“Cover Up” by Clare Needham
In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.
I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.
I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.
My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.
I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.
My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)
I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.
I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.
This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.
I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.
He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.
But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.
Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.
Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.
I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.
My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.
Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.
Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.
Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.
Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.
But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.
I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.
I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.
My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”
The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”
I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.
I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.
In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.
Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.
The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.
That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.
I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.
With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.
I made these minimal gestures.
With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.
Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012. (Author photo by Bree Zucker)
“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.
Blurred Words: Weird Al & Colliding Worlds
By Allison Coffelt
If you’d asked me a week ago about Weird Al Yankovic, I would have said it was time to give up the ghost. Weird Al is one of those seminal (artists? singers? comedians?) people whose work has spanned generations. He’s iconic. Most of us under the age of 40 have a Weird Al song they remember from when they were growing up. Maybe it was “Eat It” or “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.”
Weird Al hadn’t been funny to me for a while, but that just changed. Here are three things that drew me back to Weird Al – a sentence I never thought I’d write – and they all have to do with his new video “Word Crimes.”
1. Weird Al: Normalizing my behavior since 2014.
Last Sunday, while sipping coffee, listening to Weekend Edition, and gazing out at the crappy lot of the body shop behind my apartment, Tamara Keith’s interview with Weird Al began. I was reaching to switch the radio (could Weird Al possibly have anything new to say?) when he started talking about correcting grammar. He said he would be driving around, see a road sign, and fix the wording in his head. I, too, do this. When I’ve asked other friends who love words if they slip into this habit, they look at me like I’m sick. I’m not sick. And thanks to Weird Al for being the one to prove it.
Let’s not look too closely at that logic.
2. Your Dad sends you the video.
Another reason you may, like me, need to give Weird Al some credit for his spot-on-ness with this video is when friends and loved ones send you the link: “Literacy’s your mission!” the song says, “There are dancing question marks in the video!” your friend says, “I thought of you immediately!” your dad says.
There’s also a section in the song where Weird Al discusses the Oxford comma, which I dearly love, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says. This viewpoint, I understand, is contentious. If someone thought to send you the video, you probably have your own opinion on the matter and you probably begrudgingly admit that either/either is acceptable.
An added bonus: Weird Al’s word rules make an exception for Prince. As they should.
An added added bonus: You can finally explain what you’re going to do with that English degree. I quote: “You should hire/ some cunning linguist/ to help you distinguish/ what is proper English.”
3. The music video is in kinetic text.
Man, I love the design of this video. Kinetic text, or a fancy way of saying those videos where the text becomes the movie (like ShopVac ), is not only cleverly done in this video, but also fitting. Animated words: how better to show the emphasis on the right syllable?
Well Weird Al, you got me.
Like the terribly catchy beat of that song, the thing I can’t get out of my head now are questions of what is permissible, what is stickler, and how our language —the thing that unites and binds and evolves with us— is changing.
I’ve been thinking about this because the other day at The Missouri Review, we were discussing the role of blogs and social media in the literary world. One person likened blogs and to pop music— they’re fun, fast, digestible, and have a short shelf life. It can be great and it’s its own thing. Literature, we said as we swirled our brandy in embossed snifters, is like classical music. It takes time. But in the weird space that is the internet, these things are colliding, and we’re still figuring out how they feed and harm each other.
I’m fascinated when pop culture concerns itself with words, language, or literature because it’s a collision of the instantaneous and the ancient.
The challenge to offer curated, thoughtful, unrushed content is steep. It takes a lot of resources and time. That doesn’t mean, though, that readers don’t also want something salient, quick, and fun.
I think there’s room for both. Just as we’ve seen a boom in articles-as-lists and computer-generated material (think Buzzfeed and financial market data), we’ve seen an uptick in long-form reporting and the slow reveal of stories (think The Atlantic and Breaking Bad). It’s a trend that’s crossing media sectors, as John Borthwick points out in his recent article on Medium.
So, the question becomes one of sourcing. Who will provide each? Can some outlets provide both? What will be the effect on and for readers? We’re still trying to figure out the answer. I think the experiment where pop and classic cohabitate is worth watching. In some instances, it’s a question of what happens when proper grammar gets a remix.
The Shapeshifting Literary Journal
An article at the Guardian by Ben Johncock last week provided some commentary on those literary journals that have struck out into Twitter and Facebook, and other such media, in order to target readers in novel ways. Johncock writes in praise mostly of those journals that have adapted completely to the existence of the Internet, distributing their content via electronics alone. He cites several journals I’ve never heard of, perhaps because they are British, though the Atlantic Ocean really shouldn’t restrict me from seeing them, considering the worldwide reach of a journal published online.
Johncock’s article set me thinking all weekend about the implications of journals that have established blogs and presences on social media like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not simply that new journals, and particularly electronic ones, are establishing social media accounts; many of those print journals that have been around for years, such as this one, have done it, too. Even as I made breakfast yesterday, and observed on Saturday that I should wash my car, I was thinking about this.
When a literary journal establishes a blog, and when, like this one, it is managed and contributed to by those staff members and interns who help make the journal function, it constitutes – it seems to me – a reversal of the dynamic that the literary journal is used to functioning under, in which potential contributors submit their work in the hope of seeing it printed. Although TMR still, of course, does that, it simultaneously maintains this space, where content is provided by those who, more passively, or at least much less visibly, help to select new content for the magazine (editing is, of course, hardly a passive activity).
Working for a literary journal, at least in the case of TMR, is no longer a matter only of reading potential content and helping to determine whether it is suitable for publication. It has become a job in which one writes under the aegis of the same print journal that others are working very hard to be published in. I don’t want to suggest for a second that writing this blog post is in any way equivalent to publishing work in any literary journal, let alone TMR – the difference in prestige alone is a vast one. And the blog post is a genre unto itself, one that has no direct equivalent on the pages of literary journals; those who look for what we elsewhere call creative nonfiction, or essays more specifically, in blog posts, are looking in the wrong places. A blog post needs to be timely in a way that the typical essay isn’t; the need to integrate images into a blog post is more urgent than in more traditional prose forms; and a blog post can be sloppy and still accomplish something more readily than an essay can. So I hope, anyway, and also, I feel like paragraphs have an altogether different identity in a blog post than they do in print – but I’m straying.
Staff – and editors in particular – have always had a limited role in producing content for the journals they publish, with an editor providing an introduction to a given issue, or foregrounding a particular issue’s feature. I think of this blog as a sort of extension of that. Even though our blog posts aren’t usually in direct reference to the magazine, their essential role is to support, or draw attention to, the magazine. These things I write come out of my head, but they’re publicly available thanks to, and on behalf of, TMR.
What interests me most about the fact of the staff of a literary journal writing on behalf of that journal, as I’m doing now, is that in this small way, the literary journal – or this one and a handful of others – has become a little more like a different kind of magazine, or a newspaper, in that the staff working on the journal have the dual role of being staff writers, albeit in this tertiary space. I don’t know entirely what to make of that, except to declare how it interests me, that as newspapers and magazines fold all around us, not only are altogether new publications and blogs taking their places – or edging them out and helping to bring about their demise – existing publications like TMR are also expanding in these small ways to help fill in some gaps. They’re changing shape, even if you wouldn’t know it by looking at their print manifestations alone.
One last thing that I find quotable in Johncock’s article are two very good questions, concerning the ways in which new publications are establishing electronic forums for publishing short stories. He writes, “Could we be in a place now where technology has brought us full circle? Where that which took us away from stories is now set to bring us back to them?” The suggestion that technology might have run its course as a tool for distraction, and that we’re now figuring out how to make use of it more intelligently – to provide literature in a new fashion, for example – is very exciting, to put it as vaguely as I must in order to end this post.
Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.
Off They Go
The end of July also means the end of our summer internship class. We’ve had a wonderful group that was with us for eight weeks – way too short – and they’ve done a tremendous job on putting the finishing touches on the new issue out now and the autumn issue, which will be arriving in September. In this space, over the course of the next few weeks, you’ll read interviews our interns have conducted with previous contributors to TMR, the first of which was Olivia’s conversation with Tom Ireland. As always, we hope that a few interns will get the opportunity to return in autumn or spring.
Every few weeks, our intern staff turns over. But this time of year also brings massive turnover with the departure of key graduate editors and staff. After several years with TMR, Lania Knight accepted a position with Eastern Illinois University and hotfooted it out of CoMo. The inclusion of audio recordings of each and every piece we publish was the brain child of Lania and our previous managing editor, Richard Sowienski, sparked by a random “Hey, did you ever consider …?” conversation in the hallway years ago. She helped write the grant, build the studio (which is in room 54 of our building. yes, it is Studio 54. yes, really!), master the software, discovered the voice talent, conducted print interviews with writers like David Sedaris and Paul Eggers, worked with NPR affiliated across the country, and made our audio recordings what is today. She’s left a massive imprint on us all here, and we’re grateful for all her time here. Check out her fiction here.
This year, Stephanie Carpenter often appeared in our offices at odd hours with a large stack of essays sitting haphazard on the coffee table. She’s been gracious with her time as a senior reader for us as another set of smart, critical eyes for the prose we consider. She also worked as our contest editor back in 2007-08. You can read one of her stories here. She’s headed back to her home state of Michigan where she’ll start at UM-Flint in the fall and teach Tom Izzo how to run the motion offense.
Dan Stahl has been “editorial assistant” with us for almost two years, but that title doesn’t do justice to what he has meant to us. Dan has done just about every project conceivable here, from manuscript reading and editing, research projects, and even filling in as our office manager for six weeks with just a moment’s notice. As the Swiss Army knife of TMR, he’ll be terribly missed.
Finally, our poetry editor, Marc McKee, has accepted a one-year appointment down at Warrensburg. He’ll have the chance to leave his fingerprints on Pleiades, another fine journal from deepinthehearta, and educate the youngsters on how to write awesome poetry. Speaking of fine poetry, remember that Marc’s first full-length collection, Fuse, will be out from Black Lawrence Press in 2011. As poetry editor, he’s championed a wide-range of wonderful poets that have appeared in the last four issues and had their work appear on our website as our Poem of The Week feature. Or to use an analogy that Marc and I will enjoy, he’s been vintage Dominique Wilkens to my Doc Rivers the past six months.
So, bon voyage, y’all. A short blog post won’t be enough to tell Marc, Stephanie, Dan, Lania, and our entire intern staff how much they’ve meant to us. Their work and friendship has made my transition into TMR easy. For our readers, their influence over the last several years is in the pages of TMR and the great interviews, stories, essays, and poems you’ve read – and, yes, listened to! – for years. Good organizations are only as strong as the people that work there, and because of them, we’ve been fortunate enough to have not been not good but great. Thank you!
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.
Crash Into Me
The advanced copy of the summer issue just arrived on our doorstep. Which means your copy will be shipping in the next few days. We hope that it goes this week, but we hit a bit of a snafu with the boxes. Typically, our issues are 192 pages, but this action packed ditty has 208 pages, which means our mailer needed to find slightly larger boxes than normal, hence, a short delay.
(Digression: My buddy Dave and I love baseball. Whenever we’re at a game and it’s tied after nine innings, one of us yells “Free baseball!” One of the beauties of baseball is that it is a timeless game: there is no clock so the game ends only at its own pace. Some sports fans, of course, don’t like this and wish the game was faster. Not us. Now, of course, “Free Literature!” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but hey, you get the idea …)
Our summer issue is titled “Crash.” We have new fiction by Wade Ostrokwski, Becky Adnot Hayes, Devin Murphy, and Nathan Hogan’s first published story, “The Church at Yavi.” Our essays are M.C. Armstrong’s fascinating look at Ken and Faye Kesey’s life after the death of their son in a school bus accident, and Sharon Solwitz’s examination of her struggles with her husband as he suffers through the late stages of multiple sclerosis. Also, new poems by Benjamin Grossberg, Jonathan Johnson, and Cubs fan John W. Evans. We also have a terrific Found Text feature on the letters of James Stern, and poetry editor Marc McKee sits down with Natasha Trethewey to talk poetry, New Orleans, and LeBron James (okay, I made that last one up).
A big Thank You to all our contributors, staff, designers, and printers: the new issue looks wonderful! I know our readers will soon agree.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.
Blue Boy selected to premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
Sixteen years ago we published a remarkable coming-of-age short story by Kevin Canty, which was later included in his fiction collection A Stranger in This World. This year, that story, “Blue Boy,” will come to life on the big screen at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. This short film is one of only 46 shorts and one of only 8 student films selected to be screened. bcpid1475276001?bctid=16772536001
We also look forward to reading Canty’s upcoming story collection, Where the Money Went, due out from Random House this summer.
Real-life tragedy as story idea?
Eric Daniel Metzgar’s Reporter profiles New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s work in the Congo. The film, screened last weekend at the True/False Film Fest, concentrated on Kristof’s relentless pursuit to find the face of the Congo. He found that face attached to the 60-pound body of a 41-year-old woman displaced by the warring lords of the Congo. Her name was Yohanita. I say “was” because she died a few weeks after Kristof, the film crew, and two assistants to Kristof – Leanna Wen and Will Okun – found her.
The film directs attention to the problems of how people respond to the need for aid. Kristof cites multiple studies revealing people are less likely to get involved when presented with a scenario of need for two or more individuals or when presented with mass numerical statistics. However, when people are presented with a personal story, the likelihood for aid greatly increases. So, humans are humane, right? We want to connect on a personal level, right?
But what about us? What about the writers and the reporters like Kristof? It seems like sad, tragic events become story ideas. Kristof travels from village to village, asking refugee after refugee for a sick a person. Finally, he stumbles upon Yohanita and the look on his face seems so indifferent. Wen, a medical student, immediately asks for a hospital. Her face is filled with worry in mere seconds. Kristof and crew took Yohanita to a hospital after much reassurance to the villagers and family. The film shows Kristof writing in his column, “How can you walk away from a human being who will surely die if you do so?”
Even so, Kristof is conflicted by the big picture. In the same column noted above, he continues to write, “Instead of spending a few hundred dollars trying to save Yohanita, who might die anyway, we could spend that money buying vaccines or mosquito nets to save a far larger number of children in other villages.” What is more humane? Attempting to save the dying woman in front of you or raising awareness about the hundreds and thousands dying all around her?
I refuse to believe we, as writers, lose our hearts and souls to the story idea. I believe what Kristof does is incredible. However, I can’t help but wonder, as Kristof walks to his jeep and waves farewell to the villagers and says to them, “I hope things get better,” does he really mean it?
On the intersection of docs and lit magazines
In addition to the dozens of docs screened during the True/False Film fest, a number of workshops and classes are offered. Wanting to deepen my knowledge of the industry, I checked out a couple, including “Hybrid Cinema: A Filmmaker’s Guide to DIY, Web and Self-Distribution.”
Jon Reiss, director of Bomb It, a doc about the “battle for public space throughout the world” (or graffiti), led the presentation. I was struck with the similarities of marketing a literary journal and marketing a documentary film. At one point, Reiss stated that when the doc was completed, the filmmaker was only half-way through the process. He or she must get it out in the public. I think, in some broad way, that’s true of a literary magazine. After we’ve accepted the final prose or poetry piece for our journals, we’re ready to put our feet on the desk, lean back in our office chair, and congratulate ourselves on putting together another fine publication. But as wonderful as our magazines may be, we haven’t done our job fully until we’ve reached the largest audience possible given our budget, personnel, and time constraints.
For many in literary publishing, marketing may be the least favored part of the job. As Reiss said early in his presentation, he went into filmmaking because he didn’t want to go into business—but that career choice turned him into a businessman. Likewise, I’m sure many of us feel the same way about marketing, but if we want our journal to succeed, we need to make smart choices.
Reiss uses his blog (http://jonreiss.com/blog/) to raise attention for his films and long-term audience development. You can check out his blog to see what he’s doing in this regard. And if anyone is interested in some of his specific blogging tips, comment below and I’ll add a “part two” later in the week.
Video Feature: Speer Morgan Talks About the Early Days of TMR
As we continue our expansion into different forms of online media, The Missouri Review is pleased to introduce you to own first video posting on You Tube! In this short feature, TMR Editor Speer Morgan talks about the early days of the magazine.