Tara Westover at West Virginia University

Last month, I traveled with a small group of English faculty, English majors, and Honors College students from the little town where I live and teach, up to Morgantown and West Virginia University. My department chair organized several activities around the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover. She got us books at a discount; we set a couple of book club meetings; and she got us tickets to see Westover speak at WVU.

It was a perfectly pleasant evening, driving up at dusk and gathering for dinner (at a most strange pseudo-Mexican joint), and then over to the university, which was an experience for those of us from a college of about 1500 students: the ballroom seats several hundred, and was located in a building that reminded me more of the big universities I come from. After a notably awkward introduction, Tara Westover came on.

At this point I had read about half her book, as directed for the book club meeting later that week. So I was familiar with part of her story (and I knew how it finished, at least in broadest terms). Westover was raised in Idaho by fundamentalist Mormons. She did not go to school or see a doctor. At seventeen, she followed in the footsteps of an older brother and self-studied for the ACT, then went off to Brigham Young University in Utah – her first time in a classroom. It was here that she was exposed for the first time to many concepts we take for granted, including (in a memorable example) the Holocaust.

I thought we were attending a reading, but instead Westover spoke about her thoughts on education. She was quite informal and off-the-cuff, although as the talk proceeded I decided it was more practiced than I’d originally thought. (Which is fine.) She retold her story, as in the book, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read it (and in slightly different terms). She spoke of education as having value in broadening our perspectives, and helping us see multiple points of view. This feels like an obvious and simple observation, on some level; but it was a revelation, to think of someone having to learn this in early adulthood from such a limited perspective as she had growing up. I also found very useful one thing she said, about how young people – like my freshman students – can tend to overemphasize the events of their lives (or so it appears to us, a few years older), because their perspectives are so different: if you’re 18, a year is an awfully long time, as a percentage of your lived experience. Whereas it’s a bit easier, if you’re 40, to see how little that test failed or boyfriend lost really matters in the long run. We can tend to say patronizingly that kids that age don’t know what love is (or whatever), but it’s just that their perspective is quite different. We could reframe things. In the same way, she talked about the shape of the narrative arc, and how you can’t see your own arc if you’re still on top of the damned thing; you can’t see where the narrative arc peaks, where the climax is, until it closes. I’m going to try to use these ideas when talking to my freshmen students next semester – about narratives, no less!

Westover’s experiences make her a compelling figure for the college student to consider, especially the first-generation student, as many of mine are. Her talk was often interesting (her story is quite sensational, for one thing), and inspirational. I’m glad we made the trip.

My review of Educated will be up on Monday.

author interview: Matthew Ferrence

Following my review of Matt’s Appalachia North, here is the interview we conducted, also published at Still: The Journal in their Fall 2019 issue.

Julia Kastner: You write about Sean Prentiss’s book, Finding Abbey: “He also journeys into himself, something I doubt he understood at the beginning of his project, even if it lies at the center of his book.” Did you understand, at the beginning of your project, what journey you were on?

Matthew Ferrence: The short answer is no.

The longer answer has to do with the process of publication itself…

Please click over to read the full interview. Thanks again to Still for publishing this work!

author interview: Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco is the author of the memoirs The Glass Eye and Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (both published by Tin House Books). Her work has appeared in the Believer, the New York Times Modern Love column, Tin House and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, Md., and is an assistant professor at Towson University.

Both your books give the impression that you leave it all on the page, that Jeannie Vanasco the person is the same as the character.

photo: Theresa Kell

A lot of memoirists talk about the character on the page as a persona. It’s something I talk with my students about. It can be helpful to see oneself as a character. The idea is that people are capable of change, so the person who writes the book two, five years later might be very different from the character who experienced these events. With The Glass Eye, the meta sections were where I felt the distance between the writer and the character narrowed. I wanted that immediacy. With this book, I feel like more of my personality came through, maybe because there aren’t isolated meta sections. The moments where we’re inside my head run throughout the narrative. With The Glass Eye, I was sectioning off narratives and scenes, and then present-tense craft sections preceded each chapter.

I don’t see the character on the page in this book as being different from who I am. Obviously it was deliberately crafted, and edited, and I wanted it to have that feel of immediacy, as if it were occurring in real time (and a lot of it was). But I think there was less of a persona with this book. And that’s what was so scary about writing it.

Even without considering the subject matter, that does sound scary.

Absolutely. I approached it as an interesting intellectual exercise: I will examine the nuances of the language surrounding sexual assault. I went in with that very craft-y mindset, and then as I was working on it, I would be out somewhere and suddenly start crying. What’s going on with me? I think it was because I was pushing away the emotions, intellectualizing. This book became a lot more emotional than I thought it would.

But it did give me control over the narrative, to see Mark as a character on the page. I came to see him as three different characters: the very close friend he’d been, and then the 19-year-old boy who carried me down into his basement room and raped me, and then the 34-year-old who felt, it seemed, remorse for what he did. What I realized in working on it is I wanted so badly to see the 34-year-old Mark and the teenaged Mark I’d been friends with as the same. And the guy who committed that act–he was a character, not the Mark I’m in conversation with. Having that craft perspective helped me work on it. But then I would have to remember that this happened to a real person, not a character. It happened to me. I think that’s what made the book so difficult. Trying to have mastery over the material and then also being able to let go. To recognize that this is a messy thing that I’m writing about. It’s difficult to find that balance between the writing of the book and the living of it.

What impact has writing the book had upon your mental health?

I think writing the book was therapeutic. It’s interesting because as a student of nonfiction writing, I was told this is not therapy, what we’re doing, it’s not therapeutic, as if it makes something not artistic to even think about it in those terms. I do think this gave me some, maybe not resolution, but what happened doesn’t obsess me the way it did. I used to have nightmares. I definitely feel like I can talk about it in a way that I didn’t think I could before.

Part of the reason I wanted to talk to Mark is that women are so rarely believed. I wanted him on record. Because when I was on tour for The Glass Eye, I was occasionally asked, “How do you know that what happened really happened?” Because I write about psychosis. That became a little frustrating. I understand where the question was coming from, but I was feeling very much dismissed as a narrator. Part of the reason for the meta-ness in that first book is to show that I get that concern; but are any of us really reliable narrators? So I wanted to preempt that, because if I have him on record then hopefully I won’t get those questions, how do you know it happened this way, because I’d have him admitting to it. I’m sure there will be some questions that may be upsetting, but I’m not sure they’ll be questions I haven’t already asked myself.

There is that self-referential quality, that meta-ness, to both your books.

For so long I was afraid to tell. Thinking of the balance between showing and telling, I knew that telling was important. I feel that to just show can lead to a tonally cold narrative. You need some of that intimacy of telling. The meta-ness helped me feel more comfortable outside of writing scenes. This is such a difficult subject, and I didn’t even know all my thoughts and feelings. I really need to think on the page.

With nonfiction, I think sometimes people are resistant to that self-referential meta-layering. I think of meta-ness as just telling. Because unless you’re doing something really experimental, you’re not trying to pull one over on the reader, trying to get the reader to forget that you exist. So it doesn’t seem to be really risky with nonfiction, because of course the reader knows I’m working on this book. To pretend that that process isn’t a part of writing this book seems artificial.

The Glass Eye arose out of a promise to write a book. So writing the book seemed relevant to the plot. And with this book, the book’s very existence was a huge part of reaching out to Mark. And so that meta-ness made sense. There were other ways I could have done it, but it would have felt artificial to me to try to avoid acknowledging the existence of the book. So I think given the starting points of both these books, it made sense to weave in the process of writing them.

Women seem the most obvious readers of this book, but it feels like one men need. What audience do you have in mind?

I would love it if men and boys would read this book. With The Glass Eye, the readers I would most often hear from were women in their early 20s who would tell me, “I love The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted and this book,” and I was like, okay. Twenty-something sensitive bookish women undergraduates? That’s my audience. But I am hoping this reaches a male audience. Recently I was on a plane going to a book festival, and I was seated next to this couple. And he saw that I had a pen and a notebook open and he said “Oh, are you a poet? You’re staring off very thoughtfully!” And I said, “No, I write nonfiction.” And I thought, I know the perfect way to shut down this conversation. I’ll tell him about the second book. And he got really engaged–they both did. We were talking, they were asking me questions, and then at some point he said [referring to his partner], “She’s really into #metoo.” And he’s not? It’s interesting. I think some men see themselves as outside thinking about the #metoo movement or feminism, that they don’t fully see themselves as playing an active role. So I’m hoping that men will read this and think about the way they should be more active. To think about their own past experiences, and looking the other way when a friend of theirs makes a sexist joke. As if these things don’t matter.

author interview: M. Randal O’Wain

Following my review of Meander Belt, here’s M. Randal O’Wain: A Strange Thing.

M. Randal O’Wain holds an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Originally from Memphis, Tenn., he now lives in southern West Virginia. His essays and short stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Guernica, Pinch, Booth, Hotel Amerika and storySouth, among others. He is the author of the memoir Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, a collection of essays that reflect on how a working-class boy from Memphis came to fall in love with language, reading, writing and the larger world outside of the American South. Meander Belt ($19.95) was recently released as part of the American Lives Series from the University of Nebraska.

photo: Saja Mantague

In your preface, you write about privileging verisimilitude over accuracy. What does that mean?

Accuracy is fact, right? It’s information, it’s irrefutable. But we already know that memory is inaccurate. So to ask how could you ever know what is real, what is not real, how you can depend on your own memories… to me, that’s a boring conversation. We’re trying to get to the heart and guts of the experience, the human condition, and not a verbatim account of truth.

I heard Kevin Brockmeier read from his memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, about being in the seventh grade. Inevitably, when you write a memoir that uses the techniques of fiction rather than digressive or expository techniques, people will ask this question: “Well, what about dialogue? Is your memory that good?” And his answer was amazing. He said, “You know, pretty often I get asked that question, but nobody ever asks me how I remember the sun motes falling through my living room as I’m laying on my back staring out the window. Nobody ever asks me about those specific concrete details that are just as ‘inaccurate’ as dialogue.” Because we just sort of buy those as being an acceptable form of essential truth. And he said, “I remember some dialogue, and I remember some details, but really what I’m trying to get at is what it was like to be a seventh grader, afraid to go outside or afraid to get up off that floor.”

The story presents itself as it is. Either as inhabited space, one that might require techniques of fiction, or as a cerebral space, one that you turn over as a three-dimensional object, that you work with in your mind. Then the exciting part for the reader is watching the writer turn it over. Or if it’s an inhabited space, the exciting part for the reader is watching it go by, as if it were cinema. Those are very different feelings. Meander Belt I felt the whole time in my guts. If I were to write it in a way that might come off as more essayistic and therefore more true, I suppose, it would seem so wrong. Because it wasn’t a cerebral book. It’s a bodily book.

How did this collection come to be?
I read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Harrison Fletcher Candelaria’s Descanso for My Father (also an American Lives book)–those three collections were so impressive. I just loved them. That was how I wanted to write this story. But I was convinced by an agent to turn it into a memoir. I tried for a few years, and failed terribly. When I turned in the final version of the memoir, she dropped me. She said that it wasn’t a book that she wanted to read. And that was hard. That was devastating. But it was also freeing.

I’d been publishing these essays throughout the time of working on that memoir, just to kind of stay in the game, keep my foot in the door, test things out. “Arrow of Light,” “Rain over Memphis,” “Thirteenth Street and Failing” were early, standalone essays. And then there were others I started pulling out and changing. When the agent dropped me, I was like, oh, I’m free! And I went back to the original intent, and it flowed very easily.

What I’ve learned, what I have to say over and over again to myself, is to trust myself. I gave too much of my trust to a business relationship. Someone who didn’t know my work as well I did, or my intent. Obviously we need the gatekeepers and go-betweens, like agents, but maybe we put too much trust in them. It’s just a business relationship. Not an artistic relationship.

These essays draw on intimate and often painful details. How do you care for yourself through that process?

Those details are painful at first, and then you get them on the page, and they become something else. They become something that’s beyond you. The saddest thing for me was that they didn’t hurt anymore. That the book doesn’t hurt. I miss it hurting. I extracted, mined very personal details that then were not a part of me anymore.

I don’t know if there’s ever a way to fully take care of yourself. It’s a strange thing to turn memory into art.

What did you learn in writing this book?

That I never want to write about myself again. It was so difficult. There are so many constraints, going back to your initial question about truth. I wanted to tell the truth. And that meant having to talk to family members, to talk to them again and again, to make my poor mom go over it again and again.

There are people out there who keep writing memoir! Memoir after memoir after memoir! What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you ever heard of the autobiographical novel? Make shit up! The mining of memory, that whole process is very challenging. At times it can feel like you’re just this egomaniac, and there are so many other things that a writer can look at besides themselves.

Even though I use a lot of techniques from fiction, I learned a lot about telling the truth. What it means to be vulnerable. So many times I tried to make an excuse for my behavior or apologize for my behavior, but I learned just to let it stand. To be okay with letting it stand. This was helpful for me as a writer and as a person. We’re better off if we can be honest with ourselves about how fucked up we are as well as how good we are.

movie: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Transcendent, not that I’m surprised.

This documentary of the life of Toni Morrison was released shortly before her death, which has helped it make an even bigger splash, although it was doing fine anyway. My dear friend Liz told me I needed to see it, which pushed me further (I was already interested). I was so glad to get a chance to see it locally at a micro-theatre here in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

For starters, check out that image above. The collage of Toni’s face is built up in an opening sequence that shows many faces of Toni Morrison as she ages, and as a portrayal of the creative process I found it moving and thought-provoking. The rest of the movie followed suit. I loved that they mostly let Toni speak for herself. A “present” Toni sits against a blank backdrop and speaks directly into the camera throughout the film. She is dressed in black, white, and gray, highlighting her beautiful gray hair. She speaks with humor and wisdom, and as she talks, we see images and film clips from her life. Friends and contemporaries including celebrities (Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey), other artists (Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley), and college professors (Farah Griffin, David Carrasco) also speak to the camera; a voiceover reads from a few articles, like nasty racist criticisms of Morrison’s early work. But mostly it is Toni’s own voice that tells of her life, from the melting-pot steel town on Lake Erie where she was raised (Lorain, Ohio) to Howard University to Cornell, to teaching, marriage and divorce, raising two boys, and her influential career as an editor at Random House… and of course writing 11 world-changing novels in 45 years, along with children’s books, short fiction, drama, nonfiction, and an introduction to The Oxford Mark Twain‘s edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I’d love to see.

The impression of Toni Morrison that I take away from this film is an entirely take-no-shit, strong woman who we might describe as brave, but I think her own view would be that she was not so much a brave woman as just doing what needed to be done, and what was right, without thinking twice about it. Of course that is brave, but it seems to have just come so naturally to her.

It was nice to see her celebrated not only as an earth-shatteringly talented, singular artist, but also as an incisive, gifted editor, who dragged Angela Davis’s memoir out of her and put Muhammad Ali in his place during the editing of his. I enjoyed the story of her Nobel Prize and the delightful party she so enjoyed in Sweden. In short, I found a rich and rounder portrait here than I think I’d seen of Toni before now.

Although I knew it before, I feel again what a loss we suffered this year when she died, and I feel how lucky we are to have her work in the world. I’m so glad I saw this movie. Don’t miss it. There are lots of ways to watch at home, so you’ve no excuse.


Rating: 9 dolls.

movie: Wonder Boys (2000)

Quick review here… as I got ready to start my new teaching job, a friend said I should watch this movie I’d never heard of. There were a few moments that were silly enough that I rolled my eyes briefly, but overall I have to say, this was hilarious and moving and yes, recognizable. I’m pleased I spent an evening this way.

Great cast with Michael Douglas as the maybe-slightly-washed-up writing professor, Tobey Maguire as weirdo student, Katie Holmes as higher-achieving student who wants to sleep with her professor, Frances McDormand as chancellor who really is sleeping with the professor, Robert Downey Jr. as his editor, and more. (I had to double-check my memory but yes, Tobey Maguire was Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby movie. The two roles echo each other a bit.) The plot has it all: an admired novelist struggling to complete his second novel; jealousy of a talented student; academic office politics; sex and betrayal; industry and professional bullshit; a louche Robert Downey Jr. Like I said, there was a bit of silliness, but there were a lot of laughs. Several times I scared my little dog with sudden loud belly laughs. I was as surprised as he was.

Oh, and it’s marketed as a rom-com… I was less taken with the love story than that, but there was so much to hear to admire.

And no, to answer Barrett’s question, I do not intend to be this close with my students. More boundaries, please.


Rating: 7 dogs.

on stories

Stories live, especially when they are freed from the chains imposed on them by the written word. Even within those chains, there is freedom of movement. I have written two novels from the strange space of unknowing which grows around you when a story approaches and makes demands. I have had demands made of me by magical goldsmiths and pagan gods and black cats, and after a while you learn that there is nothing to do but open yourself up. There is nothing to do but be open.

–Paul Kingsnorth, Savage Gods

I will tell a story. I must tell a story. My greatgrandfather Timmy Cooney told stories. He walked and told stories. That’s what he did all his life. He couldn’t stop walking after the Hunger. He walked and walked. There are stories in the air as thick as birds around me, he would say. I will save those stories from starving, he would say. I have a great hunger for stories, he would say. He always walked west. That was his way. To the west was Tir na nOg, the Country of the Young, the Country of the Blessed, where no one ever grew old and no one ever was hungry. It was near to you when you heard bells, he would say. Some people said it was under a lake and some said a river but Timmy Cooney said it was under the great ocean to the west. Sometimes he saw it shimmering there. He would stand ar chostai, on the shore, and sing and tell stories. He said you could reach that country on the back of a white horse. You could live there for a hundred years and it would be the blink of an eye here. You could come back but woe to you if your foot touched the ground. You had to stay on the white horse. That horse would take you from one country to the other. It was a very good horse. There are more holy horses and holy countries than we will ever know, he would say. The way to find those countries is by telling stories. You can eat stories if you have to, he would say. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water you will be all right, he would say. He would sit and listen to people for a long time without moving. He wanted to hear their true stories, he would say. If people die young their stories haven’t been told enough and there is no rest for them, he would say. Their stories are too hungry. I will save those stories from starving, he would say. Sometimes he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red. You can walk right through a story on the road or in the woods and only hear one word from it, he would say. Or you can sit down inside a story and hear the whole story. Then the story is inside you. You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories. When you have saved enough stories from starving then you will see Tir na nOg, the Country of the Blessed, where no one ever grows old and no one ever is hungry. Geabhaedh tu an sonas aer pighin, he would say, in that country you will find joys as common as pennies, as thick in the air as birds around you.

–the voice of Owen Cooney in Brian Doyle’s Mink River


Doyle has written some astounding lines about stories elsewhere, too, for example in The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, but I do not have those in front of me now. There is still a world of Doyle to be explored, which is small consolation for the loss of the man and the stories he had yet to tell, but I will study what we have here and be grateful. I have a great hunger for stories.



Edit: After finishing this post, I came across this weird, delightful article about the stories Gabriel García Márquez carried around with him. I love collections and I love stories, and I love the weird and delightful, and I thought these belonged here.

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