Today we are pleased to feature artist Jenny Day as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this short interview, Day talks about her five art pieces from her “Nearly Somewhere” series and “Forgotten Topographies” series featured in Issue 19. Day expands on her own artistic background, influences, goals, and the places and memories that inspired her art pieces.
The buffalo blocked the two-lane road. Barely six-years-old, I had no notion of the rarity of this intimate sighting. In the distance a herd of the mythic beasts gathered in clumps across the Oklahoma reservation to eat pale, ankle-high prairie grass. The car’s engine hyperventilated in a get, get, get rhythm. The open sky and expansive plains mocked us. My mother sheepishly honked the horn once or twice, but the buffalo (technically a bison) held its ground. It may have been five or fifteen minutes until she finally surrendered and cut off the engine.
The next time I saw roaming buffalo was more than four decades later in Caprock Canyon, a remote state park in Texas. The buffalo ran toward a lake for their morning drink in early July as we circled the park both searching for them and surveying the available hiking trails. Again, a regal beast blocked the road. Behind the lake, brown lumpy hills of short grass and Mesquite transformed into orange-red cliffs dotted with green. The buffalo came and went as they pleased, and soon I realized we were the ones in the way. But it wasn’t until that moment that I recalled the first encounter in the avocado-green Oldsmobile accompanied by my mom, my grandmother, and the friend we were visiting.
I’m no expert on the brain, but I wonder about such trigger points and the workings of memory. I especially wonder about them in connection to writing, how on the best days the words flow and unexpected links appear, as though risen from the dead. Such memories do seem to move like ghosts across my mind, the actor in those memories both me and not me. Specific details often elude, but the feeling and some truth of what happened remains.
I’ve read that our brains experience a recalled moment the same as if it is happening in real time. That the brain can accomplish this feat hints at the illusory nature of time and the connectedness and layering of experience. Amazing, yes, but the downside of the brain’s indiscretion is not without trepidation; there’s plenty most of us don’t want to relive, but for writers maybe there’s an upside. During the process of telling a story, we are given the opportunity to make more sense of derailed experiences, the ones that both wounded and defined us. Maybe writing allows us to grapple with those experiences in more satisfying ways, even if the result remains the same.
After I began writing this, I went to New Mexico for a weekend. While there, a dear colleague, who is part of indigenous culture, gave me and several others a buffalo tooth. She knew nothing about the large animals recently populating my memory when she told us the buffalo is a sacred animal, majestic and symbolic of gratitude, abundance, and blessing. Recalling the buffalo at Caprock Canyon and the one that blocked the road when I was young, I can understand why our indigenous neighbors ascribe greatness and meaning to the brown-bearded giant, an animal capable of running 35 miles per hour and surviving harsh winters. An animal capable of surviving near-decimation in the nineteenth century and reclaiming its place in the world.
It’s strange how a new event can call past memories through a different doorway where a new light catches the hidden layers, revealing what we didn’t know at the time and assigning deeper meaning to what we do know. Much understanding seems to pivot on these moments of illumination. I didn’t know until my grandmother died, for example, that she wrote the occasional essay or poem, which deepened my understanding of those moments when she encouraged me to write.
In his book Narrative Design Madison Smartt Bell discusses modular design. Bell says, “What modular design can do is liberate the writer from linear logic, those chains of cause and effect, strings of dominoes always falling forward.” He goes on to say that modular design has less to do with motion and more to do with shapeliness. And he mentions that “modular design allows the writer to throw off the burden of chronology, as much as possible.”
Although Bell is referring to structure in fiction, it seems to me these observations might just as easily apply to nonfiction. Perhaps this is something many nonfiction writers know, but as someone who’s written mostly fiction, I was struck by an idea: Modular design, with its ability to move more freely, to be shuffled and reorganized, may come closest to mimicking memory, which is anything but chronological.
That a structure might exist to corral memory is appealing, though I’m hesitant to completely let go of its wildness. Lately, memory seems to me its own bearded beast, both majestic and mysterious in its ability to run alongside our lives when we are not paying attention, and to help us see and make connections when we are.
I’ve been thinking about spice. As vine, as flower. As catastrophe in the mouth. As some kind of biological confusion. The duping of the blood, the forcing of it to the tops of us. The feeling faint, the feeling amorous. The disintegration of the tongue, even though it’s all we can do to keep from kissing anything that moves. Even the Kokopelli tablecloth in our dining room. The window’s open. It’s unseasonably warm. I had too much red chile sauce on my Sonoran Hot Dog this morning.
This is Arizona and the saguaros are wilting; Arizona, where the hot dog shuns the boiling, demands the comal. In this: 30 horrible jokes about how it’s a dry heat.
Here, in the Sonoran Hot Dog, everything assimilates: cotija cheese to onion, red chile to mayonnaise, tomatillo to tomato. This is what we tell ourselves.
In Hermosillo, the Yaqui Indians dance dances named after the coyote. In Phoenix, we allow even our hot dogs to hurt us.
There’s a hunchbacked flute player on my tablecloth, playing to my fertility. I wonder what this has to do with my longing for ketchup and mustard.
I’m keeping from kissing the tablecloth. From taking it into my mouth. Tablecloth as spice blotter, as shroud. As if, post-spice, the tongue is grieving. Sonoran hot dog as a blurring of borders. As both brain and heart. As American as manzana pie. As the pig graffiti’d in chili-cheese. I will say nothing of the encased, or defaced. It’s too hot to speak about the heat.
In Hermosillo, you can top your Sonoran Hot Dog with pineapple, with avocado, with chorizo, with poblano crema. In Arizona, you can perfume your neck with saguaro flower essence, in order to, according to Sonoran Alchemy (Let the Essence of the Desolate Uncover the Essence of You ™), “balance your masculine and feminine attributes… help in working through power struggles with parental or authority figures… and, like a true father, help us see how we can help ourselves,” while you eat your Sonoran Hot Dog.
I help myself to too much red chile. You blow hot air over my nape. If you blow hot air over my nape, why do I shiver?
The Sonoran Hot Dog as all confusions of the body.
The tongue as false father, the Sonoran Hot Dog as sexually confused. The saguaro is braced to praise or punish, hands on its hips, hands in the air. It calls penis, penis, penis through the window. I’m not sure if this is ridicule, or advice.
My mouth hurts. I want to kiss. It’s hot, and I’m in the Sonoran, and there are no yellow leaves here, nothing to remind me of ketchup, mustard, any less spicy sauce. If there were yellow leaves here, every yellow leaf but three would have fallen from the maple in the backyard. This big-ass eyelet of yellow on the lawn, the tree itself the stick jammed into the iris—precisely the shit they warned us about at recess all those years ago, back when I lived in the Midwest. Ronald Jarrell lost an eye that year. Lucio Aguilar too. Mr. Basofin, the principal, that winter banned snowball fighting. We all stood around, whistling, holding our snow. Hot dogs holding their mysteries in the casing, the chile confusing the mouth—mystery eats mystery. I can’t make sense of these things. Can’t tell how blindness informs assimilation. Can’t tell what depth perception has to do with the Sonoran Hot Dog—the eating of it from the top down. And: Open windows, yellow leaves, a little rain, spice? The maple is a cactus. The snow, red dust. And lawn?! If it rains here, we have to double up on the most surprised of our vowels. The hot dog is meant to be eaten horizontally, you tell me, but I’m not sure how you know this. But we know this: When it rains here, we call it monsoon.
The heat outside as authority figure, as sheriff. The heat in my mouth as my true father. Outside, the brush dances in the wind, and some wild canine tears the throat of the javelina. Moaning pigs communing with other moaning pigs. Each moving closer to the bun.
The brush as lit from the inside. The lovely creosote as creosote burning.
The Sonoran Hot Dog as stereotype made dangerous. As the sort of communion that makes us scream before accepting…
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons dripping from the walls like malarial perspiration, we eat our dressed-up hot dogs in the shuddering, weakening A/C. The spice beats in our temples like a machine gun.
In spice, a confusion of identity. How, when the sun burns us, we feel cold.
Here, in this kind of heat—no trees—even the hot dog needs a costume.
The hot dog as inappropriate chills, as trying so hard to contain its violence. As a racist sheriff in need of window-dressing. As a demand for papers. As tortured criminal, red chile sauce as his monster mask.
In the summer of 2005, Phoenix decided to ice its 120-degree cake with a pair of simultaneously-operating serial killers: The Baseline Killer (or Baseline Rapist, so named for his prowling of Baseline Road, who escalated his criminal activity from robbing at gunpoint a Little Caesar’s Pizzeria to murder, and who disguised himself in a Frankenstein mask, or as a homeless man, and raped his targets before shooting them in the head) and the Serial Sniper (or Serial Shooter—who later turned out to be two men, or shooters—who began blowing away dogs and horses before going randomly after human pedestrians, especially those on bicycles, a vehicle which, at the time, served as my primary mode of transportation to and from work at Arizona State University). My wife would wring her hands until I came home from talking with other nerds in a cinderblock classroom about the poetics of space. The entire city was gripped in this fist of fear, this cult of anxiety about setting foot outdoors into the be-pricked and be-bulletted heatwave, the communion with Son of Sam a pale conferva indeed.
The spice shooting the hot dogs from our mouths. This landscape of sand as a neat trick. Indeed.
Now, I can’t tell if it’s the spice that invades the hot dog, or the hot dog that invades the spice. Can’t tell creosote from algae, the plant from the meat.
Now, I can’t tell if it’s the spice that’s the flower/vine, or the hot dog. Which has the longer stem. In what part of us, it is planted.
Here, the kudzu uses other plants as its grow-base in order to invest the least amount of energy in reaching the sunlight. Here, the kudzu is known as an “invasive exotic.”
Here, for the light, the plants mask themselves in other plants. Here, too much light yields the burning, and the burning begins with the smoke.
Mascara means “mask,” or, literally, “more face.” During early carnivals, behind a mask, one could be who one wanted, do anything one wanted (from illicit sexual escapades to murder), and would not be held liable. In the mask, is the pardon.
The Sonoron Hot Dog is not liable for its spice.
Disguise means “off-style.” Costume means “custom.” These are meant to be opposites. Linguistically-speaking, we mask our costumes in disguises.
Something outside of our window is burning. On your breath, something so much more than the hot dog. You’re hot, and confused, so you pull the blanket around you. In this is confused theory, and a spicy mouth craves the sort of water that will not cool it down.
The bun as more efficient cooling tool. Your breath as inadequate to uprooting the saguaro.
Camouflage means “puff of smoke” or “to blow smoke in someone’s face.” No one knows where Sonora comes from. Its origins are merely theoretical. Some feel it’s the Yaqui pronunciation of señora (in response to an image of Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, or Our Lady of Anguish). Others feel it’s a Spanish mispronunciation of the Yaqui term sonot, or natural water well. Like Water to Anguish, each theory is inadequate to the other.
In home, in home, in home is ownership. In ownership, an assertion of dominance. Dominance sweet dominance.
So, we dig beneath the toppings to find a sense of home, the home being closest to the bread. The bread as tablecloth as spice blotter as the soaking of one thing into another thing. The awful stain into the purity of the napkin. This is also what we tell ourselves. The home as the familiar hot dog, the familiar as the familial, the home as the thing we, be-masked, stole for ourselves. Words like destiny and birthright confused as whether to be the blotter or the blotted, the costumes, or the disguises.
So, we praise, we punish, we rise like the vines:
At the Phoenix Wells Fargo, I fill out a deposit slip for $165.00. A young mother in a green neoprene kerchief (Dragonfly Salon is just around the corner) walks up the six steps from Home Mortgage into the bank lobby. She’s out of sight of the tellers, and the personal bankers, as usual, are away from their desks. She drags her daughter, seven-years-old at the most, by the sleeve of the girl’s pink windbreaker. The girl’s hood is up. It’s 114-degrees outside and the little girl’s hood is up. Tendrils of blonde hair snake from beneath it. By the way they hold their mouths, I can tell they’ve had an argument—the little girl acting up in front of the loan officer. A pink mylar foil balloon—a gecko—is tied to the girl’s right wrist with a length of scrolled green ribbon. The mother carries an obese white purse, stops at the landing. The tellers can’t see her. I sign my deposit slip and stand where I am. The mother opens her purse and removes a wooden pepper mill as long as my forearm. The little girl knows, frowns. She lifts her chin, sticks out her tongue. The mother raises the bottom of the pepper mill to the girl’s mouth, completes eight twists and the eight twists of ground pepper collect into a pile on the girl’s tongue. The girl closes her mouth, tightens her lips. Is silent. The deposit slip is getting wet in my palm. The ink is beginning to run. Mother and daughter walk to an open teller window, and the mother chats to the teller—a young man in a white shirt, red tie—about the heat. They laugh. The daughter is too short to see the teller. The teller sees the mother standing next to the gecko. The daughter’s face becomes more and more red. Her eyes close. She says nothing. Makes no sound. No cough or sneeze. Not a whimper. Her feet begin to dance on the tile as if she has to go to the bathroom. The sleeves of her windbreaker swish so quietly against the torso, as if shushing all of us. The gecko begins to shake. After four minutes, the mother yanks the daughter, still tight-lipped, by the arm. I imagine the popping sound of her shoulder dislocating, a half-dollar of bone jumping from the pink collar. The balloon failing. The pain and its wonderful release. The spitting of the pepper. The scream. They open the door to the sidewalk. Silent. The weather storms inside. Defeats the A/C. They turn the corner. I watch a lone Fry’s shopping cart push itself up the street. I’ve never been good at these things. At divining the rubric necessary to decide what they are. I have trouble distinguishing the cacti from the redwoods. I’ve been lying again. I don’t live in Arizona anymore. Now, I live in Michigan. At my neck, I can’t tell if that’s your breath, or the desert, or the snow.
I went through a phase where I was writing from my dreams. I’d wake up and try to get story ideas from the things I’d written on a little notepad during the night. It went like: susurrous–Cambodia–Remember this!–not harm but the other–bullshit–cantaloupe–too true? Sometimes, it looked more like an unfortunate cardiograph, like I was doing a contour drawing with my eyes shut. I’d turn the page upside-down. I’d wonder what certain squiggles meant.
I switched to a voice recorder. This was better but it scared me. The sound of my voice floating up through deep theta was unnerving, made me think of a seance. I’d be sitting at my desk, cup of coffee, yellow steno pad, obsessive-compulsive story writing pen (Uniball Vision Micro 0.5mm–there shall be no other) poised to take down anything promising, and I’d hear myself half in a dream, speaking from a world of ghosts–a man with a green hat who kept telling me about my mother; my old German Shepherd, Shadow, leading me through the rooms of the house I grew up in; ex-girlfriends; former students.
I’d get sentences, whole paragraphs. Some of it was nonsensical. Other things were deeply painful memories I normally tried not to think about. It surprised me that I was dwelling on those things fairly regularly while asleep–and that some part of me had remembered to wake up and drone into the voice recorder. The sleeping Michael was a different person, a stranger who took emotional risks, who went to difficult places while the protective drawbridge of consciousness was temporarily down. I filled notebook after notebook and learned some interesting things about myself. But none of it seemed to apply to my fiction in any meaningful way.
Around this time, I was in the last year of my PhD. I’d published my first book of stories (Gravity, Carnegie Mellon, 2009) the year before and thought it would be a good idea to go to the AWP conference being held in Denver. I brought the voice recorder, but I didn’t continue my subconscious spelunking while there. Instead, I did what everyone does at the AWP conference. I walked around and bought books, listened to panel discussions, talked to people I already knew, stared wistfully out my hotel room window, and burned through my grocery budget for the next three months. In retrospect, however, the trip was justified because I learned something important about writing: I was going to have to write more and do it more quickly.
In the middle of the Colorado Convention Center’s exhibit level where, in a trade show, there would be a local model posing on a combine harvester, there was instead a table full of literary agents. They were from a local agency and had made themselves available for questions. At that time, I had never spoken with an agent. So I took advantage of the opportunity and struck up a conversation about how one markets a novel to the “Big 6” (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan–you get the idea). I wanted to know if there was a special kind of etiquette agents followed with the biggest publishing houses.
When I asked the question, the young agent in a navy suit that should have been beyond his earning capacity, pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked at me carefully as if he might have to pick me out of a lineup someday. “No,” he said. “There’s no special procedure.” Then he reminded himself to smile. “But if you want to succeed with the trade houses long term, you need to be really productive. Can you write around 300 pages a year?” I said no, I didn’t think so, thanked him, and got out of there as quickly as possible. A book a year? It had taken me six years to produce the stories in my 200-page collection. I had 75 pages of a novel that had taken me most of the previous year.
Later, catching up on some window staring in my hotel room, I tried to envision that level of productivity. One page a day? Writing from canned outlines? Some kind of method book, How to Write a Blockbuster Novel in 2 Weeks and Avoid the ER? I didn’t know. I picked up my voice recorder and started complaining about it to myself. I bitched for around 90 minutes. Then, as I started to get tired, I thought I might turn my rant into a piece of creative nonfiction–something about running up against the cruel commodifying values of the publishing industry in Denver. When I typed up what I’d recorded, I had 35 pages and a brand new idea about how to write more without sacrificing quality.
Since then, I’ve experimented with narrating stories and novel chapters into a voice recorder the way I’d once narrated my dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write 300 pages of polished fiction a year. But I’ve learned to be more productive this way, to carry some of that dream energy into my conscious drafting. And I’ve learned to hear my own voice the way I hear someone at a literary reading–listening for the caesuras, the paragraphs, the meanings that emerge from syntax.
I tell my students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop to at least read what they’ve written out loud to themselves. I tell them that their ears will teach them new things about narrative. I say stories were originally meant to be heard and there are lessons about storytelling we can only learn that way. Some of them believe me.
Those of us who have become fascinated with producing spoken drafts have also learned that, while text-based revision is still necessary to produce a finished product, beginning with the spoken word can connect us to a primal source of creative expression. Now I begin every draft by speaking at least part of it into a voice recorder, deliberately tapping into that ghost world of my other self, shaping narrative with the energy of dreams and visions that return to me in my own voice. I listen and write down what I hear, paying close attention to the speaker.
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.
I’ve noticed among my students an increasing affection for the lyric essay, a form that requires the writer to trust in leaps and associations as he or she works with what may seem to be disparate images, details, memories, etc. In the act of considering, the writer invites the reader to follow the sensibility that will eventually find a moment that resonates with the significance that these particulars generate when held next to one another. That juxtaposition actually makes possible a conversation between the particulars, a conversation that’s taking the writer and the reader to a place neither could have predicted when the essay began.
To invite the lyric impulse, I offer this brief writing activity. Our objective here is to get down to the bare bones of a short lyric essay, knowing that we’ll go back later and fill in the connective tissue, the meditation, etc.
1. Choose a particular detail that has lodged in your mind, anything from the world around you: a dandelion, a crack in your bedroom wall, the man who lives in the house on the corner. Write one statement about this object or person. Perhaps it begins with the words, “I see it (or him or her) for the first time. . . .”
2. Quick! Before you have time to think, list two other particulars suggested by the one you recalled in step one. Write them in the margin or at the top of the page.
3. Write a statement about one of the particulars from your list. Perhaps your sentence begins, “One day, I notice. . . .”
4. Write one sentence, more abstract, in response to either or both of the particulars that have made their way into your essay draft. Let the gaze turn inward. Perhaps you begin with the words, “I’ve always wondered about. . . .”
5. Write a statement about a third particular. Put yourself into action. Perhaps you begin with something like, “Tonight, I walk. . . .”
6. Close with a statement of abstraction, a bold statement, perhaps. We’ll hope this to be the moment in which you discover how these three particulars connect. Maybe it’s a line like the one that ends Linda Hogan’s short essay, “Walking”: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”
Please feel free to take the sentences from the exercise above and expand your essay in whatever way pleases you. I hope the writing leads you to unexpected connections, becomes a process of discovery, forces you to “push through” material that may be a bit uncomfortable, and in general leads you by an indirect method to the heart of something you may not have approached otherwise. I’m hoping this exercise will be helpful for those writers of creative nonfiction who want to try their hands at forms that aren’t predominantly driven by narrative, but instead by the meditative leaps from one thing to another.
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