The Solitary Garden

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I’m delighted to have “The Solitary Garden,” a profile of prison abolitionist and artist jackie sumell, featured in the Autumn Issue of Orion Magazine.

For more than twelve years, Jesse Wilson has eaten, slept, read, showered, dreamed, and shat in a seven-by-twelve-foot room. His sink sits on top of his toilet. His bed is a concrete slab. His four-inch-wide window is angled so that a slice of sky is all he sees of the world outside. For every twenty-three hours inside this room, he may, or may not, get an hour away— time alone in a workout room so drab inmates nicknamed it “the empty swimming pool.” “Day and night bleed into one long sigh,” he writes in a letter from his cell in ADX Florence, a supermax prison designed to house our nation’s most dangerous prisoners. The complex is located in Colorado, though for Jesse’s purposes it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. “This place is one of extreme soul-crushing blankness. Nothing is alive that’s normal.   No grass, no weeds, no trees. Just concrete and red brick walls.”

Feeling Froggy

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I love the cover of the newest issue of Ecotone. My essay, Metamorph, which appears insidechronicles the life and times of the African clawed frog, from the one my father purchased for his aquarium, to the species’ part in the development of modern pregnancy tests, to my sister’s research on the frog’s role in the global chitryd pandemic. You can read a bit of it here, though you’ll have to buy the journal for access to the whole essay.

 

Twinless in Twinsburg

 

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Last August I went to the Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. My twin sister Maya opted not to come. I wrote an essay about being an identical twin and the surreal Double Take parade with the theme “Twinfinity and Beyond.”

I’m not sure what to expect or even why I’ve decided to come. The website tells me the three-day fete is patriotic and sweet, a massive show-and-tell where the attendees are also the main attraction. Last year, 2,053 sets of twins, triplets, and quads journeyed here from as far away as South Korea and Australia. The revelry includes competitive cornhole, look-alike and un-lookalike contests, talent shows, and a research plaza where scientists collect data from volunteers. My surface excuse for flying out is that I’m a writer, trying my hand at journalism, but even a rookie like me knows the event is far too personal for objectivity. I’ve known about the fest for as long as I can remember, and for most of those years I wouldn’t even consider attending. Lying on stacked bunks in our childhood bedroom well before our age reached double digits, my sister and I put Twins Days somewhere on the continuum between obnoxious and offensive, a gathering of voyeurs looking to celebrate sameness, the facet of our identity that frustrated us most. The best parts of twinhood we knew to be exclusive, shaped by our two unique personalities, shareable only with each other. For us, the festival held no appeal.

More recently, though, I’ve been writing fiction about twins — first short stories, then a novel — and I’ve begun to wonder about experiences far different from my own: why some twins dress alike into adulthood, why some choose to live together while others insist on living far apart. In his article “Same But Different,” the science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee observes: “It is easy to think of twins as comedies of nature. The rhyming names, the matching sailor suits, the tomfoolery of mistaken identities, the two-places-at-the-same-time movie plot — genetics for gags. But twins often experience parts of their lives as tragedies of nature.”

You can read the whole essay at Longreads.

And here are some photos I took at the festival:

Write NOWW!

We’ve launched our website for the New Orleans Writers Workshop (NOWW) and registration is open for spring classes, which start after Mardi Gras. I’ll be teaching a 9-week personal essays class that begins on March 14. We’ll also be offering poetry (with Cassie Pruyn), fiction classes (with Tom Andes, Allison Alsup, and David Armaund), and reading like a writer with Brooke Ethridge. Join us!

 

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Here’s a little bit about us.

The New Orleans Writers Workshop offers a full schedule of multi-level, nine-week creative writing workshops in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as other craft-based classes. We also host weekend practicums on topics such as scene writing, book reviewing, compassion, publishing and more.

Why should you be interested? Because all of our courses have the same goals: to strengthen your writing through supportive feedback and connect you with other writers. Former students have gone on to publish work in nationally ranked magazines and to attend top-notch MFA programs with full funding.

Our affordable classes take place in multiple locations: Uptown, Downtown, Mid-City, and on the North Shore. See our Workshops page for the most up-to-date schedule.

If you’re seeking one-on-one consultations, we offer manuscript critiques and editorial services.

Finally, our partnership with the Dogfish reading series enables you to meet local and traveling writers and share your work.

New Orleans Writing Workshop

Dear Writers

We’re thrilled to share our good news: After several wonderful years of collaborating with Loyola University, we’re striking out on our own to create a new organization, the New Orleans Writers Workshop.

Beginning this March, we’ll offer a full schedule of multi-level, nine-week creative writing workshops in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. In addition, we’ll host weekend practicums on book reviewing, music writing, compassion, publishing and more.

We’ll continue to offer affordable, community-based classes at all levels. To accommodate the different schedules and needs of our students, workshops will take place in multiple locations: Uptown, Downtown, and Mid-city.

We also plan to introduce new programming, including manuscript consultations and editorial services, as well as a book club and the occasional gathering. Our close partnership with the Dogfish Reading Series will continue, and it’s our hope to organize a reading for our students twice a year.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to reach out. After all, you—the students—make these classes what they are. Your enthusiasm and dedication to writing is what spurred us to start the New Orleans Writers Workshop.

Check out our website and our spring course schedule.

We’re looking forward to writing with you.

Jessica Kinnison

Allison Alsup

Tom Andes

Anya Groner

Airplane Reading!

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I’m in high-flying company in this beautiful new anthology of airplane related essays, edited by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich. The line up is terrific. Here’s the full author list:

Lisa Kay Adam * Sarah Allison * Jane Armstrong * Thomas Beller * Ian Bogost * Alicia Catt * Laura Cayouette * Kim Chinquee * Lucy Corin * Douglas R. Dechow * Nicoletta-Laura Dobrescu * Tony D’Souza * Jeani Elbaum * Pia Z. Ehrhardt * Roxane Gay * Thomas Gibbs * Aaron Gilbreath * Anne Gisleson * Anya Groner * Julian Hanna * Rebecca Renee Hess * Susan Hodara * Pam Houston * Harold Jaffe * Chelsey Johnson * Nina Katchadourian * Alethea Kehas * Greg Keeler * Alison Kinney * Anna Leahy * Allyson Goldin Loomis * Jason Harrington * Kevin Haworth * Randy Malamud * Dustin Michael * Ander Monson * Timothy Morton * Peter Olson * Christiana Z. Peppard * Amanda Pleva * Arthur Plotnik * Neal Pollack * Connie Porter * Stephen Rea * Hugo Reinert * Jack Saux * Roger Sedarat * Nicole Sheets * Stewart Sinclair * Hal Sirowitz * Jess Stoner * Anca L. Szilágyi * Priscila Uppal * Matthew Vollmer * Joanna Walsh * Tarn Wilson

Books are available for purchase here!

 

Spring News!

I’m thrilled to have poem in the new issue of one of my favorite journals, Ecotone. This volume is themed around SOUND! The poem, titled “The Ecology of Falling Whales” is the longest I’ve ever written–a whopping 5 pages–and it’s all about visiting my sister, Maya, at  Friday Harbor Labs in Washington State, where I observed her and other biologists study aquatic life. You can buy the journal and read an excerpt here.

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I also wrote about sunlight for The Atlantic in honor of daylight savings. Read the whole thing here.

The frustration of lost sleep gives way to the luminous pleasure of a lengthening day. Sunlight extends past dinnertime. Dog walkers, soccer players, and children in playgrounds bask in a later twilight. Though humans organize our schedules around the clock, Daylight Savings reminds us that our lives, like our planet, revolve around the sun.

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The lovely Anna Currey interviewed me about sisters, the environment, and writing across genre.

I don’t want to teach anything I don’t believe in. It’s important to talk about making writing entertaining, which is obvious, but doesn’t gets much air time in academic settings. Any piece of writing is competing for a reader’s attention span. It has to be more interesting than someone’s cell phone or television. Entertainment is something I talk about with my students, and something I think about in my own writing. We have to work hard for our readers.

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with Chris Schaberg about his newest book The End of Airports. Read the whole thing at Terrain.Org.

It’s a common response that “everything changed” after 9/11. But having worked at the airport during—and through—that time, my overwhelming feeling was that things hadn’t changed at all. It’s just that people suddenly had a scapegoat for all the things they wanted to do, say, and enact around air travel. Racism especially: this became so ridiculously easy after 9/11. But it was already there, in the airport, of course. If the airport is postmodern, it is for the ways it struggles with and against Ezra Pound’s modernist mandate, “Make it new!” On the one hand, airports want you (the traveler) to feel the verve of the new. On the other hand, airports want you to feel—and to perpetuate—all the old comforts of the same, on and on and on.

 

Five Stories About Espionage

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The life of a spy is supposed to be glamorous. James Bond, right? Fancy cars, hot women, top-of-the line technology, and a signature drink. I went looking for those stories this week, then remembered James Bond isn’t, you know, real. There are no standoffs on the top of moving trains, and Dame Judi Dench does not run a secret government agency, unfortunately. The reality of espionage is still exciting, but it’s more complicated. The good guys and bad guys are not so easily differentiated. Today’s spying relies on social media, surveillance, coercion and ambition.

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Words of Encouragement and Despair

Writing requires tremendous perseverance. Everyone’s ability to read grows faster than their ability to write, which means that we’re almost always better critics than creators, a dynamic that can be frustrating. A lot of writers I know work hard and are unhappy with the results. I think discouragement is part of the process, and it’s actually a good sign. If you’re feeling disappointed by your writing, it means that you’re capable of getting better, that you can see the gap between what you’re currently able to write and what you hope to write.

Love, Love, Modern Love

I have two new essays that went live today. Below are excerpts and links to each one.

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“Is there a Doctor in the Marriage?” is in this week’s Modern Love column in the NYTimes!!!

I gazed out the window. For years, marriage had seemed as distant and inscrutable to me as the green-and-brown patchwork below. It was, I had thought, the kind of tame choice that signals a loss of momentum and spontaneity.

I had felt giddy about love but ambivalent about becoming a wife. The word itself seemed like an erasure, privileging domesticity over desire, association over achievement. In marriage, I had seen women lose their names, their ambition.

By the time I met my husband, my critique of marriage had already begun to soften. I was almost 30, and the adventures of single life were losing their appeal. Here was a man who made gumbo from scratch, met me for runs after work, helped me train for my first half-marathon, watched my dog when I was away and surprised me with yogurt pie (a family recipe I mentioned in passing) when I was feeling down.

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The second essay, titled “Gone from My Heart: Violence and Anger in the Poetry Workshop,”  is up at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, one of my very favorite literary organizations.

Through poetry, my students have raged against exes, bad drivers, literary criticism, and oboe players. Once, a student wrote a sonnet about her dislike for Tom Cruise:Each perfectly placed hair, / I want to glue in the opposite direction.

A subset uses this assignment to document violence. They write about violence they’ve seen and violence they’ve felt, sexual and domestic violence—the kinds of gendered violence that are typically silenced. Often, these students—nearly always women—tell me they’re writing from their lives.

I don’t believe in avoiding difficult topics, not in the classroom. Still, I can be a worst-case-scenario-thinker, and, when students share work that makes them particularly vulnerable, I fret. So much can erupt in a classroom. Someone might challenge the validity of an experience. The writer could get defensive. Fellow classmates could get offensive. The conversation might trigger a panic attack. A class isn’t a single organism—it’s fifteen or twenty or, even, thirty distinct human beings. Classroom control is crucial. It’s also an illusion.