I'll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program

I'll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program

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Overview

The University of Iowa is a leading light in the writing world. In addition to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for poets and fiction writers, it houses the prestigious Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP), which was the first full-time masters-granting program in this genre in the United States. Over the past three decades the NWP has produced some of the most influential nonfiction writers in the country.

I’ll Tell You Mine is an extraordinary anthology, a book rooted in Iowa’s successful program that goes beyond mere celebration to present some of the best nonfiction writing of the past thirty years. Eighteen pieces produced by Iowa graduates exemplify the development of both the program and the field of nonfiction writing. Each is accompanied by commentary from the author on a challenging issue presented by the story and the writing process, including drafting, workshopping, revising, and listening to (or sometimes ignoring) advice. The essays are put into broader context by a prologue from Robert Atwan, founding editor of the Best American Essays series, who details the rise of nonfiction as a literary genre since the New Journalism of the 1960s.

Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing writing concentration in the country, with more than one hundred and fifty programs in the United States. I’ll Tell You Mine shows why Iowa’s leads the way. Its insider’s view of the Iowa program experience and its wealth of groundbreaking nonfiction writing will entertain readers and inspire writers of all kinds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226306506
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/19/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 670 KB

About the Author

Hope Edelman is best known for her book Motherless Daughters, which has been followed by two revised editions and two sequels, and her memoir The Possibility of Everything. She teaches nonfiction writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles and returns every summer to teach in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Robin Hemley is writer-in-residence and director of the writing program at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He served as director of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program from 2004 to 2013. He is the award-winning author of eleven books of nonfiction and fiction, most recently Do Over and A Field Guide for Immersion Writing.

Read an Excerpt

I'll Tell You Mine

Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program


By Hope Edelman, Robin Hemley

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30650-6



CHAPTER 1

One Blue Note

Marilyn Abildskov (1997)


(Originally published in Black Warrior Review)

I heard a trumpeter interviewed on the radio some years ago, a musician who said he believed you could tell a whole story in a single note. I remember thinking it was impossible, a reaction not unusual perhaps for those of us musically untrained. Then this man — I forget now who he was — proceeded to play one long note — I wish I could tell you now what note it was — and in the middle of a traffic jam just outside Portland, Oregon, where I was listening to this trumpeter on the radio, waiting for the traffic to move, I began to cry. The note was a story, as promised, and like all stories, it held me, starting off as most stories do, ordinary enough, then veering off into something inexplicably sad but also terribly, terribly beautiful.


He started out an ordinary salaryman, a sad-da-dee-maan, working at a company in Tokyo, a city filled with salarymen, all of them in navy blue suits, bloodshot eyes, all of them staggering toward the subway after work, drunk but not on pleasure, but then something happened — he caught someone cheating and decided to quit, had to quit, was too honest for such a company, and the others congratulated him, envied him, they said, for they always wanted to quit, too, and he was glad, of course, but unemployed, too, out of work until, on a whim, he decided to open up a jazz bar back in his hometown, a jazz bar in Matsumoto that served coffee and mixed drinks and small elegant appetizers, salmon sandwiches and cheese toast and pretty plates of brie and crackers, a place where customers could listen to jazz — for jazz is a cultural hybrid, is it not? — and the blues, too, which, on the simplest level consists of three chords and that's it — The only music I knew I could listen to twelve hours a day — and he gave the venture three months at best — I figured three months would be good — but the shop lasted three, then four, then five, then six months and one year turned into two and two into ten and ten into twenty so by the time you walk into the shop, a narrow, rectangular place that reminds you of a shoe box, the kind of shoe box where you store your favorite secret things, you know you are walking into an establishment, so to speak, a place where the proprietor — for this is how you think of him at first: as a proprietor — will, after only a few weeks recognize you, nod slightly when you walk in, then carefully fix you a drink — cafe au lait in the afternoon, red wine late at night — Chilled, do you mind if it's chilled? — and you will say no, you don't mind, chilled is fine, in fact you prefer your red wine cold, and you will notice what an elegant man he is, this proprietor with a well-trimmed goatee and clean pressed jeans and white cotton shirts he buttons to the neck, so refined that at first you feel shy, but then you can't help it, can't help but wonder what his secrets are, what ruffles his shirts, and you start asking questions, innocent ones at first — What does Eonta mean? and Have you ever been to New York? — but he hasn't, he couldn't — his hours as a salaryman wouldn't allow it, he says, and you know that he and his wife, a woman whose name you do not know, are the only ones who work here at the shop — so he stays put, does the next best thing, meaning stays in the music, brings the music here — Jazz is freedom, he says — and he chooses the music with the same care he uses to fix you a drink — Charlie Bird and John Coltrane and Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, Joe Turner, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis — and all the others too, voices like Ella Fitzgerald's, voices you would never hear anywhere else in this country, except at Eonta, a place where you whisper because of the music, and where one night you and a man who will leave for Brazil the next day, will sit quietly, the two of you not talking, him just holding your hand and you trying not to cry because what's to say on the night before someone leaves? and where later, in the cold months to come, you will write letters to the man in Brazil, and the slim, elegant proprietor will ask Are you writing a novel? and you will say no, no, just a letter, only you are not yet fluent, not even close, so you confuse tamago for tegami, the word "letter" for "egg," saying, "No, not a novel, I am writing an egg," and he will nod discreetly, leave you alone to your coffee and egg, reminding you the way he moves what true elegance means, how much beauty lies in restraint, which is why, when you are there with another man, the one who doesn't hold your hand, the one you are going to leave soon (because he long ago left you?), you restrain yourself for once, hold back many things you have to say, just sit quietly and look at his face, such a beautiful face, you think, wondering why he is always so tired, and why you haven't noticed before all those flecks of gray in his black black hair, which is why, when you are gone, when you are back in America, surprised to see that even your cat turned gray while you were away, you will write notes to the proprietor of Eonta (but not to the other men) and he will write to you as well, thanking you for the glasses you gave him, telling you he drinks milk from them in the morning, wine from them at night, writing his note on a small card with the sun and moon and stars shining on a blue backdrop — How have you been? Best wishes as you pursue your new career — and you will wish yourself back, not to the country itself or to the man with the beautiful face but to a small place, a jazz bar whose name comes from a Greek composition, a word meaning existence he told you once, a place where you could drink cafe au lait in the afternoon and chilled red wine at night, write love letters as if they were portions of a novel, and eat small, elegant sandwiches, a place where you could listen to the music, to the jazz and to the blues, a place where you could watch the man behind the counter, who is a salaryman, after all, mix Kahlua and cream in a dusty silver shaker, dry glasses with a clean white towel, change CDs and nod when customers enter the dark narrow room, no one ever mentioning what you all know to be true: that there are three chords to play with — what you do, who you love, and where you live — and the best you can do is hope they come together for a moment, in a shoe box, in a letter, or in one blue note, one long note that sounds like a song.


From the Author

Someone in my first year at Iowa gave the exercise that a lot of writers are probably familiar with: to write three to four pages in a single, sustained, grammatically correct sentence. I'd never heard of the exercise before and was stunned by how lovely others' results were. Mine, however, was flat as a burnt pancake and went straight into the garbage without much thought. The next year, however, while working on a deadline for a submission in Carol de Saint Victor's workshop — and I should pause here to say what a pleasure studying with Carol was, how much we all worshipped her, and how whatever I have gleaned over time about the intersections of travel, love, and memory can be traced back to Carol in one way or another — I took a break to go buy notebooks at Iowa Book & Supply. I used to buy these great black notebooks filled with lined paper. They were cheap and durable and I bought them in bundles of five at the time. And in the course of browsing a bin of sale books before checking out, I found a book on jazz and read what is probably old news to musical people but what was brand new information to me: that when you've got three chords, you've got jazz. I found this interesting, arresting, even, and while walking home, I could hear a new essay, something whose rhythms made sense. I knew exactly where I wanted to start and exactly who I wanted to focus on. I'd tried writing about Eonta, a little jazz cafe that I used to visit when I lived in Matsumoto, Japan, and the proprietor of Eonta, but each attempt had been flat until then, dull in a way that that shoebox of a place and that proprietor was not. This time, as I began "One Blue Note," I was aware of why: that I'd been trying to write about the proprietor as part of a demographic of other Japanese salarymen when who he was was an individual, someone whose passion for work — for wine and coffee and most importantly for jazz — was delicate and daring; that I'd been trying to write about the place in a journalistic way rather than how I had experienced it: impressionistically. I didn't know the proprietor very well but I admired him as I admired many Japanese salarymen, who at the time were characterized in the American media as soulless, suicides waiting to happen. I wanted to write a love letter of sorts to them, to the Japanese sense of work as central in a person's life, and I wanted to do justice to the beauty of that tiny space, which I loved, and that proprietor who had made it happen. And now — without even realizing it until the week of feverish writing was done — I'd found a way in: a single sentence to capture that sense of one person, one place, one life, his and mine running parallel. I tell my students that it doesn't matter if this exercise or that one yields something they like right now because who knows? Maybe later it will. Timing is everything, isn't it? And readiness. Sometimes what helps us helps us later, rather than sooner. Well, good. We're in no rush. "One Blue Note" was published in Black Warrior Review as a short story, my first literary publication, and for that reason, it holds a special place for me. It is also the piece that has helped me define the genre of writing I engage in, which I think of not as "essay" or "short story" so much as "love letter" or "egg." Finally it is the first piece where I glimpsed — or heard, rather, in a very particular way — what I think Richard Ford may mean when he says of voice on page, "Voice is the music of the story's intelligence."

CHAPTER 2

Black Men

Faith Adiele (2002)


(Originally published in Indiana Review)

Falling

When I was five years old, I tripped on a throw rug in my babysitter's house and hurtled face forward onto the coffee table, an immense slab of petrified California redwood. Quick as it happened, each arc of my fall segmented itself, colors separating in a kaleidoscope, and crystallized in my memory: the rug sucking at my ankles, the giddy lurch across the floor, the crest through the air, weightless, my jangling heart, disbelief as I spied the waiting block — solid, glistening.

I was already screaming when my nose smacked the table. Over the noise, I heard a crack like the cut that severs the tree, saw the brown spine of a Douglas fir submitting to my grandfather's ax.

The babysitter, who'd been in the kitchen coating slices of Wonder Bread with thick swirls of margarine and dousing them with sugar (an after-school snack I adored, much to my mother's horror) came tearing down the hall.

"What happened?" she shouted, the sugar shaker still clutched in her fist.

I couldn't respond. Pain vibrated through cartilage into the roots of my teeth. I crumpled to the floor, clutching my face against my skull.

She yanked my quivering hands away to check for fracture, her fingers leaving a gritty trail of sugar across my cheeks. Then, though not a particularly demonstrative woman, she lifted me into the large recliner and locked her arms around me.

"Go 'way!" I shrieked at the other children who, wide-eyed and solemn, ringed the recliner, some wailing helpfully, others tugging the babysitter's apron, wanting to know, "Why she crying?"

I howled and howled. More than the pain itself, I remember the taste of sugar mixed with tears leaking into my mouth, salt and sweet, the flavor of amazement, amazement to learn that yes, life was this too. I don't remember the trip to the ER, the arrival of my mother, the painkillers, the days and nights of ice packs.

By some miracle, my nose wasn't broken. "I fell," I announced proudly to strangers, and in 1968, people believed me, could still believe in children, especially brown ones, falling. Over the next few days, a thick root of blood spread out beneath the golden surface of my cheeks, staining them the color of bruised plums. The bridge of my nose puffed and held. For nearly six months I resembled a raccoon — curious, slightly anxious, with crusty, purple skin ringing my eyes.

One of my favorite photographs was taken a few months later. Michael-Vaino, a.k.a. Uncle Mike, and a friend are dancing in my grandparents' living room in cowboy hats. Uncle Mike, his pale Finn eyes droopy, snaps the fingers of one hand, wobbles a bottle of gin in the other. His friend, a Swede like Old Pappa, my lumberman grandfather, balances me on his hip, beaming at my bruised face.

My mother had been playing Nigerian Highlife LPs on the stereo, and Uncle Mike's friend, drawn by the hypnotic twang of the talking drum speaking to the guitar, like someone calling your name underwater, popped his head into the room. "Hey, what's this music?"

"Yeah, cool." Uncle Mike followed behind, drawing the string of his flat-brimmed hat tight. Ever since childhood he'd dressed like a cowboy in an old black-and-white movie.

My mother stared pointedly at his hand and shook her head.

"I know, I know." He gave the bottle a fluid twist of the wrist, a cowboy spinning his pistols before re-holstering. "It's only for a second. We're on our way out."

The Highlife swelled, spurred by the singer's admonition that Everybody dey party, and my uncle's friend swept me into his arms, saying. "Hear that? Everybody party, something-something."

My mother hesitated a moment, then smiled. Extending her arms before her like a hula dancer, crooked at the elbows, she swiveled her hips to the slower under-beat, the way my Nigerian father had taught her before he left. Like a grass skirt, her brown ponytail swayed from side to side.

Uncle Mike snapped his fingers, shuffled his feet across the carpet, sang "something-something" in my ear, and despite the fact that it was his friend holding me, his friend who told me how pretty I was (something Uncle Mike had never said, either before or after my raccoon rings), my uncle was the one I loved.

My mother ended it.

"Look goofy!" she called, framing us in the lens of her Brownie camera. "In other words, just be yourselves." The flash bleached the room, breaking the spell.

Uncle Mike checked his watch and jerked his head toward the door. Outside the crunch of gravel signaled that the others were assembling in the driveway. Whenever his pack of loud, good-natured friends came by in their well-ironed jeans, they left their bottles outside in fast cars with deep bucket seats and carried me on their shoulders, recounting their latest motorbike triumphs.

The friend spun me one last time and released. "Thank you, madam." He bowed.

"Don't go," I begged.

Uncle Mike doffed his hat and flattened it onto my head with two pats. "'Night, cowpoke." Then he was gone. I listened hard in his wake: gravel flying, welcome shouts, car doors opening to blasts of squealing electric guitar and shuddering bass, metallic slams and revved motors. The music of my disappeared-to-Africa father couldn't compete.

Most nights Uncle Mike came home after I was in bed. Most days he slept past noon. Awake, he was often grumpy. His jovial moments were brief, always halfway out the door.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from I'll Tell You Mine by Hope Edelman, Robin Hemley. Copyright © 2015 Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago 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

Contents
Introduction

Prologue: How Nonfiction Finally Achieved Literary Status
Robert Atwan

One Blue Note
Marilyn Abildskov (1997)

Black Men
Faith Adiele (2002)

Borders
Jon Anderson (1990)

Cousins
Jo Ann Beard (1994)

O Wilderness
Joe Blair (1995)

Anechoic
Ashley Butler (2008)

Round Trip
John D’Agata (1998)

Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us
Hope Edelman (1992)

The Rain Makes the Roof Sing
Tom Montgomery Fate (1986)

How I Know Orion
Will Jennings (1997)

Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood
Michele Morano (2001)

JUDY! JUDY! JUDY!
Elena Passarello (2008)

The Bamenda Syndrome
David Torrey Peters (2009)

High Maintenance
John T. Price (1997)

Slaughter
Bonnie Rough (2005)

Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won’t
Ryan Van Meter (2008)

The Last Days of the Baldock
Inara Verzemnieks (2013)

Desperate for the Story
George Yatchisin (1988)

Acknowledgments
Editors and Contributors

Contents
(Chronological)

The Rain Makes the Roof Sing
Tom Montgomery Fate (1986)

Desperate for the Story
George Yatchisin (1988)

Borders
Jon Anderson (1990)

Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us
Hope Edelman (1992)

Cousins
Jo Ann Beard (1994)

O Wilderness
Joe Blair (1995)

One Blue Note
Marilyn Abildskov (1997)

How I Know Orion
Will Jennings (1997)

High Maintenance
John Price (1997)

Round Trip
John D’Agata (1998)

Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood
Michele Morano (2001)

Black Men
Faith Adiele (2002)

Slaughter
Bonnie Rough (2005)

Anechoic
Ashley Butler (2008)

JUDY! JUDY! JUDY!
Elena Passarello (2008)

Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won’t
Ryan Van Meter (2008)

The Bamenda Syndrome
David Torrey Peters (2009)

The Last Days of the Baldock
Inara Verzemnieks (2013)

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