Before Life Felt Like After Life

Last week in a nonfiction class we discussed truth in creative nonfiction.

There are many truths; your own skewed and faulty memory, for one. But then there are the philosophical tangents in the mind that make memory an art.

Here is Vladimir Nabokov’s first page of Speak, Memory, an Autobiography Revisited.

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heart-beats an hour.) I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a band-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones disintegrated.”

Nabokov is looking at a bit of old film before he was born and had a strange feeling about his own absence. In this small moment, he unpacked and interrogated this feeling through simile and dark imagination. He could have simply said how uncanny he felt, that his pre-life resembled his after-life in his imagination.

Is this passage true? Yes – it’s his own truth through his imagination. We can surmise that his father is on the street filming his mother waving down to him and that the carriage is brand new because she’s about to have this baby, Vladimir. But now, through this account with Nabokov’s switching into third person about himself, he’s seeing a “glimpse” of the world without him in it and it’s disturbing. A happy gesture turns into a dark one. Instead of his mother waving excitedly down to his father in anticipation of having him, he imagine it as a “mysterious farewell.” The gift of a brand new carriage is to his mind a harbinger of something pre-existence and therefore can exist in any time that doesn’t include his presence, as in his death.

This is all true, but it is also imagined and we know that Nabokov did not lie to us. He is simply dissecting this feeling of unease. It is this same feeling that he wants to communicate to us to set the tone of his autobiography. Beginnings, he feels, can be exchanged with the end.

Memoir or Novel?

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons takes us on a journey through milestones that are filtered through her unique gaze, an identity that teeters between complicated black wealth in South Africa and an American identity riddled with a feeling of being on the outside. Her style is what I’m used to reading in Creative Nonfiction, fragmented narrative, like Lia Purpura, Etel Adnan, and Eula Biss.

Here is a snippet from the middle, her mother’s ending days from cancer.

“The hospice was a new place on the top of floor of a cold brick building with few windows. When we arrived, a tie-dyed social worker tried to steer me into a cheerily lit kid’s room. The staff had a phrase for what was happening to my mom–“the dying process”–like it had a trademark. Like she was in the process of walking to the store or buying groceries. Just another thing that humans do” (95).

This passage can be seen as unfettered by complication but the new definition she places on death and the “kid’s room” — the tie-dye in such an unlikely place (contrasts) still adhere to what we call putting the art into narrative.

I read a few nice reviews of this title and noticed that Clemmons’s life matches particular parts of this novel, quite a pervasive gesture for authors–we write what we know. The quintessential autobiographical novel is Dickens’s David Copperfield. This ratio of how much of our own lives as fiction or non-fiction occupies a lot of my thoughts since I teach nonfiction and love to read this complicated genre.

I said one time in my Travel Writing class in my PhD program: memory is fiction. So where do we draw the line? Amanda Patterson has some tips but since memory is faulty and the “creative” part in the “non-fiction” allows for a ton of diversions and fragments, what is indeed a novel anymore?

This novel just spawns more questions as I feel like I’m reading Purpura or Biss. I’m interested in what others think on this subject as I still don’t really have answers. A curated life equals memoir, yes? But what if we change a name and an instance, or even add a little smidgen of romance that never was there?

I tell my students, if something is total fabrication, just make sure the reader knows it. If we do add the smidgen of romance in memoir, we would say: I wish it went this way.

Take that statement away, and then it’s a novel, correct?

What is “slightly biased?”

Me. Pasty.

I’m not even a ginger. I’m a fake ginger. I think the definition of a ginger is pale, sometimes freckled, but the emphasis is on the hair. My hair has always been brown black, sometimes lighter in summer if I was lucky enough to have access to another person’s pool. My freckles defined me immediately in any room, especially after moving to Tucson, but still in San Jose, California, I was becoming aware of other girl’s tans.

Why do I bring this up on a blog where I read a book and make claims that there is beauty there? Art even? Because I’d like to acknowledge the privilege I won in doing such a thing. Who am I to make these claims about art and beauty?

I base a lot of my privilege on my experience in life, yes, because we tend to. I’ll share a recent articulation of this idea in a funny video. Tim Minchin’s address to UWA  Minchin acknowledges the levels of privilege within a system rigged to help some and not others. He acknowledges that if you are reading this now — you are privileged because you have a computer screen and you have learned English in a way that allows you to fathom this blog. I’m not sure that claim is fully true, as there are desperate and underprivileged who might be able to read this and remain desperate, sad, ostracized, downtrodden, you get my meaning. I like how he highlights empathy.

“Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on intellectually.”

Privilege levels are important to consider in this blog (and always) because I would like to acknowledge some of my own as I continue to biasly give you judgements of what I deem worthy to read (and I fully acknowledge that this blog is purely opinionated and flawed because of it). (See the debate of valuing and privileging what we read in Distant and Close reading.) The only reasons some people read this blog might be because I am an educator of reading and writing, I tend to write and can be called a writer sometimes, and I have friends who want to stay connected. But, I read for different reasons that might not be the same as some of my readers. I read for escape, a popular motivation…(Asimov, Tolkien, Rowling, L’Engle, Le Guinn) and I read for enmeshment, maybe not so popular… (Dickens, Woolf, Hardy, Brontë Sisters, Eliot) and I read for enlightenment and to gain useful skills. But even before I was able to analyze why I read, I grew up as an outsider, teased for my freckles and my crooked-toothed smile that couldn’t be corrected because we ran out of money half way through my braces. I could very easily state that I was disadvantaged due to my perceived differences in freckled skin versus tan skin or I can make disadvantaged claims about the lack of money our family had growing up which tempered many experiences that some of my colleagues and friends had and that I had to fight for or wait for. But, I also acknowledge how I am lucky that I learn through language, one who is able to take in words and not appose letters, one who can absorb what I’m reading and apply it, and one who is able to concentrate for long stretches of time, even freakishly tunnel vision into a book.

Lucky? Because I acknowledge that unfortunately for the kinesthetic, auditory, and other learning styles, many university settings and learning institutions cater to language learners (although that’s changing and my classes are dynamic, focusing on all learning style of course! :)). I acknowledge my privilege in such an opportunity to still go to college after working two to three jobs, to still have the kind of parents who endeavored to give me braces, and I’m lucky to still have managed to keep two legs and two arms that work well and despite being very bad at putting together hamburgers under stress, I got my first job that launched me into a life of work which I maintain is very lucky and privileged, although cleaning park toilets was my least favorite job. I managed the grill well enough to make my first money at Berger King. No one laughed at me and in fact, I was joined by a best friend which made the job hilarious and fun at all times. Even though I was fired from Burger King for being inept, this launch, with friends and general acceptance at jobs is a privilege I don’t take lightly. I am grateful and acknowledge it now in this blog. I’ve never had malaria. I’ve never heard a bomb.

This blog is purely subjective but cannot be but influenced by my past and struggle for all educational forays that a life of reading, first to escape, then to study, supported.

Play a game that I teach in a multiculturalism course: Imagine you are two to three sections on the outside of this wheel and spend a day analyzing your actions as this identity. Reflect and keep a journal for however long you’d like to be able to walk in this person’s shoes.

Consumers, consuming.

I am writing an essay about Karl Marx walking into my house and judging me by my possessions. Eula Biss isn’t as surreal but allows (in this interview) her recent re-reading of Das Kapital to ribbon its themes through her essays. Why I love this volume of essays is that the sociological topic of privilege has loomed large in my family and that of my husband’s and we like to pick it apart, discuss it often. My little (early 40s) brother hasn’t finished his undergraduate degree yet but he was fascinated by each class, especially sociology. One of his assignments a ways back was to choose an ad from a magazine and talk about how the image projected class. When he told me about it, I was so enlivened because my husband and I had just poked fun at an Abercrombie ad the past week where we named all of the models (because they were all models) and made up their histories. My favorite was this gal named Mia, whose tan hair and hazel eyes contrasted with the ivory, wool beanie on her head. She was going to be an agriculture vet and her boyfriend, Sven, was in the same program. Tobias and Laura brought everyone to the uncle’s winery where they all took a basket-weaving class together. They owned two homes. A flat on the upper west side in NY and a bungalow in Washington Park neighborhood in Denver, we conjectured. They were picnicking somewhere in Greece, it appeared, so we allowed that they had all vacationed together. Where did they get that kind of money? No idea. I handed my brother the ad. “Go nuts,” I said, laughing!

Eula picks apart this issue in the same vein. In the essay, “Not Consumers,” she talks about catalogs, in duplicate, coming to her house and accumulating. She describes,

“The IKEA catalog has a message on the front: ‘Designed for people, not consumers.’ In the photograph, some young people are having a fun, unfussy dinner at a crowded table. There are dirty dishes piled on a cart and a guitar is leaning against the wall. The IKEA catalog sits on top of a pile of catalogs with photographs of sterile rooms showcasing furniture that has never been touched. This other, messier way of life, IKEA suggests, is not just less expensive, it is more human” (276).

She charges IKEA with being the “furniture for the apocalypse” and cites all of the furniture her family had purchased only to watch fall apart. The heart of this essay seems to be the whole disguise of consumerism through splitting up categories: human versus consumer rather than human as consumer.

Each of these small gems of essays, Biss’s self-exploration in consumerism brings in sociological aspects straight out of the classroom, but in such an intimate experience, weaving experience and factoids in pleasurable balance. Biss relies on many writing tools, but my fave, as always, is describing a photograph, because students who do this can’t not but describe! The weaving, called braiding in creative nonfiction, is masterful and reveals issues I’ve always noted but haven’t sat down and written about. Yet.

We Moved to Hawaii, and I Surfed

I’m not really interested in surfing but I’m always interested in writing that earns the Pulitzer prize and tell my students that it’s a great list of texts to read! A few friends told me to read this book, so I purchased it. What Finnegan does so well falls under all of the excellent creative nonfiction and memoir conventions. They sound easy when you learn them: hyperbole, repetition, flash-back and flash-forward, embedding your cultural objects to dictate time, showing the reader how something “seemed” instead of reality, transitioning in time in the middle of a paragraph. Here are more. What is more important in this memoir is that someone like me, a very female reader (I love reading a good femoir!) who isn’t really interested in surfing, is engrossed. I want to know what happens to this protagonist whose family moves from LA to follow his father’s film career. Meanwhile, the side action of his father’s career, is the background and the main action of the son’s surfing life. This life is revealed surrounding this move.

I love flash forwards. Tobias Wolff is the king of them. Finnegan executes them well. In chapter two, we learn that our protagonist, William, has inadvertently caused his father to dislocate his shoulder splashing in the pool. At first, the reader is in the pool at the moment the dislocation happens, but the next paragraph does interesting things with time.

“Dad’s shoulder continued to dislocate every few years. The last time it happened, he was out at the Bomb. (A specific beach). He didn’t surf, so what was he doing, on a surfboard, out at the Bomb? Apparently, he paddled out just to have a look, to see big waves at close range. Then a set closed out the channel. He lost the board. And his shoulder came out of its socket. He went down once, twice, couldn’t stay afloat. A Hawaiian surfer saved him. I wasn’t there. I was in exile then, a college dropout. At the hospital, they opened up his shoulder, repaired the capsule, and tightened the surrounding muscles. It would not dislocate again. Neither would he be able to raise his arm above his head. Decades later, driving south through Laguna, I found myself hoping that my daughter, then four, never heard me bellow helplessly” (59-60).

This paragraph shows so many tricks. Instead of painfully telling us what surfer terms mean, Finnegan leaves them up for interpretation. In effect, the terms create theme and give us a feel for being plunged into surfer life. Instead of the narrator telling us, “I felt so guilty,” Finnegan shows us “Neither would he be able to raise his arm above his head.” Notice how “Decades later” plunges us forward in time in the same paragraph. It goes without notice and rolls us easily into this new time and space. Finnegan resists the temptation to tell us of his guilt carrying forward and simply remembers the sound of his father in pain. He transfers that sound onto his daughter.

I can tell you many places in This Boy’s Life by Wolff and in Wild by Strayed where they use this sly technique. I have the pages marked because these paragraphs can fly by. I challenge you to go now and find them. Practice them and integrate these lovely devices into your soul! Your reader will be amazed.

A life went up in flames.

One of my first reads after diploma was Little Fires Everywhere. I got to discuss it with an articulate group of readers up in Steamboat. For me, the point of no return was the way in which Celeste Ng explored class. I was so happy to finally see a novel that addressed such a heavy weight of any society. How to take care of the their lower income people?

There are many passages that allow us in to view a more influential family through subtle scenes. The trappings of such influence are shown well in the first instance that Lexie imagines her bedroom’s inventory — in fact, her life up til then — going up in flames.

“Now Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone. Every T-shirt in her dresser drawer, every pair of jeans in her closet. All the notes Serena had written her since sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs, which she’d kept in a shoebox under her bed; the bed itself, the very sheets and comforter charred to a crisp” (Ng 4).

The verbs aren’t that exciting. But they are strong verbs…perhaps another writer would use a metaphor for the smoke. Perhaps the jeans would have been the ones she shopped for once with her boyfriend at so and so mall…in another writer’s hands. However, even at the basic level, we are shown the snake of memory, the way it thinks back and forward at once where the list ends with the “very sheets and comforter,” the more banal and plain detail as a global understanding that Lexie’s belongings are gone forever. We are also shown a subtle inventory of class. Lexie gets to have close friends, she gets to keep her things in a place that remains her own throughout her stable life. The protagonists contrasting this influential family are shown as transient as the daughter, Pearl, puts together her own second-hand bed on the front lawn.

While I entered into a deep debate about book versus series and the way the series bent the rules…I’ll leave that up to other viewers to discuss. The take away from this passage is that she could have simply told us: the house went up in flames. Instead, Ng developed characters while describing an event.

Dissertation Editing: Wisdom and/or Folly



This is a post about the act of writing, the very process, and how much this process concerns authority. As I continue to edit the final touches of my dissertation, I am only reading scholarly books about Early Modern Englishwomen writers like the above, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Astell, and Aphra Behn as well as Rogue studies books (Long Meg of Westminster, Mary Carleton, Mary Frith) and books on English society between 1470 and 1720.

I have read these books and have taken notes for the past three years, at least. My notes are lengthy and detailed and now are fifty-five pages in length. I would say that I am an intermediate scholar and can lecture for a while on the topic of how a handful of Englishwomen writers entered into a patriarchally strict world of text. Their unique entrance into this world is my focus.

As I become a scholar, it’s paramount to keep my momentum through feeling like an authority. In order to feel this authority, I need both encouragement and focused, formal feedback. As I have focused on formal tools for this blog, I would require the same from more advanced scholars.

This post serves as a reminder that as I am the student, so am I the teacher. As I experience this very vulnerable space of creating text, I keep this space in mind as I give feedback to my own students. Praise what works and why. The “why” of what works gives the student writer a view into her/his/their own psyche. When she/he/they learns why what they wrote is clear, succinct and understandable, then she/he/they can do more of that act. However, if I were to first focus on what doesn’t work, and even attach a judgement to it –  this is folly. Telling a student that their work isn’t good NEVER helps. In fact, an emerging, first-time student who has spent a life combating subsistence level stress, trauma, and forces of the world that undermine that very vulnerable psyche, has walked through fire to arrive at this privileged space of learning. They have finally arrived only to be told that what they wrote was bad. Those undermining forces from the past come up from the graves of their debtor prison ancestors, their peasant and ever struggling dead come for them with a plaque that says: failure.

This sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. I was and am this first-time student. This process of becoming an authority, one who is open to the wonders of learning and knowledge, can be flattened in an instant.

I am grateful to my committee for taking the time to give me formal feedback and have always recognized the gift of it to all of my students. Now more than ever, after the support I have received, I recognize how important it is to continue to gift  students the authority of writing, to adorn them with oodles of confidence so that once they hit small snags in the creative process, the hurdles remain small and students can rely on their wealth of confidence and authority for momentum to get past them.

Teachers are not gatekeepers. We are the informed cheerers. Wrap students in knowledge and support through formal feedback. When they enter into this privileged learning space, recognize the privilege, always – and allow them to take up the mantle of authority. Encouragement goes so much further than pulling the rug. When I have confidence before I ever turn on my monitor, I am the authority and I don’t have to fight through those rising, blue/gray hands of dead ancestors who have endeavored to pull me down my entire life.

(And yes – a great, great, great grandfather, Cassius Kinsey, was in debtor’s prison in Georgia, a fault with repercussions that affect me today.)

Pool-side Picks: A Few Suggestions

winters tale mark helprin

This post is dedicated to my brilliant, older sister, Shannon, who continues to read voraciously and inspires me to do everything.

At parties, I know how to clear the room. Someone might find out that I am closing in on my PhD in Literary Studies and ask, “Oh yeah? Do you have a recommendation for some classics?” I usually stammer and then ask them, “What do you like to read?” which gets them off the subject because I hate to seem like I hold some keys to the reading mecca of the world. I don’t. I just have opinions like anyone else.

So, here are a few opinions. (Besides taking to the pool or the ocean or the woods a stack of old New Yorkers…) The above is a great, chilly read for these hot summer days. I am not one to condemn movies, but please, read the book and then judge for yourself. This novel sparkles in the ghost of snowy mornings. Its pixie dust reveals the Hudson Valley like you’ve never experienced.  ‘Nough said.


Look up my previous post about  Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. We love Little Nel characters – the “one against” and “underdog” archetype – who either triumph against all evil or succumb as martyr. No spoilers but there are moments in this novel where I had to pause to re-read and cherish. This cherishing can be easily done by poolside.


This is for my students who would like to crawl inside what “voice” feels like in the novel. Robert Bird’s Introduction is key to understanding the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s life at the time he wrote Notes from the Underground. You’ll notice, eventually, that the protagonist is unreliable and that he is one of those you love to dislike.

harriet the spy

Yes. I believe Louise Fitzhugh stands up to Dostoevsky.  If you never sat down and read this in your teens, or if you have and haven’t revisited it for a while, you’ll be sucked in by Harriet’s life rather than told or pandered to. She’s bossy and insistent and has set precedents for so many novels and movies.


If you have never read Byatt’s Possession, it’s a treat waiting for you. Two story-lines concurrently. Love twists and intrigue. It’s thick so if you prefer shorter novels, then maybe read this in sections. Again, the movie is up to you to judge. Read the book first.

I tried to sift through my Margaret Atwood library and can’t pick out just one. Try to read any Atwood. Buy one randomly and you will be thrilled. If you want to read Alias Grace, read it first and then watch the Netflix production.


Persuasion is one of Jane Austen’s more subversive novels. If you pick up an Austen novel this summer, you’ll enjoy trotting into parlors in Bath, England and all of the social circumstances Anne Elliot is up against. Another underdog story.

Any and all Bronte sisters.

If you would like to delve into Early Modern Britain’s history, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World is, in my opinion, the first science-fiction novel.

If you’re scratching your head and asking: what does she like that is new? You can message me. This post is disparate but aims for pool length novel reading.

Here is a list of authors I tend to like:

Elena Ferrante

Jhumpa Lahiri

Arundhati Roy

Josephine Tey

Again, not any kind of order to the above. Just off-the-hip suggestions from someone who likes to read…





It Was Love at First Sight


My posts are few and far between since I’m re-writing three memoirs, a novel, and am on the second chapter of my dissertation while teaching, and my cat’s femur broke, was repaired, and screws came loose. Now we’re hanging tight hoping for miracle bone to heal itself.

I’m relying on the articulate ladies’ choices forming my bookclub’s reading list to comprise my blog. Just while I finish these projects. If it isn’t Goethe or Early Modern Rogues, I’m not reading it right now – with the exception of my bookclub text.

With that said, Phillip Roth’s opening paragraph in Goodbye Columbus is one of those passages that makes the weak writer in me cringe. Not a bad cringe. It’s that cringe every writer knows–the “I shouldn’t be a writer” or the “I’m not worthy” cringe. Dickens does it to me. So does Raymond Carver. Lydia Davis. A kind of –should I really be trying to do such a thing as write? Instead of the tired phrase I used as title for this entry, Roth employs advanced techniques. Gesture, yes. But more than gesture- he develops both characters. Well, I’ll explain more after I show you the paragraph:

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside m. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped. (3)

I already mentioned gesture that is strewn throughout this passage: the glasses holding, the foggy look into the pool, the glide to its edge, and the catching of the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and its flick back over the flesh. All of this slows the moment, presents her through our narrator’s eyes (first person) and creates a dynamic that lasts until the end of the story. In communication theory, once you hold or touch someone’s property or take/eat something of theirs, you feel indebted. In this section, holding the glasses is a power move and reveals the shifting away from our protagonist, his helplessness and socioeconomic inadequacy that dooms the couple. As I instruct my students to do, I also chide myself for not employing enough active verbs. Not a problem for Roth. Also, if you want a great example of telling and showing – the last statement does both through a hyperbolic gesture that all the writing teachers in the world want you to just know – and that, my friend, is called voice.

Her Eyes Were the Key to Her Soul


I have to admit, while in my PhD program, I’d peruse the English aisles at the DU book store and scan other faculty’s classes’ text offerings, to see what I was missing. I also would check out what my fellow PhD candidates were teaching. I came across Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station. Someone at one time or another had recommended him to me a while back so I read the blurbs about terrorism, Spain, Fulbright…and I thought, why not?

His sentences do sing. This paragraph, a great testament to how students don’t have to say “She had piercing blue eyes.”

“Whenever I was with Theresa, whenever we were talking, I felt our faces engaged in a more substantial and sophisticated conversation than our voices. Her face was formidable; it seemed by turns very young and very old; when she opened her eyes wide, she looked like a child, and when she squinted in concentration, the tiny wrinkles at their corners made her seem worldly, wise. Because she could instantly look younger or older, more innocent or experienced than she was, she could parry whatever speech was addressed to her. If you were to accuse her, say, of reading too much into a particular scene in a movie, she would widen her eyes and look at you with an innocence that made you feel guilty of projection; if you accused her of some form of naivete, her squint would bespeak such expanses of experience that the accusation was instantly turned back upon you.” (82)

Throughout Leaving The Atocha Station, Lerner allows us to struggle with him in the dregs and no-mans-land between language – a place he describes well when trying to interpret others around him in conversation.

Does his overly-privileged, apathetic and lying character offend? Is this character meant to get the proverbial rise, especially out of those of us who scrape at walls trying to achieve something so special and amazing as a Fulbright? Does this type of reader (Yes, it is me) resent the main character with fury while reading this text? Yes. I do. Would I recommend it? I am not sure.

I read The Scarlet Letter five times throughout five changes to different high schools. Does that mean I have to pick it up again and read it in adulthood? No.

I acquiesce to the beautiful sentence and to the pretty lines peppered throughout this text. I guess I wanted a few more overt hints that this guy is a monster…a la “I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” But we only get these nuanced and yet very ugly American gestures. The worst of privileged scholars, I’d say. I wanted off the train, never to see this guy again. But use your best judgment. I am biased. My PhD was a teaching fellowship, which I cherished.