Guest Post, Laura Esther Wolfson: After the Autobiography

Best American EssaysFirst I fled writing; then writing fled me. For many decades, we were like the lovers in Eugene Onegin: never in love at the same time.

Well, okay: things are still a bit rocky.

I have this notion that most writers my age (pushing fifty) have a few books out, but maybe that’s because the writers with the books are the writers I’ve heard of. Whereas I have a dozen magazine credits, a few honorable mentions and several “notable” listings in Best American Essays. And that’s it.

At a reading recently, the emcee was introducing me, and when he got to that part about the honorable mentions and the BAE “notables,” he laughed heartily and said I put him in mind of Susan Lucci.

“Who’s that?” I whispered to the woman sitting next to me, and learned, just as I rose to approach the podium, that I was being compared to a soap opera actress. A soap opera actress who, I discovered later on Google, was an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Lead Actress (daytime television category) for 18 years running before she finally won.

Each year, I attend a conference for “emerging literary writers,” held in New York City, where I live, and each year, I note the dearth of attendees my age. There are the twenty-somethings, with their freshly minted MFAs, and then there are the retirees: recently released from their day jobs, with little time remaining, turning their attention, at last, to the dream deferred. I conclude that most of my contemporaries who might conceivably be in the target group for this conference have either made it, and are thus no longer emerging, or else they have given up, and are thus no longer writers.

***

Things actually got off to a promising start. I was in the third grade when my teacher said: class, write your autobiography. Mine spilled across 34 pages; I was an eight-year-old with a past.

As the youngest child, you see, I was greeted at birth by my elders’ stories from the Great Before, their tellers eager for new audiences. So, in they went, those stories, almost as if they were my own, along with incidents at which I was present, I’m told, if too young to remember.

For example, I was just months old when we left California for the northeast, but the autobiography tells of trips to Pacific beaches, and there’s something about a lemon tree in the yard whose yield was so bountiful that we gave bagfuls of fruit away to the neighbors, as well as mention of an orange tree that produced one single piece of fruit and then died. And the Watts riots figured in, especially the buildings of South Central LA that burned as my mother labored and gave birth. And then I have emerged and she holds me gently on her shoulder, and watches, through the hospital window, the smoke furling upward, losing itself in the clouds.

Overlapping with and succeeding these pre-memories were pages and pages about things I did remember. On a family trip to Europe when I was six, I was parked somewhere while everybody else visited Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (I hadn’t yet had Bergen-Belsen explained to me), but I remember my brother plunging into a very narrow canal in that city, breaking through a solid surface of scum. (Someone dared him to jump across, and, long-legged, he inexplicably fell short.) In Florence, I remember only the hotel, where my brother and sister languished with the chicken pox. I stayed in with them, as I’d just had it and was immune. Meanwhile, our parents climbed to the top of the Duomo and visited the Uffizi Gallery: when would they have another chance? they reasoned. Of Brussels I have no memories at all, but for a long time a souvenir doll from Belgium sat on my dresser, wearing a billowing dress of magenta velvet and bent over a miniature device for making lace.

About actually writing that autobiography, I don’t remember anything, but late one afternoon I realized I’d left my life story on a tray in the school cafeteria at lunchtime, then placed it on the conveyor that bore the vile-smelling leftovers away into the kitchen. Back to school I raced, and with help from the lunchroom ladies working late to make our next day’s meal, who took my loss to heart as if it were their own, although I now think that probably there were among them some who could not read, I found my pages at the bottom of a massive gray dumpster, underneath a smallish portion of mashed potatoes, stained but legible.

My mother, a crack typist, cranked the whole thing through her Olivetti, the carriage return dinging impossibly fast as she went. She used carbon paper and sent copies to her sisters. The mail started pouring in.

“I’m a writer, like you, no better, only a little bit older, which simply means a bit more experienced,” wrote somebody Aunt Esther knew through her job as a fundraiser for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. A rabbi, the man sent a copy of his book Choose Life, a compilation of sayings from Hillel, Maimonides and other sages. I understood that he hadn’t actually written this work himself, and thought of him as something of an imposter, but I appreciated his gift nonetheless, and especially the note.

“If you add to your autobiography a little bit each year until you’re twenty,” wrote someone else Aunt Esther knew, a newspaperman, “maybe it will include a love affair or two.”

I’m quoting from memory because, cleaning out my desk on a visit home from college, I tossed those precious letters. My mother, generally not at all the type to go through her children’s wastebaskets, rescued them, but then they disappeared again. I must have tossed them again, and if she re-rescued them, I must have tossed them a third time—the urge to declutter was powerful.

Decluttering: this may be why I write—to free myself of the detritus and salvage it by shaping it into something that is just barely usable, like a hippie jewelry designer who turns empty soup cans into hoop earrings. For every loss, I write something, and for the big ones, two pieces, or more.

But, oh, they come so slowly, just one or two a year, and that’s only since I’ve hit my stride, within the last decade. I console myself that if I write two a year for thirty years, that will, in the end, amount to a hefty output. But if I could choose only one quality as a writer, I would ask to be prolific.

If I were prolific, everything else would take care of itself: for the more I wrote, the more my writing would improve. Look at Balzac, who, it is said, wrote eighteen hours a day, and achieved both quantity and quality. Prominently displayed in the Paris museum that was his home is the coffeepot he claimed made it all possible. In the end, some say, it was the coffee (dozens of cups a day) that killed him.

***

After the autobiography, I went into decline as a writer.

Here, a few snapshots from my writing life across the decades:

A notebook. On page one, a story begins, scrawled in my third-grade hand. It cuts out mid-sentence. Then, this:

“Dear Aunt Esther, I’m giving you this notebook. Because writing is just too hard. Happy birthday.”

Followed by dozens of blank pages.

I don’t know what Aunt Esther, dead these fifteen years, made of this hand-me-up, or if she wondered why I chose to bestow the notebook on her rather than on anybody else. (The answer: her birthday was looming.) She wrote only the occasional letter or list, but until her last days, she loved to tell stories, seated on her gold-and-brown striped plush sofa in some kind of silky loungewear, pleated, her legs curled beneath her and a tumbler of vodka at her elbow, neat, regularly replenished from some hidden source.

Near the end of her life, the notebook, still blank except for that first page, somehow found its way back to me. I take this to mean that I am supposed to continue, hardships notwithstanding.

Yet, over the years, I have let so many comments lead me astray, dropped by people who had no idea I would take them seriously. A weary bohemian who’d been married to some number of writers and found them difficult companions, said, “Better a good typist than a bad writer.” The snappy wording seduced me, as did the implied refusal to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. Or was I merely seizing on an excuse not to do the work? Whatever the case, it was a turn of phrase that cost me a few years—years when I could have been working to become a less bad writer. Probably my typing would have improved in that time, too.

I am a polytheist; my gods—books and those who beget them. But even studying and talking literature with fellow-acolytes has slowed me down at times. There was the Latin professor with the Welsh accent, excited almost to the point of derangement about his discovery of hidden meanings in the work of the ancients that he was certain no scholar or translator had fully mined. On and on he went for semester after semester (I was rapt and kept signing up) about layered significances and intricate wordplay. (Ovid was his favorite, but he also loved Juvenal, Catullus and Horace.) No modern could fully grasp these complex works, he said. I believe he numbered himself among the benighted.

“I can never write that way,” I thought, and for another few years did not write any way at all.

And there was my uncle, the leading independent bookseller in the state of Wyoming, until the chain stores did him in, and holder of a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Chicago (though my cousin suspects he never actually completed the degree). He’d read War and Peace six times, he told me several times, and he quoted long passages from Hamlet. (Come to think of it, it was always the same passage.) He declared that he never read anything written after 1900, because nothing worth reading had been written since then. (Not Proust? I think now—not Virginia Woolf? Was this self-imposed limitation of his really something to brag about? And how, without reading any of it, could he know that none of it was worth reading?) But back then, it was for me but a small step from his assertion to the conclusion that everything that would ever be worth reading had already been written, and long ago.

Listening to these old men hold forth, I accepted their notion of a canon with a hard finish, like polished rock: an unsurpassable past. Now, however, I see literature as a garden, or a forest, something forever growing, where there is always room to add something, provided it is wonderful, or at least fascinating, a space to try and fail and try again. It cannot ever be closed off and declared completed because one of the things it does is try to make sense of its time in the language of that time, something that, by definition, no past work can do.

Many of the books on my parents’ shelves were elegantly bound, their authors renowned. Those matching sets (Dickens, Dinesen, Disraeli, Dos Passos come to mind, and I think also of three black volumes that slid snugly into a black box, spines stamped in silver, but the title and author escape me now); the fine single volumes (Mallarmé, Mann, Mansfield, Melville); and the mid-century $1.25 paperbacks with the lurid covers that overpromised (Salinger, Sartre, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck), already in a state of advanced crumble when I was still a mid-century child—had they really started out as messy piles of pages, their authors mere dreaming scribblers, laughed at by their families and neighbors? I could not grasp it. I found intolerable the chaos of creation, the constant shadow of failure, the lack of résumé and affiliation that dog the obscure wordsmith.

Life slipped past, and just about everything that could slow me down, did. A fabricator and inventor of stories I am not and never will be, and though Laura Ingalls Wilder was an early mainstay (I thought our shared first name was a fantastic coincidence), I still didn’t get that you could write the seen, the heard and the lived, transcribe all that and then arrange. It was the old story: the primacy of the novel. I thought you had to make stuff up; I thought it all had to be fictional and fabulous. That wasn’t my thing; ergo, I would never be a writer.

My studies and work trajectory tell the story. Warily, we circled each other, writing and I. First, the undergraduate degree: literature, Russian literature, plus the language, my attempt to burrow partway through the canon without relying on somebody’s translation. Next, years spent working in distant parts, speaking other languages, for the same reasons that aspiring young writers in times gone by (men, always men) used to go seafaring, ride the rails, work construction or get themselves jobs on oil rigs: to see the world and build up a fund of stories to draw on forever after. (The “Maxim Gorky/Jack London thing” is how I think of this.) Occasionally, I tried to pin experience to paper, but still a step or two away from writing, I earned my living as a translator. Next, I dabbled in journalism. I was edging closer, but struggling still to keep things sensible: just the facts, who/what/where/when, inverted pyramid, writing for pay.

***

My regular job grew less absorbing, as regular jobs will do in mid-life, and at last I took to turning off the phone evenings and weekends and sitting for hours on the sofa with my laptop open before me. Sculpted, spangled narratives based on recollection were what emerged, plus mounds upon mounds of scrap. Selection, arrangement, tricks of memory, and some embellishment make categorization difficult: fiction? memoir? The stuff I squeeze out (how I wish I could replace “squeeze” with “churn”) is too close to each to be either.

What I write mostly happened, but some of it I make up (at least, I think I do), knitting together the “true” part and the embroidery part, and despite all of the needlework that’s gone into it, it’s seamless—as in, there is no hope of my remembering what actually happened and what didn’t, if anyone should ever ask. The main thing is not what’s real or not-real. We are not talking authorized biography here, but a wrought object, fashioned from found materials.

Sometimes, people try to confuse me with the facts. My mother, for example. “That book you mentioned in your last piece?” she’ll say. “It didn’t belong to my sister Esther. I was the one who bought it.”

She’s right, of course. She’s right, because she’s the last one standing; there is no one left on earth who can dispute her account. But by the time she tells me this, the thing is already in print, since I know better than to show her an advance copy. Even if I could change it, though, I might not. Because the thing is, it’s mine.

“Ma,” I say. “Feel free to write your own version.”

She makes a face. She doesn’t like it when I say that. Neither would I, if the roles were reversed. But I mean it. And, come to think of it, I have surely gotten some facts muddled in these pages, too. So, you too, reader, whoever and wherever you are, you too: feel free to write your own version.

Guest Post, Rich Ives: Which Box Do I Put It In?

Which box do I put It In?

While this might seem like a statement, it is really a question disguised as an observation. It seems to me that one of the most destructive trends in recent “literary fiction” successes has been the devaluation of style in favor of plot and character. While ideally, all these things should work together, popular literature has always favored plot and character over style, and now it appears that even “literary” works fear too much development of style as a clear sign of a limit to the potential audience for the work, the kind of thinking that was previously more limited to genre writing, best seller attempts, and the innumerable serial novels.

The backlash to this exists in “innovative” fiction and some small press releases, but the gap between the two has been increasing. In poetry, there is an equivalent polarization between experimental and traditional although the reasons seem to have much less to do with the potential popularity of the work.

Fortunately, there are always writers more interested in the most unique and complete experience of the writing regardless of popularity trends, which are usually not really trends at all but disguised returns to more direct explanation in the fiction. “Show us, don’t tell us,” often becomes give us the experience and then tell us what it should mean.

Popular fiction has always been good at stealing the thunder from literary art by adapting its successes to more mundane purposes. One of the latest victims of this is flash fiction, which has in many quarters been increasingly less experimental and wide-ranging in its structures, approaches and particularly its style. Some publishers of flash fiction are now drawing a stricter line between the prose poem and flash fiction. Theoretically interesting perhaps, but isn’t that defeating one of the reasons the form developed?

I began writing shorter prose works first as a poet trying on foreign hats, finding so much more of interest in the form in translated works from countries where the distinction between poetry and fiction was not so clearly drawn, places like Russia, for example, where poetry is actually popular and sometimes sells well. I felt a freshness that caught and held my attention more fully in the form, and one of the reasons was that I could come to it with fewer preconceptions of what it should be.

As I worked in shorter prose forms, I found it veering into essay, autobiography and satire as well as mixing fiction and poetry, and the range of possibilities excited me. There are rhythms and voices that function better in a confined space. There are different kinds of condensation and pacing. There is a different kind of tension created by knowing the experience will end sooner.

As I explored the range of possibilities, I found several of the resulting works rejected by a poetry magazine for being “fiction” and the same work rejected by a fiction magazine for being “poetry” without either of them having actually considered the work beyond their assumptions of its genre. I started sending the work without labeling it or designating which department it should go to and had pieces accepted by both fiction and poetry editors assuming it was meant for them, and even labeled with just as much certainty as “essay,” an assertion I had not considered, but which, once it had been pointed out to me, seemed equally valid.

Now that the idea of fiction completing itself in a much shorter space has been more widely accepted, the attempts to restrain it to more definable dimensions are returning, and the reactions against this are also occurring, making the questions such work raises once again more polarized. Is this healthy disagreement, or merely two equally restricting forms of boxing up creativity?

Many literary magazines and online sites claim to want “experimental” and “hybrid” work, but is this really what they want and publish, or have too many of them narrowed the definitions, and has the label “experimental” become merely an excuse for focusing on a single dimension of the work, just as popular fiction does with a different single dimension?

Interview with Julie Hensley

Julie Hensley grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley, but now she makes her home in Kentucky with her husband (the writer R. Dean Johnson) and their two children. Julie has won The Southern Women Writers Emerging Voice Award in both fiction (2005) and poetry (2009). Her work regularly appears in a variety of journals, most recently in Redivider, Ruminate, Superstition Review, PoemMemiorStory, The Pinch and Blackbird, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her novel-in-stories, Landfall, won the 2007 Everett Southwest Literature Award. Her chapbook of poems, The Language of Horses, is available from Finishing Line Press.

Superstition Review: What inspired you to write The Language of Horses?

Julie Hensley: My girlhood, like so many, was marked by a period of intense love of horses. When I was very young, my three sisters and I took riding lessons. Saturday mornings, we dawned jodphurs and leather boots, rode around and around a ring of sawdust, and then stopped at Seven Eleven for Slurpees on the way home. When I was nine, after much waiting and saving, my parents bought a farm. Finally, we had our own horses. We could ride them on the overgrown trails that snaked out through the woods behind the barn. We could lounge bareback with a book while the horses grazed.

For my mom, this move marked the fulfillment of her own childhood wishes. Every Christmas, she told us, she had begged her parents for a horse, but had to settle instead for a string of Breyer ponies. Her yearning for horses was a palpable part of my childhood, and as an adolescent, I began to recognize in the fulfillment of that yearning, its metaphoric power. It wasn’t surprising that our move to the farm heralded my mother’s return to college and her development of a career as a teacher. Horses were desire. They were imagination. They were autonomy. They were the things that, I was just then beginning to understand, women ultimately have to fashion for themselves.

SR: The poems have very vivid memories and stories. Are they connected to your own personal memories and what made you want to share these certain moments?

JH: The poems are highly autobiographical. My husband Bob (R. Dean Johnson), who himself writes nonfiction, loves to tease me when I give him a new poem to read. He says, “Huh. Why don’t you take the line breaks out of that and submit it to Brevity.” While there is usually a narrative moment to my poems, and these are no exception, it is not story as much as raw, highly sensory imagery which spawns a poem for me. For instance, while “Monsoon Season” recounts the memory of a hike Bob and I did in the San Francisco Peaks, the poem really began with the immediate smell of vanilla rising from wet pine bark.

Once I realized horses could work as an extended metaphor, I did begin actively siphoning imagery around that theme, which led to specific memories such as my sister teaching me to French braid on a horse’s tail.

SR: In your fiction piece, “Expecting,” your descriptions are still very poetic. Is writing fiction more of a challenge for you compared to poems?

JH: I would have to say that fiction is harder for me. Or perhaps it is more fitting to admit that I simply work harder at fiction. My MFA is actually in fiction. Poetry has always been my secondary genre. Because I teach, I dedicate summers to fiction–for several summers in a row, I have been trying to complete a novel. When I feel hung up on the fiction, rather than sitting and fuming with creative wheels spinning, I will open a new file and begin a poem. During the academic year when I teach four classes at a time, it is difficult to drop fully into the world of my fiction, so during the winter I revise fiction and write new poems. I’m grateful to have my poetry because moving back and forth between the two genres releases pressure.

SR: The Language of Horses brings the reader to many different beautiful settings like Virginia, Kansas, and Phoenix. What does traveling offer to the pieces you write?

JH: It’s funny. My dreams take a while to catch up with my actual life. For instance, I have a nine-month-old daughter, but she has yet to appear in my dream life. I moved to Kentucky three years ago, yet my home here has really only just begun to formulate the backdrop of my dreams. I think my writing life works the same way. When I was a student in Arizona I constantly wrote of Virginia and Kansas. When I moved to Oklahoma, I wrote about the desert. Now that I live in Kentucky, I have begun to write about the plains. For me, being away from a place breeds a yearning that is quite productive to the creative process. I like to cultivate that yearning, to play with the power of dislocation.

I think that’s part of the power of low and brief-residency MFA programs such as the one in which I teach at Eastern Kentucky University—they allow emerging writers to feel the beautiful strangeness of a new place and the warm yearning for home that accompanies it. Two years ago, I traveled with students to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I actually crafted “Expecting” there, sipping espresso each morning in Café Montenegro. This summer, I’ll accompany students to Edinburgh, Scotland. Maybe that trip will help me make progress on my novel.

SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?

JH: It’s winter, so I’m writing poems. I’m working simultaneously on two cycles. One, with the working title Viable, explores motherhood and fertility. The other, Breaking Ground, channels the voices of a fictional couple—Gracie and Nohl—whose marriage dissolves into physical abuse as they build a farmhouse together.

I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book which absolutely blew my mind. In general, I’m a fan of novels-in-stories. (“Expecting” is actually the capstone piece in Landall, a novel-in-stories which I have just begun to circulate.) Egan’s novel is so imaginative. She inhabits the lives of an array of characters so fully, and she balances decades of branching relationships with such flawless, nuanced control. I just began and am thoroughly enjoying Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters, a sweeping novel that moves, through six different perspectives, from 1920s Kentucky to Vietnam era Indiana. I’m also reading collections of poems in preparation for a poetry workshop I’ll be teaching in the spring—this week it’s Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake and Claudia Emerson’s Figure Studies.