little red book

Photo by Alice

Make It New

This will all be familiar to you. It’s the traditional workshop model, we sit around a conference table, letters to the author in hand, manuscripts full of marginalia, strikethroughs and underlines. The things that are good reduced to check marks on the page. We rattle off the things that do and do not “work” in the piece. Turning art into a machine that spits out characters and images and feelings, and it’s our job as workshop participants to “fix” the broken cogs. Or at least, point to the broken thing and say “That.” We’re supposed to be articulating our aesthetics as a writer, to demonstrate knowledge of craft. For some it works, and it works pretty well, but for others, it’s a practice in slow torture. Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

When my story is up for workshop, I drink. I “pre-brief” with my boyfriend at the bar, psyche myself up for the barrage of “feedback” I’m about to walk into. I’m a boxer entering the ring with my hands tied. In my head “Bring Da Ruckus” by Wu Tang Clan is playing on repeat.  While comments are being made about my work, I overthink my facial expressions, trying to find the balance between somber meditation and intense concern. My eyebrows scrunch up, and when we pause for a quick break, I run to the bathroom, wipe the sweat from my armpits with a paper towel, massage my temples, and repeat the mantra I’ve adopted from something my boyfriend said once, “We’re all just monkeys bangin’ at the cage.”  When I return to my spot at the table, I look in my notebook. I’ve scribbled some version of everyone hates this or this story is garbage, and then a doodle of Pusheen and a smiling turd. This is coping.

One week we read a published piece, and my peers lauded the craft. It was “Murderers” by Leonard Michaels, a musical little story that’s also a beast to read. The difficulty of it was what made it worthwhile, and we all agreed. And then I said, “Guys, if I wrote this and brought it into workshop, you’d have ripped it to shreds.”

As an educator, I’m asked to cater to a wide variety of learning styles, to be new and innovative, to breathe life into tired rhetoric. We are constantly asked to push the boundaries of our pedagogy. The world is evolving, genres are blurring, literature constantly shifting, and yet we’re working with a model that’s been used since the birth of the mighty Iowa Workshop, and haven’t turned back since. But the model is a shell, it’s like slapping a familiar cartoon character on a busted toy and selling it to eager children. Sure we’ll buy it, but we won’t be happy in the end.

It is easy to point out the things that are wrong in a broken system. People do it all the time. They complain about the government, though they didn’t bother to vote. And it’s easy to feel helpless. I poured out everything I had getting into an MFA program, spent a year preparing my application materials, burned incense and prayed to the patron saint of newbie writers.  Somehow I actually got in. It felt like a miracle getting off the wait list. Out of hundreds of applicants, I was one of six. The odds are unbelievable. So, while some people may say that I should just give up on this whole endeavor, that if I don’t like it, I shouldn’t do it, I think that’s the worst attitude to have. MFA programs are where apprentice writers have a place they can go and be with other apprentice writers. We work for a couple years with brilliant and experienced writers, and focus on craft. But that isn’t happening in the workshop. I want to fight to make it better.

But what does “better” even look like? One professor I had passed around a plastic jack-o-lantern during workshop every week, and we all wrote on slips of paper one thing we wanted to discuss in the stories. It just didn’t feel like enough. We tried mood lighting and once we watched a Youtube video of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests. And while it was a fun diversion, it only seemed to mask a small part of what was unsatisfying in the workshop. Perhaps looking solely at writing is too narrow, and looking at only one genre even moreso.  Narrative presents itself in the strangest ways, so why not take odd measures to pursue it. Sir Isaac Newton was so devoted to his work, that in order to understand how we see color, he stuck a needle in his eyeball. Mauizio Montalbini lived alone in a cave for 210 days to study the effects of isolation on the human brain.  Rather than study writing using stale methods, why not do something completely different, perhaps even a little crazy, to be better writers. I’m not saying we should all go shoving things in our eyes (though it seems tempting after hours spent staring at a blank screen), we should push ourselves beyond the comfort of the traditional workshop model, and into something that’s maybe a little frightening, like working a fast food gig, or riding public transportation.

Aside from having Joyce Carol Oates as my very own Mr. Miyagi, my ideal workshop is less about critique and more about exploration. It’s about taking risks and not being so quick to establish what is wrong, or “not working,” in a piece. Instead of seeing revision as treatment for a disease, I like to think of it as working a Rubik’s Cube, where you arrange and rearrange the sentences and ideas until they line up.  If they don’t line up, you get out a Sharpie and you color those damn squares until they do. And it may sound like sacrilege, and possibly make the MFA Director at my university choke on her coffee, I think the ideal workshop is to have no workshop at all.

I recently attended a panel on nature writing. No one else from my genre attended the panel. It was three writers telling about their struggles and experience. David Gessner, one of the guest speakers, said that to be a successful writer, your writing has to find a way to “slip past the gate.” This is the struggle of every writer hoping to get published. It’s not a lottery, but it kind of is. In workshop we slave away at these stories, fighting the paralysis of perfection, and overwhelming anxiety, in hopes that the beautiful things we write will see the light of publication. But if we’re using this exhausted workshop model, and spattering off the same notions about writing, how are we ever to “slip past the gate?”

I look through my notes from the panel for an answer to my workshop conundrum. I see endurance and voice and mistakes. I see It takes time. Cultivate your anger. I see Make it new, underlined, in a little doodle box with arrows pointing at it.

Lacey Rowland is an MFA fiction candidate. Find her on Twitter at @beatnik_bunny.

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elephant eye

Photo by Tim Simpson

Spoken-word poetry editor Jacqueline Boucher on today’s bonus poems: The word “evocative” was invented for Ashley Keyser. The arsenal Keyser uses to conjure an image is so varied, from precise turns of phrase to a razor-sharp narrowing of focus on a carefully constructed hairstyle or the nape of a neck. Every line in both “The Hoggetowne Medieval Faire” and “Land of Flowers” begs to be excised, to be tucked behind your ear and read later. Or, in the case of “beefy carnie,” the words become the thing you’re dying to say out loud the first chance you get.

The Hoggetowne Medieval Faire

would smell like shit.
Its source, an elephant trundling the yard, is historically

to say nothing of ye olde corndogs and Subway,
but the odor
is right out of a scatologically slapstick story

by Chaucer.
He’s smelled it all day, the beefy carnie in the next lot,
sweating in leather

while he pushes a dragon-swing of baby-knights and their hot
seasick mom.
He grunts, his sunburned brow deep-knit,

as his belly gleams
beneath his open vest. In princess gear, the mom is a vision
of biz-cas S&M:

her ample bosom corseted; her hair, in a decorous bun,
tendriling little whips.
Across the park, tiaras glitter on crop-topped women,

coins at the hip 
jangling a holiday exoticism. They hoot for the acrobats’ 
sword-juggling flips

or for their muscles stripped to gold shorty-shorts.
A fubsy girl screams,
“I’m bored!” Beneath this infanta, so is the elephant—

drained of color, she seems—
but she lowers ashy eyelashes, lurching poker-faced
as an ancient queen.

Land of Flowers

All the dads they have ever met
haunt their wardrobes, these scrubbed young men,
five abreast on the sidewalk. Five pastel polos,
each a different shade, like candy buttons,
or like the brassy condos flaunting their newness
on Clearwater Beach, where the sand irked you
(“too disorganized”) but you took off your shirt,
even though you didn’t want to be seen.
As the orange-tinted boys’ boat-shoes
slap vigorously toward us, we give way
to let their handsome health pass by.
We linger, like old news, in the gutter.

“It’s not that I’m shallow. It’s just
his lazy eye is so distracting.” The girls
in the next booth can’t stop agreeing,
their bowl-sized glasses tinkling. “Honey,
I know. You’re so not shallow.” Cocktails here
have names like Blowjob and Fuzzy Dick,
so we order our drinks neat. You’re purple
in harsh light, like a Toulouse-Lautrec painting
sunk in bathwater. “The real lazy thing,
if you ask me, is he doesn’t fix that eye.
All this modern medicine.” A few blocks down,
the tide writhes at the earth’s feet, a sound
drowned out by the game on plasma-screens.

August, when we “take a break,” flakes off
in piles of termite wings, what the fuckers shed
before banqueting on my house. Florida,
like its cockroaches, eats everything, yawning
sinkhole-mouths—under some guy’s bed,
even, while he slept! I sleep alone,
your salt and aftershave scenting the pillow.
Vines thread the shingles, as if no one
ever lived here. When I open Anna Karenina,
two termites breed in the cover, wriggling
and flightless, a smudged ex-libris.

The vasectomy surgeon’s missing-link brow
jabs at us from its billboard (1-800-VAS-TIME)
as you in the driver’s seat grab my wrist
and stuff my whole hand into your mouth.
I’d like to buy you something you don’t need:
fifteen boxes of berries from a roadside stand,
or the gas station’s basket of toy kittens
plastered in unnervingly realistic fur.
In answer to another billboard’s challenge,
“If you die tonight—HEAVEN or HELL?!”
you call the hotline: “I hope you aren’t bored
or lonely.” All the way home, I can’t stop
touching the silky down on your nape.

Ashley Keyser is from Chicago and lives in Gainesville, Florida. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review and is forthcoming in Pleiades.

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Photo by Bob Prosser

Many congratulations to Dan Mancilla! His “The Deathmask of El Gaucho” was selected as the winner of the Little Presque Books Novella contest and will appear in the next issue of Passages North. We’re delighted. In honor of the contest, we asked our editors to share their own wrestling ring names.

Ashely Adams
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Watervliet, Michigan

Mother Goose: I like to make loud noises, stand in groups of like minded people, and have entertained the notion of crapping on people’s lawns on occasion.

John LaPine
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

The French-Canadian Stallion, because for obvious reasons.

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sandusky, Ohio

My ring name is Manos, after the low budget 1966 American horror film written, directed, produced by, and starring Harold P. Warren. My gimmick is that I am a Pagan cultist, and am responsible for corrupting wrestling executives during a season-long barrage of fixed matches, wherein I am unavoidably named the peoples’ champ, because I use the Money in the Bank briefcase to unseat Donald Trump in one humdinger of a contest involving several folding chairs. Live, from Cleveland. My theme song is “The Clincher,” by Chevelle. I have thought about this to an irresponsible degree.

Amy Hansen
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sycamore, Illinois

The taskmistress. Also:

l to r: Matthew Gavin Frank, author/wrestling fan W. Todd Kaneko, the Taskmistress

Jacque Boucher
Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

I want to be part of a mysterious trio called Bernadette and The Legs. We used to be a doo-wop group before a mysterious tragedy led us to embark on a quest for revenge against our arch nemesis, The (Hard) Rock. Signature moves include the Arpeggio Piledriver and the Syncopated Slam. Now accepting applications for Bernadette and the Right Leg.

Matt Ftacek
Associate Editor, Poetry
Niles, Michigan

Matt Fantastic: upon entering the ring, my fans like to point at me and enthusiastically shout, “Matt Fantastic!”

Matt Weinkam
Managing Editor
Cincinnati, Ohio

The Negotiator. I…I just try and talk my way out of wrestling.

Ethan Brightbill
Associate Editor, Fiction
Allentown, Pennsylvania

Dr. Thunder: “And Diet Thunder blocks the hit, he’s going in, he’s going in, and LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, DIET THUNDER JUST UNLEASHED A CALORIE BURN!”

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Solar eclipse from Leeds

Photo by Jo Waterland

What is Not Seen in Writing Nonfiction

Last year there was a solar eclipse during one of my creative writing classes. I learned of it just before we were to begin; a group of students were lamenting their missed opportunity. “No, let’s go look at it,” I said, remembering grade school science class, constructing small paper boxes which somehow keep our retinas from burning. I hadn’t seen a solar eclipse since then. So up we went and my whole creative writing class walked down two flights of stairs and out the side door. One ran ahead to scout out the best location for viewing.

Behind the building we waited in small groups. I think I was more excited than my students; the memory of that grade school phenomena was smoggy and tricky. I remembered being out on the playground, I remember holding my fragilely constructed box. But when I thought about it, I did not remember seeing the eclipse.

Childhood has been coming back to me. Not deja vu experience but incomplete memories sparked by event and seeing. What strikes me most is also what complicates my writing: my memory is faulty, incomplete fragments. Only now I feel I need the fill the holes. I can’t stand not knowing, feeling like I’ve let myself down in some way. Nonfiction is all about memory.

Here’s my chance, I thought, careful not to let the giddiness show through my academic demeanor. And then the eclipse, slow and eye-watering. “Be careful,” I told them, “try not to look at it directly,” advice I was not taking. No, this time I wanted to see.

Afterwards we ambled slowly back to the classroom. It has been a letdown, I think, for most of the class. The world didn’t end. We just stood for a few minutes and tried to protect our eyes.

“Scrap the plan,” I told them, shutting down the TED Talk I wanted them to watch that day. “Let’s free write some nonfiction. Think about a time,” I told them, “when you were blind to something and ask yourself why you didn’t see it coming, why you didn’t understand.”

We write often in class. It used to be an exercise I hated when I was a student. I was never prepared and thought the act of free-writing was filler. It never unlocked anything in me. Rather, anxiety filled me, knowing at the end of prescribed time the teacher would ask who wants to read and I would feel compelled to eventually volunteer because I always feared for my participation grade. But now that I’m teaching, I feel different. I find many of my intro creative writing students struggle to write, especially non-fiction, a genre they enter with preconceived notions of often being boring and serious. What do I have to write about, they ask, especially after reading McSweeney’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay,” a piece full of tropes and expected topics. They’re so young; they cling to first romances and dead relatives. So we begin not with narrative, but with questions. Essays are about figuring something out. They investigate, seek answers and revelation. I now think free writing is especially important in non-fiction; it allows for exploration before committing to a full body of work.

My students never ask me to read, even though I write along with them, pen scratching paper, and I don’t volunteer. But this time, the same student who ran ahead asked, at the end of a few students’ readings, did ask what I had written. Did I really want to share? No, but teaching and writing nonfiction demands a certain amount of forthcomingness and honesty. And so I read, thrown back to my undergraduate days, paper gripped as loosely as I could pretend to hold it.

The flash essay began with the story of an elephant named Sissy who once survived a flash flood at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas, the small town my mother was raised in and that she’s now, after retirement, moved back to. Sissy was bounced between zoos her entire life and was so ill-treated by her keepers that secret footage of her mistreatment was instrumental in the federal government’s evaluation of zoo standards. As I free-wrote I equated Sissy’s story to the childhood of my mother, a woman who was mistreated by her mother. Though Sissy now lives a much better life in an elephant sanctuary, my mother chose to return to the place where she endured harsh words and what I would now define as abuse. I meditated on how abuse can linger and anchor us to place and if it’s possible to forgive our environments for what we suffer there.

Afterwards I felt a little shame in what I’d read. It echoed an earlier essay written for an undergraduate class that ended with my mother, alone in her living room heaped full of things, eating a microwave meal and falling asleep in her arm chair in front of the television. What I say about my mother and what I write about my mother are two different perceptions: care-taker and giver versus lonely and taken-advantage of.

The student asked, “but what were you blind to? Seems like you got it figured out.” The rest of the class laughed.

She’s the writer,” another said, “of course she’s got it figured out.”

“But I don’t,” I said. “Not even close. What question do you think I was trying to figure out?”

“Why your mom is alone, or how your mom is like an elephant?”

“You’re right in a sense,” I admitted. “Yes, I started with why my mom loves elephants, but it lead me to another question, and then another. I’ve got an answer for the first question, perhaps, what got me into this essay, but it’s not the question I’m interested in figuring out anymore.”

This is the way many of our classes turn out: a discussion of process. My intro students tend to think of creative writing, at first, like academic writing. They see it as one big project, a final piece, instead of intricate components. We try to talk about craft pieces, and process, discussions I never really had but that now fuel how I write.

“It’s not about why mom likes elephants, and why I think of my mom and Sissy in the same way. Now it’s about why I think of my mom the way I do, and in my later years–” my students giggle, “I’m just now concerned with how I really treat her, and view her, and if I’m fair to her, and if I understand her.”

This is what nonfiction does for me. This is what free-writing does for me. It is a process of asking questions, and answering them, all to get to the question I can’t answer readily, the question with an answer I have to puzzle out over weeks, and months, and sometimes years, of drafting an essay. A lot of time it starts with something mundane, rather obvious, and then I poke at it, wait for it to rear its ugly head and reveal something about me I didn’t know before, that I still have to figure out.

“I know it’s not always like this,” I told the class, “but sometimes non-fiction is like a turtle. You have to wait for it show itself, wait and write and see not what it is, but what it becomes.” And then I told them what I wish someone had told me when I first started writing, sitting at a small desk and thinking I already had it figured out, what I still struggle with because I’m in a rush to write, to publish, to be competitive in grad school and on the job market. “It’s a long process,” I said, “and at the end of the semester you can’t think you’re done, that you’ve written the essay and turned it in and now it’s over. It’s just the beginning. You can’t put a time limit on writing. You can’t say in two months it will be finished. There’s no telling how long it will take. There’s just no telling.”

Gwendolyn Edward writes nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She retains a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas, where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant nonfiction editor and also teaches creative writing.

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This is as close as you get.

Photo by William Clifford


Press harder, he says, and I do, watching his computer screen for proof of my identity to emerge. I push into the pads of my splayed fingers, lifting onto my tiptoes for leverage, as a cluster of ovals begins to appear on his monitor. But my ovals aren’t the distinct images I’ve seen on crime shows – black swirls so precise and unique they can be used to distinguish me from every other person on the planet. Mine are blurry and muted and smooth at the edges.

We try a few times more until finally he sees an image he likes and saves it. He’s a TSA agent signing me up for pre-screening security clearance, meaning the next time I fly I’ll be able to keep on my shoes and my jacket, or a belt if I’m wearing one.

Your prints are beginning to wear off, he says.

This seems impossible. How can something so personal, so biological and pertinent to my being just wear off? Crime shows did not prepare me for this.

Do you do a lot of typing? he asks. Or writing?

I hesitate. I’ve been writing since I was ten years old – spooky stories, at first, to scare my schoolmates and later, as a teenager, moody poetry to scare my mother – then, after college, twelve years as a journalist, reporting the tragedies and triumphs of strangers. When my daughter was still in the womb, I wrote her letters, one a day. After she was born, the letters became essays about how hard, and how beautiful, it was to mother her.

But never have I written so voraciously and intimately as I do now, on a manuscript about divorce and the loss of identity that follows. Some days, the words come hard, a trickle. Other days they pull me under, to a fitful, maddening place where I think only about wrangling them into sentences. The story swirls inside of me, becoming more distinct with time and polish.

My writer friends and I, we are hesitant to call ourselves writers. Instead, we are teachers, librarians, business owners, computer engineers, architects, lawyers. We write in coffee shops, on train rides to work, or while our kids attend art classes. We wonder when, exactly, we’ll earn license to say yes, we are writers. When we are published? When we sign book deals? Or will it come at a point less tangible – not a precise moment in time but a slow, methodical happening that occurs without celebration or attention or even any notice at all?

This man is telling me that my fingerprints are disappearing, that I am leaving them behind on the page, punctuating the story of my life with actual bits of my DNA. At the end of the day, my fingertips ache.

Calling myself a writer was always something I did privately, indulgently, like a child who fancies herself an astronaut or a princess. But now my body reveals its secret. There is no difference between story and skin.

Yes, I tell the agent. I’m a writer.

Well, he says, handing me my passport. That explains it.

Wendy Fontaine is an essayist and journalism professor in southern California. Her work has appeared in Readers Digest, Brain Child, Hippocampus, Role Reboot, Literary Mama, Mutha Magazine, and elsewhere. She is working on her first book, a memoir.

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Photo by Neil Conway

This week, since the symbol for Passages North is a rocket, we asked: What fuels the Passages North crew?

John LaPine
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan


Jacque Boucher
Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

Cats who think they’re people, people who think they’re cats, and the possibility that someone (maybe Robin) still has cookies stashed behind her desk.

Andrea Wuorenmaa
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

The hope that Timston Johnston will make us more cake.

Annie Bilancini
Associate Editor, Fiction
Cleveland, Ohio

Our weekly group worship of the God of Snow, Heikki Lunta, followed by a group jump into Lake Superior. The weak swimmers are left behind. It thins the herd.

Mike Berry
Associate Editor, Fiction
Troy, Michigan

Mamma Berry’s cookies, Stucko’s chicken wings, and a general fear of all things not words.

Amy Hansen
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sycamore, Illinois

I mean, I feel like the gas tank of the PN office is the Keurig.

James Dyer
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Lowell, Michigan

Wilton Silver Color Mist food coloring spray. Don’t get witnessed without it.

Matt Ftacek
Associate Editor, Poetry
Niles, Michigan

Free cookies left in the kitchenette.

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sandusky, Ohio

An experimental formula, unregulated by the DOT, whose main components are unpublished collaborative manuscripts by the Beat Generation and inaugural poems by James Franco.

Hayley Fitz
Associate Editor, Fiction
North Ridgeville, Ohio



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Vinyl Record Player

Photo by Nan Palmero

This week’s question: If Passages North had a theme song, what would it be?

Paige Frazier Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction Louisa, Kentucky
My first thought was Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear. I think because of the weird video:

Jason Teal Associate Editor, Poetry Sandusky, Ohio
“Space and the Woods,” by Late of the Pier, because PN is a composite of both.

James Dyer Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction Lowell, Michigan
… I do what I want.

Amy Hansen Associate Editor, Poetry Sycamore, Illinois
“Say Yes! to Michigan!” by ol’ Sufjan. Because everyone on staff did.

Jacque Boucher Spoken Word Poetry Juneau, Alaska
Passages North’s theme song should be Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” When people look at the title, they get certain idea of the journal, but when they look inside, BOOM. Something totally different. Surprising. Dynamic.

Ashely Adams Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction Watervliet, Michigan
“Planet Smasher” by Devin Townsend Project because some of our staff have been known to commit hostile, prog-metal backed takeovers of the planet for a good cup of coffee.

John LaPine Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction Ishpeming, Michigan
Not sure why I chose this song. Maybe the line “paperback dreams?”


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Finding Home: Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t by Ryan Kauffman

My mom, sister, and I moved 21 times before my 18th birthday. We didn’t talk about it much, but we all knew why. Sometimes, the lease was up and we simply wanted something nicer. Others, there just wasn’t enough money to be able to stay. My mother supported two children with the child support payments for one. I know how this narrative plays out from a child’s point-of-view–shared toys and socks and microwaveable bacon. But what haunted my mother as she put on a smile and cracked jokes while our stuff was packed away in yet another U-Haul? Jill Talbot’s newest book offers such a perspective.

In The Way We Weren’t, Talbot delineates her story as a writer/professor, a single mother, and jilted lover by starting with a letter written by her daughter’s father arguing his right not to pay child support. The intimacy of the letter and its content–whether or not the “facts” presented in it are completely true–takes the reader by surprise.

The issue of child support that we both agreed upon has abruptly resurfaced and I am now $40,000 in debt to her, my driver’s license has been suspended, and I am entirely overwhelmed. Dealing with any of these issues could break a person and I need help rectifying this issue quickly so I may focus on my life before it falls apart.

Are we supposed to sympathize with the letter’s author? With Talbot? It’s uncertain at the close of this epistolary prologue, but this uncertainty works in Talbot’s favor. Beyond intriguing the reader, the letter sets up the remainder of the memoir with this question in mind: How does one get over the past before it wrecks the present?

The ways in which Talbot tries to answer that question–ranging from first- and then to third-person narration, to wine lists, to court transcripts–keeps the structure fresh and takes the reader through an off-balanced (in the best possible way) journey with Talbot as she interrogates memory, writing, identity, and how one, by necessity, dictates the others. Early and often, Talbot directs her readers with explicit questions and musings about this flawed aspect of human existence:

How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?

She stares at the man in the photograph, realizing it is not the man she has been writing for eight years.

Time has become a detail that can change with letters typed on a keyboard, with one click of the delete button.

As I read these lines, took in the philosophy of an author trying to get over something, I found myself tracing my own identity through memories of near countless apartments and houses. Am I the same person who moved, with my mom and sister, on a pouring day in June to a third-floor apartment at Hampton Hills? Was it even raining during that particular move?. No, no, it was raining when we moved to a little ranch-style house on Sylvan Road. My memories are jumbled and conflated. Talbot’s words suggest a deep human truth we might not otherwise consider. The best memoir usually does.

There’s another, more subtle thread to Talbot’s memoir: Finding home. I recognize the feeling of moving so much that the word “home” has become little more than a myth. My best friends spent their childhoods in the same houses, with the same unfinished basements and squeaking living room floors. They had homes. And yet, the more I moved, the more it seemed clear to me that a house is not what makes a home. The idea of home can be grounded by a particular chair or table or person. Talbot comes to this realization as well:

For so many years after Kenny left us, I saw Indie and I as living alone. In Chicago, I saw that we lived together. And that what we have is enough. Even with all we don’t have, with all we have lost, and with all we have had to lose along the way, what we have is each other, and where we have it best is at our kitchen table.

The Way We Weren’t is more than a straightforward memoir about writing, scorned love, and moving. It’s an intimate portrait of a person trying to find her way through the past, present, and future–through life. I don’t know whether any of my own mother’s thoughts correlate to those offered by Talbot, but I know that The Way We Weren’t gave me a deeper appreciation for the only constants in my memories of moving when I was younger–my mom and sister. The book also renewed my appreciation for the work of true memoir, for writers like Jill Talbot, fearless in their excavation of the past–as though the future depends on it.


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Photo by Claudio

Jason Teal on today’s bonus poem: We all have ghosts. Ghosts of memory and circumstance stuck on infinite repeat inside our cerebellums. We’re subject to their insistent lingering, the minute damages they visit on future exchanges—with colleagues, friends, family, &c. Revising itself with anaphora and expert repetition that rivals its best practitioners, “All Laments Are Circles” maps the trajectory of mourning and offers a sharp critique of the inescapable human condition.

All Laments are Circles

you arrive at my door
you arrive at my door in a suit
you arrive at my door in a suit holding flowers
in your right hand
pink orange carnations
that you thrust in my face like a pompom
like a one-armed cheerleader, cheering me on


in your sleeves whole gardens
of chicanery [you arrive at my door]
what kind of man [wearing a suit]
are you/could you/can you
be? [holding flowers] for me? are they?


[you arrive] all I can see
are these flowers in my face
full of carnations gardenias in various ghosts of white
you are a particular ghost at my doorstep and somewhere in front of me your voice
is an interruption, your face is nowhere your face/your voice/your face/your voice


you arrive at my door holding a gardenia dead crow:
it’s hurt you say
no, it’s dead I say
can you fix it? you say
no, it’s dead I say
do you want it? you say


here, give it here I say


here in my hand a crow all wet with rain
black /slick /quiet dead now in my hands


hands being the mistake hands being the plural hands becoming unhinged at the wrist, taking flight
across a night filled with moon
flinging birdlike shadows
all over the gorgeous grass


hands holding
hands handing over the empty vase [while outside
the crow’s caw
or the daisy’s slow decay]


today being just an anagram of another day

Catherine Bresner’s poetry has appeared in The Pinch, H_NGM_N, BOAAT, Cream City Review, Burntdistrict, Handsome, and Yemessee, She also has work forthcoming in InkBrick. She is the coordinating editor for The Seattle Review, the production editor for boaat Press and an intern at Wave Books.

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{ 1 comment }

Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Theatre - landscape

Photo by Ben Becker

Since summer is the time for blockbuster movies, the Passages North crew weighed in on the movies they think everybody should watch.

Rachael Belmore
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Marquette, Michigan

Everyone should watch *batteries not included at least once because Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are adorable.

Mike Berry
Associate Editor, Fiction
Troy, Michigan

As an avid fan of 1980′s cheeseball movies, it gets no better than Real Genius. I just want someone I can back-and-forth Val Kilmer one liners with because I’m pretty sure I’m the only living person left who enjoyed this movie.

Annie Bilancini
Associate Editor, Fiction
Cleveland, Ohio

I’ll tell them to watch Mermaids. Because it’s the best movie that was ever made. #CherandWinoforever

Jacque Boucher
Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

Everyone should watch the 1993 classic Demolition Man. It’s a must-see not only because it serves as a stark reminder for the importance of injecting humanity into sterile circumstances, but because it includes some of the best catchphrases of any action movie ever. Namely, “SIMON SAYS BLEED!”

James Dyer
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Lowell, Michigan

Battlefield Earth. Because while you were still learning how to spell your name, I was being trained to conquer galaxies.

Paige Frazier
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Louisa, Kentucky

A Trip to the Moon. It’s a 15 minute movie made in 1902. It’s on Netflix and has been colorized. It’s awesome to see what people imagined was on the moon in 1902. Plus it’s very trippy if you’re into that sorta thing.

Matt Ftacek
Associate Editor, Poetry
Niles, Michigan

I just watched Nightcrawler recently and thought it was fantastic. It offers a dark, critical look at American news media and what the camera isn’t showing you. It’s also a killer neo-noir flick.

Willow Grosz
Associate Editor, Fiction
Talkeetna, Alaska

Lo. a low budget romantic horror comedy filmed in 3 days.

Timston Johnston
Fiction Editor
Weidman, Michigan

Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s super-confident claim that speaking in movies is senseless, that body language is more effective at showing love than making it the climax of any you-had-me-at-hello dialogue.

John LaPine
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

Moon, for your independent outerspace fix.

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sandusky, Ohio

Face-Off 2: The Facing Off. Shenanigans ensue once again over Nicolas Cage’s iconic mug in this 3-D rom com starring Reese Witherspoon. Produced by Adam Sandler and kickstarted by thousands of fans, this is a blockbuster that is guaranteed to break new cinematic ground. Or just read a book.

Matt Weinkam
Managing Editor
Cincinnati, Ohio

Snowpiercer: the best action-horror ecocritical allegory for capitalism set on a train since Thomas the Tank Engine.

Andrea Wuorenmaa
Associate Editor, Creative Nonfiction
Ishpeming, Michigan

Watch Anatomy of a Murder for some scenes of Marquette County over fifty years ago. Then, come north to tour the set locations. (I’m just always trying to get people to come to the Upper Peninsula. I promise it’s a great film!)


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