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What We’re Reading: We Know How This Ends

2015 July 9
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What We're Reading



We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

In 2010 Bruce Kramer was, as he describes it, “reborn in diagnosis.” He had been chalking up physical symptoms (a floppy foot, loss of coordination, fatigue, falls) to aging and a pinched nerve, but an appointment with a neurologist confirmed that it was much more serious: ALS. His book, We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying (co-authored with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer), is a thoughtful, contemplative memoir about relationships, time, happiness, and finding ways to be alive while racing towards death.

ALS is a fast moving, progressive disease for which there is no cure. Everything Kramer had taken for granted about his future goes into a tailspin the moment after a brusque doctor gives him his diagnosis.

In the car, wondering if I can drive. Winter is coming, the hoarfrost coats the few trees lining the parking lot, but the sun illuminates the next few minutes, the day yet to come, life as we know it melting in its weak light. Ev looks at me. She is crushed … And then she quietly says, “Couldn’t they have at least given us a goddamn pamphlet?”

Prior to his diagnosis, Kramer led a very active and full life, both personally and professionally: He took long bike rides with his wife, Ev; went on frequent overseas trips; and was the Dean of St. Thomas University. The nature of ALS would not allow him much time to wallow in despair about the monumental changes that were forthcoming; most sufferers pass away from complications three to five years after being diagnosed. Symptoms that were initially bothersome soon became major challenges.

It’s the unrelenting swiftness of ALS from which this book was born. Essentially, ALS puts the aging process into overdrive. As Kramer acknowledges, we all know that aging and death will come. Yet, most of us march into the future with only an abstract fear of death and, as Kramer puts it, “dis ease.” He uses the term dis ease to describe any difficult event that massively reshapes a person’s future:

Dis ease had always been with me, lying in depths of collective human need, illuminating life’s inevitable sharp edges, its dangerous borders, its precarious balance between good living and catastrophic existence. … Dis ease is true love, soaring in the stratosphere, yet plummeting to earth in betrayal unforeseen. Dis ease is the newborn child … vandalized by the reality of overwhelming disability. … There is not a person who does not know dis ease, boiling in the pit of their gut, on the tip of their tongue, in their muscle memory, in the discord between the life they know and the life they fear.

As Kramer sees it, dis ease need not be a physical ailment, per se, but a significant job loss, the death or illness of a loved one, or the end of an important relationship. His conceptualization of the phenomena that is dis ease is what drives the book — and what makes it much more than an autobiographical account of his experience with ALS. The book becomes, largely, a philosophical and thoughtful account of how Kramer was able to change his perception in an effort to find joy and meaning within the context of his new reality. It isn’t all joyfulness on his part, of course (“I’m no saint and I am pissed” he writes in a blog post); however, the book is laden with meaningful passages about his faith, his family, his friends, his physical experiences in a changing body (skydiving!), and most importantly, love.

 … I have sought to be engaged fully with life as I knew it. Now, it seems more important to engage with life as it is. I hope this means more time with loved ones, both friends and family; more evenings with Ev listening to the local classical station, drinking in each other’s presence and knowing full well it will never be enough; more yoga…more joyful loving visits with Hypatia and Athena, family meals … deep sleep at night … I hope this means more time to think, to listen, to perceive that in the silence is life and death and life again.

Kramer met MPR broadcast journalist Cathy Wurzer in 2008 for a radio piece on Kramer’s work with a local Indonesian gamelan group. They reconnected through mutual friends following his diagnosis, and MPR decided to do a recurring segment featuring Kramer and Wurzer discussing his life with ALS. The two developed a close friendship during the last several years of Kramer’s life. Wurzer prefaces each chapter with brief anecdotes or stories about the dis ease she was facing in her own life during the years she was interviewing Kramer (namely her father’s progressive dementia and eventual death from lymphoma). Her contributions run parallel to Kramer’s, and they provide a helpful framework for the rest of the book. She writes beautifully (“We know how this ends. It ends with sadness that is achingly beautiful and pure love for a life lived full and well.”), and the deep respect towards and connection she felt with Kramer is very apparent in her contributions.

We Know How This Ends is a beautiful book that is vastly more than a memoir about coping with disease. It’s a book about finding meaning and joy in life while being open to our dis ease, no matter the gravity of our external circumstances — because, as Kramer points out, our external circumstances will, at times, be grave. In the end, the lesson here is remarkably simple: we need to seek out ways to find love and peace, if not happiness, in our lives as they are — not as they “should be,” and certainly not as we assumed they would be — by being present, by being open, and by giving, accepting, and recognizing love.

Have you read a book lately that changed your perspective on how you live, or how you view your life? What was it about the book that you found so affecting?


*Cathy Wurzer and Bruce Kramer’s wife, Ev Emerson, will appear at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble on July 27 to discuss We Know How This Ends. Find event details here.


What We’re Reading: The Beautiful Unseen

2015 April 30
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What We're Reading

22557363The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting by Kyle Boelte (Soft Skull Press, 2015)

Kyle Boelte’s remarkable debut, The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting, is a memoir about suicide and memory masterfully woven through a contemplative survey of San Francisco’s fog. Boelte’s subject matter is difficult, but his beautiful and accessible writing style result in a nuanced meditation about the inherent transience of memory and the universal struggle to accept this realization. The book balances scientific, historical, and environmental anecdotes about fog with Boelte’s struggle to remember his brother’s short life and death. As it does so, the memoir serves to examine the impermanence of both fog and memory and the way that each of these forces influence the human experience.

Kyle Boelte was 13 when his older brother, Kris, hung himself in the basement of the family home. Kris was 16 years old. Boelte’s haunting telling of the details — while difficult to read — serve as an impetus for the rest of book. The scene of the suicide is written in the form of a tense play-by-play:

You are in the basement listening to the Offspring and I am on the bus. You are moving boxes around the basement. You are measuring distances. I am laughing at a joke on the bus. … I open the front door and call out to you. “Hey Kris,” I say, but you do not answer. … Mom is at work and Dad is at work and you are in the basement. … I am thirteen and do not yet know the limits of memory and so have not looked closely at you. …And you are fading. Mom comes home and Dad comes home. … We are there in the house with you but you are not there with us. … Dad’s steps on the stairs are slow and deliberate. … Now he is in the basement. He is screaming now. The world is crumbling in on us. The rafters are being pulled down by your weight. … You have faded.

At the time of this memoir, Boelte is in his 30s, living in San Francisco, and trying to come to terms not only with his brother’s death but with the fact that his memories of Kris are starting to fade. He’s all but forgotten Kris’s voice; he’s relying more on other people’s stories of his brother; he’s even convinced that many of his own memories might now be at least partially fabricated:

I have a memory, a wisp of a memory, of Kris warning me. … In the memory, he says that he is going to do something. The vagueness of his words is ripe with meaning. Going to do something. As a teenager, I felt guilty about this memory. I thought … that I was guilty in some way. This wisp of a memory is so thin I now sometimes wonder if it is even real. Did I feel guilty because of the memory or was the memory created by guilt?

This stage of Boelte’s grief runs alongside (or perhaps manifests itself in the form of) a fixation on San Francisco’s famous fog. Boelte finds himself poring over scientific studies about fog prediction, weather events, historical accounts of accidents caused by fog, and the economic effects of the fog. He seeks the fog out in the form of long walks, runs, and bike rides through the city.

Fog, in this memoir, seems to serve as a stand-in for the memories of Kris that Boelte knows he is losing. Throughout the book, he hunts down fog, tries to run fast enough or climb high enough to be within it; he tries to watch for the exact moment a cloud starts to form into fog. He often misses the fog entirely in his race towards it, or finds himself only able to reach the very edges of it, forced to stand on the outside and look into that which he cannot enter as it fades from sight. The same fate has started to befall the memories of his brother; he catches wisps of them but rarely the whole memory: “Still you are fading, falling, drowning out of sight. Photographs collected in boxes and binders. Stories told by Mom and Dad over lunch. Memories holding on by a sliver.”

It’s no wonder the book is filled with many scrap-book-like mementos: song lyrics, news articles, letters from Kris’s girlfriend, transcripts of family videos, the death certificate. These concrete things are what Kyle has left, and it seems he’s learning how important they are, as these are the things that make up the skeleton of memory. Memories — like the fog that Boelte chases —won’t last forever despite how desperately we try to hold onto them. The memoir climbs towards this realization until the affecting final scene, where Kyle has again hiked into the fog, this time with his partner, Julia. He’s grasping at the fog, trying to press on, desperate to get closer despite the fact that the hike is becoming dangerous due to limited visibility:

I want to walk over to Noe Peak … We’d need to climb down the trail to the south and then cross Scenic Drive, past the drivers struggling to see beyond the hoods of their cars. …
I take a step toward the path but you hold my hand firmly and stand your ground. I look back at you, your hair blowing wildly in the wind, your eyes meeting mine. And I know.
I have seen enough. I have stood directly in the wind. … This is enough, I think.

It seems Boelte knows — or is learning — that he can no longer chase what will eventually escape him, and the harder he tries the more he is ultimately sacrificing in the present. The whole memoir seems to have been building to this moment, and with it comes a beautiful sense of release.

The Beautiful Unseen is a book about suicide and realities of impermanence, but it’s also a book about coping, loving, and moving forward through the fog of grief. It’s about finding happiness while living alongside a pain that will lift, but never dissipate. This is a book that is real and raw and personal, but it’s also beautiful, moving, and absolutely worth a read.

Have you read a book or memoir that had multiple or dissimilar themes? What connections did you find between the themes, and how did the author merge them to create a cohesive book?



Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: A Review

2014 October 10
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The Writing Life

This summer, a great and wonderful circumstance led me to the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Hosted by Tin House and housed on Reed College campus in Southeast Portland, Oregon, this workshop was the miracle I didn’t know I needed. It was the kick in the pants I didn’t ask for. Most of all, it was deeply touching, intellectually stimulating, and rife with endless seeds of inspiration!

Okay, I’m gushing clichés. But seriously, stick with me while I lay out the excellence which was #THWW14.

Tin House logo

I had the honor of participating in Kevin Young‘s Poetry workshop with eleven other poets. We ranged in age from 20 to 44 and came from all over the U.S.: Indiana, L.A., Florida, Albuquerque, Washington, Maryland, North Carolina, N.Y.C., Portland, OR., et cetera. We had six days of two-and-a-half hour workshops, and each day we workshopped two poets, each for an hour. In the remaining time, Young took requests. We wanted to know… everything: How to begin publishing seriously? What makes a good title? How does one improve & develop his/her writing process? And he obliged, graciously. However, what was so affirming about asking these questions was being in a room with other people who were wondering the same things I was. Furthermore, since the group was diverse and generous, we were able to offer each other heaps and heaps of advice, recommendations, and encouragement.

The community that we developed in the workshop classroom extended out onto the campus and throughout the rest of the week. As is always the case, I learned just as much chatting with my colleagues over lunch and in between lectures as I did during workshop. This was aided by the environment and atmosphere which were carefully crafted and supported by Tin House.

In addition to the workshop, each day held multiple opportunities for stimulating discussion and cross-genre consideration through lectures, seminars, and readings. This year’s faculty included: Matthew Zapruder, Mary Ruefle, Kevin Young, D.A. Powell, Jo Ann Beard, Nick Flynn, Robert Boswell, Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Dee, Anthony Doerr, Ann Hood, Kelly Link, Antonya Nelson, Dana Spiotta, Wells Tower, Joy Williams, Rachel Kushner, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. And several special guest writers and editors made themselves available, also through seminars, lectures, one-on-one sessions, and readings.  I attended lectures by: Lacy M. Johnson on the Chronology of Memoir, Bianca Stone on Ekphrasis and Poetic Comics, Ann Hood on How to Write a Kick-Ass-Essay, Jo Ann Beard on transfiguring the Personal into the Universal, Kevin Young on the Hoax Poem, Matthew Zapruder on “the meaning” of poetry, D.A. Powell on silence in poetry, and Mary Ruefle on the Imagination. Actually, I’m getting a little hot and bothered just thinking about the innovation and intensity of these conversations! These writers questioned me in ways I wasn’t ready for, and also on matters that I desperately needed to be challenged in. Obviously, I cannot speak highly enough of my experience with the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s not the only opportunity of its kind.

There are countless workshops, conferences, retreats, and residencies for writers each year, and each one offers a unique setting for creative exploration and development. Tin House’s workshop emphasizes networking and highlights the most current arguments and trends in Creative Writing. Other workshops and residences are more interested in creating a laboratory for the writing process. Still others offer interdisciplinary opportunities and even collaboration with other artists in residence. How wonderful and endless. Or, how overwhelming! If you’re thinking about pursuing an intensive writing experience, I suggest Poets & Writers’ database. (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP] also has a search engine, but I find it more difficult to navigate.) And you might think about asking yourself a few of the following questions as you vet your options:

What is my creative focus right now?

Do I have a specific project in mind?

What stage am I at in my process or project?

Do I need time & space for writing or revision? Or both?

Am I looking for feedback? What kind of feedback (peer, faculty, publisher)?

What is my budget?

What is my timeframe? What season would work best for me? How much time can I devote to this experience?

Clearly, there’s much to consider. And much to be gained. There’s more I’d like to share from my experience, but in the interest of readability, let’s call it a day. Tune in next week for “The Goods,” where I spill the beans about what Kevin Young, and other writers, think everyone should read.

The Writing Life: How It’s Done 102

2014 April 15
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The Writing Life

We’ve polled the experts and they agree, there’s nothing easy about “being a writer.” Whether you struggle to discern the best publication for your work or to keep your chin up in the face of ubiquitous rejection, we feel your pain and we’re back again to discuss strategies for submission and how to guard your writerly heart.


Hazel & Wren: Beginning the submission process can be more than a little daunting, what’s the very first step?

Timothy Otte: The first step is in two parts, and it has nothing to do with actually sending work to any editor/publisher/literary magazine/whatever. It may sound like I’m dodging the question, but I promise I’m not. The first step of the submission process is to write A LOT and read even more (especially literary magazines, since that’s where you’ll do most of your submitting). Write a lot, revise it, write some more, revise that, ask someone you know and trust to give you feedback, and then revise it all based on their suggestions. Once you’ve built up a body of work that you’re proud of, and you’ve read all those literary magazines, then you can decide where to send it. And THEN the first step is to read a publication’s submission guidelines VERY CAREFULLY and FOLLOW THEM.

Ethan Rutherford: I think the best thing to do is to approach the submission process with some humor, some hope, and a lot of optimism.  You have to have faith in the quality of your own work.  There’s going to be a lot of rejection, that’s just part of the process.  So prepare to hear “no” but don’t get discouraged.  The very first thing I’d recommend, though, is going to your library, or bookstore, or buying a number of literary journals in order to familiarize yourself with the work they publish.  Support literary journals, become familiar with them, and soon you’ll develop favorites, the journals you’d most like your work to appear in.  Those are the journals you should submit to first.  Swing for the fences.  Even if they say no, you’ll discover new writers you’ve never heard of and are excited about.  Win-win.  If they say no, write another story, do it better, and send it to the journal again.  Be kind to the editors, only send them your best stuff, and don’t get discouraged.  Wash, rinse, repeat until the day they finally say yes.

G. Xavier Robillard: Research! Read the journals in which you would be published. I started submitting long enough ago that it was all done by post. There was a certain value lost when submissions transferred to email, because you don’t have to print out the manuscript, and then spend a few dollars on postage and the SASE. The value then was you really had to consider: am I wasting postage on a journal that I know in my heart isn’t right for me?

Andrew Watt: I’m terrible at submissions. I submit things on whims when they strike me. What a horrible career tactic. Honestly, most of my efforts are screenplays, which have a different sort of afterlife. However, if you’re serious about submitting fiction, I recommend making a list. Start with publications you read and like, and think would be a good fit for your writing. Then do some research, until you’ve got 50+ journals/magazines/websites/etc. that might conceivably accept your work. Submit aggressively. Be mindful of fees. Avoid them unless you really, REALLY like the publication. Don’t start with the New Yorker.

H&W: It’s not just how to submit, but where? Do you use an agent? What have you found to be the best way to seek out the right publishing opportunities for your writing?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Outside of translations, my poems haven’t been published since 2008. If you want my advice, don’t take my advice. Marshall said that.

G. Xavier Robillard: Most of the time you don’t need an agent to submit somewhere, unless you’re talking about a book-length project. The reason an agent is so helpful is she will have cultivated relationships with editors, and will know whom to submit what. Agents also pay attorneys, who read over your contract for free. Free meaning part of the agent’s 15%.For literary journals, this is where research helps you. You might go to a bookstore that stocks literary journals, the library, or to learn about specific publications. Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable database as well: You can stalk your favorite journals online. A while back, on the Facebook page for the Portland Review, they asked for submissions of book reviews. If you start off by submitting something the editor has asked for, you’re likely starting a relationship with that person, and will have an easier time submitting other prose later.

H&W: Contests. Are they worth it?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Know the judge and cater your work to her aesthetic. That said, I haven’t won a contest since 1988—the limerick competition at the Hardwick Fair.

Timothy Otte: Yes. I’ve never won any, but I’m sure they’re worth it. The editors who judge or are preliminary readers for contests are the same editors who accept regular, non-contest submissions.

Andrew Watt: Not really. Limit yourself to a couple of contests each year. Only submit if the contest-holder is a publication/organization that you really or appeals to you. Don’t get distracted by those cash prizes. If you’re a writer of cynical short fiction that embodies your atheist perspective, don’t torture yourself by trying to write a Christian-themed story for a contest that might win you $20,000. Don’t do it.

G. Xavier Rollibard: I’ve never seen the point of entering contests. On the other side of that coin, I’m a big fan of submitting to calls for anthology. Anthologies can be a great way to find an audience, and to get your work published in a book. For example, do a web search on “call for anthology [your personal favorite theme].”

Ethan Rutherford: If you are willing to part with the entry fee, then yes, sure, why not? Contests are how a lot of these small, wonderful journals—journals that are taking interesting chances on emerging writers, publishing stories that take aesthetic risks, etc.—make the money required to simply meet the cost of printing and mailing their issues (and paying their contributors, which is always a good and appreciated thing). One of the things that used to happen to me, though, is that when I paid an entry fee, and didn’t win, I would feel like I’d been cheated. Of course I hadn’t been cheated, but that’s the way it felt. Many journals, though, have entry fees that not only buy you into the contest, but include a subscription—so even if you don’t win, you support a literary journal, and get to read that journal for a year.  Contests certainly aren’t the only way to get published, but there’s nothing wrong with paying an entry fee for a specific contest (usually judged by a guest editor).  What you want to look out for, and avoid, are the journals that charge an upfront “reading” fee—if you want them to read it at all, you have to pay them to consider it for publication.  That’s a terrible practice, don’t fall for that.  So if you are paying entry fees, just make sure it’s attached to a specific contest, and you’ll be fine.

H&W: Do you have any advice on how to protect your ego in the quest for publication?

Ethan Rutherford: Haha. No. Just understand that people will say no, and the earlier you can get used to the idea that not everyone is going to respond to what you are trying to do, the happier you’ll be, and the less it will sting as the rejections come in. Rejection is just part of putting yourself out there, and taking that risk. Just make sure you don’t internalize the rejection. Think about it like fishing. All you’re looking for is one bite—that one reader at a journal or a magazine or at a publishing house who really understands and responds to the work you are doing in a way that makes sense. Lots of fish swim by without a nibble, you can see them, they’re right there, why won’t they bite?  Well, that’s a question that has no real answer. Just be patient, get used to hearing no, and hold out for that yes.

Timothy Otte: I find it helpful to remember that editors aren’t callous people who take pleasure in rejecting writers. They want every submission to be exactly what they’re looking for, but they can’t accept everything. Rejection isn’t personal. Rejections blow and editors know that (they’re usually writers too, so they see the other side of things). It’s ok to feel kind of shitty when you get rejected, but the best course of action is to take another look at the poems you submitted, revise them again, and try submitting them elsewhere. My “favorite” rejection story is that of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. It was rejected over 50 times before it finally got accepted. Frreal—50 damn times. Look it up! Also, read this beautiful post by Jeff Shotts, editor at Graywolf Press: It makes me feel better every time I get rejected.

Andrew Watt: Be proud of yourself for having taken a piece of writing as far as you could. Then flush your ego and prepare for a tidal wave of rejection and drastic revision suggestions. Be okay with this. Most of it will be to your benefit.

G. Xavier Robillard: In a way you need to develop separate personalities. You need to move from the frail, introspective writer, who has created and shaped a lovely thing, to the circus barker looking to get this .PDF off your hands.The business persona understands that submission is the tedious, enervating part of the thing, like doing laundry, and that you’re another part of the publishing ecosystem. Submissions are a yardstick you can use to judge how you are creatively progressing: if I submit ten pieces a year, that’s ten pieces about which I am am satisfied, ten pieces that acknowledge that I’ve grown as a writer, whether or not they are accepted.In my other life, I work at a small technology startup. We have 5 salespeople, and they’re doing the same thing as any writer: pitching a product, over and over. Even if they’re great, they fail 95% of the time. That’s not a real number, I just made that up. Point is, sales is overwhelmingly about failing to sell. It’s served as a good reminder that you need to be able to see your own work, once it’s been edited and revised, that the selling part is simply moving product.And I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching some precious literary journal, who’s rejected me in the past, close up shop. It’s petty and evil but we have to get our pleasure somewhere.

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Have faith in the work and not the process. Don’t stop working. Don’t get sad. There’s a lot of horrible poetry being published. Know that and proceed as scheduled.


Thank you so much to Andrew Watt, Timothy Otte, Dennis Arlo Voorhees, G. Xavier Robillard, and Ethan Rutherford for your time and badass responses.