Today we are pleased to feature author Emily Townsend as our Authors Talk series contributor. Emily speaks about finding her place in creative nonfiction, her “arbitrary” research process, and her complicated relationship with honeybees.
Emily captures the beauty of nonfiction writing concisely by noting its unique ability to allow writers to “untangling facts that [are] often left undiscovered.” Her podcast ranges from eloquent tidbits to candidly pointing out personal weaknesses in a way that makes the recording just as engaging and thought-provoking as her essay.
I graduated from ASU in 2010 with a degree in English Literature (truth: on my resume, I leave off the “Literature” part). A little less than one year later, I got a job at an environmental consulting company where I have grown to be the sole editor of the small, 60-employee firm.
I originally applied to be a “Word Processor” via their Craigslist post. A lot of people are shocked to find out I found my steady, full-time, full-benefits employment through a website known for its scams. When job searching, I still check out Craigslist as well as LinkedIn, Monster, and other sites. You come to recognize the scams on Craigslist, and have to be okay with many of your applications likely going nowhere.
Here is what I’ve learned in my years since graduation.
If you want to work with words, regardless of how boring your job is, the money seems to be in the Technical Writing field. My only regret from my education is not taking a course or two in technical writing. I, for one, am totally okay with having a boring job. (Note the difference, I am not unhappy with my job, it’s just not the most exciting work in the world). I made that distinction when I graduated; separate the enjoyment I find editing (work), from my investment in writing and poetry as an art form (passion). Boring as my desk job may be, I still find great satisfaction in knowing that, because of my work, some small fraction of the words going out into the world read well and look nice. Give me the boring for eight hours a day so I can pay my bills and have the free time to develop my passions.
Technical editing, what I do for Transcon Environmental, is also in some demand. What I’ve found, though, is that you need to have another skill-set or area of expertise to fall back on. I happen to be incredibly organized—almost to a fault—so when my editing is light, I function also as the Administrative/Executive assistant for the company. You will market yourself better if your writing/English degree is the backbone for your other talents and skills. And don’t discount your liberal arts education (I highly recommend David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech about the value of a liberal arts education); these four years at university have turned you into a well-rounded, disciplined, learned individual. Everything you’ve learned in school, every way you’ve grown and the traits and habits you’ve developed should be included in your resume/cover letter/application process.
There are places to put your English degree to use outside of academia. I have been introduced to the environmental consulting and urban planning industry. In order for utility companies to build and alter their infrastructure, they need consultants like us to ensure they are complying with federal and state laws (among other things). We produce reports based on our research and field surveys, these reports get circulated through federal agencies, tribal nations, land management companies, etc. I never knew such an industry even existed, let alone that they produce numerous reports that, through rounds of revisions, get signed-off on by the government so that construction companies have to follow the mitigation we outline in the report. It’s important that these documents are thoroughly proofread, wordsmithed, and clean of technical errors. Just because you like to work with words doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the academia or publishing worlds.
The job search process is frustrating, disappointing, and sometimes heart-wrenching. Be prepared for this. Build a thick skin now, in preparation. I lost count of how many jobs I’ve applied to over the years. I recently relocated and, before being offered to transfer and stay with Transcon, I was applying back home on the east coast to around 10–15 jobs per week. I applied for things I was over-qualified for, under-qualified––anything––I just wanted a lead. Resumes, once formed, are easy and don’t change much. Cover letters, on the other hand, is where your time and effort should be invested during your job search. Try to make yours stand out from the rest. Show your potential employer you are serious about the job; show them you’ve done your research by doing things like including their physical address on the cover letter, or alluding to details on their website. Explain how you, as a person with your own individual personality traits, would benefit their company. Don’t rush through customizing your cover letter. The job search takes time and commitment, just like class assignments; try to respect it with the same level you’d respect an assignment. Your resume should highlight your work experience, your cover letter should highlight your personality traits, and NEITHER should be intended to get you a job. Your resume and cover letter get you an interview; your performance in the interview gets you the job (no pressure).
Try not to get frustrated during your job search, don’t discredit or doubt your English or liberal arts education, be persistent as you apply for jobs (I called my current employer every week for months until my position with the company was firm). Sell yourself and what you have to offer. Write your cover letter, walk into an interview with the attitude that it is the THEIR loss if they don’t hire you.
I read her poetry in high school but was never taken with her tight, lyrical sonnets. I’m sure I used her image of the candle burning at both ends – but I’m not sure I knew where it came from. I had seen one of her portraits – Arnold Genthe’s photograph of her holding two flowering branches – and thought of her as a romantic, a pre-Raphaelite, an ethereal Waterhouse lady poet. If I thought of her at all, that is.
Then I was accepted for a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts. A week before I left, in a hot Washington summer, I read two biographies: Savage Beauty and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed. And it struck me like a wet slap: I didn’t know jack about Edna St. Vincent Millay.
She went by Vincent. She was talented and ambitious, by turns hot and cold, sexual and disdainful, gorgeous and dirty. She was a passionate and omnivorous lover of both men and women and she used her passions to fuel her poetry. Her candle burned at both ends nearly her entire life.
My studio at the Millay Colony for the Arts was in the barn that Millay and her husband had built on their estate, Steepletop, in Austerlitz, NY. Steepletop was built the year that Millay was born (with no knowledge that she would eventually live there) and the Millay Colony began the year I was born (equally ignorant that I would someday write there). I slept in a bedroom beneath a leaf-green quilt, and wrote in a studio on the floor above, one wall curving to fit the arc of the barn’s roof. My windows looked out over a field of goldenrod and an apple tree that Millay herself had planted. If I felt restless I was free to roam the grounds of Steepletop, to sit in Millay’s gardens, to work at a table set up at the very top of the estate overlooking the ridges and rows of surrounding mountains. Or I could walk the Poet’s Trail to Millay’s grave.
Millay came to Steepletop with her husband, Eugene Boissevain, to escape the noise and crush of New York City’s Greenwich Village. They had met at a party, fallen in love while playing a game of charades, and married two months later. They first lived in a tiny house at 75 ½ Bedford Street (the ½ giving you an idea of how small it was; each room was only about nine feet wide). But as much as they loved their little home, Millay needed space and quiet, broad views and stars at night. So they moved to the country, to Steepletop.
I visited Steepletop on Friday the 13th of September, 2013. That same day, 421 years ago, Montaigne died. That morning a fellow resident told me it was the anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s suicide (although I later learned he killed himself on the 12th). It was also my last day in residence at the Millay Colony for the Arts. All of these overlaps felt auspicious. In a fine misty rain, I crossed the road and joined a tour of her house.
If you have read any of Millay’s biographies you know that as you walk in the front door you are walking into the scene of the last moments of her life. But the guide began at the beginning, with the story of Millay’s rise to success, how she was published at 15, how her poem “Renascence” was considered the best in the prestigious Lyric Year, how she had been given a scholarship to Vassar, how she had seduced her fellow students, how she won a Pulitzer, how she moved to New York and met Eugene and came to Steepletop.
There in the entranceway is her .22 rifle, her saddle and a pair of impossibly small riding boots. Size 3, the docent says. He calls her Vincent. What makes us choose to call a writer by her first or last name? To me she remains Millay, even after I see a photograph of her, posing with a friend and an urn, nude.
The photo is in her dining room, the table set as if she and Eugene were about to descend for dinner. Her shell and coral collections sit exactly as she left them in her corner cupboard. There is what the guide called “Orientalia” on the walls and shelves, souvenirs from their honeymoon, including a series of Javanese shadow puppets lining the wall of her hall.
Upstairs, her bedroom. After a blistering affair with a younger man, the poet George Dillon, she asked Eugene to move out of their shared bedroom. As with all of her requests (to vacation with Dillon in Europe, to attempt a ménage a trois) he obliged. Still, their marriage remained unbreakable, perhaps because he allowed it to bend. Millay’s bedroom remains almost as she left it, despite the fact that her sister Norma lived in her house for decades after Millay’s death. Norma “lived around” Millay, the guide said. I thought the toiletries in the shoebox on the dressing table would have been Millay’s, but no – they were Norma’s, and Millay’s sat where she had left them.
Millay’s library was a room only she was allowed to enter. Here she kept a “five foot shelf” of her current reading. And a daybed for reading or drowsing. Three portraits of the poets she admired: Sappho, Shelly and Robinson Jeffers. And a sign that reads “silence” – a joke, since she was the only one there, both librarian and reader.
And then the tour came full circle, back to the top of the stairs. On these stairs she liked to perch and chat with arriving or departing guests. And on these stairs she made her final departure. Early on the morning of October 18, 1950, dizzy from a night of gin and white wine, she pitched forward, grabbed a spindle of the staircase, broke it, fell, and died. A caretaker found her the next day. The ninth spindle remains broken.
Later that day, back in the barn, climbing the stairs to my studio, I paused a moment. Did I feel a slight tug, a small threat to my balance? Or was it my own hesitation, thinking how easily one’s life could come crashing down, how your story would pass from your own possession, and how a biographer or a tour guide might shape it from there?
That night one of the other residents – a playwright with a diploma from the French Culinary Institute – and I made a tart with apples from Millay’s tree.
The apples were small and hard and each the size of a small plum. They were crisp and tart but sweet enough to enjoy – much like Millay, perhaps. While the playwright finely sliced them, making little armadillo humps in the crust, I read from a collection of Millay’s poems. They were a little rough to take all at once, and none had anything to do with apples or tarts (not in the culinary sense, anyway). But I had been working on an essay that explores hauntedness, and it was my last night at the Colony, and I still felt vaguely unsettled by the shrine-like quality of Steepletop, and Sonnet XLIII deeply impressed me:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply …
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Outside the night had turned dark and still, the windows black reflections of our warm kitchen. The tart went into the oven and I went to bed.
In the morning I woke up early, before anyone else, and found the tart in the toaster oven, safe from the mice that had been nosing around the kitchen since the weather cooled. I ate a large slice of it with coffee. “I am eating your apples,” I said to no one. I wrote a little in my journal. I packed up the last few odds and ends from my room. I got in my car and rolled my windows down to the fall air.
It was time to leave, but I tried to soak it all in for one last moment – the barn, the goldenrod, the apple tree, the table atop Steepletop, the tiny boots in the entranceway, the narrow staircase, the vanishing birds and the song I could still hear. But it was all going, or gone, and without thinking too much more about it, I turned the key and drove home.
One of the greatest teachers of literature I ever had was a mathematician named Michael Comenetz. A spare-bodied man with a close white beard and a brown, bald head, Mr. Comenetz (who still teaches at my college, St. John’s in Annapolis) sort of resembles Don Quijote in looks, though in spirit he has more in common with Cervantes–patient and thoughtful, gentlemanly, with those subtly glittering eyes you see in people who are both very wise and very funny. Mr. Comenetz once interrupted a discussion, I think it was on Homeric heroism, by whistling the theme from High Noon, until all of us fell silent, one by one. At my college, seniors must read a good chunk of Marx in the late spring; if you have Mr. Comenetz for this, he will insist that your whole class sing a rousing rendition of The Internationale. There is a fragment of Heraclitus’s which puns on the Greek word bios, a word which can mean both “life” and “bow” (Guy Davenport translates it, “A bow is alive only when it kills.”); after reading this fragment, Mr. Comenetz asked that we at least try, to create, in English, a similar pun out of the many homonyms attached to the spelling “bow.” We were wildly unsuccessful, but of course success didn’t matter to Mr. Comenetz’s method. He was challenging us to engage with high culture at the most playful level possible. He is, himself, a supreme technician of letters (he writes an excellent blog; you can read it here), but one who understands that literature, even great literature, is nothing but a chest of toys. He co-authored a translation of Paul Valery’s The Graveyard by the Sea, and was the first person I ever heard tell that joke about Vassar girls, the one where they’re laid end to end, and no one is surprised.
Well, so one day, Mr. Comenetz gave an informal talk on the subject “Maps and Similes.” A map, after all, is a simile of the world, or a small part of it. (See, e.g., the Eschaton episode from Infinite Jest, where catastrophe breaks loose because one player ruthlessly lobs a ball at another, misunderstanding that the player’s body is not the coalition of countries she represents, but rather that coalition’s presence on the map, a simile for it.)
I asked Mr. Comenetz, “Why similes? Why not metaphors?” His answer was something like this:
“Well, I don’t really trust metaphors. They are necessarily untrue, aren’t they? Saying this is this? Of course it isn’t. This is like this, sure. But the servant’s brow is not a moody frontier. King Edward hasn’t actually sped up the seasons, and made summer out of winter. There’s a kind of preposterousness, you see, at work in every metaphor . . .”
All apprentice writers struggle with finding their “voice.” By voice, I think we mean the peculiar stamp that separates my writing from yours, and yours from hers, and hers from his; in other words, it’s one of those Potter Stewart-type things: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Contrarily, one of the quickest ways to tell that a writer isn’t ready yet–that he or she still needs work–is when the writing can’t be separated out from the writing of others. I see on the Twitter the complaints of people (slushpile trusties, for the most part) who are seeing page after page of transparent imitation: lots of Cormac McCarthy wannabes, I hear; even a few Tao Lin apers, for reasons passing understanding.
To these writers, I could not be more sympathetic. My earliest serious attempts at fiction-writing were themselves parrotings of Cormac McCarthy that would curl your toes. Here, let me show you:
The young man’s steady, rhythmic cries were the dominant sound in the room, as if he held the floor in a parliament of grief. Steadily those of his wife seeped in, filling the spaces between his with her coarse, dynamic sobs. The man’s cries like grunts and the woman’s like moans, the silence of the elders surrounding and supporting them like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet.
Ye gods: “like as the cold bleak of space”? “a chaotic and liferidden planet”?
In my defense, however, this is how it gets done. Remember in Finding Forrester, how Sean Connery jumpstarts the young guy’s writing by having him re-type one of his (Sean’s) old essays? We’re all doing that, in the beginning. We imitate writers in order to learn. Hunter Thompson used to copy out lines from Gatsby on his typewriter. He wanted to feel the rhythm of those words, as they came out, letter by letter; he wanted to know how it felt to have prose like that jump into being, underneath his own fingers.
This is natural, this is what John Cheever called “the parturition of a writer.” Each apprentice takes bits and pieces of the masters and builds up a kind of jury-rigged scaffolding, like one of those wobbly towers made of pianos and bird cages you see in old cartoons. You can reach a nice altitude on something like that, but it’s treacherous. To create good and original prose, one needs sturdier footing.
Mr. Comenetz’s preference for simile over metaphor is idiosyncratic, reasoned, hard to argue with, and slightly, just slightly, insane. If one is abandoning metaphor because all metaphors are preposterous lies, then one must abandon all fiction, if one means to be consistent. Clearly, Mr. Comenetz didn’t mean for his point to go that far.
This preference of his, however, is a perfect example of the little stylistic choices a writer must make, the scruples of taste she must develop, in order to gain a voice. In short, I think a writer’s voice is simply what happens when he or she applies private rules–a kind of second grammar.
It will be easier to elaborate if I give an example from my own private rules. Me, I adhere as strictly as I can to the common notions of spelling and punctuation. This wasn’t always the case with me. Back when I was drunk on McCarthy, I slammed words together and ditched quotation marks all day long. This was not a stylistic choice, however; this was not the application of my own private rules. I had not worked through any process like the one by which McCarthy decided to use enjambment-coinages like “scabbedover” and “rubymeated,” and neither did I have any good reason to leave off punctuation marks. I was imitating, superficially. I wasn’t getting past the appearances to find the solid form beneath, and that was fine: I hadn’t earned that yet. I hadn’t done enough reading or enough writing to earn that. By the time I had, though, I’d learned an important truth about myself: I need as much structure as I can get. I need the safety of it. I’m not a tightrope walker: I take hiiigh steps anytime I get off an escalator.
And it hardly needs to be said, but my way is not your way, nor should it be. Faulkner, for instance, was a tightrope walker. Lord only knows what that man thought this thing “;–” meant, but he used it all the time. If that’s your way, too, then you’re in good company. I do think these choices should be deliberately made, though, and the reasoning behind them should be both sound and personal. It’s not enough to abandon traditional punctuation merely out of homage–the choice must be original, and guy-lined by the writer’s personal vision. Faulkner, I think, did it because he sensed a great fracture in the world, a brokenness, an incommensurability between truth and regulated description. It won’t cut the mustard to do the same thing just because it strikes you as cool (which, if I’m being honest, is why I did it).
The more one reads, the more one sees these little rules, these underlying knowledges, at work in all the great writers. Charles Portis, like Jerry Seinfeld, works clean: you’ll find very few curse words in his books. Portis also seems to think that any time two characters are talking, they might as well be fighting. This is not a bad rule to test out, in your own work. Alice Munro nearly always tells you what her characters look like, but not always the first time you meet them. There is a great insight into the manipulability of the short story in this; it displays a powerful understanding of how the mind and heart meet imaginary people, and of how an invented person comes to be cared for by readers. Stephen King hardly ever lets his narrative voice depart from that of The Friendly Co-worker, the kind of guy who’s quick with an easy joke or a breezy bit of small talk; this is powerfully American of him, and when future generations want to know how the post-World War II middle-class talked to itself, they will miss the mark wildly if they don’t consider King.
Here’s a question: What’s the point of writing fiction if another medium could serve your material just as well, if not better? It’s a critical concern for all of us, and I think the answer to that question is one of the rules that guided David Foster Wallace in his writing. I don’t think he ever wanted to do something that a filmmaker, showrunner, painter, or musician could do, too.
E.g., when Wallace employs long block paragraphs of narration, with a rotating perspective, he’s doing something it’s impossible to do except in fiction: he is creating a slow-motion, extreme close-up, Altmanesque crowd scene. Re-read the final locker room segment from Infinite Jest (20 Nov. Y.D.A.U.). Ironically, when all those characters are tossed into long paragraphs together, jumbled up in that big wall of text, we can see more vividly each of the little things they’re all doing. Wallace starts with a packed room and moves closer; he takes small character movements–each one a part of a sequence, each sequence a little story all of its own–and makes each of those movements central and enormous for the length of a phrase or a sentence; he goes from one character to another, to another, to another, then moves back. The effect is a rigorous re-mapping of life into narrative, and it just can’t be done any other way. You’d have to paint some huge Boschian canvas and then animate each character as it acted out its own peculiar torment, or whatever. Even then, the artist would have no control over sequencing; and with a canvas large enough to present sufficient detail, a debilitating physical distance would arise between the viewer and large parts of the painting: one might see the lower third fine, but the middle third poorly–and the top third hardly at all. Even Altman couldn’t do something that Altmanesque, because time in a movie, at least in a scene like that, has to move at normal speed–you miss things when you can’t slow down, re-read, when your eyes have to dart all over the screen to keep up with what’s happening. Fiction has limitations cinema doesn’t–as McCarthy noted in conversation with the Coen brothers (published in Time, but only available to subscribers), you sort of have to believe what you see on a screen, because you see it; that’s not at all true of what you read on a page, so problems of belief-suspension are trickier for fiction writers than for filmmakers. Of course this cuts both ways, and a movie could never cooperate with a mind as intimately as a page of prose can–the stops, the re-do’s, the run-backs, the skips-forward: all these little tools a reader can wield when breaking down a text are exclusive to the form. (And thank God, because writing needs all the help it can get.)
A breakthrough has to come before imitation gives way to real influence. There have been plenty of young writers–God bless them–who’ve gotten drunk on DFW, the way I got drunk on McCarthy. Y’all on slush detail know who they are, from the footnotes and the ambitious vocabulary, to the funky little tri-particle transitionals, (“and then so” “but so then” “so now but”), that Wallace was so fond of and used so well. And like I said, that’s fine, that’s normal–it’s like kissing poorly the first few times you do it.
Perhaps that’s the correct metaphor for an apprentice writer copying a master: a person who’s never kissed before making out with an accomplished osculator; there will be learning done, but it will be of limited general utility. Everyone else is going to be different, because kissing means different things to different people. Until a person understands what kissing means to them, they won’t be able to share that meaning with anyone else; nor will they be able to find out if what kissing means to another person matches what it means to them.
This is a small model for how the writer learns the craft, because it’s a question of learning why the craft matters. You copy the work of others, trying to see what it meant to them, until you’ve learned what it might could mean to you. And even then, you aren’t complete. You need what Franzen calls material, what Updike called his assignment. And that is a discussion for another day.
Still, it’s possible that learning what rules one wishes to apply to one’s material–the process, I’ve argued, of finding one’s voice–is a journey that goes hand in hand with learning why you want to write in the first place. Both these things are part of the larger project that all human beings are engaged in, of seeking to know ourselves. In Barry Hannah’s great conversation with Wells Tower (published by The Believer; you can read it here), Hannah says a thing you don’t often hear said about writers: that they are, for the most part, good people. Sure, some of us are jackasses, but Tower has to agree with Hannah, remembering that there’s a humility which gets beaten into your head, when you’re working at becoming a writer. From humility, goodness tends to follow.
The crushing humiliation of straining your soul, over and over again, only to produce hundreds of dog-gagging sentences (“like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet”) is the gauntlet you must run before you can become a better writer. It is possible, let us hope it is possible, that this and everything else you go through might also, in the end, make you a better person.
It’s a new semester at ASU, which means a new team of student interns is gearing up to work on Superstition Review Issue 5. We have 18 interns this semester, and you’ll be getting to know us one at a time as the weeks progress.
As the person bringing you the interviews with our interns and keeping you up-to-date on everything happening with Superstition Review, I figure I should introduce myself first. I’m Carrie Grant, a sophomore majoring in English Literature and Sociology.
Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?
Carrie Grant: I’m the Blogger, which means I post updates on the SR staff’s progress toward publication, interviews with our interns, and other Superstition Review topics of interest to our WordPress blog, Twitter account, and Facebook fan page.
SR: How did you hear about Superstition Review and what made you decide to get involved?
CG: I heard about Superstition Review through an email listserv last semester. I had been throwing around the idea of a future in publishing for a while, and this seemed like the perfect way to get a taste of how publishing works and to better determine whether I could actually see myself working in publishing.
SR: What are you hoping to take away from your Superstition Review experience?
CG: I want to gain an understanding of how the work done by each intern contributes to the overall process of publishing a literary magazine. I also want to become more confident in my ability to work independently.
SR: Describe one of your favorite literary or artistic works.
CG: I’m in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The recent film adaptation doesn’t do this intricate science fiction/love story justice at all. Actually, I think the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button conveys the feeling of The Time Traveler’s Wife much more accurately.
SR: What are you currently reading?
CG: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I’m enjoying so much that I can’t believe I haven’t read it before now. I started David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at the end of winter break, and I’m trying to find time to get back to it.
SR: Who would be the Superstition Review contributor of your dreams?
CG: Margaret Atwood. She’s basically my literary idol of both poetry and fiction, and it would be amazing to be a part of publishing her work.
SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?
CG: I would like to be Content or Submissions Coordinator, or a Fiction Editor.
SR: Do you prefer reading literary magazines online or in print?
CG: Online. I don’t have much time to read for pleasure, so I like the ease with which I can take a break from, say, writing a Superstition Review blog post, and read a new poem or short story.
SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?
CG: Day-to-day I can be found reading for classes in the Barrett study room, watching indie movies in bed or at the local indie theater, patrolling the halls of Hassayampa with my fellow Community Assistants (known as RAs basically everywhere but at ASU), and editing for the student-run Barrett Honors College magazine, The Barrett Chronicle.
SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
CG: I hope to be working in publishing, possibly as a literary agent or an editor. Ideally, 10 years from now I’ll be married, living in a well-decorated Manhattan apartment, and the owner of a dream library and wardrobe.