The Essays in 'I’ll Tell You Mine' Speak Precisely Individual Truths
We are a species that longs for stories. We are also a species that longs for the truth. Both are found, here.
I'll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays From the Iowa Nonfiction Writing ProgramPublisher: University of Chicago Press
Editors: Hope Edelman, Robin Hemley
Publication date: 2015-11
The best essays in I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays From the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program are akin to M.C. Escher graphics: the main point, a many-windowed house, is just visible over the horizon. Readers wait for the author to examine her essay’s every structural possibility and ensuing thematic point before confidently ushering her tour group toward the path marked Conclusion.
Tell a group of grad students to write freely and certain topics are bound to emerge. I’ll Tell You Mine is a book of dying and dead mothers. Jo Ann Beard’s "Cousins", excerpted from The Boys of My Youth, follows Jo and her (female) cousin, Wendell, through their shared girlhood along country backroads. They arrive at every destination obsessed over their hair: "What’s my hair doing?" En route to her wedding, Wendell nervously touches her head. "How’s the crown?"
Afterward, surveying the dancing crowd, Wendell takes a long drink of beer, announcing, "That’s my first husband, Mitch." By the essay’s conclusion, Jo’s mother lies in bed, afloat on morphine, smoking an illicit cigarette. Wendell’s mother sits beside her, also smoking. Another cigarette won’t matter, now.
Hope Edelman’s "Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us" would be trite in a lesser writer’s hands. Edelman came of age in the late '70s, where New York state borders New Jersey. FM radio held oracular power and Springsteen was a radio god. Edelman was a college-bound good girl, but that didn’t stop her falling for Jimmy T., a Springsteen wanna-be whose entry into Edelman’s life coincided with her mother’s sudden death from cancer.
Edelman’s use of detail lifts the essay from a bland coming-of-age to something special. Her New York State is a place where bumper stickers read "Springsteen Country", where a sexy boyfriend has "cassette and eight-track tapes scattered like loose change across the floor", where leaving that boyfriend behind happens not with a bang, but a whimper. Edelman’s college roommate, a girl whose relatives came off the Mayflower, asks if Bruce Springsteen isn’t "that short guy from New Jersey?"
Graduate students are generally expected to teach undergraduates. Like parental death, the act of teaching provides a rich writing mine. In "The Rain Makes the Roof Sing", Tom Montgomery Fate offers a moving evocation of living and teaching in the Philippines. There, Fate’s simple ESL assignments instruct the instructor. Questions like "What is Love?" and "What is God?" get single sentence responses, no less thoughtful for their brevity, drawing as they do on a multiplicity of languages: Filipino, Tagalog, English, Spanish, Ilokano, and numerous tribal languages.
"Love is banal", a student writes. Appealing to a housemate for translation. Fate learns "banal" means "sacred or holy" in Tagalog. Driven witless by the incessant rain on his hut’s metal roof, Fate confides in a neighbor, expecting sympathy. She disagrees, smiling. "Listen. The roof sings."
Fans of Lydia Davis’ complex wordplay—particularly "French Lesson I: Le Meurtre" from Break It Down will delight in Michelle Morano’s "Grammar Lessons", which details a relationship breakup through the essay’s title, "The Subjunctive Mode". Where Davis works in French, Morano tackles the equally tricky Spanish, with an equally tricky lover who is adored but mentally ill. She learns that "it’s possible to love someone with all your heart, so much you’ll do almost anything for him, and at the very same time, want him out of your life."
John T. Price’s "High Maintenance" will take you back to every crummy grad school apartment you inhabited, those grimy substandard places where you desperately tried to hide your beloved cat/ rabbit/ turtle/ mouse from the landlord even as the drains clogged and the toilets gurgled incessantly.
Ryan Van Meter’s "Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won’t" effectively dismisses concerns over the second person point of view while expressing the pains of re-entering the dating scene. That Van Meter is the text’s sole gay voice is a shame, but his essay’s plaintive tone transcends any kind of "minority" status, speaking for anyone seeking love after the death of a longstanding relationship.
Creative nonfiction exists as a teachable genre at the postgraduate level, by which time its composition is often accompanied by much anxiety. To this end, some creative nonfiction authors send their perfectly worthy essays on factual errands to particle accelerators or political rallies, searching out bolstering statistics. While the best writers pull disparate threads of idea together by an essay’s conclusion, this reader wishes the genre, and its authors, were confident enough to drop the fact-finding missions. I’ll Tell You Mine has its share of this type of essay, all well-written if structurally non-adventurous.
Ashley Butler’s "Anechoic" begins with the gut punches that will kill Houdini. Next we see a photograph of the author’s mother, clad in a strapless black gown. Houdini or no, the ending is certain. Before reaching it, we’re taken to the anechoic chamber of the title, a room devoid of external sound. Butler gives the history and uses for anechoic chambers, including psychiatric experiments, unsavory military uses, and investigation into hearing loss. More magicians are brought in. Butler’s mother dies. This reader was lost, but Creative Nonfiction saw differently, publishing the piece.
Bonnie Rough’s "Slaughter: A Meditation Wherein the Narrator Explores Death and the Afterlife as Her Spiritual Beliefs Evolve" is a series of vignettes, each presenting the author’s death via a different mishap: a falling tree, a wayward car, food poisoning, childbirth. With each "death" comes a reconsideration of spiritual beliefs. In the notes, Rough writes it took Professor John D’Agata mockingly holding a draft over the trash bin for her to feel the article was worthy of saving. After chiseling away at "the strange thing I had written", Rough’s essay won the Bellingham Review’s 2005 Anne Dillard Creative Writing Award for Nonfiction.
Essays like these do something fiction cannot: speak precisely individual truths. Yes, fiction speaks universal truths, but the essay, at its best, addresses the singular event, the author’s experience. In this collection: My mother died, in this particular manner. My cousin and I grew up together in the sticks, and now she’s on her first marriage, pregnant, and I am alone: my mother has died. My mother died while I was high school, my father become an alcoholic; during that time I fell in love with a boy; it ended when I began college and he could not follow. All of this to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack. I fell in love with a mentally ill man. He tried to commit suicide. I fled to Spain, I immersed myself in a new language, a new life, I tried to repair the relationship, it did not work. My boyfriend left me after eight years; this is how it feels to date again.
Universals may easily be extrapolated from the above, but it's their individuality that compels, the knowledge of their specific reality -- we’ll assume no liars here -- that draws us. We are a species that longs for stories. We are also a species that longs for the truth. Both are found, here.