Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life

Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life

by Jenny Boully

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Overview

“Jenny is the future of nonfiction in America. What an absurdly arrogant statement to make. I make it anyway. Watch.” —John D’Agata

“Yes, Aristotle, there can be pleasure without ‘complete and unified action with a beginning, middle, and end.’ Jenny Boully has done it.” —Mary Jo Bang

“Jenny Boully is a deeply weird writer—in the best way.” —Ander Monson

Jenny Boully’s essays are ripe with romance and sensual pleasures, drawing connections between the digression, reflection, imagination, and experience that characterizes falling in love as well as the life of a writer. Literary theory, philosophy, and linguistics rub up against memory, dreamscapes, and fancy, making the practice of writing a metaphor for the illusory nature of experience. Betwixt and

Between
is, in many ways, simply a book about how to live.

Jenny Boully is the author of The Body: An Essay, The Book of Beginnings and Endings: Essays, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, and other books. Born in Thailand, she grew up in Texas and holds a PhD in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She teaches creative writing and literature at Columbia College Chicago.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566895101
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 04/03/2018
Pages: 140
Sales rank: 673,373
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jenny Boully is the author of The Body: An Essay, The Book of Beginnings and Endings: Essays, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, and other books. Born in Thailand, she grew up in Texas and holds a Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She teaches creative writing and literature at Columbia College Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

the future imagined, the past imagined

In the writing life, an occasional glance sometimes out of windows where clouds scuttle and the sky is autumn blue, but somehow one is not a part of it; in the writing life, an occasional glance sometimes into the mirror where the body and one's possessions are caught, but somehow one is not a part of it. I keep meaning to but never do throw the thoughts of the outside out. In the writing life, a continual desire to make manifest something known, to somehow be a part of it.

Sometimes, I harbor a strange paranoia that although I keep visiting and having visitors to my desk, nothing is getting written, but I think that what I do is write. I think this because I have fragments all around, and I am sure that I have not written them, yet they keep showing up, and I keep meaning to but never do turn them into something. I refuse to see that the mirror too is glass, a window, a glass with a thin sheet on which I am written, a sheet that keeps the inside in. To be a part of it is to be apart from it.

How is it that seasons change? Do they change so slowly, so creepingly, because we so rarely break away from whatever it is we are dreaming to notice? What the season brings us to suffer (because seasons, no matter how lovely, will bring us to suffer), it brings when we are not looking. I know the look of a cracked landscape, winter in black and white, flat and finite with a sunset on the horizon like a red heartbeat suffering there. It will take me longer each morning now to go out and face it: the leaves shivering then falling about as if to remind me that somehow, despite leavings, there is some magic, some beauty there. I tell myself I don't want it: the mountain view, the shimmer of summer rain, a trout-filled creek. How is it that I came to be here this way, with the wind a suggestion that it was, indubitably was, autumn (already and again)? What I want was in bed; he kissed me and said goodbye. And at three o'clock in the afternoon, the world takes on a stormy look.

Sometimes, I think that maybe I've been on antidepressants and antianxiety medication for the past three years and somehow am not aware of it. I think this because there are medicine bottles all around, stamped with various dates going back three years, and I am sure that I have not been taking any of the pills, but nonetheless, they keep showing up, and I keep meaning to but never do throw them away. I must like to keep them there for the just in case.

The present tense is all about immediate feelings, about wanting and lack. The present tense is about things that you don't notice until you can't help but notice them. The present tense is for when you are in your living room crying and the person you love is somehow a part of that, and suddenly there are two possibilities, and the present tense is telling you that you have to choose. The water in the teakettle is boiling. Your tea is ready; either you drink it or you don't.

As a child, I used to love the future tense: I will be going and I am going to.

With dreaming, we speak differently. We use the past tense. Dreams are about the past, but we want them to be about the present, the future. That is, we will make them mean something. I was standing over a cliff, looking down on a raging black river. My childhood home drifted in the river. There were no sounds; there was only blackness and stars. Maybe the dream wants to tell me that I have detached myself from something I love; maybe the dream wants to tell me that I will detach myself from something I love. Maybe the dream wants to tell me that despite my wanting otherwise, what I love has detached itself from me, has already begun a journey to make itself live apart from and far from me. What separates me from my childhood home is three hundred yards of falling. To join what I love means to risk dying.

There is a certain kind of daydreaming that can foretell the future. There is a certain kind of daydreaming that only concerns bad futures. In this type of daydreaming, we sink and sink until somehow somewhere inside that dream something loves us again; something or someone says sorry for something that is being talked about in the past tense.

It could happen this way: my mother is still twenty-eight, and she's sewing me dresses and teaching me how to crochet baby blankets for my dolls. If I finish one too soon, she tells me to pull out the yarn and begin again. It could happen this way, being transported back to this very unraveling, and like characters in a movie or story who are jolted out of a quagmire simply by waking, I too will realize that I am not living here, that I am still this very small child learning at the hem of her mother. If not a dream, then it could be that my life thus far has merely been an intense daydream. Or perhaps I am presently living a daydream that I dreamed previously. At what point is what I dreamed mine and then not mine?

At what point are you mine and then not mine?

This summer, I drove through Wyoming with my father. I had never been to Wyoming, and I certainly never did think I would ever be driving through Wyoming with him; more surreal: it was July, but it was thirty degrees. I was suffering from an attack of shingles, and every once in a while, a bolt of nerve pain would start from my spinal cord and shoot through me. This is all past tense. In the future, I will think back to Wyoming's prairie grass and want to tell others how beautiful it was, how the sky, a deep crystal blue, was reflected in puddles within that grass, how the wind, furious and fast, thrashed the grass about until the whole otherwise-bleak landscape became something else, something mythical and existing momentarily, hills of sleeping dreams. I remember thinking that I loved my father and wanted to tell him. I told him instead that the sky was so beautiful in the puddles, that the grass looked as if it were alive and full of sparkling stars.

At what point do we let go of the past and enter the present? Wyoming quickly turned into Colorado, and there was a whole other landscape to contend with, a sharper world of peaks and blades, whiteness and grayness, and a sky that was not so deep but a shallow gray-blue. Along the roadsides, there were stones and boulders that once were mountains, which have recanted into another slumber, a slumber that will last for many future years. At what point is a boulder no longer a mountain? And despite the many "Beware of Falling Rocks" signs, I never saw one fall.

At what point are you mine and then not mine? If I follow you into your dreams, then_____________. This is a conditional: if, then. You and I together then, we come together to form separate dreams where something could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, or would have occurred. We call this the conditional tense, although some grammarians do not believe in it, suggesting instead that these conditionals are merely the past or perfect forms of can, may, shall, and will. But I know the difference; I know they aren't the same. Because the former is about dreaming and the latter is about having, or another form of having. Pregnancy could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, or would have occurred vs. Will you ...? I will. You may, but choose not to. At what point do our dreams depart? At what point do we stay together regardless?

There are verb tenses in writing that are not taught in schools. These are tenses that one learns instead when one grows older and knows that things will either be or not be, when one finds out that one might have been or might not have been something or other. I will refer to these tenses as the future imagined and the past imagined.

The future imagined is contingent upon daydreaming, that is, the type of daydreaming that can foretell the future. If I write in the future imagined, you may not know it. Whenever I write my daydreams, I am writing in the future imagined. In this type of daydreaming, the boundary between reality and the imaginary is blurred, and because this type of daydreaming brings the same daydream over and over again, we live out the same moment an endless amount of times, until that moment takes on the same qualities as our memories. Who is to say that what occurs in my dreams or my daydreams did not really happen to me? If I live them and experience them with the same intensity that I experience events in real life, then who is to say that these dreams or these daydreams are not real? If you follow me into my dreams, then ____________.

When we write about dreams, we write them in the past imagined. So too do we write in the past imagined when we write about old love affairs, because nothing is as unreal, as dreamy as love. And nothing is as confusing, as cryptic, as encoded as what occurs, as what is said, when we leave a love affair and suddenly have to live again outside of that dream, that dream where something could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, or would have occurred.

When does the future imagined become the future? In my future imagined, I am lonely and cold and hunched over a sink washing the few dishes that I have. I have one can of soup. The small apartment is white, and it is winter, and although I am wearing a coat, I am still cold, and my daughter is sleeping in a crib that has been handed down too many times. Not only am I cold and not only is my daughter fatherless, her father doesn't even know about her. In my future imagined, I depart without letting him know because I know he wouldn't want her, wouldn't want this anyhow, so I leave, as ever, with no forwarding address. Not only am I cold and not only is my daughter fatherless and not only does the father not know about my daughter, in my future imagined, I discover that I am dying and I need to find my daughter's father or there will be no one to take care of her. In my future imagined, he has already gone on with his life. When I find him, he is married to a woman with a big nose and bleached hair, and he agrees to take care of my daughter, and I can die as happily as one can die under such circumstances. In my future imagined, there is no apology, no grievances, no I wish that I had married you instead. In my future imagined, the only thing that redeems me and the present that sent me plunging into such a future imagined is that he silently thinks to himself, something could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, or would have occurred.

When does the future imagined become the future? I have missed my last two periods, and I have developed headaches that doctors can't explain. It doesn't make sense, they say, that the headaches should be on the right side while it is the left side of my face that is going numb. I think maybe the numbness could be residual shingle nerve damage and pain. I mention to the doctors my recent outbreak of shingles, but it doesn't seem to matter to them. The CAT scan has been scheduled for Wednesday. I think of the future imagined, and I can only think that I have, somehow, through my daydreaming, caused a tumor in my brain.

Reasons the chicken pox virus might reactivate: stress, a weakened immune system caused by certain diseases and cancer, taking certain medications, old age. I add to the list: bad dreams, uncertainty, fear, the loss of a baby, heartbreak.

At what point are you mine and then not mine? When can we trust that the author is using the present or past or future and not the past imagined or future imagined? Once, I had a baby, and I was holding her, and as soon as he showed up, the baby turned into a sheet of paper. Maybe the baby represents what I would really like to have in life, and maybe the sheet of paper represents the writing life; maybe the dream wants to tell me that I can't have one without the other or that I may have one but not the other. Maybe the dream wants to tell me that as long as we are together, I will have to choose; or maybe the dream chooses for me, and thus I will continue to hold a sheet of paper. In the dream, the sheet of paper was unlined and blank. At what point does the living turn into its own memorial? At what point does life transform into words, full of verb tenses, written on sheets of paper? Does the dream decide for us, or do we decide on the dream?

What made the chicken pox virus reactivate in me? I read somewhere that a man who was dying of cancer kept his hope all through chemotherapy and was able to bring his cancer into remission, but then he got a case of shingles that was so bad he wanted to die. The pain from shingles was so much that he killed himself rather than live through it. He was frail, and the shingles had attacked him in the eye. Nerve pain from shingles can last weeks, months, or years after an outbreak; in some cases, it will never go away. Some people say that shingles itch. They never itched me; they burned. They burned and clutched and kept me cramped and bent over. Only when all the scabs had fallen off did I begin to feel an itch, and for months later, there was a phantom itching, a million spiders crawling over my flesh. When does the attack begin and when does it end? For some people, the pain never goes away.

I have a suspicion that in this life, mirrors are not meant for looking into but rather for looking out of; I only have to master this kind of looking, and then I will be able to see what the outside has to offer, instead of only seeing myself looking outward and being confronted with the self who looks outward ad infinitum. Sometimes, I have a paranoia that I am not living this life but another one that was invented for me, and this is only a long daydream, the kind where only bad things happen. But when do the daydreams begin and the dreams end, and where does the sky end and the prairie grass begin? There are stars in the grass. In July, it is thirty degrees. I want to tell my father that I love him. My childhood home goes drifting in the black and raging river. My mother teaches me how to use a needle and thread. To reclaim love is to risk certain death. For some people, the pain from shingles never goes away. The medicine bottles do exhaust themselves despite my not opening them.

At what point are you mine and then not mine? There are no apologies, no grievances, no I wish I had. My mother says that she knows my ailment; she says that in her language, the name of the illness means an explosion of snakebites. Sometimes, I still feel a gripping and then a burning. The test was positive. Then it was negative. My daughter turns into a sheet of paper. I have fragments all around, but they never get turned into anything. In my future imagined, I am dying and this is not conditional. If I had asked my father to stop the car, if I had gone out to look into the puddles of Wyoming sky and prairie-grass stars, would something then have occurred? Would I have seen more sky or myself looking to see more sky?

There is a type of daydreaming that can foretell the future, a type of dreaming that explains why nothing is being written. She turns into a sheet of paper. When does the dream stop being a daughter and start being a sheet of paper? At what point are you mine and then not mine? At what point was she my baby and then not my baby? It was and then it was not. What the season brings us to suffer (because seasons, no matter how lovely, will bring us to suffer), it brings when we are not looking.

I know the look of a cracked landscape, winter in black and white, flat and finite with a sunset on the horizon like a red heartbeat suffering there. It will take me longer each morning now to go out and face it. The CAT scan has been scheduled for Wednesday.

How is it that I came to be here this way, with the wind a suggestion that it was, indubitably was, autumn (already and again)? What I want was in bed; he kissed me and said good-bye. And at three o'clock in the afternoon, the world takes on a stormy look.

The X-ray technician asks if there is any possibility I could be pregnant, because if I am, harm to the fetus could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, or would have occurred.

Don't move, she says.

For some people, the pain never goes away.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Betwixt-and-Between"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jenny Boully.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface,
the future imagined, the past imagined,
Forecast Essay,
On Writing and Witchcraft,
Inner Workings, in Meadows,
Einstein on the Beach/Postmodernism/Electronic Beeps,
On the Voyager Golden Records,
The Page as Artifact,
Between Cassiopeia and Perseus,
Kafka's Garden,
Six Black-and-White Movies in Which I Do Not Find You,
Moveable Types,
How to Write on Grand Themes,
The Art of Fiction,
Fragments,
22,
On the EEO Genre Sheet,
The Poet's Education,
Writing Betwixt-and-Between,
On Beginnings and Endings,
Acknowledgments,

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