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.
Mary Cappello is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, on NPR, in guest author blogs for Powells Books, and on six separate occasions as Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island.
About Life Breaks In: Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.
This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.
What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.
“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.
“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”
— The Brothers Quay
“Mood is alpha and omega, it is everything and nothing” – Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In
Julija Šukys: Mary, first of all, congratulations on your book. Life Breaks In is learned, rigorous, and, at times, intimate and devastating. On the one hand, the text is incredibly wide-ranging: you take the reader through subjects as varied as Joni Mitchell’s music, mood rings, your father’s darkness, your friend’s death from cancer, taxidermy, and the weird queer history of children’s books. But on the other hand, your book is impressively focused and disciplined as it continually loops back to thinking about mood as sound, as space, as reading, as color. It does so in an almost oblique way and manages to look closely at something that is otherwise almost invisible.
You have written that the challenge of the book was “not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood – but to notice it – often enough, to listen for it – and do something like it without killing it in the process” (15). It seems like mood is something that you can only see through the prism of something else, like those ghosts in children’s cartoons that become visible in the dust beaten out of a chalkboard brush. Can you say a little bit about how you came to your subject? And can you talk a bit about the title, Life Breaks In, and the role that rupture plays in a meditation on mood?
Mary Cappello: This question of how we come to our subjects is perpetually intriguing to me. Some subjects for me have been urgent givens (for example, cancer); others, I’ve arrived at through intricately circuitous routes even though, once there, they greeted me with a kind of “ah-ha” or “but-of-course” feeling (e.g., awkwardness); still others were the result of an accidental encounter, what Barthes might call a “lucky find,” almost like a punctum in photography (e.g., the Chevalier Jackson foreign body collection). Mood happened for me in yet another way—in its own way—and it was as though it was always hovering. The subject has played around the edges of my consciousness for many years, and, by the time I brought the book to completion, it felt as though it was the work toward which all of my work had been tending.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, and I’ll find marginalia that I wrote in it dating back twenty years relative to mood. I guess I’m trying to say that mood felt to me like the thing I’ve been writing about all along but that had never announced itself as such—which makes me wonder if this is a sort of experience relevant to all writers. Unlike my other ostensible “subjects,” mood seemed to be following me rather than vice versa.
The title is a phrase lent to me by Virginia Woolf who wrote these wonderfully suggestive lines in one of her diary entries: “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.”
I’m really interested in the time/space that mood exists in—I mean, moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Are moods co-terminus with the thing we call “life” or “living”? Does life interrupt mood or do moods interrupt life? This is related to the aesthetic problem that you refer to in your question—I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.
I hope that readers take pleasure in the unexpected ways in which breaks enter in to the book, and I’d hardly exhaust those ways if I mentioned just a few, like day break and breaks in clouds; breakthroughs and heartbreaks; the breaking of a silence and the breaking into song.
As you know, I read this book very slowly, in fits and starts. At first, my pace embarrassed me (confession: I’m a slow reader at the best of times), but the deeper into the book I got and the more I thought about what you were doing in it, the more I made peace with my meandering methods.
You’ve subtitled the book “A Mood Almanack” and elucidate it like this: “the almanack is a revelatory book and a book of secrets. A book whose tidings we look out for and consult from time to time…. A book to wander in a desert with…. A book whose only requirement is that we float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.” (16) It occurs to me now that this is a book that values the slow reveal and invites a reader to go off, wander around, and return according to her inclinations (or, indeed, mood).
Can you say a little more about your notion of the book as almanack? (By the way, my autocorrect keeps trying to remove the k at the end of that word!)
All that I can say about the slow reveal is: yes, yes, yes. Meandering methods, both in writing and in reading, yes. I’m so glad that this is how you experienced the book, Julija. I seem to have found my ideal reader!
Mood called for what I describe as “cloud-writing,” which asked for an aesthetic of hover and drift. Like my second book, Awkward: A Detour, this book can be dipped into, read front to back, or not. For the reader interested in moving front to back, the book is structured to allow for various more and more voluble returns (as you note in your opening lines here), and a frame tale relative to voice and mood (most especially, the role of the voices of our earliest caretakers, how we may have come to receive those voices and, if we grew up to be writers, how we later constructed voice-imbued atmospheres in the form of writing).
I had a lot of reasons for calling the book an “almanack,” and with that older spelling, too. I wanted to nod in the direction of those early autobiographical experiments of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also the less well-known book by Djuna Barnes, her Ladies Almanack (1928) and its wonderful sub-title, “showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion.”
Formally, though, the “almanack” appealed to me for its generic specificity and range: an almanack (especially a “farmer’s alamanack”) shares a kinship with mood-writing because it’s a place we turn to for chartings of weather patterns and cloud movements, the prospect of a good harvest or a drought, and it’s a space where different types of knowledge on a subject can intermingle, where folk wisdom meets philosophy, aphorism and recipes coincide—more to the point, where a kind of non-knowledge or useless knowledge (à la Gertrude Stein) prevails. I didn’t structure the book like an almanack—this would have felt artificial to me—but when I learned more about the etymology of the word, I couldn’t believe how fitting it was for a mood-book: from classical Arabic, munaāk, it refers to a place where a camel kneels, a station on a journey or the halt at the end of a day’s travel. Simultaneously, it derives from cognate Arabic words for “calendar,” and “climate.” This blew my mind because it seemed to bring together so many mood-relatives: temporality, charts and unchartability, atmosphere, rest and pause. There is also a warmth to the Farmer’s Almanack that I was hoping to invoke.
Here’s a list of books to use when teaching CNF. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start. This list originally grew out of a discussion by members of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). Members of “Essaying the 21st Century” (on Facebook) have added to it as well. If you have suggestions, feel free to send me a note or add a comment.
Atkins, Douglas. Tracing the Essay
Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir
Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
Bradway, Becky and Hesse, Douglas, eds. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology
Castro, Joy. Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family
D’Agata, John, ed. Lost Origins of the Essay
–, ed. The Next American Essay
DeSalvo, Louise. The Art of Slow Writing
–. Writing as a Way of Healing
Fakundiny, Lydia, ed. Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov. The Art of the Essay
Forché, Carolyn and Gerard, Philip. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story.
Gutkind, Lee, ed. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
–. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Iversen, Kristen. Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft Creative Nonfiction
Kaplan, Beth. True to Life: 50 Steps to Help You Tell Your Story
Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir
Kidder, Tracy and Todd, Richard. Good Prose, the Art of Nonfiction
Lazar, David, ed. Truth in Nonfiction: Essays
Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay
–. To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
MacDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale
Miller, Brenda and Paola, Suzanne. Tell it Slant
Moore, Dinty. Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.
–, ed. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field
–. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.
Rainer, Tristine. The New Autobiography
Root, Robert. The Nonfictionist’s Guide.
Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories
Silverman, Sue Williams. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir
Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example
Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction
Sulak, Marcela and Jacqueline Kolosov. Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres
Thompson, Craig. Blankets
Tredinnick, Mark. The Land’s Wild Music
Williford, Lex and Michael Martone, eds. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present
Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: A History
Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
–. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.
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]
Last night I returned home from the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, an annual gathering of writers, teachers and professors of writing, as well as publishers, editors and printers. It’s three days of nonstop talking, listening, browsing of books, and (for some) overindulging in drink and food. I’m still at a stage in my career and thinking where I can’t pass up the chance to learn more about my field or to hear the writers whose work I love read and speak in person, so, for three days, I rushed from panel to panel from morning until early evening. (Thank goodness for the bag of snacks I carried!) The nonfiction selections at AWP tend to be particularly good, so I really immersed myself in my beloved genre.
The online journal Assay has been publishing reports on conference panels. Included amongst these is the panel I chaired, “The Stepmother Tongue: Crossing Languages in Creative Nonfiction.” Sophia Kouidou-Giles’ generous and nuanced take on what we discussed starts like this:
What challenges do authors that work in a second language, English being primary, face in the creative process? Panelists crossed linguistic and geographical borders, and transitioned into English from Lithuanian, Spanish, Cuban, Yiddish, Serb Croatian, and Greek. They discussed their experience in a rich, personal way, from the perspective of acquiring a second language (Julija Sukys,) or using an ancestral language (Ruth Behar, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jennifer Zoble, and Joanna Eleftheriou.) Continue reading…
The highlight of the thinking/listening part of the conference for me was a panel called “Everyday Oddities: Natural Fact and the Lyric Essay.” Panelists included: Colin Rafferty, Chelsea Biondolillo, Brian Oliu, Christopher Cokinos, Joni Tevis. You can read about it on Assay.
[Photo: J. Maughn]
I’ve written a lot of book reviews and I’ve read a lot of them too. Book reviews are an important way of engaging with and serving the larger literary community. They are a way of building contacts and establishing your authority. If you are a writer and haven’t yet written a book review, you will doubtless be approached to do so before long.
Book reviews can be tricky for all kinds of reasons. Here are a few guiding principles I’ve come up with to help those just starting out:
1) First and most obvious task: give the reader a sense of what this book is about. The reader needs a summary and portrait of what this object you have engaged with looks like. This needs to be done with a light hand and, as far as possible, with zippy and precise language: quote a bit, but not too much. Usually three good quotes total are enough for a 1200-word review.
A good book reviewer tries to see what an author is striving with for a text, so in your summary, you might want to suggest what that is. This establishes that you’ve spent enough time with the book to talk about it fairly and that you’ve thought of it as a whole. It’s a good idea not only to discuss argument (if you’re reviewing this kind of nonfiction) or plot, but also style, structure, the use of dialogue, or anything else that seems integral and important to the text.
Do not waste time critiquing cover images or drawing attention to elements like an author’s photo, unless you’re trying to make a kind and generous joke. Even so, this is risky, and you must assume that risk of you go that route. Any negative attention to details like these makes a reviewer seem petty, lazy, and unaware of how publishing works (i.e., that writers often have no say on issues like cover images).
Of course, a summary is not a review. Your reader wants to know whether she should read this book. How does it succeed? Where does it falter? What other books does it dialogue with? These elements come next.
2) Establish your credentials as a reviewer, but by doing what you do well; not by telling your reader why they should be impressed with you. This is tricky and you need to be subtle. You do not want to pull out your PhD credentials or your many publishing credits. You must not make the review about you or how smart you are. A book review is not an academic paper – we don’t need to see you apply Deleuze and Guattari or offer up a Freudian interpretation of the text. That’s not establishing your credentials. That’s showing off.
You establish your credentials as a reviewer by displaying thoughtfulness. You display thoughtfulness by taking a writer’s work seriously, by asking good questions and by demonstrating an understanding of the context in which this book operates. You may, for example, want to compare it, though using a light touch, with other titles. Again: this is not an opportunity to show off how well-read you are.
3) A book review should be about the book in question. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. One sure sign of an ungenerous review is when a review ceases to be about the book and becomes a gleeful takedown of an author. It’s really easy to write a mean-spirited review: that’s why the Internet is full of trolls. It’s far more difficult to engage intelligently with a text, especially one that a reviewer might find challenging, for whatever reason.
4) Evaluate the book fairly for what it is. This is related to the idea of trying to see what an author is trying to do. Evaluate the book for what it is, not for what you wish it were. An all too common sin, in my opinion, is criticizing a book for not being the book the reviewer would have written (yet another way of making a review about the reviewer).
Beware of reviewing books according to intellectually dubious criteria. A common example is outlined in an essay by Charles Baxter called “Owl Criticism.” This line of reviewing goes something like this: This book is about owls. I don’t like owls. Therefore this is a bad book. If you can’t review a book about owls fairly, don’t agree to write the review.
5) Engage the reader on a writerly level. You are a writer, so use your skills. Reviews can be entertaining and smart. They need not be fawning: you may write a critical review, but do so using your full intellect, your linguistic talents, and a spirit of inquiry.
6) This one’s counter-intuitive, but I find it helpful in getting myself out of jams when writing book reviews: admit your blind spots & shortcomings, if only to yourself. This will help you be both more generous and more rigorous. It will also help you avoid the pitfall of writing “Owl Criticism.”
You may find yourself reviewing a book you have no interest in reading. This has happened to me on more than one occasion. Most recently, I agreed to review a book of short stories (I’m a writer of creative nonfiction currently completely consumed by questions about her genre – what was I thinking?…) When this happens, I ask myself: how are my own shortcomings blinding me? Is it possible that this book of short fictions has something to offer a person who loves the form? How has this book succeeded in ways that I’ve perhaps been unwilling to entertain because of my generic preferences? What has the experience of contemplating this book nonetheless taught me about reading or writing? What kind of reader would find this book useful and on what grounds might I be able to recommend it? Finally, what shortcomings would the ideal reader for this book nevertheless discover?
If you’ve asked enough questions of yourself as well as the book you’ve been charged with reviewing and the text still comes up short on redeeming qualities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to pan it. But here’s what I said to my students on this issue: Just remember that one day, your book too – if you are very lucky – will be reviewed by peers, and karma, as they say, can be a bitch.
How we engage with each other’s work sets a tone for our literary culture. If we want our work to be read with care and attention, then perhaps the best argument for such behavior is to read the work of others in the same way.
[Photo: litherland; illustration by Ji Lee for the NYT Book Review]
Kim Dana Kupperman is the author of the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Missives from the Other Side of Silence (2010) and the lead editor of You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (2013). She is the founding editor of Welcome Table Press, an independent nonprofit devoted to publishing and celebrating the essay, and the editor of the press’s periodical pamphlet series Occasional Papers on Practice & Form. She has received many awards and honors, including fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the New York Center for Book Arts. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Essays; Blurring the Boundaries. Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction; and An Ethical Compass. Coming of Age in the 21st Century and appears regularly in literary periodicals. She teaches in Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.
About You: Up close and personal, this first-of-its-kind collection showcases contemporary essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second person point of view affords both writer and reader.
Julija Šukys: Kim, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. The subject of the second-person voice came up a number of times during my seminars this year – especially my graduate seminars. I, for one, really like the second-person voice and have used it at least twice, in two different essays and I’m always interested to see what others do with it. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it turns out to be a little bit controversial. Some readers/writers see the use of the second-person voice as contrived or too cute. Some find it distancing. I’m so interested to hear what you have to say about all of this!
Kim Dana Kupperman: I’d like to make a distinction before we begin: when I say “second-person point of view,” I’m mostly referring to the grammatical pronoun you; this somehow feels different to me than “second-person voice,” though I think I know what you mean, or, at least I interpret what you mean as “tone,” or “effect,” or, even, “mood,” all of which can be evoked by using a second-person point of view.
That’s a really helpful distinction: point of view vs. voice. I like the precision of the former.
Tell me what drew you to the idea of pulling together this anthology of essays devoted to the second person. Were most of these pieces commissioned for this collection, or did you draw from the world of literary journals?
As a reader, I’ve been very interested in the second-person point of view, from its obvious and historic epistolary use, to the briefer asides to the reader in prose (nonfiction and fiction), to longer works such as the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, to Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, to name three examples. There was no anthology—at least not one in print that I knew of—that collected essays devoted to the second person, written by contemporary writers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any anthologies that have collected such essays by writers in any century. As an editor and publisher, I sought to fill that gap; most of the pieces were solicited in a call for submissions as well as direct requests to writers and editors whose work the three of us—Heather Simons, James Chesbro, and myself—admired.
I was interested to find that in many of these pieces, the “you” appears to stand in for the “I.” By this I mean that the “you” is really (and often quite clearly) the narrator. I’d say this is the case with pieces by Natashia Déon, Susan Grier, Brenda Miller, and others. What is to be gained by switching from “I” to “you”? How does the second-person point of view change the way that we read these otherwise first-person narratives? Or am I being too simplistic and mischaracterizing them?
“You” often stands in for the “I,” but sometimes, “you” masks the “I.” I like to think of this particular usage of the second person as one in which the narrator is writing to a self who no longer exists, which is the case with all three of the examples you mention: Natashia Déon’s here-and-now narrator is addressing her adolescent self at moments of great reckoning; Susan Grier’s narrator is standing on a threshold of understanding her role as the mother of a child who will become transgendered; and Brenda Miller’s speaker is in the midst of undertaking a transformation. So in some ways, it’s as if these particular narrators are recording messages to be placed in a time capsule: “See who I was,” the you says in these instances, of a specific instance or time. Perhaps that’s why we might call this usage “diaristic”: just think of those moments when you examine a diary in which what you wrote was written by another iteration of yourself: it is a kind of first person removed. As Joan Connor puts it, “The I creates a you; the you creates an I, in a Mobius strip of recursive identity.”
There are, of course, a number of pieces here that play with the question of who exactly “you” is. For example, Michelle Auerbach wonderfully satirizes how-to books and advice columns in “How to Screw Up a First Date.” Becca Lee Jensen Ogden’s “Nothing Good Happens after Forty-One Weeks” plays with the form of online pregnancy journals digests (It starts: “Hello Becca! You are now thirty-eight weeks! Your baby is now considered full-term”). I found Ogden’s piece particularly moving. It’s a very effective use of the second person in part because the target or referent of the “you” shifts subtly partway through the piece. Her “you” is both a voice addressing the narrator from outside as well as from inside. Among other things, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the experience of pregnancy. Do you see the “you” working in other ways that I’ve perhaps overlooked?
In the introduction to the anthology, I mention specific uses of the second person: first, the you as I (i.e., the “diaristic”); second, the epistolary, in which the writer creates a rhetorical apostrophe, or an address to someone who is absent (or who cannot—yet, and for whatever reasons—read what is being written, as in Brian Hoover’s “A Rock Snob to His Infant Daughter”); and third, the note-to-self or how-to manual. We’ve included essays in this collection that feature the more traditional use of the second person, a direct aside, or invitation, to the reader, though the essays are unconventional in their approaches (for example, Amy Leach’s “You Be the Moon” and Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page”).
As I mentioned above, some of my students have commented on the distancing effect of “you” – especially when the “you” stands in for “I.” For me, intimacy returns (? I’m not sure this is the right word…) when the “you” addresses someone as one might do in a letter. This is how I’ve used the second person, and it’s how a small number of your contributors have used it. For example, Elizabeth Stone addresses her late father in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackguard” (another piece I found to be very strong). I wonder if you have any thoughts on narrative distance and intimacy and the use of the second person. Do you see it as potentially (if perhaps productively) distancing? Do you see ways of creating intimacy using this pronoun, as I do?
The second-person point of view has the ability to distance and create intimacy at the same time. Intimacy, as you so accurately point out, is created especially in the epistolary usage, in which a reader may feel addressed directly by the narrator, even though the narrator is writing to a specific person (e.g., Kim Adrian, Marsha McGregor, Elizabeth Stone); distance is achieved when the you stands in for I; or, perhaps, a certain remoteness is created, which takes the I out of the equation and allows the writer to scrutinize, perhaps more closely, the subject at hand.
Next: a question on form. I was very interested and intrigued by the brevity of some of most of these pieces. Amongst my favorites is Eduardo Galeano’s “Dreams.” It’s a tiny jewel of a text, only two paragraphs long, with a “you” that refers not to the narrator himself but out to an unnamed interlocutor. The text itself is dreamlike and imagistic. Another text that struck me was one you’ve mentioned, Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page.” It is a tiny text about text: about the effects of layout and font choices and the physicality of letters on a reader. (The “you” here seems to address me, the reader, in perhaps the most direct sense of all the pieces.) What do you think is it about the use of the second person that cultivates brevity?
This is a terrific question. Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the seemingly experimental nature of the second person—readers will tolerate the schism between distance and intimacy only to a degree (although Stewart O’Nan manages to sustain the second person for the duration of an entire novel). Think about reading Gertrude Stein, and the kind of suspension—not only of disbelief, but of narrative expectation—required to enter into some of her texts; the effort is well worth it, but it requires a certain readerly stamina.
What is the greatest hazard of using the second person?
When you use it to be clever. Cleverness is not a hallmark of the second-person point of view. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
And conversely, what can it achieve that a simple first-person (or third-person) point of view can’t?
As we’ve noted, the second-person point of view distances the writer from what might be painful to write. In a way, the you becomes the ultimate persona—or, if it doesn’t, it serves as a process that might help developing writers better understand persona. This speaks to, perhaps, what you have called the “second-person voice”: voice is an element that is part of persona, the disguise adopted by a narrator to tell a story. And by using the second-person point of view, the narrator assumes a mask—distance, in this case—that infuses how s/he sounds with a kind of remote quality that cannot be achieved with first person (but certainly can be realized, without the dual edge of intimacy offered by second person, using third-person omniscient).
Which texts in this collection surprised you most in terms of what they were able to achieve through the use of the second person?
That’s a tough question… I think I was more surprised, in the acquisition process, by writers and editors we encountered who felt that the second-person point of view was too trendy, misused, or, simply, not their cup of tea. Certainly, there are instances of misuse with every experimental form. Some of the work in this anthology may have been better rendered in first person. But the writer stuck to the second-person point of view and had reasons to stick to it. In some ways, that stubbornness surprised me. In other ways, I find it charming.
Kim Dana Kupperman, thanks so much for doing this and for putting together the anthology. I know this conversation will find a place in future seminar rooms and in readers’ hands.
September 4, 2014
I love a good reading list.
The student in me still wants to know what she’s missed and what she should be reading next, whereas the teacher in me is always looking for resources to use and pass on to her students.
So, when Silas Hansen casually posted this great CNF reading list on Facebook, I asked if I could share it. He points out that it’s not an exhaustive list, nor does he love every book on it. For my part, I often tell my students that reading books that you don’t love can be really good for you too: authors and books with whom I have a combative relationship often stay with me longer than the ones I eat up like candy.
All this is to say that the list is a start. I predict you’ll find something of interest on it. Happy reading, and thank you, Silas. You can learn more about Silas Hansen here.
The List (in no particular order…):
Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
Waist-High in the World by Nancy Mairs
Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
Half Empty by David Rakoff
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Portrait of My Body by Phillip Lopate
Somehow Form a Family by Tony Early
Such a Life by Lee Martin
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson
My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
From Our House by Lee Martin
Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The Last Street Before Cleveland by Joe Mackall
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Hitless Wonder: My Life in Minor League Rock and Roll by Joe Oestreich
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Songbook by Nick Hornby
The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst by Steven Church
Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA by Bonnie J. Rough
A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
Road Song by Natalie Kusz
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Truth Book by Joy Castro
Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa by Rigoberto Gonzalez
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Diana Joseph
The Color of Water by James McBride
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman
Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
Townie by Andre Dubus III
Colored People by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flatts by Kristen Iversen
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The White Album by Joan Didion
Salvador by Joan Didion
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America by B.J. Hollars
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
A few days ago, I received an email from Eric Scott, one of my creative writing graduate students, with the subject heading: “Behold the Power of the Internet!” Just a day earlier, we’d been racking our brains, trying to raise 3,000 dollars in tuition for an Icelandic summer language program that he’d been admitted to, but for which he’d received no funding. The course would fulfill not only our PhD program’s language requirement, but would set Eric down his planned research and writing path.
We scoured our university’s available funds, searched for funds available through our academic consortium, the federal government, and surfed the sites of Scandinavian Studies organizations. Finally, I had him call the language program assistant from my office while I sent a few last “Hail Mary” emails to the Icelandic embassy in Washington. All to no avail. With the last stone seemingly turned, I admitted defeat.
Should he take a loan, Eric asked? No, I said. Better to defer admission and take the time to raise tuition for next summer. I’m very debt-averse myself, and the last thing I want to do is to send my students out into a very difficult job market saddled with financial problems.
The next morning, I got the email. Eric had raised more than 2,000 dollars in a matter of hours. How? Here’s what he said when I asked:
Once I realized that traditional funding wasn’t available for my Icelandic class, I decided to try crowd-funding. A website that I write for, The Wild Hunt (www.wildhunt.org), funds itself with an annual Indie-Go-Go fundraiser, so I had a source of advice while I was designing the campaign. I was fortunate enough that some of the places where I regularly publish – The Wild Hunt, Killing the Buddha, Witches and Pagans Magazine – helped me advertise the campaign, but most of the donations have come from family and friends.
“Ask and you shall receive,” I thought.
Eric’s model is not one I would necessarily recommend to all my students, but I think his story is instructive in a number of ways. It shows how, with enough persistence and creative thinking, you can do just about anything. It illustrates that small communities will support their members if they are doing interesting work and if they ask for help. Finally, it demonstrates that small amounts of money (much of Eric’s funding came in 5 bucks at a time) can grow to a reasonably big pile in a surprisingly short period of time.
Above all, the lesson is this: Keep dreaming. Keep working. Keep telling your stories. Occasionally, the universe surprises.
If you want to kick in 5 bucks or more to Eric’s campaign, you can do so here. He’s a little shy of his full tuition. He’s offering fun rewards in return for support.
[Photo: m’sieur rico]
“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]