Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction

Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Continue reading on the Ploughshares blog

a mediocre horoscope

powells books e.v. de cleyre 2012

Reading productivity hacks thwarted any attempts at productivity. Instead of writing, I read about how to fit writing into a busy day. Instead of responding to e-mails, I read about how to effectively deal with what can seem like an endless onslaught of e-mails. I say “seem,” because the reality of my inbox is crickets. I check and double-check the spam folder, thinking that job offers, correspondence, and congratulations-your-essay-was-accepted notifications were accidentally sent to the trash.

I harbor an infatuation with the genre of self-help, the full scope of which might render you suspicious. I both naively and idealistically hope that to help the self is to help others. A long list of articles regarding productivity hacks brought me to my local library, this new thing, maybe you’ve heard of it, where I can borrow books I couldn’t otherwise afford. I find myself reading books I wouldn’t buy but feel would be good for me to read.

Self-help-slash-business books, for one. Volumes about discarding traditional means of employment and creating your own opportunities. Seeking a rough road map to financial security and creative freedom, I read a book that espouses the lack of any one road map, and thereby provides no guidance, only vague encouragement that is barely specific enough to feel relevant, like a mediocre horoscope. Seeking a way to work less and make more, I read a book by an individual who advocates for stepping out of the oppressive office culture for more meaningful projects, but unfortunately falls into the trap of utilizing oppressive language and principles.

Recently, I weeded my bookshelves, which I am inclined to do each time I return from a house-sitting gig. Confession: I buy too many books at once and hang on to them all with the intent to someday read. I’m trying to be more realistic, somewhat against my Piscean disposition. I’m trying to create space. I’m trying to be more generous, an attempt at magnanimity undermined by aspirations for meaningful connections.

A slim volume of poetry, purchased at a literary event this summer, lifted me from the spell of purging and I slipped into the spaces between each line. After a month or so of self-help books, I had forgotten what literature felt like: the heat of it, the heart palpitations, the immovability of a body whose usual state is near-constant fidgeting. There exists within me a deep longing to integrate the words I read with the life I lead, hoping that I will remember each line and forever imprint it on my memory, like one yearns to recall every crater in a lover’s iris. 

Making small talk at a poetry reading, dropping off a resume at a bookstore–somewhere someone asks me about my reading tastes, and I resist the urge to joke that I find Tolstoy easier to digest than expected, and Schulz a little chewy, and Krauss to be bittersweet and addicting. I once told someone I liked Salinger, and they seemed crestfallen, as if their opinion of me had been shattered by a negative association they had to a certain assigned reading from high school.

Edward Snowden recently described metadata as analogous to “a record of every book you’ve ever opened.”

What do my bookshelves belie? What does my library queue say about me? What kind of online dating profile would it write? Aspiring minimalist, addicted to self-help, who occasionally supplements soulful business books with dark and depressing nonfiction narratives seeks like-minded bibliophile to discuss essentialism, privilege, surveillance, travel, and relationships?

As if sensing this, I neglect to update my account when I change my name. I continue to borrow books as someone else, an odd and hopefully harmless form of fraud.

Writing the Mind: Nicole Krauss, W.G. Sebald, & Paul Harding

10 krauss sebald hardingHow does one apply the adage show don’t tell to the interior of the mind—a vast expanse one inhabits daily, but never sees? While Pixar’s Inside Out turns the subconscious into a playful and sometimes dark adventure, literature must rely on language—pacing, syntax, and form matching function.

In the early pages of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House, Nadia mentions to an unnamed character that when her significant other moved out, she was left with little. A friend suggests she call a Chilean man who was searching for a place to store his furniture while he traveled back to Chile. Krauss writes:

It took a minute for him to sort out who I was, a minute for the light to go on revealing me as a friend of a friend and not some loopy woman calling—about his furniture? she’d heard he wanted to get rid of it? or just give it out on loan?—a minute in which I considered apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on as I had been, with just a mattress, plastic utensils, and the one chair.

Rather than being told that Nadia is nervous, or having Nadia state, I was nervous, Krauss utilizes pacing and language to convey anxiety. Similarly, the word “loopy” mirrors the looping, spiraling structure of the sentence, and heightens the repetition of words and phrases, such as “a minute,” and “a friend of a friend.” The three questions embedded in the sentence, one after another, rapid-fire, suggest the firing of synapses in an uncomfortable exchange—when one’s mind and mouth are trying to sync up, make sense, or be understood. Not only are there three questions, but three mentions of “a minute,” conveying how quickly this all happened, but how long and drawn out the exchange seemed to feel. Likewise, Krauss pairs three verbs—apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on—and three nouns—mattress, plastic utensils, chair—to create a winding, well-rounded sentence.

The form matches the function; the structure of the sentence conveys the rushed and uneasy nature of the phone call, without explicitly stating what was said between them, or the tone of voice, or the external details or gestures that were made in those quick moments. We are wholly embedded in this character’s mind. We are intimately woven into their internal landscape, at once cerebral and emotional.

Continue reading on the Ploughshares blog:

the reluctant blogger

photobooth e.v. de cleyre 2014Within the past few years, I’ve (mostly) stopped blogging, choosing instead to re-post a review or essay I wrote for another venue. It’s not a lack of things to say, but the unsettling feeling that one might be inadequate, or unqualified for such expression. Social media sometimes feels like shouting into an empty canyon; I can never tell if anyone is listening.

In the final issue of Wag’s Revue, editor Sandra Allen interviews Saaed Jones about publishing on the internet. When Jones states that it “moves quickly and has a short memory,” Allen adds:

“And it has a long memory. There’s an odd duality. For example if in Wag’s Revue, we published something four years ago that now I would not have published, it’s still there. I’m not going to go back and delete it. It’s part of the record, part of the archive. I’ve been thinking about how both are true.”

There is a lot of shit on the internet. There are a few posts in this blog’s archives that I’ve thought about deleting, and there are a few I trashed. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to continue to contribute, piling more content atop more content, but I’m not fully convinced that the answer to such over-saturation is withhold, to be silent.

A private person who happens to write nonfiction, I do not want to publicly document my life as it unfolds, and somewhat arrogantly thought at one time that whatever I wrote was gold and deserved a larger platform. Maybe someday, after these experiences have been properly digested and sifted for glimmers of meaning, but for now they are pyrite.

That doesn’t mean I don’t try to document in the moment. Last week, as the bus driver went rogue and left the predetermined bus route, I grabbed my phone, typed a few words, and promptly deleted them, realizing that my attempts to share the experience were taking me out of the experience.

Despite my reservations and hesitations about blogging and social media, when I spoke to a writing class via Skype yesterday, I was overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of a blog. It’s a space for growth and exploration, allowing one to find and hone their voice. A space where you can ask and answer: what is it I want to say and how can I say it? For me, the only way to find answers to those questions is to keep writing.

Nowadays, in the throes of revising a book, submitting to literary magazines and journals, and inundated with rejection, a blog is less a place for me to find my voice and more of a space where I can actually hit publish. It’s a place for letting go, both of the work itself, and the myth that it has to be perfect.

On Context & Omission: Alain de Botton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John McPhee, and Claudia Rankine

Craft talks regarding omission lean heavily on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, what John McPhee recently called, “or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés.” Aside from the obvious trimming of superfluous language or gratuitous scenes, it could be argued that omission, in one extreme, is the antithesis of context. Nonfiction writers debate the ethics, merits, and necessity of omission—in order to construct a concise narrative, omission is needed, but does the removal of certain elements make a story less true? Is context even necessary? What happens when whole passages or chunks of backstory are removed, in fiction and nonfiction?

Read the rest of the post on the Ploughshares blog

A Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays

The only seat left on the bus was half-occupied by a guy who was man-spreading. One thin thigh spilled over two seats, and I squeezed myself onto the last bit of real estate, cursing him.

He said, “Watch out” and pointed to his elbow, where the skin was scraped to expose red road rash. He sat stiff, uncomfortable, trying not to touch me or the seat.

I mumbled, “No worries,” and opened the book I brought for the evening commute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make; to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”

Read the rest of the review over at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction.

Writing the Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson, & Lidia Yuknavitch

bookpanorama900pxThe age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.

Read the rest of this essay on Ploughshares

Review: Ander Monson’s ‘Letter to a Future Lover’


The sun seared skin, turned limbs pink, and I underlined: “This is what we hope for, to lose ourselves in stream and look up some hours later and note that the world has moved: the cat’s crept closer, following the sun.”

Except that today it was so hot, the neighbor’s cat crept closer to my shadow to escape the sun, while I hadn’t crept at all—a testament to the spell of a good book.

Read the rest of this review on Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction

Inclusivity & Authorship: Second-Person Pronouns

8 Hamid Rankine Nelson

Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender. Read more about how Mohsin Hamid, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson utilize second person-pronouns: Ploughshares online.

Why Bother with Craft?

1280px-Browne,_Henriette_-_A_Girl_Writing;_The_Pet_Goldfinch_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhy Bother with Craft?
“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.

Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story. Read more on the Ploughshares blog