On Homesickness: A Plea by Jesse Donaldson

Our temples are made of logs in Kentucky so be careful with the flame.

This is a book very much after my own heart, even though its narrator doesn’t care much for the city that has my heart; we both share a love for home, even though our homes are different.

On Homesickness is a collection of fragments, none longer than one page, and that’s an important design feature, because each spread follows a pattern. The left-hand page names a Kentucky country, its date of establishment, and a small representation of its shape on a map. The right-hand page offers a fragment, sometimes expressly referring to the corresponding county but more often not. It’s possible that fragments and counties match up better than I know, and a Kentuckian might know better, but I’m not really all that concerned. These super-short pieces of prose make a neatly paced, lyric form for what is essentially a wandering wanting. Donaldson yearns for his home and can’t figure out how to get there. Meanwhile we learn as well that he and his beloved partner have a pretty good life in Oregon, a place he finds beautiful but not quite home. His partner is uninclined to pick up and move to Kentucky. Donaldson flubs a job interview that might have moved his family home; his wife gets pregnant, and in a lovely piece near the end, “…I realize that for our daughter, this place will be home. And I want her to love it like I did mine.”

That is the narrative arc, such as it is (and it ends beautifully), but the narrative bones of this book are spare. Along the way, Donaldson also mines Kentucky history, myth, and cultural references (that Colonel’s sour mash), creating as much mood as story. Again, yearning is absolutely the dominant feeling, coming across loud and clear. Also very present is the unnamed partner, the wife in Oregon. This is a love story as much for a woman as for a place. “A place can’t love me. Not like you.”

I find this book interesting for its form, its bravery in sparsity and what it communicates so succinctly. Its themes are so much my own that it aches a little, and I recognized almost every line as I read. Even the references felt uncannily personal (Janus, Cleanth Brooks, Houston). Is that because I’m so truly the right reader for this book? Or because it’s designed to appeal to every reader in this personal way? Probably a little of both. Either way, a good study in minimalist, lyric prose; mood over plot; and a decent way to learn about Kentucky, not from an academic historian but from a lover. I liked it very much.


Rating: 8 love stumps.

Bonus material/synchronicity: I was originally sent this book in galley form for a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t get around to it. I kept the book, though, because I thought I might be interested someday. When I worked with Jeremy Jones last semester, I learned that his “In Place” series from WVU‘s Vandalia Press had debuted with this book as its first release. Meant to be. Part of me wishes I’d gotten to it sooner (and written that review for the Shelf!), but part of me thinks I found it at the right time.

wrapping up semester three

I am now on a break* of sorts between semesters three and four of my MFA program, meaning that I will graduate in January**, if all goes well with my thesis this fall. I thought I’d let you all in on how the last six months have gone, school-wise.

Third semester in WVWC’s program is critical essay (CE) semester. This means that on top of the usual creative output (which can be somewhat reduced, but ideally will not be), the students writes a 20-25 page essay on the topic of her choosing, studying a few central works. Instead of the usual output of fifteen craft annotations or craft essays in semesters one and two, only four annotations are due, followed by the critical essay itself; ideally those four annotations serve the essay, as they did for me. Anybody nerdy enough to want to learn more about these products (annotations, CE) are invited to peruse the MFA student’s handbook.

I had two ideas for my CE topic heading into last winter’s residency, and was quickly convinced in discussions there to write about objects, stuff, or things in the works I admire. Two of my early annotations covered two of my CE’s central texts: Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell and Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Are you sick of hearing about those two books yet? I’m not.) The other two, still on-topic, covered a couple of Guy Clark songs (“Stuff That Works” and “The Randall Knife”), and Cutter Wood’s Love and Death in the Sunshine State, respectively. The latter did not make the CE, but Guy Clark made a few cameos, and my final central text was Scott Russell Sanders’s work in two essays, “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Buckeye,” from his collection Earth Works. My critical essay is titled “Yucca, Lemon, Buckeye: The Strangeness and Singularity of Things.”

I am moderately proud of it, and glad it’s over. I do feel the benefits of studying so closely one craft aspect I admire; but it was also a rather awkward adjustment for me. This work felt more like “school” than anything I’ve done in this MFA program. Getting back to a slightly more academic style was like slipping back into a comfortable groove, in that it’s something I’ve done before and feel competent with; doing creative work, for the first time in my life, just recently, had been a real challenge, and not always a happy one, but I missed it when I slipped back into that groove. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

I did keep up the creative work, more or less; I think I had one writing packet that was light on page count, which was also true in my second semester (I believe I buried Katie Fallon, in semester one, with the maximum allowable page count throughout). And now I’m very excited about heading into semester four, when I’ll write my thesis–or rather (I hope) edit and revise heavily and also do some connective-tissue writing to build a thesis out of the last few semesters’ work.

I had my best semester of reading yet, and had a wonderful rapport with my advisor, Jeremy B. Jones (author of Bearwallow). His comments on both my critical and my creative writing this semester always felt incisive, productive, and specifically geared at my own needs as a writer: personalized, and with a fine understanding of what I am and what I’m up to. I felt very lucky. He also recommended just the right books for me to read. (Look for a post on Friday about my favorite books of the first half of 2018.)

Looking back, then, it was a good semester for me as a writing student. It didn’t always feel that way in the moment! If nothing else, I have the angst of a creative writer down, I think.

I’ll probably be writing soon about the readings I’m doing for residency. It goes by so fast, and now that I’m more or less three-quarters of the way through this program, I’m a bit panicked at the idea of it ending, even as it looks like a relief, too. I’m glad to have written this post so I can remember the satisfaction of semester three, and the critical essay, feeling like accomplishments along the way.

Program director Jessie van Eerden continues to impress me with her promptness, combined professionalism and warmth, and enormous wisdom and talent. Jeremy Jones was a special gift to me this semester. My classmate Delaney McLemore, who will be graduating** this summer, has been a friend throughout, but this semester provided substantial support along the way. (I’m happy for her to be graduating, but I will miss her terribly!) It’s been grand, y’all.

Onward to West Virginia in July!



*Breaks are nearly a fallacy: as soon as my semester portfolio is due, it’s time to start working on my workshop sample for next residency; and almost as soon as my workshop sample is in, I get back other people’s workshop samples to read and comment on, as well as my reading assignments for residency, which number in the hundreds of pages. But technically, break.

**While there is a graduation ceremony at residency, the degree is not officially conferred until the college’s next graduation date, which in my case is May 2019. For that matter, following the January residency where I “graduate” and teach a seminar to my peers, I have something like six weeks to keep working on my thesis before its final-final due date in mid-February or so. January will be a major milestone, but there will be later milestones before the MFA is truly done. And I’ll be learning as a writer forever (hopefully). The process is ongoing, and then goes on.

No Heroes by Chris Offutt

No matter how you leave the hills–the army, prison, marriage, a job–when you move back after twenty years, the whole county is carefully watching. They want to see the changes that the outside world put on you. They are curious to know if you’re lost your laughter. They are worried that perhaps you’ve gotten above your raisings.

This is beginning of No Heroes. Only the prologue retains this second-person perspective, which I think would have gotten difficult for the length of the book, but it’s a perfect intro: it brings immediacy, in that you are the one facing these challenges; and it offers a dreamy, literary take on Chris Offutt’s rough-edged subject and setting. This prologue takes the form of an instruction manual (“to do this, do this”): how to return home, if home is this specific place. It concludes:

You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home. This dirt is yours.

It’s a perfect beginning.

This book is a close cousin to Jeremy Jones’s Bearwallow, which comes as no surprise because Jeremy recommended it to me.

It’s a fine book. In blurbs on the back, Offutt’s style is compared to that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver: strong words, but I can see the comparison. Offutt tends toward short, declarative sentences, except when he doesn’t (like Hemingway, a man perfectly comfortable with long, convoluted sentences and full-blooming metaphor when he feels like it, despite a reputation to the contrary). That is, the prose is mostly simply put together, undemonstrative, but he also knows how to turn a surprising or beautiful phrase at the moment we least expect it; the rarity of such lines adds to their impact.

Offutt’s story, like Jones’s, is of going away and coming back. Both men are from Appalachia. Offutt is from the hills of northeast Kentucky, where he went to elementary school, high school and college within ten miles, and only realized later how unusual this was. As a troubled twenty-year-old, he’d left the hills. He returns as a forty-year-old, having collected an education, written books, married and had two boys, lived and experienced lots of places. He’s back to teach at his alma mater, a humble school where he had worked maintenance while a student, a paradoxical foot-in-two-worlds experience that his cohorts on both ends–work and school–had struggled to accept. “It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college,” Offutt writes, but that criticism sounds less nuanced in isolation than it does on the page, in the midst of his obviously tortured love for this place.

In the course of No Heroes, he navigates his return to this place, whose dirt and leaves and birds he passionately loves. His parents still live here, but his love for them is less easy. His wife, Rita, and their two sons have some trouble adjusting to a place that is not theirs. Offutt came home hoping to be a hero to students like the one he was: talented but without role models, ready to slip into crime more easily than into art. The title foreshadows the end of that plot line, of course.

But there is another plot line! And it’s a doozy, complicating the story of the homesick Appalachian who has made good and therefore alienated himself. Offutt’s in-laws are finally ready to let him tell their stories. Both are Polish Jews and survivors of a string of Hitler’s concentration camps. You think you’re homesick? The narratives of Arthur and Irene humble us all. The flashback parts are different from the whole of the book: Arthur and Irene’s chapters are told in their own voices (Offutt recorded their interviews), and his own chapters told in his own voice; occasional scenes give dialog representing the interviews themselves. While a bit jarring at times (watch those chapter titles and they will guide you; I have trouble focusing on titles, for no good reason), even this effect–the jarring in and out of a painful past–suits the subject matter. It is Arthur’s admonishment about telling the complicated story, that even victims have flaws, that titles the book: “Remember, Sonny, no heroes.”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very rooted in a beloved place, and contains two stories equally well-told. For parents, for Appalachians, for anyone facing the tension of succeeding out of the bounds of their upbringing, for the homesick, this is an engaging memoir.


Rating: 8 “crimson maple leaves with green veins that pulsed in mourning for the branch they’d left.”

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness by Robin Hemley

I appreciated Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, and so I was interested when I learned he’d written a memoir of a difficult-to-write-about family member.

The first paragraph of Hemley’s prologue introduces five characters in a nuclear family. Father Cecil, who died when Robin (the youngest child) was seven. Brother Jonny, who “used to be good at everything, from languages to sports to the sciences,” but as an adult specializes in Orthodox Judaism (he and Robin are not close). The eldest, sister Nola, who “was good at everything, too, art and language, but especially things of the spirit.” Mother Elaine, writer and teacher, who is good at surviving. And here Robin introduces himself, as larcenous. Throughout this book, he is tormented by the thought of the stories, secrets, feelings and anguishes he’s stealing from his family members, particularly Elaine and Nola. Brilliant, spiritual, disturbed Nola, who always heard voices and saw fairies and angels and communicated with God, was treated for the last several years of her life for schizophrenia, in and out of mental institutions until she died when she was twenty-five years old, and Robin was fifteen.

This is a memoir filled with documents. The Hemleys are a writing family, and Robin mines Nola’s unpublished autobiography, her drawings, his own and his mother’s short stories, letters sent among the family, court documents, and more. Nola’s writing in particular appears peppered with struck-through text and additions, mostly the work of their mother as editor. These edits are not redacted; the reader gets both versions at once, often unsure of whether a change is Nola’s or Elaine’s. It is disconcerting, and entirely appropriate.

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is well-named. It is not an easy read. Just over 300 pages feels longer, as Hemley navigates the pain and distress of layers of family trauma–his father’s death and the deaths of several school-age friends; moves to ill-suited towns; a permissive, struggling mother; everyday sibling discord, and Nola’s increasing difficulties with a world she characterizes as “a strange and unbearable monster.” This is Nola’s book, but it follows side-threads, too, as when eleven-year-old Robin goes to live for part of a school year with elderly relatives in Florida (“By any yardstick other than a conventional one, I was essentially an elderly person… I really liked being old”). Later, he finds middle school frightening and chooses instead to attend day school at the psychiatric hospital where Nola is an inpatient. The Children’s Ward is a comfortable enough home for Robin, until he finds out they might not let him out again. Years after Nola’s death, when Robin is a graduate student, he has a girlfriend who suffers a psychotic break echoing his sister’s. Obviously, these threads are part of Nola’s story, her mystery, as well.

Not an easy read at all, as the book’s progress follows Nola’s descent into a misery she will not escape from. I do not recommend staying up late into the night to finish reading this as a winter storm rolls in. I found it quite upsetting, in fact. There’s no question that Hemley achieves emotional engagement, a representation of some of the agony his family has experienced. It’s a complicated achievement, all these layers of family trauma–often still with hope strung through them, at least while Nola retains it–and the writerly impulses of a family committed to communication and the written word, to education, and to some version of truth, however complicated. [Elaine’s technique is to write the family stories as fiction. Hemley’s essay “Truths We Could Live With,” appearing in Joy Castro’s (ed.) Family Troubles, and assigned by Jeremy Jones for my recent residency, discusses the difficulties he’s had with this practice. You can read an excerpt here.] A major thread of Nola follows the back-and-forth communications of mother and son, as Robin researches his family history for this book, and Elaine both helps (consulting, remembering, mailing him copious documents) and worries over the pain this will cause her, and Robin worries in turn.

So, a rich and complicated story. And cerebral: the Hemleys are a heavily educated, intellectual and mystic family, as well. (Cecil was co-founder of Noonday Press, and with Elaine translated and edited I.B. Singer’s work.) Almost every page is dense with philosophy (Nola’s grad-school discipline), religion, theory: faith, art, and madness indeed. I was having trouble getting through it, until I decided to let Nola’s concepts in particular sort of wash over me, and stop trying to understand them. (Much easier this way.) This book is an accomplishment worthy of study, but it will cost you something in the reading, so I recommend it with that qualification. Maybe stick to the daylight, too.


Rating: 7 Blakean drawings.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland by Jeremy B. Jones

Disclosure: I read this book in preparation to meet its author at school in a few weeks, where he is guest faculty for the upcoming semester. There is some chance that he will be my advisor for this semester.


I bought Bearwallow more than a year ago, when I was researching MFA programs I might want to attend, and he came up as past guest faculty at WVWC, where I did end up going. I thought it would be good to get to know their faculty better by reading books like this one, but I didn’t get around to it until we got word that he was actually on his way back to serve as guest faculty again. I’m pleased I finally found time for this memoir, which does have something to teach me. And I’m looking forward to meeting Jeremy, not least because I learned in these pages that he is an avid cyclist! (Road, not mountain, but close enough. I remember roads.)

In the timeline of Bearwallow, its narrator is a young man recently returned to the shadow of Bearwallow Mountain where he grew up. Jeremy wanted to leave Appalachia, and he and his wife Sarah lived for a time in Honduras, where they taught young children English. But he kept feeling struck by those mountains’ familiarity, their relationship to his own mountains; and he ended up coming home to teach the children of his own old neighborhood. There, he teaches ESL (English as second language) to the children of immigrants. As he considers language, mountains, and our relationships to place, he watches developers parcel out the top of Bearwallow and plan for it to change. The book is about Jeremy’s life (still a short one in the book’s timeline), his family history, his region’s history, the significance of change and growth, and what place means to people. (You can see why I like this book.)

This is a young man’s memoir, which is a tricky undertaking. But Jones handles it well. For one thing, his story is not chiefly or firstly about him. He opens with the story of one of his forefathers, a Dutchman named Abraham who helped to settle the region where Jeremy would grow up. He always grounds his own experiences in their larger settings: the mountains of North Carolina and Honduras; a family history; the challenges of immigrants and immigration; a young person’s dual drive to leave home and to return to it. He also frequently references his own youth, acknowledging the uncertainties of anything he can know about himself as a man in his 20s. In fact, this book ends when the narrator and wife go off to graduate school, leaving again and only perhaps to return (as we, outside the book, know he did, at least to the region if not the town and neighborhood).

I found the narrator easy to like. He is humble, though not self-deprecatory. He has an open mind and questions his own decisions and impressions. I also liked the kind of musing he does. People and place, the dubious demands of family and inheritance, and the complexities of a place like Appalachia, all speak to me. I appreciated Jones’s use of scenes to transition into memory, or historic topics: scenes and scenery as smooth transitional material between more abstract subjects, and of course for their added interest and characterization.

This is an enjoyable, easy read, but it’s also got something to offer the writing student. In fact, its ease is one of those deceptive qualities: apparently effortless, so that the style fades into invisibility, but that’s some of the hardest prose to write. Again, on a personal level, I look forward to meeting Jeremy as a fellow cyclist (and I think of my mother, a fellow teacher of English as foreign language). Recommended.


Rating: 8 lots.
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