Jul 01

How Not To Begin Your Meditative Essay

Old, dumb chestnuts guaranteed to exasperate your reader (and how they do that. So be aware, and do better than these):

  • "While having my second cup of coffee...." (indicates excess leisure; annoys readers who by necessity wake to horrible alarm clock, rush the kids to school, rush to work)
  • "our late breakfast of coffee and blood oranges..." (indicates excess leisure and money-fueled hyperestheticism (the oranges being rare and expensive; the casual reference to "blood," the implied reference to Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning"), and, lucky you, you probably have a two-income household)
  • "Walking in the desert wilderness I was thinking about..." (indicates a panoply of luxuries: solitude, leisure to think, time for aimless walking, and placement in a remote quiet setting)
  • "Woke up this morning..." (it's an essay, not a blues song, honey)
  • "My mother" / My father" (no one cares; get to the point) (I once read a litmag that had four pieces in it all beginning with the words "My father...")
  • "Sometimes, reality strikes with the force of a tidal wave" (you're just figuring that out?)
  • "I find myself saying frequently to my students..." (wow, you've got a teaching job? lucky you)
  • "My father would sit with his feet up on his desk..." (your father had a desk?)
  • "My senior year..." (better, start out "In 1985," or whatever year it was. Nobody cares about your senior year, but some readers might give a hoot about 1985 as a year)
  • "I learned early on..." (you're showing, not telling)
Jun 27

Are We Feeling Better Yet?


Some contributing writers and the editors at the book launch today, 11/19, for the fabulous new anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press), edited by Colleen McKee and Amanda Stiebel. Book will be on Amazon.com very soon; $19.95; click here to see and order directly from the publisher, St. Louis's only nonprofit press. The book -- 21 essays, three years in the making -- will make a great holiday gift for any woman finding herself in contact with the U.S. health care hydra. In the photo, left to right: Amanda Stiebel, Cathy Luh, Janet Edwards, Corrine McAfee, Denise Bogard, Colleen McKee, Catherine Rankovic. Penultimate Press, run by Winnie Sullivan, is a nonprofit organization. Taken at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Apr 19

Literary Lies

. . . . Honesty is power. We know this because half our upbringing is learning how and when to put a lid on it. Our culture idealizes honesty, but most of our institutions and social customs are not built on it; instead, they are built to withstand its force. In place of speaking honestly, we are taught to use honesty’s back roads: gossip, kidding, sarcasm, exposé. “Tell us what you really think” is usually only said, these days, as a way to shut you up.

. . .Intimate essays and memoirs and poems serve as antidotes to daily low-grade mandatory dishonesty. My motives for writing intimately, besides the pleasure of telling my version of events, include exploring what happened and why, finding excuses for myself, getting even, and nailing hypocrisy—and I am as honor-bound to nail my own as I am to nail someone else’s. It’s not just a matter of honor, either. If I know I did wrong and in my writing I don’t admit to it, my writing will lack the voltage of honesty.

The personal essay or the memoir provides a portal through which the reader may pay a visit to himself, his real self, the one who doesn’t have to dissemble or lie. Just as an athlete has a moral obligation to not use performance enhancers, the writer of first-person nonfiction is obliged to present readers with an honest record of human experience, not only because it is human but also because honesty itself needs preserving.

On my computer I have stuck a little note: “I have a doctor’s excuse to tell the truth.”

Hidden in that note is a piece of folk wisdom: that the truth is medicinal, that it cures. We believe this so fervently that when we hear a memoirist has lied, we feel outraged, as if we had been given poison instead of medicine. . . .

-Catherine Rankovic, excerpt from St. Louis Magazine essay, Dec. 2006