100 Words at a time…

Look, it’s OK if you’re not writing. I’m not here to pressure you to be productive or make you feel bad about yourself. I get it: we’re all coping with the pandemic in our own ways. Writing may not be in the cards for you right now.  Do what you need to do to make it through.

That said, if you do want to write and need a little push or a bit of support, then read on.  I’m going to tell you about something called “The 100-Word Writing Group.”

Books get written bit by bit. Word by word. Or, in my case, 100 words at a time.

Together with 6 other writers, I belong to a 100-Word Writing Group. You get the picutre: 7 writers = 1 day per writer.

Every day 100 words land in my inbox and onto our shared Google doc. This next part is important, so take it to heart: The 100-Word Writing Group is not a critique group or workshop. The 100-Word Writing Group is about being part of a writing community; it’s about writing not production, if that makes sense… Comments may be shared, but only privately, and only words of encouragement.

Sometimes I read the 100 words that arrive each day and sometimes I don’t: the elasticity, low-pressure quality of this whole thing is key. Still, even if I’m too swamped or distressed or busy to read everything, I’m always aware that my friends and colleagues are writing and that my day to share is coming. And when it does (Tuesdays), I send the other 6 members of the group a small piece of whatever I’m working on.  I don’t give context for the fragment and never explain. I just grab or write 100 new words that don’t feel too embarrassing and send them off.

I hear you: Of what use are 100 words? It’s not even half a page!

True. 100 is not a lot of words. BUT it can be enough to get you rolling. I often have to force myself to write on Tuesdays (which were teaching days this semester) but often I end up writing way more, despite myself.

Here’s the point: If you’re wanting to write but are having trouble, consider forming such a group. (If not, well, see above.)

Here’s also the point: Books, essays, and stories get written 100 words at a time.

Happy writing, fragment by fragment

[Photo: Väylä]

Share

CNF Conversations: Karen Babine

Karen Babine

Karen Babine, All the Wild Hungers. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.

My sister is pregnant with a lemon this week, Week 14, and this is amusing. My mother’s uterine tumor, the size of a cabbage, is Week 30, and this is terrifying.

When her mother is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Karen Babine—a cook, collector of thrifted vintage cast iron, and fiercely devoted daughter, sister, and aunt—can’t help but wonder, “feed a fever, starve a cold, but what do we do for cancer?” And so, she commits herself to preparing her mother anything she will eat, a vegetarian diving headfirst into the unfamiliar world of bone broth and pot roast.

In an interview we did last year, Karen and I discussed food, family, illness, writing, and love.

This publication was especially bittersweet because it was the last project we worked on with Ned Stuckey-French before his death from cancer in the summer of 2019. Ned was the book reviews editor at Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, where this convo appeared, and also a fellow collaborator at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, which Karen founded and edits, and where I am a senior editor.  We miss Ned terribly. He edited and framed this literary conversation with his characteristic generosity and wisdom.

You can read my conversation with essayist Karen Babine, “A Season of Cooking and Cancer,” here.

 

Share

Off to Lithuania…

Julija Šukys in Belastok/Brovka, Siberia, while doing research for the book SIBERIAN EXILE. 2010.

In a couple of days I’m off to Lithuania to speak at the XVI World Lithuanian  Symposium for Scholarship and Creativity (XVI Pasaulio lietuvių mokslo ir kūrybos simpoziumas). The event brings together Lithuanian diasporic writers, artists, educators, and scholars from all over the world.

I’m taking part in the plenary session and have been asked to think (and talk) about the question of identity — national, ethnic, and cultural. For someone who lives in a constant state of uprootedness and nomadism, it’s a  tall order. So, in true essayistic fashion, I plan to bring it down to the small, everyday, and personal. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone who grew up in an immigrant/émigré family as I did how to think about who they are. I can only speak for myself, on the basis of my own experience, and tell the story of what writing books like Siberian Exile and Epistolophilia have taught me.

With luck, that will suffice (I’ll find the big in the small) it will  be of interest to those who come to listen.

Wish me luck!

If you’re in Kaunas, Lithuania, on November 15th (14:30-16:30, Plenary Session, Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas, Didžioji aula, Gimnazijos g. 7), come on by to hear what I come up with. Fair warning: the event’s taking place in Lithuanian! I plan to show pictures of Siberia, including the one above. This is me in the place where my grandmother’s Siberian house once stood.

Here’s link to the event schedule. 

[Photo: Julija Šukys in Belastok/Brovka, Siberia, while doing research for Siberian Exile. 2010.]

Share

All the Things…

So much newness. I’ve been bad about updating here over this sabbatical year, so here are a few things I’ve made, written, published in the past few months. I’ll add them as is appropriate elsewhere on the site as well.

So, here are all the things…

First up is my conversation with the brilliant Anand Prahlad published on January 1, 2019 over at the Assay Interview Project. Prahlad and I talked about his book, The Secret Life of A Black Aspie. (Audio)

Prahlad.

 

Second, is my conversation with the lyrical and incisive essayist, Chelsea Biondollilo. We talked about her collection, The Skinned Bird. That also appeared as part of the Assay Interview Project, on May 1, 2019. (Print)

Chelsea Biondolillo.

 

Third, my colleague Paul Zakrzewski and I are producing a podcast for Assay (with the Missouri Audio Project). Paul’s doing the heavy lifting hosting and editing. Here’s our introductory conversation to Tried & True. If you’re into things writerly and audio, please check it out and drop Paul a note if you’d like to submit something to the podcast. Details on Assay’s website. (Print)

Here is the first episode of Tried & True. “Once a Border Crosser, Always a Border Crosser,” a conversation with Francisco Cantú (The Line Becomes A River) and Reyna Grande (The Distance Between Us). (Audio)

Here is the second episode of Tried & True. “#MeToo & Toxic Masculinity – Where Do We Go From Here?” A conversation with Yvette Johnson (The Song and The Silence) and Taylor Brorby (Coal and Oil, forthcoming). (Audio)

 

And finally, I wrote a guide to grant writing and grant hunting for Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series. Check it out here.  (Print)

[Top Photo: Hernán Piñera]

 

Share

Essay Daily: Deep Roots (Thinking About “Koreans With Guns”)

Every year, the people at Essay Daily put together an essay Advent Calendar. That is, with every day of Advent, a new essay appears. Sometimes the calendar is themed; this year’s calendar was unthemed. We were simply asked to write about an essay or essayist that we liked or that interested us.

I wrote about Sam Cha’s essay called “Koreans With Guns.” The piece comes from his chapbook American Carnage. “Deep Roots (Thinking about “Koreans With Guns”) is my first publication connected to a new book project examining college campus shootings.

Thanks to Ander Monson for making a place on the calendar for me. I’m so happy to be part of the project. You can read my December 8, 2018 installment here. 

[Image: ATOMIC Hot Links]

Share

DEEP BALTIC Interview: “Someone Always Pays”

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Will Mawhood, Editor of Deep Baltic about my book, Siberian Exile. Thanks to Will for the excellent conversation.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

The first sentence we read in the book is “Someone always pays. The question is who. And the question is how.” Could you expand upon that a little?

Over the course of writing this book, I thought a lot about the question of who paid for Anthony’s crimes and how. When I discovered the war crimes indictment against my grandfather, that is, that he had overseen a massacre of Jewish women and children in 1941, I was struck by the fact that he had seemingly not paid a price for those actions and for the choices he made. His wife paid the highest price, through her deportation and loss of her children. His children paid through the loss of their mother. As I write in the book, we, his grandchildren have paid as well in certain ways. I, for example, lost my father to a sudden heart attack when he was 56 and I was 18 years old. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always connected his sudden death to childhood trauma. What interests me is the way that actions have echoes and consequences that become visible slowly, over decades and to what extent those echoes and consequences remain real today.

If your grandfather had been at home in Kaunas when the KGB arrived, he would almost definitely have been deported, and so would not even have had the option to consider whether to collaborate with the Nazi occupying forces when they invaded Lithuania shortly afterwards. You write how tempting it is to wish for that single change – to wish for a misfortune, but one that would have prevented him from becoming complicit in terrible events. “In this alternate and, yes, selfish history, where I can change only one fate, Anthony would have been a clear, clean victim”. Do you think family tragedy is in a way less hard to deal with than guilt?

In many families, tragedy and hardship can be points of pride. An ancestor who was wrongly imprisoned, for example, might be held up as an example of resilience but an ancestor who was rightfully imprisoned for committing murder is unlikely to be celebrated. This basic difference struck me as I was writing and a question arose for me: can we take credit for our ancestors’ good deeds, talents, and triumphs if we are not willing to take some sort of responsibility for their sins as well?

You describe how your grandmother was finally given permission to join the rest of her family in Canada in 1965, but how she always remained somewhat apart – having a distant, though seemingly unfractious relationship with her husband, and finding the material abundance and different customs and language of her new home hard to adjust to. She says about the experience of being reunited, during a later interview conducted in Lithuanian: “I felt that these weren’t my kids. That these weren’t my grandkids.” Do you think this was very typical of people like her, who had been deported for long periods of time, on being reunited with their families – that it was in some way a bittersweet experience?

I imagine that my grandmother was not alone in her experience of a bittersweet reunion. As I was thinking about what Ona’s and Anthony’s reunion must have been like, I didn’t have much information to go on, even second hand, so I did bibliographical research to try and understand the range of returnees’ experiences. I read about what happened to marriages when deportees returned to the spouses they’d left behind. Many marriages, unsurprisingly, did not survive and upon their return, deportees divorced. Oftentimes if deportees remarried after returning from Siberia, they ended up marrying other deportees. I think that makes sense. Few others could have understood a returnee better than another returnee.

In my grandmother’s case, I think that her children were tie that bound her to the family. She couldn’t and didn’t blame them for having become somewhat exotic creatures in her absence. From her 1977 interview, it seems that she worked hard to adjust to her new reality in Canada. That said, she must have mourned those lost years and having missed out on watching her children grow and mature. The great gift that she received shortly after her arrival in Canada was the birth of my cousin Darius. She really co-raised him with her daughter and I think that having a new baby in her life, a child who grew to love her like no one else, was life-saving and healing.

Continue reading the interview here.

[Photo: Ona and Margarita by their cabin in Siberia]

 

Share

Siberian Exile Wins Vine Award in Nonfiction

“Julija Šukys’s Siberian Exile is heroic.” — Jury, Vine Award for Nonfiction

Today, I was thrilled to accept the Vine Award in Canadian Jewish Literature for the category of Nonfiction. Thank you to the jury and to the donors and to Diana for being my date at the luncheon. What’s more, the prize comes with a generous monetary prize, which I will put to good use. Photos include pics of my speech, the program, the lovely crystal plaque, two of three jury members announcing the winners, and a photo with jurors and a fellow winner in the History category.

Julija Šukys, accepting the Vine Award in Nonfiction. October 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.
Jury members Joseph Kertes and Beverly Chalmers announcing the winners of the Vine Awards. Oct. 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.
The award plaque. Vine Awards.
Jury members Chalmers and Kertes with History winner, Hugues Théoret and Nonfiction winner, Julija Šukys. Oct. 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.
The Program. Vine Awards, 2018.
Share

Teaching in the Archives: Women Writing Lives

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. 

[Photo: Texas State Library and Archives Commission]

Share

Review Essay: Siberian Exile in Fourth Genre

Thank you to Ned Stuckey-French for his appraisal not only of Siberian Exile (2017) but also of Epistolophilia (2012), and my work in general. His review essay, called “A Mind Thinking” (Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Spring 2018, p. 209-220) concludes like this:

As I was reading Siberian Exile, I began to think about what its predecessor [Epistolophilia] mean to the field of creative nonfiction. We talk often about the essay renaissance that has flowered in the United States since the 1980s. What Julija Šukys’s work reminds me is that this renaissance is, has been, and can be global in its reach. A Canadian who now writes and teaches in the United States but who was born into a family that was cast into the Lithuanian diaspora, Šukys is especially equipped to take the North American essay out into the world, and vice versa. The range of her work is stunning. It stretches across three continents, thousands of miles of travel, scores of interviews in multiple languages, and decades of history — extending from World War II through the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union to the present — but she also stops and looks at moments, boring deep into an exchange on a train or the night of a massacre. Her work is horizontal and vertical. It is historical and personal. She reveals the history of the last century through the lives of individuals, often as they faced the most dramatic moments of their lives, and she tells us the story of her own mind thinking about the history, the moments, and the people she has encountered.

You can also check out Curtis Woodstock’s review of a recent Siberian Exile event here. He calls Siberian Exile “wonderfully written, emotional, and real.”

Share

CNF Conversations: An Interview With David Lazar

David LazarI’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include the just published I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms from the University of Nebraska Press, Who’s Afraid of Helen of TroyAfter MontaigneOccasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in NonfictionEssaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviewsand Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Eight of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. Lazar received the first PhD in the United States in nonfiction writing, in 1989. He then created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its seventeenth year, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.

About I’ll Be Your Mirror: In his third book of essays, David Lazar blends personal meditations on sex and death with considerations of popular music and coping with anxiety through singing, bowling, and other distractions. He sets his work apart as both in the essay and of the essay by throwing himself into the form’s past—interviewing or speaking to past masters and turning over rocks to find lost gems of the essay form.

I’ll Be Your Mirror further expands the dimensions of contemporary nonfiction writing by concluding with a series of aphorisms. Surreal, comical, and urban moments of being, they are part Cioran, part Kafka, and part Lenny Bruce. These are accompanied by Heather Frise’s illustrations, whose looking-glass visions of motherhood—funny and grotesque—meet the vision of the aphorist in this most unusual nonfiction book.

Julija Šukys: David, congratulations on your new book. It’s a finely wrought collection of formally diverse texts. In it we find longish, textured, memory-based personal essays (like “When I’m Awfully Low”), interviews both real and imagined, as well as fragmented and poetic hybrids. Themes the reader encounters include musical theater, bowling, sex, gender conformity, and nonconformity. Certain figures return again and again: your lover who committed suicide, your mother, and your son. The tone of the collection is both melancholy (“Ann: Death and the Maiden”) and kind of punchy, as in your conversation with Mary Cappello. For me, that conversation was a highlight of the book. I immensely enjoyed your disagreements with Mary about digressions and whether the term is a productive one for the essayist, your comparing of notes, and your challenging of one another’s ideas of what makes and what should make or unmake our nonfiction literary canon.

You produce three conversations here: two imagined (with Michel de Montaigne and Robert Burton) and one real (the one with Mary Cappello). I’ve always loved the interview as a form and have long thought of the essay as a conversation with a reader. Can you talk about the place of the interview or conversation in your work as an essayist?

David Lazar: What better place to talk about the interview than in an interview, Julija! Thank you! I first became formally interested in the interview about twenty-five years ago when I was doing long interviews with M.F.K. Fisher and gathering the historical interview selections that became the basis of Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. I noticed immediately in the historical interviews how manifold the forms of published interviews were: some were formal, others informal; some were interviews broken up and interspersed into feature articles. Some interviews effaced the questioner, while others were obviously more dialogic. And when I began my own conversations with Fisher, what began as formal calls and responses, devolved delightfully into digressive (that word!) interplays, with certain questions recurring and receding, our senses of each other emerging as we circled each other, sometimes warily, sometimes fondly. I remember amusedly an editor writing to tell me that Fisher was a well-known essayist and I was not, so clearly the reader wouldn’t be interested in hearing so much of me. In addition to finding the response boorish, I thought it wrong. But in any case, that started me thinking of the interview as another cognate of the essay, both in the way one voice, the interrogated, can wander through, around, and back to certain ideas in essayistic ways, but also, again, dialogically, in the play of two voices. Solo, or duo, it’s still explorations of voice.

As I write in the MFK Fisher book, if I may be permitted to quote myself:

Etymologically, interview derives from ‘entrevue,’ a form of entrevoir, to have a glimpse of, as well as “s’entrevoir,” to see each other. We can see early, unnamed versions of the interview in the Socratic dialogues, the conversations of Satan with God in the first chapters of Job, the imaginary interview of Margery Kemp, but in its semantic infancy, the interview referred to a metting of great moment, between great personages, prince to prince, king to king, a ceremonial occasiona, before it degreaded to person to person. By 1626, Bacon can say, in New Atlantis, that is has been “ordained that none doe intermarry, or contract, until on Moneth be past from their first inter-view” . . . . The seminal Q & A:

Johnson: Why do you write down my sayings?

Boswell: I write them down when they are good.

My interview with Mary Cappello was a delight for me because I trust her so completely as both a writer and a friend. I don’t think there are many nonfiction writers working at her level right now. Plus I know I can be as silly or serious as I want or need to be in the moment with her. It’s extraordinarily liberating. Ultimately, we both hoped, as I hope here, that our sayings were good.

The imaginary interviews (which are harder than they might look!) are great fun and also serve a purpose: to engage in a living dialogue with writers who can still speak vividly, as though sitting at the table, though long gone. Burton, a favorite of mine, and the interview with Montaigne that Pat Madden and I performed, are ways of saying, “Hey, this guy can still carry a conversation.” Finding questions and responses that are spirited takes a lot of re-reading and choreography, but I enjoy it.

You’re the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, a journal that declares: “Work with a quirky, unconventional edge—either in form or content—is often favored by our editors.” In founding the journal, you created a context for the kind of work you love, respect, and produce (or, at least that’s what I surmise). I imagine this decision grew in part out of the experience of placing your first book, The Body of Brooklyn for publication. In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that it took ten years for the book to find a press and describe it as follows:

My essays were all different kinds of juggling acts, with different forms and excessive digressions, photographs, vaudeville versions of the self. [. . .] It was some kind of Hydra – but think of those heads from 1963 as more like obscure objects of my own desire to construct an essay persona.” (103)

To what extent does this description of your past work still hold true of what you write today? How true is it of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” for example?

Let’s see: about Hotel Amerika—creating the journal itself was actually quite separate from my own work. I had been the Associate Editor of Ohio Review for years at Ohio University. When that folded (long story) I was asked by the university to create a new journal. It may seem unthinkable now, but I said I would with certain terms. They were these: that I be given complete editorial control and independence; that I be given a paid managing editor; that I have a budget that allowed me to pay at least nominally for work; and that I be given a course reduction equivalent to that of the past editor of the Ohio Review. They said yes! Boy, talk about paradise lost. In creating the magazine it was important to me to put out a magazine that looked lovely, was photographic in its covers, was pleasant to hold, and was a place where one would find work that both respected generic conventions, especially in the essay, and completed denied, which led to our TransGenre issue, and our use of the transgenre category for ever issue. We wanted to have issues that, yes, and here is the connection to my work, had a lot of different stuff going on—images, and fractured essays, prose poetry and literary criticism, translations, etc. Behind it all we tended to value work with a playful ear and a playful sensibility that still was willing to embrace the most serious questions. And you’ll probably find the figure of the flâneur and the flâneuse in more of our works than most magazines. So, yes, you’re quite right, there’s a connection to my work. But I’ve always felt that an interesting magazine has to have a sensibility (part of me is unregenerate Jamesian, and the word sensibility rings importantly) and that sensibility comes from editors steering the magazine’s vision over time.

About I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, yes, I think it, too, covers all kinds of ground in terms of different kinds of essay, and then the poetic aphorisms in the back. The aphorisms were actually a separate book, and it was Alicia Christiansen, my editor at Nebraska, who so cleverly suggested merging the two. I loved the idea. So the book is a two-fer! But I think it works together because the connection between the voice of the aphorisms and the voice of the essays is so clear. And because I think the aphorism is such an important part of the essay. I talk to my students about the aphorism and have them write them all the time. And I did a special issue on the aphorism in Hotel Amerika some years ago. So there go—it’s full circle. That issue actually started my own writing of aphorisms. And I posted each of them on Twitter, for about a year and a half. Twitter is only really interesting as an aphorism space.

To answer your question directly: that description of my essay writing still holds true. My essay voice is very performative and quirky, and the vaudeville description is apt. I’d like to think it’s a kind of Beckettian vaudeville, though: as Winnie says, in Happy Days, “sorrow keeps breaks in. . . . “

Can you tell me a little about how form works for you? And about the decision (if it was a conscious decision) to bring these different essay shapes together into the same text?

I almost never lead with form—it’s not the way my mind works. I start with whatever I’m thinking about and see what kind of trouble I can get into. Before you try to find a way understand what it is you’re trying to defuse, I think it helps to toss in as many monkey wrenches as possible, write the most complicated version of your dilemma, your set of ideas, your confessional conundrum, whatever version of essaying you’re doing. After those feverish early drafts, that’s when form kicks in for me, as a way of creating order, cutting extraneous material, finding the heart of matter. I let the material suggest form sometimes, as in, “oh, there are really two voices working here, so why not write it in two voices.” Or, how could these ideas sit with each other if I pushed them towards each other without overt transitions. Sometimes forms take wilder shape, the sequence of self-deconstructive photo prose poems in Body of Brooklyn, for example, where I wanted to comment on the nature of self-commentary itself. But form is functional, and I never say, for example, “I think I’ll write a braided essay,” or some such thing, and I teach that way, too. I don’t even like the term, “braided essay,” for that matter. Isn’t one just alternating parallel subjects. Must it have a poeticized name? I fear I’m sounding cranky.

Not cranky! In fact, you’ve introduced my next question. Let’s talk about the essay, its past and its present. You describe in “Hydra” how you switched paths from poetry to essay, “which at the time felt like changing sports, rather than leagues” (103). Ultimately, you earned the first PhD in nonfiction writing “as though I were some kind of generic freedom writer” (103) (I love that), and for this reason in addition to many others, you are perhaps better placed than most to take a long view, both forward and back, of the essay as form.

Of the eternal problem of what to call this thing we write, you offer: “Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre” (103). Its defining characteristic appears to be hybridity: “To an extent almost all nonfiction offers some form of hybridity, biographies straying into history, essays digressing into informational riffs, autobiographies becoming necessarily biographical, etc.” (104). You appear to be arguing for a more expansive understanding of the essay. No more personal vs. classical vs. spiritual vs. lyric essay. Let’s be done with the braided and fractured and meditative essay. Rather than looking for new genres (I think I hear you say), let’s expand our sense of the essay, our beloved form and genre that continues to morph into shapes that surprise us. Have I understood your position? Is there something here you want to push back on or dig into? I’d love to hear/witness you riff on all of this.

Well, Julija, you did indeed anticipate the answer I gave above! Yes, at times I feel I’m misunderstood as an essay classicist (which is funny to me considering how experimental some of my work has been and much of the work I’ve published) because I’ve tended to emphasize a few points, fairly basic that are rather important to me: the history of the essay is extraordinarily delightful and various, and I can’t imagine why someone would make it their vocation without exploring that rich field. Especially mining the writers who were early and formative practitioners. And all essays represent a desire: to explore, to confess, to untangle, to express, and to interrogate the nature of that desire. The formal distinctions you mention are, yes, like carpenter’s tools. The important thing to remember is that we’re talking about a house with many rooms, and that house is the essay. However, neither white space, nor reverse chronology, nor braids can build that house. Only desire can. One can call it whatever one wants, but I like the simplicity of: essay.

You subtitled this book “Essays & Aphorisms.” Which of these texts are essays and which are aphorisms? What’s the difference? Can an aphorism be an essay, or vice versa?

I think of an aphorism as a short, self-enclosed form, usually one line, pithy, witty. But as with the prose poem, there are variations. Some are philosophical, some are arch. Some urbane, others lyrical. Some aphorisms are political, direct, whereas others are closer to one line poems. But aphorisms, as the special issue I did for Hotel Amerika showed, come in more forms that I thought. What do we call the two or three sentence aphorism? The string of related aphorisms? Well, we might sometimes call it a short essay, or a prose poem, or . . . a string of related aphorisms. We don’t really have answers for some of these questions, which makes writing them fun. I think that’s true, at least for me, for the essay as well. Every essay I write is just an essay. It’s not a lyrical essay or mosaic essay or segmented essay, although one might (or might not) use these words to describe it. I see some of the new formal categories as limiting, rather than liberating. So I like to see where different forms or subgenres intersect and talk about it: hey, that’s something like a short essay or maybe a densely aphoristic paragraph or, or, or.

But aphorisms are central to the essay, and I can’t imagine the essay without the aphorism. Think of the essays you love, and immediately aphorisms come to mind as the dramatic moments of thought in those works.

I read this book out of order in part because I couldn’t resist skipping ahead to the last piece (an aphorism, a series of aphorisms), “Mothers, Etc.” I read it late one night in bed. I couldn’t help myself. Tell me how this gorgeous collaboration with illustrator Heather Frise came about, both practically speaking and artistically-philosophically.

I’m absolutely delighted that you skipped around. And particularly to the aphorisms section and Heather Frise’s work, which I think is so extraordinary. The Mothers section of the aphorisms popped up as an idea when Heather and I went to the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago some years ago. When we came out, we saw a huge neo sign that just said, “Mothers,” by Martin Creed. We both thought it was wonderful and immediately decided to collaborate on some kind of piece about mothers. I had seen many of Heather’s drawings and thought they were just fantastic: grotesque and beautiful, disturbing alternative worlds. They were . . . fierce. I had been writing aphorisms, many of which were a bit strange, and thought this would be a good match, so I asked Heather to just start sending me pictures and I started sending her aphorisms, and we mixed and matched. I go back to those pictures all the time. They’re my favorite part of the book.

On the “Mothers, Etc.” front: I’m interested to hear how you think about line breaks and white space. How do you know if a text needs a visual vocabulary as well as a linguistic one?

That’s a wonderful question. I felt I need to create some kind of thematic, but asymmetrical pacing that made the reading of the aphorisms pleasurable and meaningful. The thing about reading aphorisms is that, hopefully, they make you think, they stop you for a while. So, at very least, I wanted some space to give the reader a way to keep reading, to think, white space as cogitation. It’s miraculous to me that Nebraska, again, Alicia Christenson, completely understood this. To have simply listed aphorism after aphorism, fifteen on the page, would have exhausted and bored the reader. As for where I created the breaks, how large they were, how many on a page—part of this was through creating thought groupings, and part of it was intuitive, and favoring, on occasion, ones I wanted to give more emphasis to.

Tell me about where you come down on the term lyric essay. I get the sense that you reject it because all essays, one way or another, are lyric (are they? ugh…I can’t tell anymore). Anyway, this term has rooted itself our CNF/essay reading and teaching culture so firmly. It’s become shorthand for a certain kind of text: the fragmented, the poetic, the enigmatic. Do you think the term lyric essay has earned its place? Have you made peace with it? Or should we just say essay and leave it at that?

To extend a bit, I tend, yes, to favor essay because essays have always been lyrical, and essays have always been enigmatic, poetic, fragmented. There’s a difference between the adjectival—that essay is lyrical, and the noun form, that’s a lyric essay, which isn’t that useful to me. Many works that are called lyrical essays don’t seem to me to think or move like essays at all. Perhaps we should call them prose poems, or . . . strings of aphorisms. Or something else entirely.

How has the landscape for essayists changed since you published that first Hydra collection, The Body of Brooklyn? Do you feel hopeful about the essayistic literary context and community? Are we indeed in a golden moment for nonfiction and the essay in particular?

Oh, dear, it’s so much better now. The standard line when I was trying to publish Body of Brooklyn was that essay books were verboten. Even when I did finally get it taken by Iowa, they tagged it as memoir on the back! And you couldn’t even think of using “essay” in your title. I can’t tell you how it’s delighted me that Nebraska, to its everlasting credit, has included “essays” in the subtitles of my last two books. Of course there were some essays books being published. People like Hoagland, Didion, Baldwin, Epstein, Fisher, but many of these writers came to publishing books of essays through other genres or disciplines, and there were almost no younger essayists around until Phillip Lopate and Richard Rodriguez and a few others broke through.

Are we in a golden age? I’d rather tone it down to a vibrant age. I think there is a lot of interesting experimental writing going on, a lot of hybrid stuff, and as is the case with anything, much of it is not very interesting, and some of it is wonderful. I think in terms of the essay proper, I’m able to find some very fine practitioners out there, some of whom Pat Madden and I are lucky to be able to publish in our book series, 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State. Kristen Rowley, the editor in chief at Ohio State, who moved over after created the wonderful nonfiction list at Nebraska, has just been a great advocate for literary nonfiction. I’m giving her my golden Oz medal for meritorious service. But I while I think there are some very fine essayists out there now, I don’t there are many great ones, at least that I see in the US. And you need great practitioners for a golden age. What I’d like to see more of in younger essayists, before they start hybridizing the form, is seeing how far they can drive on gasoline. Since we’re talking about words, the environment can take it.

But there’s excitement about nonfiction writing, and that’s a good thing.

Thank you, David! I’m so happy to have had this conversation.

Thank you, Julija for your superb questions. I can’t imagine a better probing questioner.

Buy I’ll Be Your Mirror here. 

[Photographs courtesy of David Lazar]

 

Share