Ending Anxiety

Man and Tree

 

 

by Erin Lillo

Not knowing what I wanted to read, I recently grazed my bookshelves. This indecision—wanting to read, not knowing what to read; needing to write, not knowing what to write—is often a part of my writing process, especially when I approach the end of a project. Although the end may not be the right nominative for this moment as I’m likely to return to the same poems, scenes, stories, chapters again and again with a kind of restless tinkering that makes me wonder if I missed my calling as a watch maker or nervous mechanic. Early in my writing life, this ending anxiety unnerved me, but as I approach the final draft of my poetry thesis, I find myself resigned. The manuscript is done enough to fulfill degree requirements, but the manuscript isn’t complete. Anxiety marches on.

My grazing led me to Stephen Dunn’s essay collection, Walking Light, and in this spirit, I read Dunn’s essays in no particular order, beginning with “The Good and Not So Good.” I’m fascinated by these kinds of essays. The good poem versus the bad poem—is it like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscene: you know it when you see it? Is it quantifiable, like that bit of dialogue from Dead Poet’s Society, where the imminent Dr. Pritchard’s essay teaches prep school boys how to chart a poem’s greatness on a graph?

My instinct is to say not definable, not quantifiable and to embrace the playfulness in Dunn’s essay. Yet in my more cynical moments I wonder if this tendency derives from my ambivalence toward my almost (but not really) finished aforementioned work.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite lines from “The Good and Not So Good:”

The good poem is implicitly philosophical. The not so good poem, conversely,
may exquisitely describe a tree or loneliness, but if the description does not
suggest an attitude toward nature, or human nature, we are left with a kind of
dentist office art—devoted to decoration and the status quo.

The connection between sanitary art and the status quo reminds me of product jingles; think of all those poets and musicians colluding to sell us heartburn medication and upscale tequila. I’d much rather challenge the insanity of our contemporary moment, to witness the reality of voice and power. Dunn implies the good poem must reveal a complicated attitude toward its subject matter—not bitterness, but not indifference either. This attitude must also reveal the place where the poet’s voice and wounds rest edge-to-edge; otherwise, the poem tidies up reality to the point of sanitation or empty prettiness, which is a lie.

Here’s another excerpt and observation:

Not only must poets turn away from tired or dead language, they must be wary of
their best ideas and all the language that was available to them before the poem
began. That is, all the language that hasn’t been found by the language in the
poem. And then even that new language should be doubted and resisted.
Resistance leads to discovery. No, no, no, no, and then yes. The good poem offers
us a compelling, vibrant replacement for what, in our complacency, we allowed
ourselves to believe we knew and felt.

I discovered Fahrenheit 451 when I was a freshman in high school and ever since I’ve been drawn to literature that exposes how so many of our thoughts, emotions, and actions derive from untested belief. We can believe we’re happy, living lives we chose for ourselves, until someone asks, “Are you happy?” Test the belief, like Bradbury’s Guy Montag, and you never know what devastation you might find. With Dunn’s definition, however, this devastation becomes a source of creativity—resistance leading to discovery, a series of no’s followed by yes. A compelling, vibrant truth replaces a complacent lie when a poem is a good poem. Therefore, beware the pre-packaged and beribboned ending—too tidy, too complacent. And one of my most persistent writing habits.

Here’s one final example from Dunn:

The morality of the poet is to keep his/her tools sharp, always to be ready for the
convergence of deep concern with subject matter. In this sense, craft and care for
the integrity of language are the only things that separate the poet from the
obvious moralist.

The not so good moral poem often works against some abuse or injustice and in
its zeal gives content more attention than composition. This is the gift that
falls apart, the one years later you can’t seem to find when the giver comes to
visit.

I read this, thinking “Of course, language first.” On the one hand, the precision of language, its rhythms and sounds; on the other, language and its slippery, emotive fogginess—a poet’s toolbox must be versatile, indeed.

For me, a new and somewhat begrudged tool has to be patience. Part of writing the good poem is knowing when and how to return to the work with language best suited to converge deep disquiet with subject matter. It’s a psychic energy as much as anything else, I suspect, but I’m not sure how to recognize the symptoms of “obvious moralist” in my work.

Does developing this sensibility come through the submission-rejection-revision cycle of publication (also closely linked to patience)? When the poem (or story or essay) finds an editorial home, perhaps that’s a signal of completeness. Rejection is a signal of incompleteness, of the necessity for more work and more time. But if this is the case, why do I suspect a great deal of obvious moralizing receives acceptance notices?

Maybe the integrity of the poem is something you hear rather than see (this reminds me of a line from To Kill a Mockingbird, something about how recognizing truth in a witness’s testimony is more about listening than anything else). Could it be that the only ears tuned to hear the poem for what it really is belong to the writer? But then what’s the point of sending the piece into the world, if the music is for myself alone? Dunn’s essay left me with more questions than answers.

Regardless, this reminder about a poet’s integrity living in the individual words and the choices those words represent, all these unanswered questions, nourish me. I return to my tinkering, less anxious, more curious about what the next word might bring. For the moment, I forget about finishing the project. When there’s so much potential for discovery, why worry about the end?

In addition to writing, teaching, studying, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loudly. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently, she’s losing. Her short fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.

On God is Round, Metaphors, and Soccer

nami-1430508One of the things that has always been a mystery to me, as an American and as a soccer player and fan, is why soccer has been so long to take hold in the USA. I grew up “on the pitch.” I began playing the sport as a small child and quickly learned to love the movement, grace, skill, and camaraderie the game requires of all its participants. Mexican journalist and Professor of Literature Juan Villoro, in his book God is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game, (Restless Books, 2015), summates this, and so much more, in a compilation of essays about soccer and what the game and its traditions represent in the South American culture.

For South American soccer fans, and for the fans of Juan Villoro, who is not just a writer but also perhaps the most prolific, well-known, and well-respected writer and analyst of the game in Mexico and beyond, God is Round might be merely a collection of his works that readers are happy to have, keep on a shelf. But, I think, for the US American picking up the book, God is Round becomes a road map of sorts, a guide that not only explains the what of the game in South America, but also the why, the how, the passion.

I happened to be reading the book (for the second time) during the COPA Americano. In reading the essays in tandem with the events of the tournament, I developed a much deeper understanding of not just the game, but the teams, players, and the whys of the events that unfolded on the pitch.

As Villoro insists, the soccer field is an allegory of space and time and each match becomes a reflection of what is happening in our society. In taking this view, we can then begin to see how not only soccer, but all sports, and indeed, all past times can become a real reflection of who and what we’re becoming and who and what we are—as individuals and as a group.

Villoro’s writings in God is Round are these short clips, almost flash non-fiction, or poetic descriptors, of usually a small moment in a game, or a play, or about a move, or a player who makes a signature move. In these moments, Villoro is a poet who translates the soccer moments into something altogether more. God is Round is a work in translation (taken from Spanish to English by Thomas Bunstead), it is a collected works, and Villoro does repeat certain ideas, events, and subjects from time to time, essay to essay. These lyrical essays are about so much more than the game of soccer. Villoro attempts to unveil the connective tissue that lies beneath every play on the field, every match result. He aspires, in his vignettes, to capture the very essence of what it is to be human on this planet. It’s a broad gesture, but oh, so very close to being accomplished here. Yet, as a whole, God is Round accomplishes something remarkable.

Reading God is Round now, as we head into the Olympics, and as soccer becomes a more present and pronounced sport on the US athletics scene, makes me wish I had not only read it sooner, but also paid more attention—to the game, to the language, the sport of it all.

God is Round is, at its very least, a rare collection of good essays about soccer and, at its very best, a guidebook to understanding the ups and downs, mastery and disaster, irony and splendor, of what we love, fight for, appreciate and claim in this game called life.

Maura Snell is a poet and soccer fan, and the Poetry Editor for The Tishman Review.

Bohemian Birthright

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by Elizabeth Glass

My grandmother was not a giving person. She didn’t bake cookies or come to visit. She didn’t give personally chosen gifts. She especially didn’t give hugs or love. My cousin Jane and I had lunch when we were about thirty, fifteen years ago, at The Grape Leaf in our hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I got a call from my mom and when getting off the phone, I said, “I love you” to her. A strange look crossed Jane’s face. “I’ve always been jealous with how easily you love each other.” I didn’t understand. My mom, dad, sisters, and I said “I love you” all the time, and we meant it. My sister Callie even has to kiss my mom’s cheek when she leaves, and if she forgets, she’ll drive back to kiss it. That’s a bit weird, but with all our oddities, insecurities, and craziness, I’ve never questioned whether my parents or sisters loved me—liked me, maybe—loved me, never.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My mother has never said ‘I love you’ to me and her mother—Grandma—has never said it to her.”

I remember sitting with my eyes wide, not knowing what to say. Then I realized it meant something else, too. “Has Grandma every said it to you?” I asked.

“Never.”

There was a niggling in my mind, but I was quiet. I was sure Grandma, my dad’s mom, had said it to me, but wasn’t certain.

When I was in college I wrote Grandma long rambling letters—more like journal entries—about what was going on, what I hoped for my life, my thoughts on religion, and whatever I happened to be thinking right then. She never wrote back, but when I saw her she always told me how much it meant to her to get the letters, so I kept sending them. After college “real life” started, but I would climb onto the roof of my apartment, sit at the kitchen table of the rented house in Ohio, or at the desk of the job I had for fifteen years and pen her letters faithfully. They were sent less frequently the older I got, and the more pressing and fast-paced my life became, but I always sent them. Through the years, I went to visit Grandma when my mom reminded me it had been months since my last visit. Grandma would pat the seat closest to her for me to sit in. I always noticed, but didn’t know if it meant anything. I had always said, “I love you” when leaving, both because I meant it, but also because that’s what my family says when parting. Sitting with Jane, I tried to think back, remember if Grandma spoke back after I said it. I didn’t know then, but I do know that the next time I saw her she said it and it stopped me short. It hit me because it was the first time; it was because it was familiar.

I was five when I ran away to Grandma’s house. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong since it was only a couple blocks away and we went there all the time, but it made my mom crazy with worry. That was during what Mom called her “dutiful daughter-in-law” period, when she thought a grandmother wanted to see her grandchildren so she took us to visit regularly. It was Fess, my step-grandfather, her husband, who spent most of the time with us. He was the athletic director of The American Turner’s Athletic Club and taught us how to do simple gymnastics—somersaults and cartwheels. I grew tired of the lessons after a while and sought out my grandmother who was sitting in the living room, smoking, looking out the large picture window that covered most of the wall across from the couch. Even at five, I could feel the longing she had. I didn’t know that word, but I knew the feeling—that there’s something more, something beyond doing somersaults in the basement, more than collecting cicada shells, than having a sister who I knew didn’t always like me. I sat with Grandma and we watched the world go by, knowing we should be out there in it instead of in that house. I picture her in a smart traveling hat, but it was more likely her nurse’s cap.

I’m not sure when she retired—she didn’t have to work, but she wasn’t one to rely on a man’s income. She and my grandfather divorced when my dad was a baby. She married a man named Leo and they divorced when my aunt was a baby. By the time Fess came along, she had two children and wasn’t going to count on him to ensure she could keep herself and the kids housed, clothed, and fed. He was also twenty years her senior, so she knew he couldn’t do that forever, even if they did stay married. They did, until he died when I was about eight. I bet she thought my mother foolish for not working while raising my sisters and me. My parents were married until my dad died, but I suspect in the 1970s Grandma watched my mom with the same knowing look as she looked outside the window. Grandma knew that when she moved beyond that windowed room, it would be on her terms, not her husband’s. She would have been right in many ways to look at my mom in that light. Mom wasn’t prepared to carry on financially when Dad died in 2000. Grandma, on the other hand, worked until she retired, and then she began traveling. She bought a house with my aunt and uncle. Even though when my cousins were little, she wasn’t grandmotherly toward them, either. I learned as an adult that Grandma didn’t hold my youngest cousin until she was nine months old. Not once. And they lived in the same house.

I don’t know if it was my letters, my sitting on the couch gazing out the picture window with her, or simply because I was oldest, but when I got married in 1990, she gave me her nice set of china. She did it dismissively—that she didn’t need it anymore since she didn’t entertain—but the look in her eyes when she said that her grandmother brought them from Bohemia let me know how important they were to her. Mom and I took the boxes out to the car and when we got to Mom’s house we took out the plates that were stamped “Bohemia”—a country no longer in existence—on the bottom. Mom showed me that if china is exceptionally nice, you can see the shadow of your hand through it, and we could through Grandma’s plates: china that was mine now. Something in the way Grandma gave them to me also let me know not to tell my cousins or sisters that she had done so. Jane confirmed that when we ate lunch at The Grape Leaf all that time later, years after my divorce, when she said Grandma hadn’t acknowledged her marriage. She didn’t my sisters or other cousins, either. I didn’t tell Jane I was given the dishes, but Mom mentioned before that my aunt didn’t know what happened to Grandma’s fine china. Mom listened, but didn’t say a word. If Grandma hadn’t told her, neither would my mom.

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When Grandma was a young woman in the 1920s, she dressed as a “flapper,” went to speakeasies, and drank throughout Prohibition. My great-uncle Bye was a bootlegger during that time. I wish I had listened to the tales of my great-aunt Mary and Grandma going out, sneaking around, and being girlish, and of my bootlegging great-uncle. I don’t even have any pictures of them from then. I don’t know if Grandma didn’t have any or if my aunt has them or got rid of them. The irony that my grandmother liked to drink and smoke most of her days and lived with my Mormon aunt and uncle has not been lost on me. I am sure when they bought the house together it was laid out clearly that she would keep her vices in spite of religious objections.

I wonder if Grandma saw me in herself. I’m sure at least some of the letters I wrote her over the years, especially the long ones written in college, were penned after drinks. I wonder if the girl who went to the speakeasies, worked when married, and got divorces when such things were unheard of liked the drinking granddaughter who dreamed of being a writer. I may have gotten her wild side, but I forgive easily and convey my love with hugs and saying “I love you” to relatives often. Any time anyone in my family holds a grudge, we call them “Elsie,” my grandmother’s name. I don’t hold grudges, though my sister Callie does, to the point that my mom calls her “Little Elsie.” I was more like my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt Mary, than Grandma. Both had the wildness, but Aunt Mary was giving, forgiving, and demonstrative. Dad always joked that Grandma had not liked Aunt Mary so long she forgot why she was mad at her. Aunt Mary would try to get Grandma’s dander up when they’d both come for Christmas dinner. She would talk to Grandma, ask her questions, and force her to either rudely ignore Aunt Mary or answer her, both of which irked Grandma to no end. When we asked Aunt Mary why Grandma was mad at her, sometimes she said it was too long a story, but I don’t know if there was a specific answer. Mom said that she thinks Grandma just didn’t like people, Aunt Mary included. My sister Callie, from the days of our childhood when I looked out the picture window with Grandma, hasn’t liked me much. She is always mad at me, and I couldn’t tell you why. She talks horribly about me and doesn’t include me in things like her kids’ birthday gatherings. She’s always angry when we first get together, but within moments, she’s forgotten she doesn’t like me and we’re instantly close. I’m grateful she’s not like Grandma to that degree, but as soon as we aren’t together anymore, she becomes “Little Elsie” and doesn’t like me again. It’s been that way our whole lives. I think Grandma was probably unforgiving and spiteful toward Aunt Mary her entire life, too.

Grandma was in and out of the hospital for a couple years, but when she was ninety-eight, they found dark spots on her lungs. That’s what the doctors called them: not cancer, dark spots. To confirm it was cancer would require tests Grandma didn’t want. I went to see her several times during those last days. In the next-to-the-last one, my mom and I went. My aunt and uncle were there already. They said Grandma hadn’t been eating, that she hadn’t eaten in two days. I was appalled no one in my family had tried to feed her, that the nurses weren’t feeding her. The hospital staff brought her dinner and I cut up the meat, hid it in mashed potatoes, and fed her bites of it. She didn’t want to eat, but she did for me. I thought no one would feed her, so I did. In our strange land of love, she ate for me and I tried to keep her alive by feeding her. I teased that her thickened milk tasted like a milkshake and she drank it all. My mom and I were talking recently when it occurred to me for the first time Grandma had given up by then, that she didn’t want to go on. She was in pain and ready to go. Nobody was feeding her because she didn’t want to keep living, because she didn’t want to eat so she’d go sooner, not because my relatives or the staff were cruel or lazy. Mom said it was hard to watch, me feeding Grandma, Grandma eating for me, laughing together about the “milkshake.” Mom said it was a private, intimate, loving moment, something Grandma didn’t have, and it was playing out right there with my aunt, uncle, and mother, and they found it difficult to see so turned away.

Two nights later we were told if we wanted to say goodbye we needed go see Grandma. My sisters Callie and Kristin met me at the hospital. We talked to Grandma and to my aunt and uncle. She patted on the side of the bed, and took my hand in hers and looked into my eyes. She held my hands with strength I didn’t think she would have still had. We held eye contact for a long time, I told her that I loved her and she could go if she wanted, and then kissed her forehead. When we were leaving, the three of us stood at the end of her bed. Kristin, then Callie, then I said “I love you.” She said, “I love you.” We all were crying when we left. I cried because I knew I’d not see her again. Kristin and Callie said at the same moment, “That’s the first time she’s ever said ‘I love you’ to me. I said, “Really? She’s always said it to me.” There are a few single moments I wish I could change in my life and that is one. I wish I hadn’t said it, but I had. I couldn’t change that, couldn’t take it back.

Kristin and I are very close, and a year ago I told her I wished I had never said that. She was stirring queso in a crock pot. She took out the spoon and slammed down the crock pot lid. “Well, you did,” she said. My hope that it would take the sting away by mentioning it years later didn’t work; I only made it worse by bringing it up again.

My cousin Jane and I started corresponding recently after having lost touch a decade ago. I have promised myself I won’t let her know Grandma told me “I love you,” or that I inherited the china, even if she asks. I won’t tell her that the china sits in boxes in my mom’s attic, though Grandma would surely prefer I—the drinking swearing granddaughter—use it daily, risk breaking it, rather than it be encased in cardboard. She knew this was something I was capable of, like showing my emotions as she was unable to. I also won’t ask Jane if Grandma ever told my aunt, her daughter, she loved her. I don’t want to know in case she didn’t. I want to remember Grandma as the one who loved, however parsimoniously that might have been. She may have seemed as hard as the bone china she gave to me, but I bet she knew I was the one capable of seeing the silhouette of love through her the way I could see the shadow of my hand through the plates.

 

Me 7-2015-fixedElizabeth Glass is a PhD student in Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville. She has received an Emerging Artist Award in Nonfiction from the Kentucky Arts Council and a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Redivider, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, and Appalachian Heritage. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

On Emotional Resonance

Twitter Postby Alysia Sawchyn

I am not a crier.

This is not to say I have never cried, but that I do so very rarely. My consistently dry eyes are the stuff of legend, part of family history: “Even as a baby, you hardly cried,” my mother says.

***

The first creative writing class I took in college was in fiction. My teacher was acerbic and pointed, with long, dark hair and a gaunt face to match. He announced on the first day that if we earned As or Bs on our first stories for workshop, he would ask why we were in his course and not in the next of the sequence. If we did not like it, we could leave. Though his pedagogy was not the most nurturing, I crawled out a better writer. My prose was tighter, plot lines and images less cliché.

His first lesson for us baby writers: The most important characteristic of a piece of writing is that it be entertaining. The reader must enjoy the experience. This, he said, was our primary responsibility.

***

My lack out of outward expression extends beyond my interactions with others to my response to art of all kinds. I find this surprising because, though I engage deeply with characters, though I feel such emotions, those feelings rarely manifest.

The first book that brought me to tears was The Good Earth, a novel by Pearl S. Buck about a family in early 20th century China. It was a scene somewhere in the middle that did it:

A man, alongside others, robs a wealthy man’s house and comes away with jewels. Most he sells to buy land, but his wife, his hardworking and plain wife, asks if she can keep two pearls for herself. She does not set them into jewelry. Instead, she keeps them hidden away to look at and hold in her hands from time to time, a small luxury. As their family becomes wealthier, she does not work any less hard. Eventually, they are so wealthy that the man takes a concubine. To woo this new woman, he asks his wife for her pearls. She hands them over without complaint.

***

What my first creative writing professor did not cover (or if he did, I do not remember it) is that in addition to entertainment and escapism, we also read to identify. We read to find ourselves outside of ourselves. Finding glimpses of our character or experiences in the pages of books means that we are not unique, and thus, not alone.

It is only by reading, sometimes, that I am able to understand myself. The words on the page thrum chords inside my chest that sound like memory, that resonate like a tuning fork, and I say, quietly, “Oh.” This echoing feeling is one of the reasons why I write, why I try so hard to tell the truth about myself and my experiences, perilous and frightening though they may be. If I hadn’t known of others’ suffering when I was younger, if I hadn’t been able to find myself in the pages of books and read my way out of girlhood, I doubt I would’ve survived my teenage years or known that they were something that necessitated survival. For example: I learned from Sula how to feel abandoned and how to take that inside myself and churn back out equal parts rage and love. This combination led to an interesting adolescence, but it was better than the alternative disappearing.

***

There is something about suffering, about sacrifice, that affects me deeply. I notice this most often in female characters—Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, JoAnn Beard’s narrator in relation to her husband in “The Fourth State of Matter,” Marina in Let Me Explain You Something, are just a few more exampleseven when it is not the main concern of the writing. Perhaps I notice this because I am a woman. Or perhaps it is because of my mother. She gave up her family and country when she moved to America to attend graduate school with my father. She had a child she didn’t really want, but one whose birth convinced her family to speak to her again. This daughter, this mixed blessing, was consistently embarrassed by her mother for the first ten years of her life.

It’s likely my mother did not know about the heavy, leaden child-shame I carried, of being different, of having a different mother. It is my hope she did not because the reasons for it were petty, were couched in a child’s constant fear of rejection by other children:

  • My mother is beautiful with short, asymmetrical hair.
  • My mother and I have different last names.
  • My mother has arthritis that leaves her fingers permanently bent at the tip, that forces her to point with her middle finger.
  • My mother must always repeat her first name when introducing herself.

***

It is not easy to write prose or shape characters to be so realistic they are entertaining or identifiable. The creation of these requires pulling from life and experience, regardless of genre. Perhaps writing is selfish. We catch and translate the small, unguarded actions, voices, and expressions (invariably distorting something in the process), eliciting pleasure in their shaping into lines and curves across white space. If we are lucky, we gain materially from these secrets, becoming professional hunters of vulnerable moments.

***

I also cried while reading “Into the Country.” It is an essay about faking, then learning, to love bird watching, innocuously placed—the third piece in the second section—in the collection Southside Buddhist. The tuning fork sounded.

I am a vagrant. I have lived in a dozen cities, met hundreds of people, and never until the middle of a page, in an innocuous line of dialogue, had a met a woman, a parent, either real or imagined, who had the same name as my own mother. At the time, I assumed that this was the mother-in-the-book’s real name, but have since discovered that writers tweak in memoirs to protect the ones we love the most.

What is important is not the name.

This is a large, beautiful world, and surely there are thousands, maybe millions, of other women on this earth who share the same name as my mother. Many of them are likely mothers, too.

What is important is that I had forgotten until that moment how badly as a child I wanted to have a mother who was like my friends’, how badly I wanted to belong.

***

I recently read an essay from a collection of Buddhist writings—“The Art of Awareness” by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche—that posited the following argument: Art is most effective, is most true to itself, when it is conceptualized by its creator as “an offering to the observer, rather than a statement of our ego’s own splendor.” I wrote it on a sticky note and taped it to my laptop.

Of course, the book was a gift from my mother.

Here: I will show you my life so that you can see yours more clearly. I will give you my family so you can love yours more.

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Alysia Sawchyn is a writer currently living in Tampa, Florida. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review and Midwestern Gothic. She is the managing editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, and you can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther. 

Bibliomemoirs for Bibliophiles: Writing the Immersion Memoir

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By Marina DelVecchio

While memoir is defined as “an account of one’s personal life and experiences,” immersion memoir is writing about the self in the context of an external element. According to Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “the immersion memoirist takes on some outward task or journey in order to put his/her life in perspective…The immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” In this case, the particular vehicle or external element is literature. By embedding literary analysis and storylines from our favorite books into our own memoir, we can win favor with publishers, add flavor and depth to our own unique stories, and show how literature and life quite often reflect one another in terms of the universal experiences we share.

I became acquainted with immersion memoir and its ability to let the light seep onto the page while writing of my own story of growing up in Greece, overwhelmed with homelessness, abuse, and my mother’s prostitution; many editors have noted its dark subject matter. She Writes Press Editor Brooke Warner might categorize mine a “misery memoir.” In revisiting my work, I noticed a recurring theme—which also happens to be my teaching philosophy—interwoven throughout narrative: how to lean on books for survival. The earlier drafts of my memoir included snippets of books and poems I’ve read and felt connected to, and I began to become aware of memoirs that did the same. Before I knew it, I had a collection of memoirs centered on literature, and I knew this was the way to go with mine. I thought back to the first book that ever gripped me, the one that stood out to me as a reflection of my own childhood and coming of age narrative, and that’s when Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre became part of my own memoir. In revising, I focused on the analogous experiences in women’s lives when dealing with poverty and isolation as presented in Jane Eyre. I drew on parallels between Jane and me and also between the two of us and her creator, Charlotte Brontë, and was able to approach my experiences from a more detached authorial place.

Immersion memoir requires writing about the self within a wider landscape, a literary one that allows memoirist to control the discussion of self. Debra Anne Davis’ “Betrayed by the Angel” from the 2004 Harvard Review is an excellent example. In this essay, Davis recounts how being brought up to be a nice, quiet girl led to her inability to fight back when she was sexually accosted in her own apartment. She begins her narrative with a third grade bully jabbing her left arm with his sharp pencil. When she told her teacher, Davis recalls that her voice wasn’t loud enough because she didn’t really want to get Hank, the boy, into trouble. She was a nice girl, taught not to be rude. At the age of 25, when a man pushes his way into her apartment, this politeness prevents her from fighting back. Just as she hadn’t been loud enough when accusing Hank of stabbing her with his pencil every day during third grade, Davis doesn’t push the door against her rapist hard enough. She doesn’t shove him off her with enough force, and when her rapist is insulted by her rudeness, the “angel” comes out. She flatters him, even flirts with him for her survival, hoping that he won’t hurt her more. And when he gets 35 years in jail for raping her, the angel inside her thinks that’s too much. While describing the rape scene in graphic and harrowing detail, Davis also embeds excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s famous 1931 essay “Professions for Women,” which introduces the reader to the dangers of the angel that lives inside women and teaches them to be polite, charming, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing. Davis acknowledges she was all these things while being assaulted in her own home. Killing the angel, according to Woolf, is an act of self-defense.

Although by title the two essays appear different in context, they argue the same: the necessary suppression of the expectation of behavior that encourages silence and self-sacrifice of women. Woolf argues she needed to kill her angel in order to critique books written by men, while Davis reflects on the friendly, helpful behavior of her angel toward the rapist that accosted her. The quotes from Woolf threaded throughout Davis’s rape narrative allow readers a reprieve from the disturbing details, enables Davis to act as moderator between her narrative and Woolf’s, and elucidates the text’s power to inspire and convey lessons not easily taught.

From a distance, the memoirist can explore her subjectivity without seeming egotistical or self-indulgent, and thereby placing herself in danger of losing the audience’s attention and respect. Plunging one’s own anxieties and misfortunes within the scope of a larger landscape allows the audience to remain engaged in the story and empathize with the writer. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Julia Powell’s Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them accomplish this task with skill and humor. Rebecca Mead also emphasizes this in her own bibliomemoir, which is a memoir centered on one’s love of books or a particular book that has influenced the life and writing of the memoirist.

Mead says, “when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them.”

In My Life in Middlemarch, Mead examines themes of love, marriage, independence, and female aspirations and failures in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A woman in mid-life, she reflects on the novel as a means of thinking about the choices she has made. Part biography, part memoir, and part literary criticism, Mead demonstrates literature as mirror that reflects ourselves back to us. A major theme in Middlemarch, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” revolves around questions of identity, yearnings, and female potential, and was obvious, according to Mead, in Eliot’s personal choice to turn down marriage proposals in lieu of writing and working. “What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?” Mead asks as it relates to both George Eliot and herself.

Absorbed in literature and self-evaluation, these memoirs represent a growing niche in the publishing industry. In many ways, this genre’s success is largely due to writers’ tendency to distance the narrative from their ego as they explore and engross themselves in the books they love. From this perspective, writers are freed to merge their own experiences with those of the characters depicted in literature, creating a balance between the two.

In other words, while the stories told in memoirs are usually one-sided, immersing a childhood yoked with trauma in a discussion of literature becomes multidimensional, a different kind of story altogether, a more palatable one, perhaps.

Marina DelVecchio currently teaches writing, literature, and Women’s Studies as a full-time professor at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. Her essays appear on the Huffington Post, Her Circle Ezine, The New Agenda, and BlogHer. She has also been published in print by Cengage Learning’s anthology on Media and Violence against Women (2013) and She Writes’ collection of essays on miscarriages titled Three Minus One (2014). Marina has worked as a contributing women’s literature reviewer for Her Circle Ezine and the San Francisco Book Review, and assistant editor of poetry and non-fiction for the QU Literary Magazine.
 

Works Cited

 
Davis, Debra Anne. “Betrayed by the Angel.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions. Ed. Susan Shaw and Janet Lee. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.

Hemley, Robin. A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. London: Georgia UP, 2012. Print.

Mead. Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. Print.

The Poetics of Pain

Lillo Twitter Post

By Erin Lillo

As France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Simone Weil wrote her essay, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” in which she describes her hope for future poets to “learn there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” Weil wishes for a poetic language to counter the language of war.

As writers of conscience, writers who empathize with those who endure their daily portion of suffering, how do we approach the subject of violence in our stories and our poems? How do we imbue language with a sense of outrage and a desire for justice without falling into the dual pitfalls of sentimentality and melodrama? For political writers in particular, how do we document injustice without didacticism? To do justice to our subjects, writers whose work deals with political violence must travel a narrow path, one that leads to the development of a poetics of pain.

One guide to the way forward may be found in Elaine Scarry’s 1985 book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. In Part One of the text, Scarry analyzes how both torture and war conflate pain with language and language with power. Often, Scarry locates this cross-fertilization within a field of opposites. For instance, she describes the structure of torture as follows:

[F]or the prisoner, the body and its pain are overwhelmingly present and voice, world, and self are absent; for the torturer, voice, world, and self are overwhelmingly present and the body and pain are absent . . . [and] these . . . oppositions at every moment announce and magnify the distance between torturer and prisoner and thereby dramatize the former’s power, for power is in its fraudulent as in its legitimate forms always based on distance from the body.

While later in her analysis Scarry differentiates between war and torture, the similarity she describes appears revelatory. Pain is a silencing force—when we hurt, we lose the precision of language. Instead, we cry out, we whimper, we moan, but we cannot transform our noise into meaning for somebody else. However, through the institutions of torture and warfare, humans inflict pain on other humans in order to transform the silencing force of pain into the political force of power.

Within the political realm, then, pain and the power to inflict pain become the amplified voice of reality-building: My power is real because I can hurt you; my belief is real because I can hurt you; my cause is just because I can hurt you.

As writers, we too want to extend the field of our voices, but nothing seems more antithetical to what we do than the political voice, powered by pain. However, as Scarry observes, “in both war and torture, the normal relation between body and voice is deconstructed and replaced by one in which the extremes of the hurt body and unanchored verbal assertions . . . are laid edge to edge . . . [and] a fiction is produced” (143), and for writers whose subjects often encompass political pain, this placing edge-to-edge of pain and voice seems pivotal to how these stories and poems make meaning.

One such writer is the poet Tom Sleigh, whose recent collection Station Zed: Poems often portrays images of violence and voice laid edge-to-edge. As these images unfold, Sleigh’s poems connect the injuring of bodies to the seizing of power and the reality of pain to the fiction of culture.

For instance, pain and power, reality and fiction collide in the ten-part poem “KM4,” which opens with “The Mouth.” The first stanza declares, “Not English Somali Italian French the mouth / blown open in the Toyota battle wagon at KM4 / speaks in a language never heard before.” The newness of this pain-language reverberates through the rest of this poem. “The mouth blown open at KM4 / speak[ing] in a language never heard before” stands in opposition to the voice of a journalist, who becomes “the Absolute Speaker of the News. Because this news uses non-pain language, it carries none of the veracity of the mouth blown open, the mouth that “speaks back to the dead at KM4” in words that will lead to “nothing solved or resolved” because “the mouth of smoke at KM4 / mouths syllables of smoke never heard before.”

The embodied mouth of the beginning of this poem becomes a disembodied mouth by the end. However, this process refuses to accomplish the cultural project of war-driven violence as identified in Scarry’s analysis: this injuring does not embody a reality. Rather, in Sleigh’s treatment of the suicide bombing at this Somali intersection, the violence leads to an unknown language that devolves into unknowable sounds and carries no power to solve or resolve the disputed ideology. The murdered body’s mouth does not substantiate the suicide bomber’s beliefs; instead, the mouth sounds syllables that drift away like smoke as the poem becomes the disembodiment of violence.

The repeated rhyme between “KM4” and “before” links separate sensations of reality: the reality of the bomb, the suicide, murders, injuring, and pain collides with the reality of time, language, words, sound, and belief. The violence becomes a transition point between these realities, as Scarry argues injuring will do within war’s inherent structure, yet Sleigh’s poem denies the transition, choosing instead to hold the two realities next to each other, rendering each reality as futile as the other. This mutual futility becomes the poem’s ultimate comment on the suicide bombing at the intersection known as KM4.

Sleigh’s “KM4” continues this subversion of body and voice with the third poem, “Oracle.” The central figure of this poem is a “little man carved out of bone” who “shouts something to the world the world can’t hear.” With this figure, the mouth speaking its new language in the first poem becomes a relic shouting into silence. However, this bone man carries on his important cultural belief—he “makes an invocation at an altar: / an AK-47 stood up on its butt end in a pile of rock.” As the bone man prays to this alter, he exchanges voices with the gun, who “wants to tell a different truth— / a truth ungarbled that is so obvious / no one could possibly mistake its meaning.”

Here, the gun’s clarity of speech confirms Scarry’s analysis of war’s use of violence as the means to settle cultural disputes—the derealized beliefs of the young Somali suicide bomber become embodied in the gun’s voice and the promise of injury contained within that voice. Sleigh’s figures of the speaking gun and the speaking bone man merge into the figure of the suicide bomber when the poem locates “a boy with trousers / rolled above his ankles” “down the cyclops-eye of the barrel” of the gun. The housing of the boy inside the AK-47, which is also the altar of the bone man, solidifies the mouth’s smoke-language from the first poem.

In “Oracle,” “a mouth of bone moving in syllables / [has] the rapid-fire clarity / of a weapon that can fire 600 rounds a minute.” In the end, the destabilizing impossibility of resolution through violence that Sleigh introduces in “The Mouth” has transformed into the suicide bomber’s certain belief that violence—the opening of his body along with hundreds of others—will grant his prayer, will create a new world out of his blood and his imaginings.

However, by the end of the “KM4,” as the poet travels through varying layers of uncertainty, veracity, self-doubt and loathing, the final poem “Too Late” reveals the speaker’s problematic relationship with all of it, any of it, it being both the violent realizing of an indeterminate future and the inevitable deconstruction of a known past. In “Too Late,” the speaker disconnects the body from the here and now in the first stanza only to unify them in the second: “Here, you can let yourself go in so many ways— / the bomb pack strapped to your waist and detonated / by pushing Send on your cell phone.” With this gesture, the speaker brings the body into a wrenching immediacy; “you” are the suicide bomber, and “you” can send yourself into death by pressing a touch screen.

Now the speaker joins the reader and the bomber’s body within this all-encompassing second person pronoun by describing himself as an “eternal aesthete in his eternal pursuit / of just the right moment . . ..” The conflation of speaking voice, violent actor, reader and corpse propels the poem into its final observation, the observation that challenges every act of violence in each new war: “And the body barters for the ghosts pinned down by the shadows / to come rising at this moment from the grave / telling the body it’s too late, it’s always been too late / passing over the ocean’s dry whispering wave.” This final sequence of images asserts the only reality of the body that survives its death—no matter what future you kill for, what future you die for, no future ever lasts, no voice ever survives, and what remains eternal is the noise of waves gnawing at the shore. Whatever cultural identity the suicide bomber hopes to substantiate with the wounding of himself and all the others at KM4, this cultural identity will also sink into an ocean of time, as will Sleigh’s poems.

At the structural level, torture and war transform pain into political power by using the dreadful silence of the injured to substantiate the victor’s narrative. However, as Weil wishes and Sleigh accomplishes, we writers can perform our own counterattack. By placing edge-to-edge the wounded and the silenced, the wounders and the wars, a poetics of pain denies such political transformations of the voice. Instead, writers assert a different reality, one that acknowledges our universal complicity in war’s unspoken truth–the battlefield’s horrors are the birthing pains of our cultural imaginings, which are, in the end, as ephemeral and haunting as any poem.

Erin Lillo is a regular contributor to Craft Talk. In addition to writing, teaching, studying, and parenting, Erin reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently, she’s losing. Her short fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.

 

From the Library to Las Vegas: the Role of Research in the Writing Process

by Thomas Dodsonlas-vegas-959084_1920

A short list of things I’ve learned from writing fiction: fairy penguins sleep for only five minutes at a time, the ancient Greeks used pine sap to waterproof their wineskins, a runny nose and excessive yawning are among the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, and pretty much anyone acquainted with a dead person can officially identify the body.

It’s true, searching a library catalog lacks the writerly glamour of dashing off a first draft. Yet the practice of research has some discrete charms to recommend it to the writer of fiction: the satisfaction of getting a physical detail, a way of speaking, or a word exactly right; of finding unexpected inspiration for a setting or a scene in a news report; or even discovering that a person or place you had thought lived only in your imagination may, in fact, correspond to some actual entity in the world. It can also be a comfort while you’re trying to publish a story (and dealing with the inevitable rejections), to reflect on how much you’ve learned—often about topics you would have never thought to explore.

I’m a librarian, so it’s probably not surprising that research plays a major role in my writing process, as it did in my story “Two Valleys,” published in the journal CONSEQUENCE. “Two Valleys” concerns the pilot of a Predator drone who, after a traumatic mission, seeks solace in a Las Vegas strip club. The idea for the story came to me one Sunday when I heard a report on National Public Radio about drone pilots stationed at an Air Force base in Nevada who regularly flew missions over Afghanistan.

I’ve never served in the military, but something about the story gripped me: two deserts and two forms of American power, both having to do with vision. In Afghanistan it was specular power, the ability of the US military to see things thousands of miles away from unmanned vehicles. By contrast, I associated Las Vegas—with its bright lights and over-the-top architecture—with the stupefying power of capitalist spectacle. I was interested in exploring how I might connect these two forms of power through the lived experience of a single character.

A couple of weeks after hearing the NPR piece, I started work on a story about a drone pilot stationed at Creech AFB, a base located only a short drive from Las Vegas.

In my experience, one of the best ways to gain perspective on some larger issue that you want to write about is to seek out personal accounts of people struggling with that issue. Very often the richest sources for these accounts are memoirs. If the experience you’re interested in is widely shared, memoirs can be great resources and relatively easy to find. In my case, however, I had to do some real digging to find a book by a drone pilot. I turned to Worldcat (www.worldcat.org), a free online database that allows you to search the collections of libraries all over the world, all at once. It’s a great way to find out whether the book you’re looking for actually exists and, if it does, which libraries near you have copies.

I found only one published memoir: Predator: the Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: a Pilot’s Story by Major Matt J. Martin and the journalist Charles W. Sasser. The book is full of just the kinds of details I was looking for. I learned, for example, that because of the great distance the signal has to travel, there is a two-second delay from the moment a pilot in Nevada moves his flight stick and the drone in Afghanistan responds. This fact provided me with an opportunity to escalate the tension in a scene in which the story’s protagonist must offer split-second aid to soldiers who are under attack.

Predator was also full of the special vocabulary used by drone pilots and sensor operators. A drone is an “RPV” (short for “remote-piloted vehicle”) and its two view modes are “IR” (infrared monochrome) and “day-TV” (full-color telephoto). Eventually banned by Gen. Stanly McChrystal, the chillingly vague term “military-aged male” had been used by drone operators to refer to most Afghan men and boys, implying that nearly half the civilian population might be a combatant—one “positive identification” away from becoming a potential target. Operators also make use of some disturbing slang; a target killed by a drone strike is a “bug splat” and a person who breaks from a group in an effort to flee is termed a “squirter.”

While books dealing with the technical, political, and moral aspects of drone warfare helped provide me with context, it was their citations that I found most useful. In a chapter from her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, activist Medea Benjamin discusses the psychological impact on pilots of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for up to thirteen hours at a time before clocking out and commuting home to be with their families. She quotes the pilots at length from stories originally published in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Tracking down the pieces she cited and supplementing these with searches of Lexis-Nexis, a database of domestic and international news sources, I was able to assemble a more-or-less complete list of popular press articles about drone pilots.

In addition to general background information, specific scenes in the story called for additional research and other approaches. A documentary video, Afghanistan: An Afghan Village, provided glimpses into life in rural Afghanistan. In one shot, a young boy shovels fuel into the mouth of a clay oven; in another, an old man with a bucket splashes handfuls of water onto the ground, settling the dust of the main road.

To gain insight into the protagonist’s relationship with his wife, strained due to long overseas deployments, I went looking for blogs and discussion forums that dealt with the experience of military spouses. The perspectives shared in these posts, particularly those written by the wives of Air Force personnel serving overseas, were invaluable in shaping my understanding of the central relationship in the story.

I knew that the first half of my story was going to take place in Afghanistan’s Khost Valley, but the second half would be set in and around Las Vegas, a place I had never been. I had read guidebooks and histories, of course, but knew these could only take me so far. In order to gather my own impressions of the story’s second valley, I embarked on a brief research trip to Nevada.

I’d decided that the pilot in my story would seek comfort and conversation from an erotic dancer, so one of my stops on this pilgrimage to Sin City was a strip club on Freemont Street. I’d read several books about the culture of “gentleman’s clubs” (anthropologist Katherine Frank’s winningly-titled study of regular patrons, G-strings and Sympathy, for example), but had never actually been to one of these bars. I was concerned that without personal experience, the scene I was writing would lack authentic details.

GlitterGulchSo that’s how I found myself occupying a stool at the long oval bar that, padded with red felt and appointed with a colonnade of silver poles, served as both counter and catwalk for The Girls of Glitter Gulch. There I talked with a dancer (stage name “Jordan”) about what men, especially regulars, came looking for, and what her conversations with them were like. By the time I left, my wallet was lighter, but I’d gotten some important (and very specific) details that I could use for my story.

I’d also known that there would be a scene in which the protagonist drove from Creech AFB to Las Vegas in the middle of the night. In an attempt to get the details right, I took this drive myself. Alone in my rental car, I set my digital recorder in the passenger seat, pulled on to Ninety-Four South, and delivered a running monologue of my impressions. One detail that struck me in particular was the crisp, resinous smell that blew in through my driver’s side window. Later, a little online research into Nevada vegetation and I concluded that this arboreal odor had probably come from the piñon pines in the Spring Mountains.

Transforming my notes of the drive into a scene required a different kind of investigation, what I’ll call “craft research.” When I do craft research, I go looking for writers who are good at something that I would also like to do well. For my scene on the desert highway, with the city of Las Vegas appearing on the horizon, I knew I wanted to imbue the setting with a sense of monumental menace. I recalled a passage in William T. Vollman’s story “Red Hands” that had that feel, a description of a ship’s nighttime arrival in New York Harbor as experienced by Seamus, a fugitive IRA operative. I had a copy of the story in Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design and set to studying the passage along with Bell’s meticulous commentary.

In Vollman’s story, the first impression of New York is “the smell of garbage which must have blown into Seamus’s nostrils from the landfill on Fresh Kills Island.” As the city comes into view, it expands, “revealing its vastness, cruelty and coldness in the grin of its skyscraper-teeth.” As the buildings seem to become “taller and wider” they “cast their burdens of light upon the harbor” and cars move “along the shore freeway like glittering beads.”

Studying Vollman’s language helped me imagine how to approach my scene. In “Two Valleys,” Vegas appears first in a display of seductive splendor: “Las Vegas flickered at his left and then unfurled itself: a sweep of golden points, pixel-prickly in the arid dark.” The notion of Las Vegas rapidly filling the protagonist’s visual field is similar to the revelation of New York in “Red Hands,” and the image of the city’s lights as a field of golden pixels is not unlike Vollman’s freeway of “glittering beads.”

The culmination of research in a final draft can be deeply satisfying. The completed story bears the traces of hours spent searching databases, haunting libraries, scribbling notes, and maybe even hitting the road. Ultimately, however, all this activity has been in the service not of the writer, but of the story and its reader.

With your cabinet full to bursting with factual curiosities, there is the risk of assuming your reader will be as interested as you are in your discoveries. This is seldom the case, and the writer should resist the urge to teach the reader something at the expense of telling a good story. Distinctive details, surprising words and ways of speaking, that fine point known only to insiders; these can’t be allowed to loaf about in your story. They must earn their keep by advancing the plot, contributing to character development, or instantiating a theme. The process of fiction research, then, consists of two complementary phases: the gathering of actualities at the beginning and a culling down to the most serviceable ones at the end. As with other aspects of our writing, we may be called on to murder some of our darlings. The result, however, is a striking fictional world, one a reader can fully inhabit while turning the pages and vividly recall when the story is finished.

thomas_dodsonThomas Dodson is a writer, designer, and librarian living in Somerville, Massachusetts. His short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Chicago Quarterly Review, CONSEQUENCE Magazine, and elsewhere. The full text of several stories, including “Two Valleys,” is available on his website (thomasadodson.com).

Lightness in Childhood

Italo Calvino writes in his Lightness lecture in Six Memos for the Next Millennium of literature’s existential function as being “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.” Childhood most often depicted in fiction is one that was abruptly terminated by a difficult, or heavy, event. But, autobiographical material related to traumatic childhood events poses a challenge to handle in a way that best serves the artist and his vision. While many authors have used their childhood experiences in their work, if we examine these works using Calvino’s Lightness lecture, can we find evidence of lightness?

Calvino looks for several elements to be present in a work that exemplifies lightness. In the fictional depictions of childhood that I read, few authors managed to have all of the elements within the work but nearly all used at least one. I was most attracted to the works that were filled with lightness – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and James Agee’s A Death in the Family.

What I also found throughout the childhood literature was an attempt at capturing the essence of childhood prior to its abrupt termination by the traumatic event. For some authors, such as Woolf, what happens prior to the trauma comprises a great deal of the work. The time prior is often depicted as filled with the usually pleasant wonders of childhood. It is as if the writer is examining the childhood prior to test if the impressions remain associated with the lightness he feels about that time or is the lightness a delusion created by the counter-weight of the trauma?

Virginia Woolf’s mother died in 1895 when Woolf was only thirteen years old. In her essay “Reminiscences” Woolf writes, “…her death was the greatest disaster that could happen; it was as though some brilliant day of spring the racing clouds of a sudden stood still, grew dark, and massed themselves; the wind flagged, and all creatures on the earth moaned or wandered aimlessly.”

The family was profoundly affected by the mother’s death. To make matters worse, Woolf’s oldest sister Stella Duckworth, who had taken on the caregiver role, died just two years later. Woolf’s father died when Woolf was twenty-two and her brother Thoby died two years after. In her essay “A Sketch of the Past” Woolf writes of her novel To the Lighthouse: “But I wrote the book very quickly, and when it was written I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.”

In his Lightness lecture, Calvino recounts the story of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus cuts off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. He puts it in a bag and takes it with him. Calvino states, “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.” The refusal to look directly at a childhood monster is one of the keys to imparting lightness to the work.

Woolf casts an indirect gaze upon the tragedies of her childhood in her novel To the Lighthouse. She creates the Ramsay family, based upon her own family, in fine detail. Yet, there are no scenes of the family member’s deaths; rather she tells us of the tragedies in short passages marked by brackets.  And she does this in the second section of the novel in which she writes primarily about the Ramsay’s deserted seaside home.

“ Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.”

“Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything they said, had promised so well.”

“A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.”

Calvino states, “The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.” Lightness “goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.” One of the ways to prevent the “weight of matter from crushing us” is to “allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line.” He calls this the “atomistic concept of the universe” or life down to its fine particles.

Woolf brings her eye for acute detail grounded in sensory impressions to her writing in To the Lighthouse. What surrounds the brief bracketed passages of the characters’ deaths is a narrative engaged in the description of setting – the holiday house by the sea. A wind of darkness, or “nothingness” as she calls it, moves through the house, exemplifying Calvino’s concept of the atomizing of things or “the poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities” – showing what is “infinitely minute, light and mobile.”

So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed around bedroom doors.

So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room…

Woolf, in my opinion, was a master of, as Calvino puts it, the “lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.”  This lightening of language is one of the three senses of lightness Calvino looks for in a work.

I must confess that understanding this sense of lightness has been difficult and so I asked several writers for their take. Their responses varied. Calvino is looking for ethereal prose that carries a weighty subject and/or uses language to shape time. Rather than use heavy language, such as subject-verb-direct object, which thuds on the page, use indeterminate clauses and figurative language. In this way, subject matters are implied, rather than being photographed exactly. We can also use sentences that start with a solid noun, which are weight-neutral, and move to lighter words and images, using a light verb so that a sentence moves from darkness and weight to light and lightness. We must also remember that letter sounds have physical connotations, some move against gravity such as the high frequency vowels (ee, ay, long i). These high frequency vowels are associated with exhilaration and energy, or movement, and movement implies lightness.

Woolf writes:

When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again.

Calvino writes, “As soon as the moon appears in poetry, it brings with it a sensation of lightness, suspension, a silent calm enchantment.”

He also tells us that another sense of lightness is imparted by the “narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction.”

Woolf travels freely throughout the novel into her character’s minds, using a stream of consciousness narrative. In the second section, titled “Time Passes”, Woolf captures the emotions surrounding the deaths using subtle and imperceptible elements as revealed to us by  – the nothingness in the deserted house, the stray airs that creep through it, the divine goodness, loveliness and stillness residing there, and even weary, old Mrs. McNab, the reluctant housekeeper.

Woolf writes:

Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers.

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.

Calvino describes the third sense as “a visual image of lightness that acquires an emblematic value.” He quotes Paul Valery, “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” A bird implies willful movement, the ability to carry oneself into the sky. Woolf uses at least two visual images of movement and transformation that imply lightness in the novel. One being: the decay of the empty holiday house. She even writes that rats carry off bits of the house to gnaw on. The house had anchored the family together in their happiest moments and now it is disintegrating. “If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion.”

Yet transformation can bring beauty. Woolf writes, “Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the windowpane.” Much as we love our parents, there can be a sense of freedom felt when they pass on.

The other image is that of the long-awaited boat trip to visit the lighthouse. After many years, the family returns to the seaside house and Mr. Ramsay finally takes his children to see the lighthouse. Something he refused to do while their mother was alive.

Lily Briscoe also returns to the holiday house, as Woolf did in her mind, and “Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring…” Just as Perseus made the ground soft for Medusa’s head to lie upon and the beautiful coral then grows there, and the nymphs desire this coral and feed the decapitated head in exchange for it, Woolf was able to lay her tragedies down and create something wholly beautiful and enchanting.

In 1916, James Agee’s father was killed in an automobile accident when Agee was six. But Agee didn’t want to write a memoir. Rather he sought to treat his painful autobiographical material one-step removed. He writes, “I must decide between a completely detached and a deeply subjective treatment. I doubt if in complete detachment there is a story there. Rather, do the subjective, as detachedly as possible.”  The result is the novel A Death in the Family. The story of six-year-old Rufus and the death of his father, Jay Follett, in an automobile accident in Knoxville, Tennessee (where Agee grew up). Unfortunately, Agee died before the completion of the novel.

And just as Woolf did not create scenes in which her personal tragedies are shown directly, neither does Agee. Though Agee wrote sections of the novel from the father’s point of view, he did not compose a scene in which the accident occurs. We read about what happened to Jay Follett as is told by a character who came upon the wrecked vehicle and the dead father. And this is not told directly by the character but by another character, the Uncle of little Rufus, as Andrew heard it from the eyewitness. The revelation of the tragic details feels removed through this use of second-hand accounts. In fact, no one witnessed the actual accident. Follett was alone.

Agee also focuses in on three particular details of the accident. Andrew recounts, “‘Something caught in his lights and it was one of the wheels of the automobile… it was still turning.’” Andrew repeats this statement. So Jay’s car must’ve been upside down for a wheel to be turning in the light of some headlights and for the wheel to still be turning, it was a bad accident. Andrew goes on to tell Jay’s wife, Mary, the vehicle was upside down, but we have deduced this already. Mary must’ve also and the conversation proceeds in this gentle, caring manner with information being revealed indirectly.

Then we learn that the first responder couldn’t find “anything wrong except a little cut, exactly on the point of his chin.” And this image of the little wound on Jay’s chin is carried through to the funeral when Rufus sees his father’s corpse resting in its coffin. “At the exact point of the chin, there was another small blue mark, as straight and neat as might be drawn with a pencil, and scarcely wider.” The disfigurement is so inconsequential and benign that we feel the senselessness of the tragedy even deeper. How shocking the accident must’ve felt to Agee and his family is captured precisely with this non-disturbing image of a wound that didn’t even bleed.

Then we get the image of the cotter pin from Jay’s car. “They found that a cotter pin had worked loose – that is, had fallen all the way out – this cotter pin had fallen out, that held the steering mechanism together.” Andrew describes the cotter pin as “like a very heavy hairpin.” Hairpins are small. So something very small, something easily lost, caused this enormous and shocking tragedy.

And while we learn that the car must’ve hit a rock and Follett lost control because of the fallen-out cotter pin and hit his chin on the steering wheel, which killed him instantly, the images we hold of this horrific event are: the spinning auto wheel, the small chin wound, and the cotter pin. I think Agee was trying to express something he’d learned about life with the use of these images. Something along the lines of how life can change in a very small amount of time and that the catapulting event can derive from what are often almost unnoticeable details. Details we can be obsessed with after the event in our human quest for understanding. Cancer starts as a single cell, deadly viruses must be viewed with a microscope, the destroyed Space Shuttle Columbia lost some re-entry tiles, and Jay Follett was killed by a fallen-out cotter pin.

Calvino speaks in his Lightness lecture about the necessity of an “atomistic concept of the universe.” Despite our intellectual capacity to think in the abstract, man remains a sensuous creature. We experience our existence and all its attendant emotions through the five senses, and what is striking about this, is that most of the information our senses gather comes to us in minute and often unseen particles. The small atoms that comprise matter are not all visible, some are gaseous. Odors can be sensed but remain unseen. Sounds are a sequence of pressure waves. Calvino says, “the knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile.” He goes on to say that only a poet who has no doubts about the “physical reality of the world” can issue poetry of the “invisible, infinite unexpected possibilities.”

Agee seems compelled to permeate the tragedy of his childhood with lightness, in as many senses of lightness as he can muster. He wants us to hear his childhood, “They (the locusts) are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell of heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums … the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.” Agee draws our attention to not only a sound but its individual notes.

When Jay leaves his family for the last time, Agee provides a two page treatment of the sounds his automobile makes, the vehicle that kills Jay. He attempts to replicate the sound through the usage of the letters of the alphabet. Calvino talks about the alphabet as a model for combinations of minimal units and that we can view letters as atoms in continual motion. The teaching of phonics is comprised of the learning of the singular sounds each letter represents. Alphabet sounds carry their own weights, with some sounds being light such as the vowel teams ‘ee’ and ‘ay’ and the long vowel ‘i’, and other sounds being heavy. These are the low frequency vowels which bring energy down, such as the diphthongs ‘ar, ‘ow’, ‘oi, ‘aw’, ‘oo’ and the long vowel ‘o’. Consonants carry differing weights also, whether they are made mostly by using air (r, p, h, f, sh, w) or by using the tongue and lips (b, d, k, g).

Agee draws our attention to minute particles: “The moistures of May drowned all save the most ardent stars, and gave back to the earth the sublimated light of the prostrate city.” Here not only are we looking at both natural and artificial light but how light can be reflected by droplets of moisture so that it casts itself back upon the city. He writes of Jay’s wife, “She was never to realize his intention of holding the warmth in for her; for that had sometime departed from the bed.” Our loved ones do hold warmth within them and just as that impression of their warmth remains only briefly in the beds they rise from, the warmth of their physical presence in our lives departs instantly when they are taken from us.

When Jay is driving away from his family, on his way to eternity, “the auto bored through the center of the darkness of the universe; its poring shafts of light, like an insect’s antennae, feeling into distinctness every relevant small obstacle and ease of passage…” Particles of light are indeed minute and an insect’s antennae make sense of the smallest atoms. Even time can be thought of in very small units; seconds can be broken down into milliseconds and life can change in what seems to be an instant. During Jay’s accident, Agee writes, “At the most there must have been just the tiniest fraction of a second when he felt the jolt and the wheel was twisted out of his hand, and he was thrown forward.”

There is also energy, which can be measured and sometimes manifests itself visibly, such as lightning. It largely remains unseen to us, but rather is felt.  It can be said that energy is made up of atoms. Andrew reflects that when he saw Jay’s corpse he was aware of “a prodigious kind of energy in the air.”

The lightness of the atoms which make up our universe that Agee constantly brings to the forefront of our attention contrasts starkly with the feeling his characters have when faced with the tragedy. Over and over Agee writes of the weight his characters feel when they learn of Jay’s death.

Calvino states that there are two tendencies in literature: to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things, like a field of magnetic impulses” or to “give language the weight, density and concreteness of things, bodies and sensations.” He explores the ways in which writers “remove weight from the structure of stories and from language” as he himself tried to do in his writing.

Agee seems to have been conscious of trying to lighten the language he uses throughout the novel, especially when dealing with the most difficult aspects of death. And in certain instances, the manner in which the language is used, leads to a lightening of the character’s thoughts. Just before Mary thinks Jay is in the house in the form of a ghost, she has an unbearable, what she calls “terrifying”, thought that the accident was due to Jay driving drunk. To counter this she begins thinking “with such exactness and with such love of her husband’s face, and of his voice, and of his hands, and of his way of smiling so warmly even though his eyes almost never lost their sadness, that she succeeded in driving the other thought from her mind.” The repetition of and of and with such provides an uplifting rhythm and the phrases begun in this manner carry us lightly through the time in which Mary is dealing with her “terrifying” thought.

Agee imparts beauty and lightness to many moments that would be considered heavy in subject from the scene in which Jay’s coffin leaves the house on its way to the cemetery to the moment when Rufus sees his father’s coffin for the first time: “Rufus had never known such stillness. Their little sounds, as they approached his father, vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water.”

As for the second sense of lightness, Agee uses the train of thought technique throughout his novel and with nearly all of his characters. There is an entire 28 page stream of consciousness section in the novel that reveals the thoughts of Rufus, modeled on Agee himself, and immediately follows the realization by Mary of the deep loss the family has suffered.  We have this heavy infusion of sorrow followed by the lightness of hearing how the boy tries to fit in with the neighborhood children. I believe that a train of thought narrative imparts lightness by forcing the reader to view the character with empathy rather than sympathy. It is a different feeling to view the world from another’s vantage point than it is to take on their burden.

Agee also takes us into Mary’s thinking process as she gets ready to attend her husband’s funeral. “I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it.” Agee begins this section drawing attention to the heaviness of sorrow. “She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race… She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the strength that human beings have, to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the might, grimness and tenderness of God.” Agee goes on with this train, beginning nearly every sentence with She thought, creating a soothing rhythm until Mary finds the courage to leave her bedroom and go to the funeral.

The blood of Medusa gives birth to the winged horse, Pegasus. Calvino writes, “the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite.” Agee creates at least two visual images of lightness that directly deal with his father’s death and both involve transformation. The first visual image is that of Jay’s ghost. While the family is discussing the recent news of Jay Follet’s fatal car accident, they begin to experience an unusual sensation. Mary thinks someone is in the house “… and whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness…” Mary claims that it is Jay and she begins speaking to him. She follows his ghost into her children’s bedroom, and “she could feel his presence as strongly throughout the room as if she had opened a furnace door.” Our presence is lightest when we have shed our physical bodies. Agee balances this thought of Jay as a spirit devoid of weight by following the ghostly experience with the discussion Andrew and Mary must have about the funeral arrangements. He writes, “Earth, stone, a coffin. The ugly craft of undertakers became real and tangible…”

The weight of the dead upon the living is carried through to the funeral scene, when the coffin must be put inside the funeral carriage. The movement continues when Agee creates a second visual image, that of a butterfly. Andrew tells Rufus:

Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow just like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the – coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe, like a heart…until it (the coffin) grated against the bottom like a – rowboat.  And just when it did the sun came out just dazzling bright and he flew up out of that – hole in the ground, straight up into the sky, so high I couldn’t see him any more.

The novel ends with this image of transformation forefront in the reader’s mind. Calvino points out in his lecture that Ovid shows lightness in his work by displaying the “continuity of the passage from one form to another” or that “everything can be transformed into something else.”

Is literature written only for the benefit of the reader or does a quest for lightness as a counterbalance to the unbearable weight of life drive an author to explore difficult autobiographical material in a certain way? And can we as writers, benefit from re-visiting our childhood traumas when we imbue them with lightness? Perseus indirectly gazes at his monster Medusa, conquers her yet keeps her with him; her blood births Pegasus and with his hoof, Pegasus creates the spring the Muses drink from. Calvino states, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.”

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The Unreliable Narrator’s Stuff

Objects in First-Person Fiction, oThe Unreliable Narrator’s Stuff

Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to My Socks” demonstrates not only that specific objects carry emotional weight in the physical world, but that their significance translates onto the page. When in I Remember, Joe Brainard writes, I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green, we know this thing, this moment in time. Even if the memory isn’t held by the reader, they can at least picture the object and, if the rendering is precise, know its size, its texture, its smell.

The placement of things is no less powerful when the world being written about is fictive. That character has an agenda: to tell their version of the story and to get you, the reader, on their side. They want to show you what they know about the world and that their story is like none other. I would argue that the reader (and therefore the writer) should consider every item mentioned as an active choice by that narrator, backed by either their subconscious or willful intent.

In first person, with a narrator whose credibility or lucidity is under question, the writer’s careful selection of objects can serve a number of purposes. Consider the fact that this narrator has not only chosen or noticed the objects, but probably shows them to the reader to elicit some specific response. They are part of that character’s testimony about himself.

In A.M. Homes’ The End of Alice, repetitive object placement offers instances of the concrete among the not-particularly-lucid memories of the adult criminal. The yellow truck, for which the narrator gives but the barest of visual cues, is a physical object that seems to be part of reality (in terms of this novel). It acts as a sort of paperweight against all of the flutter of the rest of the story. The fact of the recollection and reporting shapes our idea of the speaker: that he was once a child, an innocent. As were you.

Real-world objects, familiar and easy to picture, tamp down a piece that is based on fragmented recollection, lore or conjecture, as well as bolster the case made by a narrator in whom we are not inclined to place our trust. Here are my facts—but I am a liar! But here is this thing that you can imagine, you can know its heft or place it in your own pocket. What better an offer of proof than some piece of evidence that the reader can visualize, has seen in the physical world, may even own.

The items that those narrators notice are important, as is the reason that the character chose to show them to us. In George Saunders’ “Pastoralia,” the narrator’s day turns one way or another based on the appearance of a dead goat. Whether or not the goat is left in the narrator’s drop slot—the umbilicus between the theme park cave where he lives and the rest of the world—is the barometer for the his success at his job. While most, or hopefully all, readers have not had this experience, we have suffered dreaded supervisor reviews or emails from that crazy witch in H.R. We are able to put aside the fantasy of the cave situation and sympathize with the narrator on a psychological level. The goat is important to us because it is important to the narrator; on the third no-goat day we know that things can only go downhill and we are worried.

While Madame Bovary is told in third, the noticing, selecting, and reporting is close and specific enough that it warrants a look. Emma first tastes the life of the upper classes at the home of the Marquis d’Andervilliers. We don’t see what the other guests actually look like, but rather the things with which they have decorated themselves: …little gold-stoppered bottles twirled in half-opened hands whose white gloves showed the outlines of their nails and hugged their flesh at the wrist. These items inform what we know about both the party guests and Emma; their mention gives the writer much more mileage than would a description of the partygoers’ hair color or height and it tells us that Emma cares about and is in awe of this luxury.

The narrator in “Feathers” by Raymond Carver, while not necessarily unreliable, does give a rather fragmented representation of the critical evening, a dinner at a coworker’s home. The title urges the reader to pay attention to the peacock, which eventually is let into the house to peck at the couple’s unattractive baby, yet right there on the mantle rests a plaster cast of the host’s wife’s “before” teeth. The fact that the model is even in plain view, let alone displayed like a trophy or heirloom, is much weirder than having the a peacock visit the dinner table, and its presence opens the door for a glimpse of the wife’s backstory as well as implications of socio-economic status. Here again, a psychologically weighty object shows us more than an overblown scenic description.

In crafting a story, all objects should be thoughtfully chosen, curated even, and considered in light of their context. If the object is unsurprising—a jock having a letterman’s sweater or a nurse having white squishy uniform shoes—then its inclusion adds nothing. By pointing out the gold-stoppered bottles and the absent goat, the authors ask the reader to make a visual image, the payoff coming in terms of singularity. I would argue that the object would need at least one quality to set it apart, either an extremely precise description (the gloves so fine that the wearers’ nailbeds can be detected through the leather), a memory trigger (almost anything in I Remember) or being so out of place that its image is forever burned into the reader’s brain (crazy dental model).

In the first-person narration scenario, the writer must take into account that the character has singled the object out. If that narrator is unreliable, and here I include juveniles as well as the uninformed or outsiders, another layer of intrigue is added: how do we ‘take’ their assessment—Grain of salt? Gospel? A child stating that there was a solid gold goblet on the dining room table tells us no more than that they interpreted the scene as sumptuous. An appraiser reporting that the vessel is made of solid gold means a different thing all together.

If the item is the narrator’s own, then one must also consider whether that ownership is calculated. In Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, (Basic Books, 2009), Sam Gosling analyzes personal environments that are intentional and compares them to those that arise more organically. A writer can use similar strategies to think about how to present the duality of the unreliable first person narrator. Consider this bifurcated character in terms of how they want the recipient of the story to see them versus how they actually are. Even as “unreliable,” can be too strong a term, it is hard to imagine a first person narrator without a stance, since the telling itself is in effect the taking of a position. The fiction writer should not only form the lens the narrator/character uses to view the world and thus the way they tell the story, but also set up some facades that such a narrator would use. Where Gosling seeks to break through people’s presentations of themselves in order to find out who the subject really is, a writer uses this information to actually build up the layers of the character. To simplify: there is the character and there is the face that first person character shows to the world via selective narration.

In “Impression Management,” according to Gosling, a person actively highlights their positive attributes or hides their negative ones. This is an intentional manipulation where they are actively shaping the story, which is a hallmark of an unreliable narrator. This would be useful to consider when a narrator’s stance is damage control or they are in a defensive mode.

“Self-Deceptive Enhancement” describes a more benign form of character presentation: the characters/subjects portray themselves favorably as before, but here they actually believe in their own purity of purpose. One could think in these terms with a narcissistic, delusional, or juvenile narrator. While this narrator’s version cannot be assumed to be true, the reader will not automatically assign blame, thus creating a more sympathetic character than that described in the preceding paragraph.

Gosling examines how identities are created not only by how people present themselves, but by their physical world (their stuff)—and again, consider intent. Items that make a statement or show an allegiance could show a character’s true position or they could be an attempt to create an image. Once revealed by the character/narrator in dialog or by some instance in the character’s past, we can see the effort to create a gloss. This narrator becomes like funhouse paired mirrors: reflecting back and forth until everything about them is in question.

Gosling also posited the idea of “Behavioral Residue,” which refers to material conditions that show how people conduct themselves. An example he gives is the dinged-up bumper implying recklessness (or poor depth perception?) as more telling than a bumper sticker. The first instance shows evidence, whereas the second is wholly created, and is not at all proof that the car “will stop for yard sales” or that the driver has been to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz.

Gosling (quoting McAdams) says that identity is the story we tell ourselves in an effort to make sense of our past and who we are now. There is a huge difference between who the narrator thinks they are and who they actually are. Navigating the distance between the two has everything to do with the narrator’s purpose, what they chose to show and how they want their audience to think about them.

Against my will, my thoughts go towards Heidegger. In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” he addresses what he calls the “thingness” of things, a concept so jello-like that it required a new word. While not a terribly accessible essay, I can glean at least this: There is a sense we get, even from the mention of objects, causing connections between people and events and all manner of cultural clues. “The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves,” he says. I would argue, that while Heidegger talks about actual items (art objects, in particular) this notion extends to things positioned within stories. He writes about a quality that cannot be defined, but like the goat in the slot, the yellow truck held by the future pedophile, or those crazy teeth, we know the well-placed resonant object when we see it.

 

0Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer, visual artist and sometimes-teacher living in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. Her fiction has been, or will be, published by: Prick of the Spindle, Jabberwock, Blackheart’s ten-year anthology, Jet Fuel and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in: Eleven Eleven, The Provo Canyon Review, Heavyfeathers, the Tahoma Review, as well as the anthologies New Mexico Voices and Seeking Its Own Level.

She is a regular contributor for The Review Review and her book reviews and author interviews are scattered about the interwebs. She performs with the comedic spoken-word group, Lit-up Writers, in Taos, NM.

Linda was a New York State Summer Writer’s Institute Scholar in 2014 and in 2011 was the Resident Writer for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. She has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, was a Rose Metal Press chapbook contest finalist, received second place prizes in the Southwest Writers contest and the James Still Prize for Short Fiction, and a number of other close calls.

She holds a dual MFA from Bennington in Fiction and Nonfiction, and another, in Visual Arts from the California College of the Arts.