Monthly Archives: September 2012

Notes from No Man’s Land

book by Eula Biss

annotation by Lee Stoops

“In the United States, it is very easy for me to forget that the people around me are my people. It is easy, with all our divisions, to think of myself as an outsider in my own country.”(93)

~ Eula Biss

Essay: Letter to Mexico

It’s hard for me to believe Eula Biss is on a few years older than I or that she could understand, in fewer than 40 years alive, so much about people. I cannot think of a book that has moved me, changed my mind, or affirmed more of what I believe than this collection of essays. It would be easy to gush, to spend pages singing about the remarkable presentation of such treacherous and necessary subject matter, but this annotation will focus on Biss’s writing style – her language, construction, and persona. Through her essays, Biss offers permission to think honestly and express freely. She impressed me more than any writer of this generation both in the bravery of her presentation and in the quality of her writing.

Because writers are artists, rendering shape to everything through the employment of words (language our medium), I usually spend the majority of my reading time noting other elements of writer’s work. However, with Biss, I could not get over her use of the English language. It’s such a compelling mix of conversational, educational, informal, and intellectual vocabulary and syntax. Her lexis is accessible to many, which, I believe, considering the nature of these essays, was her intention. Yet, there is nothing simple about her words. Her language forms in a way that does not seek to persuade but merely to draw attention to issues from new places of insight. She does not use words to manipulate or sell or prove. She raises questions and hopes for answers. There are times her language sounds like opinion, but, to any reader committed to the end of essays, it is clear she is not editorializing – she is hypothesizing, at times edging close to theory, but always, always inviting the reader, through conversational tones, to openly consider what has her confused, piqued, or upset.

“Being afraid of children is not, in itself, much of a crime. It is more of an indignity. But disguising the fearful things we do to children as essential elements of their education is as good as dynamiting the foundation of the classroom. The walls are bound to collapse, eventually, around that betrayal, and bring with them the roof. One of the most frightening things about children, in my experience, is their intelligence. They inevitably know more than we suspect them of knowing. They appraise us with devastating accuracy. And they are aware of injustices we have learned to ignore.” (53)

Perhaps the most interesting stylistic element of Biss’s essays is her construction. In essence, it follows the form of braiding, but it is so inventive. Traditionally, braided essays weave fluidly, more a blending of subjects than a braiding – a contriving of connection if the connection is not profound. Biss’s essays don’t do this. Yes, her writing blends from braid to braid, and her language is consistent, but her braids are also independent and defined and she ropes them together with finesse, not force. With the braiding, she does not lead the reader to conclusions, and she does not hint. There are times, as in her opening essay, that the introduction of new braids surprises. By the end, the connections, while inventive in her mixing, are clear. I found myself either informed or flip-flopped on my understanding of a topic. For example, the following are progressive snippets from braids as she interlays them in her opening essay Time and Distance Overcome:

“Mark Twain was among the first Americans to own a telephone, but he wasn’t completely taken with the device. ‘The human voice carries entirely too far as it is,’ he remarked.”(4).

“The war on telephone poles was fueled, in part, by that terribly American concern for private property, and a reluctance to surrender it for a shared utility.”(5).

“‘Time and dist. Overcome,’ read an early advertisement for the telephone…The telephone, Thomas Edison declared, ‘annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.’ (6)

‘In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And … ‘(6-7).

‘Lynching, the first scholar of the subject determined, is an American tradition.'(7).

“The children’s game of telephone depends on the fact that a message passed quietly from one ear to another to another will get distorted at some point along the line.”(7).

In creative nonfiction, the word “persona” has taken a frontline position in approach and development of voice. Biss, a relatively young writer and teacher, has developed in this collection a persona as interesting and verbally dichotic as her blend of vocabulary. She presents to the reader an educated, curious, hopeful and naïve person – a person of remarkable insight and experience considering her age. But, as fascinating as her choice of personas to include is, what grabbed me as a writer are the persona options she leaves out. For example, it is not until the last quarter of the collection that the reader knows she is married, and not until the last essay that the reader knows she is pregnant (the dedication hints at that, but does not confirm). She does not replace her established personas as she introduces new ones. The introduction of new persons is calculated, and, given the subject matter of the essays the first half of the book comprises, wise. Some of her youthful, hopeful naiveté in the earlier essays might not be as powerful had she introduced herself as a wife, as a mother-to-be. She also chooses to give much away in regard to her own cultural/genetic persona. Given her name and the (intentionally) poorly lit author photo, it is impossible to tell picking up the book much about her other than she is a young-ish woman. The mystery around who she physically is gives a strange credit to her subject matter:

“Even now, at a much more wary and guarded age, what I feel when I am told that my neighborhood is dangerous is not fear but anger at the extent to which so many of us have agreed to live within a delusion – namely, that we will be spared the dangers that others suffer only if we move within certain very restricted spheres, and that insularity is a fair price to pay for safety.” (154)

While reading Notes from No Man’s Land, I realized, for the first time in a long time, it was a book I had trouble putting down. Not only that, but I thought while reading about when and how I might re-read the essays, even how I might teach them. Not just as a student of writing, but as a human being, encouraged to grow and to change and to not ignore so many things I’ve come to so easily ignore. As a writer, this is the kind of book that makes a difference in the way I write, because it makes a difference in the way I see the world, the way I see other people, and the way I see myself.

“A sense of home is, it seems, worth more than any other comfort. And one of the questions I want to answer now, for myself, is what makes a place feel like home. I know that it is not so simple as living where people speak your language and look like you and have lost what you have lost, but there is a kind of comfort in that, too.” (128)



The Boys of My Youth

book by Jo Ann Beard

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The Boys of My Youth is an elegant collection of twelve narrative essays that focus on the author’s Midwestern childhood and the relationships that carried into her adulthood. To show readers how she came to be the person she is, Jo Ann Beard uses a combination of present tense narration, simple yet meaningful motifs, and a layering of scenes from childhood and adulthood to create a collage of pieces that evoke emotion without being overly sentimental.

One essay in particular illustrates this narrative structure. In the title essay, which comes last in the collection, Beard writes about the pursuit of childhood crushes. Throughout the piece, Beard shifts from her childhood neighborhood, where she prank-called boys with her best friend, Elizabeth, into her adulthood, where she is an editor in Iowa and Elizabeth is an editor in Chicago. Throughout the essay, the two share a telephone conversation discussing past relationships and they way they met.

In one paragraph they are in junior high school French class, horrified when the teacher tells a classmate she enunciates like Porky the Pig. Immediately, the narrative shifts to present time, as they are reminiscing over the phone and Elizabeth is correcting the author’s memory about the first time they met:

“That was ninth grade, not seventh,” Elizabeth says. “We were already friends when that happened.” She is at her office in downtown Chicago, talking to me on the WATS line. “You wouldn’t’ believe what my desk looks like right now.” I would because I’ve witnessed it. She’s an editor, and there are manuscripts stacked everywhere and yellow notes with Urgent scrawled across them stuck to the carpet. (156)

One of Beard’s many talents is melding the funny with the sad, and creating beautiful sentences that evoke certain feelings within the reader. Her subject matter is not particularly sentimental, since many of her essays are about the smaller moments in life, but her prose is so sparse and well crafted that it resonates with emotion.

“Cousins” is an example of this. A collage-like essay that begins with two pregnant sisters fishing from a boat, it moves into the lives of sisters’ boy-crazy, free-spirited daughters: Beard and her cousin, Wendell. The essay is comprised of nonlinear snapshots – Beard and Wendell as girls playing Dirty Barbies in the backyard or getting stoned at an Eric Clapton concert, juxtaposed with scenes of Beard’s mother lying in a hospital bed, coming in and out of consciousness because of morphine and illness.

She writes,

“They [Beard’s mother and aunt] swim through her lake, gray-eyed sisters, thin-legged and mouthy. They fight and hold hands, trade shoes and dresses, marry beautiful tall men, and have daughters together, two dark-eyed cousins, thin-legged and mouthy.” (44)

Beard’s essays work together as a collection because they address similar themes and include similar descriptions or motifs. “Cousins,” which is my favorite piece in the collection, includes a motif of a silver baton in a way that is hauntingly beautiful. A few of the author’s pieces feature the same phrases and similes, such as swimming or rowing a boat as metaphor for dreaming. Several essays begin with and include short, matter-of-fact sentences that immediately place the reader into the story, such as “Here is a scene” or “This is daytime.”

Beard’s twelve essays also vary in certain ways. Some are very short. “In The Current,” which is about three teenagers who get caught in a river current, is barely two pages. Others, like “The Boys of My Youth,” are much longer. A few are written in past tense, but most are in present tense (which Beard said in an interview with The Fiddleback, an online magazine, is something she does unintentionally).

Writing in present tense closes the narrative distance between reader and writer and lends immediacy to the story. What the writer surrenders with present tense, though, is a measure of reflection, which is a key element of memoir. If the narrator is speaking in the moment, hindsight is not an option. Beard’s essays tend to run short on reflection, perhaps because of her use of present tense.

Another interesting element of this book is how Beard writes about her childhood. She seems to inhabit the space between remembering and imagining. Readers see this best in the essay, “Bulldozing the Baby,” in which Beard is a three-year-old separated for the first time from her favorite doll, Hal. The essay conveys her toddler thoughts in a humorous, adult-like manner. Since it is unlikely anyone would remember events from when they were three years old, the piece reads as though it was meant more for entertainment than for recollecting the past. If readers accept that the author has taken creative license, the effect is a funny take on what happens when Beard’s aunt decides to take away her beloved Hal.

I most admire Beard’s use of motif, particularly in her essay “Cousins.” The repeating images of fish, silver flashes, swimming and rowing a boat add a beautiful depth and connectivity to the work, which is something I would like to add to my own personal essays.