• click for details

Writing the Personal Essay

Hey folks, another quick digression here (and bonus Saturday post!). I didn’t want anyone to miss a great opportunity. Creative Nonfiction‘s online classes are about to get a great boost, when Matt Randal O’Wain teaches an upcoming section of “Writing the Personal Essay.” Matt is a visiting faculty member with my MFA program this semester, which means I got to study with him at this recent residency, and I was really pleased to get to know him. He’s a great guy, personable and thoughtful and considerate and we share some interests; more importantly for these purposes, he’s also a well-read, thoughtful, insightful teacher. Register here! This Monday is your last day to get discounted registration for this course, and I have a coupon code to share with you to get an additional $50 off! I’m not sure I should post that here, but drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com and I will get you the code asap.

If you have any questions about CNF’s courses, or about Matt, also drop me a line or comment here and I’d be glad to share what I can.

Thanks for reading. Back to your weekend.

The Body: An Essay by Jenny Boully

The Body is an essay in footnotes. Footnotes to a body text which is absent. Just the footnotes.

Pages are often more blank than not, with a line demarcating the footnote section of the page, and then (in rather small font) the text below. Some footnotes are nothing more than Ibid., with a page number. Does this sound infuriating? Yes.

Some of the footnotes are long enough and weird enough to get lost in, themselves; when I consider them poetry and dwell in the moment, there is something to be enjoyed. But overall, not a concept that works for me. Other, better-known writers and readers than I have found much to value here. A meditation on the concept of absence, loss or disappearance, etc. But it was too weird for this reader. I was here for the body, if you will, and not its leavings.

For me a fail, but I’m certainly interested to know if you are differently minded. If any of my readers have enjoyed this book? Please explain.


Rating: 4 quotations.

in loving memory

Please indulge me with today’s digression from our regularly scheduled broadcast.

Just a few days after returning from this summer’s residency at West Virginia Wesleyan, my classmates and our faculty members and I heard some terrible news. One of our own had died suddenly in the middle of the night of a heart attack. Okey was well-loved. We entered the program together, both of us nonfiction students, although he was set to graduate a semester later, because he took on a semester of cross-genre study in fiction. He was well on his way to completing an autobiographical novel. This semester was his critical essay semester, and he was excited to compose a play at the same time.

Okey

I wrote these words for a post at the MFA program’s blog:

My friend Okey was a caretaker. The first, last, and middle memories I have of him involve him inquiring into my various small troubles: he wanted to be sure I was safe, healthy, and had what I needed to be happy. He wanted to give advice and assistance where he could. He was concerned for me. He wanted pictures of any man I would consider dating; he wanted to know how my mother was doing. He had many fine qualities: he was funny, sassy, wise, and selfless. But what I remember most was his deep concern for me, and in this respect I know I was not special. He cared for the many people he loved in this way. He wanted to take care of us.

Others in this program have written about him finding a home here, support and community that he needed. I’m glad we had that to offer him, and I don’t doubt the truth of these statements. But I never much considered what we had to give to Okey; I always saw much more what he gave to us. Thank you, friend.

Okey James Napier, Jr.


I haven’t come up with anything better than this, although he deserves better. It’s been another month or so and I’m still having trouble articulating what we all lost. I still miss Okey. He was a fan and cheerleader of this blog. He was anxious to help me through any minor, personal troubles I encountered. He used to “stalk” my social media account (his word!) so he could ask after the people and issues in my life. We didn’t live near each other, so I didn’t realize, til he was gone, how big a role he played in my day-to-day life. I miss him terribly.

All of this is to say that there’s a plea in today’s post, y’all, and again thank you for listening. The MFA program has set up a scholarship in Okey’s honor, and as we are hoping to get it endowed, we have a fundraising goal. This is a scholarship in support of diversity and inclusion, causes Okey cared about greatly.

Okey’s drag persona, Ilene Over


I have never and would never ask you for money for myself, but this is a good cause for a program, and in honor of a person, I care for deeply. If you’re able to give anything at all, won’t you please consider giving here? And if you’d rather save the fees assessed by this web service, there is a way to give offline. Please drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com for those details.

Again, that’s the Okey Napier, Jr. Diversity & Inclusion MFA Scholarship at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and I appreciate you considering, and reading this post.

Hug your loved ones. Tell them you love them.

The Rope Swing: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran

Disclosure: this author, Jonathan Corcoran, is a repeating visiting faculty member at my MFA program, and one of my favorite people. I always aspire to tell you exactly what I think of a book, but I can’t claim objectivity here because I think Jon is wonderful.


That said, The Rope Swing is also a wonderful book. This is a collection of linked stories, sharing not characters, so much (although there are some glancing exceptions), but setting and theme. Most of the stories take place in a small town in West Virginia; the last two take place in New York City, where a native of the small town has resettled. Some of the stories are told in first person, some in third, and the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” is told in first-personal plural, using the ‘we’ pronoun. I appreciate this choice. This first story is really about setting the scene and the tone for the rest of the book: we are in a small town that is seeing a twilight of sorts, on the day the last passenger train leaves town. It is a mood of elegy, and with some conflicted feelings about the place. The use of a collective pronoun is perfect, because this story focuses on no person in particular, but on the town and its inhabitants collectively. In this story we see a few characters very briefly who will star in their own stories later; but this collection doesn’t follow anyone in particular. The title story, “The Rope Swing,” is referred to in a later story, but it’s a quick glance.

The theme-thread that unites these stories is the experience of LGBTQ characters in this particular setting. There are a few characters that the town acknowledges as a little different, like the florist, who was “funny, we knew, in a light green shirt and a darker green ties the color of a rose stem, but he was also harmless.” Others have a harder time, like the young man who leaves for New York City.

The strengths of the collection are as broad as these characters. Having heard Jon read a few times, I was not the least bit surprised to find lovely writing at the sentence level; he has clearly paid close attention to sound and rhythm and word choice. The small actions and attentions of his characters portray lots of personality economically. About a woman who has inherited the house of a close friend, who had in turn inherited it from his parents:

She had thrown everything out of the refrigerator. She didn’t care if the jam was good for another year; that jam didn’t belong to her. In this way, she had claimed dominion over an appliance.

The place as character is one of my favorite features of the book; I love a strong sense of place, as you know, but also it’s just so beautifully done here. The book opens, “We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime.” Such a simple sentence, but it has a definite beat and lilt to it. And what follows is description; but description with momentum and pull, easy to read and easy to see and feel. Perhaps the key is that all the details–“young leaves of the maples and sycamores,” “rivers of meltwater sprint[ing] down the cliff faces”–are experienced by the ‘we,’ seen and heard and felt and thought and remembered, rather than just delivered to us as exposition.

This author knows how to use metaphor, as in this lovely image, when a grieving woman looks up at a tree:

But then, there was the thing she hadn’t noticed before: the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

But it’s not heavy-handed. My quick impression is that this is not a book that relies much on metaphor, but rather, it tells the world as seen and experienced, and leaves it to the reader to make meaning. That may be a deceptive impression. If I were to go back over these stories looking for literary devices or tricks like metaphor, I might find many. But their subtlety only speaks of their power.

I appreciate, too, how these stories are organized. As I work, this semester, to write a thesis in the form of an essay collection, I’m thinking a lot about organization. I have the impression that these stories come chronologically, although that feeling is somewhat loose, since we don’t follow a single character. The timeline feels organic, though. And most impressively (as I struggle through my own work!), there is a definite feeling of accretion: each story references oh-so-subtly what’s come before, builds on the details of the town or a single image from three stories ago, to increase its impact.

Clearly, a fine example of many skills: sentence-level writing, characterization, setting, subtlety in theme, organization and structure. I’m deeply impressed, and that’s not something I would say just because I like Jon. As a bonus, this is a region, and particularly a set of experiences within a region, that’s not been written about enough. Do check out The Rope Swing. It’s well worth your time.


Rating: 9 mottled leaves of the philodendron plant.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Since reading Yuri’s Signs Preceding the End of the World last summer, and then meeting the author and hearing him read, I’ve been looking forward to finding the time for more of this trilogy. As I left this summer’s residency, I should of course have been starting on the semester’s reading, but in transit I only had the books in my bag. Happily, this one.

Kingdom Cons was the first of the three books to be published in Spanish, and the third in English. These titles (second comes The Transmigration of Bodies, followed by Signs) form what Yuri Herrera calls a “loose” trilogy, so I’m not supposed to feel too bad about going out of order. They are so short, though, I’ll probably reread Signs in its proper position when the time comes.

Kingdom Cons is set in a similar world to that later novel, but without any overlapping characters, according to my memory. This one stars a man we first meet as Lobo (wolf), but who quickly takes on another name. The canine implication stays, though: he is repeatedly referred to as a stray. Lobo was a poor child whose parents (also strays) sent him out to earn a few coins as a street musician; he sings and plays the accordion, and most importantly, he writes lyrics. After his parents abandon him to this life, he develops his skills: music, writing, and the art of invisibility, of ingratiating himself to the right people. In the opening scene, Lobo performs in a bar while watching–admiring–a group of powerful men. It is clear to him who’s in charge.

He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as though made of finer threads. Other blood.

…Then he saw the jewels that graced him and knew: he was a King.

Two observations from these first lines will be central: one, Lobo’s interest in and feeling for blood. And two, the epithets that identify all characters from here on out. The head man Lobo follows hereafter (a drug lord, a mobster, a leader) is the King. He employs men known as the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Manager, the Traitor. Lobo will be known from here until nearly the end of the book by the title given to him by the King: the Artist. He moves into the King’s palatial compound, fulfilling a new role as court balladeer. He writes songs in praise of the King’s heroics. Completely uncynically, he feels lucky to be a part of something so good, and honestly worships the man in charge. But of course, the King’s rule will eventually be challenged.

The Artist did not do well in school, but his passion and gift for words in the form of song have served him well. At the King’s Court, the Journalist sees his need and gives him books to study. The Doctor gives him spectacles, so that he can see what he’s never seen before. He finds his first romantic and sexual experiences there, but the Girl did not choose this life for herself. In a way, the Court is a microcosm of the world; but in other ways, it is exactly what it seems on its face: a violent, greedy underworld in which girls are sold for a used car, and the King has no true friends really, except perhaps the Artist himself.

That makes it sound more heroic than it is. In the end, the Artists becomes just Lobo again, although he has learned to recognize his own blood.

I missed Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note in this book, but I remain pleased with her work; having read the Note in Signs I trust that the idiosyncrasies of her language here are faithful to Herrera’s. That is, the use of those epithets, the running pun of calling Lobo a stray, and the consistent spelling of ‘though’ as ‘tho.’ I marked many memorable lines. Lobo “thought that from now on there was a new reason why calendars were senseless: no date meant a thing besides this one.” Later, “endings and eccentricities were the most notable way to order time.” “People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it.” “Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.”

Although more subtly than in Signs, I think one of the central themes in this book, again, is borders. Liminal spaces: not just the obvious border between the unstated country where this story is set and its neighbor to the norte, but the fragile transitional space Lobo hopes to cross between his street-hustling and the finer, deceptively safer, life in the Court; and the equally delicate lines walked by other characters in these spaces. Also like Signs, Kingdom Cons retains a slightly dreamy, mystic quality, as if this were a fable, or a myth to build a culture around. Again at less than 100 pages, what a world opens up. I can’t wait to get to The Transmigration of Bodies.


Rating: 8 sombreros.

new way to connect

Hi, friends. Quick housekeeping post here, and then back to your Monday morning.

Pagesofjulia has a new Facebook page here that you are invited to follow. Posts from the blog will repost over there; I’m not sure there will be much or any additional content, but it’s another way to track the activity here, and interact. I’d love to see you! Thanks.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

What a very special treat. Thank you, Julie, for this gift.

I loved this book as a child, the series in fact, and I remember that my mother blamed the small missing items in our household on the Borrowers. They are a part of my childhood mythology. As I type these words, I have only just lost a low-ankled white sock in the wash, and am hoping it will still turn up, but maybe I have Borrowers now.

This is a children’s book, I’m thinking grade school ages, and I don’t read a ton of books of this sort; I wonder if I’d appreciate it as much if I approached it as an adult without memories… but what a charming and comforting book I find it now. The Borrowers are a little people (the patriarch is “about as tall as a pencil”) who live in the floors and walls and hidden spaces of the big houses that belong to the “human beans.” They have a society of their own, and it is part of their worldview that the human beans exist to serve the Borrowers, who make a living by “borrowing” from the beans (Not stealing! because the human beans exist just for this purpose). Pod, the father, makes button-boots out of kid gloves. Homily, the mother, is very proud of her sitting room wallpaper (scraps of letters out of waste-paper baskets), and carpet (blotting paper). And Arietty, our protagonist, their fourteen-year-old daughter, sleeps in a bedroom made of two cigar boxes. The family has postage stamps hung on their walls, like paintings. They eat tiny scraps and sips of the human beans’ meals: leftovers, if you will.

The story was familiar to me, but the fine details pleased me all over again. Pod borrows, Homily frets, and Arietty dreams. The child has lived her whole life beneath a floor, and yearns for a wider world. But when she gets access to it, she gets closer to the human beans than any Borrower should, and this threatens the safety of everyone she loves. There is danger, rising action, and a moment of truth: will the human beans turn out to mean ruin, or salvation? Is it better after all to live beneath the floor, or venture out?

The frame for this story, sort of like in The NeverEnding Story or The Princess Bride, takes up little enough room at the start that we almost forget about it by the time we return to it: a young girl named Kate sews with an elderly relation, Mrs. May, while the latter relates the events, of how Arietty and her family got into such a pickle, and what might have become of them. This allows for some lovely remarks on the nature of story-telling. As this young girl protests the uncertainties:

‘Kate,’ she said after a moment, ‘stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.’

‘But not at this kind of point,’ said Kate.

And fair enough, Kate, no one likes to be left hanging. That’s why there are sequels: this is in fact a series of five books. Realistically, you know I’m not going to get to the others any time soon, but as I closed the covers of this much-loved book, I wanted to jump straight into the next one. There’s nothing like a parallel world to spark the imagination.


Rating: for its age group, 9 safety pins.
%d bloggers like this: