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The blog for the senior portfolio seminar has two purposes: it serves as the home for the blogs of individual class members — their virtual portolios — and for their collected responses to the reading we’ll do throughout the semester.

Your blog will be set up on the first day of class, and you’ll be able to refine it over the semester, adding work to it and continuing to polish it once it has been posted to the blog.

Your personal blog will then function as a kind of website for you — something to which you can direct potential employers, for instance, and which will showcase the best of your writing from your undergraduate career.

 

IN ADDITION, BY serving as an archive of reading responses to the assigned reading from the journals to which we’ll subscribe (which can also be posted to your individual blogs), the class blog also functions as a record of everything the class has read throughout the spring.

Think of these reading responses as brief reviews, as shapely, intelligent, graceful pieces of short writing, a tribute and appreciation to the writers whose work you read and to the editors who bring them to you. (A common length requirement for reviews in newspapers, for instance, is 750 words.)

Below are the journals we’ll be reading over the course of the semster: A Public Space, edited by Brigid Hughes, who will attend the Creative Writing Conference in the spring; The Kenyon Review, edited by David Lynn (whom I hope will come join us for dinner one night over the semester) and Ecotone, whose founding editor is David Gessner and whose editor is Ben George; I hope Ben will also be able to join us one day, virtually or in person.

Click on the title of the magazine and it will take you to the magazine’s website.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy getting a taste of the terrain being covered by contemporary literary journals, and that taking the subscription with you after you graduate helps you continue to forge links to the writing community that will sustain and nourish you in the months and years ahead.

Carrie

The distinctions between non-fiction and fiction have been at the forefront of the creative writing world for some time now. First, it was Greg Mortenson’s 3 Cups of Tea scandal, when it was revealed that the story behind the founding of his non-profit was, at best, exaggerated and at worst, invented. When this information was coupled with the fact that many of the schools he started were later abandoned, and accusations of misappropriated funds emerged, Mortenson’s credibility suffered a huge blow.

Though the stakes of the Mortenson case–the education of impoverished, rural school children–combined with the obvious nature of his discrepancies are enough for most people to condemn him outright, lately, non-fiction blurring the lines of reality has been met with mixed responses. More recently, controversy has been stirred by John D’Agata’s Lifespan of a Fact, featuring a dialogue between D’Agata and his young editor, Jim Fingal. I have yet to read the book, but from what I gather, it centers on D’Agata’s error-ridden essay about the suicide of Los Angeles teenager Levi Presley. Fingal first encountered D’Agata when the publication he worked for, The Believer (the irony of this title lost on few) agreed to publish the essay. D’Agata responds to his fact-checkers’ accusations of lies by arguing that the piece is not intended to be journalism, and that as an author, it was his job to make the piece sounds beautiful on the page. For D’Agata, if that meant changing the color of a van from pink to purple because its syllables flowed better with the sentence, that was OK. Also acceptable for D’Agata were lines like, “It’s estimated that only 40 percent of suicides are the result of chemical imbalance,” a statement that his Fingal points out had no factual basis.

The conversation sparked by D’Agata’s book has resulted in a range of opinions. For some, the book has affirmed the centrality of truth; for others, it has undermined its necessity. Recently, this topic has also arisen in our senior portfolio class with an piece called Joy by John Haskell, a work that–thanks to some clarification by editor Brigid Hughes–I can now place with confidence in the category of essay. The confusion arose after Professor Brown noticed the piece was listed under the ‘Fiction’ list on the online version of A Public Space, but the issue’s Table of Contents had placed it under ‘essay.’

I then reviewed the piece as if it were an essay. When we received an email from the editor that seemed to imply the piece was intentionally genre-ambiguous, I was frustrated–though this was eventually shown to be an editorial mistake as opposed to an intentional one. I was surprised though, by the level of frustration I felt over the idea that an essay would cross over into fiction– that is, it would discuss events that did not occur, people that did not exist, or, in D’Agata’s case, construct statistics about suicide out of thin air.

My concern, however, was not that a piece like Joy might cross genres at all–but that it would be able to make up ‘facts’ and designate them as truths. In other words, had the work of Haskell or D’Agata been categorized as fiction and contained real events, real characters, etc, there would not have been an issue. I also believe that there is an art to both non-fiction and ‘essaying’ (D’Agata says that his essay’s changes can be justified by the latter designation and is quick to say he is not writing journalism), that is to say, that the essay inherently requires creativity and careful thought surrounding the timing of the events that have unfolded, the writer’s interpretation of those events, etc. In other words, it’s no surprise to most writers that successful non-fiction essays often employ elements that might more traditionally belong to the genre of fiction: metaphor, character development, the creation of setting, plot arcs, etc. Essays are equally inherently creative endeavors that share many aspects of fiction.

So why–I’ve been asking myself since reading Haskell’s essay–can’t we cross these boundaries of genre? Why does this idea frustrate me immensely? I will momentarily put aside the inherently human need to know whether or not something is true (an argument that can be dismissed with relative ease and air quotes around the word ‘happened’), and instead focus on how this affects the reader in other, less base ways. My concerns, as I have said, are of craft.  Ideally, both fiction and non-fiction deliver the reader to a form of the truth–truth that does not have to be factual, wrap up its loose ends, etc–but truth that represents the author’s best attempt at being true to either his life, or to the people and circumstances he had created on the page.

In non-fiction, the writer must do both, but the burden of truth is amplified by the fact that the events recounted actually happened, that real people felt the consequences of the circumstance on which the author was writing, etc. The craft involved in non-fiction differs from fiction; the art of non-fiction is bringing the real to life in a way that is compelling to readers, and compelling not exclusively because it is the truth, but because it interprets that truth, because we see it through a lens that is either similar to our own, or dissimilar, but ultimately is an attempt to explain and describe human experience. If we see art as an attempt to access truth–about ourselves, about human nature (*insert grandiose statements here*), then this truth is something that non-fiction and fiction both strive for, but they strive for it differently. When D’Agata makes up facts about suicide, he demeans his subject in a quest for art, and in doing so, detracts from the essence of non-fiction.

As I began to write this a few weeks back, a quote popped up above my Gmail inbox–a quote by British playwright Christopher Fry that’s serendipitous timing was too perfect, but encapsulated the conclusion I am attempting to arrive at here. “Imagination,” Fry said, “is the wide-open eye which leads us always to see truth more vividly.”

In “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital,” Melissa Pritchard introduces us to the life of Captain Brown, an American surgeon sent to rehabilitate one of Britain’s most spectacular “architectural disasters.” Spanning sixty some pages, the story gently eases us into life at the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, where Captain Brown prepares for an influx of soldiers related to the upcoming D-Day invasion.  Pritchard conjures some of her most incredible images in relation to the old “Italianate behemoth”, and some of my favorite passages in the entire story occur early on with these descriptions.  While Ecotone has kindly provided us with a visual of the outside of the hospital, Pritchard paints the gloomy interior with a richness that a black and white photo couldn’t possibly provide: “the maze of the hospital’s interior felt tenebrous, Stygian, and bleak…they walked along it’s stone floored corridors, infinite seeming in perspective.”

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The first lines I read of “Jellyfish” by Henrik Nordbrandt led me to believe that this poem would be about how one should stay away from dangerous predators, jellyfish and humans alike.  I thought it was going to be a commentary on how people are the jellyfish of the land, devouring what is in our paths, and leaving tentacles of hurt and destruction in our wake for some other poor creature to stumble upon.  Especially when stanzas like “bones take revenge” and “the black earth, which eats hearts” come into play.

But after reading each line and trying to figure out the meaning within them individually, it started to get more confusing.  I don’t know whether it was a translation problem, as this poem was originally in Danish, or if it is just a mix up of wires in my brain.  All I could think about was the sage advice given to a young cub in one of my favorite movies, the Lion King.

“Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.

Young Simba: But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?

Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”

After this popped into mind, I read this as a ‘circle of life’ poem, commenting on the imprints people leave behind on other people and on the world when they die.  According to the poem, Jellyfish leave nothing, barely even a depression in the sand after their lives are extinguished, but humans take root in the souls of others.  Even when we are no longer a part of this earth, our bones can bring back memories to those who knew us, and tell the story of our lives to those who don’t.

I think Nordbrandt is expressing that although there are many facets to people: some hard, some soft, some piercing, and others long-lasting, there is always going to be the ocean tide.  People will move on, new generations will swell the ranks of those who are lost.  At the very end, I saw the author wishing to be one of those jellyfish, to simply disengage from the land and float along with the ocean tide.  He sees himself as different from other people, the mysterious “They” who “love the black earth” but he, “Love[s] the white beaches.”

“Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn” by Jonathan Lethem was the first essay I read for my freshman writing course, and it still resonates with me today if only for the fact that it inspired me to write my first creative piece. Therefore, it feels appropriate to examine another of his essays at the end of my college career, and when I saw “Dismantling Rushmores” in the Happiness Issue of Ecotone, I knew this was the one.  Lethem is the author of four genre-bending novels including Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. His mixture of science fiction and detective fiction has earned high praise, and he has received a National Book Critics Circle Award as well as a Macarthur Fellowship.

Gone is the Lethem who slowly unravels his thoughts, spinning and tangling them into an intricate, awe-inspiring web. Gone are the slow contemplation of ideas such as “when you’re a child, everything local is famous.” This “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn” self of Lethem is abandoned to permanently inhabit a forsaken subway station. In an effort to escape his white elephant-ish-ness, Lethem hurtles through “Dismantling Rushmores” at breakneck speed, never stopping, never looking back, adamantly refusing to explain any of his many, overwhelming, esoteric references.  I imagine my final impression of this essay is not the one that Lethem intended to leave with readers. While he screams in space, I scream in my head at my own lack of knowledge. Instead of any sort of enlightenment, I remain an uncouth barbarian who lives under a rock and has never picked up a book. I should be lingering over his valid argument for abundance or his condemnation of the term pop culture, but I merely remain thankful that I have never been published. If any interviewer asked for my thoughts on DeLillo or Pynchon, the best I could offer is a blank stare and vapid smile.

In some ways, I don’t believe this essay was crafted to provide any sort of pleasure to the reader. It was written by Lethem for Lethem. On multiple occasions throughout this short essay, he mentions his love for referencing white American authors in any sort to communication he has with others and his ensuing frustration with not always being able to do so; “their two names were weirdly difficult to get into the subsequent conversation.” This essay is his ode to all he has read, a way for him to finally mention everyone he’s always wanted to mention.  The problem is that he assumes that readers should automatically know of and have read everything he has read, and many of his points are based on a reader’s previous knowledge. He leaves many of his references without first names, making it difficult for readers to even research the author. He states, “Anyway, the creators I adored tended to want to claw their way out, whether they succeeded in their lifetimes, like Chandler and Ballard, or flopped, like Highsmith and Dick.” Dick who? Philip K. Dick? But a paragraph or so later, Lethem provides Philip K. Dick’s full name, as if he is referencing a different author than the previous Dick. Are there many authors with this last name? Or is the first Dick even an author? And how would one go about googling this without being inundated with obscene images or Scumbag Steve memes?

Lethem avoids returning to his beginning images in his essay in an effort to re-achieve termite haphazardness, but has he succeeded? Hardly.  There is too much self-acknowledgement and conceit for this to be viewed as un-elephantine. Its “highfalutin” qualities make it far too ungainly and large to escape unnoticed. Instead, Lethem remains the white elephant, the blundering bull that rages through the village, lashing out wildly, creating behind him a ruin the weak and unread are left to not understand.

Poems by Children is brought to us by John Rybicki who has collected poems from some of his third and fourth grade students in Chicago and Detroit.  After reading through these poems once my first thought was, “When I was these kid’s age I didn’t even know what a poem was.” So, that fact that these kids can produce poems that, I even today, strive so hard to accomplish, is quite amazing to me.  How do you even get a child to write a poem?  I guess my approach would be to ask them a question “What do you think a soul is?”  “Where do you go when you die?” “How did war begin?” “What is God?”  Those are the complicated questions that I would ask children because their answers would be as different from ours as adults who understand the world in colorless way.  These children bring life to words and ways in which to describe things, if only I can remember what I believed when I was eight, perhaps then I could be a poet and be more original in my pieces.

One poem titled “I Want A Machine” by a fourth grader, describes in six short lines how she wants to have a machine to go back in time to make sure the first person, I thought of Adam/Eve, does not cause war or anything that will make the world lose its peace like it has done in this day and age.  It is interesting to think of children wondering about why there is war, death and corruption surrounding our everyday lives because most of us see these little kids as innocent/oblivious, but this poem is proof that even they know what’s wrong with the world we inhabit. Perhaps this question was, “What would you change about people today, if you could do anything/have anything?”

Another poem titled “I Have a Yellow Scarf” by a third grader, describes her ability to control the sun with her yellow scarf or her explanation for how the sun appears and disappears each day by throwing her scarf into the air then catching it before she goes to sleep.  I would have never thought to describe the sun as my scarf, but my god, how genius it is.  I love the thought of throwing your scarf into the air to create day and then catching it to create darkness.  This girl’s words hold magic in them and such a conviction about her power over the sun you begin to wish your brain still believed you could do those things.

The last poem I wanted to talk about was “Inside Each Snowflake” by a fourth grader, describes what she thinks is inside a snowflake.  When I thought of what was inside a snowflake I thought water, ice, and possibly air bubbles, but this girl believes that there is a waterfall inside it where God takes a bath.  How awesome is that image?  I would never have thought of God being in snowflakes, but I guess the belief is God is everywhere, so maybe for her, God is technically everywhere doing anything.   As Rybicki says, “Children see the magic and the possibilities that reside in all things.”  How talented would we all be if we still had the abilities these children have; an interesting question.

John Rybicki’s Rybicki was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He is the author of the poetry collections Traveling at High Speeds (1996) and We Bed Down Into Water: Poems (2008). His third collection, When All the World Is Old (2012), was written in response to the long illness and death of his wife, the poet Julie Moulds. His poems have been published in The Best American Poetry 2008Alaska Quarterly Review,FieldParis Review, and Poetry.  

Rybicki has been a writer-in-residence at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. He teaches poetry to young writers through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project and Wings of Hope Hospice. He lives in Michigan with his son.

Rybicki currently teaches creative writing to inner-city children in Detroit, and serves as a guest lecturer at schools throughout the country. His first book of poems, Traveling at High Speeds (New Issues Poetry Press) appeared in 1996, and his latest collection, Yellow-Haired Girl with Spider (March Street Press), was published in 2002.

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I’ve never known my heritage. When I was little, my brother boasted that my family was Hawaiian and British, due to the sole fact that my mother was born in England and my father in Hawaii. Why are we so attracted to having an identity other than “American”? Carrie Messenger touches on this question and others in her essay Hypaa Jarveen.

Here, we have a young girl on the brink of being a woman, struggling to find security in herself and in her ancestry. She went to Finnish camp for knowledge. “ I wanted to learn Finnish to discover who I was…I wanted to know what I might have known if [her grandmother] hadn’t been crazy for assimilation…I wanted to know what I was besides white.” Though these statements clarify her reasoning to attend camp, they are a build up to the ultimate reason for her two weeks at Salolampi. “I wanted to please my grandmother.”

It’s interesting that Erja places so much emphasis on learning Finnish, as though by understanding the language she will understand how her grandmother’s seemingly constant silence. But despite this ardent desire, we don’t see much of her in the classroom; instead we watch her move throughout the different cliques in the camp, trying to find her niche. The “hundred percent” campers, Meeri, Tuija, and Ilse, fascinate Erja with their knowledge and culture. But around these girls she feels inadequate as a “fourth” Finnish. She tries eating lunch with the youngest campers, only to realize their lack of desire to learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture brings them to tears. After being introduced to a cast of characters, Erja finds friends with two girls who don’t speak a word of Finnish, Maria and Hannele.

Erja does come to understand her grandmother, but not in the way she intended. At first, Erja explains how she wanted to live the life of Meeri, a seemingly perfect Finn, playing the kantele and telling stories from Kelavala. She wanted to be more than a quarter Finnish; she wanted to be “a kind of white instead of just white.” She finds clarity in the places she never considered, in the Italian-American, Maria, whose sisu sparked a revelation in Erja. She found her answer in the one phrase, “Go jump in the lake,” or “Hypaa Jarveen.”

Her grandmother hadn’t come to America to bring Finland with her, like many immigrants she came to America for a better life, a life that wasn’t in Finland. Her grandmother described sisu as “the stoic grit of Minnesota pioneers… The determination of the Finnish peasantry to keep speaking their weird, isolate language in spite of being ruled by Sweden, then Russia.” It was the same sisu that inspired her grandmother to let her children “be good Americans instead of Finns, to lose our sisu and gain spunk instead.”

Erja’s quest to please her grandmother revealed the true reason for her time at camp. “If I went to camp to please her, I also did it to rebel against her, to remind her what she’d given up to remake herself.” For Erja, two weeks immersed in the Finnish culture had opened a window into her grandmother’s mind, had said all the unspoken words. Two weeks wouldn’t make her more Finnish, “it wasn’t a matter of blood so much as culture.” Ultimately, it wasn’t Erja’s fault she was a stranger to her own heritage.

Erja finds her confidence during the International Festival amid the more dominant cultures, telling each and every one of them to “Hypaa Jarveen!” “Go jump in the lake!” With this phrase she creates her own sisu, one that is not linked to her grandmother. “They were letting us in under the umbrella of Scandinavianism, but we didn’t want to belong. We wanted them to jump in the lake, even if their lake was nicer than ours.”

 

Contrary to popular belief, Carrie Messenger has never visited Finland. Her recent works of fiction have appeared in Crab Orchard ReviewFiction InternationalRedivider, and Witness. She teaches English at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

In case you were wondering, Salolampi still exists and hosts Finnish camp for youths during the summer (http://www.salolampi.org/village/). For your viewing and listening pleasure, here is Disney’s Pocahontas’ Colors of the Wind in Finnish http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21rv0ao6feo&feature=related I don’t think it’s the same woman who sang in the English Pocahontas, but it’s just as good.

Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi to a poet/professor and a social worker. She has spent a significant part of her time growing up in both, Atlanta, GA and New Orleans, LA. She studied English at the University of GA, earned an MA in English and creative writing from Hollins, and received an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her first collection of poems, Domestic Work, was published in 2000 and explores “the lives and jobs of working-class people, particularly black men and women in the South.” According to the Poetry Foundation, Trethewey is “adept at combining the personal and the historical in her work.” Her second book of poetry, Bellocq’s Ophelia, attempted to combine “‘the details of [her] own mixed-race experience in the deep South’ with facts about the real women’s lives.” Her third collection, Native Guard, contains elegies to Trethewey’s mother and was published in 2006, while her most recent book, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was released in 2010.

Trethewey’s poem, “On Happiness,” appears in Ecotone‘s self-proclaimed happiness issue, and rightfully so. The poem narrates a progression of metaphorical images of happiness–“pale undersides of the maple leaves,” “a single fish breaking the water’s surface,” “the salmon rolling” in the river. The images though–and the title, for that matter–are misleading at first glance. The happiness of the title and detailed in the poem is not the happiness of “happily-ever-after.” This is not the happiness that lasts forever, nor is it the kind that we experience daily. It is the rarer kind of happiness, the kind that catches us off-guard and lingers for only a moment, reminding us that there is something inexplicably beautiful in this world. It is the kind that, with a “quick movement at the edge of thought, is to be pulled back.” It reminds us of a happiness that is beautiful in its nature, in what it inspires in us, but is all the more beautiful for its fleetingness and rarity.

Trethewey, then, chooses her images with care. The image of the “pale undersides of the maple leaves catching light” lasts for only a moment. For a moment, the leaves are brilliant with flashes of silver, and the next, they are nothing more than maple leaves, as common and as ordinary as can be. The fish, “breaking the water’s surface,” swims within reach of us–the reader–and then becomes “the almost-caught taunting our lines until we give up.” The salmon rolls in the river, “showing [us] a glimpse of the unattainable,” but remains just that: unattainable.

Is happiness, then, unattainable? Is this type of joy always before us, but never within our reach? We seek certainty in our lives, we hold on to ticket stubs, souvenirs, permits, even, “as if a guarantee” that the happiness they once signified will always be with us, “creased in [our] back pocket[s],” but the truth is that those moments are gone the moment they give way to the next. And we know this. Yet we still try, grasping at a way to make the intangible tangible, the unattainable attainable. It is our attempt to conquer happiness that ultimately lets it escape.

The images Trethewey chose for her poem were chosen, as I mentioned earlier, with care. Imagine the narrator, walking along a path in the park, along a sidewalk, perhaps, near home. She passes beneath a maple tree, and the leaves, in a moment, catch the sunlight in such a way that illuminates their undersides in an embodiment of pure joy. Pure happiness. She continues to walk, and in doing so, the moment is gone and with it, the happiness the leaves once held, as if a reminder. The narrator, then, is fishing with her father, and a fish suddenly tugs at the line. She seizes the moment, attempting to reel it in, and it darts away, “the almost-caught taunting our lines.” The rolling salmon in the river is a reminder of the unattainable. The moment she–our narrator, ourselves–moves too quickly, happiness is lost. If she had only lingered beneath the maple tree on her morning walk, if she had simply delighted in the gentle tug of the fishing line as she sat, calmly, with her father–that would have been happiness. As it is, though, in our search for guarantees, we end up with nothing but the permit, the ticket stubs, the souvenirs. The items that are almost guarantees, but, in reality, do nothing of the kind. It is one of the great ironies of life that I had–in all honesty–not recognized before reading this poem.

“On Happiness,” then, is about finding (or, perhaps, losing) happiness, but, more importantly, it’s about letting happiness come to us. Let it come, linger, and delight us, and when it’s time for it to move to someone else–for the salmon to swim down the river and for the leaves to shine beautifully for someone else–we move on, with the hope that it will come again.

As I read Ben George’s introduction to the Happiness issue of Ecotone, I was struck by the inspiration behind dedicating an entire issue of the magazine to exploring happiness in its various forms. “It was suggested to us here at Ecotone,” he writes, “by a couple of our readers, that perhaps after three consecutive somewhat dark issues (one focused on brutality; the next had a cover with a perished albatross chick; and the third contemplated sex and death), we ought to ponder something cheerier.” I was struck because in this one sentence, George raises two key questions for the writer: our temperaments as creators and the nature of our subject matter.

Over this past weekend, Sweet Briar hosted its fourth annual Creative Writing conference; during a panel on the writing life, a poet wanted to know how do we avoid “the blue chair,” the blue chair being depression. He was questioning whether all writers are depressed; after all that’s the way the story goes. Psychologists deal with feelings and thoughts and the unexplainable, but they are not automatically written off as crazy or depressed. Writers, and creative people in general, have had this reputation of being somewhat mental and/or emotionally unstable, something having to do with the fact that the writer taps into those dark, far reaching corners of our subconscious. So what is so different for the writer? Is happiness that hard to achieve for the writer because of “a dread of collapse, [that] is secretly present in almost every moment of happiness?” When faced with the question, are writers depressed, I wanted to answer no. As a young writer coming into her own, surrounded by other writers caught in that same awful place of growth, I find that I don’t write because I’m depressed anymore than I’m depressed because I write.

Which neatly brings me to my second point: the nature of what we write. At the conference, the panel answered the young poets questions with two words of advice: just write. If you feel the darkness coming upon you, you feel the fingers of depression snaking around her ankles and up to your heart, write it out, fight it off on paper. Megan [Hurst] and I were discussing this question afterwards and we both marveled at the question considering the answer was pretty apparent. I can speak for myself, and she agreed, that writing is our prescription. I am personally plagued with debilitating nightmares that will leave me in a zombie state for most of the day, but only if I leave them trapped in my head, So, I write. If that means my subject matter is particularly dark or twisted, I’ll take it at the risk of letting “that thing” eat away at me. Because writing, the act of creating something meaningful out of horror, makes me “happy.” The darkness of literature is important, not just because conflict tells a better story that resolution. The role of the dark is to show us where the light is, to remind us of why we exist. The dark, the sordid, the just plain miserable is important to reminding us that we are much more than our insecurities; we are our strength.

“Happiness,” according to George’s article, was originally tied up in the idea of prosperity or success. And it still is, depending on your definition of prosperity and success. In workshops, we discuss the “success” of a story; how has a jumble of words strung along a sentence been created into something of meaning? If we are looking for success, then aren’t we looking for happiness? Readers are looking for something that rings clear and true, something of that gets the sensory cortexes of our brains to light up like a bonfire on the beach. Happiness is resonance.

Ben George is the editor of Ecotone.

* The title was taken from Elizabeth George’s TED Talk on the nature of creativity and the mental health of the writer.

Disclaimer: It is difficult, sometimes, when you truly enjoy someone’s work, to avoid discussing it like a fangirl. However, for the sake of scholarly effort, I will endeavor to be slightly more critical then pouring out purely biased adoration.

I was first exposed to Ander Monson’s work during my Art of the Essay workshop with David Griffith during the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. That semester turned out to be the perfect context in which to read Ander Monson’s work, because I was taking two other writing workshops at the same time: playwriting and fiction. I was also collaborating on a semester-long video project. So while I was learning how to distinguish between multiple medias and genres, I was becoming enthralled in the work of a man who – in my opinion – is teaching many modern writers how to utilize and combine them. In fact, what continues to grab me each and every time I read a piece of Ander Monson’s work is the way he utilizes the page and various expressional forms.

I still remember one of his first essays I read, entitled, “I Have Been Thinking About Snow” – which appears in his collection Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. In the piece, Monson uses periods between thoughts, almost as if he held the key down while thinking. At one point the periods completely swallow two full pages, with the exception of a brief phrase I no longer recall, until it looks as if the text is actually sitting on a bed of snowflakes, or perhaps falling with them. The text becomes the image, and as such is further expressed by it.

I’m not sure if Ander Monson chose to put the grey images of the Is behind the text of this essay, but my guess – based on his previous work as well as his role on his website and other online or mixed-media projects – is that he did, and so I read it with that assumption in mind. What that led me to see at first is the way that this essay starts with the large and universal. On the first page the I is present as everything it could be: a typeface character, a person, even God. Monson also often plays with words to reflect more than one of those concepts at a given time, and transition between them. For example:

“The world is filled with them, jutting, jousting, rutting, roasting them on television cooking and other shows. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that without I there would be no world. Certainly there’d be no universe.”

This excerpt highlights my second favorite aspect of Monson’s work: the poetic language. So many times in this essay I feel that Monson’s control of language, of form, of every single word on the page, is so strong that it is almost as if I’m reading a very long prose poem. Throughout the essay words, and Is, are imbued with double and triple meaning. And that is what comes of being a hybrid, I suppose. But what impresses me is not only what Monson attempts with his work, but that it is achieved. Monson combines picture with image, prose with poetry, and does it successfully.

We live in a world where, as Monson phrases it, “Students in creative writing programs are toiling by the thousands trying to find their voices. Meaning, partly, trying to select their voices from the thousands of voices they encounter in book, in life, in workshop, at readings, in songs, at bars, chat rooms, online.” He’s right, of course. As students, we all try so desperately to be original (while maybe conforming just enough for that A+), and yet in many cases fail spectacularily. Monson, who many consider a highly original and innovative writer, even admits, “I read DeLillo, I write a DeLilloish story. … We become possessed, we no longer I but a kind of nested us.”

This struggle with voice, with who or what the I is, or is if even exists, continues through the essay, with the background Is shrinking and moving. Indeed, as Monson states, “The more you press on it, think about I, about what we present as our individual pieces of I, the smaller it gets.” As the Is shift with the essay, I goes from being the predominant image to the framework, to the barely present background, to not being present at all except for where it is imbedded within the text. The lens changes, so to speak. Monson transitions from examining the I to increasing the discussion of his own experience as an I. The effect is compelling, as it becomes quickly apparent that – in the context of the essay, at least – Monson defines himself as an I through personal memories such as those from a camp one summer, and through the insecurities that come with things as insignificant as the straightness of teeth. From there the essay concludes with the resonating image of a palm tree, both significant for its shape and Monson’s use of it as a metaphor for the I.

In all honesty, the only portion of this essay that I am struggling with, that I feel especially critical about, is the last page. I felt a bit as if the meaning of the essay had been engraved in stone just for me, and I missed out on the accomplishment of discovering the meaning on my own. I believe that this I, like other attentive readers, could understand that the palm tree is a metaphor (that Monson turns into a simile) for the I, that everything is a metaphor for the I, because the I is embedded within everything. If I were to presume to take an editing eye to this essay (and I don’t dare imply I am qualified to do so) I would simply put the last sentence on the final page, like so:

“Removed from our histories of self, our lives, that constant backward looking, searching for what we might sontain, or in what we are contained – we might well disappear.”

Robert Olen Butler’s At the Cultural Ephemera Association National Conference is about a man and woman who take a moment to think about their names and the past experiences their names represent. The story itself is broken up into thoughts from Bill and Cleo, each given two opportunities to express themselves. Butler explores through names the different ways in which people come to associate an array of meanings. It is as if Butler himself is asking, “What’s in a name?”

Bill, in his first section, is immediately drawn to the sound of his name as it is not what he calls himself. This takes him on a journey through his memories to all the names he has had in his life and how he felt each one represented him. He wants his name to be a representation of himself and with the announcer introducing him as “William,” he is denied that option. He feels the name William “has always felt too formal, passionless, disenfranchised from a body.” He has become comfortable with the name Bill, whereas Cleo is anything but comfortable with her own name.

Through Cleo’s thoughts the reader is given the knowledge that she does not like the name her mother has given her and the resentment she feels as a result. Butler does not simply tell the reader that mother and daughter do not get along, but shows us through a stream of consciousness and memories. We are able to see how Cleo almost wishes that her mom would have made her name more extreme, that she would have known how to handle it. “I would have embraced that name and it would have embraced me. I would never have compromised in my life.” This passage give us insight into her life outside of the conference. What in her life has she compromised? What does she wish she could change? Did she settle for the man she’s with?

What stayed with me after reading this story was the relationship that develops between Cleo and Bill. Although we don’t get to see the progression of their friendship, it is clear from the ending that with their meeting, neither life will be as it was before the conference. Cleo helps Bill come to a different understanding of what the name William could be as she associates it with William Shakespeare, whom she greatly admires. This last scene also gives us a glimpse that maybe Cleo is coming to accept the name her mother gave her, that she is going to stop settling for the things in her life as she asks Bill out for a drink outside of the conference.

This story also shows how one relates to society and the media during different points in a person’s life. Cleo talks about a child with a photo from a cocoa tin and how later in his life, he revisits the photograph of a ship sailing in choppy waters and how it helps him understand what death is. She goes on to say “how the seemingly incidental artifacts of popular culture can play crucial roles in our lives, can imprint themselves on us forever.” This is also true with names. Once given a name, an individual is strapped with that meaning indefinitely. With nicknames and titles and shortened versions of names, people are given the choice of how they want to be represented, how they want to be perceived by those around them. I believe this to be what Butler was trying to get across to readers, that even though we are given a name, we have a choice and a chance to change what we don’t like, to present ourselves as we want.

Robert Olen Butler, current Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at Florida State University, has had tremendous success throughout his career as a writer. Not only has he been a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and National Endowment for the Arts grant, he has won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts. He has also been a charter recipient of the Tu do Chinh Kien Award given by Vietnam Veterans of America for “outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran.” Along with winning other awards, Butler’s stories have been featured in different publications including GQ, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and many more. Butler has spent the majority of his time lecturing at universities, and meeting with groups of writers in over seventeen different countries for the U.S. State Department as a Literary Envoy.

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