My biggest source of growth this semester has been the encouragement I’ve received in writing from a non-memoir point of view. I am not particularly interested in writing about my own life; I don’t mind reading memoirs, but I don’t have anything I want to say in a memoir. Rather, I am interested in writing about other subjects and topics of interest. I enjoy researching and compiling my own thoughts and insights into pieces; my work falls into a blend of new journalism and personal essays.
After graduation, I will begin researching, reading, and interviewing people for a project about policing, communities, and bias. I am excited to write a series of essays on this subject, as I am very passionate about activism, equality, and social justice. Here is an excerpt from a short essay I prepared on this topic, called And God said, “Let My People Go,” and the U.S. Responded, “Only the White Ones”:
Jericho Brown, a poet and professor at Emory University, writes, “You can’t love me if you don’t love politically.” If white people don’t join the conversation, don’t realize that every new friendship formed is a political act, then racism and institutionalized discrimination won’t go away, not because black people cannot overcome (“We will overcome” is a mantra for people of color), but because ignorance cannot be changed by any passing of laws. Hatred cannot be contained by re-evaluating police forces. Change happens in our hearts, in acknowledging our missteps, in admitting that privilege has favored white individuals at the expense of everyone else. I’ve labored to overcome these barriers, to work in solidarity with people of color to create communities of expectation, opportunity, and love. Now I live in my hometown, where I grew up sheltered and away from the violence and hunger of the rougher parts of town. In February earlier this year, I visited with one of my students, Ivy, over breakfast. We sat in Denny’s, watching people of all colors and backgrounds mingling around us. A sweet Hispanic baby smiled our way over his mother’s shoulder. I wondered what might be going through our black server’s mind as she served Ivy and me, two friends with a gap in years and very different family histories and skin colors. “Does this waitress care?” I thought. “Does she notice the unlikeliness of this breakfast?” Years of reading literature about institutional discrimination and talking with the people around me, whether on a bus ride, in line at a grocery store check-out, or over scrambled eggs and toast had brought me to understand that the more inclusive my life is, the more content I feel.
 Jericho Brown, “Conversations.” Kenyon Review. Accessed March 20, 2016.
An excerpt from “Blessed Be”:
All the cyclists I talk with hate helmets. Soon as they pass the Michigan state line, “the helmet’s on the back of the bike,” Steve, another riding veteran, tells me. The helmet law takes away the freedom (and the risk of a fatal accident, I’m thinking). He leans casually against his bike, resting one hand on the distressed alligator fabric covering his seat.
“These are American citizens,” he boasts, gazing around at the other riders standing around catching up. These people are humble and they’re willing to “bring religion into their lives” in a way many other people are not. A bike blessing, after all, brings together a mix of the most interesting people, people who aren’t necessarily religious or regular churchgoers. Everyone here is “willing to help someone out. They care.”
An excerpt from “Good Lighting: A Mosaic”
I’ve lived in five different bedrooms over the past two and a half years, but in all of them, I’ve strung up twine and clothespinned small scraps of art I’ve collected: maps, photographs, postcards, artist business cards, advertisements from the ArtPrize festival, thank you cards, torn out pages from magazines and newspapers, paintings, concert tickets, a single clothing tag from OBEY, a flier from a play, and lines from my own poetry. This wall collage pulls together beautiful things from my adventures and museum trips, my family memories and community involvement. Art is the great equalizer in my life, the reason I find inspiration and feel connected. I’m moved, still, writing this passage, by just remembering the works that have touched me, the gorgeously-constructed heaps of junk from Schenkelberg, the garden scenes from Van Gogh. On the right wall in his bedroom paintings, Van Gogh painted a collection of portraits which didn’t hang in the real life room. He added them to the scene, embellishing his memory with more art. And he painted the same bedroom three times, returning to this one sparse place, perhaps struggling to preserve it not in an accurate representation, but in a beautiful, contemplative way.
Like Van Gogh, my memories of art draw patterns in my everyday interactions with others and with the world. I feel whole when my time is unveiled like a painting, a film roll, a vast mosaic of color, beauty, motion, and shadow – and perspective. I have reason to hope that I am not alone; instead, quite the opposite is true. I am one person in a centuries-long conversation of art, language, and belonging. I can pause in appreciation of the present, understanding that I have an impermanent place in this world, but that beauty is still worth creating, knowing my own tastes and past experiences leave their own artist signatures on each moment and in each room in which I find myself.
Historically, my genre lineage includes Montaigne, creator of the essay; Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose nature writing took the form of familiar essays; Nellie Bly, whose piece Ten Days in a Madhouse used immersion writing as its base; New Journalism writers such as Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson; and 20th century nature writers Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard.
Nick Flynn: Reading Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was an emotional experience. The novel does not spare any detail about anyone’s demons; it doesn’t paint Flynn or his father in brighter colors than they ‘deserve.’ The novel is honest and talks about real issues and real experiences; Flynn talks about his own complicated emotions and relationship toward accepting his father. He talks about his tendencies to use substances, and he goes into detail about his romantic endeavors and failures. The book profoundly changed what I thought “could” be discussed in a nonfiction piece. If no one writes about these things, sacrificing their own anonymity for a chance to reach others, then no one will be affected or encouraged.
I tend to prefer literature that does not isolate the individual from social and political concerns. It just doesn’t seem to me that that’s where people exist.
Gourevitch writes about bold, important topics and focuses on social justice and cultural criticism, which are areas of writing I explore.
Lacy M. Johnson: Trespasses is a genre-breaking, lyrical masterpiece about immigration and the U.S. Below is an excerpt.
that no one ever says out loud. Not to me anyway. Instead: one of those. One of ours with one of them. They can’t believe it. Degenerate, they mean. Filthy. Poor. Disrespectful. Which describes no one I know. The girl in my English class wears her hair in tight, neat braids, raises her hand and always gives the right answer. Such supine poverty exists there. Her skin is smooth and smells like lavender. My mother says her family took out a second mortgage on their house. The other side of the tracks. I should know better than to be her friend. My father tries to explain: I’d shake one’s hand. I’d even take blood from one. He says this slowly, carefully, his eyes unblinking and intent, his hands resting on the arms of his chair, his feet planted firmly on the floor. I just don’t want one marrying my daughter.
I look forward to developing short, thematically-similar pieces along the lines of those in Trespasses.
Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s style is entirely his own; he writes without regard to what standards or prose norms are. Instead, he pushes boundaries in content, perspective, format, and shifts in time. His nonfiction collection, Stranger Than Fiction, explores, in essay form, a vast array of topics, from the Testicle Festival to U.S. castles. My piece “Blessed Be” is stylistically inspired by Palahniuk’s work. I also got the idea of stopping by a bike blessing event from Palahniuk’s tendency to write about lesser-known or alternative cultures or events.
Terry Tempest Williams: Williams is “a writer who speaks out eloquently on behalf of an ethical stance toward life.” That’s the kind of writer I want to be. She is an advocate for women’s rights and the environment, and her piece “Healing Rwanda” used personalization to draw the reader into a huge issue.
Claudia Rankine: Rankine’s advice about writing about race in a different (and not already done) fashion is definitely something I will heed in my own projects. Professor Haven asked, during Rankine’s craft talk at Grand Valley State University, about how teaching children about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement leads to confusion and miseducation for children that “racism” and “segregation” are relics of the past instead of very relevant, still occurring issues today. In fact, some kids might be led to believe that racism is only against black individuals instead of many people of all different ethnicities and heritages, including American Indians, Arab or Middle Eastern Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indian Americans, and Asian American individuals. Rankine’s response was that all of us need to take responsibility to teach our children differently, and Citizen is a good place to start.
In Citizen, she uses anecdote after anecdote to give voice to how many situations microaggressions occur in, from being screamed at to get out of someone’s yard, even though that woman had a scheduled appointment with the woman screaming (her supposed therapist) to another story of how someone walked past a person of color in a grocery store to check out with the cashier because the person “didn’t see” the other customer.
“Everybody in this room is potentially my friend until they’re not,” Rankine said, acknowledging that it is important to give people, even white people, the benefit of the doubt, that they can be different and culturally and socially savvy. However, Rankine contrasted this with the concept that she doesn’t “Live by the gaze of whitenesss” in terms of what will or what be published or in terms of what will or won’t be “appropriate” content for a white audience. She writes with only herself in mind, telling the poems that she wants to tell, not concerned with the troubles or heated disagreement that she might stir in readers (particularly white readers). This was very freeing to hear, as I am very worried about some of my poetry and essays being seen as “irrelevant” or of lower value because I’m white and trying to write about social justice. Instead, Rankine encouraged us to “normalize” these subjects in literature. I am now much more confident about being able to discuss race and segregation in my own writing, and I am more confident about selling the idea of “genre-breaking” content to a publisher (although “not as a first book” as Rankine pointed out).
David Sedaris: I probably have read more from David Sedais than any other nonfiction writer on this page (Palahniuk doesn’t count – he writes mostly fiction). I love Sedaris’ scathing humor, oftentimes at his own expense, and his honesty about his life, desires, embarrassing moments, family, and on and on. Sedaris’ work gives me courage to be honest and real in my own nonfiction.
Eula Biss: Eula Biss’s On Immunity changed my life, no big deal. Her writing is so deep and wide-reaching; her inclusion of a ghost narrative was very effective; her style of writing about an issue using research, personal insight, anecdotes, and dialogue is engaging, even on a topic that I wouldn’t normally choose to read about. There are so many reasons that Biss belongs in my “influences” category. I’d like to shape my first book after On Immunity, and I’ll draw inspiration and encouragement from that piece throughout my writing journey.
Jenny Boully: “The Body” is the strangest nonfiction piece I’ve ever read. In fact, I disliked the lack of connections and conclusions I was able to draw. However, it influences my work because Boully conveyed meaning, not by what she did say, but by what she left out. One specific passage that influences my poetry and nonfiction is:
Genesis 37:5.2 “And J. dreamed a dream, and she told it her brethren: and they hated her yet the more.”
The “J.” here refers to Jenny; she changed the Biblical passage about Joseph to apply it to her own life. I draw on this concept in my own writing, both poetry and nonfiction. She also blurs genre, something I’m becoming more and more confident in exploring.
Marjorie Sandor: Sandor writes about many topics, including an exploration into urban redevelopment (or ‘renewal’). This is a common theme in all my writing, especially my creative nonfiction and article writing. I plan to read from The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction this summer.
Maggie Nelson: The content in Nelson’s essays and poetic use of language are qualities I want my writing to have. She’s unapologetic, writing statements like “[T]he words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass…” Her honest portrayal of events and blunt realism about her own life and thoughts is courageous and something I aspire to.
Meghan Daum: I love that Daum writes about ordinary, everyday things, like cooking. In the past, I wrote a lot of blog posts in order to keep myself accountable to write regularly.
Most of my blog posts were about everyday things or everyday people I met. I was interested in writing about them, and I enjoy reading Daum’s writings, especially The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, so perhaps other people will be interested in reading about everyday things in my own writing. I usually inferred some sort of meaning or greater statement using that ordinary event or person. Perhaps I’ll go back to that style of writing soon.
Pico Iyer: Iyer’s travel writing and passion about place and people is something I have not tried to write about yet, but I’m interested in trying it out. He turns phrases and describes scenes beautifully, and I should read more from him for those reasons.
Where I’d Like My Work to Appear
If only it were as easy as announcing, “I’d like to be published with you!”
Here are several publishing venues or sites I’d love to write for:
- Hunger Mountain (my favorite print journal)
- The Journal
- The Sun
- Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment
- Bitch Magazine
- Shenandoah (photo essays or nonfiction)
- Lip Magazine
- Ruminate Magazine (a piece on a softer, more positive note)
- River Styx
- Essay Press
- Tupelo Press
- dream: a manuscript with Graywolf Press
- dream: New Yorker