Bright Belly Horrors

Check out my villanelle essay about my experiences living in Kanchanaburi, Thailand in “Bright Belly Horrors,” a newly published essay in the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review!

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The People in Our Stories: Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking

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Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an examination of death and life through Lynch’s experiences as a funeral director. The book is structured as a collection of essays which range from a meditation on toilets to embalming his father to an essay against assisted suicide to instructions for Lynch’s own funeral. Throughout the book, Lynch asserts that funerals and all the things that people do surrounding death are really for the living.

The book is strongest when Lynch goes deeply into his own personal experiences. The experience of actually embalming his father and sorting out his own father’s funeral is a poignant one, which resonates deeply with the reader. Likewise, Lynch’s instructions for his own funeral, in which Lynch tells us “It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine” (199), acts as a parting gift from Lynch, a reminder to be good to each other and that the details of the funeral – in February on a cold day, with no party – are really not the dead’s concern. It is also strong when it is being most straightforward – describing the processes surrounding death or the details that the living don’t think about. The route to the cemetery and why this matters, for instance, gives the reader a lot to think about in terms of how we think about death and its relationship to life and ourselves as individuals.

The book strives to look at the acts and ideas surrounding death in order to come to greater insights about life. This is a very ambitious goal and, unfortunately, many of the essays in this book fall short of that. The topic of death is so deep and meaningful and is ripe for insight and universal truths, especially considering the level of knowledge that Lynch has on the subject. I was so ready to love this book. However, instead of sticking to personal experiences and embracing the questions surrounding life and death, Lynch nudges his essays toward the pulpit. Some of the best books leave their readers with questions to ponder and things to ruminate on. Lynch is not shy about answering the questions he brings up.

Lynch takes the tone of a curmudgeonly old man as he bemoans kids these days and their technology and the way that they think about death. Instead of allowing the reader to come to the insight about how and why old ways were important, Lynch jumps straight to insulting possibly young readers by attacking the way things are done nowadays. He uses an incredible amount of “we” and “you” phrases assuming that his reader is on the same page with him. This reader certainly wasn’t and so these turns of phrase became incredibly alienating.

It was difficult not to question Lynch’s uses of other people’s names and stories in the book. The death of a loved one is an incredibly sensitive and intimate thing. Throughout the essays, Lynch tells the frightful details of the deaths that he’s undertaken, sometimes naming names and often giving enough detail to know who he must be writing about. I found myself wondering time and again if he had permission to write about people in this way.

It was especially egregious in his essay Uncle Eddie, Inc. in which he uses the gory details of a grizzly suicide to begin a rant against assisted suicide and abortion. This is, for me, was the point at which Lynch really lost me as a reader. He gives the details of the widow, who was suspected of having an affair, waking up to the spray of her husband’s blood covering her. He gives plenty of detail for the townspeople to know who he is writing about, but seems unsympathetic toward the widow, who he seems to think must have had it coming anyway. He uses this messiness to assert that assisted suicides should not be legal, because they, like abortions, are humans trying to play god. Lynch seems to think that it is fine for humans to play god by extending life, for he’s not against medication, but not shortening it. It’s hard for me not to commiserate with the widow in this story, to think of the way it would feel reading the details of her husband’s death for all the world to know, these details being used for a political essay, and then to even possibly wish that assisted suicide had been an option for the husband, instead of the terrible way that things had gone. Whether or not you agree with Lynch’s stance, the way it is written about feels off. It is hard to imagine that Lynch had permission to talk about this death in that way and for those purposes. It made him a questionable narrator, for sure.

There are moments in the book where Lynch certainly hits his mark, where the details and meaning that he makes about death and funerals give the reader new insights about life. However, these moments are so overshadowed with Lynch’s politics, his arguments and overexplaining, and the way that it feels like he’s using people that they lose their poignancy. This book is definitely a lesson in thinking about the assumptions that we make about our readers and as well as a lesson in the ways that we treat people as subjects.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Magical Memoir: Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

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Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy is a strange gem of a memoir. It recounts the story of his childhood in Havana, during the transition of the country to a communism and the effects of this transition on Eire and his family, culminating in his being shipped out of the country without his parents, to be orphaned in the U.S. This memoir is interesting and magical for a number of reasons. The reader knows from the start of the book what the outcome will be – the dustcover tells young Carlos’ fate. However, the genius of the book is in the way that Eire tells the story.

The book opens on the day that Batista is overthrown, as Eire says, “the world changed as I slept.” Right from the outset, we know that this is a different kind of memoir, one filled with whimsy and magic. On the very first page, we learn that Eire’s father believes that he was Louis XVI in a past life and that his mother was Marie Antoinette. For the rest of the book, Eire uses this interesting tidbit to extrapolate meaning and draw conclusions about what his parents might have thought and felt during this tumultuous time. He refers to them more often by these names than by their real names and this allows him more room to paint them as characters as well as give him distance from his relationships with them. In so doing, Eire gives himself the space necessary to examine people close to him without too much fear of spilling family secrets or offending.

This magical start to the book continues, as the metaphors grow and shift. There are thematic tropes that come up again and again, as if they are haunting Eire’s childhood. Lizards, Immanuel Kant, American movies, and Jesus’ eyes pop up in the strangest places, and yet they hold the narrative together. The repetition of these images gives the readers a touchstone to hold on to and ground them as Eire describes a world that is spinning out of control.

Eire’s point of view as a child helps as well. For much of the book, we are getting the perspective of young Carlos, seeing his parents as he saw them, seeing Cuba as he saw them. This gives him an incredible amount of leeway in terms of how factually accurate he must be. From the prologue, it is clear that Eire is writing from his memories. These are his own personal experiences and the way that he saw things as a child. Eire makes it clear that we are dealing with personal experience set in history, dealing with memories which can be fallible and malleable and may not match the history books or memories of others.

This emphasis on personal experience also allows Eire to take some very strong political stances. Even if the reader does not agree with Eire’s ideas about the Cuban Revolution, his individual experiences cannot be argued with. We see in very close detail the repercussions of historical events on his family and on him. He makes a very large, well-documented historical event into a personal life event. Interestingly, looking at the revolution from a child’s perspective gives us a view that feels somehow pure or untarnished because this child’s view does not have the historical or political context surrounding it. The reader experiences just the effects of the events. In this way, the reader is sympathetic to Eire’s political views because it is clear where they came from and how they developed.

The most interesting part of Waiting for Snow in Havana is the structure. The narrative itself is far from linear. The reader begins the book already knowing the end. However, Eire pulls us along quickly with his use of foreshadowing. He often mentions things that he promises to tell us more about later. The book moves from the day that Batista is overthrown to the day that Eire boards the plane to the U.S. However, the movement in between is not chronological. The book works like a memory itself, associative, repetitive, slippery. Part of what Eire is writing about is a different way of seeing the world, the way that growing up in Cuba shaped his view of reality, and the structure of the book mirrors this. It is emotional and metaphorical. The stories of his childhood in Cuba serve as jumping off points to tell the story of what happens to Eire and his family after he leaves Cuba. These childhood memories also serve to give a frame to discuss big philosophical and religious questions and to examine political views. In this way, Eire makes the magic, history, and whimsy of his childhood relevant and timeless.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Finding the “I” in Creative Nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story

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Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story examines what makes a good piece of nonfiction. She writes, “Every work of literature has a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (p. 13). Gornick examines several essays and memoirs to explore how the situation and the story work in creative nonfiction. She stresses that we cannot just tell the situation, but must also know what the story is that we are trying to tell.

Finding out what the story is in the piece then allows the writer to organize their writing around this insight. We can then look at the narrative line of the work and tie this to the wisdom that compels it. Gornick pushes us to ask: “Who is speaking? What is being said? What is the relation between the two?” How does the insight gained come to bear on the structure of the narrative? Is the reader along for the same journey of discovery as the speaker? Or does the reader know the outcome at the beginning and watch the narrator struggle with it?

She looks especially at the narrator of these nonfiction pieces to see what they can tell us about how we can coax the story out of our own experiences. We don’t always have to know who we are, she says, but we have to know who we are at the moment of writing. This is an important insight. It is easy to think of the nonfiction self as a given. We could assume that we are cohesive selves with only one voice and when we write nonfiction, we use that voice. But this is far from true. Our voice and perspective change with different situations and with time. Which aspect of yourself is telling the story? Gornick suggests crafting a persona based on the insight that drives the piece. What is the story of this situation? Which aspect of yourself is best suited to tell that story? Answering these questions will allow us to know who we are at the moment of writing.

One aspect of this that really stuck with me was Gornick’s discussion of how to treat subjects. She insists that writers of nonfiction must treat their subjects, including themselves, with empathy and dimension. Is it true that you are completely innocent and your foe is all monster? Gornick pushes us as writers to make things more complicated, more dynamic than that. She asks us to look at situations from multiple perspectives to get at the stories. This includes looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. We can’t just rely on being the hero or heroine of our own story, fighting the forces of evil. That story’s been told and doesn’t resonate as honest. After all, we’re all more complicated than that, aren’t we?

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

How to Make Memoir Meaningful: Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

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Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: A Sojourn into Memory is a thoughtful, compelling book. Twice as I was reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to put down the book and write. Both times the writing and feelings were so moving that I was brought to tears. It is a gathering of thoughts and questions on memory and memoir.

 

I will admit, I am skeptical of memory and wary of memoir. To me, memories are so malleable, so constructed (See Radio Lab’s episode on Memory and Forgetting.) that I’ve never felt that I could trust them as a source of truth in writing. And as much as I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction, I cringe at the idea of writing memoir. Isn’t it just navel-gazing? Aren’t there some truths that are better portrayed through fiction?

 

Hampl’s Stories addresses both these points directly. In fact, these are the themes that the essays in the book pivot around. The book opens with an iteration of one of her childhood memories, which Hampl then examines for accuracy. In doing so, she points out the several lies in her story and allows herself to explore why her memory would make such deceptions. This sets the tone for her essays, which do not claim a factual, historical truth but instead dig for something deeper.

 

She follows this up with ruminations about why people write memoirs and the importance of memory. She presents the possibility for memoir as a political act, a witness to the world in which it takes place. Instead of memoir as a focus on the self within a larger picture, Hampl offers the option to think of memoir as a focus on the larger picture through the lens of the self. She uses the Vietnam War, communist Czechoslovakia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Anne Frank’s diary to illuminate the different ways that constructing memories can be political acts. This connection of the personal to the political is one way that memoirs can rise above navel-gazing and become relevant throughout history.

 

She also addresses one of the biggest problems that memoir writers have: how to fold people you know and love into your stories. In her poignant last essay of the book, she leaves her readers with a question mark. She examines the ways that she has dealt with this issue especially in regards to her mother.  In the end, the reader leaves feeling that Hampl is still wrestling with how to understand the tension that exists between her relationships and her writing.

 

One of the most compelling things about this collection is Hampl’s stunning honesty. One might think that a memoir about memoir (a meta-memoir, even) might be the consummate act of navel-gazing. But Hampl’s honesty keeps the book from veering off into that realm. She points out the lies in her own memories, examines herself under glaring light, and writes openly about her struggles with various topics. It is this honesty that allows her to connect her own stories with the larger world.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.