CNF Conversations: An Interview with Joy Castro

Castro small headshot

Joy Castro, ed. Family Trouble. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Joy Castro http://www.joycastro.com is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.

Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.

The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.

The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here: http://www.joycastro.com/FamilyTrouble.htm.

Family Trouble cover

Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.

Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?

Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.

I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.

The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.

At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it.  I thought 20 or 30 people might show up.  But over 400 came.  I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.

A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired.  Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.

In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives.  No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.

I also wanted other kinds of diversity:  cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself.  There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.

Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?

I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.

I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.

And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.

I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.

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Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.

Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

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Stranger than Fiction: CNFC Cabaret, June 3, 2013

CNFCPosterRevised

Stranger than Fiction: The Creative Nonfiction Cabaret

An evening of lightning readings by authors both local and from away

With readings by:

Taras Grescoe, Julija Šukys, David Waltner-Toews, Kitty Hoffman, Maria
Turner, Susan Olding, Jane Silcott, Mark Abley, Merrily Weisbord, and
Myrl Coulter

Co-sponsored by the Creative Nonfiction Collective and the QuebecWriters’ Federation

Come for the door prizes (books!); stay for the readings.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Doors open at 6:00 pm. Come for a bite and to socialize before the
readings start!
$5.00 entrance
 
Café Mariposa
5434 Côte St-Luc Rd
Montreal, QC
H3X 2C5
 
(514) 439-3190
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Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize

Number4

First Prize: $1,000 and publication (Winter 2014)

Runner-up (if applicable) will be considered for publication

Judge: Scott Russell Sanders

Deadline: All submissions must be entered by March 15, 2013

Fourth Genre will seek the best creative nonfiction essay for its ninth annual Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize. Authors of previously unpublished manuscripts are encouraged to enter. All submissions will be read blindly, readers and editors will not see the contestant’s name or cover letter. All manuscripts must be no longer than 6,000 words and previously unpublished. Multiple submissions are accepted. Entry fee of $20 for EACH submission. Winner and runner-up (if applicable) will be announced at the end of April.

Full submission guidelines: Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize

Thanks to Dinty W. Moore at Brevity for this.

[Photo: Leo Reynolds]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Essayist Chris Arthur, Part I

Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings. Iowa City: Shoreline Books, 2012.

The carefully crafted, meditative essays in On the Shoreline of Knowledge sometimes start from unlikely objects or thoughts, a pencil or some fragments of commonplace conversation, but they soon lead the reader to consider fundamental themes in human experience. The unexpected circumnavigation of the ordinary unerringly gets to the heart of the matter. Bringing a diverse range of material into play, from fifteenth-century Japanese Zen Buddhism to how we look at paintings, and from the nature of a briefcase to the ancient nest-sites of gyrfalcons, Chris Arthur reveals the extraordinary dimensions woven invisibly into the ordinary things around us. Compared to Loren Eiseley, George Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Aldo Leopold, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, W. B. Yeats, and other literary luminaries, he is a master essayist whose work has quietly been gathering an impressive cargo of critical acclaim. Arthur speaks with an Irish accent, rooting the book in his own unique vision of the world, but he addresses elemental issues of life and death, love and loss, that circle the world and entwine us all.

“Chris Arthur is among the very best essayists in the English language today. He is ever mindful of the genre’s long literary tradition and understands—as did his great predecessors—that the genuine essay is grounded in the imagination, in our quest for art and beauty, as deeply as is poetry or painting. Every young writer who wants to experience the creative possibilities of the essay form must read Chris Arthur—it isn’t an option.”—Robert Atwan, series editor, The Best American Essays.

Chris Arthur lives in Fife, Scotland. He has published several books of essays, including Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, and Words of the Grey Wind. His work has appeared in Best American Essays, American Scholar, Irish Pages, Northwest Review, and Threepenny Review, among others. He is a member of Irish PEN, and his numerous awards include the Akegarasu Haya International Essay Prize, the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, and the Gandhi Foundation’s Rodney Aitchtey Memorial Essay Prize. Visit www.chrisarthur.org to find out more about the author and his writing.

Julija Šukys: Your essays often take the meditation of familiar objects as their starting points. For example, you reflect on a seed found in your mother’s coat pocket and use it as way of contemplating her passage and of wondering about sides of her personality that you never saw. In essays that follow that first (I must say, masterful) piece, you take a pencil, a family painting, your father’s briefcase (a varied “silent symphony of objects”) as starting points. Your contemplation of these things then takes you on journeys of remembrance, of speculation, of mourning, and of historical clarification (by this I mean the ways in which you translate the Troubles and your experience of growing up in Ulster through seemingly trivial material objects and inconsequential places). The result is this incredibly rich and dense collection, On the Shoreline of Knowledge. I confess to being a slow reader on the best of days, but it took me forever to finish your book. This is not a because of some fault in your work, but rather a function of its density and richness. Each essay is a kind of polished stone, or perhaps like that drop of dew you write about with so many images and stories contained within it. Congratulations on an extraordinary accomplishment.

This past fall, I’ve been leading a writers’ workshop on the personal essay. We’ve talked a lot about the ways in which the best essays contain the large and the small – or rather the large within the small. Your essays seem to me to be some of the most dramatic illustrations of the principles that I’ve come across. I wonder if you could talk a little about your approach to writing and thinking your way from the small to the big and back again.

Chris Arthur: I’m fascinated by what I suppose you might call the dual nature of things – though that’s something of a misnomer. The duality is more apparent than real and lies in us, and how we observe things, rather than in the things themselves. I guess in some ways it’s a kind of defense-mechanism to stop ourselves being overwhelmed. What I mean by dual nature is the way in which something can be seen in such different perspectives, how we can measure it according to such enormously varied scales. For instance, my first book, Irish Nocturnes (1999) begins with an essay entitled “Linen.” Its point of departure is a small piece of embroidered linen cloth. At first glance it seems entirely ordinary – something easily overlooked or just dismissed as uninteresting. But when you start to examine it, think about it, you’ll find that it’s densely packed with all sorts of interrelated stories – the story of flax and its cultivation; the story of the individual who made it; the story of linen manufacture, in particular the ways this developed in the part of Ireland where the piece of linen is from; the story of the metaphors and symbols that can be derived from linen; the story of this fabric’s use from ancient times until the present. Teasing out some of the storylines embedded in this one small piece of cloth you soon find far wider vistas opening up than are immediately apparent when you first look at it.

I was pleased that a reviewer specifically flagged up the way “Linen” moves from the small-scale to the large-scale. Writing in The Literary Review (Vol. 44 no. 3 [2001], pp. 602-03) Thomas E. Kennedy said this:

I started the first essay, “Linen,” with a fear that I would be subjected to one of those wearying parsings of technique too often serving as essays (how neon is made; how the horned beetle mates), in which one learns industrial or biological detail one is never likely to have use for and which, in the words of Dylan Thomas, “tell us everything about the wasp but why.” But no, Arthur moves from the tradition of linen to the strands of history and the sorrows of those who have come before us—a movement back in time that he conjures on the flying carpet of a single piece of antique linen … In a mere fourteen pages we have surveyed the history of mankind through a piece of stuff that lies beneath the author’s computer, and we—I—find a new way to meditate existence.

Of course it’s not just bits of linen that offer the essayist flying carpets by which to get to interesting places. All sorts of objects and experiences have this same potential. In fact I’m almost tempted to say that everything has. I love John Muir’s comment that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” From an everyday, commonsense perspective, of course, we turn our back on Muir’s insight and behave as if we can consider things singly and separately. My essays are in the business of reminding us about their hitching to everything else. I try to highlight and follow for a way some of the intricate mesh of connections in which things are embedded.

Your point about essays containing the large within the small is a good one and points to an important theme in many essayists’ work. But moving between the scales is not something I try to do consciously. I don’t have to think my way from the small to the large and back, its more like noticing a rhythm or a dynamic that seems implicit in things – or in the way I see things. It’s almost like the heartbeat of perception. Maybe writing essays is a kind of taking of this pulse.

I’ve learned a lot from what reviewers (and interviewers) have said about my writing. They’ve often made me aware of things I’ve been doing without consciously realizing I’ve been doing them. For instance, when I read Graham Good’s review of my first three collections considered together (this appeared in the Southern Humanities Review Vol. 41 no. 4 (2007), pp. 390-94), I thought “Ah, so that’s what I’m trying to do” when he said:

Arthur’s aim in his essays is to move from immediacy to immensity, from the vivid concrete particulars of an incident, an object, or a sight, to the most universal ideas: the human condition, the infinity of space and time, the complexity and connexity of the world.

John Stewart Collis talks about “the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.” Georgia O’Keefe refers to the “faraway nearby.” I like to start with nearby, ordinary things – what lies close to hand and seems commonplace and familiar – and then see the incredible faraway destinations that are led to as soon as you start to think about what’s involved. I’m just amazed at the complexity and depth that’s wired into the everyday things around us. I suppose my essays try to open a window onto that. But it’s not as if I set out to do this. I don’t sit down at my desk and say “Right, it’s time to move from immediacy to immensity,” it’s more something that just happens because of the way I read the world, because of how things fall on the fabric of my consciousness and how I want to write about them as a result.

But when someone like Graham Good comes along and points out what I’m doing, I’m pleased to have what I’m about identified so clearly. (I have, incidentally, been incredibly fortunate in the reviewers who’ve commented on my work. There’s been a real generosity of spirit evident alongside the many perceptive comments they’ve made.)

Just before leaving the movement between small and large, let me make a couple of book recommendations that I think should be on any essayist’s reading list: Henry Petroski’s The Pencil (1989), and Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Planet in a Pebble (2010). These are both wonderful examples of how, starting with something that’s seemingly completely ordinary, you can reach all kinds of unexpected destinations. Both of these books exemplify what Alexander Smith called “the infinite suggestiveness of common things.”  That’s something I think essayists need to be alert to. I guess in a sense it’s what they try to transcribe. Smith – whose Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863) is well worth reading for what he says about the genre – also suggested that “the world is everywhere whispering essays and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.” Not infrequently I feel like a kind of harassed scribe attempting to note down the whispered symphonies issuing from the things around me.

You write that essays are like bicycles, “in that they allow us to get close to elusive things.” How does this work in practice for you? Do you sneak up on an idea or does it sneak up on you?

To some extent, I see cars and motorways as emblematic of the objective/academic approach of an article; bicycles and meandering country roads as emblematic of the personal/reflective nature of an essay. This is not to say I always prefer the bicycle – if I want to cover a lot of distance quickly I’d opt for a car. Bicycles are good when you’ve got a shorter journey, when you’ve time to look around and consider things. Just as different vehicles are good for different types of journey, so are different modes of writing. The way an essay unfolds itself wouldn’t fit every occasion. I guess the comparison was in part occasioned because of the way in which cycling allows you to follow all kinds of unnoticed paths and unfrequented byways; how you can easily stop to look at and investigate things, or wheel round and retrace your route to enjoy the view again. If there are roadworks and a red traffic light, you can walk, or cycle on the pavement, instead of waiting in a queue. Cycling seems more in tune with the essay’s individuality than the anonymity of a car. Its pace seems more attuned to the genre’s reflective mood. You can hear things and smell things you’re not aware of when you’re enclosed in a car. But I’m not sure how far the bicycle/essay comparison can be pushed. Maybe I’m particularly susceptible to it because I like to start my writing day by cycling.

As for whether I sneak up on ideas or they sneak up on me, it’s probably a case of my being initially ambushed by an idea and then, when I start to write about it, it’s me who’s trying to hunt down related ideas – though of course it’s not as neat or predictable as this might make it sound. I’m frequently ambushed by ideas that have sneaked up on me as I’m writing. And using “ideas” here maybe gives too intellectual a view of things. My essays often start from things rather than from thoughts, albeit things that are laden with ideas. If you asked me for the ideas that lie at the root of my writing, I’d be hard put to answer (a reviewer like Graham Good would be a better person to ask). But if you asked about the things that spark my writing, that would be easy. Among the objects that have led to essays are: pencils, old photographs, pieces of linen, briefcases, a pelvis bone, the ferrule at the end of a walking stick, some fragments of willow pattern china – all sorts of things.

Adam Gopnik, who guest edited the 2008 edition of that wonderful annual series, The Best American Essays, identifies three types of essay: review essays, memoir essays and what he calls “odd object” essays. This third type, which he claims is “the oldest of all essay forms,” is the kind that “takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia….and finds in it a path not just to a large point but also to an entirely different subject.” Many of my essays are indeed concerned with finding paths to unexpected destinations in “material minutia” – we’re back to the large-in-the-small. But, for me, it’s not so much the “odd-object” that needs to be emphasized, more the ordinary object that, once examined, once made the focus for a piece of writing – once essayed – comes to seem odd. Estranging the familiar, helping us see the extraordinary in the everyday, is more what I’m about than offering some kind of peep show into what’s just plain weird.

When you think in terms of things rather than ideas, it’s certainly more a case of objects creeping up on me than my doing so on them – or, since this might seem to bestow an improbable intentionality on what’s inanimate, maybe it would be better to say that it’s more a case of my stumbling across things that have something about them that sparks the desire to write. I don’t go out to look for them in any kind of deliberate, systematic way – they’re all accidental discoveries.

This is Part I of a two-part interview with Chris Arthur, Click here to access Part II.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Essayist Chris Arthur, Part II

Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings. Iowa City: Shoreline Books, 2012.

This is Part II of a two-part interview with Chris Arthur. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: Like you, I’m obsessed with the writing of ordinary lives. The following passage is marked in pencil and with exclamation marks in my now dog-eared copy of your book: “History is determined by the inky regimen of print. But ordinary lives happen more in the key set by a pencil: fainter, less permanent, more tentative, easily erased. [. . .] I prefer to take the back routes, to look at littler events, the stories of the day to day, of families and their places. These, more than any headline, are what make us who we are.” I write ordinary lives in order to create a trace for those I fear will (unjustly) be forgotten. By contrast, though, I get the sense from your work, and the ways in which you reach so far back (to Neanderthal mourning rituals, for example) that you write with the consciousness that this too, this trace of yours, will fade. Am I right about this?

Chris Arthur: Yes! I think all the traces we leave, all the traces we write, will vanish. According to Buddhist teaching, by which I’ve been more than a little influenced, one of the three marks of existence – that is, one of the three absolutely fundamental features of our world – is what’s termed “anicca,” or impermanence. That strikes me as highly plausible. I think everything passes. Nothing humans do – still less who they are – is permanent, however much we may rail against this unpalatable fact. When I read your question I was reminded of an early essay I wrote entitled “Ne Obliviscaris” (= “lest we forget”). It emphasizes, more explicitly than the other essays do, the way in which anicca claims us all:

If the mind cannot immediately encompass the idea of its own complete annihilation, the fact that soon there will be no one who remembers us, ask what remains – beyond the dumb inheritance of flesh – of the people who were our great-great-grandparents. Or, if that is still too close, ask what now remains upon the shifting network of human memory of the ten-year-old Iron Age girl drowned as she helped her mother collect mussels from along some windswept northern shore. Let her act as symbol for the millions of strangers unknown to us, unremembered by anyone, who have vanished without trace in history’s wake and are recoverable only through the imagination.

Loss and transience are, I think, important motifs that recur throughout my five essay collections. This may make them sound rather sombre, if not grim – but I don’t think they are; I hope they’re not. It’s transience, after all, that underscores a lot of life’s beauty, what helps to make it beautiful.

In “Kyklos” you write about the way your essay has “spiralled away, evolved and developed, meandered unpredictably from its initial point of origin.” A great topic for discussion over the course of my fall workshop has been precisely this aspect of essay writing: the fact that you may not (almost certainly don’t) know where you’re going. Essays wander. They are experiments. They take us off into unexpected territory. And this frustrates beginning writers, because it feels difficult and therefore they begin to believe they’re doing something wrong. I wonder if you could talk about how you write essays. Do they come quickly? Are they hard-fought? Do they come slowly over years? What is the role of rewriting in your work? Do you have faithful friends or editors whom you trust with drafts? Do you have any words of wisdom for those of us stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay (as I am now)?

This reminds me of a piece of wisdom about essays from one of my mentors in the genre, Lydia Fakundiny. She says that if at some point in its composition an essay doesn’t surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing. I agree with that. Of course when I start to write a piece I have some idea of where it’s headed – but not much. The discovery is in the writing and the pieces that have pleased me most are those where surprise is a key element, where insights and connections happen that I couldn’t have predicted when I set out. Yes, absolutely, essays are experiments – I sometimes refer to them as wonderings and wanderings in prose. If they don’t take us into unexpected territory they quickly become tedious. This means there’s a strong element of unpredictability about them, which can be frustrating – because sometimes they don’t work, and because they’re resistant to planning. I think beginning writers are sometimes approaching essays with a one-size-fits-all blueprint in mind for how to structure them. That strikes me as desperately wrong-headed. A useful initial exercise for anyone starting out is to read the Best American Essays series and get a sense of just how varied essays can be.

I wouldn’t like to give the impression, though, from this emphasis I’ve put on unpredictability, surprise and not knowing where a piece is going, that there’s any lack of care or precision in an essay’s composition. Good essays are carefully crafted (and again a reading of Best American Essays soon makes this very apparent).

It takes me weeks to complete an essay and almost every one goes through numerous rewrites as I hone it and fine tune it and try to get it into the shape I want. Very occasionally, a piece will emerge quickly. It seems to fall on the page pretty much in its final form. But that’s rare. Mostly my initial scribbles are crude, tentative, unfinished and miles away from the final version. It takes me a long while to get from inception to completion – and it can be struggle. Readers are oblivious, of course, to the huge amount of work involved in moving from first draft to final finished form – in this as in other genres. That’s the part of writing that’s only visible to the author – and rightly so, I think. I mean, no one wants to look at the rubble of unrefined material and what’s been discarded. Readers want to taste the finished dish, not your raw ingredients. But it can be highly problematic if beginning writers aren’t aware of this dimension and imagine that composition happens in one unrevised burst that’s perfect at the outset. I don’t know anyone who writes like that. Wasn’t it E.B. White who said “The best writing is rewriting”?

I don’t share work in draft form with anyone, but I’m more than willing to listen to suggestions from a handful of journal editors whose judgment I’ve learned to trust. When they suggest changes to what I’ve presented to them as an essay’s final form I’ll often make the recommended change – or, prompted by it, come up with some revision of my own. Once an essay has been published, though, I tend to rule a line under it and not look at it again – otherwise I might want to make yet more changes. Paul Valéry’s famous observation that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” applies to essays too, I think. It’s interesting that Patrick Madden, an essayist whose work I admire, says quite explicitly in one of the essays in his book Quotidiana (2010), “The danger of writing an essay like this: there is nowhere to end.” But for practical purposes you need to draw the line and end things, or abandon things, somewhere – otherwise what you’re working on will eventually start to get in the way of new ideas, new pieces.

You ask about words of wisdom for those stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay. Well, the first thing I’d say is I’m glad I’m not there! Because I have been there frequently and I know how frustrating it can be. When I get into this situation with a piece of work I’ll sometimes give up and trash it – and it’s better to do that before you expend massive amounts of time and energy trying to fix the unfixable. But of course I’m reluctant to abandon something once I’ve started to write it, and it can be well-nigh impossible at some stages to tell if something just needs more revision and refinement or if it’s something that’s terminally flawed. One thing that’s worth considering is whether the recalcitrant piece is two (or three) essays rather than the single one you think you’re operating with. I know I’ve escaped from several tangles by realizing that I was trying to write two essays simultaneously. Separating them and working on them separately solved the problem. It’s also sometimes worth bringing some radical editing to bear. Trying to begin three paragraphs (or pages) in and ditching what goes before that can help to get things moving, or reorganizing the order of the sections. Writing a piece to a strict word limit that’s lower than what you normally work with can occasionally be effective. Sometimes it helps – if there isn’t a deadline looming – to put the piece aside for a few weeks or months and look at it again after a break. I also like to have several pieces of work on the go at the same time, at different stages of completion, so as I can switch mental gears between the different demands of initial sketch, rough draft, first draft and final draft (and all the rewritings and revisions in between). So, if I’m stuck with one piece at one phase of its writing, shifting to another piece at another phase can help. It can also be helpful to move between working on single pieces and a collection. Sometimes when things don’t work it’s just a case of being stale and needing to go out for a walk or a swim or a cycle – a change of scene, getting away from the screen or the page. And of course writers, given what they do, sometimes spend too much time in their own company. Sometimes all an essay that isn’t working needs is some good company and conversation, rather than any kind of further emphasis on the solitary business of trying to get sentences to behave the way you want them to. But sometimes none of these strategies work. I don’t mean to be pessimistic in saying that, I think it’s just being realistic. I’ve certainly experienced the wretched business of a piece of writing that promises to be good, claims lots of time, is something that keeps drawing me back, but in the end I just can’t figure out how to get it into a form I’m happy with. Maybe in order to have success with writing you need to experience a few failures along the way. But here’s hoping your unfinished/uncooperative essay is one that responds to treatment and ends up being something you’re pleased with.

Finally, if an essay looks at a question or a thing or a memory from all angles, then perhaps an essay collection can be said to do the same, but on a bigger scale. Having never written a collection myself, I’m intrigued to hear about the process of putting together such a book. What comes first – the essays or the themes? Do you bring together pieces that seem to interconnect or do you set out to write complementary essays? Or a combination of the two?

The essays come first. Then, as I start to think of them together, themes emerge that make it clear which ones work together. At that point it’s easy enough to decide what to include in a collection and what doesn’t belong there. Likewise the running order of the selected pieces, though it may initially seem hard to call, becomes obvious as I work on the essays together and think of them as a collection, not just as individual pieces. I never set out to write complementary essays. The books evolve out of the essays I write, but I don’t write them with a view to writing a book. When I’m writing an essay, it’s just that particular essay that I’m thinking about.

Richard Chadbourne says something interesting about essays considered singly and put together as a collection. His comment is included in the course of what I think is a good characterization of the genre as a whole:

The essay is a brief, highly polished piece of prose that is often poetic, often marked by an artful disorder in its composition, and that is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author.

I’d like to think that my essays are capable of standing on their own – but that the collections work as “higher organisms” so that reading them together in a book sees them acting in the kind of mutually enriching/reinforcing way that Chabdourne has in mind. Incidentally, he goes on to say of the essay that:

Like most poems or short stories it should be readable at a single sitting; readable but not entirely understandable the first or even second time, and re-readable more or less forever.

And he concludes: “the essay, in other words, belongs to imaginative literature.”  I’d agree wholeheartedly with that. (His comments are made in an excellent article, “A Puzzling Literary Genre; Comparative Views of the Essay,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 20 no. 1 (1983), p.149-50.)

A parallel to thinking about making collections of essays is thinking about the different ways in which a selection of those already published in book form might be arranged. I did this with Words of the Grey Wind, of course, but it’s something I’d like to do again. For instance, I’ve several times thought of putting a book together that draws the various “bird essays” I’ve written – “Kingfishers” and the “Last Corncrake” from Irish Nocturnes, “Swan Song” and “Beginning by Blackbird” from Irish Haiku, “Waxwings” from Words of the Grey Wind and three that are in the collection I’m just completing now. That’s the kind of thing that might tempt me to try to write “complementary essays.” Of course the birds themselves are not the main subject. It’s more that they offer a way into what I want to write about. I’d also like to explore arranging essays around the theme of different varieties of looking, grouping them according to whether they look at natural objects, manufactured things, paintings, books, photographs, sayings, or memory. I even have a tentative title and subtitle for such a volume: How to See a Horse and Other Lessons for the (Mind’s) Eye. But I think it’s highly unlikely that any publisher would want to take on something like this, so I suspect these imagined rationales for selection.

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Crafting the Personal Essay: QWF Writers’ Workshop (Montreal)

Number 8. by antonw

Eight Thursdays, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. (October 4 to November 22, 2012)
1200 Atwater Ave., Suite 3, Westmount
Workshop leader: Julija Šukys
Workshop fee: $155 for QWF members; $175 for non-members
For more information, or to register: 514-933-0878 or julia@qwf.org

***

“Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” – Montaigne
(And every woman too.)

A wandering, open form, the personal essay is most successful when it takes its reader on a journey of discovery. Personal essays explore everyday life, revealing larger truths in the process. As such, the best essays appear to be about one thing but are really about something entirely different. They put the writer’s “I” at centre stage, are conversational, candid, and revelatory. In a tone that ranges from comic to self-deprecating to melancholic, the personal essayist asks: What is it that I don’t know and why? What have I learned and how?

Personal essays are a strong stand-alone form, but they are also a great way to work through big questions at the heart of a memoir, autobiography or work of creative nonfiction. If you’re finding yourself stuck inside (or frozen before the blank first page of) an unruly book manuscript, and you can’t see a way through, consider joining us. A well-thought-out essay may provide you with a road map, and we may be may be able to help you come up with one.

This workshop will primarily focus on participants’ writing. We will work through your texts, and figure out how to make them better together. This workshop is an opportunity to move early drafts forward and to work through ideas. You need not have a finished text to join the workshop (a good idea will suffice), but you should be prepared to work toward producing something to share with your peers. Participants will take turns submitting a personal-essay-in-progress (or a piece of a larger work that you’d like to transform into a stand-alone personal essay) to the workshop for discussion. That text should be no shorter than 1 000 words; no longer than 5 000.

Good writers read, so in addition to workshopping, we will examine a series of exemplary personal essays by writers like Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, and Carlos Fuentes, and identify together the techniques and devices that make them work.

Finally, we will talk about finding homes for essays. Where can we read them? Where can we publish them?

Suggested Text: The Art of the Personal Essay. Ed. Phillip Lopate.
(**This is an encyclopaedic volume of essays that will keep you coming back for years. Our readings will come from this volume, so I strongly suggest that participants purchase it in advance.)

Julija Šukys is the author of two books of literary nonfiction, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (2012) and Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djoaut. Her personal essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Feminist Formations, Lituanus, and elsewhere.

[Photo: antonw]

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On Clutter

Pack Rat by davedillonphoto

Today, I return to my manuscripts. I’ve got both an essay and a book that I abandoned unceremoniously some four months ago. I can’t wait to get back to them.

But there were good reasons for my break from writing: there was our house in Gozo to pack up, our life to get back in order upon our return to Montreal, and Sebastian to entertain before day camp started up. Finally, I had paying work to finish and a new book to promote.

Before leaving on our 8-month Maltese adventure, I sifted through every belonging in our house and did a huge purge. Upon returning, we de-cluttered again, considering the use, value and necessity of each object as it emerged from its box. (Time and distance really do give you a good perspective on the things you own and drag around.)

Keeping clutter down in our house is tough for me. I’m a pack rat by nature, having descended from a long line of war babies whose instinct was to keep things just in case. For example, though my maternal grandmother’s house was spotless and tidy, its cupboards and closets were lined with neat little labelled packages of thread, photographs, letters, wedding shoes, fishing lures…you name it. She was a secret pack rat — literally, a closeted one.

My mother’s house, on the other hand, was just packed – totally randomly and without labels or order or pretence. When she moved out of her condo and into a nursing home (when her Multiple Sclerosis made 24-hour care necessary), I spent days shredding decades-worth of papers, among which I found several envelopes of cash and caches of family letters (I kept both). I sorted through broken furniture, piles of books, nonfunctional stereos, old records, dusty silk flowers, jars of pennies and foreign currency, dishes, and vases galore. I managed to get rid of most of the clutter, fighting my impulse to keep this or that just in case, but I shipped home the boxes and boxes of family photographs that had filled my mother’s living room wall unit. None of the photos are organized or in books. They are in envelopes or tossed loose into cartons. Most aren’t even labelled.

The idea of going through them now overwhelms me.

When we returned from Gozo, instead of putting these boxes back in our basement closet where they sat undisturbed for years since I’d moved them out of the condo, I left them out in a pile. Seeing them every day would mean I couldn’t ignore them, and I vowed to triage and order the images into some sort of family narrative. But even as I resolved to do so, I confessed to Sean that I couldn’t see how. I hadn’t even started, and already I felt resentful of the tedium that would stall my writing even longer.

“You’ve been saying you need a frame for the book, so write about it. Use the process,” he answered.

And a light went on. Sean had given me the key to finishing the book about my paternal grandmother and her life in Siberia.

I start this new phase of sorting and de-cluttering (and research) today.

I’ll let you know what I find.

[Photo: Pack Rat by davedillonphoto]

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Post-Publication Projects: On Returning to Small Forms

Different sizes by Funchye

I’m leading a writer’s workshop on the personal essay in the fall. I’m happy about it, because the essay is a form I love.

I tend to write essays at the beginning of a bigger project, and use them as a way to test out ideas and to work through central questions of longer projects. But since I’ve been, on the one hand, shepherding out my new book, and on the other, slogging through the final third of a new book manuscript, I haven’t actually written an essay for a while. Bigness has consumed my writing life. Yet, seeing as I’m going to be trying to offer some insights into the form, I decided it was time I sat down to another one.

When we first arrived in Gozo (Malta’s sister island), where my husband, son, and I are spending an 8-month sabbatical (only 7 weeks until we head home), I had all kinds of ideas for a book I would write about this place. “Botany!” I thought, “There’s got to be a story in all this plant life and especially that weirdly named Fungus Rock.” Then, later, “Saints and healers!” Then,” Knights of Malta!” And finally, “A travel memoir about our time here…” None of these books have come to fruition.

Instead, as is my habit, I’m starting with an essay. Perhaps a book will follow.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been corresponding with an editor at a reasonably mainstream magazine. I originally sent a pitch for a long piece — 5,000 words — about Gozo, the naming of places, and the idea of home. It’s a length I like because you can say a lot in 5,000 words, but it’s still short enough to be read in one sitting. The editor came back to me with good news. She liked the idea, but asked that I revise the pitch and shrink the envisioned essay down to no more than 1,000 words.

Now, for someone who’s been writing books, 1,000 words is very short indeed. (Just to give an idea: this blog post is over 700 words long!)

No problem, I said. I’m up for the challenge.

This is where the process got complicated (that is to say, I learned something about myself).

For 5,000 words, I can lay out a structure and map out ideas in advance. I have enough room to look ahead and plot which move will come after which. Not so for 1,000 words. Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I feel like the only way for me to plan out an essay that short is not to. I have to feel my way through while writing a first draft, then cut, cut, cut, until I’ve smoothed the text down to its kernel.

Unsurprisingly, my reworked pitch didn’t impress the magazine editor. It was too vague and too general. I’m sure others know how to pitch a mere 1,000 words, but I, big-heavy-text-writer that I am, evidently failed miserably. Like a large-animal vet trying to write a care manual for rabbits and gerbils.

But to her credit, the editor hasn’t given up on me. She still likes the original concept, is willing to see how I can make it work as a tiny text, and is waiting for a draft.

Tiny-essay writing is a process that is so different from book writing. With the latter, there’s breathing room. You can use your whole self, your whole past, and explore connections big and small. You can make mistakes and edit them out without throwing the whole thing off. But in a tiny essay, you have to choose your moves carefully. Any misstep, and it’s over.

The Rumpus‘s fantastic advice columnist Sugar recently came out. That is, she revealed her true identity — that of a writer named Cheryl Strayed. Strayed will soon release a collection of her Dear Sugar columns as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s a formulation I love.

That’s what I think 1,000-word essay has to strive to be: a tiny beautiful thing. Tight, strong, economic, and without a word out of place.

A bit like the island of Gozo itself.

So here’s to moving back from the big to the small.

Wish me luck.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

[Photo: Funchye]

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A Look Back at 2011: Reflections on Preparation, Homesickness, Travel, Language, and Love for a Little Boy

More love messages from the idiot by Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)

Ah, another year. Like most families, perhaps, ours does a year-end review on New Year’s Eve. We go through our calendar and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, experienced, and learned over the past 12 months.

Looking back over that 2011 calendar, I realized that, for me, it was a year of laying groundwork: I prepared our house for tenants; planned our travels to Malta; crunched numbers and made budgets; liaised with our local school so that we could register our son in our absence; searched for and found cat sitters; planned for my book’s 2012 appearance; started lining up 2012 speaking and signing engagements; wrote and submitted two still-in-production essays; and forged ahead on book #3, the one about my grandmother’s life in Siberia.

It was a year with moments of shock and sadness too: recently my  dear friend’s small daughter was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Months of helplessness have followed as we witness her treatments from afar. May 2012 bring good health.

So, I greet the new year with hope, anticipation and a bit of melancholy. Yes, book #2 (my new baby) will be born this year, but my other baby is no longer one. As I cradled Sebastian on my lap the other day, I felt like I was rocking a goat. His arms and legs are so long and his body so lean and heavy that soon I’ll no longer be able to carry him. His health and robustness, I now realize more than ever, are miracles.

If (as I wrote last year) 2010 was the year of linguistic gifts from my son, then 2011 was one of discovery and growth. Our landing in Gozo was, in some ways, a hard one. My little one was homesick, and found the adjustment to life on a small Mediterranean island difficult. His calm temperament turned tempestuous and fearful. Slowly, and only over the course of weeks and even months, did my kinder, gentler boy return.

But last week: something new. We made our first trip to Sicily, where after four days, Sebastian declared his homesickness once again. But this time it was different — he was homesick for Gozo. The discovery that he loved Gozo too (that he could love his home in Montreal AND this temporary one on this beautiful island in the sea without betraying the former) was a revelation.

Part of me knew that this 8-month stint would be tough. We would be bored. We would be cold in this drafty stone house (and, boy, have we ever been lately!). Sebastian would lose some of his French skills (he claims no longer to understand the language, though I don’t believe him). But, in planning this adventure to a new and unfamiliar destination, I’d hoped to give my son other gifts. I wanted him to learn early on in life that there are many ways to live on this earth, many ways to speak, and many different kinds of beauty.

With his discovery of mysteriously double homesickness, I think the learning process I’d hoped for is well underway.

For the past year, Sebastian’s become categorical about language. Whereas he once spoke an “alphabet fusion,” switching back and forth between three languages and words of his own invention, in his fifth year, he started to draw boundaries. There was “his” way of speaking (English) that he shared with his daddy; the “school” way (French); and “mummy’s” way (Lithuanian). Out of the jumble of his toddler years, he’d succeeded in making order, and had even become a bit rigid.

The other day — a small Sicilian revolution. Upon hearing his father order pastries in Italian (not “his” language), Sebastian was impressed. If daddy could do it, maybe he could too. Perhaps speaking “another’s” way wouldn’t lead to chaos after all.

“Daddy,” he said, “Maybe I’ll try to learn Maltese.”

Happy 2012. May it bring you happiness, peace, good health and many days of creativity.

[Photo: Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)]

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