Monday, October 20, 2014

Douglas A. Martin & queer essays


For this series of posts, I’m interested in looking at some of the essay’s queer history and potential. Most of my favorite essayists, contemporary and historical, are queer, a fact that I think is more than the coincidence of my own gravitation to queer modes. These writers are also quick to employ hybrid-genre or genre-resistant forms. In favor of the particular and the intimate over the general, I thought the best way to explore these traditions would be to speak to contemporary writers who I see as engaging with them. I begin with Douglas A. Martin, the writer of Branwell, Your Body Figured, and They Change the Subject, among others.

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T Clutch Fleischmann: I first read your work in a graduate course on the essay, but I know that’s not the genre-lens through which most people approach it. I found an interview where you suggest you’d like readers to view your writing just as “literature” and another where you talk about formerly seeing yourself as a poet, while your publishing trajectory has obviously shifted genres. So could we open with that topic—as you set the terms for your own writing and reading, how does genre play into it all?

Douglas A. Martin: I like when things don't stay in their supposed places. And then how does that come into the work, formally or thematically, or both, that’s something I try to work with.

What class was it? I know Branwell has made its way onto some syllabi. And the title story of They Change the Subject, as an example of a story in vignettes. I do know that has been taught. That story there to me is in part an essay, on thinking within the pose of hustling.
How attempts to define create points to push around, against...

TCF: The graduate course was the Essay Prize course where we read Branwell. I remember that those Aaron Kunin Secret Architecture journals were taught, too, and something by Bruce Hainley. It was a really robust list, I think.

DAM: I love a ton the book Letter Machine Editions did of Kunin's.

I tend to proceed into thinking--and by this I mean writing--working against assumptions, prejudices even--of any given genres. I will sometimes be in a story and think how and in what ways, addressing what, can it also be an essay? On what? That gives a kind of focal point for me and another relief. Or maybe the plot of something is reaching for poetry, essaying toward it, in that attempt sense and also movement one of the word.
It has always struck me as odd or unfair, shortsighted or unimaginative, that when people will ask me what I write they will want it to be one thing or another.  Like you can say poetry and perhaps not be pressed further, or novels and then it goes to like, what kind, what about what? About language, I think I have even answered before.
TCF: Do you identify as a queer writer? You said once that you prefer the term Homosexual for yourself because of its romantic implications. 
DAM: Above all, what I want as a writer is to maintain a kind of versatility. And maybe I feel more at home in the solitary, that's what I know, more so than the experience of some utopian sociability.

Queer as a discourse was meant to be inclusive and bridging, while also troubling, but it can also become pretty and increasingly vacuous when devolved down to more about defining who is or isn’t one or not because of agreed upon usage of language. If someone wants to call me one, call it because they see it that way, I'm cool with that. Yeah. I don't feel like I own my interpretation.

I like a sentence that flips. "I don't care, we can just have vanilla boyscout sex forever," that’s one of the sexiest things ever said to me. Still I can't get away from my biography. We didn't. When I say or think "homosexual," I just feel a charge of honesty, a recognition not pointing to some supposed model of liberation, but how my life actually is lived and embodied in day-to-day.

TCF: I like that you don’t feel like you own your interpretation. That sits counter to a lot of the contemporary conversation around identity in queer communities, where it’s considered paramount to allow people to own their interpretations. Do you think you can maintain the most versatility from the solitary (the homo) position? I mean this question both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of queerness, sexuality, whatever.

DAM: But even that word, “homo,” is not a great fit for me, because I feel a toughness there. I guess I like the sexual along with it, like a compliment of how you get out of being one, just one, or just everything. I don't trust group mentalities no matter the proposed allegiances.

It is hard for me. This could just be how I was brought up, with no people. 

I see myself in like the desire of Genet, what happens in the mind, not necessarily the body (politic).

It's more about the past than the future, what memory is left in a moment, and that’s maybe what I mean by romantic, that I've been here all along, how I feel it that I’m not inventing, procreating, joining up to enter into an exacting correlation of signs.

TCF: I want to talk about the literary traditions you see yourself as working in, and Kathy Acker seems a good place to start with that. What’s happening with your (really thrilling) dissertation on Acker? How long has she figured into your thinking?

DAM: I was just talking about Kathy last night.

I never met her, but I like to use her first name I am finding more these days.

I talk about her a lot still.

I know that work like nobody else's. 
I will say that if not for Acker's work when I found it I would not have made it through the time of my first book.

I got deep back into the critical work this summer, while waiting and hoping for something to happen during the slow publishing months around this most recent novel I took forever to write, nearly seven years for not even two hundred pages. I had been sitting on the critical work because thinking if I ever got in a tenure-track position, was I ever going to write a book like the dissertation again? But get it out there, I am starting to and still thinking, have it be readable, forget the footnotes and all I tried to do within them to buck whatever system I was in.

I think I'm trying to get it published, figure out how to do that.
I am just a Visiting Writer everywhere, for years, so...

I have a few people reading the manuscript, but I don't want to get into whatever pissing war for territory or ownership of the legend of the corpus.

Chris Kraus read it. Then she just wrote this big piece for The Believer. I think whatever I do with it now could start with that exchange. She said she wanted to read it, because she was writing about people writing about Acker. Then wrote back after reading it and said she wasn't. I wrote some things back in 2007, and they are now part of the points hit in Kraus's very smart trouncing.


TCF: I’m wondering about writers like Acker who have a whole other body of work developing around them, and how writers who write about writers can do that in a way that avoids the wrangling over territory that you mention. Emily Dickinson, for instance, gets all kinds of engagements. It’s interesting with Acker because of her own modes, the “intertextual desire and influence,” to steal the subtitle of your manuscript.

DAM: Yeah, it's like how could you ever say, "Someone took my idea!" You develop it in your own way. I worked on Acker along angles I tried to make clear were selective and narcissistic to me: I wanted to see more myself by seeing how she saw herself in gay men. 
I also wanted to understand more this voice that influenced me so much, even given our different tenors, that showed me how to be a poet in the novel, and how the novel could be an essay, even, it and poetry could be more than just one thing or just one conversation.

TCF: You read the Guibert journals that just recently came out, I believe (something on your Tumblr indicates as much). Do you keep a diary still?

DAM: My tumblr is so pathetically anemic and unfollowed. I keep thinking just think of it as a diary in pictures. If I have one these days, it lies somewhere between texts to my boyfriend/human companion (I have a dog and cat too we share, and a house, so he's also my life partner), other social media things, and then I just start these aesthetic abstractions, out of some occurrence or pondering of some day or another, things that might become story grounding or a lyric line in some poem that might fly.


When you are in a journal, to write it, don't you already think of your life in a way as a story you are in?

Right now I'm writing poetry because I'm teaching poetry. So that's what I'm going to bed with and waking up around.

My journal practice has become very queer, you might say.

TCF: Are you writing poetry in your journal, then? Does work find its way from the journal elsewhere regularly?

DAM: I guess I'm writing poetry in my journal if my phone's notes app is my diary. I think it is. A couple of years ago I realized I could take out my phone like everyone else had theirs and just secretly do whatever. I mean actually not get the kind of look I might if I were to take out a notebook, uncap a pen...like I was rude. I lot of times when I pretend to be texting now I'm writing.

Reading scholar Laure Adler on how Duras did her diary later in her career, on loose pages that variously got shuffled, this shifted a lot for me. I don't feel so trapped in time when I let whatever take the cast it might have one day but don't attempt to follow it so forward. I would find in my marble composition books myself actually trying to live towards arcs. But, now I have circled around and we can say it’s very queer of me, how I identify with these practices of these women, if we see Duras first and foremost as woman. She is just God to me.

TCF: If you were going to chart some sort of queer essay tradition, who would you put in there? I mean this personally, like who has contributed to your own thinking, more than generally.

DAM: Geoff Dyer and Duras, again (her book Writing, her book Green Eyes), Wayne's Cleavage, Leiris. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Peter Handke (The Jukebox and other essays). The public journals of Ernaux (translated into English as Exteriors and Things Seen.) Severo Sarduy. I find myself leaning towards Clayton Eshleman, as well. In my some seven years of teaching classes at Wesleyan with all our visitors dinner with him was a clear standout and moment of real edification. These are people I didn’t already know. Lucy Corin, too, as a discovery.

Guibert was so monumental to me in everything that I even read his journals first in the Gallimard publication, French I mean, with me haunting the NYU library looking for anything, something, some new English translation to appear, so hoping for it. But then I just took on all those “foreign” pages, despite my faltering, halting command and grasp. I remembered what it was like to read Wuthering Heights at eight or whatever and to know I was getting maybe like about half of it absorbed, and I extended that to myself again with this other language, like theory, let the ghost come there where it would, let those filings telegraph or transmit to me however. Much of it just washed by, sure, but that’s fine. It was still a meditation. It was still a time of companionship.

When Nathanaël was doing the translation for Nightboat, I was only too happy to read them again in her hand and offer queries or reservations, any things not sitting right with me. I think my big contribution was towards the underrepresented slang at first, and the blend he did of an archaic and mannered vocab along with just slick sex street words, too. I spent good months of last summer doing this, out of love. All of this is for free, I mean. And then I got to the launch party in the gallery, asked to read, ended up changing in my recitation the word kept "glacé" to "Popsicle.”

TCF: I’m surprised Guibert doesn’t get read more but then I went to the gay beach in New York and a guy, a poet who I think is cute, was reading the journals, so maybe I’m wrong. In a conversation with Michael Klein you say that you “want to believe that poet equals queer” and also that you’re “more a hunter-gatherer” in terms of how you write. Being a hunter-gatherer seems very essayistic to me, especially in the way you bring together other voices, artists, etc. in your work. Can essayist equal queer in this way, or with these moves?

DAM: Definitely, if there is supposedly one thing that goes in one thing one way. I always try to screw—play, mess—around with that all. The more "people," "ideas," I can bring together in one language bed and get to recognize each other as mutual, the more I feel I am doing my kind of work.

TCF: Who are the other writers/artists that you find yourself working around these days? “To find each other as mutual.”

DAM: About 90% of what I read these days is student writing. That’s not an exaggeration. And not always a bad thing, when I can feel how there is someone alive in it, trying to pour everything into it, believing there is this and only this patient mining for where still nothing might come but an exchange of love. But for my own work, if I’m not going to be given the breaks the career academic gets, I also have to get out somehow, and as the old adage goes, somehow write myself out of the place.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Kickstarter for Vela Magazine: Nonfiction Written by Women

I'm writing here to point you toward a kickstarter closing in on its goal (with six days left as of this writing) for Vela Magazine: Nonfiction Written by Women. We paste below a description of the project by its founding editor Sarah Menkedick, sent our way by Melanie Bishop, an essayist we've featured before. We think this will interest you, our reader. Seems worthy of committing something to, no? —Ander

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Over the past week, dozens of people — men and women — have taken Vela’s #listtheunlisted challenge, naming all of the women writers they know in thirty seconds. They’ve done it while rock climbing, juggling soccer balls, rocking babies, doing push-ups.

These videos are microcosms of Vela’s overall mission: to put women writers on people’s radar, to ensure that people can rattle off a list of exceptional women writers just as easily as they can rattle off all the given male greats.

In a recent post for The New York Times Book Review, Cheryl Strayed wrote:

When I saw The Empathy Exams appear on the best-seller list in April and Bad Feminist appear there in August, I felt that the ground had shifted ever so slightly. Not for women, necessarily, but for the essay itself. Surely many factors can be rightly credited for the success of those books — that they’re intelligent and beautifully written, for starters. That they were well served by editors, designers and marketing and publicity teams who knew what they were doing counts too. But I can’t help thinking their success also owes something to those in the online literary community whose You have to read this enthusiasm spilled over into the real world.

Strayed celebrates the re-emergence of the essay as a bestselling, widely read form, and attributes its success in particular to “a generally supportive group of writers, booksellers, online magazine editors and avid fans.”

We are those online magazine editors, those avid fans, that generally supportive group of writers, celebrating the essay, and the essay by women in particular. We’d like to think the work we do plays some small part in the re-emergence of the essay, and we hope, with funding, to help bring attention to a new generation of women essayists. We are part of that online literary community saying, you have to read this; saying, here is the work by women; saying, there’s no excuse for having no women writers in your magazines on your lists in your university courses because look, look, look, here they are!

We’ve been doing this for three years now on passion alone, working as a team of women writers and editors to publish and promote exceptional nonfiction writing by women. We’ve published 34 women writers since we opened to submissions in 2013. They are from around the world – the U.S., Zimbabwe, Mexico, India, the Philippines – and they are writing about a wide array of subjects we stubbornly refuse to categorize as “female” or “male,” because what’s the point of tackling the byline gender gap if we insist on marginalizing certain subjects as “women’s”?

They write about war, about motherhood, about AIDS, about abusive relationships, about the ethics of tourism, about tattoos, about addiction: about, in short, anything that stirs their curiosity, because Vela believes women should be able to write with intellectual and creative freedom.

Just as importantly – and perhaps more so — Vela highlights exceptional work by women writers at other magazines. We firmly believe in literary community, and in writers supporting one another. We need each other, and growing a supportive community has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work. Since our inception we have reviewed work we love by women writers, stunning and complex writing, including work by Emily Rapp, Vanessa Veselka, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jennifer Percy, Sara Corbett, Daisy Hernández, Jina Moore, Dani Shapiro, Pamela Colloff, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Ariel Levy, Katherine Boo, Pam Houston, Rebecca Solnit, Alice Berlin, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rachel Riederer, Ruth Fowler, Amy Wallace, Miriam Markowitz, and many, many more, far too many to list here and still keep your attention, from women who are just publishing their first work to bestselling authors.

It has become almost a trope nowadays for writers to say, “I can’t eat exposure.” We at Vela wholeheartedly agree – and yet we’ve also experienced firsthand how difficult it is to pay writers in an era of online publishing whose mandate is that everything should be free and shareable. We became a nonprofit with the aim of applying for national grants, with which we’ll first fund our writers and then, ideally, ourselves, because we have families and bills and we want to keep this thing not just running, but growing.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: we have to find a way to make online publishing sustainable. There is an inherent paradox in reading all of our favorite magazines for free online and then tweeting about not being able to eat exposure. Something has got to give; we’ve got to start talking about and looking for new models. We’re not quite sure yet how they might look, but at Vela we’re trying to figure it out. We’re working like mad – for free – to pay our writers, and to find a way to get grant money that will pay them competitive fees, sustainably, in the future.

And also, hopefully, to be part of a burgeoning group of online publications that are asking the hard questions: if content is going to be free, then how can we also pay our writers? If outstanding longform writing is expensive to produce and edit, and requires experience that takes time and money, then how can we give it away without demeaning our writers and implicitly devaluing the work of writing?

We don’t believe the answer is in giving up but rather in proceeding with optimism and pragmatism one step at a time: first start a collective, then open to submissions, then when you’ve established a solid foundation, ask for seed money to pay your writers, then apply for grants. This is what we at Vela are doing, and we hope that you will support us not only because you believe writers should be paid – and paid competitive rates, not $20 or $50 per story– but because you believe magazines should be finding ways to make online publishing more sustainable, and to find better models for valuing the work of longform.

Because you know that making great writing, editing great writing, publishing and promoting great writing by women takes time, money, and experience, and most importantly it matters. It matters in building a more just, compassionate, egalitarian, and hell, just plain enjoyable society. It matters to the big picture and it matters to the everyday, when you’re burnt out and you sit down and you read something that makes you write a friend you have to read this.

Vela matters, and funding it matters. We firmly believe this and hope you do, too. Let’s build a future in which writing is a sustainable, important, and respected career for women.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/594960667/vela-magazine-nonfiction-written-by-women

Thank you for your support!

by Sarah Menkedick via Melanie Bishop




Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We'd like to introduce three Essay Daily recurring features

Hey there. Since we didn't have a post this Monday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to introduce you to three new Essay Daily features, curated by T Fleischmann, Nicole Walker, and Sarah Minor, we'll be running regularly from here out. The first one will drop next week (well, the first one has already dropped, since Sarah Minor has been working the visual essay seam for some time in this space, but she'll be continuing her series in November).

We include the descriptions here in case you're interested in contributing to one of these features. If so, send Craig or Ander an email at right and we'll direct it to whichever editor you'd like (or Sarah has provided her email below for direct contact).

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T Fleischmann:

Roland Barthes and James Baldwin. Etel Adnan and Hervé Guibert. Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Delany, Hélène Cixous, Gloria Anzaldúa. And I want to say Anne Carson but that's not really true, I don't think.

For my series, I’m interested in better understanding the essay’s queer past, it’s queer contemporary moment, and it’s queer potentialities. To this end, I’ll be soliciting some queer essayists to be in conversation with each other through critical writing, interviews, and the like. There’s no singular queerness, no particular way the “I” and the mode and the form of essays shift when queer, but it’s exciting to look at how queer affection and ways of being influence a genre that is, at its core, so much about weird minds figuring out an equally weird world.  

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Nicole Walker:
I cannot tell if nonfiction has fewer rules or more than other genres. While it has the big “rule” (Do not lie) it doesn’t have the history of convention that poetry or fiction seem to have. Any fictional piece without plot or character is experimental. Use white space, says the poem. Make the poem turn! Lyric is sonic, says the poem.

If nonfiction draws on the conventions of the other genres—uses scene, dialogue, white space, turn, then perhaps essay writing is just a hybrid genre. But when it breaks the rules of its borrowed genres, is it creating its own genre? For instance, when I asked a bunch of writer-friends about breaking the writing rules, they noted egregious examples like writing from two points of view using second person for both POVs or breaking the veil and talking directly to the reader, jumping topics mid-stream, banging too hard on the metaphorical nail, or foregoing narrative entirely. I love the breaking of rules but I also love the acknowledgment and recognition of them. Without the rules, where does one begin to write instead of just drool upon the page?

I’m curating a few essays for Essay Daily’s website and wonder if you’d be interested in writing a brief essay about rules, convention, genre and structure. What structures do you use to give your essays form and substance? When does weird get too weird?  What rules do you use just so you can break them later? What does rule-breaking artistic-wise mean about the big rule—“Nonfiction is the truth”?
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Sarah Minor [email]:
Elsewhere known as a graphic/video/typographic essay, a comic, an artist's book, a public art text, prose graffiti, vis-po, concrete prose poetry, etc., the visual essay is not a new form, just one that we have a lot of words for naming with little streamlining across disciplines. This may not be the best term. Still:

--Is a good visual essay fine art, or is it literature? What might it mean to be both?

--Are visual essays wrong? Are they for sale? Are they doing it for attention?

--Are they published? Where? What exactly do you mean?

--How are they performed aloud?

--How are Columban monks, William Blake, and Mark Twain involved?

--Why do some attempts at combining text with visual media seem rather put-on or excessive? And how does anyone make the two parts sing in harmony, or run an equal partnership, or at least get each other off once in a while?
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Well, this all sounds exciting, no? Check back next week for T's first installment, then Nicole on 10/27, then Sarah on 11/17. And if you have ideas for essays/essayists you'd like to pitch, drop us a line.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Essay at The Cincinnati Review: What (We May Not Know) We’re Looking For


Twenty-five years ago, a friend and I decided to start a magazine called The Essayist. Like many big grad-school ideas, this one withered on the vine. We got no further than having a few conversations with the editors of literary magazines we admired, plus--this is how long ago it was, how squeaky-naïve we were--some low-tech stationery design to lend our correspondence with those editors a (sham, it turned out) gravitas. It quickly became apparent that the two thousand dollars we’d saved wasn’t going to get us very far, and neither of us had the time or the skill set to raise more money. But I still think fondly on the idea, which was that we would publish a journal that featured everything from old-fashioned belletristic essays to New Journalism to as-yet-undreamt-of hybrid forms, and that what we’d be looking for, first and foremost, would be the sense that the writer was, as William Gass put it, “essaying to be.” We wanted fierceness, ambition, playfulness, the sense of a writer looking to find or cobble together or sorcel up or hybridize or jury-rig a form and a tone to suit precisely the thing she or he urgently needed to say.
At The Cincinnati Review these days, we’re looking for similar essays. We publish just two or so an issue, plus reviews (usually three short review-essays on—or orbiting around—a single book, whether a new release or a canonical novel like Moby-Dick), but I’d certainly be open to publishing more. The truth is that I don’t know quite what I’m looking for, don’t exactly want to know: I want to be surprised and transported, fascinated by something I may not have known would fascinate me. One of the things I’ve always loved about the essay is that it seems to me, at its best, less a literary form than a mode of being: The shape and tone the material takes are as individual as a breath, and the most captivating essays often take on a improvisatory nonce form that depends utterly on the interaction, in this particular writer and subject and circumstance, of style, aim, introspection, and subject. An example of what I mean is Karrie Higgins’s “The Bottle City of God” (Winter 2014), which manages to weave together, in the span of about fifteen pages, meditations on Mormonism, urban planning, air pollution, utopian architecture, religious prejudice, and much more, and to do so using literary modes including history, memoir, participatory journalism, and jazz riff.
The one bit of advice I’d offer to potential contributors is this: Have the courage of your idiosyncrasy. For me as an editor, the saddest task is to read perfectly competent essays by skilled writers that do exactly what they are intended to do, but that never aspired to do enough.  Padgett Powell has, in workshop, the perfect damnation-with-faint-praise: “This story,” I’m told he says wearily, “was executed to conception.” I’d much rather read pieces that venture, that swing, that essay.



Michael Griffith is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Cincinnati. Besides serving as Prose Editor of  The Cincinnati Review, he is series editor of Yellow SHoe Fiction for LSU Press. His most recent novel is Trophy (TriQuarterly/Northwestern, 2011).

Monday, October 6, 2014

It's a Wonder: Jacqueline Doyle on Sara Levine & the Touchstone Anthology

It's a Wonder

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Jacqueline Doyle

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The essay is like a coat of fur, or Proteus in chains, or a syllable-filled spirit, and has more in common with the German cockroach than the Tennessee snail darter. The essay is like a journey they say, or a walkabout, or a loose sally of the mind. Because my grandmother wears her blouses unbuttoned, and her name is Sally, this last has always been my favorite definition. 
—Sara Levine, "The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss"
My husband gave a keynote address at a writing conference last weekend, and I went along with him, a two and a half hour drive. It was a warm day in Sacramento. The community college campus where the conference took place was leafy and green. The sun shone. A breeze rustled through the trees.

The large cafeteria inside was a sea of animated, gray-haired writers and aspiring writers. It was billed as a "cross-generational conference," and there were some college students there, but mostly recent retirees. Not so very old. Young 60-somethings is how you might describe them. Or how I might describe them, a young 60-something myself, still working, not gray, feeling a bit younger than them. Or so I'd like to think. After my husband's opening address, there was time before lunch, so I sat in on a workshop and the workshop leader told us that the first person essay centers on an experience about which we have a different understanding than we had when we had the experience. She worded it better than I have. I thought it was a good definition, but here I am writing yet another personal essay about an experience that I don't understand at all. Which means that I can't really have a different understanding of it than I did when I had the experience, since I didn't exactly understand it then and don't exactly understand it now. Maybe I should just stop here. But the essayist in me feels compelled to continue.

My husband and I enjoyed the lunch buffet in the cafeteria after the morning workshops, especially the cheesecake at the end, and made our goodbyes before the afternoon workshops started, lingering at the door. Several women clustered around Steve. "Are you waiting to talk to him?" a gray-haired woman asked me. "No, I'm going home with him," I answered. And since that made me sound like a groupie, I added, "I'm his wife." I didn't feel comfortable with that definition of myself, and I was going to say, "I'm a writer," or "I'm a writer too," but that seemed silly, and also irrelevant, so I didn't. I smiled politely. She said, "I have something I want to give to him." And when it was her turn to talk to him, she pressed an index card into his hand and said, "I just wanted to give this to you," and was gone.

She had short gray hair, as many women at the conference did. Didn't seem especially old. Didn't seem young either. Over sixty, which to the college students would seem very old, so it's all relative, I guess. Not fat, not skinny. I can't remember what she was wearing. Maybe denim pants with an elastic waist and a flowered blouse? I looked at her, even talked to her briefly, but I couldn't pick her out in a lineup. Not that I'll need to. I'm just saying.

Anyway this is what she had written on the card. Centered at the top: "It's a wonder we can read your words as your sense of humor is so dry." Then "or" centered in the middle, and just below that: "It's a wonder your pen makes marks on paper as your sense of humor is so dry." And on the next line: "Thanks for coming."

That struck me as a very peculiar message. I couldn't decide whether it was simply eccentric, or deranged, even stalkerish. At least she didn't leave a name or telephone number or email address, though of course she might still contact him. He's easy enough to find. His keynote address was funny at times, but I'm not sure I would call his humor dry. I've realized I'm not sure what dry humor is, exactly, but I would have thought it was subtle, even almost undetectable in some way. Maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek (which has me thinking about groupies again). Not arid (which would be extra dry— a strange slogan for a deodorant, the arid part, like an underarm desert). Right about now I should be coming to a point, or at least an understanding quite different from what I understood as my husband handed me the card and we climbed into his Ford Focus in the parking lot and buckled our seatbelts. I'm prepared to have some understanding descend on me, like the Holy Ghost on the disciples. At least to experience an unexpected discovery, if not some larger insight. But really, I have no idea what she was talking about.

It's strange how things come together, or seem like they might. At lunch we'd sat with a charming woman from Ireland whose name was Dynphna. Dynphna, she explained, is the patron saint of women with mental disorders, so maybe there's some larger pattern emerging. St. Dynphna wasn't mad herself, however. Her father, who had incestuous designs on her, and followed her from Ireland to Belgium, where he beheaded her, was the crazy one. The gray-haired woman with the card looked sane enough. No unusual affect. So this is probably another false lead, a wild goose chase for meaning. Maybe I'm the one who's lost her marbles. Who's running around like a chicken with its head cut off, seeking focus. Or, since the chicken is already dead at that point, beating a dead horse instead of resurrecting it and allowing it to gallop on the page.

I enjoy the satisfying click at the end of an essay when suddenly all the pieces lock together like a jigsaw puzzle. Complete. Sometimes forming a picture you didn't even expect. There are other essays that aren't like that, and I enjoy them too. Often they digress. They conclude in uncertainty. Perhaps a profusion of similes, like a bag of marbles emptied in a loud clatter onto the floor. All different colors and sizes, the marbles bounce and roll and sparkle in the sun. And you think and even say aloud: "the world is overflowing with inexplicable wonders today."

It's an insight I hope students take away from my creative nonfiction class after reading essays in the Touchstone Anthology. The students hand in reading journals each week and I can never predict how they will react. That is, there are more varied individual reactions than I might guess after a class discussion, where perhaps twelve of the thirty students chime in. I'm touched by the sons and daughters of immigrants (we have many) who find validation for their mothers' voices and their own writing in Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue," about the influence of her mother's "broken English" on her literary style. Astonished when the son of a gangbanger from Compton identifies so closely with Ted Kooser's "Small Rooms in Time," an essay about houses and Kooser's unease at learning that someone was murdered in an apartment he once lived in. Startled when a student who wrote about a marijuana buy gone scarily bad writes of Lauren Slater's "Black Swans," an account of her obsessive compulsive disorder and experiences with Prozac: "Well fuck. These essays keep getting better and better." I enjoy their confusion when we read Janet Burroway's "Embalming Mom" with its scrambled chronology and Lia Purpura's lyric "Autopsy Report" on her visit to the morgue and what she took away from it. Their excitement when we read Dinty Moore's "Son of Mr. Green Jeans," an alphabetically arranged meditation on fatherhood and fathers and sons in the entertainment and animal worlds. "Wow!" a student writes. "Are we allowed to do that?"

I save some essays about the essay for the end of the quarter, when we've seen a large sampling of what's possible. In "Return to Sender," Mark Doty articulates so beautifully what the point of this writing is: "I wanted to tell the story of my life in order, once again, to take control of it, to shape some comprehensible element of cause and effect, because the instability and complexity of experience mean that this sense of pattern is always slipping away from us." And then there's Sara Levine's "The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss," a personal favorite of mine that leaves almost all of the students saying "Wuh?"

Sara Levine's essay defies definition, as do so many essays that I like. The essay really is "like a coat of fur, or Proteus in chains, or a syllable-filled spirit, and has more in common with the German cockroach than the Tennessee snail darter." Why not? It wanders, it grazes, it leaps, it hides. It's a "walkabout, or a loose sally of the mind" that speeds up and slows down according to the whims of the essayist.

Levine starts by questioning where she's arrived ("The essay and me?") and how she's arrived there. And then skateboards through college and grad school, especially the embarrassing bits, leaps the obstacle of the questionable relevance of these anecdotes to her subject at hand to land on the nature of the essay again, its tendency to dramatize process rather than announce conclusions, its contrary "refusal to decide the things it feels it cannot decide," trades her skateboard for a natty sports car (at least that's how it feels to me) and speeds along the freeway, observing the scenery that flies by, confiding her distrust of essays with "easy resolutions" and pat conclusions. The essayist delights in style and "sees all knowledge as provisional," while the academic embraces conformity and self-effacement. Which makes for a good note of condolence—straightforward, conventional. No literary "style-as-deviance" here.

"When you write a sympathy note you've got to deliver the sympathy in a solid way, without ambivalence, whole hog, or you're a jerk who shouldn't have written a note at all. O.K. Well, the essayist is a jerk. The essayist is tactless." She's made a quick lane change without using her blinker. A truck honks. The essayist is more likely to write something wacky and wildly inappropriate to the bereaved (something, in fact, like the conference-goer's thank-you card), and just when you think Levine's essay will wind up with a clear explanation of its title, she pulls into a parking lot with a screech and you're at the beach with her grandmother Sally and you remember what Levine said much earlier about endings. "Often an essay doesn't even push towards resolution. It thinks it is interesting without a big bang." The ocean sparkles, the gulls circle overhead, Sally strokes her shoulders and tells her she's lovely. "To a kid who wasn't used to being touched, her touch felt strange. 'Do I bristle? Do I purr?'" Levine writes, and concludes her essay, "I think, because I was young and dull, I acted casual."

"I turned the page to see what came next," said a student. "What kind of end is that?" another student asked. "Didn't it make you laugh?" I said. They looked at each other. Not really, they shrugged. Maybe someone in the back nodded. A future essayist.

I probably like Levine's essay because as a scholar-become-essayist I've also encountered the blank looks from fellow faculty in the English department that she describes. We'll be standing in the faculty mailroom, next to rows of identical mail slots, and someone will clear their throat. "You're writing essays?" A rhetorical question, voiced in a tone of disbelief, and not meant to be answered. Colleagues in my department are often annoyed by creative writers (though everyone they teach was a creative writer, of course), and openly sneer at the substandard scholarly skills of some of our creative writing students. So I've crossed over to the dark side. I'm amazed that it's taken me so many years to get here. I want to start each essay the way the gray-haired woman at the conference started her postcard: "It's a wonder that . . ." There are so many directions an essay can go, so many forms it can take. But I suppose however you look at it, the essayist starts in one place and ends up somewhere else, so the workshop leader was right.

I figured I'd ask Steve what he thought as we drove home. He's written some wacked-out wandering essays and would have some opinions. "Just catch the glory of life," he said to me once. "That's plenty."

The car was hot and we opened all of the windows. I unbuckled my seat belt, unbuttoned my linen jacket, and threw it into the back seat. We decided to take a different route back to the Bay Area, so I threw the Mapquest directions back there too. We get lost all the time, and we didn't have a map with us, but I figured it was a nice afternoon for some back roads and an unplanned detour or two.

Steve turned the key in the ignition. "Weird, isn't it," he said about the card. I propped it up on the dashboard to contemplate it.

There was a big multi-colored splat of bird shit like a showy Jackson Pollock on the driver's side of the windshield.

"Will you look at that bird shit!" he said. We both started laughing.

"I wonder what kind of bird that was."

*

Jacqueline Doyle was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and has a "Notable Essay" listed in Best American Essays 2013. Her essays have appeared, or will appear, in South Dakota Review, Tusculum Review, Southern Indiana Review, Ninth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review. She teaches at California State University, East Bay. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.