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.

#ArtLitPhx: SOULS Installation Screening

The film, SOULS, is playing on a loop in Whiteman hall as part of the Artist Grants exhibition from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on July 3. The film screening is included with general admission.  

SOULS is a visual exhibition, photographic art & and film installation that captures the totality of mortality, blackness and Afro-futurism. Through the lens of a child, we attach the isolation of death and mortality, combined with an exploration of space and afro-futurism. Attached within the exploration of mortality, we search the African-Diaspora for clues of what goes on within the “beyond.”

This film and installation was inspired by the passing of a late grand-mother whose resilience and strength was linear, within the fact that it not only allowed her granddaughter to love her blackness freely—but it allowed her to see it clearly. SOULS attaches the meaning of the stars to mortality. Through SOULS, we capture and travel through the loss and visceral connection of what it means to truly deteriorate. 

(dir. Malakai / USA 2019 / 15 min / Not Rated / English)

EVENT INFORMATION

Date: Wednesday, July 3

Time: 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Location: Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix

For more information, click here.

 

Guest Post, Penny Zang: Dress, Write, Mourn

How to Write About a Dead Woman

“As a rule, think plain, unadorned, gravitas. No cleavage, thigh-high boots, or microminis. No animal prints and certainly no cowboy fringe.”

— Nina Garcia’s Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion, “What to Wear to a Funeral”

Between January 1, 2016 and mid-February 2018, five people I loved died: my best friend, two aunts, my grandmother, and my father. I started writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” shortly after the last two deaths, when I was unable to stop myself from dreaming about dead women. It was always the women. Women watching me while I slept, women waiting for me to catch up.

I never questioned the dreams or what was happening on the page. Writing about dead women seemed to be the natural result of not taking off work, not talking about my grief, and not stopping the day-to-day “grind” of grading essays, folding laundry, and hosting birthday parties for a house full of five-year olds. 

“How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was/is part of a longer work-in-progress. The individual sections, though, were born from the blend of influences that seeped into my brain during each of those mind-numbing, grief-filled days.

In no particular order: Sylvia Plath, Selena, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie, Lincoln in the Bardo, what to wear to a funeral, how long it takes to grieve, Ouija boards, Bloody Mary, Twin Peaks, Linkin Park, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, The Cranberries, cremation, novel after novel after TV show after movie with a dead woman in the middle of the plot. The question of what happens to your best stories and your worst secrets if you’re the only one left alive to remember?

In his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee says, “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable.” 

Is that what I was trying to do as I wrote in the aftermath of my grief? Did I intend to speak to my dead? On some level, yes. Each time I dream about my friend, always her more than the others, I wake up wondering what she wants me to do now. What stories does she want me to write? What secrets am I allowed to share? 

I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” with her in mind, her at age 35 and age 28 and age 22 and age 12. I saw her passing me a note in 8thgrade English and escorting me to junior prom and holding back my hair when we lived together years later. I saw her holding my son. I saw us shopping and sharing and stealing each other’s clothes. How intimate it all seems now, in retrospect, that I don’t have anyone who wants to borrow my favorite dress. 

The dress, I think, was always part of the story, even before I started writing. As I packed my funeral dress for my friend’s memorial service, I might have thought about the perfect symbolism of a black dress and how I would one day write about my loss. I had a feeling more funerals were coming (though I didn’t know how many or how quickly), and if I had thought about writing through my grief, I would have also known how central a dress would be to that narrative.  

Otherwise, I don’t remember writing a single word. 

One of the benefits of writing at 5 a.m. is that no one cares what I’m wearing. Inside-out T-shirts tops and ratty robes are my uniform. It doesn’t matter if I’m blurry, stumbling, and unable to form complete thoughts yet. There’s coffee, and a cat to keep me company. There’s a (hopefully) charged laptop. The sky is just the right kind of dark. 

This is how I write, with my subconscious still buzzing from half-baked dreams, and a complete lack of censorship. The internal editor is still asleep and the lack of perfection, the full-on embrace of imperfection, becomes the fuel for my creative process. A quiet house at 5 a.m. is pure luxury. Better than Burberry trench coats and Missoni knits and Frye harness boots, and whatever else Nina Garcia says I am supposed to own and enjoy.

After I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive,” my Twitter friend, Steve Bargdill, told me about keening. Keening is a death wail, a public lament that has now grown out of fashion, giving women a voice for their grief. Sometimes professional mourners were hired to grieve publically at funerals. I am simplifying, of course, but the blend of beauty and tragedy struck a nerve. Yes, I thought. That is what it feels like to ache and not have the words, or to not need the words, to express it. 

This is not to suggest that writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was a healing experience. Not at all. I like how T Kira Madden addresses the issue of writing and healing in her essay “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.” She writes, “But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve ‘bleeding into the typewriter.’ It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing.” I don’t disagree.

Lately, my writing and my mourning are mashed together so brutally, I couldn’t ever call the creative process therapeutic. Instead, it feels like I am crafting a eulogy that no one has asked me to write. Over and over, it feels like standing in front of my family and friends, pretending like I have all the right words instead of one long, imperfect wail.  

Authors Talk: Benjamin Soileau

Authors Talk: Benjamin Soileau

Today we are pleased to feature Benjamin Soileau as our Authors Talk series contributor. With jazzy Louisiana music playing lightly in the background, Ms. Kennedy Soileau—Benjamin’s wife, first reader, and editor—interviews Benjamin about his writing process and recent fiction piece, “What Paul Would Do,” published in SR’s Issue 23.

Benjamin explains that the idea for his short story stemmed from an old family memory: one where his father would send Benjamin and his little brother outside into the garden with a jar and list of bugs to catch for some pocket change. From here, writing “What Paul Would Do” came naturally, unlike some of Benjamin’s other stories. However, he explains that the biggest challenge in writing “What Paul Would Do” was working with the interrupted grief in Gayle’s character. In reflecting on Gayle, Benjamin notices nearly all of the characters in his story grapple with “a grief interrupted.”

Kennedy remarks that she finds the protagonist’s simultaneous likability and reprehensible action to be an interesting “balance act.” To this, Benjamin acknowledges, “We’re all capable of terrible things. Just like, you know, we’re capable of good things. Terrible. Beautiful. We’re all mixed up.”

Benjamin and his wife also take time to discuss the way he captures cajun-style dialogue and story structure with his language. Although some of his inspiration may have come from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories or Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” (which he read around the time he composed “What Paul Would Do”), Benjamin explains that his ability to construct the voices in his stories comes from listening to the family voices in his grandmother’s kitchen who “spoke French half the time.” He believes this particular voice is dying while the “land is slipping away” and “the culture, of course, is going with it.”

Benjamin and Kennedy also consider their unique relationship, with Benjamin acting as a writer and husband and Kennedy acting as his editor and wife. Benjamin mentions the challenges of this editing process, but he notices it gives him someone to write for and impress. Kennedy explains how their relationship dynamic switches to a writer-editor relationship during this editing phase. While she feels apologetic about marking up his story with a red pen, she likes to see how the stories change between the first and last drafts. Benjamin concludes, laughing “They usually do [change], quite a bit. I wish they’d change a lot quicker.”


You can read Benjamin’s work, “What Paul Would Do,” in Issue 23 of Superstition Review.


Authors Talk: Megan J. Arlett

Authors Talk: Megan J. Arlett

Today we are pleased to feature Megan J. Arlett as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, she takes the time to discuss her nonfiction piece, “Narrative,” published in SR’s Issue 21. The lyric essay explores the 2008 disappearance of Amy Fitzpatrick as well as language and storytelling.

Megan looks back at her 2017 notebook to discover what she was reading while she drafted “Narrative” and to find out which texts influenced her work. While she struggles to remember an initial spark of inspiration, aside from constantly thinking about the disappearance of her classmate and neighbor, she does notice how certain writers have tapped into her “brain space” to influence what she originally “thought was going to be a poem,” but later became the lyric essay that sits nicely between the nonfiction and poetry genres.

Looking to the musings in her old notebook, Megan discovers that she was obsessing over the poetry of Li-Young Lee at the time. She had written a note to herself about his work that reads, “Long poems need externalities.” In her old notes, she also finds a scribbled question— “Bowman-style meditation for the cyclical obsession with missing people?”—referring to Catherine Bowman’s poem “A Thousand Lines.” Lastly, Megan realizes that the newsprint style of “Narrative” was influenced by Jehanne Debrow’s The Arranged Marriage, which helped give her lyric essay form and made the nonfiction piece feel complete.

It seems that Megan’s creative work was driven by her obsessions at the time: her fascination with poets Li-Young Lee and Catherine Bowman, her admiration for Jehanne Debrow’s literary style, her love for true crime, and her curiosity about Amy Fitzpatrick’s disappearance.

Reflecting on her writing, Megan wants her readers to acknowledge that beauty and horror can exist simultaneously, concluding “There can be voicelessness even amid countless voices.”

You can read Megan’s work in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.