(First posted at Bending Genre and since revised.)
1. What category do your bad dreams fall into?
a. Car troubles
b. Faulty machinery in general, including computers
c. Being chased
2. If you chose trapped, where were you trapped?
a. In a closet in the library of your elementary school
b. In a corn combine on your neighbor’s farm
c. Under the weight of the neighbor boy
d. Under the ice on a river
e. Behind the doors of the yellow school bus that wouldn’t open
3. What do you dislike about your current job?
a. The pay
b. The hours
c. The people
d. The workplace
e. The work
f. All of the above
4. How do you cope?
a. Yelling at strangers in the car
b. Going ten miles slower than the speed limit
c. Putting chewing gum on walls and under seats
d. Reading about extinct species
e. Dancing when the local football team loses
5. What is your least favorite activity?
a. Yard work
c. Paying bills
d. Cleaning the gutters
e. Overseeing children’s homework
f. Filling out annual reports
6. What word describes your view of mankind at this point in your life?
7. What issue most concerns you?
a. The state of the economy and your children’s future
b. The state of the economy (I have no children)
c. Yard waste
d. Won-lost record of the local football franchise
e. The disappearance of bees
8. If you had it to do over again, what describes your attitude about having children?
a. I’d have more
b. I’d have exactly what I have
c. I’d have some for others
d. I’d adopt
e. I’d get an aquarium
9. If you have a partner, which of the following describes your current feelings?
a. Faded admiration
f. All of the above plus trapped
10. At what point did your feelings for your partner change, if they did?
a. Shortly after the start
b. After the first child
c. After the second child
e. Before you began
f. All of the above
11. For a holiday gift, which would you prefer to receive?
a. Scrooge Mini-Nutcracker
b. Bavarian Santa Nutcracker
c. The Bob Cratchit Nutcracker
d. Animated Musical Toy Chest playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
e. Policeman’s bullhorn
12. Which of the following wouldn’t you like to receive?
a. The Horticultural Institute’s Tiered Floral Display
b. Handmade Kathe Kruse Margretchen Doll
c. The Lorenzi Cigar Rest with Continuous Burning Wick
d. Chinese rickshaw
13. Which of the following objects suggests your essence?
a. Cordless insect vacuum
b. Body fat analyzer
c. Step-on garbage pail
d. Long-reach bulb changer
e. Stop-Mud-in-Its-Tracks Slippers
f. Washable leather potholders
14. How would you describe your experience taking this questionnaire?
a. Excited, like seeing a strange new butterfly
b. Expectant, like seeing a kiss quivering inside your partner
c. Bored, like taking notes at a meeting
d. Angry, like required counseling
e. Sad, like reading the obituary of someone you once loved
This last spring I tried an experiment: in the last weeks of the semester I asked my introductory students in creative nonfiction to consciously write badly. To carry out this effort, we returned to an in-class exercise from the beginning of the semester, one I had created to target observation and description. The windows of one wall of our classroom look out to the Red Cedar River, which runs through the campus at Michigan State University. It’s a busy spot and rich for observation. In the original exercise, all twenty-five students crowded to the window for some minutes of visual research and then wrote about what they had selected to describe. Then we read the impromptu writings out loud and grouped them by subject matter.
We were all curious to see what others had selected to write about and how they approached their material. Who would gravitate to the spot where on frequent nights some individual or group spray-paints the ROCK? Who would write about the river, or focus on a human figure instead of the landscape?
We found that even when the same subject was chosen, approaches were individual and unique. One writer might take a humorous tack, while another was philosophical. One writer narrated a scene heavily, while another became invested in fresh description. Subject matter was not defining, approach was.
I hoped that springing this simple exercise on apprentice writers might make the experience fun and spontaneous, that they would enjoy the benefits of ungraded exercises. I also hoped we might create a sense of community in the classroom. The results exceeded my modest hopes. I learned once again that I do best when I turn my classroom into an exploratory writing lab, and that giving students something to do is energizing.
From that early day in the semester we practiced the dissection of bad writing to move incrementally into new skills and awareness. But toward the end of the semester, we all needed a boost of fun, a twist in our method, and so I came up with the idea of returning to that earlier exercise in looking out the window, but this time with the intention of writing badly. We could gauge how far we had come because it requires skill to consciously write badly. By now it was April, not January; however, last April in Michigan was a lot like January. We were still trudging through wet snow. The instructions were the same as the first time: pick something to describe from your view out the window. The added twist now was to target an element of style the student had come to identify as bad writing, and compose in that style using that element.
We read the results out loud. This time we identified the style elements. I did not predict the splendor of the results. Some of the students had so mastered writing poorly that their writing was good. It was something like turning a sock inside out. Reading them out loud was so much fun, so entertaining, that I thought we should record the result.
I spoke to Peter Johnson, the new and extraordinary digital specialist who had already begun filming our events to post on the department’s website. I had the idea of roughly modeling our video on the sequence of Bob Dylan displaying and discarding a series of cue cards bearing selected words and phrases from the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back. The students would write out on construction paper an announcement of the element of bad writing being demonstrated—for example, melodramatics, malapropism, run-on sentences, mixed metaphors, clichés, or detachment. That was the plan. Peter asked if there was a student who would want to work with him in the filming and production. Brandon Lee enthusiastically volunteered and did a terrific job.
A few students who had been engaged in a chalk drawing contest each day before class began, volunteered to create something on the blackboards as a backdrop for the video Bad Writing.
I did run into a stumbling block I had not foreseen. I thought the whole class was on board for the filming, but some were not. One student thought he was supposed to be learning how to write well and he didn’t see how this exercise in writing badly was accomplishing that. In short a handful of students wanted to opt out for a variety of reasons. At first I was taken aback by this mini-revolt and then I saw that filming each student would risk tedium. The overall results were enhanced by reducing the number of performances.
The filming was great fun. We figured out the order of readings, where each person would stand, and each student did his or her thing twice. The trick was having the performance pieces move forward at a good clip. All the students who participated were incredibly good in their own way. They put their pieces over.
Brandon showed the video on the last day of class. You never know what might result from an idea. It might fail, fall flat on its face, or it might take off. This time the experiment took off, and part of the reason it worked was because so many students put energy into it. It’s a balancing act, this teaching business, and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.
The undergraduate chair asked me if I’d be willing to show the video at the department’s end-of-the-year awards event. We did, and it was again a much bigger hit with students and faculty than I had ever imagined. Now Bad Writing is up on our departmental website.
[First posted at Essay Daily and since revised.]
If you don’t already, you should know this essay by Bernard Cooper, for its pleasures will make you a connoisseur of the art in question: “Poised at the crest of an exhalation, your body is about to be unburdened, second by second, cell by cell” (“The Fine Art of Sighing,” in Truth Serum: Memoirs, 111). Its concise and lyrical prose, its brevity and effect of effortlessness, the constructed undertow of its associative method, an inventive demonstration of how a writer’s thoughts shape a piece—these qualities make it an exemplar of the contemporary essay.
Behind the ease of “The Fine Art of Sighing” is the writer’s art of revision, and that is what launched the inquiry I am about to describe. Can we detect the steps toward its art? How did Cooper shape the breath of its sentences, its elegant respiratory system, the suspended movement of the climax, and the expelled throb of the conclusion? Out of its beginning, how did he craft its final finesse?
* * *
For me these questions first emerged from pedagogical concerns—specifically a moment when, huddled in my cold office on a winter afternoon, the graduate assistants in an introductory creative writing course turned to the problem of revision.
“How do you incorporate revision in your courses?” they asked. “What are your approaches?” In their voices was a yearning for answers. They had only recently encountered what all experienced teachers of writing know: the difficulty of pushing students forward from their current mark. There could be no writing without revision, we all agreed. However, our students did not necessarily see it that way. Some of them positively bucked revision, as if we were trying to cage their noble and wild words.
One GA in particular, Christine, was perplexed by her failure to communicate to students the importance of revision. She had developed a series of systematic steps they should follow, yet these novices resisted them, or implemented them without improving their prose. Students tend to believe that good writing comes out whole. No, we teachers insist, writing has a history. Revision is an essential return, even if only an hour has elapsed between the first version of the words and the second. Students needed to grasp that idea conceptually and experientially. How could we get the point across?
Christine Wilson is a Lecturer at Wright State University–Lake Campus, where she teaches English and directs the Writing Center. She received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Legacy, Popular Ghosts, Universal Vampire, and Red Cedar Review.
A thought emerged in that frigid room: It might be enlightening to show students the revisions that an admired essay went through to arrive at its final disposition. We had found that students liked “The Fine Art of Sighing,” which displays a deceptive ease. It seemed an ideal pedagogical tool, highly wrought, of manageable length, and appealing to the apprentice writers we wanted to help.
Christine and I decided to email Bernard Cooper, saying we wanted to document the various stages of “The Fine Art of Sighing,” to analyze patterns, methods, specific changes, and authorial choices during revision. We wrote out and sent detailed questions—the mass of which embarrasses me—helpfully categorizing the topics on which we were requesting enlightenment: General writing practices (ten questions here), Conditions of writing (six questions), Specific practices in “Fine Art” (four questions), Revision of “Fine Art” (four questions, the second of which had eight parts), Content of “Fine Art” (two questions, one a two-parter), and “Fine Art” in the context of your other works (two questions).
Rather than shake his head at our presumption, rather than politely decline or—more what we deserved—press the Delete key with a stiff middle finger, Bernard Cooper wrote back, answering our questions and betraying not a sliver of irritation. His responses blossom with personality, generosity, and vividness.
* * *
When we contacted Cooper, we were operating under certain assumptions—that “The Fine Art of Sighing” went through many drafts and that we could, with his help, map out the revision process. We proposed to look closely at his drafts, analyzing why he chose this word instead of that one, this paragraph ahead of that one. Christine was prepared to undertake a close reading of Cooper’s changes and their significance, and to create therefrom a useful tool for teaching revision. She hoped that “he would create an order within the mystery,” that “he would give me a way to teach my students how to revise, a way that I could say, ‘Remember that great essay we read the first day of class? Here’s how he revises and writes. You should do that too.’” As teachers, we wanted to identify definite steps, from idea to draft to final version, that we could pass on in the classroom.
We were in the grips, that is, of a fetish of the draft. This is not to say that writers don’t revise, or sometimes hold onto versions of a work as it stood prior to its published form. Obviously, writers often do. But the real process of composition is more fluid, interior, hesitant, oscillating, obsessive, and charged than is represented by black text on white paper or by a file bearing a precise time stamp.
The draft is a pedagogical fiction, a frozen moment when fixed words can conveniently be assessed by an instructor or by peers in a workshop, suitable for classrooms, places where, in the last moments of a session, a teacher raises her voice over the hubbub as students grab their backpacks and pull out their phones, to announce those familiar final words: “Drafts due on Tuesday!”
* * *
Cooper’s essay, it turns out, was inspired by a friend’s query: was he aware that he sighed all the time, “big melancholy sighs”? (This and subsequent quotations come from Cooper’s email correspondence, specifically the answers he graciously provided to questions.) No, he was not:
I was stunned that a routine physiological response as fundamental as sneezing or sweating had escaped my attention. From where, in my body and temperament and history, did all this ponderous heaving arise?
He began to pay attention. The process of writing had begun.
I started out, simply, by attempting to describe the intake and exhalation of air, the metabolic and emotional release. The rest followed. Note that I do not say, the rest “flowed.”
A sigh is invisible, of course, but that never stopped me from turning it over and glancing at its facets as though it were a solid object. I was exploring a simple phenomenon—it is the nature and meaning of the essay to conduct this kind of verbal exploration—instead of setting out to make a point. The point made me, so to speak.
The result was one of his shortest pieces, written in a relatively short period of time.
The first half of “Sighing” came fairly quickly (if only every piece of writing would drop off the tree like a ripe fruit!), the rest over the course of two or three more days, then three weeks of small changes.
He also revealed that he had kept none of the working drafts for “Sighing.” He had no paper trail to provide or consult. He might temporarily retain a draft of a longer essay
to keep a record of the narrative. With long stretches of prose there’s too much to keep track of and it’s harder to assess in a glance, so to speak, and so I like to read long stretches in hard copy.
However, when he finishes an essay and sees it into print, even the long ones, he usually gets rid of the drafts.
This was a blow to our hopes, and there was more disappointment to come. We had pointed out, in one of our bloated questions, that “some writers keep their papers (lying in their treasures) with an eye turned towards posterity and history, perhaps assured of their place therein.” Cooper responded,
I don’t mean to sound too humble-pie-ish, but I wince at the thought of that kind of close scrutiny being devoted to my work; it leads to just the kind of self-consciousness I try hard to avoid.
His reluctance to keep his drafts, and hence expose them to scrutiny, arises from a desire to make his writing a “source of pleasure for the reader rather than … an academic or analytic labor.” Cooper works to immerse himself in the process and to avoid, as much as any writer can, worry about the destiny of his writing. As he put it, “The fate of my work will unfold on its own. I’m happier when I can stand apart from how my work is received, or from how it might be compared to the work of other writers.” In short, the absence of a paper trail, of the very drafts we were after, was central to Cooper’s efforts as a writer.
Its hull damaged by these rocky shallows, the ship named Cooper Project finally ran aground on revision itself. As a teacher, one tends to separate revision from composition. Cooper makes no such distinction.
Writing, for me, is revision. I generate an inchoate blob of language and then try to shape and polish it till the words make sense, though I may not know what sense I was aiming for until revision shows me.
* * *
It was now clear Cooper was not going to provide us with a methodical approach to revision. Christine bemoaned what seemed a nil payoff: “His answer didn’t chart out a practice of revision that I could teach.” “Where were the steps?” she asked.
But there were lessons a teacher could learn nonetheless. A writer in a classroom is different from a writer outside of one. The process I offer my students and the process a writer like Cooper follows are separated by an impassable river. Consider the workshop, that classroom fixture. Before he’s finished with a piece, Cooper sometimes shows it to a few friends whom he has cultivated over a lifetime. Although he’s participated in a couple of writing groups,
It is a daunting task to absorb a great deal of commentary about one’s work all at once, weighing which suggestions to dismiss and which to implement.
Think of the often contradictory responses students are bombarded by in workshops, and think of the context: they must by a fixed deadline cough up a rough draft for exposure to near strangers whose comments are often untrustworthy.
Many of our students see themselves not as writers but as students, with limited time to write outside the classroom. The can’t call themselves writers. They do not compose every day for three or four hours in the morning, as Cooper does. They do not go back later in the day, every day, to edit the morning’s work. They do not lie awake at night and think about an essay “with a mixture of excitement and apprehension,” as Cooper does. They do not beat their heads against “the metaphorical brick wall for quite a while” before they show their work for feedback. Obsession cannot be their method.
We began our project thinking that revealing how Cooper writes and revises would be instructive and encouraging for students. But what emerged is the gap between my own expectations for my students and the actual conditions of their writing. Much of what Cooper models—his philosophy of writing, the intimate relation of an artist to his work, the essay as an aesthetic object brought to vivid realization, his method of revising through obsessive practice, the protection he affords himself until he is ready to release his writing for commentary, his emphasis on the reader’s pleasure—does not help bridge the gap between writers and students. Rather, it maps differences. It confirms the distance between a professional, accomplished writer and a novice who dares not even claim the title.
While Cooper’s work takes its place in public, his writing process remains a secret I still don’t know how to whisper to a listening ear. How can students become so tied to writing that, driving or sleeping, they turn to each facet, over and over, looking hard at image and word until something emerges that pleases?
Far from producing a guide to revision, I think I’m better off going back to where I began—in moments of reading pleasure produced by “The Fine Art of Sighing.” Maybe it will inspire the young writer, who will inhale and exhale the sigh of writing: take a deep breath, I will say, release with feeling, attend to its passage, its history, its future. That is the fine art of writing.
These are my notes to the AWP Panel, 2013: How To Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction, organized by B. J. Hollars. My fellow panelists were Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter. B. J. sent us a series of questions to think about; we agreed not to read prepared papers, in the hope of stimulating a conversation among us and engaging the audience. We could have spent hours answering questions afterwards.
Words from Derrida’s Writing and Difference guide my thinking these days about working within the field of creative nonfiction: “There is no writing which does not devise some means of protection, to protect against itself, against the writing by which the ‘subject’ is himself threatened as he lets himself be written: as he exposes himself.”
The prompt I have responded to was this:
Tell us a bit about your experiences writing nonfiction about friends and family.
I came to writing creative nonfiction through poetry. My background as a scholar and writer was steeped in the history of poetry. I hadn’t been participating in conversations about the generic boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. I had in graduate school read works like Paul De Man’s “Autobiography as Defacement” and thought about the complications of authorship, the inherent fictiveness of language and subjectivity. I encountered zero debates about the literal status of truth and fact. A poem’s value—its literary value—had little to do with whether anything in the poem happened or could be corroborated. I’d go so far as to say that facts occupied a negative space in my education. Poets were under an obligation to make something new out of the autobiographical through imagination and art, through words. We were concerned with issues of emotional truth, though I don’t remember using those exact words. Poems needed to operate with emotional coherence. The task was to find language and sequence and image that struck the reader as real while doing the emotional work of the poem.
I believe that I revealed myself in my poetry, but in the terms of our topic, I was also disguised and protected, and by inference anyone I “wrote about” or included in my poetry was also shielded. Certain conventions in how to read poetry were in place that gave me cover, a cover that is not available to the essayist or memoirist. It was assumed that a supposed person was the narrator of the poem. Attention was paid to the inventive use of language, the form on the page, and the internal coherence of image sequence rather than whether that was really my mother I was writing about and what might she think about that. I don’t ever remember being asked if my mother had read a poem in which “she” figured or what she thought about it as I have been asked by audiences after reading my nonfiction prose.
While creative nonfiction derives some of its power from the writer’s self-exposure, it is also burdened by a need to identify the literal status of the biographical.
My family didn’t really read my poetry. They were resistant to my artistic tendencies. Occasionally my mother read something, and what she liked is instructive for the discussion. She liked poems she found decorative and that did not raise any questions about how I might be representing my life, which might include her. She liked one poem of mine called “Young Women Picking Fruit,” based on a Mary Cassatt painting, and she asked my niece to write out the text using her calligraphy skills. Then she framed the poem with a small reproduction of the painting side by side and presented it to me as a gift. This was a piece of my writing that the family could get behind. They weren’t in it. And they didn’t think I was in it either. They didn’t understand anything going on in the poem because they considered themselves unqualified to understand poetry. It was pretty, benign, decorative. And I was safe. Their acknowledged ignorance kept me safe. And the conventions of poetry as I was safely employing them kept my writing unthreatening.
Not so when I began writing essays and memoir. Nothing kept me safe, though I didn’t know that at the time I began to dip my toes into the waters of creative nonfiction. I was woefully unprepared for the kinds of questions that arise in writing creative nonfiction. When I began to experiment in what I was vaguely thinking was autobiographical prose, I thought the same expectations of artistry applied to poetry and creative nonfiction—that they both belonged to the category of literature, not journalism. I believed they were both involved in the drama of the self, they were both mediated by language, and that memory could not be verified but is dynamic and constructed. I believed that a complicated relationship existed between the I who writes I in the text.
So, to compress wildly here, I want to use one essay I wrote as an example of what I was unprepared for. I began writing what I later learned were essays. At the time I knew they were prose and they were triggered by my attempt to explore my history through family, class, and gender. I had begun to send them to literary journals but I didn’t designate whether they were fiction or nonfiction. One of these pieces—“Hair”—was published and subsequently included in The Best American Essays. I was stunned to learn that my meditation on women and hair was an exemplar of Montaigne’s classic style. At the time I had never read Montaigne, I’m embarrassed to say. But more to the point, somehow my family got a hold of it and read “Hair.” I did not tell them about it, which betrays my concerns that they would not look favorably upon it. I never dreamed my little essay about my mother and sisters and I would get such play. But I knew my parents would not understand the essay and I was right.
They thought they could read and understand my essay very well, thank you, and they didn’t like it one little bit.
Here was one portrait of my mother’s hair—“This was hair no one touched, crushed, or ran fingers through. One poked and prodded various hair masses back into formation. I never saw my father stroke my mother’s head. Children whimpered when my mother came home fresh from the salon with a potent do.” And on it went in that vein.
My sisters didn’t fare much better, especially one. Here is my intro: “My other sister was born with thin, lifeless, nondescript hair: a cross she has had to bear. Even in the baby pictures, the limp strands plastered on her forehead in question marks wear her down.”
I didn’t spare myself. “Having not outgrown the thickets of cowlicks, mother bought a spectrum of brightly colored stretch bands to hold my hair back off my face. Then she attached thin pink plastic curlers with snap-on lids to the ends of my hair to make them flip up or under, depending on her mood. The stretch bands pressed my hair flat until the very bottom, at which point the ends formed a tunnel with ridges from the roller caps—a point of emphasis, she called it. Coupled with the aquamarine eyeglasses, newly acquired, I looked like an overgrown insect that had none of its kind to bond with.”
I wasn’t revealing what we’d call big, bad family secrets, but that didn’t matter. That I included myself for the worst treatment didn’t matter. My mother and sisters were upset with me. They didn’t understand the essay as a cultural critique about gender and style; they didn’t get the exaggerated humor—all of the niceties about literary voice were lost on them. To even try to talk to them was pointless. They felt exposed. And they didn’t like it.
What did I learn?
1. That the “personal essay” worked differently than poetry— there were new risks, new exposures, that people might read what I wrote, that all kinds of people who don’t feel qualified to understand poetry do feel qualified to read and judge memoir and essay, that people will for the most part not like being “included” in my work. And who can blame them?
2. The truth of what Joan Didion says– “Writers are always selling someone out.” I hadn’t intended to hurt or sell out my mother and my sisters, but from their point of view that was just what I did. In my writing up until this point, I had been spared this glimpse into the heart of darkness.
3. That to tell my story I had to include other people who didn’t ask to be written about. There was no way to write well about my past without writing about my mother and sisters. The essayist and memoirist face a terrible conundrum—their family cannot remain vague and inscrutable. And even when one writes out of empathy, there is no getting around the fact that they didn’t ask to be written about and that you aren’t telling their story.
4. That Mark Doty’s conclusion in “Return to Sender, Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir” was more true than false —“that we will lose people in our lives by writing about them.”
Do I regret writing the essay? No. I wouldn’t change the writing.
Would I do anything differently? Yes. I would know what the risks are in writing about my family. I wouldn’t keep my writing secret. I’d own up to what I was doing.
I’m currently writing a memoir, and this time around I’ve got a hold of what I understand a memoir to be and the risks I am incurring. Besides the many challenges of re-entering one’s past, the most immediate issue has been my realization that in order to tell my story, I have to include the man I married when I was exceedingly young who had been my professor my sophomore year in college. We divorced shortly thereafter, and we’ve gone on to live many lives since then. Still I can’t write about that period of my life without writing about him. He was integral to the experience. There is no way of going around him or leaving him out. I will have to use him to make something worthwhile. This intimate connection, this one on one, this life to memoir if you will, is the pleasure of the memoir and the pain of memoir; it is the risk one takes, and there’s no question it can go badly.
It’s impossible to get around this central fact of dependence upon others in memoir unless you write about trees.
I am not writing about trees.
Though there is nothing wrong about writing about trees.
I don’t think creative nonfiction is monochromatic. Each project is different and requires that the writer think through the ethical questions for herself. There are limits to the usefulness of generalization. There are writings in our field that make me uneasy—almost on an instinctual physical level. Sometimes I feel that the writer has not revealed herself but has exposed others and that the dynamics should be exactly the other way around. I have to work these tangles through again and again. The work is never finished.
For a long time I was blocked in my current project. I didn’t have the courage to seek out my ex-husband and put the case before him, and I knew I wouldn’t go forward without his response. I wouldn’t spring the memoir upon him as I sprung “Hair” on my unsuspecting mother and sisters. I was at an impasse, stymied. And then in a great stroke of luck he wrote me because a book of essays he wrote about viewing particular films had come out and he wanted to send it to me. He had written an essay about our watching Truffaut’s The Wild Child. So he was rereading his past too, and I was in it. I wrote back and told him what I was up to and was relieved to receive his go-ahead. I imagine there will be many difficulties ahead, but this is what I think I must do. It is an opportunity for me to try both to write as I must and to think about what it means for him.
In the fall of 2011 I faced the happy task of writing the acknowledgments page, and a dedication if I wanted one, for Companion to an Untold Story. I had worked my way through the copy editor’s suggestions, all typographical errors had been corrected, reference citations double-checked—the book was ready to move on to the next stage in production. In the writing of Companion, a book about the suicide of my friend Joel, I had spent years considering all manner of questions, but hadn’t thought about whom to acknowledge or whether a dedication was desirable. I had become faintly aware of the contemporary trend in acknowledgments, an outpouring of gratitude to a large cast of characters, but by and large I had paid little heed to these matters.
Best to take a look at how other authors approached this task before penning my own thanks, I thought, and I started to pull books down from my shelves.
Faulkner dedicated As I Lay Dying to Hal Smith on the copyright page. That was all. No acknowledgments. William Styron’s memoir of madness, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, is dedicated To Rose, words set off on an otherwise blank page after the copyright information. Styron acknowledges no one.
I noted with approval that one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, tucks her Housekeeping dedication—for my husband, and for James and Joseph, Jody and Joel, four wonderful boys—above the copyright notice, where, if I weren’t looking for it, I’d probably miss the small nod to her family. Anne Carson in Glass, Irony, and God spells out her dedication down the empty leaf before her title page:
She embeds her acknowledgments on the copyright page, dutifully thanking the editors and publishers of magazines in which some of the writing first appeared.
Collections of poems traditionally include some form of acknowledgement, often a section that lists the literary venues where individual poems were previously published. Louise Glück’s landmark collection The House on Marshland includes a full page of acknowledgments. That format was necessitated by the number of poems previously published in magazines, or maybe Glück highlighted this history in a bow to the magazines’ services to literature. Embedding their names in small print on the copyright page would not bespeak gratitude so much as legal obligation.
The next page is her dedication:
With love and gratitude
Ellen Bryant Voigt
So far the writers I’ve mentioned—novelist, poet, and memoirist—are restrained.
The expected breadth and depth of acknowledgments, however, seems to be evolving. Many hands are required to bring a book to life, and there’s a movement afoot to push this fact forward. Jo Ann Beard’s much-admired memoir The Boys of My Youth, published in 1998, lists venues where parts of the book were previously published. In the first paragraph of a separate page of acknowledgments she expresses gratitude to two art colonies for the “gift of time” and to a foundation for its financial support. Then she turns to thank her agent for “her sustained belief in my writing, her sanity, and her charming unwillingness to accept rejection when it came our way.” In the second paragraph, she thanks twenty-nine other people.
Mary Cappello’s Awkward, published in 2007, prints a five-page section at the back of the book that resembles an academic model of acknowledgments, wherein the author is entrenched in institutions. It’s hard to classify this book—it’s a memoir and a tour of an idea, combining research and personal meditation. She thanks a variety of fellowships that supported her research, thanks a range of writers and scholars to whom she is indebted, thanks in detail her students, undergraduate and graduate, and the courses that were instrumental to her thinking. She thanks eleven colleagues for their encouragement, nine friends and guides in Russia and Italy, where she was on fellowships, and gives a shout out to two tailors. She turns, then, to note the intellectual friendship of five others, her agent, who “keeps the faith,” her editor, her writing guru, her writing partner, and a partner in adventure. In all, it’s an utter refusal to make the immodest claims of the solitary genius in the attic.
Notes from No Man’s Land, published in 2009 by Eula Biss, is close in spirit to Awkward. Her essays are formally inventive, a rich blend of research and personal reflection. They are followed by twenty-three pages of notes. Her acknowledgments begin with the SOP of thanking the editors of the publications where the work previously appeared. Thanks then go out to her agent, to Graywolf for publishing the book, to Robert Polito for choosing her manuscript as the contest winner, and to Jeff Clark for the cover design. Then she moves to the foundations that supported her, seven friends who helped her write, three teachers who advised her along the way, and an additional four friends who specifically helped the revision process. Last she thanks her husband.
It’s not just nonfiction books that carry weighty acknowledgments. Frankly, the warmth and fellow feeling in Justin Torres’ We the Animals, a slim autobiographical novel, pretty much won me over. He graciously notes eight educational foundations that gave “generous support.” Agent and editor are mentioned. He provides a “partial” list of fourteen influential teachers, with special appreciation to his high school English teacher, whom “he loves very much.” The second page acknowledges readers, friends, and heroines for inspiration and guidance.
However, not everyone is on board with the proliferation of thank-yous. In the February 2009 issue of the American Spectator Jonathan Black takes on the shift in the way we do acknowledgments and quotes Sara Nelson, an editor of Publishers Weekly: “It used to be a writer spent 20 years alone in a room and came out with an ink-stained manuscript and made a deal with Bennett Cerf. Now it’s publishing by committee. Everything’s sales and marketing and publicity.” She says a bit snappishly that contemporary acknowledgments have turned into a “phonebook of helpers.”
In response, a blogger has taken issue with Black’s view that writers needn’t bring everyone in from the cold. It’s a good thing, says the blogger, that all persons involved with the birth of a book be laureated. Fifty-six commenters on the post agreed with his position; one found Black “curmudgeonly.” Gratitude can never be a bad thing—that was the consensus view. Spotlighting the many hands of support is good manners, good literary etiquette. Respondents also felt they got to know the author better by reading acknowledgments. They liked the personal touch.
When did the self-portrait of a writer as teetering atop a pyramid of support become commonplace? Listing a bunch of helpers behind a book was once seen as an uncrafty gesture. Inviting the whole cast—like that of a Broadway musical—to share the stage with the author diminished her stature as author.
If a book today is selected in a contest, as mine was, it is commonplace to thank the organization, the judge, and other “essential” people, such as first-round readers who passed the manuscript onto the judge. Then the publishing house must be thanked, with its troops of editors, copy editors, designers, production staff, and publicists. Agents might be involved—they can’t be left out. The impulse to pull the curtain up and bring everyone on stage for a bow is generous, and it demystifies the notion that an author is a genius alone responsible for birthing her book. Such an acknowledgment may awaken new respect for the mostly invisible assistance that is required for a book to be hatched, but sometimes I think that, given all the well-documented help the writer required, it’s a miracle the book got written at all.
In another era, we wanted the support behind the author to be invisible. No one advertised how substantially Gordon Lish “edited” Raymond Carver’s stories. Now, after the reputation has been established, we are faced with the much more complicated history of authorship behind the writer. Part of the romance of the book is the notion that there is only one author. A good book cannot be written by a committee, or so we have thought. In today’s mode of acknowledgments, the apparatus of writing is put on display.
The scene of writing, it turns out, is a crowded place. Children who suffered while their parent wrote must be brought on stage to be apologized to and thanked; others whom the author failed in some way (and who, according to the contemporary mode of thanks, are never a bitch about it) must be hailed for their patience and loyalty; agents and editors who believed in the writer and the book, against all odds—they, too, must take the floor. The book the reader holds in her hands was not miraculously created by the author and walked through a lonely tunnel; it had many stopovers at soothing spas along the way.
How can one not admire giving all persons their due, thanking each and every person for a part played so admirably? Isn’t it like the credits rolling after the film has ended?
The shift in attitudes I’ve been talking about is a part of much bigger changes in our world that go way beyond books themselves: the expansion of higher ed and the burst in the number of writing programs, which means that more authors have been supported by grants, research leaves, and other sorts of impersonal assistance that fertilize manuscripts; intensified interest in the conditions that allow markets to work, for example, economists’ attention to courts, financial apparatuses, and other institutions that have no role in a pure laissez-faire model; scholars who have in recent years studied the material conditions of books as objects, which–until the Internet allowed electronic versions–required paper and ink, typesetters, printers, warehouses, transportation, etc.; the decay of reverence in our jaded age; and so on. (What’s required here is a long list of factors—shall we call it an acknowledgment?)
And that leads me back to my own choices.
I was torn. On the one hand, being generous is a good thing, and I didn’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon like that rapscallion Jonathan Black. On the other hand, I noted that Denis Johnson’s recent Train Dreams thanked no one. There was no recitation of all the people who helped Denis Johnson write or publish Train Dreams. The era of the iconic author isn’t over just yet.
My first draft was fulsome. What about my copy editor? She was exemplary, I must say. I admired her care with details, her engagement with my themes. She probably never receives enough notice for her work, I thought, and decided to include her. I didn’t want to waste this opportunity to mention people who assisted me, and I thanked my high school teacher, Mr. Hinderlie, who had us write a short story a day for the first three weeks of my junior English class. He made us write a novel my senior year, and he introduced me to Joyce, Faulkner, Dickinson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many other writers who were thankfully, mercifully over my head and nothing like the pabulum served by Mrs. Troup, my English teacher for ninth and tenth grades. Who had ever properly acknowledged Mr. Hinderlie for the role he played in our development? No one. And I thought, I’m going to include him. The floodgates opened. In no time I had written two pages of gratitude, and I was just getting started.
But something was wrong. I thought about how awful those speeches are by actors who win awards. They’ve got a class roster of folks to thank, and they do, and by the end I don’t remember a single name or have any idea who was genuinely important. What’s special about being one of thirty people?
There were just three people whose acts of support towards me went deep, beyond the definition of help. One might even say their help cost them something, and none was employed in the business end of publishing. My husband allowed me to make him a character in my book, to open up his friendship with Joel for public scrutiny. Gale, the woman who had made a life with Joel for a time, allowed me to open it up again, even though it was painful. And Leigh simply was my ideal reader, the person I write to, who in that role has forged a lifetime bond with me and without whom I would be bereft.
At first, those three were lost in the crowd of the be-thanked around them. Their help wasn’t distinguished from that of a copy editor. It wasn’t my friend’s job to be my ideal reader. This was a gift I would never be able to adequately describe, not in a million acknowledgments. On my acknowledgments page I would thank only the people who couldn’t really be thanked.
In the final version I didn’t mention the Associated Writing Programs, which ran the contest I won, or Susan Orlean, who selected my manuscript, or the people at the University of Georgia Press who oversaw the production of my book (though they did a great job!). In each instance, I feel nothing but admiration, praise, and gratitude for these individuals and organizations. Yet I didn’t include them in my acknowledgments. In the end, I said: “I can’t say enough, and so I say very little.”
I didn’t dedicate my book to anyone. The book itself was the manifestation of my dedication, dedicated to Joel and laid at the altar of death. If I had written To Joel, it would have been a sign that my book had failed.
Adriana Paramo, the author of the highly recommended Looking for Esperanza, asked me to participate in this blog-tagging thing called “The Next Big Thing.” All of the participating writers agree to answer a set of questions in common and then tag five other writers to put forward as the “Next Big Thing.” It’s a way to bring attention to writers in a friendly chain of tags. My answers to the questions follow.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Companion to an Untold Story is about the death by suicide of my friend Joel, who carried out a methodical plan to take his own life.
What genre does your book fall under? Literature, not journalism: creative nonfiction. Companion includes all kinds of documentation, but at heart it attempts to sort out what happened to Joel through an assaying of ideas, images, and feelings.
Where did the idea come from for the book? I’m not sure I can reconstruct when it occurred to me that I might be writing a book. As a writer I tend to process experience through writing and that’s what I began shortly after Joel’s death. I began writing numbered entries in a notebook. I felt compelled to do so. The entries weren’t always directly about Joel and yet they were about him, about the effects his death was having on my life. At some point when the entries grew into a sufficient number, I realized I had stumbled into a large project. It has never felt as if I decided to write this book.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? The structure of Companion is not the form I began with. In the beginning I wrote a version that was closer to a biography, and tried to provide a more exhaustive account of my friend’s life and death. I discovered how many things I didn’t know about him, how many gaps there were between the man I thought I knew and the man he came to be. It became clear that in part my subject was how the mysterious resides within the familiar. His suicide exposed that central fact. I also came to see that I had left myself out of the story. In the final version I strive to be a companion to my friend’s story and the theme of companionship runs through the book.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? In part, I wanted to remember my friend. Suicide tends to write over the life lived, to erase it. Finally what one becomes is a suicide. Joel attempted to destroy much of the record of his life. My book remembers him. “Memory is, achingly the only relation we can have with the dead,” said Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, and so I remember.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Companion to an Untold Story was selected as the winner of the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction by Susan Orlean. The book came out September, 2012, from The University of Georgia Press.
What other works would you compare this book to within your genre? John Vernon’s A Book of Reasons, a memoir about the death of the author’s reclusive brother. Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land; A Suburban Memoir, and Anne Carson’s Nox.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? I can’t say what actors I’d choose. I can strongly say I see Terence Malick as the director.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? In the current publishing scene, authors have taken on the bulk of responsibility in promoting their books. In the list of recommended activities the publicist from The University of Georgia Press sent me I was most intrigued by the idea of making a trailer to accompany my book. Instead of posting lots of updates about my book, the trailer offered me the opportunity to make something with its own discrete artistic merits which might also help build interest in my book. Last summer I worked with Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, my colleague in the Department of English at Michigan State University, to make a trailer for Companion that I am proud of. I also wrote ten blog entries about the process, which was entirely new to me, called The Making of a Trailer.
I am supposed to tag five writers who I think fit the phrase “The Next Big Thing.” And here I have to admit some difficulties I’ve run into trying to fulfill the instructions. I had no trouble thinking of five writers I’d like to highlight. However, I discovered that many of the writers were swamped with more work than they could handle at the beginning of a new semester and couldn’t take on anything else. I fit that profile as well. And some writers didn’t have blogs. Imagine. And so they couldn’t participate. I am tagging three wonderful writers whose books I am awaiting to read with great anticipation.
Nicole Walker is the author of the forthcoming Quench Your Thirst with Salt.
Rae Paris is the author of the young adult novel titled You, excerpts of which were finalists for the Summer Literary Seminars and Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of the forthcoming Body Geographic.