“When I Pulled Over on the Side of the Road” by Katey Schultz
This craft essay by Katey Schultz is proof that inspiration doesn’t follow a particular timeline. In her case, a story percolated for over decade before she saw it take shape. What resulted was “Wait for Me,” which appeared in the summer 2020 issue of the Missouri Review and was a finalist for the 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. You can read the story here.
What matters about the above side-by-side photos is not that they’re blurry or that the handwriting is illegible. What matters is that eleven years ago I was still waitressing two shifts a week and hadn’t published my first book but was so desperate to write down these words that I grabbed whatever I could find.
The blurry image is the new wine list I was trying to memorize. The handwritten image is my scribbles on the back of that wine list, and if you dare attempt to make out the words, you’ll see that, oddly, I wrote from the far right corner, over to the left (rather than our standard composition direction of left to right.
So many years later, this sheet of paper is still tacked to my bulletin board as proof that sometimes writing maxims are actually true: You have to let time pass. The story will reveal itself through drafts. Write whenever and wherever you can. Just start; worry about finishing later. It’s OK if you don’t know how you’ll get to the end.
If you’d told me those things the afternoon eleven years ago when I pulled over on the side of Interstate 26 in North Carolina and started writing, I would have rolled my eyes. Not because I didn’t believe them (well, maybe because I didn’t believe them). But because I had yet to experience just how deep the roots of story can go or how successful its final bloom can be.
For at least seven or eight years, I did nothing with that sheet of paper other than to move it from bulletin board to bulletin board, file to file, wall to wall, as my life expanded around me. I moved a few times. I got married. Bought a house. Had a kid. Went to a residency. . . .
And there, at Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts’ Pentaculum artist residency, “Wait for Me” unspooled. I had the wine list with the scribbles in my folder of other similar scraps and notes. I had reread it a week or so beforehand, in anticipation of the uninterrupted work time a residency affords. When I sat down to write, I didn’t even have to take out that wine list. The voices were already there, waiting. The activity of the opening scene appeared as vividly as my own hands in front of me. The characters—somehow I knew their gender roles should be reversed from my initial scribbles, that the girl would bully the boy, not the other way around—were talking faster than I could type.
But I’m not going to lie and say that “the rest is history.” That’s a cop-out, and, besides, it glosses over the very best of what happens for writers when inspiration, discipline, time, and alchemy line up. Which is to say, I opened up Google Maps, switched it to satellite view, found a small town in West Virginia, moved the screen around a little bit until I found Morgantown, and then a not-too-distant large swath of forest and a lake. Now I had a setting I could work from, manipulate, and make my own (fictionalizing some bits, borrowing other bits).
From there, another maxim proved true: Landscape is character is plot.
At least, for me it is. Because as soon as I hear the voices of my narrators or characters in dialogue, I have to make their feet touch the ground in order to believe whatever they’re going to do next. And as soon as their feet touch the ground, they’re in reaction to the world around them. After that, plot really gets going.
By the end of that residency, I had a draft of the story not too terribly different from the version named Finalist in the Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith’s Editor’s Prize.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.
An interview with Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019). You can read Marin’s essay here.
Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.
Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection. How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?
Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.
ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?
MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!
Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.
ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?
MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.
I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”
ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?
MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.
ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?
MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.
ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?
MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.
Thoughts on Nonfiction and Ch-Ch-Changes
A few years ago, I applied to give a talk about my faith for a retreat through a Catholic church on Mizzou’s campus. The application instructed me to write a short essay about my faith, and to detail an obstacle I had to overcome in order to reach where I am today. In italics, an added note advised: Do not write about an obstacle you are currently facing. It is better to write about something from your past that you have already overcome. It made sense to me – you need distance in order to tell the story right. You need the emotional detachment and wisdom that time supposedly offers.
I can still remember exactly what I wrote about on that retreat application. In short, I had a rough few months during my senior year of high school and made some poor decisions that still make me cringe today. I wrote an essay describing the ordeal and how it connected to my faith. I was chosen to give the talk at the retreat, but a few months beforehand, I dropped out. A chronic fear of public speaking and an even bigger fear of sharing my story with a group of peers convinced me I wasn’t ready yet. It turns out, two years of distance still wasn’t enough.
Fiction is my bread and butter, but on the rare occasion when I try to write an essay, I inadvertently return to that note on the retreat application. I ask myself the same questions. Am I ready to write this story from my life? Do I need to be safely out of range from the emotions of a particular event in order to write about it well? Do I need detachment in order to write clearly, or will that make my writing hollow and remote? I raise these questions because I don’t have an answer. If I did, I would write nonfiction much better than I do now.
I ran into a similar problem recently when I decided to submit the only completed essay I’m proud of to a few journals. I wrote the essay last semester for a class called, oddly enough, “Writing the Spiritual Narrative.” Before I sent it out, I reread the essay for the first time in about six months, and I was struck by how much I didn’t like it. The writing wasn’t bad, but my perspective had changed. My essay detailed my on-again, off-again relationship with both Catholicism and bouts of depression, my struggles with prayer when I left the church, and how this culminated during my study abroad in Scotland. At the time that I wrote the essay, I had not been to church voluntarily in almost a year, and I was in the middle of a typical “what am I going to do with my life” crisis, which colored my work considerably. At the time that I reread the essay, I had resolved much of my quarter-life crisis and also made a cautious return to my old church. Every word of my essay was still true, and yet I wanted to rewrite it on the spot. Nothing in my past had changed, but the way I interpreted my past had changed.
As a fiction writer, if I reread something I’ve written six months ago and decide it needs fixing, I can manipulate the story however I want. The narrative only lives inside my head and my characters are the ones who change, not me. But I find that when I try to write nonfiction, I get stuck because the narrative of my life is not linear or tidy, and if the narrative of my life has changed, then so have I. I wonder how I’m supposed to write about my life when time and maturity will offer so many shifts in my point of view. If I can ever document my life in an honest and satisfying way, despite these shifts.
The question of truth and authenticity comes up a lot in conversations about nonfiction, and I know I’m just adding more noise. Anytime I sit down to write about my life, I am only writing about how I feel at this given time, and therefore, my work is still truthful and authentic. It’s not necessary for me to place a disclaimer on all of my essays, or for me to feel badly about growing up. The meaning I glean from writing about my life should matter the most. Eventually, I’ll put these questions about distance and time to rest. In the meantime, I think I’d better stick to fiction.
Magic, and other innovations.
This past week I (finally) completed edits on the additional materials for two pieces that, although they were part of textBOX’s launch this past January, have very patiently been waiting for their extra pieces to join them online. To Cynthia Miller Coffel’s Editors’ Prize winning essay “Letters to David,” we have added an introduction, questions, writing prompts and a brief note from the author. As with all of the additional materials provided on the site, the goal is to enhance readers’ experiences, to illuminate a particular aspect of the text, or encourage consideration of some of the piece’s subtler elements.
In the note that accompanied the essay when it was first published in TMR, Coffel describes her motivation, saying, “I wanted, in my essay, to honor the generous impulse of my twenties—working to help all those poor people, trying to make our country better—and I also wanted to treat that impulse lightly, to admit that it was mixed up with arrogance and exuberance and naiveté. I also wanted to honor my friendship with the man I’ve called David. I think that kind of friendship is one you can only have at a certain point in your life.” Understanding the author’s intent can have a profound impact on a reader’s approach and while intent may not be everything, in this case Coffel’s explanation simply clarifies the tender, yet honest evaluation of her own past that is evident throughout “Letters to David.”
L. E. Miller’s short story “Kind,” is also about a woman reflecting on the life she led in her early twenties, although of course this story is fiction and its protagonist, Ann, a fictional character. In addition to adding our usual introduction, questions and writing prompts, I am pleased to announce that “Kind” is the first textBOX piece to be presented with a full audio version. Recorded along with the first-ever audiobook edition of TMR in early 2007, “Kind” is read by Mark Kelty and you can listen via the toolbox in the right sidebar of all the pages on which “Kind” and its additional materials appear.
There is a special kind of magic in listening to stories read aloud. More than once over the past decade I’ve found myself sitting in a parking lot, transfixed by PRI’s Selected Shorts, unable to complete whatever errand I intended to run until I’ve heard how the story ends. At AWP a few years back, I attended a Selected Shorts performance of B. D. Wong reading Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and remember feeling as though the other thousand or so audience members simply weren’t there. It’s as if being read to can hold me perfectly in the present by reminding some part of my subconscious of the pleasure of being read to as a child.
Adding full audio versions of the stories, essays (and eventually poems – more on that soon, I promise) on textBOX has been something we’ve been thinking about for a while. This summer we are going to make it happen. “Kind” is just the first of many. William Harrison’s short story “Eleven Beds” has been recorded and will be edited soon, and our new team of anthology interns are already hard at work selecting which essays and stories will be next.
In the meantime, if reading “Letters to David” along with Cynthia Miller Coffel’s commentary, and listening to “Kind,” leave you wanting more, you can always listen to all of the pieces from The Missouri Review’s first audiobook issue (30.4, Winter 2007) here. Of course if you like that, you can always subscribe to our digital issue, which comes complete with a full audio version four times a year. And if that’s just not enough storytelling for you, maybe my favorite fiction podcasts (here, here, and here) can tide you over until we can get back down to the studio and start making more magic.
Nell McCabe is The Missouri Review’s Anthology Editor.
Thursday Think Day: Brevity, Lia Purpura, and the moral essay
It’s Thursday Think Day again, and I’m excited to tell you what I’ve been thinking about.
I attended a meeting last night, in which I was to pitch my genre – creative nonfiction – to some undergraduate students who were interested in hearing about it, possibly even writing it. I knew I couldn’t do this alone – or, I was too tired to do it without help from some pieces of paper with writing on them – so I turned to Brevity, the journal of concise literary nonfiction that lends itself so well to this purpose. It is readily accessed, and its content is conducive to presentation in a limited time, as it is all remarkably short.
To demonstrate the virtues of creative nonfiction – and of the essay in particular – I turned to Lia Purpura’s “On Being a Trucker.” It begins with speculation as to the language used by truckers to describe their cargoes, and then follows a quick series of associations to reach a conclusion that is utterly astonishing, given the sweep of its implications, its apparent distance from the opening lines, and the celerity with which its author leads us to them. You don’t need me to tell you this; I urge you to follow the link and read it, which is something that requires so little effort I sometimes feel guilty for not giving thanks to the Internet more often, it makes some tasks so easy for us.
Purpura’s essay is like a precisely landed punch to the chest, and it makes plain several of the things I value in the essay, or in creative nonfiction generally. One is obvious: Purpura’s relationship to her reader is a rather unique one, one by which she may offer her simulated train of thought in a more or less straightforward fashion, directly from writer to reader. The essay as a genre is also known, I explained to my very small audience, for precisely the sort of movements Purpura makes, as an essay follows a series of unlikely associations, often to their equally unlikely conclusion. Not only does the piece demonstrate – and very briefly – the virtues of the essay; it is simply a great piece of writing.
So what have I been thinking about this today? Well, whenever I come across an essay that warrants great enthusiasm – which isn’t rare – like an entomologist, I want to catalogue it, and decide what kind of essay it is. I don’t think Purpura’s is a personal essay, though I couldn’t rule it out; it reasons things out a little to explicitly to be a lyric essay – a conclusion I suspect many would disagree with; and I would have a hard time calling it a familiar essay. Rather, I have been interested, more and more lately, in the moral essay, an essay subgenre you don’t hear much about anymore, but which I think might be in for some recognition, and which I think this might be an example of. Because it’s Thursday Think Day, and not Explain Yourself Sunday, I’m going to leave it at that.
Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.
More Than Talking Pretty
Last week, I, and what seemed to be about half of Columbia, had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris live at Jesse Hall. I had never seen him before and though I only started reading him recently—Me Talk Pretty One Day this summer on my lunch breaks—I knew I was in for a great night when I saw the posters hanging around campus last month.
As the lights dimmed and Sedaris emerged, bobbing towards the podium and glancing timidly at the anxious gallery awaiting him, I leaned back and prepared for that pleasant belly ache like everyone else.
And, in case you had any doubt, he did deliver.
After starting off with a piece from his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris jumped from earlier stories, to unpublished journal entries, and lastly, to jokes he’d been told on earlier readings. Also interspersed was more general oration that proved as entertaining as his writings, including a reading of a book title in what was to Sedaris an unknown language. When he asked the audience if anyone knew the language, and someone yelled “Croatian,” Sedaris replied, “Come see me after the show. The book’s yours.” Needless to say, it was a great show; but it was what followed the show that most impressed me.
The moment Sedaris said, “I’ll be in the lobby afterwards if any of you would like me to sign a book,” I began to make my move. I was clapping as I did so, sure, but I was more so concentrating on limiting was sure to be a significant wait. As I rose, made my way out of the row, I saw masses of people flooding towards the exits like there was a fire.
After standing in line for twenty minutes, two friends approached me with signed books. On one, Sedaris had sharpied a crying Jesus with the words “Why did you kill me?” above his signature. On the other, were the words, “I’m glad you can joke.” My friend had told her best one, upon Sedaris’ earlier request. I guess it hadn’t landed so well, as he’d also crossed out the word “joke” and underneath written “walk.” I laughed, impressed that Sedaris had taken the time to personalize their signings. My friends left, and I resigned myself to the long wait ahead.
Almost two hours later, a story for my fiction class as well as the university concert series pamphlet read, I was next in line to get my book signed. At this point, I thought, stealing glances at a slumped David Sedaris, I’m sure he’s just signing them. No way he’s still personalizing each signing. The person in front of me cleared out, and I stepped forward.
“Hello,” Sedaris said, smiling wide-eyed, as if I was first person to ever ask him for an autograph.
I said hello and thanked him for coming. “And thanks for your patience,” I said, “You must be exhausted.”
He paused, pen poised above the title, and looked up.
“I like signing books,” he said, and smiled.
After a moment, “It’s Owen, is it? O-W-E-N. Are you a student here, Owen?” Then, following a nod, “What are you studying?”
I told him English-Creative Writing with a fiction emphasis, and he perked up.
“Do you write short stories?”
A couple minutes and a couple questions later, he handed me my book. “Thank you for waiting,” he said, still smiling.
While he talked with my girlfriend, and asked her to tell him about her latest non-fiction piece, I flipped to the title page of Me Talk Pretty One Day.
“It was about my love for Bruce Springsteen,” she said.
He laughed. “Have you ever met him?”
She told him about the time she touched his sweaty arm and vest at a concert in Chicago.
“Oh wow,” he said. “Was it everything you’d imagined?”
As a young writer, I often feel intimated by the literary world. It is a place of grim prospect. Spend your whole life in front a computer or notebook, working to communicate something worthwhile and original in a worthwhile and original way. Sure, there are literary journals to strive towards, as well as grants and fellowships and other awards, but who cares about these things besides other writers? It’s even worse if you write primarily literary prose or poetry. Romance or crime, you’ve got a chance, but if you plan on writing anything else for a living, you better start playing the lottery.
Because of these truths, it’s easy to grow bitter. Many writers work and struggle and eventually prosper while this bitterness consumes them. I’m sure David Sedaris wouldn’t say he’s never had a bitter moment, but last night I saw no evidence of one. For at least three hours –we weren’t even close to the end— he made an effort to connect with every single person in that line. And he’s going to do the same thing every night for the next month. How does a writer, especially a well-respected literary writer, do this? Maybe if this was his first book tour, then maybe I could understand his insatiable desire to engage fans, but he’s been publishing books for over fifteen years. And not only that, but he reads his work, over and over again, with a zeal as noteworthy as his actual prose.
This baffles and inspires me. If David Sedaris can work and struggle and prosper with such an impressive character intact, I have to believe that so too can anyone. I hope I always will.
We thanked him and left. Outside Jesse, we opened our books to the title page. On mine, he’d drawn an owl perched on the publisher’s name. It looked at me, wide-eyed, patient, still. And on hers, he’d written “Your story has touched my heart.”
Allergic to Winter Pollen
Since I finished Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating last week, I haven’t been reading anything, except for blogs, other web sites, and my own writing. So I thought I would take the opportunity of this gap in my book-reading to try to figure out what it was that Ted Hughes did to make me cry. I was nineteen when he did it, reading his 1995 essay collection, Winter Pollen, on the campus of the school where I was often engaged in something it would be generous to call attendance. I have cried in public only a handful of times, and I think this was the only time a book ever made me do it (publicly, that is), so I have long since wanted to revisit the book, to discern with a more practiced eye the witchcraft at work in it.
I am perhaps the only person who pursued a keen interest in the work of Ted Hughes as a result of watching the film The Iron Giant. I was one of the few who saw it at a movie theater, for that matter, but I did, and I loved it, so I read the book it was based on – Hughes’s Iron Giant – thought it was weird, and “Devoured his work whole,” as Hughes himself describes his early consumption of the poetry of W. B. Yeats. By my second year of college, I had made my way through Crow, The Hawk in the Rain, and Gaudete, to Winter Pollen.
I worried that when I dug Winter Pollen out of my Missouri library, as I did at a West Virginia library ten years ago, and read it, I would learn only that I am a more skeptical reader than I ever was before, that I would be stubbornly unmoved by the essays of Ted Hughes – even disdainful, for having been taken in by them so completely in my vulnerable youth. And I am, sort of, to the extent that since rereading his essays my eyes have stayed relatively dry.
Winter Pollen, I understand as I did not when I was younger, is a loose collection of essays consisting largely of introductions Hughes wrote to collections of other people’s poems, and to Leonard Baskin’s sketches, plus other very short pieces which are, as the book’s subtitle indicates, occasional. Most of its content, then, is not exactly tearjerking material. Even in his essay on the journals of Sylvia Plath, his tone is distant, as he writes, “The motive in publishing these journals will be questioned. The argument against is still strong. A decisive factor has been certain evident confusions.” When he references himself in this essay, he does it in the third person: “The second of these two books [of her journals] her husband destroyed.” It’s more eerie than moving, I think today, more likely to provoke bewilderment than to draw tears.
In my search for the essay that made me cry, I reread the introduction he wrote in 1968 to a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems. On the early editorial decision to alter the dashes in her manuscripts and make them into semicolons and periods, he writes that this cannot be done “without deadening the wonderfully naked voltage of her poems.” It was far from a new observation by then, and I know much more about Dickinson’s dashes now than I did when I first heard of them from Hughes, but these still strike me, as they did then, as a lovely and truthful sequence of nine words.
I think, having looked over many of the essays again, that it must have been “The Burnt Fox” that exploited my tear ducts, ten years ago. Two pages long, it consists largely of Hughes’s account of a dream he had when a student at Cambridge. At the time he had it, he writes, “Students of English were expected to produce a weekly essay,” and while he had no conscious problem with the assignment, “I soon became aware of an inexplicable resistance, in myself, against writing these essays.” The resistance mounts: “it had a distressful quality, like a fiercely fought defence. In the end, it brought me to a halt.”
I was, at nineteen, a sucker for testimonies by other people in which they claimed to have as much of a problem with schoolwork as I did. As disdainful toward that impulse as I am now (I should have better appreciated how good and relatively easy my life was then), Hughes’s resistance to school immediately won me over.
Hughes describes working on one of the last required essays until two in the morning, “exhausted,” until he finally had to go to sleep. It was then, he explains, that he had a dream in which a humanoid fox – a creature “at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs” – entered the room. “Every inch,” he explains,
was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding. Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain. It came up until it stood beside me. Then it spread its hand – a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him – flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said: “Stop this – you are destroying us.”
Today, again, I am unmoved by this – more skeptical toward the veracity of the description of this dream (though it could just as easily be a perfectly faithful account of his dream than not) than astounded by its accuracy to anything I feel today. But I know, more or less, what I was responding to in this essay. I knew, at nineteen, that I wanted to do something more substantial than what I was up to then; I wanted to do something more memorable than to sit and weep on college campuses. Eventually I took up writing, and decided it would do for a more compelling avocation, but at nineteen I was terrified of writing, so I didn’t do it, and when I read Hughes’s story of being ordered by his mind, or subconscious, or whatever a humanoid fox is qualified to serve as a mouthpiece for, to give up his busy assignments for the greater creative work he would ultimately do, crying was the only response I could muster.
Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.
The Mumbai Attacks
Approximately two years ago, ten gunmen executed a three-day assault in Mumbai, India, attacking hotels, a railway station, a restaurants, and a Jewish center. Today in India, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab, a Pakistani citizen aged 22, was found guilty on Monday of many charges, including murder and waging war on India. He was the only gunman taken alive, and most observers considered his sentence – death by hanging – a foregone conclusion. The New York Times article is here.
In our the most recent issue of The Missouri Review, Tom Ireland tries to understand what makes a man like Mohammed Qasab turn to terrorism. Read it here. It’s an engaging piece driven by curiosity to discover more about a region that, as Americans, we rarely experience beyond the thirty-second news clip. Given the recent terrorism attack in Times Square, Tom’se ssay is a good reminder of how complex and dangerous our world can be.
Pushed Into Munro Country
TMR is delighted to announce that Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Munro Country” has been awarded a Pushcart Prize. Strayed’s fantastic essay, which was our “From The Archives” selection last month, originally appeared in summer 2009 issue (or, call it “The Missouri Review: Messy Art“; or, now, just call it the “Strayed Issue”). We had the chance to meet Cheryl at AWP this year, and she’s just as awesome in person as she is on the page. A big hearty congratulations to her for this wonderful honor.
Alice Munro Answers Your Letters
The latest “From The Archives” feature is up! Our selection is Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Munro Country,” which originally appeared in our Summer 2009 issue.
The sensation of a shared small-town coming of age is the connection that leaves Strayed feeling powerfully linked to Alice Munro. Follow along as Strayed learns the balance between embracing this link to her past and following her own path to the future.