“I had a moment.” A Few Thoughts on Denis Johnson and Readings

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Poster from Denis Johnson’s reading at the University of Rochester. October 9, 2015.

I learned last week from a friend’s Facebook post that Denis Johnson had died. I don’t know Johnson’s writing well, but I am thankful to have heard him read a couple of years ago at the University of Rochester. I know he read at UMass Amherst while I was in graduate school there, but it was during a time when I didn’t make it out to a lot of events.

The more readings I attend, the more I appreciate the good ones. His was a good one, a terrific one—memorable—in a sea of not-great ones where I’ve fallen asleep (really). Johnson was well-prepared, funny, read short pieces, talked in between. I went with my friend Angus (originally from Rochester), who was visiting from out of town over fall break. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a good Q&A and I wrote down several phrases from Johnson’s reading. I recently found the notebook where I jotted these notes down.

IMG_2972And I forgot for a while (about a  year and a half) about the Denis Johnson quotes, because most of the middle of the notebook is grocery lists, and even those languished in a corner for a while, while we looked for other notebooks in which to write lists. I just started using the notebook again for grocery lists and so had seen my notes from the reading—mostly lines from stories. Individual sentences of his stay in your head.

Denis Johnson       10.9.15   UR

“I decide to call ____. They’re in my phone. Odd expression.”

From “Silences,” a story:

“He said the worst silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine that took off his leg in Afghanistan.”

“How often can you witness a woman kissing a prosthesis?”

“Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what goes on.”

From “Accomplices”:

“People in our neighborhood stroll around in bathrobes, but not usually without a pet.”

@end of story, looking at reflection in glass, sky and celery, ski and cycling [?]. “I headed home.”

First sentence of a different story:

“I was having lunch with my friend Tom Ellis one day, just catching up.”

Other sentences:

“His opinion about the afterlife. Mason was for it.”

“Then, more often than you might think in a San Diego café, we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.”

“New York and I didn’t quite fit. I knew it all the time.”

“I presided over all the litter, the people in restaurants in small tables.”

“Our public toilets are just that—too public. We can see each other—black shoes and cuffs. The walls don’t go down all the way to the ground.”

“By staring down at my feet and hunching over I attempted to disappear (to make myself disappear).”

“I had a moment. I have them sometimes…bereft…and not even a physical gesture seemed possible painless.”

***

He signed my copy of Jesus’ Son. I bought another book of Johnson’s (Train Dreams, on a friend’s recommendation) that I still haven’t read. I will now. I want to read so much, so many things, before I die. And my shelves are full of books I’ve bought in the last two years and haven’t finished reading. That’s a goal for this summer. To read more.

Johnson was funny. He read well. He’d timed himself. The short pieces worked. I just remember, as others said about him on Facebook and Instagram, he was present. Even in that reading. I felt present, and I felt him as being present.

I’m sure I got some of the sentences wrong, they’re partial, they’re misquoted. I don’t want to go back and correct them. I don’t want to look them up. I will read his work. I wanted to write this down. That’s all. I was inspired enough, I remember his cadences—and how stories started and how they ended. That I wrote notes. And that in itself signals something to me. I felt alive as a writer, reader, listener.

Last week, I was talking to my friend Ravi about the reading. (He had been there, too.) Ravi said, “And you asked that question about his endings.” I was glad he remembered, because that was the kind of thing I would ask about, but I didn’t remember that I had asked it. I had however written something in the notebook, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it must have been his response (or my interpretation or thoughts on his response). I think I asked how he knew or decided where to end a story.

Usually, when I get that ending feeling / feel

Endings are end—ending—complete or [something] about to be said or about to be said

I remember thinking it was a good answer; it was a satisfying exchange.

***

That day was good…it was one of those good days. After Johnson’s reading, Angus and I went to the Owl House for dinner and I had tea with Irene earlier in the day. And then we also stopped by The Bug Jar. Angus was at his best—someone you could take anywhere. He talked about his mom, whom I’d never met, and the school she’d helped found, which had recently closed. I’m not sure he’d been back to Rochester since she died.

But there we were, across from the park, and we walked through Highland Park, where we had met 20 years earlier, through mutual friends. And who were we then? Twenty years ago, Angus was just leaving his PhD program in creative writing and moving to Brooklyn. Later, I moved to Brooklyn, and even later, I became a professor, too. And  then I left that profession, and became who I am now. A writer.

That October, we were just two people, old friends and writers, listening to Denis Johnson. Then we walked out into the rest of the day, still thinking about his sentences.

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.

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.

What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Rachel Hall

At the end of July, I completed a six-month stint writing a bi-weekly column for the Kenyon Review blog. I am proud of all that work (and gained tremendous respect for the work involved in writing a weekly column or blog and for all who do it).

Heirlooms-coverMy final post is an interview with fiction writer Rachel Hall, a friend and fellow Rochesterian. Her first book, Heirlooms, is a collection of linked stories, which will be published in September. From the interview:

I grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge. At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether… Read the entire interview here.

Temporary Talismans

BruceLeePostcardMy penultimate essay for the Kenyon Review blog continues the theme I’ve been exploring of late—what we hold onto, what we keep. In this mini-essay I explore postcards and epistolary friendships with writers Holly Wren Spaulding, Wendy Call, and Michael Martone. I’ve never lived near any of them and our friendships grew in part out of writing to each other. I have a lot more to say about postcards, and can imagine expanding this mini essay into something larger.

Though I didn’t write about the above image for the KR blog, Kundiman, an organization for Asian American poets and writers, has a postcard exchange for its fellows every April. The Bruce Lee postcard is one I picked up at the Kundiman table at AWP. Actually, I picked up several and have sent some to friends, one to my brother, and kept one for myself to remind me of this about writing and life. The importance of being fearless. I see the postcard I gave to my brother when I visit;  he’s kept it pinned to a bulletin board in his office (he’s a Bruce Lee fan).

Postcards also make great writing prompts—I used this in the creative writing workshop I taught this week for teens (I read my essay at the instructor reading, too).

From my Kenyon Review essay:

A postcard arises from a quiet place, before picking up the pen—I think it’s about attention and intention, though there can be something breezy or even rushed, offhand about a postcard….Postcards are incomplete, imperfect, and often say something about one’s travel or daily life—they free us from the sense of having to write something extraordinary or profound. They are a first and only draft. For me, as a writer, that’s such a relief.…Read more here.

Most People Are Not Your Friends

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My latest essay for the Kenyon Review blog is on friendship, Anne of Green Gables, Sula, and wedding guest list do-overs. I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about all of these subjects. For many years, I worked on an essay about female friendship breakups, but then the friendship in question healed, it’s stronger than before—and though I know there’s a lot to say on the topic, I have yet to figure out how to write it. This post is about pruning:

In the fifth grade, I was friends with a girl on my street. Best friends—though we did not wear those Be Fri / St Ends necklaces—a heart split in two—each friend wearing a half; each friend wearing a broken heart around her neck. Jessica lived three houses away from me. We rode the same bus; we were in the same classes. Our parents had lived in the same apartment complex before moving to our street; my parents had even looked at her house when they were searching for a home. We moved to the same neighborhood within weeks of each other.

“Mean girls,” as a term or the name of a movie, did not exist then. (We did, however, have a table we called the Blonde Table—even though not everyone who sat there was blonde, but they were all wealthy, confident, and a little cruel.) Jessica wasn’t part of that table. I often walked home with her from the bus and stopped at her house for a snack, to play with Barbies (sorry to admit this), to listen to Men at Work or Toto (yes, “Africa”) on her record player. She had Rick Springfield and John Cougar Mellencamp, too. Sometime in the middle of fifth grade, Jessica dropped me—she stopped speaking to me….read the whole post here.

 

Recent News

The Cleveland State University Poetry Center announced that my book manuscript, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was a finalist in its 2016 Essay Collection Competition. The other press that recently awarded my manuscript finalist status is also in Ohio: The Ohio University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. What makes this ironic is that the essay I wrote last week for the Kenyon Review was about Ohio and my fear of the Midwest.

In other good news, my essay “Married,” was published last week— in the literary journal Waxwing —Issue 9, Summer 2016. I spent my 20s and 30s going to weddings—over 50 of them (I counted when planning my own wedding last year). I love weddings—they are such joyous events— but there was also a point, in my early-30s, when it felt bittersweet to always be attending these celebrations solo.

My friend Elliot once pointed out that part of weddings is about getting single people in one’s community together—that weddings are a good place to meet people. I met people, but never the right ones. This essay is about that time in my life when I attended so many weddings.

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Still of my sister-in-law and me from the wedding video.

“Married,” an essay written about two of many people I did not marry, begins:

We were in the airport. I can’t stay in this moment. You were sweating so much you needed to find paper towels. You found the usual symbol indicating the usual room. I waited for you, by your bags, watched the people on the moving walkway, standing or walking. Here was all of it: the travel and tiredness. The rolling black suitcases and the pale green suits. Read more here.