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.

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.

residency readings, part II


Note: I am just returning from residency this week and slowly reentering regular life (whatever that means). I’ll be back on regular comment response, etc., very soon. Thanks as always for your patience and for reading!


I see a pattern with Richard Schmitt, who tends to teach us about the mechanics of story: process, form, scene, plot, and now dialog. His reading packet was concise, comprising two short stories, by Katherine Mansfield and Sam Shepard respectively. They were excellent reading! I do recommend both: good examples of dialog, yes, but also just fast-paced good reading. I think these are exemplars of what dialog can do for story, and I’m looking forward to this seminar.

Surprise! The poetry segment went fine! Guest poetry faculty Remica Bingham-Risher assigned a packet of ten poems and a micro-essay, and they read easily–musically, of course, but also comprehensibly, which I found a rare treat. Her seminar is on “mining the spark,” or using research to “find inspiration but balance creativity with the facts.” I like this idea: inspiration in research, as well as groundedness and appropriate detail, but retaining the creative flair, too. Perhaps because these poems were so well grounded in reality (history, research, detail), they worked well for me, which you know is somewhat rare. I’m excited.

Nathan Poole (who wrote Father Brother Keeper – talk about making connections) assigned a nice variety of stories starring marginalized characters: Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” and Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” all worth reading and studying for their beauty and pain and detail and universality… but oh, the final story, “Kidding Season,” by Lydia Peele. I am nearly dead with heartbreak. I am upset with Peele, and upset with Poole for assigning this story. A fine piece of literature, I’m sure, but not for us tenderhearted people. I can’t take it. I’m devastated.

Nathan Poole, you have some talking to do at residency to make this up to me.

Doug Van Gundy assigned two chapters from Hugo’s The Triggering Town, which I rated highly but on this reading, I must say, I don’t remember there being so many pretty girls, emphasis on the prettiness (or not) of the girls, the importance of prettiness to girls and to men. Aside from that, I believe I can see where Doug is headed and I look forward to hearing more. His packet was completed by a perfectly lovely James Wright poem about places. (Doug’s seminar is “The Line in the Landscape”: right up my alley.)

And finally my dear friend Delaney McLemore, who is graduating at this residency and therefore teaching us a seminar on her way out, assigned a book AND a packet: always the overachiever! (I’m teasing. As she points out at the start of the readings, this book is under 100 pages, with pictures.) I dutifully reread Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, and I think I did get more out of it this time. I marked more lovely lines, like “…the yellow kitchens of our childhood, where Mama hung her flowered curtains every time we moved, as if they were not cotton but spirit.” I noted for the first time that this book began as a performance piece. I made some notes about the placement of pictures, in anticipation of Delaney’s seminar: she’s teaching on “art and artifacts,” and I know she has a special interest in photographs in particular. I didn’t really find that the photographs in this book did much more for me on this read than they did the first time, though: I think I’m liable to glance and skim past them. I’m interested in what she’ll teach us.

The essay she assigned, “Proof of Life: Memoir, Truth, and Documentary Evidence” by Carolyn Kraus, I found fascinating. Kraus writes of her work on a memoir of her father’s life, which was necessarily an act of speculation, because of how little she knew about her father. This gave her discomfort, and she searched first for the concrete, official, public sort of documentation that would both inform her work and give it legitimacy in the age of James Frey; but these documents were nearly nonexistent. She ended up with a collection of far more obfuscating private documents, which informed her work some, but better, gave her confidence. (And, of course, the story of seeking documentation, and the story of what she did and didn’t find and how it all happened, becomes part of the larger story, which is a feature in memoir I always appreciate.) It’s almost as if the mere existence of such documents, even if they don’t give much new information, adds something: look, here is his handwriting. He existed.

Finally, I did read the optional essay as well – “Telling Stories in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure” – by Tim Dow Adams, and I’m glad I did. He had some thoughts in particular about the photographs that make me feel better prepared for this session.

I got to feeling that I was behind on my reading for this residency, but I wasn’t really – just behind my own usual schedule. By the time you’re reading this, residency has already concluded; but as I’m writing this, I’m really looking forward to it. I’m sure I’ll have a report for you soon, and I’m sure I’ll be enthused again about another semester – my last in this program. Thanks for following along.

residency readings, part I


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


As I’ve done before, I’m going to run through some of the reading I did to prepare for this summer’s residency. For more information, check out the schedule I’ll be keeping and the seminars I’ll be attending, including some information about assigned readings.

Going in order:

I tackled first Jon Corcoran‘s assigned packet of three stories by Alice Elliot Dark, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Flannery O’Connor. This was an easy, quick, and very enjoyable packet; all three stories were riveting. The O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” was the only one I was familiar with, and my least favorite of the three, with its unpleasant characters and dark themes; I’m looking forward to having some guidance with this one. The stories by Dark and Le Guin were pure pleasure, even though they too involve some darkness. I loved the realism of “In the Gloaming” contrasted with the fancy of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” with its twist at the end. The topic of Corcoran’s seminar is endings, and I struggle with this, myself, so I’m very much looking forward to it. (Although what I write are more essays than stories, less contained narrative – does this make my job harder? will his seminar offer me as much as it does the fiction writer?) Also, Jon Corcoran has been a visiting faculty member at our program before, and I liked him very much when we met last.

Next came Mesha Maren‘s packet for her seminar on language. I’m a fan of Mesha’s, too, and find her reading, speaking, and teaching very poised and impressive; I love language for its own sake, and I love a good neologism like ‘hishing’ (in her seminar’s title), so I came to this with anticipation. The packet opens with a 100-page book excerpt that nearly killed me, though. I think I took a week to read these 100 pages, which began so dry and (as far as I could tell) far from the content of this program that I thought maybe I was being pranked. It got better, but remained a challenge til the end. I am still trying to synthesize what I found in these pages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous.

This book strikes me as a sort of ecologic philosophy of language and especially of written language: what it means for humans to communicate as we do, in pre-historic/oral times and later, in what Abram calls alphabetic cultures. There are also different kinds of writing, from pictographic to rebuslike to the alphabet we know now, and the significant distinctions here are about how far away from sensorial the letters get: that is, from a pictograph that directly references a paw print or a cloud, to a letter like Q, referencing nothing (until you get into the history of the letter Q, that is). Abram is concerned with how far we get from nature and from a participatory, cooperative relationship with the more-than-human world. It gets to be interesting stuff, for sure, as arguments are presented for how oral versus written languages change how we think, as well as how we relate. In preparing for this seminar, I’ve made notes about the philosophies of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Saussure, and Socrates, as Abram presents them. This excerpt was hard to get through because it’s rather academic in tone, and lacked context, starting in the middle as it did–except actually, it starts with chapter 2, on page 31. Maybe I needed whatever introduction Abram originally included. At any rate, I trust in Mesha to lead us through.

The rest of her packet looked up quite a bit. A lovely lyric piece by Susan Brind Morrow; a somewhat academic, impassioned piece on “The Language of African Literature” by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; some extraordinary stories by Ann Pancake, a West Virginia writer who I (shamefully) have still not read outside of assigned excerpts like this one. (From her astonishing “Wappatomaka” comes the title of Mesha’s seminar, “hishing in the riffle.”) Anne Carson’s essays and poetry weirded out on me a little. I think I can remember having trouble with her before. And finally, Raymond Queneau’s exercises in style, which were interesting and, mercifully at the end of this long packet, easy to take in. Wait no, one final piece by Georges Perec, but my brain was too tired for this absurdism. Again, I trust in Mesha, and look forward to her illumination of this wild collection.

Matt Randal O’Wain‘s radio essay assignments were a change. I listen to podcasts when I can (having put audiobooks on hold pretty much for the duration of this MFA program, as my brain can only hold so much), so this was friendly. I appreciated being able to “read” for school while I cleaned the house and cooked and stuff. And six of the seven assigned radio essays I found very enjoyable. In fact, I often forgot to look for craft, finding myself so involved in the stories presented by (for example) This American Life‘s “Unconditional Love,” or Howard Dully’s “My Lobotomy.” I’m really excited about what this seminar has to offer.

Next Jessie van Eerden‘s assigned readings in the epistolary form, which began gently with one I’ve read before, Jane McCafferty’s “Thank You for the Music,” which is lovely. Actually, every item in this packet was lovely, although naturally my comprehension broke down with the poetry midway through (sigh). I didn’t even break stride with the optional reading by Alice Munro, and I recommend that piece (“Carried Away”) as much as any in the packet. Thank you, Jessie, for such a transcendent, and easy to read, experience.

She also assigned some questions to consider while reading and a writing assignment too, though, and I found myself out of practice. But that was probably the point: good to stretch those muscles again, as I head off to school.

I’m going to break this terribly long post here, and continue next week with the rest of the assigned readings. By then I’ll be home from residency, but not yet recovered! so it’ll have to hold you over. Stay tuned for another wide-ranging collection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art, and sundry. Happy weekend, friends.

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.

Quick list of LGBTQ reads

A graduate of my MFA program asked on a private forum,

Does anyone have suggestions of short stories, essays, and poems I could use in a Gender and Lit class that could introduce my students to LGBTQ lit and how it resists stereotypes and challenges the gender binary?

and I wanted to put together a quick list in response. But first, let me say: I think it’s interesting to consider who is qualified to answer this question. Part of me feels the need to disclose that I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community in the sense that I’m straight and cis-gendered. My colleagues & classmates who are members of this community by identity might have more authority in answering this request than I have. On the other hand, I hope that we can all recognize the reading that a) appears well-crafted and b) answers a certain need. I’m an LGBTQ ally. I try to recognize the nuances of (for example) stereotypes, as posed by the person who posted this request. I’m not perfect, but I’ve made an effort to be an informed reader of this and many other kinds of literature. Best efforts, then, with a stated sensitivity to the privilege with which I enter this work.

Here are the top nine books that I thought of. The original poster asked for shorter works, so my response is imperfect, but these are what I have to offer. (Two collections offer easy excerpting; more effort would be required to excerpt the longer full works, but it might be worth it.)

book list:

Others responded to this request with titles like Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, a collection from Appalachia, and with some connections to my MFA program, edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray–I own this book but haven’t cracked it yet, I’m afraid–and Andrea Gibson’s poem “Your Life.” Further:

Danez Smith and Qwo-Li Driskill and Ocean Vuong are poets that intermingled their race and their lgbt identity in their poems. Janet Mock. I mean technically a lot of the Harlem renaissance poets were always merging their otherness with their racial identity and their sexual identity. Such as Langston Hughes. Audrey Lorde’s Zami actually creates this almost mythos surrounding blackness and coming into this womanly identity and loving women. Leslie Feinburg is a bit heavy but ze is a prominent figure in the lgbt community. Allison Bechdel is a graphic novelist but graphic novels are still solid and easy to pick up on as a narrative.

Music is fun too! Rappers reclaim particular words and terms… Again still a bit heavy but Brockhampton and The Internet are fun and sometimes soft lyrical gay sounds. Where Mykki Blanco is… all weird trance-y edm bopping type sounds that scopes in on… the black lgbt club scene and their lingo and it’s just fun. I dunno if those are also lyrical structures to be explored. I think they are important but that’s just… how I perceive music as a social device. Especially in the black community.

And I just want to say, especially in response to that last post, that I think interdisciplinarity is a really important strategy in education. I think I would have been more engaged in high school if I’d better understood the ways in which science, art, literature, history, social movements, etc. happened in tandem, rather than in separate classrooms. Maybe it’s my interest in humans, but I think understanding that all these “subjects” are a part of human history and human experience, would have made each more interesting to me than they were at the time. Figuring out the interconnectedness on my own, later, was itself a fascinating process, but I might have been more excited about school at the time if interdiscplinarity had been made a bit more clear to me then. So, I support the inclusion of music in this class!

Well, that was a longer post than I intended; I hope it was helpful (to the original asker, or to anyone), and I’m very interested in what others may have to offer as well. Comment below!

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