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.