I’ve taught creative nonfiction writing many semesters, but I had never seen Memoir before this issue. Had never heard of Jacqueline May, whose “But All Can Be Endured Because . . .” is so perfectly satisfying a story about ordinary family and miraculous marriage, I think it must be fiction. Or Cindy Clem, who writes the flip side of May’s coin in words so beautifully measured—“My Husband Clive” is the title, but the first line is “Clive is not my husband”—I’m actually grateful not everyone’s relationship is terrific. Or poet Dianne Bilyak (“Reparation,” and “How He Described Her”), whose tone drops over youthful wounds a lightness that makes me smile. How could I have taught creative nonfiction (CNF) and not known these?
CNF is a hybrid genre, I tell my students—it can look like poetry or fiction, sound like reportage or verse, produce a visceral emotional experience and a frontal lobe transfer of information. This journal proves it. Claudia Sternbach, editor-in-chief, leads an expert editorial board with a combined résumé that would make any would-be autobiographer fall at their feet—or at least beg them to come teach a workshop in the writer’s hometown. At one point, Sternbach says, “Submissions come in. Hundreds, thousands”—this must be a) because the quality of the journal is so high, memoirists scramble from all over the world clamor to be in its pages, or b) the cause of that high quality, which could only be achieved by a discriminating, downright loving editorial board with a deep respect for the myriad shapes life stories can take.
Memoir is not a whole life story, but a section of one, and if you doubt that there are as many forms of memoir as there are sections of life, or if you need jaw-dropping examples to inspire your students, this issue satisfies. “No submission is too unusual or traditional to be considered for publication,” say the Submission Guidelines. One of the pleasures of this issue is that not a single piece is either “too unusual” or “too traditional.” They are all, simply, outstanding.
Every issue awards substantial kudos to grand prize, second, and third place winners. This time, the Grand Prize went to Colette Inez. “Mother Country” weaves images of mapping and drawing through a prose lament for a scholar-mother who committed her child, conceived by a scholar-priest, to an orphanage in France. As all memoirists strive to do, Inez achieves a tightrope balance between emotion and objectivity, personal involvement and fact. What we know of her life by the end of this short piece, we know through the lens of longing for both a mother and a mother country.
Memoir typically uses “the upright pronoun.” “But All Can Be Endured Because” by Jacqueline May employs the second person point of view, and Jean Leblanc’s poem “Spring Floods” is similarly addressed to “you,” recounting events that could have happened “on Main Street / or Central or Broad . . . the Nashua / or the Assabet or the Swift,” ending with an anecdote of a father who, like so many of us, makes a life decision on the basis of seasonal disasters, other factors (even sensible ones) be damned.
Rachel May’s three letters addressed to “Some Artists That I Need to Talk To” evoke the subjective intelligence of museum-critique, love for art, and non-narrative storytelling. These choices remind us that the hybrid genre is personal and universal, specific and generalized—that you can mean “I,” then can mean “now,” and all can mean “for everyone, always.”
Eduardo Vinueza’s internationally-acclaimed narrative photography constitutes a less-well-known form of memoir, with arresting representations of New York City beautifully described by editor David Rompf’s notes:
Lone figures pushed to the far corners of a frame tempt assumptions of melancholy or marginalization; we see many backsides but few faces…[the] images conjure the alienation and anonymity of individuals in a city that welcomes all but embraces no one…imbued with a pleasing—and teasing—ambiguity that tips most often toward human resilience.
Always the stories (ten), poems (twelve), and reviews draw us in, and the writing astounds. A hitchhike goes wrong (Melissa Henderson’s segments, “Four Shorts”). Girlfriends come and go (Pauline Carey’s essay, “Best Friends”). A cousin’s death profoundly affects a boy in ways no one notices (Paul Dickey’s terse, moving “For Almost a Year, I Stopped Everything”). A Korean grandmother comes to stay (Leona Sevick’s sweet poem, “Harmony”). A boy enters the doorway to you-know-what (Mark Beaver’s delightful “Boys and Sex”). I may never have heard of this journal before, in all my semesters of teaching CNF, but I now stand informed, agape with pleasure. My classes will never be the same.