Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

In his introduction to Blurring the Boundaries, editor B.J. Hollars states that “the writers' unique stylistic approaches provide vastly different reading experiences” (4). In regards to this craft anthology, this statement is undeniably true. Each essay is an example of the ways in which different authors approach their writing, how they do, indeed, create powerful essays in vastly different ways. But there is no “right” way to tell a story, as each author has her own stylistic approach to writing.

This critique could explore those stylistic approaches. Such as how in “Salvos into the World of Hummers,” Beth Ann Fennelly weaves her research on the lives of butterflies into her own story about motherhood.

This critique could explore how many of the essays do blur the boundary between fact and fiction. Such as how Steven Church does so in “Thirty Minutes to the End” when he tells the story of his aunt's town being hit by a massive tornado—an event he wasn't there to witness, and yet he wrote a stellar essay by fabricating the specific details of this true event. Fact or fiction? Robin Hemeley does this too in her essay “Flagpole Wedding, Coshocton, Ohio, 1946.” Hemely creates a story about a real situation though it is not one experienced. Again, fact or fiction? We'll call it a blurring.

This critique could explore the vast array of structures found in each essay. Ander Monson's use of the Harvard outline in “Outline towards a Theory of the Mine versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline.” Eula Biss creating a type of litany in “Time and Distance Overcome.” Naomi Kimbell describing her opinions on the field of psychiatry via the Socratic method in “Whistling in the Dark.” Michael Martone structuring the actual look of the text to emphasize the purpose of his essay “Asymmetry.” Or Dinty Moore using the well-known structure of a self-help article in “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Personal Memoir and Securing that Blockbuster Book Deal” to talk about the process of writing.

This critique could look at the two approaches to research provided in this anthology. There is the extensive research Fennelly did on hummingbirds. And then there is also the opposite of this approach—such as how neither Wendy Rawlings nor Maliszekwsi researched their subjects, but instead drew only from their personal experiences to write their essays.

This critique could be about point of view. The use of not just first person in these personal essays, but also toying with the use of the second and/or third person (Susan Neville and Brian Oliu).

This essay could address all of that.

But what ultimately draws the reader in the most is the presence and variety of the  perfectly executed sentences within it.

There are memorable sentences about technique and philosophies on writing, and there are astounding sentences, poetic and awe-inspiring sentences in each actual essay. There are the philosophical sentences, such as Hollars's statement in his introduction that “Nonfiction writers regularly grapple with [the] feeling-out process, pressing our hands to the past in an effort to report or reshape what we thought we always knew” (4). Pressing our hands to the past, as if we are reaching out to what happened before this moment, grabbing onto it, holding it up to a light and looking for not only how it speaks to us, but how to interpret the language of that experience and then finding the right words to fit it. There are creative statements that give thought to structure such as Aldrich's realization that “a different kind of story...would require a different kind of organization” (21). Biss's litany and Monson's outline, for example, use unique organizations of the text in order to support the complex concepts of each essay, to induce a richer reading experience for the reader.

The craft essays in the anthology convey different ways in which writers can approach their work—both from structural/organizational platforms as well as an approach in which writers follow the writing as they figure out what the essay is about. For instance, in describing her writing process for her essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” Eula Biss states that in this essay she wanted to “create a brutally repetitive experience for the reader” (43). She does this, but in her craft essay she reveals that she did not intend to do so. As Biss started researching the history of the telephone, she discovered many newspaper articles about people using telephone poles to lynch black men. And so she started tinkering around with language, trying to find the best way to tell that story. By following the writing instead of the idea, Biss was able to find the story and the necessary structure in which to tell it. Through this process she was able to discover and then create a type of litany that integrates the subjects of racism and human connection. I don't think this essay would have worked as well if she had used a different structure, such as a straight narrative or a text that did not use white space. Steven Church also explains how he used the follow-the-writing process when he states “The subject chose its own form and style and I mostly just jumped aboard for the ride” (Church, 69).”

Moving onto the actual essays, specific sentences within them proved how influential writing can be, how inspiring and unique each line can be. Most of these monumental sentences I am drawn to work like a pause—a beat for the reader to take in a breath and soak in whatever  scene/idea/thought/description came immediately before the beat. Impressive sentences and concepts such as “One last moment of quiet in this house of stories” (Church, 60), and “So much depends upon where tears go once they have fallen” (Kupperman, 124) grab the reader with their sound and meaning and push her towards the realization of how limitless language can be. These are the sentences that make you stay still, the ones in which you have to take another breath before moving on, overwhelmed by the beauty of them. Also, there were a few instances of powerful imagery that completely melted me. My favorite: “I jumped against the soft wall of my father because all of a sudden there was too much feeling to fit inside my skin” (230). What a unique way to describe the transformational experience of fright as it shifts the narrator away from innocence.

Aside from these gorgeous lines, there is a specific section of six pages in the book that stick out to me because of the urgency that is brought to the page through them. In his introduction to the craft book Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Dinty Moore states that in writing “there must always be a burning urgency of some sort, translated through each sentence, starting with the first” (XXIII). For me, the best passage in the whole anthology, the one that is perhaps the most urgent passage, the one that kept me going and going and reading and reading the essay not once, but thrice, comes from Steven Church. In the span of six pages, Church writes:

Now....Nqw....It is almost over now...This is when....This is when....Now....Now....Now....Nothing can pull you back now” (60-66).

Regardless of what comes after each “Now,” the repetitive use of the word (twenty-five occurrences) drives the reader and takes her step-by-step with the narrator through the events of the essay. “Now” puts the urgency in each sentence as the fact of the “Now” keeps going and changing, putting the reader right into the middle of the action in each “Now” sentence.

Finally, these striking pause-inducing sentences, as well as the knowledgeable statements about craft incited a few ideas for me. Butler showed me that I could write a personal essay based on reportage, but then at the end of the reportage use those facts as a metaphor for a connected and shocking personal story. Or how Hemely resists a linear narrative, and instead approaches her essay by stepping inside and outside the story throughout.

For me, the purpose of all writing is to inspire the reader to write down her own words, to tell her own stories and ideas. Not just for entertainment, but to use writing as a way to connect with one another. For a writer reading this collection Dinty Moore provides one of the most monumental and influential sentences about writing when he states “the difference between an adequate word and the perfect word is like the difference between a lightning bug and a runaway fuel tanker exploding on I-95” (195). Moore challenges the reader to find these words for her own essays. By doing so, he reaches out to the reader and invites her into the process of not just writing, but writing powerfully.

While the main concept of Blurring the Boundaries points to the complexity of how the borders of fiction and nonfiction can be, well, blurry, it doesn't actually solve this conundrum. But each essay shows  how the writers attempt to figure out this puzzle. Mostly, though, they resist putting genre labels on their different pieces of writing. Through discussing their writing process in each essay, the authors come to the conclusion that writing is what it is, that authors should follow the writing instead of the rules, that in a way disregarding these genre “rules” is perhaps what writing nonfiction is really about, and that ultimately regardless of structure or genre or the type of stylistic approach used in writing, “the essay is a space to be filled” (Monson, 183). Blurring the Boundaries invites the reader to fill that undefined space.

Blurring the Boundries
Edited By B.J. Hollars
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Language: English
ISBN: 9780803236486

Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

The book sits on my desk, the southern hemisphere of its pages soaked, pages drenched and holding onto each other in the unrelenting way that wet pages refuse to separate. It’s the result of a leaky water bottle in my bag. The water, thankfully, did not stretch itself too far into the text, did not reach the places where I took a blue pen and illustrated my curiosities about the craft of writing onto the pages of the essay collection. Wavering lines under phrases that carry meaning, the scratching of a note to remind me why that underlined section actually means something to me, and at times just a “wow” at the beauty of not only what the author has just said, but the way in which he said it..

I am writing this as the sun pinks itself into the day. I meant to go running this morning, to move my body for an hour, which is to say to give my brain the space to meditate on my thoughts, to explore what it is I have to say about this book. But there are knots in my back and an incessant yawn trying to drag me back to sleep. I resist. And the coffee kicks in by the time the pinking haze of a new morning transitions into a clear view of the world that surrounds me, filtered just a bit, softened just a bit by the day still trying to come into itself.

Enough about that.

In Sven Birkerts’s The Other Walk, he enters into his essays through an object, a tangible element in his life that leads his writer mind into a thought and a memory. The first essay, however, is about walking—a practice that Birkerts engages in daily in order to “set up the writing day, to start my thinking.” He continues, “Usually by the time I get back [home] I have some basic sequence worked out. I think about projects. I'll get hooked on some thought, and I'll go over it, repeatedly, as if inscribing it into my muscles, but also testing its basic hardiness against the rhythms of walking” (5).

After bringing the writer through a few essays that provide snapshots of how Birkerts orients himself into the world, the next eighty pages consist of proof that Birkerts is able to enter into an essay through an object. Throughout these essays—through most of the essays, in fact—Birkerts gives meaning to objects and then uses frank transitions such as “Enough about that” and “None of this is especially interesting” (26, 79) in order to take a sharp turn into a different angle—one that provides another view of the meanings of the objects.

From objects such as a tape dispenser, a tin, eyeglasses, a ladder, a light bulb, photographs, shoes, a ring and a shelving unit, Birkerts enters into memories through describing each object.[1] He opens many essays by either providing a description of an object or stating why he is thinking about that object. For instance, in “Lost Things” he writes, “The other day I wanted to write about a tape dispenser—I had a reason—and I searched high and low through the house” (20) which leads into a story about a story, the meaning of things lost in our lives, and how a lost object can reappear in a writer’s mind which allows her to tell her story again (23).

Another example comes from “Chessboard” in which the first sentence immediately directs the reader’s gaze to an object, and puts the her under Birkerts’s storytelling influence. His description brings the reader into the essay in order to make her feel as if she is standing next to Birkerts, viewing the object with him. “This is a handsome, serious-looking chessboard,” Birkerts begins, “a kind of hinged wooden valise with squares on the outside and an embedded green felt space inside, with an elastic loop for each piece” (53). As the reader is now next to Birkerts, her eyes now focused on the same object Birkerts’s eyes are focused on, their common gaze makes the reader follow him through a story about this chessboard, which ultimately becomes an essay about how a friendship between two people builds, and then how it can quickly crumble. The objects, indeed, set up each essay and orient the reader to Birkerts’ thoughts and focus.

“The moment of the shift. It comes now” (70).

Moving on.

The meaning of an object or relationship can change when put in a different context. Birkerts muses on the implications of different aspects of life when they are in a landscape that may shift. The example in The Other Walk that perhaps shows the most impactful way a shifting context can encompass many experiences of relationships comes from the essay “Zvirbulis.” Discussing the experience of telling a story in a secondary language, Birkerts states, “Except for family, I had never confided anything to anyone in Latvian; I had no ready language for the things I really thought and felt. Maybe for that reason everything I said seemed new to me, itself a new sensation for me” (12). In other words, taking the stories we know how to tell in one language, and trying to describe them in the context of a different language can bring new meaning to these experiences.

Touching back on the presence and importance of objects in The Other Walk, Birkerts states that “Lost things have their own special category. So long as they’re lost, and felt to be lost, they belong to the imagination and live more vividly than before” (20). An object that is not necessarily symbolic or highly significant in your life, but one that is occasionally or frequently put to use, transforms into a significant object, because it becomes more present—that nagging feeling of where did I put that? Whether the subject matter of an essay in The Other Walk  is about a lost object such as a tape dispenser (“Lost Things”), a lost sense of a previous self (“Archive”), a lost friendship (“Chessboard), or a lost sense of a tight-knit family (“The Points of Sail”) the ways in which Birkerts considers, reflects on, and relates his musings on life to the reader shows that objects can be “soaked in significance” (25). The effect of this, therefore, is that The Other Walk becomes its own type of reliquary. Where throughout the book Birkerts discusses the bookshelves and storage units that contain his objects—the relics that bring meaning to his life—the book Birkerts has written is now a place that holds elements of his life all throughout their shifting contexts.

“You can’t see it, but I'm shaking my head and smiling as I write this” (108).

I don’t know if this critique “works,” if the ways in which I implement Birkerts’s craft points and transitions actually adds something to the critique, or functions as a space in which I was able to test out new writing techniques.

What this second-guessing of myself means, is that it’s time to go running, to put my body into a state of movement after sitting at my desk for over an hour in order to contemplate this critique. I'm hoping that with a change in scenery I will be able to see how “the wispier thoughts tend to dissolve and float away; the more durable ones settle in and then start thudding in my head” (5). It is this thudding that will bring me back to the writing, back to my desk to begin the editing process, a thudding that also undeniably brings my fingers back to the page, the pen, the keyboard, and the wet pages of my copy of The Other Walk, which sits on my desk, ready to re-encourage me to write—an object that is now, in fact, soaked in significance.

The Other Walk
By Sven Birkerts
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Language: English
ISBN: 9781555975937

[1] Other essayists use this technique as well, such is Philip Lopate in “My Drawer” and Bret Lott in “On My Desk.”