On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again

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Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage—one of the essay collections I read in 2016.

Earlier this year, I assembled a hybrid manuscript (short stories and creative nonfiction essays) and an essays-only version and sent both out to several places. My manuscript was a finalist at three presses this spring and summer, which was encouraging. A few of the editors, writers, and friends who read my manuscript generously provided some useful feedback. Then I took some time to consider next steps.

In September, I had lunch with Sabina Murray, a fiction writer who teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. We were talking about the challenges of selling a hybrid manuscript and she said, “Think about when you go to a bookstore and pick up a memoir or a novel. You are looking for a different experience in reading one over the other, right? We have different expectations for nonfiction versus fiction.”

That made sense to me, even though, given the interest in books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it is also a good time to be publishing “hybrid” work. For what it’s worth, Edie Meidav, another fiction writer at UMass thought it absolutely possible to shop and successfully publish a hybrid manuscript.

My takeaway: there’s no one or right answer. These are just decisions we make and go from there. The word “essay” comes from the French verb essay—to try. So much of writing is to try. And to try again.

After putting my manuscript aside for a few months, I decided to try separating the stories and essays, which meant shorter collections of each—but I could also see how they read differently.

In December, I picked up Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. As in any collection, I found some essays more compelling than others. Many of Patchett’s essays had been published elsewhere first (and some were the text of speeches), and while there were certainly themes, Patchett has a strong following as an established writer. Readers would (and did) buy the book whether or not the essays all worked together to create a unified whole. Beyond that, of course it’s meaningful and valuable to hold a book in your hand, all the writing there at once, instead of clicking to this link and that link online.

I read Patchett’s book from beginning to end, and did not skip around. I usually skip around. I realized that’s in part why I had a hard time thinking about chronology and ordering my essays or stories—the order of stories or poems or essays in a book usually does not have much bearing on the order in which I actually read them.

On the other hand, seeing the structure, reading an introduction or forward, seeing subtitles (as in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land) did help me to see in part how the writers themselves (and / or their publishers and editors) intended for the book to read. And I appreciated that, could see the value in that.

With a little help from (as Roxane Gay might say) Dr. Google, I found some useful resources:

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies also has two excellent posts covering recent conference panels on the subject. One is Vivian Wagner’s blog post, “Narrative, Lyric, Hybrid: Crafting Essay Collections into Books.” This post covered the AWP 2015 conference panel of the same title with Renee D’Aoust (moderator), and Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Peter Grandbois, and Philip Lopate as panelists.

From Assay:

Rebecca McClanahan began the discussion by addressing the different ways that essay collections can come together. Some books of essays, she said, cohere organically because of subject matter, style, narrative movement, or repeating images. For essays that don’t automatically hang together, however, she said writers have to grapple with a variety of questions. What should one do, for instance, with events that repeat themselves over and over in various essays? Should the writer edit the essays and place a key event once in the collection? What if some of the essays are in present tense and some in past? What about the fact that people in our essays grow up, marriages end, and we ourselves change over time? As McClanahan said, “our reflections may change drastically from essay to essay. There can be several selves on the page colliding with each other.”

Wagner ended her coverage of the panel with this commentary:

I can’t say I came away from this panel with all the answers. I’m still mulling over my yet-to-be-assembled essays. What I did learn, however, is that putting together a book of essays involves more – much more – than just creating a single Word file and piling essays in it until it reaches 300 pages. And that lesson, at least, is a good place to start.

So true. It’s much more than creating a single Word file!

Next, Heidi Czerwiec’s write-up in Assay covered a panel at the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference (I was lucky enough to attend this panel, too): From the post, “Assay@NFN15: ‘Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection,’”

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. Jericho Parms [panelist] responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.

I scoured my bookshelves and gathered up books of essays and short story collections and studied them—the titles, where the books opened, the tone of the first line of the first essay or story; how each story or essay closed; where the book ended; narrative arc; whether or not they were divided into sections or parts and whether or not those parts had subtitles. I think it’s worth doing this with any of your favorite books of short stories or essays.

Here are some of the books I looked at (some in great detail and others, just skimming or scanning) listed here in no particular order:

  • Joy Castro’s Island of Bones (Essays)
  • Adrienne Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry (Essays)
  • Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Essays)
  • James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (Essays)
  • Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and The Balloonists (Hybrid/Nonfiction)
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
  • Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite (Stories)
  • Lia Purpura’s On Looking (Essays)
  • Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Essays)
  • Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall (Essays)
  • Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth (Essays)
  • Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms (Stories)
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Essays)
  • Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (Essays & Speeches)
  • Rick Moody’s Demonology (Stories)
  • Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her and Drown (Stories)
  • Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth (Essays)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (Stories)
  • Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim (Stories)
  • Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever (Stories)
  • Susan Steinberg’s three books: Spectacle; The End of Free Love; Hydroplane (Stories)

Ones I intend to look at:

  • Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Essays)
  • Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires (Essays)

I found the process of ordering my stories and essays and thinking about how the individual stories or essays speak to one other, themes, etc., to be more challenging than I imagined it would be—even though I had done another version of this process in 2013. Or perhaps I knew it—and this is why it took me many years to do it again.

Finally, I had a really thoughtful conversation over email with my friend Nate Pritts, author of several poetry collections. From his email:

These questions, about ordering, are really so crucial. I think about them a lot. I have much I could say. But maybe first I’d say you should trust yourself – reading those first and last paragraphs to see what resonance there is makes a lot of sense. Also, if your instincts suggest coming up with a structure for sections, I’d say go for it, explore it. For me, sections have always been obvious (ie, series of poems, or seasonal) or mysterious (which is to say, I roughly feel like there is a first and second section and organize poems according to those currents).

Maybe just think about the pieces overall. What shapes or recurrences or narratives define what you’re writing about: interior / exterior, journeying and returning, etc. The question then is, for example, if you can ascertain a rough interior / exterior divide, do you separate them or intersperse them for strengthening?

For poems, I tend to print out ALL the poems and spread them on the floor (or desks, whatever, all over the house) and then just walk around reading them and picking them up as I go as it makes sense, if I’m finding those riffs and connections. If these are shorter pieces, maybe you could do that too? Or maybe you could just start with one piece – is there one that seems like a center or kernel? Then what piece of the other 21 pieces goes before it? Or after it? And start working out organically in waves.

Nate’s advice resonated with me. Before this year, I had no idea how other writers came to this process. Like Nate, I had printed out copies of all the essays and stories and spread them across my office. I could see all of the pieces and move them around as actual physical objects—well before any cutting and pasting on the computer.

Many years ago I ordered the stories in my MFA thesis in the final days and weeks before handing it in and the whole process felt rushed and somewhat random—just putting things together in a word document. In the end, it was a thesis, but not a book.

Maybe assembling a book is a little like taking stock of the year—here we are on New Year’s Eve. What’s your story about 2016? Themes, highlights, recurring images? It’s stepping back and seeing the forest, as McClanahan said— (after, for me, counting up, classifying, and mulling over the variety of trees and various vegetation).

Our country’s story in 2016: The rise of Trump. A loss of heart. The loss of so many gifted musicians and writers.

The to-do list: I still have to research long-term care insurance.

Writing: I bought a new desk and two new file cabinets. I assembled manuscripts and mulled over titles and subtitles and epigraphs.

Obviously, there’s much more to the lists than this, but it’s getting late in the day and this blog post is already long. (And I need to take a shower.)

What’s on your list? What are the important pieces and parts and stories of your year?

I wish you and yours health, happiness, wild creativity, and meaningful order in 2017. And to trust your instincts. And lots of reading and writing.

List Essays, 25 Things, Writing Prompts

In my last blog post, I mentioned a list essay, “25 things, post-election version,” by my friend and MFA classmate, writer Noria Jablonski, originally published as a note on Facebook the day after the election. I deactivated my Facebook account over the weekend (enough with all the cacophony!) so I can’t link to her note, but with her permission, I have shared it with both of my classes and also used it as the basis of a writing prompt (explained after Noria’s words). Here’s her list:

25 things, post-election version   //   Noria Jablonski· Wednesday, November 9, 2016

  1. Normally I shy away from posting anything too personal, but this time isn’t normal.
  2. A year and a half ago I was diagnosed with MS.
  3. My professional life came to an abrupt end.
  4. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I currently have access to health insurance.
  5. The medication I take to slow the progression of my disease costs $65,000/year.
  6. A drug that has been used for years to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis recently showed promise for treating MS. That drug was not brought to market because the patent was about to expire.
  7. I have profound hearing loss.
  8. Hearing aids are not covered by most insurance companies (hearing aids are considered elective).
  9. Healthcare should not be driven by profit motive.
  10. Neither should education.
  11. I became a teacher to help young people find their voices.
  12. I became a writer to find mine.
  13. “…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature…literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.” – Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”
  14. On a Saturday night the spring before last, I suddenly lost vision in my left eye. Everything went dim, grainy, colorless, as if the brightness, contrast, and color knobs had been turned all the way down.
  15. A few days later my right leg went numb.
  16. Before MRI machines, a hot bath test was used to diagnose MS (heat worsens neurological symptoms).
  17. On a trip to Paris several years ago, I visited the library of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who is most famous for his study of hysteria.
  18. Charcot was the first to give a name to multiple sclerosis: “la sclérose en plaques.”
  19. Sclerosis means hardening. It refers to scar tissue formed by lesions of the brain and spinal cord.
  20. Nothing is in my control.
  21. My body feels unsafe. I have been hurt physically and sexually.
  22. “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” – Cersei Lannister
  23. My parents were Sufi. Sufism is a branch of Islam.
  24. My given name is Arabic. It means light of womanhood.
  25. I am not a terrorist.

Writing Prompt: inspired by two list essays: Noria Jablonski’s “25 things, post-election version” and my essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps”:

What are some of your acts of resisting invisibility? Write a list of 25. Include specific numbers when possible. Here are some phrases and ideas to get started. Remember this is just an option and you are welcome to freewrite in response to the Adrienne Rich quote (which I included in the previous blog post) or either of the list essays.

—Something someone said to you

—A year and a half ago,

—I have

—I became

—Normally,

—Before

—On a trip to…

—a quote from a writer, a song, a person

—I am

—I am not

—My parents

—A few days later

—On a Saturday night

The Personal Is Political

“The moment when a feeling enters the body / is political.” —Adrienne Rich, “The Ghazals”

“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” —Claudia Rankine, from Citizen

11/22/16: SOTA teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students and Willa and me after our workshop.

11/22/16: Teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students, Willa, and me after our workshop (Photo by SOTA Teacher Marcy Gamzon)

This morning, poet Willa Carroll and I co-taught a creative writing master class to high school students at the Rochester City School District’s School of the Arts. Willa is a proud alumna of the school and I often wished, while growing up, I had also been a student there. Happily, I’ve been able to be a part of the larger SOTA community through the many alums I have as friends and acquaintances—and these master classes.

Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Poet Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Willa and I last visited SOTA as guest writers in June of 2014 (here’s my blog post about that visit). She and I have known each other since high school and it’s been rewarding to continue our friendship through writing and our various moves for school and work.

We focused today’s reading and workshop on “political writing”—writing the political, and thinking about the relationship between what is personal and what is seen as political. Willa and I both chose to frame our readings and writing exercises with words by, among others, Adrienne Rich, a groundbreaking poet, public intellectual, and second-wave feminist. The phrase, “the personal is political,” was important to me as a writer, particularly in college, when I came further into a feminist consciousness I had only begun to articulate in high school. I just googled “the personal is political,” and Wikipedia offered this handy history and context for the phrase:

The personal is political, also termed The private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.[1] The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, Women’s Studies, or feminism in general.[2][3] It differentiated the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s from the early feminism of the 1920s, which was concerned with achieving the right to vote for women.

The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title “The Personal is Political” in 1970,[4] but she disavows authorship of the phrase. According to Kerry Burch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and other feminists given credit for originating the phrase have also declined authorship. “Instead,” Burch writes, “they cite millions of women in public and private conversations as the phrase’s collective authors.”[5]Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of “World War II,”[5] although the invention of the phrase “World War II” can in fact be traced to a Time editorial published in September 1939.[6]

The phrase figured in women-of-color feminism, such as “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde‘s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and the anthology This Bridge Called Home. More broadly, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observes, “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others.”[7]

Before beginning my reading, I mentioned that there have been a handful of events in the last fifteen years, which have shaped the direction and ideology of our country. In my opinion, these events include 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis, and our most recent presidential election. The election showed me that the most misogynistic, racist, and incendiary speech and behavior by a presidential candidate not only did not take him out of the running—it likely helped elect him. This shocked me. And also that some Americans were likely not OK with a female president. Much more to say about that, but back to our workshop, which we began to plan before the election (and its results).

Willa read the two quotes at the beginning of this blog post. Before getting into my lesson on “making the invisible visible” and using forms such as lists as a writing prompt, I read a short excerpt from Rich’s essay, “Invisibility in Academe”:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard…to make yourself visible, to claim that your experience is just as real and normative as any other.

I think this is an incredibly powerful passage and one I’ve come back to again and again over the last 20 years.

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Sejal Shah (photo by Willa Carroll).

We then looked at “25 things, post-election version,” a sort of  list “essay,” which my former MFA classmate, Noria Jablonski wrote and posted on Facebook the day after the election. I also read my lyric / list essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps,” which was published in September in Brevity’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization.

Student Writers Hard at Work

SOTA Students writing hard, heads bent, pens moving.

A couple of the students shared their list exercises, and they were wonderful. The SOTA students were lively, focused, and wrote terrific responses to the four writing exercises we brought to them—even on the day before Thanksgiving Break! Speaking of thanks, we are thankful to have been able to return to work with these talented writers. Thank you also to teachers Marcy Gamzon and Bradley Craddock for hosting us, and to Friends of School of the Arts for sponsoring our visit.

Commonplace Books & Other People’s Words, Post Election

fullsizerender-6On the recommendation of two of my students in the advanced memoir / creative nonfiction class I’m currently teaching, I recently went back and finished Mary Karr‘s excellent The Art of MemoirIn Chapter 19, “Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr suggests keeping a commonplace book: “a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.” She includes other great exercises—memorizing poems, writing reviews, and augmenting a daily journal with a reading journal.

I first came across the term “commonplace book” on a former colleague’s syllabus. Martha and I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, and she showed me her syllabus for Narrative Fiction (English 180?), the introductory literature class I would also be teaching. I loved the idea of this—a reading journal.

Both Karr and poet & editor Mark Pawlak, with whom I read last week, mentioned the practice of keeping a commonplace book, and I feel inspired to keep such a book apart from my regular journal—right now they are combined in one notebook so unless I go back to my journals to flag and cull excerpts from what I’m reading, I sometimes lose those copied out passages. In fact, I wrote out the following quotes from Karr’s book in my journal last week. This post will be a kind of online supplement to my commonplace book—I’d like to try doing that and see if it feeds my writing and teaching at all—making some of this commonplace book visible and available. Ideally, it would also be a potential resource for other writers or my students, but also a resource for me to look back at what I found interesting or inspiring. Here are some of her words that struck me.

From The Art of Memoir:

No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision. (153)

In her chapter on revision (Chapter 24: “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision”): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” —quoting Mark Twain

She also quotes from G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (on 217):

I have never done anything ‘useful.’ No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world….Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trial anyhow…I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I’ll add one more quote, not from Karr, but rather from Rebecca Solnit. My friend Gail Hosking showed this to me (pasted into her journal), when I mentioned I’d been crying earlier in the day—still stunned over the results of the election.

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.

This helped, to see what Gail had copied and pasted into her journal. I shared Solnit’s words with my students last night too, all such devoted and inspiring writers themselves. I felt better after reading and discussing their thoughtful work.

I’m sharing a couple of blog posts by writer friends, which also helped to deal with the helplessness, despair, and mourning that engulfed me and so many of us this week.

None of Us Really Left: Reimagining Rochester

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Poets Cornelius Eady (reading from his iPad), Marie Howe (of the fabulous hair), and Philip Schultz (a poet’s poignancy in his countenance) read in Rochester, with local poet and MCC Professor Tony Leuzzi (far right) moderating the conversation.

Last night I went to a terrific reading in town through Rochester Arts & Lectures, featuring Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Philip Schultz—poets all originally from Rochester. MCC professor and poet Anthony Leuzzi did a wonderful job moderating the reading and conversation. Eady, Howe, and Schultz addressed the role Rochester played in their lives as poets and how they think of home now (none of the three stayed in town, but draw from their time there in their writing).

Each described a different Rochester, a different sense of place, a different home—Eady described his street in the city neighborhood now called Corn Hill; Howe spoke of growing up in the suburbs in a fake Tudor stone house with a swimming pool in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but did not specify which town or area (I found this especially interesting—the absence of detail here; as a product of the suburbs myself, I have always been acutely aware of the distinctions between the different towns and suburbs, and even neighborhoods within the same municipality—I don’t see them at all as all the same).

Schultz spoke about growing up on a street of immigrants in the city, and at some point moved to my hometown / suburb, Brighton, which borders Rochester. Eady and Howe both talked about the same block on Prince Street, which played an important role in their lives. Howe read poems from her first book, What the Living Do, which was written largely about her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1989; John died on Prince Street in Rochester, and some of the poems are set there.

Eventually, all left home. Eady and Howe spoke of wanting to be where people were—where everyone was—all together on the streets. And this place was New York. That resonated with me and with others I know who grew up here. Schultz said it was more that he was fleeing where he was—that he had to leave the pain of his situation in Rochester more than getting to New York.

I just jotted down some notes, because I found the conversation and poems so inspiring. Not only are they all beautiful poets, they read poems grappling with identity, place, and the lost worlds of their childhood and adolescence in Rochester. All stuff I think about often. I had heard Cornelius read before, and have some of his poetry, but weirdly enough, was not familiar with Howe and Schultz.

Some excerpts from the conversation:

Marie Howe: [On the power of poetry]: “What poetry can do—turn our lives into myth.” From the elegiac title poem of What the Living Do, written to Howe’s brother John, these last lines stayed with me: “I am living. I remember you.” I woke up two days later still thinking about these words and the relationship between those of us still living with ones we love, long passed.

Cornelius Eady: [On coming back to Rochester]: “Driving around the neighborhood, looking at things that aren’t there.” Also this—worlds gone by, vanished, lost, another era, another time.

On Leaving Rochester:

Eady: Described a kind of “adolescent panic” to get out—“the larger world was calling to me and I to it…Writers are ambitious. New York tested and pushed me in different ways…and I needed NY for that.” Eady mentioned an important mentor, poet Shreela Ray (who has since passed). Sadly, I never met Ray, but I have her book, Night Conversations with None Other, and have had it for a long time. I need to read it again.

Philip Schultz: “None of us really left. Our imaginations were created here and exist here still.” (How I related to this! I left Rochester for 18 years, but I never really left and it never really left me…and eventually I did move back.) The title of one of Philip Schultz’s book, Living in the Past, appeals to me for obvious reasons if you know me or my writing at all…

Howe: “I never would have met Cornelius and Phil had I stayed in Rochester.” [The worlds they inhabited in Rochester were different and they may never have crossed paths.]

Schultz: [Quoting from what his wife has called the best or truest line of one of his poems]: “I left town, but failed to get away” (from his poem, “Failure”).

This last line reminded me of a sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, which has stayed with me for nearly 25 years: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I appreciate that Schultz’s words suggested something perhaps more subtle and complicated than Mukherjee’s distinction. (However, I think what the narrator says in Jasmine has a great deal of truth to it as well.) Reader, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on staying versus leaving (in life and writing), should you have any you’d like to share.

Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls

Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

A labyrinth near Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk in Amethyst Brook on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

September is the month of the autumnal equinox—the time when summer ends and autumn begins. In the weeks before this, I was thinking about goals for the fall and mourning the end of summer a bit, especially for R, since his life (and mine) change dramatically once the school year begins. But not all change is bad. He loves teaching middle school and coaching tennis, and I love the fall.

My fall classes at Writers & Books begin next week, in October, so I’ve had the chance to do some meaningful traveling and attend events related to art and writing in September. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful…especially since we’ve had health issues in our family, and our summer was mostly spent with parents, my grandmother, and extended family who had come to visit my grandmother.

At the New York book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

At the New York book launch for GOOD GIRLS MARRY DOCTORS: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Some September highlights: R and I took a trip to New York—our first visit since we went there together at the end of 2013. It was a lovely vacation, instigated by an invitation from writer Jyothi Natarajan to moderate the Q&A for the book launch of the anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion (edited by Piyali Bhattacharya), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Piyali had invited me to submit an essay to the anthology, but it was due right after my wedding, and I didn’t have the mind space to be able to see an essay through to completion then. So I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this book project in some way. It was a wonderful event—moving essays, a packed house, and a chance to reconnect to some of my literary community in New York.

img_0531I’d vacillated on this next trip, but I am so grateful I went. Stephen Clingman, a former professor of mine at UMass Amherst, invited me to take part in a symposium on the life and work and legacy of my MFA classmate, slain American journalist Jim Foley. Besides his work as a brave witness of the suffering in Syria, Jim was also a talented fiction writer. We were honored to spend time with Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, who also attended the symposium.

Other writers on our panel included MFA classmates Erin White and Yago Cura; Jim’s friend from Teach For America, poet Daniel Johnson; our MFA professor, Noy Holland; and Jim’s close friend from Marquette University, Thomas Durkin. One of the writers for the documentary about Jim also attended—his childhood friend, Heather MacDonald. I read from an essay I’d started about Jim a couple of years ago and still need to finish.

img_0428September brought with it the Rochester Fringe Festival, which meant the chance to see my favorite hometown modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance. They have been inspiring me my whole life, and R and I were lucky enough to have one of the dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, choreograph our first dance at our wedding. Fagan created his own dance vocabulary using elements of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and American modern dance—and this influenced me as an artist; he extended what was possible, or what seemed possible. We all have different stories to tell, complete with different vocabularies. You don’t have to use someone else’s—in fact, you can’t. How liberating it is, but it requires confidence—a certain strength of will and belief in your story.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

September also brought with it the publication of an essay of mine in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization—“Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps.”  In addition, This week was the book party for my friend Rachel’s Hall’s debut collection of stories, Heirlooms. l was so pleased for her! In the last few years, we have talked a lot about the process of writing a collection and sending it out to find its home. I interviewed her about Heirlooms in my final column for the Kenyon Review Blog.

img_0717The day after Rachel’s book party, I had the opportunity to hear the venerable, acerbic, witty, and wonderful Margaret Atwood! (I can no longer say there’s “nothing going on in Rochester.”) Not only is the epigraph from my manuscript from Atwood, her essay, “Nine Beginnings,” is one I regularly teach and come back to in my thinking and writing. I’ve also been reading from a collection of interviews with her (books were generously given out at the event, held at The College at Brockport, The State University of New York).  Here’s an excerpt of an interview I read this morning:

Geoff Hancock: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?

Atwood: I used to say, in the usual Canadian way, ‘Well, aw shucks,’ I don’t know.’ We’re trained to be modest. But now that I’m middle-aged I’m going to allow myself to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m good.’ Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don’t do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.

Hancock: And your weaknesses?

Atwood: Weaknesses?  We can’t afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you’ve had it. If I thought too much about weakness I’d block.

—From “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls” in Margaret Atwood: Conversations (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)

Let me just say I want to be her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’m learning to be me as best I can. It’s the task of a lifetime.

Finally, I wanted to share some essays I came across this past month, so as not to forget them. These are also some of my reading recommendations, if you are looking for any:

  • Holly Wren Spaulding’s thoughtful essay on art installations in nature.
  • My friend Meera Nair’s essay about food, longing for home, and the importance of cooking.
  • A smart NYT article my friend, writer V.V. Ganeshananthan, recommended about networking. It’s about more than networking though—it applies to literary citizenship, manners, and being mindful about paying the help we receive forward.
  • My friend, local writer Nate Pritts, on writing outside and the importance of spending time in nature.
  • Also flagged to fully read / listen to (I caught just the end on the radio): Mary Karr on writing memoirs on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
  • An essay on death, dying, and happiness, by Brooklyn-based meditation and yoga teacher, Jess Geevarghese. (I met Jess in a yoga class while in NY in September, and we ended up striking up a conversation at a cafe down the block from the studio…one of the most meaningful interactions of my trip.)
  • Last one: I heard Sarah Cedeno read this essay in July, but it stayed with me, and I’m adding it to this list to remind myself (and you) to take a look at her haunting essay about family, hoarding, and the stuff of life.

What are your reading recommendations? I’d love to hear from you about them.

Speak Large in the Smallest Spaces

Last week, I noticed that I had been tagged on Twitter—and followed the notification to Vela magazine. In it, Amber Sparks had written a brilliant and incisive essay about the importance of flash fiction, and the reception of writing by women. She included profiles of five writers to watch, and number three is me:

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I was impressed at this generous act of literary citizenship demonstrated by Sparks. So many journals and magazines are not able to pay their writers—Vela among them. It frustrates me when hours of work (writing book reviews, reviewing manuscripts, jurying residency applications, and even writing blog posts) are mostly unpaid labor—and I suspect that women do more of this unpaid or minimally-compensated service work. I saw it all the time in academia.

Of course, the literary / art / creative world does run in large part through a gift economy, but sometimes one can forget the upside of that sort of economy in the frustration and reality that so many of us are working for so little financial remuneration. My flash fiction has taken me hours to craft. And I bet yours has, too.

Here’s an important excerpt from this thoughtful essay:

I submit that women are better at flash fiction because they have learned to speak large in the smallest spaces. They have learned to be heard through the cracks; to be brief because that moment is all they’ll get; to make the most powerful case, the most powerful art, in the seconds between the men and their doorstop novels. I submit that women have learned how to make small fictions because they have had to, and like everything women writers do, they have turned a “small” form into an art and started a fire in the world.

Do read the rest of her essay here.  You can read my (micro) story, “Skin,” here.

***You know, I love reading, writing, and teaching short forms. It’s something I stumbled into, but felt right, right away.  Thank you, Amber Sparks, for writing about flash fiction beyond (the admittedly wonderful) Lydia Davis—and for critiquing the way it is too often dismissed and minimized! It’s not needlepoint—but even if it were, needlepoint too takes skill. Flash fiction: it’s not latch hook.