Today we are pleased to feature author Julie Marie Wade as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Julie discusses the influence of Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum on her work, like “Where I’m From” and The Regulars. She explains how Cooper’s memoir made her feel more comfortable exploring different essay lengths. In particular, she was inspired by Cooper’s essay, “Where to Begin,” which Julie describes as “really profound to [her] in its compression and how well it establishes what you can expect in the larger volume.”
Julie also reveals the driving force of “trying to figure out what it meant to come from a particular kind of world, where in [her] family being a regular person (synonymous with normal) was the goal.” Julie concludes by reading her essay aloud to contextualize these insights.
Today we are pleased to feature Roy Guzmán as our Authors Talk series contributor. In his podcast, Roy discusses community, culture, and struggle with Christina Collins from Lockjaw. Specifically, the pair discusses these ideas in the context of Roy’s piece, “Payday Loan Phenomenology,” which was published in Issue 18. They share how they first met on Twitter and then how they both ended up living in Minneapolis, which brings them to a discussion on displacement.
When discussing his piece in Issue 18, Roy notes, “it’s me trying to work with memory…if I’m looking at my past and I do not want it to depress me and I want it to sort of propel me, I need to create some kind of beauty.” Later, Christina tells Roy, “your work is so rooted in culture and it’s so rooted in your experience of being…an outsider to this monolithic American culture,” which leads to a discussion on the importance of culture and sharing the experiences of those who are disadvantaged.
It’s impossible to list all of Roy and Christina’s comments and insights here, so you’ll just have to listen for yourself! You can access Roy’s poem in Issue 18 of Superstition Review, and you can stay updated with his website as well.
Today we are pleased to feature author Judith Sara Gelt as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Judith discusses the “hermit crab essay,” which she describes as an essay living inside a form that isn’t typically in an essay. In the case of her piece in Issue 18, it is an essay living inside a rubric.
Judith also shares how delighted she is that readers have found humor in her piece, “Loneliness Recovery Rubric–Female.” She then discusses her pursuit for authenticity and explains how personal sharing requires practice, practice, and more practice. Before signing off, Judith encourages everyone to try pushing the envelop because “it’s wonderful to experiment.”
Hey there dear readers! Superstition Review is back after a brief hiatus with more good news: past contributor Victor Lodato’s essay “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” has been published in The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. Lodato was featured in our Interview section of Issue 8 in an interview conducted by former intern Marie Lazaro. In addition to being a recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for fiction, Victor Lodato has also been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Institute as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest novel, “Edgar and Lucy” is out now from Macmillan, and can be found both online as well as at most major bookstores. Do yourself a favor and check out the essay here, and buy one (or two, or seven) copies of “Edgar and Lucy” here. Congratulations Victor, we couldn’t be happier to know you!
In July 2015, we published Laura Esther Wolfson’s essay After the Autobiographyhere on our blog. Then we recently heard the good news that it received a “notable” listing in Best American Essays 2016. That brings the number of notable listings her work has received to five. Congratulations, Laura!
To read her past work published in Issue 14 of our magazine, click here.
I enjoy a story that introduces me to distinct characters and places and allows me to live there for a while with them. Unique structure, unexpected lyricism, and ultra-vivid details are always a way to pull me in but more importantly I want to know these people enough to remember them if I visit the town in their story. Fleshed out characters with distinctive voice seem to walk off the page and join me in life, popping up at random times to remind me of their experiences and their lessons.
Characters are the reason I read, as people are the reason I write. The character doesn’t have to be relatable or recognizable but does need a strong voice so I can hear them in between lines of dialogue and so they can keep living after the last word. Places similarly exist before and after the story and I would love to visit without leaving my house, show me the place, show me where you fell, show me the highest point of the mountain and the lowest you felt getting up to it.
I’m eternally attracted to new, modern formats that surprise me and if that style is met with a story that conveys some universal truth or lesson, well then I have something to read and share endlessly. Intriguing style is not everything though, often I am simply looking to escape my surroundings into your world, live your life, and maybe learn something while I’m there. Whether we take a hike through the Grand Canyon together, share memories of your late relative, or feel the anxiety of an argument with your landlord, I am willing to ride along if you’re driving with a convincing voice.
Hayley is an almost ASU graduate of Creative Writing. She owes everything to the incredibly brave and inspiring artists that she had the pleasure of calling professors during her time in college and she plans to pay them back in monthly increments over her lifetime, so they will never be forgotten. She is an outgoing introvert who loves to discuss stories and writing with other like-minded weirdos then retreat back to her hole (home) to put pen to paper. Hayley is captivated by characters and keeps them in her memory as “friends” to reference now and then. At other times you can find her smothered by 2 cats and a dog consuming movies and books like the sustenance they are.
It’s mania when I begin to eye the furniture in my home and plot its disappearance. Once, when I was two and twenty, I so vacated my home of objects that my best reading spot was a plastic lawn chair with a blanket cast over it. To have something temporal meant freedom; I could give it away without sentiment. I sold two-thirds of my books that year. Three comfy chairs and two thrift store sofas gone. Cleaning house is easier when there’s nothing in it.
A year ago I discovered Marie Kondo, and her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. My son, a lover of all things Japanese, quickly absorbed her minimalist wisdom. We agreed that it felt better to let go of things from our lives than to hoard them. Before long the two of us were folding our clothes into perfect rectangles, our closets emptied of clothes that didn’t “spark joy.” I’ll admit I failed when it came to clearing my books.
Blessed with a large office, I fill it with volumes. After combing through for expendables, I recycle the paper stacks and folders of the previous year. I strategize how to teach classes without requiring paper assignments. Student lamentations of their printing woes at the front of my mind, I make every assignment digital. It used to be simpler to take pen in hand and scratch away at paper wherever I might find myself; now, it is all about erasing the physical memory of each class and keeping the evidence of my lost time in a cloud.
When I touch paper and books it is similar to touching chalk. My hands itch, I feel that I can’t breathe, I want to rinse them. It’s the dust, a real allergen to be sure. But most of it—the bulk of it—is in my mind. I’m tired of touching what is spent.
The expenditure of time. I don’t want to think about it too much. Occasionally I drive the forty-five minutes in silence to the college where I teach. I enjoy music, audiobooks, and podcasts. But sometimes the silence is all I can tolerate when trying to clear my mind. Not that I’m any good at meditation. I’m frightfully bad, actually. Meditation is only possible for me in movement—walking, running, yoga. But in stillness I begin to panic. There is so much to do, so much time wafting away.
I worry about time wafting, how it drifts into piles then disappears in a swift gust of excitement. Ideas drift like that, which is why I like the silence. I also like numbered lists, and constrained word counts in essays. I like the illusion of control, however tenuous, that comes of numbering things: points I’m trying to make, lists of things I want to remember, essays I want to write, paragraphs, lines . . .
They all go away.
I hear the voice of my teacher–unmistakably his, even when it comes through me–when I say to my students in a workshop: “This is an essay about neurosis.” Obviously, obviously. I recognize students doing what I have done, cauterizing narrative with lyric, and falling down through the tubes of some memory that’s only partly open.
Yesterday I noticed the dust on my dashboard and I knew myself to be existing, to be driving my car mindful of speed and direction, yet also, perfectly still. I said aloud to myself, “Time is vertical, you Dope.” And I laughed because I’d had that thought so many times, each one of those moments, the same moment . . . yet another phase state.
I need the simplicity (I think) because it’s the order apart from what always breaks down. It’s my own conscious awareness of non-jettisoned junk, the still-necessary, the reminder of what I have yet to do in order to accomplish the next task. I have tasks stretching into the horizon. The concrete steps need patching and painting as do the porches and foundation and there sits the paint. Books to my right form two stacks. When my manuscript is done I can take them back to my office shelves. When my manuscript is done I can write an essay about something else. When . . .
Simplicity means shopping for and finding only what I need. Simplicity means windows that are new and free of grime that open easily when the air conditioning quits working for the third time this summer. Simplicity means simply not using the bathroom sink until I can afford to repair the leak that seems to emerge upward impossibly from the floor around the pipe. Simplicity is sometimes not thinking about the broken things I cannot pay to fix and the debt that I whittle away over endless years.
There is no thought to dating, because the order of my life would be visited by new chaos and questions of what this new person brings and what they take from my life.
There is no time for smoking, though I’d like to have a cigarette very much. There is no money for frivolity. Unless it is for my son, who wants a four-dollar coffee. He is a teenager, and I worry over him catching my illness that counts pennies before ever saying yes.
Simplicity is choosing between three colors from my closet: black, grey, and blue. The first two are in preponderance because they always go together. Simplicity is in my cabinets, when there’s only soup and noodles. I’m overwhelmed by my mother’s fridge which teems with leftovers and expired salad dressing.
The fantasies I have are of less things, not more, and I dream about a tiny house on wheels or an RV when my son goes away to college, which is why I don’t need the couch, the desk, another book shelf. My home is already a tight 773 square feet of entropy, built in the 1940s. I’ll be lucky if I can sell it at all, but I push this thought away.
Simple means having four things to worry about instead of twenty. It means pronouncing no more curses under my breath because everything I touch goes smoothly. In short, I think of simplicity as a kind of chronic peacefulness. I’m sure this is what defines the aesthetic for people who voluntarily undertake simple living as part of a spiritual practice, or those who retreat into the woods, going off the grid.
“Simple” is used to market foods assumed to be organic and whole. It sells magazines and skin products, recipes, financial plans, cell phones, lifestyles, fashions, cleaning products, and is sometimes an acronym. “Simplicity” is a term found in theology, philosophy, and photography. In the popular imagination, simplicity could be cross-listed with happiness or peace of mind. See also, elegance and minimalism, though simplicity is a word that behaves itself impeccably, no matter the context. Simple and simplicity might sometimes depart from one another, aside from being adjective and noun, though I’ve never thought too much about it.
Harder, when I must read simplicity as austerity, when I must choose the beans and rice because I cannot afford to eat more richly. When the choices narrow to one and that’s the option with the sparest design. When all menus point to side dishes and when a boiled egg is my only breakfast.
Counting calories require simplicity, and the best diets push us toward streamlining our choices lest we are taken in by the complexities that beckon. Exercise must be simple else it pushes us away: as simple as putting on shoes and stepping outside, or a bike path at the end of the street. It cannot require too much of us with regard to time or equipment or we won’t do it. Routines that are too complex will never be routine.
Routine is simple. I get up, do the set things I must do every morning, and my day moves slowly through the harmonies of work. I return home and what I most long for is simple: a beer, a couch, a show, my laptop, and the dishes done. However, one night I must meet a friend for dinner and that is never simple. I get home too late to wash the dishes which pile around the sink. My morning will be fraught with cooking pot puzzles and dirty travel cups. I will wash a spoon in order to use one.
Simple is silverware that matches; what my family never had and what I secretly wanted. I bought new silverware almost twelve years ago and I still have every piece. Simple to protect when the rule is they never leave the house. Simple because they are too heavy and cumbersome.
Some people use the word “simple” to denote a person who does not move at the same pace as everyone else. People are simple-minded (simpletons) if they do not engage others easily, if they are withdrawn, slow to word or thought, or even content with staying in the same area where they’ve always lived. I must be simple because I am Appalachian and I choose to live in my home town. I must be simple because I love mountains more than city skylines.
I am a backpacker, and planning for a two- or three-day trip is an exercise in existential simplicity. I know the weight of everything to the gram and I keep a spreadsheet which I update each trip. I’ve weighed everything beforehand so I am careful to pack no more than twenty-five pounds. I carry about ten pounds of food and water. I endlessly ruminate on how to carry less, and whether or not I can dispense with anything in my pack, in my ideal and ritualized unburdening.
A hike is meditative with the comfort of having everything I need in my bag and nothing to do but walk. Simple means essential, or being able to make do, without luxury. Simple is grateful for serendipity and the kindness of others, and simple dreams under the great vault of Heaven.
Simple is tracing the backbone of a 480 million-year-old lifeform, and recalling Dōgen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra.” He could not have been the first one to say that mountains belong to all those who love them, or that mountains walk, or flow. “You should study the green mountains, using numerous worlds as your standards,” writes Dōgen. I study the mountain every day on my way to work and back, wishing I was there and not driving.
Simple is a hot cup of tea, right now, in my hand. It’s also a way of centering.
I keep coming back to “numerous worlds,” and wonder why we need so many.
Simple is the yoga I haven’t done in a few days, because my life has been too complex. James Richardson writes that “Our lives get complicated because complexity is so much simpler than simplicity.”
In a lecture decades old, Baba Ram Dass reminds that the ego will impede all attempts to liberate consciousness. I find mine does everything it can, ultimately siding with laziness, the sheets tangled around my legs, pillow between my knees, my back supported.
It’s always quiet in the dark of my room, and every morning that perfect silence comes undone as the room lightens.
Ten days ago two explosive devices were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am sitting at the same desk where I worked last Friday during the daylong manhunt that led to the arrest of the second suspect in the bombings. The first had been killed in a late-night gunfight just three miles from the house I share with my husband. I learned of the events when I turned on my computer at 5:30 the next morning and saw the news headlines. Usually I try to write in the early hours, but I was unable to write after that. At six, my neighbor Mary called to tell me that her husband had heard a disturbance in the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Did I know that we were supposed to stay home and lock the doors?
My husband woke next and I told him what had happened. His cell phone beeped with a text message announcing that the mental health clinic where he works was closed. In fact, all businesses in the area were closed. We double-checked the locks on our doors, opened the window blinds just enough to let in a little sunlight, and spent the entire day inside the house.
You might ask: What does this have to do with writing?
It’s been ten days since the bombings and I can’t seem to shake the effects of what happened. This is not surprising; everyone in Boston seems to know someone who was affected by last week’s events. An old friend of mine had just left the finish line a few minutes before the blasts; she saw the explosions from her office nearby. A receptionist who greeted me last Saturday at a local business told me that her uncle, a police officer, arrived in Watertown just after the gunfight. The woman who took my blood at the doctor’s office on Monday said that she knew people working in area hospitals who would be haunted all their lives by what they’d seen and heard. Paul Martin, a Paralympic athlete who has run the Boston Marathon numerous times and whose memoir, One Man’s Leg, was the first book I edited, sent an email saying that his college friend had lost a leg at the finish line. And a few minutes ago I felt my body stiffen when a helicopter flew over our house. Two helicopters flew low over our neighborhood last Friday, just before the second suspect was apprehended. I realized later that one of those helicopters must have been carrying the thermal imaging equipment that located the suspect beneath the tarp that covered the boat where he was hiding.
No, I haven’t shaken any of this yet.
But what does this have to do with writing?
It is the haunted feeling that I have right now, the same feeling I have had for the last ten days, that compels me to write personal essays. It is a shaken feeling, or a curious feeling, or a constant reliving whether conscious or not, an inability to let go of an event, a memory, or even just a thought. The event might have occurred yesterday, or it might have occurred thirty years ago. But on some level I have not been able to shake it. And so, eventually, I write about it.
Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre and author of the award-winning memoir Still Pitching, is one of the writers-in-residence at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, where I studied. He often tells me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect.
When I revisit some of my early attempts at writing personal essays, I can see that I was able to describe the “who,” the “what,” the “where,” and the “when” – not surprising for a former journalist. But I had trouble with the “why.” Why was my topic important? What was the point? Why had it stuck with me? What did I have to say about it? What was the best way to say it? And why should anyone else care? I hadn’t explored my topics deeply enough to tackle the demons and find the connections; I hadn’t taken the risk that writing teachers tell you to take when they say: go for the jugular.
It was when I started taking that risk that the writing came to life.
So, will I write about what it was like to sit in this house, which seemed to get hotter and hotter as I became more tense and trapped, during the manhunt after the bombings at the Boston Marathon?
I don’t know. At this point it doesn’t feel like my story to tell. The grief is all around me, as are the tales of heroism and redemption that we all cling to at times like this. And those tales are other people’s stories, not mine. I am just a witness.
Being a witness is important. Very important. But as essayists we need to do more than witness – we need to find meaning and an artful way to express it so that our readers can find it, too. And that takes time.
In the photo, Jeff and I are busy fighting the bad guys, even if I don’t quite know who they are. This is 1989 or so, in my backyard on Breconshire Drive. It’s fall (note the naked trees in the background), and while the photo appears to depict me as a little grown-up (complete with backpack flung confidently over my shoulder), one oft-overlooked detail in the photo immediately returns me to child form.
It’s the shoes—me trapped in my Velcro, while Jeff’s in laces. This, of course, was humiliating for me, and while I quickly rectified the problem by practicing bunny ears on every pair of shoes in the house, this picture forever served as proof of the difference between us: he who could double-knot while I couldn’t manage a single; he who could catch the bad guys while I didn’t know what a bad guy was.
The outtakes from “Breconshire Drive” are far longer than the essay itself. For instance, the final draft makes no mention of our days spent gathering crawdads in empty bread bags down by the creek. Nor does it detail the rash of burglaries that overtook our neighborhood one summer, how our golf-club-wielding fathers were not all-powerful after all. Instead, what remains is an essay on a friendship boiled back to basics, a single memory serving as the touchstone for other memories that might emerge. On its own, my nostalgia-induced work on a walk shared between friends hardly deserves the space it was graciously given. But it’s my hope that my essay on “a walk shared between friends” is actually an essay about a walk shared between friends who are soon to realize the troubling truth of mortality—that even at the age of 7, our walks were coming to a close, that my strides were too short to meet Jeff in his new home in Michigan.
Let me be clear: I don’t expect readers to feel sorry for the 7-year-old version of me. After all, losing a best friend is what being 7 is all about. Jeff and I had watched enough crawdads die in our bread bags to know that even people with good intentions sometimes hurt things that didn’t deserve it.
Sure, I was devastated, but mostly because the world seemed suddenly disinterested in adjusting its plans on my behalf. I could slam my bedroom door as much as I wanted, but it wouldn’t keep Jeff’s family’s U-Haul from backing into his drive. And even after he left, I learned that I couldn’t ride my bike back and forth along his stretch of sidewalk long enough to remove the “Sold” sign from his front yard. In short, I was shocked less about Jeff’s leaving than the world’s failure to retract its cruel fate. I was 7, and while I felt I’d previously proven myself as an all-powerful being (after all, no one else in my school had won back-to-back blue ribbons in the plant show), the world seemed just as unimpressed by my powers as it had our golf club wielding fathers’.
Kill my umbrella tree, I begged to a God I’d never met. Just promise me you’ll blow up Michigan, too.
He didn’t. My umbrella tree died anyway.
Years later, Michigan remains intact, my water can gathers dust, and the most tangible piece of our friendship that remains is the photograph described above, the one of me looking dumb in my Velcro shoes. Though perhaps the worst part isn’t the Velcro, but that I—the Velcro-shoed boy—seemed certain that eventually we’d get those bad guys, even if the bad guys weren’t guys at all, but a place beyond Breconshire Drive.