Tag Archives: truth in nonfiction

New old project

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Fall cleaning and (finally, again) rifling through piles of paper so I can some day love my office…I found evidence that my new project is actually quite old. Turns out I’ve been writing it for years.

It’s hard to articulate how comforting this is. Like finding out you are who you always thought & hoped you were. Soon I’ll have the luxury of going to a week-long workshop where I can dive into that mess.

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(SFA socks from my dear friend Sally)

 

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Tara Ison’s REELING THROUGH LIFE

 

reeling through life

When I write about books on my blog, I aim to write smart, insightful posts. I want to sound like someone with important things to say, to say them with wit and economy, to sound casual yet sophisticated. This desire often stops me from writing anything, defeating me before I’ve tried. (The better I know the book’s author, the more pervasive this pattern and my anxiety.) Operationally, it goes like this: Read a (great) book, smile and glow and lovingly put the book on a pile in my office that I will write about some day. Sometimes I do write about the book. Sometimes the book just sits there waiting until I clean my office, and because it seems too much time has passed and no one in the blogosphere really needs or wants my opinion, I put it back on the shelf, and recommend the book to anyone I think would like it.

This dance has become unwelcome and leaves me with stacks of books, shame, guilt. But my inner story (that I am a lazy Literary Citizen, etc.) is no longer serving me, so I’m letting it go. From now on, my intention is to just write something, anything, about the books I want to tell you about.

**

I want to tell you about Tara Ison’s book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned To Live, Love, And Die At The Movies.

I love this book.

I owned it for months before I read it. Though I was busy, I was also intimidated by the idea of not knowing all the films inside and out, and by how much I admire Tara and her work. Excuses, excuses! (Tara was among the fabulous core faculty at Antioch Los Angeles MFA program when I was there at school, and is an exquisite teacher and human. And since then, she’s become a friend.)

At night when I’m reading, it’s often in the last hour before sleep, and sometimes I’m so tired that I just fade out. I never faded out while reading this book. As I read it, I felt an urge not only to stay up too late, but also to eat the book—it was tasty and decadent and full of unexpected spice.

I know Tara, so I have the pleasure of hearing her voice as I read these essays. I’ve seen some of the films she mentions, not all, but for those I didn’t know, or didn’t quite recall, she gives context in graceful strokes. The experience of reading it was therefor not in the least disorienting. Nor did she overload on context. The balance was graceful and perfect.

Of the million gems between these covers, I marked a section on p. 107 (in “How To Be A Jew”): Tara’s writing about the film The Chosen (which I have not seen).:

“Next up for the boys, a movie house, for some Van Johnson musical confection; Danny is unimpressed, bored. But then the newsreel begins: The ‘Nazi Murder Mills,’ with documentary footage of American troops liberating the concentration camps. Here we go, I think, begin the parade of those brutal, brutal images I have seen so many times by now. Again, really? I do not want to watch them again, I do not want another fix—or want to trigger the need for another fix—but I find myself shaking, my heart quickening. And I realize what is moving me, here, is Danny’s reaction to them. It is his first time seeing these images, and his horror is newborn and unfiltered, uncynical, raw. There are tears in his eyes, his jaw is both tightened and slack, his face seems to lose its shape; he is disappearing into these images, the way I once did, and watching his pain both shames me and reawakens my own. This image of Danny, a fictional character in a fictional movie, does not detract from what’s real, or from what’s true; it brings me back to what is real and true, an essential part of who I am, as a human being and a Jew, and for that I am also grateful.

I will never forget.”

(This, this, is how fiction matters.)

So for anyone interested in how the cinematic image can inform, bend, and shape our lives, I recommend this book. But the book is not just about film. The generosity, the humanity on the page affirms life, makes me feel more human. Tara is willing to air her frailty. While she never seems to obscure a corner of her messy inside story, none of it feels gratuitous. Her acts of humanity in this work are evident and unvarnished. It’s deeply satisfying as a memoir and a study of (capital S) Story.

If you are interested in writing sentences, read this book, because Tara’s sentences will help you learn about writing tight, gorgeous sentences.

And on a larger level: how she weaves film with her life story is a model in hybrid models…the form she’s made feels so inventive. I haven’t read anything quite like this. To me, it seems that Tara has created in these pages a new form.

**

So there it is. I could have agonized and shaped this post more, but instead I’m going to go smile at Reeling Through Life, and then hold it in my hands for a few moments before I shelve it where I can find it when it’s time to reread. (And try not to eat it.)

(And I’m grateful, because I still have Tara Ison’s story collection, BALL, to look forward to!)

My essay at The Rumpus

 

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I made this.

My essay “Hot Thing” (about menopause) was published last Sunday on The Rumpus. (You can read it here.) In the literary community, The Rumpus is a big deal, and I’ve never had anything published there. And to any woman, writing an essay about something as personal as menopause is a big deal. (Theme emerges; to me, this whole event is a big deal.)

(I’m grateful to Zoe Zolbrod and Martha Bayne, editors at The Rumpus, who asked thoughtful questions and helped me fortify the essay and say what I meant to say. May all writers have the experience of working with such helpful editors along the way!)

It’s also a big deal because they chose to use my original art alongside the essay. I was glad to be asked what I wanted them to use. To answer, I thought about the essay, extracted themes and images.  Flames, visibility and invisibility,  beauty, mess…The day before I sent the final revision, the image of Venus rising appeared. When I should have been working on edits, I printed the Venus image. On tracing paper with a felt pen, I sketched her lines and contours, placed the paper over various backgrounds, finally settling on a painting of the moon which I made decades ago. And from a photograph of autumn leaves torn from a discarded Glen Helen calendar, I cut flames. Pieces arranged but not glued down, I took a photo and sent it. I felt self-conscious about presenting the art (because I’m an amateur) but blazed ahead anyway. That they chose to use this image validated what I tell my students: Trust your instinct.

So that’s part of the story of this essay.

Another part is that that publication of “Hot Thing” inspired a 2:30am craft essay about writing the essay, which I am now hatching. Not sure where it will end up, but I’m holding on to the tail of the kite.

Another—maybe most important—part is of the story is that I am claiming this new phase in my life. As I put words and images into the world, I am no longer practicing the art of invisibility.

Some thoughts on why I write personal essays

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Leftover candleholders from my wedding, and weeds.

Here’s a statement I wrote last week for a grant application. I’m new-ish to personal essay, so it feels weird to proclaim anything about it (because I keep learning what it is!) but this piece describes some of my process and reasons for writing personal essay, so I thought it was worth posting here. It’s slightly edited toward blogginess. Cheers!

***

My essays grow from lived experiences (transitions and grief), but I wait to write them until I find a way to transcend my life and connect to something larger, something that might resonate for readers. Writing stories about life can be very therapeutic, but must stretch beyond the writer’s singular experience and have meaning to others.

In my experience, the process of writing personal essay is murky and chaotic. Sometimes I use the metaphor of an onion, as layer after layer I peel away to reveal what I really mean, to move toward something that feels true. (Some layers are just rotten, bound for the compost heap.) From there, I discover a shape, rendering that central image or idea in the stuff of lyrical essay. As I craft each essay, draft after draft, I interrogate myself repeatedly about what is relevant. When a story involves others, I ask myself which parts are mine to tell. I am careful in what I include, and what I protect. Writing personal essay means navigating these boundaries. Writing from life demands constant vigilance and integrity, lest the exercise and the writing itself collapse into mere therapy, or worse, narcissism.

With these essays, I intend to connect to others. Beyond that, I am interested in language, how to refine until even the vowel sounds help the reader feel what I mean to impart. It is life affirming when a reader tells me that something I wrote moved them, and it is satisfying as a creator when someone compliments the way I tell a story. It is these twin aims (reaching others, and artful storytelling) that keep me writing personal essay.

Specifically, in “The Bit Jar,” I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this topic for the public, but I felt called to encourage others who might be going through trauma. When the opening scene presented itself, I realized it could be the right frame to approach the material.

Sometimes finding a tight container is the way in.

In a similar way, “Love Letter (an avalanche)” arose when I sat and listened to a poetry reading. First I thought, “I have to write my ex a letter.” As the event continued, I thought, “Maybe this is a blog post.” Then finally I thought, “Maybe this is an essay.” The work-in-progress (“Hot Thing”) emerged because I wanted to capture in prose what it felt like to have a hot flash. The first draft began as a list, and eventually I kept the list form, steeping the essay in rumination about the tension between the facts and how it felt to me.

How It Felt To Me

Tell me what you can see here.

What you can see here?

In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes:

“…perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont…maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.”

I’m writing a piece in which I wanted so badly to use these words, but I used another part of Didion’s essay, had to let go of this treasure for the sake of the whole fabric I’m making…but I love this passage. I love its cadence, I love the self-doubt and rumination. This progression from Fact toward How It Felt To Me is an important and rich one, and we dismiss it at our humanity’s peril. This has been on my mind a lot, sparked anew last night when I read David Ulin’s piece about redefining creative nonfiction, in which Ulin writes, “all art is a kind of hybrid, reality reconstructed, redefined.”

Yes.

We get up each morning. Unless we are nudists, we put on layers, veils, makeup, clothing to disguise or hide or redefine something about ourselves. “Reality” is manufactured somewhere inside each human brain. (I am not a brain scientist; I don’t remember which part, but I have read about this, and I think this is true.) Things happen, there are facts, and facts are arguably “real” or “true”, but it seems to me the realm of literature, or art, is built upon everything else. The murk. How It Felt To Me. Even when I’m writing fiction, How It Felt To Me matters much in the making. Even if I am creating a world and pretending it doesn’t actually exist, even if I am telling Lies, How It Felt To Me can’t help but steer the making. (I could lie to myself now and say it doesn’t, but lying takes too much breath, breath I could instead be using to write, breath I could be using to stay alive.)

The fun is grappling around in the mess of these parts.

The fun is shaping stuff from the parts.

A thing that won’t happen again (two essays published in two weeks!)

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Blue heron on Ellis Pond

All I can conjure to write is the cliche about raining and pouring, but I’ll spare you that. Another essay I wrote went live today on the Jaded Ibis Productions blog, Bleed. (You can read the essay here. And the essay at the Manifest-Station is here.) I’m so grateful to be able to share these fragilities with others. Sending my personal essays into the world is wholly new for me, and my baby legs are tottery. I’ve been inspired by the brave writing of people around me, including Rachel McKibbens, Taylor Mali, and Tara Hardy, the awesome poets I wrote about in the essay. Witnessing their courage, I awaken my own. My hope is that if I act brave, others will, too. And the world will become more whole.

Although many things distract me from knowing that it’s really this simple, lately I keep circling back to the core: For me, the whole point of doing this work (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, anything) is to connect with our shared humanity. That’s it. There are tools for this work (the craft) and plenty of folderol but really, it’s about finding and seeing the spark that lives in each of us.

(On Saturday night, I was with a group of others at Ellis Pond in Yellow Springs.  A blue heron stood on spindle legs in the water, undisturbed by our gathering. Calmly teaching us about how to live.)

Oh, you beautiful mess

IMG_0256To have written, to have made order from chaos: to have written about messy life stuff that defaced three pages of legal pad, scratched, abbreviated, rounding corners, lines written above below obscuring other lines, arrows pointing everywhere but straight forward. To have made some sense of that snarl, of that juice. To have expressed my self.

To say: today I am a writer.

Into her drawers and shadows (Joan Didion’s Blue Nights)

Haunted Didion

As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story.  As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them.  As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense.  The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity.  Because of her sentences.  And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions.  As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.”  The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost.  As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.

(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with.  The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.”  I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)

In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.

Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.

There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.

Joan Didion and her bits

Joan Didion and Quintana Roo

“Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs.  The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.  And so we do.  But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’  We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

–Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 136.

I just began reading Blue Nights.  The passage above from Didion’s much older essay has been with me as I approach a still-too-tender writing project.  It’s stuff I will write about some day, though more time must first elapse.  I need perspective, and this is too messy and raw.  Meanwhile I put bits into a jar (or notebook) to save, to turn over, to approach for the quilt when it’s time.

Meanwhile, merely typing Didion’s words (and reading her new memoir) is a comfort and a privilege.

Finding rabbits

Two Steiff woolen rabbits with photo of John Ott

As you five swell followers might know, I’ve been writing an essay about my childhood home that was burned down in a planned fire exercise when I was sixteen.  A rabbit figures in the story.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

After their pyrotechnic work was done, house gone, I returned to the remnants, stood on the ashes.  Near where the shed had been, I found one of my small wool Steiff rabbits, intact, unscathed.  A tiny symbol of the phantom limb of home–does keeping hold of stuff I had before the house disappeared stand in for a home?  When I hold that rabbit in my hand, I feel something stable and secure, but that’s too simple.

Then later in the essay:

Now I hold the Steiff rabbit that didn’t burn.  I imagine again walking across the charred land, finding the thing, the size of a cotton ball, where our garage had been.  How hadn’t I packed it?  How hadn’t it been torched?  I want to touch, smell, hear, see, consume the moment of finding that rabbit.

So telling truth, I pin that rabbit to a velvet board, and into a new ghost story I shove the cute animal, twist rabbits against type, make them sinister, keep writing.  Everything must be lit, and burn, then melt, transmogrify: everything must milk and then feed that famished ghost, memory.

At a fabulous Yellow Springs yard sale this morning, I found two Steiff rabbits, and bought the pair for a mere $7.  It was like my recurring dreams of finding pieces of my childhood Steiff collection at antique stores and having to buy them back, but in reverse: this morning they were not my rabbits, and I was awake.  Now they are on (the one clean corner of) my desk.

Just more evidence that things keep turning and turning, but won’t let us forget: carbon replaces itself, surprises us, and continues to haunt…