Best American Essays 2016

We’re excited to say that Antonia Malchik’s essay, “Bitterroot,” from the summer 2015 issue of 1966 has been selected as a “notable essay” of 2015 by the editors of The Best American Essays 2016

You can read this wonderful essay here.

Congratulations, Antonia, and thank you for allowing us to publish your work!

In other “notable” news, our editor, Kelly Grey Carlisle, also received a nod for her essay “Permutations of X,” which appeared in New England Review.

Many thanks, as always, to Robert Atwan and the other editors at Best American. The Best American Essays series celebrates our genre every year and brings all of us amazing essays we might otherwise have missed. It also encourages many writers and small magazines through the recognition of their work in the “notable essays” list. That encouragement means a lot and we’re grateful. You can purchase Best American Essays 2016  at your local, independent bookstore.

Summer Reading Roundup

Some of us at 1966 were able to get in some quality reading time during our summer break. Here are a few books we liked, new and old. Now we’ll be returning to our Fall Reading: submissions to the magazine.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau).

I have long been a found of Coates’ writing for the Atlantic, but only started reading this book in the days before Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers. Reading it that week provided me with a double-sense of deja-vu—both from my own memories of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and from Coates’ discussion of them. Written as a letter to his teenaged son about being black in this country, Coates’ prose is as elegant and moving as the system of white privilege is brutal and ugly. Coates’ love for his son and his people—“They made us into a race,” he reminds his son, but “We made ourselves into a people”—shines through every honest, beautiful, brilliant page. Readers should not look for comfort or simple answers in these pages, but may instead find a steely hope that through struggle against the system, one might regain the dignity and honor (but not the lives) that the “people who think they are white” have stripped away. KGC

Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis (U of Nebraska Press).

Duke Kahanamoku has long been a sports hero of mine. What the book makes clear, however, is that Duke was also a moral hero for all time. Because of the ill-considered rules of amateurism in the early Olympics and discrimination against athletes of color, Duke was never able to translate his swimming and surfing fame into much more than subsistence living. And yet, he willingly became an ambassador and advocate for sport, Hawaii, her culture, and the Hawaiian people. He was generous to all who asked for his time and carried himself with dignity, kindness, and wisdom. Also interesting are Davis’ accounts of the early Olympics, especially the haunting Antwerp games that followed World War I, when, as they boarded their ship to Europe, the US team passed by stacks of freshly-offloaded coffins from the war and where athletes strolling in the battlefields outside of town came upon still-unburied remains. KGC

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Knopf).

The singular gift of this book to its reader is the chance to enter a brilliant scientist’s mind and to see the world (both natural and personal) the way she does. Jahren is an award-winning plant researcher, currently at the University of Hawaii, and through her memoir, we are able to understand just how difficult that kind of achievement in science is. She takes us through the unremitting hard work, disappointment, and loneliness of being a lead investigator, then allows us to experience the thrill of discovery and success. As the book makes painfully clear, our nation does not adequately support scientific research without clear commercial value. We also don’t give plants enough credit for being the absolutely fascinating and weird creatures they are. As much as I enjoyed Jahren’s personal story, I found her lessons on plants just as fascinating. The book was almost a perfect balance of what we love here at 1966—compelling story mixed with research that make that story more complex and relevant. KGC

My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offut (Simon and Schuster).

A man goes through his dead father’s things and learns more about him. The situation is more interesting if those things include a literal ton of pornography, most of which his father wrote. And the book becomes a compelling read if the son happens to be Chris Offut, himself a wonderful writer. What I appreciated most was that even though there was, in a sense, no mystery to the experience—Offut knew his father wrote pornography before he began—the book is laden with mystery. It is a mystery that relies not on the shock-value of pornography, but on a sensitive, intelligent author slowly excavating the mind of his dad—a distant, unloving father about whom the author knew very little. KGC

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti (Harper Collins).

Jessica Valenti’s is a vital voice and an important advocate for feminism. Through her column and internet platforms, she has introduced many readers, especially younger readers, to feminist issues. She has shown many women that they are not alone. And so, I wanted to like this memoir more than I did. Perhaps it was because I was already aware of many of the issues her story illustrates, but I was not moved by the book, even when I wanted to be. A subjective emotional response is, of course, not necessarily a measure of a book’s quality, but by the end of this book, it was what I found missing. Valenti’s experiences should be disturbing, painful, angering (and sometimes joyful)—and yet, by the end, all I felt was tired. As Dayna Tortorici at the New York Times notes, perhaps Valenti is tired, too. And she has surely earned the right to be, dealing not only with everyday sexism but also with the misogynist trolls of the internet. So, my lack of enthusiasm is perhaps a fault of the writing or perhaps it is actually one of its strengths (isn’t it good to show women are worn down?)—or perhaps it is only a result of my being a female reader who also lives in this culture. KGC

 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927; Harper Perennial 2015)

Now here’s something novel: fiction presented as creative nonfiction.  Thornton takes on the voice of a research CNF writer, searching for the meaning behind a fatal (and fictional) bridge collapse in 1714 Peru.  As might be expected from the guy who gave us Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, it’s a sprawling yet patient work.  He critiques attempts to impose religious significance on tragedies, but he does so with understanding and compassion; he writes of servants and nobility, actresses and nuns, all with equal tact; he depicts the nuances of daily interaction and the existential dread that can accompany it; he weaves a triptych of overlapping relationships and themes.  If it all sounds a bit precocious, his sincerity keeps it all in check.  It’s short, moving, and holds up great on its second read. RD

 

 

Where’s Lillie?

Alice Lowe, author of “Lillie’s Legacy”  from our Winter 2015 issue, recently revisited Coit Tower, the inspiration behind her piece. Upon visiting, she made a shocking discovery.

Ms. Lowe recounts this experience below.  

 

In early January, just a few weeks after “Lillie’s Legacy” was published in 1966, my husband and I went to San Francisco for a weekend getaway, our reward to ourselves for surviving the holidays. I was eager to revisit Coit Tower, the setting and theme of my essay.

On our first morning we made our usual trek from North Beach up Telegraph Hill, arriving at the tower just before it opened for the day. At 10:00 a.m. a woman I hadn’t seen there previously unlocked the door and came out on the steps. In a sing-song voice, she welcomed the dozen or so of us assembled, adding that she could provide translations in seven languages. Don turned left as we entered; I headed to the right. “I’m going to greet Lillie,” I said, referring to the bust of Lillie Coit that at one time graced the front steps and later was moved to a west-facing window inside.

I turned the corner and stopped short. The space the pedestal had occupied was bare. I wondered where they’d moved it this time, but there was no sign of it on a full circle around the perimeter. I returned to the entrance and asked the woman, “Where’s Lillie?” At her puzzled expression I said, “The statue of Lillie Coit that used to be in the west window.”

“I’ve never seen it,” she said.

She must be new here, I thought. I went back around to ask at the ticket window and was pleased to see Terry, the man who had taken me on the private tour to the hidden murals on my last visit. I re-introduced myself and reminded him of his generous act of a year ago and told him about my essay, gave him the website where he could read it. “You’re in it,” I said.

“So,” I asked, “where’s the bust of Lillie that used to be around the corner?”

Another perplexed look. “We had a display case featuring Lillie, with a photograph, a brief biography and some mementos,” he said. “There was no bust.”

I questioned him repeatedly, as if I would get a more satisfactory response if I kept asking, as if he would say “just kidding” and lead me to the statue. “I saw it when I was here last year,” I said.

“You couldn’t have seen it last year, even if it existed,” he replied, telling me that when they reopened after the last restoration, the pedestal wasn’t put back on display.

I called Don over and asked him what he recalled. His description matched Terry’s. “Why didn’t you say something when you read the draft of my essay?” I asked. He shrugged—he reads my papers, but he doesn’t offer critique or pay attention to details.

I could see it—a three-dimensional Lillie atop a pedestal, an engraved bio underneath—clearly in my mind. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Had I invented it? I was stunned, mystified, dismayed.

When I wrote my essay, I carefully verified all the facts about Lillie, the tower, the murals, the artists. But I had no reason to doubt this tangible monument. If I’d recalled seeing Elvis Presley in one of the murals, I’d have been suspicious, but a tribute to the benefactor of the tower, the irrepressible Lillie Coit? And after repeated visits?

Neuroscience has corroborated what novelists, poets and memoir writers have been saying for centuries. They’ve confirmed the physiological basis of memory and explored the brain activity involved in recalling stored memories, demonstrated that memory may be a result of the act of remembering and as such can be altered with every recall. Memory was the basis for Virginia Woolf’s concept of consciousness and our construction of it. She frequently questioned the accuracy of her memories and articulated her speculations. In memoir sketches she tells about her step-brother clubbing a fish with a broom handle, and immediately follows by asking: “Can I be remembering a fact?”

For centuries memoirists and essayists have issued disclaimers to explain faulty recollections. Rousseau stated in his eighteenth century Confessions that some of his facts might be incorrect, but “I cannot be mistaken about what I felt….” Tobias Wolff prefaced the more recent This Boy’s Life with a similar caveat “…memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make this a truthful story.”

With red-faced apologies to the diligent fact-checking editors of 1966 and to my readers, I plead my innocence by virtue of extenuating circumstances. In my mind, the bust of Lillie Coit welcomes visitors to Coit Tower.

*

Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Permafrost, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, and Prime Number. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. Her work on Virginia Woolf includes two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

The Winter 2015 issue is here!

Settle in for a cozy winter’s read with essays about alligators and the humans who love them, living with illness, the woman behind San Francisco’s Coit Tower, and how we become ourselves. New work by Alice Lowe, Adrian Koesters, Melinda Copp, Suzanne Roberts, Ben Wirth, Elizabeth Mosier, Dawn Newton, and Sarah Carson.

 

Best American Essays 2015

We’re excited to say that Carolyn Kraus’s essay, “A Thing with Feathers,” from the Spring 2014 issue of 1966 has been selected as a “notable essay” of 2014 by the editors of The Best American Essays 2015.

You can read this wonderful essay here.

Congratulations, Carolyn, and thank you for allowing us to publish your work. And thank you to Robert Atwan, Ariel Levy, and the other editors at Best American. The Best American Essays series celebrates our genre every year and brings all of us amazing essays we might otherwise have missed. It also encourages a lot of writers and small magazines through the recognition of their work in the “notable essays” list. That encouragement means a lot and we’re grateful. You can purchase Best American Essays 2015  at your local, independent bookstore.

From our staff of writers

Most of our editors also write and occasionally they write for us about craft. Here is a reflection from assistant editor, Ryan Diller.

The Ethics of Personal Nonfiction

Ryan Diller

 

It’s hard to write creative nonfiction without bringing in the personal; even some of the genre’s great research writers, like Jon Krakaeur and David Foster Wallace, cannot help but embed their biases and experiences into their works. Many CNF writers have gone so far to argue that it is impossible to write without bringing in personal biases. After all, to break through the bland, detached style stereotypically associated with nonfiction – a style that masquerades as objective – is a hallmark of CNF. But when we insert our own perspectives into nonfiction, we face a tough moral question: how do we responsibly and respectfully write about others from our highly subjective viewpoints?

If we publish our works, we face offending the dubiously named “innocent.” It’s a legitimate, empathetic concern. Even I can’t say with 100% certainty that I’d like any and all aspects of my past broadcasted to the public. Some writers have tried to get around this obstacle by changing names and obscuring the features of the people who inspired their characters, but, as Ryan Van Meter demonstrates in his wonderful essay, “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” this can defeat the entire purpose of writing nonfiction. In this piece, Van Meter recalls his attempts to turn an adolescent trauma – an incident in which two boys mocked him for his homosexuality, which he had not yet come to terms with – into fiction, but when he tries to rename the boys who harassed him, he can’t “find the perfect substitutes for the names Mark or Jared. Without Mark or Jared the story somehow won’t work.” For whatever reason, tiny, random details like these can be what make pieces ring true or false.

For me, what makes Van Meter’s piece compassionate and not an act of literary vengeance is the balance with which he tells the piece. Having written about my own personal traumas, I know that it’s extremely difficult to treat abusers mercifully, avoid blaming yourself, and be true to your strong visceral experiences all at the same time. Van Meter solves this dilemma in the essay’s conclusion by mixing them all at once, demonstrating the complexity of reencountering his abuser years after the fact. When Van Meter forgives Jared at a ten-year high school reunion, Jared gives him a friendly shoulder squeeze, which “feels a little like the warmth of comfort, and a little like the squeeze of danger.” Complexity and moderateness, empathy and self-honesty: they can seem contradictory, but it’s their blend that makes Van Meter’s piece so captivating and what I believe can make personal writing generous, rather than selfish.

Writing about the personal can be a deeply terrifying experience. Will my abuser contact me again (for this reason, I actually break from the Van Meter Principle. Also, I hold out the hope that maybe the perpetrator of my trauma has changed)? Will I alienate the ones I love? Will I remember the way my aunt’s nose wiggled correctly, or am I failing to do justice to my family’s mythos?

But to share one’s own past honestly can be a magnanimous thing when done well. It can assure others that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and it can maybe even result in your relationships with others actually getting better (hey, I’m trying to be optimistic here).

 

Welcome to the Summer Issue

We’re please to present our summer issue. In it, our writers contemplate the varied topics of professional wrestling, fracking and the prairie, migraines, nuns and love, Lauren Bacall and another Betty, pansies, the humanity of a drug smuggler, the death of a mysterious father, the sea urchin Diadema.

 We can’t help but notice that most of these essays talk about loss in one way or another, whether it be environmental devastation or the loss of love, freedom or family (and even the loss of pain). But so many of them also show how sometimes the universe gives us small gifts amid that loss, ways to make do without, salves to ease pain: the smell of pansies and dirt, memories of love, scientists and prairie activists, a wrestler’s dedication to craft, Bacall’s strong chin. And even in the bleakest of these essays, there is still this sign of hope: writers making shining art from the darkest places humans find themselves. We hope you find pleasure here, and failing that, strength.

Issue 4 is Coming!

Our fourth bi-annual issue of 1966 will make its debut this month! The Winter 2014 issue will have work by Sandell Morse and Angela Morales, as well as essays about coyote killers, teeth, and breath. We continue to accept submissions of research-driven creative nonfiction. Please consult our submission guidelines. Don’t forget to share our upcoming issue with all of your friends, including those that are avid readers and writers! From the staff here at 1966, we hope you have a wonderful winter holiday and a Happy New Year. This upcoming issue is our gift to you.