remembered sky—Talbot’s empty streets of the self—Snyder’s letter to all of us.

Seeing it laid out like this, I remember another I’d like to add after Spooner and leading to Talbot:

Sometimes I can’t watch Revenge in its entirety because it hurts me to see people hurt. Even cognizant of the fiction, I flinch at the elaborate and destructive plots, and postpone watching until the dark place in me awakens and requires its balm. 
(“On Revenge,” Carmen Gimenez Smith, Issue 1)

And what emerges out of a space both private and public—a space that both belongs and does not belong to the essayist?

I will venture an attempt:

I near the end of writing this, make a stop at Essay Daily to check out the most recent post. It’s a review by John Proctor of Steven Church’s book Ultrasonic; it hones in on both of their experiences writing about the deaths of their brothers. I’m wanting to include some references here to other Ghost Proposal essays such as Dan Beachy-Quick’s “The Fragile Bow: On Imagination and Atrocity” (Issue 4) and Patrick Thornton’s “Silent Eulogy” (Issue 2) but I now feel compelled to speak to John Proctor directly.


Dear John,

I read when I get stuck in writing, as so many of us do. I hit a dead-end on my own page and seek a new route in someone else’s. Insert here: new coordinates on the circular map of the essays we’re trying to find. We begin in one place and find the next road when we are meant to. There are so many echoes these days. My poet friend died and his name was Johnny. This paired with the explanation of the work we seek in Ghost Proposal corresponds to your review. We read each other because we correspond; because we correspond, we go on writing.

Dear John; Dear readers; Dear contributors; Dear Everything,

Here is a haunting; an offering; a shadow; a prompt, from the end of B.J. Hollars’ essay “SOS” in Issue 4. With what will it, for you, correspond?

I try to make sense of the koan that has risen to the surface:
if two boys don’t drown in the river, is the grief you feel still real?

Naomi Washer is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal and an Assistant Editor of Hotel Amerika. Her essays, poems and Cambodian translations have appeared in Ampersand Review, The Birds We Piled Loosely, St. Petersburg Review and Poor Claudia among other places. She lives in Chicago where she is completing an MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia College.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Kathryn Winograd on the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the "Glaciology" of Purpura

Warned of, craved, the blizzard finally barrels across the ice dark street. The known world whittles down to black elm, chiseled hoar frost, and my breath against the slim windowpane, periodic circles of clarity against a gathering snow, a white space.

“I am not a poet,” my student informs me, not by text message or email, but by phone, landline phone. My enthusiasm over the metaphoric possibilities of this student’s obsession with bricks in her narrative on building a new house with her second husband has aroused a knee-jerk reaction—and it’s not a good one.

Already this blizzard must mean something: the white exterior world beyond the cold glass I press my palm hard against. The interior world my breath inhabits, warm with its fireplace flame even as the insistent voice of the anchorwoman ticks off degrees and inches as if the world beyond the window that I cannot yet feel, and the world beyond the self I do not yet know, could be made measurable.

When I wrote Michael Steinberg about an AWP panel I was proposing on what I saw as a gap between the student who enters creative nonfiction from the prose side of the spectrum versus the poetry side, he wrote back, “Strictly speaking, I’m not a lyric essayist. But one of the things I’ve been talking and writing about for years is the connection between memoir and lyric poetry. The essay (and/or memoir) is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing—even the very good ones.”

The lyric impulse versus the storytelling impulse. The “revelation of consciousness.”
      “Back stories,” my student tells me: the neighbors’ bricks she obsesses over, the migrating birds that roost in paragraphs throughout the chronology of her house-building, and those faintest hammer taps of her new husband who “remodeled” the house my student must for now live in, the house he built for his first wife, repaired in places with baling twine.
      A leftover house.
      “Extra stuff,” my student says.
      The real subject matter of her narrative on building a house?
      Building a house.

The philologist Max Mueller said that “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” Figurative language then becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.
      “Bricks,” I tell my student.

I assign to the class Lia Purpura’s Glaciology, her “deposition” on glacier and thaw, on X-ray and artifact, on the fallible body and the mind-in-waiting.
      “A little shard, small bit taken out of my body and sent off for further study,” Purpura carves so lightly amidst her glacier surge and ice sheets, her “striated stone from Mauritania.” A 650 million year old backdrop to this uncertain moment, to this white space, external and internal: “Bones stacked and bent in the attitude of prayer, the edges honed and precarious.”
      “Too much poetry,” my nonfiction students tell me, Purpura’s own hieroglyphics—that “cache of loose details” she resolutely attends to while she awaits the medical world’s verdict—abandoned, they claim, to Orpheus, strummer of the poet’s lyre, though I tell them that even the king of the dead has wept.
      “Metaphor,” as the New Critics said, is “not a rhetorical device . . . but a means of perceiving and expressing moral truths radically different from that of prose or scientific statement.”

My table light burns in the night window, sky lantern lit to flame now, reflected, refracted, my own face the blizzard’s whiteness.
      How do blizzards form? I wonder.
      I think of André Breton, surrealist poet who described the “vertiginous descent within ourselves . . . the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of all other places.” My student writes, We’ve gone around and around. Too dark, too light, too orange, too red. I never realized there were so many variations on the color of brick. And then, later, bricks, typically rectangular and used for centuries to build lasting structures.
      “Extra stuff,” my student says, my life-long leaser drawing houses of bricks since she was a child that no wolf could blow down. Her very first house.
      “My last house,” her new husband reminds her.
      “Bricks,” I say.
      “I am not a poet,” my student reminds me.

Warm air rises over cold and the white wishbone of the world cracks just below. Here is Purpura, still in waiting—“the inside-out arms of clothes pulled right, made whole and unwrinkled” taking “lovely hours.” She writes, “The work of glaciers changes a landscape: old stream valleys are gouged and deepened, filled with till and outwash. Filled, of course, over millions of years. In sand-grain, fist-sized increments.”
      Ellen Bryant Voigt in her essay, Images, says that in the expressive theories of art “the poet’s vision supplants the objective or empirical world, and the classical virtues of clarity and precision take second place to passion and sweep.” And so we remember glacier, and sand-grain, and the fist we cannot but imagine now clenched beneath the “riotous stillness of the week,” “the intimacies akin to falling back to a pillow,” “the gratitude unspoken.”

The house stills. The blizzard outside my window shape-shifts the world. Snow solidifies within the barrel staves of streetlight, cold shuttling in between the window’s half-shutter, my hand gone white with cold.
      “Words as images,” Breton said, “[have] an autonomous life of their own.”
      Say blizzard and the snow burns thigh-high again, my body once more in the endless white space: daughter, other I could not yet feel, neither breath nor sound.
      Say glacier and the world turns into “morning glory” and “roadside aster” after Purpura’s unnamed test returns negative, clarity found in the tangible—petal, I’ll write, sepal, anther poised against the glacial white space, against this poet’s “confession”: “I resisted the easy convergence—spring, warmth, I’m fine—not a bit, and I knew that to be an indulgence, a failure, partial sight.”

Say bricks, and my student will tell me, “I am not a poet.”
      But, then, a small blizzard, warned of, craved:

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.
—Ludwig Mies va der Rohe, 1886-1969
Until recently, I took bricks for granted. . . [T]hey were background scenery, something that was just there. That changed when my husband and I decided to build a house. . . bricks became my obsession.

Kathryn Winograd is the author of Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation and Air Into Breath, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. Her essays have been noted in Best American Essays, and published in journals including Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, The Florida Review and The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, 6th. She will teach for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program beginning in January, 2016.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

John Proctor on listening to Steven Church's Ultrasonic

“In this book, essays become sounding lines, explorations, probes and tests, each one a map of what lies below the surface; and the form is meant to mimic the way our thinking sometimes moves between points of engagement—navigating in the dark by means of echolocation, bouncing from one idea to another, searching and seeing through sound.” 
Author’s Note to Ultrasonic

I’ve always wanted, though I didn’t always know I wanted, to write more like a song than a story. I’m tempted to say Steven Church does this, but on second thought this explanation might be looking at these essays from the wrong end of the earpiece: I think he writes like I listen to a song.

Take, for example, “Seven Fathoms Down.” This might be the essay that most thoroughly elucidates Church’s note on his technique for these essays. In seven parts, each ostensibly going deeper into Church’s mind as it circles its subject(s)—which might be the derivation of the word “cockle,” or sound-based synesthesis, or the life cycle of the catfish, or the word “fathom” itself—Church comes to a realization of sorts as his “subject,” a drowned boy Church saw dredged from the bottom of a lake in his childhood, is just beginning to resound:

I believe most of us are fishing for ghosts—those spectral ideas about life and death that hover at the edge of our consciousness or just beneath the surface of our waking life. Sight promises knowledge; but perhaps it’s only by closing our eyes and listening, by echo-navigating through the landscape of memory that we can explore the unseen terrain below.

I hear—I mean read—sentences like this, and the sensation is a lot like the one I get singing along to my favorite songs: the words, at that moment at least, are mine. I might even steal them, paraphrase them, forget who originally wrote them, but they will continue to resound in my own voice.


That thing about always wanting to write like a song? Not entirely true. When I started calling myself a writer, I thought of the word as synonymous with storyteller. And when I started calling myself a nonfiction writer, I wanted to shoehorn this newish conception of myself into the rules (as I saw them) of storytelling—progress, conflict, rising action, resolution. But the essays found myself loving are different. They circle or weave, or go for walks or stand in place. They do flips between literal and figurative, concrete and allegorical, small human and humanity-at-large. Whereas telling a story, to paraphrase Nabokov, is essentially a process of world-making, essaying is a process of weaving oneself into the existing world.

In “It Begins with a Knock at the Door,” by far the most overtly narrative piece in Ultrasonic, Church essays this weaving of himself into the lives of his neighbors while also calling himself on his moves, both as a person and as a writer:

[I] knew nothing of these people as real people. [I] only imagined, speculated, predicted what couldn’t be predicted about them as characters…They needed [my] help not because [I] was funny or good at storytelling, certainly not because they need [my] sympathy or jokes or essays, but because [I] was big enough to pull Larry out of a bathtub.

I didn’t want the story to end this way. When I told it later to friends or family I often didn’t get this far, never making it to the part where there is no easy resolution, or where the resolution seems all too predictable and sad…We all wanted to believe that everything was the same, believe that the story never changed and was always funny and weird and safe…We all enjoyed the luxury of humorous distance.

…[B]ut I had no control over this scene or the larger story, no agency through imagination, because it was all impossibly, uncontrollably, and tragically true.

To me, as an essayist and a lover of essays, these asides from the story, these refrains from the action and the plot, are more engrossing than the story itself, perhaps because, in talking to himself, Church is letting me in on his process of mythmaking, his role in the creation of the story he tells on the page and the one he tells and retells out loud. I think of my own stories, and the differences between the way I tell them to friends who share a part in them, or to students to elucidate a point, or to strangers in writing.

I spent my childhood thinking both myth and song sprung forth from a mysterious part of someone else—never myself—and that was part of the joy I took in them: the aura of other people’s experience. In pulling himself out of the process, in establishing his own culpability in the straining of truth into personal mythology, Church does something that I find very hard to do as a writer: he is critic of his own story, even in the process of telling it.


I’ve been trying for years to locate the person who said, and of course I’m paraphrasing, Writers write to stop time. Maybe it was Frank Conroy—that would make such perfect sense—though I’ve for years attributed it in my mind to Bob Dylan. In any case, many of Church’s Ultrasonic essays don’t just stop time, they romp through it. The most obvious example is probably “Auscultation,” an essay divided not into parts but into chambers, sending its narrative threads—the invention and development of the stethoscope, the entrapment of miners in a coal mine shaft in Utah in 2007, the fetal development of Church’s daughter—pulsing through them.

The development and birth of Church’s daughter in fact could be cited as one of the main narrative threads—or perhaps chords?—connecting many of the essays within the book’s covers. A father of two girls, I found myself humming the universal refrain of worry, circumspection, and paradigm-shifting that the birth of a child produces.

I also have to confess: I read Ultrasonic while deep into the process of collecting my own essays into my first book. I’m pretty sure this made me more attuned to its style, its form (both within the essays and within the collection of them), the words themselves; in other words, I read it to teach me, to nourish me as a writer. But I couldn’t help being entrapped in Church’s sound-web, empathizing with him as a person at least as much as I did with him as a writer.


I apologize, both to Steven Church and to his current and potential readers, if this review has become just as much about me as it is about his book of essays. I can only say that I felt, reading Ultrasonic, like his essays were as much about me as they were about him.

I should say here that I went to the same high school Church did—he was a senior when I was a sophomore—though we never knew each other then. I discovered his work when Patrick Madden read something I was writing about being thoroughly traumatized by Eighties nuclear-holocaust miniseries The Day After as a child, and said I should read Church’s The Day After The Day After. Reading it reiterated a foundational principle for me as a writer: that my own experience isn’t that exceptional, that the words I write, the stories I tell, are not unique as words or stories; someone has told them before or will after me, and (in Church’s case with The Day After The Day After) probably better. I’m refraining from quoting Ecclesiastes here.

Even now, I’m surprised to think that I went through high school without knowing Church. I thought I knew everyone. Actually, I knew very few people, but I did know of them, from poring over the yearbook and the school newspaper, taking in as many of the names and faces and stories in our gigantic school that would fit into my hormone-addled mind. I did know his brother Matt, or at least I knew of him. Matt was in my grade, and I seem to remember envying him. He seemed, to me then, at ease with himself, and most of the people we both knew seemed at ease around him. A good guy.

Matt’s death his freshman year of college is the subject his brother Steven circles around in “Crown and Shoulder,” using the two bookends of the title as sounding lines to find himself and the reader at the shoulder of the highway in Indiana where his brother’s car, full of friends, ran headlong into a tree. I read this essay within days of reading Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Documents,” in which D’Ambrosio sketches a tragic outline of one brother’s suicide, another’s mental illness, and his father’s breakdown through the letters they either sent or left him. I keep thinking, even now, How many sentences of personal essays are littered with the bones of dead brothers?

This question, for me, is not entirely critical. One essay I wrote last year that I’m currently revising is ostensibly about my collegiate running career, but it is really about my brother Jeremy, who was found hanging from a bedsheet when he was ten years old, and my father’s grief at Jeremy’s death, and my other brother Brian’s grief at the loss of his own first, stillborn son.

In “Crown and Shoulder,” Church says, “When I say to grieve, I mean my response to the intransitive, to die…And I mean the object, the intransitive form of the verb. I grieve his death.” He also says, “I don’t really know the exact cause of his death.” I still haven’t found the words to describe my feeling towards my brother’s death, or even to give an accurate account of it. I use the passive voice to describe the way he died—he was found hanging, rather than hanged himself—as I don’t want to imply agency. The local obituary listed his death as a suicide, but ten-year-olds don’t kill themselves, do they? I saddle the death of my other brother’s son to it, implying in my mind some sort of family curse that I don’t think my father or my brother Brian would agree to or appreciate.

I’ve been planning on going back to that essay, circling around the hours and days and months and years of my brother’s death, and the echoes that still ring down through my fragmented family. I’m going to finally do that next month.

Now this month.

Immediately after I finish this.

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. He’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them, which he tends now to collect under the generic term “essay.” His work has been published in The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, and the Gotham Gazette, and is forthcoming in The Weeklings. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts and Dad for All Seasons columnist for the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn, and teaches writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at

Monday, February 23, 2015

J.C. Hallman: The Shriek from the Coffin

The Shriek from the Coffin


How to Read Essays With Pleasure


J.C. Hallman



One of the problems of the pleasure argument for reading is that there are many different kinds of reading pleasure, and not all of them can co-exist. For example, the argument that reading is a pleasure on the order of a Hollywood movie or a rollercoaster (both quite keen pleasures, by the way) doesn’t really jibe with the kind of pleasure I want to describe here, which is the pleasure of finding small hints of a writer’s literary aesthetic embedded in the essays he or she produces. This pleasure is not compatible with the books-as-excitement pleasure because it amounts to the spark of insight that leads, ultimately, to what I’m doing here, writing something of, ahem, a critical nature in reply, and, frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find many people who would risk conflating the writing or reading of a piece of criticism with The Cyclone at Coney Island (which actually batters you around a good bit—my advice: wear shoulder pads on The Cyclone).
    A few years ago, I set out to write a book about the essayist and novelist Nicholson Baker, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal. What was odd about B & Me, in its conception, was that I hadn’t read any Baker at all when I sat down to start writing about him, and the idea was that no one had ever chronicled a literary relationship from its moment literary conception, that moment when you realize there is a writer out there in the world that you should read, and so you read them. What that meant was that I could read Nicholson Baker “in order,” that is, in the order in which his work was actually produced. I wasn’t able to sustain this for the entire book – I bet you couldn’t either – but what it meant was that some of the very first Baker I read was a series of essays from the early eighties, “The Size of Thoughts,” “Rarity,” and “Changes of Mind,” all of which first appeared in The Atlantic. It wasn’t until I started in on his novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, that I realized how very important these essays were to his career. And what I want to propose here is that this exercise in “deep reading” revealed a very keen, but not much discussed, kind of pleasure: an echoing resonance between Baker’s novels and his essays.
    This continued throughout his career. For example, a scene in The Fermata, in which the monstrous boy-masturbator Arno Strine perfects his time-stopping ability with a complicated system of thread passing through his fingertip calluses (yanked by the agitating post of a washing machine), echoes the film projector imagery of “The Projector,” an essay Baker published in The New Yorker within weeks of the publication of The Fermata. Similarly, Jay and Ben, the hapless comedy team that semi-conspires to murder George W. Bush in the much-maligned 2004 assassination farce Checkpoint, often find themselves straying off topic to discuss Ben’s writerly work on “Cold War themes,” which, as it turns out, is a pretty perfect description of whole range of nonfiction that Baker himself produced from the mid-nineties through the turn of the millennium.
    I don’t think this is merely a case of recycling material. Because it’s not always retroactive. When I began reading the footnotes for which The Mezzanine is famous (and which are the prototype of the footnote fad more commonly associated with David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and a host of other shameless imitators), I experienced the sharp joy of a repetition sounding from “Rarity,” published five years before The Mezzanine hit the shelves: “the ecstasy of arriving at something underappreciated at the end of a briareous ramification of footnotes.” And imagine my joy—my pleasure—when I stumbled across a plea for rhyming poetry from Paul Chowder in The Anthologist, and recognized it as an idea published twenty-five years earlier, in an essay of Baker’s called “Reading Aloud”:
And there were the suspect intonation patterns, the I’m-reading-aloud patterns—especially at poetry readings, where talented and untalented alike, understandably wishing in the absence of rhyme, to give an audible analogue of the ragged left and right margins in their typed or printed original, resorted to syllable-punching rhythms and studiously unresolved final cadences… (italics mine)

    These kinds of repetitions aren’t only forward-looking, either. The critic Doug Phillips, in a remarkable recent piece about Eliot’s plays published in Text and Presentation, documents the temporal somersaults of a writer commenting on his or her own work:
Like any good philosopher-cum-poet-cum-playwright-cum-essayist-cum Nobel Prize Winner, Eliot thought the Real important enough to at least take a peek, and so he devised a strategy for doing so, via verse drama. While he laid the groundwork in his early essay “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama” (1921), Eliot would wait some thirty years to really flesh things out in an essay called, simply, “Poetry and Drama.” Perhaps he needed first to put into practice what he could only theorize early on, and so in the intervening years wrote five of his seven plays, all in verse. Whatever the case, “Poetry and Drama” appeared just after The Cocktail Party in 1951, the very year that Lacan would begin holding his now famous seminars, all of them in some way concerned with the Real, and the truth of our desire.
It would seem, then, that essays serve, for the multi-genre writer, as a kind of navigational fixation system, a way of setting the course of one’s blind and wandering submersible, the yellow submarine in which we all live and work. In an essay, a writer states an aesthetic hypothesis that is then tested, proved, or warped into new hypotheses in other work. 
    But what explains the pleasure of the reader peeking, as it were, behind the wizard’s curtain? Ours is an age in which those who are compelled to indulge the critical reflex are more or less required to ignore the writer in favor of his or her text. This is true in spite of the fact that the same critics who claim to respond to text alone show a preternatural interest in writers’ biographies, particularly those aspects of a writer’s life that are not detailed in essays and interviews. (Poor Henry James’s sexuality is the classic example of this, in spite of the fact that sexuality is not among the many controversial subjects he addressed in his work.) Indeed, the critic, however fired into frenzy he or she might have been by Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” will not hesitate to stretch tortured inferences between a writer’s work and their life, particularly when some prurient suggestion, held together by strained sinews of logic and association, is of the sort that is likely to land in a journal just obscure enough for their tenure file. For me, it’s quite different. I am not much interested in aspects of writers’ lives that they do not attest to themselves, and I very much want to hear them anticipate, and retroactively assess, the nature of their creations. Indeed, it seems to me that essays in which writers fess up to their aesthetic intentions is a way of ensuring that posterity understands that they knew what they were doing, that their productions have not simply downloaded into their minds from the creative ether. In the larger context of the long and dubious history of criticism, then, the essay may be a writer’s shriek from inside the coffin for which “The Death of the Author” served only as the final nail.
    So—the pleasure. The pleasure for me, reading Baker, is what I find to be the true pleasure of reading. It’s not entertainment. Nor is it any masochistic drive toward tribulation based on a misguided notion of reading as transcendent self-flagellation. It’s this: When you read a writer’s essays anticipating or reflecting on their other work, you sink deep not only into their psyche but into their process, you enter into their plans, their hopes, their doubts, and celebrations, and regrets. You no longer watch the process, you are part of it, quite as if you rode the rollercoaster, and then sat down for a lovely chat with its architect. Would that not add to the thrill?


J.C. Hallman is the author of a number of books. His study of Nicholson Baker, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, comes out in March, and is available here. He lives in New York City.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shaelyn Smith: The Goal is to Claim a Suit

It feels late. I am visiting a friend in New York. We walk through light snow across Broadway, headed to some dive, some Upper West Side billiard bar. We consider simultaneously accessing both the critical & creative articulations of emotion. We move slowly in the cold, but slow is not static. “People don’t explode,” writes Susan Stewart.

Danny and I order beers; talk around what is quiet, silent, unbearable. How this affects our experiences. We get quarters to shove into the pool table. After John Cage dies, Merce Cunningham muses, “on the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, & John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home & John’s not there.” These two sides to a thing that is one thing. What can we know of internal combustion, spontaneity, formation of the effable, the perpetual, the sound of it? On the one hand, each piece matters. On the other hand, each piece matters. Danny racks the balls.


In “A Manifesto For Cyborgs” Donna Haraway argues for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and responsibility in their construction.” Good writing, I think, does this—it takes pleasure in confusing boundaries, but also takes responsibility for constructing them. As nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review, I value that which forages new ground where none thought new ground could be found. I appreciate refrain from pulling us along for a direct purpose, but rather that which suspends us in moments of both utter disbelief, and the etching out of how we come to believe. In the same way, I like the associative that meanders a territory of meaning, rather than that which simply wanders without specific purpose. I thrive on delicate balance of the direct and the indirect, the fabricated and the normative, the natural and the unnatural. As a writer of nonfiction, I don’t want to be scared to admit that in the production there is also reproduction, and that in the knowing, there is ultimately an unknown. As people, I think we must understand that often the personal is political, but not always. That the political is, also, not always personal. We must be comfortable both blurring these boundaries and unpacking them, and feel confident enough to rest in a place of discomfort or dissatisfaction.


These are your hands, formulating this triangular rainbow in space. John Ashbery says, “I could think only of my own ideas, though you surely have your separate, private being in some place I will never walk through.” That divine presence of thine own ideas. We say, it’s your go. We hand over the pool cue. That divided preservation of time and space.

That said, everything fails. Why attempt in the first place? I break. The balls scatter. It’s not about the rejection of closure, but rather the reiteration thereof. Try, know you will fail. Still try. There’s a way to return to something, to mop again & again a mess, but when returning to something, we bring something else with us, & leave thus with a new thing as well. No matter how stubborn. It’s not about revision; it’s about re-appropriation. That’s the reason we learn to laugh. That’s the reason we fall in love. John Cage says there are only two sounds that mean nothing—laughter & silence.

My father always asks me why I would waste my time re-reading or re-watching things. Danny sinks the eight, re-racks the balls. In the repetition there is a rejection of closure, but also a reconstruction & reinterpretation of meaning. What it means to close something, but moreso what it means to be close to the thing you have learned to close. A girl I used to babysit would have me read the same book to her over & over, sometimes as many as 14 times in a row. This book is about a badger, & the badger’s younger sister has a birthday party under the dining room table. Ionie had the whole thing memorized; she was three years old. I would ask her why? why again? She would say, because I love it. What I think she meant about love is a thing repeated, a thing with grandiose & innate expectations that can be broken afresh, again, & again, & again.


To avert a silence that could be static, I move faster. Take a shot & miss. Imagine listening to a record on the wrong speed. The hyper-speed cartoon voice. This is where I’m learning to be deliberate. This might be more about performance than intention. Take a sip of beer, take a deep breath, take another shot & win. Tracey Emin makes a distinction regarding her work, that there is a difference between an exhibitionist & a person who exhibits; that in exhibition the work exonerates its creator. We say art. We say perfection. We say silence. Emin sits by herself in a dirty bed of her own making.

Stewart writes: “the grotesque body thus can be effected by the exaggeration of its internal elements.” A ball flies off the table from a bum hit. We must go in search of this piece, take the parts as a whole. Nothing individually, inherently, has less weight or importance than any other. Abstraction, we say. Emotive, we say. The composition thereof becomes the narrative heat of the art.

The lights dim. We consider what could be considered GROTESQUE. From the root hidden place. A secret typically imbues shock, or something like it. Illicit, we say. Someone sinks the 8-ball before the end of the game. Who wins, we ask. Plenty of beautiful things remain hidden. The suffix indicates exaggeration & what is this moment, but some exaggerated notion of an emotion, a reaction. Here: hyperbole. Here: a hyperbola forms on an axis—a point of origin.


My best friend and I spent most of our early twenties shooting pool. We both had just graduated college with degrees that held little prospect for careers. It was the recession; we worked in restaurants. Though these endless post-shift nights of constant games we learned english, we learned how to rack, we learned how to drink, how to flirt, how to bet. We learned poker faces we would begin to use in the world outside the dark confines of the Alley Bar. We learned how to lie, how to cheat, how to hide, but we also learned how to be honest, how to let go, how to love one another. We learned angles and deflection, we learned how to take whiskey shots without squinching up our faces. We learned tangents and dialects and swerves. We learned jump shots and geometries and smooth transitions from one topic to the next. We learned how to stand on the footrest beneath the bar and lean our crossed arms over the top to push up our breasts. We learned that in the world of dive bars, and the world of dive bar games, we must learn the rules, but we also learned to make our own rules, and insist on responsibility for that making.


When I was young I was intriguingly terrified of the fat woman in floral cotton pants that stood outside of the 24-hour Wal-Mart to smoke cigarettes. My mother was not a very feminine person. She never taught me about make up or menstruation or sex or flirting or dating or dressing. My mother would take me with her to her volunteer shifts at the local food co-op with her long-haired, hippy friends who smoked pot and didn’t wear bras. My aunts were very practical women. My maternal grandmother passed away before I really got to know her. My paternal grandmother was a very stern Irish Catholic woman with enormous tits who rapped my knuckles with a knife for being improper at the dinner table. No one really taught me how to be a woman. No one really taught me how to be a man, either. My first friends were boys, most of who ended up queer. Most of my early female friends grew up queer, too. As a child, gender never really meant much to me. I played dress up with my father’s clothes more often than skirts and heels. I made my brother wear those:

Drugged up and decorous. I tell him he needs to be me and I tell him I need to be him. I am six years old, it is winter; I have figured out the camera. I have figured out what is allowed and what is not allowed, some age of reason. I am interested in gender and genitals. I have figured out how to figure this out, to get around the margins. Here put on this dress, I say. Here put on these shoes, I say. Here put on these pearls, I say. Now you are a girl, I say. Here hold this camera, I say. Jump-shot. I put on construction gloves, a ski mask, a flannel shirt and work boots. My tiny body totally eclipsed. I speak, muffled, but I imagine it goes, Now you are me and I am you. You are a girl and I am a boy. Now you dance, I say. That is what girls do. He does, he’s two and he spins and spins in his heels, his nightgown, his play make-up, some plastic jewelry, some unsung music. Dancing, he falls, cracking his two-year old skull on the corner of the cedar dressing trunk. He will be scared of this trunk for years. I will drink grape juice and tell him to stop crying and act more like an adult. The faint fuzz of my upper lip stained a deep purple, I will put my hand on my hip and tell him to act more like a man.

These women of my formative life taught me how to be quiet, silent, unbearable.


In “Why I Write” Joan Didion says “in many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” This is how I want to feel when I read your work; I want to enter your private space, but in order to do this properly you must force me to first encounter, pass through, and call into question my own private space.

That vast and biased territory. That undergrowth of confusion and indecision. That rotting mess of detritus we step over again & again & again.

Bully me into recognition. Bully me off the table so that I may learn how I must improve for the next round. Drink me under the table so I can go home and take responsibility for my own construction.

It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it gets me every time.


A woman I dated in New York told me she could see all of the pain I had ever felt present in my face. I took this as a compliment. Faces and work have a lot to do with one another. I respect faces that carry their pain out blatant. I respect faces that refuse to hide anything. I respect faces that construct their own kind of beauty out of all the dirty things that have happened, faces that make the grotesque seem quite feminine, faces that don’t apologize for their scars or tears or bruises. This is the most vulnerable kind of respect. These things may not seem beautiful, but they are honest, and honesty is the most beautiful thing we can share.


Eventually, it stops snowing. Danny & I shoot another game; share another pitcher. Later, he will send me an essay on Pound’s final canto, concluding that there’s “a sense that Pound didn’t err at all, rather that people seem to get the project wrong.” Your hands close around it.

Shaelyn Smith grew up in northern Michigan and now lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she currently serves as the nonfiction editor for the Black Warrior Review. Her work can be found in storySouth, The Rumpus, Sonora Review and Forklift, Ohio.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Peter Grandbois on the essential art of failing

Ode to Failure
“Francia Russell, the director of the school, said to me, “You’re perfect for ‘Clara,’ because you are much more of an actress than a dancer.”
It was a condescending compliment. I couldn’t handle her honesty, but I did appreciate it. That’s why, at sixteen, when Francia Russell told me the most I could hope for as a ballet dancer was as a corps member in some Midwestern third-tier company, I decided to quit. My excuse was that I would act. But really something inside died. An ex-dancer knows what I mean. When I left ballet, I left my identity. None of my dance classmates phones. I had succumbed to failure.
— From Renee D’Aoust’s essay “Body of a Dancer"

We are the kings of catastrophe, the queens of ineptitude. Princes and princesses of disappointment. We pile the shattered bones of our missteps on the pyre of our imperfections. Our national anthem sings of soot-black air and beaten dogs. We pledge allegiance to distant shores we will never reach and storms that drag us away from any sight of land.

At the club where I fence in Columbus, there is a woman in her early fifties who recently started fencing because two of her three children wanted to fence. She took up sabre, the fastest weapon, a weapon with no room for error. She has been a regular at the club for the past two years, fencing two to three nights a week and going to nearly every tournament. She almost always loses. She is always beautiful.
       Beautiful in the way pages fluttering in the breeze are beautiful, in the way snow clinging to the railing outside the window is beautiful, in the way a bird unable to find a branch to land on is beautiful. I watch her and often wonder why she does it, fencing against kids a third her age, all of whom are faster, more agile. I know why I do it, but I, at least, have decades of fencing experience, muscle memory to rely on, even if those memories are twenty years old. She takes last place in tournament after tournament. And after, she smiles and talks of how next time she’ll do better.
       A gentleman at my club in his forties also took up fencing because his son wanted to do it. Fencing does not come easy. The movements are unnatural. It takes years of training for them to become normal, much less second nature. The old adage is that fencing takes one lifetime to learn the basics, another to master them. I watch this gentleman struggle through his footwork, his upper body bobbing back and forth like those clown faced punching bags. When he parries, it looks as if he is swatting at you. His attack appears more of a semi-controlled fall. He’s always smiling. He tells me he loves the sport and wants to become as good as he can.
       That’s it, isn’t it? To be as good as we can. That’s the best we can hope for as we get older. I fenced my first division one national championship in 1988 when I was twenty-four years old. I came in last place. I told myself it would never happen again. I was young. I could afford that luxury. It didn’t happen again. Over the next two years I worked my way from being one hundred and eighty first to placing somewhere in the fifties and sixties. A year after that, I made the top sixteen for the first time in my life. After that, many top eights or top fours. I had the time and the energy and the drive. When we’re older, we’re lucky to have one of those. Never all three. So we work hard and hope to be as good as we can. 

We, none of us, expected to fail. And yet we do. Every day. We fail despite our best efforts. We measure ourselves against that failure. Maybe this time we won’t lose quite as badly. Maybe this time we’ll have made our opponents work at least a little bit for their touches. Maybe this time we won't be quite so sore the next morning. Maybe we won’t have the usual aches and pains. Maybe we’ll be able to get out of bed. To walk down stairs. To sit. Without pain.

A flick attack in fencing involves cranking the arm and throwing the weapon forward with a whip so that the blade bends and the point hits the opponent’s back. It used to be my bread and butter. It takes a lot of arm strength. I remember the first time I tried flicking when I came back to fencing at forty-eight. I slapped my opponent across the shoulder. I apologized. I tried again, and apologized again. I couldn’t generate the torque required to bend the blade enough. No matter. Two years into my return to fencing and I have “Tennis Elbow.” It’s difficult enough to attack with a straight arm now, much less attempt a “flick.” If I did, the pain shooting up my arm would force me to drop my foil. In veteran’s fencing, practice doesn’t always lead to improvement. It often makes you worse. Wisdom is to know your limitations and work within them.
       Twenty years ago, I was famous for running my opponents down. My nickname was “the rhino.” When I first tried to fence with my old run and gun style, I nearly tripped and fell. My hip went out on me. My knees gave way. My body told me its limitations. I didn’t listen much the first year, but I’ve learned to listen since. My game is different than it was twenty years ago. For the first time in my fencing career, I use the clock. I take my time and instead of attacking, I offer false openings designed to draw my opponent out so I can capitalize on my hand, which thankfully remains quick. My legs are another matter. 

We drag our wings through dark, cloudless nights, the moon flailing our corpse. We open our mouths to song and hear nothing but a dry rasp. We lift our feet in dance but find them tied down by the low sound of distant bells. Time stops, and we fall backward, teetering on the edge of our regrets. We pull our coats tighter at the throat amidst the ash falling from our hair. We are the fathers of the big flop, the masters of miscarriage. We are the butchers of botchery, and the disciples of disaster. We court failure as if there were nothing else in the world we’d rather be doing.

I started and restarted this essay four times before I got it “right.” I still don’t know if I have it “right.” The curse of age is that you know enough to know you are wrong far more often than you are right. The old Japanese proverb: Fall down seven times. Stand up eight. To know, too, that no matter how much you work at it, no matter how much effort you put in, you may never get it “right.” It is also a blessing because at some point you free yourself to be as good as you can.
       When I wrote my first novel, I was a relatively young thirty-eight and oh so lucky. I didn’t know what I was doing. The fool’s blessing. I sat down every day at my computer and simply wrote. I completed the first draft in six months, then spent the next six months revising it. I probably put the novel through three drafts total. I sent the novel out to a round of publishers and the first email response I received was an acceptance. I didn’t know enough to know how rare it all was. My second novel took four and a half years to write. I have over forty different drafts saved on my computer. The novel was rejected forty-five times before it found a home. My third novel took five years to write, had a similar amount of drafts and after forty plus rejections is still looking for a home. Writing doesn’t get easier. When we write, we think we are “approaching truth,” but the older you get, the more you realize how elusive that “truth” is. Even if you find it, you understand how difficult it is to express. I remember the summer I began writing that third novel. I wrote to page sixty, then stopped, trashed it and started again. I repeated this process at least four or five times until I found the voice and the form necessary for the story I wanted, no needed, to tell. Even when I found the voice and form, writing wasn’t necessarily easier. I just knew what I had to do. But knowing and doing are sometimes as different as a boy and his father. Whether it gets published or not, I consider that novel my finest work, and my biggest failure.
       Several years ago at a library in Sacramento, while sitting on a panel and talking about writing, someone asked how I defined “success” as a writer. I’d never thought about it before and so wasn’t ready for the question, and was even less prepared for the answer. At the time, I only had two books out. The first had won many awards, been seriously reviewed, was under contract to be made into a movie, and had sold several thousand copies. The second had sold maybe four hundred copies. I told the audience that the second was a much bigger success to me, though it would probably be deemed a failure by every such metric we use in America. I told them there were two reasons why: the first was that even though many more people had read my first book, I’d received a few personal emails from people regarding my second book saying how it had changed their lives. In other words, I marked success not by how many readers I had but by how deeply a few readers received it. Finally, I was more pleased with the writing in my second book than in my first. In other words, I’d met my own standard in that book, not the standards of somebody else.

Lord deliver us from the ugly hands of “success.” Take us, instead, down the road of failure in the trunk of a dead car. We beseech you to protect us from paths with a pot of gold at the end, roads that appear too easy. Let us wake to the blank page each and every day and not be sure how to fill it. Let us enter our daily tournament knowing each and every person there can beat us. We ask that you pluck out our eyes so that our black sockets can roll back into heaven. Grant us scorched earth that our dying weeds might grow. Only then can we know strength. Only then can we understand character.

As in writing and fencing, the longer I live, the less I realize I understand. The more I realize how much of my life is defined by failure, how failure defines me. You can’t go through life without making mistakes, and I’ve made more than my share. A ruined first marriage. A nearly ruined second. I have failed to keep up with so many, many friends. Failed to listen to myself at key points in my life. And yet I would argue that these failures are not even the important ones. The ones we see clearly, the ones we remember right away, those shape us, but less so than we think. It’s the thousand little failures we ignore each day that really make us who we are, and nowhere is that more clear than in parenting.
       As a father with two teenage girls and a headstrong ten-year-old boy, I’ve almost completely given up. Children have no lack of compunction in letting you know when you’ve fallen short of the mark. The teen who reminds you of the promise you failed to keep or the conversation you failed to hear or the fact that you failed to understand her need for a break from piano practice or homework. The child who reminds you that you failed to see when he needed help or when he didn’t need help, when he wanted your love and when he didn’t. To give your teen a kiss or a hug when they don’t want it can sting worse than a bad book review. 
       But parenting is only one part of a very long day. I fail to play with my dogs enough. I fail to pay the bills on time, to keep the house clean, to maintain the yard and clean the garage, to keep up the deck and the exterior paint. I fail to prepare enough for the classes I teach and spend enough time on the papers I grade. I fail to get the cars in for a tune up or an oil change or a tire rotation or to check the battery. I fail to love my wife enough. I fail to sleep at night so I can be rested for my failure the next day. Failure to be as good as I can be
       And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s not quite true. Rather, I know there is no other way. In fencing, I will always lose more bouts than I will win, at least if I’m pushing myself. In parenting, I know if my kids love me all the time, something is wrong. I haven’t done my job. I’ve tried too hard to be their friend. In writing, if my book is reviewed in the New York Times (Don’t worry, my books will never be reviewed in the New York Times), I know I’ve failed to express the deepest part of who I am, my vision of the world. For good or ill, our lives are measured by our mistakes. 

We are the rulers of ruin. We are the tyrants of tragedy. We court calamity at every turn. We wake to upheaval and work through confusion. Mayhem, havoc, pandemonium are our middle names. We live for discouragement. We pray to be washed up, washed out, let down and defeated. We settle for setback and know in our bones that we’ll spend far more time in the anticlimax than the climax. We are born thinking we are conquerors but we die knowing life is a rout. 

So why do I fence? Why return to a sport in which I have no hope of being as good as I once was, a sport where I’ll be reminded of my failures, my shortcomings every day? It is the great lesson of getting old: to accept that we are ninety percent failure in blood and bone, that we take last place more often than not, that we are all desperately trying to be as good as we can be. The body is the first to remind us when at thirty our backs start to go out from time to time and our arms aren’t quite as strong as they used to be. At forty, our legs don’t quite carry us with the same grace. By the time you reach fifty, if you don’t understand that you’ve failed at nearly everything, you’ve either got your head in the sand or you never set your bar high enough in the first place. Failure is necessary for growth.
       That lesson can be the hardest of our lives: to know that we live on a receding shoreline and that soon everything will abandon us. Grace lies in looking out from that shore, knowing no one will come, but standing there anyway. We live in an age of instant gratification. In all my years of coaching, I’ve seen hundreds of young students come to fencing thinking they want to be Aragorn or Luke Skywalker, then quitting a month later when they realize they can’t be instantly good at it. They lack the necessary character. As a professor, I get email after email from students trying to convince me I should let them into my classes: “I have a passion for the short story.” “I have a passion for poetry.” “A passion for words.” “A passion for writing.” They love the word passion, mistaking that for character. And yet, when I tell them to come on the first day and see if a spot opens up, none of them show. How quickly their passion fades when things are not certain, when life is not handed to them. Much of the fault lies in youth. Character is born from pain and sacrifice. Discipline and time. Above all, time. Age understands the way in which character is tindered in work, ignited by failure.
       Our culture celebrates winning above all else. We call our sports figures heroes, as if somehow they’ve sacrificed for us. Maybe they have. Maybe the ten thousand hours they sacrificed practicing, trying to get better, wasn’t really for them, but for us, so that we would have a model of perfection and grace. Maybe. But I’ll take the people who don’t make the six and seven figure salaries, the people who don’t make the news. I’ll take the woman who doesn’t win a bout but keeps getting up and donning her mask anyway. I’ll take the old man I used to fence with in Denver, who was always the first to arrive at the club and the last to leave. He was dying of cancer, and though his legs could barely move, he was the only one to never take a break. “Do you want to fence?” he would say with a smile. And how could you refuse. His hand was still quick. He knew what it meant to fence as good as you can. He lived it. And for a moment, when you fenced with him, you lived it, too. Despite youth. Despite the false promise of what lay ahead. You hoped that someday you would understand enough to make a parry riposte the way he could. Simple. Without thought to the past or the future. Without a worry about who you were or who you would become. 

We are the memory of winter. We are the dying bird sputtering over the ground. We are an open mouth without sound, an abandoned car at the bottom of a ravine. We are the last drops of rain to fill the muddy tracks. We are the long night when the rain doesn’t stop. We understand our lot. Still, we return again and again. And we won’t stop. Not ever.  

Peter Grandbois is the author of two novels, The Gravedigger and Nahoonkara, a memoir, The Arsenic Lobster, a collection of short fictions, Domestic Disturbances, and three novella collections or “monster double features”—Wait Your Turn, The Glob Who Girdled Granville, and The Girl on the Swing. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, and New York. He is an associate editor at Boulevard and fiction co-editor at Phantom Drift. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sian Prior: Dear David Foster Wallace

‘I have seen fluorescent luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pince-nez and over twenty different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lame projectile vomit inside a glass elevator. I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two-hour beat of the same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling to in 1977 ...’

Dear David Foster Wallace,

I have lugged a heavy heart over the Snowy Mountains, breathless with grief, and later planned how to turn my personal lovelorn anguish into profitable literary activity.

I have enticed my aging mother into a small canoe, observed as her face turned the colour of talcum powder while we paddled towards an ever receding East Timorese island and later pondered how to convert her distress into a witty ‘bad travel’ column.

I have visited a cyclone-wrecked Queensland coastal town and gathered quotes illustrative of the resilience of the human spirit while sitting in the local doctor’s surgery nursing a bladder infection and feeling anything but resilient.

I have lain awake and alone in a Balinese beachside bamboo hut, sipping from duty- free bottles of vodka in an effort to banish insomnia, while concocting a solo travel tale of meditative, curative relaxation.

I have camped at an indigenous eco-tourism resort in the Kimberley and plotted how to convert my trip into a feature article powerful enough to prevent a nearby indigenous heritage trail from being obliterated by an oil and gas refinery.

I have trundled around southwest Western Australia with teenage stepchildren mentally re-writing our family holiday, editing out their moods and inserting instead an angle about a pilgrimage to the corners of places.

I have tiptoed across the luminescent sand of a dry lake bed at sunset, trying to avoid stepping on sixty thousand year old human remains, memorizing the exact phrases uttered by our loquacious tour guide so I could create a caricature of him that would make my readers giggle.

In my efforts to create memorable stories that would make people want to pack a bag, join an airport queue and catch a plane to wherever I’ve just been, I have taken the truth and applied a hole-punch to it. I have gathered the facts and ‘told them slant’.

I have observed my suitcase-wheeling self as if through the mirrored window of a border police interview room, looking for signs and symptoms, tics and traits that will serve my story well, whichever story I’m fixing to tell.

Heartbroken writer. Nerdy writer. City stressed writer. Nature loving writer. Mother loving writer. Amateur paleontologist writer. Fictional portraits, all of them, painted with a palette of facts. Avatars of myself uniquely designed to make my readers want to do what I’ve done, see what I’ve seen.

I have not made stuff up. Yes I have left stuff out, yes I have re-ordered stuff, but I have not told lies.

I have acknowledged the blur, fashioned the narrative, created the patterns and connections that may have ‘seemed at the time to be absent from the events the words describe’.

But have I failed you, David Foster Wallace?

I read your essay ‘Shipping Out’ – your anti-‘essaymercial’ essay about all the un-fun supposedly-fun things you’d never do again on a cruise ship – and I feel ashamed.

When you describe the employee who receives a bollocking from the bosses when you won’t allow him to carry your bag up the port hallway of Deck 10, or the banal conversations you overhear at your dinner table night after night, or your ‘dickering over trinkets with malnourished children’, I feel reproached.

Surely this is Truth with a capital T. Surely this is writing in which ‘the writer has reckoned with the self’.

Surely because you tell us about the ugliness that you found beneath the sparkling veneer of beauty, your writing is more authentic than my carefully-constructed travel articles published in newspaper lift-outs.

Surely because you tell us how miserable you were in an environment where happiness is practically mandatory, surely your writer’s voice is less artfully, less archly-fashioned than mine.

Or not.

Here’s the thing. Any personal narrative nonfiction writing requires us as writers to construct what Vivian Gornick, author of The Situation and the Story, calls a persona. This persona ‘selects (what) to observe and what to ignore’ and illuminates not just ‘the situation’ but also ‘the story’, the ‘insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say’.

Writing travel articles for mainstream media outlets like daily broadsheets and their online equivalents usually involves three mandatory tasks: finding a personal angle on the travel experience, targeting a specific readership, and accentuating the positives. Those three tasks involve editing stuff out.

The long lists you wrote at the beginning of your essay, David Foster Wallace, lists of what you observed on that hell-ship, created the illusion that you were showing and telling us Everything with a capital E. And surely if you have told us Everything you have told us the Truth with a capital T.

But you weren’t telling us Everything.

Because you had come to tell us about the fear and lure of death, a ‘story’ about existential despair in a ‘situation’ where you were meant to be re-discovering the allure of life. Your chosen persona was the unhappy camper. Your travel writer’s hole-punch was hard at work, just as mine has been, only in reverse: you were taking out the good bits and leaving us with the disappointments, the dislocation, the dystopia.

And you were paid to write this essay, just as I have been paid for my travel articles, and just as the writer you criticise in your essay, Frank Conroy from the Iowa Writers Workshop, was paid for his article written about the same trip you took, an article, in his case, about the pleasures of cruising.

Your editors at Harpers probably knew you were an agoraphobic aqua-phobic shark- phobic misanthropic vulnerable lonely guy when they commissioned you to write a piece about being in an environment where all of those fears and vulnerabilities would be exposed.

They got the product they paid for.

So perhaps none of us are lacking in sincerity. Perhaps we are all producing stories according to the dictates of house style and who is to say which of us is the most truthful, the most authentic?

Perhaps behind every first-person narrated travel story lies a ghost story, the story behind the ‘story behind the situation’, peopled by an infinite number of ghostly versions of ourselves and those we write about, all of us trapped in every different millisecond of our journeys, in every possible persona, embodying every fleeting mood or anxiety or transcendent moment of pleasure that we experience on that cruise ship or in that Timorese canoe or on that cyclone-ravaged beach, all of us ghost travellers waiting for our version of events to be recognised and acknowledged and written down as The Truth.

Waiting in vain, because for most stories, one persona is enough.

But why does the Truth still matter? Why can the question of authenticity cause us to feel shame when we’re writing nonfiction? Why do I need to reassure myself that while I’ve edited stuff in and out in my travel articles, I haven’t made stuff up?

Is it simply that no one trusts and no one likes a phony?

Another David, David Shields, has gathered together no less than 618 relevant quotes in order to demolish such quaint notions as ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ in nonfiction in his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. In a section entitled ‘reality’ Shields has inserted this quote:

That person over there? He’s doing one thing, thinking something else. Life is never false, and acting can be. Any person who comes in here as a customer is not phony, whereas if a guy comes in posing as a customer, there might be something phony about it, and the reason it’s phony is that he’s really thinking, How am I doing? Do they like me?

In the end, David Foster Wallace, are we all just hoping that our readers will like us?

And that if they like us, we will like ourselves?

Having a lovely time, wish you were still here. 

All the best, Sian


Dear Sian,

Many thanks for your postcard. These days it seems practically everybody is interested in writing about me but very few bother to write to me. And almost nobody sends postcards any more.

It’s early morning here but I have decided to skip the Buffet’n’Bainmarie Breakfast (it’s the same stuff every morning) and stay in my cabin to respond to the thoughts you outlined in your correspondence. To be honest, I’m surprised by how hung up you seem to be on this idea of ‘authenticity’. Surely post-modernism put an end to that particular fetish, along with those other antiquated concepts you referred to, ‘truth’ and ‘sincerity’.

But I noticed (because now I can see Everything) that in your travels you recently visited the Musée Quai Branly in Paris, a museum dedicated to exhibiting the material artefacts of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. I also noticed (because now I can feel Everything) how uncomfortable you felt in that environment, how you were simultaneously entranced by the exoticism of the exhibits, seduced by the romance of Otherness embodied by the collection, emotionally persuaded by the framing of these cultures as somehow irreducibly authentic, at the same time as you were critical of the commodification of authenticity the collection represented. I heard (because now I can hear Everything) you and your friend deriding the ‘authentic’ products in the museum shop (a veritable smorgasbord of woven, dotted, carved, strung, beaded baubles and bling) as ‘exo-merch’.

I also observed you when you visited that Balinese fishing village (the one where you drank yourself to sleep) and saw how worried you were about whether the publication of your travel article would help to wash away the ‘authentic’ lifestyle of those people as effectively as the rising tides of climate change that you wrote about in your piece. I heard the internal monologue in which you debated with yourself about whether the business your article might bring to the village would be ‘good’ for the locals or whether this was a fiction you told yourself to salve your conscience, a case of attitudinal in-authenticity, aka bad faith.

You must have noticed that although the post-modernists switched off authenticity’s life-support system, the tourism industry continues to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Tourism councils continue to set ‘Authenticity guidelines’ and the like for their members who are in the business of business. This is because the business people understand that the tourists with the cameras slung around their necks still crave this stuff like infants crave their mother’s milk. Those tourists still project their appetite for something that tastes like authenticity onto the people, places and things they’re photographing. And most travel editors, understanding this appetite as keenly as the business people who fill their publication’s advertising slots, still privilege the features that deliver textual ‘exo-merch’ to their readers.

There are limits, though. As you pointed out, my Harpers editor was willing to indulge my penchant for making long lists of the ways in which I suffered on this ship on my first visit. That was more the exception than the rule. Although vivid descriptions of the colourful lifestyles of The Other are generally pleasing to travel editors, ‘authentic’ descriptions of an author’s mental suffering are not usually warmly welcomed by the editors of colourful lifestyle magazines. I remember (because now I can read Everything) the email your editor sent you when you pitched her your travel article about mountain climbing as a cure for grief. She agreed to publish the article but only if you would ‘take out a few of the over-the-top grief references.’ She knew that there was a limit to her readers’ appetite for your ‘authentic’ feelings of sadness and loss, and that above all they would want to know that you had triumphed over those feelings.

Do you recall, on the visit to Queensland’s Mission Beach that you referred to in your postcard, how you marveled at the giant concrete cassowary that greeted you as you drove into town? Do you remember how you told your friend that it was an example of a ‘shire promotional grotesque’, a type of illusionistic tourist attraction for which the state of Queensland is famous? And how you related the story of the first time you’d visited Mission Beach when the bus driver had persuaded some thrilled Japanese backpackers that the concrete cassowary was life-size and that the real things were man-eaters? Do you remember lecturing your friend about how the history of illusionism extends back to the wall paintings of Pompeii, where real structures vanished behind trompe l’oeil murals, but how in this instance the idea of the real (emu-sized) cassowary vanishes behind the more exotic giant creature artificially constructed for the tourist’s imagination?

Perhaps the traveller’s so-called appetite for ‘authenticity’ is more akin to our appetite for the Giant Cassowary and the Big Pineapple. It’s an appetite for the mystification or for the aggrandisement of reality. We want to be sold a fantasy; we want the ‘drag’ version of life; we want to have access to what Andy Warhol once described as an ‘archive of the ideal’.

The book you mention by the other David, David Shields, has been described by its author as a manifesto for ‘reality’. Because I am on a pleasure cruiser and there is pressure here to keep things pleasant, I will try not to dwell on the unpleasant fact that Shields once referred to my ‘authorial presence’ as ‘that heavy breathing’. Reality Hunger is a book whose back page blurb promises that it seeks to ‘tear up the old culture in search of something new and more authentic’. What a confusing and contradictory image, given how we have usually equated ‘old’ cultures with ‘authentic’ cultures (as you saw in the Musée Quai Branly in Paris). Shields’ book cites the example of the inclusion of ‘larger and larger chunks of “reality”’ in television as evidence for our appetite for the real, the authentic. But surely reality television shows like Big Brother are to real life what the giant concrete cassowary is to a real cassowary, an artificially constructed, overblown edifice designed to offer viewers a delicious cocktail: the illusion of reality mixed with the pleasure of masquerade.

I am also trying not to dwell on my unpleasant suspicion that, judging from the material you quoted in your postcard, you suspect I might be a phony. According to several dictionaries I’ve consulted (I have a lot of time on my hands here) the term first appeared at the turn of the 19th century. It came from the word ‘fawney’, which referred to gilt rings that swindlers would shine up and sell as genuine gold rings to unsuspecting buyers. The word came to be used for anything that was fake or not genuine. Given the admissions you made in your postcard about how prettily you have shined up your own travel experiences for your editors, perhaps we’re both equally vulnerable to the accusation of phoniness. You’ve been shining up brass and I’ve been tarnishing gold. I’d say we’re square.

As for ‘liking ourselves’, I wish you luck in that endeavour. It’s a battle I lost some time ago.

I will close now because Petra the cleaner is knocking at my door and I need to vacate so she can shine up my cabin for me.

Please write again. All distractions are welcome. As the brochure for this cruise promises, here we do Absolutely Nothing.


David Foster Wallace

** This essay was originally published in TEXT in October 2013. Works cited in these letters come from the following: p. 2 Foster Wallace 1996: 33, Shields 2010: 63; p. 3 Shields 2010: 65, Foster Wallace 1996: 34, Monson 2010:14, Gornick 2001: 13; p. 4 Gornick in Shields 2010: 53; p. 6 Ross 1989: 165, Powell 2011, Shields 2010: 3; p. 7 Harper 2012.

Works cited
Dickinson, E 1868 ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’, in D Shields (ed) 2010 Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 63

Gornick, V 2001 The Situation and the Story, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Harper, D 2012 Online etymology dictionary, sponsored words, at (accessed 15 March 2013)

Monson, A 2010 ‘Voir dire’, in Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, Minneapolis: Graywolf P

Raban, J 1987 For Love and Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling, 1968-1987, New York: Picador/Pan Books, in D Shields 2010 Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 65

Ross, A 1989 No Respect: Intellectuals and Pop Culture, New York: Routledge

Wallace, DF 1996 ‘Shipping Out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise’, Harper’s magazine, 292, 33–6

Sian Prior is an Australian writer and broadcaster. She teaches nonfiction and journalism at RMIT University and has run workshops for a range of writers’ centres. She has had short stories and essays published in the Sleepers almanac edition 7, Visible Ink, Meanjin literary magazine, TEXT journal, Rex Journal of New Writing and the Penguin anthology Women of letters. Her first book, Shy: a memoir (Text Publishing), was released in June 2014.