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Essays

Mark Dostert

February 15, 2018

Getting Rid of the Get

During my eleven years teaching seventh-grade English, the personal narrative essay was part of my state’s mandatory writing test. The prompts went something like this: Write about a time when you learned a new skill or Write about a time when something unexpected happened. Student essays could open almost like this: “One day I got home from school. My mom got mad. I was just getting inside when she got up off the couch. She got to me before I got to my room to get dressed for soccer practice.” My students’ shortcuts in Voice & Style, as the state curriculum calls syntax and word choice, weren’t this severe but severe enough for me to start encouraging them to think harder about what action or idea they wished to convey when relying over and over (as if an unconscious linguistic crutch) on get, getting, got, and gotten. Let’s strengthen our writer’s legs. Let’s walk on our own.

I don’t remember whether this light bulb finally flashed blindingly enough for me to turn exasperated from another batch of student essays to my computer and scour my own writing for such seeming aesthetic laziness. If not, I just came upon them during a weekend or evening revision session. It was humbling to discover that I hadn’t always practiced what I had been preaching to my twelve- and thirteen-year-old students. My reliance likewise on non-dialogue get-conjugations in my then (since published) four-year-old first-person point-of-view nonfiction book-length manuscript about my year as an unarmed juvenile jail guard in Chicago wasn’t as prolific as my students’, but what excuse did they have? Many of them wrote only when instructed to. I was the one endeavoring to forge a literary side-career, someone purporting to weigh his every sentence, every phrase, every word even, with the utmost artistic fear and trembling. Pretentious, I admit, but all those years of reading and then inscribing constructive criticism onto student manuscripts has ingrained me with a nagging dislike of get. If the writer’s mission is to be innovative, vivid, and exact, might “She stepped off the Blue Line at Logan Square” be more pleasing and precise than “She got off the Blue Line at Logan Square”? Could “The skies grew dark” be more evocative than “The skies got dark”? Do the latter constructions not move closer to waking the senses? Saying something familiar yet in a clearer way? Continue Reading

Essays

Natania Rosenfeld

February 15, 2018

The Professor’s Body

 Can fragility feel as hot as bravado? I think so, but sometimes struggle to find the way.

—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

 

The professor’s body sits cross-legged on the edge of the desk. Its head turns all round the semicircle to make sure of eye contact with every student.

The professor’s body feels the need to get down from the hard desk. It uncrosses its legs, steps downward. The prof who is, after all, still in her early fifties, lets out an involuntary groan and limps stiffly, like the hunchback of Notre Dame, to the chair behind the desk.

The professor makes a note to self: “Stretches before breakfast.”

 

The professor’s body, before going to work, gazes longingly at the bed she has just made. Rather than in front of a classroom, playing at authority in constricting clothes, the body would like to be in her white flannel nightie on the bed, reading a book and eating chocolate, or naked under the covers, sleeping peacefully.

Instead, she gets herself into the car with the husband’s body—also, reluctantly, on its way to class—and gets out again on campus half-covered in the dog hair that infests the car. Now there is the removal of the dog hair to be performed, also the checking for an open fly or button or food between the teeth. The mirrors on campus remind the professor’s face that it is more than thirty years older than the students’.

 

The p. b. had a night of anxiety and bad dreams, perhaps because of the news, perhaps because she saw pictures of a tortured dog. She dragged it—her body—into the tub and then the closet. In the closet there were no clothes appropriate to the sudden, obscene, spring weather. The professor’s body wore sweatpants and an old, stained woolen shirt to class. The temptation was great not to put on a bra, but the professor did not want to cause an undue distraction in the classroom.

The p. b. does a lot of sweating in front of classes, as well, often at the crotch. She wonders if her pants are obviously stained with sweat. When she is especially carried away she will scratch at a scab on some part of her body and begin to bleed. Suddenly, the professor is writing on the board with a bloody hand.

Sometimes the p. b. has imbibed a lot of coffee and suddenly needs to urinate. Then she apologizes to the class, wondering whether to say, “I’m going to the bathroom,” or “I need to pee.” Since the course she is teaching is about the body, she makes a little joke. The making of little jokes is a big part of keeping her body feeling safe and happy and liked.

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Book Reviews

Timothy Parfitt

February 15, 2018

A Look Back at a New Narrative

Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 

Nightboat511 pages, $24.95 

Edited by Dodie Bellamy & Kevin Killian 

New Narrative, a late twentieth-century art movement that fused queer praxis, radical  politics, and daring writing, is now on arguably on its third or fourth “wave,” but I had not encountered it until recently. Now the similarly uninitiated can thank Nightboat for publishing the delightful and overdue anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997. As editors Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian explain in their introduction, the movement reshaped narrative into “a system of writing designed to be optimally responsive to cultural and political change.” Indeed the personal essays, auto-fiction, interviews, and criticism in this collection explode notions of “good” writing and art in order to build something true to modern lived experience.

Take Robert Glück’s “Sanchez and a Day,” in which a narrator and his dog must evade a truck of threatening homophones.  Glück’s complex layering of memory and sensation sets up a left turn towards intimate (and overtly political) direct address: “I had angry dreams. Even in my erotic fantasies I couldn’t banish a violence that twisted the plot away from pleasure to confusion and fear. And what I resolved was this: that I would gear my writing to tell you about incidents like the one at Sanchez and Day, to put them to you as real questions that need answers, and that these questions, along with my understanding and my practice, would grow more energetic and precise.” The questions raised by Glück dictate the mode of writing, regardless of inherited notions of taste and “show, don’t tell.” As a reader, there’s some whiplash when the artful anecdote goes from consumable experience to a shared, solvable problem.

In Dodie Bellamy’s “Dear Gail,” the narrator describes her future lover’s eye contact as a “missile dying for a target.” That phrase could be used to describe many of the characters who knock around this collection. Indeed much of the writing, which first grew out of a free poetry workshop in San Francisco in the late seventies, uses desire as the lens through which the view the self, taking more narrative cues from pornos than from what’s traditionally considered literary canon. In Dennis Cooper’s “Square One,” a skin flick idol is held up as divine harbinger of grace and loss. “The actor’s beauty is God. Their sex is heaven . . . Never again will his face be as gripped by what’s deep inside him but slipping from his possession.” Eros and politics are forever intersecting, whether in excerpts by better-known figures like Eileen Myles’ (Chelsea Girls) and Chris Kraus (I Love Dick), or those by cult favorites like Lawrence Braithwaite. In the Braithwaite’s Wigger, language, desire, and racism push language to its breaking point: “He’d tug at the crotch of his slacks / rub his big belly—have his hand up by his chest (it looked like a thermal-photo) as Brian swayed, paced and gestured in his boxers / telling him about his plans to annihilate a body w/ the seduction of words and weapons / /”

Power dictates how stories get told, so it’s worth examining how narrative builds and reflects our understandings of the world. Writers Who Love Too Much offers an array of off ramps away from pre-made conclusions and towards  more  nontraditional (aka dangerous) modes of meaning-making. It can be hard to unlearn inherited notions of right and wrong.  By making the “wrong” parts of personal experience (politics, kitsch, desire) so central to their work, the writers of New Narrative have complicated and broadened conceptions of what the modern nonfiction essay can do.


Timothy Parfitt is a Chicago-based essayist and translator. His writing has appeared in Deadspin, ThreadNewcity, Chicagoist, Timeout Chicago and Wassup.