Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction


Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest publication, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, deals with the aftermath of more than one tragic event. The author was still processing the loss of her father, three years earlier, when her Japanese grandfather passed away in January of 2011. Only a few months later, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and resulting in unfathomable devastation.

Mutsuki Mockett’s relatives owned a temple only twenty-five miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where the radiation levels were so high, the family could not bury the grandfather’s bones.

The author journeys back to Japan to re-connect with family—exploring the ways in which communities are coping, witnessing both devastation and reconstruction, while examining her own grief. The book’s publication marked four years since her grandfather’s death and the earthquake. The catastrophic event is still fresh in people’s minds, the rebuilding efforts continue, and the grief surrounding it could be eternal. Forget the mechanics of writing an ending—how does one reconcile writing “the end,” when life is still unfolding?Continue Reading

Tension mounting


We spend our lives avoiding conflict, and then we reach academia. On the playground we’re told to make peace, but in the classroom we’re praised for our thesis statement that makes an “argument,” that introduces “tension,” that “complicates” a previous notion. Conflict becomes, all of a sudden, the engine of every good story. During discussion, one comment jars a thought, which can clash with another and spark a third, ad infinitum. The young student may find something violent about ideating. Make nice, children—that is, until you begin to write.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. writes,

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Tension lives in the fabric of the sentence itself.Continue Reading

Dear Advice Person Lady: Advice for Writers

Writers are neurotic. Are we more neurotic than other artists? Definitely. And it’s time we had our own advice column. A Dear Abby for our literary breakdowns. And if I have to volunteer to be that person, so be it. The letters have been pouring in—which is weird, because how did you know I was going to do this?—and here they are.

Dear Advice Person Lady:
I’m in an MFA program, and there’s this famous writer I kind of have a huge crush on. I’ve never met him, but he’s coming to campus next week, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to control myself around him. I mean, he’s not only talented, but he’s sooo beautiful. How do I keep from acting like an idiot?


Dear Smitten:
Oh, honey. I promise he’s not as attractive as his author photo. Like, I’ll bet you six hundred bucks. Have you seriously not met a writer before? Problem solved.



Dear Advice Person Lady,
An interviewer said she loved my book, but all the questions she sent me were based on the acknowledgments at the back of the book. And the questions were stupid—she clearly hadn’t read it. When I write back, can I say something snarky like “I hope you do enjoy the book if and when you get a chance to read it”?

AnnoyedContinue Reading

“Changes of Scale by which We Measure Ourselves Anew”: the Appeal of Tiny Objects and Compact Forms


I’m drawn to tiny things. In the Matchstick Marvels museum in Gladbrook, IA, I was captivated by a model of Hogwarts, an elaborate many-towered and turreted castle made of more than 600,000 matchsticks.

At Dinky’s Diner in Reeds Spring, MO, my family used to stop for miniature hot dogs, tacos, and chicken legs.

In Cavendish, PEI, Canada, I stumbled upon a little sand castle town, including a Notre Dame made out of sand, complete with gothic arches, sloped roofs, flying buttresses, spire, gargoyles, and chimera.

My daughter and I wandered off from the majestic gardens and walkways of Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow, Ireland, to admire an antique dollhouse with hand-painted ceilings, wood and marble floors, miniature books in the library, and a solid gold mini violin in its own rosewood case.

Larger-than-life things—like, say, an enormous roll of toilet paper sculpture outside of the “world’s second best public bathroom” in Lucas, KS, and a cool mosaic in the sidewalk of what it looks like when you flush a toilet—can make me see the elegance of a toilet paper roll and the swirling of water in a whole new way.

But when I view the world’s largest ball of twine (Cawker City, KS), the world’s largest wind chime (Casey, IL) and the world’s largest golf tee (also Casey, IL), I don’t marvel over their intricacy, their exquisite attention to detail, their ability to compact an entire world, as I do when looking at tiny things.Continue Reading

Discovering Milton Resnick


Photo courtesy of Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation.

Milton Resnick (1917—2004), was one of the most articulate and interesting of the abstract expressionists. I knew his work, but this past summer I discovered his personal history through a recently completed manuscript, Milton Resnick: Painter in the Age of Painting, by Geoffrey Dorfman, author of the well-received, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School. The narrative contains transcriptions of interviews about the lives of artists of that period. Dorfman’s and Resnick’s sensibilities complement each other perfectly. As Dorfman notes, “There are two voices running through this book: the artist’s and my own.” And the wisdom found here teaches lessons that apply across all the arts.

Resnick was an indefatigable artist, leaving behind ten thousand works on paper and canvas. His paintings are held in the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. He was also an energetic storyteller, relating anecdotes about those he knew, including Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. Even his stories about painters who failed or disappeared are riveting. Resnick always keeps his focus on how art is made, what an artist must do to survive, and the struggle to maintain integrity.

What I love about this book is the humor and wit that runs through even the most dire accounts. Dorfman’s record of Resnick’s life is far from hagiography—after all, Dorfman knew Resnick well, and incorporates his failures as well as his triumphs. For instance, Resnick, we learn, “was certainly no art teacher.” One of his painter friends said, “Whenever I brought a problem to Milton, he made it vaster.”Continue Reading

Writing the Mind: Nicole Krauss, W.G. Sebald, & Paul Harding

10 krauss sebald harding

How does one apply the adage show don’t tell to the interior of the mind—a vast expanse one inhabits daily, but never sees? While Pixar’s Inside Out turns the subconscious into a playful and sometimes dark adventure, literature must rely on language—pacing, syntax, and form matching function.

In the early pages of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House, Nadia mentions to an unnamed character that when her significant other moved out, she was left with little. A friend suggests she call a Chilean man who was searching for a place to store his furniture while he traveled back to Chile. Krauss writes:

“It took a minute for him to sort out who I was, a minute for the light to go on revealing me as a friend of a friend and not some loopy woman calling—about his furniture? she’d heard he wanted to get rid of it? or just give it out on loan?—a minute in which I considered apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on as I had been, with just a mattress, plastic utensils, and the one chair.”

Rather than being told that Nadia is nervous, or having Nadia state, I was nervous, Krauss utilizes pacing and language to convey anxiety. Similarly, the word “loopy” mirrors the looping, spiraling structure of the sentence, and heightens the repetition of words and phrases, such as “a minute,” and “a friend of a friend.” The three questions embedded in the sentence, one after another, rapid-fire, suggest the firing of synapses in an uncomfortable exchange—when one’s mind and mouth are trying to sync up, make sense, or be understood. Not only are there three questions, but three mentions of “a minute,” conveying how quickly this all happened, but how long and drawn out the exchange seemed to feel. Likewise, Krauss pairs three verbs—apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on—and three nouns—mattress, plastic utensils, chair—to create a winding, well-rounded sentence.

The form matches the function; the structure of the sentence conveys the rushed and uneasy nature of the phone call, without explicitly stating what was said between them, or the tone of voice, or the external details or gestures that were made in those quick moments. We are wholly embedded in this character’s mind. We are intimately woven into their internal landscape, at once cerebral and emotional.Continue Reading

Lying as survival: the literary pep talk


Has a young child ever asked you to watch him run? Are you ready? he asks, and then the same intense eyes that one tries to remember a dream with. Then his arms start pumping at a speed that must seem lightning-fast to his own mind but really looks more like an impersonation of slowness—it’s objectively unimpressive, even your leisurely walk would overtake him, his legs simply lack the length. He runs in uneven circles and when he returns to you, his little lungs straining, what do you do? It doesn’t take a behaviorist to know that you, we, must “O” our mouths in shock. We must “Wow!” and enlarge him and protect him from the world while we still can.

Of course, we don’t apotheosize an adult’s work that aims to soar but barely gets off the ground. We’re old enough to take the truth. As adults, we should hold each other’s work to high standards, and our own work to the highest of all. As writers, we shouldn’t settle for a single pale line. But before the poem is written, I say, we should lie to ourselves, the way we lied to that winded child.Continue Reading

“Sometimes she is a space” : Janice Lee’s Reconsolidation: Or, It’s the ghosts who will answer you

Janice-Lee_Reconsolidation-Or-its-the-ghosts-you-will-answer-you_001Taking up the mantel of memory and elegy is no easy task, but Janice Lee’s new book Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you embraces the ghosts. The text is not so much a reflection on writing, loss, memory, and death, but a twisted projection of those topics. The medium is under as much consideration as the memory. By keenly understanding limits of language, Lee creates “a site of conjuration.” And so Reconsolidation doubles down on space and time.

As readers, we ride through a long period of mourning activated by the death of Lee’s mother in a single night; and, yet, the book’s brevity at seventy some pages and a multiplicity of empty space makes time spent reading feel like “the speed / of a blinking eye.” These physics are constantly under interrogation:

“I feel sometimes that time is moving in the wrong
direction…How does
the past persist in the present and swallow the

Because, besides the neuroscience of memory Lee presents in the text itself, time operates swiftly, consolidating and reconsolidating the evidence of experience, memory, and outer sources to create a shifting arrangement. The effect is dizzying. It’s no wonder that Lee has written elsewhere about László Krasznahorkai’s winding sentences and the long takes of Béla Tarr’s filmic adaptations: she’s treading similar ground in creating a book that only takes an afternoon to read, and, at the same time, involves a process of memory that feels eternal, where “it would / only take a few minutes, they said. But it felt like / an eternity.”Continue Reading

I Have a Favor to Ask


Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.

And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.Continue Reading

Round-Down: On Women Writers And the Fallout from ‘Confession’ in the Digital Age

1150px-Astronomer_Edward_Charles_Pickering's_Harvard_computersSocial media is in the spotlight—or crosshairs, as it may be–in the literary landscape this week. Several articles and author interviews have touched upon both the benefits and the tremendous costs known to an author maintaining their online presence, none of them coming to a firm conclusion about whether it’s better to be Harper Lee or Hanya Yanagihara, Cheryl Strayed or Elena Ferrante when promoting a book. All of the attention being paid to how we market ourselves online has me asking: Does social media pose yet another disadvantage to women writers? Or is it a blessing that gives us easier access to mainstream audiences? Women are particularly vulnerable to the lure of public confession that the internet seems to demand—and they are most likely to be the ones to suffer fallout from it.

After Laura Bennett’s piece in Slate raised the question of whether publication of personal confessions is exploitative, The Guardian interviewed a variety of editors for outlets that often publish gone-viral first person essays. Curiously, all of these editors were themselves women and not all of them agreed on whether women were more likely to write confessionals than men.

My studies of literary history have revealed that the hyper-awareness of a woman writer’s biography has always, always garnered more attention than a male writer’s—and our obsession with a woman’s biography over her work has in some ways doomed many women writers either to obscurity or to the assumption that more women write more personally than men. For example, no one today doesn’t know the name of William Shakespeare. And yet, who among us recalls Mary Darby Robinson, an eighteenth century sonneteer? While she was alive, her personal life was of great interest to many critiquing her work. As Paula Backscheider puts it in her book, Eighteenth Century Women Poets and Their Poetry, “That [Robinson] succeeded Robert Southey as poetry editor of the Morning Post and died arranging a three-volume collection of her poetry is seldom mentioned, but the ‘autobiographical’ aspects of [her poetic sequence] Sappho and Phaon (1796), with its ‘jilted’ woman’s voice, nearly always attracts comment.”Continue Reading