Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is.
William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.
About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.
Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.
Thank you for talking to me about your book.
Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?
William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.
The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.
I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.
I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.
In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.
“Nana” starts out:
I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.
Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?
My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.
But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.
I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.
You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.
How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)
Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.
And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.
It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.
Why did you call this text “Cathode”?
I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).
Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.
Many years ago, I spent two weeks in Vancouver at a sort of book publishing boot camp. I can still trace most of what I know about the business of writing back to that workshop.
Well, I’ve just come through a slightly shorter, though possibly more intensive radio experience. My friend Andrew Leland (check out The Organist, McSweeney’s podcast — he produces it) and I are in the process of founding The Missouri Audio Project. We want to tell true stories using sound; to play, think, and allow people we find fascinating to speak for themselves and tell their own tales, in their own words. In short, we want to make audio CNF (creative nonfiction).
We’ve just launched our audio hopes and dreams with a six-day summer radio intensive workshop, August 2-8, 2015, here at the U of Missouri.
The workshop served as an intensive introduction to long-form audio storytelling. It was taught by radio guru Rob Rosenthal, currently the lead instructor of the Transom Story Workshop. Rob produces the HowSound podcast on audio storytelling for PRX (Public Radio Exchange). We hope to have him back and to open our workshop up to the public next summer! So, stay tuned.
Rob encouraged students to: focus on the story of one person; to look for action; to think about sound; and to think about what would compel listeners. He taught us the basics of recording, script-writing, and editing.
We also learned a thing or two about listening.
The workshop was life-changing: in a very short period of time, we learned a staggering amount. Rob is an amazing instructor: he inspires courage and confidence in his students. All of us (even the journalists amongst us) were working far outside our comfort zones and flying by the seat of our pants. All of us learned; all of us changed.
Over that crazy week of learning like I was 25 again, I produced my first radio piece. It’s about an extraordinary photographer named Shane Epping. You can listen to “Faye, in Pictures” here. It’s a sad, moving story told only through the human voice. Perhaps I’ll expand to other sounds soon, but this piece demanded simplicity.
I can’t wait to do more in sound. Radio on! (as Rob Rosenthal says…)
[Image: Maggie Boyd]
The True/False film festival just wrapped up in Columbia, Missouri, where I now live and teach. It’s four days of back-to-back documentary films showing all over our city’s centre. There are buskers and parties and panel discussions, but the heart of the event is film. I managed to see 8 this year. The highlight for me was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which is a sort of follow up to The Act of Killing. Both films examine the perpetrators of massacres in Indonesia in the 1960s. The Look of Silence documents a series of encounters between victims’ families and perpetrators. It’s a thoughtful, quiet and quite excruciating meditation on forgiveness, inheritance, fear, power, confrontation, memory and forgetting. For me, the film was a great gift. I’ve been working on (struggling with) a book on similar themes, if from a different time and place. Oppenheimer has fed my thinking in unanticipated ways.
If you’re a fan of doc films or creative nonfiction in any form, consider making the trip to the True/False Film Festival. I promise it will be worth your while.
[Photo: Glenn Rice]
The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.
Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.
The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.
The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?
My answer: RESEARCH
By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one, have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.
I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.
Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.
To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.
But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.
When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.
This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.
Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.
Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.
“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” — Oscar Wilde
It’s a snow day in Missouri, so I’m taking a few moments to return to the blog and share some impressions from the new semester. This time around, my grad students and I are contemplating and soon will be trying to produce effective portraits in creative nonfiction. Questions we’re asking of texts (ours and others’) include:
How does an author paint a compelling and true portrait of a person in words? What are the elements that make a portrait come alive? What are the pitfalls? Why do some of our attempts fall flat and produce lifeless caricatures rather than the intimate, complex, and nuanced texts we aim for? How do we deal with what we don’t and can’t know about our subject? What should or might the relationship between author and subject look like?
And in addition to writing flash portraits and full-length pieces for workshop, we’ll be reading Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor and more. It’s all big stuff: long, hefty books. Perhaps not the best way to set our terms.
Our first order of business (yesterday) was to see what we could glean from small portraits and to begin assembling a set of hypotheses about how successful portraits work in CNF. I asked each of my students to choose an excerpt (or entire portrait) that could be read in under 5 minutes and to come to class prepared to defend the selection in what I called “The Battle of the Shortcuts.” After each reading, we pinpointed what we thought the text was doing successfully, and I filled the whiteboard with our ideas. This was the result:
Contenders included portraits by: Thom Gunn, Salman Rushdie, Sara Suleri, Mark Jenkins, Lynda Barry, Eula Biss, Mike Latcher, and Jeff Sharlet.
A vote determined the “best” choice (the battle, of course, was simply a device to frame and motivate our conversation). The winning student, whose portrait the group selected, got a coffee card to a café on campus.
Contrary to my predictions, we needed no second or third ballots to determine the victor. Michele Morano’s essay, “In the Subjunctive Mood” from Grammar Lessons handily won in the first round for its use of filters, frames, and the second-person voice to render the unbearable bearable. (I know this essay is available online somewhere, legally, but I can’t find it. If you come across the link, please send it my way so I can share it!)
There are more fun and games are to come, since I’ve decided to use my imagination and stretch the bounds of the usually staid and serious format that is the writing workshop. I’ll try to share more reports from the seminar room as we progress.
If you’re also leading CNF workshops and want to share some ideas, do chime in and let me know what you’re up to.
Here’s to a day of catching up with writing and editing and the drinking of tea. Stay safe!
[Photos: Paulgi and Eric Scott]
I’m now entering the last weeks of my first semester of full-time teaching. (For those of you new to this blog, I recently started a faculty position in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri’s English Department). Moving from utter solitude and a focused life of writing to a busy schedule of classes, meetings, and constant human contact has been exciting but challenging. This weekend, for example, I was so tired that I collapsed on the couch for a full two days. Only now, after a lot of sleep, some yoga and a movie, can I face the computer and my books once again.
The upside is that, along with my students, I feel like I’m learning and advancing at breakneck pace. As a result, the issue of how much we can learn and how fast we can do it has been on my mind.
The fact is, truly good writing takes time. Sometimes it takes insane amounts of time that few non-writers would predict. My essay, “Pregnant Pause,” for example, was three years in the making. That’s the kind of time that few grad students can afford: there are seminars to finish, comprehensive exams to write, theses to complete, and CVs to build.
Now that I’ve been at it for a few months, I’m starting to see that there are two kinds of time at play in the creative writing program context: writing time (when an essay naturally takes three years to complete) and institutional time (when said essay needs to be handed in ten days before Christmas).
While it would seem that the more “natural” writing time would be liberating and productive (and therefore the obvious winner in the contest between the two), it can also be yawning and oppressive in its formlessness. Writing time can kill you with its endlessness, foster procrastination, and kill hope. Institutional time, on the other hand, in its very arbitrariness, can be weirdly good for a writer. There’s nothing like a deadline to boost productivity. Fear of public shame works well too — our students regularly present work to their peers, and none of them want to share work that’s crappy. They work with urgency and energy that can only come from outside strictures. And yet, I find myself once again going back to writing time, and reconsidering its merits, because for all the umph that institutional time provides, it cannot duplicate the insight, reflection, perspective and polish that writing time affords.
The trick to fostering good writing and what I think of as “real” writing within the university context, is to find a way to adhere to institutional time without ever losing sight or feel of writing time. The tension between them is undeniable, but perhaps productive and energizing too.
If you teach in a university context, how do you negotiate writing and institutional time?
[Photo: Damian Gadal]
Shana Tova. Yesterday was the start of the Jewish New Year, and for me, this autumn of 2013 marks the beginning of a new stage in my life: new house, new country, new license plates (on my agenda for today) and new job. I’ve just arrived at the University of Missouri, Columbia, with my family in tow to begin my work as Assistant Professor of English, specifically of creative writing. I’m teaching writing workshops in creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays, lyric essays, biography, and so on) and returned last night from a graduate seminar feeling energized and inspired by the discussion I had with my students.
Our project for this graduate seminar (called “Raw”) is to write from material traces. I’ve asked each student to choose an object and to use it as a starting point for reflection, investigation and creation. Some have chosen family heirlooms or documents; some are using things collected while traveling; others are going to the archives. What a gift to have a group of writers who come to the table with real questions and projects that matter to them, and that I believe will matter to others if they do their jobs well.
Last night, we dove into our first deep discussion with Maggie Nelson’s Jane (A Murder). The book takes a family diary, penned by Nelson’s murdered aunt, as its starting point. It reworks Jane’s journal entries, and treats fragments like poetry. One of my students remarked that by doing so, Nelson has made these fragments whole — I thought it a stroke of brilliance. If you don’t know this book and are interested in archives, personal writings, diaries, trauma, grief, or women’s life-writing, I highly recommend it.
Our Jane discussion led to reflection on the sacred, on the responsibility that we as authors have to the creators or owners of the objects we use in our work, and on who has the right to tell stories. An auspicious start.
Happy autumn. May it be a season of discovery and growth.
[Photo: Thomas Hawk]