Contributor Update, Megan Harlan

Today we are happy to announce the news of past SR contributor Megan Harlan. Megan’s creative nonfiction essay collection entitled Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press in September 2020. It is our pleasure to announce that the collection has also won the 2019 AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction.

Megan’s creative nonfiction essay “Motel Childhood”, which was published in Issue 17 of Superstition Review, will be included in her forthcoming collection. Her other work has appeared in many literary publications including Alaska Quarterly Review, The Common, and Colorado Review, among others. She is also the author of Mapmaking, a book of poetry, which was awarded the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.

For more information about Megan’s work and her upcoming book, you can visit her website here.

Congratulations, Megan!

Guest Post, Dana Curtis

poetry

“Palimpsest” is one of the poems I wrote in response to a friend’s death. It is not just about my own “sadness” and “fear” but my friend’s. Her pain was so much greater than my own. This poem is one of the ways I grappled with the inevitable and my helplessness. It is also meaningless in the face of reality. I have trouble grasping that the world could continue without her, that despite my knowledge of the terrible unfairness of existence, I cannot help but continue my protest and record my objections, as though they matter.

I did not realize I was writing a palimpsest until I had completed the poem. It was obviously one thing written on top of another and in the end, which was on top was irrelevant. Sadness and fear interact within the dark room that is this poem and can never be separate, maybe that is always the case: no escape.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the darkness? For me, the worst thing is that writing the poem is an escape and did make me feel a little bit better. Of course, this also led to a sense of guilt and the feeling that I was exploiting not just my friend’s death but my own feelings about it. The starless night pulls me in, sits me down, and delivers a stern lecture about the world/unworld that expects me to do something, anything about it. And again, no escape.

I do find some refuge in Elixir Press. I really love reading all those manuscripts, seeing all this great poetry and fiction before anyone else then bringing at least a little bit of it into print. There is usually very little conflict between my own work and the work I do with Elixir. I’ve gotten pretty good at carving out time for myself without taking anything from Elixir. I have to spend some time on my own work, or I wouldn’t be able to run Elixir at all.
I think most people understand this.

Guest Post, Christopher Burawa: Writing as Seeking: A Perspective on Contemplative Practice & Poetry

zen stones

When the three poems of mine appeared in Issue 10 of the Superstition Review in 2012—“An Act of Ghosting to Avoid Complications,” “Like a Good Horse,” and “Vultures and the Constant Application of Them”—I had just experienced a creative burst after almost a year of not having the time or energy to write because of my job as an arts administrator at a state university and also because I had founded a Zen Center in Clarksville, Tennessee. And most importantly, I had become a father in 2011 and was spending as much time as I could with my daughter and wife.

I wrote these poems (and four others) after returning from a dai-sesshin (or intensive 7-day Zen Buddhist retreat) in California. I began my Zen Buddhist practice in 1994 at Haku-un-ji Zen Center in Tempe, Arizona, and my teacher, a Japanese Zen master, had ordained me as a monk in 2005. I’ve come to understand that a contemplative practice like zazen (often translated as meditation) is very much like what is often called “the creative process” (and I would extend that to include the “scientific method”). The practice emphasizes quieting discursive or conceptual thinking which makes room for the intuitive mind to enter and form new experiences of understanding (which relates to “solving” Zen koans). Contemplative practice is, in fact, the foundation or matrix for all wisdom traditions; however, writers and artists employ it all the time. Poetry, to me, is another manifestation of contemplation in action—like walking meditation, samu (or work practice; like sweeping)—where self-consciousness drops away and the intuitive appears and plays, albeit a serious form of play. In Zen Buddhist terms to achieve this state the practitioner must “break one’s bones and sweat blood,” which essentially means to establish a routine and put in the effort.

I had developed a rather careful writing practice when I was in the MFA program at Arizona State University. I meditated early in the morning, wrote in my notebook for at least two hours and would draft poems on my laptop in the afternoons. But this routine didn’t transfer into my life after the program. Once I entered arts administration, my free-wheeling life was curbed by my responsibilities which included travel, after-hours work at home, and attending programs, among other things. And yet I kept to the notebook writing and when I had the energy or time (vacations were limited to consecutive weeks) I would draft and edit one or two poems. I was slowly assembling a manuscript, or so I thought. However, whenever I sat down to review the manuscript, the poems just didn’t seem to be in harmony, and then one day, last year, I had an epiphany: I was writing two books, not one. One book continued my preoccupation with Iceland and reinterpreted its canonical history as well as my own biological family’s (versus my adopted family) history. The other book was poems I wrote out of my insights into Zen practice.

Like a good horse on who a whip alights, be earnest and energetic. By faith, discipline, vigor, concentration, and discernment of truth, expert in knowledge and action, aware, slough off this mass of misery.

Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha, translated by Thomas Cleary, p. 49

So the poems in Issue 10, as I have mentioned, sprung from a sesshin and the notes I took at night under the covers of my bed. One poem, though, bridges the two books, “Like a Good Horse,” which turned out to be an elegy for my beloved Icelandic uncle, whose health after a nonstop working life was in decline. The title is borrowed from the first line of the Dhammapada, or the Sayings of the Buddha, from the penultimate verse in the chapter about violence: how violence against others is violence against oneself (i.e., on how important it is to cultivate compassion):

My uncle was a large and physically strong man but had a sweet nature, one that endeared him to every child that ever met him. However, there were men who, because of his legendary strength, wanted to take him on and thereby elevate their own prowess. My uncle, though, never succumbed to their taunts and actually abhorred violence. And so the poem.

Of the other two poems in Issue 10, “An Act of Ghosting to Avoid Complications,” is not about ending a relationship by suddenly disappearing. The term, “ghosting” was used by my Zen teacher to describe the activity of becoming the other. Dissolving one’s I-am self to join in a profound relationship with another person or even thing. And this definition should probably have appeared as a note at the bottom of the page. My bad. The other poem, “Vultures and the Constant Application of Them,” is about acknowledging and restoring our connection (as humans) to the natural world, from which we have become separate. So is it Zen? To me, yes, but perhaps not to some readers.

Returning to the subject of my notebooks and scribbling. Because I have amassed over 10 years (since my first book) of notebooks, I’ve begun to mine them, which led to the poem, “Desire, Speckled by Want,” in Issue 23. This poem incorporates an important Zen Buddhist theme, of developing compassion for oneself before one can expand it to others. It addresses obliquely the subject of my adoption and a feeling of loneliness I have always attributed to separation. The landscape, for me, is the interior of Iceland, where the barren stratified mountains lean into the floodplains with their alluvial fans. It is a haunted landscape that reflects extreme isolation. And the forgiveness sought in the final line is essentially that of my present self observing the past self, as an object, and thereby acknowledging that self’s struggle.

Guest Post, Kristen Keckler: The Art of Memory—Writing to Remember

Even in 2019, with trusty devices always on hand to capture my daily existence, most of my life goes unrecorded (thank God). My pre-device life, a Dark Age itself, is only documented by an occasional washed-out photo, receipt, ticket stub, or “remember when?” story passed among family and friends. 

I often lament never having kept a proper journal. Only once, at age eleven, have I ever faithfully inscribed dates and happenings; the diary had a pink, puffy plastic cover studded with rhinestones. Despite the security feature, a tiny gold key, my mother and younger sister broke into it—together! —and when they later admitted it, I was relieved that I hadn’t confided anything private to its pages: no secret crushes or burning questions about my awkward, beanpole body.

In my twenties, I wrote little poems and observations in notebooks—many little notebooks. These musings now seem written in code, as if I was protecting my words from an intruder, who, strangely enough, is myself! Today, I still draft in a random, haphazard way, in spiral notebooks, and keep several going simultaneously. Writing essays, for me, is like journaling twenty years after the fact. I go easy on myself and do not—simply because I now live in a digital age—expect perfection from my memory. I figure, if I only wrote about things I remembered very well, I might never have written anything at all. 

Recently, a former student, Maritza, reached out, seeking my advice for jumpstarting her writing. “I don’t know where to begin,” she confided, a phrase I recognize in my bones. The key, for me, is not a little gold diary key, but to start somewhere—with a moment, or maybe with a song, place, or detail. I write whatever pops into mind, and don’t decide if I remember “enough” until after I’ve given it a go. 

Jumpstarting sparks remembering; you have to get the car running so that you can actually move. For me that means sometimes turning an unproductive writing day, when I’m sleep-deprived, distracted, or just not feeling it, into a semi-productive one by inventing topics and ideas for later, for when the mood strikes. (How DIY of me: a book of handcrafted, shabby chic rainy day writing exercises!) In a blank or mostly blank notebook, at the top of every other page, I write a word or a phrase; each one is a prompt. When I’m looking for inspiration, I flip through this notebook; one of the headings usually calls out to me, and off to the races I go. Occasionally, a prompt even becomes the title for a finished piece, like in the case of my SR essay “A Merry Little Group Home Christmas.”

A few months ago, I came across the words “Memories to Age Six” written atop a blank notebook page, jotted by my own hand a year or so earlier. When I re-discovered it, my husband and I had been speculating about how much, if anything, our two-year-old son would remember about being two. (Would he recall his first trip to Florida, those two-foot long iguanas? Or his Matchbox cars being confiscated, temporarily, by mean Mommy after he clocked her on the head with a Mustang and left a boo boo?) As I started to freewrite about my own early years, I was surprised by how much I actually, truly remembered from my life, especially between ages three and six. Some of my memories originated in stories told by my parents throughout my childhood, but other moments I recalled simply because I lived them: I was there. Whether routines that occurred in a pattern, or one-time events, the more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more material I generated, until I had a finished essay draft plus pages of extra notes. 

As I drafted a six-year-old memoir, I had to quickly decide: do I comment and reflect on the child’s life, or do I let her experiences speak for themselves? I decided on the latter, to focus on the child’s impressions and lived moments, allowing the adult writer to hang back, quietly choosing language and forming a structure. I find that when writing about a very distant past, concrete details are especially important, as memories need physical objects in which to take root, spreading their shoots into the darkness and reaching for context. My Six-Year-Old Memoir has many such anchors: a sewing machine, a horse track, green shorts with daisies, a tiny tarnished silver cup, a gun, a hospital bed, a two-toned Buick, and maraschino cherries. 

Since writing is remembering, and writing is crafting, you often don’t know how much you recall about your life until you face the blank page (or screen) and dive in.  Memory is part black magic, a deeply intuitive conjuring, and part rolling a tumbleweed through the mind’s desert, gathering what sticks. The more I go with it, the more I think, (a fully focused, meditative-type thinking), and the more I perform other little exercises to jog my recollection, for example, looking at Google Maps street view or texting a family member or friend. 

It is usually not until after I’ve written quite a bit that I figure out what an essay is about, and often that “what” defies summary, is more of an emotional cue than a lesson or theme. For me, the purpose of nonfiction is not to see how much I remember, but to determine what I can do with what I think I remember. And when I’m finished writing a particular piece, I always feel like I remember those events more vividly than when I started—sometimes the writing and memories become intertwined, interchangeable. What has happened is gone, and let’s face it, there is nothing, not even writing, that can ever bring it back. What’s left is the art of memory. And I’m okay with that.

Guest Post, Dara Elerath: Going by Way of the Unknown

Writing poetry requires us to get away from the rote maps of meaning we follow in our daily lives and enter our imaginations. There are many ways of doing this, but one of the most helpful I’ve found is to focus on a subject I am not particularly knowledgeable about and have little to no emotional stake in. I don’t mean areas of expertise that are not my own, like cellular biology, beekeeping or astrophysics. I mean small things: words or objects I encounter that do not appear to carry great weight or significance. Certain objects, like knives, are so laden with symbolism that it seems almost impossible to approach them without invoking particular narratives; however, other, less freighted objects retain their mystery because they’re often overlooked. They exist in shadows—dropped under one’s desk, forgotten in a drawer or hidden beneath a pile of papers. An eraser, for example, is a small, functional piece of rubber that we’ve all likely interacted with on numerous occasions, but have probably never had reason to give much thought to. It embodies the concept of erasure, of course, but erasure on a small scale. I think of times I used one as a child—when trying to learn cursive, or when sketching figures in a notebook; otherwise, the object is not associated with any moment of great importance in my life. For me, these things make it an ideal starting point for a poem.

This brings me to the approach I took when writing “Oriflamme.” Instead of an object, I began with a word I did not know the meaning of (it was not oriflamme, incidentally, but another word with similar qualities). I chose it because it was not associated with any crucial stories or memories in my life; it was merely a series of syllables that pleased my ear. Granted, there may have been certain ideas the sound evoked, or echoes of other words that informed my thinking, but, on the whole, it was a sealed box I had to open by way of language. Knowing only the music of the syllables I was compelled to use my sonic imagination; instead of following a particular narrative thread, I imagined possible definitions of the word by following the syntax of the language and the sounds of the words, looking for rhymes, slant rhymes and patterns that might guide me towards meaning. I used this same approach when writing “{ }”; taking a mathematical symbol I had little knowledge of, I began to make associations with it visually. Over time I’ve come to realize that the more my sonic or visual imagination is engaged, the more elastic my thoughts grow; at such moments the language of metaphor and figuration comes to me naturally. 

Our minds want to make meaning; they want to recite, over and over, the particular myths and stories that constitute the logic of our lives. If we write expressively and choose a conduit through which to channel this poetic thought—be it a crumb, a pair of hands, or a beetle—these stories will begin to manifest themselves. The key thing is to surprise ourselves, and this is most possible when what we’re describing is somewhat unknown to us. Chances are that the image or sound will trigger some associated thoughts that, if we follow them deftly, will guide us down towards deeper meaning. There is also the fact that we experience these everyday things—an eraser, an orange, a word—tactilely and intimately, by the way an eraser feels in our palms, the way an orange smells and tastes, or the way letters look as our eyes move across them on the page. We can use these simple, physical facts to anchor our writing in reality and sensory detail. These objects and words (if we are speaking of words with definitions we choose to remain ignorant of) can have as much or as little meaning as we elect to ascribe to them, whereas the subject of one’s parents or other high-stakes topics come with expectations that we may be inclined to lean into. Often, the sentiments and ideas that emerge when I write about subjects of known importance tend towards the cliché, as though I’m merely reflecting back the many stories about birthdays, death, pet dogs, and so on, that I’ve heard or seen over the years, instead of discovering anything new about myself. 

Going by way of my own unknowing (innocence with regards to the self might be another way of thinking about it) is certainly not the only way to approach poetry, but it helps me to overcome the cultural and personal maps of reality that I’m used to orienting myself by. It allows me to become disoriented, to discover the secret mythologies that my psyche is always trying to find a way to speak. Because the self is small and the heart is vulnerable, the smaller, more vulnerable and lesser known objects (in my experience) often make the best conduits through which to pull the weight of the tender and diffident psyche.

Guest Post, Emma Bolden: Notes on Writing “Laocoön and His Sons”

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the library of my family’s Catholic church, reading stories about the lives of the saints. Though ostensibly written for children, the books nonetheless attended to each saints’ tribulations in gruesome, grizzly detail: Saint Lucy, typically depicted carrying her own eyes on a plate; Saint Agatha, who did the same with her own breasts; Saint Rita of Cascia, whose head was marked with stigmata in the shape of the Crown of Thorns. The books terrified and fascinated me. From them, I learned much—not necessarily about the moral fortitude necessary to reach sainthood, but about one prevailing subject: suffering.

Perhaps this is why the subject of suffering remains an ever-present preoccupation in my work as a writer. It is not necessarily an easy subject to address in language. It’s impossible to exactly and verbally convey the experience of suffering, which is necessarily personal, as intimate as our own bodies. When writing about suffering, one therefore always risks running into cliché, in the tropes—religious or otherwise—we tell ourselves to make sense of our pain. Not that one can, ultimately, make sense of pain—another reason why writing about it is difficult enough to be a form of suffering in and of itself.

As I grew older, I sought out and studied depictions of suffering in other art forms, particularly visual art and music. While stuck in traffic on my evening commute (that particularly acute modern experience of agony), I found myself riveted by an NPR story about Michelangelo, whose Pietà is itself an awe-inspiring portrayal of grief, loss, and sanctification. The story centered around a hidden room in the Medici Chapels, where scholars think Michelangelo hid in the months after he betrayed the Medicis, his patrons. After cleaning the walls, a museum director found a series of sketches on the walls, now believed to have been drawn by Michelangelo while in hiding. 

One sketch depicted Laocoön and His Sons, or the Laocoön Group, a sculpture excavated in 1506. Like many artists of his day, Michelangelo studied Laocoön and His Sons with an obsessive fascination. The sculpture depicts the last moments of Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, and his sons, poisoned by sea snakes. Versions of the story vary. In some, Poseidon sends the snakes to kill Laocoön, who warned the Trojans that the horse the Greeks gave them wasn’t a gift but a weapon (in Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön is the source of the lines that became the English proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). In this version of events, Laocoön is killed for telling the truth; it seems fitting that Michelangelo would sketch this sculpture on the walls of his hiding place after speaking out against the powerful and poisonous Medici family.

This story fascinated me as much as the stories about saints; I knew, instantly, that I had to write about it. When I (finally) got home, I looked up Laocoön and His Sons so I could study it myself. What struck me most about this masterpiece is that it portrayed suffering in a way I’d never seen in hagiography, with its insistence that suffering led to salvation, that there was a meaning—redemption—at the end of the most treacherous road. In the Laocoön Group, there is no redemption. The figures writhe; even in photographs, the marble appears to be in motion. Though they die together, they find no comfort in family. In fact, they seem separated from each other, each existing in and aware of only their pain. It’s a searing portrayal of what human suffering, at its center, truly is: a force that separates us from the world, even from those in the world we love the most; a force that consumes us entirely; an experience during which, no matter how saintly the sufferer may be, the light of redemption cannot be seen. 

When I sat down to write Laocoön and His Sons,” the story that preceded it similarly darkened into disappearance. I found myself focused on the father in the moment of a death brought by the god he’d served for so long, on the wild terror of the human moment behind the stories of divine faith and redemption that we sculpt and share.

Laocoön and His Sons sculpture on display in the Vatican

Guest Post, Scott Russell Morris: Uncommon Experience: Notes on Writing “The Common Area”

When I wrote the first draft of “The Common Area,” I was in a strange place, figuratively and literally. Having just broken up with and then made up with my girlfriend a few days prior and feeling insecure, I was also on the other side of the world, day one of a two-month study abroad, jet-lagged, hungry, and trying not to be too eager about my first excursion away from America.

That strangeness, the physical and emotional discomfort, made writing “The Common Area” one of the most unique in my writing life: Though I normally revise and revise and revise, never “confident that the phrase first seized is for [me] the phrase of inspiration”—h/t, Agnes Repplier—this essay’s final draft came out more-or-less how it did when I wrote it by hand at 3 a.m. in a basement in Edinburgh, describing in real time the eccentric interaction I had with a stoned Frenchman. Sure, I did clarify a few details, but for the most part, the essay remained true to its original form and content as I transposed it from journal to computer and revised it for publication.

To emphasize the point: this never happens to me. I agonize over drafts. I cut and paste. I kill all the darlings, only to resurrect and kill them again. I have files and files of failed attempts. My first drafts are clunky without regard for transitions or clever juxtapositions. When I finally send a draft out to journals, I agonize over each rejection, seeing what could make my essay tighter. And though “The Common Area” was certainly turned down by several journals, I never felt I could reasonably change much of its original form, content, or conclusions.

So, now, it found its home and I am left to wonder why this essay was such a different experience than the others? The strangeness, certainly, was an important part of it. Ander Monson talks about this in his essay on hacking, describing an exercise for his students where they must write in new places: “I want them to try to feed it [their brain] different stories, different stimuli, in an attempt to get it to generate different sorts of texts.” This new stimuli technique works to make us insecure, much like a child who experiences the world fresh, guileless, and eager to make connections (all reasons to travel regularly). Over the years, my best essays have been ones where I felt insecure in my own knowledge. Since this essay, I’ve written about teaching in Kazakhstan, watching a baby be born, trying to raise that baby with some measure of grace, eating a meal so perfect it could never be replicated, all experiences so odd I was completely unprepared for them. So this was perhaps one key to the “The Common Area’s” uncommon birth: I was grasping for new information, looking at all the new connections coming my way.

Of course, reaching for such ineffable understanding is implied in the word essay’s weighing and measuring, but normally, when I journal or essay, I have to work to get to that measurement. I must first get the facts down and then see how they might connect, but with this essay, I was already in what Amy Leach calls a “guessing mood”—guessing how to connect with others, guessing what I was going to experience while abroad, guessing what would happen with my tenuous girlfriend. And though I still preach and live the gospel of merciless revision, writing “The Common Area” has reminded me that to write an essay, you must be willing to move outside yourself and yet question everything about yourself. This is always what I strive for, but with this essay, it happened while I was also writing, struggling with real-life concerns. It was a reminder, too, that to essay is not just something you write, but a way of approaching the world, sometimes with needful urgency.

Guest Post, Neema Avashia: Finding the Right Angle

I wrote about my cousin’s death in at least six different essays before I came to write “Finding the Holy in an Unholy Coconut.” I started writing very shortly after his death, in the days I spent with my aunt and uncle trying to help them sort through all of the logistical complexities that accompany unexpected death. It’s not enough to grieve, in America. We also need you to contact Social Security, close out credit cards, and notify banks as quickly as possible. 

My first writing was accounting—asking questions about who knew what and when. It was very much the “bleeding into the typewriter” that T Kira Madden critiques in “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy” and that Penny Zang referenced in her post on the SR Blog last month. 

From extremely raw accounting, I moved to narrating, and trying to patch together a complete story even though so many of the details were missing. And, once again, it took very little time to realize that this stage of writing was strictly for me. 

The only person who read these early essays was my mentor, Jane McCafferty, whose gentle response, effectively, was to say, “I love you. And no one else should read this.” Jane’s point at the time was that there is a difference between writing as a way of grieving and writing about grief for an audience. I would find my way to the second eventually, but it was going to take time. Still, she urged me to keep writing the story as many times as I needed to.

It took three years to move from accounting, to narrating, to actually crafting. In Geeta Kothari’s creative non-fiction workshop at the Kenyon Review last summer, she asked us to use description of a concrete object to enter into an essay. I had brought a tiny silver bell with me that usually sits on the altar in my pantry, and this bell somehow allowed me to write about my cousin’s death, and my grieving, through the lens of faith and ritual. The next day, she asked us to visit the art gallery on campus at Kenyon, to choose a piece of art that resonated for us, and to use that piece of art to enter the story a second way. And again, I found the themes in my story shifting.

By entering the story from these different angles, I found myself able to move further and further from the specific details surrounding my cousin’s death, and closer to a story about how faith and ritual can both be essential to mourning—and also fall completely short. 

After Kenyon, I went to Los Angeles as part of a West Coast road trip. I attempted to submerge my unholy coconut. And last fall in a writing class at Grub Street, a writing organization here in Boston, I found my way into the essay published at Superstition Review this spring, a full four years after my cousin died. The coconut allowed me to enter our story from a different angle, one that enabled me to write an essay that was no longer just for me.

Ultimately, the coconut at the center of this story serves three functions in the piece: It serves as the concrete vessel for the character Neema’s grief. For the writer, Neema, it serves as a symbol that makes the abstractions of grief less abstract—something that can be described, can be held, and can eventually be cast away. And, for the readers, the coconut is the central image that they can carry with them through the entire piece. It gets introduced in the first paragraph, appears even when the story shifts in place and time, and is still sitting on the shoreline at the very end of the story. 

It took four years, six vastly different versions of the story in structure, content, and style, and four different entry points to arrive at this published essay. I try to remind myself of these facts when I am stuck in the middle of a draft and can’t seem to find a way forward. If the story is worth telling, I say to myself, then my task is to find the right angle from which to tell it. 

Most importantly, I tell myself to be patient. I may have not yet lived, or seen, the angle from which the story is best told. 

Guest Post, Marcia Aldrich: Against Time

I don’t remember exactly what triggered writing “The Year in Review.”  At the time we were staying in Borrego Springs, a small town in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, and in the afternoon I liked to climb to the top of the garage of the house we were renting and sit on the viewing deck the owner had built for stargazing. Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California, and I’ve never experienced such a sky of stars than I did in Borrego. The city asks that homeowners turn off their outdoor lights at night to enhance the depth of the dark. But I also loved to climb up on the roof and watch the sun set. From the top I could see the desert plains spread out behind me and the mountains rise; I could see the sun dip below the palm trees. It was a fabulous view and had the advantage of allowing me to write. That day I carried my notebook and pen and wrote what came to be “The Year in Review” in one fell swoop as if I was in a class and had been handed a prompt. But, of course, this was not an assignment, just what welled up inside me and asked to be written. Perhaps it was something about the sweep of the horizon from the rooftop that asked me to look at the year I had just completed. 

It’s a catalogue, a close relative to the list, both of which I love because they attempt to catch the moments of our lives before they’re forgotten, erased, or written over by new moments. Time is what they are about—the relentless forward motion of time, pulsing ahead and carrying us with it helplessly. These reviews are little life rafts we hold onto to keep us from falling out into the current. They are my attempts to be steady and stay upright, to know where I am and who I am at a specific moment in time. It’s a kind of reckoning, an attempt to get at something I’ll call the personal truth of my life.

Essay Daily published an experiment called What Happened on June 21st last year. They invited anyone interested to write about what happened that day. They received about 250 reports. I was one of the 250 respondents. Now they’ve culled 25 accounts and published them as a slim book and mine is one of them. I mention this experiment because it is related to my experiment of writing a year in review essay—the tasks are similar. One could easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of all that happened in a given day, a given year. What did I experience in one unit of time? So much of our lives is deemed mundane, routine. We walk our dogs everyday—but what makes any particular walk worth noticing? And then, there are those so-called profound experiences when something shakes us awake. Sometimes the mundane becomes profound and sometimes the profound peters out in the end. It’s a complicated dance trying to capture the rhythm of a life, whether it be a day or a year. What details are most telling and how do these details jostle together to create a life while always moving forward? I have found that some of my most telling moments happen while I’m going about my life and they would pass away unremembered if I did not try to write them. That’s one thing we writers do: we write against the erasure of time.

Guest Post, Kathryn Kulpa: More Than You Think You Know

“You are better than you think. A-one, a-two, a-three.” 

—Kurt Vonnegut

Remember that old chestnut of writing advice that gets lobbed at all of us—particularly young writers, particularly new writers—write what you know? I ran across it first in my teens. Rather a dispiriting command for those of us whose real lives, the lives we knew, consisted of going to boring school every day in our boring town, and maybe, if we were lucky, going to the mall. My own trips to the mall invariably ended at the bookstore, where I sought escape in reading about other lives, other worlds that were nothing like the world I knew. 

Not necessarily better worlds. I favored dystopias and disasters, perilous quests and amorphous monsters, the merest glimpse of which could blast your sanity and leave you a gibbering mindless hulk, not unlike how I felt at the end of double biology class. 

My heart is in Middle Earth
My heart is not here
My heart is in Middle Earth
Trembling with fear …

I wrote in first-period algebra, when I compared Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring to the search for the square root of a quadratic equation, and the search for the equation didn’t come off too well. (Nor did my math grades, but that’s another story.) 

I read, and re-read, Tolkien and Lovecraft and Poe and Stephen King. My high school library had volumes of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, going back to at least 1970. I studied them like scripture. But my own attempts to write in those genres always felt like flat imitation. At the same time, I obsessively chronicled the ordinary details of my own life in notebooks: who wore the yellow dress that made her look like “a squeezed-out lemon,” who wrote “I LOVE KENNY” on the desk I shared in third period English, prompting me to question: “Does he love you?”; which teacher made the whole class stay after school because a few kids were acting up, spurring me to add a new dictionary definition under the word “shit.” Impromptu songs and poems and comics, but I didn’t consider any of it “real” writing, just throwaway stuff. 

Only I didn’t throw it away. A quiet voice inside told me not to. I would learn to listen to that voice. 

What I remember from my first “real” writing workshop were the yellow sheets the instructor gave us with comments on our stories, comments so detailed it felt as if each story had already been published and was worthy of critical attention. I only remember one piece of general writing advice, but it stuck in my mind as a corollary to write what you know: “You know more than you think you know.” 

I can’t explain the sense of freedom and relief that advice gave me. How many times I’d discarded story ideas, telling myself I couldn’t write about X because I’d never been to Y and didn’t know enough about Z. 

If a story idea feels right, if it feels emotionally true, then write it. Researching the details can come later. In that workshop I wrote a first draft of my story “The Night Copernicus Died,” about a nuclear scientist haunted by regret. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nuclear physicist. My only “research” for the story was a book I’d once read about the making of the atomic bomb and a manga written by a survivor of Hiroshima. 

But I’d been born into a world shadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation. I’d never known a time when that shadow didn’t haunt my dreams. As a teen and young adult, I’d wake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, sure the world was going to end that night. I’d lie awake, making lists of all the things that made the world worth saving, fireflies and forsythia and golden retriever puppies, even though the people in it were so stupid. 

Years later, I met someone who’d been in the army during the Reagan years. “You don’t know how close we got, a couple of times,” he told me. But on some level I did know. And that feeling—that inner knowledge—was what drove the story. 

It was published in a science fiction magazine. I worried that, because its readers probably included a higher-than-average proportion of MIT grads, someone would question the science. 

No one said a word about the science. But I was forwarded a letter by one reader who wanted me to know that, while I had described the 1950s as a time when “gas was five cents a gallon,” it was, in fact, closer to 25 cents per gallon for much of that decade. 

Duly noted. 

In a more recent story, “Skater Girl at Rest,” I wrote in the voice of a former teen-movie star now sentenced to home confinement: 

Anna had always imagined an ankle bracelet would look like an actual bracelet, like the cylindrical copper coil she’d bought one year at Burning Man.

But it didn’t. It was bulky and oddly medical, with a thick black attachment that reminded Anna of a garage door opener or an old-school drug dealer beeper. It chafed her ankle and banged against her other leg when she slept and made wardrobe choices so much harder than they had to be. 

That voice just came to me, like taking dictation from a friendly ghost, yet having written it I started to worry that I’d got ankle bracelets all wrong; maybe they were discreet and delicate little bands, and what did I know about ankle bracelets anyway? 

I consulted the Google (The Google is your friend! Just not in the first draft) and found that they were, in fact pretty much exactly as I’d described them. 

You know more than you think you know. 

But what could I know about being dead? I would never claim that I know what it’s like to be dead, unless I happened to be singing a song written by John Lennon, but a while ago I became possessed by the need to write a story from the point of view of a dead person. Not a ghost, or an angel, or a spirit trapped in some interdimensional bardo. Just a regular dead person, who was dead but in some way still there, still a part of the physical world. 

I had been doing some strange reading, as I’m apt to do, about body farms and unusual disposition of human remains, and some of it was fascinating and some of it was horrifying, and the question I kept asking myself was why? Why would someone choose to have their body thrown down an elevator shaft, strapped into a crashing car, torn to pieces by animals, or left to rot in an open field? 

The voice of my narrator, a calm and reasonable voice, started speaking to me. She started telling me her story. And so I had to listen. 

They say we’ll get our bodies back whole after the rapture, but I’m pretty much done with mine—like when you’ve got an old nightgown so worn and full of holes that you’re just as happy when it rips, so you can tear it up for rags. 

The story, “A Key Into the Language of the Dead,” was published in Superstition Review‘s Issue 23. The characters and what they talk about and think about are made up. What happens to the bodies is real. 

What happens to the pumpkin is also real. It grew in my front yard. 

So yes, write what you know. That can be good advice, but don’t let it limit you to a narrow definition of what you think you know. You’ve seen things you didn’t realize you saw. You’ve heard things you don’t remember you heard. You know more than you think you know. Trust what you know. Tell the stories that beckon you, the ones that trouble you, even if they seem difficult or strange. 

And always Google the gas prices.