Tag Archives: originals

David Brown’s Quiet Resilience

(Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images)

David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2017 | 15 minutes (3,755 words)

David Brown was a few months into his tenure as the head of the Dallas Police Department when his cell phone started to hum on a Sunday morning.

He’d been on the job long enough to know the drill: At any given moment, a phone call could be the harbinger of an administrative headache, a tactical crisis, or some gut-wrenching tragedy. But he resisted the reflexive urge to answer.

Brown was standing in a pew at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church. A low-slung building with a sharply pitched roof, the church and its weekly service was his temporary refuge from a chaotic world. He actually considered turning away from his faith once, when he was a younger man and inconsolable over the murder of a former partner, a blow that nearly drove him to quit the police force altogether.

But Brown came to understand loss, the way it coursed through and connected everyone around him like an unseen river. Such lessons had been present in his life from an early age. Brown was born at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1960, three years before a team of trauma doctors there tried in vain to revive President John F. Kennedy after an assassin’s bullet had exploded through his skull. The very place that had given Brown life became synonymous with the death of a country’s tenuous sense of innocence.

He checked his phone when he left the Sunday service. It was hot outside; the temperature would touch 100 degrees that day. A voice message from the chief of a small-town police department 16 miles outside of Dallas was waiting. It was about Brown’s 27-year-old son, D.J., who suffered from adult-onset bipolar disorder.

D.J.’s behavior had turned erratic that morning, prompting his girlfriend to call 911. But everything was fine now, the chief calmly assured Brown. He tried to get in touch with D.J., but thought better of rushing to him; maybe his son just needed some time to cool down. A few hours later, Brown’s phone started rattling again. This time, it was a no-nonsense detective who took his breath away with just a few words: D.J. was dead.

He’d shot and killed an innocent passerby and a local police officer, the detective explained, and then engaged in a shootout with other cops. D.J. was cut down by police gunfire. The news hit Brown like a sledgehammer to the spine.

It was June 20, 2010. Father’s Day.

The grief could have broken a lesser man, could have swallowed him whole. But Brown clung to his faith, and he somehow endured. What he didn’t know then was that more sorrow was waiting for him down the road, the kind that would draw the world’s attention to Dallas like it was 1963 all over again. And Brown, a quiet, contemplative man who never imagined he’d be a police chief, would emerge from all of the darkness as the embodiment of grace—and the unlikely face of law enforcement in America. Read more…

Snow, Death and Politics

Frances Badalamenti | Longreads | April 2017 | 19 minutes (4,741 words)

 

Late on a Tuesday afternoon in January, while I was at my therapist’s home office in Portland dissecting and disseminating a recent holiday visit with family, my elderly father was sitting in his Lazy Boy in New Jersey watching television, his brain slowly bleeding into his skull. I was anxious, unsettled. We were expecting a snowstorm and I now had to make the trek across the Willamette River from the Southwest Hills and back to my Northeast enclave. Right before I left my house, I had received an urgent phone call from my older brother: our father had taken a spill earlier in the day.

“I just spoke to Dad and he said that he fell today,” my brother told me. “He’s upset with himself and doesn’t sound right.”

“What do you mean he doesn’t sound right?’ I asked.

“He said he hit his fed, not his head,” my brother said. “And he hurt his hand,” he said.

A hot wave of energy ripped through the core of my body. The same sensation like when you almost get into a car accident. My father was in his mid-eighties, but had only recently begun showing signs of frailty.

“Have you spoken with Lee and John yet?” I asked my brother.

“Not yet. I’ll call them right now.”

My three older siblings all live within driving distance of our extended family back in Jersey.

“Listen, I have an appointment for the next few hours, but I’ll check in after,” I said. We hung up. But then I phoned him right back. “Someone needs to go over there and check on him right away!” I yelled. “And why the fuck is he not at the hospital?”

“I have no idea, Frances,” my brother said. “I’ll get on it right now.”

“And what the hell does Barbara think?” I asked.

“She thinks he’s fine,” my brother said. “Dad said she iced his wrist and gave him soup.”

My brother and I did not trust our stepmother to take proper care of our father. They had not been on the best of terms during the past few months. They hardly spoke to one another. And if there was a transaction, it was most likely her yelling at him about leaving something out of place in the house, and then him firing back. I had to go to my therapy appointment. There was so much on my mind, mostly around my recent visit to Jersey. I hadn’t been this concerned about the state of my family since our mother underwent cancer treatment almost ten years ago. Now it was our father; he was having a hard time of life.

There was already a benign layer of snow carpeting the ground when the session ended and my therapist, a sturdy woman in her fifties who I have been seeing for over two-and-a-half years–and whom I would describe as tough and unconventional and kind (a Mack truck filled with marshmallows)–walked me out her back door. She lives and works out of a cozy Keebler Elf-type bungalow in a hilly, leafy Portland enclave. “It’s so pretty,” I said looking up at the dark sky, letting the thick wet flakes fall onto my face. I could tell she was concerned about me. Of course I’d shared with her that my father had fallen earlier in the day, and she knew he was having a difficult time in his marriage.

“You okay driving in this?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll just take it slow.”

She knew I did not feel safe, that I was scared not only about driving through a snowstorm, but that I was worried about my dad. And she was right. I wanted to be alone, with nobody there to witness the distress.

When I got into the car, I found a thirty-something deep text message conversation between my siblings. Ambulances, hospitals, MRI’s, confused speech, unrecognized faces. It felt as if my whole body had been wired with electrodes.

“Sorry, I’ll be home in about an hour,” I wrote back. “It’s snowing hard here.” Then I found my way out of the now hardly recognizable neighborhood, then crawled through the white-out storm in the relative safety bubble of my Subaru wagon. Read more…

The (Re)selling of Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova is returning to tennis after her 15-month suspension for failing a drug test. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Sarah Nicole Prickett | Racquet and Longreads | April 2017 | 17 minutes (4,278 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by Sarah Nicole Prickett, co-funded by Longreads Members and co-published in conjunction with Racquet magazine’s third issue.

To be in the backseat of a car, the cyanotype night on some minor highway, and pass at a distance of one or two hundred yards a rectangle of total green under pooled white lights is to see North American heaven. A community baseball field, a high school football field. A tennis court, occasionally. Say you’re a tennis-playing child from an oil town in Siberia where there are no courts, and no oranges, and in photographs of home it’s always snowing or sleeting or for another reason it’s gray. Around the age of 6, having first picked up a secondhand racket on the clay courts in Sochi, off the Black Sea, you arrive in Bradenton, Florida, home of Tropicana Products and IMG’s Bollettieri tennis academy. Will you ever get over it, the way the green lies shining against the dark? Maria did not. Maria Sharapova was, for a brief lambent time between 2004 and 2006, when she was 17 and 18 and 19, the best female tennis player on grass.

She was trained by Nick Bollettieri at the IMG Academy on mostly hard courts, to hone her technique absent variables. She moved on clay, she said later, jokingly, like “a cow on ice.” But on grass she was a dancer, a ballerina. One other body moves like hers, and it is that of the actual ballerina Sara Mearns, who shares with Maria a fissive mix of rigor and bounce. Some of Maria’s best serves in the middle 2000s are unbelievable when seen in slow motion. The extension of the right, working leg, reaching à la hauteur. The high toss followed by a hyperbolic swing of the racket, almost dismissive of the ball. Richard Williams, a former chief sportswriter for The Guardian who happens to share his name with the father and former coach of Venus and Serena, wrote that a poem about Maria “might start with a description of the moment when she tosses the ball up to serve and, as it reaches its apogee, a line through her left arm and right leg forms a perfect perpendicular.” Which is to say, the girl knew her angles.

Green clay and grass showed Maria to advantage in early photographs. The verdancy made wonder of her coloring, brought out the complementary flush of her cheeks, the gray-green in her cat’s eyes, the analogous streaks of gold in her long straight hair. She looked like a sixth Lisbon girl in Grosse Pointe, as if she’d been away at summer camp while the other five virgins were suiciding. She wore tank tops and little A-line skirts in white or pink or powder blue, obviously from Nike, and a simple gold-plated cross in the Orthodox style. No makeup. Quick-bitten nails. Goody-brand snap clips in her basic ponytail. Before each serve, she paused to brush back the newly escaped baby hairs with her ball hand, and the down on her forearm snagged the light. In 2003 she won no matches on the hard courts at the Australian Open nor on the clay at the French Open, but when she got to Wimbledon, to the grass, she beat the 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic and reached the fourth round, where she was beaten by fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. The tour made her Newcomer of the Year. A talk-show host began to compare her to Anna Kournikova, and she was ready, saying, “That’s so old.” Read more…

On Island: Journeying to Penal Colonies, from Rikers to Robben

Rikers Island (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, FILE), Robben Island (Roohi Choudhry)

Roohi Choudhry | Longreads | April 2017 | 14 minutes (3,556 words)

 

The Rikers Island jail complex, built on an island just off the borough of Queens in New York City, has been described as the world’s largest penal colony. It has seen its share of controversies, many of them involving issues of race. Rikers is no exception to the disproportionate and mass incarceration of Black and Latino people in the United States.

Over the past year, an independent commission, led by the former chief judge of New York, has studied the jail, and on April 2nd, it released its recommendation: shut down Rikers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also backed the recommended course of action, which aims to have the last inmate depart the jail within 10 years.

In place of Rikers, the plan proposes building smaller jails inside New York City’s boroughs to eventually house half its current number of inmates. At the heart of this proposal is the view that people who are sent to jail are from the community, not “other.” This view dictates that they should stay in the community during their jail term. That is, people who have been arrested or convicted should not be cast away on an island, out of sight, mind and empathy.

It’s an idea once espoused by the writer and activist Grace Paley in “Six Days: Some Rememberings,” the story of her time in prison, during which a fellow inmate tells her: “That was a good idea… to have a prison in your own neighborhood, so you could keep in touch, yelling out the window.” It’s also an idea in keeping with racial justice: Black and brown lives matter, and cannot be so easily discarded when they are seen.

In the following essay, originally published in March 2015 on The Butter, I explore these ideas by comparing Rikers to another racially charged penal colony that has already been closed down: Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. That island was once infamous for imprisoning Apartheid-era political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela), but is now a museum and tourist destination.

By commingling my journeys to both islands in this essay, I question what it means to banish our “unwanted,” whether because of crime, politics or disease, across the sea, far from the safety of our mainland. Is this impulse truly part of our nature? Using my experiences of these two places, I confront questions of nature, both of the land and of people, and how that nature collides with questions of race. Read more…

The Currency of Cars: How to Leave a Husband

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Debbie Weingarten | Longreads | April 2017 | 10 minutes (2,609 words)

 

The winter that I leave, the desert nights become so cold that cactuses uproot beneath the weight of ice. Old saguaros the size of trees lay like fallen men in front yards and on medians. Under the ink sky, it is so dark that the mountains disappear—even the wall of the Catalinas to the north—and I lose my compass entirely.

I am standing at the door, my breath freezing in punctuated wisps beneath the porchlight. The sky is a low-hanging ceiling, and the city lights have swallowed up the stars. If I could, I would make a bed from the clouds. I would turn like a dog in a rounding ritual before lying down.

Don’t go inside, thrums my heart, and so I stand, idling, inspecting bricks and mortar, the very bones of the house. I do not know it, but the thought of leaving has made a home in my body. It is an animal scratching toenails at the walls.

***

The lady at the Motor Vehicle Department has done-up fingernails stamped with tiny chevron lines. I feel underdressed. She says I need to take the car to the emissions testing center, even though the check engine light is illuminated and we both know it will fail. But she needs proof that it will fail so the car can be transferred out of the ex-husband’s name and into mine. Besides our children, this is the last thread that connects us, and the rope will not fray.

There are inspection and penalty fees, extra paperwork, countless people meddling in one 1998 Volvo station wagon. I am consumed by the work of untethering. I consider giving up, abandoning the car on the side of the road, gifting it to someone in need of a dry place to sleep.

The seat belts snap apart while driving. The driver’s side door panel falls off. The glove box is secured by a jumbo paper clip. The rearview mirror will not adjust. Everything in this stupid car is coming loose. When I clutch the steering wheel, mine are the white knuckles of vulnerable mothers. Read more…

How to Disappear

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Alex Difrancesco | Longreads | April 2017 | 8 minutes (2,070 words)

Last year in New York City, a 19-year-old engineering student named Nayla Kidd went completely off the grid. She changed bank accounts, cell phone providers, shut down her social media, and ditched her Ivy League college to move to Bushwick and become an artist and model, all without ever informing anyone in her life. Social media jumped all over the story, and then news outlets followed suit. Kidd was a missing person for around two weeks when the police finally found her.

I remember reading her post-discovery missive in The New York Post, complete with discussions about her fancy boarding school, full scholarship to Columbia University, calculated plans, the loving mom who had clearly sacrificed for her, and thinking it was a story of the ultimate callousness. She’d had everything, but she said the pressure was entirely too much, that she’d wanted to run away and have the fun life she saw in an East Williamsburg loft she was thinking of renting. I remember reading it, sitting there and staring at the the words while thinking of my own picture plastered across subways and bus stations. How could she do such a thing intentionally? Didn’t she understand what it was like to be truly lost, to need help? Didn’t she understand that so many people were, that it was not some game?

Perhaps I was jealous. When my mental illness made me a missing person in 2010, the NYPD suggested to my friends who reported me missing that I had run off to follow a band. Though my friends set up a cross-country network of activists looking for me in any of the places they thought I might have been, the NYPD did little. Had the cops accessed my bank account, or even looked at my Metrocard swipes (an investigation practice well-established by law enforcement by 2010), they’d have easily figured out that I wandered around the city aimlessly for days before taking a bus to my hometown and checking myself into a hospital. When I saw Kidd’s story, I thought of all the resources that had gone into her “case,” and all of those of us who really were lost, unhealthy, and scared, who were given little to no help.

Alone in a hospital bed that year, unknown, technically still “missing,” my head still a wash of paranoia and confusion, I began to entertain a fantasy. What if I moved to the Midwest? Changed my name? My gender? Grew a beard? They were thoughts I couldn’t remember ever before having had, but they seemed exactly like what I should do in that moment. I had a vision of myself, flat-chested, wearing a white Hanes T-shirt, a genderless pair of Levis, and combat boots. What if I disappeared from all the people in my life? Started over as someone new? I was not well at the time — I was also standing in front of the mirror thinking about a bug I was certain had entered into my skin and had been living in my bloodstream for years, something I now know is obviously not true — but having disappeared from everyone in my life successfully, I began to wonder, “What if I really need to disappear?”

Years later, it wasn’t until I remembered this fantasy that I began to empathize with Nayla Kidd.

Read more…

Follow the Oil Trail and You’ll Find the Girls

Photo property of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

Riayn Fergins | Longreads | March 2017 | 14 minutes (2,400 words)

 

Duluth, Minnesota was dank and barren. Ice and mounted snow covered Lake Superior, save for scattered pools of howling waves. I picked this time because the ships weren’t in and wouldn’t be for several weeks. It was, for the moment, safe to stand by that great lake and speak on the silent affliction it routinely ushers to Duluth’s shores—the very same affliction that will spread across four states and infect each Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. I was there to meet Sarah Curtiss, an esteemed Anishinaabe activist at Men As Peacemakers, who’d agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the predatory violence on this lake and other locations throughout Indian Country, such as oil fields and pipeline camps, that threaten the lives and bodies of Indigenous women on a daily basis. She wasn’t my first documentary interview on this subject, yet my hair raised in anticipation of absorbing more horrific accounts and the immense responsibility of honoring her every word.

Curtiss shook my hand and sighed. Her exhale eased my nerves. “You wouldn’t believe some of the questions I’ve been asked,” she said. “I once had this woman, a reporter, say ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re Indian?’”

Curtiss is astute, so I would not put it past her to pop this icebreaker as a litmus quiz for non-people of color documentarians (or journalists), but for me that morning it was an invitation to an honest interview built on trust in our convergent, but different, American experiences as “other.” Her last name, Curtiss, her milk complexion and loose auburn curls were more Anglo than Disney’s Pocahontas, but questioning her blood quantum never crossed my mind. How could it? Being of color, I’d long resigned myself to what most American minorities from families spanning the skin color spectrum know: If one of the three race-defining elements (skin color, features, hair texture) is off stereotype, “Are you sure?” or “What else are you?” looms over every discussion with the uninitiated. But, Curtiss and I were initiated.

We met on a February morning as if we were sorority sisters from distant chapters executing an exclusive greeting in the form of her sigh that said, Thank God I don’t have to explain myself to you. It was unexpected, but I was grateful. We discussed her advocacy in the fight against the epidemic of missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women plaguing North America; the crisis that led her to divulge, “I do not go a month without someone I have a personal connection to passing away.” More specifically, she spoke of her prominent role combating trafficking on Lake Superior ships that pass through Minnesota’s Duluth Port—the reason for my sojourn to the frigid Midwest.

On a 17-degree day with sharp winds blistering her hands and cheeks, Curtiss stood beside the great lake that keeps sweeping away her stolen sisters. She detailed injustices against many Native women who live unrecognized lives, invisible to all but those who mean them harm—demeaning, brutal harm—and introduced me to invisibility as a handicap, rather than a privilege of gods. Read more…

The Story of Heady Topper, America’s Most Loved Craft Beer

The Alchemist brewery's John Kimmich. Photo: Corey Hendrickson

Sam Riches | Longreads and Food & Wine Magazine | March 2017 | 14 minutes (3,489 words)

 

For eight years, until Tropical Storm Irene struck the village of Waterbury, Vermont, the corner of South Main Street and Elm was occupied by The Alchemist Pub and Brewery. It was, by most measures, a common small-town bar. The walls were chocolate brown brick. The barstools were steel and backless and topped with black leather. A pool table sat in the corner. The ceilings were high, and the lighting was soft. A cast of regulars helped fill the pub’s 60 seats. It was charming in its familiarity, quaint and comfortable, but brewing in the basement was a beer capable of inspiring obsession. It was called Heady Topper and since the pub was the only place you could buy it, Waterbury—home to just a few thousand—soon became a mecca for craft beer drinkers.

The pub belonged to Jen and John Kimmich. Jen ran the business side, and John handled the beer. They first met in 1995, when they were both working at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. John had made his way there from Pittsburgh. He’d been enthralled by a home brewer and writer named Greg Noonan who was a pioneer in craft brewing, especially in New England, where he helped push through legislation that recognized the concept of brewpubs.

After graduating from Penn State, John packed everything he owned into his Subaru and drove to Vermont in the hopes that Noonan would give him a job. He did, and for a year John waited tables, coming in on the weekends for no pay to learn the trade alongside the head brewer. Then John became the head brewer. Jen was a waitress at the pub. After turning down John’s initial first-date offer, she came back a week later and asked him out. A month later they were engaged.

Two months after the Kimmiches opened The Alchemist in Waterbury, John, driven by an obsession with fresh, floral, hoppy flavors, brewed the first batch of Heady Topper. The immediate response from customers upon tasting it was bewilderment, followed by intrigue. Their eyes scanned the room, meeting all the other eyes scanning the room, all of them in search of an answer to the same question: What is this? “People were shocked, maybe,” John says. “They would taste it and go, ‘Oh, my god.’ They’d never had anything like that before. People really went nuts for it.”

At first, John didn’t brew Heady year-round. He would make it two times a year, then three, then four, tinkering with the recipe each time. He had other beers to make, like Pappy’s Porter or Piston Bitter or Bolton Brown. They were all distinct, unusually compelling beers, but soon word began to spread about Heady: It was a hit. The problem, if there was one, was that it was only available in the pub. Enterprising customers solved it by sneaking pints into the bathroom, where they would pour them into bottles, screw on caps, and then shuffle out of the bar, pockets bulging. The business and the Alchemist name were growing with rapid, radical speed, beyond anything the Kimmiches had anticipated—and then the storm came.

Irene arrived in Vermont on a Sunday afternoon in August 2011. It roared north from the southern end of the state. Waterbury’s usually calm and placid Winooski River, a short distance from the pub, swelled uncontrollably. The local waterways and tributaries overflowed, and the contaminated water rushed through town, absorbing sewage and sodden trash and heating oil, staining everything it touched. Trees and shrubs were unearthed or turned gray and brown, like they’d been doused by a plume of ash. Cars were flipped; bridges buckled and collapsed; houses were left twisted and roofless. In some stretches of the state, more than a foot of water fell.

From their home in Stowe, just 10 miles north of Waterbury, Jen and John and their son, Charlie, watched the storm unfold. When they got the call that Waterbury was being evacuated, John jumped in the car and drove down, powerless but determined to see the destruction with his own eyes.

By the time he arrived at the brewpub, the basement—where he had been brewing for eight years, where he stored the original recipes for more than 70 beers, and where he and Jen had their offices and kept the food—was completely under water. On the first floor, John stepped inside. The water was not yet waist high, but it was well on its way, so he worked his way to the bar and poured himself a final pint of Holy Cow IPA. Then, with the water rising at his feet, he raised his glass skyward and toasted goodbye to everything they’d built. Read more…

This Was How Things Ended

Michael Hobbes | Longreads | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

 

“Wait, so your ex called your boss and tried to get you fired?”

This is me.

Genau.”

This is Andy. We are on a break from German class, 15 minutes between the future tense and the subjunctive. He’s from Baton Rouge and I’m from Seattle, but we’re speaking German, for practice. We are not very good.

“Er ist ein … Fucker,” Andy says. “He told my boss I was reading ebooks at my desk instead of working—which I totally was.”

“So, did you get fired?” I ask.

“No, my boss already knew I was a super shitty employee. But then I called up my ex’s boss and got him fired.” Andy’s former boyfriend is in Amsterdam; he’s a mechanic. A few months ago he told a customer that her car was totaled, bought it off her for a few hundred euros, then sold it the next week for two thousand.

Es ist nicht so gut,” I say, my German failing, as always, to reach the correct level of emphasis. We are both going through breakups. It’s been a week since mine and six since his. This is what we talk about every day, 15 minutes at a time.

Two weeks ago, Andy’s ex visited him here in Berlin. They had dinner, then sex, then Andy asked him to leave, told him he shouldn’t sleep over now that they’re not boyfriends anymore. Three days later, the cops called. His ex is filing charges for attempted murder. He says putting him out on the street in middle of the night in February is an act of violence. Andy has to be in court next week.

Es ist…” I say.

Read more…

Writing Our America

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

 

The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.

* * *

I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”

The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,

On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”

Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.

This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?

Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…