Mar 082015

Ellena SavagePhoto via

Here’s a teaser from an essay on, yes, the personal essay by a delightful Australian writer and editor Ellena Savage, an essay that takes a critical theory view of the position of the personal essay as it is structured within the culture, a step back, as it were, from the usual shallow debates about “truth” and self expression, etc. that cloud the current N. American workshoppy atmosphere. The essay originally appeared in the magazine The Lifted Brow and now resides on Savage’s own site where you will find many other delightful texts.

We acknowledge the personal essay as an ideologically conflicted genre; that as genre, it necessarily deals in the ideograms of dominant culture; and that the genre, born of Enlightenment conditions, is interested in the maintenance of democracy and the valorisation of the individual. The personal essay is an attempt to transpose personal histories over collective ones.

This conflict we speak of arises from the historically instructive nature of the personal essay; that while valorising the individual, is culturally embedded in what Frederic Jameson names the linguistic representation of the dialectical process. It is a catalogue of a collective identity. To understand the personal essay, we are forced to read it within its cultural history.

via The Architecture of Me: Ideology and the Personal Essay | Ellena Savage.

Jun 132014

with grand daughter coraSydney Lea with Cora, his granddaughter

Let’s not mince words. Sydney Lea is a masterful, passionate, eloquent writer, just getting better with age. He can do about anything he wants with a sentence, corral any emotion, evoke mystery, rail, weep, mourn, confess, ponder, berate, and rejoice. He works in image and memory with an audacity that is breathtaking, all the more so because it seems both effortless and utterly in  control. His essays read like long complex sentences, surging forward, splitting and converging and splitting and converging, incomplete until the last period after the last word, when, as Yeats is supposed to have said, they snap shut with the click of a well-made box. I won’t say more. The middle essay will break you heart.



The Serpent on Barnet Knoll

The young retriever noses a frozen snake across the rain-glazed snow. The creature should long since have wriggled deep into mulch in some granite fissure, so that when it died, it would do so down there, in secret. That it didn’t seems odd.

But my mind’s still odder, having followed its own inward paths from that coiled corpse to a moment this morning before I set out: at the mirror, greasing lips against the cold, I inspected myself. The age-lines, the puckering mouth, the thin gray hair—all still surprised me. I also studied a wen, the permanent swelling that puffs my left eyebrow into a small horn. It’s the frozen snake that has reminded me of that passing moment, though how it did so I can’t explain.

Out here, I encounter the morning’s savage gusts. The spruce-tops thrash and complain. When there’s a lull, I hear the ceaseless and meaningless scolding of red squirrels, the grating of ravens.

One day, in my third grade year to be precise, I knocked off Joe Morey’s hat on the playground, taunting him for a sissy, even though he and I were friends for the most part. Nearly weeping with frustration, he reached down for the hat at the same time I did. Our heads clapped together, my brow swelling slightly but, as it turned out, forever. I’d meant to be cruel that day, I was, and I got my long-lasting due.

In life, the snake was a mere, harmless garter. Today it’s something else, and makes me quit my hike for a while. I stand and wait, but nothing comes to change me. Why would I dream it would, no matter my unvoiced, uncertainly directed, all but unconscious pleading?

It’s almost Christmas, a holy time for many. Through decades of northern winters, I’ve never seen a snake at large in December. But however I strive to discover something significant in the event, nothing reveals itself except what I’ve long known about snakes—mere facts, devoid of meaning, versions of reality that seem only somehow to discredit me.

Was this the creature’s first cold season? Who knows? A snake doesn’t count or reason. But I do; I know there are just so many moments in anybody’s life. Why do I stand here statue-still and fritter a single one away? And yet what else should I be thinking about?

I have wife, children, grandchildren, along with a host of lesser earthly attachments. I clench them tight to my heart, but there come times when a sort of unattached self prevails. Left at large too, I know, that other self might contemplate violence or crime. Also, of course, it doesn’t. I daily, dutifully, and gladly return to a bourgeois life. Am I not therefore absolved? But what in me requires absolution anyhow? I simply feel this unsettledness, ungovernable, random, opaque.

One day my head struck a temporary enemy’s head, but even before that, surely, something had slithered into my soul. It would linger lifelong, making subsequent, unwelcome forays up to the cool surface, whenever, however it might.



Whoever you may be, stop reading now if too much sentiment, no matter how genuine, makes you uneasy or angry or whatever else. If you do hear me out, however, I hope you’re not the sort who’d say that my good wife throws like a girl, as my Little League baseball coach once claimed I did, the moron. I threw just fine until my arm got robbed by age. That happened some time back, to be sure.

You don’t have to remind me I might have known worse losses.

Whoever you are, go stand beside my wife, at exactly sixty feet, six inches from some target, and then by God we’ll see how many times she can take a ball or even a stone and hurl it, and how often she’ll hit the can, the post, the tree– and then we’ll see how often you do. Good luck, sucker.

No, wait a minute. There’s little reason to start all this in anger at you, whom I probably don’t even know. I won’t pretend I’m not angry, but why lash out at a stranger? It’s doubtless only despondency that makes me talk this way.

I’ve now and then pictured my wife playing catch with the one boy in her five-sibling family, the one who fought cancer for twelve years and died this past December. I loved him, which is no doubt a crucial factor in my behavior here, my rhetoric.

I’ve seen photographs of those two kids, gloves on left hands, half-smiling, squinting under a summer sun, decades and decades ago. They were a good-looking pair in those days, and both were handsome into late adulthood, no matter most of his hair had been robbed by the vile, stinking chemo, and some of his teeth.

My wife recalls how, in the warm months, when they got home from school, the two would head right out to their yard to toss the baseball around and chat away the afternoon. For me, that’s the very picture of innocence and affection, and if you, anonymous you, consider it the stuff of Norman Rockwell or Hallmark, just haul your sorry self off.

There I go. Forgive me. I’m just uncertain which emotion is which here. For all I can really say, you were innocent too, and still may be, or at least known as a decent, caring person, and it’s not after all as if I have some corner on innocence myself. Sometimes I reckon I’ve never been any better than I have to be.

For one thing, I probably should have been paying closer attention to my wife’s brother—and to my wife as well, come to think about it. Not that it does anyone a bit of good when I beat myself over the head for my omissions. That doesn’t change a thing. If it could, I’d keep at it forever, as in some respects I suppose I have.

On those long-gone afternoons, my wife learned to throw like a man. Instead of moping and cursing, I wish I were man enough to report all this and not break down. But do I really? Do I want to be manly by that definition—furious, fearless, unwilling to take any quarter or give any? There are better things to wish for. I know that these days.

My brother-in-law and I used to go down and watch our Red Sox play at Fenway Park. After a while we had daughters and sons, and we’d take them along. Home runs, triples, double plays: we roared approval at these and more; but we all, child and grownup alike, especially loved those bullet throws that Dwight Evans delivered to cut runs off at the plate.

Too soon, it seems, our lives just seemed to get too busy for Fenway. Then the god-awful cancer showed up. Starting in my brother-in-law’s colon, it got to traveling elsewhere afterwards, and the whole time I only sat here and typed words, as I’m doing even now, weeping. Meanwhile my poor wife is sick with sadness, and I wouldn’t blame her if, thinking back to those old summers, she picked up something and threw it dead-center between God’s eyes.


The Couple at the Free Pile

Autumn’s church bazaar is over, all the stalwart, weathered tents of the vendors struck except the one over the White Elephant table. Early this Sunday morning, such tatty wares as went unsold still sprawl on the plastic tablecloth or on the ground, but the sign up front reads FREE.

No car approaching or following, I brake to a crawl so I can observe a man and woman making their deliberate ways through the jumble. I naturally notice that their goods are gathered in the rusted bed of the wheelbarrow my wife and I donated to the event, which nods on its fat, limp tire like a weary draft animal.

For me to stop completely might be to embarrass this couple, who covet what we congregants had considered encumbrances. And yet, however it shames me, my curiosity—like desperate thirst, or lust—also impels me. I’ll drive on, circle the village common, and pass back this way again from the other direction. After all, the two scavengers seem devoted to their scrutinies; I doubt they’ll notice my second inspection.

I turn by a picket fence enclosing a big house’s tidy lawn at the south end of the common. The owners held a well-attended garden tour there last June. Then I swing right again, north, going by the famous corner elm, which residents agreed at town meeting to save, approving a line item that funded the tree surgeons’ services.

During the festival, I visited the White Elephant booth myself. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and you never know. As I predicted, however, nothing appealed. Among other bits of uselessness, say, I found a basketball so worn it had lost all traces of its original, pebbled orange; three recumbent, saucer-eyed ceramic deer; a few chipped plates, inscribed Disneyland, 1974 and showing portraits of Mickey, Goofy, Donald; raveled rugs; tarnished lampshades and sconces. So on.

Passing the elementary school, I make a right again, and, before the turn that will take me to another view, I stop at the intersection, just opposite the village store. My wife and I will be having lunch there in an hour or so. Its deli is the best-stocked one for miles, the staff all cheerful.

As I drive, even more slowly than before, past the White Elephant display, I see a car seat in a Bondo’d pickup’s cab. It holds a child, and he or she—it’s hard to tell through the windows’ grime—must have been sleeping a few minutes ago, but now I can just make out a mouth, gaped in a yowl I can’t hear, even if I can imagine it. Surely one of the parents, or both, will step out of the tent to tend the toddler. For now, though, they stand motionless, one on either side of the wheelbarrow, eyes on me. Their stares are furious.

—Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.


Apr 102014

author photo 2013

The moral overhang of plants, in the present case a disregarded bonsai, is the notional subject of this deft, intricate essay (with photographs) by Shawna Lemay, an essay that is also an anthology of quotations (about plants, art and people) and gnomic phrasing, an essay that almost seems to unwrite itself as it is written. “…we understand each other illegibly.” “In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them.”



The bonsai, now. Purchased years ago from the hardware store. A wish, a pretension, a desire for peacefulness, with an envious thought to the serious practitioners, precipitated its purchase.

Relegated to the basement when it sensed I was not living up to its requirements for emptiness, calm, and a true tenderness. It became too lush and I could not be severe in bringing it back to balance. Years later, it re-emerges. Parts of it have died, irretrievable. Unbalanced but splendid and we understand each other illegibly.

At the stage where she was dreaming, conjuring, The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “A lamp and a flower pot in the center. The flower can always be changing.” There would be, “…a perpetual crumbling and renewing of the plant. In its leaves she might see things happen. But who is she?”


Quickly followed by the wish she remain unnamed. The leaves would most certainly see things happen.

I forge a plan which I quickly abandon, to ask women I know about the plants they have on their windowsills, kitchen tables, desks. I imagine receiving answers about geraniums being overwintered, about African violets, and about bouquets of grocery store tulips and about long stemmed, candy coloured daisies, and roses that deliberately open. Once, someone told me about the aloe vera plant she has on her desk  which has vast properties of healing and with which she conducts séances and hearing this made me too delicate.

We breathe the plant in and the plant receives our exhalations and our chakras align accordingly.

Of course, with Clarice, I’ve been thinking about the sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists for a very long time.

As Cixous said, we have all lived one or two flowers. We have felt the light of them, the light they attract and which goes right through them, and also the heaviness, the gravity, and we have known, perhaps, as the painter Francis Bacon called it, the violence, of roses. Not just the thorns, but the colours changing and bleeding and seeping out of those generous, soft, petals. The way our souls might rise up and speak to flowers, met by flowers, their breathing, the faint breath of them. The pain of finding we can’t quite sip, can’t quite internalize the answers, to the question of scent.


I imagine the pots and vases of flowers on a table near a window in time lapse photography, one that encompasses several years. The first day emerges deliberately. It begins in a veil of morning light, I place a vase of garden roses on the weathered table. The pink-orange petals are so various, each one a slightly different combination of pink fluttering into orange. They have opened under the sun, been changed by breezes gentle and ardent and arduous. Insects have nibbled and continued on their way. And now the light becomes more diffuse, evens out, brightens, declines again, and then moonlight comes in and bathes the roses, they soften and at the same time become more radiant, full. The leaves droop a little, curl, the water clouds, the edges of the petals wither, turn a greyish brown, and the pinks become less vibrant, and the orange deepens, lessens. They begin to look tattered in the repetition of this cycle, more graceful, more noble. At one point a hand comes into the frame, and shoves the vase from the center of the table to the edge, to the far end.

In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them. We learn opening, opening. And then empty, drunk, we succumb to their heavenly sadness. It is the sadness of flowers that reminds us to keep the secret.

The table is empty for several days. The time lapse speeds up. A geranium arrives in a terracotta pot. The stems are thick and gnarled. The plant has lived and lives on in the slips that have been taken. It grows, leaning toward the light through the day, a slow dance. And then the cuttings are removed, and it must grow more leaves, and it does, small sprouts emerge. At which point someone takes it to make room for a gift, a vase of flowers. A ghostly image enters the frame and leaves, which reminds one of security camera footage.

An arrangement, a gift. A florist’s concoction. Tulips, roses, hydrangeas, snapdragons, bits of greenery in a  rigorously balanced and visually interesting triangle. Light pink, fresh green, and lavender. For days they stay as placed, rather too perfect. But then the tulips begin to droop through the course of a single day and are nearly done in.

The time lapse slows and then speeds up, and this feels alarming, how the flowers move as though in a deep conversation, the intensity of their gestures, leanings, listings, to and fro, petals drop in what could be happiness one moment, anger the next, then resignation.

Those which have perished are removed, and the bouquet is awkward, strange. A hand removes the bouquet, the arrangement returns in another form, the remaining flowers cut down and placed in a water glass. They last a day or two more. And at this point, the light in the room becomes grainy, and I can’t help but think about the clouds which must be responsible for this effect.


It goes on like this. Long periods where the space is empty. Shadows of people pass over the table. A bird flies by and casts a low and fleeting shadow. Snow falls so the window resembles a 20th century television screen at three a.m. The window is opened and the curtains blow into the frame, ever so gently. Punctuated by moments of flowering. Flowers changing. And changing.

It goes on like this. The fragrance. The colours. The fading. The beauty of decline, the simplicity. All of the attendant moods arrive and pass in waves, swelling and subsiding, at dawn, at dusk.

While I’m imagining the flowers on a table I’m also thinking about 17th century Dutch flower paintings. The way that artists would make and collect studies of  flowers so that they could paint them into lush floral bouquets that couldn’t really exist as the specimens wouldn’t naturally bloom at the same time. Sometimes an artist would share a particular study they’d made, so that another artist would have the exact same rendering of a flower in their own floral painting.

I also remember the painting by Remedios Varos called Still Life Reviving, which is the last thing she painted before her unexpected death. At the center of a small round table with a tablecloth draped on it is a lit candle. Swirling around and hovering above the table are plates, and above them various fruits which at times collide and explode, all of this witnessed by dragonflies. Seeds drop from the colliding fruits, and plants are being born from them before they hit the ground.

I remember the way things appear to lose their magic, and later regain it.

Paper whites in winter. An amaryllis bulb, forced. Spring plum blossoms. Forsythia. Peonies. Roses. Tiger lilies.

The flower is always changing which is dizzying. Which is why, still life.

—Shawna Lemay

Shawna Lemay is a writer, blogger, editor, photographer, and library assistant. She is the creator and co-editor of the website, Canadian Poetries. She has written five books of poetry, All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, Blue Feast and Red Velvet Forest, a book of essays, Calm Things, and a work of experimental fiction, Hive: A Forgery. A book of poems and poem-essays, titled Asking, is forthcoming in April of 2014. Her daily blog is Calm Things.  She resides in Edmonton, Canada, with her partner, Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter, Chloe.

Mar 312014

Julie Jacobson

Julie Jacobson is an Athabaskan native from the Copper River Basin in Alaska now living on a ranch in Colorado, one of those people who live stories. All she has to do is peek out the window or remember an old auntie and the words come spilling out of her, assured and exhilarating. She’s my student at Vermont College of Fine Arts this semester; her packet cover letters read like great essays, they read like this—


March 8

I am writing this in my ranch truck, watching a cow try to have a calf.  It must be a big boned thing, because her mother has been up and down four times and can’t get the position right to push.  Sometimes they have to stand up, walk a bit, then try again.  The front legs have to come first and I’ve seen the silver bag around two hooves a couple times now.  She just needs to get “comfortable”.

Hopefully my husband, Brent, will be home today (he is in Denver with his mom, who is in the hospital again) and I can get off calving watch (which means checking every four hours in good weather – I’ve had 6 beautiful black babies since Tuesday night) and back to the kitchen table to finish.  Today I moved 92 head and pulled two circles of electric fence with my 12 year old.  He is good company and getting to be quite a hand.  The farmers we lease from are pissed that we are not off their ground yet, so I’m under the gun to get it all done yesterday.

So, the cow finally had her calf.  On her own.  Which is good, because I’m always a little nervous about being a doctor out in the mud with anxious mothers all around me.  My son’s iPod battery is dead so we will make one last pass through the mothers-to-be and head home.

March 31

I’m doing well, just writing today.  It is windy as hell here.  The terrible howling, sky darkening, dirt blowing kind that closes roads and schools.  I can see the dust come in the tiny gaps in the doors and windows and settle uniformly on my kitchen table and laptop.  I don’t know why anyone ever thought this would be good country to live in.  Miserable for livestock, too.  When we drove through the cows this morning, we noticed that their eyes are all clotted up and pressed shut against the shit dust forced on them in swirls around the windbreaks and bare trees.

I have a new baby calf in my bathtub,  born last night and feeble like he isn’t sure if he wants to live yet or not.  His mother died, so we are going to try to graft him on to another cow when the wind settles this afternoon.  We lost twins night before last and that mother (K.A. #74 Orange tag) is heartbroken.  We have been trying to graft a crooked faced calf off of a thin poor milking cow (K.A. #802 yellow tag) to her, but I’m not sure if she wants to be a mother bad enough yet.  I’m writing about the grafting experience.  Maybe I’m simple, but it is really something.  It reminds me so much of experiences I’ve heard of and had with humans – in a stripped down sort of way.

It is time to check cows again.  The wind has slowed down and we are going to skin one of the dead calves and put the “coat” on the crooked faced calf, milk the foster mother out, bottle feed the calf and then pour the rest of the milk on him and his new coat to help trick the cow into taking him.  Wish me luck.

—J. M. Jacobson

Mar 032014


Kay Henry was also a student in that (now famous) cnf workshop during the winter Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (see my introduction to Melissa Matthewson’s essay yesterday) in January. Both Kay and Melissa responded to the writing prompt: think of lists as a device, as a structure, and read Leonard Michaels’s story “In the Fifties” as a prompt. My co-leader, Patrick Madden, and I were both interested in nudging students away from narrative and into a focus on form. As Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian Formalist, said, art is a device; literary writing is content filtered through a set of structures. Proto-writers tend to have one structure firmly and somewhat unconsciously (to them it appears intuitive) fixed in their minds. It’s fun and enlightening to try a different form; sometimes the effect is like a lightning bolt.

Kay Henry’s essay, “In Dubai,” hews, in tone and sentence structure, to the Michaels’ model. She throws in a nice list in the third sentence (suddenly we’re in the land of detail piled upon detail). She eschews narrative connectors and simply presents a series of quick mini-stories. The stories are about people, the surprise and warmth of contact. In a brief space, she describes the human relationships that give the lie to the stereotypes and the racist assumptions that litter public debate.



In Dubai we belonged to the 85%. Only 15% of the population was Emirati. The rest came from South Asia, mostly; also the Philippines, and a few from other Gulf countries, Europe, and Australia. Not many were Americans. The high-end malls were peopled by shoppers in saris, kurtas, robes, jeans, full burkas, business suits, tank tops, sundresses, shorts, sweatsuits, and, at the indoor ski slope, parkas. Once on the beach near the sail-like Burj al Arab hotel, I walked by a woman in a full black abaya, complete with face veil, standing in conversation with a blond woman in a string bikini. The blond was smiling. The veiled woman pointed to something in the water. The blond shaded her eyes to look and nodded her head.

My husband Nas speaks fluent Arabic, but most people on the street and in shops did not. More spoke Hindi than English. Still, we figured out how to rent a house, set up utilities and phone service, and pick up mail at the Post Office.

Zayed University gave us a furniture allowance. We frequented sales in the homes of departing expats and bought heavy armoires and a chest of drawers carved with camels and painted gold. We felt like newlyweds.

At first my students all looked alike in their nearly-identical black robes. I tried to identify them by handbags and jewelry, but they all had several handbags and a lot of jewelry. After six months, I knew them all, and could recognize even the veiled ones, even across the courtyard.

I bought liquor at a government shop behind a blank storefront, browsing the dark aisles with my cart and, at the register, presenting my state-issued liquor permit to the Filipina check-out girl.  I was allowed 40 litres a month.

I walked the dog in the early morning as the muezzins sounded the first calls to prayer. Workers in white kurtas rode their bicycles to the mosques, gliding by soundlessly, half asleep. Sometimes thick fog covered the desert.

One student invited me to a family wedding. The women and men celebrated in separate rooms, and the band was on a stage in the middle, hidden by curtains so the performers couldn’t see the women. The women took off their abayas and danced in their jeweled dresses. A young woman in a tight beaded gown, hair in an up-do and make-up thick and precise, came toward me and kissed me three times on my right cheek. I didn’t know her. Then I did: it was my student, dressed for a party, not for school.

The founder of the country, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, died during Ramadan. His citizens mourned, truly mourned. The government shut down for three weeks. Not many months later, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, died in Australia of a heart attack. Once again, the people were in deep mourning. “This is new to us,” an Australian colleague told a local woman in our office. “We hate our leaders.” George W. Bush was in his second term as President.

We got time off for all the Muslim holidays: the Prophet’s birthday, the Prophet’s ascension, National Day, the Eid holiday following Ramadan, and 8 weeks off in the summer. At Christmas, hotels erected lavish trees and choirs sang carols from the balconies.  We worked on Christmas Day.

Nas negotiated with purveyors in the gold souk, noting the posted market price per gram, weighing his possible purchases on the jeweler’s scale, and rarely paying more than 5% above the cost of the metal no matter how ornate the workmanship. Sometimes this required repeated visits. He bought me earrings and necklaces and a new wedding band early in our stay, before the price of gold rose nearly 20-fold, so high that even the wealthy locals were complaining. We became friends with a jeweler in the Sharjah souk, 11 miles away. Altaf would load his briefcase with gold and diamonds and come to Dubai once a week to inspect his workshop, walking through the crowded lanes of the old city as if he carried a sack of cabbages instead of a fortune in jewels.  The streets were safe then.

We hired a maid and a gardener. We didn’t need either, and we didn’t pay them very much. Our maid, Mala, taught me to cook fiery Sri Lankan dahl into which she would crumble handfuls of dried chilis.  Our gardener spread a vile-smelling paste on the ground between the bougainvillea plants. “Municipality fertilizer,” he said. Raw sewage, I thought.

I fell in love for a while with a date farmer whose fringed dark eyes regarded me frankly from beneath his keffiyeh. I found milkweed on his farm and he told me the butterflies liked it. The milkweed made me homesick and I fell in love with the man who understood why. We never touched, not even when he brought me a parting gift of dates.

On the day my husband and I left Dubai I took a book about dogs to the 12-year-old Emirati boy who lived down the street. He was afraid of dogs until he met ours. I handed the book to the family’s maid, the same one who fed the boy platefuls of fat white macaroni in the late afternoon. Often when I walked by, he would put down his plate and come to pet the dog, careful to extend his hand first as I had taught him.

We arrived in New York and drove in a rented van across the country to Missouri. The second night, while passing through Ohio, we saw a camel silhouetted against the setting sun. We really did, both of us. For weeks after our return, the headlines warned of Dubai Ports World and their bid to take over the management of six U.S. shipping hubs, previously run by the British. Debate raged over whether our national security would be compromised. The Emirates had become an enemy. People said to me, “You got home just in time” and “Wasn’t it awful being a woman over there?” And especially, “You must be so happy to be back where it’s safe.” On television, members of Congress detailed the horrors of what would happen if “the Arabs” took over our ports. In my living room, friends admired my gold jewelry, but asked no questions about my students.

—Kay Henry


Kay Henry studied French and English literature in college and then embarked on a long, left-brained career in executive education.  She recently retired as Associate Dean at Washington University’s Olin Business School.  Her profession enabled her to travel widely, and she has lived and worked in France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.  Kay and her husband Nas divide their time between Missouri and Spain. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Mar 022014

Photo on 2-19-14 at 1.35 PM
During the last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Patrick Madden and I co-led a creative nonfiction workshop. Besides the usual group discussion of a student manuscripts, we found time to do some teaching as well, focusing on trying to nudge the class away from the general student obsession with narrative, with just getting the true story down. We tried to get them to think about something else while they were writing, things like technique, genre, and tradition. In the first (of six) workshops, we talked briefly about the use of lists in composition (lists in sentences, lists in paragraphs, and list as structural devices). Then we directed the class to read Leonard Michaels’s short story “In the Fifties,” an autobiographical story (might as well have been called an essay), plotless, apparently, a list of events and characters he met. Then we invited the students to write an imitation, or at least use the idea of a list and the Michaels story as a springboard for launching themselves into their own material.

After a week, in the last workshop, the students read out their  essays, cobbled together in a few days interrupted by workshops, lectures, readings and revelery. The results were spectacular, beyond expectation (it was an unusual class to begin with). Two seemed eminently publishable. Today I am publishing the first (the second, Kay Henry’s “In  Dubai,” is here), “Ten Ways to Leave” by Melissa Matthewson, a lovely, poignant evocation of a relationship in the leaving of it, charmingly written, rich with detail (in so brief a piece), startling  and profound in its emotional honesty. And, of course, you can barely see the influence. Such is the nature of influence; good writers take an influence and make it their very own thing.



She could go out the back door and down through the yard marked about in roses with hips and the overgrown grass, the juniper slope, the limestone soil and past the jungle gym where the children play out their dreams of kings and queens and kingdoms ruled with swords, fire, dragons, and sometimes happy endings.


She hears a story one afternoon and can’t forget the image of a woman walking the highway at night, alone, having left her husband standing in the parking lot of a store where he has chosen smoke instead of love and so she thinks she could leave with that same kind of drama: treading the turnpike while he watches her from a convenient store window, the road spread out before him like a long strung out piece of thread that will unravel the more you fuss with it, the more you tear at it with your fingers.


She could go while he is sleeping, but she thinks that would be unfair and doesn’t he deserve just a little bit of reason? If she did leave that way, she could sit on the bed first, the children sleeping in the other room, and watch his chest swell to the night, put her hand on his mouth, see every part of him move in dreams or nightmares, something she’s never done, never even been curious about, which makes her wonder. So maybe when the ice thaws, she’ll sneak from the bed tiptoeing through the house to the door and exit into a landscape of disquiet, apprehensive of the choice to go, but surely confident in the fantasy she holds in her mind.


She left him once for Montana, driving up the north highway and over the mountains into the snow and that was it for awhile. She lived alone in a new place and she thought this was life chosen well, but she missed him remembering when they drank beer on porches while watching cars and bicycles and stars heavy with sky. From there, she went on talking to her sheets at night, grabbing the pillow for his absence.


Maybe they could go for a hike, climb to the top of a mountain and look out from there, the way they did with their children once, the spread of all that grass and rock and peak, the wildflowers just then a new thing. They ate lunch: cheese, chocolate, salami, crackers. On top of that mountain, the wind picked up and it blew their children’s hair and they pointed their fingers to their house in its blue painted wood, just over the three ridges to the west where they could barely make out its slant and hold in the distance. They picked ticks from their hair because they lay in the grass laughing at the sky and it was spring remember. Yes, she thinks they could go for a hike and she could leave him there with the children on the mountain. She could remember him cutting cheese into slices on his knee listening for any movement in the manzanita.


Or maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe they should just be straight about it—sit on the couch together over coffee, or more likely, a drink: bourbon, ginger, bitters, a little lemon, the kind she always makes for him in a small glass with ice. She might sit with him and look out the window and over all that they’ve done together, everything they’ve created, and still know it is all lost to the past anyway. Maybe she would cry. Maybe he would too. Or maybe there would be no tears. Maybe they would have used up everything they had in the build-up to that moment, so that at that point, the fatigue of a relationship overcomes them and they are quiet in their chairs in that room when the shadows take over the floors and the walls and all that is heard is the empty burden of what is absolute then: the love having gone a long time ago slipped from them when they weren’t paying attention.


She could remember how they never did take a honeymoon. She could remember how they watched a sunset over the water in Baja one time when they thought they knew love. She could go like a butterfly. Or the coyote they saw in a field, trotting in from a distance and surely the postman would stop in his wagon if he came along. They watched from the car, the animal poised in dangerous pursuit of its prey, all of it in the last flicker of day until the coyote ran up into the frustrated hills without dinner, without anything to take his hunger away.


Or she could remember how they left Homer’s tomb one morning in Greece, the Aegean spread out behind them like a blue map made up of what they couldn’t know. She could remember how they brushed their teeth on his grave. She could remember how they spit. She could remember how they held hands. She guesses that staying is a probability because of just these memories, that story, those moments. She considers their weighted history over and over again and really, she thinks the complicated details of leaving are the only things that keep her there still. It’s the mechanics, she’ll say.


She thinks then about the train she once took through France, through Switzerland, through Spain. She rode the early rail and left him in Brussels, though she lingered in the entry to the hostel before she left, sat down on the couch, pulled him to her, let his head fall into her lap, their cheeks flushed from pints of beer. He walked her to the station through a storm and when he left, she sat on the depot floor wishing for coffee and one last night next to him in bed naked and in love. She can’t recall that feeling now. She can’t conjure it in this tired, cold place of leaving.


She could leave by writing the departure. Maybe that’s the best way. Like here. There could be any number of scenes: stomping out of the restaurant throwing her napkin on the floor; sneaking out through the window too late when another man waits in an idling car; running away as if in pursuit chased by children or thieves or…; in the car early in the morning with just the sprinklers and newspaper man; or a surprise retreat when he returns from an errand, the house packed up, or just her things packed up, the door slightly ajar, her coat waiting on the couch, hands fumbling with the zipper of her sweater or her earrings and she thinks perhaps this is the most obvious choice, the most conventional and unoriginal of all departures, the one and only way she can retreat and leave behind the safest thing she’s ever had, this story that was never supposed to end in this way, at this point, in this now.

—Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in TerrainUnder the Gum Tree, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Hothouse, and Camas, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Feb 152014

Abby Frucht

Today a lovely, dense jewel of an essay by Abby Frucht, old friend, colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, wise teacher, mistress of the sentence, as in, my goodness LOOK at these sentences, how they surge forward in phrases, surging and then curling back, twisting and slyly turning the tables, subverting expectation, surprising the reader (maybe the writer, too — it must be fun to write like this; Abby makes the sentence itself a journey, adventure, story). I love the little touches: the little girl who ENJOYS staying behind, weeping at the curb, pretending to be friendless, sisterless and alone, and I ENJOY IT EVEN MORE that the people who drive by know that she enjoys pretending to be friendless and alone. Funny and dense with detail: the sister who is now a judge who forgets to use the gavel, the inserted story of the clubfoot woman whose family was massacred on a boat while she slept, and, of course, at the centre, the abominable snowman that the judge-sister still claims to have seen all those years before.

How does Abby invent these things? She wrote me:

“Abominable” is one of a cycle of essays in progress arising from an assortment of notes such as:

That in the past a stack of books would be a burden because it clamored to be read.
Both sons in cage with tiger.
Swans –  Pneumonia.
Plashing. In courtyard.  Thing re depth and surface.  Wine has both.


On Harriet Lane, when the younger sister and the older sister were four and five, they often trudged past the margins of the modest neighborhood to reach the potato fields in search of stink bugs, box turtles, and the abominable snowman that liked to hide behind the scrappy trees bordering the fields amid worthless allotments of broken fencing, where blackbirds lived. The sisters and the other kids all carried jelly jars with holes drilled into the lids by the sisters’ dad, since the other dads wouldn’t, and though the brown, hinged stink bugs were marvelous to own, because they stank so bad when you opened the jar and stuck your nose in it and screamed and ran away from it but always came back for another sniff, the best part of the hunt was to sink to your knees and sift through the heavier globules of dirt, the soft manure marbles to be rolled to and fro then crushed between your fingers. The younger sister never saw the abominable snowman, since instead of trekking out to the potato fields with the other kids that day, she stayed behind to sit on the curbside and cry, pretending to be a lonely girl who had no friends, not even a sister, which was her favorite thing to do before she learned how to read. Her skinny legs in their ankle socks sticking straight into the road, she enjoyed glancing up from the smear of her crying to watch the cars swing so close as to ruffle her hair, the mothers on their way home from grocery shopping and the milk truck driver and the mail truck driver and sometimes a father or somebody’s babysitter all seeing her crying there on the curbside but just driving by, since they knew it was something she liked to do. But soon the other kids rushed back, their freckles squared by enthusiasm, the unidentifiable pigment of her sister’s eyes, green or brown, no one could say, incandescent with fear and satisfaction. We saw it we saw the abominable snowman it saw us it tried to catch us it chased us it wanted to eat us, they yelled, not including the one other girl who had stayed behind that day, not because she chose to but because her mother, who was ahead of her time, knew in some future lobe of her brain that there would come a day when mothers forbade their children trekking past the safety of the neighborhood into the reek of the muddy fields. The other girl wasn’t even permitted to touch a turtle. She was allowed only to gape at one from no less than three feet away, by which time the legs and the eyes and the funny, grinning beak might not poke into view again. When the girl who liked to sit on the curbside and cry grew up, she met a young woman who had about her the same, authentic, pitiable loneliness as the girl who was forbidden to touch a turtle. This young woman had a terrible history. Everyone knew it. Plus there was nothing appealing about her, since even in her youthful twenties she wasn’t pretty, and she had a genuine clubfoot, this in the middle of the 1980s, for which she walked with a cane and lopsided shoes. When she was a girl, her parents were murdered on the family boat, a pleasure boat or else a boat with some other reason for being in the middle of the sea that night. The girl lay asleep in the outermost v of the V-berth under damp woolen blankets. Another child, a sibling, slept on the moldering bench that went with the foldout dinner table, but the sibling too was tied up and thrown overboard to drown, leaving only the girl with the clubfoot, who as a young woman seemed determined to tell this story to everyone she met, lest the details of her tragedy neglect to crop up by themselves or via the insinuations of other guests at the dinner party, who already knew them all anyway. The story was like the lopsided shoes, since telling it meant she was at least still standing, if unevenly, and though her eyes too were crooked, one bigger or maybe just sadder than the other, she at least had a long distance boyfriend, which made sense since no one ever met him, and then one day she went there and never came back. When the girl who liked to sit on the curbside and cry before she learned how to read turned fifty six, she phoned the older sister to ask if it was true she had seen the abominable snowman or had she only been toying with the younger sister, like playing her as if she were a xylophone by banging the wooden mallet on the crown of her head or hiding her dirty socks in the babysitter’s pocketbook.

“No, I really did see it,” the older sister replied.  She’s a District Court Judge now.  She needs to be custom-fitted for robes but she never bangs the gavel, she always forgets.  “It was huge with yellow fur. The other kids saw it too, we all did except you.  Why are you asking?  Writing a story?”

“Essay,” she answered, and sat a moment on the couch, her legs sticking straight in front of her.  Her legs resemble the dad’s, too skinny, with embarrassing socks.  Before being named judge by the governor of New Mexico, the older sister had considered retiring as a family attorney after twenty-six years in order to help look after her grandchildren, a prospect that had made the younger sister, the one who liked to sit crying and still cries all the time, like in the shower or while riding her bike to the YMCA or at her writing desk or reading novels in bed or fetching orange juice from the kitchen, feel not so bad about weeping, sobbing, crying, wailing, etc. and being gloomy, weary, melancholy, abject, dejected, dispirited, disconsolate, bleak, doleful, disheartened, downhearted and sad. But the older sister’s new judgeship — her robes, her bailiff (a handsome Iraqi war veteran), her fundraising activities, her advocacy of Restorative Justice as a tool in the maintenance of healthy children, her support by a bi-partisan judicial nominating commission moved by her courtroom’s attentiveness to the needs of children, her speeches to unions concerning heroin use among children, her meetings with attorneys general about the law as it pertains to the wellbeing of children, her write-ups in newspapers, her delight in getting up each morning to join her assistant in reviewing the docket in the spacious office suite with the artworks, the expansive but somehow womanly desk, her high heeled pumps, her continued blondeness – makes the sister on the couch feel all the more feckless, pointless, trifling, hollow,  ineffectual, vapid, and good-for-nothing, her dented clogs mocking her unworldliness, the only impact she has on other living creatures being on the family dogs, who steal the breads she bakes from off the counter before her eyes and race away to eat them. To be sure, sometimes she cries over things that matter, like for the man calling out from his tomb beneath the rubble of the factory in Bangladesh and the girl with the clubfoot and whole slaughtered families of African elephants and kids with no supper and the parents of that high school valedictorian who vanished off the hiking trail in Ecuador, but what good does it do?  Not to mention that on other days she cries for no reason.  And though she fears she should find this a monstrous, yellow thing, one that might swallow her up and consume her, she’s okay with her boyfriend only rarely stopping by to put a hand on the curve of her back and offer, “Hon, what’s wrong, Hon?” or, “Hon, pull yourself together, Hon, you’re not two years old, Hon,” after which she dries her tears and starts typing again in the normal way and looking up synonyms. Another thing she asks her sister is: Do you remember the bullet? That bullet a kid chased us with?  It wasn’t a bullet, it was made of glass, it had a filament in it, it was probably only a light bulb but we screamed and ran away from him until one of the dads, not ours because he never hit things, smacked him?

“No,” says the judge.

Just no, as if a simple affirmation of the negative might be all that is needed to solve the problem.

—Abby Frucht

Abby Frucht’s latest book is her collection of stories, The Bell at the End of a Rope, published in 2012 by Narrative Library.
Feb 012014

Julie JacobsonAuthor Photo: Brent Jacobson

Every once in a while, as a teacher, you’re blessed with a student who touches your heart, a student with intelligence, an earnest desire to learn, a story to tell, some panache and a dash of courage. Julie Jacobson is one such. An Ahtna Athabaskan native from the village of Tazlina in the Copper River Basin of Alaska, now living on a ranch in Colorado with her family, Julie Jacobson has a great story: growing up in a culture with one foot in a traditional past and another, somewhat shakily, in the modern present. She wanted to write about her self and her people and preserve what was vanishing. But last fall our semester together took a twist, as you will soon see, and a second great subject intruded, not one you would ever look for. What Julie does in this essay, stripped down and simple, a list-essay in form and inspiration, is deliver the experience — the terror, the waiting, the struggle for certainty, the people who helped and the people who didn’t, the utterly human moment when cancer upends life and nothing is ever ordinary again — you can’t ask for more.



In April, I noticed swelling in my right groin.  It was off and on painful and puffy in comparison to my left side. I had insurance and no reason not to check it out. I went to the doctor in the nearby college town of Durango. To save me having to pay my deductible, the general practitioner at the private practice I visited recommended and referred me to the Northern Navajo Medical Center for a CT scan to check for appendicitis. I sat in the NNMC emergency room for two hours. After the scan and evaluation, I was given over-the counter-drugs and told it could be appendicitis, but the pain and swelling weren’t severe enough to point to surgery yet. Later that week, the pain subsided and the swelling went down. I didn’t worry about it.

I went in for my annual exam in August. After reviewing my mammogram, an MRI and a needle biopsy, my gynecologist said she thought I had might have a wide-spread case of ductal carcinoma that could indicate the need for a bilateral mastectomy. I had 27 stars of calcium in my breasts. When I looked over her shoulder, she pointed out what looked like bright little white spots peppered in the grey fibrous web of two dimensional tissue on the screen. “You certainly have a lot going on in here,” she said, tapping the screen – “they are stars.”  Stars? I asked, thinking of gravity and falling and white hot plasma and constellations – with life all their own. “It isn’t definitive yet, so let’s just watch it.” With the attention on breast tissue changes, my right groin lump slipped out of focus, shrugged off as a hernia and not appendicitis. I couldn’t remember straining or hurting myself, but the doctor said – so it was a hernia. My lump stayed, undisturbed and untested, and I was more careful about what I lifted until I could schedule surgery between middle school football games, ranching duties, grad school assignments, and household responsibilities.

I thought, breast cancer? Maybe, but the doctors aren’t sure. This part of a diagnosis process is called watch and wait. I stared at the ceiling at night while everyone slept. The words, “Let’s look again in three months” and “What if?” ran through my head and kept me from sleep.

I thought of the worst, planned my way into and out of the doom and gloom. I planned for a beautiful halter tattoo to replace my bra. I even sketched it out and thought about how I would be free from sports bras forever. I thought I would ride my horses more often.

I didn’t tell my husband or my sons.


In September, the right groin lump swelled again and became painful and I made plans to have a pre-surgical evaluation when the month slowed down. I went on a river trip down the Colorado River with 17 other women writers, thinking I might have breast cancer, and wanting to really live and experience and write.

On the second to last day of a week-long trip, I jumped from the raft at Horsethief Canyon and rode alone and unguarded through class II rapids in my life vest, fully clothed and holding onto my sunglasses and a cinched-down sun hat. Cold muddy water washed over my head and I swallowed the earth in that minute under water. When I emerged on the other side of the rapids feet and head up, I watched black boulders rush by on the right and left of me, thinking, I’ve really lived now. When the other women pulled me into the boat and congratulated me for the solo ride, with a wide grin I said, “I’d do it again.  Nothing can take this away from me.”

I dared myself to be scared, to be brave, and to be crazy.

I cried in front of strangers and made friends.

When the trip was over, I took my time going home on the nine-hour drive from Moab, Utah.  I didn’t listen to music or a book. I just drove in silence and thought about my family and how we would get through this breast cancer threat.


That week, heavy rains doused the Rockies and some Colorado rivers washed away whole towns and I drove past them and thought, I might have breast cancer. People lost everything they owned. I thought, I could have breast cancer. People had raw sewage in their front yards and couldn’t drink their well water. I thought, the doctor said I had ductal carcinoma.

The same week, Katie — one of my best friends, had a beautiful and healthy baby boy. She had a perfect life on the outside, but I knew she had struggled growing up with family money and heady expectations. Katie struggled to have the perfect career, and the perfect marriage, and she had waited to get pregnant until the timing was perfect. Perfect or not, she keeps her misery to herself. Katie is the kindest and most generous woman I know. She deserves to be happy. I didn’t want to dampen her celebration.  I didn’t visit her (though I’d planned to before my doctor’s revelation) — knowing that I would not be able to keep my secret from her.

At home, after my rafting trip, I woke up every morning, raised my arms and imagined that I felt the tiny stars of calcium and cancer. I wrote about them by nightlight while my family slept.

I looked up everything written in every medical website I could find in the English-speaking world about cancer treatments. I made a Pinterest board with my cryptic notes typed under articles or medical contacts.

I wrote a list about things I wanted to make sure I told my children about.

I found a blue sharpie and put twenty-seven dots on my breasts. I scrubbed the dots off in the shower the next day.

Somehow another week passed.


The weekend before I told my family, I watched my tough and tender twelve and a half-year old son play in a middle school football game and wondered if it would be the last time he would be carefree.

I woke at 3:30 in the morning and wrote a list about what I was afraid of.


October arrived.  I vowed to get healthier than I’d ever been, but the same week after I ordered a spinning bike, the lump in my right groin swelled and throbbed again.  Now it was the size of a big fat lima bean.  I let it sit for two weeks, palpating it every day before I got out of bed, integrating my ad hoc lump assessments into my daily breast exam routine.  My immediate grad school writing assignments completed, I thought I should get the hernia operated on, so I went to my local general practice physician.  He talked about Obamacare and told me that foreigners were taking over our country.  He said, “People like us,” and “White people are a minority now,” and “People on entitlement programs should be drug tested.” I listened patiently while he gloved up.  I told him the lump had gotten bigger and my gynecologist said that the hernia could get hard and become troublesome.  He had me lay back and asked how long it had been there. He felt the margins, and got a cold steel measuring device from the counter. “2.5 x 2 centimeters. That is not a hernia,” he announced and then in still in his purple nitrile gloves he tapped the counter, writing illegible notes with a ball point pen. He quietly said I needed an MRI or a CT scan with contrast but the hardness of the mass was not a good sign. I didn’t comprehend what he said until later. I was still irritated over his political rant so I told the good doctor I was Native American and he got even quieter.


When I went to the hospital to schedule my imaging appointment, the Hispanic woman at the appointment desk said I couldn’t be seen without first telling her my race and ethnicity. I balked and told her that was illegal as I handed her my private insurance card and a check for my co-pay.  She said she had to have my answers or the system wouldn’t let me progress through to schedule my screening. I left without an appointment. I called it in to her after debating how important my rights were versus getting my test.

A week later, I had the first CT scan with contrast at 9:00 AM on my 45th birthday.

I made small talk with Eric, the traveling x-ray technician from Tennessee. He was six foot eight inches tall, nappy haired, kind, and reminded me of a big teddy bear. When it came time for him to insert the needle for the IV, he said, “I’ve never done this before, but people say I’m pretty good at it.” Laying on the CT table as he thumped my vein for the IV, my left hand was very near his crotch and I said, “We are not going to hurt each other — are we?” It didn’t hurt, but I didn’t have an epidural when my children were born either. Eric injected the contrast dye into my IV prepped arm for the CT scan. When the rushing warm sensation of the dye ran through my veins I thought I wet myself. We both laughed.

Once I was unhooked and dismissed, Eric extended his massive hand and gently squeezed mine, telling me to think positive. Eric stayed to clean up the room when I told the other imaging technicians that I paid $2,200 for the test and I wanted to see the results. They looked at each other, said they couldn’t show me. I’d have to wait for the report and my doctor could show me the images then. I stood with my hand on my hip in the doorway and wore my best cranky mother look and one of them cleared his throat and then pulled them up on the 64 slice CT computer screen. I saw a glowing rainbow of colors with a blue aura around the lump in my groin.  Everything else was grey.

A woman I didn’t know hugged me in the bathroom.

I stopped at the hospital lab and had blood drawn for a complete blood count and some other tubes for tests I don’t remember the names of.

I left my favorite scarf in the waiting room.

I lost my dog-eared Harry Middleton book somewhere.

I sobbed in the arms of strangers in the hallway.

I drove myself home and wrote a letter to my youngest son about the day he was born.


One day ran into the next. I did everyday things on auto pilot. I rescheduled everything that required thought or enthusiasm.

Five days after my imaging appointment, and probably my last shower, I answered the door bra-less in a worn black concert tee-shirt and snoopy fuzzy pajama bottoms. While pushing my dogs out of the way of the door, I realized I had two different kinds of house shoes on. At the time, I didn’t care. The familiar UPS man brought an Amazon package up the stairs and eyed me cautiously, like I might pull a bloody kitchen knife out of my sagging elastic waistband. He handed the package over careful not to touch my hand and pushed off the steps – springing quickly to his truck saying, “Say Hi to Brent.”

I cleaned myself up.

My husband and I went to the grocery store that evening and my doctor called right as I put my pickup in park.  I answered my cell phone and with a kiss I waved my husband off to field the call by myself. My doctor told me that the radiologist had confirmed his suspicions and he thought that I had some form of lymphoma. He asked if I knew someone I wanted to see for it, I said no, and he said he would send an order for the surgery and biopsy.

My husband returned with my list checked off and bags with organic coconut milk, orange juice, apples and cereal poking through the plastic. I told him what the doctor said while we put groceries in the back seat. He cried and I didn’t. I told him that I would be fine. Lymphoma is 89% survivable and I’m tough and too mean to die this young. He wasn’t even mad that I hadn’t told him earlier. His mother has stage four lung cancer. It has been an awful year watching her fight for her life.


I couldn’t sleep with the words “unusual”, “abnormal”, “mass” and finally, “cancerous” swimming through my subconscious.  I read Winter in the Blood  by nightlight, and listened to The Alchemist on mp3 at the same time. When I finished those, I read poetry by William Pitt Root and listened to The Round House.


A week after my CT scan, I got shingles. Bumpy red skin stretched over my torso and my shingles ached and burned at the same time. I thought I might die during the night when they broke open, but then I realized that dying from shingles would be weak and embarrassing.

I hated fucking happy people.

I resented people who have time to paint their fingernails or get their eye makeup perfect or talk about split ends.

I still had to water and feed calves, horses, bulls, cats, and dogs on our ranch. Cows looked at me with sad eyes. I’m sure they knew. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I decided that my hair was beautiful grey. I didn’t think I looked like someone with cancer. Maybe a little too plump. I don’t look sick. I thought I should get cleaned up and make a boudoir photo appointment so I could prove to myself that I looked alluring at one point in my life.

I asked myself, do I need a will?  What is a living will?

I heard an NPR personality say, “Don’t talk about your health. Nobody cares. Don’t talk about how you slept. Nobody cares.”

I thought:  what if eating sugar is feeding my cancer? Everything is sugar. I don’t want to change what I eat. I hate tofu.  The cancer survivor books say, No animal proteins and No sugar. I think I’d rather die. Why me? How do people get through this? Why are there so many books about breast cancer and so little about how to get medical professionals to care? How come I can’t find a patient navigator that doesn’t work for some insurance company or some treatment center? Does my breath smell bad? I don’t want to rot. Why do I still have to do everything as if I were healthy and normal? Why can’t I just fold up shop and drink? Don’t I have a license for that? I can’t. Why am I still taking Immune Option supplements? Should I take more? How about more orange juice? Wait. I can’t have sugar. Is orange juice sugar? What about un-sweetened apple juice? What about carrot juice? One website says to cut out all sugars and adopt a vegan diet. Another says to cut all carbohydrates. What the hell am I supposed to eat?


I waited impatiently for the next step of surgery and biopsy. I checked my phone no less than ten times an hour. I know. I counted for eight hours. For seven days.

I ordered two hundred dollars’ worth of scented bath soap from QVC.

I read five books on surviving cancer.

I thought, I don’t want to explain this to one more person.

I think I liked it better before everyone knew. My mother-in-law asked if I wanted to explain it to her daughter, my sister-in-law. I said, “No, I don’t.  I don’t even talk to her so why would I want to explain my health situation to her. I don’t give a god damn about what she cares about. She can light a thousand fucking candles and pray to the Greek God of Life or Buddha or Jesus Christ, and I won’t know or care about it. Tell her not to waste her time. There is no god. There is no one looking down on us to guide us and help us make good decisions, let alone protect us.” She cried. I went on. “If I were a Christian, I would be really pissed off right now. Furious. That’s what I’d be. How can there be a god who knows what I’m going through and yet, with the powers he/they supposedly have, still allow suffering?” I said this to a lovely bald woman with stage four lung cancer.

After I ranted, I thought, I am an asshole. What is wrong with me? I have nothing but rogue cells, which can be fought with many kinds of treatment. I have nothing really. Look at how people suffer around the world. I have nothing to gripe about. I don’t have leprosy. I don’t have a rapidly growing flesh-eating bacteria. I’m not living in fear of being raped by multiple strangers on a bus in India. I don’t have to put on a flack vest to be able to go to the mailbox. I don’t have to decide which child gets food today. I don’t live on the streets. I don’t have anything to gripe about. Really. I just have a lump.


What caused the lump? I investigated. I created Pinterest boards to organize my findings. According to, there are a few things that are known to cause lymphoma. One is radiation and exposure to benzene. Shit. I’ve taken a lot of x-rays in a dental office. I don’t know about benzene exposure. The second is using hair dye before the 80’s. Did I dye my hair before the 80’s? No. In the 90’s. Yes. Another thing that predisposes a person for lymphoma is living in an agricultural area that has a high use of pesticides and herbicides?  Have I done that? Yes, since 2008.

I thought: I hate farmers. I want to bazooka fertilizer tanks. I could put camo on and drive around blowing up fertilizer trucks. I could take a stand. Blow up some spray airplanes. Sure, I’d go to jail, but it would draw attention to what they have done to the earth and me. Maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it is just a combination of black jelly beans and sugared orange slices. Maybe it is too much green or lemongrass tea. Maybe it is from that time I accidentally gave myself a shot of black leg vaccine in my finger? Or how about when I dripped Ivomec, the liquid cattle dewormer, on myself while processing cows. Maybe it is just a rogue cell that moved locations because I stood in one position too long?

I watched the same movies over and over again because I couldn’t remember the ending or the beginning or the middle.

I wrote a list about Native stories that are not written down yet.

I cried in the lap of my very sick mother-in-law and said I was sorry.

I stopped eating all dairy. I bought tofu bacon. I juiced 35 pounds of carrots.

I bought $205 dollars in supplements from the health food store.

I tried acupuncture for the first time. I sat in an infrared sauna. I tried to meditate.

I cried on the massage table when my masseuse friend just touched my arm.

I got tired of waiting for calls and phoned my doctor’s office in the morning, at noon and again before they closed in for that Thursday evening to ask about the schedule for my surgery. When I was told that the doctor was waiting on the radiologist’s recommendations — I lost it.  I lectured the nurse on the phone about how it wasn’t fair that I had to track this down a week later, and that if I was the doctor’s sister, I would have a scheduled date for surgery already.  She listened patiently, but she didn’t help me get a call back.

I called the hospital, got transferred twice until I was sent to hold by the imaging department.  Five minutes later, when a female technician picked up my call, I calmly asked for the name of the radiologist who had read my CT scan. She gave it to me. I asked for the back line number for his office. She said she couldn’t give that out. I said, “I know you have people you care about, right? So do I. I have two teenage boys, and a husband who depend on me. I have been waiting for a week after this guy to sign a paper after he said he thinks I have cancer.” She gave me the number.

I left many messages on doctor’s voice mails.

I took a Tylenol PM and went to sleep at 7PM. I slept without dreaming.

The next morning, a Friday, after my family left for school and work, I took a shower and beat on the wall with my fists, screaming a primal noise until my throat was raw. In my mind, it sounded like “I just want somebody to care!”

“I just need somebody to care” became my mantra. I said it to the dogs. I said it to my horse when I lay on his broad back, my face buried in his mane while he munched alfalfa. I screamed it from my pickup’s open windows as I drove too fast down dirt roads.

I sat in front of a blank computer screen and typed angry words that made no sense when I read them back. I backspaced and tried again. Coherent thoughts slipped through me before I could catch them with my fingertips on the keyboard. Inspirational words like Neil Gaiman’s “Make good art,” and Mahatma Gandhi’s “The best way to find yourself is in the service of others,” were written on sticky notes pasted on my desk calendar, but nothing came to me except lists of things I would miss if I died, or what I wanted to be sure to tell my sons, or things I still wanted accomplish, or places I wanted to travel to.

At 3:30 on that Friday afternoon — I couldn’t wait another minute. I dialed 411 and asked for a phone number for Doctor Heartless. It was an office message machine. I sat at my computer, got online, and looked up his Facebook account, health grades reviews, and finally, People Search. I typed in what I knew about the man and for $39.95, I got his phone number, tax records, email, address, what his house is worth, household family members, his genealogy, and what cars are registered in his name. I called the unlisted Doctor Heartless home phone number. When his wife answered the phone I said that I was sorry I had called her home number, but I couldn’t reach Doctor Heartless at his office.  In a calm and controlled voice I said, “I just need somebody to care.” His wife was patient and kind and let me continue. I told her “I am somebody’s wife. I am somebody’s mother. I am somebody’s sister.  Your husband wrote on report – on a piece of paper that he thought I had cancer, over a week ago.  He said I should have further testing, but he has yet to sign off on the order that I need to schedule that next step. I’m sorry to bother you, but I just need somebody to care enough to help me.” I felt like I was going to cry, but didn’t.  Mrs. Doctor Heartless got on her cell phone and I heard her call her husband’s office and tell the receptionist that as soon as Doctor Heartless was out of the surgical procedure he was currently in, he was to call her.  Mrs. Doctor Heartless said she was sorry and that she cared. Half an hour later, the receptionist called me and said that Doctor Heartless had signed my paperwork and the hospital would call me to schedule the procedure. Ten minutes after that, the surgical scheduling desk at Saint Anthony’s Hospital called to set up an appointment for the following Tuesday.

I curled around my big Border collie dog on the couch, wetting his fur with my tears.


I made dinner. I cleaned house. I picked my son up from school. I took pictures of sunsets and sunrises. I stroked purring barn cats on the porch. I went to the bank. I shopped for groceries. I went to the post office. I helped my son with a social studies project on Idaho. I lay in bed, sleeplessly counting the word “I” in terrible essays I’d written in the last ten days.


I went to bed.  I got up. I drank coffee and repeated necessities until it was finally Tuesday.  I drove myself to the hospital. I made my husband take our son to the Nature and Science Museum instead of hanging out in the surgical waiting room. I answered a hundred questions about insurance, my health history, and my knowledge of the process.  I sat alone cross-legged in a back-tie open gown in a freezing pre-op room while waiting for the doctor — reading Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. 

I watched the ultrasound monitor when the needle would not pierce my lump.  I saw my lifeblood pumping below it rhythmically in my femoral artery.  I saw the concerned faces of doctors and six technicians or nurses in the room.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I tried to make small talk about the weather change coming.  When the needle and pressure from the clipping biopsy instrument hurt me, I stayed still. And because I was drunk on IV sedation, I told the room full of medical professionals I was tough – that I had ridden bulls and bareback horses, and that I’d repelled out of helicopters, and that I had fought for Native American children’s rights with congressmen in Washington, D.C., that I had my children without anesthesia.  Then I let silent tears run down my cheeks and into my hair.

Back in the freezing room, floating above my body, I heard the interventionist radiologist tell me that he couldn’t draw a sample by needle so he had to cut snips out of the mass and as a consequence, it may be up to three days before the results came back from the pathologist and were reported to my local physician.  I heard him say he didn’t know if it was benign or malignant and that removing the node may be the only way to know for certain.

When my husband picked me up, I left the hospital still feeling two glasses of wine woozy. We went to Katie’s house in Denver and I held her baby. She cried about my situation. I told her I would be fine, because I’m too stubborn and mean to die young. We laughed. I slept on the two and a half hour drive home.


The day after my biopsy, I joined my family and rode my horse to gather cattle for fall vaccinations and pregnancy checking.

For the next few days, I didn’t talk to anyone on the phone.  My voice mail was full, and my husband fielded all calls from family and friends.

The morning of the third day after the biopsy, I called my local office and they still had not received the results.  I called the medical records office at the hospital to check to see if the results were in my file.  The woman said she could not look in my file without a request faxed in from my provider.  I called my local physician’s office back, and gave her the fax number the woman had supplied me.  Four hours later, the local physician’s office received the report.  Two hours after that, I called my local physician’s office, again.  I said to the good and patient receptionist, “I can’t go all weekend with this information just sitting on somebody’s desk.  I just need somebody to care.”  She said she couldn’t let me know what it said, but she would leave a note for the doctor to call me, but warned that his call may not come until the next day.  I told her to write me in his book for the earliest appointment, and that I would not wait for a call from him again.


I wrote a list of my favorite things and then wrote another list of the stupid things I’d done in my life and one more about all the things I was thankful for. Then I slept, nestled up next to my husband’s back from 2-6 AM.


When I went to the local provider’s office the next day, I had to wait two hours after my appointment time to be seen because of an emergency. I waited patiently. If it were me or my family in the E.R.  I’d want him to prioritize and be there.

When the general practitioner came in, he looked sheepish. He showed me all of the yellow message sticky notes in my chart from my numerous phone calls as he threw them in the trash.  I told him, “You know, I know you are not married and don’t have children, and I know you have devoted your life to your profession, but you should have some sympathy for people you care for.  It is crazy to tell someone you think they have cancer and then make them wait needlessly for the next step or a call back.  That is unprofessional and just plain mean.” He looked at my file intently, appearing to ignore my comments. He said, “I’m surprised. The report says that the biopsy sample was not malignant. The mass has endometrial cells relocated in the sentinel nodes of your right groin lymphatic system.  You still will need more tests to find out if there are more masses growing elsewhere.  You will probably need radiation to shrink it, and possibly surgery to remove the lump so they can check for cancer, maybe a hysterectomy and maybe hormone therapy and chemo if those cells are found elsewhere.  They could cause a stroke if they are in your brain or lungs or other organs and break free or create a blockage, so you cannot let this wait. I’d see a gynecologist, if I were you.” What he said after that bounced off of me like a hard rain, like what I had said to him. I stopped at the reception desk and waited for a copy of the report while I wrote a check for my co-pay.


That night, my family and I went out to eat with friends and for the first time since the ordeal began, I told the whole story. I didn’t feel like drinking, since I was still off of sugar and thinking about being as healthy as I could be. My husband held my hand all night and on the way home.

At two in the morning, I couldn’t sleep so I got up. By nightlight, I wrote a list of people I should say thank you to and another detailing ways I could promote patient self-advocacy.


Thirty one days after my initial and incorrect cancer diagnosis, I started radiation therapy to fight off migrating rogue endometrial cells. I took my first dose with grit teeth and a grateful smile on my face.

—J. M. Jacobson

J. M. Jacobson is studying creative nonfiction in the MFA writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Alaska Native from the Ahtna Athabaskan Indian village of Tazlina (Tez-len-Na). Officially a “Lower 48er” since 2005, she and her family raise cattle, horses, and cattle dogs on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

Oct 052013


What an older writer can do that a younger one can’t is erect, out of the merest wisp of chance memory and association, a brief, complex image of youth, a life, a satanic struggle (“I’ve tasted hell,” he writes sardonically) and ill consequence (you ache for that boy who runs from the spider lady to a milkshake—oh innocence—that later turns to alcohol). Note the apparently casual opening that rhymes (without telling the reader) spider/arachnid with Signora Ragnetti, the spider summoning the writer into the dark labyrinth of the past; the repugnant singing lesson; the precise oscillation in the text between spider and Signora (Ragnetti means “little spiders,” as someone who knows informs me); and the shape: October, fall, tenor—at the beginning and the end—and, in the last line, “spider, Ragnetti.” Sydney Lea makes this look effortless; damn, it’s not.


October’s warm for now, the truer chill yet to come. As it happens, an angler spider, trailing its thread like a fishing line, has just caught me this morning, in exact coincidence with my random recall of Signora Ragnetti, long since dead. Even gone, though, in memory the woman’s still an ogre, the one who terrified me every Thursday afternoon one winter. During singing lessons, fist on high, she led me, barely yet  turned tenor, through cheerless versions of Caro mio ben’ and others.

I arrived, cradling my folio of airs. I’d been sopped and darkened by smutted snow in that stranger’s land, Downtown. The bells of San Cristofero’s tolled a torpid portent of the slow agony ahead. I’ve tasted hell.

I hear it already: “How is this? You do not do so simple things I ask. O Dio, che stupido….

The spider thinks he’s found arachnid heaven. That is if a spider may be said to think, and even if so, in terms aside from food and drink. If he can, not knowing how I’ve shrunk, he has reason to find me quite a catch.  He’s likely drunk with joy, not knowing either how in those old sessions, when (cretino!) failure seemed its own long season, I was hollowed out to a specter. If he tweaked his thread, I’d rise. I’m only air in this nightmare, a whiff of ether.

La signora is five feet one at most, and perhaps eighty pounds. How can she be so huge, then? She wrests the door inward and lets me in with clickings of her tongue.

“So different from my son,” she growls, before I’ve so much as removed my soaking jacket. She turns to study the photo, which shows a middle-aged man with a face as set and stern as hers. She crosses herself and scowls, then sits malignly down. Soon, too soon, her left hand jabs at scales on her piano, the right one in that gnarled fist, as if it held a dagger.

Piu forte! she insists. I wince, as though from actual blows, while we do-re-mi.

“Disaster!” she spits as I grapple up and down those ladders: “Do you visit here for making such a noise, asino?” 

Another note, another Latin imprecation. I grow colder and colder and smaller. My mother, I know, won’t imagine my complaints, on my return home, as other than self-pitying puling.

Released at last, I cross the swarming street to buy a milkshake, icy, laced with malt, scant consolation for all I’ve felt go out of me. My hope is delusion; the treat seems to freeze the fear I’d meant to melt, the poison residue of terror, hate. In coming years, for too long I’ll turn to alcohol, in the same vain longing for numbness.

Once I felt the harsh lash of Ragnetti. Now the spider vainly imagines he’ll take me into his maw.

It’s not yet fall. The years have changed that voice she called a mediocre tenor. The liquor has been banished, and one might think I’d come to accept myself for what I am, no more. I want further to say, but cannot quite: Ragnetti, spider, I amount to something, have gravity.

—Sydney Lea


Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has just published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock, and A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Jul 022013

Sophfronia ScottPhoto by Tain Gregory

Sophfronia Scott offers here a thoughtful, provocative and pragmatic account of the ways a nonfiction writer can use reflection to engage the reader. She talks specifically about the use of techniques such as metaphor, direct appeal, shared experience and the right voice to engage the reader’s heart and imagination. Especially helpful are Scott’s explorations of particular texts to illustrate her technical points: Elie Wiesel’s Night, Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.




In the past I rarely embarked on a personal essay unless specifically asked for one by an editor because it never immediately occurred to me anyone would have any interest in what I had to say about a particular topic, especially if the action involved happened only to me. I have also had a distaste for the trend towards memoir in the publishing world. When the writer Douglas Goetsch, a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, said to me in conversation that he thought the United States was suffering “from an epidemic of memoir,” I, having read my share of melodramatic manuscripts flooding the marketplace in recent years, was inclined to agree. There are, it seems, millions of keyboards where writers are too enthusiastically tapping out their tales of child abuse, alcohol abuse, road trips, adoption secrets, illness, injury, divorce, you name it. I saw no reason to add my words to this particular multitude.

However in August 2012 I found myself deeply engaged in the writing of a personal essay inspired by a series of tweets I had posted to a friend on Twitter describing a talk I’d had with the singer Lena Horne about learning to iron my father’s shirts. The previous day I had been ironing my husband’s shirts and I posted on Twitter:

I’m going to combine my housework with my literary love and pretend I’m a Tillie Olsen character: I stand here ironing…


The next morning I saw my friend had re-tweeted the post and as I tweeted my thanks for some reason the memory of my Lena Horne talk came to mind.  I wanted to tell my friend about it; he enjoys a good story and I thought he would appreciate it, especially since it included a celebrity. I sent the following in quick succession:

1.)   Thanks for the RT! I once had a conversation with Lena Horne about ironing—we both learned as girls…

2.)   …She said she could never get it right. “I used to weep over my daddy’s shirts.” I said, “And they were all white shirts,

3.)   …right?” My father’s shirts were all white too. She said yes. I was in my 30s. She was in her 80s. But we walked through…

4.)   …Central Park together as girls ironing our father’s shirts.

5.)   I’m in tears now remembering that day.

And I really was in tears. I embarked on the writing of an essay with no ambition other than to explore the source of those tears. This walk with Lena Horne was still in my heart and at the forefront of my mind over ten years later for a reason and, as I discovered as I wrote, those reasons had little to do with her. As the paragraphs of the essay came together I realized that walk had crystallized an important personal moment for me in which I recognized how much love and forgiveness had replaced the anger I once held for my difficult, demanding father.

“Such forgiveness is possible, I believe, not because he is long dead, but because of these unexpected moments of grace reaching across generations reminding me of this: the reason I hurt so much then was because I cared so much then—and still do. As I look back on that autumn afternoon and how Lena took my arm again as we continued our stroll through Central Park, I can see how in that moment I was in my 30s, Lena was in her 80s, but we were both girls ironing the shirts of the first men we ever cared for, and hoping they could feel our love pressed hard into every crease.”

The completed essay, “White Shirts,” when published in the September 2012 issue of Numéro Cinq Magazine, received favorable written responses. What surprised me about the posted comments was how many of the readers saw themselves and their own memories in my essay:

I recall my Aunt Virginia showing me how to iron a shirt when she was doing them for her husband and family of 5 boys after a morning of working in the fields. Yours are exactly the same instructions I recall her demonstrating. Thanks for sharing this evocative memory.

You’ve taken me back to my childhood, ironing the handkerchiefs and pillowcases while I watched my mother and grandmother iron starched white shirts. Thank you. 

This is precious, pulls you into the story, and encouraging to me as a young housewife finding I have grossly undercooked the potatoes in a casserole, and realizing just how quickly a cleaned bathroom collects new hair and dirt- I can get better!

This brings back my own ironing memories. My grandmother, who would be 120 if she were still alive, taught me how to iron. I don’t remember what she had me iron, but I do remember burning my fingers. If I look hard enough, I can still see the tiny scars.

This excited me as a writer—it was as though the essay had become bigger, more vital, because it had struck a chord for so many people. We were all, at once, at the ironing board with our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. I found myself thinking, if this is what creative nonfiction can do, this is the creative nonfiction I want to continue writing.

But how? I felt I had created this shared experience, a kind of universal appeal, by accident. I know the best essayists must be able to make such connections consistently. I decided to begin an exploration of the techniques these writers use to help them communicate their very personal experiences to the broadest possible audience. I believe this is a necessary exploration because, as Richard Todd says in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, “In the family of writers, essayists play poor cousins to writers of fiction or narrative nonfiction.” Indeed their medium, the personal essay, is an unusual form because its existence defies the fact that the reader, at first blush, has no reason to read it. What is the essay’s purpose? Fiction offers entertainment as an essay can, but on a different level: fiction can also present escape, perhaps even a fantasy in which the reader can place him or herself as the main character. Journalistic nonfiction serves the purpose of educating the reader or providing desired information. Poetry can charm with its rhythms and imagery. These forms answer upfront the reader’s ongoing question of  “What’s in it for me?” In a society where words and phrases such as “So what?” and “navel-gazing” and “whatever” demonstrate a less than supportive environment in which to offer one’s story, the essay is immediately at a disadvantage. In everyday conversation we don’t always listen to the stories of strangers, or if we do it’s done with half an ear because the listener is more interested in hearing a moment where they can interject what they have to say, which they believe will be more interesting or more important. Douglas Glover, in his book Attack of the Copula Spiders, warns against  “bathtub” narratives which he defines as “a story which takes place almost completely as backfill in the mind of a single character (who often spends the whole narrative sitting in a bathtub—I am only being slightly facetious).” He notes the form for its lack of drama and movement. But what is a personal essay if not a long form “bathtub” narrative completely crafted from the writer’s thoughts being turned over and over in her mind?

Since I’ve been able to focus on creative nonfiction in my studies, I’m learning this type of focused reflection is not the problem with the personal essay. I realize the essays and memoirs that bother me the most are ones where deep thought and reflection are nonexistent. On top of this the author has not taken the pains to write in a way that would allow the reader access to her personal experience. The writer, either through neglect or inexperience, has produced a work in which she is so caught up in telling her story, usually a traumatic event, that she has not made the thoughtful reflection required to instill the event with meaning. It’s not enough that a person has experienced something horrible such as the death of a loved one, physical abuse, divorce or illness. The person must be able to step back and look at the whole tapestry and contemplate the placement of the event and its effects on her whole being. Once that piece is understood, this gives the writer the foundation to craft and revise a piece with the intention of highlighting this insight.

In many cases the writer has not stepped back at all. Such writers are, in my opinion, still caught up in the event, even if many years have passed. For them writing down the story is the big accomplishment, and that’s because the pain of finding the words has them reliving the event and “surviving” it again. They are too much in it to be above it, so there is no reflection. Thus the event is still too personal for the writer and hence out of reach for the reader. If anything this type of writing does a certain violence to the reader because it subjects them to raw, naked details very similar to a news report from a crime scene. We, as readers, endure the pain, the harsh visuals, and the terror of the event. Then the author thinks it is enough just to explain they got through it, and they’re okay. But how can we believe that when we’re still ourselves in that place of fear and trembling, exactly where they left us?

And yet there are essays and books of essays describing terrible events that, despite their personal nature, manage to capture the reader’s heart and imagination, engaging both the ear and the heart. In order to gain such credibility with the reader a writer’s work should demonstrate that the author has done some focused thinking, first about herself, and then for the reader. For herself the writer wants to do the mental work and reflection that shows she is ready to discover and understand the deeper meaning of the events of her life—to take the step that truly turns life into art. Next, the writer makes choices with the reader in mind—choices of imagery, language and voice with the intent of making a connection with the person reading the words. I will detail here how this process can work using as examples authors who have written engaging, yet deeply personally essays that succeed because the writers have brought to bear the powers of both inner work and conscious attention to craft.

Reflection as Foundation

dmooreFirst of all, reflection is necessary. Dinty W. Moore in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, points out that while everyone loves a well-told story, “the…reason people care relates to what the writer has made of the experience and how the author’s discovery often rings true for a wide readership.”  This reflection can happen before, during, and after the writing of the essay’s initial draft, but it must happen because the writer must be open to new ideas at each level. Otherwise writers may find themselves unwilling to begin because they fear what will come of the writing, stuck partway through because they get mired in the trauma of re-telling their story, or unwilling to revise because they’re still not ready to think about the event at a higher level. I admit this involves mental and emotional issues and maturity as well. As Phillip Lopate notes in the introduction of The Art of the Personal Essay, “It is difficult to write analytically from the middle of confusion, and youth is a confusion in which the self and its desires have not yet sorted themselves out.”

The “how-to” aspect of reflection is difficult because any technique would be contingent on the author’s awareness of the necessity of thinking deeply about the circumstances of her life being examined in the essay, and her willingness to make the conscious decision to do it. These aspects are not always present in a personality. However I would like to venture forward with a few questions a writer may ask if she does want to begin the process of reflection even if she doesn’t know what the answers are or what to make of them. These questions are:

      • Why do I want to write about this particular topic/event/circumstance in my life?
      • Who was I before this event happened to me?
      • Who am I as a result of it? In other words, how do I see the world through the lens of what happened to me?
      • How do I feel about the people I’m writing about? Have these feelings changed over time? Have they not? Why?
      • What are my physical/emotional reactions around my topic? How fresh is the “wound?”

I would also suggest a writer begin a mental practice of consistently asking these questions during the writing process and whenever a memory or past reference presents itself for consideration. On a positive note, this kind of thinking is open to all, young and old, so younger authors need not despair even if the writing results in musings for which they have no clear answer just yet. The fact that they are questioning and making that apparent may be enough to engage the reader. Many readers appreciate the vulnerability of a writer who is willing to admit she doesn’t know the answers. The fact that she is daring to ask the questions that could reflect the reader’s own silent struggle builds credibility for the writer and will eventually help to create stronger work.

The Four Techniques

This paper will focus on four techniques that can be used by writers who can reflect, have reflected, and want to make their writing connect with as many readers as possible. These craft points can help the writer to open the door for readers, to allow them to more easily share in the emotions, thoughts and events the writer is laying before them.

The first technique involves the use of metaphor. As defined in the Google search dictionary, a metaphor is:

1.)   A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

2.)   A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.

In Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust, Night, he tells the horrifying story of his year as a teenager in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, in which he suffers the deaths of his family members, his friends and, eventually, his own faith. The title Night evokes the metaphor that is the foundation of the whole book. The traumatic material within the covers requires a powerful metaphor. How else can he help the reader grasp the incredible terror and darkness felt by himself and by his people except by connecting it to the darkness we experience regularly and, as children, even fear? It seems every time night falls in the book there is no rest, only fear and concern for what the next day will bring. Night becomes the representation of the darkness cast over Wiesel and his people. He refers to the “nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.” In this section Wiesel combines the metaphor of night with fire to represent the furnaces of the concentration camps:Since in personal essays we deal in the abstract continually, especially when it comes to the writer’s emotions, metaphor becomes essential. Sue William Silverman, in her Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture “Metaphor Boot Camp,” notes the use of metaphor in personal essays allows the writer to make abstract terms or emotions such as the words “love,” “hate,” or “misery,” accessible and tangible for the reader through the use of imagery. This is the answer to the question of how else can the reader relate to a story that only happened to you. It also aids in this question of reflection: “Metaphor helps us to understand what this experience in the past actually meant.”

“No one was praying for the night pass quickly. The stars were but sparks of the immense conflagration that was consuming us. Were this conflagration to be extinguished one day, nothing would be left in the sky but extinct stars and unseeing eyes.”

There is a haunting elegance and beauty in Wiesel’s writing that comes through even in translation. His imagery doesn’t sugarcoat events. If anything it makes them more alive and, though horrifying, accessible. This works because, as Sue Silverman points out in her lecture, “Once you have developed metaphor, you’ve transformed your life into art and all art is universal.”

goodproseThe second technique involves the direct appeal, in other words, the writer brings the reader directly into the essay with the use of “we” or “society.” The idea is that what the writer is talking about leads us to question or examine the bigger picture and how it affects all of us. The direct appeal assumes a certain kind of reader—a concerned citizen, a reader engaged with the world and who wants to know about actions and their consequences on society at large. It also assumes the writer has set herself up in a certain way: she establishes her authority to validate why she can speak to the bigger picture. Richard Todd would argue this isn’t necessary. “What gives you license to write essays?” he asks in The Art of Nonfiction. “Only the presence of an idea and the ability to make it your own.” But he does acknowledge the importance of training a discerning writer’s eye on the issues of our time and the essay being the right vehicle in which to do so:  “An essay both allows and requires you to say something more than you are entitled to say by virtue of your resume alone.”

Eula Biss in her collection of essays, Notes from No Man’s Land, travels back and forth between personal experience and issues such as racism, immigration and education. She lays the foundation of her authority by presenting research she has done. In her essay “Time and Distance Overcome” she connects the innovation of the telephone to another more disturbing American innovation: lynchings. In stating statistics, and quoting newspapers and reports of documented lynchings, Biss creates the framework through which to discuss racism. The facts she presents are aimed to evoke our outrage and disbelief:

“More than two hundred antilynching bills were introduced to the U.S. Congress during the twentieth century, but none were passed. Seven presidents lobbied for antilynching legislation, and the House of Representatives passed three separate measures, each of which was blocked by the Senate.”

This mode of universality is more often used in essays of a journalistic type, but a a personal essay may actually be the better forum. There is less distance between the reader and the concepts discussed because the writer provides the human connection through their personal experiences and observations. The writer can say “I know this is true because it affected my home/my health/my town/my family/my job.” Her observations are not conjecture, but a living example of the concepts she is pondering in the written word. The concepts alone in such essays are big and difficult: racism, immigration, politics, ecology, religion. When the writer offers as a starting point her own experience, it is an easier way for the reader to wade into the waters of discussion. Several times in her book Biss mentions her own reaction to her discoveries—in one instance watching a documentary has her in tears:

“The point at which I began to cry during the documentary about Buxton was the interview with Marjorie Brown, who moved from Buxton to the mostly white town of Cedar Rapids when she was twelve. ‘And then all at once, with no warning, I no longer existed…The shock of my life was to go to Cedar Rapids and find out that I didn’t exist…I had to unlearn that Marjorie was an important part of a community.”

Biss lays the foundation of her argument with such emotion, then walks us backwards to show how she came to this reaction so that we might understand and possibly even feel the same way.

When a writer appeals to the reader to connect to his or her own experience in relation to the author’s, the writer is utilizing the third technique to communicate to a broad audience. The writer can do this by referencing events or actions that most people have experienced such as having children or eating a satisfying meal. Dinty W. Moore writes in The Truth of the Matter, “We all know grief, fear, longing, fairness, and unfairness. We all worry about losing someone dear to us. We crave attention, from everyone, or from certain people. We love our families, yet sometimes those families greatly disappoint us…These basic human worries and emotions will always resonate when brought clearly to life on the page.” In my essay “White Shirts,” I invoke the pain of touching a hot iron: “A burn rises quickly, a living red capsule on the surface of your skin. You think it will never heal because that’s how much it hurts when it happens.”  I also conjure the feel of a shirt as it is being ironed: “the shirt large and voluminous in Lena’s small hands, the white cotton hopelessly scorched…” and “Sleeves are tricky because of their roundness. They don’t lie flat well so I will usually iron a sleeve and turn it over to find a funky crease I didn’t mean to create running like a new slash down the arm.” I chose these details because my memories of ironing trigger my senses of touch, sight and smell. This is how I made the words I wrote alive for the reader and myself.

The use of detail with this technique is key. The right details can spark the reader’s memory and cause them to, in the moment, relive their own experience even as they are reading about the author’s. Henry Louis Gates does this successfully in his piece “Sunday,” in which he describes the traditional dinner served weekly in his family home. Dinty Moore points out:

“Much of the intimacy here is in the family secrets Gates chooses to share, and the generous description of the table laden with food: ‘fried chicken, mashed potatoes, baked corn (corn pudding), green beans and potatoes (with lots of onions and bacon drippings and a hunk of ham), gravy, rolls, and a salad of iceberg lettuce, fresh tomatoes (grown in Uncle Jim’s garden), a sliced boiled egg, scallions, and Wishbone’s Italian dressing.’ Instead of a weak line like ‘you can’t imagine how much food there was,’ Gates puts us right at the table.”

I should note this technique is different from the use of metaphor because the detail doesn’t have to represent something else. It can stand on its own representing nothing more than the experience itself—it is the experience that connects the reader. In Night such details are found in the descriptions of thirst and heat as the neighborhood is gathered and made to march without water under the heat of a summer sun: “People must have thought there could be no greater torment in God’s hell than that of being stranded here, on the sidewalk, among the bundles, in the middle of the street under a blazing sun.”

The fourth technique involves the writer hitting upon the right voice in the telling of the story. A reader will react to a writer’s voice with the same discernment anyone would use at a cocktail party—if you don’t like the tone or attitude of the voice talking to you, you’re more likely to move away and speak to someone else. In experiencing a personal essay, a reader will not stay at the “party” if they encounter a voice they feel is arrogant, bossy, pedantic, whiny, annoying or anything else that makes them uncomfortable. The writer’s goal is to establish authority and a likeable voice at the same time. For myself, I deem a voice likeable if it is confident, knowledgeable and, if appropriate, has a good sense of humor. This doesn’t mean the writer has to bend over backwards to make her voice likeable. Some writers do this to the detriment of the work, relying too much on colloquialisms or self-deprecation. Even in the real world, trying to be everyone’s best friend simply doesn’t work and usually results in the person transmitting a bland, false persona. In writing this would translate as beige, uninteresting prose. In developing and considering voice the writer would do well to remember that in doing so, she is also establishing her narrative presence, the person in the room she wants to be. Mimi Schwartz, in her essay, “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” says if the writer’s voice is “savvy and appealing enough to make the reader say, ‘Yes, I’ve been there. I know what you mean!—you have something good. But if the voice you adopt annoys, embarrasses or bores because of lack of insight, then beware. The reader will say, ‘So what? I don’t care about you!’ often in anger.”

Having the right voice also gives the writer more leeway in sidestepping the common essay obstacles of egotism and navel-gazing. The nineteenth-century writer Alexander Smith discusses how much can be forgiven a writer if the work is engaging: “The speaking about oneself is not necessarily offensive. A modest, truthful man speaks better about himself than about anything else, and on that subject his speech is likely to be more profitable to his hearers…If he be without taint of boastfulness, of self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge home.”

A writer develops voice through the discerning use of vocabulary, colloquialism, and a general overall sense of camaraderie and shared confidence. When the writer has achieved this, she relates to the reader regardless of age, race, or culture background. James Baldwin, in his reflections on race and his young adult life in Harlem in Notes of a Native Son, develops a voice that is both mature and youthful as he looks back at how certain discoveries and experiences have shaped him and caused him to lose the innocence he once held about his place in society. At his essence, Baldwin’s voice is his connection, authority and narrative rolled into one: I am a human being. And he is most shocked when he finds himself in situations where that simple fact is not acknowledged or respected. “…there must never in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

Such vulnerability and bareness allows the reader to relate to the writer to the point of oneness. “The essayist can also appear as a figure who boasts of little in the way of heightened emotion or peculiarity of feeling,” says Richard Todd in Good Prose. “This sort of writer’s whole claim on the reader is the claim of the norm: I am but a distillation of you.” Indeed, this has been one of the most admired aspects of Baldwin’s book—his ability to reach out beyond his very specific experience to touch, intimately, readers who are nothing like him. In 2012, in an essay published in recognition of the 25th anniversary of Baldwin’s death, the writer Robert Vivian recalls how as a young white man first reading Notes of a Native Son, he felt Baldwin’s voice spoke directly to him:

“…there was something about his voice and how he wrote that felt intimate and familiar and deeply personal, almost as if he were writing in my voice, my skin, my way of looking at the world, which must be why some writing is so capable of addressing the universality of human experience regardless of the very real and limiting facts of people’s lives through the mysterious, sympathetic alchemy of prose that can, in its greatest practitioners, so deeply strum the common chords that make us all one.”

Communicating from No Man’s Land

Eula Biss’s award-winning nonfiction collection, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, is a challenging read because the author takes on some of the most difficult subject matter of our time: race, the loss of self, sociopolitics, immigration and education. But her use of the four techniques described here makes the material easier for the reader to digest. It’s as though Biss is taking readers by the hand and gently leading them on her expedition through No Man’s Land.


The book is organized around Biss’s experiences of different parts of the United States beginning with her time spent in New York, then moving on to California and later the Midwest. It opens with “Time and Distance Overcome,” an essay on racism that sets the tone for the ensuing pieces. It ends with “All Apologies,” a reflection on whether apologies can truly be made and whether real forgiveness is possible when the perpetrators of a wrong are long deceased or apt to commit the wrong again and again.

In her essay “Letter to Mexico” Biss uses the metaphor of the ocean and its tides to communicate the sense of the city of Ensenada being overwhelmed by ever surging numbers of ugly Americans who have, courtesy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), relieved Mexicans of a good chunk of their wages and manufacturing businesses. The Mexicans are powerless against the influx of Americans just as any person would be powerless against the enormity of the ocean.

“I was confined to the shore there, even when I was not in the tourist district, where the cruise ships unloaded and middle-aged Americans periodically swarmed the bars and souvenir stands then receded like a tide.”

Biss also uses metaphor in her essay “Three Songs of Salvage” to communicate how the ever present rhythm of drums from her childhood when her mother practiced the Yoruba faith still mark time for her today. “I fell asleep to the distant sound of drums, which I was not always entirely sure was the distant sound of drums. Rain, blood in the body, explosions in the quarry, and frogs are all drums…I know now that I left home and I left the drums but I didn’t leave home and I didn’t leave the drums. Sewer plates, jackhammers, subway trains, cars on the bridge, and basketballs are all drums.”

Biss frequently uses the direct appeal in “Is This Kansas” to challenge the reader to question how we view the behavior of college students and the connection of that thinking to what our society looks like. There is a chiding nature to her comments as she presents her observations. The reader might feel she’s being called out by Biss because the reader may very well have one of views the writer highlights. If the reader does have such a view then a crack has been opened and Biss has the opportunity to make the reader see things in a different light.

“I would often wonder, during my time in that town, why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned. Illinois home owners propose ordinances against shared housing among immigrants, while their sons are at college sharing one-bedroom apartments with five other boys. Courts send black teenagers to jail for possession of marijuana, while white college kids are sentenced with community service for driving while intoxicated, a considerably more deadly offense. And Evangelicals editorialize about the sexual abominations of consenting adults, while very little is said about the plague of date rapes in college towns.”

In using details to connect the reader to their own experiences, Biss helps the reader experience with new eyes a place such as New York City that the reader may only know through movies or television show myths. She appeals to their sense of loneliness, alienation, and even fear because that was so much her own experience of the city. Biss anchors all of this with details that engage the reader’s senses.

“I could see barges silhouetted against the hazy pink horizon at dusk. I tried to walk down to the water and promptly dead-ended at a huge, windowless building labeled Terminal Warehouse.”

“The station at Coney Island was half-charred form a fire decades ago and packed with giant inflatable pink seals for sale…Caramel apples were seventy-five cents and the din of the fair games was intolerable. One freak-show announcer screamed, ‘If you love your family, you will take them to see the two-headed baby!’ It was gross and crazy and base…The beach was packed with naked flesh and smelled like beer and mango. And the Wonder Wheel inspired real wonder as I rose up over Brooklyn in a swinging metal cage.”

The voice Biss develops in her book has an intriguing mix of vulnerability and authority. From a writer’s standpoint such a voice puts you exactly where you want to be with the reader: the vulnerability helps to establish trust and rapport; the authority seals your credibility. The reader will listen to what you have to say. We feel for Biss in her youthful questioning of her guilt, her feelings about her race, her fear. But she is fearless when it comes to delving into research to support her marked disturbance and indignation over attitudes, traditions and social norms. In “Land Mines” she discusses the failures of the education system, first establishing herself as a participant in that system, and then examining policies she has directly read or experienced. Her indignation sometimes seems close to bubbling over when she describes the University of Iowa’s considerations for how to make their school more diverse in ways that do not consider the well-being for their diverse students.

“One didn’t need to spend very long at that institution before realizing that the interests of everyone else—the funders, the administrators, the professors, the graduate students—came before the interests of the undergraduate students. And as in any feudal system, the people on whom the entire system depended were robbed, as completely as possible, of their power.”

Her essay “No Man’s Land” has a voice presenting Biss’s views with wide-eyed clarity. She puts herself, as well as society, under the microscope as she compares her experiences in the slowly gentrifying Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park with the observations of Laura Ingalls Wilder of how the white man usurped the lands of the native Americans. Biss establishes her voice with direct rhetoric, using her research and her strong point of view to ground her statements about “pioneering” in America and what that really means—in one example it means unjustified fears:

“This is our inheritance, for those of us who imagine ourselves pioneers. We don’t seem to have retained the frugality of the original pioneers, or their resourcefulness, but we have inherited a ring of wolves around a door covered only by a quilt. And we have inherited padlocks on our pantries. That we carry with us a residue of the pioneer experience is my best explanation for the fact that my white neighbors seem to feel besieged in this neighborhood. Because that feeling cannot be explained by anything else that I know to be true about our lives here.”

Biss’s voice also makes it easier for readers who may be longtime fans of Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books to look at the series in a different way. If Biss had been too harsh the reader could have been led to misinterpret the essay as a criticism of the books. Instead Biss shows respect for the author and, in turn, her own readers as she follows through with her observations.

Mining the Night

As mentioned earlier, Elie Wiesel in his memoir Night uses the night as a long-form metaphor to invoke the darkness and horror of his experience as a teenager in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Holocaust. But he also uses other metaphors and the rhetorical techniques discussed here to draw as many people as possible into the intimate nature of his pain and despair.


The book opens in 1941 with Wiesel as an eager 13-year-old student of the Talmud. When the “foreign Jews” including his own Kabbalah teacher, Moishe the Beadle, are removed from their town of Sighet, Transylvania, few members of Wiesel’s community read the action as the precursor of the horrors to come, even after Moishe escapes and returns with his eyewitness account of the killings of the deported Jews. Wiesel details the downward spiral of his people’s condition and their continued hope that things will get better until, sealed in rail cars, they can no longer ascribe to the delusion.

The powerful emotions related in Night require metaphor to help the reader access the book’s hard moments of despair and desolation. “Not far from us, prisoners were at work,” he writes, “Some were digging holes, others were carrying sand. None as much as glanced at us. We were withered trees in the heart of the desert.” Pain on such a scale can only be abstract to the outside observer. But metaphor, as noted from Sue Silverman’s lecture, allows Wiesel, in beautiful language, to turn his experience, though terrible, into art that the reader can take in and be in.

Wiesel uses the direct appeal technique in a different way. Instead of speaking directly to or challenging his readers, he is making the appeal by telling his story. It is an implied appeal: Wiesel is telling his story so he can bear witness to these atrocities to the world. In turn the readers learn from his testimony and the appeal is that we don’t allow such atrocities to happen again. He says this directly in the book’s introduction. It is the whole reason for the book’s existence and the reason Wiesel does his best to help the reader look, not look away.

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory.”

There’s also, I believe, an appeal present in the undercurrent when Wiesel and the people around him more than once wonder at how and why the rest of the world didn’t know the extermination of the Jewish people was in progress. And if they did know, why wasn’t anyone saying or doing something about it? “How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real.” This, to me, feels like Wiesel’s call to all readers to be awake to the occurrences of the world, no matter what country.

In terms of details, Wiesel frequently activates the reader’s senses through his descriptions of pain, heat, cold, smells, colors, and more. In early parts of the book, his descriptions of spring recall the normal aspects of the season: brilliant skies, beautiful blossoms, delicate smells and bright green grass. This is the part the reader can relate to. Then he overlays the fear of the Germans and the transfer into the ghettos. He also uses the details of home, the trappings of home, to communicate to the reader what is being left behind. When he and his family enter the home of family members who have been transported away, they find “the chaos was even greater here than in the large ghetto. Its inhabitants evidently had been caught by surprise…On the table, a half-finished bowl of soup. A platter of dough waiting to be baked. Everywhere on the floor there were books. Had my uncle meant to take them along?”

When describing the camp’s horrors Wiesel’s descriptions become more physical:

“We whispered. Perhaps because of the thick smoke that poisoned the air and stung the throat.”

“An SS officer had come in and, with him, the smell of the Angel of Death. We stared at his fleshy lips.”

“ ‘It doesn’t hurt.’ His cheek still bore the red mark of the hand.”

The voice Wiesel uses often sounds like that of a witness giving testimony, which is exactly what he is doing. In fact, one reviewer refers to the book not as a memoir or essay, but as a “human document.” But Wiesel also has a poetic rhythm in much of the work that mesmerizes the reader with the beautiful depth of his dark musings. There is a natural vulnerability that comes through because of the youth of Wiesel’s narrative character during the events. He is at once sympathetic and authoritative with being strident, accusatory or vengeful. This makes Wiesel all the more believable, because he has created a voice that doesn’t seem prone to exaggeration or puffed up with hyperbole. Even when an observation could seem outsized, the words are presented with such gentle calmness that the reader can’t help but take them seriously. This happens, for example, when he conjures the image of he and his campmates as lost souls condemned to a kind of purgatory from which they can never escape.

“In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.”

At times Wiesel’s rhetoric is straightforward such as in instances when he uses repetition to evoke emotion. The repetition of the word “never” in the following passage, for example, has the heaviness of a hammer driving home the losses Wiesel knows he must live with for the rest of his life.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.


The Voice of Inclusion

James Baldwin’s 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son is described on the cover of the 1979 paperback edition as “the moving chronicle of Baldwin’s search for identity as a writer, as an American, and as a Negro.” At the time of its writing, a time in America where segregated bathrooms, restaurants, hotels and transportation still existed, such subject matter could easily be considered singularly personal and exclusive. However, Baldwin’s work succeeded in accessing an audience so broad that the work is still considered relevant both to society as a whole and to each individual reader who experiences it.


The first part of the book features Baldwin’s unflinching assessment of creative works including the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film Carmen Jones, and Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and his examination of what they have to tell us about current views on the mythical perceptions of Negros especially concerning issues of skin tone, sexuality, and cleanliness. Baldwin then moves into personal reflection regarding his life in Harlem, memories of his father, and his frustration with the realization that racism will affect him regardless of how clean, educated or well spoken he is. These reflections go deeper as Baldwin’s insecurities are laid bare in Paris where he is arrested for a menial crime and incarcerated in a system that cares little for his rights or personal comfort.

Baldwin uses his most powerful metaphor in the opening paragraphs of the book’s title essay. He describes the race riots in Harlem that took place after his father’s funeral and the smashed glass in the streets become, for Baldwin, a representation of the apocalypse—a destruction of a world he has known and a harbinger of the unknown world he is entering.

“A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass…And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son. I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along.”

At the end of the section, this metaphor returns when Baldwin hurls a water glass at a restaurant waitress who refuses to serve him. The glass hits a mirror behind the bar and shatters. This gives rise to another metaphor, this time evoking the cycle of freezing and thawing, and how in this moment, Baldwin “thaws” and is freed from a frozen state of anger and boldness which then moves him to a state of fear.

“She ducked and it missed her and shattered against the mirror behind the bar. And, with that sound, my frozen blood abruptly thawed, I returned from wherever I had been, I saw, for the first time, the restaurant, the people with their mouths, open, already, as it seemed to me, rising as one man, and I realized what I had done, and where I was, and I was frightened.”

Baldwin does not make direct appeals so much as direct observations of America as a whole or large, significant groups within it such as the “Progressive Party” or the “optimistic American liberal.” These observations challenge the status quo, with Baldwin unafraid of declaring when he feels a situation is unacceptable. At the time of his writing this fearless tone would have made Baldwin’s readers uncomfortable about their own commitment. They also might feel concern over the risk of a Black writer speaking so plainly when he could still suffer the consequences of his words.

“Finally, we are confronted with the psychology and tradition of the country; if the Negro voter is so easily bought and sold, it is because it has been treated with so little respect; since no Negro dares seriously assume that any politician is concerned with the fate of Negroes, or would do much about it if he had the power, the vote must be bartered for what it will get…The American commonwealth chooses to overlook what Negroes are never able to forget: they are not really considered a part of it.”

In his essay “Equal in Paris” Baldwin uses detail to convey the fear and alienation of his days-long incarceration in a French prison. It’s interesting how a few of these details are not all that different from the ones Wiesel chose to describe the cells at the concentration camps. Baldwin allows the cold, the hole that served as a common toilet, the narrow cubicles, and the very fact that he begins to cry, to communicate to the reader the dire nature of his situation and his emotional condition. At one point, during his transport to another facility, “I remember there was a small vent just above my head which let in a little light. The door of my cubicle was locked from the outside. I had no idea where this wagon was taking me and, as it began to move, I began to cry. I suppose I cried all the way to prison…”

As mentioned earlier, Baldwin’s voice has served to connect to readers who find his voice so familiar that they identify with him, even across the wide canyon of time. It’s interesting that readers react to him this way because I didn’t find the voice particularly friendly or appealing. Baldwin has a formality about his phrasing and choice of words that, to me, make me feel he wasn’t an easy person to get to know in real life.

“But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.”

Perhaps he felt this formality was necessary for the time and his subject matter. I can respect this choice. He was, after all, still a young man when Notes of a Native Son was published. He wanted to write about his thoughts on serious matters and in order to be taken seriously he had to establish his sound of gravitas. This is his business as a writer. However, I believe he also understood the importance of letting the reader know he is a real person and he does that effectively as well. In his “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning of the book there is some hint of warmth as Baldwin notes how he loves to laugh and talks about his commitment to his writing.

“…I love to eat and drink—it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve scarcely ever had enough to eat…and I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly, and I do love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything…I consider I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Maybe that’s the Baldwin readers connected with first, and that is the voice they carried with them as they read the ensuing essays. He has introduced himself as a respectably amiable person. There’s no reason for the reader not to want to accompany Baldwin on his musings.


Though the focus of this exploration has been how to reach the broadest possible audience, I believe every piece of writing, at its heart, is an author’s attempt at conversation with just one reader. In many cases the writer knows at the outset the communication will be a difficult one, akin to two people speaking different languages. The writer, in order for her endeavor (which is to tell a story or relate an experience) to be successful, must try as many ways as possible to bridge the gap of understanding. If she can manage to do that, the happy result may be a bridge that more than one reader can utilize. In fact it can be used again and again, with readers crossing from all angles. In this way the writer achieves the broader audience.

The techniques described here can hopefully be the building materials a writer uses to build this bridge, keeping in mind that even the use of just one can bring a reader closer to relating to the writing than if she attempted none of them.

—Sophfronia Scott


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Toronto [u.a.]: Bantam, 1979. Print.

Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2009. Print.

Glover, Douglas “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise.” Attack of the Copula Spiders: And Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. 23-42. Print.

Kidder, Tracy, and Richard Todd. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Xxiii-Liv. Print.

Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Scott, Sophfronia. “White Shirts: Essay — Sophfronia Scott.” Numero Cinq. N.p., Sept. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Scott, Sophfronia. “Writing Your Heart Open.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Vivian, Robert. “Baldwin in Omaha.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. Print.

William Silverman, Sue. “Metaphor Boot Camp.” Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing Residency. College Hall Chapel, Montpelier, VT. 4 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

End Notes


Glover, Douglas H. “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise.” Attack of the Copula Spiders: And Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. 23-42. Print

Kidder, Tracy, and Richard Todd. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Xxiii-Liv. Print.

Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Scott, Sophfronia. “White Shirts: Essay — Sophfronia Scott.” Numero Cinq. N.p., Sept. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Scott, Sophfronia. “Writing Your Heart Open.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.


Gates, Henry Louis. “Sunday.” As published in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Xxiii-Liv. Print.

Schwartz, Mimi. “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” As published in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Vivian, Robert. “Baldwin in Omaha.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.


Sophfronia Scott recently completed her second novel, Lady of the Lavender Mist, and has essays in two new Chicken Soup for the Soul books: Inspiration for Writers (May 2013) and Reader’s Choice 20th Anniversary Edition (June 2013). She published her first novel, All I Need To Get By, with St. Martin’s Press in 2004. Her work has appeared in Time, People, More,, Sleet Magazine, Gently Read Literature, The Mid-American Review, The Newtowner, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Sophfronia is currently a masters candidate in fiction and creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story, “Murder Will Not Be Tolerated,” will be in the Fall 2013 issue of The Saranac Review. She blogs at

Jun 142013

One of the world’s great memoirs, The Confessions is a constant delight (earlier we find out how the young Rousseau peed in the housekeeper’s kettle). I set these passages of intimate self-exposure next to the glorious bits that deal with Rousseau and his father, how they would read romances (novels) together, sometimes getting so involved they would stay up till dawn reading to each other. [I am on the road again; listening to this in the car.]

In this passage, Rousseau has been sent away to a private tutoring situation and is living in the home of the Lamberciers, brother and sister. Miss Lambercier is about thirty. And to be serious about it, he is trying, in his confessions, to get at the secret, most intimate underpinnings of consciousness and desire. How does the sexual wiring get fixed? Why do the most trivial events have such permanent, risible and even tragic consequences in our relations with other?

Also we can see here the genre crossover from private confession to a priest to the modern version, public confession in detail to the whole world via the book.


As Miss Lambercier felt a mother’s affection, she sometimes exerted a mother’s authority, even to inflicting on us when we deserved it, the punishment of infants. She had often threatened it, and this threat of a treatment entirely new, appeared to me extremely dreadful; but I found the reality much less terrible than the idea, and what is still more unaccountable, this punishment increased my affection for the person who had inflicted it. All this affection, aided by my natural mildness, was scarcely sufficient to prevent my seeking, by fresh offences, a return of the same chastisement; for a degree of sensuality had mingled with the smart and shame, which left more desire than fear of a repetition. I was well convinced the same discipline from her brother would have produced a quite contrary effect; but from a man of his disposition this was not probable, and if I abstained from meriting correction it was merely from a fear of offending Miss Lambercier, for benevolence, aided by the passions, has ever maintained an empire over me which has given law to my heart.

This event, which, though desirable, I had not endeavored to accelerate, arrived without my fault; I should say, without my seeking; and I profited by it with a safe conscience; but this second, was also the last time, for Miss Lambercier, who doubtless had some reason to imagine this chastisement did not produce the desired effect, declared it was too fatiguing, and that she renounced it for the future. Till now we had slept in her chamber, and during the winter, even in her bed; but two days after another room was prepared for us, and from that moment I had the honor (which I could very well have dispensed with) of being treated by her as a great boy.

Who would believe this childish discipline, received at eight years old, from the hands of a woman of thirty, should influence my propensities, my desires, my passions, for the rest of my life, and that in quite a contrary sense from what might naturally have been expected? The very incident that inflamed my senses, gave my desires such an extraordinary turn, that, confined to what I had already experienced, I sought no further, and, with blood boiling with sensuality, almost from my birth, preserved my purity beyond the age when the coldest constitutions lose their insensibility; long tormented, without knowing by what, I gazed on every handsome woman with delight; imagination incessantly brought their charms to my remembrance, only to transform them into so many Miss Lamberciers.


Jun 072013


Former NC contributor Adam Regn Arvidson makes a return visit with some salutary advice for the beginning essayist (and maybe the not-so-beginning essayist) on where to find submission venues. The advice he gives happens to accord with my own practice in the dark eons before time, the years of my apprenticeship. The  best way to give your story or essay or poem a chance at a life is to submit to magazines that are reviewed by the standard anthologies: Best American/Canadian (Stories, Essays…), Pushcart, O’Henry, etc. While you’re here, check out Adam’s Nature Writing in America series on NC and his short craft essays in the NC Craft Book.



Like it or not, the Best American series has a certain gravity. Whether you feel it actually publishes the best American writing, this annual compendium is eagerly awaited by writers everywhere. It’s a little easier to digest than the Pushcart doorstop, and somehow the overall system—regular editors that winnow down and pass along a selection to a guest editor that makes the final selections—seems to have the right combination of consistency and nuance, populism and expertise.

But this isn’t a review of the Best American vehicle.  This is an analysis.

A while back, when I started thinking maybe, just maybe, a couple of my essays might be “ready,” I asked the essayist Patrick Madden where I should submit them. As always at the ready with sage advice, Patrick told me (and I’m taking some liberties with the quote here): “Most places you publish will doom your essay to an inglorious death: one issue that few people read, and then the trash heap. Sure you can list it in your cover letters, but wouldn’t you like people to actually see your essay. I’d recommend looking at the Best American Essays—especially the back section, the “Other Notable Essays”—and find out which journals are represented there. At least you know that a BA editor is (possibly) reading your stuff.”

So, like a good student (and the data-curious, research-driven writer I am), I went ahead and catalogued a few years of Best American Essays, and Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. Then I went back and did a few previous years, just to flesh out the sample size. Yes, I have a spreadsheet of each journal that has appeared in these three BA series and the number of times it has appeared. Give me a journal and I can tell you exactly how many times it has had included essays and notable essays in any year since 2008.

BASNW2012  BATW2012

I can hear the “holy crap, that guy’s got too much time on his hands” echo through the datasphere. But wait, because I tell you it helps.  First, this is how I find journals. That lesser known annual magazine creeping up in numbers of notable essays: perhaps a good up-and-coming venue for a newer writer. Second, this is how I work some hierarchy into my submissions. Maybe I send something out to one of the more represented journals first, then, upon rejection, work my way downward on the list.

I know this is an imperfect science, but essay (or short story or spiritual writing or poem) submission is inherently imperfect. This gives me a guide.  And it’s kind of fun to know how everybody’s doing. So I’d like to share my data with you.

But first, a few parameters. I’m an essayist—a nature and environment essayist. The data here deal just with the “Essays” and “Science and Nature” volumes of BA.  Next, I make no distinction whatsoever between the “notable” essays in the back of the book and the 20 or so actually printed. The notables are selected by the main editor. The 20-or-so are the result of one annually selected big-name’s own sensibilities. Getting printed is a crap-shoot, in my opinion.

Some of the names in these lists won’t be surprises to any of you (what! The New Yorker dominates the Best American series??!). Some will.  So without further dithering, here we go:

Top 10 Journals: Best American Essays, 2008-2012

1. The New Yorker, 47
2. Harper’s, 42
3. American Scholar, 23
4. Fourth Genre, 23
5. Granta, 20
6. Southwest Review, 20
7. The Sun, 18
8. Missouri Review, 17
9. Michigan Quarterly Review, 16
10. New York Times Magazine, 16

Frankly, I was surprised to see Missouri Review and Michigan Quarterly Review on this list, considering how few essays they publish in each issue. Might be interesting to discover the journal with the best percentage of total essays that appear in BA…  Hmmm.


Top 10 Journals: Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2008-2012

1. The New Yorker, 48
2. National Geographic, 41
3. Discover, 36
4. Scientific American (with this one’s name, it ought to be here), 32
5. Orion, 22
6. OnEarth (including on-line), 19
7. The Atlantic, 18
8. Outside, 18
9. Harper’s, 17
10. Wired, 17

Ok, so this batch can barely be called literary magazines. There’s not a university journal among the top ten. And frankly (though I hate to be critical of a particular magazine, even if I read it religiously), I wonder if all the pretty pictures are skewing everyone’s opinion of the actual writing in National Geographic

Ecotone_14_CoverLooking down through the top 25, the only literary journals here are Ecotone (#19, 7 inclusions) and Isotope (#23, 5 inclusions), but the latter is defunct. (Oddly, just above Isotope is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, perhaps publishing lively essays on gluons and quarks!)

I have done different methods of totaling these two series, but honestly the Science and Nature tends to dominate and skew the number, since a much smaller set of journals appears in that series. For you generalist essayists, it is probably more useful to dig a little deeper into the BAE rankings.  So here are all the journals that averaged at least two appearances per year (at least 10 appearances total) for the five years I have kept track. These are probably middle-of-the-road submission venues for you. Not the most incredible work, but still credible according to BAE. (Also, plenty of literary magazines here.)

Gettysburg Review, 15
Massachusetts Review, 15
Orion, 15 (ooh, they can do S&N AND Essays!)
Salmagundi, 15

The Atlantic, 14
Ecotone, 14
Georgia Review, 14
New York Review of Books, 14
Southern Review,14
Iowa Review, 13

Alaska Quarterly Review, 12
Boulevard, 12
Harvard Review, 12
Kenyon Review (and KR Online), 12
Ninth Letter, 12

Colorado Review, 11
Image, 11
New Letters, 11
Oxford American, 11
River Teeth, 11
Washington Post Magazine, 11

Creative Nonfiction, 10
Hotel Amerika, 10
New Republic, 10
Sewanee Review, 10
Under the Sun, 10
Vanity Fair, 10


Of course, how you use this data is up to you. If you’re curious about a particular magazine, or want to know all those with a certain total number, just comment here. At the very least, think about subscribing to some of these. They are consistently publishing excellent essays.  Support them so they can perhaps some day support you.

— Adam Regn Arvidson


AdamAdam Regn Arvidson is an essayist, editor, and landscape architect based in Minneapolis. His work, including his Nature Writing in America series, has appeared previously in Numéro Cinq, as well as in Creative Nonfiction, Michigan Quarterly Review, flyway, and Briar Cliff Review. He is a recent MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

May 172013


Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here’s a practical look at the utility and felicities of  research from a former journalist and Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer, Russell Working. I met Russell years ago when he was staying the Yaddo, the art residency in Saratoga Springs. I wasn’t at Yaddo, but I live about six minutes away and am always going over there to visit (or rescue) friends. Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. Of his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize) I wrote: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.


Many years ago, I was working on a novel that involves a husband who is searching for his missing wife. In it my protagonist, Paul, goes into a morgue with a cop and a coroner to identify a body that might be hers. The question was, how to describe the morgue? No problem! I knew all about that. I had never been in a morgue, but I had seen them on TV and the movies. Good enough.

Plus, I am a fiction writer. That means I can just use my imagination, right? And unlike in journalism, nobody gets to demand a correction. So I wrote it just like on TV, the walls were lined with stainless steel drawers. The coroner pulls one open. And there’s the body, covered by a sheet.

But wait a minute. Dead bodies: it must smell bad. So I had my coroner light up a cigar to cover the odor. He offers cigars to the detective and poor Paul, who thinks he is about to see the corpse of his murdered wife.

“Smoke, gentlemen?” the coroner says.

“He smokes the good stuff,” the detective says. “Cuban seed.”


Needless to say, I never sold that novel. And as for that scene, it bogged down in the writing. It was lifeless. I was stuck. I fought my way through it, but the description never stopped smelling dead. The trouble was, I needed to report my story, in the way that a journalist might, to pick up the phone, make an appointment with a coroner, and head out to the morgue with a notebook in hand.

I needed to go to take in the sounds and smells. To interview a staff. To investigate. To research. Scribble notes. Record the interview. Look around the crypt where the bodies are kept. Did it have a high vaulted ceiling or a low one? Were there bare light bulbs or phosphorescent track lighting? Were the walls tile or plaster? Then take it all back to my computer, throw out the dross, and turn the key elements into fiction.

I was a newspaper reporter, yet I had never taken that basic step, at least for this particular scene.

Now, wait a minute, you may say. Why do we need to do this? If we’re fiction writers, don’t we get to make things up? And if the fiction is autobiographical, can’t we just rely on our own memories? We lived it, after all. What if we’re magical realists? What if my protagonist is a centaur or a flying squirrel who thinks he’s Batman? And as for creative nonfiction, aren’t many of us writing memoirs, which means the topic is subjective? Who needs research, to say nothing of shoe-leather reporting?

Well, when we write a scene, whether it is magical realism or a noir tale of murder, we strive to imagine a narrative world that is vivid and believable within the rules it agrees to play by. In one way or another, we seek to establish a sense of verisimilitude. Beyond that, we want our construction of events to seem plausible within the universe of writing. We wish to speak with authority. Reporting and hands-on research will inspire stories and suggest images and characters and the plotline itself.

When a reader takes up a book, he and the author are engaged in a joint act of creation, and he must reconstruct that world in his mind based on the details the author presents in words.

Think of the reader as Hellen Keller: she is blind and deaf and, for that matter, let us imagine that she doesn’t even have a sense of smell. All she relies on is touch: the touch of our words. We sign into her palm, telling her what is out there. She must trust us. We as authors are all she has to experience this created world. She clings to our arm, eager to know what we see and hear, forming pictures of her own within her mind. Thus she, too, participates in a joint creative act by envisioning the scenes and the characters that we sketch with words.

But when we hit a false note, Ms. Keller perceives the author behind the artifice of fiction, dressed in sweats, unshaven, unshowered, slouching in a chair with a cup of microwaved coffee, trying to think of some event to move the story along.

There are days when we all may feel we’re staring at a screen going nowhere. Perhaps these, most of all, are the days that could stand the help of reporting. The writer who thinks his job is confined to his desk at home is much more likely to trip up readers with phony descriptions or outlandish turns of plot. He yanks Ms. Keller out of the joint act of dreaming and thrusts her into the role of skeptic.

In 1989, Harpers Magazine published an essay by Tom Wolfe titled, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” a manifesto that was as bombastic and full of itself as its title. Wolfe quoted his own fiction approvingly and at length, and took it upon himself to denounce many of his contemporaries, who were angered and bewildered by his tone. The New Yorker described him as crashing a cocktail party and throwing writers around like a professional wrestler. A literary brawl ensued (always a fun thing), with some of America’s leading writers weighing in in the letters to the editor. But amid the uproar, Wolfe outlined some important lessons for writers, and I would argue that these apply both to fiction and creative non-fiction. He stated:

[The] task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.

He goes on:

Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary. To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of … a corrupt evangelist … Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chatauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.

Fine, you may say. That was Tom Wolfe, the guy in the white suits and high-collared shirts. The showman. Sure, he writes novels, such as Bonfire of the Vanities, but he cut his teeth on nonfiction like The Right Stuff. Of course he would recommend playing the reporter.

And as for me, I am a newspaper reporter by profession. Of course I am going to plug the skills of my dying medium, which is going the way of the town crier.

So how about a literary figure who is more in tune with the spirit of our times?

As it happens, not everyone agrees with Wolfe. Consider Jonathan Franzen, author, Freedom, which propelled him onto the cover of Time magazine. He argues that these days research doesn’t matter much—including, presumably, the reporting, notebook in hand, that I recommend.

In February he was asked to contribute a list of rules of writing to the Guardian. Number 5 was this: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Likewise, in an interview, he says, “I avoid [research] as much as possible. It gets in the way of invention.”

So is Wolfe wrong, or embarrassingly passé? Are we at our best when we discipline ourselves to remain at the desk and just pound the words out, unleashing the magical forces of our creativity?

In the age of Google, are we just wasting our time when we go out and scribble notes about the slaughtered lambs hanging in a halal butcher shop or the Chicago ex-cons selling jars of organic honey at a farmers market? If we are out jotting impressions in notebooks, aren’t guys like Franzen racing ahead by sitting at his desk and applying himself to the actual writing of books?

Time magazine hailed Franzen as “A Great American Novelist,” and nobody has called me up to sit for a cover portrait. No doubt his greatness contains such multitudes that he could write just as well from a padded cell. Perhaps only we hacks need to actually look at the things we are describing, the way minor artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci looked at live models when they drew the human form.

But I shall let you in on a secret: even Franzen doesn’t really believe what he is telling you. It strikes me as so unhelpful, I almost wonder if he is trying to winnow the competition by sending young writers up the wrong path.

Ha! They believed me, the suckers!

Here is why I know he isn’t being entirely straight with us. In the very next sentence of that interview I just cited, he admits that he traveled to West Virginia for four days to investigate coal mining communities for Freedom. He also said he had the help of others in researching Minneapolis neighborhoods, even though he himself is from Minnesota.

The research shows. He writes of the “matchstick Appalachian woods and the mining-ravaged districts.” He describes an hourglass-shaped vein of coal that lies under the mountains, at the center of which lives a clan headed by a man named Coyle Mathis, who is refusing to sell his ancestral home to a company that plans to remove the mountaintop, mine the coal, and create a nature reserve. When Mathis receives an offer to buy his property, Franzen writes, he “didn’t even wait to hear the details. He said, ‘No, N-O,’ and added that he intended to be buried in the family cemetery and no one was going to stop him.” When Mathis threatens to sick his dogs on the man making the offer, even shoot him, the scene has an authenticity that surely owes something to Franzen’s reporting in West Virginia.

So how do we use research and reporting to enhance, rather than obstruct, creativity? Here are some recommendations:


1. Get out.

As writers, we tend to feel that the only work that matters is that spent in front of the computer, pushing up the word count displayed at the bottom of the page. But simply getting up and getting out into the world can make the words flow afterwards, whether we’re heading to an A&P, like John Updike, or a scrap metal yard or a foreign country.

In Michelle Huneven’s novel Blame, an alcoholic history professor with a wild streak, Patsy MacLemoore, wakes up in jail after blackout. Patsy’s story begins thus:

Patsy MacLemoore came to on a concrete shelf in a cell in the basement of the Altadena Sheriff’s department. Her hair had woken her up. It stank.

She had said she would rather die than come back here. She’d said that both times she’d been here before.

The little jail had no windows. Fluorescent tubes quivered night and day. A fan clattered, off-kilter. Each of the three connected cells contained a seatless stainless-steel toilet and a tiny, one-faucet sink.

Lurching to the undersized sink, she drank from it sideways, cheek anchored against the greasy spout. The dribble was tepid and tasted of mold. In the next cell over, June’s haughty face loomed. Did she fuckin live here? Every time Patsy’d been in, she was, too. June’s top lip was like two paisleys touching. What’d you do this time, Professor? said the lips.

Don’t know, Patsy said. …

Not what I heard, June said. And lookit your face.

Patsy’s fingers went to a ridge of scab crystallizing along her cheekbone. No wonder her head hurt.

Returning to the shelf, she noted the itchy rasp of the prison gown. Lead-blue, unrippable, it was made of 45 percent stainless-steel, according to the label. She was naked beneath, not even panties.

I hear you’re in deep shit, Professor, [June said].

It is not until Patsy is sitting opposite two cops and her own lawyer does she begin to comprehend what she has done. She is tossing out flippant remarks—“We have to stop meeting like this”—when she sees a file in front of the detective. On it is written, HOMICIDE.

She learns she has been accused of running over and killing a mother and daughter while driving drunk. Her whole life as she knew it is over and she is heading for prison.

In an email, I asked Huneven how she was able to portray so convincingly the events including Patsy’s time in jail and a prison firefighting camp. Her discussion of how she researches illustrates my point. Huneven interviewed widely. She talked to everyone she knew, male and female, who had been in prison or jail. She unearthed subplots and storylines in real life.

She wrote me, “One woman in particular—she’s essentially Gloria in the book—talked to me at length; she’d been sober forever, but was manic depressive. With twenty years sober, she got off her meds, stole a hundred thousand bucks from her boss and drove across country delivering it to poor people she met at McDonalds and the like. She was sentenced to 4 years, served two, part of it in fire camp. For the firefighting details I interviewed a young woman I know who recently spent two summers fighting fires in the Sierra.”

Equally important, she visited the scene. Lacking Franzen’s mystical abilities as a seer, she was forced to trudge on down to a courtroom in person and spend a day observing what went on.

She writes:

“I interviewed prosecutors, who in turn did research for me about how much time a drunk driving/ criminal negligence charge would get you in the early 1980’s. I was momentarily stumped when I found out that they couldn’t prosecute for drunk driving because the accident happened on [private] property, but that ended being up a rather interesting part of the narrative, I thought. I interviewed a probation officer, I actually made my husband, who is a lawyer, write the declaration that frees Patsy from responsibility in the end. He gave me SUCH a dull document my agent made me slice it back to the few salient sentences.”

In my own writing, getting out of the office has inspired some of my best-received stories. I used to live in the Russian Far East, and I made five reporting trips to China. On one trip I encountered a couple whose lives would inspire a short story in my collection, The Irish Martyr.

In China when a freelance reporter such as myself asks around in a hotel for an interpreter, an uncomfortably friendly middle-aged man with hair dyed shoe-polish-black will show up in a white sedan with a soldier at the wheel and red flags flapping from the bumpers. Because I usually did business reporting, this never was a problem.

But on one visit I wanted to write about a highly sensitive topic, North Korean refugees. I couldn’t rely on the official story. Through friends I found an interpreter, and by sheer luck he knew of a refugee.

She had escaped North Korean, her hair thinning from malnutrition, and was sold as a wife to a Chinese peasant. In my story, “Dear Leader,” I described the day she is taken to meet her new husband. Let me do a Tom Wolfe and approvingly quote my own fiction:

An ethnic Korean marriage broker named Bong-il drove her to her new home near Yanji, rasping dire warnings all the way in the back seat of his smoky Land Cruiser while his driver adjusted the music on the stereo. “If you run away, we will find you, understand? He is paying good money for you, and we are men of our word. We will return you, and you’ll discover what an angry husband can do to a girl. I know this one guy, he chained his wife to the bed and gouged her eyes out the third time she tried to run away. If we don’t find you, the police will, and you know what that means: back to North Korea. Stay put. Even if he beats you, you’ll be fed, unlike in Hongwan, right? You will live. Seems like a fair bargain.” He threw his cigarette butt out the window and asked, “Are you listening?” She was. “Good,” he said, “because I’m not trying to scare you, I hope you’re happy, I truly do, you are such a pretty girl, or you will be when you fatten up and your hair grows back. … Incidentally, it’s his prerogative to resell you if he wishes. Maybe that isn’t so bad. Think of it this way: if you don’t get along, maybe you’ll end up with someone more compatible.”

This monologue was inspired by the refugee’s description of the conditions under which she arrived. In fact her very predicament is drawn from my interviews with the real-life refugee woman and the husband who had bought her.

We mere scribblers cannot invent such situations. We go out and sift through the infinite range of stories the world offers us. And it amazes us.


2. Find a Guide.

Dante had Virgil to guide him in his pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. If you are overwhelmed in an unfamiliar area or topic, find a guide.

By way of example let us consider George Packer, a reporter for the New Yorker. In a 2007 nonfiction piece, Packer described meeting two young Iraqis in Baghdad. Othman was Sunni, Laith was Shiite.

Packer met them at the Palestine Hotel, where, two years earlier, a suicide bomber driving a cement mixer had triggered an explosion that nearly brought down the hotel’s eighteen-story tower. He writes:

It had taken Othman three days to get to the hotel from his house, in western Baghdad. On the way, he was trapped for two nights at his sister’s house, which was in an ethnically mixed neighborhood: gun battles had broken out between Sunni and Shiite militiamen. Othman watched the home of his sister’s neighbor, a Sunni, burn to the ground. Shiite militiamen scrawled the words “Leave or else” on the doors of Sunni houses. Othman was able to leave the house only because his sister’s husband—a Shiite, who was known to the local Shia militias—escorted him out. Othman took a taxi to the house of Laith’s grandfather; from there, he and Laith went to the Palestine, where they enjoyed their first hot water in several weeks.

These two men became his guides. Packer says in an interview with the Poynter Institute that this is his general practice. “I need someone who can provide me with the introduction to the place and give me sense of the landscape,” he says.

For a story on the U.S. Senate, Packer relied on the insights of beat reporters who knew the ins and outs of the institution, along with the staffers familiar with its obscure rules. When he decided to investigate the roots of the financial meltdown, he chose Tampa in part because a friend there could show him around. The two canvassed the Tampa Bay area, driving through subdivisions and taking to people randomly. What he learned in those interviews became the core of the story.

“Once I get there, I’m constantly saying, ‘Who else should I talk to?’ ‘Do you know anyone in this situation?’ ” Packer says. “And people tend to be quite generous with that information, and most people want to tell their story.”

Fiction writers also may find a guide helpful in unfamiliar territory. In interviews, Colum McCann has talked about how he lived with homeless people in the subway tunnels and traveled to Russia to research another novel. But the book I wish to discuss is Zoli, is about a Roma, or Gypsy, singer and poet born in Slovakia in the 1930s during the height of fascist power in Europe.

In it, the six-year-old Zoli, who will become an acclaimed singer and poet, learns from her grandfather that fascist militiamen have driven her clan and its wagons and horses out onto the winter ice and encircled the shore with fires. The ice collapses and the people drown. Zoli tells us, “My mother was gone, my father, my brothers, my sister and cousins, too.”

The book has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the life of Roma, a society that has long been persecuted and also closed to outsiders. Its descriptions struck me as deeply authentic. Consider this description of a visitor enters a Roma settlement:

Doorframes used as tables. Sackcloth for curtains. Empty çuçu bottles strung up as wind chimes. At his feet, bits of wood and porridge containers, lollipop sticks and shattered glass, the ground-down bones of some dead animal. He catches glimpses of babies hammocked from ceilings, flies buzzing around them as they sleep. He reaches for his camera but is pushed on in the swell of children. Open doorways are quickly closed. Bare bulbs switched off. He notices carpets on the walls, and pictures of Christ, and pictures of Lenin, and pictures of Mary Magdalene, and pictures of Saint Jude lit by small red candles high above empty shelves. From everywhere comes the swell of music, no accordions, no harps, no violins, but every shack with a TV or a radio on full volume, an endless thump. …

He is led around a sharp corner to the largest shanty of all. A satellite dish sits new and shiny on the roof. He knocks on the plywood door. It swings open a little further with each knuckle rap. Inside there is a contingent of eight, nine, maybe ten men. They raise their heads like a parliament of ravens. A few of them nod, but they continue their hand, and he knows the game is nonchalance—he has played it himself in other parts of the country, the flats of Bratislava, the ghettos of Presov, the slums of Letanovce.

In an interview McCann discusses his research methods. He says his guides, Martin and Laco, introduced him to writers, musicians, ethnographers, sociologists and Roma activists. He went to the most notorious Slovakian settlements to see the conditions of life there: the mud and wattle huts, the poverty, the desolation. No electricity, he says. No running water. He sang old Irish songs, hung out and watched what they did. He was an outsider, dependent on others to show him around, but he showed empathy and tried not to intrude.

He adds:

[O]ne day I was in Svinia … [and] a big group of kids and I went down to the local soccer pitch to play football together. We were playing away happily, quietly. But then these “white” women started shouting at us from a distance. Before we knew it we were hounded out by the mayor and the local policemen who called us “fucking Gypsies.” Except they were a bit puzzled by me. They kept staring at me. As if to say, Who’s the white boy? … We got kicked out. They locked the gates behind us. I tried to protest in English and apparently they were calling me another bleeding heart, another European sentimentalist. We walked away, back to the settlement. A half-mile along this country road. Quietly. No fuss. No fights. There was lots of broken glass at the field near the settlement. That’s why we couldn’t play there and had to go to town.

But therein lies the dilemma. I could make this a story about being treated terribly by the local authorities. That’s true, but it’s also true that nobody smashed glass on that field other than the Roma themselves. The kids had ruined their own field. That’s the heartbreak. That’s the contradiction that fiction, too, has to find.

Moments like that are hard to create from an office chair in front of your laptop.


3. Talk to sources who have lived the life you’re writing about.

Interview taxi drivers, garbage men, street preachers, beauticians, aldermen, astrophysicists, the homeless Poles who sleep in dumpsters in Chicago—whomever you’re writing about.

In November 1959, two ex-cons entered a farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, and murdered the owner, his wife, and their two children. It was a horrific, senseless, random crime of the sort that makes headlines nationwide and then vanishes into the criminal system. But Truman Capote saw behind the headlines a powerful story worthy of a great writer’s attention, and he decided to pursue it for his so-called “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. He and his assistant, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas. At the courthouse they tracked down the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents who were handling the case.

In 1997 George Plimpton wrote an oral history on the writing of the book for the New Yorker.  He recounts how Capote left a singular impression with the people he spoke to.

One agent tells Plimpton, “Al Dewey [a KBI agent], invited me to come up and meet this gentleman who’d come to town to write a book. So the four of us, KBI agents, went up to his room that evening after dinner. And here [Truman] is in kind of a new pink negligee, silk with lace, and he’s strutting across the floor with his hands on his hips telling us all about how he’s going to write this book.”

My point is not that we all need to wear pink negligees when we’re interviewing cops. Rather, is that Capote, a gay New Yorker, was bold enough to go into an alien milieu, that of homicide detectives, and win their cooperation, despite some outrageous behavior. He obtained extensive interviews with nearly every major person in the book, including the murderers themselves.

KBI agent Alvin Dewey said, “He got information nobody else got, not even us.”

(Truman’s breach of ethics in achieving this scoop are a matter of discussion for another day.)


Last year I dug up that old novel of mine—the one with the cigar-smoking coroner—and I blushed when I read some of the scenes. But still, I thought it was worth another go, and after a revision, so did my agent.

When I first dove into the manuscript again, I decided to research every major element of the plot. I interviewed cops and day laborers and a guy who paints houses for a living. I found two University of Chicago surgeons who treat bullet wounds, and I  sat in on the class of an Aikido instructor.

A cult plays a central role in the novel so I interviewed a woman who had spent two decades in Tony Alamo Christian Ministries; its leader is now serving a 175-year sentence in federal penitentiary for taking girls as young as nine across state lines to have sex with them. I listened to sermons by the Rev. Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to their deaths. I interviewed the CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to the rescue of big cats such as lions and tigers.

Since writing the original draft I had visited a morgue in Russia, but I still sought out an investigator at the coroner’s office in Los Angeles. That, after all, was where the book was set. She agreed to talk to me, but she said we could not under any circumstances, see the crypt—the area where they store the bodies—or the rooms where the autopsies are done. All we could do is meet in her office.

I was a little disappointed, but it was better than nothing.

We looked at all kinds of grisly photos. As I described the situation in my novel, she would show me pictures. She saw that I wasn’t going to throw up on her desk when we saw the grim images. When I asked about the layout of the crypt, she said, “Oh, hell. Let’s just go look at it.”

And suddenly we were trotting downstairs, donning surgeon’s masks—which kind of hindered our cigar-smoking—and marching in to see the room where several hundred bodies were stored.

Now, I’m not going to give away all my hard-earned research to other writers. Needless to say that in this particular morgue, at least, was nothing like what you see on TV.

There is no substitute for seeking out sources. If your character is a high school football coach, call one up and ask if you can drop by practice some afternoon. If she is a lawyer or a foot masseuse or a Ukrainian baker, go find one to talk to. If you want to write about a journalist, talk to one.

If you are writing a memoir, be willing to interview your family or friends or others who lived the experience you are writing about.

All right, but how do you reach the people you need to talk to? Admittedly, it is harder for a fiction writer than a newspaper reporter, but it is not impossible.

For the LA County Coroner’s Office, I dug up a story that quoted a woman extensively, and called her directly. I simply told her I am a writer working on a novel, and I wanted to get things right. She seemed pleased at my diligence. To talk to a cop, I called the LAPD public affairs office. The spokeswoman told me she doubted any detective would talk to me, but she said she would ask. It turned out the head of the department was intrigued by my project and was willing to help.

If the official sources say no, try a back door. Talk to friends and put out feelers to reach people.

Record your interviews. Interestingly, Capote didn’t do this, but he claimed to have had near perfect recall. He said that when he was a boy, he would memorize pages of the New York telephone book. Then he would have somebody quiz him: “On line so-and-so, what’s the name there and what’s the telephone number.” He didn’t even take notes; he and Lee would return to their rooms and write down their recollections of conversations afterwards.

For mere mortals, a good recorder is essential. In writing Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer and his collaborator Lawrence Schiller said they recorded hundreds of hours of interviews amounting to thousands of pages of transcripts. This is why the voice so closely parallels those of the characters whose lives it recounts. I have a little Sony digital recorder that you can plug it into your computer when you get home, so you can download the audio file and transcribe it later. As you do, this will help you accurately recall what they said. It gives you a sense of your source’s voice, character, thought patterns, and manerisms.

Once you have talked to your sources, something interesting happens. They become a Council of the Wise whom you can consult with further questions. Ask them for their email address. You need to use them judiciously, but they are great for checking out details. Don’t send lists of 20 questions or they won’t reply, but use them.

I did this with the coroner’s investigator. The missing persons detective had told me a rather amazing story about how a cadaver dog sniffed up a homicide victim. But I needed to know who would respond to a scene where a body is found in a backyard. I emailed my source in the coroner’s department, asking how many personnel would show up, and she sent me a long email in reply. Here is just a small part:

Shallow Grave in a backyard: Personnel present: Police Department Homicide Detectives & Photographer, Coroner Special Operations response team (Handling Investigator, Criminalist, Forensic Anthropolgist, Photographer and Cadaver Dog & Handler -remaining team members consisting of other Investigators, Forensic Attendants and Criminalists).


4. Do your homework.

Fine, but how do we know what sources to seek out? Of course, this is often plain from the work itself. But it also helps to do your homework. Before McCann traveled to Europe to research the Roma, he spent a year in the New York Public Library. Huneven had done a major investigative piece on the California Youth Authority years ago, and she drew off of the contacts she made them.

Doug Glover has a novel named Elle, about a lusty young French girl whose shipmates abandon her on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during an early expedition to colonize Canada. She is found by a native hunter, who becomes her lover and helps her survive, and she is drawn into what has been called “a bear-haunted dream world.” She even shape-shifts into a bear.

The novel makes heavy use of aboriginal mythology and magic. And yet what also interested me was the vivid realism in its portrayal of 16th century France and native life in its newly established colonies. It feels grounded in reality. The myths it describes are convincing. In his acknowledgments Doug, says he plundered many books to come up with a compelling vision of life that era. But he also tells me that in researching the novel, he talked to a librarian at a reservation who had archived tapes of interviews with old Indians.

Doug also hunts through bibliographies looking for papers published in journals, especially old ones. He would find a paper, and from its bibliography and get even more sources.

“The key to research is that you’re looking for the fact that is not commonly known,” he told me. “It infuses your writing with authenticity, if it’s real yet somewhat surprising.”

He also offers a hint for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of interviewing. Doug says he would never go up to an Indian and ask him about anything directly. But if you hang around, you start to get a feel for things such as way they name and nickname people and the kind of humor they have.

Thus he gives his characters names like Comes Winter, an Indian girl who was kidnapped and taken to France and is dying of consumption. One little boy is named Old Man, while an old man is named Gets Close to Caribou.

Gets Close to Caribou earned his name one winter when a panicky caribou spooked in the wrong direction and almost trampled him to death. Gets Close was unconscious for a week—he dreamed the caribou lifted him in its mouth and carried him to Caribou Mountain, north of the Land of Nothing. He stayed with the king of the caribou, a former hunter who had fallen in love with a caribou-woman. All present-day caribou are descended from this hunter and his caribou girlfriend.

In my own case, in reporting for my fiction, I have gone to the federal courthouse in Chicago and pulled records on an ongoing Russian mafia trial, including indictments and transcripts of FBI wiretaps. This gave me the chance to read about the father-son team of money launderers Lev and Boris Stratievsky. The father was nicknamed Dollar, the son Half-Dollar. Great names! I didn’t use those in my fiction, but they set my imagination running.

The two were laundering millions of dollars as a part of a broader criminal network of Eastern Europeans. They were shipping stolen cars and heavy machinery abroad, peddling drugs and guns to Chicago street gangs, committing mortgage fraud, and trafficking in young women. These reports provided a rich background that allowed me to think more expansively about the mobster at the center of my story. For one thing, I moved my mobster out of a Chicago two-flat into a mansion on Lake Michigan.

Think creatively. You can also request military records to find out if that veteran you are writing about is telling the truth about the Navy Cross he claims he won or whether he even was in Vietnam, let alone butchered all those women and children he butchered there.

You are all familiar with the Internet, but I will say two things.

1. It can be a marvelous research tool for original documents, even if you don’t have access to legal databases. For example, there is a web site that has extensive documentation, including original court records, on American jihadists who have been convicted on terror charges.

Elsewhere, you can find FBI transcripts of Jim Jones urging his followers to commit suicide in Guyana, and one woman arguing, futilely, that the children should be spared.

2. But the Internet can be a deadly trap. It keeps you at your desk, rather than getting you out into the world. It’s tempting to check out Google street view rather than drive to that neighborhood with a notebook in hand. It is also a distraction. Franzen warns about this with his usual hyperbole: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”


Let me conclude by returning to Tom Wolfe. His point is not merely that on-scene research and reporting create verisimilitude and make a novel gripping or absorbing, although these are important. Rather, he states, this kind of reporting is essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve. Wolf writes:

In 1884 Zola went down into the mines at Anzin to do the documentation for what was to become the novel Germinal. Posing as a secretary for a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he descended into the pits wearing his city clothes, his frock coat, high stiff collar, and high stiff hat … and carrying a notebook and pen. One day Zola and the miners who were serving as his guides were 150 feet below the ground when Zola noticed an enormous workhorse … pulling a sled piled with coal through a tunnel. Zola asked, “How do you get that animal in and out of the mine every day?” At first the miners thought he was joking. Then they realized he was serious, and one of them said, “Mr. Zola, don’t you understand? That horse comes down here once, when he’s a colt, barely more than a foal, and still able to fit into the buckets that bring us down here. That horse grows up down here. He grows blind down here after a year or two, from the lack of light. He hauls coal down here until he can’t haul it anymore, and then he dies down here, and his bones are buried down here.” When Zola transfers this revelation from the pages of his documentation notebook to the pages of Germinal, it makes the hair on your arms stand on end. You realize, without the need of amplification, that the horse is the miners themselves, who descend below the face of the earth as children and dig coal down in the pit until they can dig no more and then are buried, often literally, down there.

The moment of The Horse in Germinal is one of the supreme moments in French literature—and it would have been impossible without that peculiar drudgery that Zola called documentation.

— Russell Working


Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.



May 142013

Hilary, girl writer. Photo credit: Bill Hayward.Hilary Mullins, girl writer. Photo credit: bill hayward.

“Elephants Can Remember” is a sweet, all too brief memoir of a grandmother and a childhood from Hilary Mullins, a Vermont writer I have known since she was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, yea, these many years ago. Hilary was never my student but she has the gift of making friends, and she used to hang out in Francois Camoin’s room across from me in Noble Hall where a group of us would be drinking wine and talking late into the night. In this essay, Hilary writes about her beloved grandmother, nicknamed Germ, who was a force of nature, a tank, as one of her children called her, and a puzzle. One of the puzzles is how much she loved puzzles and mystery novels, especially the novels of Agatha Christie. This is Hilary’s fourth contribution to NC; she has previously published two sermons and a piece on Hurricane Irene in Bethel, VT. And it’s a gorgeous addition to our growing list of Childhood essays.

As an added perk we also have photographs of the girl writer by the renowned New York photographer bill hayward who happens to be Hilary’s uncle and who took the epic Gordon Lish photos we published a couple of issues ago. In an email, Hilary wrote: “For the record, the black and whites from my childhood were taken by Bill–check out that cowboy hat, eh? He gave it to me for my 5th birthday as I recall, and oh what a big deal it was. When I was 10 and he lived in Vermont too, I really couldn’t think of anything to do that was more exciting than going to visit my uncle Bill.”



One late summer day this year, I went up to the attic of the old house where I grew up, climbing the steep and narrow stairs to the open, slanted space, a familiar musty smell of aged wood and bat dung thick in my nose. Turning right, I walked along the top of the west ell of the house, threading between two long, chest-high mounds made by the sheets my father draped over shelves and boxes long ago to protect them from bat droppings. Though the bats are all but gone now—those little mummies wrapped in wrinkled sackcloth hanging upside down in clusters along the joists like dark seed pods everywhere–the sheets are still here, a sign of hope for their resurrection left so long I’ve forgotten what lies buried below.

But I’ve not forgotten what’s down to the right of the small, spidery window at the end of the ell: my grandmother’s things, boxes of pots and pans and chotzkes. Germie’s corner is how I think of that spot, and my guess is all of us in the family think of it that way: her stuff has been here twenty-five years, since she died one night in January  of ‘87, when I was just twenty-five myself.

Of course not everything my grandmother, whose name was Ethel, had is still here: five years ago, for instance, around the time of the anniversary of her passing, my dad and stepmother brought out a couple boxes of her jewelry, each of us at the dinner table choosing a few things, laughing as we picked through the baubles, fingering clip-on earrings, shaking our heads as we remembered the woman one of her sons, now gone himself, used to refer to as “my mother the Russian tank.”


So I knew the jewelry was gone. But that wasn’t what I was after: it never was. I was coming at last for the books. I had decided to write a mystery. Never mind I’ve never been a mystery reader myself: my grandmother was, most emphatically, and I thought I might take a clue from her. So pulling away the thin and dusty sheets, ashy attic grime smearing onto my fingers, I began to dig through the boxes until I found what I’d come for:  a book by Agatha Christie, the one writer I could remember for sure my grandmother had loved. And this particular book, called Elephants Can Remember, I even vaguely recognized, a hardcover book clad in an off-white cover, an outline image on the front of an elephant made up of puzzle pieces with one missing, a skull-shaped hole gaping just below his neck, the skull itself floating eerily just above, a bit of levitated, mock ghastliness I dimly remembered, the elephant and the skull and the book itself sitting on the shelf in her place, the top of which I could catch a glimpse of even now through the window in the attic, my grandmother’s two little kitchen windows below.

There in the little apartment fashioned out of the first floor of what once was a barn-slash-woodshed, a place we called, after her own joking suggestion, Ethel’s Luncheonette, she had read this book and done her crossword puzzles, my grandmother the Russian tank, a first-generation German born just after the turn of the last century, a stout woman with big feet and hands and a tissue stuck under the strap of her bra, a working class woman who liked her fancy clothes when occasion called for it, but usually wore colorful sweatshirts and polyester pants. Which, in my mind’s eye, she’s wearing still, enthroned in her large, wood-framed easy chair, sneakers propped on an overstuffed orange plastic hassock before her, cigarette adding its idle punctuation to her nonstop talk, that perennial bit of smoke drifting up from her fingers.

Germ in 1986, shortly before she died in this chair. Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & Bill Hayward

Germ in 1986, shortly before she died in this chair. Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & bill hayward

So, too, at night when Johnny Carson was over and we’d all gone to bed, she was in that chair, sipping her rum and Cokes, smoking her Pall Malls, drifting with her puzzles and er books long and late into the night, immersed in the word.

I, too, already, was immersed in the word back then, was famous—or infamous depending I suppose—for churning out book reports as steadily as our hot-air popper spewed out popcorn, reading books in bed, in trees, in class behind my Junior High English text book. And I was writing. Badly, childishly, but still. Writing. And as I got older and went away to boarding school, my stuff got darker.

My grandmother did not approve. “Why do you always have to write about sad things?” she’d chide me. “Write about something happy. People don’t want to read sad stories.” What did I say to her? I don’t know. All I remember is a little smoke between the ears, that particular keen-edged resentment young people can feel towards their all-knowing elders when they haven’t yet figured out how to articulate their own dissenting sense of a thing. Now, all these years later, it occurs to me we perhaps were after all, the same but different, going to books for analogous causes but in search of different balms. I wanted to find some expression, however transmuted, of the quiet disasters I was enduring. But my grandmother, I’d guess, went in order to think of different things altogether. And for that I cannot blame her.

Ethel Weippert Mullins had grown up poor in a large immigrant family, the oldest daughter of a violent German father who, I’ve been given the impression, would knock you across the room soon as talk to you, a policeman so infamously brutal that African Americans in Newark would cross the street rather than walk in front of his house. Though in the end my grandmother herself was a proud survivor, far as I can make out, life in her family was a series of catastrophes, her brothers drowning themselves in their bottles, one of her sisters becoming a drug addict, later murdered in the bathtub by her husband.

1975 Germ with her remaining siblings. Two--a brother and a sister--have already died (sister's murder is mentioned in essay).

1975 Germ with her remaining siblings. Two–a brother and a sister–have already died (one of her sisters was murdered). Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & bill hayward

No wonder then my grandmother ran off just as soon as she could, fleeing with a handsome Canadian Irish man named Bernard who did not drink but gambled with the same reckless abandon her brothers had all taken to booze. For a while she lived with him in Montreal, doubtless hoping for a new and better life, but three little boys later, in the midst of the Depression, when that better life was not coming to pass, she left him, still so very young herself, and fled again back to the States to live with her mother in Connecticut, raising her sons on the rough side of Danbury and never marrying again.

Germ and her three boys in October of 1934. My father is on the left.

Germ and her three boys in October of 1934. My father is on the left.

So my grandmother, who’d had her fill of sad, quite understandably had no wish to go to books for more. Instead, I imagine her during those long nights alone, savoring her books and crossword puzzles like sweets, using their plots and grids to chart her way across the vast hours of darkness.

Because my grandmother stayed up so late, she also slept in, sometimes till as late as eleven, snoring so loudly that in the summer when we were little, we could hear her through the open window and catch scandalized glimpses of a high lump under the covers where we knew she was sleeping with no clothes on. But she was not to be wakened, a boundary she always reinforced by last thing at night locking her door, a Dutch-style door with an upper and lower half. Many a morning I gave that door a careful, quiet tug to see if it was still latched from the inside, but many a morning, it would not budge. Finally a half hour later, maybe a whole hour, you would hear it, the characteristic iron-striking-iron sound that door made when she popped the deadbolt open and threw back the cast iron swivel-arm that held the two halves together.

Then you were glad: the door was open and you went romping in, hoping for the spaghetti she would fry up with peppers and onions and eggs, hoping for her chipped beef, hoping for a hundred things. Because my grandmother gave continually, putting before us not just breakfast but dinner too some nights, and in between, brownies and chocolate puddings and games of cards, clearing her table to spread out another hand of Go Fish or Kings in the Corner. Summers she took us swimming, stowing a cooler in the trunk of her old Rambler which skittered up and down the dirt roads like an oversized Pepsi can. Then, at the lake, at a place where you could park all day for $3, we kids immersed ourselves like pollywogs in the miraculously clean water while she presided from the little beach in her lawn chair, the kind with aluminum pole legs and colorful plastic webbing, one leg crossed over the other, her big red painted toenails prominent even from out in the water. Finally, at some point she would always heft herself up and come in too, wading her bulk in, letting my little sister and me shimmy underwater through her legs a few times before she headed out for her own swim, using a stroke I still like to use myself from time to time, a combination of side and breast stroke, a strolling way through the water. Or she would roll over and rest there on the surface like a pontoon, placid and still. Her ability to do this mystified me. When I tried, I sank like a little barrel filled with sand. But she floated without even effort, imperturbable, content with her portion of water and sky.

1969, My brothers, sister and me

1969. My brothers, sister and me. Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & bill hayward

Given all this, it was only natural we were keen in the mornings for our grandmother to wake. True, like any Russian tank, she might run us over from time to time—but never with malice, for though she was, to put it bluntly, bossy, she was not unkind. The only way any of us I think ever felt truly flattened by her was through her talk, which at times had a kind of stunning endlessness to it, a tendency which became more pronounced as she got older, the way she would neglect to finish the end of one sentence before taking off on another, fumbling for that tissue under her bra strap to wipe the sides of her mouth and yet still scarcely pausing, her words endlessly surging at you, as if you were trapped beneath a falls, the water coming constantly, bombarding you senseless.

Looking back, it seems to me some of this barrage must have found its springs in her loneliness—to come with us in the late sixties to rural Vermont, with its farmers and fields, our grandmother had left behind the rest of her family and friends back in Danbury, a move that had worked well when we were little, but to a large extent left her stranded as we got older and began to scatter and my parents’ marriage broke up too, leaving her alone for days on end three miles out from town on a back road, a situation that understandably made her not only angry but overly chatty.

Be that as it may however, much of my grandmother’s talk was more than chatter in overdrive: it was conversation, for she was a woman who had things she wanted you to know. And yet, for all her intense need to convey this or that or the next hundred things, there was also a way I began to understand she was not exactly communicating, at least not in the hopeful sense of the word. For that was the other thing: when it came to my grandmother and her talk, I often had this sense of her standing back behind the flood of words as if behind a tree at a river, calculating what she intended, peering out from her shelter to gauge your response. She had a way of leaving a key piece out, of hinting around it to see what you might know or think yourself, as if trying to flush you out first, rather than hazarding a clear statement of her own to begin with. She was always holding something back.

Of course I know now this is, more or less, the way the whole world talks. Always we too are leaving a key thing out, too afraid, too defended, or just too insensible, mis-trained as it were, to clearly say what we see and feel and think. I do it myself. And yet my grandmother did it more, feinting and dodging, retreating behind her words, where, in spite of all she said, she would not declare herself.  And that made her, as my sister-in-law commented recently, “hard to understand, that’s for sure.”

But let me be fair.  There were things plenty easy to understand about her, even when I was little. If I close my eyes for instance, I can still feel her hug, the way she would draw me close in, smushing me right up into her big mamma bear body, her large arms wrapping warmth around me. Truth is to be loved by my grandmother was to have a place in the world and be anchored there.

And so she held us, and so the years went on. And so too, even as we grew older, we still tugged at that door in the morning, and we waited, and we tried again.  And we also saw she was getting older herself, a fact which began to give her locked door another significance: I doubt I was the only one who began to regard it with some misgiving, dreading the morning that door would not open.

Don't know date--my sister and I

My sister and me. Photo credit: bill hayward

As it turned out, when that morning came, I was not there. My sister was though, home from college, with one of my brothers, the two of them finally resorting in the early afternoon to pushing open one of the small windows over Germie’s sink from the outside, my brother boosting my sister up so she could clamber in, crawl across the sink, and lower herself carefully down.  And when she came around the corner to the little sitting room, she found our grandmother still in her chair, crossword puzzle in her lap, already gone.

No more puzzles then, no more books either for our grandmother, just a poem I read at her funeral a few days later, a poem about a child and her kite, a poem that closed with the kite doing what it wants most, what the soul perhaps wants most of all in the end, to burst past night and rise through haze/ of radiance to a sky beyond these skies/where brighter beings float free of earth’s ties.

Was that really what we all believed? I don’t know: everyone has their own ideas about these things. In the end, the only thing we knew for sure was like the kite, she was gone: all we had left was a canister of ashes kept in the cupboard by the fireplace. But we knew they were not ours to keep either. Finally, two and a half years later, on a late summer morning, we took a row boat out into the lake she’d taken us to so many times  and sowed her ashes to the waters, watching the strange trails those powdery shards made across the surface, windings garnished with the wild flowers my sister had cut that morning from a field, a bright yellow profusion strewed out behind us.


1971 Photo Credit: bill hayward

Twenty-five years now it’s been, and I miss her still, not with that stunning acuteness of first loss, but with a kind of keen wistfulness. Because of course I want her back. More than anything that was what brought me up to the attic to find her old Agatha Christie books. Fifty now, gaining on the age my grandmother was when I first knew her, I thought I might get a better sense of her through her treasures, even if those treasures seemed to me a little gaudy, a little cheap, the literary equivalent of her old costume jewelry. But that was ok: I was ready to be wrong about that. I wanted to like Christie. I was looking forward to digging into her pages, to casting around in her passages for some echo of my grandmother, of how she thought about things. Really, to be frank, I would say I was looking for a little philosophy, a little love.

But half a dozen Christie books later, all I can really say I’ve found are puzzles. True, they are most often well-wrought puzzles, wrapped in a requisite amount of deft characterization and dialogue, but it’s a comic world my grandmother’s favorite writer conjures up, not a place of depth. Where I look for meaning, Agatha Christie is producing clues. And yet that must be the key, I figure, when it comes to my grandmother. She loved her crosswords just as much as she loved Christie, probably because both are built on clues, and because the pleasure involved, I suppose, is what you construct in your mind with those clues as you read–along with the completed perfection of the thing at the end when Bingo! all the pieces connect.

Still, for someone with a poetic, even scholarly bent, this is not much to show for my efforts. So what if I’ve discovered my grandmother enjoyed putting clues together? And so the world is round, they say, and goes about the sun. And tomorrow is another day.

But let me temper myself. My disappointment is making me sell them both short. Christie may have thought of herself, for instance, as merely clever, but at her best, she does have a kind of mad genius for these puzzles of hers, especially in her inexhaustible churning out of those clues. For as limited as the settings in her books tend to be—a little clutch of characters in a teacup—Christie’s clues come in stupefying superabundance, the tart Miss Marple or the smug M. Poirot amassing bewildering thickets of them. In Elephants Can Remember, the book for instance, I found in my grandmother’s things, the murder is a dated one, but the same pattern holds, Poirot and his confidante, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer of all things, flushing out aging clues from aging characters, many of whom make cameo appearances just long enough to contribute their little clue.

And yet even with this potentially slow-as-syrup scenario, Christie keeps the clues coming like a pitching machine gone haywire. And these clues have energy: they direct your attention. One tugs your nose one way, the next yanks you in another, and meanwhile, ten more are coming straight on at you, a blur in succession, a blizzard in your headlights.

Did my grandmother hang on through all this? I wish I could joke with her about it because I certainly didn’t. I just got buried, barely hanging on as chapter by chapter M. Poirot or Miss Marple navigated the way with lanterns, lead explorers in a cave at last clicking on the light, banishing darkness at book’s end to reveal a marvelously intricate design on the walls.

So yes, I can see the pleasure in all this. And yet my grandmother was right when she did not try to share her books with me, the way she did with my mother and sister-in-law, eagerly passing her favorites on. I think even if she did not approve of my tastes—and I’m afraid she didn’t, thinking of me as arrogant–she understood I did not go to books for Bingo, that I was not interested in that delicious moment when the chips all line up–a fact time has not changed. For we are different readers still, my grandmother and me. The only puzzles I really care about are the ones we cannot solve. And she was one of them.

Me the next fall, age 25, after she died in '87. This photo I just had scanned not cause I think it should really go in but because I like it. But it is about the age I was in the scene I describe at the end of the essay.

Me, age 25, the fall after Germ died in ’87. Photo credit: Kristen Mullins

A couple of years after I graduated from college, my grandmother asked me to drive her up to visit her sister-in-law Bernice in Toronto. I remember specially the drive north, the particular pleasure she took in that autumn day, a day that in my recollection is filled with an abundance of light, light on the glittering waters around the Champlain Islands, on the glowing swaths of the still green fields, light suffused in the richly brilliant reds and yellows of the maples.

Then we arrived at Bernice’s. Though she’d left Bernice’s brother so many years before, having nothing to do with him afterwards, I knew my grandmother had always stayed close with Bernice herself. I also knew she had once been a great beauty, but it was hard to discern even faded glory in this nice but shrunken old woman who hosted us, this continual smoker who seemed not so much caved in but hollowed out, as if the gods had sucked at her bones like straws, leaving her skin dry as old paper. She seemed to blink often and never once went out the whole time we were there, never once changed out of her bathrobe, slowly making her way around that small, smoky, always darkened apartment, a cave I was glad to escape from once or twice a day for the long weekend we were there, walking up to the wide open grounds of a local school to breathe and feel my legs again.

Meanwhile, back in the den as it were, my grandmother and Bernice were having their great visit, their last one in fact, something they both must have known was likely. One night they got into their cups and, stationed at one end of Bernice’s bed, which took up nearly the whole of the room, commenced to spin out some story, the two of them made merry and wise by drink, each adding bits to their patchwork of recollection, chuckling and chucking their chins, as people who have known each other for years will do, nodding sadly in one spot, smirking in another.

Because there was nowhere else to go in that stuffy, tiny place, I was in the room too, reading at the other end of the bed but made privy to their talk, the realization gradually dawning on me as their words filled my ears that for the first time, I was seeing someone who wasn’t just my grandmother, but a woman in her own right, a woman like me with an entire life teeming full of friends and work, heart-felt things, dramas, things I was suddenly keen to know about.

So as they sat there, mildly tittering over another thing somebody once had done, I asked a question about it, aware I might be trespassing, but feeling somehow that my motivation was good. Unfortunately my execution probably wasn’t. I think I went about it stumbling, the way a child does on skates the first time, awkwardly stiff, lofting my words self-consciously—or at least that’s how it feels in my guilty recall.

Because no grace came of it. Instead my grandmother turned on me as she never had before, rearing back with a snarl. “You might want to know, but you never will—you will never know the truth about my life!”

Think of a bear that smacks its young with claws out. Without moving from where she was the other side of the room, she landed a direct blow, one that even seemed sharpened with the pleasure she took in her ability to withhold herself from me, some spite in it surging across the years now as clearly as it did then, dazing me even yet because I still don’t understand it, why she reacted that way. And standing alongside her, Bernice in her bathrobe seemed to be wondering at it too, blinking, shifting her weight to another foot, looking away. I retreated.

The next morning I was back outside, walking the windy grounds behind the school up the block. Overhead, the dark sky was thickly blanketed in gray, a color that seemed to be overtaking everything–the field I was walking in and the trees that bordered it, their branches stripped, thrashing in the gusts that now and again tore across the exposed landscape. It was a Saturday or a Sunday, no children in sight, and I had no particular endpoint in mind either. I was just walking, chin tucked into my jacket as I crossed the gradual slope.

Then I saw it, though at first I did not understand what it was, some strange flurry of white in motion that only gradually came into focus: an old dictionary, sprawled on the ground in pieces, as if some defiant student had just ripped through it, shredding out the innards and heaving the covers aside. But rather than being destroyed, the words now were liberated, the pages everywhere, each one intensely peopled with words, and now in the wind they were scattering across the hillside like big bright leaves, they were swirling like a thrumming, eager flock, a gust lifting them at last in an eruption of wings, my baffled heart lifting with them.

August 1950, Germ working as an operator for Southern Bell. Note the bare feet!

August 1950, Germ working as an operator for Southern Bell. Note the bare feet!

The morning our grandmother’s door did not open came a few months after this, on the coldest night of that next winter, my sister finding her in her big wooden chair, the pen she’d been writing with still in her fingers but her spirit flown, her big friendly body uninhabited, an empty place all of us came home to circle around and grieve. And yet, now, even after all these years, we find it’s us she inhabits, secured behind a lock she will not throw back, but dwelling all the same deep within the marrow of our bones and brains, floating in us word on word, our grandmother, exquisitely puzzling, like the line of flowers and ashes she left behind, a bright and silent trail I am following still.

–Hilary Mullins


Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.

May 032013


Donald  Quist just moved to Bangkok, oh, a few months ago after graduating with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, making a new home and giving NC a chance to add a fascinating new city/country our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays. These essays have been part of the NC package from the beginning, adding a wonderfully human and personal aspect to what the magazine offers (which is, well, human and personal anyway). Take time to look through the whole list and then think about where you live, how beautiful it can be just stepping out your door.



Start at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

Climb the large stone steps to the center tower. Careful. The stairs from the second landing are steep. The rock is smooth and it’s easy to slip with sweating hands. There is a single metal rail, rusted red, wrapped in rope. It offers some grip. Pull yourself onto the next level. There are more steps but the incline is too dangerous for visitors. Large strips of pink tarp hug the base of the tower like a castle moat. It prevents you from trying to go any higher.



Look up. The temple prang is a cone tapering to the sky, a tower covered in thousands of seashells and pieces of colored porcelain. There is a row of clay warriors, their shinning eyes and armor made from tiny tiles. The spire seems to rest on their backs and arms. Circle around the base, clockwise, stopping four times to trace the designs on ceramic flowers with your thumb. They feel like warm dinner plates. Imagine the hands that built these flowers turning into dust. 

Look over the monastery from 150 feet. Watch the monks stroll the temple grounds. Their orange robes are bright against the grey footpaths and green shrubs. Listen. Somewhere monks are chanting. Their voices pour from horn loudspeakers posted throughout the complex. It’s clearer at this height. Listen. It’s a steady tone and rhythm, a stream of soft vowels. It’s gapless. Their words are a river. You’re swimming without water. Had you noticed it before? 


 Take the Ferry

The east side of Wat Arun runs along the Chao Phraya. There is a dock where you can catch a long-tail boat into the city. The boat rocks against the gentle current. The breeze off the water smells like salt and iron and dirt. Breathe it in. The river is dense and strong. It is a pillar. On the approaching shore, in the shadow of high-rises, are mossy forts and remnants of river trading posts. There is the Grand Palace spackled with flakes of gold, glittering. 

Imagine the Palace last night, covered in lights to commemorate Loi Krathong. All over the city there is singing and music, and fireworks bursting like cannon fire. Sky lanterns rise into the night like blooms of flying jellyfish. Thousands walk down to the river. Imagine you follow them, caught in the wave of a new kind of intimacy. Imagine. You feel their sweat on your naked arms. Together, under the Rama VIII Bridge, you light candles and make wishes and sail them down stream on flowery crowns of banana leaves and coconut husks. You notice a group of boys a few meters south, wading through the muddy water. They are fishing krathongs from the river, blowing-out the candles and selling them to others waiting on the shore. Pray to the river goddess that your real hopes will float. 


 Head East

Follow the floodwater lines running along the bottom of buildings. Sidestep garbage bags and puddles from dripping A/C window units above the street. The air is heavy, like a dank basement. It carries an angry rot. Get lost in the buzzing of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws. 

Take a right, now, onto an unnamed soi. It is too narrow for a car. The small road is lined with morning street-food vendors tucked under rows of evergreen patio umbrellas. They sell porridge and pastries, soup and dim sum. 

Nod to people as you pass. Smile. They smile back. 


Make a left on the next street. Follow the webs of telephone wire past a dozen convenience stores. The buildings share a similar architecture. Squat balconies with fat columns, decorative moldings and cornices like a Roman basilica. Patches of black mold stain the paint and facades. 


Cross a short bridge arching over a canal. Hua Lamphong Railway Station is on the horizon.

Take the Subway at Hua Lamphong

Walk around the front entrance to find an escalator leading down to a long tunnel, trapping the humidity from the city above. The walls are sweating. The high ceiling echoes a hundred sandals slapping the floor. The tunnel ends at a ticket counter. Purchase a fare to Thanon Sukhumvit and then take two more sets of escalators, down, down, to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit platform. 


The train is arriving. It rolls to a stop, lining-up with the yellow directional arrows painted on the lip of the platform. There is a loud hiss as the doors spring open. A blast of cold air slaps your forehead as you push your way on. It fills quickly. Pinned by a mass of people against the back wall of the passenger car, you can barely lift your arms. 


Exit at Sukhumvit (Terminal 21 Mall)

The stairs lead up from the subway to the ground-level entrance of a shopping complex designed like an airport terminal. The women at the info desk are dressed like flight attendants. The escalators are decorated like departure gates. Each floor is themed with a global city: Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood. You are in Rome. There are pillars, arches, faux frescoes and marble angels looking down on shoppers. 


English is everywhere, and whether it is a spa promotion or a sale on high-heels, for a moment you are literate again. You understand more than bits and pieces of passing conversations. Two young men walk by wearing tank tops and folded bandana headbands. One of the boys has camouflage cargo pants, while the other has neon pink short-shorts. They are having an argument over which street market is bigger, JJ or Chatuchak. Don’t point out that JJ Market and Chatuchak Market are the same. Do not interject that many places in the city have more than one name in English, and the J sound and the Ch often get confused. Keep it to yourself. Knowing makes you feel like less of a tourist.  

Head West 

At the bottom of the stairs exiting Terminal 21 there is a man with one arm and no legs lying on his belly. He shakes the change in his paper cup. The back of his t-shirt reads, “I LOVE THE KING.” Give him 20 baht, and then turn right. 

The hotels and office buildings block the sun. The tracks of the BTS Skytrain cast a shadow over the six lanes of traffic. It gives the impression of a stormy overcast. The Skytrain rumbles like thunder as it passes above. 

Ignore the thumping club music from the already open go-go bars.  Ignore the peddlers calling out to you. You may not know where you’re headed, or what you’re looking for, but you know it is something larger than a trinket or souvenir. It is something deeper than a watch, bong or bootleg DVD. 

Thanon Sukhumvit turns into Thanon Phloen Chit. There is construction everywhere. Crews of laborers in hardhats and flip-flops are raising new luxury condominiums from the rubble of old luxury condominiums. Above the chorus of jackhammers and drills are the staccato blasts of car horns. The traffic crawls forward as motorists honk in frustration. The exhaust fumes mix with the smell of street vendors grilling pork. Layers of black dust hug the street. It’s harder to breathe. You taste smoke in the air. Somewhere people are chanting. It’s coming from a gated square, ahead on the right.


Erawan Shrine

Watch the believers light incense. They circle the shrine clockwise laying wreaths of yellow flowers, bowing to the four faces of the Hindu god, Brahma. Some are on their knees, their eyes squeezed tight in prayer. A few feet away, shielded from the sun by an open gazebo, a female dance troupe sways to a chorus of Thai folk songs. They wear towering headpieces and traditional dresses with shimmering layers that wrap around them and drape over their shoulders. Their faith makes them impervious to the heat. 

Scan the crowded square for another statue. Look for a depiction similar to the one at Wat Arun, protruding from the temple prang—Indra, the lord of heaven, riding Erawan, an elephant with three heads. 


But there is no giant white elephant of the clouds, or his master. There is no Erawan at Erawan Shrine. Only Brahma. 

You may never know why. There may always be some facet of this city that eludes your understanding, even its name. Is it Bangkok or Thonburi Si Mahasamut or Rattanakosin or Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit or just Krung Thep Maha Nakhon for short? Was the city named for its flowers or for its treasures gracing the ocean? The City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.

Move closer. Look. Listen. Follow the current circling the Shrine. Press your palms together and bow to something beyond your comprehension. Bow, in respect for what you don’t know. 


—Donald Quist
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Donald Quist earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His creative work has appeared in several print and online journals, including Hunger Mountain and The Adroit Journal. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand.  
Apr 062013

Patrick Madden and family in Uruguay

Patrick Madden, a tall man, a good friend, and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an erudite essayist who wears his erudition under a baseball cap with a twinkle in his eye, a ploy he learned, perhaps, at the feet of the master, Jorge Luis Borges. He is amiable and exacting, and always an immense pleasure to read. His effort to capture the essay as an ancient and protean form is evident in the amazing website — Quotidiana — an anthology of great essays from the past and a constant reminder that creative nonfiction wasn’t invented in a writing workshop five years ago (or ten). See also his terrific “Dispatches from Montevideo” at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and, of course, his essay collection, also named Quotidiana.

Herewith we offer a tiny essay, a micro-essay, a playful bit of faux erudition, which, as Borges well-knew, most people can’t tell from the real thing. It is an imitation of something that doesn’t exist (endless message loops leading to absence), ever so ironic, parodic and yet shimmering with substance.


I’ve long admired Jorge Luis Borges’s concision, the way he supposes the existence of vast texts (or objects) and writes subtle fictions from them while circumventing the texts/objects themselves. My fragment, “Essay as Evolutionary Advantage,” mimics “On Exactitude in Science,”[1]as a way to say something small yet profound about the important ways essays influence our selves or become ways of seeing and being in the world.

—Patrick Madden


Essay as Evolutionary Advantage (après Borges)

…We may posit a time long ago, when our distant ancestors wandered the savanna in small nomadic groups. Those whose senses observed their surroundings most keenly, and whose minds could assimilate and organize information associatively, assured themselves longer lives and greater opportunities to breed. The rash, the simplistic, the routinary, the self-assured or self-righteous, the easily bored thrill-seeker, these personalities were doomed to superficial interaction and solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. And what of those whose apprehension of the world was more than utilitarian, who stayed awake nights weaving stories, imagining the implications of every small detail, for whom the world retained its newness no matter how often they’d encountered it?

Cabrera Arias, Breve teoría sobre la evolución humana, Cap. VX, Colón, 1880

—Patrick Madden


Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, was a PEN Center USA finalist. His second book, Sublime Physick, is forthcoming. He curates the amazing Quotidiana, an online anthology of classical essays and contemporary essay resources.





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Luis BorgesXXXXX…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
Mar 112013

Fleda Brown

Fleda Brown herewith offers a wonderfully smart, touching essay about girlhood, clothes and, amazingly enough, poetry! How does she rope all this together? And touching? Yes! The sweet free tomboyish little girl (of a certain era), a professor’s daughter, running free the summer long half-naked and innocent, suddenly a young lady, going to school, in dresses and appliqued sweaters, proper girl’s clothes, an awkward and constricting mask that delivers her to the agony of fashion and fitting in and the awful kindness of friends who feel sorry for her. Fleda delivers the goods, the terrible moments of humiliation, guilt and misunderstanding we all go through as children, often centered around money, precious money and small dreams that go awry, often small events in retrospect yet still capable of making you wince and yet which do not defeat you — as evidenced by the delightful pun in the title.

This beautiful, human, raw essay is the last installment here at Numéro Cinq of a series of essays by Contributing Editor Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown, two old friends, also two poet laureates, who have been writing a book together, a call-and-response essay book as Syd likes to call it, one essay calling forth another on a similar topic. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

In fact Autumn House Books is publishing the book next month, April, as an e-book called Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. Other essays from the book published here at NC include Fleda Brown’s “Books Made of Paper” and three essays by Sydney Lea “Pony and Graveyard: A Dream of the Flesh,” “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know.

I should add a somber note here. As you read this, Fleda Brown is being treated for cancer. She has been writing about her treatment under the title “My Wobbly Bicycle” at her blog at



Well, you’d think this one would be MY subject. But I never had any clothes. That is how it felt. Oh, when I was a child, the first child, first grandchild, I was the darling of my grandparents’ and my aunts’ hearts. They crocheted, knitted, stitched, embroidered. There are boxes and boxes full of photos of me, wonder-child bedecked in sweaters, scarves, wool coats with fur trim, fur muff, delicate flowered sundresses and sunbonnets. Then I grew up.

My parents were getting along on my father’s assistant professor’s salary, with three, then four children, one of them seriously retarded and needing very expensive drugs. And neither of my parents thought of “managing” money. They talked and yelled and cried about “budgets,” but nothing ever changed. At least once a year, one of the grandparents would be applied to for assistance, which would arrive, accompanied by the fury of my father in having to accept it. Well, enough of that. The fact is, I had at least one requisite new dress in the fall when school started, usually two, plus new shoes, usually courtesy of a grandparent. Care packages of clothes would arrive now and then, things picked out by my grandmother, never clothes I wanted to wear. Many of them were a terrible embarrassment, all wrong for what I felt was stylish in my crowd, but I was made to wear them anyway. They were new and they were “nice.”

There was one sweater, white with appliqued flowers on it—a name brand and expensive. But the short sleeves had a tiny bit of a puff to them that felt dorky to me. And the flowers! Furthermore, my sister was given a matching one. A deadly move on my grandmother’s part. I was made to wear the sweater to school. I may not remember this right, but in my memory, as soon as I felt I could get away with it, I deliberately held the sweater under hot water until the bright flowers on the applique faded onto the white sweater. “How can I wear it, now?” I asked. Did I really do that or just dream of it? I can’t remember, but I am pretty sure that the fading happily happened. Of course my mother was somewhat careless about sorting clothes, so I may not have been the culprit.

Actually, after I got past the shorts-with-no-top age, I never had things I wanted to wear. I was furious when I was made to cover up with little halter tops, even before I had breasts. I was furious when I was made to wear dresses to school every day when I wanted to wear pants. Jeans were still in the future, but I would have invented them had I known how. I was most furious when I was made to wear a bra. I threw it across the room after one day in its miserable straitjacketing. I was furious when I had to wear stockings and garter belts and huge, full skirts with huge, full slips under them. I did not want to be a “lady,” although I didn’t particularly have an objection to being a girl.

Conversely, I longed to have ballet-slipper shoes, but I had flat feet and was forced to clump around in saddle oxfords or brown “Girl Scout” shoes.

Maybe I would have had fewer objections to girl clothes had I been able to buy the clothes many of my friends had—matching Bobbie Brooks sweater sets, straight and pleated wool skirts. The only days that I felt good about my clothes were the days the pep-club, called the “Peppers”—of which I was one—were required to wear their uniforms to school. We had white sweaters with a big purple B on the front, over a bulldog’s face, and purple pleated skirts. I fit in. I was just fine.

I was asked to join a high school girls’ sorority. Part of the initiation process was that two members had to come to your house and pick out an outfit from your closet that you were required to wear to school every day for a week. They usually picked outlandishly mismatched clothes, silly things. The two girls who came to my house looked through my closet while I stood aside, trembling with embarrassment. I had so few clothes and they were all so, well, not-quite-right. I could tell the girls were nonplussed. They did the worst thing possible: they felt sorry for me. They chose the nicest skirt and blouse they could find.

I always felt that part of the problem was me, that it was my fault I had no clothes. I was so headstrong:  with my baby-sitting money, I bought some beautiful plaid wool fabric. I had this idea I’d make myself a skirt and vest. I cut it out. I cut it out wrong. I had no practice and no guidance. Did I slow down and ask a friend’s mother for help? No. The awkward puzzle pieces I had cut would not go together properly.  I stuffed them in a drawer, feeling wretched and guilty, and tried to forget.

Seething underneath the clothes issue for me was the tacit sense of the role women were supposed to play. The clothes were indicative. By the time I was seven, I had to put on that halter top. But the boys didn’t. I had to wear dresses with ruffles, which made me feel decorated, ornamental, and as powerless as my mother.  I hated ruffles and still do. This is not, as I said, a matter of wanting to be a boy. It is a matter of wanting to move freely and feel essential, just myself, an L.L. Bean sort of person.

I look at the models in the ads in the New York Times. They seem to combine, these days, a look of both power and glamor. At least that’s what they apparently want to show: sleek tigresses, beautiful, furry, seething with power. But look into the eyes. It looks dead in there: the ads are pictures of women required to project tigresses. Women whose job is to sell clothes, who are desperate to hold their position in the world of high fashion, who will project anything you ask them to project.

Oh, really, I do like clothes. I always have loved the days when I’ve felt beautiful in my clothes. In the seventies, I had a pair of blue corduroy bell-bottoms and platform shoes that made me feel sharp and sexy.  I bought one mini-skirt, which I thought was kind of cute, but I was teaching school and found that if I raised my arm to write on the blackboard, I exposed more of me than my students needed to see.

In those few years I taught high school, I made some of my own clothes (yes, I did!): pants and tops, as well as many curtains and pillow covers. I made a few cute outfits for my daughter, one little bell bottom jumper with big lady-bugs all over it, with a matching purse. She was five or six and looked very Mod. I liked sewing. I was not too bad at it. It was all-absorbing, meditative, and I could imagine I was saving money. Then when clothes got cheaper than fabric, I gave it up. Also, I had more and more things to do that seemed more important to me than sewing.

I attribute my ambivalent attitude toward clothes to two things: my early lack of money and my tomboyishness. The purchase of clothes was always accompanied by a great deal of angst when I was young. There was so little money that when I had any to spend, I was terrified I’d make a wrong choice. I often did. And had to live with it. If I’d used my own money, I knew that every dollar I spent equaled two hours’ baby-sitting time. I would buy something, my stomach knotted up both from fear of making a mistake and fear of my father’s yelling about the money spent. I grew cagey about the latter. I could fudge on how much something cost. I could say I had to have it for school for some obscure reason. I could say I’d used all or half my own money. Or something.

And then the tomboy-thing. I wanted to look beautiful, I wanted to look like the girls in my class I admired. But what made me happiest was climbing around creekbanks in pants (no jeans yet, remember) and an old flannel shirt, looking for crawdads. Those clothes were the ones I loved best.

I think about the sociology of clothes. In the fifties and on into the early sixties, the styles, the requirements in clothing for girls and boys were as separate as our psychology was thought to be. Girls had to wear dresses to school unless the temperature was below a certain degree, I can’t remember what. But those days felt free as holidays, although we generally felt we must wear a skirt on top of the pants. When I was an undergraduate, girls were not allowed to wear pants on the University of Arkansas campus, except under a raincoat. And furthermore, they were not to wear them downtown. After all, they were “representing the University.” All winter, all of my young life, my legs were freezing cold. Because I was a girl.

Boundaries were clear. Unlike now, when cast-off 50s dresses are worn with cowboy boots, tight torn jeans with diamonds and a sleek silk camisole, a tuxedo with tennis shoes. And too, when future anthologists—if there are any—look back on this era’s poems, they’ll see hybrid poems that pull in all manner of objects and thoughts and commercials and movies and music. Poems in received forms and free-verse poems, poems that announce that they’re poems but look and read like prose. And prose poems.  Soft boundaries between genres.

And self-conscious display of the making, the mechanics of the poem.  The poet stepping in to say how it’s going, this writing of a poem.  Last weekend I attended a baby shower. The very-pregnant mother was wearing a long, form-fitting top and long skirt—very chic. It’s fashionable to let the belly show, the stark progression of belly-growth, to be proud of it. When I was pregnant, maternity clothes were shapeless bags we buttoned over our midsection to hide the protrusion. We were only a generation or so from the time when pregnant women were expected to stay inside as they started “showing,” as if any display of our sexual potency was shameful.

But even though now a woman can wear anything, really anything, she wishes and be acceptable on most occasions, somehow underneath, it feels to me as if that change hasn’t netted as much as we’d like to think. The truth is, I see in the faces of some of those women in pillbox hats and blue suits on reruns of ancient game shows more maturity and more command of themselves and their environment than I see in the faces of many young women today, who seem uncertain of who they are and what they want to be. Those women in pillbox hats were fitting themselves into a role, true, but they knew they had responsibility for that role, for enacting it well and truthfully—being a good wife, a good mother, a good housekeeper. These were not the women on Mad Men. The ones I’m thinking of were the real ones.

I don’t want to go back there, and couldn’t if I did. Same with poetry. This is an incredibly exciting time for clothes and poetry, it seems to me.  Exciting and necessarily unnerving. What we wear, what and how we write, is either demonstrating who we think we are, how we think the world is organized and what it all means, or it’s demonstrating who we’re supposed to be according to our culture’s norms. Who can tell which is which? These days I wear jeans almost all the time. I’m an attractive woman for my age, but not a glamorous one, although I passionately admire my gorgeously dressed friends. The glamour-gene bypassed me. I have a friend, a writer, who said her goal in life is to make enough money with her writing to be able to get up every morning, her only decision being which pair of jeans to put on. Amen to that.

 —Fleda Brown


Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion (2007), was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press.

She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and she spends summers with her husband, Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, at their cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. Between them, they have four children and ten grandchildren.

Mar 082013

Anna Maria and the box turtleAnna Maria Johnson

Virginia Woolf, in her diaries, once said that she didn’t know how anyone could read without a pencil in his hands; Anna Maria Johnson doesn’t just use a pencil, she uses lines, paint, a self-created concordance and icons to mark the patterns when she is reading. Johnson is an artist-writer-reader who has an uncanny instinct for making visual and synchronic what in a text seems abstract and sequential. After she is done with a paragraph, a page, a sequence of pages, you suddenly SEE the text come alive as a trembling matrix of vectors, internal references, and visual rhythms; reading, Anna Maria Johnson, renders text into a startling work of visual art. This is a wonderful ability and not just a parlor trick; reading for pattern is a key element in understanding authorial intention. Repetition is the heart of art. Too many readers skim a work once and never get to appreciate the tactile, erotic quality of  great prose, the physical impulses of tension, insistence and resolution that form its inner structure. Anna Maria Johnson’s “reading” of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a delightful and astonishing work of hybrid art in itself, but it’s also a terrific lesson in HOW TO READ.



pilgrim epigraph page

Anna Maria Johnson’s altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I. Introduction

EVERY STORY HAS its own circulatory system, with arteries and blood vessels networked and pumping life and nutrients from its heart to every other part. Each book is a watershed, a system of rivers, creeks and underground currents that flow unceasingly, pulled by some kind of unseen gravitational force. A book is a woven web, with silken strands connecting segment to segment.

It’s easy to wonder, while reading an admired author’s flowing narrative, just how she managed to do it. A prize-winning book seems to have been a miracle, a creative rush of genius that burst forth while the writer simply sat and transcribed the words onto the page. But generally, good writing comes down to slow craftsmanship and long periods revising. I find that syntactical patterns and repeated imagery play a dominant role in creating unity and structure, as seen in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that hangs together through such patterns.

But how, exactly? To find out, I re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I focused on sentence structure and image patterns, for it is syntax (specifically, repetition, parallel structures, and lyricism), in combination with image patterns (concrete images that recur throughout a given work), which gives unity and movement, or “flow,” to this book. According to Mary Stein, “a sophisticated use of syntax in prose can function well beyond lyric or ornamentation.” Syntax can be used as metaphor, she adds, in order to “motivate narrative movement and provide story structure.” [1] I would add that “syntax as metaphor” sometimes takes the form of image patterns.

Douglas Glover, in his essay “How to Write a Short Story Structure: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” published in Attack of the Copula Spiders, defines an image pattern as “a pattern of words and/or meanings created by the repetition of an image.” (33) Each repetition is not simply a duplication of the first, however, for the most interesting patterns require variation. Think of the famous bars from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: if they were played fifteen times in succession without variation, how grating they would be! But Beethoven artfully incorporated variety into the score so that whenever it returns to the familiar phrase, the audience can appreciate it. Similarly, in visual art, the most successful images employ repetition with thoughtful variation to create unity. Even Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreened Campbell’s Soup Cans are slightly different from one another: each can bears a different label, “black bean,” “tomato rice,” “vegetable,” “green pea,” and so forth. The “cheese” soup even bears a visually different label, with a yellow banner spanning its front.

Glover’s essay names some specific options for varying a repeated image. First, in successive appearances, the author may add a piece of significant history—that is, repeat the image but include new information or detail that the reader wasn’t aware of in a previous iteration. Second, the author may use “association and/or juxtaposition,” pairing the image with another, previously unrelated, image so as to enlarge or alter its meaning. Third, the author may use what Glover calls “ramifying or ‘splintering’ and ‘tying-in,’” where one or more parts of the image are extracted and repeated, then put together again in a later iteration (33).

Image patterning gives a story “an echo chamber effect (or internal memory—important for giving the reader a sense that there is a coherent world of the book,” “rhythm,” and “a root or web effect that promotes organic unity (the threads connecting the pattern in the text are like the roots of a tree holding the soil together)” (33). While Glover is speaking of fiction, the principles of image patterning are equally applicable to non-fiction writing. Essayists and memoirists alike can select images from real life, interpreting such images to add new layers of meaning and symbolism with each recurrence.

I would add that syntactical patterns—even those that are not primarily visual—are capable of providing the above functions in a given work, just as image patterns do, when they are repeated with variations.

Dillard’s book nearly bursts to overflowing with both of these types of patterns. Repetition of syntactical and image patterns lends unity to a work, while variations on those patterns provide movement, or circulation. Still, the process through which image patterns and syntax “work” in the hearts and minds of readers, when they are working well, feels rather mysterious. One writer friend remarked to me that, despite years of studying literature and the writing craft, when she reads books by Marilyn Robinson, they still seemed “like magic.” Similarly, when I first read Annie Dillard’s remarkable Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was tempted to ascribe its flow, its circulatory system, to sorcery. But upon subsequent, closer, readings, I began to see patterns emerging, and an inherent, carefully ordered structure—evidence of craftsmanship, not dark arts. The first pattern jumped out to me, suddenly, much the same way that a stereogram image suddenly pops out, unmistakably visible, so that the viewer wonders, “How did I not see that before?” It was the repeated phrase, “the tree with the lights in it,” a specific pattern of text that recurs fourteen times throughout the book, and which, in section III, I will discuss in depth.

Shortly after that first pattern appeared to me, other images began to shimmer from the text: a mockingbird’s graceful free fall, a giant water bug that sucked a frog out of its skin, sharks in a feeding frenzy limned in light, the goldfish named Ellery Channing. [2] I ordered a sturdy hardcover copy of the book for the express purpose of tracking down every image pattern that I could find, cross-referencing them in the margins, coding them with watercolors, and indexing my finds in a chart like a concordance (Appendix A). I’ve included scanned images of some relevant pages so that you can follow this process. I should stress that it was only in the course of many successive readings that many of these patterns became apparent to me; mostly, that which you see sketched out in watercolor and marginalia would remain in the unconscious levels of a reader’s mind for the first reading. The purpose of these added visual elements was to make visible some of the subtle connections that a reader’s mind would perceive as a marvelous, almost supernatural, sense of flow.

pilgrim page 98

Using my concordance of recurring images (for example, planet/earth, sail, giant water bug that sucked a frog, goldfish, tree with the lights in it, snakeskin, et cetera), I next found a photograph to represent each one, and obtained permission from the photographers to use them for my purposes. In some cases, as with the goldfish and sea-anchor, I drew my own and scanned it. I reproduced numerous copies of each photograph or drawing onto sticker paper so that I could place a relevant hand-made sticker as a tag onto each page where a given image appears. Some pages, as in the example above, have multiple stickers, showing that these are pages where Dillard has tied several different images together. On page 128, Dillard links in one sentence several key images: the planet, the giant water bug that sucked a frog, Tinker Creek, the flight of three hundred redwing blackbirds, the goldfish bowl, and the snakeskin. In pencil I’ve drawn connections between repeated phrases, such as solar system, and related phrases such as giant water bug on page 128 and giant water bug’s predations on page 129, or goldfish bowl, the fringe of a goldfish’s fin, and fish’s fin on 129. In margins, I’ve noted the page numbers for other instances when these same visual images or textual patterns occur, such as the Kabbalistic tradition which turns up on pages 30, 198, 261, and the phrase spotted and speckled, which alludes elsewhere in the text to the biblical Jacob’s “speckled and spotted” flock (pages 145 and 239). The word speckled occurs on pages 145, 179, 239, 242, 266, and 271 and, when its various contexts are considered together, serves to link the notion of Jacob’s speckled and spotted flock to the natural world’s intricate details as well as its imperfections. (For a complete list of all the references to these and other repeated images, see Appendix A.)

With the aid of these and other visual annotations, Dillard’s patterns became more apparent—not only the interplay of recurring images, but also some of the syntactical patterns that characterize her idiosyncratic style: parallelism, repetition of key words and phrases, frequent use of colons and question marks, and lyricism through poetic devices. Most delightfully, there is playfulness—Dillard accents her deadpan humor with the use of homophones and other types of word play: puns, allusions to nursery rhymes and jokes (“Like the bear who went over the mountain, I went out to see what I could see,” on page 11), as well as the re-appropriation of popular expressions and aphorisms (“If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then look at the trees; when you’ve looked at enough trees, you’ve seen a forest, you’ve got it,” page 129).

II.  Syntactical Patterns

Virginia Tufte opens her book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style with an epigraph by Anthony Burgess—“And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning,”—and adds the following commentary, “Anthony Burgess is right: it is the words that shine and sparkle and glitter, sometimes radiant with an author’s inspired choice. But it is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms and emphasis, to carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place.”  Syntax is what gives sentences that remarkable sense of flowing movement, allowing meaning to glitter. Carefully constructed syntax at the sentence and paragraph level creates larger movement that helps to propel lyrical writing, in the way that the motion of water flowing down small mountain streams create a river’s strong current out toward sea.  In Dillard’s writing, we read not so much because we want to know what is happening (which is, in truth, little more than Dillard sitting watching animals, thinking about religious mystical traditions, and pondering physics and evolution), but rather because of the way in which Dillard expresses her thoughts and feelings: the power of words as they relate in sequence, the rhythms and emphases that syntax creates, and the multiple, shimmering meanings that those words and images carry. In short, syntax and imagery advance the narrative, providing both unity, through repetition and parallelisms, and movement, through variations and rhythm.

Syntactical tactics:  parallel structures, repetition, lyricism

Dillard grounds many of her metaphors in parallel sentence structures. For instance, on the first page, after describing an old tomcat who used to wake her by treading with bloody paws on her bare skin, making her look as though she’d been “painted with roses,” she poses the question, “What blood was this, and what roses?”

tomcat symbol

A compound sentence: the first half inquiring about blood, the second about roses. She follows this short interrogative sentence by another, more involved sentence, which twice pairs “roses” and “blood,” suggesting a variety of possible metaphors (some negative, some positive) for each: “It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth” (Dillard 1). She continues: “The signs on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain”(2). The paired clauses accentuate the multiple possibilities for paired meanings, for opposing meanings. What’s more, the paired clauses carry the same meter and also rhyme with one another (“stain” / “Cain”), attracting the reader’s special attention to this sentence. These parallel constructions set up the reader for what is ahead: room for opposing interpretations of what we find in the natural world.[3] These musings on “union” and “murder,” “beauty,” and “sacrifice or birth” will be followed up with stories of union, murder, beauty, sacrifice, and birth, featuring creatures such as female praying mantises, which eat their mates while they mate, and ichneumon wasps, which are lucky if they lay their eggs before the young begin to hatch and eat their mothers from inside. Dillard’s richly paired, carefully crafted sentences have the power to hold within themselves, on a micro-scale, the same extremities of beauty and horror found in the book as a whole, creating a fractal pattern. Just as these sentences weigh beauty against the violence and suffering inherent to the natural world, so do the paragraphs and chapters that hold them. This is an appropriate structure for a book about nature, as nature tends to be structured in fractals: the veins of leaves, networks of waterways, branches of trees, circulatory systems of human beings. Another example of Dillard’s parallel sentence structures occurs in the passage that introduces Tinker Creek and Tinker Mountain.

The creeks—Tinker and Cavern’s—are an active mystery, fresh every minute.  Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation, and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.  The mountains—Tinker and Brushy, McAfee’s Knob and Dead Man—are a passive mystery, the oldest of all.  Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given. (2-3, emphases mine to show parallelism)

pilgrim page 2pilgrim page 3

By presenting these metaphors—the creeks and what they represent, and the mountains with what they represent—as paired sentences running parallel to one another, Dillard heightens the contrast between the metaphors. The first two sentences lay out the creeks, their specific names, and what they represent metaphorically: “active mystery,” “all that providence implies.” The second pair of sentences lays out the mountains, their names, and the metaphor that Dillard intends for the mountains to represent: “passive mystery,” “one simple mystery of creation.” She arranges the paragraph with a set of two paired sentences, each with corresponding clauses and even the dashed parenthetical phrases placed in parallel (Article, noun, em dash, paired specific names, em dash, being verb, article, adjective, noun, etc.). I’ve coded the creek-related sentences in blue and the mountains in purple. It’s as if she’s placed signposts reading, “Creek metaphor this way!  Mountain metaphor that way!”  The reader pauses, reflects, notices the subtle distinctions between the parallel structures, the creeks versus the mountains—ah, one is active mystery, the other passive—in keeping with human perception that rivers visibly move, while mountains appear immutable. The former represents “all,” the latter, “one.” Soon Dillard ends the paragraph with two short sentences that confirm the contrast between the metaphors: “The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home” (Dillard Pilgrim 3). These final sentences, too, are parallel, although they are punctuated differently, and have different lengths, forcing the reader to slow the pace of reading in order to think about the differences between “living there” and “home.”[4] [5]

Repetition, like parallelism, can be a powerful syntactical tool. As Virginia Tufte writes, “Repetition and variation constitute that dual essence of prose rhythm, as they do of form in music or in painting. Many types of parallel arrangement, of balance and calculated imbalance in phrase and clause, of repetition and ellipses, pairings, catalogings, contrasts and other groupings, assembled together into distinct prose textures, can contribute to the unique rhythm of almost any kind of prose” (Tufte 234). Repetition captures attention, piques curiosity, builds emphasis, and when interlaid between disparate parts, repetition serves as a connector.

Dillard often repeats a significant phrase or sentence, sometimes with small variations. For example, she ends chapter 4 with, “catch it if you can,” then repeats the phrase as the opening to chapter 5.

pilgrim page 76pilgrim page 77

Chapter 5, primarily a meditation about time being a continuous loop, focuses on a knotted snakeskin that Dillard found in the woods, but is also a reflection on seeking divine power or spirit, which Dillard compares to the mythical hoop snake that rolls along with its tail in its mouth: “the spirit seems to roll along like the mythical hoop snake with its tail in its mouth.” For good measure, she also throws in an allusion to the biblical Ezekiel’s account of seeing the wheels: “‘As for the wheels, it was cried unto them in my hearing, O wheel.’” Dillard concludes with a long sentence that personifies the spirit, “This is the hoop of flame that shoots the rapids in the creek or spins across the dizzy meadows; this is the arsonist in the sunny woods: catch it if you can” (76). She seems to be conflating time with spirit, so that catch it if you can might refer to both. Right across the page spread, chapter 6 opens with the short sentence, “Catch it if you can” (77). The repetition of catch it if you can gives continuity between the two chapters, while at the same time, because it is such an active, daring, quick sentence in its second appearance, propels the narrative forward. A few pages into the new chapter, catch it if you can is repeated to begin another section—but now in this case the sentence is loaded with a somewhat different meaning, as here Dillard discusses not time as a continuous loop, nor spirit, but what it means to dwell fully in the present moment; awareness, rather than time or spirit, is the thing to be caught. “Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and feeling, and gone” (79).

Thus far, there have been three replications of catch it if you can, and three associated meanings. Next, over a hundred pages later, in quite another context, Dillard repeats the text pattern, changing one word: it for them, so as to create a variation on the motif.

pilgrim page 186

But now she is speaking of fishing; the pronoun them refers to fish. “You can lure them, net them, troll for them, club them, clutch them, chase them up an inlet, stun them with plant juice, catch them in a wooden wheel that runs all night—and you still might starve. They are there, they certainly are there, free, food, and wholly fleeting. You can see them if you want to; catch them if you can” (186). Notice that she has slyly inserted a reference to “a wooden wheel that runs all night,” which suggests the shape of that continuous loop of time, the hoop snake spirit, and Ezekiel’s wheel from the previous context.[6] But in this context, the pattern carries a new meaning: fish, which here also connote Christ, as Dillard explains that the fish was an early symbol for Christ. (The origin of the fish as Christian symbol might have come because of Jesus’ practice of calling fishermen to follow him, teaching them to “fish for men.”) Dillard has loaded the pattern: “The more I glimpse the fish in Tinker Creek, the more satisfying the coincidence becomes, the richer the symbol, not only for Christ but for the spirit as well” (186). So now, catch them if you can refers to fish, which in turn refers to Christ and spirit. It’s a serious sort of pun.

What a nice trick this is, for by this Dillard has not only added new layers of meaning, but also returned to an earlier one, that of spirit. The symbolism has come full circle—like a continuous loop or hoop or wheel. Fitting!

Later, Dillard again varies the pattern when she writes overtly of stalking the spirit: “You have to stalk the spirit, too . . . and hope to catch him by the tail” (205). About thirty pages pass before yet another variation, “Nature seems to catch you by the tail” (236). Such repetitions, “catch it if you can,” and variations, “catch [him/you] by the tail,” function like a musical theme and variation, providing both unity and variety as the book moves forward. The paragraph that begins with “Nature seems to catch you by the tail” concludes with a list of the tailless animals that got away, adding further rhythmic variation to this text pattern.

pilgrim page 236

One additional thought to note: perhaps the phrase “catch . . . by the tail” alludes to the children’s rhyme “catch a tiger by the tail.” The earlier version of the pattern catch it if you can seems to allude to children’s games (“catch” with a ball), or possible the fairy tale story of the gingerbread man who cries “catch me if you can.”

Another example of phrase repetition is it is chomp or fast. This phrase appears twice in a row on page 237, with only a section break in between its two occurrences:

pilgrim page 237

Before the whole phrase, “it is chomp or fast,” appears at all, however, it is foreshadowed, as the word chomp shows up three times scattered throughout page 227: 1) “I looked beyond the snake to the ragged chomp in the hillside where years before men had quarried stone,” 2) “Is this what it’s like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass?” and 3) “the world is more chomped than I’d dreamed.”

pilgrim page 227

A few pages later, chomp appears again, this time as a single-word sentence, in reference to parasitism: “the dank baptismal lagoon into which we are dipped by blind chance many times over against our wishes, until one way or another we die. Chomp” (234).

One more brief example: The sentence, “What we know, at least for starters, is: here we—so incontrovertibly—are” (127-8) leads into a brief meditation on the brevity of life, and the importance of working, during the brief time we are alive, at making sense of what we see, in order to discover “where we so incontrovertibly are” (128). By adding a mere w and omitting the em-dashes, Dillard varies the phrase as she almost repeats it, so that it might stick in the reader’s mind for later. Later comes more than one hundred twenty pages further, in the chapter about parasites, when she re-states, “Here we so incontrovertibly are” (240), again without the em-dashes. Such recurrences provide connections between separate passages of the book, stitching them together, providing a syntactical clue that the content of these sections relate closely to one another.

Occasionally Dillard interjects sentences that are so lyrical (in terms of meter, assonance, and rhyme) that they are more like what readers typically expect from poetry than prose. In fact it is tempting to believe that some of these lines, which appear on separate pages at great distance from one another, might once have been couplets that were divided up, like twins separated at birth. For example, the lines, “I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was fleshflake, feather, bone” (32), and “I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone” (201).

pilgrim page 32

pilgrim page 201

Most notably, these sentences rhyme (“bone” / “stone”). More subtly, these two sentences share a parallel structure, “I was . . . ; I was . . .”, “I am . . . ; I am . . .” and have a similar meter when read aloud. In both statements, the narrator has broken out of an objective stance to identify herself with inanimate objects in elaborate but earthy metaphors. Thus, although these lines are found 162 pages apart from one another, an astute (you might say, obsessive) reader may recall the first upon reading the second. In my case, I initially thought that the line on page 201 was a direct repetition of a sentence I’d read earlier (my mind remembered the rhythm); it sounded strangely familiar, so I flipped back through the early pages until I found its correlative. Even readers who do not consciously observe these relationships—probably most first or second-time readers—will sense that the book flows, that there is an ineffable something that unifies the book’s early pages with its later ones.

Word Repetition

Narrowing the scope from the sentence level to that of words, it’s possible to find a good deal of repetition of particular words, which are freighted with additional meanings and associations each time they appear.

The penultimate paragraph of chapter 1 sets up three images that will run throughout the book, lending unity and movement as the repetitions pile up. Describing the “lightning marks,” or deep grooves that “certain Indians used to carve” into their arrows, Dillard writes:

Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees. The function of the lightning marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broadleaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.(12)

pilgrim page 12

Thus, Dillard writes in metaphor a manifesto of the purpose of this book. This book is the “straying trail of blood,” and the narrator is the arrow carved by “unexpected lights and gashes.” Throughout the text, it is possible to visually see a “trail of blood,” as the word blood appears every few pages throughout the text (see blood in Appendix A). When I circled the word blood each time it appeared throughout the book, painting each one red, the repeated word blood trailing from page to page resembled the sort of track that a wounded animal might make in its attempted escape.

pilgrim page with blood

Similarly, every image pattern, every syntactical pattern, becomes another pathway for the reader to track the quarry, “the game,” as Dillard calls it above (page 12), or “the spirit,” as she calls it on page 76 in connection with the catch it if you can pattern.

Arrows create another such pattern. Soon after this initial reference to arrows at the end of chapter 1, the next chapter begins with a story of the child Annie Dillard, at age six or seven, amusing herself by hiding pennies and drawing chalk arrows on sidewalks pointing the way to the hidden coins. Like the arrow that inflicts the wound on the hunted game animal, these arrows also begin a trail to guide a lucky passerby to hidden treasure. “After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe” (14). Dillard, now an adult, a writer, is still at the same game, since each image pattern laid into the narrative functions like a series of arrows, carefully drawn to point the reader toward hidden treasure. Whether we think of them as a trail of blood or as a succession of direction markers pointing toward copper pieces, Dillard’s image patterns give the reader a visible track to follow. The reader, finding another repeated image, recognizes it as familiar and therefore unifying, while the variations on each image invite movement, propelling the reader forward to consider: this time, the arrow is a chalked direction on sidewalk, while the last arrow was an Indian’s hunting weapon. The reader’s curiosity is piqued: What sort of arrow will I find next?  What will it point me toward? What will I find at the end of the trail?  (see “Arrow/arrowhead” in Appendix A to follow the trail) In reading Dillard, the journey itself is as much of a payoff as any conclusions to which she might lead us. The process of reading is much like hiking through woods: we follow the blazes marked on trees, enjoying the hike not simply for the view we get at the end, but also for what we see along the way.

The passage from page 12 pictured above yields yet another pattern to follow: light. “Lightning” and “unexpected lights and gashes” are both clues to this trail. I painted yellow all occurrences of the words light, sun, gold, and solar, so that throughout my version, splotches of yellow illuminate another way.

pilgrim page 12 light crop

pilgrim page 62 light crop

pilgrim page 242 light crop

So far, the patterns have been composed of words-as-nouns, but verbs can trace patterns too. For example, the verb to cast occurs throughout the text in several different usages, and often appears in conjunction with other image patterns such as Eskimos, the people of Israel, entomologists, and others. Because the word cast appears in conjunction with several different significant patterns, it links these disparate images, unifying several different threads in the text. The word cast appears first on page 43, as the narrator considers spending a winter evening “casting for arctic char,” which, for her, means staying home and reading about Eskimos and their lives. Next, casting appears several times on a two-page spread, associated with Pliny’s account of the invention of sculpture and other contexts:

A Sicyonian potter came to Corinth. There his daughter fell in love with a young man . . . When he sat with her at home, she used to trace the outline of his shadow that a candle’s light cast on the wall . . .

Muslims, whose religion bans representational art as idolatrous, don’t observe the rule strictly; but they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow. So shadows define the real. If I no longer see shadows and “dark marks,” as do the newly sighted, then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light. The give the light distance; they put it in its place. They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel, here in the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade of the nothingness between me and the light.

Now that the shadow has dissolved the heavens’ blue dome, I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare. ‘Nostalgia of the Infinite,’ di Chirico: cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard, gouging canyons. There is a sense in which shadows are actually cast, hurled with a power, cast as Ishmael was cast, out, with a flinging force.

pilgrim page 62

pilgrim page 63

Note, in these three paragraphs, the piling of associations with the word cast (I’ve circled cast in black ink): “. . . the outline of his shadow that a candle’s light cast on the wall,” “they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow,” “cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard,” “there is a sense in which shadows are actually cast, hurled with a power, cast as Ishmael was cast, out, with a flinging force.”

Not only does Dillard use the word cast in several different senses, but she also describes the action of casting, as in sculpture,without specifically naming it as such, when she retells Pliny’s story of a Sicyonian potter in Corinth who physically cast an image of his daughter’s lover using clay and plaster: “she used to trace the outline of his shadow that a candle’s light cast on the wall” (62). Within two paragraphs, cast is used in a variety of different contexts to refer to shadows cast (by candlelight or sun, in reality and in paintings) but also to refer to a person being sent away, “cast out,” as Ishmael was cast out from his father Abraham’s home. Before mentioning Ishmael, Dillard sets us up for it: “Muslims, whose religion bans representational art as idolatrous, don’t observe the rule strictly; but they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow” (Dillard 62). Shortly afterward she inserts a reference to a famous painting, “‘Nostalgia of the Infinite,’ di Chirico: cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard, gouging canyons.” Then it comes, the sentence that joins the notion of cast shadows with the other meaning of cast: “There is a sense in which shadows are actually cast, hurled with a power, cast as Ishmael was cast, out, with a flinging force” (63).

At first, the reference to the biblical Ishmael seems unrelated to the rest of the passage, until the reader remembers that Ishmael (who was cast out) is the ancestor of Muslims, about whom Dillard was just speaking. What’s more, there’s also a reference to the nation of Israel in that paragraph: “They inform my eyes of my location here, here, O Israel, here in the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade . . .” (62). This reference to Israel is interesting because it is word play in itself, a homophonic allusion to scripture, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel,” from the book of Leviticus, whose text orthodox Jews post in the shadowy doorways of their homes, and also an allusion to the biblical nation of Israel. Ever since Ishmael was cast out, his descendants and those of his step-brother Isaac (today’s Muslims and Jews) have had a good bit of fraternal conflict, and Dillard seems to connect this conflict to the shadowy side of nature, as she next knits in references to disturbing events in the natural world: mating mantises, the giant water bug that sips frogs from their skins, the mantis that preys on a wasp even while the wasp preys on a bee, prompting even the devoted, insect-studying naturalist J. Henri Fabre to write in 1916, “Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors” (64). With that last quotation, Dillard has drawn yet another link to the verb cast, and to be certain the reader hasn’t missed the connection, she continues, “The remarkable thing about the world of insects, however, is precisely that there is no veil cast over these horrors” (64).

The phrase “cast a veil” ties this pattern of cast to yet another pattern that has been running through the text, that of nature being like a veiled dancer, “a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils. For nature does reveal as well as conceal: now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do” (Dillard 16). Later, on page 202, the image of veils being removed (not cast, but “removed” and “whisked”) recurs, and is connected to gaining knowledge of the physical world and its workings: “We remove the veils one by one, painstakingly, adding knowledge to knowledge and whisking away veil after veil, until at last we reveal the nub of things, the sparkling equation from whom all blessings flow” (202).

Later, the verb cast appears several times more in a wide variety of contexts: Jesus urging his disciples to “cast the net on the right side of the ship” (186), Dillard walking in the woods where “tulips had cast their leaves on my path, flat and bright as doubloons” (245), and a leaf being “cast upon the air” (253). Finally, cast becomes adjectival for “a cast-iron bell” (261), and the “cast-iron mountains” which “ring” (271). Notice how the word ring, in combination with the descriptor “cast-iron,” further helps the mountain image to resonate with that of the bell.  These further appearances of cast lend continuity.

How did Dillard come up with all this? And are the rest of us mortals capable of doing the same? After all, a Harvard neurologist once described Dillard as “almost unbelievably intelligent.” Perhaps it is best—that is, most efficacious and most heartening—for aspiring writers to assume that it was through multiple revisions that Dillard discovered—and chose, developed, added to, and enhanced—such patterns. As Lucy Corin, in her essay “Material,” advises writers, “The story, I like to say and remember, is always smarter than you—there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own. Find them with your marking pens as they emerge in your drafts” (Corin 87). Corin advises writers to then make the most of such patterns, expanding and accentuating them, and controlling their effect. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, seems not to disagree: “You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words. The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip. You probe with it, delicate as a worm” (7). By “it,” Dillard means the thing you suddenly realize is the new point of what you are writing. Because of this statement and others she makes in The Writing Life, I believe that Dillard means it is in the process of writing, of re-reading one’s work, and revising, re-writing, that the author delicately discovers such patterns and discerns whether to keep them, when to expand them. We writers must probe our own texts to find the intelligence that is there.

For novice writers, this is good news: patterns don’t typically appear all at once in their final form, but they do sometimes suggest themselves. It is the good work of writers to become aware of such emerging patterns, work them with intention and deliberation, and carefully craft the overall work.  Perhaps it would be prudent for us all to read our own work with watercolors in hand in order to better discover what is there!


Lyricism is Dillard’s not-so-secret weapon when it comes to syntax in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her persistent application of poetic devices such as similes and extended metaphors, alliteration, assonance and consonance, even rhymes and homophones, create a strong, consistent, musical voice that both unifies the tone of the work and helps it to move with a strong rhythm, as in this memorable passage, which I quoted in part earlier: “I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone” (Dillard 32).

Two frequent poetic devices in Dillard’s work are metaphor and simile. A good example of Dillard’s use of extended metaphor and related similes occurs when she finds herself in a meadow filled with grasshoppers. In the first three pages of chapter 12, while Dillard describes the grasshoppers, nearly every simile and metaphor she uses relates to war, an apt metaphor as she describes these apparently armored insects invading the meadow. Even the chapter title, “Nightwatch,” suggests a soldier on duty keeping watch at night.

pilgrim page 207

pilgrim pages 208 & 209

War-related similes include: “barrage of grasshoppers,” “such legions,” “blast of bodies like shrapnel exploded,” “ordinary grasshoppers gone berserk,” “ranks,” “coat of mail.” Also “mustered this army,” “detonated the grass,” “sprang in salvos,” and “ricocheted” (207-9). By restricting metaphors to such a genre, Dillard not only maintains a specific, dangerous tone as she describes the process by which ordinary grasshoppers adapt into locusts, but also creates writing that coheres, syntax that advances forward.

Extended metaphors lend lyricism and also unify. Another example of extended metaphor is the recurring image of a magician in a circus tent show (ah, you remember the magician pattern, yes?), as well as splinters from, or variations on, this image. The metaphor begins in the first chapter, just after Dillard has described a spectacular sunset.  Then she waxes metaphoric, comparing the optical wonders of nature to a carnival act performed by a fast-acting magician:

pilgrim page 11

Some of the images within the extended metaphor above show up again and again throughout the book, “splinters” from an image pattern.  Examples of splinters from this passage that recur elsewhere are the magician, tent, show, rabbits, scarves, and the words bland and blank (these last two, though not specific to magic shows in general, Dillard more than once associates with the magician image). Such words, in future instances, are joined to the idea of sky/heaven as a dome or tent over the earth (see “magician” in Appendix A).   Dillard refers to several of these images again later: “Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall” (31).

The word show, applied to impressive sunsets and cloudscapes, also refers to stalking muskrats, as in the above quotation from page 31, and again, “If I move again, the show is over” (195), and once in regard to a town’s attempt to exterminate starlings—“the whole show had cost citizens two dollars per dead starling” (37). It is interesting to note that an image that first appears in connection with rich beauty—an astonishing sunset so impressive that it is like a carnival magician’s act—is later applied to horrors: an attempted mass extermination of invasive starlings, and later, to a gruesome Eskimo myth. In the myth, an ugly old woman who, jealous for her handsome son-in-law, kills her own daughter and removes the face to lay as a mask over her own in order to trick the son-in-law into loving her. After recounting the story of the old woman and the skin mask, Dillard applies the tale metaphorically to the natural world, wondering whether the beauty she has sometimes witnessed in creation is really just a clever disguise for nature’s ugliness and cruelty: “Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, that the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?” (266) Note the similarity between this sentence and the previous one, from page 33, about climbing the dome of the magician’s tent; using syntax and word choice, she’s drawn a striking parallel between these two passages.

Through repeating the metaphor of a magician’s show in different contexts, Dillard complicates and enriches its meaning. In so doing, she manipulates the magician image so that it functions similarly to the images of tomcat, blood, and roses on the first page, raising questions about beauty and horror, sacrifice, birth, and death. Nothing is ever boiled down to a simple, single representation; every image is multi-faceted, open to further exploration and interpretation.

Alliteration, assonance, consonance

 A potential danger in Dillard’s penchant for piling together so many disparate images—cats, magicians, Kabbalistic mystics, physicists, giant water bugs, shadows, artists, clouds, and biblical figures, just to name a few—is that some of them might not seem to fit. Dillard averts danger by connecting all the dots, drawing a web of relationships between image sets. But she also takes a syntactical approach, which includes using similar sounds in a given passage so that the music of the language itself provides cohesion within sections. Returning again the cast passage, an aforementioned pattern composed of quite a variety of parts­­, a reader, intoning it aloud, can hear how similar sounds help the differing parts to cohere.

The lyricism that comes from alliteration, assonance, and consonance helps hold the cast paragraphs together. For example, re-read aloud Dillard’s description of a painting by the artist di Chirico: “cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard, gouging canyons” (63). The many hard cees that begin words (alliteration), combined with the soft esses (consonance) in “cast,” “shadows,” “stream,” “across”, “sunlit, “canyons,” as well as the many short “a” sounds (assonance), elevate the description of the di Chirico painting to art in itself, a line of poetry. These devices combine for a rich, musical sound that flows audibly in the same way that the several images of cast and casting flow visually. Those hard cees, soft esses, and short a sounds recur throughout the paragraphs so that the sentences musically flow. This is just one example of how poetic devices create lyricism; the book is rife with these techniques.


Sometimes Dillard seems to have such serious fun with the sounds of words. Returning again to the cast passage, remember the homophone of “here, O Israel,” which sounds like the beginning of the traditional Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisrael: “hear, O Israel.” This homophone is appropriate in context, for Dillard is discussing how cast shadows create a sense of place and presence—a sense of being “here”—while at the same time, she alludes to the story of Isaac and Ishmael from the Torah and Old Testament. These are serious, mysterious topics, yet a reader can hardly refrain from smiling to see the play on hear/here.

Another homophone appears in the context of an important central image pattern, that of Dillard’s first time seeing “the tree with the lights in it,” an experience so vital that she eventually builds a book around it (and I’ve built the next section of this essay around it).

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. (33)

But its import is no hindrance to a little serious word play: Dillard writes “wholly fire” (33), suggesting “holy fire.” This homophonic association is in keeping with other religious phrases that appear on the same page describing this event which is, for Dillard, akin to a religious experience: “pearl of great price,” “literature of illumination,” “litanies,” “ailinon, alleluia.”  For Dillard, seeing this light-shot cedar is as profound a moment as seeing a vision, and she describes it in language that suggests biblical figures who experienced divine fire: she even uses the term transfigured to heighten the religious metaphor, for in the biblical gospel account, Moses (who witnessing a flaming bush that did not burn up) and Elijah (prophet who called down divine fire) were both present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

This re-appropriation of holy language is wholly Dillard, who ably commands a wide array of syntactical tactics: repetition, parallelism, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and homophones.

Image Pattern: ‘The Tree with the Lights in it’

Dillard’s account of witnessing a particular tree lit up by the evening sun becomes emblematic of her role as a pilgrim at Tinker Creek: she learns to see transcendence in nature. Dillard refers to the “tree with the lights in it” many times throughout, honing its essence but also yielding greater ambiguity (nature is awe-inspiring in sometimes horrific ways), until it becomes one of the central images standing in for Dillard’s conclusion, if there is such a thing, of her philosophical meditation on nature and what it means: “The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see” (Dillard 270). Over successive repetitions, she develops this image in such a way that it relates to the Heraclitus epigraph that Dillard chose for her book, “It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”

pilgrim epigraph page

Introducing . . . “the tree with the lights in it.”

Dillard borrows the phrase “the tree with the lights in it” from another source, a “wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight,” which chronicles the experiences of newly sighted people—those who’d had cataract operations to cure lifelong blindness. Dillard quotes Van Senden describing one such little girl: “‘She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it’” (Dillard 28). The former blind girl doesn’t understand dimensionality, so sees the negative space around the tree’s branches as lights. Dillard wonders what it would be like to forget dimensionality, to see as if for the first time, and makes a great effort to try to imagine it, wandering peach orchards all summer searching for “the tree with the lights in it” until:

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly on fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.  Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it.  The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam. (Dillard 33-34, emphases mine)

pilgrim page 33

pilgrim page 34

The passage contains Dillard’s next two repetitions of the phrase “the tree with the lights in it,” a pattern of text that we read in this exact wording a total of fourteen times before the book’s end (see Appendix C). Within the above quotation, there’s Dillard’s first appropriation of the original image pattern, and also the first “splintering” of the image that Glover spoke of (“the grass with the lights in it”), which I have italicized. Next there’s the reversal of the image (“the lights went out in the cedar”), with words fashioned carefully to create a new rhythm (variation).

The passage contains Dillard’s next two repetitions of the phrase “the tree with the lights in it,” a pattern of text that we read in this exact wording a total of fourteen times before the book’s end (see Appendix C). Within the above quotation, there’s Dillard’s first appropriation of the original image pattern, and also the first “splintering” of the image that Glover spoke of (“the grass with the lights in it”), which I have italicized. Next there’s the reversal of the image (“the lights went out in the cedar”), with words fashioned carefully to create a new rhythm (variation).

The tree / with the lights / in it

The lights / went out / in the ce-dar

Before the first paragraph ends, Dillard repeats the initial image pattern, “the tree with the lights in it,” to burn its significance (that though it is fleeting, it reappears from time to time) into the reader’s unconscious mind, a proper set-up for the phrase’s next occurrence forty-eight pages later.

The Real and Present Cedar

The next occurrence of the image pattern “the tree with the lights in it” does two things: 1) it first reminds the reader of the cedar and its initial meaning: to see something as if for the first time, as if it were a divine vision, then 2) adds another meaning—this time, to be fully aware of the present moment while living it—by interweaving with a new image pattern, “patting the puppy.” Dillard sets this up by describing in sensory detail her experience of stopping at a roadside gas station where she finds a beagle puppy. She imbues the experience and image of “patting the puppy” with a particular meaning:  that of being in the present moment, of being in the particular, or opening a door into the present. Then she remembers the previous experience of seeing “the tree with the lights in it,” and connects it to the present moment of interacting with the puppy. The result of Dillard’s interweaving the two image patterns is that the meaning of the new image (the importance of being fully present in a particular moment) is now added to the previous image of the cedar. Dillard doesn’t expect the reader to leap to this conclusion, but painstakingly connects the dots, essaying:

I had thought, because I had seen the tree with the lights in it, that the great door, by definition, opens on eternity.  Now that I have ‘patted the puppy’—now that I have experienced the present purely through my senses—I discover that, although the door to the tree with the lights in it was opened from eternity, as it were, and shone on that tree eternal lights, it nevertheless opened on the real and present cedar.  It opened on time:  Where else? (80)

pilgrim page 80

Later, lest the reader muddle the two associated image patterns, Dillard neatly clarifies the distinctions between them: “Seeing the tree with the lights in it was an experience vastly different in quality as well as in import from patting the puppy. On that cedar tree shone, however briefly, the steady, inward flames of eternity; across the mountain by the gas station raced the familiar flames of the falling sun” (Dillard 80).

Next Dillard adds variety to the pattern with more “splintering,” putting the image of “the tree with the lights in it” into the reader’s mind indirectly. How does she do this? At first, she simply recounts a story of an old king, Xerxes, who once experienced an encounter with a tree so powerful that he halted his troops for days while he contemplated the tree and got a goldsmith to work its image onto a medal. After the story, Dillard drops textual clues. “We all ought to have a goldsmith following us around. But it goes without saying, doesn’t it, Xerxes, that no gold medal worn around your neck will bring back the glad hour, keep those lights kindled so long as you live, forever present?. . . I saw a cedar. Xerxes saw a sycamore.” (Dillard 88, italics mine) Dillard ties the splintered image to the original pattern with careful word choices—“lights” and “I saw a cedar.” Oh yes, the reader remembers, she’s talking about that tree, the cedar, the tree with the lights in it.  This time another layer of meaning is wrapped around the image: we make talismans to try to remember the visions we’ve seen in the past.  Xerxes with his medal, Pascal with his piece of paper scrawled with his recollection of a mystical experience that he called his nuit de fuit, “night of fire” (which Dillard abbreviates to simply one word “FEU” on page 88), Dillard with her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—these are the attempts people make to hold on to fleeting visions and wonders, to remember them by.

Each repetition of the image layers additional meanings and associations, building in scope, while at the same time intensifying the concrete, visual image. I won’t attempt to spell out each meaning here; I’ll save some of that fun for you, dear reader, lest this essay run far too long. All told, six of the book’s fifteen chapters contain the direct phrase “the tree with the lights in it” (see Appendix B), while every chapter contains suggestions of the image pattern—trees and lights. This textual repetition allows the image to serve as a shorthand reminder of each previous occurrence of the image, its prior context, and the previous meanings it has held, so that all the meanings are stitched together throughout the narrative, giving coherence and unity without losing focus.

What Galls the Cedar

Late in the book, Dillard throws in a twist that seems, at first, to question the legitimacy of the image pattern’s previous meanings. “The tree with the lights in it” has meant the beauty of revelation, profound experience, acute awareness of presence in the moment, transfiguration, energy, vision— but now, as she explores the topic of parasitism, something ugly is revealed: cedar trees usually have galls. “And it suddenly occurs to me to wonder: were the twigs of the cedar I saw really bloated with galls? They probably were; they almost surely were. I have seen those ‘cedar apples’ swell from that cedar’s green before and since: reddish-gray, rank, malignant” (242).

This new observation plainly galls Dillard (please pardon the pun, as the author herself surely would), who, in the ensuing long paragraph, dives into a wrestling match with the meaning of evil, as seen in the image of galls on her cedar tree. Viewed in the context of a chapter that examines the horrors of parasitism, disease, and death inherent to creation (ten percent of living things survive only by parasitizing the rest of living things), the galls are terribly significant, not something that can be easily overlooked— unless, apparently, one is caught up in a transcendent vision as she was the first time. Eventually, though, Dillard reconciles the multiple, contrasting meanings represented in her cedar tree:

And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fiords cutting into the granite cliffs of mystery, and say that the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden.  The tree with the lights in it does not go out; that lights still shines on an old world, now feebly, now bright. (242)

pilgrim page 242

The speaker acknowledges that there are galls. Can the patterned metaphor survive them? Yes. The tree with the lights in it is imperfect, flawed, sick with the ugly protuberances of parasites, yet once, on a particular day, at a particular time, a particular light shone through it, illuminating with such power and beauty that a passing pilgrim was moved to build a book—and a vision of life—around it [7]. The image of “the tree with the lights in it” by now communicates visually what Dillard also articulates another way: “I am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them” (242). This statement, with its reference to a “splintered wreck” joins the “tree with the lights in it” to yet another pattern, that of sailing ships and anchors (anchor itself is holds at least two meanings, as sea anchor but also anchor-hold, the place where an anchorite dwells, as Dillard references on page 2). But the sentence is complex for other reasons, as it ties together several philosophical threads that Dillard has been grappling with, forging an uneasy truce between the notion of the world being a good place, worthy of being embraces and the fact that horrible things occur over the face of the earth daily.

Complex and nuanced though this image pattern has become, it would be much too facile to end even here, Dillard seems to think. Without directly mentioning “the tree with the lights in it,” she inscribes yet another series of allusions, or splinterings.  For instance, she refers to a biblical sacrificial practice involving a heifer and—what else?—a cedar tree. “The old Hebrew ordinance for the waters of separation, the priest must find a red heifer unblemished,” burn her, and “into the stinking flame the priest casts the wood of a cedar tree for longevity, hyssop for purgation, and a scarlet thread for a vein of living blood” (267). The phrase cedar tree resonates subtly in the reader’s brain with the previous images of cedar to lend yet another meaning, that of a holy and disturbing sacrifice, to the already rich pattern.

pilgrim page 267

Next Dillard presents what initially seems to be a brand-new image, a maple key (what I’d call a maple seed, or helicopter), but through subtle word choices, provides links between it and the old, familiar tree with the lights in it. When the maple key falls, she eloquently ponders:

The bell under my ribs rang a true note, a flourish as of blended horns, clarion, sweet, and making a long dim sense I will try at length to explain. Flung is too harsh a word for the rush of the world. Blown is more like it, but blown by a generous, unending breath. That breath never ceases to kindle, exuberant, abandoned; frayed splinters spatter in every direction and burgeon into flame. And now when I sway to a fitful wind, alone and listing, I will think, maple key. When I see a photograph of earth from space, the planet so startlingly painterly and hung, I will think, maple key. When I shake your hand or meet your eyes I will think, two maple keys . . .(268)

It’s as if, hidden inside the text, the speaker is whispering, “Reader, what does this remind you of?” A bell— ah, yes, the speaker has spoken before of a bell. Upon her first encounter with the tree with the lights in it, she thought, “I had been my whole life a bell . . .”  (33). Meanwhile the words “frayed splinters spatter” suggest the line from page 242, “splintered wreck whose beauty beats and shines . . .” And again, Dillard has often linked the word flame with the tree with the lights in it, as in that first encounter, which used the words flame, fire, and unflamed (this last is phrased such that, although it means the opposite of flame, it yet underscores the image pattern)  (33).

Finally, stunningly, in-case-there-remains-any-doubt-about-the-connections-here, let’s-put-it-on-the-very-last-page-so-we-see-for-sure-how-important-it-is, Dillard ties the latest maple-key splinter—via the proxies of the ringing bell and the flame from the long passage quoted above—back to the image pattern: “The tree with the lights in it buzzes into flame and the cast-rock mountains ring” (271). The image pattern is now complete, each stitch knitted securely into the fabric made of all the others. Again, careful phrasing choices, such as “buzzes into flame” on page 271, resonate with earlier wording, “each cell buzzing with flame” on page 3.

pilgrim page 271


Jad Abumrad and Richard Krulwich, in a May 2010 RadioLab podcast called “Vanishing Words,” articulate why readers do the type of deeply analytical work I have done: we all want to get closer to the author that penned those words. From the medieval monks, who spent entire lifetimes making concordances of the Bible, to modern-day literature professors like Ian Lancashire of the University of Toronto, who uses computers to analyze Agatha Christie’s (and other) texts, readers have sought to penetrate the minds of the authors they love. We read to connect.

For me, engaging one text hands-on, with watercolor paints, a sharp pencil, and tiny sticky-backed photographs, was fruitful for recognizing and visualizing textual patterns that would otherwise have remained mostly in my subconscious. But more than that, I felt like I had found a small portal into a favorite author’s mind. Through my study, I became deeply attached to and personally invested in the patterns that Dillard crafts. As a result, my own writing mind is being transformed. On a practical level, this means that I’m more aware of the way I myself use syntax and image patterns, so my latest writing is starting to benefit from the observational and pattern-finding skills I’ve acquired. But on an emotional level, I’ve simply fallen in love with the text. (My husband is a wee bit jealous.)

Not every writer will want to spend a few months taking pens, paints, and pictures to a single text. The physical process is incredibly time-consuming and requires some degree of craftsmanship. Recently, thanks to new advances in technology, a plethora of digital tools exist for readers/writers/scholars to use when actively reading. DevonThink, XLibris, and PapierCraft are a few of the software programs I’ve come across which, to varying degrees, allow readers to interact electronically. A new program, LiquidText, currently under development, will allow readers, via iPad, to view multiple pages at once, add annotations, pull selected paragraphs into a sidebar to organize, group and color-code them, and search for words or phrases. Recent neurological research suggests that the parts of the human brain triggered by iPad and iPhone use are the same as the centers stimulated by empathy, by falling in love. So perhaps it is not completely far-fetched to imagine that these new media will also provide a further means by which readers, scholars, and writers may fall in love with the texts they study, as they explore, like a cartographer, unfamiliar territory in order to know and to map geological features, the edges of landforms, the flow of rivers and streams.

View or download Appendix A, “Selected Image Patterns,” here.

View or download Appendix B, “The Tree with the Lights in It,” here.


I owe a debt to several teachers of the writing craft for their insightful instructions on how to read text(s). Lucy Corin’s excellent essay “Material” encourages sketching out the “material” of a given piece of writing, thinking of paragraphs and sentences as objects that can be represented as drawn blocks or lines, in order to detect underlying patterns and structure. Douglas Glover’s personal copy of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser has margins and gutters—nearly all its white space—tightly cluttered with notes in his small, fine handwriting.[8] Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story Structure: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” taught me first, what an image pattern is, and second, the importance of attending to them in literature. Virginia Tufte’s instructive Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style lays out for the aspiring writer the elements of syntax in sentences, as well as how it sets the style, tone, and voice of a literary work. Mary Stein’s lecture gave me a framework for thinking about syntax-driven, rather than plot-driven, narrative. Trinie Dalton, in a lecture at Vermont College, described stories as having “circulatory systems,” or some means by which the story moves, or flows. David Jauss, in his essay, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” credits successful flow to syntax, the way in which sentences are put together.

For the altered book portion of this thesis, I’m grateful to photographers Steven David Johnson and Dave Huth for permission to reprint their images onto sticker paper for my pattern-finding purposes. Dave Huth owns the rights to the photographic images of the giant water bug, dragonfly nymph, frog, and Polyphemus moth; the image of Earth Oceana is used here for non-commercial purposes through a creative commons license by alegri/; the image of the tree with the lights in it originated with a cedar tree photographed by Ian Robertson, thanks to a creative commons license, and was digitally altered by Steven David Johnson; all other photographs belong to Steven David Johnson and are used with permission. Hand-drawn illustrations are my own.

I wish to also thank artist and poet Jen Bervin for her exquisite textile art that explores the margins of Emily Dickinson’s poetry manuscripts; her work and her conversations with me helped push my thinking about margins and what might happen in them.

For their encouragement and helpful feedback throughout the conception and fulfillment of this project, I thank my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Richard McCann and Patrick Madden.

Most of all, my greatest thanks to Annie Dillard for writing a book so rich and intricate that I easily spent over six months thinking deeply about it without being bored once. Studying this book was an experience akin to seeing “the tree with the lights in it,” and I’m still spending the power.

— Anna Maria Johnson

Works Cited

Abumrad, Jad and Robert Krulwich. “Vanishing Words.” Radiolab: WNYC. 5 May 2010. Web.

Corin, Lucy. “Material.” The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Portland: Tin House Books, 2009.

Dalton, Trinie. “Good Liar/ Bad Liar: Myth, Symbol, and Choosing the Right Details.” MFA in Writing Summer Residency. Vermont College of Fine Arts. Montpelier, Vermont.  2 July 2010. Lecture.

____________. “Circulatory Systems in Fiction.” MFA in Writing Winter Residency. Vermont College of Fine Arts. Montpelier, Vermont.  Jan. 2011. Lecture.

Dillard. An American Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, Inc., 1987.

____________. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974.

____________. The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1989.

____________. “Annie Dillard Official Website.” Annie Dillard, 2010. Website.  Accessed 7/21/2011.

Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Emeryville: Biblioasis, 2012.

Jauss, David. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Alone With All That Could Happen. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.

Stein, Mary. “Mucking Up the Landscape: Poetic Tendencies in Prose.” Número Cinq. Volume II, No. 40. Oct. 5, 2011.

Tashman, Craig. “Active Reading and its Discontents: The Situations, Problems and Ideas of Readers.” CHI 2011.  May 7–12, 2011. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC, 2006.



Anna Maria Johnson’s writing brings together her diverse interests in the visual arts, science and nature, family systems, and spirituality. She studied fiction and creative non-fiction at Vermont College of Fine Art (MFA July 2012). Her short stories and essays have been published in Ruminate Magazine, Blue Ridge Country, Numéro Cinq, DreamSeeker Magazine, Flycatcher Journal, Newfound, and The Mennonite, as well as in the anthology, Tongue-screws and Testimonies. Anna Maria writes, gardens, and makes art along the Shenandoah River’s north fork, where she has lived for seven years with photographer Steven David Johnson and their two daughters. She and Steven are currently collaborating on photo-essays about southern Oregon’s ecology. View their project at

See also:

James Agee’s Unconventional Use of Colons  by Anna Maria Johnson

Whirlpool (All Tremors Cease): Underwater Video Meditation by Steven David Johnsonby Anna Maria Johnson

What it’s like living here in Cootes Store, Virginia by Anna Maria Johnson and Steven David Johnson

The Quirky Bird Art of Paula Swisher by Anna Maria Johnson

Riffing on Whirlpoolsby Anna Maria Johnson & Steven David Johnson

“Meditation on Mary, for Advent,” a sermon by Anna Maria Johnson

The Way To A Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach, or Kitchen Ostinato, a rondeau by Anna Maria Johnson

Off The Page: Novel-in-a-Box by Anna Maria Johnson





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Mary Stein said this in a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Art. This fine lecture was later published on Numéro Cinq, but with different phrasing. I’ve chosen to retain the original phrasing here to suit my purposes, but highly recommend reading the published version as well.
  2. Dillard’s goldfish is apparently named for Thoreau’s friend and fellow poet Ellery Channing. For scholars familiar with this fact, Ellery’s name swimmingly links Dillard’s goldfish and the Thoreau allusions sprinkled throughout the book.
  3. The practice of making room for multiple interpretations of a given subject is inherent to essaying since the time of Montaigne.
  4. Parallelism and repetition are common literary devices in the biblical Old Testament, a book that seems to have been highly influential on Dillard’s writing judging from the numerous allusions and references to, and quotations from, that source (see Appendix A). It is not surprising that some of the Bible’s rhythms and syntactical patterns would also have found their way into Dillard’s style.
  5. In drawing a contrast between “living here” and “home,” and between “Tinker Creek” and “Tinker Mountain,” Dillard seems to be following the western philosophical tradition of dualism, suggesting that beyond the changing, physical realm lies an eternal, unchanging spiritual realm that is her true home. By using a syntactical structure frequently employed in the Bible (parallelism), Dillard underscores this earthly-versus-spiritual tradition.
  6. A wooden fish wheel, similar to a water mill, is a device used for catching fish.
  7. This might be compared to Christians who have re-purposed the symbol of the cross from being an instrument of execution to one of salvation. The cross is often referred to as a tree, and Christ is called the light of the world, so perhaps “the tree with the lights in it” is furthermore an allusion to the Christian story, which Dillard has woven throughout her book.
  8. Attack of the Copula Spiders also contains a rather nice essay about the importance of structure in this novel.
Dec 132012

Here’s a brief, sweet essay/memoir/story — an uncategorizable something, if you will — from my friend/former colleague/now Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea who has a knack for being able to extract meaning out of a glancing contact, the briefest of interactions. When he sent this to me, he was himself somewhat uncertain. Perhaps, after all, it was only an anecdote. But I read it and worried on it (like a dog with a bone — Sydney and I tend to talk about dogs when we meet) and then got excited about the way the text keeps surging. Some secret here, I thought, about the nature of good writing, how the text begins with a stranger barging, by mistake, into the wrong room, then quiets, then surges ahead with an even more unsettling invasion. The pattern keeps repeating. Now “the writer,”  disturbed, can’t forget the interloper. Details emerge: a melancholy story, alcohol, waiting for a daughter. But again the text quiets; the tired writer returns home to his wife, falls asleep, dreams. And in his dream (the text surges again) he meets his daughter and finds a moment of immeasurable peace. The story works by obsession, image and transformation. The stranger is a mythic other, lost, befuddled Everyman insisting on trying to get into a room that is no longer his. At the end, in his dream, “the writer” metaphorically transforms into the stranger and finds his daughter, that image of love and bliss, and feels at peace. Something very beautiful in this sequence, reminiscent of Chekhov.



As the stranger pushed open his door at the Longhorn Motel, the writer noticed the befuddled grin. “Oh, this is the wrong…,” the man muttered, trailing off and backing out. The writer had long hours to wait before he flew back east from Denver, so, seated at the chipped formica table, he’d been trying to rough out a poem. He’d had small success, and so, as if it would help his efforts, he locked the door against further distraction, even benign as this petty mistake.

A few minutes later, though, the knob began to rattle. The writer slid the bolt.  “What’s the matter?” he snapped when he saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-Oh-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other man didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, holding an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands. “Get the hell out of here!” barked the writer, as now the other started leaning against him. The interloper was younger than the writer, and he wasn’t small, but smaller than the man who belonged in the room, who put both forearms under the other fellow’s chin and shoved him hard enough that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy beige blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight in other circumstances.  The writer relocked his door.

His poem continued to go nowhere at all, so in spite of the time gaping before him, he decided to repack his own clothes. He couldn’t make that little chore last very long, however, and soon he stepped out to grab a styro cup of bitter-end coffee from the office vending machine. Once more he spotted the other man. He was up on his feet now, at the very spot where he’d been knocked down, his odd bundle of garments regathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.

The one who’d shoved him asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story on that guy?”

“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I give him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 106.”

“My room,” the writer mused, stressing the obvious.

“I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, tossing his head and turning back to his affairs.

The writer left room 106 and went out for breakfast. He dawdled over his meal for more than an hour at a place called the Country Fare. When he returned to the Longhorn, he found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 106, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. He walked back to the motel office. “What became of our friend?” he asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 106 and not 124, the room he’d rented.

Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”

In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk called the police. The cops summoned the rescue squad. The author of poems doesn’t know what happened after that because he abruptly left for his flight, much earlier than he needed to. On the way toward the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne in the plane, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, he couldn’t help feeling rotten about how he’d heaved that poor trespasser onto his backside. He understood how guilt might bother him, and it did; but he couldn’t quite name the other things beyond guilt that he suffered. He tried to console himself, of course. How, after all, could he have known what ailed the other man? How could he know even now?

Yet even these weeks later, he senses the same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, his troubling state of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it will last him lifelong. Maybe at least he can write about it. Maybe he has always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.

He remembers arriving home that night dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with his wife, going up to bed; but there’s a more powerful memory, a dream he had some time toward dawn, in which that wife stood with him and the second of their three daughters next to a splendid bonfire. Someone had lit it at the end of their woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes: the one which passeth all understanding. For a moment, still mostly asleep, he arrived at a warming conclusion: that such peace might actually remain in the world even after he left it, and that somehow it might be available to any person in sufficient need of it. Awake, he felt desolate to dismiss the notion as fantasy.

There had been times when the writer needed it for himself, and there would be other times to come. He knew that.

He didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn just then, though later he saw that he might have.

—Sydney Lea



SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was just published by the University of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in  April 2013,  his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Nov 032012


Photo by Kevin Cosgrove.

NC has a special place in its heart (okay, really, the magazine doesn’t have a heart perhaps, but in the editor’s heart) for mixed forms, hybrid forms and old forms gone out of fashion. They don’t teach sermon-writing in the college workshops, but the sermon is a great and ancient nonfiction form (books of sermons used to be bestsellers), and we have published several on this site. This is the first sermon Hilary Mullins ever gave and dates back to 2000 when she lived in Oakland, CA. She now lives in Bethel, VT, and is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program and writes and teaches and washes windows in the summer. Her most recent contribution to NC was an essay on her experiences during Hurricane Irene. This her second sermon on NC. See the first here.



One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence?  — Rumi

I’m no dervish, no Sufi mystic. I’m just a writer. And though like Rumi, I too sometimes conceive of God as a baptism of fire, I find that when I sit down to write, water is the vision that keeps returning to me. I’ve been writing about water my whole life. It’s not my only metaphor, but it may be my most frequent. I’ve written poems about rivers and brooks, about lakes and skating on lakes. I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the lake back in Vermont I grew up swimming in, the hours and endless hours I spent in that water.

Especially I remember swimming underwater: nosing around submerged parts of trees for the sudden sparkle of a fishing lure, or better yet, pulling myself with wide arm-strokes down the mysterious, green-dark slope where the real depths began.

Experiences like this get under our skin, making a metaphorical sense that sticks with us, informing our lives. Though as a writer, I’m probably more aware than most of the metaphors I use, I think everybody uses them.

And I’m certainly not the only one who thinks this. University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff thinks so too. Lakoff has been championing the importance of metaphor for quite some time now. In a recent book with the delicious title, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Eugene philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not a mere matter of the words we use. In fact, they claim that metaphors structure the ways we conceptualize our most fundamental experiences.

And furthermore, they say, reeling in abundant evidence from the cognitive sciences, this metaphorical structuring of meaning is largely unconscious and inescapable, the result of our embodied existence.

Let me give you an example. When we are babies, picked up and held, we learn to associate affection with the actual warmth of embrace. And ever after—so the argument goes—those two things become associated in our minds: we think of affection itself as warm, though literally of course it is not.

This linkage, which occurs in the brain, this conceptualization of affection as warmth, Lakoff and Johnson call a primary metaphor. And we have many, many of these metaphors. Think about it: we talk of happiness in terms of being up, we think of intimacy in terms of closeness, of knowing as seeing, of understanding as grasping.

None of this is literal. For instance, happiness, as an emotion we feel in our body is not actually up or down; it has no location in space that way at all. And yet this is how we think of it and therefore how we experience it: happiness, for us, is up.

One of the implications of metaphor theory—if you find it convincing and I certainly do—is that we are not the transcendent rational creatures we have taken ourselves to be for a very long time. To the contrary, Lakoff and Johnson argue that reason is not a transcendent entity somewhere “out there” like some supernatural deity we can commune with through our rational faculty. They claim instead that what we think of as “reason” is actually  a product of our bodies and the ways that we, these bodies, interact with the world. As a result, our reason is largely metaphorical and imaginative.

As someone well-acquainted with the power of metaphor in my own work, I take this to be good news. For I have long noticed that the introduction of a good metaphor can transform a piece of stagnant writing into something else all together, into something with a pulse, something with movement, direction.

For example: Let’s say I tell you about a period of major transition in my life. Let’s say I list the feelings I had during that time, that I describe to you my resulting indecision and hesitation. There’s nothing wrong with such a retelling of course. I could convey something important this way.

But, let’s say I use an image instead, an image about riding a train. Let’s say that I’m standing in an open doorway on that train, straddling a gap between cars, that I’m gazing down the rattling, serpentine-length of that train, all its doors open, the swaying of its motion along the tracks rocking me gently towards my next destination. Yes, let’s say, held in the belly of that train, I am rocked and carried along.

Something in us perks up when we speak of our experiences this way, something vital in us begins breathing, resonating. This is no small thing, for I believe it brings us closer to where we live, which is another way to talk about the search for meaning in our lives, or if you will, the search for God.

But there’s more that I think metaphor can do. I think it can transform us as well.

Let’s think about the train some more. The fact is though my description of riding that train may be imaginative, my actual choice of the train as a metaphor is not. It’s not that I’m criticizing my originality. No. What I want to point out is that trains, planes, and automobiles are metaphors people frequently reach for when they are speaking of their lives.

I remember when I used to work at a teen center, we often played a board game called Life. On the board, point by point, along a curving, broad path were laid out all the conventional mileage markers of  a life: birth, school, first job, marriage, house, children. And each contestant piloted her or himself along this yellow brick road of expectation in a tiny, plastic car.

Of course, it seemed silly, putzing in plastic through a life like that, but the fact is that that board game was a good mock-up of our culture’s concept of life: which is to say we hold life to be a journey, one complete with itinerary, destinations, and  obstacles to those destinations. This can be a useful way to think of life.

And yet it has its obvious drawbacks as well. For conceiving of our lives this way leads us to make judgments about whether we have at any given point in time made it to the “mileage markers” we or others think are appropriate to that period in our lives. People who are obviously successful when they are young, look good according to this reasoning, while some of us late-bloomers can look pretty lackadaisical.

But this is just one way of looking at things. In other countries, people don’t think this way at all. In other countries, there is no journey—there’s just you, living your life.

Lately, with seven years and counting between my first and still unfinished second novel, some of these other countries are beginning to look pretty appealing.

But maybe I won’t have to move. Maybe I can start with countering the concept here, now, in myself. I think to some extent this is possible. We may not have much choice, ultimately, about whether we experience happy as up or affection as warmth (Lakoff and Johnson contend that we do not), but it is possible, I think, to grapple with some of our culture’s more complex metaphors if we find that, rather than bringing us along in some way, they are holding us back.

Think about the ways we talk about our relationships. Again journey metaphors abound. That is, we tend to think of love as a journey, of lovers as travelers with common destinations or paths. Fact is the little plastic car on the Life game board says it pretty well: we think of our relationships as vehicles on this common journey we undertake together. Sometimes our relationships “spin their wheels”, sometimes they “run out of gas”. Or sometimes they hit a “dead end.”

Haven’t you ever hit a dead end in a relationship? A lot of us have. That is, we’ve thought about it just that way. And so, then, did we decide that the whole thing had been a waste of time? A useless trip? The love-is-a-journey metaphor itself could very well lead us to that conclusion.

But what if we conceived of relationships in a different way? What if, as Lakoff and Johnson have suggested, we think of love as a collaborative work of art? Imagine that. Then ask yourself this: is art ever a waste of time?

And yet though I especially like the notion of collaboration that this metaphor offers, I find myself still wanting to salvage the journey metaphor. I like the motion in this image, the sense of distance traveled. Lately though, my own mileage markers don’t have much to do with the conventional signposts on the Life game board. Instead I find myself marking the miles with lessons learned. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of miles so much as it is the depth I’ve managed to get to, whether by myself or in the company of another. Being in relationship with another person for me is sometimes like going for a swim, an underwater dive.  I want to see how deep we can go. And swimming for me is never a waste of time!

This is why I believe the metaphors we use really do matter. Though it may be true that most of them are engrained and automatic, I still think that if you start nosing around in the ones you use, you can sometimes open up a little light in what might be a pretty dark corner. Or you can just as well notice one that’s always been a taproot for you and make more of it.

Some of you may remember a sermon Rob Hardies gave a few months ago where he argued that for religious liberals, thinking about God metaphorically is the way to go. Well, I for one have started to think of God as a writer.

Now thinking about God as a writer is not necessarily helpful to me on a night when I’m feeling lonely, or on a morning when I have something to do that makes my spirits sink. Lately when I’m feeling that way, I imagine God as a massive live-oak tree, someone I can climb into, a place I can rest.

But when I’m in motion, and wondering what to do next in my life, I like thinking of God as a writer. For as a writer myself, I know how important it is to get in tune with the story I’m writing.

This is not a matter of knowing where the story is going, how it will end, or all of what will occur along the way. Indeed, I find that when I try to force the outcome, the whole thing breaks down, that me and my story get flat-out stuck, going nowhere fast.  I find instead that to do well when I’m writing, a certain sort of surrender is required, a trust that the unfolding story itself will take me where it needs to go. I have to strike a balance, as if I were on a bike. Sometimes it even feels like I’m riding with no hands.

So I like to think of God that way, like me, but at the same time not like me at all. I like to think of God as an author writing the world. And in that writing, he’s present but divinely absent-minded too, somehow manifest but not at all embodied.

God the writer. He writes a world with all us characters in it. All of us. It’s not that he winds this story-world up and lets it go, as if it were a Newtonian script. No, writers have to keep writing to keep their stories going. But as any writer will tell you, those stories have a life of their own, a kind of creative free-will. And I have found recently that things go better with me when I pray to find some way to get in tune with the unfolding story—with my own and with the larger one, the multitudinous one I am just another piece of.

This is no guarantee, of course, that things won’t go wrong, that even terrible things won’t happen to me at some point when I’m living from this point of view. The way I look at it, all the characters in this story—God’s story—have free will. Speaking to this very same point, the writer Virginia Woolf once commented that nothing can be done about a drunk with a bat. Me, I’m not as fatalistic as all that—perhaps because I haven’t  live through WWI and II in England, as Woolf did.

Nonetheless the drunks with bats are still out there, and the fact is that we often fail, for one reason or another to stop them. In the face of such possibilities, we might do well then to pray we’ll be able to duck in time.

But if it just so happens that we are not able to get out of harm’s way, then perhaps that will be the day we call on God the shepherd, God the healer. For I think that when God appears, she comes to us in the form we most need at that time.

Let me give you one more example. I once wrote a story about a bear who appeared to me at nightfall, silently challenging me to follow her up a mountainside. In the story—after some hesitation—I met her challenge and tore up the mountain, trying to catch up to her.

Now imaging God as manifested in this great mother bear had wonderful poetic implications for me. For this goddess could take me into her den, surrounding me there with the embracing warmth of her massive body. She could lick me down like the needy cub I was, she could send me off in the morning, reborn, my old skin shed.

Of course it was just a story. But it was more than that too. For though I never literally saw that bear, she was nonetheless a vision. And though I can’t tell you if that bear was a spirit guide, or a gift from what the Jungian psychologists call the collective unconscious or even just the result of hundreds of thousands of nerve cells firing in my brain, I can tell you that this divinely imaginary bear helped me change my life at a time when I badly needed to begin anew.

One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence?

You may not be a dervish either—I bet you aren’t—and yet I am suggesting this morning that you let yourself become more aware of the ways God comes to you. Pay attention! Let your own visions, your own metaphors bubble up.  Live with them. Notice how they live in you. Notice how they move.

For metaphors aren’t stagnant; they evolve. And it is through this transformative power that they transform us. So if God is your shepherd, leading you beside still waters, take a few minutes to enter that scene. Smell the water, feel the good ground under your feet, and let yourself be led.

Let yourself be led.

We can none of us know where our stories are going. But we can try to live in them more deeply. So if God is fire, throw yourself in a while. Burn a little. But if God is water, take a swim. Dive in, let your head break the surface. Pull yourself down as far as you can go, keeping your eyes open for sudden sparkles in the submerged trees. Let yourself slide down that mysterious green-dark slope. And trust that even in those times when you feel you are drowning, God—the source of your inspiration—will show you how to breathe.

Amen and blessed be.

 — Hilary Mullins


Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.

Oct 152012


Herewith a lovely, touching, immaculately detailed essay about books and reading by Fleda Brown who is the former Poet Laureate of Delaware and Sydney Lea’s friend (Syd is my old friend and the current Poet Laureate of Vermont) which is how I came by “Books Made of Paper.” As Syd explains: “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Numéro Cinq is just the place, apparently, for we have published two of Syd’s essays, “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know“. And now we have Fleda Brown’s response, the other voice in the conversation, and she begins with a sweet evocation of childhood and libraries and books — the little girl climbing the narrow dusty steps to the room of stacked books. Oh, to have written the lines: “I think of everything as worn, the floors, the stacks themselves, the central desk. I was entering a privacy, a sanctum with hidden grottos, secrets. All that I did not know felt like an emptiness in my skinny body.”

There is some dazzling yet subtle intimacy in these essays Syd and Fleda are writing; they speak to the reader but also straight to each other, old, literate friends for whom memory and books are the lingua franca. It’s a huge pleasure and privilege to have them here on NC.



The old libraries were upstairs. Up long, narrow stairs. Maybe not all of them, but some. The one I knew. As if it were a secret, a garret. They were all musty. Or some of them. Or, the only one I knew back then, with its severe guardian, or one who seemed severe, who had severe bones and counted the books to the limit of six. When you’re small, I suppose the world itself outside of family feels severe, rule-bound, alien. But what do I know of what it was like for others? I would climb the dark stairs on Saturdays to where they opened out into the grand, narrow stacks, and I would meander my way among them, not a clue what I wanted, how to choose, except by heft, texture, print. All the covers were red, green, or brown cloth-like texture on hardboard of some sort, all the titles pressed into the board in black or gilt, all worn. I think of everything as worn, the floors, the stacks themselves, the central desk. I was entering a privacy, a sanctum with hidden grottos, secrets. All that I did not know felt like an emptiness in my skinny body. What I could know was stacked and turned away, spines out, forbidding, colluding, pulling at me. I was helpless and hopeless, and when I picked out my six, I had no idea if they were the right ones. If they were the ones that would reveal to me any part of what I needed for my soul.

Before that, I remember nothing of libraries. I remember story hour in Middlebury, all of us hanging up our snowsuits and sitting in a circle. I remember the circle but not the stories. How was it that the stories went into me and lodged somewhere unreachable yet sent their perfume into the crevices of my character? I remember the semicircle of first grade, sounding out syllables one by one to hear the ruckus when Dick and Jane chased Spot around the yard. “No, Spot!” Jane called when the leaf pile flew into the air, pictures and words speaking in unison. I can smell the perfect certainty of the book, the waft of its origin, of organic matter. I can feel its soft, cloth-like pages with their slight sheen.

What did I read, after I could?  Mostly easy books, below my level, for a long time. I was a lazy child in that way, wallowing alone in my own mind, wanting my mind separate, I guess, from the struggles toward a book’s difficult language, difficult plot. I read and re-read Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, my favorite book in grade school, the story of orphaned children who set up their home in a boxcar, who made it theirs by collecting cracked dishes from a nearby dump, dipping water from a convenient stream, going into town only to work briefly for a few potatoes, a little bread. I loved the way they distrusted the adult world’s ability to look after them and went at it for themselves. I loved their small world. Home was a miniature windowless island on rusted rails on the outskirts of so-called civilization. I also loved The Good Master, by Kate Seredy, the story of a smart and wild Hungarian girl who was partially tamed by her kind uncle. I look it up, now. Amazon has copies in a new cover, but Wikipedia shows the original heart-shape on a blue background. It is only that version that I want. With the jacket a little frayed from use. But it’s long gone, and even if I could have an exact replica, or the original bought from some used book dealer, I would not. It’s the one on our cottage shelves that I want. It is the nine-year-old reading it over and over on long summer days that I want. Not me now.  And Heidi. Another wild girl noticed and loved into good behavior by her kind uncle. Later when my friends were reading Black Beauty; I was being a horse, galloping across the playground. But not reading the stories. I read the Hardy Boys, some of them. I read Nancy Drew, some of them.

What I remember rather than stories themselves is the feel of reading. The way the book and I came together as if we were enclosed under gauze netting, the outside world barely whispering. I remember the graininess, the slightly darkened paper, the words actually pressed into them, the texture of the pressing. My body curled, holding in the story. When I was a teenager, my grandparents gave me a stack of old Readers’ Digest Condensed books. I read them all, one after the other, lying in bed on summer mornings, lying in bed the month I had mono and had to stay home from school. Easy reading. Lazy.

It was as if my mind was needed elsewhere, to just live, to figure out my own life, to muddle through the day-by-day. All I could afford was this small turning away, this coasting into the heart of someone else’s life.  Through high school, I read what I had to—history, the sterile excerpts in my English anthology, I’m not sure what else. Nothing stands out. Even the most modest of writers’ memoirs typically tout a list of books read by high school that I hadn’t even heard of until mid-college.

Ah, college. I should mention I got myself married before I even set foot in the door of college. That’s another story. But within that new stability, that safety, a wide and unforseen world began to present itself. My freshman reading list drove me wild with terror and joy. All I remember is that there were many pages in small type. Dickens, Camus, Tolstoy, maybe. One Christmas holiday, I read War and Peace, page by gloriously laborious page. I have a memory of reading it under a tree in the warmth of a winter afternoon in Arkansas, the snow of Moscow all around me.

Maybe we love what we love because it’s hard going. Maybe we love it because we’re supposed to. Maybe we don’t love it at all, but want to prove something to ourselves. All I know is that my mind quivered with new ideas, with ratification of old ones, with the sheer physical weight of other people’s words I cradled like a baby in my arms back and forth to class.  I don’t remember any back packs. Girls cradled their books and notebooks, stacked in their arms like a baby up to the chin. Boys carried them in one arm alongside. Knowledge had heft and weight, it pressed itself onto the page, it spread itself and turned itself in the breeze like leaves.

Meaning was an amalgam of the physical object: the book, its cover, its pages, and where the words flew into my mind and rearranged themselves according to the whims of my nature. I think it is not the grand and classic narrative, the movement of events, that held the meaning, but the feeling, the interstices, the spaces when I looked up from the page, where I stopped to scribble, and where, later, I brought along a whiff of what was there, to permeate my thoughts.

I am very visual, more than anything, and I would—and still do—recall what the page looks like, how far down the page, whether octavo or verso, where the lines I love appear. Their meaning has to do with font, with ink, with crispness, delicacy, or heaviness of the paper itself. The Norton anthologies with their biblically thin pages, the Boxcar Children with its sturdier ones, my Scotch-taped college copy of Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America, where D.H. Lawrence’s “Whales Weep Not!” begins almost at the bottom of a page and fills up the next one. Where “urgent” and “urge” and “ice-bergs” are circled, with the note in the top margin, “[incantatory], and, and, and,” holding my younger and excited self on the page forever.  At the top margin of Robert Graves’ poems, “always the practical impossibility, transcended only by miracle, of absolute love continuing between man and woman.” My hand, Graves’s words, Miller Williams’ quoting them in class. Each part of a whole, a meaning. Yeats’ “Second Coming,” my ink drawing of a gyre, one triangular whirlwind on top of the next, with the note, “most rests upon A Vision, cataclysm every 2000 years.”

The number of marks on a page is a measure of how engaged I am. Pen or pencil doesn’t matter. For my husband, an Eighteenth Century scholar, books are sacred artifacts, or something close. He will not dog-ear a page of a book or mark it (except back when he was teaching), even when it’s a cheap paperback. For him, it’s respect for the tradition of the book, for the author, for the paper. I, however, want to mark how my mind is moving in and out of the author’s mind. I think of our work as a partnership, and my role involves scribbling in margins. In a novel with a strong plot, I mark nothing, my mind dutifully, practically, racing forward.

On the Kindle, it is possible to underline sections, and then call them up, along with the relevant passages. You can then click on those and return to the page on which they appeared. Very convenient. You can take notes, only that is harder. You have to type them in on the little keypad.  I bought a Kindle. I use it for maybe a quarter of my reading. I like being able to summon books from the ether and have them magically appear. I appreciate not having so many ephemeral paperbacks pile up that I have to figure who to give them to afterward. The print is good on the Kindle: neat serifs, soft background. No doubt whole committees have scientifically assessed the brightness of the screen, the font, the movement of the eye. Good job.

As my eye moves down the Kindle “page,” I am aware of the words as barely being there, disappearing with a click to the next page, gone forever if I remove the book from my device. I feel the futility of saving anything, and interestingly, therefore, I begin to view my mind as the repository, rather than the bookshelf. I am my own bookshelf. And of course even I can’t hold on to much. My mind is slippery and unreliable, unlike the firm book between covers. Unlike the world I imagined existed, the permanent one in the past, the better one, with manners, with tact, with grace and a clear list of what the well-read person has on her shelves.

I love the actual book. I am okay with the Kindle. What’s lost, what’s gained is hardly worth talking about because what’s here is here and won’t go away. Humans will always find the shortest path, given a chance. I just downloaded my first book of poems: Jane Hirshfield’s  Come, Thief.  I’d heard poetry was a formatting problem for e-books, but this one seems fine, if sterile. I will probably use the Kindle mostly for fiction that I intend to get rid of later.

A poem cries out for paper, in my mind. It wants to be located, pinned down. I’m fine hearing a poem spoken or read, but I want to know it resides, at last, on what is for me its native habitat, the page.  Why else the fuss with line endings, with indentations, with stanza breaks? Why else do poets argue with their publishers about fonts and point size? Of all genres, it seems that poetry most wants to be read simultaneously by eye and mind.

There’s nothing more or less “real” about the words on Kindle versus the words pressed onto paper. The words themselves are not real. They’re metaphors for what we “see” (also not “real”) as we read. I could deconstruct all the way down, but everybody knows that. What matters is the relationship with meaning that each insinuates.

Someday this conversation is going to be so dated! Who cares if the molecules form themselves into pixels or press themselves into ink? What difference did it make when Gutenberg began pressing one after another pages, each a copy of the first? Was the work less authentic, being no longer in the delicate script of the copier? Are stone hieroglyphs “better” than print, being more permanent, more solid?

I am the generation who’s been knocked on its tail by the systematic unmooring of all we held sacred. Never in human history has the past disappeared so quickly while at the same time remaining perpetually with us in film and TV.  Our first little black and white Zenith TV entered our home when I was 13, my first computer when I was 40. After a traumatic struggle, I learned to love the word as it flashes at me from my screen. I love it on the page, I love it flying around in the air.  I am a convert, mostly.

At the same time, I’m sad. I think only those of us who were young in a different world know what it is to move more slowly within it, to feel its edges as unrelenting rather than as possessing the infinite regress of the screen. To walk up the many steps to the library, its elevation a signifier of the invisible grandeur of its holdings—even the word “holdings” both warm and forbidding—pull open the long wooden card catalog drawers and run our finger along the cards softened by years of our predecessors, miss the right card, look again and find it! And write down the call numbers on a scrap of paper with a stub of a pencil, then stand in the crevasse between stacks letting our eye travel until—there it is!—our book. By now it is our book only, the one we looked for with our hands and feet and eyes, and found. The one chosen  from the long, skinny drawer of cards. This one. The librarian stamps the borrower’s card and slips it into the pocket at the back of the book. We can read who else has checked out the book. The names remain until that card is full and has to be replaced. Oh, this book hasn’t been checked out in six years! How smart we are to have re-discovered it! We carry it home, place it on the table, and open it, the end of one journey, the beginning of another.

Not that people don’t still do this. But when it was the only way, it seemed more important. Even the book felt somehow more necessary, a lifeboat in a storm, a lone squeee of a radio signal in the wilderness. When each book went through several printings, we could trace that in the front matter, and marvel at how many people must have read it. People. That’s what I mourn, I guess. The thumbprint, the smudge, the marginal note, the hand that works the press. The hand, its slow and sometimes clumsy articulations. The universe is slow, really. The sun takes its own sweet time coming up and going down, tides come and go with time enough between for a sand castle to be built. No matter that it will be washed away. It was something: tall, many crenellated, gritty, its doors and windows made of our own fingerprints. It was right out of King Arthur. You could see the knights crossing the moat-bridge, clamoring their way right out of the book.

— Fleda Brown


Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion (2007), was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press.

She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and she spends summers with her husband, Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, at their cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. Between them, they have four children and ten grandchildren.

Apr 042012

Robert Vivian


Someone once said to Robert Vivian that real writers write novels, not essays, fighting words that in part inspired this wonderfully personal essay on essays by my indefatigable and otherwise gentle friend and colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) who herein describes his own turn to the essay many years ago in a London cemetery when he was 22. Robert Vivian is a Nebraska native (now living in Michigan where he teaches at Alma College), and a former baseball player (sorry, I DO have to keep mentioning this because it is fascinating—Nebraska and baseball: some echo of the American epic in those words). He is a prolific writer of superb meditative essays and a fine novelist, also a playwright and poet. Of the second novel in his The Tall Grass Trilogy, I wrote: “Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors is a brave and profoundly moving novel of faith and forgiveness. A closely-observed novel of voices, it speaks the tongues of America’s impoverished underbelly and reveals, amid the squalor, mystery, goodness and salvation.” He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy (The Mover Of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom) and the essay collections Cold Snap As Yearning and The Least Cricket Of Evening. His next novel, Water And Abandon, will be out this fall. Earlier on these pages, I published is “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay.”



Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.    
— Rumi

Many years ago I turned to essay writing in a most fundamental and organic way, like some human kind of turning plant whose leaves and petals reached out for the miraculous nourishment of photosynthesis, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. I was 22 and abroad in London for the first time away from my native state of Nebraska, volunteering at Highgate Cemetery to clean headstones under the guidance of a wise and proper old English lady named Edith. One of my American professors there required that we keep an extensive journal of our time abroad, and so I was doing my part to meet this requirement when a subtle but ultimately life-altering thing happened that I only realize fully now with the benefit of hindsight: I found that having to write about what I saw, thought, felt and experienced or observed without apology or reservation on this first trip out of America was oddly satisfying and absorbing, so much so that I began to care about this kind of writing in a way I never had before; that is, I wanted and was even grateful to do these assignments, and when my professor handed these writings back, I saw that he had responded mostly favorably to them. He liked the way I tried to describe the cemetery and kindly, old Edith and how they registered in my awareness, and no one had ever really communicated such sentiments about my writing ability before this time.

Among the snowdrops and the damp, chilly air of Highgate Cemetery and London, I was reborn, but again I didn’t quite realize it then, for it was the first time someone had ever taken my humble observations about the world at all seriously. About a year before the trip to London I was not what you would call a promising or hardly stellar student, but I had—cliché of cliché’s—been gob smacked one day sitting in a course on the Romantic poets taught by a rather glamorous and beautiful professor and had fallen in love with poetry or with her, and it scarcely mattered which it was. That spark had led to the visit to London and my deepening desire to become a writer as I tried to write poems and prose about what I was observing in England as a wide-eyed visitor. Both professors did me an incalculable service as a human being and incipient writer, and I will forever be grateful to them for catalyzing in me a love of language along with the frame-work to practice at it—in the case of extensive journal-writing—as I tried to make sense out of the English way of life around me. After London I stopped writing essays but turned to writing poetry and then to plays, and it would be several years before I went back to essays as a reprieve from the oftentimes bleak and incomprehensible plays I had hung my hat on at the time.

I mention all this as a prelude to the subject of creative nonfiction today as I wish to give you all some slight idea of how I ended up as a practitioner of the form, or as one of the characters in Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” says, “Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” I would usually resort to writing essays as a reprieve from other forms only to turn to them more often and with greater and deeper dearness that continues to this day. Annie Dillard once wrote that “Essays can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it,” and I heartily agree: writing those first essays back in London, I sought to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing, and how a woman like Edith could touch me so profoundly and forever by her dignity and kindness as reflected in her deeply wrinkled face whose every line and furrow bespoke years of living and suffering along with a quiet, ineffable joy. I was pretty naïve and open then, though I still believe that writing essays comes primarily out of a sense of asking and wondering about people and things and speculating on their meaning and significance, including the life that was given to me to live. I wanted to bring up all the aforementioned as an apology of sorts (or maybe species of bemusement is a better way to put it) for my lack of an utter staunch or definitive stand for what creative nonfiction is or purports to be or any pleading stance on this contested form or why it is so often bedeviled as a genre and quite controversial, more so, perhaps, than any other literary genre.

We know—etymologically speaking—that poets make poems, that fiction writers invent narratives, that playwrights work on plays and drama, and that essayists try or attempt to articulate through crafted language to arrive at some truth or observation about their own experiences. We know this because the deep history and definitions of these words tell us so. And yet—for good and solid reasons—many people are a little troubled or even put off at the very label of creative nonfiction: How can one be creative with something that is supposed to be factual and true? And why is nonfiction the only genre defined as much by what it isn’t than by what it is? Imagine for a moment genres like non-poetry, non-drama: How could such hypothetical genres hold their heads up or defend their integrity, let alone be taken seriously?

But if you if feel and believe, as I do, that writing about what a person actually sees, feels, and experiences as a human being in this world is relevant, important, sometimes even revelatory as a way to make sense of oneself and others and that this is inherently worth doing, like James Baldwin does in “Stranger in the Village,” chronicling his time in a remote Swiss village writing his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain and reflecting on the fact that he was the first person of color to ever visit this remote place, or E.B. White in “Once More To The Lake” and his meditation on his own mortality vis-à-vis observing his son’s visit to the lake and the memory of his dead father that hovers over him with a haunting sense of déjà vu and his very own doppelganger, or what Joan Didion does in The Year Of Magical Thinking, articulating and somehow trying to come to terms with her profound grief in the face of her husband’s death and daughter’s life-threatening illness along with countless other moving examples of nonfiction then maybe, just maybe we need not be so unduly troubled by the controversies surrounding CNF and writers like John D’Agata and his books About A Mountain and The Lifespan Of A Fact or James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces or even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood who admitted in the writing of this book that he was “seeking truth but not necessarily accuracy.” All of the writers I mentioned write essays or kinds of creative nonfiction (or did), and regardless of one’s opinion on the merit of their work or stated credos, they all to a person pay keen attention to the style and impact of their prose just as much as any writer does in any genre, and it is this same artistic emphasis that makes creative nonfiction literary.

Not everyone agrees on this, and to my mind, this is okay: as Yeats instructs us, the most important arguments we ever have are with ourselves. But I remember a good friend in graduate school, a mentor of sorts and one of the most profoundly read people I’ve ever met, tell me one day with great passion and even vehemence, “Bob, real writers write novels, not essays”—a seething pronouncement he leveled at me when I mentioned to him how much I was enjoying teaching Annie Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk. His comment didn’t offend me very much, because the more I read of Dillard in this particular book and the more I tried to teach it, the more I found myself trying to write essays like her, and I found the whole process absorbing and rewarding, joyful even, despite my friend’s scathing disavowal. But the bugaboos surrounding creative nonfiction are not so easily dispatched, especially considering the fact that Justin Beiber has written a memoir: because there will always be writers who do not think facts are sacrosanct in nonfiction, who believe facts can be manipulated like so much clay for a desired effect. John D’Agata, for example, uses 34 for the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas in one of his essays when he knew the actual number to be 31, claiming that 34 is somehow more interesting and artistically pleasing than 31: I don’t quite see or understand his aesthetic argument here, but I do see how this kind of conscious manipulation might offend, anger, or disappoint readers and thus further stain and besmirch the genre of creative nonfiction and call into question its status as a serious art form.

In writing essays myself, by the way, I try to be as factually accurate as possible because I don’t see that very much can be gained by consciously manipulating them; I don’t view them as obstacles or enemies but just another element that can be every bit as mysterious as the imagination and sometimes even more so. I have no beef with the fact that there are 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas anymore than I care overmuch that I had a Subway sandwich for lunch and not lobster bisque. I’m much more interested—infinitely so—in how or why it is that the essays of James Baldwin, for example, an African-American writer who grew up in Harlem, could speak so personally and movingly to me as a young white man growing up Omaha as if in the act of reading his work we had somehow swapped souls. When I read “Notes Of A Native Son”back in Omaha shortly before leaving for England (one year, it seemed, and one class turned me forever in the direction of literature) I knew what he was writing about expressed a deep and troubling truth about living in America, that the color of one’s skin then and now profoundly influences how one is viewed, but I also came to know through Baldwin that despite the outer circumstances and backgrounds that we were somehow also spiritual brothers in a way and that he had so much to teach me about myself and others even as he was writing about his own experiences.

Somehow it was the intimacy of Baldwin reflecting on his own life and daring to be so honest about it that instilled in me a sense of great dignity and nobility of spirit, which I think are the hallmarks of what the best essays and forms of creative nonfiction can confer every bit as powerfully as any poem, novel, or play. I feel very strongly about this because I’ve worked and published in all the genres and I’ve taught and studied all of them also, and I’m quietly but firmly convinced that the “I” in a serious essay or memoir is not a character or simulacrum of the author but her or his truest self or essence, a claim I understand is not always true in some cases, though those same some examples may prove the rule, not the exception. The essay as a form has been around at least 300 years or so in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne, and some contend the form is even older than that: only the acronym creative nonfiction is new or recent, along with perhaps some of its subgenres like immersion essay, though even this is debatable. So in many crucial ways the controversies surrounding the form do not in any way detract from the deep currents of its tradition, which feels almost scandalous to admit out loud.

For me, the best essays function as places of intimate encounter as we get to know the “I,” the writer at a very deep level even as we come to a better understanding of ourselves. Come with me now to a passage from Thomas Merton’s beautiful book When The Trees Say Nothing: “Again, sense of the importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here… Clear realization that I must begin with these first elements. That it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake. And if that, and no more, is my job (for it is certainly every man’s job), then I am grateful for it. The vanity of all false missions, when no one is sent. All the universal outcry of people who have not been told to cry out, but who are driven to this noise by their fear, their lack of what is right in front of their noses.” I love this passage, and return to it often; it comes from first person nonfiction prose, and Merton did not even intend to publish the musings in this book. This is one man, one person alive and awake in the world, commenting on his deepest convictions and felt truths in order to make sense of something for himself, and, by extension, to reveal these truths for others like myself, even if he did not intend to accomplish this. This is the unique and personal power of nonfiction prose, for Merton is utterly vulnerable and authentic here on the page for anyone who would read and absorb these words.

That is why my evolving metaphor for the personal essay is an open field where reader and writer encounter each other; like Rumi instructs in his poem, there is a world beyond good and bad doings, and it’s possible to meet someone there. This is what the best of creative nonfiction has to teach or by way of invitation, to meet the “I” of nonfiction prose in the field of an essay only to realize, if the work is real and true, that you are always meeting yourself in the guise of another, and that this same paradoxical encounter is one of the hopeful human lights of this world.

—Robert Vivian


ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. Part II, Lamb Bright Saviors, was recently published–and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, will be published in 2011. His next collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, will also be published in 2011. His most recent novel, Water And Abandon, will be published in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Mar 132012

Herewith a lovely, trenchant, hilarious, smelly essay on writing narrative poems, growing up, mothers and sons, and skunks. Some of the delights: the essay is in part a dialogue with a friend and hence the deceptively intimate and casual throw of the long sentences which accrete heft and wisdom from underneath, as it were, slyly and with mysterious suspense. Lovely to read. Also, of course, the unforgettable image of Sydney Lea, naked, slewing down a muddy, dark forest road in a truck, holding a shotgun out the window as he steers one-handed and tries to shoot a skunk. Of the inception of this essay, Syd wrote to me:

“My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Apparently, Numéro Cinq is just the place.

Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont, a prolific author of poems, essays, and fiction, a former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (where, one wintry eve in Noble Lounge—and I believe I have mentioned this before, becoming garrulous and repetitive in my old age—Syd gave the finest reading I have ever witnessed), and an old friend.




Many, many years ago I wrote a poem called “The Feud.” It got a little acclaim, several commentators applauding my reimportation of elements that most poetry had for some while ceded to fiction: character, plot, setting, dialogue – values of that sort.

In fact I hadn’t set out with any agenda in mind. I’d come to poetry late in life by most people’s standards, having been a conventional academic into my mid-thirties, and I didn’t know much about contemporary poetry. (I’m not yet sure such a thing is entirely knowable, at least to me.) So I wasn’t looking to be idiosyncratic or aesthetically inventive. I merely wanted to tell a tale, and when I did, for some reason it presented itself in blank verse.

“The Feud” is a long poem, some seventeen typescript pages, so it may appear surprising that it came to me intact in less than an hour. I never stopped my fingers on the keyboard, wrote as if possessed. Thereafter, such revisions as I did on the poem were very minimal: I remember excising a single stanza of the many, and changing a handful of words here and there. But that was about all.

As a good Puritan, I was suspicious of any poem’s quality if it presented itself do rapidly. But whatever that quality, I now think “The Feud’s” sudden arrival had something to do with its being the first thing I’d written in about half a year after the death by aneurism of my younger brother, an event so shocking of course as to make me wonder among other things why in the world one would bother with mere poetry at all.

I’m now persuaded that the whole story of “The Feud” is allegorical of my relationship with the man who’d died so tragically young, which was both an intimate and often a heatedly adversarial one, and on which I had of course been meditating for that half-year, even when I didn’t know it. In short, I had been doing so much emotional research, for the most part unawares, that when I began composition the material was right at my fingertips.

My narrative involved a speaker and his hostile dealings with a local have-not family named Walker. That speaker is proud unto vain, and is especially given to righteousness: throughout the tale, he contrasts himself with his sad, impoverished counterparts, seeing respectable ideals in himself, and in them no higher aims whatsoever.

I didn’t like my protagonist much, I still don’t, and it took me more than a year after the poem’s completion to recognize why: his self-absorption and quickness to judge were a lot like mine, particularly when I was even younger, and more particularly with respect to my late brother. In our school years, for example, I estimated my roles as accomplished scholar and athlete to be exemplary, looking down on him because he thought them useless charades. And despite my own shortcomings in her eyes, to my hugely imposing mother too I represented the white sheep, he the black.

I look back on that sad period after he died and I understand why I might have had a negative opinion of the person I’d been up until then. It wasn’t only my scores of petty feuds with the younger brother, which seemed so ridiculously petty in the wake of his passing. I can’t list, either, all the ways in which I was a bad husband to a fine woman, how often I fabricated occasions to look down on her too, as well as on colleagues, neighbors, even dear friends and family.

These introductory musings derive from my unexpectedly thinking, when I set about composing an essay on my confrontations with wild animals (and as an inveterate and devoted hunter I have naturally had many), of a passage from “The Feud.” I shortly recalled, and not at all for the first time, the circumstances that engendered those lines.

“The Feud’s” speaker at one point refers to a time when a skunk, reacting to a rush from his house cat, sprayed copiously enough in a shed under his bedroom to awaken him: “The smell was worse than death,” he remembers,

And till the dawn arrived, for hours I felt

the stink was like a judgment: every sin
from when I was a child till then flew back
and played itself again before my eyes.

Now the closest encounter I myself ever had with skunks goes back to a much earlier period, when I was in fact a child. Fourteen years old, I was mowing a patch of meadow at my great uncle’s farm. Suddenly the tractor’s sickle bar decapitated a mother skunk, though it was set high enough to pass over the heads of her three small kits.

I don’t know where on earth I could have gotten the notion, but I somehow believed – given their tininess – the baby skunks too young to spray. I left them tumbling between windrows and ran to the barn for a burlap sack. I’d heard that skunks made good pets, and I figured my mother, whose only sentimentality was for animals, would surely pay to have their musk sacs removed before they became operational.

I hustled back to the field, holding the bag open and reaching for the first kit. In that instant, all three skunks fell quickly into formation and blasted me from less than two feet away.

I won’t speak for others, but I find the distant smell of skunk almost pleasant, wild and woodsy as it is, redolent, particularly, of spring. To be literally soaked in skunk musk is another matter entirely. Child of the 60s, I know what tear gas feels like, but given a choice between the gas and what I experienced on that morning over fifty years ago, I’ll ask for the cops and their canisters.

Choking, blinded, I bumbled to the pond and threw myself in – which of course did no good at all. Since then, women’s douche solution has proven the best antidote for skunk that I know, and we now keep a lot of it on hand for dog-and-skunk emergencies. But I didn’t have this unlikely remedy then. I submitted to a more traditional one: my bachelor great uncle’s wise and wonderful Irish housekeeper (God bless dear Mary Griffin) doused me with tomato juice, tomato paste, even ketchup, which made things not perfect but a lot better. I soaked in a bubbly bathtub through the afternoon, then took shower after shower, and slathered myself with my great uncle’s cologne, By evening, I’d become bearable to Mary – and to myself.

For weeks after, however, when the weather turned very humid or rainy, the odor of skunk came nauseatingly back, and I recall that for whatever reason, yes, “the stink was like a judgment.”

Now let me leap ahead some twenty years, to a time more patently connected to that portion of “The Feud,” when I lived in a drafty yellow farmhouse with my first wife. One August, two or three times a week the same skunk kept waddling into the shed below our bedroom, even after I moved our rubbish can down-cellar. Having struck pay dirt once, it seemed, the beast imagined with persistence he’d get lucky again.

We had a cat named Wendy, good in the house but in many ways half feral. We left her outdoors at night all year round, and in summer would simply let her fend for herself back home after we went to our Maine camp for almost a month. She was always sleek and fat when we returned, having subsisted on the plentiful voles and red squirrels of the remote neighborhood. Wendy charged that skunk each time it came calling, but somehow managed never to get sprayed herself. The stench would rise up, though, and would indeed wake the sleepers above.

One night, an unusually hot and steamy one for upper New England, I lay up there in the buff, on top of the bedclothes. When the smell roused me from my slumber, I swore I’d had enough. Rushing down to my hunting room, I fetched my12-gauge Browning, a handful of shells and a flashlight. Then I ran to the kitchen door that opened onto the shed.

The animal must somehow have sensed danger, because, under a hazy full moon, I saw it bobbing down the dirt road, about to reach the deep woods west of the house. I knew I’d never catch the skunk on foot, so I leapt into my old Chevy pickup and roared after it, leaning out the window, shotgun in hand, ready to blow the creature to kingdom come from behind the wheel, like one of my childhood cowboy heroes shooting at a bad guy from horseback.

Just as I came within range, ready to hit the brakes and fire, I lost control of the truck and fishtailed into those same woods. I miraculously avoided every tree, but, four-wheel drive be damned, I found myself hopelessly stuck in a wetland pothole.

So there was I, buck naked, toting a shotgun, mud to my shins, perhaps a hundred yards from the house. Thank God, I thought, we live in the middle of nowhere and it’s three in the morning. I started walking homeward.

Then I heard the engine. On looking back I saw headlights pointing upward. Unbelievable. Whoever it may have been was climbing the hill a quarter mile behind me and heading my way.  By now I was out in the meadowland, so I couldn’t just dash back into the forest for cover. I stumbled up into a field and lay my naked body on the stubble of lately cut hay, mosquitoes strafing me, astonished at their good fortune.

To make matters worse, the driver of the car – whose identity I’ll never know – had noticed my truck in the woods and, no doubt with the best of intentions, gotten out to inspect the scene of the accident. I heard male voices, though not at such a distance what they were saying.

Jesus, can’t they see there’s no one there? I silently screamed. The would-be Samaritans seemed to be lingering a long, long time, and I was in plain misery there on my painful bed, prey to the vicious insects.

In due course, the vehicle passed, I picked myself up, returned to the house, showered, went back to bed. But I never slept again through those slow early morning hours. Again, “the stink was like a judgment.” I lay there wondering how in hell I had turned out to be such an unadmirable man. Even minor pecadillos, never mind what I considered my more epical sins, seemed monstrous. Even now, I find that insomnia can have ill effects under the best of conditions.

But even now I also wonder why, after those three skunk kits let me have it at fourteen, I’d felt so unlikable.

I do have a tendency – as my wife often reminds me – to what the feel-good parlance of our time names low self-esteem, and although I don’t want to engage in the very psycho-babble I usually mock, I suspect that this self-laceration goes back to a vexed relationship with that same larger-than-life, animal-loving mother.

I was a good student back in the field-mowing days, and better later along – but I never proved good enough for her. An example: our school still used a numbered grading system, and I recall getting a 96 on my English final in tenth grade. I also, and more painfully, recall her asking what had happened to the other four points.  For all I know, she was joking – but I’m pretty sure not.

It was late in her troubled, if quite productive life that she told me something about her own school days, something I now believe to have been crucial, determinative. She was her class valedictorian, and had just been accepted to Radcliffe, about the toniest women’s college going at the time. When she ran with the news to her uncle, the same man whose field I mowed and who was her virtual father, the biological one having died in her fifth year – when she ran in, breathless, to share that report from Radcliffe, the old man looked her in the eye and said five terse words.

Women don’t go to college.

I am sure our great uncle, like anyone, carried his own bag of rocks. My siblings and I have sometimes wondered if he remained unmarried because he was gay, closeted as the times demanded, though there is no way to prove that either way. For whatever reason, he could be gracious and generous in one instant, explosive in the next.

He was at his most daunting, however, when he turned steely. Women don’t go to college. On hearing that pronouncement, my mother must instantly have known there’d be no appeal.

And so, I suspect, she wanted me as firstborn to be her academic vicar. She may well have withheld approval of my scholastic achievements from a belief that I was squandering a gift that had been summarily denied to her. My every accomplishment, then, amounted to relatively little. It seems never to have occurred to her that I was doing the best I could. Who knows? Maybe I wasn’t. But that is a separate story.

After my mother’s death, and after more than a decade of resenting her memory, I wrote her a letter whose first half catalogued all my grievances, and whose second catalogued the things she’d passed on for which I felt grateful. I went to the columbarium where her remains lay, read the letter aloud, then struck a match to it, watching the paper’s ashes fall to earth around her own. For whatever reason, the resentments vanished in that moment.

My feelings about myself have subsequently improved, at however gradual a rate.

Which, oddly, brings me to skunks yet again. I recall a beautiful forenoon in May, and my even more beautiful wife and I enjoying it in Montreal’s botanical gardens. We had gone to that great city for a romantic weekend, and the blue sky, the brilliant sun, and the countless flowers in bud or bloom – all felt precisely in keeping with that mission.

We were near the Japanese-style temple at the heart of the gardens when Robin noticed a rustling in some pachysandra.

“What do you suppose that is?” she asked.

We leaned over together as I parted the leaves. There stood a skunk, back-to, tamping its front feet, its spray-hole distended almost to bursting. Needless to say, we bolted like hares.

As we walked back to the subway, we marveled at our good luck. Once sprayed, we’d never have been allowed on that Métro; we couldn’t have hailed a cab; it was a full five-mile hike back to the hotel, and once we got there, we’d have been barred from it too. What in the world might we have done?

Why that little creature didn’t let us have it I’ll never know. But while we wandered along, giggling like schoolkids, I suddenly realized that I felt not a trace of the old self-loathing.

Perhaps that equanimity came only from not being sprayed by the skunk. And yet there’s still enough of the romantic poet in me to turn that datum around.

I loathe and, largely on behalf of the animals, have always campaigned against the Disneyfied humanization of wildlife. I know that animals are emphatically not, as some inane bumper stickers would have us beklieve, little people in fur coats; so I also know full well how wrong the following notion is on a literal level. Metaphorically, however, it makes perfect sense to me that the skunk failed to spray simply because I’m a different man at seventy than I was at thirty or even fourteen – a man who, in his own eyes at least, has a lot less to feel guilty or inadequate about.

I’ll keep on dreaming that’s so.

—Sydney Lea


SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books). Later this year, the University of Michigan Press will issue A Hundred Himalayas, a sampling from his critical work over four decades. A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife (Skyhorse Publishing), a third volume of outdoor essays, will also be published in 2012, and his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, will follow in 2013 from Four Way Books.

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Mar 072012

Genni Sittway3

Here is a brief, sweet, melancholy memoir of Italy by my Italian-Canadian-singer-composer-writer friend Genni Gunn who lives in Vancouver but has a foot, a hand, a heart, still in southern Italy. She last appeared on these pages with an excerpt from her novel Solitaria which was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize.



I’m in a rented car, at a railway crossing on the outskirts of Rutigliano, in southern Italy, when the train passes and the squeal of its wheels on metal transports me to a time before my birth, to a 1940 night sky in Locorotondo, where from her room my aunt Ida watched trains emerge and disappear into the railroad cutting in front of my grandparents’ house.

It’s May 2007, and I’ve spent the last month at the bedside of this aunt who, over the past five years, has told me her life story so often, I have begun to appropriate it, weeping and laughing in all the right places, mouthing the words right along with her. Ida is the guardian of our family stories, our oral historian. She claims absolute knowledge of everyone – despite my mother’s objections – and will recite particulars from all our lives, in dramatic arcs, complete with dialogue – mythologies which are difficult to prove or disprove.

I have been taking daily drives into the countryside to escape the weight of her past which, for the most part, Ida recounts in tragic, melodramatic tones, ending in maudlin, self-pitying sentences such as, “Oh how I’ve suffered!” and “I have worn out my threshold of pain.” During these afternoon drives, I can breathe deeply, unencumbered by her reproach which feels directed at me, even though her stories occurred decades before my birth.

Locorotondo from casello

I cross the tracks, and continue along the highway. At either side, rows upon rows of vines spread their arms beneath the mammoth nets that protect the grapes from hail, like prisoners praying for rescue, their legs tied, their heads back, faces to the merciless sun. As I drive on, the sky darkens with thunderclouds, and a surge of excitement – a memory – presses against my temples. I follow it to Locorotondo, tracing the map in my aunt’s head, the map of a young girl walking to school in the morning snow, flanked by her two brothers, Pippi and Alberto, all of them in paper-thin shoes and rough hand-knitted sweaters, all of them happy, carefree, Ida tells me, in a way she’s never felt since.

I approach the town from the north, drive up into it, up up past the school where Ida spent that year teaching small children, past the overlook at the park where old men on benches stare at the sprawling valley below.

My grandparents moved here in July of 1940, a month after Mussolini declared war on the Allied Forces. As a trackman, and also because of his difficult nature, Nonno had been relocated so often, his seven children – of whom Ida was the eldest – were dizzy with disruptions, unable to make friends, and weary of strangers, who constituted everyone outside the family. It explains, perhaps, Ida’s melancholy, her persistent memory, although she attributes it to Fridays – the day of her birth – which she tells me is unlucky, because it’s the day Christ died. A day of superstitions, she says, a small ironic smile curling her lips. Back then, people did not shop on Fridays or begin new projects or sign contracts or plan feasts. On Fridays, she tells me, people did not marry, nor did they baptize their children. If a man shaved on a Friday, he would be betrayed by his wife, or he would become widowed at an early age, and he who cut his nails on this day, would have to gather them on Judgement Day. One did not go visiting, send gifts, nor buy clothes, and if the first day of the year was a Friday, there would be wars, tempests and a thousand other natural disasters. Furthermore, she tells me triumphantly, children born on Fridays can expect to cry often during their lives – and this Ida has proven to be true.

Locorotondo Casello 72

My grandparents’ Casello Ferrovia #72 – the trackman’s hut – is situated next to a railway crossing, the tracks of which wind below the hill, two kilometres from Locorotondo, in the Valle d’Itria, a karstic depression, not actually a valley, but a firmament of green hills and vales studded with over 20,000 trulli – the white conical ancient dwellings – and with limestone farmhouses. Locorotondo – round place, as the name suggests – is one of numerous marvellous towns found throughout southern Italy, built on hilltops, and fortified by immense walls and towers. Inside are medieval cities, all wonderfully preserved. From the highways at night, these towns look magical, lit up and round like multiple nativity scenes. In the daytime, Locorotondo rises four hundred metres above sea level, one of three natural balconies that surround the valley, and from which one can admire the Mediterranean brush, an indigenous vegetation that includes groves of Macedonian, bay and holm oak, laurel, myrtle, hawthorn, lentisk, wild olives and black orchids. Nowadays, this valley is a patchwork of stone stitching an infinite number of handkerchiefs of red earth, dominated by vineyards and country estates. When my grandparents lived there all those years ago, however, they knew nothing of castles or monuments, didn’t realize those oaks were 800 years old. All they saw was a pervading green, stone walls built without mortar, fields of red poppies and yellow daisies. And at night, outside their window, the town appeared suspended in darkness.

It takes several tries before I can decipher how to reach the casello. I have to return to the lookout, to fix my memory – my aunt’s memory – on the green on green, forget the new developments, the villas, and the asphalt roads which slice through the valley, and concentrate on the wild brush, the faint chugging of a steam engine in my head. Finally, I spy a dirt trail that circles to the right, and following it, soon find myself in Ida’s youth, surrounded by small limestone walls covered in lichen, fields of forage swaying, and bunches of red poppies growing amongst the rock. I follow the railway tracks directly to their casello which stands exactly as it did when she was young – red, its number plainly visible. I park the car and walk on the two-foot path beside the tracks, around the circular waist-high wall to the front. On these paths, Nonno rode his bicycle to work, and each morning, the children walked to the station more than a kilometre away, to catch the train for school. On this path, in the cutting which rises high above my head, my aunt learned about the earth, about rocks, stratification, about fossils visible in the limestone. They seemed wider back then, she tells me later, welcoming, these paths which led them into the world outside the family, paths which in memory have expanded both in size and significance.

The casello itself is changed and yet the same. One of the windows has been bricked in, and against the wooden door is a padlocked steel grate. At the back, the oven gapes like a yawn in the afternoon sun. I lean my head in and close my eyes, imagining the children’s mouths watering, breathing in the distant scent of Nonna’s bread on Mondays. They were allowed only one slice a day, “until the war ends,” Nonno said, and the children dreamt of loaves of bread. They had so little, even their dreams were small. It seemed a marvellous childhood, Ida tells me, we were dying of hunger, we had fleas so large we had to smash them with hammers, we had mosquitoes that ate us raw, and yet everything felt normal at the time. We had bread, and a house to live in, and we were very fortunate. As well, because we didn’t know anyone who was wealthy, we had no comparisons to make. Not like now, with TV, where everyone knows how the wealthy of the world live.

I walk around the small circular yard surrounded by stone where for one summer, Nonno grew tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and onions, where Ida planted geraniums between the rocks. None of this is evident now, the earth reclaimed by nature’s wild grasses and flowers. Everything dwarfed by age, but I have only to close my eyes, and the casello is vivid with their nine lives, with their perfect happiness constructed inside my head.

Across the tracks from the casello, a small road leads up and over a rise. I follow it, past the abandoned trulli where decades ago lived a young woman who grew red roses – flowers my aunt had never seen before – past a carrozzeria – a fairly recent car graveyard surrounded by a chain link fence, past wild trees of cherry, almond, fig and hazelnut, past the sprawling sculptures of flowering cactuses, imagining the taste of fichi d’India – prickly pears – of my own youth, past swishing biada and gold lichen on the white white walls, heading for the end of the road, toward a story my aunt has told and retold so often that I feel as if I, too, am part of that November evening in 1940, after supper, when Nonno and Nonna heard the sound of thunder in the distance. Nonna crossed herself and cast a worried look toward the smallest child, Alberto, who sat at the table drawing. He had been born during a thunderstorm, and she believed that babies born during a thunderstorm have a lifelong tendency to tremble, that they fear things will collapse on them, that their sparkling eyes cannot hold another’s gaze, that they have brilliant ideas and thoughts but cannot articulate them because they will always be thinking about thunder and the possibility of the earth breaking open and swallowing them whole.

The thunder continued, but sounded strange – at times like a punctuation, other times drawn out. “It’s a bombing,” Nonno said suddenly. “Get the boys up.”

Nonna and Ida quickly awakened all the children and together they ran up the hill to the top from which they could see the lights of the port of Taranto on the Adriatic coast, with its arsenal and shipyards, chemical works, iron and steel foundries and food‑processing factories. In the darkness, the thirty kilometres of verdant fields in front of them disappeared. Mario who read newspapers every day, told them that the entire Italian fleet was harboured there, and that Taranto was impenetrable, with its shoreline cannons and its metal nets under water, so that even submarines could not reach the ships.

But even as he said this, aeroplanes swirled in the sky like a flock of pelicans over a school of fish, and dropped hundreds of torpedoes and flares into the harbour. The Italian cannons fired back non-stop. Projectiles flew hundreds of metres into the air. The sky was ablaze, the air thick with thunderclaps. Every now and then, a deafening blast echoed underfoot, the sky brightened into an artificial dawn and they knew a ship had exploded. In that 1940 darkness, those spectacular, recurring bombings seemed like fireworks. The boys stared with shiny, bright eyes; they were childish enough to be fascinated by the idea of war, and fortunately too young to join. They hollered and sprang in the air, feverish with excitement, arms out, fists punching the sky. This, despite the fact that since the war had begun, Nonno had been listing the horrors, using his and his brothers’ experiences in WW I as examples – a completely unsuccessful tactic, given that unperturbed, the boys continued to construct guns and canons from which they launched pieces of wood and pine cones against imaginary foes which often included their siblings.

In the following day’s newspaper, they read, “Last night, a large number of British enemy torpedoes attacked the port of Taranto, extensively damaging numerous ships of our military fleet.” They were stunned. Hadn’t they been told Taranto was impenetrable? Wasn’t Italy going to become a superpower? Of course, they didn’t realize what the state-controlled papers did not say: that all the ships had been sunk.

My aunt went outside and crossed the tracks to the little country chapel across from the casello, opened the gate and knelt in front of the Madonna and Child frescoed onto the back wall. She understood nothing of politics – it seems impossible now to think that while atrocities proliferated around them, the family existed in a pocket of staggering ignorance. Ida says they were so poor and so hungry, for them the war was a phenomenon occurring in a distant parallel universe that had nothing to do with their inside world of babies and children, where the dangers far outweighed any external imminent one – Pippi could step on a rusty nail; Alberto could drink stagnant water and contract typhoid; Bruno could succumb to pneumonia; Bianca could slide under the rails of a train. They were constantly vigil. Living, itself, was a danger.

Outdoor chapel Locorotondo

In that little chapel, my aunt prayed for everyone: for all the sailors who surely had been killed, for all their wives and children, for the British soldiers who had dropped the bombs, for their wives and children who would have to live with the knowledge of these deaths, for her siblings who seemed unbearably vulnerable, and for her mother and father who, she suddenly understood, couldn’t protect them from unspeakable evil.

I leave the hilltop, and walk back to the casello, past the country chapel that, with the exception of a locked iron gate, has remained exactly as my aunt described it, back to my air-conditioned car, imagining the sound of thunder, thinking how fortunate we are to never have witnessed war in our comfortable houses in Canada, to never have had to cower in our beds, expecting the sound of sirens.

I hear a train and quickly move off the tracks, experiencing a small moment of fear, like Ida must have – worried about the children, overly sensitive, overly morbid, always searching for the dark side of things.

The train is a pathetic old thing, four wagons only, all dirty and graffitied. I watch it turn the bend in the cutting, thinking how unlike what my aunt remembers, this decrepit train hobbling along, anachronistic in the wealthy landscape, the villas and superhighways nearby. I think how sad Nonno would have felt to see it, for surely it would have diminished him to witness its uselessness. And I think of my aunt, and for a moment, I feel the depth of her sorrow, her premonition that everything is gone, and that her awareness sprung of that night in 1940 was merely the beginning of a long line of disillusionments that would populate the rest of her life.

—Genni Gunn


GENNI GUNN’s nine books include three novels – Solitaria (long-listed for the Giller Prize), Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time; two story collections – Hungers and On the Road; two poetry collections – Faceless and Mating in Captivity; and two poetry collections by Dacia Maraini in translation Devour Me Too, and Travelling in the Gait of a Fox. Her opera Alternate Visions (music by John Oliver) was produced in Montreal in 2007. Her works have been translated into several languages, and have been finalists for the Commonwealth Prize, the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, the John Glassco Translation award, and the Premio Internationale Diego Valeri for Translation. She lives in Vancouver. This memoir, without the lovely photos, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in Slice me some truth: An anthology of Canadian Creative Nonfiction, September, 2011.

Genni Ngapali beach2

Feb 272012


Darin Strauss is an American writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of three novels and one book-length memoir. Strauss is married to the journalist Susannah Meadows, and together, they are the proud (and busy) parents of twin, four-year-old boys.

Strauss’ 2010 memoir, Half a Life, won the 2011 National Book Critics Award and was excerpted in GQ and NPR’s This American Life. Half a Life chronicles the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident in which Strauss was the driver. His car struck and killed a young girl whose bicycle swerved into the road. Cleared of any wrong-doing in the accident, Strauss writes about the effect of this traumatic event which haunted him for twenty years. Hailed as a “masterpiece” and as a “memoir in its finest form,” the book has garnered critical acclaim and was named ‘Best Book of the Year’ by NPR, and others.

Chang and Eng, Strauss’ first book, was published in 2000. The novel, which tells a fictional story of the famous real-life conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, met with widespread critical acclaim. Set in Siam and antebellum North Carolina, Chang and Eng bravely explores the concept of self and other through the lives of the eponymous Siamese Twins, who came to the United States, became farmers, husbands and fathers. Strauss’ unflinching exploration of the twins’ story, told from the point of view of Eng, won many major literary awards and is currently being optioned for a movie. After Stauss’ second novel, The Real McCoy, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship. His third novel, More Than It Hurts You, was published by PenguinPutnam in 2008.

We speak over the phone. I reach him early in the morning and he asks if I can call him back. He is getting his boys ready for school. We talk amidst the street noise of rush hour New York, as Strauss goes for his morning walk through Brooklyn. At one point, I reluctantly offer up that I’m a Patriots fan. His New York Giants have recently defeated my favorite team for the second time in a Super Bowl. He is gracious in victory. I tell him that my son cried for fifteen minutes after the game and he says that I’m the second person who has mentioned this phenomenon. Being a parent changes the way we enjoy sports, in addition to how we live our lives. He is generous and quick with his responses. Once again, I’m reminded that even the most successful writers, and Strauss is clearly one of these, retain a sense of wonder and humility at the practice.


Richard Farrell (RF): Is there a spiritual tradition from which your write? How do ideas of spirituality and religion affect how you approach your work?

Darin Strauss (DS): I don’t know about that one. I’m not a fully LAPSED Jew. I do believe. But I don’t go to temple and I don’t speak Hebrew. I’m a very secular person. I suppose the closest I come to a true spiritual tradition might be the literary tradition. For me, there’s something almost liturgically intense in the best writing. Someone like Tolstoy or Bellow. People like that created texts that have an important gravity; they pull on my brain the way the Talmud would pull on another Jewish person’s brain. I think Tolstoy is the best writer we have ever had. I’m sure he wouldn’t be impressed by someone like me saying that – big whoop, right? — but for me, there is something spiritual about being engaged with reading a work of literature like that.

RF: You wrote three novels before Half a Life was published. Beyond the thematic material, can you talk about the process of writing non-fiction compared to writing fiction?

DS: I find in memoir it is harder to make a coherent whole—I mean an artful structure. The great and  popular writer David Lipsky helped me significantly in structuring the book. I was lost with it. He said do this and change that–he actually did some real stuff in there for me. The material in the memoir was so close to me personally I couldn’t see it. Ask any sea captain: When you are too close to something, it’s hard to get perspective.

In fiction writing, the difficult stuff is testing to see if what you’re writing is believable. For the memoir, that problem vanishes: it’s the truth you’re working with. I just had to figure out how to make the structure of it work.

A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t just write a novel about what had happened? I chose to do it as CNF because for me, fiction has a kind of narrative playfulness about it. There has to be fun involved in fiction, even if its fun played out in a serious way. There’s a gamesmanship to it. All fiction writing involves intellectual play, in other words. I didn’t feel like I could do that with the memoir. It would have been disrespectful to the memory of the girl who died. The thematic and textual art-making in fiction would’ve disrespected the actual events of an actual life.

RF: You’ve talked about being sensitive to critics and reviewers. Does that, for lack of a better word, anxiety, ever work its way into your writing? I suppose what I’m asking is, does your sensitivity make you defensive at all?

DS: I can wall off certain demons. I do read reviews. I mean if I’m going to be reviewed in the New York Times or the Washington Post, I’m not strong enough not to read the review. But it does affect you. You become sensitive to the slights. But I’m good at walling that part of myself off when I write. The reviews don’t get in there, into that place where I’m writing.

Maybe if there was a bad review that seemed to understand my writing—that got at the very specific flaws I know are there—that would bother me more. I think most writers—most of us non-genius writers –know deep down what our flaws are. But I haven’t had a bad review that focused on what I feel are the secret, weak parts of my work. I haven’t had a critic that made a point that could make me think to be a better writer.

RF: I want to ask you about writing sex scenes. I’m thinking specifically about the scene in Chang and Eng where the conjoined twins have sex for the first time to their new brides. I found this scene (really two back to back scenes) highly erotic (and well written). Rather than being turned off by the oddness of the situation, I found myself identifying with Eng in a very personal way. Besides accepting a compliment to your writing, can you talk about how you approach sex scenes, or scenes of physical intimacy in your writing?

DS: (Laughs and points out my inadvertent pun on ‘back to back’) I knew that was going to be one of the main questions of the book. How were they able to father 21 children? I knew I had to address how they had sex and that it was going to be essential.

Sex scenes always create a problem. And they have to serve the story. You can’t just stop in the middle of a scene and forget everything—just for a little textual thrill. I mean, it’s best not to be merely prurient about it. Here’s an analog to sex-scene writing. I think of a scene where a character walks into an ice cream shop. You have describe things that matter, but you can’t stop the forward motion of your story just to have a six-page description of the sprinkles and the cone. How the sprinkles and the cone move your story along, how they affect your particular characters in ways that are particular to them—that’s a good scene.

For that sex part in Chang & Eng, I focused on the conflict between those two men and the trouble with having your brother constantly with you. There was no intimacy, nothing was ever private. But I also wanted to conceive the sex scene as something that could get at what was special about this thematic material and this plot. So I made Eng in love with his sister-in-law. But he could never tell her or touch her because the woman’s husband—his brother—was always with her. The sex was an extension—or an elucidation—of the problem.

RF: Do you have (or did you) other writers you modeled yourself after? Who and how did you escape that influence? How did you get out of its way.

DS: I’m always picking up new influences. You certainly don’t stop being influenced. Zadie Smith said something like, ‘A writer should approach the library the way an eater approaches the buffet table.’ Like: I’ll take from this, from that, and also from that. That cobbled-together meal ends up—if you have enough various dishes in there, in various quantities—being something unique to you.

The writers influential to me include Tolstoy, Nabokov, Lorrie Moore, Martin Amis, John Cheever, Isaac Babel, V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett isn’t read much anymore but he was a great writer and a critic who kept writing late into his eighties. David Foster Wallace too, and Roth. A dash of Updike, a touch of Chekhov.

So I’m always reading and being influenced. I don’t think that ever stops.

RF: How important is voice to you in writing?

DS: It’s important. If there’s a morality in writing, it’s in the voice or the style. Nabokov made that point, and lived it, too. I try to see what other writers do, and to figure out how to do it myself.

Nabokov was great at compressing metaphors. David Lipsky teaches his students to look at what Nabokov does with metaphors and try to find ways to use that. Or David Foster Wallace, and how well he uses incredible modifiers to jazz up the prose.

But, to get less craft-lessony for a second. When I read Tolstoy, it’s a chance to take a ride in the brain of a genius for a few weeks. That’s the part that movies and TV can’t get at, because you are always watching the pictures with your own eyes, and having your own observations. Which I’m guessing are limited than Tolstoy’s. But if you read Tolstoy, you really are existing in his brain, getting the full strength of his thoughts. I think of it like brain vitamins.

RF: My last interview was with Anthony Doerr. He also has twin boys. I hope it’s not something in the well water. How has being a parent effected your writing?

DS: (Laughs) It’s made me have less time to write! My third book was about someone harming a child. But now when I get to a place in a book, maybe it’s harder to go to the cruel places. But I don’t think it’s affected my writing in a negative way, beyond having less time.

RF: In Half a Life you say, “Things don’t go away. They become you. The trailing consequence of further days and hours. No freedom from the past or future.” James Joyce wrote that “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” How does writing help this? Does writing about the events offer a glimpse of freedom or only soften prison of the past?

DS: That was an allusion to a T. S. Eliot quote. But writing does help; it has been helpful for me. I used to subscribe to what William Gass said, that if you write well it cannot be cathartic, because you are working too hard. But after writing the memoir, I have to say that either Gass was wrong, or I didn’t do it well. Because it was completely cathartic. It has helped me smooth over the psychic bumps which accumulated from the accident. It helped me heal. I didn’t want to be a self-help book author, but I guess if you write well about these kind of things, the book can be self-helpful, in a way.

RF: What are you working on now?

DS: David Lipsky and I are collaborating on a young adult adventure series. I’m also working on a new novel that’s a mix of everything I’ve done to this point. The book is contemporary and historical and even a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

RF: In your opinion, can writing be taught? Also, and I think these questions are related, is it perseverance or talent?

DS: I think this whole argument, writing can’t be taught, is ridiculous. Yes, few people are super-brilliant writers once they graduate. Is that really a useful expectation, though? You don’t graduate from law school and instantly become Clarence Darrow! Does that disqualify law school? If you do not graduate among the top one percent of lawyers in the world, did law school fail you?

Does an MFA make you, magically, Philip Roth? No. It’s not a practical degree, but I tell students that if you really want an MFA, go where you can afford to go. Go to a school where you can get money to attend.

I also think you need to go to school where the writers you like teach. The economic truth of writing is that you’ll likely have to teach, even if you do publish your books. Even the incredibly successful writers, for the most part, teach. Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safron Foer and Zadie Smith all teach—in fact, they’ve all taught with me at NYU.

But if you can’t afford it, don’t go. You won’t just be able to hang a shingle on your door when you graduate and start making money. But, certainly, yes, writing can be taught. You will improve, you will—if you work hard in grad school—get closer to the last limits of your potential. If you go into it with that expectation, and you know there are no guarantees, and you still want to go, and can afford to go, and end up getting into a good program, then do it.

RF: Keith Lee Morris once wrote, “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” I interviewed him and asked him this question. I’m now going to ask you: Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night? (Interviewer’s Note: Morris, in his answer, talks about exploring and not having all the answers. I didn’t want to give him a bad rap on this one!)

DS: No! It’s a nice line. It sure sounds good. Here’s a plainer one. A father is someone whose sperm helps create a child. I don’t know—I don’t have many answers.

The truth is, fiction writers shouldn’t have too many answers. Debate team captains have answers. Literature is its own way of thinking about things, as Milan Kundera said. Stories that purport to have an answer are not fiction; they’re propaganda. It’s an easy thing to say the answers. Literature transcends answers. Its job is not to tell you what’s right or wrong, but to show how everything is a little bit of both.

—Richard Farrell

Jan 262012


Adam Regn Arvidson has completed his epic (nearly a year) exploration of nature writing in America, including essays on Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Edward Hoagland, Joseph Wood Krutch and Loren Eiseley plus a special craft essay/digression on imagery and invective (in the work of Edward Hoagland). Adam also explores the profound political and cultural effect this particular kind of nonfiction prose has had—these nature writers have altered the way with think about the land we live in (we are talking about the invention of Green). In the last year, Adam also had a new son and completed a nonfiction book on landscaping and the environment that will be published by W. W. Norton this fall. —dg




Loren Eiseley’s Two Cultures

Edward Abbey’s Access to Wildness

The Enigmatic Edward Hoagland

Criticism Through Imagery

The Power of Rachel Carson

Joseph Wood Krutch’s Natural Personality

The Place of Wendell Berry


Adam Regn Arvidson

is a landscape architect and writer in Minneapolis. He has published numerous articles on design, planning, and landscape in a variety of magazines, including Landscape Architecture, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Planning, and Metropolis. He is founder of Treeline, a design/writing consultancy that assists public and private clients in telling the story of their land through landscape architecture and writing deeply rooted in place. In 2009 Adam won the Bradford Williams Medal, the nation’s highest award for landscape architectural writing, and he has a book forthcoming on environmental practices in the nursery and landscaping industry (W.W. Norton, 2012). This fall, Adam will be inducted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Dec 052011




 ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— John Keats

Chlamydomonas is my favorite “model organism.” It is a small green alga that is one of a handful of unlikely organisms that serve science by acting as proxies for the human body. Scientists don’t pick so-called model organisms for exceptional evolutionary achievement and there is no scientific catwalk of gorgeous creatures. Some scientists do exclaim over the beauty of these creatures, but really. Pond scum? Writhing white round worms? Slime mold? The truth is, model organisms are a haphazard lot that scientists select from the teeming crowds because of quirks that make them useful for laboratory research. They are useful and as we work with them we come to know them.


Thank Evolution

Life on Earth emerged relatively soon (0.7 billion years) after our Solar System formed and it has been evolving ever since (i.e. for 3.8 billion years). Because all of life on Earth shares fundamental biochemical pathways, it is likely that we are all descended from a common ancestor – presumably the most robust of the emergent life forms.  This commonality means that studies of almost any organism can shed light on the others.

In this Tree of Life diagram the centre represents the last common ancestor of all life on earth. Pink are the eukaryotes (plants, animals and fungi); blue are the bacteria and green are the archea. Humans are second from the rightmost edge of the pink segment. The species included in this illustration are those whose genomes have been sequenced. (Courtesy of FD Ciccarelli).


When word gets out that an organism is well suited to a particular type of experiment other scientists interested in related problems begin using this species for their work. Over time, we learn a great deal about the organism and along the way we develop an array of experimental tools to study it. With the application of these tools, the organism expands its repertoire of usefulness to science. In other words, a few assets and a great deal of happenstance get the ball rolling. As our knowledge of an organism and our skill in working with it increase, the organism becomes established as a model.


Microscopic Models

E. coli, the infamous gut microbe variants of which can wreak havoc with human health, grows rapidly and is one of the easiest beasts to study in the lab. It and a few other bacteria serve as models for understanding microbial-based pathogenesis. They also serve as tools for the experimental dissection of fundamental biochemical processes. From these studies we have learned that although bacteria are small, they are surprisingly sophisticated and are by no means simpler versions of us. They branched off early and have taken a different evolutionary path than us. Because of this divergence, E. coli is of limited use as a model organism for understanding how human cells work.


Electron microscopic image of E. coli  courtesy of MediaWiki

We tend to think of ourselves as more highly evolved than, well, everything else. This is a strange idea given that every living thing has an evolutionary history as long as ours. We confuse evolutionary longevity with complexity. While we are no more highly evolved than any other being on Earth, we are arguably the most complex beings in an evolutionary lineage that specializes in complexity, a lineage we call the eukaryotes.

Around two billion years ago, by a process that seems to have involved some early cells engulfing other early cells and them all coming to live in peaceful co-existence, the eukaryotic lineage was born. These larger and considerably more complex cells, containing what have since become nuclei and mitochondria, allowed a blossoming of innovation, including complex multicellularity.

Under conditions of starvation, free living single cells of the slime mold Dictyostelium crawl towards one another. Eventually they aggregate into a slug-like creature that crawls around for a bit. Cells that find themselves in different parts of the slug differentiate into specialized types and together the community of cells (organism?) forms a base, a stalk and a fruiting body to launch spores (towards the end of this clip you can see the base and stalk on the left, the fruiting body filled with hopeful spores is just off screen to the left)..


Fungi, plants, and animals, we are all eukaryotes.  We are certainly different from one another, yet we are related closely enough that our genes are sometimes interchangeable. In a dramatic demonstration of this fact, Paul Nurse and Melanie Lee used a human gene to replace an essential gene in a single-celled fungus, a variety of yeast that is used in Africa to brew beer. [1]

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the budding yeast, is another microscopic fungus, the predominant yeast that we have been using for brewing and baking for something like 10,000 years. Like the fission yeast used by Nurse, the budding yeast grows rapidly and we are adept at manipulating its growth and life cycle in the lab. Yeast is a strikingly good model organism for a growing array of cellular processes, including cell division.

Dividing yeast cells courtsey of the Salmon Lab, University of North Carolina


Yeast has proven itself so useful that hundreds of independent laboratories from around the world use it as a model organism. These scientists have developed sophisticated technologies that allow them to probe deep into the workings of cellular processes such as cell growth and division.

Cell growth and division may look simple, but consider what is being accomplished:  cells grow and divide in just the right balance to maintain cell size within a limited range – too much division with not enough growth produces wee cells and vice versa. Cells must be able to assess their own size and then divide with exquisite precision.  Cell division is not initiated until each strand of DNA is completely copied once and only once. Each daughter cell receives precisely one copy of each chromosome along with a share of mitochondria and other essential organelles. The more we learn about the molecular machines that control and execute these feats, the more stunning it all becomes. The mysteries are deeper with every layer that is pulled back.   And the relevance to humans is unambiguous: cancer is cell division control gone awry.

Dance of the chromosomes: vertebrate cell division

As useful as yeast continues to be, there are some questions for which yeast is of no use at all. We tend to think of evolution as a process of acquiring ever more fancy ways of doing more and doing it better, but often it goes the other way. When conditions change, structures that previously served a purpose may no longer be of any use. Because it costs energy to build structures, individuals with a mutation that prevent the structures from being built can put the saved energy into other things – breeding being an eternal favorite. Such was the case in the deep caves of Mexico where light does not penetrate. After generations in complete darkness, a fish known as the Mexican cave Tetra no longer has eyes.

Like the eyeless Mexican Tetra, yeast is a bit weird in that it is a stripped down little creature. Over evolutionary time, yeast has lost some features, presumably because the cells have adapted to environmental niches where these features are of no use.  Among the attributes that yeast lost are cilia, small hair-like structures that protrude from the surface of the cell.

How do we know that one lineage (e.g. yeast) lost something (cilia) as opposed to the possibility that the thing never developed in that lineage to begin with? We know because cilia appear in all major branches of the eukaryotes and in each case they are fundamentally the same, built from the same complex array of molecules assembled in the same way by the same molecular machinery.  The last common ancestor of plants, animals and fungi was a single-celled organism with cilia.


How I Met Chlamydomonas

Chlamydomonas is a unicellular organism that has some of the attributes that recommend yeast, with the bonus that it has retained its cilia. This microscopic green alga is found worldwide living in soils, ponds and even on snow. All they need is light, water and a few minerals – they grow well in a flask of fertilized water on a windowsill. Specific cellular traits have made Chlamydomonas a valuable model for energy capture (photosynthesis of crop plants, biofuels and artificial leaves), cellular stress responses, mechanisms of evolution, and an array of human genetic diseases. Although I now use Chlamydomonas as a model organism to study the biology of cilia, that is not where my relationship with this cell began.

I first met Chlamydomonas in 1988 when I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation research in genetics and biochemistry at the University of Connecticut. I was part of a team trying to understand how the leaves of the majestic Rain Tree fold up at night (to conserve water) and unfurl in the morning (to capture sunlight).[2]

At night the cells on the inside of each tiny elbow of the leaf shrivel while those on the outside expand, causing the elbow to bend and the leaves to fold. Each morning the process reverses, the elbows straighten and the leaves unfold. We were interested in how these cellular shape changes were controlled by a circadian clock.  Sapling trees kept in the dark for days at a time continue to fold and unfold their leaves in time with the changing light outside.

We were testing the hypothesis that a particular biochemical pathway was involved in coupling the cellular shape changes to the circadian clock. The work involved growing sapling trees in large light-controlled growth chambers, harvesting the tiny elbows and incubating them in small vials of radioactive fertilizer, where they would continue to bend and stretch even while detached from the plant. After the elbows had taken up and incorporated the radioactivity into their cells, we would carefully dissect the inside of the elbow away from the outside of the elbow, freezing each section of tissue on dry ice, grinding with a mortar and pedestal, and then conducting biochemical analysis of the material. It was slow, painstaking work and we were not getting clear answers.

At the time we didn’t even know whether the biochemical pathway of interest was used to regulate activity in cells in the plant lineage. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of model organisms, but as an oceanography student I had worked with single-celled algae.

I soon started growing my first Chlamydomonas cells and it was love at first sight – they are green, they are beautiful and using them for this project was a way of bringing together my long-time fascination with algae and my new interest in biochemistry.


Getting To Know My Organism

Eventually I got the experiments working and determined that the biochemical pathway we were looking for was present in Chlamydomonas. I was getting to know my organism. After learning how to grow it and how to manipulate it for experiments, the next step was to see if our pathway controlled any of the behaviours of this tiny alga.

I surveyed three behaviours: phototaxis, mating and deflagellation. Phototaxis is directed movement in response to light:  Chlamydomonas cells swim towards dim light and away from bright light. Mating is, yes, sex. Chlamydomonas comes in two mating types, plus and minus – male and female, just like us (as it were). Flagella[3] on cells of opposite mating type stick to one another, bringing the cells together for fusion. The third behaviour, deflagellation, is a stress response wherein Chlamydomonas jettisons its flagella, to grow new ones later when the stress has passed.

Phototaxis and mating are both complex behaviours. I didn’t find any evidence that our biochemical pathway was involved in either, but then, I didn’t know the organism well enough to finesse the experiments. Thankfully, deflagellation was simple: shock the cells with a chemical treatment and the flagella would pop off.  I was lucky and discovered that our biochemical pathway kicked into high gear during deflagellation.

Excited by the biochemistry, I detoured into postdoctoral research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where I studied the molecular pathways by which mammalian cells respond to hormones. But I pined for Chlamydomonas. Eventually I established my own lab at Emory University specifically focused on the problem of how and why Chlamydomonas cells deflagellate.



One particular memory stands out from those early years in my own lab when I was getting to know my organism more intimately. It was late in the evening and no one else was around. While waiting for an experiment, I was occupying myself by sitting at the microscope watching Chlamydomonas.

Under the microscope you can see the cell wall for which Chlamydomonas is named. “Chlamys” is Greek for “a shoulder draped cloak.” That night I happened upon a mother cell wall containing the daughters from a recent cell division. I saw the evidence of three divisions in rapid succession: eight Chlamydomonas daughter cells still encased in their mother’s cell wall. Over the next hour and a half I watched as the daughters grew flagella and started waving them about within the confined womb. Eventually, they managed to rip a hole in the wall and one by one I watched the cells emerge and swim away.

The cilia that protrude from almost all of the cells in the human body are essentially the same as those of Chlamydomonas. Some of our cells, such as those lining our respiratory tracts and the ventricles of our brains, are topped with a cluster of motile cilia that serve to move fluids – mucus and cerebral-spinal fluid, respectively. Primarily because of experiments on Chlamydomonas scientists are beginning to understand the molecular machines that generate this beautiful form of motility.

Cilia of mouse brain ependymal cells maintaining flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Movie courtesy of Karl Lechtreck, University of Georgia.

The cells that make up most of our tissues – brain, liver, kidney, muscles, skin – have only one, very small and non-motile, cilium.  Until recently, scientists ignored these relatively pathetic looking little structures with no assigned function, considering them to be vestiges of our evolutionary past. A little over a decade ago, Chlamydomonas researchers seeking to understand how cilia are built made discoveries that have lead to a revolution in our thinking about ‘vestigial’ cilia.

Over the past dozen years we have learned that these tiny immotile cilia serve critical roles as cellular antennae, processing centres for the myriad signals that cells are tuned to detect. Signals from the environment and from other cells dictate differentiation into the various cell types that make up the organs of our body. Similar signals that maintain the physiological functioning of the adult. Both developmental and physiological signals are detected and integrated by cilia. Commensurate with the varied and important signals that cilia process, we are now discovering that defects in cilia cause a long list of diseases ranging from too many fingers and toes to obesity to Polycystic Kidney Disease and retinal degeneration.


Flies and Worms

Research in both Chlamydomonas and yeast depends upon the study of heredity, or genetics, a tool that is available because of research on another model organism, the fruit fly. Thomas Hunt Morgan followed visible traits of Drosophila melanogaster to discover that genes carried on chromosomes are the basis of heredity. [4]

As with other model organisms, Drosophila became ever more useful to scientists the better they came to know it. Experiments in Drosophila revealed master control genes in charge of establishing whether a leg or an eye would develop and fly researchers were among the first to decipher the language used by cells in a multicellular organism to establish their division of labor.  Drosophila continues to be an important model organism for studies of developmental biology. Because Drosophila exhibits complex behaviours that are controlled by a nervous system and can be dissected genetically, it has also become an important model for behavioural neuroscience.

In his acceptance speech for the shared 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Sydney Brenner said, “Without doubt the fourth winner of the Nobel Prize this year is Caenohabditis elegans; it deserves all of the honor but, of course, it will not be able to share the monetary award.”[5] . Selected for the transparency of its embryo and the limited number of cells in the adult worm (fewer than 1,000) C. elegans is a premier organism for studying the how cells distinguish themselves from one another and live or die to serve the development of complex organ systems.

Crawling C. elegans courtesy of Bob Goldstein, University of North Carolina.
These are brief introductions to a few of my favorite model organisms, there are many more. Experiments with model organisms continue to help us understand the molecular interactions that underlie cell growth, division and differentiation, the development and physiology of organisms. Can life be distilled into molecular interactions whose chemical properties we can measure and ultimately predict?


A Feeling For The Organism

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was a botanist and geneticist who studied corn. McClintock discovered genetic recombination, mobile genetic elements, centromeres, telomeres and genetic regulation decades in advance of our molecular understanding of these things. She was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. Recognized with many awards, including the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, this woman of uncontested scientific acumen had something of a spiritual relationship with her organism.

“I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a real pleasure to know them.”[6]

The mysteries of life remain so numerous and profound that researchers pushing the edges of our understanding are prone to witness strange happenings. Perplexing new observations become new discoveries – after you make sense of them. On the report of some new cellular activity it is not uncommon to hear scientists say, “I saw that too. I just didn’t know what to make of it.” Those with an intimate knowledge of their organism are better equipped to discern important changes and to make the intuitive leaps that turn perplexing observations into new knowledge.

The intuitive knowing that arises from familiarity is entwined with an awareness of kinship, of common origin. We may lose ourselves in pursuit of the specific mysteries of our creature, yet always what we are doing is revealing who we are. From small and specific questions arise big answers.

We grow fond of these quirky distant cousins who at times can be quite disagreeable (ask any cell biology graduate student). And on those rare occasions when our model organisms reveal their secrets and provide us with discoveries, the fondness feels like love.

— Lynne Quarmby

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Lee, M. G. & Nurse, P. Complementation used to clone a human homologue of the fission yeast cell cycle control gene cdc2. Nature 327, 31-35 (1987). For this and other discoveries Nurse shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. The Rain Tree, native from the Yucatan Pennisula to Brazil, and naturalized around the tropical world, is known by many names: Monkey Pod; Mimosa; Saman; Coco, French, or Cow Tamarind.  To scientists it is Samanea saman.
  3. In Chlamydomonas the cilia are called flagella simply because way-back-when scientists did not appreciate that they were the same structure. Bacterial flagella are something entirely different.
  4. This discovery won Morgan the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
  5. Sydney Brenner, Robert Horvitz, and John Sulston shared the prize “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”
  6. From A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, 1983. (p. 198)
Nov 112011

The author skating two miles from the Lake Ontario shore.

This is a chapter from Steven Heighton‘s Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing (just published by ECW Press)—amazingly enough, a book of aphorisms (epigrams, whatever–short, pungent thingies). Many of you will recall that ages ago, when dg had the energy for such, NC used to have aphorism contests. It was mentioned then that, in fact, people, real writers, often wrote aphorisms and published them in books. It is an astonishing form, little taught in the creative writing schools, and here is living proof of its exuberant viability.

DG had the devil (yes) of a time picking from the book. Every section is deft, dry and delightful. There is a section in which Steven writes to himself as a younger writer.

Let failure be your workshop.  See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.

There is a gorgeous section on inspiration (& boredom).

(It’s the Buddhist teacher and writer Thich Naht Hahn who says instead, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” A small act of subversion in a society that has no use for stillness, silence, inward vision—that extols speed, productivity, the manic pursuit of things that by their nature can never be caught and retained.)

This book is an embarrassment of riches. In the end, dg chose the chapter of definitions (the definition is one of the ancient forms of the aphorism).

Steven Heighton’s most recent books are Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing and the novel Every Lost Country.  His 2005 novel, Afterlands, appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice; was a best of year choice in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK; and has been optioned for film.  His poems and stories have appeared in many publications—including London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, The Walrus, and Best English Stories—and have received four gold National Magazine Awards.  He has also been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.  In 2012 Knopf Canada will publish The Dead Are More Visible, a collection of short stories including “A Right Like Yours,” which appeared in Numéro Cinq.

See also this little interview with the author. And Steven’s earlier appearances on these pages: A Right Like Yours, Four Approximations of Horace, from Every Lost Country, and Herself, Revised.



If God is in the details, the Devil is in the definitions

AMBITIOUS: writer more successful than oneself.

BUZZ: ignorant consensus of readers who have not yet read the book in question and for the most part never will.

COMPLAINT: not actually a form of criticism, though often mistaken as such by reviewers.

DEADLINE: date by which writer must perfect excuses for not delivering in time.

FAILURE: phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends.

FRIENDSHIPS, OF YOUNG WRITERS: akin to the urgent, insecure alliances of small countries in times of war.

GOOD FICTION: a collaborative confidence trick.

GOSSIP: weapon in the ancient, unconscious war waged by the group against the individual.

HIGH INFANT MORTALITY: problem endemic to literary novels, a low percentage of which survive their first two years.

HUMOUR, WIT: for some reason a proof to many readers, and critics, that a writer lacks aesthetic seriousness (hence, a failure to recognize the seriousness of play).

LITERATURE: an education in complexity.

MEMO: the musing of a harmless drudge.

NEGATIVE CRITICISM: art of creating, out of an instinctive hostility towards work that tests or spurns one’s vision, a calm, orderly argument.

Thus, NEGATIVE CRITIC:  writer in the business of disguising a club-wielding caveman in civilized tweed.

PROMISING YOUNG WRITER: middle-aged writer whose work is finally gaining notice.

PROMISING YOUNGER WRITER: late middle-aged writer whose work is finally etc.

ROYALTY: foreign celebrities who earn more in daily investment income than most writers earn in a lifetime.

WRITER: someone trying to extend childhood—its exuberant creativity, its capacity for timeless absorption—all the way to death, thus bypassing adulthood altogether.

WRITER’S WRITER: one who lives at or below the poverty line.

—Steven Heighton


Oct 242011


Rational thought. Calm, reasonable, gentle persuasion.  It was this quality of moderation in his writing that most impressed me, for my own inclinations tended toward the opposite, the impatient, the radical, the violent.

That’s how Edward Abbey described Joseph Wood Krutch in an essay that appeared initially in the journal Sage and then featured in Abbey’s 1988 collection One Life at a Time, Please. The piece, called simply “Mr. Krutch” (that’s “krootch” if you’re reading aloud), recounts Abbey’s 1967 interview of Krutch—the last formal interview the latter granted before his death in 1970. The circumstances and content of the interview say much about both men: it took place in the desert burg of Tucson, it resulted from Krutch’s acceptance of Abbey’s simple cold call (Abbey admits to having simply looked up the well-known Krutch in the phone book), and it features a palpable tension as then-debutant Abbey tries to direct the conversation but is instead led along by Krutch.  It’s an excellent read.

Abbey, of course (as described in an earlier installment of this series), is known for his passionate defense of and writing about the desert.  Krutch, perhaps exactly because of that more “reasonable” voice, is far less well known—he is probably the least recognized name among those profiled here—but he also comes to mind mostly because of his desert writings.  That late 60’s interview brought together two men with similar loves at the very moment the environmental movement was in the midst of legislatively changing the world. It is a pivot point on the environmental timeline.

Moving forward, Abbey would publish Desert Solitaire less than a year later in 1968. Within two years, Edward Hoagland and Wendell Berry would be on the scene, the Clean Air and Environmental Policy Acts would become law, the elder desert sage would publish his life compendium, The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch, and Krutch would die, just two months after the first Earth Day. Moving backward, Krutch published books contemporaneously with Loren Eiseley (whom Krutch admires specifically in the Abbey interview), Rachel Carson, and Peter Mathiessen. Krutch was born in 1893 (the only major mid-century writer to see the turn of the last century), and in fact his writing should have been contemporary to Aldo Leopold (born in 1887), except that Krutch came to nature writing quite late.

Krutch began his writing career as a theater critic and professor at Columbia University.  He wrote biographies of Edgar Allen Poe (1926), Samuel Johnson (1944), and–who else–Thoreau (1948), as well as a book-length thesis critical of science and technology (The Modern Temper, 1929).  The Thoreau book, initially just another biography project, made Krutch take a closer look at environmental topics.  This is from his 1962 autobiography More Lives Than One:

One winter night shortly after I had finished Thoreau I was reading a “nature essay” which pleased me greatly and it suddenly occurred to me for the first time to wonder if I could do something of the sort. I cast about for a subject and decided upon the most conventional of all, namely Spring.

That first essay, “The Day of the Peepers,” led quickly to Krutch’s first nature-focused book, The Twelve Seasons (1949). He was 56 (by contrast Abbey published Desert Solitaire at 41 and had by then already written three novels). Krutch’s most famed volume The Desert Year came out in 1951 (the same year as Rachel Carson’s best-seller The Sea Around Us). The Voice of the Desert expanded on the earlier book in 1954, and travelogues on the Grand Canyon and the Baja Peninsula followed in 1957 and 1961, respectively. Other books, more philosophical in nature, alternated with these environmental tomes, making this an extremely prolific time for Krutch: including the Thoreau biography and his autobiography, 11 books in 14 years.  It was almost as if he was making up for lost time.

Abbey describes Krutch’s style exactly right. The quote above from More Lives Than One is a perfect example of the lilting, matter-of-fact, discover-as-you-go tone of Krutch’s nature writing. (How ironic it is, by the way, that Krutch’s autobiography is called More Lives Than One and Abbey’s last essay collection is called One Life At a Time, Please.) Though I think Krutch’s language matures a bit through his career, that by-golly sense of wonder is always present—tempered, though, by hints of the intelligentsia of which Krutch can easily be considered a member.

Some examples: first from “Don’t Expect Too Much from a Frog” (1953):

The whole philosophy of frogs, all the wisdom they have accumulated in millions of years of experience, is expressed in that urrr-unk uttered with an air which seems to suggest that the speaker feels it to be completely adequate. The comment does not seem very passionate or very aspiring, but it is contented and not cynical. Frogs have considered life and found it, if not exactly ecstatic, at least quite pleasant and satisfactory.

“Urrr-unk” and “feels it to be completely adequate” are delightfully opposing semantic poles.

And from “Journey in Time,” part of the 1958 Grand Canyon book:

As soon as nature has made a mountain, she seems to regret it and she begins to tear it down.  Then, once she has torn it down, she makes another—perhaps, as here, precisely where the former mountain had once towered.  Speed the action up as in those movies of an opening flower, and the landscape of the earth would seem as insubstantial and as phantasmagorical as the cloudscape of a thundery afternoon.

The first sentence here is decidedly low-brow, but then comes “phantasmagorical” and “cloudscape.” Even Krutch’s essay and book chapter titles are a little aw-shucks. The first four chapters of The Desert Year are “Why I Came,” “What It Looks Like, “How to See It,” and “How Some Others Live Here.”

To use a thrice removed quote, Mark Tredinnick, in his unique exploration of writers’ home landscapes, The Land’s Wild Music (Trinity University Press, 2005), pulls this Krutch gem from Frank Stewart’s A Natural History of Nature Writing (Island, 1995): “[Nature writing is] experience with the natural world, as opposed, for example, to science writing, which is knowledge about the natural world.” Krutch happily admits to being a novice. In the essay called “On Being an Amateur Naturalist” he says, tongue-in-cheek, “I think I know more about plant life than any other drama critic, and more about the theater than any botanist.” That humility is a refreshing departure, and one that lets the reader feel ignorant without shame. A recurring story in The Desert Year sees Krutch trying to discover why bats always spiral a certain direction when exiting a cave. He writes to scientists and even imagines himself gaining some recognition in scientific circles for raising this apparently never-before-asked question. He wonders if they go the other way in Australia. He envisions some non-verbal compact among the bats, to eliminate traffic accidents.

For to Krutch, the bats are sentient and are possessed of personalities. So are the spiders and the birds and even the saguaro cactus. This belief sets Krutch apart from the other writers of his time, hearkening back to a more romantic notion of nature found often in the writings of John James Audubon and, at times, John Muir.  Tredinnick in The Land’s Wild Music goes so far as to put Krutch in a box with Leopold, Henry Beston, and Carson, while the opposite box has Abbey, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and “all the other Thoreaus of the baby boom” (ugh! a group Thoreau reference–see my rant about Hoagland, here).  This belief also set him against the prevailing science of his day, which relied on dissection to study living things and considered all plants and animals mere machines governed by instinct and natural selection.  Krutch’s writing believes in the real lives being lived in the natural world: the joy, the sorrow, the patience, the humor.

For instance, in The Desert Year, he watches courting lizards:

When I first noticed this pair the male had just made a direct, crude approach toward the female and she, quite properly resenting this matter-of-factness, scurried away as from an enemy about to devour her. The male stopped disappointed; shrugged his lizard shoulders; started off in the opposite direction; and was then obviously surprised to discover he was being followed at a discreet distance….

Besides the advances and retreats which are the essential features of all courtships, this one consisted principally of poetical speeches or amorous arias, though I could not be sure which since the sounds were completely inaudible to me, at least through the window…. [The] lady would listen intently, move a little closer, and then edge away again when her suitor approached to ask what effect his eloquence had produced.

Ahh, the rigors of flirtation, and life, for all creatures, not just we humans.

The other day I hiked with my youngest son Mason for the first time in a state park. He is six months old and was strapped to my chest, contentedly looking up at the silver maples.  A small woodpecker exploring along the trunks caught my eye. Soon the bird flew to different branch where another woodpecker was already tapping. As the first bird arrived, the resident woodpecker pecked aggressively in his direction, spread his own wings wide, and called out a series of shrill staccato tones. The interloper followed suit and the two danced on the branch, arms outstretched, beaks threatening.

I imagined what they might be saying to each other—or, rather, what Joseph Wood Krutch might imagine them saying to each other. I am sure he would have exactly the right dialog.

Proceed to the next essay, on Wendell Berry; or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson