Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Words I've Never Quite Understood

Random Post.

Here is a list of words I have never quite understood precisely what they mean:

avatar (the pre-video game version)

Here is a list of words that I was never able to remember in the past, but have recently, after many encounters, got a handle on:

sartorial: having to do with tailoring or clothes
avuncular: uncle-like
peripatetic: itinerant, having to do with walking around

Now that I have them all written out, I notice that the second list of words are all more pedestrian than the ones that escape me. Which either says something about me and an inability to grasp abstract concepts, or about how the people using these terms haven't clearly nailed down the meanings or else use them in a very abstract way.

sidenote: Has anyone else seen a big rise in the use of "sartorial" lately? I think there's a trend happening.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Staying in the Moment

My favorite kind of writing to do is to stay in a moment, an iridescent, intensely imagistic moment, kind of like the ones Sari Fordham puts together (see my last post).

I haven't been writing much of my own stuff lately, and partly its because I'm busy at work, but I'm wondering if it's also because I haven't been experiencing many iridescent imagistic moments. I'm in New York, its hustly and exciting and hard to pause in; I'm racing around wearing out shoes and then shopping for replacements; there are so many friends to spend time with.

But I also deal with depression, and it's been pervasive lately, not enough to fell me or keep me from working at my job, but enough to put a thin film over everything. It takes away the intensity and momentousness of life, which, of course, affects the intensity of my moments.

If you're not sure what I mean, let's talk Twilight---the book series about teenagers and vampires. Twilight is so popular because brings back memories of those heady teenage days when hormones and looming adulthood and the newness of things made life tremendously intense; that time when if that boy would only touch my hand in the dark movie theater EVERYTHING WOULD BE PERFECT, and if he doesn't I'LL DIE, when everything mattered SO MUCH and NOTHING WOULD EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN.

I don't think I could handle feeling like that again(!), but I would like to inch towards it and feel some really good moments. And then I would like to capture them on paper. So here's to that happening very soon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sari Fordham: Ugandan Psalm

It's a bit more memoir than essay, but who's counting, eh? Here's a beautiful piece by Sari Fordham, another grad school colleague of mine, who can do with an image what Twyla Tharp does with a pair of legs.

You'll see how Sari pauses in a moment and makes it so rich and deep and vivid. She's patient in her story telling. Let's look at the opening paragraph of the piece for technique:

Mornings we sit on the veranda, the three of us; for my father has long vanished into the reaching branches and tangle that surround our house, despite violent spats of slashing at the underbrush. He will reappear in the evening, a stack of papers under a looping arm. This is our world, this hill. It’s early, and the air is still cool. A breeze shifts the top branches of the bougainvillea. My mother looks outward, toward her tomato garden. There is a sole survivor, a pinkish fruit she has been thinking about plucking. Today or tomorrow, she is not sure, but she has been watching it ripen all week.

One of the big problems many writers have is their reliance on adjectives. A cluster of adjectives loses its meaning, and often you can suggest much more vividly by paring down. Sari uses adjectives, "reaching branches," "violent spats," "looping arm," but if you look again you'll see that she is much more focused on movement, both literal and temporal. They are sitting, then her father disappears, he slashes things, he reappears, the breeze is blowing. Sari doesn't tell you everything about this scene, she doesnt go into every plant, and color, and smell; she gives you the general idea, and she does it largely through action.

Other points to notice:

* Languid rhythm. Longer words, lots of comma usage, which mimics ebbing and flowing rather than full stops. I'm not 100% sure what a glottal stop is, but I'm guessing there aren't many here.

* Sari is writing a memoir from childhood, and this always creates weird point of view issues. See how she gets in the head of her mother, even though she couldn't know what the mother thinks? And I think Sari is 6 or 7 here, but she doesnt talk like a little kid. I think both choices work fine because Sari is a careful writer otherwise.

Take home exercise

Next time you are describing something or telling a story, try to stay in the moment for a bit. Don't rely on adjectives, but pick interesting details---what was happening around you, what the weather was like, what you were thinking about, what you were wearing. Don't go overboard though---our brains will fill in what you leave out, the same way it can tell that "Helo m frnd" means "Hello my friend." Try also to incorporate movement (action). Try to mimic the mood with your rhythm.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I wish I didn't have to do that

I just went to the gym (where I ran into my very nice coworker Ray---hi Ray!) and now I have to take a shower. I am sitting here wishing that I didn't have to do that---that I could magically become clean and so get on to the other many things I have to do. I also have to do my dishes from dinner. I wish I didn't have to do that either. In fact there are many things in life that I wish I didn't have to do: get a haircut, mop my floors, shop for a dress. I like the outcome of those things but not the process.

Then I started thinking: what about my job? Do I wish I didn't have to do the things I do at my job? Some of them yes---the annoying but necessary bits. But in the main I do my job because I like to do it. I like to solve problems. I like to neaten up chaos and track down answers. I like to translate technical concepts into orderly, clear English.

Then I started thinking about my dad, a theoretical mathematician. He may be the quintessential example of liking the process rather than the outcome. If a mathematical problem is solved, if a chunk of the mathematical existosphere is ironed out, it may be attractive or even interesting, but it isn't what floats his boat. Forgive the analogy, but it's almost like the stereotypical woman you slept with who no longer interests you. Maybe a better analogy would be a crossword puzzle: a filled in crossword puzzle isn't interesting at all.

If you've read any other bits of the blog, you'll know where this is going. An essay is the solving of the puzzle. It's the figuring things out. It's not the conclusion (clean dishes) that readers want, it's the process. (Or if it is the conclusion they want, they are darn interested in how that conclusion was reached.) That's why a good essay often starts with an open question, and leads to unexpected places. That's why an essay can end with "I don't know" and still be a success.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Random Book Recommendation: Our Man in Havana

If you haven't read Our Man in Havana, I recommend it so much. It's by Graham Greene (The End of the Affair, The Quiet American) and it's both a spy novel and hilarious. There's a vacuum cleaner; that alone should make you want to read it.

Graham Greene marked some of his books including this one as "Entertainments" which means they are less serious than the others. But the writing is still beautiful and nuanced, there's still a lot to chew on, including Havana in the 1950s. Plus we can't always be reading about beautiful women who die of consumption.

Other random books I love and somehow mentally group with this one:

Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Any P.G. Wodehouse (early 1900s lunatic British humor, the butler Jeeves, people named Gussie Fink-N0ttle that yell "what ho!")
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (So charming and somehow sad.)

These books are all big on plot

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (This dude sells his wife and child to a sailor in a bar in the opening pages! What more do you want in a plot?)
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott (A little melodramatic and very anti-Semitic. Swashbuckling, though, and Robin Hood makes a guest appearance!)
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

And final random recommendation for the night:

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day which is fabulous, but his The Unconsoled is also super. It starts out very disorientingly but once you get the hang of it, you will be boggled at how he nails dream-logic, where you're in your kitchen and you open the door and you are at work, and your third grade teacher is sewing the hat that you will wear for the meeting with the president that you just remembered you had. But much more serious and moving than that.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Beautiful Writing is Rare

I was in a bookstore today (Three Lives & Company in the West Village) looking for something to read. I grabbed a bunch of books at random and flipped through them, and what it reminded me is that even though there are millions of competent, even graceful, writers out there, there are very few knock-your-socks off stellar ones. That's one reason why classics are nice---they have been winnowed out by time.

I think that's an interesting thing to think about. 1) If you are a literary writer, your competition is not as great as you thought, because it is REALLY HARD to write consistently beautiful prose without being melodramatic or obnoxiously in love with your own words. 2) Because it is REALLY HARD to write this well, you (meaning me really) are probably not doing it.

I want to be a brilliant sentence-level writer, and occasionally I am, but usually I'm not. That's something I am working on.

A few randomly selected people who are really masters of it in fiction and nonfiction are:

Writing today:
Kazuo Ishiguro
Annie Proulx
Andrew Aciman (his essay Lavender is my all-time favorite.)
Patricia Hampl (full-disclosure--she was my prof)
John McPhee (Also my prof! I have been lucky.)

Past writers:
Vladimir Nabokov (possibly the best sentence-level writer ever)
George Eliot
Lewis Carroll
Whoever wrote Song of Solomon in the Bible


One author whose writing I think is exceptionally beautiful is C.S. Lewis. Here's an excerpt from the Chronicles of Narnia where the character Puddleglum has just stomped out a magical fire that was putting him and his comrades in a trance. I want to point out the quick rhythm that matches the intensity of the situation, the mix of colloquial and sophisticated language, the fact that it uses pretty basic and accessible language, and just how generally nice it sounds. Try reading it aloud to yourself.

. . .the pain itself made Puddleglum's head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. . . "One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

BTW at the bookstore I ended up choosing, sort of at random, "A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" which looks cute but not the Best Writing Ever, and a book of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories for the beautiful writing.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Essay without reflection that doesn't work

I just posted about a Lives column that doesn't have a lot of essayistic reflection, but that I think works. Now I want to tell you about a Lives column that doesn't have a lot of reflection that doesn't work.

What do I mean by "works"? It's when the writing is transformed from an anecdote into a experience, into something that you tell your friends about later, that makes you think about things that you haven't thought of before, or maybe just in a long time.

Another way of thinking about this might be: it mattered that THIS writer told this story. Many others could competently---even elegantly---narrate this series of events, but this writer added her special take or insight, and that made it unique.

In Night of 130 Teenagers I don't think this happens. Michael Kirikorian tells about a party he chaperoned for his girlfriend's teenage son, which predictably swelled in size due to uninvited guests and included a desperately drunk 15-year-old girl, and maybe unpredictably turned out to be pretty tame and harmless. But at the end I found myself saying, "so what?"

There are several ideas that are mentioned but then dropped. For example, at the beginning the writer says:
He said there were going to be about 70 kids attending, almost all of them from his private high school, where the tuition runs more than $20,000 a year. Not exactly my alma mater, Gardena High, if you read me.

and also mentions his history of being convicted for assault when younger and says he's not a typical chaperone. But he never follows up on that theme. He mentions that when he saw kids with beer and told them to take it back to their cars, they politely did so, which is an interesting detail, but he never makes any comment on that, explicitly or otherwise. The drunk 15-year-old girl gets home fine (she slept it off!) but there's no commentary on that either.

It's a story without any light shed on it, and I'm not sure why Kirikorian chose to write about it. The guy chaperoned a party, and it went OK. So what?

Essay without reflection that works

I talk often about the New York Times Lives/Modern Love columns because they are a good place to read new, often quite literary, essays. Lives is pretty short, and sometimes that means that there is a bit of "so what" in them, because the writer didn't really get around to saying much. In a recent one, Strangers on a Train by Marcia DeSanctis, the shortness works quite well.

It starts like this:

When I travel alone, my preference is to keep it that way. I’m not really one for chatting people up in hotel bars or for reeling out my anecdotes or listening to theirs. Which is why my heart sank, a few weeks ago, when a man entered my chamber just as the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg departed the station.

She goes on to tell the story of awkwardly sharing a tiny sleeping car with Igor, a perfectly nice Russian man. She tells it well, but nothing terribly dramatic happens. Then, either by design or because of the short word count, there really isnt a lot of reflection or chatter, or talking directly to the reader about the ideas or feelings that this experience prompted in the writer. However, for me this essay works because the writer was skillful enough to imply those prompted thoughts and feelings between the lines.

For example:

Our dinner came. He ordered water, not beer, to drink. I was relieved and, I confess, surprised.

She didn't have to say "It was extremely awkward to be so physically close and isolated with a man, who could become amorous or belligerent." The detail of the beer says it for her.

The ending is the one part where I'm not really sure what she is trying to say, and I think many readers might have a "so what?" moment here.

In St. Petersburg, Igor held me as I negotiated the chasm between the train and the platform. I greeted a driver from my hotel and handed over my bags. I turned with my arms half open, to say goodbye to Igor. But he was already gone, disappeared into the crowd.

I think she is commenting on the oddness of being simultaneously so intimate and so distant/unconnected with a person. But I'm not sure. It doesn't matter to me though because for me her kind of wondering-but-still-analytical style and choice of detail make this essay resonate.

Final note:

Even though we talked about an essentially plotless moment here, stories---with plot and movement---always make for good reading, (as long as they fit into the larger narrative or idea.) So learn to write good stories!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lost (the TV show) and Resonance

SPOILER ALERT. If you are a Lost fan and haven't seen the last season stop reading. Also stop if you havent read Wuthering Heights. And then go read Wuthering Heights right now.

I was a very dedicated Lost fan for its whole 5-year run until the last season, when it did exactly what we were all terrified it would---ended with no reasonable explanation for any of the last 5 seasons apart from the deus ex machina of all deus ex machinas of this stupid cave full of light that was somehow the source of good and evil in the world. Or something.


So why am I writing about this here? Because the real reason I am angry at the story tellers behind Lost connects back to what E.M. Forester is famous for saying: ' "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died and then the queen died of grief" is a plot.'

This means that a plot has to have cause and effect. Hamlet acts crazy and gets everyone killed because he suspects his uncle of murdering his father. Jesus suffers a horrible death because he is the son of God. Jake Ryan notices Sam because she writes a note about him. There is a chain of events, not some collection of unrelated incidents that happen by chance.

Lost told a story, and it was beautiful and nuanced and layered. And then in the end game we're told that none of it was for any reason (other than magic) and not a lot of it (Walt? Aaron? Mr. Friendly?) had any effects either. Why were these people brought to this island at *this moment in time*, rather than, say, a year earlier or a year later? Totally unclear. Were there tons of groups of people brought to the island, and we followed this group because they turned out to be successful "candidates"? Totally unclear. Did all the strange events and people and behavior LEAD to anything or CAUSE anything? Um, maybe? Maybe it lead to the status quo?

Basically the reader wants to know why you are saying what you are saying---that's what turns an anecdote into a story. If I tell you about my crazy abusive neighbor whose ex girlfriend died in childbirth, and isnt it weird that their kids are now in love, that's an anecdote. If I tell you about two lovers torn apart by inner turmoil, fate, and whim, and whose fiery and destructive passion trickles down through two generations of people only to dissipate in the gentle love of a third generation, in a redemption caused by an intense and unsinkable humanity---that is a story.

The same thing applies to essays. The reader will ask, why are you telling us this? You don't have to spell it out or get all Aesop Fable on us, but there needs to be resonance. A sense that the sum is more than the parts. On this note my next post will compare two recent New York Times essays---one that I think really told a story, and the other one that left me thinking, ok that was mildly interesting, but so what?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Essay That Didn't (Did?) Resolve Itself

Please excuse the long delay in posts.

Sometimes when you have an idea, you get in there to work on it and realize it's not that interesting or there isn't really that much to say. But usually when you tackle an idea that DOES prove interesting, and you generate lots of thoughts or images, or write up some nice anecdotes that fit in with it, or pontificate on some tangential thing, it all ends up in one complete package. Not a neat package maybe (more boring, usually, if it is) but a finished one that has some point or is about some bigger concept, or at least feels done.

I've been working on this essay about trains for months. It started out with the question of why I am so fascinated by certain romanticized images, and certain cliche, genre-ish stuff like Agatha Christie novels. I want familiarity in these cliches---I want to see the train snaking along the countryside, I want a narrow corridor where two youngish, attractive strangers pass each other in a strangely charged way en route to their berths in a pullman sleeper. I want dressing gowns, and Russians, and the promise of reaching Istanbul in a few days time.

It's all so canned, right? But why does it all fascinate me so much---that was the question.

Well I was going to say here that I have lots of content for the essay, but strangely couldn't find any ending. Or really what I mean is I couldn't find any larger points to make. Why do I care about trains? I didn't know---I didn't even have any ideas. And what's all these musings without some kind of insight to go along with it.

But while writing the above (like right then! During this very blog entry!) I got an idea that I think will work. So maybe the real point is that if going back to a piece of writing in your usual fashion doesn't help, try something different, like writing about your frustration. It's like cross training at the gym.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caribou: Stephanie Johnson

One of my all-time favorite essays is the very beautiful "Caribou" by Stephanie Johnson. Stephanie is a poet, and poets often make great essayists because of their ear, observation, and sense of image.

This essay first appeared in 2005 in Dislocate, the literary magazine for the University of Minnesota. Usually I link to essays, but Dislocate doesn't have "Caribou" online, and while it is about 5000 words and the blog format isn't ideal, Stephanie kindly gave me her permission to post it here.

Notice two things in particular: 1) How calm and matter-of-fact the tone is, which contrasts with the theme of life and death and 2) The recurring words and themes that form an undercurrent throughout the piece.

You can read Stephanie's poems at


From the observation tower I can see the entirety of the farm’s terrain, its customs, its discrepancies. Don is below me, clicking around on the four-wheeler, opening and closing double gates, delivering bags of feed to the reindeer and caribou. He fills the troughs with green feed pellets, hard mulch board kernels that look like gerbil food. Despite Alaska’s uninterrupted daylight, the sun doesn’t begin warming these grassy pastures until after 8am, so I wear a jacket and stocking cap.

Some mornings, like this one, I loiter around the farm, the Institute of Arctic Biology Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks, where Don works full-time. I climb the rickety steps of the observation tower with white sheets of paper, a pen, a cup of hot chocolate. I sit on a broken yellow stool and write within view of Arctic farm life. I mostly watch—animals, people, trees, cloud shapes—and stiffen in the cool air. In early morning, the pastures are purple-tinted like cowry shells, and sandhill cranes stalk the back fields in flocks, scooping low, landing arch-winged amongst the musk ox bulls.

My favorite pen here holds caribou calves. They are curious creatures with thin, cinnamon stick legs. In the afternoons, I stand inside the pen, eager for one to approach. Usually it’s only a mother who comes near, looking for “caribou crack”—dried lichens picked by Station employees from the rocky outcrops on Esther or Murphy Dome. Lichens are natural tundra foods for barren ground caribou, but they don’t grow on the farm. The farm—it’s really a research slaughter station, but I ignore this thought while playing in the caribou pen, squatting down, hands in the dirt, wanting to touch the animal.


I’m fixated on a splotch of blood, thick red crust underneath white gauze and medical tape. I’ve cut my index finger while chopping carrots, and I can’t help myself from peeling back the bandage to see what hasn’t healed, mesmerized by the tiny flap where blood swells, a spill I wish my body would emulate—because it is day thirty-seven, thirty-seven days since my last period. August. And I might be, without planning it, pregnant.

Don says I’m not, says that he’d know instinctively, but his body has never waited for dark feminine bleeding. His body doesn’t erupt or sing in cycle like mine does; any emotional disturbance or a particular salient experience might punctuate the pace of my period. It’s a pattern decidedly colored by moon and earth, and between them—gravity. His body has never bled in this gravity-pattern.

Lately, I’ve been aware of the control my monthly cycle has over my ability to make decisions. Sometimes decisions are mere reflexes; other times I can’t decide anything. Right now, being somewhere in-flux—either occupied or unoccupied with child—I can’t measure my desire to hunt caribou on the North Slope with Don and our friend John Heimeral. We’ve been planning this hunting trip for months. I’m feeling weighted; this is a new burden, this waiting, and I must decide between going and staying.


Don and John are cleaning their rifles, and the cabin smells thinly of gun oil. We have no running water, and if I feel myself beginning to bleed, I’ll need to run to the outhouse to check. Normally, I would check for blood with a tissue, right here, but John doesn’t live with us in this one-room cabin; he’s not used to my habits, the comfort I feel with my own bodily fluids.

“Are you coming or not?” John asks. He looks up at me.

I’m washing a salad bowl, scraping a pan coated in sausage grease from breakfast, sinking my hands deep in warm wash water.

“John, I have no idea. I’m not sure yet.”

“Well, I need to start making a shopping list,” John says, tipping the rifle barrel up against his knee, still looking at me. It took him months before he could make eye contact with me while speaking. “I’ll buy enough food for you, in case you change your mind.”

John wears his crisp green medical scrubs. He’s a phlebotomist hoping to soon enter medical school. Between the three of us, he’s the perfectionist. Sometimes he teases me about being one of those “literary types,” someone who ignores facts and favors emotions. “So subjective,” he says. It’s been like this all summer, the three of us cooking meals together as a strange little family.

Don sits on the floor next to John, quietly pulling apart the trigger mechanism of his 30.06, cleaning it with a Q-tip. He rarely speaks when he’s concentrating like this, but he lifts his head. Are you coming with me? his expression asks.

Both men are spacious with me, giving me room for thought, time enough to decide about the trip for myself. I can easily rationalize Don’s desire for me to accompany them, but John is trickier: he is somewhat sheepish around women, except that he’s grown comfortable with me; John and I have been running together all summer. He knows the way I think, athletically, but I’m more emotionally complex than he cares to recognize. I certainly couldn’t tell him that going hunting was a matter of how I feel about not menstruating.

“You should come. It’ll be fun.” John says, drizzling gun oil into a felt rag.


I’ve been thinking all morning about women in traditional Native Alaskan stories. Although they gut, clean, and skin the animals, a woman may never partake in the hunting activities. Nor would they mix hunting with childbearing. Bad luck, they’d say. And it might be true.

“Because my period’s late,” I say to Don when John is not around.

“Well, I need to know if you’re going, because John’s picking up food tonight. I’d like you come with us.”

“Well, I might stay here. Julie’s coming in for the weekend.”

I’ve just hung up the telephone with my friend Julie, an animal rights activist who says, “You don’t want to go hunting with those monsters anyway.” She’s visiting this weekend to care for good friend’s newborn baby. She’s asked if I’d like to celebrate the weekend with women, some sister time, she says. I consider her offer because I can’t rationalize going hunting if I am indeed pregnant, and if my period were to arrive during the hunt, perhaps my “luck” would prevent these men from taking their animals.


I have this memory of Don: no monster could care for animals this way.

At the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, Don washes his fingernails with a stern bristled brush. He scoots his shirt cuffs up with wet palms, crunches the flannel sleeves around his bent elbows. He’s preparing his hands for work.

Don handles the bodies of road-kill deer. Typically, Don and his boss butcher these animals for the wolves to eat. The Wolf Center is an educational institute, but most visitors to the Wolf Center will never witness this process. Shifting around the table where the animal lies, Don tugs and slices meat from the bone. This particular deer, like many others, throws off a mephitic odor, but Don’s facial expression doesn’t reveal disgust. During this instant, he loves this deer despite its road-kill-character, despite the dark coagulated blood that has pooled and settled unevenly over a broad band of her carcass, despite the body’s consistency—hard and rotten and cooled. Afterward, Don will greet children from various school groups. They will not recognize the connection between his hands and the knives, the deer and wolves.

He touches me with these hands.


Don pulls his truck into the driveway at 5:30pm. We live thirteen miles out of Fairbanks in the hills overlooking the Chena River Valley, right next to the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which runs 500 miles north to Prudhoe Bay. A quick walk through the woods behind the cabin leads to the pipeline’s private-trespassers-will-be-prosecuted property.

I often imagine disappearing on a Huck Fynn adventure—following the pipeline all the way to the salt sea and tundra land I’ve never visited. A trip like this, on foot, since a raft is impossible, would tangle the journeyer through mountains and valleys nearly uninhabited by humans. You could feel the stillness of open space, witness animals aggregating, and you’d never feel alone with the pipeline there—that steel reinforced reminder of man’s presence. You’d be tracing your psyche along one of Earth’s most recent physical scars, witnessing her chronic pain. Scar seeking.

In our pick-up truck, the caribou trip will take us on a similar route, 500 miles of Huck Finning.

I’ve been packing all day: two pairs of long-underwear, raingear, three pairs of socks and underwear, toothbrush, wool sweater, a small Ziploc bag of tampons (just in case), journal, camera. Don hops out of the truck, next to the cabin. I greet him at the front steps with my backpack.

“I’m going with you,” I say.


When Don and I first move to Fairbanks—as continuing college students—we are impoverished by tuition bills. I write letters to my parents, short synopses of my so-far experience with ridiculous titles like “Starving in Fairbanks,” “Frozen Dinners,” and “Ramen Noodles of the North.”

We at least have meat to eat, birds mostly, grouse or ptarmigan we’ve shot near the cabin. We keep a shotgun in the backseat of our Honda Civic. If there’s enough daylight, Don shoots birds on his way home from school. In the woods behind the cabin, I sometimes kill grouse with my longbow, a gentler method of seeking sustenance. Luckily, we have a freezer filled with salmon and halibut from our previous lives near the ocean in Southeast Alaska, and we buy basic products like spaghetti and soup mixes from the local Sam’s Club.

Sometimes I go through phases in which I feel a particular aversion to meat, usually one week before my period. During this time I eat very few animal products. That popular syndrome, PMS, really means Pass More Soy. So I sometimes eat chalk tasting soy bars in place of real meals. I might be in this phase now, while packing for our hunting trip. What this also signals: I can’t reason with killing a caribou; I’m too soft, emotionally pulpy. Yet, if it doesn’t feel right, if I’m pregnant, I won’t be able to pull the trigger. This much I know.

And I ache to see the tundra.


“Steph’s going to carry the 9mm,” Don tells John.

“Oh, that little pea-shooter. Great. Give it to Stephanie so she can practice bouncing pellets off a bear’s ass.”

At the shooting range I find the 9mm, although small, to be a respectable, and somewhat frightening weapon. I’ve never liked handguns, even unloaded ones. I recall the night I visited my brother in the hospital after he’d been pistol-whipped in the face. Across his forehead and left eye—the pressured stain of broken blood vessels, brackets of cracked skin where the pistol made direct contact. He was trying to break up a fight.

“She can carry it if she wants to, but we probably won’t see any bears. I don’t know. It’s just extra weight,” John says.

“I don’t mind,” I say.

Don remembers me at the shooting range this morning, how upset I was having pinched my other index finger under the barrel while cocking the pistol—all this hand damage. With his eyes he asks: Do you really want to carry it?


“How much do they weigh?” Michaela asks Don at the farm. Michaela is my surrogate daughter, the seven year-old child of a close friend. She is me as a child. Wild.

“Between at least 200 and 400 pounds,” Don says.

“That big? Bigger than you even?” She asks.

“Bigger than me even,” Don says.

When Michaela comes to the farm, we chase caribou calves together, nearly throwing ourselves into dung-filled dugouts. “She likes me,” Michaela screams when a calf dashes away from her. “I think they like us,” she shrieks again when we’ve cornered a mother and calf at the edge of the pen. We leave the farm with evidence of the closest proximity we could gain to the caribou: turds crusted on our shoes, our hands smelling of feed pellets.

Most of what I’ve learned about caribou comes from the research station. Like Michaela, I don’t know much but can imagine a lot. I can imagine them in herds of five thousand—the seasonal stampede of hooves. I can hear the collective crack-pop sound of their ankle joints creaking across the high tundra. I can imagine steam blown from their nostrils, winter and dark coming over them—turning their fur thick and transparent in the darkness. I can imagine the tangle of their antlers in the distance, unable to distinguish which one is male, which one female, they look so much alike.


It’s 8pm on ice cream night. John brings the mini television up to our place because he can’t get ER in at his cabin. “Piss poor reception down there in the valley,” he says, dropping a half-gallon of vanilla-orange ice cream on the card table. ER is John’s favorite show. It airs at 10pm. The boys will fill the time between now and then with their steady talk.

Don originally met John at the Arctic Biology farm. Over bowls of ice cream, they both offer up an array of factual goodies about barren ground caribou.

“They’re migratory animals,” Don begins. “Rangifer arcticus, closely related to deer, moose, and elk. They generally move north in the summers to take advantage of the large amount of resources in the high arctic. Then in the fall, they migrate south for the rut.”

“They calve when they’re up north,” John says.

“Because of obvious reasons, they move south again,” Don says. “The snow gets pretty deep, and it becomes more difficult to find food. They simply can’t get around in the deep snow.”

“They’re ungulates,” John says, carving a boulder-sized ball of ice cream from the container.

“What the hell does that mean?” I say, giving John an ugly look.

“It means,” Don says, “they have four stomachs. They have a rumen—that’s what their stomach’s called—with four chambers.”

“Like a safety deposit box.”

“Well, it’s more like a grocery cart. Their mouths are the cart and the first chamber is the shopping bag—how you bring your groceries home with you. They eat when it’s safe; then, they store their food in their first stomach. Then, later on, they basically spit it back up and finish processing it. It’s like taking your groceries and cooking them at home,” Don explains.

“Where it’s safe,” I interrupt.

“Yes, where it’s safe,” Don says. He leaves his ice cream untouched. “Each stomach works like a filter, only allowing food particles of a certain size to enter. Things get pretty watery by the fourth stomach. That’s their digestive reality, a migratory stomach for a migratory animal.”

“If I had four stomachs, I’d probably eat myself to death,” John adds, laughing at himself. John is a cornball, while Don regards the seriousness of my inquiry.

I appreciate these caribou facts, but I can only absorb them vicariously through metaphor, and that’s why Don is careful to speak a language I can understand, can digest. I love the word chambera space between any two gates of a lock. It suggests privacy, ritual, intimacy. Heart chamber. Secret chamber. Digestive chamber. This man, he feeds me, keeps the chambers full.

And that other chamber—part of the gun barrel that receives the charge.


We pull over in the long dawn light not far from Pump Station One—roughly 450 miles north of Fairbanks. We park on the gravel road to the University’s Toolik Lake Remote Research Station after driving for 14 hours from Fairbanks in the single bench-seated Ford pick-up.

Startling landscape. No trees. No brush. Clean sweeping tundra. John throws down a small tarp and we pull our sleeping bags from the 30-gallon Rubbermade containers. It’s cold. I dress in every article of clothing I’ve brought with me.

I’ve been lying here for two hours, between the boys, and although I’m buried in my black sleeping bag, I can’t keep the light out. I haven’t slept at all, but Don is out, and John is gargling a snore. I push my head outside the sleeping bag, and although it’s below freezing, one slow mosquito circles my nose, my chin, seeking fuel, the feast of me. My blood.


To legally kill a caribou with a rifle on the North Slope, you have to be at least five miles from the nearest road. No all-terrain-vehicles. And there’s only one road.

Five miles doesn’t seem like much, but this is tundra hiking. John says that every step while hiking over tundra is a step shin-deep in water and sand. I wear heavy rubber boots, the only footwear I’ve brought with me.

We’ve driven to Pump Station One. I’m not exactly sure what happens at the “pump station,” but oil rigs are parked outside of the strange refinery complex. There are several large smoke stacks and various rusted out-buildings. I don’t see any people. To me, this fortress, a clatter of technological rubble, looks like an abandoned space station hidden between rolling red-blue mountains and the spiky peaks of the Brooks Range. It’s a purple-tinted world out here, the color of a vein very close to surface skin, and the pump station is unnatural: an intrusion.

Don and John have just refilled the truck’s gas tank from the red plastic containers of gasoline we brought with us. While there’s oil all around—the reason for the Haul Road’s existence—there are no petroleum products for sale past the ’66 parallel.

With the tailgate down, Don examines the terrain lines on the map for elevation like he would the valley between my ribcage and my navel. His face is in kissing proximity of the map. I wonder if his heart is racing.

As of now, I’m just along for the ride. This feels like a man’s adventure; any place we decide to climb into those mountains is fine with me. Let them make the decisions. Let them have whatever they want of this world.


John is a half-mile ahead of us. In moments he will disappear over the crest of the hill. He has already thrown down his orange shirt, a landmark, so that Don and I will not stray off course.

I walk slowly with Don. John and I carry all the camping gear because Don has the disadvantage of relying upon a prosthetic leg, and the weight of every step is gritty on his sole surviving kneecap. While he can carry a heavier load than both John and me, it all rides on his one good leg. And the other leg, the titanium one, carries the burden of a thirty thousand dollar price tag. So Don shoulders his rifle and a small bag with our day-gear.

As Don and I reach the top of the first hill, I leave him behind. There has been little talking throughout the hour, and I can see John in the distance. I have to keep my own pace through these tundra-tussocks and knee-deep quicksand puddles.

Because of the permafrost, because the ground is frozen all year, there is no way for the water to drain. It merely runs between hill and valley, to hill to valley. Tundra puddles: this is where we pee, refill our water bottles, wash our hands.

There are caribou ahead of us, on a distant slope, brown specks. I turn to see Don, several hundred yards behind me—waving—making the sign for “antler” with spread-open hands near the temples, signaling that he’s seen the caribou.


When I reach John, he is standing near his pack, eating a Snickers bar. Together we wait for Don, who is about a half-mile behind us. Peering through the riflescope we see caribou herded in the distance.

“We’ve got to be at least three miles in,” John says. The mileage is completely deceiving, without trees or shrubs or rocks; there is nothing out here to obstruct our vision.

When Don arrives we check the GPS. 3.1 miles from the road. We decide to continue for another .4 miles where we drop our gear, put up the tent, arrange our sleeping bags.

Five miles doesn’t seem like much. In the city, I can walk five miles in under two hours. On this soggy tundra, I’ve gone 3.5 miles in five hours. How to describe this movement: my legs are not thin or long enough; my stride is too short—four legs would help. It’s like hobbling 3.5 miles over layers and layers of wet foam mattresses, an unlikely situation. No wonder I have numb feet.

“Here’s what we should do,” John says. “It’s only 2 o’clock. Let’s put our tent up right here, then hike five miles out, see what we can get close to. If we shoot any caribou tonight, we’ll have lots of time tomorrow and Saturday to clean up and pack ‘em out.”

“Let’s do it,” Don says, sounding militaristic.


How I knew I had become a woman: at twenty-five, I began imagining Don everywhere, in fields and streams, and I would ache to be taken with child. I thought less about the erotic aspects of conception and more about the presence of child—inside me, held by me. “Don, I want to have a baby,” I’d said over and over.

This is the thought I’m trying to dislodge—that I might want to be pregnant—because the caribou are rumbling toward us and I have already loaded John’s rifle, propped it on my backpack, and I can see the males—their massive antlers—in my crosshairs, and John whispers, “Take your time, wait for your shot.” I swivel around, looking for the right bull. I’ve found him. He’s beautiful. He stops to graze, head down, only he’s too straight on. His body is hidden behind his head, but he’s turning, I see the kill spot, just behind his upper front leg, that soft fur patch where caramel turns cream-colored, and I pull, a breath in and out, then the trigger.

He drops, and I hand the rifle to John. The whole herd is still there, more than a hundred animals, and they hardly notice us. I put my head down on the pack, forgive me, I’m so sorry. John fires off a shot. He misses the first time and shoots again. Don yells at us to stay down. Stay there, he shouts. Another shot. I see blood leap from a smaller bull’s back. And Don is running like a 50-yard dash sprinter with a stiff leg. Another shot. Don takes a second bull. Four animals down. John and I leave our packs at the base of the hill and run toward the herd. The caribou are all around. They move slowly into the mist that’s draping over us. John aims the rifle towards the bull I’ve taken, shoots him, in the head, to make certain that he’s passed. He has.


I am wrong about Don. He does know about bleeding. At eleven years-old, he nearly died from loss of blood, from the loss of his foot, shin, and kneecap— from his leg being severed by farm equipment.

I remember driving to the grocery store with Don’s mother. She tells me the entire story, her side of it—the bloodiest side of reality. I remember that she trembles in the passenger seat, throwing her arms out to properly gesticulate the experience.

“He was riding on the back of that tractor and big Don was cutting hay and of course the whole family was over just like they were everyday in the summer, all the cousins, and Don had no idea that Donny was on back of the tractor well then Donny’s pants got caught in the power takeoff and tugged his leg right down in there and Don didn’t notice until Donny had been twisted around a few times and the tractor didn’t seem to be running properly so Don stopped to see what was happening and you know Donny didn’t make a sound and there was blood everywhere and it didn’t take Don long to get Donny’s leg untwisted from the takeoff because there wasn’t much left then he picked Donny up and the next thing I knew I heard Erik come over the hill saying, ‘Get the truck, Donny’s hurt and dad’s carryin’ him up,’ and you know I started screaming because I didn’t know what was happening and then big Don ran over to the truck with Donny in his arms and there was blood everywhere and I could see Donny’s leg hanging loose so we jumped in the truck and I was screaming and driving and Donny’s head was in my lap and he kept saying, ‘Mom, don’t worry, everything’s fine, don’t worry Mom, it’ll be okay,’ and it’s a wonder we ever made it to the hospital.”

When the telling is over, she’s out of breath, near tears, and I’m sick to my stomach.


The herd moves on; the mist lifts momentarily. There’s quiet again, and we can see our tent in the far distance. The boys are smiling. John pulls out a small bag of toilet paper, paper reserved not for our asses, but for this moment. The photographic moment. I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t expecting these men would rejoice this way.

John unrolls a wad of toilet paper in his hand and cleans the blood from around his caribou’s mouth. He resets the caribou’s tongue inside its jaw.

“Quick, let’s take pictures,” John says.

“What? Are you serious? I don’t want my photograph taken like this,” I say.

“This is what cameras are for,” John says, moving behind the animal.

“Stephanie, it’s just a photograph. You have to have your picture taken.” Don says.

“I can’t believe this. This is sick. I’ve never taken a picture of anything I’ve killed.”

“We don’t kill caribou everyday. This is a special day,” John says.

“And you’ve killed the biggest bull, Stephanie.” Don says. He’s right. All his uncles will oooh and aahhh over this fact; I’ll be accepted by all the men in Don’s life. Something straightens in me. I’ve been convinced.

“Okay,” I say. “But I’m not wiping off the blood, and leave his tongue hanging out. This is a dead animal; it should look like it’s dead.”

The truth I’ve concealed is that blood fascinates me. While Don and John are gutting open the other caribou, I’m on my hands and knees photographing the coagulated sea of blood. I’m capturing the violence here, crimes of subsistence, and there will be photographs and deep red stains on my pants to prove it.


Don and John disappear completely in the mist. They are somewhere up-slope from here, gutting their animals. John, I know, is already filling a black trash bag with meat—because we can’t drag the caribou for five miles. But I am turning circles around this animal; his deadness has such gravity that all I can do is orbit him. When the mist parts, I can see a mother and calf orbiting me only twenty yards away. What are they doing here? Waiting for this bull as I stand between them?

I’m becoming too cold. I call out for Don, Where are you? and I follow his voice. Lichens pattern the ground where I walk, stumbling towards the outline of John, who is surgically cleaning meat from the bone. He will be just like this in the operating room.

“You guys,” I shout. “I need to move around. I can’t hold the knife anymore.” The dense mist muffles all my syllables.

“Steph, I’ve got two full bags. You can haul them back to camp,” John says loudly in return.

“Okay, ‘cause I have to move around. I’m going to hurt myself with that knife—I can’t feel my fingers.”

“Steph, take the GPS with you, it’s in the front of my pack,” Don calls out. I cannot see him.

“Make sure you eat something before you go,” John says, standing up with two sagging trash bags filled with meat. “I’ll help you pack up.”

We load the pack, check the time; it’s 8:15pm.

He hoists the pack onto my shoulders. The weight comes down on me like a signpost driver; I feel permanently grounded here.

“You’ll be alright?” John asks.

“Yeah, I’ll be slow, but I’ll be alright.”


It takes me over two hours to reach camp. The mist is thinner down here, and I can see the mountains again. I stop. Hold my breath. Not a sound, except for my heartbeat in my ears. I wonder: how long will a footprint survive on the Tundra? Just walking here is like giving birth; leaving a stain that will last up to 30 years. A footprint that might outlive me.

The mother and calf return with several others. They circle and dash, pointing their noses, attempting to catch my scent. I think of Don’s mother watching her husband carry Don out of the field, bloodied. In that instant, she must have known him deep inside her. She must have, in her cells, remembered Don before he was born. I think of how her body traveled nine months to meet him, and what at first looked like death—the release of blood during labor—was really the beginning of the man that I love.

To kill an animal is to face a primal reaction; after I shot the caribou I felt fear, sorrow. Lichen was still pinched between his teeth. Blood wet his nose. I placed my hands on his abdomen, where he was beginning to swell. Fermentation in his rumen. I waited, thinking his black ball-bearing eyes would move. But they didn’t. I knew then that I wasn’t pregnant. I put my face down on his hot belly, against his ribcage. I cried into his fur.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Venue: Quotidiana

I recently discovered a website called Quotidiana that hosts a bunch of public-domain essays in an easy to browse format. It is run by a guy who teaches essay writing at BYU and who wanted to have a central online repository for the stuff he assigned to students and for his teaching portfolio.

It's got some interviews (some audio, some written) with contemporary essayists, but, as it says on the site, the most important content is:

an anthology of hundreds of classical essays, all published before 1923, all partakers of the ruminative, associative, idea-driven form that predates and surpasses the current "creative nonfiction" trendy stuff. Although most of these essays are available online elsewhere, some are not.

Having a degree in creative nonfiction, I take issue with the site-author's upturned nose there, but it's a great set of stuff here from Seneca to Mark Twain to Jerome K. Jerome (the hilariously named author of Three Men in a Boat) and a ton of people I've never heard of.

In my next post, I will take a look at G.K. Chesterton's On Lying in Bed, which is listed as one of the most popular essays on Quotidiana. (Right above "On Laziness.")

Monday, April 5, 2010

Cairo Tunnel: Amanda Fields

Brevity magazine is an online publication that publishes only nonfiction of 750 words or fewer.

Another friend of mine, the excellent writer Amanda Fields, has a piece called Cairo Tunnel in Brevity's 30th issue about riding the subway in Cairo in a crowded "women's only" car. It begins:
I nudge through the turnstile, putting the stiff yellow ticket in my pocket and crossing a footbridge to the other side of the tracks, where I head toward the cluster of women on the platform. It’s rush hour. Morning salutations compete with beehive intensity. I scoot forward and back. Soon, the Metro barrels up, and the women’s car, painted with a red stick-lady in a triangle skirt, sighs open.
As always I'm telling you about this essay because it's great, and part of the purpose of this blog is to present you, the reader, with essays. But I also really enjoyed Amanda's discussion of her writing process on the brevity blog. Amanda talks about how the word count limit made her cut, which usually (but not always) makes writing better. In her post, you'll see the gorgeous and disturbing nugget that she had to leave out, and you can judge whether that made the piece better or worse. You'll also see the difference in conveying the intensity of a moment, the way Amanda does in her essay, and stepping back to evaluate and discuss the moment, the way she does in the blog.

Amanda's blog on living and teaching in Cairo is available at

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Venues: "Modern Love" and "Lives"

I've fallen into the trap of wanting every post to be thoughtful and meaningful. But that's not the point of a blog. So in the interest of short, useful-but-not-epic posts, I wanted to highlight two weekly essay sources, both in the New York Times.

Modern Love
Romantic and family relationships. About 1800 words. Here's one I especially liked about dating someone who speaks a different native language than you.

The back page of the magazine. About 750 words. Here's one I especially liked about dealing with a family member's dementia through humor.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Regular Guys: Emily Freeman

Emily Freeman is a close friend of mine and a great writer of both fiction and nonfiction. One of my favorite of her essays is called Regular Guys and was published in June 2008 in the online Morning News, which publishes a lot of essays.

While our friends pursued internships in air-conditioned city buildings, or lounged around their parents’ suburban pools, we stuck around Ann Arbor and spent our summer days hot and dirty, in mandated steel-toed boots.

Essay Endings and "Big Ideas"
(SPOILER ALERT: Read the essay before continuing.)

At the end of Regular Guys Emily writes: "I remember pushing my shovel along in a steady line, and the way that the grating rush of metal against cement was momentarily and beautifully punctuated by the contents of each room I passed. . . . It was like walking past a series of discrete but connected snapshots offering only a momentary flash of the sublime that was being created inside. And as one sound faded another began, but they never overlapped."

I asked Emily, did she consciously mean to say that she did not overlap with Drew / her type of woman did not overlap with his type of guy? Or did she cast around until something kind of seemed to fit without real "this is my message/Big Idea" intent?

She responded: I had that shoveling-past-the-practice rooms experience before I dated Drew (or after, I can't remember), and it was one of those moments that I thought was so magical and had to someday be written about (this was back when I wasn't really writing, just dreaming about writing and occasionally jotting down writing-worthy moments/ideas). As far as its meaning in the essay: it just kind of showed me its double-meaning, if that makes any sense. And I like that it works either as a statement on class or just as an observation of something beautiful.

You can read a short story of Emily's in Best New American Voices 2010. Keep an eye out for more of her work.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Structure and Truth: John McPhee's Coming Into the Country

I'm taking a class in writing a non-fiction book proposal for a memoir, and the professor said last week that fiction is much easier to write than nonfiction because you can tweak things to suit your needs. But, he said, it is OK to tweak nonfiction a little---if something happened on a Tuesday and you need it to be a Wednesday, you can make those little changes in the interest of the plot.

Well I vehemently disagree. (I also disagree that fiction is easier---I find it nearly impossible to make things up.) For one thing, there a slippery slope problem, for both writer and reader. You change the day of the week, and then you add a sibling, and next thing you know the splinter you got was a life threatening tree branch through your spleen and two months in the hospital, and if the reader finds that one detail is inaccurate they will doubt the rest of the story no matter how true it is. I also think that memory is a very tricky thing, so if you happen to be writing from your own experience and memory, then changing something small on paper may change it permanently in your memory as well.

But more importantly, the nature of the nonfiction beast is to work with what you have. It's like a Project Runway challenge where they have to make a dress out of produce and someone sneaks in a bit of silk. Does it make the dress better? Maybe it does. Or maybe it takes away from the weird, brilliant things you have to do to corn cobs to make them into clothing. Is it fair play? Eh, I don't really think so.

Stretching the Truth

But others might think it is OK. David Sedaris has admitted embellishing, in some cases quite a lot. Most people don't seem to care, although I am disappointed (which is probably another post). In a different kind of example of stretching the truth, there is a beautifully written memoir called Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman. Aciman's wealthy and entertaining family migrated from Italy to Turkey and then to Egypt, where he grew up, and his memoir is of the family and his childhood. In the book, Aciman includes elaborate conversations that happened before he was born, and all kinds of details about things that he could not have witnessed or that he witnessed very young. Yes, he drew on family stories and the memories of others, but there is a ton in Out of Egypt that cant possibly be anywhere near accurate, although hopefully it captures the essence of the truth.

When I read Out of Egypt in a grad school course some students accepted Aciman's style without question, while most took the reasonable view that such scene recreation is acceptable, and even encouraged, as long as there are built in caveats (which Aciman did not have), such as "I imagine the conversation was like this," or "My mother always told me the story that went like this," or "My memory is faded, but I think it was like this." Generally I agree with using modifiers, and I actually really like them as a style choice when writing about memories, but two things make me OK with Aciman's style in this book.

1) He is so over the top and obvious in his embellishment. We KNOW he didn't hear his aunts chatting while his mom was pregnant with him---its not even a question. He is also so colorful in his language and scenes that the whole book to me is an approximation of how he felt in this family in this time and place, and not a realistic document.

2) Stylistically, he is one of the best writers living, and being good lets you get away with stuff.

John McPhee and Structure

This brings me to my original point. I took a class with writer John McPhee in college, and McPhee is a stickler for the absolute truth, in fact his course was called The Literature of Fact. I think this was in part because of the time period he began writing in (the 50s and 60s, arguably before the birth of modern "creative nonfiction"), in part because he was a journalist by training who started out at Time magazine and has been at the New Yorker since, and in part personal preference. Mr. McPhee spent much of the course going over the structure he used in his many books, most of which began as book-length New Yorker pieces. The one which I want to mention here is Coming into the Country, which is an account of a trip to Alaska. The trip was lengthy, maybe a month or two, but McPhee said the most exciting part of the trip was seeing a grizzly bear, which happened on the second day of this long trip. McPhee generally writes in chronological order, but he had to get that grizzly to be the climax of the book.

Well a lot of people would just pretend it happened at the end of the trip, but McPhee couldn't do that. Instead he ended up with a structure like a spiral, that ended up moving back in forth in time so that the second day of trip was at the end of the book. I wish I had my notes and could tell you more details about the spiral, but this thing was so carefully constructed so that any reader paying attention could track exactly when and where every piece of this trip took place. The book was not only beautiful, as all of McPhee's writing is, but a documental record of this trip.

I'm all for that. I think finding clever ways around your less than perfect source material is part of the fun, and usually makes the piece turn out more interesting. And as a reader, I like to know that an account is as accurate as possible, as far as the writer is concerned, that if things did not happen this way, then the writer was simply mistaken.

Two Sidenotes

First, Mr. McPhee told us that during revision of a piece, he would take each bit of his piece of writing and put it on a Post It, and move the post its all around looking for his structure. I find that works very well---you can also print a copy of your draft and cut it up with scissors and move it around. It also helps me in revision to write in the margin my every paragraph what the point of the paragraph is, and look at the structure of the piece that way, which is a variation on McPhee's post its.

Second, I have worked as a journalist and so written a ton of stuff full of quotations. There is debate over how much to clean up quotations: most everyone agrees that "We, uh, opened a, uh, you know, Cuban restaurant" can be changed to "We opened a Cuban restaurant," but I wouldn't change "A Cuban restaurant. We opened it." to "We opened a Cuban restaurant." I've probably done it once or twice, but for me that is a dangerous slope, and I believe in the sanctity of quotations, so I would either call the source back and reinterview them a bit or use "We opened [a Cuban restaurant]."

The reason I bring this up here is that McPhee is known for long blocks of solid quotations where his subjects just talk and talk and talk about roadkill or tennis or long-distance trucking. Well I know those speeches didn't come out of their mouths so cleanly, and while I know McPhee writes down everything he hears on his reporting jaunts, and I believe that every word in those quotes was said that way and in that context, this is the one place that McPhee clearly feels comfortable making a small sacrifice of deadly accuracy to readability.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Getting Started Writing an Essay

A cousin of mine who is in tenth grade or so wrote me this: "I love writing but the idea of just starting an essay with no thesis and taking it in any direction I want to intimidates me."

I'm sure she's not alone. People have all different writing styles---some make copious notes and know exactly what they want to say before they write and others just jump in without a plan. Most successful personal essays though seem to be involve someone sitting down and kind of doodling around until the piece coalesces, and in fact this is how it usually works for me. (Is this indeed how it works for everyone? I'd love to hear input from other writers.)

If you want to write an essay, but aren't sure where to start, it helps to begin with something that interests you or bugs you or confuses you: an image, something you saw happen on the street, something like "I used to be close friends with person X and we drifted apart---why is that? What changed?" You start explaining or investigating that on paper and see where it goes.

Here are some other ideas:

* Describing an early, vivid memory (maybe your earliest) is always a good one. I was assigned this in a great course on memoir with Patricia Hampl, who talked about memory as an ocean, where you look out over this glassy surface and then dip down and grab something from underneath the water. I looked back over my childhood and grabbed this memory of a tick-covered cat that we found while living in Clemson, South Carolina, and of trying to remove the ticks and having the cat run away. That was the whole memory. So I wrote that down, and then I started writing about childhood in South Carolina, and then I realized that the cat represented a loss of innocence---the first time I could remember feeling really broken hearted, because we couldn't help this animal, and that's what the essay ended up being about.

(By the way, the difference between essay and memoir, and if there is a difference at all, is another topic.)

* Describe a map you have owned or used. This is one I made up for some class I was teaching or taking, and I just like it.

* Pick a word, maybe at random out of a dictionary, and start writing about it.

* Pick something you are good at doing and explain it. Like playing a difficult guitar chord or talking to strangers. And then think about a specific time you did it and why you are good at it, and why other people aren't good at it, etc.

* Joni Tevis, whose lyric essay I posted about, says that when she writes she likes to put two very different objects together in a piece of writing. She metaphoricially holds them next to each other and says, do they go together? No? How about these? Try that yourself---maybe I can start writing about bicycles and cats--any overlap? How about my mother's cancer and my obsession with Star Trek? My inability to pass geography in 7th grade and my love of Russian dance? One great essay that does this is "I Bought a Bed" by Donald Antrim which is unfortunately only available online to New Yorker subscribers. Antrim writes about his mother's death and his quest to buy the perfect mattress. It works beautifully.

I'd recommend avoiding the stuff like "pick a time when you overcame an obstacle" that they make you do in school, because then there is a foregone conclusion built in that can hamper you and you end up with some Aesop Fable glush. It's nice to not know the answer when you begin.

Any other favorite prompts?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Photographs Are Like Essays

This photograph was taken in Mongolia by photographer Jon Goodrich, and I posted it because of the two little guys bending over down front. Imagine if it had been merely a pretty landscape without people, or without people in such a funny position---it's the oddness of that little piece that to me transforms this from a nice photo into a great one.

You can write beautifully, and that's fine, but the best essays are the ones that surprise. That doesn't mean there is a huge twist a la E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake" (I'll address that one in an upcoming post) but it's nice when there is something unexpected or especially interesting.

When I taught freshman composition, I did an exercise where I took a cartoon of George Bush saying something funny and cut out the talk bubble. I popped it up on the overhead projector and said, OK let's think of some text for this cartoon. "George Bush has big ears!" "George Bush says nuc-u-lar!" "George Bush wishes he were a cowboy!" None of them work. For a cartoon to be funny there has to be something fresh and unexpected about it. It's usually the same with a piece of writing---otherwise why should anyone read it.

Now I just posted about Anne Fadiman's ice cream essay that really doesn't have a twist or something unexpected. But it does go off in many directions: quotes from Hippocrates, a near death experience, etc. The stuff floating around in Anne Fadiman's head and the way she collages it together is fresh enough for me to make the essay excellent, although I know not everyone agrees.

So when you are writing an essay, don't be afraid of thinking weird, tangential, interesting and unexpected thoughts. And combining things that don't usually go together, like people's backsides and a gorgeous, somewhat desolate landscape.

On another note, I'm not a photographer, but I would assume that photographers take lots and lots and lots of pictures and many of them are very good but few of them are really brilliant. That's how writing is too.

More of Jon's excellent photos can be seen here.!/photo.php?pid=3869766&id=665062370

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Essay at Face Value: Anne Fadiman

Another of my favorite essayists is Anne Fadiman, former editor of the American Scholar magazine, which used to be a champion of the personal essay, although it seems to be trending away from more intimate authorial voices now and more towards politics and world events.

Anne Fadiman has an essay on ice cream. She tells a little anecdote about an ice cream truck, talks about how much she loves ice cream, goes into the history of ice cream and mentions some famous ice-cream related passages from ancient Greece, or maybe Rome, and has a grand finish with a near death experience in a canoe with an ice cream maker.

This essay is not about death or loss or how eating ice cream reminds her of emigrating from a war torn country. It is about ice cream, and that's it. It may also be about Ms. Fadiman herself, letting us get to know her charming authorial persona. But really, it's just about ice cream. And if you aren't interested in ice cream, you probably would skip this essay.

The Essay is available in Fadiman's essay collection At Large and At Small. Here's the first bit:

When I called the Häagen-Dazs Consumer Relations Department a few days ago to verify the butterfat content of Mint Chip, I was alarmed to hear the following after-hours message: “If you have a medical emergency with one of our products that requires immediate attention, please call Poison Control at 612-347-2101.” What medical emergency could a few scoops of ice cream possibly precipitate? Hippocrates, or one of the anonymous writers who were later known as Hippocrates, warned that snow-chilled beverages might “suddenly throw . . . the body into a different state than it was before, producing thereby many ill effects.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hilary Mantel on living in Saudi Arabia

Hilary Mantel recently became famous for winning the Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall. I came across this brilliant essay of hers published in January 2009 in the London Review of Books on the claustrophobia of being a woman in Saudi Arabia.

I'd like to make two points:

1. Most successful essays end up being about more than one thing. Or they'll seem to be about going fishing with your dad but REALLY they are about overcoming the fear of death. This essay seems to be about this weird guy who keeps visiting Mantel in her apartment and about Mantel's weird experience in Saudi Arabia, but it is also about being a foreigner, and a woman, and all kinds of other broader, more universal things.

Now often when a writer sets out they start with an image or memory or complaint or anecdote and they don't know what the big ideas are that will come out. Almost no one who sets out to talk about Big Ideas in a personal essay is successful, unless they are extremely talented and experienced. It is possible that Hilary Mantel did set out to write about a sense of cultural and gender claustrophobia and decided that this man was a good entry point into that concept, but it is just as likely that this man had always been a strong element in her memories and she wanted to take a look at him on the page and see what came of it.

2. I think this essay is ultimately successful, and it certainly has beautiful writing and a great frame story, but for me there are too many elements: the diary, the moving furniture, the Arabic lessons, the book, the illness. Each strand is great, but together they weave quite a confusing braid that feels muddled and takes away from the intimacy of the piece. It would be very hard to pick one to eliminate, since they are all so lovely, but if I were the editor I would have done it. I'd be very interested in other opinions on this.

Again, here is the link to the essay.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Lyric Essay: Joni Tevis

One type of essay is the Lyric essay, which has a lot in common with a poem.

To understand a lyric essay, it might be helpful to take a detour into what "creative nonfiction" is. On one end of the writing spectrum is a user manual for a VCR. Style matters in that it needs to be concise and clear, but there is no purpose to the VCR manual apart from delivering information. In fact some user manuals are boiled down to pure picture without any words at all.

On the other end of the spectrum is a linguistically beautiful poem in a language you don't understand. The meaning really doesn't matter.

Most writing is somewhere in the middle, but creative nonfiction is left of center; content matters, but style matters just as much.

A lyric essay skews towards the style end. It's usually in paragraph form, and usually short, and the emphasis is usually on image and language. It dovetails with a "prose poem," but like all essays is nonfiction.

Joni Tevis is one of my favorite writers. She was a fellow at the University of Minnesota when I was there for my MFA, and she's at her best on the image-rich lyric essay, like this one about seal bones on a beach. It starts:

Over time, the dead seal turns to beach, and nobody notices. Girls jog over the bones: mosaic of glass, gray stone, windfall knocked clean of twig, root, splinter.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Essay: An Introduction

I've always been interested in the essay as a form of writing. Ew, no! you say. I was done with essays in high school or college, those awful five paragraph hamburger essays, or AP exam essays, or some Judith Butler essay like “Merely Cultural.” Oh, the painfulness of essays.

No, not those kind of essays.

I'm talking about "personal essays," also called familiar essays or literary essays. Personal essay writers always cite Michel de Montaigne, a French writer from the 1500s who wrote stuff like "Of Thumbs," which was, as one might guess, about thumbs. Montaigne would pick some topic---thumbs, marriage, flatulence, death---and kind of roam around the subject, using anecdotes from his life, interesting facts from books he'd read, and his thoughts. Essay writers will also bring up the fact that "essay" comes from the French for "attempt" (like the English word "assay"). An essayist picks up an idea, looks at it, thinks about, it and makes an attempt at shedding some light on the subject.

This is embarrassing, but this Wikipedia article may explain this better than I can.

In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, 'I am myself the matter of my book', was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?'). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly — his own judgment — makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. . . . Writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling.

So, an essay usually has the following traits:
  • Personal elements, if only opinion. I.e. you don't have to talk about yourself, but you do have to talk AS yourself.
  • Not taking an explicit, pre-decided stand, but rather thinking things out within the essay itself.
  • Using yourself and your experiences as a lens to view the world. Again, this doesn't mean you have to be self indulgent or talk about your personal life.
  • Any of these rules can be broken.

There is a lot more to be said on the essay, but that is the purpose of this blog. To look at what makes an essay, whether it is long or short, research based or anecdotal. Where does memoir begin and essay end? Who is writing essays today and where can we find them? Does an email to a friend count as an essay? How useful are formal rhetorical rules when writing an essay?

For now I'll leave you with one of my favorite essays, the aforementioned "Of Thumbs" and hope we meet again soon.

Tacitus reports, that amongst certain barbarian kings their manner was, when they would make a firm obligation, to join their right hands close to one another, and intertwist their thumbs; and when, by force of straining the blood, it appeared in the ends, they lightly pricked them with some sharp instrument, and mutually sucked them.

Physicians say that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand, and that their Latin etymology is derived from “pollere.” The Greeks called them ‘Avtixeip’, as who should say, another hand. And it seems that the Latins also sometimes take it in this sense for the whole hand:

Sed nec vocibus excitata blandis,
Molli pollici nec rogata, surgit.
[“Neither to be excited by soft words or by the thumb.”—Mart., xii. 98, 8.]

It was at Rome a signification of favour to depress and turn in the thumbs:

Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum:
[“Thy patron will applaud thy sport with both thumbs” —Horace.]

and of disfavour to elevate and thrust them outward:

Converso pollice vulgi,
Quemlibet occidunt populariter.
[“The populace, with inverted thumbs, kill all that come before them.”—Juvenal, iii. 36]

The Romans exempted from war all such as were maimed in the thumbs, as having no more sufficient strength to hold their weapons. Augustus confiscated the estate of a Roman knight who had maliciously cut off the thumbs of two young children he had, to excuse them from going into the armies; and, before him, the Senate, in the time of the Italic war, had condemned Caius Vatienus to perpetual imprisonment, and confiscated all his goods, for having purposely cut off the thumb of his left hand, to exempt himself from that expedition. Some one, I have forgotten who, having won a naval battle, cut off the thumbs of all his vanquished enemies, to render them incapable of fighting and of handling the oar. The Athenians also caused the thumbs of the AEginatans to be cut off, to deprive them of the superiority in the art of navigation.

In Lacedaemon, pedagogues chastised their scholars by biting their thumbs.