Today I'm vey proud to have essay up at The Rumpus, which consistently publishes the best non-fiction of any magazine or website I read. The piece is called "Birth Story" and it's about birth stories in general, and one in particular. In many ways, it's a follow-up to an essay of mine they published last year, "On Pregnancy and Privacy and Fear." It's fun for me to see these pieces listed together when you click on my name on the site. It reminds me how much of my life has changed in the last year and how much has stayed largely the same.
Here's the opening of "Birth Story." You can read the rest here.
The birth story must always start the same way: with a woman in pain. There’s no avoiding the pain. The pain is how you know it’s beginning. It’s the overture, the epigraph, the amuse-bouche. You sit up straight. You stand up. You walk around. You move as if the pain is something you can twist away from, like pulling your hand from a hot stove. But this pain is coming from inside. This pain is trying to twist away from you. But first it has to come through you. First it has to open you up.
I've got some new work out in the world. Here's what's new:
- An essay in the new issue of Third Coast called "Other Aubreys I Have Known." It's about me...kind of. It's about recognizing myself in other people. Here's an excerpt:
I don’t know her real name, but she is me, sort of. My friends and I call her Aubrey because she looks like me. And I mean, wow, she really looks like me. We both start college at the same school in August, but I don’t actually see her until well into October. At first, I only hear about her.
- A story in CEDARS called "The News and What it Means to Noah." You can read this one online. This is a very science-y story, reflecting my love of all things particle physics. I had a great time doing the research for it and I learned a lot! Maybe you will, too. If not, there's a story in there somewhere, I promise!
- A story in the new issue of Whiskey Island Magazine called "The Specialists". The website seems to be dragging behind their printer, so my piece is in issue 59 not 58, but I got my copy already and it is lovely! Here's a sample from this story:
By the end of our first day of basic, word was out that Jakewad had raped a girl once and gotten away with it. He didn’t brag about it or anything; it was Net that spread the news. They were from the same town, south of Fort Sill, and according to Net, Jakewad was famous there.
“I know you, man,” Net told Jakewad, after hearing his real name in the Reception Battalion. “You’re the guy that gave it to that cheerleader.”
Today, for the first time ever, I have a piece of writing in a newspaper! Long live print media! My article is called "Chatting with Princess Wannabe" and it's in today's edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The article is a response to Lisa Bloom's Huffington Post piece, "How to Talk to Little Girls". In her article, Bloom gives very specific advice about how one should (and should not) talk to little girls. I loved her article and felt so inspired by her account of talking to a young girl about books that I couldn't wait to try her advice.
It didn't go quite as well for me as it did for her... Read it here!
I recently lent an essay I'd written to the talented Brian Oliu to be remixed as part of The Reprint's "Stolen Issue." The essay, "A Florist's Encyclopedia," originally appeared in Third Coast in the fall of 2010, and when Brian contacted me about doing a re-write, I answered with a resounding "Hell yes!"
Brian is one of my favorite writers (and he has a reading voice like smooth chocolate pudding), but his style couldn't be more different than my own. Besides that, my piece is an essay, which means the events in the story actually happened. To me. I wasn't sure what he'd be able to do with it, but I couldn't be more excited about the result. Brian grabbed onto the general theme of my piece, collected a few objects and images, and remixed it all into a brilliant essay ("Plants, Flowers, Vines"), both lovely and sad, that is wholly his own. You can read the pieces side by side here.
And in the spirit of intellectual generosity, Brian agreed to answer a few questions about the process of breaking into my essay, filing off the serial number, and taking it for his own under the cover of night.
AH: What was your reaction when you first heard about The Reprint's "Stolen Issue?"
BO: I was excited to be a part of the issue--I love the idea of working with source material. It gives me something to hold onto and it keeps my writing honest. I looked at it as a 'text collaboration': some of the structure and concepts that float through the story are stolen, but I wanted to create a piece that complimented the original text instead of swiped directly from it.
AH: "Text Collaboration" is a good term. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing "Plants, Flowers, Vines"? How did you proceed? How did you decide which elements from "A Florist's Encyclopedia" you wanted to preserve?
BO: To me, when I started writing this, I wanted to preserve certain elements: obviously, the flowers, but also the elements of death and change which find themselves associated with these things. One of the things that attracted me to the piece was the different sections that served not only as snapshots but as definitions of the flowers and what they meant to the author (you!)--that there are large moments that came forward from small moments. For me, I read each section a few times and 'extracted' parts that I very much enjoyed: whether it was the general feeling of that section, a word used, or a story that reminded me of my own story. I think that's the beauty of a well-written piece: even though the experiences talked about in the story were not my own, the silent and subtle specificity of the moment is so vivid that it makes me think about my own experiences. So, I tended to write about those experiences and weave my own narrative through the images provided by the flowers/losing someone.
AH: How do you feel about the final product? Are you happy with the way it came out? Do you feel like you were able to accomplish what you attempted?
BO: I really loved the final product--I always feel very uncertain about new projects or pieces that take me out of my comfort zone in terms of what I am accustomed to doing. While the end result is typically something that isn't too dissimilar from what I usually produce, the whole process was a bit different, and so I never really knew what to think about the piece when I completed it: if I had done the source material justice and if I had done my own work and style justice. I let the piece sit for a bit longer than I usually do: I've never been the type to rest on something when I feel as if it was 'done'. I was so nervous to send it to you! I was also hoping to create something that would fit into my manuscript and I was able to do that--it stays loyal to the feel of other pieces in the collection and yet it feels entirely different. I really like that.
AH: Plug time. What are you working on now?
BO: Well, first I'm excited to report that my series of Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connections titled 'So You Know It's Me' is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press, and I am pretty much over the moon. I recently finished my series of lyric essays based off of 8-bit Nintendo games, but I am going back and adding some smaller parts to it in order to make it feel more like a completed manuscript rather than a series of essays. For National Poetry Month, I've been writing a series of prose poems on all 21 counties of New Jersey. I've also started work on translating a book on running that my grandfather wrote in Catalan: it's less about direct translation and more about the act of translating (my knowledge of Catalan is minimal), and trying to create something new out of an existing text. And finally, I've started a blog (http://chairmanmet.tumblr.com/) with my cousin Rebecca documenting the 2011 New York Mets season if the New York Mets were under the rule of North Korea.
First of all, very glad to even be able to type the word "metaphor" today. On Saturday, I poured a very full glass of water directly into the keyboard of my shiny new laptop. It was mostly fine, but not all of the keys recovered. I had to spend the next 24 hours using the cut and paste function whenever I need an "m" or an "n". Needless to say, that got old pretty fast, so I walked it into the Apple store, saying, "Stop me if you've heard this one..."
But on to metaphor. I think the best metaphors are the ones that do a thousand things at once. The best way to explain this is probably by example. So here are a couple of examples of metaphors that work brilliantly:
- From Benjamin Percy's Refresh Refresh: "a no-neck linebacker with teeth like corn kernels and hands like T-bone steaks." That's a lot of information and description packed into a slim 13 words. "Corn kernels" not only tells us about the size and shape of the linebacker's teeth, but also their color. "Corn kernels" also implies something soft, like maybe his teeth are rotten. "T-bone steaks" likewise gives me a sense of size and shape, but also density and weight. It casts the linebacker's fists as being dumb or without agency, just pieces of meat. And both together tell us a fair bit about the narrator, as well as the person he's describing. Narrators should always use descriptions that are within the realm of their experiences. From this line, I glean that this narrator is a "meat and potatoes" kind of guy. I feel like I know a little bit about what he eats, and can extract from that some information about social standing, income, etc.
- From "Kavita Through Glass" by Emily Ishem Raboteau: "The pieces of colored glass were smooth and flattish and oblong, shaped like teardrops roughly the size of robin's eggs." Again, "the size of robin's eggs" does not just tell us about the size, but also shape and texture and fragility. This image combined with "teardrops" makes me think of the color blue. "Teardrops" implies that they are translucent and glassy. It also impacts the mood of the piece, bringing in a sense of sadness.
I could go and on, but I think you get the idea. Good metaphors do a lot of work for the little space they take up on the page. The other side of this, of course, is that the least successful metaphors are the ones that do nothing. I will occasionally come upon a draft that has a line like, "It sounded like a thousand Cheerios being flung forcefully against a trampoline." I don't know about you, but I have absolutely no idea what that sounds like. Rather than doing the one thing that metaphor sets out to do (give me a sound image), it instead obfuscates the tenor even more. I now need another metaphor to explain the metaphor meant to explain the original sound!
So take your cues from the authors above. Never limit yourself to illuminating just one aspect of the thing you're describing. Instead, make your metaphors work hard and save yourself some precious real estate.