Photo: Ally Mauro
Photo: Ally Mauro

Women We Read This Week

 

Kathryn Miles’ “How Could a Woman Just Vanish?” in The Boston Globe

This is right up my alley: an ambitious hike, a mysterious disappearance, and its aftermath. Miles tells the story of Gerry Largay, a 66-year-old thru-hiker who’d already covered almost 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail when she vanished without explanation two summers ago. The piece is meticulously reported, with both Largay’s movements on the trail and the activities of the authorities who searched for her laid out carefully, and beyond the main narrative it also offers insight into something many of us don’t think much about: the ways people go missing, and the ways they are most often found.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” in GQ

If you were on social media this week, there’s a good chance you heard about the way Taffy Brodesser-Akner opens her Don Lemon profile:

So I say to Don Lemon, I say, let’s do it, Don Lemon, let’s have dessert. We’ve been here awhile, eating lunch, and we’re having a good time, so likable is Don Lemon, so open is he to my questions, so warm is his smile. And maybe he can be coaxed into it. We are at the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, and the portions are modern-art-sized, and he just had his photo shoot yesterday—he’d suspended all manner of salt and other bloateries in the days leading up to it and would love to cut loose a little. But he still needs persuading, since it is a known thing that dessert is one of the principal sacrifices of people who regularly appear on TV. But he relents, because Don Lemon is not the kind of guy who will make you eat dessert alone. The negotiation: He’ll do it, but it’ll have to be light. I look up and down the menu and suggest that the sorbet looks promising, given his totally understandable criteria.

He leans in, big warm smile, not wanting to correct me, but needing to: “Sorbette,” he says, like a news anchor. “It’s pronounced sorbette.”

It’s an instant classic, but for all its squirm-inducing perfection, there’s more to the story than the lead. Unlike too many “what I ate with a celebrity” profile intros, Brodesser-Akner’s “sorbette” moment illustrates something important about Don Lemon, and she spends the rest of the story teasing out that insight for us. So, enjoy the opening, but read to the end.

Eva

 

Lisa Grunwald’s“The Art of Being Apart” in The New York Times

Lisa Grunwald writes about her marriage and what she learned about the importance of being apart in our hyperconnected age. Grunwald found herself, after years of marriage, feeling resentful of the daily phone conversations with her husband, who was a journalist and often on the road. He seemed distracted and her responses to him were perfunctory. This brought Grunwald to think about love in the era of letter writing.

Traveling in America a century and a half later, Dylan Thomas wrote his wife, Caitlin: ‘My dear one, my Irish heart, my wonderful wonderful girl who is with me invisibly every second …. Why oh why did I think I could live, I could bear to live, I could think of living, for all these torturing, unending, echoing months without you.’ (Granted, he would commit adultery many times, but still. Nice words.) Such communication, however, depended on husbands and wives understanding that apart was truly apart, that they had no life together except their lives in the past and future.

This is why I love writing letters. There is a fondness for the unseen and the unknown that lives on in the gaps in time and that can’t be found in constant connection.

Alice

 

Emily Fox Gordon’s “Confessing and Confiding” in The American Scholar

This is, basically, an essay about essays. As an avid reader of the genre, the subtitle, “Knowing the difference between the two can elevate an essay from therapy to art,” was all the bait I needed. I was rewarded: in the fourth paragraph, Emily Fox Gordon made me chuckle. I read along, following her story about conducting workshops, nodding my head since her words echo the thesis director under whom I worked in my own creative writing program, and then it happened: Gordon describes an awkward moment when a student writer broke under the pressure and intensity of hearing her recalled memories being read aloud in a workshop. Gordon acknowledges losing hold of her teacher/workshop facilitator status as the students took over the conversation. Similar stories were shared, and the workshop morphed into group therapy. She recalls, “At one point three huggers were working the room.”

“Don’t confess: confide!” is this teacher’s new mantra. And it’s an antidote to the trauma and recovery narratives so common in creative nonfiction. I’ve heard others call this kind of personal writing navel-gazing — with a negative connotation ripe enough to smell. But Gordon isn’t asking writers to refrain from looking inward, from telling those stories that shaped us, challenged us, and possibly haunt us still.

Instead, Gordon is asking the right questions here; further, she is asking writers to ask more questions. In trying to pinpoint what it is that powerful personal writing does in order to accomplish a meaningful exchange between author and audience—while simultaneously identifying what happens in prose that doesn’t strike her to be as successful or as fulfilling—Gordon comes upon this dichotomy: confessions vs. confidences. Many examples and examinations are presented:

Confessing and confiding are overlapping concepts, like envy and jealousy, often used interchangeably, but distinct at their cores. The fundamental difference between them is that a confession, in the word’s historical, nonliterary sense, is addressed to some entity—God, the court, the public, a person one has wronged. That entity or person holds the power to condemn, punish, absolve, or forgive. The receiver of a confidence, on the other hand, can comfort or chide or laugh or weep in sympathy with the confider, but has no true authority over him. Confidences are offered to equals, or at least the offering and acceptance of a confidence places the two parties involved on equal terms.

Gordon continues: “What’s always most important about a confession is its content; what’s often most important about a confidence is the relationship it creates or furthers.”

But this essay isn’t just written for writers. Readers, too, can benefit from paying closer attention to how they respond to texts. Do we love story-driven pieces? Are we able to get on board when a more scrutinizing mind is navigating the narrative? To deepen her discussion, Gordon examines two essays that live on either end of her spectrum: Bert O. States’s “My Slight Stoop” confides. “Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” confesses.

I could go on about Gordon’s treatment of the nature of storytelling and the long held belief that artists and writers can exorcise their own demons through their craft — an idea Gordon reexamines in the context of a writer’s own history. Or I could praise her examination of how, exactly, one can confide to a page. There is also the thread where she recalls debating this issue at a national writing conference prior to having this epiphany. But I’ll leave that to Gordon. This is a great, thought-provoking read.

— Sarah J.

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