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.

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.

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.

Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Miya Pleines and “These Orbits, Crossing.”

Lost in the Woods with Research

The essay, by its very nature, is a strange, rambly, unpredictable sort of thing. Often times, you start off going in one direction and by the middle of page two, you look up only to find you’ve made two left turns, one right, and now you’re no longer anywhere near the place were you began. It’s similar to taking a walk in the woods, promising yourself, “This time, I won’t stray too far from the path,” only to turn around hours later to find that exact promise has been broken. So, you spend the next few hours searching for a break in the foliage, or even a clearing for you to sit down and rest, all the while cursing yourself for being so daft but also marveling at the new sights all around you. It’s almost as if your feet disregarded common sense in favor of discovering something new. The essay has a tendency to be like that, as well. Often, the story you set out to tell seems to have set out to tell its own story, as well, leaving you with the difficult task of trying to figure out a way to make the both of you happy. Actually, maybe essays are more like getting lost inside a maze where the walls are constantly shifting, providing new discoveries at every turn, and for me at least, the research process is a lot like that as well.

The research for These Orbits, Crossing has been going on for quite some time. It started back when I was an undergrad just beginning to delve into the history of the Japanese internment camps. I traveled to Manzanar when I was twenty-one to stand on the same soil my grandfather stood on almost seventy years earlier, and I tried to figure out what that meant, and to some extent, am still trying to figure out. Since that summer, I have spent countless hours researching Manzanar and the internment. I have followed interesting pieces of information down numerous different trails until, eventually, I have found myself reading articles that have absolutely nothing and absolutely everything to do with the camps. Through my research, I’ve realized that everything is all impossibly connected to the point where we can go from one single man’s story about life spent in an internment camp, all the way to talking about the universe.

It’s possible this all started when I was a little girl sitting at the long row of mismatched tables in my grandparents’ basement, listening to my family exchange stories about their childhood while I sat quietly eating apple pie and listening. I heard about the hydrogen balloons, the model airplanes, the cornfields and the hands held in the air as a reminder, and I never forgot.

One could even say this began the day I went through my grandmother’s bookshelves and found my grandfather’s copy of Model Glider Design with his name scribbled inside the front cover. I snuck it into my purse without asking, and took it home to read. I read about wing design and lift and gravity and I thought about my grandfather, years ago, doing the exact same thing for very different reasons. I studied those pages for links into my grandfather’s past and I took notes and made diagrams and followed my research wherever it led me. The walls of the maze were continually shifting, and I shifted along with them until, eventually, I sat down and began to write.

My point, I suppose, is that the research for this piece has been constantly ongoing. I have been following it and trying to wrangle it for a very long time, and even though this piece is finished, I am still following it looking for more directions, more discoveries, more connections to be made. I have no process other than to follow the research, the ideas, the essays until eventually, I come to a clearing where all of us can rest and converse together.

— Miya Pleines

Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Natalie Vestin and “The Sea of Crises”

As writers ourselves, we’re always interested in our authors’ process. Here Natalie Vestin shares the inspiration and research behind her essay “The Sea of Crises,” which appears in our current issue: 

My essay “Sea of Crises” was inspired by one of my dad’s stories about Mare Crisium, a valley on the moon. I’d known about the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, but I didn’t know there were other geographic features with names on the lunar surface. Part of my research for this essay included Giovanni Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (his 1651 atlas of space) and astronomer Thomas Gwyn Elger’s 1895 treatise The Moon. The rest of the research happened accidentally. I had the moon and the Sea of Crises in the back of my mind, and I was reading Vera Rubin’s Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters and books about science and religious faith. I was also walking a lot at night during the winter. January in Minnesota is nightmarish except for the bright, bright stars and planets; the sky becomes a sort of solace you can look toward when the rest of the outdoors is trying to kill you.

 While I was learning more about lunar cartography, I became fascinated with Riccioli, the Jesuit priest who drew maps of the moon and named its features. He’s a cipher; not much is written about him, save for a few accounts of his odd scientific experiments and his unfortunate testimony against Galileo. I was drawn to him, because I was thinking about why people love – really love – the moon, and here’s this astronomer priest trying to walk a fine line between using science to say what he thinks about God and attracting the attention of Inquisitors. What do you write when you’re too terrified to write anything? I guess you write about the moon.

I wrote this essay in a series of poems first – poems imagining this priest, poems about the broken moon, poems about how astronomy grew out of thinking about the physical nature of God. The facts that came out of the research were important, but I also wanted to capture what first fascinated me about the Sea of Crises – that moment when I learned about it and wanted to make it me, wanted to map the moon to myself and think that all bodies can have seas of crises. That’s what’s lovely about research: what you look at and write about has the ability to speak for you and map you when you lack other ways of expression.

–Natalie Vestin

What We Can Learn About Memoir from a Dog

An interesting memoir can come from anywhere and anyone. To back this up I direct you to my current favorite example of memoir: “Memoirs of an Owned Dog” a song by the duo now known as the Milk Carton Kids. The song is sung from perspective of a dog and delivers the funny and endearing tale of man’s best friend in a highlight reel of memoir tropes.The ordinary dog of the song proves there is room within the structure of memoir for humor, creativity, and profundity. I love a good memoir, and I love this song, the following lyrical analysis explains why.

 

The first lines:

“the food was as I like it… cold, wet & in that wonderful tin can shape
I had it marked in a paw print on the dog door the day that I finally planned my escape”

Like any good memoir the scene is set with solid concrete specific detail, and the beginnings of some conflict or action are alluded to.

Next:

“the milkman, he tried
you can bet I wanted to survive but the truck it just came far too fast
So I write on these scraps, my remembrances past, so you don’t blame yourself that I’ve died”

The inciting action is recounted and the impetus for committing of the memoir to paper is revealed.

After the chorus:

“I had dreams of walking the world on my own
four on the floor, every night all alone
I was ready to work for the scruff on my neck
yearning to find something of my own to protect”

The idealism of youth is established with great dramatic irony as the audience is already aware of the impending doom.

Later:

“my bark, then, was surely bigger than my bite
chewing the cud could’ve been my biggest dog fight
and you know how they say we only hear certain things that you say
well, it never mattered much to me but for the will of the way”

Insecurities and shortcomings are revealed through pensive musings on the activities of the everyday.

Then the chorus again:

“they put horses out to pasture
and the birds come home to roost
ain’t nothin’ for a puppy but the backyard on the loose
now I know my job was to lie idly beside
the way the sun retreats for the moon”

Universal themes introduced earlier in the chorus are repeated now to relate to the author’s personal story with poignant tugging at the heart strings.

Next:

“now I loosen this collar for a dog bone bow tie
to go up and meet the big dog in the sky
i’ll tell him when I get there I was spoiled in your place with the hopes that my spirit is honored by your grace”

Loose ends begin to resolve as the fate of the story is accepted. Special time is given to be thankful for the truly important things, and keep the mood hopeful.

Then:

“so after you read this memoir one day
or after you hear my lonesome song play
don’t you trouble your mind, this old hound’s doin’ fine
you know, goodbyes are just words like a clock is to time”

Wrapping the story up is typically sad, and requires words of assurance for the audience. Also included are a few final words of profound wisdom – something to grow on and ponder.

Lastly:

“so sorry I’m not with you
so sorry I can’t be
please know I was the best friend this old mutt could be
if you remember that spot where my favorite tree grows I hung up my leash on a branch, now it’s yours”

The bitter-sweet acknowledgements and epilogue tie everything up in an emotionally satisfying manner.

 

Click the link to see and hear some witty pre-song banter and a Simon Garfunkel-esque performance of the tear jerking “Memoirs of an Owned Dog.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_0fnP-Mb38

— Clay Reuter

Thoughts on Research from Our Authors: John Vanderslice

We asked some of the authors that we have published to reflect on research in their nonfiction work. John Vanderslice wrote the essay “Thirteen More Miles” published in our second issue. What follows are some of his thoughts on the research that he conducted for his essay.

Researching the subject of marathon running was something I had been doing unofficially for several years prior to writing my essay “Thirteen More Miles.” I’ve always paid special attention to articles that recount famous marathon contests of years past or the struggles of current marathoners or the latest updates from a major race, especially the once every four years Olympic qualifying competition. In my case, however, the reading I had already done about marathon running wasn’t enough.   I started drafting the essay in a nonfiction writing class I was teaching one semester, when all the students were trying to develop collage essays. In class, I wrote down what I already knew, but I followed up with a significant amount of research, finding out many more details about the races and runners I wanted to profile.

Sad to say, I am personally familiar with a couple of the tragedies I document in the essay.  In 2008, on the day that Adam Nickel died at the finish line of the Little Rock marathon, I was also running in Little Rock, only I covered the half-marathon course rather than the marathon one.  I finished my half-marathon about an hour before Adam finished his marathon. When I started writing about people who died running marathons, I knew I had to include Adam’s story.  I also knew I had to include the story of Molly Trauernicht, who died running the half-marathon course at the St. Jude’s Memphis marathon in 2009.  I was present on that day too.  Except this time I was running the marathon and she the half-marathon. Even though I had a certain level of personal history with the case of Adam Nickel’s death and Molly Trauernicht’s, I still researched those tragedies while I was writing the essay.

In developing my essay I tried to be honest to this seemingly dualistic nature of distance running: It can be about the most satisfying—and healthy—thing you’ll ever do, or it can kill you.   When I started drafting the essay a few years ago, those high profile deaths were very much on my mind as well as the mind of the running community at large.   I felt that I couldn’t not mention them.  Also, including the prospect of potential injury or death from running added some very useful tension to my own story of training for and running my first ever marathon.   Given that I had to struggle through a (pretty stupid) injury myself during that training, it just seemed to make a thematic fit.  Of course, since I wrote the essay in retrospective fashion the reader knows I didn’t die at the race, but perhaps there was other peril in store for me!  As you now know, however, the day turned out very nicely.