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Jacqueline Alnes

On Representations of Disability: A Reading List

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Around the age of 3 or 4, Harriet McBryde Johnson sits in front of her family’s television set and thinks, “I will die.” The thought comes to her after an advertisement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association flashes across the screen, one that depicts a small boy’s journey from running bases as a baseball player to using a wheelchair and then to bed, one he never rises from. Born with a neuromuscular disease, this commercial, and then a telethon around the age of 5, are Johnson’s first encounters with depictions of disability in mainstream media, as she writes in her memoir Too Late To Die Young. From that first scene, the line I will die, I will die, I will die, serves as a sort of chorus, one that punctuates Johnson’s progression from kindergarten student to law school graduate to protestor and beyond. Johnson reclaims the line; as she moves through life, I will die is no longer a source of fear, but rather a lyric of defiance.

The negative representations of disability Johnson encounters in childhood do not leave her in adulthood, particularly in relation to her wheelchair. She protests against entities like Jerry Lewis, who claims, in a letter penned for Parade Magazine, that wheelchairs are a form of “steel imprisonment,” a “dystrophic child’s plight.” When, being photographed for The New York Times Magazine, the photographer asks to remove Johnson’s chair from the frame, saying that Johnson looks “frail.” The photographer argues that Johnson will look “beautiful and powerful out of the chair,” “brave,” but Johnson advocates for herself.

Johnson’s memoir reveals a litany of ableist assumptions directed toward her and other disabled people, as well as the emotional and physical tolls these perpetual violences take on her throughout her life. Harmful messages, distributed through television ads, telethons, looks others give her while she’s out, snide comments, the highly inaccessible way our world is physically built, seep so much into her consciousness that at one point, she sees wheelchair dancing as being “undignified.” It takes her years before she reckons with her own beliefs, questioning whether they are borne from what others have told her about her disability or about what she herself has experienced in her body. Then, she explains the joy that comes from moving through the world in her wheelchair, saying, “we can in our own way play with sight and sound, combine rhythm and form, move in our chairs and with our chairs, and glide and spin in ways walking people can’t.”

Though Johnson’s life experiences are unique to her, the underlying themes within her book resonate far beyond. I saw myself reflected in some of her passages, particularly when I thought back to my own experience using a wheelchair for a few months as a result of neurological symptoms, during which time I felt a sense of shame. Johnson’s reckoning with her own internalized ableism helped me realize that my feelings came not from my use of the wheelchair, which allowed me to move through the world, often with great joy, but from how I thought others might perceive me.

Her memoir, too, encouraged me to ask questions: How does pervasive ableism affect the way our society continues to be architected? In what ways have disabled people been represented in media and how can representation continue to evolve so that disabled people have more agency? How are invisible disabilities treated versus visible? What have other disabled people’s experiences been engaging with different accessible tools and technology? The essays curated here cover an array of topics related to those questions, as well as delve into intersections between disability and race, class, and gender.

1. Common Cyborg (Jillian Weise, September 24, 2018, Granta)

Jillian Weise writes against Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ exposing numerous flaws in Haraway’s argument, namely, the fact that Haraway neglects to acknowledge disabled people. Weise discusses what it means to claim a cyborg identity, and how disability is treated by a group of people she names ‘tryborgs,’ who “preach cyborg nature,” but “do not actually depend on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazine.”

They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured.

2. What It’s Like to Be a Disabled Model in the Fashion Industry (Keah Brown, September 5, 2018, Teen Vogue)

In this essential reported piece, Keah Brown, author of recently published The Pretty One, interviews three models with disabilities — Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax — and draws on her own experiences with cerebral palsy to emphasize the need for increased representation of diverse bodies in advertising, media, and modeling.

Disabled people and disabled models are still left out of most campaign ads and runway shows. This lack of representation has implications: When you go so long without seeing yourself it is easy to interpret that lack of representation to mean you’re ugly and unworthy, that you deserve to be invisible or even worse, are grotesque.

3. How Designers Are Failing People With Disabilities (Justin Rorlich, March 6, 2014, Hazlitt)

With estimates that there are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world who control more than $8 trillion in disposable income, you’d think there would be competition within the wheelchair market to create products with sleeker, more efficient design. But no, as Justin Rohrlich exposes in this piece, hardly any work is being done within big corporations to advance wheelchair design. Instead, individuals like Andrew Slorance are taking matters into their own hands.

In no other market do we force people to simply take whatever product gets shoved down their throats, especially one of this size,’ Donovan says. ‘It’s really sort of unbelievable.

You’d think that companies would have figured out long ago how to sell to a cohort this size. For some reason, it remains barely-touched.

4. The Complicated Dynamics of Disability and Desire (Lachrista Greco, April 6, 2016, Bitch)

After a teacher in middle school tells Lachrista Greco she’s using her invisible disability as a “crutch,” Lachrista begins to make a connection between her disability and how wanted she feels in relation to others. In examining harmful cultural moments like Kylie Jenner modeling with a wheelchair, essays by other disabled writers, and personal memories, Lachrista explores how disability is connected to desirability, both in her life, and in our culture as a whole.

Jenner appeared on the cover of the magazine sitting in a brass-colored wheelchair—sexy, glamorous, and blank. It’s fetishization to the nth degree for Jenner, an able-bodied person, to pose in a wheelchair wearing a black latex bodysuit. It’s “crip drag,” as comedian and disability rights activist Caitlin Wood calls it.

5. The Amputee Cyclist’s Art of Self-Repair (C.S. Giscombe, May 23, 2019, The New York Times)

After seeing a banner that reads “Do you remember when prosthetics weren’t mind controlled?” while on a bike ride through the U.C. campus, C.S. Giscombe reflects on his own prosthetic; ruminates on intersections of race, class, and disability; and confronts ableism.

He was amazed — as some people are, ‘because of your handicap’ — that I was riding at all, and as we talked and climbed the topic of touring came up and he was quick to inform me that it was a thing sadly beyond my capabilities, though we had just met. ‘Typically, disability is viewed as a tragedy,’ as my friend the poet Jennifer Bartlett has observed.

6. Products mocked as “lazy” or “useless” are often important tools for people with disabilities (s.e. smith, September 20, 2018, Vox)

After seeing a device called a Sock Slider ridiculed on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, s.e. smith compiles a list of other tools mocked on the internet: “banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more.” In interviewing people with disabilities, disability scholars, and compiling research about costs of attendants, smith not only makes clear that the use of these gadgets enable some disabled people to live independently, but also examines the role of the internet in spreading harmful messages.

When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.

7. I Love ‘Queer Eye.’ I Don’t Love The Way It Portrayed People With Disabilities. (Jessica Slice, July 26, 2019, Huffington Post)

Representations of people with visible disabilities on television are far and few between, so when the Fab Five of ‘Queer Eye’ featured Wesley, “a Black man, loving father, 30-year old community activist and wheelchair user” on an episode, Jessica Slice had hopes that the team would empower Wesley to embrace his identity as a disabled man in the same way they encourage others featured on the show. Instead, the episode falls short in many ways, which Slice chronicles in this well-researched piece.

Critically, being disabled is not a negative. It’s an identity, just like being queer, Black or Latinx is an identity. If it makes you pause to hear ‘Black, but not really,’ or ‘gay, but not really,’ then you should have the same reaction to ‘disabled, but not really.’

8. (Don’t) Fear the Feeding Tube (Kayla Whaley, May 8, 2018, Catapult)

When her mom brings up the idea of a feeding tube, Kayla Whaley recoils. She feels shame and fear thinking about such a concrete change being made to her body until she speaks with others who have gone through the surgery. This essay, in addition to providing a history of gastronomy tubes, also chronicles Kayla’s emotional turn from revulsion to delight in relation to her g-tube, and the ways in which her feeding tube allows her to connect with her body in new and surprising ways.

More than that, knowing what was inside felt like sharing a secret with myself. Seeing inside my gut, learning to recognize its patterns and moods, felt intimate in a way that was wholly unexpected but altogether a joy.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Workshopping Workshop: A Reading List

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When I think of workshop, I think of fluorescent lights and scuffed linoleum. Long tables configured into a square, beverages — iced tea, coffee, kombucha, root beer, lemonade, reusable metal water bottles — dotting the square’s perimeter. A window, maybe, where crows blur past just before the last light of day fades. Notes of a distant marching band needling their way into the room. I think of what is insisted — we need to know more about the speaker. The arguments over minutiae — does the sidewalk cover the length between her house and the gas station? The compliments, the summaries, the probing, the attention to detail, the wanting for more, the gifts of enthusiasm, the rooms where cultures of respect flourish, and those where someone tugs at a thread until any sense of community unravels.

What I mean to say is workshop is a tender ecosystem, one that connects the physical — stacks of marked paper, chalkboards, typed longform letters, uncomfortable chairs — with what often seems intangible or difficult to put into words. At its best, for me, workshop has held a kind of magic. In those spaces, I felt a sort of inner calm, a knowing that the others in the room brought their most complicated, nurturing selves to my pages and me to theirs. We demanded a lot from one another — held each other accountable for lazy moves, questioned form, encouraged experimentation — but did so with trust, and often joy.

But it wasn’t always that way. For a long time, during my undergraduate and MFA, I wrote almost compulsively about neurological illness; after losing parts of my memory, writing was not a salve, necessarily, but granted me the illusion of control, a feeling of power over my body and history that I often felt I lacked. The problem with writing about invisible illness, though, is simply that: it’s invisible. Invisible to doctors, my former Division I coach, former friends, administrators, professors, nearly anyone with authority to declare me well or unwell. It is also, due to the careful ways I choose to dress and present myself, invisible to peers. Once, in workshop, I submitted a piece about one of my neurological episodes in which I repeat the same word for hours on end, my head lolling back and forth, out of my control. In the hallway after my session was over, a peer, repeating the harm done to me by disbelieving medical professionals and so many others, quipped, “Well, I’ve never seen you do that before,” in a tone that suggested she didn’t trust the veracity of my narrative, or that she didn’t consider my illness grave enough to be worth writing about.

Different brushes with disbelief and a sundry of other insensitive questions have peppered my workshop experience over the years, both in workshop and in the halls after, but haven’t caused me any significant grief. As a white woman who passes as able-bodied when not episodic, I experience privilege in many ways. However, these questions from peers are usually rooted in deep-seated cultural misconceptions about what we perceive disability to be, and are rarely corrected by instructors, who have at times allowed the personal questions about my symptoms and condition to pass within workshop as being about “craft.”

As I move from workshop participant to workshop facilitator, I have been deeply considering exclusionary practices and systems of power — not only in workshop, but in academia as a whole — that allow for the perpetuation of harms directed toward people of color. In workshop, what, if anything, can be written on a syllabus or spoken aloud in class to ensure that each and every participant’s work is read with care? What is the role of a facilitator? What texts might be read throughout the course as a means of encouraging workshop participants to grapple with their own identities?

The vital essays curated here are not necessarily a direct answer to these questions, but they bring to light the violences engrained in workshop settings as well as offer resources for meaningful change.

1. Unsilencing the Writing Workshop (Beth Nguyen, April 3, 2019, Lit Hub)

When I asked a group of writers how they would describe their workshop experiences, responses included: crushing, nightmare, hazing ritual, test of endurance, awful, ugh. I’ve heard of students drinking before their workshops; I’ve heard of students crying in class and after it; I’ve heard of students never looking at their workshopped pieces again.

Most workshops follow the same format: the writer is silent while peers question, critique, and praise their piece. When Beth Nguyen began teaching her own, she wondered what it might mean to invite writers into the process by allowing them to speak. Nguyen ruminates on how unsilencing the workshop shifts dynamics of power, as well as offers practical examples from her courses to help others make similar beneficial change.

2. The Psychiatrist in My Writing Class and His ‘Gift’ of Hate (Rani Neutill, May 2019, Longreads)

When Rani Neutill, the only woman of color in class, submits her piece to be workshopped, a white psychiatrist responds by saying he hated her piece, and wonders aloud “when this writer learned to speak English.” Neutill examines the ways in which people of color “do not have the privilege of only showing, not telling” in their work, and questions the structure of workshop, the role of her instructor, and the multitude of ways in which the white psychiatrist inflicts harm through his treatment of both her and her work.

His commentary is laced with paternalism and condescension. It is spiked with hate and the repulsive natures of his probable desires. It undermines me. He probably does not register this. I can psychoanalyze him, but he cannot psychoanalyze himself. Such is a white man’s privilege.

3. The Optics of Opportunity (Hafizah Geter, June 19, 2019, Gay Magazine)

Among many other atrocious acts during a mysterious fellowship funded by Barnes & Noble, writing instructor Jackson Taylor uses the n-word in class. Hafizah Geter, a participant in the fellowship, not only reveals the many problematic elements about the fellowship and its origins, but also illuminates how larger systems of power continue enabling racism.

As I pushed back against Taylor’s racism, I did so consciously held hostage by my silent white peers and their white perception and notions of respectability — who heard our objections to a racism they couldn’t muster the energy to see, and thus would not allow our concerns to hold water.

4. To Know By Heart: Workshop, Whiteness, and Rigorous Imagination of Ai (Claire Schwartz, December 25, 2015, Electric Lit)

In ruminating on a memory from workshop with Professor Elizabeth Alexander at Yale, her study of Ai’s poem, “Child Beater,” and the ways in which she and other white family members and friends are complicit in perpetuating conditions that allow for racism and violence, Claire Schwartz comes to complicated conclusions about how language connects us to acts of both harm and beauty.

But. Can you imagine hearing and not intervening in a racist joke? Can you imagine attending a university that invests in private prisons? Can you imagine being an American and never learning black history? Can you imagine studying the Holocaust without talking about Japanese internment? Can you imagine teaching a science class without Henrietta Lax, without the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, without any thought at all to whose bodies have produced your knowledge?

5. When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself (Matthew Salesses, July 20, 2014, NPR)

I have had “good” and “bad” workshop experiences, but for me whenever race comes up, it feels, somehow, traumatic. While most issues in workshop are presented as universal to story, race can come off as a burden personal to writers of color.

Matthew Salesses reckons with the ways in which writers of color are too often expected to defend not only their work, but their selves, in workshop, and presents ways in which workshops can be constructed so that the burden falls not on writers of color, but on instructors and peers.

6. Political Revisioning: How Men Police Women’s Anger in Writing Workshops (Jen Corrigan, October 22, 2018, Bitch Magazine)

When Jen Corrigan writes about her anger for workshop, a man named Andrew responds, “I just didn’t really believe it.” Corrigan explores the ways in which women’s anger is dismissed and disbelieved, both in workshop and outside of it, historically and at present, and advocates for workshop participants to scrutinize their own belief systems and biases before entering into conversation.

At first, I wondered if I was being too sensitive. I’ve never been overly delicate about being critiqued, but I instinctually questioned my perception of Andrew’s criticism. But, really, I wasn’t upset about Andrew’s critique of my essay because he had not critiqued it at all; he had critiqued me, my anger, and the way I processed and responded to aggression from men.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Lions, Tigers, and a Rabbit Named Bugs: A Reading List on Animal-Human Interactions

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I don’t remember how I first met her — did I catch a glimpse of her shimmying through a gap in the fence? — but I know that it was love at first sight, at least on my end. Part of my joy, I think, came from the fact that I never expected to see a rabbit within 10 feet of my kitchen window. At the time, I lived in a house on the corner of a small-town neighborhood street, and my backyard was relatively plain. No brush or trees shaded any part of the yard from the Oklahoma sun, trucks regularly revved past, and a number of kites and hawks threaded patterns in the sky above. Why would a rabbit visit a balding patch of fenced-in lawn rather than take cover in the murmuring field of tall grass nearby?

After that first sighting, years ago now, I searched for her within the movement of shadows at sunrise and sunset. Sure enough, she returned. I began learning her patterns: clover by the kitchen window until the sky painted itself into the color of morning, clover near the back corner of the lawn just before sunset, and occasionally, a nap near the fence post to escape the late afternoon heat. One morning while she was out, I eased the back door open and stepped in slow-motion, out onto the patio. Her ears perked up and swiveled, marking the source of the sound. She drew her feet close and twitched her nose. I took a seat on the concrete and, before long, she returned to eating.

As the summer months wore on, I sat with her often, and I also began buying carrots that I would throw in her direction. Timid at first, she crept closer and closer to me until I could feed her from an arms-length away. She would let me sit in the yard nearby while she rolled around in a sandy spot, her way of bathing, and when I returned from my morning runs, she would often sniff the air, stretch her body like a cat who’s just risen from a nap, and then hop in my direction. I named her Bugs.

After she disappeared that first fall, I didn’t fully expect to ever see her again, but Bugs returned for two summers. Sitting with her day after day, morning and night, encouraged me to engage with parts of the natural world I otherwise would have ignored. Over the course of our time together, I watched a pair of kites build a nest in a tree overhead, hoping that I’d never catch the sight of their shadow if they decided to swoop down one day. I studied the nuances in what I thought had been a plain lawn: purple flowers speckling the space in spring, dandelions during the height of summer, a flurry of minute insects hovering and crawling in the heat. I watched the sun melt down over powerlines and neighboring roofs, starlings and skeins of geese alternating overhead.

Over the years, my relationship with Bugs prompted me to think more critically about how I treated the natural world. I fed Bugs carrots daily and began videoing our encounters for Instagram, so that even strangers became invested. The second summer I knew her, she had a baby, and the two of them frequented my yard. There, Bugs taught her offspring to crouch low when the form of a hawk passed overhead, roll in the sand pit, and wriggle lightning-like through the slats in the fence. Though my intentions were borne from love and respect — and a desire to be close to another creature — was I harming Bugs by giving her food? Would she think other humans were safe or did she only know my scent? By inserting myself into her routine, was I disrupting an ecological web I had no right to be part of?

There are bigger questions that arise from those encounters, too. How have animals adapted to survive in a world increasingly overrun with humans? What kinds of relationships exist between humans and animals, and what well-intentioned actions from humans bring harm? The following essays address the oft-complicated connections between animals and humans, explore fascinating forms of adaptations that have sprung from living in increasingly inhospitable environments, and wonder about the future of us all.

1. Are Cities Making Animals Smarter? (Paul Bisceglio, August 16, 2018, The Atlantic)

Night after night, goldfish and koi began disappearing from an office pond protected by concrete walls. Worried, the landlord installed security cameras, only to find that the intruder was a surprising one: a fishing cat, better known for living in swamps than in the center of a bustling city.

In this fascinating read, Paul Bisceglio chronicles the work of Anya Ratnayaka, a conservationist who started tracking several fishing cats in the heart of Colombo, and wonders about how — and which — animals will successfully adapt to life as cities continue to infringe on natural habitats.

Mizuchi’s GPS-collar data had placed him not only in local ponds and canals, but also in the parking lot of a neon-lit movie theater and in the middle of a multilane traffic circle. His territory, which stretched about two square miles, was mostly covered with asphalt and packed with cars.

2. Horseshoe Crabs Have Survived All of History – and Remind Us How We Could Too (Lenora Todaro, July 3, 2019, Catapult)

Lenora Todaro meditates on intersections between human life and the natural world in New York City in her monthly Sidewalk Naturalist column. In this riveting installment, Todaro writes about horseshoe crabs, who somehow continue their “450 million-year-old lineage” despite “ice ages and asteroids,” low survival rates, and currently, in New York City, harrowing encroachments by humans on already too-small hospitable environments.

So here is New York city water, not at its best: a swirling mass of plastic bottles, glass shards of airplane size liquor bottles, coffee cups, candy wrappers, plastic straws, abandoned IHOP sugar packets. To find horseshoe crabs, we had to peel aside the sewage to see if any creatures were stirring beneath, oblivious and perhaps impervious to the garbage.

3. The ‘Othering’ of Animals and Cultural Underdogs: Debut author Pajtim Statovci on Kosovo, migration and cats (Pajtim Statovci interviewed by Carolina Leavitt, April 27, 2017, Electric Lit)

Pajtim Statovci, author of the novel My Cat Yugoslavia, speaks with Caroline Leavitt about the othering of people and animals; ways animals are used as symbols in literature and life; and his attempts to undermine conventional means of representation in his work.

We place animals in different contexts, such as literary works, where they are anthropomorphized and interpreted through the human world, for example as symbols of human characteristics, even though we don’t have access to animal consciousness, and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to be an animal.

4. How rats became an inescapable part of city living (Emma Marris, April 2019, National Geographic)

With urban rat populations on the rise, Emma Marris visits several cities around the globe, meets with rat experts, and studies the history of the rodents to give a better understanding of their immense capacity for adaptability, as well as the ways they mirror the way we as humans live.

Some of the things we hate most about rats—their dirtiness, their fecundity, their undeniable grit and knack for survival—are qualities that could describe us as well. Their filth is really our own: In most places rats are thriving on our trash and our carelessly tossed leftovers.

5. The Man Who Made Animal Friends (Ian S. Port, September 21, 2015, Rolling Stone)

At The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in South Carolina, visitors can pay to take pictures with lion, tiger, and liger cubs, and visit apes, elephants, and other animals during tours through the park. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the founder and director of T.I.G.E.R.S., views his establishment as a community where animals and people live in harmony. Others, like zoo experts, view his park as being harmful to animals.

All of T.I.G.E.R.S. staff members must complete an intensive apprenticeship. No formal education is required, but recruits must be single and childless. They cannot expect any time off for any reason. They must be within 20 pounds of their “perfect athletic weight or working to get there,” able to do push-ups, pull-ups, and run a 12-minute mile.

6. Animal magnetism (David P Barash, May 13, 2014, aeon)

Why are humans fascinated by animals? How do our interactions with animals change depending on the context in which we observe them? What do we see of ourselves in other species? David P Barash, in considering animals in zoos, in veterinarian offices, as pets, in the wild, and across time, hypothesizes a variety of reasons why we remain enthralled by other creatures.

We are living, breathing, perspiring, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, eating, defecating, urinating, copulating, child-rearing, and ultimately dying animals ourselves. It is plausible that deep in the human psyche there resides the simple yet profound recognition of a relationship between Us and Them.

7. Can Elephants Be Persons? (Sarah Kasbeer, Summer 2019, Dissent Magazine)

Does only harm come from anthropomorphizing animals, or can respect for other living beings stem from the inclination? Are zoos an ethical place for creatures to reside, or is it better we let them free, even while we destroy their natural homes? What makes a person a person instead of an animal, and where do we draw the boundary between the two?

Sarah Kasbeer considers these questions and more in this nuanced and vital essay, one that centers around the predicament of Happy, an elephant living alone at the Bronx Zoo.

It has long been said that to anthropomorphize—ascribe human characteristics to animals—while intuitive and enjoyable, is unscientific and misguided. But given the recent research into animal consciousness, what was once considered a cardinal sin of ethology has since returned to favor, so long as it’s implemented responsibly.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, GuernicaTin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Why We Write Memoir: A Reading List

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No matter how many years pass, no matter how much I work in therapy, no matter how far I remove myself geographically from the site of trauma, whenever I open the YouTube video on a channel I cannot forget the name of, I start to drown. It is not a quick plunge underwater. When first the browser loads, I tell myself, as is my natural response to any inkling of pain, that I am fine.

The first sound is my laughter — a strained version. In the video, I hold my hands to my belly, as if emulating a kind of joy, before gripping the door frame to my college dormitory. My laugh reaches almost a shriek in pitch. Behind the camera, one of my former Division I college teammates cajoles, “Talk to us, talk to us, Jackie.”

I pause the video. I remind myself that I am here, in a new-to-me town in Pennsylvania, years and miles from this day, but my body tightens like a fist. I want to leave my apartment, to run beneath a sky tinged the soothing, sugar-spun pink of cotton candy. I want to weep. But instead, though I feel some kind of water rising around me, I press play again. I have to, I tell myself. I’m writing.

The thing about the video is that I do not remember it being recorded. In it, though I appear “normal” with my black Nike shorts, purple-framed glasses, dirty blond hair sleek to my shoulders, I am experiencing one of many mysterious neurological episodes that would plague me that semester. With the episodes came what doctors would later term aphasia and a transient alteration of awareness. In layman’s terms, this meant I would repeat a few words (“Sky News, Sky News, Sky News,” “Aurora, Aurora, Aurora”) for minutes at a time. I wouldn’t remember the episodes when I later woke up. A few of my teammates, gathered behind the lens of the camera, knew this. I don’t know what prompted them to film that day, if it was a gesture of care that turned cruel, or just a means of entertaining themselves from the beginning.

When I do speak in the footage, I first say, “I, um.” I glance down at the floor. Hoping to confuse me, the boys filming ask where I’m going tomorrow and where I’m going yesterday. I respond, “I, I, I” and look at my watch. As they continue to prod with their questions, my voice reaches a higher pitch. I shriek “No! Noo! I-no! I-no! I, I.” This is the part where I feel the water rising around me at my desk, where I know I’ll spend the rest of the day in what feels like a bottomless ocean, suspended by a grief I cannot name or easily swim out of.

I have been writing about this video for six years, as part of a memoir that I am still wrestling into being. After watching this video, when I am in the watery deep, I ask myself questions: How can I write ethically about my teammates, who both cared for me and inflicted deep pain in turns? What happens if they read this someday? Why, in a world where there is far more horrific news being reported daily, am I trying to add my voice? Why, if I don’t consciously remember this moment, can’t I let the video rot in oblivion where it belongs?

I have reported this footage to YouTube dozens of times. Each time, I select the option “Hateful or abusive content” and pick “Abusing vulnerable individuals.” I shrink away from the word “abusive,” telling myself it’s really not that bad, but then I remember that within the video, one of the girls observing — someone I considered a friend at the time — says, “You guys are so mean” and a boy from the team says, “she’s gonna cry” before they continue. Even while coherent, while completely within themselves, my teammates knew that their actions were harmful. And for me, though I don’t consciously remember this video being taken, my body holds a history of its own. The trauma lives in the way I isolated myself for years because I feared other people more than I feared my symptoms. The trauma lives in the way I used to scream when a tender former partner tried to care for me during episodes. The trauma lives in the fact that the video is a testimony I cannot ignore, a memory I cannot blur out of being like so many other incidents that happened that semester between the soft of my body and those teammates.

At times, these six years of writing have felt like living within a dense fog: I cannot see where I’m going or where I’ve been. The drafts seem to become both more refined and completely opaque as I press forward. But recently, my life has shifted in fundamental ways: I broke up with a partner who knew the contours of my history as well as he could and moved halfway across the country. Here, in this new place, alone, I have been working on a proposal version of the book. In some ways, the tectonic shifts in my personal life and geography have allowed me to see the story in a whole new way, as if I’m finally far enough away to make meaning. During this process, I have been practicing tenderness toward myself. I do leave my desk to chase cotton candy clouds each morning, all the while reminding myself to breathe. I email terrible drafts of my overview to writer friends who nurture me while I probe old wounds. And I have spent innumerable afternoon hours with the essays below, each writer’s words a lifeline pulling me from the deep.

1. Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy (T Kira Madden, March 22, 2019, Lit Hub)

I may have believed that to write The Thing down is to take one more step away from The Thing itself, one more step removed, one more page and another and another until there is a thick stack of proof, of growth, of Tada!—the restorative salvation.

After writing Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden reckons with the idea that writing memoir is inherently cathartic. By closely examining her reaction to seeing a boy pounding his fists against the closed windows of his mother’s car, Madden considers the differences between life itself and life reexamined, and discusses the importance of allowing readers to enter a work.

2. But What Will Your Parents Think? (Morgan Jerkins, May 2018, Longreads)

This past February, during the book tour for my essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, one of the recurring questions I received most frequently from readers was about how I pushed past the fear to write about the most intimate aspects of my life?

Rather than providing her audience with a list of coping mechanisms, Morgan Jerkins told the truth: she never overcame fear, particularly the fear of sharing her work with her parents, but learned to acknowledge — and write within — its presence instead.

3. Amy Tan on Writing and the Secrets of Her Past (Nicole Chung, October 16, 2017, Shondaland)

Amy Tan discusses unexpected sites of discovery, reconciling her memory of loved ones with alternative realities, cultivating empathy while writing, and the importance of community in this riveting interview about her new memoir Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination with Nicole Chung.

Who we become has so much to do with the experiences we had, and how we survived. The book is not about happy situations — it’s about trauma, and the times when characters have to question who they are. It’s about my questions, and who I am.

4. Annie Dillard and the Writing Life (Alexander Chee, October 16, 2009, The Morning News)

Wanting to be a visual artist, Alexander Chee originally didn’t conceive of himself as a writer. One day, however, before a friend borrowed his typewriter, he wrote a story that “came out as I now know very few stories do: quickly and with confidence.”

Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day ‘the consolations of the mask,’ where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory. But I didn’t know this then.

Chee, who most recently published How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, reflects on the significant impact Annie Dillard had on his beginnings as a writer.

5. A Reckoning is Different than a Tell-All: An Interview with Kiese Laymon (Kiese Laymon, interviewed by Abigail Bereola, October 18, 2018, The Paris Review)

What’s the difference between a tell-all and a reckoning? How does audience change how a book is both written and read? What effect can memoir have on the level of personal relationships as well as within the realm of larger cultural conversation? Kiese Laymon addresses these questions and more in a brilliant interview by Abigail Bereola, as they discuss his groundbreaking memoir, Heavy.

I think people conflate memoir with autobiography a lot, but memoir is the artful rendering of an experience. For me, to get to the artfulness of it, I had to think of a person who could help me keep the good fat and cut out the bad fat.

6. Writing truthfully about my father: An act of resistance, an act of love (Allie Rowbottom, July 27, 2018, Salon)

Allie Rowbottom’s father, after reading a draft of her memoir, JELL-O Girls, says he feels suicidal. In this ruminative piece, Rowbottom provides a window into her writing process as pertains to the ethics of representing others, as well as conveys how important it was for her to stay true to her own story, even if it revealed wounds that others had not yet reckoned with.

I’m doing it right now, as I did when I sent my dad my book, as I did when I wrote it, chronicling my experience on the page, saving myself through writing, despite the painful fear of what the work I produce might lead my father to threaten or create. Facing this fear is the most challenging work I have ever done.

7. The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books? (Rebecca Makkai, December 6, 2018, Electric Lit)

She might just as easily, as many have done before her and many continue to do, ask how one could post about books on a day when there’d been a mass shooting, a day when babies were in cages, a day when toddlers were gassed, a day when… well, any other day, really.

How — and should we? — write or celebrate art with so many atrocities in the world around us? By examining historical instances of people writing in the midst of unimaginable horrors and considering the context within her recent novel, The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai asserts that art, now, as much as ever, can serve as a vital form of resistance.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, GuernicaTin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: A Breakup Reading List

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A late bloomer as far as relationships go, my first encounter with heartbreak came from the track. It was junior year. The district meet: all big Texas sky and girls next to me adjusting hair ties and heat waves shimmering ahead. At that point in my life, I had devoted myself entirely to running. I had skipped every pool party and social gathering for three years to chisel myself into a faster time, a college scholarship, or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — something that would finally indicate to me I had succeeded. I had won handily the year before, and everyone in the stands anticipated I’d win again. But when the gun went off, and I eased into a pace that should have felt easy given the rigor of my training, my legs stiffened. With each of the eight laps, I grew slower. Girls passed and I watched their ponytails sway across their thin frames. No matter how much I cajoled myself forward, no matter how many times I reminded myself of the years of work I’d put in, my body didn’t respond. I came in close to last.

Usually, at the end of a season, I jumped right back into running, but that loss felt like an irreparable fissure between me and first love. Heartbreak tasted like Coca Cola and boxes of Sour Patch Kids, and sounded like Coldplay’s “Fix You” repeated for melodramatic effect on the bus ride home. Too sad to study splits at night, and having ignored all social situations for years, I found myself reaching for something to fill what felt like a hunger inside me, a gnawing that reminded me of the ways I’d failed, the potential I’d lost. Those nights, I began a ritual of reading in my closet. I devoured books until one or two in the morning. At first, there was an escapist tendency to my reading; I wanted to forget the world I was living in and enter another. But, after weeks and a stack of novels, I realized that the words were guiding me back to solid ground. In reading about the nuances of another’s life, I was far enough removed to engage with what felt like the losses in my own. Slowly, I began to heal. I returned to running and pursued longer distances and faster times, my muscle evolving through training cycles; I’m sure there’s a metaphor for love buried somewhere in there.

Recently, over a decade after that track race, I experienced heartbreak again, but this time with someone I thought I might spend a life with. Just as I had after my district race, I mourned the possibilities of what could have been. I reviewed my own shortcomings. I doubted in my capacity to feel that sweet burn of distance again, the ache of muscle that indicates you are moving through the world as well as the bounds of your body will allow. I wondered if I would ever be able to trust again, to love. In the weeks that followed, as if grooved into some map of memory, I found myself reading a book a day, disappearing from the world for a few hours before surfacing again. I read and I ran and I read and I ran until I sloughed away the dead parts of the past, and trusted that the beautiful parts of the relationship — the parts that taught me compassion and made deeper my vulnerability and nurtured me toward growth — remained with me, even if the person who had fostered them did not.

Here, in case you, too, are experiencing any variety of heartache, is a reading list of essays that have allowed me to grieve. They’ve been friends telling me exactly what I needed to hear, and ultimately, have given me hope that there are new and unexpected futures ahead, even if now I only have a glimpse.

1. On Nighttime (Hanif Abdurraqib, May 15, 2019, The Paris Review)

Hanif Abdurraqib ruminates on places he has spent a series of nights: watching over a hospital bed, working at a hotel, waiting up for a long-distance love. By holding his experiences of heartache up to the light and carefully considering Lucy Dacus’s song “Night Shift,” Abdurraqib explores the liminal space that exists between hearts that are whole and broken, and moments that bleed between darkness and light.

In those days, I imagined daylight hours as no time to build a graveyard for memory. I couldn’t do what I needed to among the waking, forcing myself to run errands or pulling the shades down against the sun.

2. The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t (Rachel Monroe, April 2018, The Atlantic)

Finding true love amid the slush of online dating profiles often feels like a fantasy, which is why, when about a dozen women connected romantically with a man who called himself “Richie,” they felt lucky beyond measure — but only at first. Rachel Monroe, in this riveting read, reveals how Derek Alldred deceived so many women, explores the history of the con man, and, in a most satisfying turn, explains how his victims banded together after heartbreak to ensure he would never have the chance to con again.

Even Derek’s victims, who understand better than anyone else how these things work, repeatedly questioned one another’s choices when speaking with me: How did she let it go on that long, why did she let him move in when she barely knew him, how did she not see through this or that obvious lie?

3. When I couldn’t tell the world I wanted to transition, I went to Dressbarn (Katelyn Burns, May 23, 2019, Vox)

But by March of the following year, my dysphoria became too much to bear. My wife did her best to come to terms with my coming out, but we broke up when I told her I was starting estrogen, and I moved out shortly afterward.

After divorce, Katelyn Burns reflects on her relationship with a “little black Calvin Klein dress with stripes” that reminds her both of past heartbreak and a new world of possibility that opened when she first tried it on.

4. Love Running (Joseph Holt, March 2019, The Sun)

Joseph Holt’s ex-girlfriend was the reason he began running, but after their breakup, he continues on his own. Solo, running becomes both a reminder of their past as well as a salve for heartbreak.

I think about her every time I run, and I run every day. I feel her loss like a phantom limb, yet somehow this, too, is beautiful. And I run now with deep, propulsive gratitude for her influence.

5. How to Be Heartbroken (Brittany K. Allen, March 20, 2018, Catapult)

How much is the way we grieve the end of relationships influenced by portrayals of breakups in popular culture? Is there comfort to be had in performing different stages of heartbreak? How do we know when we’re ready to move on? Brittany K. Allen addresses these questions and more in this gorgeous exploration of “halving” herself from a former partner.

Isn’t it funny how the language we reach for when describing the real, wretched thing itself smacks of commercial copy? Heartbreak, heartbreak. It’s a pop song. It’s something you buy at Claire’s, or in the candy aisle.

6. The Breakup Museum (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2018, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Married for two-and-a-half years, Leslie Jamison peruses the exhibits featured in The Museum of Broken Relationships, a place where people from around the world send otherwise banal objects — “a toaster, a child’s pedal car, a modem handmade in 1988” — that somehow represent love lost. Jamison ruminates on what it means to separate from a partner, what we carry with us after a relationship is over, and how objects can conjure memory.

Which is all to say: I grew up believing that relationships would probably end, but I also grew up with the firm belief that even after a relationship was over, it was still a part of you, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

7. Her Fiance’s Mountain Bike Crash Was a Tragedy. What She Did After Was a Miracle (Gloria Liu, February 14, 2019, Bicycling Magazine)

Just three weeks before Will Olson was supposed to move from Colorado to Vermont, where his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie McDonald lived, he perished in a freak trail biking accident. Gloria Liu tenderly chronicles McDonald’s grief in this deeply moving piece, but also notes how heartbreak, over time, can evolve into some kind of hope.

As Bonnie spoke more about the experience, she came to use the term “heart opening” instead of heartbreaking. ‘I never knew my heart could feel this much loss and this much love,’ she says. ‘I never knew my heart had this much capacity.’

 

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

 

 

‘If Any of My Old Friends Are Reading This, It Is Okay Out Here.’

A woman is baptized during a Jehovah's Witnesses assembly gathering. Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | June 2019 | 16 minutes (4,301 words)

Religion can offer narratives that help us make sense of the world, answers to difficult questions like: Where do we go when we die? How can we best love others? Why do bad things happen to good people? Within belief systems, people learn to love, to grieve, to serve, and to live, often with the hope of some eternal reward at the end. For many people, there is beauty and comfort to be found within these faith-based communities. But what happens if you are someone who begins to doubt everything you’ve grown up believing, everything you’ve built your life around? What happens if, by expressing this doubt, you are shunned forever by your family, community, partner, and way of life? How do you learn to move through the world and make meaning?

Amber Scorah, in her riveting debut memoir, Leaving the Witness, explores the upheaval of exiting a faith. Raised from birth as a Jehovah’s Witness, Scorah experienced difficulty tempering natural desire and curiosity for the sake of faith. As a teenager, she had sex with her boyfriend and was promptly disfellowshipped, leaving her unmoored from a religion that had served as the blueprint for her life up to that point. Rather than leave, Scorah, afraid of being killed by God at Armageddon and unable to see a sustainable path to an alternate future, returned to the faith. She married a Jehovah’s Witness and they moved to China and began preaching. There, Scorah’s doubts swelled until she could no longer suppress them, and she left, not knowing what grief and beauty lay ahead.

Leaving the Witness, witty and moving in turns, offers a rare look into the workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the various complications that prevent others from leaving despite their own doubts. Scorah, by untangling and exposing the mechanisms that once held her, offers a path for others to imagine new and unexpectedly hopeful futures for themselves, despite the fear and grief that accompany such a transition. I spoke with Scorah via Skype about her writing process, how she’s learned to dismantle harmful dichotomies, and how she has learned to carry and grow from immense loss.

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Read more…

Oklahoma: A Reading List

A stunning lightning bolt at sunset under a severe thunderstorm with a dirt road vanishing into the distance, taken near Magnum, Oklahoma, Tornado Alley, USA. Getty Images

A few nights ago I filled my bathtub with blankets and every pillow in my house, set a lantern and four bottles of water beside me, and took shelter. On my laptop, I watched the local news, where weathermen urged drivers to clear the roads and pointed at cloud rotations. The skies, through the screen, looked like oceans inverted: clouds rolled like tidal waves at too fast a pace and swirled like aerial eddies. Usually I love the openness of Oklahoma, the way a sunrise here can tinge the world any number of sherbet hues, but that night, from my tub, the heavens only looked ominous.

For an hour I watched the color-coded markings on the map, scanning for my small city, and only went to bed after the red and green splotched signs of danger had passed north, to Kansas. Even then, I didn’t sleep. I listened to the hail and rain pound my roof. I worried for people, animals, and houses in the storm’s path. I wondered if there would be an undetected storm moving toward me in the night, a tornado that might whip through the cover of dark as one had when I was in college, hitting my home when none of us were inside.

The morning after the storm, robins emerged from hiding and hopped across my yard with spiky hair and tussled feathers. Rain drained across the red clay in rivulets. Gray skies cleared into sun, and a soft summer breeze rustled honeysuckle, stirring the scent. This is Oklahoma in spring: mercurial, dangerous, beautiful. Here, I feel closer to the elements than I ever have before. Watching a bird prey upon a baby snake from my kitchen window, tearing the red inner meat into shreds, or witnessing the sky meld from blue to the shade of a bruise in moments, I have grown attuned to the thin line between awe and fear.

I am leaving this state very soon, and it’s filled me with the kind of ache for understanding that so often accompanies a goodbye, a sense that I can never know quite enough. Though I’ve explored great swaths of the state; learned the habits of starlings that murmur at daybreak and dusk; taught students from a variety of different towns; listened to Dear Oklahoma, a podcast where writers ruminate and examine the way in which Oklahoma is a part of their work; and tried my best to understand the histories of this place, this state still escapes my description. As a way of getting outside my own experience, I have turned to the words of others. I don’t think there’s any way to capture the vastness of this place — and this is by no means a comprehensive list — but below is a collection of stories that offer a glimpse.

1. Pawhuska or Bust: A Journey to the Heart of Pioneer Woman Country (Khushbu Shah, October 5, 2017, Thrillist)

With only oil and cattle to rely on as industries, rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma was at risk of becoming a ghost town until Ree Drummond stepped in. Also known as “The Pioneer Woman,” Drummond is a Food Network Star known for her marriage to a cattle-rancher and what fans describe as her “real” food. After Drummond opens a restaurant called “The Mercantile” in Pawhuska, Khushbu Shah flies from New York to better understand Drummond’s influence on Oklahoma’s cultural scene and economy, and why so many visitors flock to a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Similar sentiments were later echoed by every Pioneer Woman fan I spoke to, the vast majority of whom were white and from the Midwest or the South, like the three tall and husky female friends who told me they’d driven 13 hours from Indiana because Drummond makes ‘real American food’ and ‘the stuff you actually want to eat.’

2. They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants. (Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, October 4, 2017, Reveal)

Given the option between prison and a rehab program called CAAIR (nicknamed “the Chicken Farm”), Brad McGahey chose the latter. Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, in this harrowing piece of investigative journalism, reveal that CAAIR, located in northeastern Oklahoma, relies on unpaid labor from thousands of defendants. Additionally, though marketed as a rehab program, participants receive very little medical care or treatment.

‘They came up with a hell of an idea,’ said Parker Grindstaff, who graduated earlier this year. ‘They’re making a killing off of us.’

3. A Bend in the River (Pamela Colloff, July 2002, Texas Monthly)

Newspaper accounts of the escape focused on the manhunt, paying scant attention to the original crime or the victim, invariably described as a ‘sixteen-year-old Waurika, Okla., cheerleader.’ Only along the river did people know what the crime had done to their isolated slice of the world, the illusions it had cruelly stripped away.

In this riveting, haunting longform piece, Pamela Colloff writes about the murder of Heather Rich, and the impact her death had on the community of Waurika, Oklahoma, as well as the ways in which place and landscape influenced the investigation and subsequent events.

4. Why Black People Own Guns (Julia Craven, December 26, 2017, Huffpost)

Julia Craven interviewed 11 black gun owners in order to better understand their relationships to firearms. Though each of these accounts are important in their own right, RJ Young speaks specifically about his experiences with gun ownership as a black man in Oklahoma.

If I could walk around Oklahoma and not count how many black folks were in the room, I’d probably feel better about firearms as a black man. I’d probably feel safer walking around with one. But the fact is, most people have a narrow view of who I am.

Young’s book, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns offers more thorough insight his personal experiences with guns in Oklahoma within the context of a well-researched, larger cultural framework.

5. Spiritual Affliction: A Thank You Note to Oklahoma (Kate Strum, October 1, 2018, Hippocampus)

After moving to Oklahoma for graduate school, Kate Strum becomes fervent to understand the landscape: she travels to various parts of the state, engages politically, experiences the severity of elements, and makes meaningful relationships with people who have been here longer than she. And still, Oklahoma is somewhat elusive, though this essay is a beautiful rumination on Strum’s time spent here.

I am at once furious about what is wrong here and losing patience with the opinions of outsiders. I am home. I am marching at the capitol in the morning and late night on social media I am telling my friends on the coasts that they don’t get it. I shake my head when they read articles about rural America and think they know us.

6. Grace in Broken Arrow (Kiera Feldman, May 23, 2012, This Land)

Rather than taking reports of child molestation to the police or the Department of Human Services, the leaders of Grace Church, a Christian school that featured amenities like a ball pit, soda shoppe, and an antique carousel, instead held meetings to address what they didn’t believe to be that serious of an issue. Kiera Feldman, by interviewing survivors, former employees, and conducting immense amounts of research, brings to light a sickening tale of how Aaron Thompson, a former PE teacher at the school, molested boys there for years.

Grace Church was Oklahoma’s Penn State of 2002. After such things come to light, we always wonder: how on earth did that ever happen?

Here is how it happened.

7. Landlocked Islanders (Krista Langlois, November 16, 2016, Hakai Magazine)

Marshallese citizens, granted indefinite permission to live and work in the U.S. as a result of an agreement made with the U.S. during Marshallese independence, are leaving the Marshall Islands due to factors like climate change and lack of opportunities. As Krista Langlois writes, “by the year 2100, it’s conceivable that climate change will force the entire population of the Marshall Islands to US shores.” Many Marshallese migrants are ending up in Enid, Oklahoma.

Though Enid seems like an improbable place for Pacific Islanders to settle, it is, in a way, familiar. The first Marshallese came here with missionaries about 40 years ago, and wrote home about the jobs that could be had in meat-processing factories, and the public schools their children could attend. Eventually, family joined family.

8. The Teachers’ Strike and the Democratic Revival in Oklahoma (Rivka Galchen, May 28, 2018, The New Yorker)

Oklahoma teachers, rightfully tired of working multiple jobs to provide for their families and paying large sums of money for their own school supplies, walked out of school in April 2018. Some teachers drove to the capitol, where they asked for pay raises and better funding for their schools. Others walked in protest, making their way through “snow, lightning, and an earthquake.” Rivka Galchen examines the unique political composition of Oklahoma and chronicles the events of the two-week teachers’ walkout in Oklahoma in this longform piece.

The state’s license plates once read “Native America,” though almost no tribes are native to the area; they were sent there in the Trail of Tears. And Oklahomans are proud to be called Okies, a term coined by Californians to disparage people who were fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Related read: How Oklahoma’s Low Pay Dashed My Hopes of Teaching in My Tribal Community, March 28, 2018, Education Week

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: A Baseball Reading List

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When I was a kid, the world appeared most vivid to me during the longest days of summer: grass sprouted greener than ever before, my grandparents’ neighborhood pool shimmered cerulean, wisps of white-feathered clouds trailed across the sky. I can’t quite put my finger on what steeped those moments so much in the sensory — whether it was because I was younger and could give myself over more easily to sound and color, or if it was because I was only a visitor. Every June, I would travel with my family from Indonesia, where I lived, to the United States. Far from my normal routine, summer memories from the sleepy towns of extended family left distinct impressions.

In North Carolina, my grandparents took me and my brother to minor league baseball games. I don’t ever remember which team won or anything remarkable happening, but I hold a particular fondness for the solid thwack of a bat against ball, ice-cold drinks sweating in the heat, sepia-toned sand, the low rumble of an announcer’s voice, sunflower seed shells discarded on concrete, and pinstripes. Something about going to the games felt quintessentially American to me. Perhaps it was because we usually visited around the fourth of July, so some nights fireworks would light the sky. Or maybe it was the scene that reminded me of where I was: a baseball diamond dotted with American flags for a sport called the national pastime, my hand held to my chest during the anthem, brands like Minute Maid and Dippin’ Dots within grasp. Still now, when I go to baseball games, nostalgia pulls me back so that I’m somehow 10 again, perched at the edge of my plastic seat, hair sweaty against my neck, waiting for someone to call the kids out for a run around the bases.

My perspective is largely rooted in these personal memories, which hasn’t always allowed me to see the full texture of the sport. The following essays complicate my relationship to baseball in productive ways by revealing gender disparities, different culture’s approaches to the game, hidden histories, parallels to the craft of writing, and moments of trauma on and away from the field.

1. The Hidden Queer History Behind “A League of Their Own” (Britni de la Cretaz, May 5, 2018, Narratively)

With many men deployed in World War II, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.) was formed, in which women were told to, “‘Play like a man, look like a lady.’” Britni de la Cretaz, by sifting through obituaries and interviewing players, uncovers a fascinating hidden history within the league.

She understands today that talking about being a gay athlete is a double-edged sword, in a way. There’s the stereotype that women athletes are all lesbians, which is both inaccurate and unfair. And yet, there’s also the truth that there are many athletes who are also lesbians.

2. The 9 Minutes That Almost Changed America (Kate Nocera and Lissandra Villa, May 14, 2018, Buzzfeed News)

While practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game, an annual bipartisan event that takes place every summer between Republicans and Democrats, a man “fired 62 7.62 x 39mm rounds through a lawfully purchased Century International Arms SKS-style semiautomatic assault rifle” at members of the Republican team. Kate Nocera and Lissandra Villa, in this harrowing piece, reflect on the act of terrorism and how close the event came to changing modern politics and life as we know it.

 

It occurred to a few of them then that maybe the dugout wasn’t really that safe after all. And if you go to the field, you can see bullet holes through the top of the dugout, sheds, and metal poles on the fence.

 

3. This is why baseball is so white (Alvin Chang, October 24, 2017, Vox)

In this powerful collection of personal memory and demographic information related to baseball from the 1980’s to 2016, Alvin Chang writes that even though baseball teams have slowly become more diverse, the culture surrounding baseball has not.

 

But only looking at who’s on the field misses something very important: Baseball is still very white. The people who are in power are almost all white — and the cultural forces behind baseball are too.

4. He Was the Best We’d Ever Seen: On Baseball, Greatness, and Writing (Seth Sawyers, Lit Hub)

High school baseball up in the Appalachians is a rough red sleeve wiped against the nostrils four dozen times. It’s a Dan’s Mountain wind whistling your batting helmet’s ear hole. It’s a dozen scattered parents, wrapped in four, five layers, large cups of Sheetz coffee long gone cold on the warped bleachers etched: Sentinels Rule Campers Suck.

 

In this personal essay, Seth Sawyers reflects on playing baseball against Walker Chapman, a baseball legend in his hometown, and what it means to seek greatness in both writing and sport.

5. The Art of Letting Go (Mina Kimes, writer, with illustrator Mickey Duzyj, October 4, 2016, ESPN The Magazine)

As Major League Baseball struggles to overcome its staid image and lure younger fans — according to Nielsen, most of the sport’s TV viewers are over 50 — the simple bat flip has come to symbolize the culture war being waged within its ranks.

While bat-flipping is seen as disrespectful during baseball games in the U.S., it’s a celebrated part of baseball in Korea. Why? After finding no satisfying answer from American and Korean sports writers and historians, writer Mina Kimes, accompanied by illustrator Mickey Duzyj, traveled to Korea to learn more about why bat flipping is an integral part of the game.

6. How to make the Team USA women’s baseball team (Natalie Weiner, August 22, 2018, SB Nation)

While women in Japan, Australia, and Canada are encouraged to play baseball, the same does not happen in the U.S.

 

In the U.S., not only are there are no reliable opportunities for women to play professional baseball, but the sport is still considered taboo for women — even though they’ve been playing it for over a century.

Natalie Weiner explores the various factors — sexist societal expectations, lack of financial incentive, an uninformed public, funding from universities that prompts women to switch from playing baseball to softball — that make it difficult for women baseball players to commit to their craft.

Related Read: The Old Ball Game: 100 Years After Amanda Clement, Baseball Still Can’t Recruit Female Umpires (Britni de la Cretaz, February 12, 2018, Bitch Magazine)

7. Home Field Disadvantage (Kelsey McKinney, November 2018, Longreads)

Because of lack of general support for women’s baseball, the U.S. team only had the chance to train together for five days before the 10-day 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup — and even at the World Cup, there was barely an audience for their games. Each player on the U.S. team, remarkably talented, had overcome a lifetime of disparaging attitudes toward their participation in the sport, as Kelsey McKinney makes clear through her research and wide range of personal interviews in this piece.

 

According to a survey of high school athletics conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, almost half a million boys play baseball at the high school level. In the 2017–2018 school year, only 1,762 girls played baseball.

 

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

 

 

MFA vs. NYC: A Reading List

42nd Street with Chrysler Bulding during Manhattanhenge in 2018, captured in Manhattan, NYC. (Getty Images)

Near the end of my MFA, someone asked what my plans were after graduation. Before allowing me to answer, he said, somewhat wistfully, that he thought I should move to New York City and “live a little” before writing anything else. In the moment, I probably nodded politely and smiled, as I’m prone to doing, but his suggestion frustrated me. How, after living for two years on a barely-sufficient stipend, did he expect that I’d be able — or want — to fling myself across the country to a city with exorbitant rent prices where I had no job, no insurance, and no community? And what did he mean by living? Had I not been living during the two years of my MFA, during which I moved to an unfamiliar-to-me city, taught classes at the university for the first time, learned to edit a journal, found my way into a community of writers, and struggled in draft after draft to improve my own prose?

Instead of moving to New York City, I did what might be considered the opposite; I started a PhD in creative writing in the middle of Oklahoma, which I’m finishing up now. During my years here, I’ve certainly grown as a writer and a teacher, and had the opportunity to build lasting relationships with people who have supported me in innumerable ways. But I also have remained aware of the problems within academia: there is a food pantry for graduate students in the room across from my office, for example, a lack of diversity within my program and many others, and a job market that dwindles every year. Sometimes I think back to that person telling me to move to NYC, and I wonder who I might be now — as a writer, as a person, as a professional — had I “lived life” rather than pursuing another degree. I’ve probably thought about his offhand comment more than I should, but it also seems to encapsulate some of the larger conversations about the function of MFA and PhD creative writing programs and the various pros and cons of making a life as a writer within or outside of academia.

More interesting to me than prescribing one way of life over another, however, is to examine the challenges and sources of nourishment in each, and to wonder about the possibilities that exist beyond a reductive dichotomy. The essays curated in this reading list illuminate problems that exist within MFA and PhD creative writing programs, explore the idea of mentorship both within and outside of the academy, and offer insight on how to live a fruitful writing life without the support and constraints of a formal program.

1. MFA vs. NYC (Chad Harbach, November 26, 2010, Slate)

Chad Harbach theorizes about how MFA programs are influencing both the craft and professional development of fiction writers, as well as impacting the landscape of publishing, in this viral essay.

It’s time to do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild. Once we do, perhaps we can venture a new, less normative distinction, based not on the writer’s educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.

Related read: Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City? (Leslie Jamison, February 27, 2014, The New Republic) and “MFA vs NYC”: Both, Probably (Andrew Martin, March 28, 2014, The New Yorker)

2. Going Hungry at The Most Prestigious MFA in America (Katie Prout, Lit Hub)

The idea of writers living without substantial income is one that’s sometimes romanticized, as Katie Prout notes while listening to an audiobook of A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway says that “he and Pound agreed that the best way to be a writer is to live poorly.” One month away from turning 30, Prout writes about the realities — which include food banks and multiple jobs — of living with very little money while pursuing her MFA at Iowa.

I’m an instructor at the university where I attend the best nonfiction writing program in the country, and I make approximately $18,000 a year before taxes. When I was denied a second teaching assistantship at the university this summer for the upcoming school year even though I already had signed a contract with the offering department, my director explained that it was in the school’s best interests to look after my best interests, and my best interest was to make sure that I had time [to] write my thesis.

3. Every Day is a Writing Day, With or Without an MFA (Emily O’Neill, November 27, 2018, Catapult)

The requirement to relocate and the insufficiency of fully-funded spots are just two of many reasons why MFA degrees are not possible for many people, as Emily O’Neill explains in this essay about how she nurtures a writing life outside of the academy.

I don’t have an MFA. It often makes me feel like the man on that mortifying date to admit this to writers I don’t know well. So many people who write are academics or at least aspiring to an MFA or PhD, and mentioning I don’t feel specifically drawn to the demands of graduate school is often seen as a sin against literature.

4. Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces (Minda Honey, March 2017, Longreads)

After two years, Minda Honey longs to escape from the whiteness of her MFA program, and plans a trip to four national parks, not realizing that “80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white.” Weaving together moments from her travels and memories from her writing program, Honey lays bare the lack of diversity in both spaces.

When I’d first started my MFA program, I thought it would be an escape from the oppressive whiteness of Corporate America. I thought without suits to button my body into, I would be free to exist. But Academia proved to be just as oppressive.

5. How Applying to Grad School Becomes a Display of Trauma for People of Color (Deena ElGenaidi, April 17, 2018, Electric Lit)

When consulting with people about how to apply to PhD programs, Deena ElGenaidi’s advisor tells her to play up her minority status in her personal statement. ElGenaidi explores the problematic and pervasive nature of this advice, while also discussing what it means that minority students and people of color are encouraged to use their trauma in order to be admitted into academic programs.

The experience taught me that society, white America specifically, regularly asks minorities and people of color to tokenize and exploit themselves, talking about their cultural backgrounds in a marketable way in order to gain acceptance into programs and institutions we are otherwise barred from.

6. The Mentor Series: Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson (Allie Rowbottom, ed. Monet Patrice Thomas, March 25, 2019, The Rumpus)

How do writers balance the challenge of seeking publication in a difficult fast-paced market while nurturing their craft? And what role do mentors play in a writer’s development? In the inaugural installment of “The Mentor Series,” a series of interviews between mentors and students curated by Monet Patrice Thomas, Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson ruminate on these questions and more.

Allie Rowbottom: I remember once, after I finished my MFA thesis, you advised I take my time and sit on the project. You said something about not publishing too young, or rushing out of the gate, and I’ve thought about that a lot now that I have published—one of my biggest challenges (or strengths?) as a writer is that I push myself. Now that my first book is out in the world, I feel an urgency to produce more, at the same time I worry that rushing never makes for solid work.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

But You Look Fine: A Reading List About Disabilities, Accommodations, and School

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During my freshman year of college, a series of unexpected neurological episodes ruptured my conception of how I moved through the world. I fainted one evening after track practice and began experiencing episodes of dizziness, blurred vision, and what the doctors would label as “aphasia” and “transient alteration of awareness,” medical terms that tried to characterize the way I would say the same word over and over unintentionally (“I, I, I, I, uh, I, I, I”) and lose memory of what had happened while I was incoherent.

I was a Division I athlete at the time, a runner. My identity in athletics and in school centered around perfectionism; I enjoyed running to hit a precise list of splits and I brought the same ceaseless work ethic to the classroom. I measured success in straight-A’s and faster times. But once my episodes began, my illusion of control eroded. I was no longer able to run without falling, and my schoolwork, which had been a joy all my life, was interrupted by my own body with periods of disorientation that lasted for hours. Though I saw a neurologist frequently, he was unable to give me a diagnosis.

When I wasn’t episodic, I presented as able-bodied; my legs still carried a history of muscle from my years of running and, when not experiencing symptoms, I could speak, see, write, walk, and remember as I had before. On the track, in the classroom, and as a patient at the doctor’s office, I was told to continue life as normal. My coach told me to run and grew frustrated when I collapsed on the track. My doctor told me I was fine. As a participant in a sport that rewards athletes who can withstand most pain without complaint, I was wary of telling professors about my condition. I told myself that my episodes would probably disappear as quickly as they had started. I told myself that the doctor had not diagnosed anything, and therefore my symptoms weren’t real. I told myself I was weak for not being able to overcome what ailed me. But one day, after visiting the ER for symptoms, and unable to see well enough to type an email, I called the phone number listed on a professor’s syllabus to tell her I wouldn’t make it. She responded that if I could walk, I should be in class.

Her answer now strikes me as ableist, but in the moment I didn’t have words to describe why her answer made me feel so bad. I felt personally guilty, like I’d done something wrong without knowing what it was. That day, and for years after, I walked myself to class even though it took me 30 minutes instead of the usual five to 10. I sat in class with my head rocking from vertigo, the pages of my literature text blurring. Because of her reaction, I assumed all professors might view my health condition as a nuisance. I became skilled at performing wellness, enough so that even people in graduate school made sly comments like, I’ve never seen you this way after reading my personal essays about my neurological symptoms, as if they, too, needed reassurance that what I had experienced was real.

I did not request accommodations until the second year of my PhD. For seven years of school, whenever I experienced a flurry of episodes, I’d spend an inordinate amount of time trying to read passages that had once felt joyful to engage with and arrive at class with blurred vision though I looked “just fine.” I managed my symptoms privately. And I am certainly not alone. Applying for accommodations at university, at least in my experience, seems easy in theory, but brings up complications. First, there is the stigma. For years, I worried that if I applied, I would be seen the same way my professor saw me during my undergraduate degree: as being too lazy to finish my work or attend class. I worried about being hired down the road. I feared that professors would see the way I present myself — I try hard to look well, no matter how I’m feeling — and think I was faking. My symptoms have disrupted some of the most sacred and mundane moments of my life without discrimination, but without an official diagnosis, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to apply for accommodations in the first place. Once I did decide to, I had to secure a letter from my neurologist, which I imagine can also be an obstacle for students who lack financial resources for an additional visit or are discriminated against by medical professionals. I wish I had access to S.E. Smith’s empowering guide “How to Get Disability Accommodations at School” when I was learning to advocate for myself. It clearly explains laws, when to apply for accommodations, and how best to do so.

Seeking accommodations in school has been addressed recently in essays like “Could the fallout from the admissions scandal hurt kids with disabilities?” and “The most reprehensible part of the college admissions scandal: faking disability accommodations” because of the college admissions scandal, but I believe this is a conversation we should be having regularly. Students with disabilities should receive accommodations without having to perform exhausting physical and emotional tasks. I will heed the voices of others fighting the same fight and listen to their testimonies as I work as a member of a university to make change. This reading list is a place to start.

1. The Plight of the Disabled Graduate (Mikhail Zinshteyn, June 4, 2015, The Atlantic)

While the U.S. has made strides toward including students with disabilities in public school and ensuring accommodations are met, Mikhail Zinshteyn asks, what happens to students with disabilities after high school? Zinshteyn, by synthesizing various longitudinal studies, interviewing experts, and analyzing policies in place nationwide, makes clear that we have a long way to go.

The article’s author, Sarah Sparks, writes, however, that a “2004 federal longitudinal study found only 3 percent of students with disabilities in general education classrooms were specifically trained to speak and plan for themselves.”

2. Yale Will Not Save You (Esmé Weijun Wang, Winter 2019, The Sewanee Review)

The summer before attending her first semester at Yale, Esmé Weijun Wang is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is instructed to see a woman in the Department of Mental Hygiene who acts as a therapist and psychiatrist — and one who fails to recognize significant problems in Wang’s bloodwork. This essay is not only about Wang’s harrowing experience and Yale’s failure to create an inclusive and supportive educational environment, it also sheds light on how many universities fail students with disabilities or mental illness.

After blogging about my Yale experience, I’d received a flood of emails from students battling to stay in their colleges, students on enforced leave from their colleges, and former college students who, like me, were never allowed to return to school. In her article, Baker makes the case that psychiatric illness is punished by colleges and universities that instead ought to be accommodating students under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

3. The Worry I No Longer Remember Living Without (Nicole Chung, March 9, 2017, Hazlitt)

After he nominated Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, comments resurfaced from Sessions’s 2000 speech regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its protections for disabled students, which he called ‘the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.’

Nicole Chung writes about her experiences advocating for her autistic daughter’s lawful rights at school, and the ways in which the current administration’s decisions about education have led to collective anxieties about how students with disabilities will receive accommodations.

4. Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability and Neurodiversity (Sejal A. Shah, Jan/Feb 2019, Kenyon Review Online)

Sejal A. Shah experiences her first manic episode while in her MFA program, but soon learns to perform wellness. Afraid of being deemed unhireable in an already highly-competitive academic job market, Shah hides her illness for years. Shah explores what her life would have been like had accommodations been presented to her, or what academia as a whole might be like if an effort toward genuine inclusion was made.

I didn’t know the laws then; I didn’t know them until writing this essay.  I looked normal; I passed. Would my career have turned out differently had I been willing to come out (for that’s what it felt like, an emergence into a world that might not accept me)?

5. Why We Dread Disability Myths (Tara Wood, Craig A. Meyer, and Dev Bose, May 24, 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

In response to a problematic essay, “Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk” by Gail A. Hornstein, Tara Wood, Craig A. Meyer, and Dev Bos write to dispel harmful misconceptions about disability as related to faculty and students within academia.

Perhaps the most dangerous myth is the idea that disability itself is inherently a bad thing.

This myth is the most insidious of all because it is presented as a matter of common sense: that disability is something to dread. Now imagine students who see disability as a part of their identity. In what position does Hornstein’s rhetoric place their sense of themselves? Not a very good one.

6. How to Make Grad School More Humane (David M. Perry, February 5, 2019, Pacific Standard)

Between immense workloads, balancing teaching responsibilities with schoolwork, insufficient stipends, and dismal job markets, graduate school brings with it many stressors. Add a disability, and graduate school becomes even more difficult, as David M. Perry articulates in this essay.

Some have tried to arrange formal accommodation through their universities’ disability resource centers. Others avoided seeking accommodations for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a medical diagnosis, a lack of trust in university bureaucracy, or a sense that disability services were, at best, organized around the needs of undergraduate students—not for those pursuing years-long work in advanced study.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.