Our Ladies of Perpetual Sorrow


There’s something happening with the personal in writing, and Jason Guriel’s highly circulated Walrus essay “I Don’t Care About Your Life” wants to warn us about it.

“I Don’t Care About Your Life” isn’t as polemical as it sounds. For one, its title doesn’t so much reveal Guriel’s hand, as lampoon precisely the under-achieving self-referential voice that the essay goes on, at greater critical distance, to critique.

Then the actual argument is relatively light: Guriel advocates for the suspicion of “personal” writing in criticism, where personal is defined stylistically by conventions like the first-person pronoun. Yet, as he further historicizes and theorizes “confessional criticism,” the path toward a coherent and consistent sense of personal writing feints and digresses. In focusing on critics, Guriel implies that writing “about” a cultural product and writing about oneself are distinguishable and potentially mutually exclusive modes. Taxonomically, it’s unclear where personal writing ends and the “confessional” begins—or if, according to this framework, they overlap entirely.

This particular slurring elides the point that the writer of personally inflected criticism is not composing a diary entry. She’s choosing to refract personal anecdote or revelation through the investigation of an object or text (though fellow lapsed Catholics might interject that it’s all the more “confessional” to disclose, as it were, through a partition). This refraction may obfuscate both writer and object; it may alienate the reader from both. Or it may bend light in both directions.Continue Reading

Review: DIMESTORE by Lee Smith

Lee Smith
Algonquin, March 2016
224 pp; $24.95

Buy: hardcover | eBook

Confession: Until picking up a copy of Dimestore, I had never read best-selling fiction author, Lee Smith, despite her praises routinely sung by friends and colleagues.

Although I’m not proud of this disclosure, as a creative nonfiction writer, I gravitate towards nonfiction reading in an effort to hone my craft—a sort of “two birds with one stone approach,” despite my intense love of novels and fiction in general.

Recently, on a particularly dreary commute, I tuned in to NPR just in time to catch an interview dedicated to Smith’s newest title, which to my delight, is a memoir—her first, in fact. Captivated by the warmth in her voice and her candid approach to each question, I listened from start to finish, waiting in the parking lot, walking into the office late, but not in the least concerned.

On my way home that evening, I stopped to pick up a copy of Dimestore, which I already suspected was an enchanting work of nonfiction, given that it is written by a woman long celebrated for storytelling.

The verdict?Continue Reading

The Food Memoir: Harking Back to Childhood

nikonploughshares 006

One of the most profound depictions of memory in literature is immortalized in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The Madeleine Moment, as it is often called, exists in Proust’s seven-volume novel, where the narrator is swamped by memories when he dunks a madeleine, a sort of cake, into tea.

Proust’s magnum opus is fiction, but if there is an equivalent in nonfiction, it is perhaps the food memoir. If memoir relates to memory, the memory of food is one of the deepest in our lives, and as such, constitutes the staple of food memoirs.

Some of the finest food memoirs trace the authors’ gastronomic experiences and memories to childhood. Indeed, some of the greatest memoirs, not just the food autobiography, at least touch upon the authors’ earliest years.

The food writer’s seed is often sown in childhood. In her classic The Gastronomical Me, M.F.K. Fisher starts by describing her earliest memory of taste.

“The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four.” In Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, the stamp of taste was put on the author, Madhur Jaffrey’s tongue even earlier in life – when she was born. An elder in the family drew a shape on the new-born Jaffrey’s tongue with a finger dipped in honey to signify sweet.Continue Reading

“Ghosts Usually Accompany Me through My Poems”: An Interview with Diane Seuss

A_big_tip_in_Galveston2Words just seem to have more possibilities in the poems of Diane Seuss. They become more flexible, more magnetic, attracting and accumulating meaning and music in a speedy rush to surprise, a hard-won clarity about what it’s like to be here, be human. Diane is the author of three books of poetry: Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015); Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press, 1998). A native of Michigan, she serves as writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did Four-Legged Girl come together? Would you talk about your process—and was it different from your experience with your previous books?

Diane Seuss: Each collection has been the result of its own unique process. Four-Legged Girl came together after writing poems over a few years that reflected my obsession with the nature of desire. When I looked at those poems I saw a kind of trajectory that was not necessarily chronological but did move through a process of being captivated by desire (a true captive), rescinding desire, and finally coming to a new kind of desire that was not about romance but, frankly, about poetry. In my world, poetry is a placeholder for a larger spiritual and intellectual process. When I wrote the title poem, the image of the girl with four legs was the frame I needed for the freakdom of the whole manuscript. She is the purple creature who rose out of the whole shebang. The big poem in the book’s center, “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” became the drain around which the rest of the poems swirled, and in fact the image of the hub could be considered the collection’s structural metaphor.Continue Reading

The Autobiography of the Imagination: Toward a Definition


The autobiography of the imagination writes itself, one could say. It writes every time we write, every time we dream or daydream. It is its own captain’s log, the transaction and receipt. It reveals the self to make the self into a stranger, twisting the I to wring out a you. With every persona poem I write, every autobiographical lie, I manifest a self-portrait in silhouette, not so much an accurate depiction of what I look like or who I am, as much as a chart of where my shadow falls.


If I were to tell you about my childhood, I could tell you about my parents’ divorce, how many dogs we had, that I liked to draw. I could tell you I went to St. Peter’s Episcopal School and spent afternoons with my grandparents playing cards. Or I could tell you I wanted to grow up to marry Don Johnson from Miami Vice; that I fantasized in Wednesday chapel about a flood leaving me stranded for days in my school in which I’d carve a pew into a canoe and paddle the halls with a crucifix; and that I believed the cemetery near my house would “leak” ghosts like radon up through the ground into my bedroom. The autobiography of the imagination is as vital, as personal, to the self-revelation of oneself as the autobiography of one’s experience.


In his 1986 introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, with an air of pseudo-Freudianism, said, “It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.” The autobiography of the imagination then is an autobiography of our base desires, the things we haven’t done but have longed for. It is our fantasies, our secrets from which we curate by redaction how someone else sees us. It is an autobiography of instinct, desire.Continue Reading

The High Art of Food Literature. Seriously?


“The writer who never talks about eating, about appetite, hunger, food, about cooks and meals, arouses my suspicion as though some vital element were missing in him,” wrote the Italian writer Aldo Buzzi, in his book, The Perfect Egg: And Other Secrets.

Yet, writers who write primarily about food are called food writers, not just writers, as though writing in general or about the more serious subjects—whether fiction or nonfiction—ranks higher in the literary canon. Food writing brings to mind gastronomy, a luxury or a pursuit of the leisurely and well-heeled. Recipes? Puttering around in the kitchen and writing about the food prepared? Food is the domain of the frivolous, perhaps? Chef and writer Michael Ruhlman ponders this perception in an article in The Huffington Post. He wonders why writing “about what is all-important” should need justification.

For a long time, when I described myself as a food writer, the word got stuck in my throat like a fish bone. I was raised in Bengal, India, a region where fish dominates the diet. Could I be a “food writer” and be, well, a writer or an author? I started a blog years ago to document the food of my childhood and the experiences of cooking with my mother, now 80 years old. I began writing personal essays and features for a popular website, In Mama’s Kitchen, which unfortunately folded last year. The food I wrote about rooted me in a small town in the heart of India and my first forays into the kitchen of my mother as a child and adolescent. But I also sought to transcend the label of a food writer and be a writer of fiction and essays that shed light on the human condition.

Ruhlman says, “Cooking dinner is not a chore or a hassle, not simply the fulfillment of a bodily need, or even an indulgence, but is in fact fundamental to our humanity.” I am unsure about the cooking part—even though I delight in it—but food certainly is more than indulgence or even biological sustenance. The other attribute that makes us human is the ability of telling stories, says Ruhlman. Yes, stories! Food sure does tell stories, and food writers—the greatest of them, in any case—can create abiding literature that reflects human character or the history and culture of a place.Continue Reading

Squad Books

squad books

Look, I’m not trying to be Internetty. But at the end of a year I’ve spent thinking a lot about friendship, I don’t want my last post to be another family tree. Instead, I want to write about books that are my friends. I want to write about the books that I’ve made into parts of me, the ones that showed me something new about myself and the ones that helped me understand, or at least be kind to, a part of myself that I already knew.

I suspect that most of us have bits of culture that we think of as armor. Not all of mine are coherent. A major non-literary one is what a former friend of mine used to call thunderous rap. The spectrum is pretty much DMX to Meek Mill, though these days my preference is either Nicki Minaj or just about any rapper who recorded club hits in the early 2000s. If I need to be brave—for a party, a meeting, a date, a walk home—then chances are I’m listening to Chingy.

I tell you this for context. There are times when I like loud and simple. There are times, though I’m not proud to admit it, when I’m willing to overlook glaring misogyny. There are times when I want what’s familiar. Bear all of this in mind as you’re reading my list of best friends.


  1. Goodbye, Columbus

Everyone’s got a problem with Philip Roth, and I’m not here to disagree. He’s sexist, he’s ranty, and he’s inconsistent. He’s also a genius. And before he was so sexist and ranty, before some of those books that just aren’t good, he wrote a collection of short stories that, half a century later, perfectly illustrate how confusing it is for me to be an American Jew. There’s no image that resonates more with me than Eli, the title character in “Eli, The Fanatic,” walking around his suburban town dressed in a Hasidic Holocaust survivor’s cast-off clothes. No matter what I believe or don’t believe, no matter how I behave, there are times when I feel that obligated to my history, and that conspicuous. I hope this isn’t true for most other Jews. But it was true for Philip Roth in 1958, and it’s true for me.Continue Reading

“Subjects We Never Completely Learn”: An Interview with Daniel Nester

Hamilton_Square,_NJ_BW_PsharesDaniel Nester’s prose zings back and forth between the heart and the funny bone. His latest book, Shader, is a kaleidoscopic coming-of-age story told in brief chapters called “notes.” It’s like one of those family slideshows that make us laugh, groan, squirm in our chairs, and sometimes cry. His previous books include How to Be Inappropriate, God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. Daniel teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. We caught up recently via email to talk about Shader, the dangers of memoir writing, and the joys of writing notes.

Matthew Thorburn: Shader is subtitled “99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.” I’m curious how you came up with the “note” form, and what makes the subjects of these notes “unlearnable.”

Daniel Nester: Part of what “unlearnable” accomplishes, for me, is to challenge an often Pollyanna-ish approach memoirists bring to risk-taking, the “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing” business. We’re supposed to learn from experience, yes, but the truth is that there are subjects we never completely learn.

The form came out of my practice of note-taking, which goes back to my first books on Queen, where I wrote a note for every song the band recorded. I like to joke that, when I write, I feel as smart as Susan Sontag, whose “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a big inspiration. Then I look at what’s on the page and realize that’s not the case.

MT: Shader is poignant, often hilarious, and throughout feels very candid. Was it difficult to revisit some of these experiences from your past—and write them down for people to read? Did you ever feel the temptation to revise your memories?

DN: I like your slideshow comparison. People who study memory will tell you we’re constantly revising memories from the place and time of our remembering. I started writing Shader before our first daughter was born—I knew my perspective would change. Once I got a memory down, I respected the memory: if I discovered I got a minor detail wrong, I considered keeping it, since that’s how I remembered and re-lived it.

Parts of this book were very difficult to write. The parts about my father were painful, and I wanted to portray Maple Shade as honestly as I could. In personal narrative, there’s the idea that you’re the protagonist of your own story, what Vivian Gornick calls the “unsurrogated” narrator, and so you’re tempted to make yourself look cooler or better. But when you’re rocking a mullet and you’ve got Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” on your tape deck, where do you start? Even Saint Augustine knew that humility runs the risk of being an “exploit.” Give me raw and candid, even prideful, honesty over twee faux-naïf mumblebrag all day long.Continue Reading

Review: WHAT COMES NEXT AND HOW TO LIKE IT by Abigail Thomas

what-comes-next-and-how-to-like-it-9781476785059_hrWhat Comes Next and How to Like It
Abigail Thomas
Scribner, March 2015
240 pages

Buy: book | ebook

I was first introduced to Abigail Thomas’s work in grad school when I read Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life. Initially, I was startled by its economy of words, wondering how all those little pieces were going to fit together to form something larger. To my surprise (which says a lot about me, I’m sure), they did fit, perfectly, and after I closed the book I found myself thinking about it for days.

Such is the subtle way Abigail Thomas enters the lives of her readers. Now in her 70s, she recently published her seventh book, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Like Safekeeping, it’s filled with white space, some chapters holding no more than a single paragraph, others filling a few pages; all of them seeking to answer the question of what comes next—in her life, and perhaps in ours.Continue Reading

Review: CHAMIQUE by Chamique Holdsclaw


Chamique: On Family, Focus, and Basketball
Chamique Holdsclaw with Jennifer Frey
Scribner, 2000
189 pages

Buy: ebook

Much like Brittney Griner’s In My Skin, Chamique is a slapped-together memoir by a college basketball wunderkind, Chamique Holdsclaw, following the player’s uneven rookie year in the pros. Where In My Skin charmed with Griner’s honesty and desire for self-improvement, Chamique broke hearts with a tale that has since been proven to be an elaborate façade—although it’s not easy to tell if Holdsclaw herself understood the book’s content was a façade at the time.

This is pretty astounding, considering the many beans that Holdsclaw is willing to spill in Chamique. Pre-teen Holdsclaw is effectively forced to steal money from her parents, themselves nonfunctional alcoholics, to get food for herself and her younger brother, Davon. As she grows older, Holdsclaw dishes dirt about plenty of her professional relationships, including her displeasure with her WNBA team, the Washington (D.C.) Mystics, for allowing her closest friend on the team, backup Rita Williams, to be signed elsewhere.Continue Reading