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November 27, 2020
from The Circus Train
by Judith Kitchen
“Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to.”—THE
I remember during a presentation at a writers conference in Portland decades ago that my friend Judith Kitchen asked whether I was bothered by the fact that Annie Dillard made up the famous story of her cat leaving bloodied footprints on her chest. I mumbled something about facts being a great teacher, but that Annie Dillard was a superb writer, and it didn’t matter that much to me. This was at the very beginning of the debate about truth in nonfiction, and the audience grumbled at my remarks. I was not sure where Judith stood on the issue at that time, but in the end I think she and I mulled over the problem and came to similar views on the subject. I offer this Paragraph of the Week and Commentary as evidence.
Judith died in November 2014, and each year around this time The Humble Essayist features a paragraph from her work. This time I chose one from The Circus Train which I consider her masterpiece and the finest book-length essay ever written.
This is our last feature for 2020. The Humble Essayist takes the month of December off, but we’ll be back on Friday, January 8. In the meantime we will leave the feature on truth an memory by Judith in place as a way to crown the year.
The Paragraph of the Week
Don't. Don't keep arguing with me, refuting what I've just said, resisting my interpretations. You always try to give others their due. You posit excuses for them. Or reasons. I don't care about the reasons. I only care that…that they are what I say they are. The product of my perceptions. So don't go on defending them against my stories. My stories are real. They carry themselves along the months, then years. They move slowly, horse and buggy time, and their colors do not fade. So, simply, don't. Open yourself to my version of my life—because it will eventually explain everything. Will lead to the cookie jar that holds my ashes. Open yourself to what it feels like to be burdened with memory, and insight. Or, if not insight, then critique. Commentary. So, quite simply, don't.
Judith Kitchen was not only an elegant writer of lyric prose, she was also an astute literary critic. In The Circus Train she is often of these two minds, and when she slips into second person here it is the writer talking back to the critic. Her book begins with her earliest memory of playing in a strawberry patch and seeing a circus train in a valley, but the more her critical mind examines the memory the more contradictions she sees in it. When she pictures her house and the strawberry patch “there is no room in that scene for the little valley with its tiny chugging circus.” Perhaps the train was in a book, she wonders, but the critic in her suspects she has conflated two separate scenes to create a memory that didn't happen. “When you doubt your own version,” the critic asks sharply, “how can you not doubt the whole?” Exasperated, the writer responds. “Don’t. Don’t keep arguing with me.” It is not a debate about the facts that the writer needs, but stories that are, she contends, “the products of my perceptions.” They last a lifetime and “do not fade.” They are real and she can take them to “the cookie jar” that will one day hold her ashes. Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to. And yet, she needs the critic too and asks, calm now by the end of the paragraph, that the two of them do this task together and share “what it feels like to be burdened with memory.” In addition to personal perception the writer knows she requires “insight,” “critique,” or “commentary”—whatever word best describes what the critic in her has to offer—though in the end memory, no matter how flawed, is the final arbiter.
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Part essay, part poem, and part conversation with the poetry of Turkish poet Bejan Matur, "Absolute Dark" is a warning against the dangers of creeping authoritarianism. It begins:
"During my walks in the park on sunny afternoons, I’ve been thinking about absolute dark, the way you never see it. A photon or two always slips past the hood they throw over your head or eigengrau bathes the blindfold in owl-light..."
You can learn more about it and Water~Stone Review here.
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Folly Beach, Steven Harvey's newest book, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
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