During holidays, you could call the labor “just cooking” or “just cleaning” or even “just fretting.” But if the family gathers, laughs, argues, reconnects, and remembers what it often forgets, maybe you should call the work something else.

Whoever engineers, or designs, the event is a celebrant, a ritual-maker. Describe the job this way, to remind yourself of its importance.

But then, what if the ritual-maker dies?

You do what?

Listen to the whole story:

For even more of the story and pictures, click here.

by Susan Scott

News of the vision came on the eve of my high school graduation. All along there had been visions—it was enthralling, the boy’s likeness to young Joseph Smith—but this vision was different. The prophet Elijah had appeared, told the boy that he and I should marry. We were “meant to be” is what was said.

We related best, the boy and I, through long hand-written letters which I burned so my mother wouldn’t find them, but this one I jammed beneath the pillow. Thus saith Elijah … so this was a proposal? The message read more like a script for a Book of Mormon pageant, and I dared not question the pronouncement. Questioning would be a lack of faith. Yet if this were meant to be, why did I feel numb? What I felt was numb. This was not the fairy tale ending I’d envisioned.

I mean, running off together I could picture.

Susan at 18

 

Hitchhiking-for-Jesus I could picture.

What I could not picture was being someone’s wife.

I had fallen for the boy at church camp the summer that I turned 16, all lonely and hormonal, and he, in Mom’s words, on the prowl.

“Forget about that boy,” she said, rifling through no-name jeans at K-Mart. I had wanted Levi’s, but that was not to be. This was August, on the heels of camp. Here we go, I thought. There was always some informant, some nosy cook or counsellor who reported back to Mom.

“What boy?” I feigned indifference.

“Don’t play dumb with me. You know I mean that long-haired kook. I don’t like the look of him, he looks like he does drugs.”

“He does not do drugs,” I muttered, but not so as she’d hear it. You could not talk back and expect to be left standing.

“You are not to see him, that’s my point. He’s an instigator, that one.” Instigator was the former store detective’s word for the longhaired-slash-suspicious.

“His dad’s an elder,” I murmured. Descended from the missionary who’d baptized Dad’s people in the 1890s—another thrilling detail I kept to myself. Mom disliked mention of her in-laws’ spiritual advancement.

“I don’t care if he’s the Queen of Sheba. I wouldn’t trust that boy as far as I could throw him.” She went on to tell him so herself, at the Labour Day potluck at church, where he’d hitchhiked some forty miles to see me—hauled him off to the nursery, where a fist in his face drove home the message: Leave us alone, and don’t look back.

That sealed the attraction. I needed rescuing, and he was game to play the prince.

And a fair prince he was. Wispy blond hair brushed his collarbone. Wire-rim glasses and flannel shirts gave him the air of a working intellectual, someone who knew his way around a toolbox. A cross whittled out of some soft wood swung from a leather thong looped about his neck. He was restless, the kind of youth who masters the guitar—our very own Stephen Stills was the buzz at youth camp—and with a hint of arrogance that made him seem precocious. “Principled” he’d say, not put off by the establishment or overbearing mothers.

“Unjust rules were meant to be broken,” he wrote after being roughed up in the nursery. I fell for that, too, and for two years we met in secret, in the bush behind my dull suburban high school, where he’d woo me with yogurt or granola (I had never tasted either) along with news about the great wide world. “I just felt you needed this,” he’d say, and out of his backpack would tumble some cassette (Dylan, mostly) and high-minded reads to set me on the path to liberation. Thoreau and Emerson, Rilke, Castenada, Rolling Stone. Whatever rules Mom laid down for my “own good” could not compete with the high romance of cutting class to walk and talk and kiss in the little woodlot, exchanging ardent letters. I sighed a lot, and he consoled. “You’re not meant to live this way,” he’d say. He was right on that score. The more Mom called the principal or read my diary, the greater my righteous indignation. At the end of my senior year and the height of bad behaviour, she finally called in Dad, who weighed in with a solemn “Listen to your mother.” I tossed my long dark horsetail hair and smirked.

“That’s it,” Mom snapped. “I’ve had it, girl. I’m sending you to a psychologist.”

“Good,” I piped. Finally, an adult who might listen.

Sadly, the offer was rescinded. So there I was, about to graduate and face the heartbreaking choice of to marry or to burn and yes, the call to wed depressed me, but it just felt wrong to doubt the vision. Visions were a first class nod from the Holy Ghost, a sign of spiritual elevation. I was lucky just to have a boyfriend, let alone someone so evolved. To my discerning teenage brain, a wet dream misremembered eclipsed the still, small voice of common sense.

And there was fear—fear so rank I could smell it. Fear of making my way in the world, alone. A sullen, bookish girl was fit for what exactly? I had touched a boy, the sap was flowing. Dear God, I prayed, please send a sign.

My sign came sans Jesus or the prophets when the long-faced Rapunzel made her presence felt. Night after night, I lay tossing on my narrow bed while the spectre hovered by the window, toying with her ropey hair.

The sky in these reveries was starless. This starless state, I realized, was mine.

Deception had bought a little breathing space, but at a cost. I had lost the moral high ground. I had lost all clarity of thought.

The horizon that had lit up briefly with the hope of counterculture freedom had gone dark.

“Sister,” the sad Rapunzel shook her ghostly locks. Hers was a voice I recognized, the voice I took to heart.

*

Think: When have you betrayed yourself, denied what your gut said was crazy foolish? Think: What did you tell yourself to make it all okay?

I told myself that what I felt had no bearing on what was meant to be.

*

I had turned 18 right out of high school and by September the boy and I had fled, backpack and guitar in tow, to see our camp directors, Mike and Dar, in the religious commune they were founding in the Carolinas. The winsome Dar, mother of three, doubled as a nurse; her husband, Mike, a social worker, also served as an elder in the church. Our plan, such as it was, was for Mike to marry the boy and me. Come winter we’d be home again, awaiting another revelation.

Was the plan god-given? I assumed it was. We left Niagara Falls without explaining why the journey south—that is, without a word about eloping.

The owly lights of the old VW van bobbed on the wheezy climb up Piney Mountain. Dar reached back and squeezed my hand. “What a blessing you could join us,” she smiled. After lurching up the steep farm road that emptied into fields, Mike killed the engine and all at once, we tumbled out into the fragrant southern night, into moonlight pooling on three small sheds ringed by a stand of whistling softwoods. I spied a chicken coop and outhouse on either side of what looked like an overgrown shed. “Welcome to our humble cabin,” Dar undid the latch, and the stiff pine door slid open. We stepped into a small dark room with table, stove and dry sink. “Make yourself at home,” she nudged us up the stairs, towards cold wood stove, pullout couch and rocker. A ladder led to the little loft where the family slept. This room too was dark, save for moonlight stealing through a small square pane.

This was homesteading in tobacco country. No neighbours within shouting distance. No water, power or insulation. Just coons and fox and possum, which spooked the family dog, a big old yellow mutt that whined a lot. Cry Baby scuttled underfoot while we unpacked the van, and Mike carried dozing children off to bed.

“You know,” Dar shushed the dog, “we’re building our cabin using wood from an abandoned factory.” Cry Baby settled once her mistress lit the oil lamp, and light bloomed in the musty kitchen. Dar cocked her head. “We sure could use your help.”

“Of course,” I enthused, “that’s why we’re here.” Could the false note be detected?

“You’re not afraid of vultures, are you? They skulk about the place, but they’re curious is all.”

“So this is not your land?”

“No,” she said. “It’s a ways from here, you’ll see.”

What I saw that autumn was grit coupled with imagination. There were homey touches, yes—Dar’s merry cross-stitch brightening the barn board; waking up to fresh baked bread—but these were exceptions, up there with bacon and Velveeta sandwiches, or cornmeal griddle cakes lathered with peach jam. Weekly showers at the high school were the real treat, thanks to a laconic shop teacher by the name of Wes who smuggled us into the locker rooms on Friday nights. The kids—ages three, five and seven—bathed old-school back on the hill, in a washtub in the kitchen.

“It’s like camping,” their lanky dad would say. How long could they live in an old tobacco barn? Again, the boyish grin. “No more than a few years we hope.”

Hope was the watchword for this back-to-the-land living that charmed, inspired—unless you were put off by poverty and dirt, or bloody fox raids that enraged the hens, wings flapping in a mad show of indignation at the loss of another of their sisters.

I wish I could look back at that time on Piney Mountain and see myself wrangling chicken wire or kneading dough at daybreak, anything that would ease the many burdens of our hosts. What I see is a spectre ambling the slopes, contemplating turns of phrase—how Thoreau might have eulogized the brazen kudzu, the pokeweed’s bloody juices purpling the fingers—a pastime that distracted me from dreary chores like writing home to say Dear Mom and Dad, Just so you know, I’m getting married. For the life of me I could not speak up, I could not bring myself to say the simple truth, that I was shutting down. The depression that had dogged my sorry youth had not lifted, as I’d hoped. If anything, it had only deepened.

Once I turned 18, I caught a bus (in defiance) to Niagara Falls, and in a curious twist the boy’s family took me in, which turned out to be a godsend—news soon came that Mom had sold my bed. And that was that: I was launched, a dark Rapunzel, free to seize her independence, or to follow the fair prince. And since the latter had been foretold by an erstwhile prophet, I fell into the age-old habit of simply following a man. Following had led me here, to fields I wandered in a pre-nuptial haze, girl from the North country, long hair “all down her breast,” clueless what to do with my so-called life.

Dar, to her credit, tried to reach me. In return, I was maddeningly evasive. “What will you do when you go back to Canada?” (Sorry, I have no idea.) “What’s your heart telling you to do?” (Ditto.) “Did you want to buy a veil?” (Hmm, would it go with the granny gown scrunched up in my backpack?) In truth, I couldn’t breathe when I thought about the wedding. But that was normal, right? Eloping casts a kind of spell. Travel casts another. I explained this was my first trip south, first sighting of hickory and hornbeam, first encounter with rhododendron-covered rocks and spillways. Magnolias were new to me. Sassafras was new. So was the sweet, sweet smell of dried tobacco. I’m lost, I laughed. That much was true. Smitten and confounded by the fog-wiped, painterly, impoverished and enchanted.

*

I came to at the wedding the first week of November, deep in R. J. Reynolds’s tobacco country, on a 30-acre parcel of spindly pine and oak brush that went by the name of Zion’s Depot.

You will not find that name on any map. Mike and Dar and the others who had bought the land in common had coined a name that did not suggest fanatics or an armoured compound, at least not to the like-minded souls flocking to the Tar Heel State, hoping for cheap land to buy and settle. And in that sense, other than Cry Baby in festive red bandanna, all eight wedding guests were older, seasoned versions of ourselves—dreamers, seekers, ersatz saints in the latter days of a hopeful era.

I’d first heard about Mike’s vision at that fateful church camp the summer that I turned 16, before news of it seeped north across the border and alarmed members of our sleepy congregation—people like my mother, who saw youth camp as a training ground for braless hippies.

“All this talk about a commune…” Mom clucked, hand on ample hip, presiding over a mess of sizzling onions. “That Mike’s an instigator.”

“Mom, read the Bible. Followers of Jesus held their goods in common.” I was preachy and obnoxious and I didn’t care. What I cared about was fleeing death-by-suburb.

“Don’t get smart with me. Communes are for you-know-what.”

I rolled my eyes, but not so as she’d notice. “Look, Mike’s an elder who’s doing what he thinks is right. Besides, you’ve never even met him.” I had just met Mike and the moon-faced Dar myself at the most amazing youth camp ever. Their van alone was proof that Jesus freaks could be real cool.

“I don’t go in for kooks,” Mom smirked. Cold potatoes hit the fry pan. “All this vision talk is nonsense.” The onions coiled and hissed.

Her attitude, as always, was unspeakably depressing. I thought of Emerson. To be great is to be misunderstood.

“Girl,” Mom shook her head. “If you go in for all that vision talk, you really are deluded.”

Deluded? Wow, I thought, who’s talking.

Living on the land, as I’d understood from all my reading—as I’d pictured it before setting foot in hard-scrabble Appalachia—would be hard, yes, a test of character that would purify the heart. Who could fail at this ennobling life if it were meant to be? Clearly Mike and Dar had been led to this death-wed mythic landscape for a reason.

And me? Why was I standing toe-to-toe with a groom I hardly spoke to under a twisty leafless oak on such a damn cold day?

*

You will not find the name Rapunzel in the scriptures, but she’s there just the same— anytime there is push-pull over woman. Eve was one such woman, and what was said to Eve? “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow.”

God didn’t speak to me directly, but shame drove the message home. I was a failure. Girl, you are such a disappointment.

My family never spoke of the elopement. One aunt didn’t speak to me for 20 years, she was so put off by my counterculture nonsense.

The in-laws took another tack. “What about a ring?” My mother-in-law would offer up a plain gold band—a family heirloom, which I moodily declined. (Wedding rings are so conventional.) “Any pictures?” (Oh no, we’d never pose for pictures.) Our sole memento, the Stokes County marriage certificate with its quaint cameo of two clasped hands, aroused plenty of suspicion, as did the fact that I soon took back my maiden name. That was a real head shaker. Even so, most people made an effort to adapt to our playing man and wife. My home church would even throw a shower, which I swore up and down I didn’t want, but the women I had known since childhood insisted on the age-old rite of passage. When I walked into the old church hall, I was met by every piece of Tupperware known to humankind.

“Well, what did you expect?” Mom sounded battle-weary. “They asked me what you needed and I told them.”

Mom and I made up in other ways as well, most times without a fight. All fights now were inside the marriage.

He grew sullen, I grew loud. It was an adjustment.

There were moments, though. On the bitter cold December morning we arrived back in Niagara Falls, when my father-in-law met our Greyhound bus with “Welcome home, children, how about some breakfast?” (our first hot meal in days) and we used the diner’s pay phone to call about an ad for an apartment in a storied nineteenth-century mansion up on Lundy’s Lane—a place we took sight unseen, because it was a sign—I was flooded with a fleeting sense of promise. A big old funky place filled with drug-dealing misfits could inspire just the pluck we’d need, to emulate our heroes in the Carolina outback.

Sure enough, hardship worked its magic, distracted us from the fact that two kids fresh out of high school could not find work. Finally, when winter fell full force inside and out, when the unheated apartment grew so cold that the clothes laid out stiffened like cadavers, we finally got inventive—tossed our jeans and socks and mitts into the oven, long enough to toast them and get us up and out the door: he, to the unemployment office every morning, and me to the in-laws before plodding to the library to look up universities, or plunder cookbooks, scouting recipes for Mormon bread.

Time passed and winter deepened. Niagara Falls is an icy haze in winter, and with the bitter damp comes an eerie pall that tricks the senses. Friends who stayed over complained of a presence in the living room where they’d camped out on the floor. A big old house like this has ghosts, they murmured over breakfast. No, no ghosts, I countered.

Haunted, though, is how I felt when evenings fell, and my spouse lay down his fair guitar to lace up his hiking boots. “Don’t wait up,” he’d say. “I’m headed to the Falls.” Some nights it was the Rapids, or the Whirlpool, wild places that had been ours not so long ago.

Hour after hour, stiffening on the mattress on the hard cold floor, I’d listen for the door to open, staring at the frosted window, worrying my hair, wondering Where the hell was this Elijah? If the Almighty had something grand in store, now would be the time to show it.

Sad to say, no figures made their presence felt.

What was felt was a towering sense of loss.

Loss filled the awkward silence in an awkward marriage, a union in which neither party could speak up or bring ourselves to say the truth—that we were neither favoured nor appointed. We were not pioneering. We were simply keeping time. This pre-ordained joining of a boy and girl—this was conforming.

We’d conformed to someone else’s vision of how to live our lives. We had fallen for the powerful, alluring—what was not yet love.

Then suddenly it’s morning, and once again we’re hopping about a frigid kitchen, pulling on our roasted socks and jeans, and, well, there’s a kind of joy in that—joy in pushing back against the odds of failing, for the odds are overwhelming that you will. For now, all you can do is bundle up and go your separate ways: he to look for work, and you, to the holy precincts of the book stacks by way of the in-laws, where maybe, just maybe, you will set aside your sorrow long enough to lend a hand, or do the unexpected. Admit to your affection for the great wide world.

 

Susan Scott is nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly.

In 2012, Cailleah imagined I might die while she was in Japan. She worried that I would never know what she could become, so we improvised a ritual with her in Toronto and I in Waterloo. Then, she made this film. I didn’t croak (although I almost did in 2013). We’re both still going, making it up as we go. Soon we will make a follow-up film to this one.

 

by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes

first published in The New Quarterlyhttps://tnq.ca/sleeping-with-the-author/

 

“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957

 

Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”

My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.

 What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.

The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.

                    –Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor

 

Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?

Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?

SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.

His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.

But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?

RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.

SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.

So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?

RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.

SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …

RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …

SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.

RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.

SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?

RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?

SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?

RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:

 

Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.

SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?

RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.

SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.

RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?

SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.

RG:  I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.

SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.

RG: Meaning what?

SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.

On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.

RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.

SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.

Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.

Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.

RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.

SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?

RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.

SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.

RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.

SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.

Are you showing the essay to your siblings?

RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.

SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.

RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.

SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.

But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.

RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?

SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.

RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?

SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.

We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.

Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.

RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?

SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.

Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.

RG: Between us?

SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.

RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!

SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.

Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.

Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.

That’s where I’m at. And you?

RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.

SS: Say more.

RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.

SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.

RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.

SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.

Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?

RG: I’d be the last to know.  I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.

SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?

RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.

SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?

RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…

SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).

Ron’s maternal grandparents

RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.

SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?

RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.

 

Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.

Susan talks about downsizing. I’m not ready for such a move even though people our age are doing it. For one thing, it would cost us more, not less, to move into a condo. For another, I am still capable of maintaining the house, so enjoy it. In a condo I’d have fewer reasons to get up out of this fabulous writing chair. Even if you have only lived in a bachelor apartment, after a year or two you realize how much crap you accumulate. When I’m tired of moving it around or dusting it, it’s crap. When I’m enjoying it, or even when I think I might use it in the future, it’s a resource, a comfort, a prized possession. We’d have to dispense with several truckloads of stuff. Even if we’re still physically capable of packing, lifting, and dumping it all, why go to all that trouble until you have to? Susan says that means it’ll all fall to her.

This morning, with Susan out of town, I started going through slides. Most are pre-Susan, so she doesn’t have any interest in them. If I were sorting family photos, pictures you can hold in your hand, she would care mightily.

Old slide: Dad, camera in hand

It’s easy to feel sad, then get angry at Kodak (let “Kodak” stand for all electronics manufacturers that build obsolescence into their products).

Old slide: Mom, camera in hand

Kodak spawned the slide-tray technology that lured us into shooting slides instead of pictures. Since slides were shown on a screen and were bigger than 4″ x 6″, they were more dramatic than photos. The lights went down, and the family gathered. We dads bought into the notion that photos and slides were “memories.” But gone are the days of slide projectors.

Most of the time, in the cosmic scheme of things, it hardly matters that you are always falling behind the technological curve. Some categories of slides were easier to dispense with than others. Buildings, gone. Colorful flowers, gone. Sunsets, into the bucket. What a lot of landscapes, into the trash. How easy it is now to let go of them. Their beauty is of little consequence as you circle the edge. Even vacation slides were not all that difficult to toss. Vacations were just vacations unless something significant happened to the family during one of them.

But when technological change costs your family memories, that’s immoral. Having to toss slides (last year it was CDs), I began to realize that they were semblances of memories, not memories. They were memory-triggers, mnemonic devices, not actual memories. Still, as I put slide after slide to death, it felt like, “Ah, there goes my old life, my pre-Susan, pre-Cailleah, pre-Bryn life.” It felt good to trash some of those slides, but others hurt. So I projected a few of the slides onto a rusted only screen, then shot them into digital eternity. But what suffering my kids will have when the technicians trash jpgs, not eternal after all.

Old slide: Ron hand on TV camera