Final Title: Epistolophilia

Epistolophilia

/ɪˈpɪst(ə)ˌlə(ʊ)ˈfɪlɪə/

noun.

Love of letters and letter writing; affection for the art of epistolography; a sickness characterized by excessive letter writing.

***

After much brainstorming, discussion, reading and re-reading of my manuscript, I have arrived at a title for my second book, due out in 2012 with the University of Nebraska Press:

Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė

I’m happy with the title, because it actually says what the book is about: a love of letters, the writing of (oh so) many letters, and the challenge of writing a life on their basis.

I’m busy with final details in the manuscript, but it will be off my desk today. Hurray!

Next step: Copyediting.

As my dissertation supervisor used to say: Onward.

[Photo: nicasaurusrex]

Share

Take Two: What is Creative Nonfiction?

A while back, in response to a question posed by a friend, I posted a few thoughts on what constituted creative nonfiction. Since then, I’ve been trying to think a bit more systematically about the genre, and to unpack my own writing process.

In that first entry, I cited Lee Gutkind, the editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. Here too, I will turn to him, and a really lucid essay in which he breaks the genre down into components he calls the “5 R’s.”

Gutkind’s schema is pretty snappy and it makes sense to me. According to his model, the building blocks of CNF (I really like this abbreviation, and have started using it) consist of:

1) Real life

2) Research

3) Reading (not only research materials, he says, but masters of the genre and masters in general)

4) Reflection

5) (W)Riting

Gutkind’s is a pretty good description of how I work, though I might add one more R: “Rencontre,” by which a mean a somewhat mystical sounding meeting of past and present.

My work, for what it’s worth, tends to grow out of triangles. At the first of my three points, I have a fragment of the past; on the second there’s me in my here and now. The triangle’s third point is the the sense-making process between past and present, between my content and my perspective. The third point, in other words, is the point of the whole endeavour.

I always begin with a story (often a life) I want to tell, usually using an artifact like letters or diaries. Like, Gutkind, there’s always a real-life aspect to the research: I seem to get a better handle of how to make sense of worlds past by moving through the present. So, even though it’s not the same thing to go through Siberia by train in 2010 as it was in 1941, the trip nevertheless stimulates the imagination and raises questions.

Next, come research, analysis, and finally learning.

The best CNF doesn’t simply tell a story, but takes the reader on a transformative journey. And the easiest way to accomplish this as a writer is actually to learn something.

So, what are the components of my mode of CNF?

1) Story (This is my content, the first thing that tells me that there’s an original story to tell: a collection of letters or an untold life.)

2) Journey (I’ve not yet written anything half-decent without recounting a journey of discovery. Travel and observation are essential to my process. This is where detail and narrative drive come from for me.)

3) Questioning (Once I’ve got my content and have completed a journey of discovery, the important questions start to arise. I begin to figure out what the point of the story I’m trying to tell will be, and why not only I, but a reader, should care. Gutkind calls this stage Reflection.)

4) Research (Once I have a series of questions, I head to the library in search of answers. I read anyone and everyone who might be able to help. Much of this never actually makes it into the bibliography, but that’s OK.)

5) Learning (In some ways this is the hardest part, but it’s the piece that will make a CNF book worth a reader’s time. In order for the reader to learn, the author has to transform him- or herself in some way. For this reason, writing CNF requires humility. You can’t assume you know everything. If you do, there’s nowhere to go and nothing to learn.)

I continue to write at every stage in the process. Some parts of it are easier than others — journeys tend to write themselves, but incorporating research seamlessly can be like pulling teeth. I call that stage “writing through the pain.”

Weirdly, the final stage of learning often happens of its own accord. If you travel, watch, read, write and think for long enough, you’re bound to learn something. The trick is to listen carefully enough to hear what it is, and to write it down before it escapes.

So, if learning is the hardest part, how is it that it happens of its own accord?

Because you can’t cheat, fake or rush it. You have to do the work and put in the time for learning to come about. But when the point of the whole damn thing suddenly (that is, after months or years of work) reveals itself to you, and your manuscript seems to tell you how to finish it, writing becomes its own reward.

And then, for a moment, it may even seem easy.

How does your process work? Do the 5 R’s describe what you do?

[Photo: troycochrane]

Share

The Literary Pyramid Scheme: A Few Thoughts on Book #1

A while ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

Well, my first book arrived! The package came with a Maryland postmark and inside I found a second-hand copy of Jeffrey Shaara’s Gods and Generals.

Lately, my husband and I have been talking about the benefits of e-books as compared to paper ones. One of the things that the arrival of Gods and Generals has reminded me of is that paper books come with traces of their former lives and readers. And Book #1 contains some interesting clues as to its history.

Trace number one: the former owner’s name (female, interestingly) on the first page.

Trace number two: the book sent contains a business card from the South Mountain State Battlefield in Middletown, Maryland that was likely used as a bookmark. A vestige of some kind of civil war pilgrimage? Did the reader/owner of this book take it on a trip to places it describes?

Trace number three: amazingly, this book has been signed by its author — the autograph is dated Sept. 1, 2002. Why, I wonder, would a reader send away an author-inscribed book to a complete stranger?

All of this reminds me of a 1990s Algerian raï song sung from the perspective of a beauty parlor chair that tells about all the beautiful women and behinds that have graced it. Or of François Girard‘s film The Red Violin that traces the life of an instrument as it is passed from hand to hand. Tracking the life of an object, it turns out, is another way of writing life.

Finally, though American Civil War history is far from a major interest of mine, I’m so thankful for this gift, whose conception is a beautiful gesture of love. Jeffrey Shaara wrote this book as a prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels, that told the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote it after his father’s death, so the very text is a kind of conversation with the dead, an elegy, or maybe even a love letter.

Already new avenues for thinking about reading, writing and exchange have opened up for me with this first arrival. I hope more books will come, and with them fodder for a solid essay. If not — if months go by without another book — that will be something to write about too.

Keep reading. Keep writing. Happy Holidays!

[Photo: Troy Holden]

Share

On the Dying Tradition of Letter-writing

I’ve been working with letters as literary artifacts for just over a decade now. As a graduate student, my attraction to letters was instant. The very first time I sat down with stack of yellowing missives, I was hooked, and never looked back.

I work with letters because I like the intimacy they afford. Piecing a story together through an unexamined correspondence is a way to tap into untold stories and to break new ground. Reading letters also gives me a glimpse into the ways in which people meld writing and life and make sense of their time on earth. And I’m interested in the ways the big and small combine in letters — how, for example, a letter can give a ground-level view of historical events.

But as we increasingly eschew handwritten letters on paper for electronic correspondence, the materials I use for my research are becoming a bit of dinosaur. I myself have boxes of love letters written on lined notebook paper from when I was a teenager, but mine may be the last generation to be able to say this.

And as I embark on the writing of my third book — my second to use letters as a primary resource — I realize that it’s time to start reflecting not only on what letters say, but on what they are.

I’ve never really cared all that much about physical objects in my work. Whether I read a second-hand copy, a library copy, or a first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as long as all the pages are intact, it’s all the same to me. It’s why I could never be an art historian, because the value of objects that interest me has little to do with money, or physical uniqueness.

But now I see that it is no longer enough simply to consider the content of the letters I work with. Because letters are on their way out as a cultural practice, I will inevitably have to start reflecting more seriously on their physical form, the way they travel from sender to recipient, and how the process of letter-writing differs from or in some ways resembles the way we communicate today.

National Public Radio has kick-started this thinking process for me. It’s currently doing a series on the United States Postal System, which is apparently in deep crisis. As part of its Postal series, NPR has curated an on-line exhibit of interesting pieces of mail, called “Mailed Memories: Your Cherished Letters.”

The exhibit includes images of an annual cake-package sent by post, a posthumous birthday card, and a postcard sent to a kid by Allen Ginsburg that was originally addressed to John and Yoko. The last piece in the exhibit is my contribution: a 1947 postcard sent from Siberia to the US by my grandmother. Its tagline: “Finally, a letter from mom.”

It is indeed a cherished piece of mail, and I’m honoured to have it used as part of the piece. You can see the exhibit here.

I rarely write letters anymore myself, and wonder if others do. Share your letter-writing and -receiving stories with me through in the comments section. I’m interested to know about your writing life.

[Photo: Sea Dream Studio]

Share

Alternate Economies and a Literary Experiment: An Invitation to Help Me with an Essay Project

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from a really funky writer friend of mine in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It contained an invitation to be part of an “informal book club” project. The letter asked me to send one already-read book to a designated recipient, and to send six more such letters to others, inviting them to do the same. In theory, the invitation explained, if everyone down the line participated, I would receive 36 random and gently used books through the mail.

Yes — it’s a literary pyramid scheme!

Now, ever since an old high school friend handed me a video and implored me to watch it, saying it was something I would be “really interested in” (it turned out to be some sort of incomprehensible Amway pitch), I’ve been really wary of this sort of thing. I don’t like chain letters by email or otherwise, and won’t take part in them, but something about the informal book club has appealed to me.

I’ve always loved alternate economies: garage sales, freecycle websites, barter networks. I love the flow of infant clothing and equipment that happens among young mothers who pass on articles to the next woman down the line as their little ones grow, knowing that more will come their way from those with older children. It’s a simple method of recycling and a way of resisting the message that we should consume more and more and more.

The informal book club idea strikes me as being in this spirit — it’s a cashless or low-cost exchange of goods, but with a surprise factor.

I like the idea of selecting a book off my shelf that I’ve read, enjoyed, but can do without, and sending it off to a stranger as a gift. And I like the idea of random people doing the same for me. It’s an experiment I’d like to try, and I think there may be an essay in it. If you help, I’ll do my best to write something insightful and funny about the experience.

I’m looking for six willing participants to take part in this literary experiment with me. If you are interested, please send me your mailing address via the contact page, and I’ll send the letter off to you so you can get started. As you can see by the fact that I have no ads on this site, I’m not particularly capitalistic by nature or spam-minded, so there’s no danger of your address being sold or used for nefarious purposes. Information you transmit through the contact page comes to my private email address, and is not made public. I’ll send you the book club letter and that’s it. Promise.

Drop me a line, and let’s see what comes.

[Photo:patrick colgan]

Share

Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

Share

Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

Share

Two Stories of Ona

True story: A researcher at the archives at Kent State University stumbles on the transcript of an interview with her grandmother. This is what happened to me in 2001, when I made the trip from Chicago to Kent, Ohio to look at two boxes of uncatalogued Šimaitė papers. Inside one of the cartons was a black notebook labelled “Father Juozas Vailokaitis (1880-1953) in Siberia.” A note fixed to its cover read: “This Lithuanian material was found on a shelf in the Archive, unidentified, on January 2, 1994. It has been placed with these other materials in hope that the next researcher can identify it for us.” I almost fell out of my chair when I saw what was inside. It was a seventy-two-page interview with my grandmother.

I saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film The Double Life of Véronique when I was a teenager, and I remember loving it, but not understanding it. What was the connection between the two women who shared a name? How did their mirrored lives interact? Why did one live and the other die? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

Recently, this film has come back to mind with each new mirroring I find in the lives of my two Onas, who shared not only a first name, but second initial. Ona Šimaitė and my grandmother, Ona Šukienė, were born in Lithuanian villages within five years of one another. For both, 1941 was a pivotal year that changed their lives forever: this was the year the Nazis invaded Vilnius, and the year the Red Army deported my grandmother to Siberia. Fragments of both life stories ended up in one box in an American archive to which neither had any connection.

But when I visited my aunt a few weeks ago to talk about family history, I discovered yet another shared biographical detail: both Onas had unofficially adopted daughters named Tanya. Šimaitė’s Tanya was a young Warsaw woman whom she smuggled out of the ghetto; my grandmother’s, a Russian girl in Brovka who reminded her of her own daughters.

I’m not yet sure what to do with this constant doubling. What does it tell us about life? Are we to understand, perhaps, that there are only handful of “starter lives” handed out every generation, and then each individual must do what s/he can with a given template? Have I stumbled upon two variations on the theme of  “the Ona Š. life”? Does this mean that I am living “the Julija Š. life,” and that, if I leave enough behind, someone will find my double in an archive after I’m gone?

I’ve written about the find at Kent State in more detail in an article called “Brovka: Reconstructing a Life in Tatters (My Grandmother’s Journey).” You can read it via this link. (No subscription required)

[Ex libris plate by Žibuntas Mikšys; Photo by Julija Šukys]

Share

Writing Lives

For a long time I resisted calling myself a biographer. I didn’t mean to write these kinds of stories, or those kinds of books. But, like all the best things in life (cats, love) — biography chose me. Despite myself, and despite having been trained as a literary scholar at a time when the author was dead, when a writer’s intention didn’t matter, and when the makings of a literary life were beside the point, writing lives was what I wanted to do.

I started by telling the story of an Algerian author gunned down in 1993 in a civil war between armed militants and a dictatorship. He was thirty-eight when he was killed, and had accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime. His name was Tahar Djaout, and the book I wrote about him is called Silence is Death (his most famous turn of phrase).

Next, I wrote the story of a brave librarian who defied Nazism. She left us thousands of letters and scores of diaries in various languages. I used these to write the book I’m calling Beloved Profession. It’s not out yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Now, I’m working on a third project. It’s a personal story that starts in Lithuania, continues in Siberia, and ends in Canada. I’ll let you know more as that develops.

This blog explores the writing of biography, autobiography and life-writing. I’ll share my understanding of the process, and point to others who I think are doing or have done interesting work in this area. We’ll see how it goes.

[Photo by Martin Marcinski]

Share