Better late than never, the Summer Issue!

The Summer 2017 issue is finally here!

Just in time for Father’s Day:

Patti See writes her (very much alive) father’s obituary and Erin Pushman pieces together her grandfather’s war story.

And in remembrance of fathers’ sons:

James Halford remembers the loss of the forty-three of Ayotzinapa Normal School and Amanda Bales contemplates a face of World War I.

Eluding our Editor’s attempts at categorization:

Contemplating practice and contemplative practice, Jacob Slichter exhibits “Stick Control,” while Pascha Sotolongo considers romantic leads, love, and A Patch of Blue.

 

What We’re Reading

My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart

My Heart is an Idiot is a collection of stories in which Davy Rothbart falls in love with 13166633different girls, usually abruptly, and always unsuccessfully. This may seem tedious at first. However, Rothbart transcends the initial adventure/hazard of falling in love by exploring the events that take place along the way. A story about travelling to meet the girl of his dreams becomes a story about hauling the carcass of a dead moose off the road. While watching his date make out with another guy at an LA club, Rothbart teaches Pau Gasol the meaning of the term “suck face.” While these turns of events are fun, Rothbart truly shines when he writes about the friends he makes; the stories stop being about his feelings and become a window into these strangers’ lives. Rothbart manages this beautifully because he treats everyone he meets– from the pretty girl on the airplane to the hitchhiker he picks up– with genuine interest, even fascination. Thus, it’s hard not to fall in love with these new friends, too.

 

–Maria Teresa Kamel, Assistant Editor

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

 

 

The Summer Issue is here!

Just in time for your poolside reading–unless you’re suffering from the same weather pattern that has settled over us in South Texas–the Summer Issue of 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction is here!

In this issue:

  • Patti See meets The Badger at the Mayo Clinic.
  • Gary M. Almeter counts loneliness and Jennifers.
  • Jim Ross shares a Y with some mysterious guests.
  • Gretchen Legler considers wealth and apples.
  • Jennifer Young and the State of Ohio remind us that we’re still parents.
  • Robert W. Henway takes us round a cemetery in Iowa City.
  • Anne Kaier finds a kind of healing, but not in Lourdes.
  • Bob Cowser, Jr. contemplates the wee, small hours.

All these gifts. Happy Summer!

Memorial

It’s perhaps fitting that our final blog post before our next issue comes from Elizabeth Mosier, whose “I Have, I Fear, the Literary Temperament” closed our last issue. In that piece, Mosier demonstrated her skill as a thorough researcher with an eye for hidden, fascinating narratives, uncovering the story of Dorothy Burr Thompson, an engaging diarist torn between becoming a writer or a scholar. In the piece below, she recounts the story of Hercules, a slave who escaped Mt. Vernon, the plantation of George Washington.  

 

It’s high tourist season in Philadelphia, and so not at all unusual—if slightly unsettling— to find a man beside me on the regional rail platform clad in breeches, buckled shoes, and a tri-corner hat. He’s commuting, as I am, to Independence National Historical Park, but he’s costumed for interpreting history at the Visitors’ Center, while I’m clad in privy-picker jeans and black t-shirt for my volunteer work at the archaeology lab.

Like any city, Philadelphia has its versions: public and private, seen and unseen, drafted and revised. This summer morning, the two of us proceed down busy Market Street, parting at 6th and Market Streets, the location of George Washington’s residence and slaves’ quarters from 1790 – 97. This complicated narrative—democracy framed upon the faulty foundation of slavery—first drew me to the site. That week, a team of archaeologists revealed the mortared stone walls of the “Philadelphia White House” and, in the process, disturbed the surface of a story last interpreted for the United States Bicentennial.

When I first visited the dig with my daughters, I couldn’t help but read the emerging revision as a writer would. There, in the ground, was the visible footprint of the bow-windowed room that architectural historians say is the precedent to the modern-day Oval Office. Washington added it to the house for the purpose of meeting visitors at his level, not elevated and enthroned like a king. And there, five feet away, was the open-hearth kitchen where the enslaved man called Hercules cooked the president’s meals.

One version of the story is shaped by this proximity: the symbol of democracy next to the brick and mortar evidence of slavery. Here, in this ironic setting, Hercules rises from plantation slave to celebrated chef, his talents and loyalty to Washington rewarded with unusual privileges. He makes an income from selling kitchen scraps, buys fine clothing, strolls Philadelphia’s abolitionist streets. Narrative tension is sustained by the dissonance between text (the appearance of liberty) and subtext (the reality of bondage)—and satisfyingly resolved in March, 1797, when Hercules escapes.

Or so the story goes. Structurally, this version is as elegant as the portrait presumed to be of Hercules, painted by Washington’s own portraitist, Gilbert Stuart. But portraiture is not a story. And that is the problem at the root of this narrative: a complete dramatic action is elusive when the protagonist isn’t free to act. Or when the protagonist vanishes.

If this were fiction, the writer might attempt to open and deepen the draft by shifting narrative point of view. Seeing events through Hercules’ eyes would compel the writer to develop him as a character—not simply present him as an ironic figure in Washington’s conflicted tale.

But this is history, and only facts can free the narrative from the limits imposed by its frame. In fact, the age and provenance of the famous portrait isn’t fixed. The tall toque Hercules wears is a style that wasn’t popular until later, in the early nineteenth century; Stuart scholars don’t acknowledge the painting as part of the artist’s body of work. And a discovery by Mt. Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson not only recasts the story’s climax, but also offers an ending that opens into Hercules’ probable future.

In the Mt. Vernon farm report dated February 25, 1797, Hercules is listed as “absconded for four days,” meaning Hercules fled to Philadelphia, not from it (as Washington later wrote in a letter to his secretary, Tobias Lear). Meaning Washington’s birthday (February 22) was the occasion for his flight. As Washington hosted parties in Philadelphia, the culinary artist supposedly valued for his skill and loyalty was in fact at Mt. Vernon, assigned to the hard labor of digging clay for bricks—and, it turns out, plotting his escape.

And the portrait of Hercules—which journeyed to aristocratic residences in Paris and Gloucestershire, England, before reaching its current home in Spain’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza—could have been painted by someone other than Stuart, after Hercules fled to Europe from Philadelphia and joined the household of a British diplomat.

Though the ground at the President’s House site is now covered, the dig for hidden stories continues. And I’m reminded of what Independence National Park Service archeologist Jed Levin explained to me when I first signed on for the long project of processing artifacts:  archaeological research is intended to illuminate what is uncovered at the dig, and not merely to preserve it.

*

In the end, it didn’t surprise me that the “interpretive text” for the President’s House memorial took longer to construct than the ghost structure built at the site to enclose this monumental story.

The first draft, briefly on display at the Independence Visitor Center, elicited conflicting reviews—too concerned with slavery, not concerned enough with slavery, dominated by well-known figures like Washington and Adams—and rare consensus that the long-awaited memorial was “unimaginative.” Writing crafted by committee is often mediocre, in part because the process of compromise moves vivid, often opposing, views toward the duller middle. And this particular project is constrained by a marketing agenda separate from its historical one; you sense the rush to reassure visitors with a falsely balanced presentation, one that seeks to “brand” Philadelphia even while it liberates the stories of Washington’s nine slaves: Moll, Austin, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, Joe Richardson, Oney Judge, and Hercules.

But there is judgment in any narrative, whether overtly stated or conveyed by framing, emphasis, and omission. As a writer, what I found most revealing in the draft was the persistent use of passive voice to tell the story of slavery: History is lost to these Africans, who were kidnapped and transported to America and given new names and forced to learn a new language. The agent is missing in these constructions, either unknown or (still) unacknowledged.

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Elizabeth Mosier’s nonfiction has appeared most recently in the HerStories Voices column, Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. Her essay, “Believers,” was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2015. A seven-year volunteer technician for the Independence National Park Archaeology Laboratory, she is at work on a collection of essays on archaeology, memory, and home. 

What We’re Reading (4/21)

Submissions. We’re reading a lot of submissions a lot of the time. But we at 1966 also, of course, love our free-reading, and below are some of our latest favorites:

Tongue Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education edited by Otto Santa Anna – The book includes a compilation of creative nonfiction essays and poetry on the denial of children’s right to speak their native language and more scholarly essays on the subject. The book takes a critical look at the United States’ political and educational policies and how they have affected the lives of language minorities. Some of the first hand accounts include the works of Amy Tan, Sherman Alexi, Richard Rodriguez, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Although the work stresses loss, it also gives hope for the future. (Ileana Sherry, Managing Editor)

“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” by Edgar Allan Poe – Upon watching Stonehearst Asylum, a 2014 movie based on Poe’s work, I became curious about the tale and decided to read it. As Poe’s works tend to do, this short story transports the reader into a dark yet colorful world: this time, that of a quite unconventional mental institute through the eyes of an unsuspecting physician who may or may not be off his rocker himself. (Nipuni Gomes, Assistant Editor)

Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy – We’re still at the point in American history in which a significant demographic can be locked out of history syllabi for “moral” reasons, so we need all the vital, readable works of queer history we can get. Enter Robert Beachy: a scholar who writes with a CNF author’s eye for narrative. In just 250 pages, Gay Berlin outlines how 19th century Germany birthed the modern gay identity, introduces us to a number of captivating and virtually unknown civil rights heroes, and provides a surprising account of a diverse and flourishing queer culture in pre-Nazi Berlin. A subtly poignant, eye-opening text; essential for anyone interested in queer history. (Ryan Diller, Web Editor)

Submission Opportunity: True Story, a new publication from The Creative Nonfiction Foundation

Now here’s a cool opportunity: the foundation behind Creative Nonfiction—one of our very best and most prestigious CNF publications—has established a new publication. True Story will feature just one piece per issue, the guarantee being that this one piece will be a work of exceptional quality. Submissions will be accepted year-round, and The Creative Nonfiction Foundation will attempt to respond to submissions within three months.

The guidelines are simple: the piece must be unpublished, fall between 3500 and 7000 words, any style or subject is acceptable so long as the piece is nonfiction, and multiple submissions are welcome. Pieces may either be mailed or submitted online (though there is a $3 convenience fee for the latter).

If their piece is chosen, the author will receive $300, ten free copies of the issue, and an impressive credit to their resume.

For more information, click here.

Percolators, Bathtubs, and Creative Nonfiction

In the post below, Adrian Koesters writes with the honesty and wisdom she brought to “It Couldn’t Hurt,” a piece in our last issue. In that piece, she shared her struggles with fibromyalgia. In this post, she guides us through a narrative encompassing (but certainly not limited to) the rosary, PTSD, the “guts” required to write CNF, and bathtub inspiration. 

 

The title comes to me because I have recently devoted myself to making coffee in an electric percolator, after a lifetime claiming I could not make coffee and then realizing that letting the machine do the slow work for you gives you exactly the cup you meant to make. Drip coffee maybe is too fast? I don’t know. All of my adventures with the French press have been disasters. Too much pressure? Too much having my own way with it? You see what I mean.

As to percolators and nonfiction, I recently read a relevant essay on taking your time in a memoir by Julie Johnson Riddle (whose wonderful memoir, The Solace of Stones, just came out from U of Nebraska Press). She considers how often memory confounds us no matter how sure we are of our facts, and beyond that, how likely it is for ego to overmaster consciousness. In time, though, Johnson Riddle maintains, in nonfiction the truths of your story will find you, and when they do, they are often humbling if not outright shaming.

Memories may be beautiful, and yet…

Like many writers, I started out writing poetry for the (for me, anyway) get-in-get-out safety of it (imagine thinking poetry is safe!), because I simply had a terror of opening my mouth for any reason. You get a lot of writers like this. And I’ll tell you that very, very often, a poem still will come to me nearly whole, and I have no idea why this is other than that when I write poetry, I think I’m more able to let a part of my psyche come forward in a way that can happen at times when I write fiction but nearly never does with nonfiction.

This could be nonsense, and I’m not speaking for anyone else, nor remotely saying that there is not an imperative (or truth) in poetry and fiction as opposed to nonfiction, but for me, nonfiction takes more guts somehow. Getting your facts straight without the protective padding of metaphor and free narrative choice takes guts.

I began my nonfiction writing career in the bathtub. I’d been in treatment for delayed post-traumatic stress for a number of years, was married, had a small child, and spent most of the time when I didn’t have to be at work curled up on a bed or (if nobody was home) hanging on the walls and howling. Here I’m just stating facts: this is what it was like.  My mother died in 1999, and I thought that I would like to write about her. I came up with a very long poem about her, and another about my father, whom I never knew. I was making stuff up all over the place factually, but was getting as close to telling that truth as I could.

Still, both of the poems were unholy messes, though I whittled them into shape in time. And then, for reasons I’m still not perfectly sure about, I went back to praying the Catholic rosary. I’d never really prayed it on my own as an adult, and as a kid it was almost completely meshed up in the deaths of then-Pope, now St. John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy—both times the radio was set to the Rosary at full blast and seemed to go on for days. It scared me.

But I took up the rosary in those last years of the worst of my illness. And over one or two more years, with various treatments and help, the worst of the PTSD began to subside. Still, I kept on with the rosary. Most of the time I didn’t pray it at all, but carried one or three around and was never without at least one of those plastic glow-in-the-dark jobs they string over the poor box—as incentive to give? I’m not sure: I think elderly sisters and people in nursing homes make them, but they are always there.

And after the previous fifteen or so years of managing a line or two of poetry every now and then, followed by two days under the blankets, I began to write again, mostly poetry, then some fiction, and then I went back to school and started writing in every genre. But before that, I also started to take baths again (instead of showers—I was bathing, at least!), where I rediscovered what great ideas come to you in the bathtub, really often close to genius, the same kind of genius that strikes you when you wake up from a really good dream but with a little more ability to remember what you were thinking about. One day, lolling in the hot water, I thought, “You know, this rosary thing has really helped me a lot. I should write a scriptural rosary for people like me.” This thought was followed the next day by, “And then I need to write a book of poems. And then a novel. And then a memoir.”

The prayer book was written nearly instantaneously and published about as quickly as it’s possible to publish a book, even one so short. I’m proud of it, but I read it now and think, “Who wrote this?” I don’t think I could manage such a book again, so there must have truly been a spirit waiting for me to take care of it. I’m glad, but the whole process gave me a very false idea of what makes a book of nonfiction.

That was in about 2003 or so. And all of those things that in the bathtub I said ought to happen did—except the last. I had it in my mind to write a book about how often we moved as kids, which I thought would be a pretty good basis for a book I could write very quickly, à la cottage-industry Wisdom I Have Gained from the Gift of Trauma, but it didn’t happen. The next book was to be about how great food is and how wonderfully I cooked and ate for a year, etc., but then that Julia Child book came out, and so I figured I was picking up something in the air that wasn’t really mine.  I still want to write those books, but I know now they are not going to be the books I had in my instant-wisdom head when I first conceived of them and that they are not going to produce themselves “nearly whole,” not by a long shot.

Now, even in very short pieces, CNF still goes (yes, painfully) slow. My first published piece was begun in 2004 and published in 2011. The piece I wrote for this journal, “It Couldn’t Hurt,” was started in the summer of 2008, and it was finally “done” last year. I have a very small piece about a photograph of my father that I have been trying to get right since before 2005, and it’s frustrating not to be able to get at the heart of it. Still, when I think about “telling the truth” about my life, in the hopes that it might be of interest or benefit to some reader somewhere, I know I “ought to” have the “guts” to tell it the way not that I need to, but in the way it needs to be told (maybe these are the same thing, but I don’t think they always are). I do know it’s going to take a long bath and a slow cup of coffee—and if God is good, it won’t be anything very wise, either.

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Adrian Koesters’ nonfiction and essays have appeared in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Under the Gum Treeand in the anthology Becoming: What Makes a Woman (University of Nebraska (2012)). Her nonfiction book on spirituality, Healing Mysteries, was published by Paulist Press (2005) and her collection of poems, Mary Parishes, was published by BrickHouse Books (2013). She holds an MFA in poetry from the Rainer Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University and a Ph.D. in fiction and poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She taught creative writing at UNL and the Creighton University MFA program, and currently is the editorial research specialist for Grants Resources at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. 

Recognizing the Power of Memoir: A Discussion of Craft and Content with Sarah Hepola

Sitting in a red, cushioned chair in a crowded auditorium, I recognized the story being read aloud as a better-written version of my own early college years. There was the added flair of 90s grunge and a dark humor I’ve never managed to achieve in my own writing, but as Sarah Hepola read excerpts from her New York Times Bestseller, Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to Forget, I felt a connection with the work as a drinker, a woman, and a writer. The experience reminded me of the struggles and rewards of writing within the genre of creative nonfiction as a memoirist.

A couple of weeks ago, the 1966 staff had the pleasure of attending a Q & A with and a lecture by creative nonfiction author Sarah Hepola. Sarah Hepola is best known for Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to Forget, but her writing has also appeared as essays in the New York Times, Salon, The New Republic, and several other magazines, newspapers, and journals.

Trinity University hosted the two events, starting with a personal Q &A in a borrowed classroom filled with current and prospective writers, journalists, and publishers. Our conversation immediately turned to questions of craft. Creative nonfiction presents particular challenges unique to the genre. Most prominent in my mind are the worries of what people will think of you and how your family and friends will react, especially if they appear in your work. Sarah Hepola shared the ways she coped with these issues. Unexpectedly, she cited the advent of the comment section in how she learned to cope with negative reactions to her work and to herself. She explained that internet comments made it hard for her to maintain the idea that everyone would think her writing was great, and she learned to develop a sense of detachment from the negative comments. Hepola also explained that she allows those people in her pieces to preview the portions in which they appear; this practice allows her to address some of their concerns and give them some warning.

Later that night a large crowd filed into Laurie Auditorium to see Hepola lecture. She focused on the content of her book, and in between readings she explained blackouts, the importance of drinking responsibly, and the issues surrounding consent. With each topic I remembered my own experience with these difficult issues, recalling that the second CNF piece I wrote was on my own desire for alcoholic blackouts. Our stories diverge in our reasons for drinking, in our feelings toward our blackouts, and our recovery, but in her story I felt a validation of my own. Hepola shared that after her book, women and men thanked her for sharing her story, often a story similar to their own. This is the power of memoir: in telling your story, you validate other people’s struggles. In telling your story, you can become an advocate and a critic. In Sarah Hepola’s words, when it comes to creative nonfiction “the rewards outweigh the challenges.”

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Ileana Sherry works with students of many ages to improve their skills in writing and reading in addition to her work as Managing Editor and Senior Reader for 1966. Her mission is to excite the same passion she feels for writing, reading, and literature in her students. She believes in order to be a great English teacher you must strive to write every day. As a writer, Ileana works in creative nonfiction, writing memoir. She takes inspiration from great writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, and Mary Karr.