little venn diagrams

Photo by Steve Hanna

The Essayist Stutters, Stops, Starts, Goes

There’s an image making its round on social media of a Venn diagram with a circle labeled “Absolute Narcissism” and a circle labeled “Crippling Self-Doubt.” The area where they cross is labeled “ART.” (Note: I have searched for the source of this image, with no luck. If you made it, let me know.)

It’s making the rounds because a lot of artists and writers get it.

I get it.

As an essayist, I have to contend with these dueling voices in my mind that say on the one hand, “I must tell the world this amazing thought I just had!” and on the other, “Who the hell do you think you are, that they’d care?” But I don’t think those are the only voices that I need to write a good essay. There is a chorus of voices I hear when I sit down to write. And I don’t think my needs or experiences in this regard are unique. What I’m proposing, is that this diagram needs more circles.


The essayist must be over-sensitive—and not just emotionally, although essayists tend to feel deeply (see the remaining circles). They must be able to recall and recreate all five senses for a readership that has maybe never tasted an oyster stew (“mildly potent, quietly sustaining, warm as love and welcomer in winter” – MFK Fisher) or fresh white truffle (“like that of bird peppers or venison” – Gary Paul Nabhan); or heard a dawn chorus in fall in Wisconsin (“the invisible hermit thrush pouring silver chords from impenetrable shadows; the soaring crane trumpeting form behind a cloud; the prairie chicken booming from the mists of nowhere; the quail’s Ave Maria” – Aldo Leopold). The essayist must be able to tell readers what the streets of New York look like in winter (“Last night hangs heavy in the morning sky” – Colson Whitehead), or what the upper Mississippi banks look like in summer (“cleared patches in the woods littered with malt-liquor cans and fast-food wrappers, hobo camps with the musty wild smell of an animal’s den” – Matt Power). Neither the narcissist voice, nor the doubter, could remember just exactly what the Utah desert smells like after rain, and how different that is from the bouquet of a Parisian subway station after rain.

Despite the horror and hopelessness (see below) that moves through the world, the essayist must have, even if it is well-buried under the most convincing costume of misanthropy, a deep and abiding love of humanity. Essayists set up beacons, send down ladders. They hold the belay rope, the flashlight, and sometimes even the first-aid kit. The best writers listen for humanity’s heartbeat, and write out the beat of it—sometimes in their own blood, and sometimes to a tune hard to follow, but with a listener in mind.

When Aleksandar Hemon loses his baby daughter to a swift and rare cancer, he says, “One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

When Ross Gay contemplates the systemic, toxic racism at work in America, he calls for mercy. Without mercy, he asserts, “we will remain phantoms – and, as it turns out, it’s hard for phantoms to care for one another, let alone love one another.”

Lidia Yuknovitch says that if she could go back in time and talk to her younger self,

I’d coach myself. I’d be the woman who taught me how to stand up, how to want things, how to ask for them. I’d be the woman who says, your mind, your imagination, they are everything. Look how beautiful. You deserve to sit at the table. The radiance falls on all of us.

Even one of nonfiction’s well-known curmudgeons, Edward Abbey, meant for the essays in Down the River to serve as “antidotes to despair,” believing as he did, that despair led to “boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry and other bad habits.” Even a stalwart cynic must acknowledge that Abbey’s despair was between him and the desert. He speaks of saving us from our own.

Lia Purpura has “seen how easily we open, our skin not at all the boundary we’re convinced of as we bump into each other, excuse ourselves.” Cheryl Strayed knows that “healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing.”

These are real bodies straining across the chasm saying, Here, take my hand.

They essayist is burdened with the need to look, and the privilege to look away. This is the voice of the witness. The voice who says, watch and then, tell.

Sometimes, the looking is uncomfortable; sometimes it is dangerous. Bill Buford spends some time Among the Thugs; John Jeremiah Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival; Susan Orlean watches bullfights—so that we don’t have to. Essayists confront the singular and multitudinous horrors of humanity and life on this spinning rock in space. Essayists document war, abuse, and losses that would be unimaginable but for their words.

But life isn’t just a string of tragedies, enacted at different scales. The nonfiction writer, too, sees the saved child, the triumphs over adversity, the sapling pushing up through cracked concrete.

When Diane Ackerman drives up the Northern California coastline, she stops for a moment near Big Sur just long enough to find a metaphor in a roadside evergreen.

A Monterey pine leans out over the Pacific, making a ledge for the sunset. The pummeling gales have strangled its twigs and branches on the upwind side, and it looks like a shaggy black finger pointing out to sea. People pull up in cars, get out, stand and stare. Nothing need be said.

Mark Twain once stood on the very rim of Kilauea. He wrote about it for the Sacramento Daily Union during a time when travel to Hawaii was impossible for most Americans.

The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it – imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire!

But the witness also walks away. He is Ishmael, escaped to tell the tale. Except in rare cases, such as diaries and letters, the reader does not have to worry whether or not the narrator of a work of nonfiction lives through the essay. After the last page, none of us may be safe, but within an essay, the writer lives, though all the rest might perish.

More and more, there are important conversations happening about how the witness can and should find a way to unpack that privilege and acknowledge it. When Sydney Schanberg says good bye Dith Pran, he does so with the burden of his own impending escape from the Khmer Rouge. “He saved my life and now I cannot protect him.” But his burden is also his freedom.

The essayist must live with the horrors she’s witnessed, and speak them. She must know, deeply, the readers she’s hoping to reach. And she must find a way to envelop those readers in a complete world of her own recollection. That takes more than a blend of narcissism and doubt, it takes hope.

I do not send these words out into a void. I send them to an Other. And I must hold some sense of hope that just as the act of writing will change me, so the act of reading what I have written will invite change.

I’m hoping of course for a lovely letter from an editor, ideally from a paying market. I’m hoping for a congratulatory note from the judges. I’m hoping that the journal wants my essay and that the press wants my book. I’m hoping to hear from a reader that what I wrote moved him. But if I’m being honest with myself, this is the hope of the narcissist. And the converse fears of silence are the fears of the doubter.

At the heart of the act itself, I write to cultivate my own clarity, my own empathy and my own growth—but when I send that writing out into the world, it is not just an act of narcissism. It’s also the ultimate show of optimism.

I don’t mean to suggest that every essayist is an optimist. Far from it. But that there is an inherent optimism in choosing to devote a large part of one’s life to writing. And this isn’t just the optimism of tenure or a New York Times best seller.

Joy Williams, for example, is rarely “sunny” in her collection, Ill Nature. But in the last line, she reaches beyond her condemnations of human folly to assert that “The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”

When Annie Dillard is asked by a reader who might teach her to write, Dillard replies,

…the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

That writing itself might be a kind of alchemical process, and that some cold, elemental grace might teach me, might change me from possibility to probability, that is the voice of optimism that a writer, or any artist, needs to make ART from her desires.

Chelsea Biondolillo’s prose has appeared in GuernicaBrevityRiver TeethShenandoahHayden’s Ferry ReviewDIAGRAM, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming in creative writing and environmental studies, and is currently the 2014-15 Olive B. O’Connor nonfiction fellow at Colgate University. She can be found online at and

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Barcelona Sky

Photo by Andrew E. Larsen

Barcelona—In flagrante delicto

1. You plan to write a novel called Barcelona. The idea comes late at night while you’re listening to a Rufus Wainwright song. The song seems to be about a man who goes to Barcelona to die. You’ve been to the city, and you’re moved by the idea of death juxtaposed with the warmth and beauty of this Spanish metropolis. You picture a middle-aged man in a suit with a cape, haunting its corridors late at night. You listen to the song over and over. “Crazy me don’t think there’s pain/in Barcelona.” You can hardly sleep, excited by the idea. 2. You begin with: “A thin man, who has come to choose this city for no other reason than that its name radiates warmth, emerged from the underground into Las Ramblas, the bright nighttime sheen of this celebratory street suspended momentarily by rainfall.” You like the alliteration. The sentence rolls off your tongue. It’s a good opening, one you think will grab a reader’s interest. You continue plugging along with the first chapter, but it’s this first line that sticks in your mind. Already, you’re dreaming of critical raves, movie deals, who’ll direct or be cast to play your characters. Scorsese. He likes music. He could take an interest. But you can’t imagine the actor. Your character is middle-age, and Hollywood likes young actors. Maybe a stage actor, though you don’t know any stage actors, so it sullies the fantasy. 3. Still, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Writing your book is the first order of business, and you’ve only figured out the opening. That thin man, who is he? You aren’t sure. You go back to the song, the novel’s spark. The song is by Rufus Wainwright, and Rufus Wainwright is gay, so you make the character gay. He’s a gay man who’s gone to Barcelona to die. So he’s dying of AIDS. But no, that’s trite. A gay man dying of AIDS. Yet, maybe you can do something new with it, play with conventions, subvert stereotypes. But if you’re not gay, can you write a gay character? Write what you know. That’s what writing teachers say. But your life is ordinary. The last thing you want is to write about yourself. 4. “…who has come to choose this city…” Why don’t you just say, “who chose”? It’s more concise. You revise. “A thin man, who has come to choose chose this city for no other reason than that its name radiates warmth, emerged from the underground into Las Ramblas…” Then you keep the rest. You still like the nighttime celebratory sheen part of it. It sounds lyrical when read aloud. Sonorous. 5. Your new girlfriend Maggie knows you’re a writer, and she’s supportive. She works in the same bookstore as your roommate, buys you books with her employee discount, and listens to you ramble as you work out the novel’s story. Being a writer isn’t the first thing you broadcast when you meet people, but friends know it’s your dream. A writer writes, and you don’t need to posture like you’re a writer since you’re doing it. You sit at your desk each night and type, and acting a certain way to let people know you’re a writer would be pretentious. Then again, you worry it’s pretentious to worry about pretention, and you worry that worrying interferes with writing. It’s going slow now. The first chapter was easy. The second lacks focus. You’ve created a character, but who is he and what does he want? 6. Character sketch: Mephisto—the thin man; haunted by his past; adopts pseudonym from Faust to hide identity; no real name (e.g., Dostoevsky’s underground man); formerly an opera singer of some notoriety who never achieved the fame he strove for; feels he has no control over anything but the setting of his death; wanders and observes and meets people; has brief interactions that invoke reflections on how he got here (e.g., Mann’s Death in Venice). 7. Epigraph: “The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink into the silence, grow full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness brings forth what is original, daringly and shockingly beautiful: the poetic.” [Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Kenneth Burke (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 1970), 18.] 8. What an awesome epigraph! 9. You met Maggie in the bookstore while visiting your roommate. You walked by the counter and noticed this pixie of a girl with big brown eyes, a hipster fairytale princess. She looks likes Michelle Williams crossed with a younger version of Dianne Wiest, circa Hannah and Her Sisters. “Who’s that?” you asked your roommate. “That’s Maggie,” she said. “All the guys want to know about her.” 10.Am I a writer?” 11. For the past year, you’ve been working part-time as a proofreader for a medical publisher—irregular hours and no benefits. You make enough to cover meals and rent, but not much more. It isn’t that you aren’t trying for full-time work. You’ve been going on interviews, but the economy’s bad, and there’s competition from other new graduates. You worry a downturn might reduce your meager pay to the point where you can’t keep up with rent. Each time you go for an interview and don’t get the job, you feel worthless, like you’ll never find your place in the world. You also worry about what you’ll do if you get sick without insurance. Each passage you proofread illuminates some new affliction you might suffer from—cancers and brain diseases. You check for discolored moles and lumps on your testicles, and panic each time your heart beats a bit weird. You worry any moment you could die of an aneurysm, and writing this novel is the only thing that keeps you grounded, makes you feel your life has purpose. 12. For research, you study Stonewall, the riots, marches. You read about the beginning of AIDS, Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. You watch documentaries on the disease. You meet an older gay man in your neighborhood who lived through this and interview him. Then you see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and you’re both riveted and devastated. It’s exactly what you want to write. You need to rethink things. If it can’t be this amazing, it has to be different, cover new ground. Your hopes are diminished. You know you’ll never have that kind of ownership over the material. Still, you won’t give up. You’re too invested to abandon the project despite these reservations. 13. Of all the guys who ask about Maggie, you’re the one she ends up with. It happened over the Christmas Holiday. Maggie’s from Florida but couldn’t get off work to fly home, so your roommate invited her to stay at your apartment. She got sick with the flu and you took care of her—made her food, ran to the store for medicine. She started to stay on the spare sofa in your bedroom, and after she recovered, you kissed her. You’d spent all your time together that week, and she felt it too. On New Year’s, after going to a friend’s party, you and Maggie slept together for the first time. She was only the second girl you’d made love with, and it was wonderful, but afterward, she cried. She was concerned you’d lose interest now that you’d gotten what you wanted, but you held her and reassured her you wanted her, not just sex. You realized you love her, pictured waking up next to her every day for the rest of your life. 14. To go forward, you have to go back. You begin chapter two with Mephisto heading for Parc Güell where he encounters street musicians. Since his diagnosis, M. has given up on music, but the sound of singing takes him back. He’s a child in elementary school, auditioning for the choir. It’s a Catholic school, and a nun has each child sing alone. The boy discovers he has talent, or rather, the nun discovers this. He doesn’t think his mother will let him be in the choir, but the nun says she’ll try to convince her. He goes home and tiptoes around. He’s wondering if the nun called when his mother announces she’ll let him participate. He’s overjoyed. They have a yard, and the boy goes there and sings. He wonders what the nun heard, how it sounds to others. He isn’t sure, but he’s glad his voice makes people happy. The art gives him hope, purpose. 15. Wait. Is it cliché for M. to have a strict mother? Is it overdone? Does it point to nurture over nature as the reason for his sexuality? Will readers dismiss it, question its veracity? 16. You have another job interview—the first since you and Maggie started dating. It’s for a production assistant position with an academic publisher, and you get your suit on and practice answering questions. Still, you feel unprepared. They ask questions you don’t anticipate. “If you described your work habits in the form of an animal, what animal would you be and why?” You wonder if they expect you to take this question seriously. Would they have more respect for you if you laughed and called them out on how ridiculous it is? “I guess I’d have to say a hyena.” “Wow, we’ve never had a hyena before. Why?” “Well, at my current job, I scavenge for work. I have to walk around asking the editors if they have anything for me to do. Then I clean up other people’s messes, live off their scraps.” The two women glance at each other. You can tell you’re bombing. They don’t see you as a viable candidate but a psychopath. Hyena? Really? What were you thinking? When you get out, Maggie’s waiting with a bottle of Jameson. She gives you a card, inside of which she’s sketched a checklist. □ Got the job, woohoo! Let’s get drunk and celebrate.Didn’t get the job. Screw it! Let’s drown our sorrows in whiskey. You won’t find out until Friday, but you appreciate the gesture. It’s typical of Maggie’s sweetness. But even this gesture can’t erase the embarrassment of choosing hyena. 17. You don’t get the job. 18. You spent five days in Barcelona while studying abroad in college. It was mid-October but still warm enough for the beach, and starting chapter three, you have M. head to the sea where he’ll meet a young opera fan he connects with. You need to give him grounding in the city, someone to show him around, but mostly, you want to spend time at the beach, return to memories of when you were there. It seemed so easy then. You hopped a train with friends and went to different cities whenever classes let out for the weekend. You still consider it the best experience of your life, the one you reflect on when things get tough. You have M. see the things you saw—Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, but for now, he’s at the beach, toes covered in sand, salt water washing up over his feet, respite from what ails him. 19. A week or two after the hyena interview, your boss at the medical publisher calls you into her office. “We’re going to have to cut back your hours.” Her voice is soft, there’s no conflict in the tone, but she seems nervous. “Anything over thirty is considered full-time, and yours is a part-time position.” The truth is, working full-speed only provides 15 hours of work but you stretch that to 32 and you’re worried they’ve discovered this. “So how much can I work?” “At most 25.” You start to calculate. 25×10=250×4=$1000/month. 30% for taxes. That’s $700. Rent’s $350, gas $30, electric $50, the transit pass you need to get to the office $75. On a good month, this leaves $195 for food, or just around $6.50/day. Plenty of people survive on less, but living paycheck-to-paycheck wreaks havoc on your nerves. Some weeks you can only eek out 15 hours. You go to your company’s website to confirm what she said and realize their real reason for cutting your time—policy requires they provide full-time employees with benefits. This infuriates you. You can’t wait to find regular employment and tell them what they can do with their Mickey Mouse bullshit. 20. “Not since Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” – Francine Prose, New York Times Book Review, Notable Book; “Read it, and you’ll feel altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new.” – Washington Post; “Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut…riveting intensity and originality.” – (Starred) Kirkus Reviews. 21. Fuck that guy. 22. Maggie buys you Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and you’re stuck on the first four pages. Not the first four pages of story, but the first four pages of blurbs. You’ve read critical blurbs before. But they’ve never bothered you this much. Maybe it’s because Foer is only two years older than you, and they’re talking about him like film critics talk about Orson Welles. Or maybe it’s because you only worked ten hours this week and have no cash to take Maggie out and this other guy from the bookstore has been flirting and moving in on her under the guise of “friendship.” Maybe it’s because you’ve had two canker sores this past month, and you’re worried it’s indicative of some greater issue you can’t get checked out because you don’t have health insurance. Or maybe it’s because your own writing on former-masterpiece-turned-jumbled-mess Barcelona has ground to a halt while you second, third, and fourth guess every choice you make. It doesn’t matter. You don’t stop to analyze. You just feel rage growing with each effusive endorsement of Foer’s talent. “It’s bullshit,” you say. Maggie’s in the room, listening to music, while you leaf through the gift. “It’s hype. You can’t really tell how good it is. You might decide you hate it, ‘cause everyone loves it. But then, if you love it, do you love it ‘cause you really love it, or do you love it ‘cause critics say you should?” You stand and pace. “I’d prefer to read it without these.” You rip the first four pages out, grab Maggie’s lighter from the desk, and set them ablaze. She stares, dumbfounded, as you hold the flaming bundle in your hand. It was impulse. You didn’t have a plan, and you zone out as the pages curl toward your fingers. You try to keep cool as you search for a place to stash them, shifting focus from the trashcan to the window. Maggie looks confused. It’s likely she’s wondering what set you off, why you’d react like this, if it’s her fault. You’re not sure if it hurts or scares her or both. But there isn’t time to reflect. You walk to the bathroom and drop the pages in the tub. 23. An hour later, you’re both laughing like this was a joke. You both know it wasn’t. 24. You write more of M.’s history, his first love, his first kiss with his best friend David and David’s subsequent rejection. From the literature, it seems archetypal to have this happen near water (i.e., Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room), since the boys are naked, glistening. At the summer’s end, he leaves for New York to study voice and meets a Chinese girl who’s studying opera too. They become friends and she pursues him. Hu-Tieh, you call her. It means Butterfly in Mandarin. And even though Puccini’s Butterfly was Japanese, you have them reenact parts of that tale. They go on a date to see opera at the Met. They make love, and though it’s pleasurable, it doesn’t feel right to M. He misses David, considers writing a letter but doesn’t. He meets one of Hu-Tieh’s friends, a boy who can sense M.’s true desires. He and the boy become involved. His sexual identity awakens just in time for the plague that hits that city in the early-80s, but he’s lucky enough to avoid it. By the late-90s he’s in love, in a monogamous relationship, but his lover betrays him, infects him. M. survives the war, only to fall in its aftermath. 25. Statistically speaking, the virus isn’t easy to contract. Around one million people in the U.S. have it. With a population of three hundred eleven million, that’s 0.7%. Of course, you can’t tell who has it without testing. But 0.7% makes your chances of contracting it slim-to-none, and they decrease further with condom use. To contract it, you’d have to be oblivious to how it spreads or a moron. So this makes you a moron. 26. By March, you and Maggie have stopped using protection. You’re not sure how you made this decision. One night, you got drunk and started fooling around. You slid inside her without protection, and she didn’t object. Now it’s a regular thing. You’re both guilty of negligence. You don’t talk about it. You’ve only had one lover and she’s had six. You’ve exchanged sexual histories, but you never ask if she’s been tested. You figure you love each other. If you’ve made a bad choice and end up infected, you’ll get through it together. But this isn’t likely, right? Statistically speaking… 27. You have your third canker sore in two months. You’re at a bar with a friend, and as you drink, you tongue it. The pain reminds you you’ve made a bad choice. You tell your friend: “I’ve had three canker sores in the past two months, man. What could it be? I mean, you think it’s an STD? I mean, it’s not AIDS, right? I mean, could I have AIDS?” “It’s either that or herpes, you filthy motherfucker.” 28. Are you becoming your character? Risking yourself to empathize? Did you stop using protection to put yourself in a position to identify with him? 29. You don’t actually know anything’s wrong, but you worry you might be dying regardless. You go back and forth. You have it, you don’t. You think of her six other lovers, one of whom you met, some grimy douche with a “Death or Glory” tattoo. You throw yourself into your novel to cope. If you’re going to die, you want to leave something behind. But nothing’s working there. The flashbacks are solid, but the parts that take place in Barcelona are flat. The characters he meets won’t come to life. Your descriptions of the city come off sounding more like a guidebook than skilled prose. It might as well take place anywhere. It might as well be chronological, but you’d lose the essence of reflection, your character’s creating meaning by examining past mistakes. You find yourself devoting more time to writing his past than his present, and your writing’s never better than when you write yourself into him—his first love affair; his insecurities about whether the other person loves him; his worries this person will betray him. He calls himself Mephisto because he’s lost control of his life. Mephisto plays the trickster in Faust, the puppet master; he controls the flow of the action. Your character wishes he could be like that. 30. In your downtime, you research the sores. Their exact cause is unknown. It could mean you’re using the wrong brand of toothpaste or have too much citric acid in your diet. Then again, it says stress is a major factor, but that wouldn’t apply to you now, would it? 31. Cold sores and cankers are separate afflictions. While cold sores are caused by herpes, cankers aren’t. Ergo, it isn’t herpes. 32. By summer, Maggie is spending more time with her coworker Dick than you’re comfortable with. It’s obvious he’s attracted to her, and if he weren’t living with his girlfriend of six years, you’re certain he’d make a move. You’re not sure how to react. You’d like it if Maggie recognized how much it bothers you, but she seems oblivious. “We’re just friends” she assures you whenever she comes home from the bar, tipsy and smelling of cigarettes, and you wonder if she’s really this naïve. Instead of saying, “Maggie, it bothers me,” you resort to mind games. When you have company over, everyone hangs out in your roommate’s room, and you retreat to your own to see if she follows, timing how long it takes her to come see what’s wrong. If you want to sleep with her and she’s not in the mood, you take it as a sign she doesn’t love you. And although you hate yourself for it, you sulk. When she asks what’s wrong, you shrug. You’re not enough of an ass to admit what’s upsetting you, but you’re enough of an ass to be an ass about it. 33. Novel? What novel? 34. Character sketch: Dick—32, ten years older than Maggie; lives with girlfriend K. who’s studying for a doctorate in Comparative Religion; collects action figures, comic books; hangs out in bars with kids in their early 20s; smokes; drinks despite diabetes; wears a chinstrap beard that looks like dirt because the hair won’t grow thick enough; wants to sleep with your girlfriend; takes the “nice guy” tack of lamenting how sad he is that he and K. are drifting apart; deserves a swift kick to the gonads (e.g., Tim Robbins’s ponytailed, patchouli-stinking interloper in High Fidelity). 35. Canker sores can also imply a compromised immune system. 36. You’re losing your shit, but you don’t explode until Maggie returns from a mid-summer trip to Florida. You meet her at the airport, take her luggage. She’s tan and beautiful and once you get back to your apartment, you make love. The separation has reinforced how much you care for her. You’ve saved to take her to dinner that night, but she tells you she promised Dick they’d hang out. “What the fuck!” you shout. She looks at you like she doesn’t understand the problem. “It’s a group thing,” she says. “We’ll all go out together.” But now you’re shouting like a lunatic. “You ever think your boyfriend might want to spend the night alone with you after he hasn’t seen you for a week?” “I’ll cancel,” she says. “No. Never mind.” Dick’s been hanging around, waiting for you to screw up, and you’ve finally obliged. 37. If she’s sleeping with Dick, she’d stop sleeping with you, right? She’d use protection? And what about Dick. Is he clean? Does he have his shots? 38. The end begins right as you land a new job. There’s an editor slot at the same company in the same department where you had your hyena interview. You don’t realize it’s unusual to apply a second time after they’ve turned you down once, and the two women who interviewed you before don’t recognize you. On one hand, this implies you’re not memorable. On the other, your rehearsed answers sound fresh. “If you described your work habits in the form of an animal, what animal would you be and why?” “I’d be a zoobidijoop.” “I’ve never heard of that. What’s a zoobidijoop?” “Don’t know. I made it up on the spot. I can think on my feet and improvise.” They glance at each other and smile and bring you in to see the president. “Haven’t I seen you before?” “I interviewed in May.” “Why would you come back a second time if I didn’t hire you the first.” You gamble. You’ve been cautious every interview, and it’s gotten you nowhere. You maintain confidence, look him in the eye, and say, “You made a mistake. I’ve giving you a chance to correct it.” 39. You start in September. You have health insurance from day one. You don’t have AIDS or herpes or any STDs. 40. Maggie mentions spending time apart. You recognize this has nothing to do with Dick and everything to do with your behavior. “Is it over?” you ask. “No, I just want to figure things out.” You take this as a sign you can win her back. Dick’s girlfriend K. is pregnant, so you think he’s out of the picture. Now that your health is clear and you’re making steady money, you can focus on her. She still stays at your place, though most nights she sleeps on the couch. You no longer lose control and burn the pages of books or fret over sores, but she still spends a lot of time with Dick. 41. When K. miscarries and Dick breaks up with her, you realize you and Maggie are done too. Dick can pursue her now without any qualms. You try to shame him: “Who would date a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend right after a miscarriage?” “They were drifting apart,” Maggie says. “Yeah, and we invaded Iraq ‘cause Saddam has WMDs.” 42. You were screwed from the get-go. You weren’t ready for love, not with her. When you hear they’re dating, you’re nauseated, depressed. You hit bottle hard, listen to sad-sack music. 43. Amidst the commotion, your novel got side-tracked. You pick it up again. You feel you know real hurt, true betrayal. You play the wounded lover, and infuse M. with all your frustrations. You blame yourself, you blame her. If she hadn’t spent all that time with Dick, if you’d felt more secure. The novel’s great, the novel’s bad. You’re not sure. You send the first chapters to your brother, hoping for approval. He recently come out as gay, and his sanction would help. He reads them and sends a critique. “It’s okay,” he says. “Some parts are good. But I’d change that first sentence. It doesn’t hold my interest.” You comb his words. You’re defeated, deflated. The novel’s bad and you should stop, focus your efforts elsewhere, begin again, pretend you’re someone new, somewhere else, starting your life over. 44. You decide to finish the novel anyway.

Jason M. Jones is a writer and editor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Southeast Review and The Normal School. For more, please visit

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Old Lockhart Jail

Photo by lucyblueart

Remembering the Cockroaches: On Doubt in Creative Nonfiction

When I tell people I write creative nonfiction, I take a deep breath and wait—depending on the company, the response usually ranges somewhere between confusion and derision. Among other writers, real writers like poets and novelists, the thrust might be patronizing. One common point is that CNF writers have it easy; after all, we simply have to write what happened—as if the events of our lives come stapled to perfect narrative arcs.

“Lucky!” a fiction writer once said when I told her I was writing a memoir about spending 60 days in a Texas jail. “You’ll probably get a six-figure advance and appear on Oprah!” Funny, that’s exactly what I was thinking during the grueling months I spent in the third-largest jail in America, stockpiling tampons under my bunk and pooping in front of 50-odd strangers, including male guards. “Wow, I’ve really hit the jackpot here.”

Among non-writers, the conversation might drift toward their great-grandpappy’s second cousin’s million-dollar story, or toward a celebrity’s recent “memoirs” plural—the memoirs of Snooki, the Kardashians, or James Fucking Franco.

So if creative nonfiction writers seem a little prickly, we are. I often feel compelled to offer a mission statement peppered with negations, like the one Lloyd Dobler asserts in Say Anything: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” Like Dobler, I will list all of the writing I don’t want to do: I don’t want to write bald confesssionalism tantamount to ugly crying in public; I don’t want to go “undercover” as a “cougar” and write about the dating scene for 40-something divorcees; I don’t want to write a how-to book on pixie haircuts or pap smears. And lastly, no, I don’t want to ghost write your great-grandpappy’s second cousin’s story.

The thing is, without the negations, what I do write sounds inadequate. I’m just writing about my life, I might say, and then the stranger will eyeball me for signs of extreme trauma or maiming. I can hear the accusation in their appraisal: what makes you so interesting? Nothing, I will think, and then tell them what they want to hear: “See, I was raised by mole people in New York City, where I ate crack-fried cockroaches, and my best friend was a subway rat called Electra who eventually ate my mother.” “Oh, how interesting,” the stranger might say, then, “Have you read Snooki’s new memoirs?”

Our genre is shaped by negation: its very name, “Nonfiction,” doesn’t assert what it is, but rather what it is not. We are not fiction, or as my friend and fellow writer Penny Guisinger has said, what we write is not, not true. I, for one, have lobbied to change our genre name to Nonpoetry, but as you can see, that didn’t take. So I say we embrace the negations, but call them something else, something like litotes—because practically no one but the odd literature professor knows what that word means.

And there are other reasons to embrace the negations. Regarding truth, I want to make a case not for certainty, but for doubt. “Authenticity in literature does not come from a writer’s personal honesty,” John Berger writes. “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.” That thing we call the truth is, after all, a slippery affair—both emotionally and cognitively—and writers would do well to heed the humilities doubt can offer up.

Take, for example, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus’s work in cognitive psychology, which revealed that phenomena such as false memories and eyewitness misidentification are more common than conventional wisdom suggests. In fact, eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide and has played a role in 72% of convictions overturned by DNA evidence. In one example, Charles Chatman, a black man, was wrongfully convicted of the 1981 rape of a white woman based on her adamant testimony. Chatman spent 27 years in prison before DNA cleared him. “The most horrifying idea,” Loftus has said, “is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.” For writers whose stock and trade is our own and others’ memories, this is a sobering thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying facts don’t matter or that the truth is too abstract a thing to reach for. We should reach for it. But we might also regard capital-T truth as a kind of chimera of memory, sensorial detritus, and intention. If we are honest about our lives, we and they are full of uncertainty. Often, memory is not what actually or empirically happened, but the story we tell ourselves of what happened. Or what could have happened. (Or perhaps, if we have revisionist impulses, what should have happened.) So doubt is good—it keeps us on the edge, it keeps us accountable.

Ultimately, I also make the case for doubt as an in-road to empathy. While mentoring young actors, playwright, performer, and professor Anna Deveare Smith talks about how the most important work of the actor is to become vulnerable enough to make what she calls “the broad jump to the other.” “Confidence is overrated,” she admonishes her students. “Give doubt a try.”

As I think about it now, I am beginning to doubt my own narrative. Maybe I was lucky to spend time in jail. Maybe I was raised by mole people, and it’s the cockroaches I’ve misremembered.

Maybe none of it matters.

Maybe all of it does.

Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast Creative Writing program. She lives and teaches in central Vermont. Visit her at

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Big city ambitions

Photo by Wayne Roe

What Would John Williams Do?

It’s a beautiful party on a beautiful hillside, a soft, midsummer afternoon’s dream. The ranch-style home commands expansive views: golden countryside spreads below, warm and busy with a faraway highway’s ant-like movement of two-lane traffic, seeming to imply—for those of us lucky enough to standing here, looking out at it with our drinks and food—a kind of master-serenity. We happy few.

I’m pleased to spot an author I know, amid the chatting guests.

I present myself, glass of sparkling water in hand.

How’re you doing, I ask.

Half an hour later, I wonder how soon I can get home to swallow a handful of the Valium my husband keeps in his suitcase, for when he takes plane flights.

This author begins at once to report—to itemize—rampant success. Travel, publication, money. Most recently, this person’s latest novel has snagged a top-tier agent, who has wasted no time selling it to an excellent publisher, for a cool high-five-figures.

“I wanted six figures,” concedes the smiling author. “But my agent tells me that after foreign rights are sold, I’ll have my six figures.”

This person’s prior novel is still selling. There’s still money coming in from it, “not a lot, but it is still coming,” another achievement of which this author is proud.

Finally, after the nonstop barrage of seamless triumph, the author pauses: “So what’re you doing?”

I swallow. Feeling as though I’m in a Kristen Wiig film, thinking, Oh, why not just let this go where it’s clearly heading, straight to the heart of hell, I tell the truth. I am completing a new book while trying passionately to place (never mind “sell”) the prior book, which was finished three years ago: a work continually declined with lavish, rueful compliments, because it is, according to the decliners, too quiet and interior.

This person shakes a shiny, attractive head.

“Joan, you’re a beautiful writer. But you need to write more commercially.”

The author locks eyes with me, smiling.

“Have a male protagonist. That’s the secret.” The author’s brows bear down.

“And more stuff happening. Lots more stuff.”

“Write a book that anyone can recommend to anyone,” adds the author.

Desperate to peel myself from this scalding surface, staring like a skinned rabbit into the dare-you-to-deny-it of that smile, I change the subject. I know this author organizes a writing conference every spring. I bring up the topic of that conference, offering to speak there as a guest panelist, or presenter.

The author shakes the same shining head, explaining that it is necessary to invite Pulitzer winners as guest speakers, both to attract applicants and to justify charging an application fee (which pays the speakers’ airfares).

“I’m sorry. You’re not famous enough,” murmurs the author.


Here’s a word that, among writers, is spoken softly when it’s spoken at all.


It’s a bomblike subject. Tim Parks argues, in a blog for the New York Review of Books, that writers write as if to win a game. That’s one premise. Lee Upton, in her brilliant essay collection Swallowing the Sea, offers a more complicated, multi-pronged study, suggesting that ambition keeps us alive and fertile as artists, audacious as explorers and adventurers. I can’t pretend to have ever finally settled the questions: What kind of ambition drives me? How much—if any, ever—is too much?

And the toughest corollary: Why?

Many writers style themselves as larger or deeper than the forces of ambition—as if we’re listening to a nobler music, with eyes on the higher prize of pure artistic integrity.

This effort comforts us, intermittently. But it’s always under attack.

We see that some of the best artists since forever, exempting a remarkable few, remain fiercely ambitious. “I’ve sacrificed everything. Everything,” intoned T. C. Boyle.

I tend to believe him. The commerce of art makes it so.

Ancient news. Yet we seem to keep needing to unpack it, to figure it out. The late, tormented, too-soon-gone Lucy Grealy wrote:

I once thought that truth was eternal, that when you understood something it was with you forever. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.

I sometimes find this reality soothing. It means writers have to start again, daily, from scratch. We have to re-make the covenant with ourselves, revise the mission statement. We have to drop the noise and gestures and square off with the tasks:

Work hard to make art.

Work hard to get art seen, and taken.

Work hard, at the same time, to remember why.

Maybe, perversely, I also hope that ambition can mean seizing as many chances as possible to be generous, to help those whose work we admire and care about. Why? Because one does as one hopes, sooner or later, to be done to. Because artistic solidarity has power. (Think of The Authors’ Guild, or PEN.) And because this mind-set reverses and elevates what can otherwise start to feel like the walk and talk of a roving mob of thugs.

The best artists made you feel that the best of them was at stake—didn’t they?

A New Yorker profile (by Nick Paumgarten) of the much-lauded James Salter, now nearing 90, noted that Salter had once made lists of those names he felt to be “ahead” of him en route to—well—the level of greatness he meant to attain. Until then, I’d never imagined the tight-lipped Salter capable of brooding over that kind of calculation. Later, I understood it better in terms of the life Salter has led (and described in his writing), mandated to experience the best of everything: women, friendships, food and drink, travel, real estate, physical-spiritual transport (rock climbing, skiing, sex, piloting fighter aircraft during war). Though few of us maintain a to-do list like his, it calms me, oddly, to think that even the mighty Salter once smarted and chafed like ten trillion other writers on the path. Even the giants, I reminded myself, nurse an all-too-human need.

But while that awareness can console—it does little else. The rest is up to us. Again and again, each of us must finesse, revisit, and re-finesse her own mythology.

How we came to it. Why we stay.

After many years it seems clear to me that to write literary fiction, remain relatively unknown, and still have ambition, is not at all an unusual combination. It’s just a statistically doomed one. And yet, strangely, no matter how often we’ve reasoned them out in the past, the same questions flash into our faces like paparazzi bulbs—Why do I do this? How should I do this? What does the former mean for the latter?—hounding us around the clock, sometimes fanned to a firewall in scenes like mine with the blissfully monomaniacal author at the fancy party.

I can only guess that the answers writers dig for, each time, have to feel real to us. They have to come from the no-escape, all-makeup-scrubbed-off, 3:00 a.m. dark of us.

My own personal measure for the realness of that answer—and let me emphasize the scorched-earth pain that drives the unsparingness of this search—is to ask myself how the late John Williams, author of the now-classic-but-once-unknown, quiet, perfect, devastating novel Stoner, might have answered if someone had locked eyes with him at a party and told him that he needed to write more commercially in order to become better known, and to make a pile of money.

Never mind that the protagonist of Stoner is a man, or the fact that quite a lot of “stuff” happens in Williams’ heart-spearing novel—from Stoner’s journey as a farm boy to the cataclysmic sea-change wreaked in him by a poem recited in a college English class, to a soul-killing marriage, estrangement from a beloved daughter, a hexed-but-vitalizing love affair, and finally a silent, self-aware, unheralded death. The novel’s arc feels—like all our very greatest art—inevitable. Its particulars shine with the relevance of the universal. It is timeless.

What would John Williams say to my wealthy and self-satisfied interlocutor?


I’ll bet he would say nothing at all. He might nod slightly. Then he would immediately excuse himself (as I finally summoned the wits to do), and vanish. (I don’t know that Williams would go looking for Valium, or its then-equivalent. I skipped that option, too, and wound up having take-out dinner and renting a movie with my husband.)

Williams would carry on with his life, and with the writing he felt he had to write. Like his own, stoic William Stoner, his work might be ignored, even mocked. He most certainly would have mulled his own motives now and again, perhaps doubting, even despairing. He would carry on. I don’t know how much money Williams made. I’m sure he liked money fine when it came, as we all do. I’m sure he liked paying bills, buying food and books. I’m sure he was never fooled about the money’s significance.

It’s of course easy to idolize artists like Williams—and by now you’ll have realized that for Williams’ name we may substitute the name of any writer we’ve revered across the years, who quietly persisted at making work that matters. The idolizing, and the little disturbances which prompt it, must also ultimately fall away, become part of the noise and the gestures. The only choice left is to live—to enact, to embody—hour by hour, what writers like Williams knew. As Lucy Grealy noted, so shockingly simply, you have to work hard, every day, to remember.

Joan Frank ( is the author of five books of fiction and a book of collected essays. Her last novel, Make It Stay (2012), won the Dana Portfolio Award; her last story collection, In Envy Country (2010), won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Fiction, the Gold ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and was named a finalist for the California Book Award. Her book of essays, Because You Have To: A Writing Life (2012), won the Silver ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. A MacDowell Colony Fellow, recipient of many other awards and grants, Joan is also a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Photo by Christopher "Rice"

by Amy Elisabeth Hansen

My gramps died slowly over three years. Toward the end, my husband and I made the eight-hour drive from Marquette, Michigan, to suburban Chicago as often as possible to sit with him for a couple hours. I read Andrea Scarpino’s book of poetry, Once, Then, three times in the car, and again in my mom’s living room right after Gramps died in late April.

I don’t think anyone turns to elegies for comfort, and I didn’t find any in Once, Then. What I did find was the narrative distance to approach my own grief. The elegies are personal and specific; they draw on Scarpino’s father’s career as a microbiologist, detail his habits. They remember a friend, Gracie. The poems give life and story to personal, political, past and mythological deaths.

Once, Then opens with a quote from Thomas Lynch: “Life goes on. The dead are everywhere.” Scarpino writes to make lost lives go on. Her poems are a cementing of memories, a monument to people and times past. The dead and the lost are everywhere in Once, Then, and they were everywhere for me this year, too.

My favorite move in Once, Then is the interruption of one loss with another, as if a new death can provide relief from the last. So what I looked for, then, as I read and reread, drove away and drove home, was the takeaway truth, the three or four words I could write on my hand. I wanted something small and serious that said, “This is what I’m feeling.” That instinct to find the takeaway is a reminder of what I’m trying to do when I write poems myself. Poets try to dilute what’s huge and seemingly unsayable into something small and emotionally portable. When Gramps died, I wanted to use poems as summary for everything I couldn’t say; Once, Then is what I had on hand. I kept coming back to “Omniscience” to read

…Palms opened
to say wait. Palms opened against
knife blade. Break, God said.
And breaking spread.

Reading aloud is a family tradition for us. Gramps recorded hours and hours of children’s stories on cassettes for my brothers and me to listen to before bed. As the family writer, I felt (invented) pressure to find a poem to read at Gramps’s funeral. But there is no word written that I love as much as him, so I said nothing. I wanted reading aloud to be something we did when Gramps was alive, not something we continued to do, too, when he was dead. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge with words the difference his absence made on my life. I didn’t want to past-tense my gramps with my favorite thing.

In “Tissues”:

Your tissues everywhere
like snow, stuck to our clothes,
dimpled wash bin.
Handfuls in your pockets,
everywhere you go.
Everywhere you went.

I feel the absence of Scarpino’s father in the poem, but I also feel him in front of it, and not only because of the second-person address. I feel the abruptness, the finality of the entire past-tense sentence on the last line. These poems work like gifts, maybe less about the yous, hes and shes than they are for them. Scarpino places the subject in front of the poem, rather than containing him within it, which is how Once, Then can wrap itself around so much loss.

Once, Then is personal, and I’ve struggled to write this review because of it. I gravitate toward poems that make a hiding place for the hard stuff, and Andrea Scarpino doesn’t play that game. But for that reason, I moved closer to understanding my grief. These poems helped me, and that’s the highest praise I can give.

Amy Elisabeth Hansen’s poems have appeared in 580 Split and a handful of now-defunct publications. She is an associate poetry editor for Passages North and is excited to start her second year in Northern Michigan University’s MFA program.

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couple of quail

Photo by Steve Wall

On Literary Relationships

It’s six a.m. in Savannah and the email I’ve been waiting for arrives, the subject simply “poem.” My husband is in Prague for five weeks at the Prague Summer Program, and by now he’s been up for hours, writing, going for a run along the Vltava River, now sitting down to a leisurely lunch. We talk daily, chatting for a moment here or there, but I look forward most to these emails that give me a window into what he’s thinking, what’s really going on.

I never thought a relationship with another writer would work, at least for me. The few men I dated who claimed the title seemed self-important, dabblers, and their approach to craft was not the same as mine. I was afraid to share my work, as much of it came from my personal life. (And in college—God! I bordered on confessional!) I was reluctant to reveal a side of myself I knew instinctively they would not understand.

What I see now is they were writers, not readers. My literary relationships now are based around one fact, and it isn’t publications. We read each other’s work with the respect it deserves. Sometimes that means confronting uncomfortable truths, or pushing someone out of a rut.

It’s competitive. Reading his lines awakens something in my brain, and by 10:30 a.m. I’ve fired one back at him. In Prague it will be late afternoon, and he’ll be finished writing for the day, enjoying a cold beer. The afternoon light will make him reflective. His poem earlier was about language, and touch, and that reminded me of a storm that passed through days before, bending the live oaks. But when I’ve finished the draft and come out of whatever trance I’ve entered, I see it’s about loss. The poem is sad. The poem misses someone. I hit send.

Our lives do not revolve around poetry. I, in particular, have a regular 9-5 job I enjoy. We go to dinner, work in the yard, talk about our friends and family. But when there is a week we are both writing, I’ll get an email. Subject: poem. Message: Drinks? Our date night is our workshop of two, and when we really go at it we spare no hurt feelings.

I know what lines he’ll like, what lines he won’t. I write them anyway. I tease him about his horrible titles. Sometimes he takes my advice, sometimes he doesn’t. I don’t edit myself, and neither does he. But talking about our work is another way of talking about ourselves, our partnership, negotiating our separate and shared paths. We push each other, in writing as in life, to grow. My husband loves me because he loves my work, the voice I only use on the page. He gets me. When we talk about a poem together I feel well and truly heard. And through his imagery I can see what he remembers, what’s important to him. Through his syntax I can understand his sense of order, and of time.

The poem he sends back is filled with such personal memories I blush reading it. Not for publication, that one. But he is saying he received my message, he understands, that we are in this limbo of separated lovers together. Later when we chat over Skype, I tell him about that summer storm, the ants that have invaded the azaleas, the weather in Savannah. I tell him I liked his poem, but the title needs work.

Laura Davenport’s poetry has appeared in Meridian, Crab Orchard Review, New South, and Best New Poets 2009, among others. She is the recipient of the Meridian Editors’ Prize and the Richmond Magazine/James River Writers’ Best Poem Award. She received an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010.

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Playing cards

Photo by Will Cheyney

On Bitterness

I’ll confess right away to being a hypocrite. I’ve written a lot about the unseemliness of bitterness in the past, of the very human petty envies that arise when we make the mistake of measuring our success (or lack thereof) by that of our writing peers. It’s best to be humble, we’re told by people like me, but here’s a crucial caveat I forgot to mention: there is nothing worse than fake humbleness—the culling of appearances for a crowd. So here I am to admit it: sometimes I get bitter, y’all. Sometimes I find I know absolutely nothing about what constitutes “good fiction” because what I’m told is great fiction just doesn’t appeal to me, and I get low. I get blue, and then I get red. I get all the colors. My weapon of choice has always been sarcasm of the self-depreciative variety (humor is almost always anger with its make-up on, quoth Stephen King). You can always tell I’m having a bad rejection day if my Facebook status is a joke about how much I suck, how much the publishing industry/literary world befuddles me, or some oblique crack about really successful authors. This is my way of self-wallowing, but also of attempting to reach out to fellow writers who, like me, are still very low on the literary totem pole. Every day I fight a war with cynicism, which comes naturally to me but I’m convinced is the most unproductive force there is. Maybe I’ve been grounding the lesser angels of my nature lately, stewing in my own bitter juices because I’m racking up an impressive streak of consecutive rejections of late. At times like this, when I am not unlike Arya – ritualistically repeating the name of everyone who has ever rejected me like a prayer at night, vowing my revenge, dreaming of the day I am some Big Shit, as if they will all cluck their lips in unison someday at having missed out on one of the great voices of the 21st century – I know, deep down, I truly am competitive. I once thought otherwise.

Even writers are human too, I suppose. A little bitterness is unavoidable, especially when you’re just starting out. And while it doesn’t make you a bad person, I’m still convinced it does more harm than good, and when we find ourselves getting bitter about this or that, maybe it’s best to remind ourselves, logically, why exactly it won’t get us the results we so greedily yearn for.

It’s not that bitterness can’t drive you to succeed. In psychology, overcompensation is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m certain some of history’s biggest success stories were written by individuals whose passion to succeed was at least fueled somewhat by pure bitterness: a chip on their shoulder, a humiliating moment that slow burned into something greater, an unjust scar, a healthy hunger for praise that had never come their way, in spite of their hard work, because it was all being stolen away by someone whose success was merely good luck or due to connections or some other excuse that mugs them of the rightful merit of their own creations and arduous labor.

No, it’s not that it can’t drive you to succeed (it certainly can) but how it drives you to succeed. At the moment we begin to lop the wings off the greater angels of our nature, we get stupid. We get sloppy. We get greedy to make a name for ourselves when the name isn’t what matters, or what should matter—it’s the stories. The writing. It’s always been the writing. Maybe we adopt trends that we see as shortcuts to publication, which cheats us out of the tales we should be telling—the ones only we can tell. Maybe we make a fool of ourselves in front of peers, which makes of us an ass, breeding a contemptuous community in an already incestuous environment. Maybe we discount the hard work of our peers, letting our ego eclipse the truth, that Yes, while luck is a great big variable in the writing world and sometimes it goes our way and sometimes it doesn’t, often the people who have success have been whittling sentences for years, developing their craft, and they are not without their own rejection streaks. (Who knows, once upon a time maybe even they were prone to bitterness?) But the worst is that it cheats us of our precious energies – the stuff we should be pouring into our work, we instead pour into secretly deriding others. That most rare ingredient to the cultivation of our talent: time, is squandered for the sake of whining about what we feel we’re owed, a rather entitled notion.

The default state of the writer is that of perpetual rejection for a reason, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am reminded of that Twilight Zone episode in which a dead gambler is welcomed into a glittering casino paradise with sumptuous foods where he proceeds to win time and time again, day after day, week after week, until the winning becomes tedious, meaningless. Finally, he turns to an angel: Heaven ain’t for me, he tells her. Oh, this isn’t heaven, the angel replies.

Rejection, denial, and invalidation all give meaning to our victories. Without them, we’d have nothing by which to measure our success. We’d have nothing to celebrate. Bitterness, while perfectly human and understandable, is the secret assumption we are owed something. When times get bitter, we’d benefit greatly from adopting a new mantra: We are owed nothing. We are owed nothing, because writing is a privilege. Creativity is a privilege. The opportunity to tell a story is a privilege, and praise is never automatic. Nor should it be.

Matthew Burnside is author of Escapologies (Red Bird Chapbooks), Infinity’s Jukebox (Passenger Side Books), Book of If&Ever, a chapbook of flash fables for charity (Red Bird), and the forthcoming Ritual Hauntings (Patasola Press). Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, PANK, Kill Author, Gargoyle, Hobart, NAP, OmniVerse, and others. He currently teaches creative writing for new media at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, keeps a list of his sins at, and occasionally makes fun of himself at

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Photo by geir tønnessen

The Autobiographical Trauma

There is a recent, though hardly new, trend in trauma writing. In particular, trauma is often the first and sometimes, only, aspect relayed in the writing – we as the readers know the manipulation, the abuse, the violence, the mental and physical breakdowns. And while it can be satisfying to know the trauma firsthand, I find that isn’t my compulsion as a reader. I’d rather know the experience of trauma, or at least have a chance at reading it; I’d rather write and read the constraints of the disturbing experience, the real and figurative room where I could be placed, and the heightened and muffled sensations of physical and emotional injuries. In other words, I don’t necessarily want to be told the trauma. I don’t think that name-dropping and fact-giving is as important as simply writing what it means to have been traumatized.

Of course, names and facts can be a part of the trauma writing; that isn’t what I question. I think “giving away the trauma” is an easy excuse to avoid writing what can be written. It’s what I did for a long time, writing narratives which gave away the trauma in the first line and never returned to them. I avoided confronting what I’ve been trying to write by giving it up to begin with.

I spent the latter half of the past spring editing and rearranging my poetry manuscript, an act I’ve tried to avoid. The idea of revising and revamping my thesis was daunting not so much because of the act, but because of the content. I couldn’t write the trauma. I couldn’t write in standard written English, “This is my trauma, and here is what it comprises.” I couldn’t even tell myself what I wanted to write, though I knew it. I thought the world knew about my writer’s block, and I started to avoid talking about my writing, which wasn’t the easiest feat while finishing up an MFA degree. Everybody talked about their writings, and if they didn’t, they asked about mine. This was a comforting sense of community, but also an enclosed one, seemingly heightened by the limited MFA writing days I had left.

Finally, Jane Miller called me into her office to give me a preview of my thesis defense, though the preview was precisely yet imprecisely not how my defense would play out. She asked about my use of trauma in my poetry, and why I felt compelled to withhold its details on the page. “Because,” I said, “you don’t need to know the trauma. You as the reader want to know how it feels to write the experience; you don’t need the vehicle of trauma to tell it.”

“Very interesting,” Jane said in that comforting, allusive, and prelude-to-a-backhanded compliment way she has. “It is striking how illuminating you are about the act of writing for someone who doesn’t pay attention to her own life.”

I wouldn’t think about trauma and trauma writing until two months later, when, in pre-July 4th festivities, my friends and I trekked to Tucson’s Best Western for karaoke night. The bar was fairly empty for the Thursday night with only a handful of mostly older, male rednecks singing drunkenly to ‘70s and ‘80s tunes. My three male friends surrounded me on all sides and told me to ignore the men. Still, they left at some point for drinks, the bathroom, cigarette breaks. Three guys came up and flirted with me, but gave up when I didn’t budge.

Then a couple walked into the bar, already boisterous from drink. The woman, a forty-something, talkative German, introduced herself as a tourist. She introduced herself to each of my friends, but when she got to me, she stopped and pointed at my lips. “Are you Korean?” she asked. “I can tell by your smile; all they do is smile.”

Never mind that I’d shake my head and say, as nicely as I could muster, that I wasn’t Korean, and that her assertion was racist and rude. Never mind that despite my attempts to avoid her, despite my saying, “I’m busy; let me respond to this e-mail,” she’d come back to me and say, “When you smile, I can sleep better at night.” Never mind that when she introduced me to her husband, he, too, would place a hand at my nape and squeeze it.

The thing about trauma that’s easy to remember is its inherent fear. I could write that I’m a strong-willed and stubborn writer in my mid-twenties, that I easily lend my opinions on politics, literature, and jazz. That I was seized with fear – an old fear which has roots in as early as my eight-year-old self, and from similar situations with grown men and women who were preoccupied with what has been termed my “exotic looks” – made me incredibly shamed and reserved. That’s why I didn’t tell my friends that the woman was bothering me, more than they had seen. Private shame and fear, arguably the most binding tenets of trauma.

When one of my friends went to get another drink and the other two stepped outside for cigarettes, I went to the one place where I thought they couldn’t bother me – the bathroom. When I opened the bathroom stall, I found myself face-to-face with the German lady, who had followed me into the bathroom. “Slanty gook,” she said. “Why won’t you smile for me?”

I don’t know how many racial epithets were thrown before I realized I hadn’t left the stall, and she was blocking my exit. I stepped forward and she didn’t budge. I asked her to move and she stepped forward, partly into the stall. I said I needed to pee again and made as if to close the door, and I slammed the door hard into her stomach.

“Blöde Fotze!” she yelled, falling back against the nearby sink counter. She didn’t seem fazed, though. “Why are you so exotic?” she asked, as I ran out the bathroom.

It took another fifteen minutes of Bon Jovi and Bonnie Tyler and Sinatra before I started crying, and my roommate led me to the car and said we were going home. Even after he realized she had been harassing me, and said he loved me and wanted to know, I didn’t say what had happened. “Nothing,” I said.

“Do you pay attention to your life?” he said. “You are crying, and you never cry. You can tell me anything. I’m not going anywhere.”

And that’s how Jane Miller’s Two Cardinal Rules for Writing and Living came into mind. “One,” she always told me in and out of class, “Pay attention to your goddamn life.”

“And two: connecting with people – maybe there is nothing else more important on this earth.”

Why the attention to detail, then, of what can hardly be easy to admit? To relinquish trauma, to recount details of shameful and scary moments which still provoke my nightmares and make me wonder if I’ve done anything to elicit my traumas? What is the purpose of beginning to write and speak about what most disturbs me?

One: my writing. Once I returned to my poetry manuscript and wrote, “The sex was cut/ in the print of a meadowlark,” I felt I had written a truthful experience, even if might be blurred and at times, possibly imagined. I commanded the autobiographical “I,” and this “I,” even as I don’t identify entirely with my poetry’s speaker, is mine. All mine. Nobody, least of all a drunk German tourist, can take that away from me.

And that’s freeing. So is talking to the people around me, the ones who are there for me despite my trauma at being harassed at karaoke night for something other than my singing. This is the “I” whom I want to write, the writer who doesn’t shy away her friends – all of whom said they would’ve gotten down and dirty and defended my honor had they known – and the one who isn’t ashamed of her voice, which can do more than I’ve been giving her credit for. Ariana Reines says it best in Coeur de Lion:

          Now that I am not addressing you
          But the “you” of poetry
          I am probably doing something horrible and destructive.
          But this “I” is the I of poetry
          And it should be able to do more than I can do.

Sylvia Chan is a poet and fiction writer. Recent work appears in Seneca Review. A San Francisco East Bay native, she teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Arizona.

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Tim Johnston on today’s bonus essay: When I was younger, I thought tied bed sheets were step one to escaping prison. Weren’t there cartoon characters like or not like Donald Duck using bedding as Rapunzel hair? Didn’t Ernest? Didn’t that kid in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? And now that I’ve spent a month sleeping in a bed that is not my own (I’m a subleaser), I’m aware of the personalities bed sheets can take on, how, no matter how long an absence, no matter how many heavy-wash cycles, others linger on, and I’m irked that it has taken me so long to fall asleep comfortably, as though I were warming up to a person, learning quiet intrinsicities. That is all I know about bed sheets. And now this.

If No One Can Be Kept Safe At All Times

My older brother comes home from the juvenile detention center and tells us a story about how all of the products in the youth home were Bob Barker products. He says, Bob Barker everything. We are imagining Bob Barker the game show host of The Price is Right, and we don’t understand why he would put out a D-list line of toiletries, of clothing, you name it. Bob Barker, the game show host, did not make available a line of products that went straight to jails. Bob Barker Company, Inc., in North Carolina, however, is “America’s Leading Detention Supplier.” Bob Barker disposable clothing. Bob Barker toothbrushes. Bob Barker meal trays and tray carts. Bob Barker black and white slip-on shoes, reminiscent of Vans, the word INMATE on each side of each shoe. Bob’s Bargain Basement where there is a special deal on an “Officer’s Only” Scorpion Micro DV Recorder the size of your index finger for $89.95, out the door. Bob Barker sells restraints: Emergency Chair Restraint (“intended to control [the] combative, self destructive or potentially violent”), One-Man Restraint Chain, Smith & Wesson Transport Restraint, leather transport belts, Peerless Handcuffs: Standard, and, Smith & Wesson’s most popular handcuff: Smith & Wesson Model 100. Sheets: if a detainee wanted to attempt suicide, they would try to make nooses out of Bob Barker bed sheets, which are safe for everyone in both isolation and suicide-watch cells. It took all of my brother’s self-control not to steal something Bob Barker as a souvenir for me.

When I was admitted to the children’s unit of a psychiatric hospital in middle school, I remember eavesdropping on a conversation between two mental health workers on the ward about the sheets on the dorm-like, freakishly long twin beds. They said the sheets were not “suicide safe,” that other sheets on other wards they had worked on were not as easy to do self-harm with. “Look at the stitching,” one said. No one can be kept safe at all times, said the other. Suicide-safe bedding is more hard-wearing than average bedding, with no obvious stitching to bite or pull out, making the material harder to rip apart, to bunch together, to make a noose with. The mental health workers, when I was admitted, took away all the cliché items one might think would be taken away from a child that has attempted suicide (cord to stereo, shoelaces, pencils) but they did not take away a piece of leather strap hinged on top of my suitcase to aid in pulling the suitcase along, sturdy enough to asphyxiate myself with. They somehow overlooked this strap in the combing and excavating to keep me suicide safe. They did nothing about the sheets, too, what was perceived by those that were responsible for my care as unsafe. In the staff meeting at shift change, I watched the two mental health workers speak animatedly through the soundproof glass partition. The next week, men in light blue uniforms I had never seen before changed everyone’s sheets during gym time, but the sheets looked the same, and I have no idea if these two things are related.

What happens when we try to keep people safe but we cannot? What happens when we fail? Another leading maker of suicide and destruction safe items for jails and mental health facilities on the internet willingly resigns to this fact; they do not guarantee “indestructibility” in their products. Human beings will be human beings, if they want something bad enough they will find a way to get it, make it happen, et cetera. This leading maker of suicide and destruction-safe items produces makeshift mattresses that are see-through and cannot be picked or pulled apart, mattresses made for the floor of the archetypical “padded cell,” sometimes a round room with a locked door, a “think tank” it was called on the children’s unit, an “isolation/suicide” cell in the juvenile detention center. They produce restraints: Hand Control Mitt, Sleeper Jacket, Limbholders to restrain limbs to beds, chairs, tables (made from both disposable foam and reusable synthetic sheepskin). They produce “The Sani Belt,” made specifically for “the suicidal and self-destructive” female. It looks like a sanitary napkin belt from 1902, but cannot be used as a noose due to the material, which cannot be cinched into a knot and breaks away too easily to make a cord of any kind; one more way to keep people safe.

Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of one novel, Our Prayers After the Fire (forthcoming from Blue Square Press) and four chapbooks, most recently There Are So Many Things That Beg You For Love (on its way from Patasola Press). She is the associate editor of Denver Quarterly and an assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM.

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Photo by Tom Rydquist

First, Please Yourself

About ten years ago I was fortunate enough to get the chance to meet Elizabeth Berg when she gave a talk at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Afterwards, as she signed my copy of her terrific novel Durable Goods, I asked if she had any advice for a young writer like me. After a moment of thought, she wrote underneath her signature: “First, please yourself.”

I didn’t understand what she meant. That was her biggest suggestion? Those were her magic words for building a life as a writer? It seemed a little… selfish. Shouldn’t writers think about their readers and fans? Editors and agents? Parents, friends, spouses, children?

Yet, the older I get and the more I write, the deeper Berg’s advice rings true to me.

As writers, we are so focused on the response of others to our work. We join critique groups and take writing workshops. We study the market, bounce ideas off others, absorb compliments and criticism, all with the goal of making our writing better. But if we always write to please other people, we’ll never be satisfied—because we can never please everyone.

Let’s face it: there will always be people with different tastes than your own. That’s life. But if you focus on pleasing yourself first, you’ll be armed with that self-knowledge when sifting through feedback. You’ll be able to revise and grow while staying true to your own vision.

Another secret about writing to please yourself? The writing comes easier.

When we write to please ourselves, our writing has that indefinable “spark,” that breath of life, that magic shimmering between the words on the page. When was the last time you picked up a pen with joyful abandon? When was the last time you wrote, not for anyone else to read, but for the simple exhilaration of creative expression?

Throughout the years, along with the successes I have been fortunate to experience, I have also faced plenty of criticism and setbacks. I remember one writing workshop in particular that made me question my vision and voice. I sat at a table with other writers, all of whom I admired, and listened to them pick apart the short story I had been working on for months. I wrote down their suggestions: what my story needed was an alcoholic character. Better yet, drugs. I should add some cursing and grittiness to my prose.

I nodded my head, but my heart sank. What if I didn’t want to write about drugs or violence?

The low point came when of the workshop participants accused me of not being “serious” about writing because I was largely writing stories with younger protagonists. “You need to spend time observing the real human condition,” she told me.

Dejected, I left the workshop wondering if she was right. Was I a phony?

But I found myself turning back to Elizabeth Berg’s advice: First, please yourself. What I once thought of as selfish now gives me strength.

I write stories with the goal of portraying the life I know honestly and with importance. That is what makes me a “serious” writer. In my opinion, anyone who actually sits down and takes the time to write is serious about it.

I realized it doesn’t matter what boxes other people—even if they are writers I admire—try to put me in. It doesn’t matter what rules they try to enforce. I can choose not to listen. In my own writing life, I get to set my own rules.

Howard Thurman famously said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And go do that. Because the world needs people who’ve come alive.”

To writers I say: Don’t write what you think the world needs. Write what makes you come alive—because the world needs writers and books that have come alive. Write what makes you happy. Write to please yourself.

Dallas Woodburn, a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her writing is forthcoming inAmerican Fiction 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers and has appeared in Superstition Review, The Nashville Review, Louisiana Literature, Ayris, Monkeybicycle, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. Connect with her on Twitter @DallasWoodburn and learn more about her youth literary organization “Write On!” at

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