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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?



The Writing Life: How It’s Done 101

2014 April 9
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The Writing Life

It’s spring! It’s National Poetry Month! It’s… just another day in the life of a writer. And how do we do this, day in and day out? Whether it’s how to keep up a daily regimen, how to pursue further education, how to proofread, or publish, or persevere—we’re here to talk about these challenges.

This entry is the first in a two-part post about some of the basic steps for moving forward with your writing. Read on for advice from emerging and seasoned writers about: strategic organization, finding your best reader, and poignant tips for self-improvement. In part two, we’ll hear more about the submission process and protecting your artistic ego. To shed light on these pertinent questions, I’ve taken a straw poll from writers with varying experiences, and here they are!

Puppet-sympathizer, Andrew Watt, is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is a member of the Loft, volunteer with the Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota, and he recently created a puppet show for Open Eye Figure Theatre’s quarterly cabaret, the Full Moon Puppet Show. Check out Andrew’s newest short film, Sharky.

Our very own, Timothy Otte, is a poet, playwright, and critic. He is currently working on a manuscript of poems. Timothy will be performing in the inaugural event of a monthly night of new works in Minneapolis called The New Shit Show at Fox Egg Gallery. The event is on Friday, April 18th, doors at 7pm.

University of Minnesota alum, Ethan Rutherford, is currently working on a novel. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was published in May 2013 by HarperCollins Publishers, and was just awarded the Minnesota Book Award!

Hungarian poetry specialist, Dennis Arlo Voorhees, is the poet of the chapbook Milk Replacer. As a Fulbright scholar, Dennis translated Hungarian poetry into English. He is currently training for the Boston marathon.

Comic relief, G. Xavier Robillard, is the author of Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves. His (free!) essay for McSweeney’s can be found here.

And without further ado, the Q&A!


Hazel & Wren: If you’re working in prose, do you believe that the first thirty pages need to be irresistible? If so, do you have tips on how to write and organize the first few sections?

G. Xavier Robillard: The first 30 pages of longer prose should be compelling, fresh, and intriguing. Absolutely. As a further yardstick, I’d extend that to the first 50pp. If the work isn’t intriguing to me when I hit page 50, I start to question whether I want to have a long term relationship with this work. I’ve abandoned plenty of would-be novels when I realized that I was no longer motivated at that point.

Some beginning novelists, especially in genre, will tell me they plan to “save x plot point for book 2.” This is a huge mistake: if something is vital or compelling, don’t save it for later. Submit your best work. Your creative well will not evaporate overnight.

Consider the initiating impulse of the work. In memoir, it might be delving into how your life was shaped by A Series Of Unfortunate Events. You might organize your beginning around that bolt of lightning: don’t take 30 years or pages to get us there.

H&W: When you’re working with short stories, vignettes, or poems, how do you organize them? Do you have a particular strategy? Can you speak to the aesthetic sensibility you enact? 

Timothy Otte: I usually try to group poems that feel, to me, in a similar “mode” together. I write in what are, to me, two very distinct ways and when submitting I try not to mix the two, though others might argue it’s good to present a range of voice. Right now I’m working on a manuscript that has a lot of poems that play off of one another (though I hope they work on their own!) so I try to group them as a small version of that larger manuscript. There’s not a “narrative” per se (by which I mean a story with a plot, etc.), but I want the reader or editor to have an experience when they read them. An emotional narrative, I suppose.

H&W: Who do you ask to review your work before you submit it? What are some of the most important qualities of a reader/proof-reader, in your opinion?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: I ask Marshall; he’s a drunk philosopher with a high school diploma. A poem needs readers outside of academia. If Marshall doesn’t get it (or a semblance of it), nobody gets it.

Timothy Otte: I have a few fellow writers who I ask to read my work. Some are in the same city as me so we can meet in person and mark up the pages in front of us, and some are farther away. We write letters or emails. That’s the revision process for me, and, if I can, I avoid thinking about submitting at all during that process. I like people who ask questions of the poems in front of them, people who are willing to point out the obvious, because I’ve usually missed the obvious thing.

Once I’ve decided I’m submitting somewhere and put together my submission, I usually don’t ask someone to take a look. I comb through the submission for spelling and grammatical errors myself, though I really should get someone to look them over one last time…

Andrew Watt: My dad, who provides reliable no-bullshit feedback. If I want to feel good about my writing I ask my mom. You need a proof-reader upon whom you can rely to provide tough, constructive feedback. Friends and family are usually a bad idea. Writing workshops will provide that constructive feedback and help you understand what kind of person you want reading your work.

H&W: Any other tips for yearling writers? 

Andrew Watt: Get to know yourself as a writer. Write what you enjoy writing, not what other people tell you you’re good at or should write. If you’re struggling to write “respectable” poetry and are a romance novelist at heart, you might want to tap into that. You’ve gotta enjoy what you do.

Ethan Rutherford: Read read read.  Widely and deeply.  Take a chance on a literary journal or five.  Go to readings.  Subscribe to small, independent journals.  Buy your books at independent bookstores.  If you read something you love, something that blows the top of your head off, take the time to find that writer, and let her know.

Timothy Otte: Though I’m a yearling writer myself and I’m as eager as anyone to have more publications to my name, I would still say waiting to submit is wise. I’ve only had a few poems published, and I’m very, very proud of them, but I think I got started submitting too early. If I could go back and tell myself to wait a few more years before starting to submit, I would.

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Read “Ode to a Nightingale” every night before you go to sleep. This is the fastest way to becoming a better poet.

G. Xavier Robillard: For me writing has to be a discipline: and to enforce your discipline, it’s worthwhile to promote other disciplines. Running is that for me. And here’s a brief plug about creating space for yourself.


Share your advice in a comment!

And tune in soon for How It’s Done 102 where you’ll find even MORE insight from these five wonderful writers!