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Once a Writer But . . .


Lately—well, the last year or so—I've been involved in a project which intends to foster the editing and publishing of book-length manuscripts by relatively long-established nonfictionists. My book Lineage and Steven Harvey's Folly Beach served as the first test cases. In the coming year and perhaps later years the two of us and the poet-essayist Kathryn Winograd expect to apply what we've learned from our experiment to manuscripts by three more writers, in hopes of their books emerging in the near future. At base we're trying to give support and encouragement to people like us who, even though they find it challenging to place their recent writing with the kind of trade or university presses that published their work in the past, still keep writing personal essays and memoirs. As we're well aware, we're not the only ones this happens to.


As if I needed confirmation of that, I recently read an essay posted online in Kenyon Review titled "On Not Giving Up," by Laura Maylene Walter. She tells us of her decision years ago to "keep writing even if I never publish again." Writing, she says, "can be a breeding ground for loneliness, self-doubt, and self-loathing; it's rife with rejection; it's tough on both the spine and the heart; and there's pitifully little money in it, and often just as little respect." She adds, "It's not easy to stay the course through the years and decades, especially if you feel you don't have much to show for it." Later she explains her recurring struggles with "how frustrating the writing was," claiming that over the years she was "racking up hundreds—probably thousands—of rejections." In spite of that she kept writing.


It will come as no surprise that, despite Walter's account of her bouts with frustration and self-doubt, her refusal to simply quit writing resonates with me and, I'm certain, with most writers unable to break the habit. Something there is in writers that can't resist a blank page, that needs to scribble ideas upon it. My wife and I have been decluttering our dwelling lately and I continue to unearth ancient artifacts of my own writing life, a vast assortment of manuscripts and typescripts and printouts and publications of all kinds—columns and reviews, articles and essays, plays and poems and songs and scripts—and an overwhelming volume of handwritten journal entries dating back many decades. I'm also only too aware of how many project logs and reflective posts (which I often refer to as "whining journal entries") and the like take up bytes and kilobytes and megabytes on my succession of laptops, flashdrives, CDs, and floppy disks, not to mention various "clouds" somewhere.


Much of it—maybe even most of it—is overwhelming evidence of an obsession with expression. I even keep a Blog Log, to report to myself what I've been doing or have done or may possibly do to generate another entry. When I'm not specifically working on something I'll write about that in a file—the Notes entry I tend to compose every other Friday now always ends with this quote from me: "Avoiding work by writing about all the work I have to do is a standard device of mine that seems to be working." To my mind, it counts as writing. What got me into writing was not a desire to publish but a need to clarify my thinking by wrestling with the words I use to express it. It's generated a lot of sentences over the years.


In her essay on not giving up, Laura Maylene Walter reports that, though she finally has a debut novel, Body of Stars, coming out (and apparently an agent, since it went to auction), "that doesn't mean it's smooth sailing." She adds that "what we're all living through now—a global pandemic, a renewed and overdue call for justice for Black lives, continued political upheaval, climate change, and beyond—can make the pursuit of the writing life seem frivolous." I recently heard a writer friend express reluctance about posting something light, something lyrical, something intimate on her own blog or Facebook page, nervous about being thought to be indifferent to the terrible times we live in, as if she didn't feel the anxiety and anger and outrage that so many of us feel overwhelmed by. But I know she does feel it all, as I do, as do most of the people whose Facebook posts I "like." That doesn't mean that any of us need to entirely abandon everything else that matters to us, ignore the things that grow out of who we are. As Walters observes, "we keep going, and we continue trying to make something meaningful with our words."


Wherever my future writing takes me—and wherever my future editing might help other writers take their writing—I'll hope that the words end up being necessary, being honest, being meaningful. I'll hope that we won't give up.


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As we struggle to cope with these troublesome, contentious, and too often tragic times, social media keeps us apprised of positive ways some people are coping. From time to time I tune in on Facebook to actors reading children's books, soloists performing from their living rooms, whole choirs harmonizing from multiple locations, whole orchestras and dance companies blending seamlessly from miles apart, and authors giving virtual readings from virtual bookstores. Just this week I read an online interview with one of my favorite authors whose latest book's publication has been delayed by months because of the pandemic.


Rebecca McClanahan's forthcoming In the Key of New York City, originally scheduled to come out in May, will now come out in September. I've admired her earlier books, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings and The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, as well as her writing in literary journals and collections like The Best American Essays. She's a writer I can count on to entertain and enlighten me and I was eager to read the interview about the book posted online by the Rainier Writers Workshop (where she also teaches writing). It made think more about the nature of memoir and essay in current creative nonfiction.


In answer to a question from Sydney Elliott, the managing editor of RWW Soundings, about "the process of compiling the material for this book," McClanahan discusses the challenges of connecting material that often had been published separately "over a period of many years." She began writing some of the essays when she and her husband first moved to New York—one in particular began prior to the 9/11 attack—but "only three years ago did I finally find the shape for the book and begin to revise—often with much violence." I especially appreciate her explanation of the complications of the form she writes in: "A memoir-in-essays is a tricky form. Though each essay should have a life of its own, when shaping a memoir-in-essays, the writer must consider how the essays talk to each other and build upon each other so that together they form something greater than the sum of their parts." Those are lines I keep returning to; they capture the essence of the "memoir-in-essays."


Notice the complications of the interactions among the materials. That "each essay should have a life of its own" suggests independent wholeness while "how the essays talk to each other and build upon each other" suggests the interrelatedness of a cohesive narrative or argument. It may seem contradictory to be pursuing both goals but if successful they can "form something greater than the sum of their parts." That's the challenge of not simply "compiling" such a book but of essentially composing it out of pre-existing parts. McClanahan tells us, "For me, this involved making tough decisions not only about which essays to include (some of my favorites don't appear in the book) but also about what final form the essays would take." Although most of them had already been published, she "rewrote parts of them, cut certain sections, and broke a few long essays into flash pieces and scattered them throughout the manuscript." For one of them, she "dismantled the line breaks to a published poem and rewrote it as prose" when she determined that "the scene described in the poem was integral to the memoir."


McClanahan's earlier book, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, influenced some of the more personal books I've written. At least one of them, Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place, is essentially a collection of essays of place published over a period of years but the process of "compiling" the material was more challenging than it might seem if you look at the contents. Some essays I'd published somehow didn't fit the tone or the voice of the majority of essays I was trying to tie together and had to be discarded. Only after I'd written some new essays did I recognized the thread that bound them all together.


It occurs to me that I've been reading other "memoirs-in-essays" over the past few years—surely the term applies to Patricia Hampl's The Art of the Wasted Day and Scott Russell Sanders' Hunting for Hope and Peggy Shumaker's Just Breathe Normally. There's a point in certain works of narrative nonfiction where you need to read each section in order—a chapter is, after all, a section, a division, a segment of a whole (Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)—and there's a point in others where you can read divisions quite separately in any order, each virtually independent of the others (Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk). Somewhere between those points is the "memoir-in-essays," where each piece resonates with all the other pieces, harmonizes with them, accumulates awareness of the author's sensibility and outlook. That's what I'm looking forward to in Rebecca McClanahan's In the Key of New York City.




Note: The full interview by Sydney Elliott is "Storing What Remains: An Interview with Rebecca McClanahan" at RWW Soundings, Summer 2020. Rebecca McClanahan's other work can be found on her website.

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Making a Memoir


I appreciate the advantages of working with a clear narrative structure, having a straightforward story to tell—"Here's how it started; here's what happened next; here's how it ended." For my first two books of creative nonfiction, Recovering Ruth and Following Isabella, the structure of earlier works determined the structures I built, even though I didn't write my portions as chronologically as Ruth Douglass and Isabella Bird wrote theirs. It's good to follow a straightforward path, the road most travelled; those of us without one can end up on a long and winding road, bushwhacking and breaking trail most of the way.


The subject of my memoir, Happenstance, wasn't entirely one I'd ignored. Decades earlier, I'd written vignettes for broadcast on my local Michigan public radio station based on boyhood memories triggered by adult events: renovating the hundred-year old house where my wife and I now lived brought to mind the dank cellar and stripped walls of my parents' house; watching my children play reminded me of childhood neighborhood friends; and so on. Some vignettes showed up again when I encouraged composition students to write about their childhoods—the street map I modeled to help them reconnect with memory ignited my own memories; the guided imagery exercise leading them into past places propelled me toward mine. One student's story about his mother meeting his father because of a fly ball at a summer softball game haunted me: what if the batter had bunted or struck out? What kind of happenstance brought my own parents together?


Curious about my own family history after researching others', I began researching a family memoir. The material invited a chronological history but didn't answer questions about my own parents and my own life; everything that surfaced seemed connected with everything else. Though I wanted to write a book that would say something to my children about how their father turned out to be who he was, I plunged deeply into genealogy. After months of research and drafting, my wife asked how it was coming. When I told her I was almost up to the birth of my grandfather, she said quietly, "You know, if this is going to be a memoir, you should probably be in it." I loved all the research, but she was right—I wasn't in the book I was writing to explain about me.


I discovered two different ways to focus my attention. Before I assigned students to write caption essays about their family photos, I attempted the exercise myself and was startled by what it unleashed in memory, based on my greater distance from the events. For the memoir I began interrogating family photographs, describing what I saw in them first as a viewer and then as an interpreter. Leafing through family albums, I wrote about the pictures that most interested me. To avoiding a chronological narrative, I also decided to write about the first hundred days of my life that I remembered, in the order they occurred to me. Surely, I could write one a day over the next hundred days. On the eleventh day my father died. I stopped writing but scribbled down a list of possible subjects in case I ever started up again. The list ran well over a hundred items.


Life, and other books, intervened. What stayed with me was the experience of the first day I had written about, a day in elementary school when I ran home from school feeling exuberant. Why had I remembered that day first? Why could I remember no other exuberant days? I soon realized this approach could help me find formative moments in my life. I'd begun teaching memoir-writing to graduate students online and felt I should revive the memoir. To the Album entries and Hundred Days entries, I added a third strand reflecting on the nature of happenstance and the nature of choice. In time I realized happenstance was the dominant theme of the memoir. It also became the title.


Some of the 57 completed entries in the Hundred Days series got in; many Album entries got in; items I thought of as literary remains from my father, mother and grandmother got in; reflections on the nature of happenstance got in. Some days I would lay all these entries in a circle on our dining table or in a straight line on our carpet and hover over them, trying to feel some sort of sympathetic tuning among them, weaving them together through juxtaposition and association, the reverberations one piece of writing picks up from another piece, the synchronicities ignited by experience and memory. It's a memoir but not entirely narrative; it's more the prose equivalent of a medieval polyptych, a multi-paneled altarpiece, made up of words and photographs.


I'm amazed at all the time, energy, false starts, missteps and perplexity this book put me through. No book ever becomes the book you intended to write, of course. When I tell students that the writing will tell you what it wants to be, this is what I mean. It was the only way I could write it—the only way this book would let me write it.



Note: A slightly different version of this entry was first published on Michael Steinberg's Blog on February 9, 2013 as "The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist's Journey" at

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The Parking Lot Picture


Here's a familiar photo that came to mind while I was thinking about the pitcher picture. Note the similar stance, the similar era of photography (b&w), whatever immediate differences you notice.


You could ask yourself about this photo most of the questions you asked yourself about the earlier photo. Handily, having a second photo offers an occasion for comparison, the similarities and differences in the two helping to sharpen your perceptions and impressions of both pictures. If you had two different photos of either person, you could make similar comparisons, just as you did when you compared your possible yearbook pictures or when you have selected someone else's photo for a celebration or an obituary. Who is the person who is still there in different images of him- or her-self?


I've been treating these two images as if they were images of strangers, although there are occasions when most of us have to examine images of ourselves. But all images of individuals have a further dimension that could be considered. What happens when you know the person in the photo even if the photo itself is unfamiliar to you?


For example, my friend Mike's pitcher picture dates from 1958 but I didn't meet him until a quarter century later, when he invited me to join him in starting a writing workshop for teachers at Traverse Bay. For most of the time I knew him he was mustached and bearded—I looked through photos of the two of us across decades and, after his death last year, I posted images from 1994 to 2013—and the high school photos in Still Pitching show me someone I wouldn't have otherwise recognized. I can't always remember the exact dates of the pictures of the two of us, but I almost immediately recall the occasions and the locales. The pitcher picture deepened my sense of who my grown-up friend was all along.


I am the figure in the parking lot picture. I felt an affectionate amusement when I stumbled on the similarity of our poses in these two photos, taken only a few years apart. As it happens, the parking lot was next door to both my parents' house and a neighborhood park with a baseball diamond so close my father or brother or I would sometimes toss any foul balls that landed in our yard back over the park fence. I had no other contact with sport then. But thinking how Mike's adolescent image speaks to who he was throughout his life, I start to wonder what my image forecasts about me.


The guy in the photo is a high school graduate a year out of school who can't imagine that a year later, as a freshman, he'll begin an educational trajectory that will one day make him a published professor. He'd   always been solitary, usually closeted away to read voluminously and to write private fiction, including a post-high school novel. In that year after graduation he and his friend Dave drove cross-country from western New York to California and, to his surprise, back. I see him there, in what he thought was a fairly dramatic black and white outfit and likely assumed to be a pretty solid stance, and start to wonder if their excursion along Route 66 to Disneyland, Hollywood, San Diego, and Tijuana somehow helped form his tendency to wander and to write about wandering—the lifelong attention to place that led to many of his publications. In all the times I've seen this photo before I never realized it hinted at the man who would be looking at it in the future.


The writing we do in reaction to an image draws so much upon who we are, what we bring to the viewing, what the image connects to in us; journaling the image can be both revealing and rewarding. As it happens, trying to recall the dates that Mike and I ran that Traverse Bay program, I looked in Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching, the anthology we edited from material written at and about those workshops, and found that my article about my writing group is titled "Writing the Outdoors: From Journals to Essays" and my pedagogy article centers on "Popular Media in the Language Arts Classroom," both written twenty-five years ago. I seem to be still practicing what I once preached.


Gazing at the picture of Mike taken decades before I met him, I somehow feel more intimately connected to him than I did in life. Gazing at my own photo I somehow feel more stable, more aware that I did become whoever I once—however uncertainly—set out to be.


If Mike had ever seen that photo of me, would he have felt the same way today?



Note: Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching—A Sourcebook by Robert L. Root Jr. and Michael Steinberg was co-published by the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project in 1996.

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The Pitcher Picture


Take a look at this photograph. Try to describe what you see in it.


I'm guessing that your initial attention will be drawn to the figure at the center of the image—his wide-legged stance, his uniform, the objects in his hands, to the degree you can make it out the expression on his face. As you look more closely you may try to read the word across his shirt, which will identify his team, and you probably almost immediately recognized the sport he plays. You may try to examine his hairstyle, which would help you date the picture. There's something on the ground at his feet—what do you think it is? Notice the background of the photo, which suggests where the picture was taken. So far as I know the photo was originally taken in black and white, which may also help to date it. I've labeled it "The Pitcher Picture," which I hope is accurate; if this person is a shortstop or outfielder, I'll have to search for a less alliterative title ("The Shortstop Shot"? "The Outfielder Flick"?) If you want to be thorough in your analysis of this photo, you'll write down all the things about it that capture your attention in as much objective detail as you can.


Once you've stood back from the image and described what you see, think about how you react to it. What impressions of this young person do you get? Is there anything you tend to assume about his attitude, his personality, his mood? What does he want the photograph to record about who he is at this moment? How would you describe the person you think you see there? What in the photo, in his expression, his pose, his context, makes you think that's what he's like? Did you ever (or do you now) know someone like him? Does he remind you of anyone—a friend, a relative, a significant other? Does he remind you of yourself?


All of these questions are intended to help you investigate an unfamiliar image of a person you've likely never met. When we see a photo of a stranger we tend not to examine it so closely unless something about that person or that image attracts our attention. I want to suggest that how I'm asking you to view this photo is how others may sometimes view photos of each of us. Think of your high school yearbook photo—of the two or three poses the photographer offered you, why did you pick the one you did? Who did it show to the world that the other poses didn't? If the baseball player's photo were a photo of you, how would you interpret it from the distance of perhaps decades?


As it happens, the baseball player himself has written a caption for the photo. He writes, "Me in the spring of 1958, wearing my high school baseball uniform—an authentic hand-me-down Brooklyn Dodger uniform donated to the high school by the Dodgers in 1951, right after they lost the playoff to the Giants. I'd wanted this uniform since my sophomore year. Getting one of these from Coach Kerchman meant that I'd finally arrived as a ball player." His remarks help us understand the significance of the photo for him—it records a moment of triumph, visual evidence of an accomplishment that has particular significance for him.


The photo is a high school image of my friend Mike. I didn't know him in his youth—we grew up on different ends of the same state—and I only met him when we were both college professors at two different universities in a different state. But I knew him and worked with him off and on for roughly 35 years, and my wife and I hung out with him and his wife throughout those decades. He was a writing teacher and an editor of a creative nonfiction journal and co-editor (with me) of an anthology for college writing teachers. He was also a memoirist and an essayist. The book that cemented his standing as a writer was Still Pitching, his memoir about his passion for baseball in high school, which contains this image and his caption about it. His final book collected some published essays—in the one titled "Elegy for Ebbets" he visits a host of stadiums while remembering the Brooklyn Dodgers—and some unpublished ones. His intense life-long involvement with baseball dominated his literary writing. This image was also reprinted in an obituary of him a publisher posted online. That long friendship and that thorough reading of his autobiographical writing give me a different perspective on that photograph than someone would have who never knew him or never read him or never encountered that image before. That early pitcher picture is not only about his youth but also about something essential in his nature. He was a player and a coach which, given his writing and his teaching, is what he also was in his career.


It may not happen in all the photos in which we appear, but I suspect that all of us have, at one time or another, posed with a special optimism about who posterity will think it sees in a certain image of us. The question, of course, will be whether any of those viewers (or readers) will see the person you hope they'll see or, indeed, whether you'll see the person you thought you were.



Note: The books by Michael Steinberg mentioned above are Still Pitching: A Memoir, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003) and Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond (Mount Pleasant, MI: Pint-Size Publications, 2019).He was the founding editor of Fourth Genre and his website is still accessible with material on his blog by him and a host of guest writers and teachers that he gathered between April 2012 and October 2019.You can find it at


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Reading Images


Look closely at these two images for a few moments. What aspects of them are clearly similar? What aspects suggest to you that the photograph and the painting have identical settings? What aspects are dissimilar? The visual media certainly differ and elements of the art forms themselves will affect how you view them, but if you had to define the relationship between the two pictures, what would you emphasize? If the positions of the images were reversed, so that the painting were on the left and the photo on the right, would that alter your sense of their relationship? Is there anything in them that suggests sequence to you? Only the images themselves give you any sense of context. Could the setting of the photo have been chosen in homage to the painting, inspired by it? Or could the painting have been prompted by the photo? If we recognize these images simply as a fashion photo and an urban landscape painting apparently drawing on the same setting, we might be challenged to interpret their relationship further beyond comparing artistic elements that both connect and isolate them from one another.


The images were provided by Elizabeth Kadetsy, author of the prize-winning memoir The Memory Eaters, to accompany an essay posted recently online at The photo was taken by the photographer Martin Cornel and the painting was created by Solange Langelier, Kadetsky's grandmother. In the Salon essay, Kadetsky tells us of her fondness for visiting her grandmother's house to explore her art room. She thought her grandmother was a "wonderful painter" of still lives and urban landscapes and she was inspired by her to become an art major when she went to college. Elizabeth's mother owned one of the grandmother's paintings, "a view up the hill on cobblestoned Beacon Street in Boston with a red delivery van at the end"—the painting she shows us in the essay. After the grandmother's death Elizabeth hoped to be given more of her paintings by the uncle who moved into his mother's house but, other than knitting needles and yarn, he gave her nothing, except for "a fierce look when I pressed for more."


The essay alludes to a family secret that may be the basis of her uncle's animosity toward her mother and may also be connected to the nature of that Beacon Street painting that Kadetsky hangs across from her bed. The secret had to do with a childhood injury that may have led to Kadetsky's aunt developing epilepsy and dying young. Kadetsky thinks the injury was the result of her grandmother's negligence and alcoholism, not her own two-year-old mother's behavior, but she is also aware that "an undercurrent of blame and shame surrounded my mother" and may have been "the source of my uncle's anger toward her."


In the 1960s her mother had been a successful fashion model in Boston, but eventually her Alzheimer's disease forced her into assisted living, where she died. Kadetsky began preserving many photographs of her mother's work. As she fed that fashion photo into her scanner, she had "a Eureka! moment." She recognized the connection between the photo and the painting. She tells us, "I placed the painting and the photograph side by side. They were a near exact match." She was immediately struck by the absence of her mother from the painting, an absence that she feels was deliberate: "How fitting, I thought, that my grandmother would have literally painted my mother out of the picture. Of the many abuses my grandmother seems to have afflicted upon my mother, this aggression by erasure seemed especially significant."


Kadetsky's essay grounds her conclusion in considerable evidence of family conflict, including her grandmother's alcoholism, the disability and death of her mother's young sister, her mother's Alzheimer's, her uncle's coldness. Here again we recognize that what we see in images very much depends upon what we bring to the viewing of them. As Kadetsky concludes, "One can read a lot into an image. If one looks carefully enough, one just might discover the ghosts of things, the traces one has always suspected of a dormant family secret, the memory of a beautiful daughter twirling in her glee and power before a camera, painted out of a picture but still there to be coaxed from the shadows." This is not what the casual viewer may see but certain viewers will feel the need to go more deeply into the images, and if they go deeply enough, they may experience a personally meaningful revelation. Certainly that happens to all of us with personal or family images of our own.



Note: You can read "A Mother's Vanishing" by Elizabeth Kadetsky here.

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Once Upon a Tender Time


Note: What follows here is an example of an imagessay taken from "Once Upon a Tender Time," a chapter in a memoir in progress by Amanda Irene Rush, presently titled The Gathering Girl. It strikes me as a solid example of the way an image sets off the need for written expression. I thank her for letting me post the manuscript here.


I have no memory of the four of us, as a family, together. All I have is this photograph my sister obtained after our mother's death. The photo had been buried among many other photographs in a box my sister ended up carting from Colorado to Alaska to South Dakota and finally to Ohio. This picture, taken at Christmastime 1973, is a small but epic find. Enduring proof that once upon a tender time we were a family.


In the photo, we are sitting on my father's parents' hearth in their house in Norwalk, Ohio, a red felt wreath hanging above our heads. The wreath -- made by my Grandma Hoyt -- gets as much attention as we do in this throwaway. In our current digital age, it is the shot that would've been deleted straight off. Where's the good family Christmas portrait? The one where we are centered and focused, all smiling at the camera, looking like a family should look? It's nowhere that I can find. Having dug through all the boxes and emptied all the envelopes, having flipped through all the albums and searched every drawer, I have found only three photos of the four of us; and this one -- this dud dug out of a box my mother kept until her death, this dud my sister saved from the trash heap -- this is the only one remotely worthy of mention.


I call this picture an epic find as though I've never seen it before. But I'm sure I have. As a child, I spent hours poring over photos trying to make sense of who my family once was, where I came from. Revisiting this picture, I recognize it as I do all of us. I recognize the surroundings in which we're posed. Everything is familiar. If I concentrate, I can even conjure up the smell of my grandparents' house. The woodsmoke from the fireplace. The sour smell of my grandparents' holiday cocktails. The new fabric smell of those matching Christmas dresses.


And yet, everything seems so strange. Is that woman holding my sister on her lap really the woman who will leave my father with us in tow in just a few years' time? Will she really end up developing a chronic mental illness and disappear in ways I never imagined possible? Is that man holding me really the man who will, soon after our leaving, marry a woman who will make it her life's mission to turn him against us? Will he really, after this second wife dies, quietly drink himself to death? And these two girls. Are these the girls who will grow to feel that they never had either parent? That they only had each other?


The picture leaves me feeling as bewildered as I look in it. I find it hard to believe we were ever a family, despite the proof. I find it equally hard to imagine a time when my parents may have liked each other; they were so different. And yet, there's a sense of intimacy about the way they're positioned in this photo. Perhaps it's only a sense of familiarity I see. In the same box, I found similar pictures of two of my father's three brothers, each Hoyt boy staged the same -- on the hearth, beneath the wreath -- with his young wife and children. Although choices would be made in the years to come that would cause all these marriages to fail and the families to scatter like so many seeds, on this day, at least, everybody knew where and what they were supposed to be.


—Amanda Rush

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Essay Meets Image: A Postcard Memoir


The challenge of combining visuals with text may be one of deciding whether the images illustrate the words, as a supplement, or whether the images and words are integrated and interdependent. My favorite editions of James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer and Dante's The Divine Comedy have illustrations by N. C. Wyeth and Gustave Dore, respectively, but these images are merely splendid additions rather than integral elements. On the Internet, the insertion of some visual separating segments of text is commonplace. Every essay or article posted in the online journal Brevity has a photograph attached, usually by an editor rather than the author; each article on the digital version of The New Yorker also includes a relevant illustration: a photo of men kissing for an essay on sex in gay novels, a still from a film or television show for a media review. At the other end of the spectrum graphic memoirs like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home or Are You My Mother? or a work of literary journalism combining text and photography like Salt Dreams by William deBuys and Joan Meyers are works in which text and image are fully balanced and harmonious, meant to complement one another. Inevitably much else will fall on different locations along the line that stretches between these two poles.


For me, the term imagessay refers to works in which image is integral to the essay, provided or selected by the author and intimately involved in the generation or the expression of the text. As I've mentioned before, the imagessay is usually concerned with examining the response that an image prompts in the essayist. The writing of Lawrence Sutin finds a quite different source of inspiration than Judith Kitchen relied on. In A Postcard Memoir Sutin's fascination with the way certain antique postcards affected him led him to gather a collection of his own. He claims, in his introduction, that either "certain memories of mine began to seep into certain postcards" or others "challenged me to come out after them and fight like a writer." Eventually he realized "that they were egging me on through the stations of my life." Sutin's "chapters" are usually a page long, sometimes two, with an accompanying photo of a postcard. The images are always antique, usually foreign, and objectively unrelated to the author's life, except for the ways in which they inspire in him memories or personal reflections.


The cover photo shows a young man in suit and bowler hat perched on a crescent moon, its face in profile, and stars in the background; in the prose that faces that image elsewhere in the book Sutin considers himself at the age of the "Man in the Moon" on the postcard: "By the time I graduated from college I was I think what you'd call a fellow who knew what was what." The image of a woman in a theatrical riding costume identified as M'lle Bianca on a postcard labeled "Gruff auf dem Cirkus" makes him consider a short-lived crush on a fellow student named Cara; a photo of "Father Holding Baby" recalls his failure at dealing with his crying infant; a photo of the "Dinosaur Exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition" triggers a meditation on the nature of evil. In a sense the genre-crossing hybrid nature of the book resembles an interdisciplinary version of a haibun journal, with photographs substituting for haiku—the reader continually is drawn to the image despite its apparent distance from the prose and then back to the prose from the image. Over time the circumstantial and the intimate merge, until we feel in the most compelling segments that the personal is always part of the universal and vice versa, no matter how remote from one another they might initially appear.


From our earliest days we react to what we see in the world; it takes us a while to realize that writing can help us understand what we've reacted to. The degree of intimacy or interplay between text and image might be located on a sliding scale on which a point somewhere determines where they no longer function together as an imagessay but have become either a mere illustration accompanying a text (like those random photos on blogs) or a mere prose account accompanying an image (like explanatory text below photos on blogs). In an imagessay the image and the essay are equally essential. Can you read Sutin's texts without the images? Yes, of course, but when you read them with the image facing you, you are drawn more deeply, more intimately, into the mind of the writer. You may even find images of your own emerging in response to the reading.


Footnote: The ideas in this entry and the previous one are drawn from a longer article, "Essaying the Image," in The Essay Review Issue #2 (Fall 2014) 95-106. A Postcard Memoir by Lawrence Sutin was published by Graywolf Press in 2000.

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Essay Meets Image: Half in Shade


Genre crossing happens more often than we realize in literature. Such forms as the prose poem, the lyric essay, or the haibun or prosimetrum blurring or coupling nonfiction and poetry; they fuse elements of one literary, text-based genre with another literary, text-based genre. Another form of genre crossing creates what are sometimes termed the visual essay and the video essay, forms I label as imagessay. Here we're blending disciplines, combining a form of visual media (photography or cinema) with a form of literary nonfiction. We're familiar with nonfiction as essay or literary journalism or narrative text; we're familiar with thematic exhibitions of photographs and documentary films and television shows. The idea of a visual or video essay—an imagessay—a balancing of images with text, shouldn't seem alien. Like an ekphrastic poem in which a poet reacts to and/or interacts with a work of art, the imagessay is often similarly concerned with examining the response that an image prompts in the essayist. Consider works by Judith Kitchen, for example.


In Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, Judith Kitchen, working from a "haphazard collection of boxes and albums [. . .] my mother had managed to save from the floods," set herself the challenge "to give 'voice' to what is inherent in the visual" and "to keep the visual from dominating, making all my thoughts redundant." She used the photographs "as triggering devices," trying, as she says, "to interact [. . .] to animate and resurrect." The cover image is repeated in the book as the subject of "Young Woman on Fence," an interrogation of an image of a young woman in glasses, shirt, tie, sportcoat, and knickers perched on a white fence with her feet resting on a narrow tire. Kitchen examines the composition of the shot, the significance of the pose, the clues to the circumstances. Her mother has not identified the woman or the place or the date and Kitchen speculates about her garb, her attitude, her background and her aspirations. The speculation leads to reflections on her own childhood: "I learned how to be a boy from my books. [. . .] To be a boy was to be free from the eyes of those who told me who I should be." It may be that all ekphrasis exposes the individual interpreting what is viewed, but here and throughout the book the generally short essays repeatedly wonder about the mother's relationship to the people in the albums and reflect on the author's sense of her mother (and other relatives) as well as her own sense of herself. In "Who" she envies an unnamed girl in a photo standing among chickens by the side of a house, with a chicken perched on her left shoulder, and reflects on the farm environment that likely existed "off-lens." "I want this moment," she writes, "but not what it stands for. Want one minute of overlapping shadow, one slapdash second of light. Quick, while she has a perch on pleasure." In "Where" she compares her childhood to that of a young girl in a photo standing with her grandfather in a cornfield—the girl and the author would have been the same age in the same year and their environment but not their family life would have been similar. In other segments she considers photos of her mother and of other family members and eventually one photograph of herself sitting on the bottom of a stepladder with a friend sitting at the top. Throughout the book we need the images to understand what triggers the prose and we need the prose to understand why the images are there. The relationship is symbiotic, harmonious, hybrid.


In an imagessay we can't separate the image from the essay, any more than we can separate the prose from the poem in a prose poem. The aesthetic questions to ask are whether the visual elements enhance the meaning of the text and whether the verbal elements enrich our understanding of the images. In an imagessay the relationship between image and text is symbiotic, each serving the needs of the other, as if ekphrasis might also involve the image's reflections on the text. Whenever we open a site online drawn by the promise of a text, we usually will be presented with an accompanying image. I've had some of my prose published online but haven't always had any say in the image that I also discovered there, something an editor added, perhaps because every site requires a picture. The question I tend to ask myself is, what does this image have to do with the text it accompanies? If the connection is simply random the image is merely an illustration and the work is not an imagessay.


Footnote: The ideas in this entry and the next are drawn from a longer article, "Essaying the Image," in The Essay Review Issue #2 (Fall 2014) 95-106. Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate by Judith Kitchen was published by Coffee House Press in 2012.


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I can't remember exactly when I started seeing family photographs in a different way than I'd viewed them when they were taken. I suspect that most of us have family pictures on display somewhere around our homes or stuffed in our wallets or purses. A generation or two ago my family collected them in albums with large pages inside transparent protective sheets, thick padded covers, each image mounted with black or white corner triangles, sometimes with identifying names, dates, and places scribbled below them. My grandmother's albums were often a little mysterious, crammed with images of people sometimes three generations older than me, friends and relatives I'd never met or even heard of. My mother's albums were more fun to leaf through because I could recognize ever younger versions of people I spent time with daily or weekly or at least once or twice a year at family reunions—grandparents and their siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins, neighbors and their children. My mother and her brothers in high school. My dad and my uncles in military uniforms. People at their weddings lined in front of church altars. Unrecognizable infants in arms below familiar faces. Some appreciation of the passage of time should have dawned on me when I sat scrutinizing those images—grandparents slim and youthful here, stout and definitely mature elsewhere; my mother a little girl in a first communion dress there, a woman in a wedding dress here—but I doubt that it did.


Somehow, eventually, as I myself aged and the time between album viewings lengthened, I was sometimes startled by my reaction to an image. There would be an expression I hadn't seen before on a face I readily recognized, a hint of connection or disconnection between two figures in a photo, a clue about attitude or age or health that hadn't been apparent—to me—before. I recall a photo of me on my father's lap at Christmas, perhaps the first picture of the two of us together ever taken—what did the image record? It was taken in the middle of the Second World War. He wore a Marine uniform and smoked a pipe and bent his head to look at me while I, at 13 months old, stared intently—confused? alarmed?—at the camera. Was my mother taking the picture? What was I feeling then about this guy I barely knew? This guy I'd only just met? What was he feeling about me? What did the picture tell us about our moment together? Was it a photo he'd want to show his comrades when he returned to his unit?


I also remember two photos of my mother with a little girl in a First Communion dress. In one my mother is lively, charming, cheerful and in the other somber, remote, distant; the little girl is solemn and almost expressionless in both. I'm uncertain of the date of the photos, clearly a gathering to celebrate the girl's First Communion. She would become, or she was then, temporarily my stepsister. Do the pictures give me any insight into their relationship? Are they both equally honest images of what both of them were feeling? Do they help me explain why that little girl (and her older sister and her father) were only related to me and my mother and my siblings for so brief a time?


Often now the family photographs I track down seem to invite me to interrogate them. I write a journal entry hoping to explain what they make me feel about the people in them, the occasion when they were taken, what they might tell me about who I used to be and maybe why I am who I am now. Poets sometimes write ekphrastic poems—ekphrasis is a Greek word for a description of a visual work of art—and at least one journal, The Ekphrastic Review, devotes itself to such poetry. I've actually published an ekphrastic essay there, "Perspective." When an album entry in my journal develops into something more formal and polished, I term it an "imagessay," combining "image" and "essay" into one word (and pronouncing it as if it were French, to make it sound more literary). Given our ability to add images to our Internet writing ("blogs" are "web logs," after all), we sometimes simply illustrate what we have to say with a photo or two, and the visual element isn't really essential to the blog. Sometimes, however, the image and the expression (the essay) harmonize so thoroughly that they are equally important and demand the same amount of attention of the viewer/reader, much in the way a work of art demands the same amount of attention as the language in an ekphrastic poem. You need to examine the image as well as comprehend the language. In ekphrastic prose that creates an imagessay.


Sometimes a family photograph needs to become an imagessay.

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